Several years ago while lunching with some friends, the topic of New Orleans came up. Although I have been there several times for conferences related to my previous profession, I really did not like the city and some of the areas that I visited.
Two of my friends (G&G) gasped and told me that I just have not “experienced” NOLA. One of them lived in the French Quarter for a time and the other has visited there and has numerous friends that live there.
They attend the French Quarter Fest every year, which I learned is an incredible festival celebrating jazz, zydeco and other music indicative of the jazz era and New Orleans.
I finally agreed to join them and let them show me the ropes. WELL, they pulled out all of the stops. They arrived before me to spend time with some friends, which allowed me time to tour the Garden District on a walking tour. There are free walking tours offered most days and the guides are trained extensively on the architecture and history of the area. It was incredible and the homes and gardens are just beautiful.
Next stop is lunch at Antoine’s in the French Quarter. I meet G&G there and they share some of the history of the restaurant and inform me that Yvonne, the owner’s great-granddaughter will be joining us for lunch. And, it just happens to be her 80thbirthday.
Well, she is one of the most gracious, lovely women I have ever met and she can tell stories like no one else. She shared stories on the restaurant’s different rooms and the significance of each of them. Then, she informed us of how the word appetizer was developed. “We didn’t have a word to describe that first course, so the Midwest Hotel Association, which morphed later into the National Restaurant Association, ran a national campaign for somebody to come up with an American word that could replace hors-d’oeuvre. My grandfather won that competition with two words combined—‘appetite’ and ‘teaser.’” The word “appetizer” was born, working its way onto nearly every menu in the US. Roy Alciatore won $25, and the check is on display along with the article in Antoines.
Yvonne’s interaction with the wait staff, her warm personality, and her beauty definitely make her one of a kind. After lunch, she gave us a personal tour of all of the various rooms in the restaurant and invited us upstairs to her lovely apartment. The veranda is second to none. It is positioned on one of the best corners in all of the French Quarter. The intricate ironwork and size alone are impressive. The location is the best in the city. What an unbelievable experience. I would say that G&G are off to a good start.
We then proceeded to head out to enjoy the festivities and music throughout the quarter. There are over 20 bandstands throughout the area, with a variety of locations and venues. We each had a portable chair to use when we found a band that we liked. We could just pick a spot, sit down and enjoy. People proceed to dance and just groove to the music without any inhibitions. I come from a family that would never just stand up and dance with abandon. I loved to see the freedom and how the locals and everyone just embraced the music.
For years, I have heard G&G speak of their friends in NOLA. One of their friends was formerly a Jesuit priest. He left the order in 1974 and married the love of his life. Every time anyone mentioned them, they just lit up and spoke of how special these friends were. After leaving the order, their friend became an expert tour guide of New Orleans and developed the Tour Guides Association of Greater New Orleans.
We met a group of people for brunch and G&G were right…these are incredibly special friends. I guess G&G mentioned to their friends that I was not a big fan of NOLA. To ensure that I would fall in love with New Orleans, G&G’s friend presented me with a special welcome gift. It was a copy of a reference/guidebook that was used for tours in various areas of New Orleans. The book even included handwritten notes and historically relevant information on each area. I was overwhelmed with this generosity. This is a gift I will always treasure. And, I must say that these are some of the nicest and kindest souls I have ever met.
Now I finally get it! It’s the spirit of the people that makes New Orleans so special. As we have now attended 3 consecutive French Quarter Fests together, I have observed the kindness and warmth of the people. People from all walks of life and from different cultures all come together to enjoy the music and cuisine.
I am so grateful that I got to meet G&G’s friends and grateful to them for arranging the meeting.
Now, let’s talk about the food. It is beyond incredible. It is hard to choose a restaurant, as there are so many wonderful choices. No trip is complete without going to Central Grocery to get a famous muffaletta sandwich. Rumor has it that Central Grocery makes the best the city has to offer. Also, you MUST visit Café du Monde for a beignet or two or three. We usually go for a long walk along the river prior to arriving at Café de Monde (our attempt to work out to justify the fried dough). Anyone that has ever had a beignet knows that the powdered sugar goes everywhere and we were covered from head to toe.
While in NOLA we stay in a lovely boutique hotel located in the quarter that is walking distance to EVERYTHING! The staff makes us feel like family and it is a perfect respite from the hustle and bustle of the streets. The Bienville House is like a home away from home.
This year, we got in a day earlier than past years and enjoyed every minute. Unfortunately, on one of the festival days, there was a really bad storm. So, our plan B was to visit the World War II Museum. What a great experience! G&G’s fathers were in the war and my family lived in the South of England where both of my parents spent several years in air raid shelters with sirens going off every night. I have heard all of their stories of the war and have visited their towns and seen the areas that were devastated. Visiting the museum was a great experience and I highly recommend a visit. And, you MUST see the 4-D movie. You truly feel that you are on the battlefield.
Finally, we had dinner with some of G&G’s other friends on our last night in NOLA. They suggested that since we enjoyed the museum so much, we would enjoy seeing the movies Darkest Hour and also Dunkirk. I am planning to see these very soon. My hubby is thrilled that I want to watch a war movie with him.
Bottom line is that I now love, love, love NOLA! It is truly a unique destination and one that is life-changing. What makes NOLA so special is the hearts and souls of the people who call this city home. I am thankful to G&G for sharing this incredible place with me.