The French Quarter in New Orleans is definitely the most foreign place that Americans can visit without requiring a passport for entry. Many of the Creole townhouses with their wrought iron second floor galleries were built before the United States became a nation during the time of Spanish rule. The French/Spanish influence created some truly glorious neighborhoods, with bright colors and striking architectural features everywhere.
My wife Kim and I vacationed there in September and stayed in a converted 100-year-old department store — now the Hyatt French Quarter hotel. The room was huge and not too pricey unless of course you were to need the accommodations during Mardi Gras in February, when rooms are at a premium.
We had a wonderful balcony with French doors overlooking Bourbon Street. This was great for people watching and listening to the live music pouring from every door on the block. It wasn’t so great for sleeping since the music went on until 3 a.m. We finally fell asleep in exhaustion after the music stopped only to be awakened again an hour later by a lone baritone singing a cappella gospel music in the street. The reverberation off the tall buildings created a magnificent echo. The voice was so beautiful and soulful, it was hard to be angry or annoyed with the abrupt disruption of our sleep. We even giggled when a less-tolerant sleeper hollered out his window for the enthusiastic soloist to “knock it off!" From that moment, Kim and I fell in love with New Orleans.
Although it's not unique to New Orleans, some of the best walking tours are available right in the heart of the famous gulf city in Louisiana, and we availed ourselves of several of them, starting with the Haunted Neighborhood tour.
Many people around the country, and perhaps the world, believe the Big Easy is one of the most haunted places on earth. What we found on our ghost walking tour did little to support or disclaim that belief.
On our tour we were guided to the regal (and for sale) Lalaurie Mansion located in the heart of the French Quarter. We took several pictures of the exterior, and in all honesty, upon viewing the pictures later, found dozens of visible orbs around the building — if you believe in such things.
The place was creepy even before we read in the archives of the local paper, the New Orleans Bee online, the factual accounts of the atrocities that happened there. It wasn't until a fire swept through the mansion in April 1834 that the severe cruelty and experimentation that Madame Lalaurie inflicted on her slaves was discovered by firemen.
If you desire history over haunts, New Orleans has got you covered there too. One day we took a garden walking tour that led us through several lovely loggia gardens and several other places of interest like an old apothecary that was furnished in authentic period décor, complete with a jar of live leeches.
We also had the opportunity to tour one of the local plantations a short drive outside of the city called the Laura Plantation. Spanish moss hung from the trees all around the various buildings on the well-kept grounds. It was educational to hear the history of the complex as well as the personal story of the owner and the servants who lived there.
Another unique attraction is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Here you can take a casual walk between the many above-ground crypts that started receiving the city’s dead in 1789. The most interesting thing we heard was that a body is encrypted for one year and one day. After that period of time, the crypt is opened and the remains are swept to the back in preparation for the next occupant. It's understandable that this is done because many of the crypts are sinking, and space is limited.
One of the most famous occupants of the cemetery is Marie Laveau, the famed voodoo queen. And though he hasn't moved in yet, actor Nicolas Cage is known to have purchased a plot and built a marble pyramid to house his remains in the future.
Speaking of Cage, it was reported to us that he owned the Lalaurie Mansion for a short time before abruptly putting it up for sale and claiming he would never spend another night within its walls ever again.
No proper article can be written about New Orleans without mentioning the food. Now I'm not as culinarily adventurous as my wife, but I did enjoy the Cajun cooking as well as the more mainstream dishes found in the deep South. Seafood is predominant, and you can even find alligator steaks right by the Mississippi River in the heart of town. Kim enjoyed the breakfast we had one morning at a quaint little cafe where she had crayfish crepes. Sometimes I tease her that she has a crustacean leg still stuck between her teeth.
Whether it is for the picturesque and famous river, the intrigue of the many stories and histories of the city, or the thought-provoking architecture throughout the French Quarter, New Orleans should be on everybody's bucket list of "foreign" places to see. We highly recommend it.
Chris Hale is an aviation maintenance technician for a major airline who has traveled extensively with his family. In his spare time he writes novels inspired by places he's been. Find out more about his books at www.Chrisahale.com