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What people who raise their eyebrows at me, when I say I travel alone, don’t realise is how easy it is to talk to people and how little I’ve been alone on this trip. I mean, yeah, I’m in my apartment alone, and I go from place to place by myself, but the things that make people most anxious – live entertainment and eating – you’re seldom alone for. Especially in a city like NOLA that is so outgoing and friendly. When you are by yourself I do believe you open yourself up to conversation and you are forced to make for of an effort when taken out of your own bubble of safe and familiar company,
For example to at the start of yesterday I went for brunch at St Roch market (Chicken Pho and iced coffee FYI). The place was packed. But I saw a guy sitting alone at a table. Asked if I could take a spare seat. Sat down, and just like that he struck up a conversation, which lasted 30 minutes and our entire meal. It was like a spontaneous lunch date. He, like a few thousand others, it seems, are in town for a big bartenders convention called Tales of the Cocktail. I keep running into people who are attending, or getting asked myself if I’m here for it. I guess working in hospitality, these people are also quite outgoing, but it’s really nice – we’re all just here together and everyone is open to good times and new experiences. And you meet these people, chat, ten wave goodbye, a little richer for having met them.
After brunch, it was another scorching day, and it’s hard to get moving and going in it. But you just gotta suck it up, pick a thing to do, then do it. My first stop was the St Roch cemetery in my neighbourhood. It’s was beautiful, eerie, and surreal – tomb upon tomb, painted white, all above ground due to the high water levels here making in-ground burial impossible. It was so hot and there was no shelter so I didn’t linger as long as I would have liked, but it was a powerful place and very quiet compared to some of the bigger cemeteries around.
Next up was an antique shop in the French Quarter that I’d heard about and was keen to check out. It’s called M.S.Rau Antiques, on Royal Street, and though technically it is an antique shop, it’s displayed and presented like a museum of decorative arts. Split over two floors, if carries everything from Georgian furniture, Tiffany stained glass and silverware, grand pianos, impressionist art and the most exquisite jewellery and jewels from the likes of Cartier, that you’ve ever seen. Diamonds so big they’d make Elizabeth Taylor weep. So you know, not stuff 99.9% of people can buy. So instead, you’re welcome to browse, reading the information plaques, taking in this amazing world class display. It really is like one of the finest museums, and as someone who loves decorative arts and the likes, it was a little slice of air conditioned heaven.
It’s important, in this heat, whilst on holiday, to punctuate activities with drink stops – especially in this city where it’d take you three years to get around all of the bars on offer. One must sample as many as possible, and again in this heat, a rest, cool air, and a drink for $6 is worth every cent. So my visit to Rau’s started with a visit to Pat O’Briens, one of the nicer looking bars on that section of Bourbon Street.
Now, a note on Bourbon Street. It’s the street synonymous with NOLA drinking culture, but Bourbon Street is pretty gross and not my scene. Huge, trashy, loud clubs and bars selling awful vomit inducing things like bright blue frozen daiquiris from big washing machine like contraptions, or things called Hand Grenades, which is something like three different drinks combined into a neon green bong shaped plastic vessel that is shaped at the base to look like a grenade, designed to take with you and walk about with through the streets. The pavements smell of dried vomit. I love to drink, but in a city with so many beautiful and rich offerings, it’s sad that many will only see Bourbon Street – there’s so many better ways to get buzzed! Literally, hundreds of places here!
Anyway, Pat O’Briens had a gorgeous big leafy courtyard with huge fans that made me feel like Beyoncé, and is the home to the Hurricane, another NOLA tradition – a rum based drink – bright red with a slice of orange and cherries, served in a ballooned hurricane glass. Something I felt should tick off, and packed quite the punch. One thing I love here is that all the bars have match books and serve drinks with maraschino cherries. I want both of these things to make a comeback in NZ!
After Rau’s I decided that whilst in the area I’d tick off another iconic NOLA bar – Lafiette’s Blacksmith shop – the oldest bar in America, said to have opened in the mid 1700’s. And well, yeah, it’s like an old blacksmiths. Set in a small, low ceilinged, dark, original building, I was expecting a bar experience to match that quiet old fashioned theme. Sadly not – the Bourbon St grip had got to it too and it was full of groups on their tour. More slushee machines, frozen Jäger and loud music (including the Mariah Carey Xmas song which at 3pm in 35 degrees in July just made no sense at all). I stopped for a quick beer, like as quick as I could, then got out.
Well and truly done with the offerings in that area, and feeling a bit culture-shocked after the blacksmiths and my dip into Bourbon Street, I decided to take myself back off to more my scene. So I pedalled back through to Bywater, where I spent yesterday and knew I still had places to check out.
First up was a bar called Michael’s, which is next door to the Country Club. It’s a small, suburban, dive bar. On the verge of gentrification going by the crowd, but I’m part of that crowd – white, middle class, bit hipsterish, craft beer, on a bike – yep that’s me. I’m part of the ‘problem’. I’m sure the Bourbon Street crowd look at me and this bar with the same disdain that I do to them. But, for me, the bar was great, a bit like Bud Rip’s yesterday – dark, big wooden bar, good selection of beer and bar food. I’d heard about these dive bars with ‘bar games’ and didn’t know what they meant – I thought maybe scrabble? Turns out this one had a big antique skittles/ shuffle game, on a huge wooden, 6m long platform. It was so cool, like nothing I’d seen before.I also had amazing onion rings for $3 – what a steal!
Then, last stop for the day, was one I’d had in mind all week, since hearing about it – a venue a the very edge of Bywater, about 1.5km from the other Bywater bars and the Country Club, at the literal end of the road, when you hit the canal – a place called Bacchanal – that my Air BnB host told me about.
Bacchanal , as the staff said when I arrived is “like a big house party”. You step into this beautiful wine shop, with hundreds of different kinds for sale at pretty good prices. There’s also a big fridge full of loads of different cuts of local cheese – every kind imaginable, cut into $3-$10 sized chucks, plus cured meats.
And then it goes like this – you pick your bottle of wine, pick some cheese – go pay at the counter, where they take your cheese, add a plating fee, and take it away to get plated up. You take your wine though the inconspicuous back door to a massive ice box, stack of white plastic buckets, and crates of wine glasses. Get glasses, fill a bucket with ice for your wine, then continue though where you are greeted by the most incredible big courtyard/ garden. It must have about 50 tables, strung fairy lights between the trees, flame torches, and a stage where live jazz plays every night at 7:30pm.
You sit, you drink your wine, and the staff appear with your selected cheeses, all plated up with fresh bread, chutneys, olives, picked veg – the works. And then you just settle in for the night.
It was such a magical space, and made me yearn for my own friends, wishing they could be there with me, or that we had this place at home, because this is something we’d do all the time. It’s such a wonderful concept, and one that would work so well in NZ.
But, as ever, I wasn’t alone for long, as the place very quickly filled up, and soon a group came up to my table and asked if they could join me. They were another Tales of the Cocktail group – about seven of them, my age, all from Toronto. And they were great. We introduced each other, toasted the night, and continued like we’d known each other for years for the next three hours. Turns out some of them had only just met each other too, but in that moment, it was like we’d all come together and to anyone looking in at us from outside, they would have thought we were old friends.
The music was great (a jazz trio, the highlight being a bass and violin version of Life on Mars), the wine beautiful, the the fairy lights magical. It was a sweltering night, thunder rolling overhead, and a totally new, unique, different experience and way to see New Orleans night life.
And just like that, my day ended with company and friends.
You’re never alone when you travel by yourself. You just have to open yourself up, and welcome the world into your arms.