Visit New Orleans once and you’ll fall beneath its spell. There’s something enchanting about this city with its magic, music and mystery.
New Orleans is like that “bad-boy” boyfriend, the one who can seduce you with a glance. He’ll make you do sinful things — eat too much, drink too much and dance with wild abandon — but as much as you’re captivated by his mischievous charm, you’re glad it’s a long-distance relationship or God only knows what would become of you.
It had been 15 years since my last visit to this bad-boy boyfriend. When I arrived, it was mid-July— a July I was told was mild, but still hot and humid by Los Angeles standards. Ask the people who believe in such things and they’ll tell you the moisture in the air, along with the surrounding bodies of water — the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, the swamps and the Gulf of Mexico — are why the city is rich with paranormal activity. Ghosts like water, and the humidity gives them something to hang onto.
Add the climate to the city’s colorful history and you have the perfect recipe for hauntings, particularly in the French Quarter, founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville in 1718. The French colony, mostly made up of gold-hunters, trappers and “riff-raff” deported from France, was ceded to Spain 45 years later, reverted to French control in 1801, and two years later was sold to the United States by Napoleon as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
During that time, New Orleans became a true cultural jambalaya as French, Spanish and Africans, both freemen and slaves, along with a healthy splash of Caribbean, Italian and English immigrants, and Native Americans, created an enchanting hybrid known as Creoles. This cultural mélange, known for unique art, food and music, made New Orleans one of the wealthiest cities in the U.S. — until the Civil War, when it was left one of the poorest.
For me, staying in the French Quarter is the only option. That’s ground zero for the magic, the place where the “bad-boy boyfriend” is at his rakish best. This time, I checked into the Bourbon Orleans, in the heart of the French Quarter, just a half-block from Jackson Square and the St. Louis Cathedral (one of the oldest churches in the United States) and Café Du Monde with its famous powder sugar-dusted beignets. Walk just a block in the other direction and you’ll find yourself amidst the raucous partying on Bourbon Street, where air conditioning blasts out onto the smoldering sidewalk and lures tourists to come inside for a foot-tall, rum-packed hurricane “to go.”
All around the hotel are art galleries, antique shops, voodoo emporiums, restaurants and music venues that thrive inside 200-year-old pastel painted, wooden shuttered buildings that line the narrow streets. How many people, over the centuries, have walked those same streets and gazed out from those same windows? It’s so charming that even without the water to hold them, I can see why spirits would want to linger in the neighborhood.
Even my hotel, the Bourbon Orleans, is said to be haunted. In the ballroom on the second floor, there’s an apparition named Giselle who some have seen spinning in her antebellum ball gown under the crystal chandelier. Giselle is a legacy from the days of the Quadroon Balls, where mixed-race young ladies would make their debut accompanied by anxious mothers, who hoped to find their daughters a suitable position as the “left-handed wife” to a wealthy suitor who would provide her with long-term housing and financial support while his legal wife looked the other way.
It’s the same room where President Andrew Jackson (the face on your $20 bill) announced his candidacy and where Confederate war widows came to hold séances to reach out to their “beloveds.” In 1881, it became a convent for the Sisters of the Holy Family. The first order of Creole nuns in America was founded by Henriette DeLille, the daughter of a “free woman of color” and a wealthy Frenchman, who rebelled against becoming a Quadroon mistress. These days, thanks to the Bourbon Orleans, the same space has been refurbished to once again be a ballroom with glittering chandeliers, an expansive balcony that overlooks Orleans Avenue — and of course, the ghostly Giselle.
That kind of fascinating history can be found everywhere you turn in New Orleans. Take a ghost or cemetery tour and you’ll learn about not only the many hauntings, but the amazing history of this improbable city that blossomed where the Mississippi River flows home to the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s a city that despite being devastated by fires, floods, yellow fever and most recently, Hurricane Katrina, always bounces back. There’s a certain magic in New Orleans that can’t be extinguished by mere human and natural disasters. This bad-boy perseveres and lives on to beckon you back with a special charm unlike any other city in the world. And no matter how long it’s been, he’s there, waiting to welcome you back.
Places to Visit:
The Garden District – Catch the streetcar on Canal Street to this New Orleans Neighborhood, getting off at 3029 St. Charles Avenue, where you’ll be able to take a free, self-guided tour through the Elms Mansion, a beautiful example of Italianate-style architecture and a national historical landmark. Wander around the neighborhood and you’ll see one of the best-preserved collections of historic Southern mansions in the United States.
Riverfront – No visit to New Orleans would be complete without seeing America’s greatest river, the Mississippi. The Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve offers a free riverfront history stroll at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday-Saturday for the first 25 people who arrive at its French Quarter Visitor Center at 419 Decatur St. The center opens at 9 a.m. so get there early. The park service also offers other activities like a wetlands walk, Battle of New Orleans talk and a free Cajun music jam on Monday evenings.
Frenchmen Street – You’ll hear music on almost every corner of New Orleans, but to see where the locals go, take a 10-minute walk from the center of the French Quarter to Frenchmen Street. When you arrive you’ll find the real deal — a wide variety of live music performed by the city’s extraordinary musicians inside clubs and restaurants that line this lively district.
Café Du Monde – A New Orleans favorite since 1862, this outdoor/indoor café at 800 Decatur St. in the French Quarter is famous of its beignets, a square piece of dough that is deep fried, creating a pillow-like pastry that is dusted with powdered sugar and is deliciously decadent, especially when paired with coffee served au lait. Cafe Du Monde is open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.
Where to Stay:
Bourbon Orleans Hotel – Located in the heart of the French Quarter, the historic Bourbon Orleans is adjacent to St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square in one direction and Bourbon Street in the other. Select from a room that overlooks the activity on the streets below or a courtyard view of the pool. Prices vary depending on the time of year. No extra charge for ghosts.
Things to Do:
Steamboat Jazz Cruise – Enjoy a jazz cruise featuring the Grammy-nominated Dukes of Dixieland on the Steamboat Natchez, the last authentic steamboat on the Mississippi River. Departing from the French Quarter dock, the evening cruise boards at 6 p.m. and returns at 9 p.m. Include the Creole buffet dinner and the cost is $74.50; without dinner, $44. There’s also a Sunday brunch cruise, as well as daytime jazz cruises that do not include a meal.
Cajun / Creole Cooking Class – Located in the French Quarter, The New Orleans School of Cooking offers both hands-on and demonstration classes in a renovated molasses warehouse built in the early 1800s. The chefs teach how to prepare dishes like gumbo, jambalaya and pralines in a fun and entertaining program that includes copies of the recipes and complimentary beverages. Group demonstrations are $25 per person. Hands-on classes, where you make the food yourself, are $125.
Cemetery Tour – New Orleans is famous for its above-ground cemeteries. Although there are many such graveyards, if you must pick one, choose St. Louis Cemetery # 1 to explore with Historic New Orleans Tours. An experienced docent will lead the way, telling humorous, tragic and inspiring tales as you view the beautiful tombs, including the one that belongs to voodoo queen Marie Laveau. This same tour company offers a Haunted French Quarter Walk that visits some of the city’s most legendary haunts. Tickets for each are $20.
Antique Shopping – Over the centuries, when people moved west they often left their household possessions behind, making old cities like New Orleans a treasure trove for antique furniture, fixtures and historical artifacts. Whether you’re a collector or just like to browse, you’ll enjoy hunting for gems in quaint antique shops along Royal Street and Chartres Street in the French Quarter.
Four Things to Know Before You Go:
Stay on the Sidewalk – Don’t assume that pedestrians have the right of way. Just like you learned in grade school, look both ways before crossing the street.
Take a Taxi – Getting from the airport to the French Quarter is a breeze. The flat rate is $33 plus tip for up to two people, plus $14 for each additional passenger.
Drink Responsibly – New Orleans bars do not have a mandatory closing time and you can drink on the streets as long as it’s in a plastic container – so pace yourself. That refreshing, sweet hurricane you’re drinking contains 4 ounces of rum.
How You Say It – It’s not New Orleans, it’s Nawlins. The more you can make it sound like one syllable, the better. Same goes for the city’s favorite candy treat: pralines, pronounced prawlins.
For more ideas of what to see and do on your visit to New Orleans, visit http://www.neworleansonline.com/