Last month, I hopped on a plane and spent a festive weekend in New Orleans with 11 other girls for a bachelorette party.
It wasn’t as crazy as it sounds.
As my friend D’s Matron of Honor, which meant I was also the default trip organizer, I was both excited and antsy about planning for such a large group in the heart of the south. Given that our weekend trip was sandwiched in between Superbowl Sunday and Mardi Gras, there were plenty of events and activities to fill our days and appetites.
Strolling through the streets in an evening Haunted French Quarter Walking Tour was one of the best ways to start our trip. It was on a Thursday, so while the rest of the city was uptown enjoying the start of the Carnival parades, our group followed an elder man named Frank through the darkened and quiet streets of the usually vibrant neighborhood. Mardi Gras feathers, garland, and masks – colorful and festive during the daytime – cast eerie shadows along the building balconies as Frank recounted tragic, historical stories of the spirits “unresolved issues.” These spirits ranged from unrequited loves, tormented slaves and owners in the 19th century, a notorious pirate named Jean Lafitte, and nuns who guarded the church during the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.
New Orleans locals and workers loved telling stories. We visited restaurants and bars that were built in the 1800s, each containing its own history beyond the brick walls, iron-wrought gates, and antique chandeliers. Our first night, we stopped by Lafitte’s Black Smith Shop, which was built in 1722 and arguably the oldest bar in America. Dining at the Court of Two Sisters for their popular brunch buffet, our waiter regaled us with the background of the sisters – two aristocratic Creole women named Emma and Bertha who used the court’s patio as a specialized boutique and shop in the early 1900s.
As I stood in line for the Cajun shrimp, I struck up a conversation with a woman in a pink and black beaded corset dress with skulls, her hair adorned with a nest of wild pink feathers. She was part of the Prima Donna parade later that afternoon and it was an annual tradition for the other Donnas to eat brunch at the Court of Two Sisters.
“Where does everyone get their costumes? They’re lovely,” I said. Next to her, I spied one of her friend’s in a blue and green tutu with fish swimming on our beaded bodice. Her lashes are bright blue, and I imagine her as a Mardi Gras mermaid who looked with interest at the King’s Cake dessert platter.
“Oh, we gather together and have bead and outfit parties every week just to decorate!” she giggled.
On our way out, we caught the Prima Donna parade –marching band and official banner – and waved our hands to collect their souvenirs. Among them are bright colored thongs, pink and purple beads, bracelets with crowns, and bare-breasted rings. It started to feel like Mardi Gras.
With colorful parade floats and crowds that block the streets from all over the city, we spent most of our days and evenings walking through the French Quarter – less than 10 minutes away from our hotel. When we weren’t wrestling our way through the bead-crazed thick of Bourbon Street en route to popular bars such as Channing Tatum’s Saints and Sinners and Cat’s Meow, we were shopping or eating.
We caught a late night snack at Café Du Monde for their powdered beignets and chickory coffee. In the daytime, we spent a few hours browsing the French Market‘s endless tables of fancy hats, cheap masks, jewelry, and souvenir trinkets. At the other end of the market, there are food stalls that sell yummy snack items like freshly shucked oysters, fried crawdaddies, and fried pickles.
When we had dinner at Mr. B’s Bistro, I finally understood the fuss and hype over their famous barbecue shrimp dish. As the rest of the girls conspired with each other over the menu (Do you want to share? Maybe an appetizer and an entree? I’m not too hungry). Granted, it was 5:30 PM and we were stuffed from fried pickles. My friend D pushed her menu aside. ”I’m having a barbecue shrimp plate all to myself,” she declared.
I stifled a laugh when the wait staff came around to tie a delicate tissue bib around our necks. The restaurant was surprisingly fancy; was this necessary? The dish came out – a jumble of succulent shrimp covered in a rich and subtly sweet sauce – and as soon as we took a bite, nobody laughed or said a word. We were all too busy eating – our fingers and mouths biting, slurping, and peeling all at once. It was the best shrimp dish I ever ate. When the last shrimp was devoured, my table mates and I continued to ravage the sauce with table bread. I almost protested when they finally hauled the plate away. At one point during dinner, a girl friend and I looked at each other and grinned messy, sauce-sticky smiles. We originally were going to split the shrimp plate, but decided at the last minute to bite the bullet and order separately. A wise decision.
On our last full day in New Orleans, we wanted to venture outside the French Quarter and into the Garden District. It was an adventure just to leave the area. Parades were starting in one end of town and wrapping up at another part of the city, which meant that most of the main roads were blocked off. People were gearing up to catch the much anticipated Endymion parade, which featured the royal court and an endless stream of marching bands. It was nearly impossible to reserve a taxi or flag one down – much less two to fit our crew of 11. “Drive out of the French Quarter? Sorry, no.” We lucked out and found a nice gentleman who volunteered to take one half of the group, and return back for the other half. That’s the sort of hospitality we found throughout our trip in New Orleans.
We had our final brunch at Commander’s Palace, another excellent dining experience that involved wearing golden crowns, pastel rooms with chandeliers, a jazz group serenading “A Kiss to Build a Dream On”, dressed up wait staff who quietly set down plates in unison, and rich, decadent food such as eggs poached in cream, incredibly tender braised beef on top of buttery cajun grits, and warm bread pudding served with whiskey sauce. The restaurant was built in 1880 and only closed temporarily to undergo renovations following Hurricane Katrina and Isaac. Apparently, U.S. presidents make it a point to dine here. This meal provided a glamorized snapshot of the New Orleans culinary experience – service that is hospitable and warm, indulgent flavors of sweet and savory meals, and a bit of history served up with a little liquor.
It feels oddly nostalgic for me to walk through the city – like I’ve been here before or someplace like it. The French Quarter district of New Orleans feels like a blend of France, Spain, and – oddly – a surreal Disneyland Main Street. It’s no surprise that the Creole people have cultural roots in a mixture of French and Spanish. I see the European influence in the street architecture, the elegant doorways and balconies, the tiled street signs on the floors and walls, the open air markets, parade of musicians, and bursts of purple, green, and yellow decorations adorned on buildings. It was a slice of old European charm in America. This historically rich and vibrant city was the perfect backdrop for my friend’s milestone celebration. Needless to say, the bulk of our group’s accumulated Mardi Gras beads remained sheepishly behind.