Shaped by a melting pot of European and Caribbean cultures Louisiana’s largest city is unlike anywhere else in America
As the street busker burst into a stirring rendition of the Johnny Cash classic Folsom Prison Blues, he gave a pretty good impression of the late great ‘Man in Black’ – until you looked at him. Dressed in a red satin ball gown topped off by a white stole, the bearded songster cut an incongruous sight. But when you’re in New Orleans you soon get to expect the unexpected.
With one of the most vibrant histories of any American state, Louisiana’s largest city was founded by French settlers in 1718, ruled by the Spanish for a few decades and has distinct Caribbean cultural influences, all of which make it a fascinating and fun destination. Famous for its jazz, the streets in the main tourist hub of the French Quarter resound with all kinds of music. This buzzing and mainly traffic free neighbourhood was our starting point for a visit to the city dubbed the ‘Big Easy’ due to its laid-back lifestyle.
And it’s not just the present-day residents that make New Orleans so colourful, as it has long been considered one of the country’s most haunted cities. That evening we returned to the French district to follow in the footsteps of things that go bump in the night with Haunted History Tours, founded nearly 25 years ago by Sidney Smith, who does an accent perfect impersonation of all four Beatles (although that’s another story).
“We’re a city filled with tragic events,” says Sidney, as we prepare to tentatively follow his eloquent guide James around the darkened streets. “The earliest French settlers were warned not to build a city here; that the area was cursed.”
The ensuing two hours was one of the highlights of our stay, as we embarked on one of six available tours to hear tales of ghosts, vampires, voodoo, witches, unsolved mysteries and mysterious creatures; all laced with humour and few tall tales. We listened spellbound as James described the rougarou, a type of Cajun werewolf that can only be killed by a four-leaf clover. Afterwards I couldn’t resist getting Haunted History Tours’ book to read more.
But I certainly wasn’t too scared to go to sleep back at our base, the newly opened Coach House Hotel. The cool boutique property in the tree-lined Garden District surrounded by colonial properties, is conveniently located on the historic St Charles streetcar line. Decorated with quirky art, and with spacious rooms, it would have been easy to settle in for the evening at the idiosyncratic bar topped with a bicycle, but we’d booked dinner at Napoleon House, a 200-year-old French Quarter landmark. The building’s first occupant, local mayor Nicholas Girod, offered his residence to Napoleon in 1821 as a refuge during his exile. Napoleon never made it, but the name stuck. The signature Pimm’s Cup cocktail is perfect to sip whilst perusing a menu that includes muffuletta, the Southern staple made with salami, cheese and olives, or for those who want to dine on the wild side, grilled alligator sausage, which I’m reliably informed was delicious.
The local food scene certainly satisfies any appetite and offers trademark things to try. Beignets, fluffy holeless doughnuts, were first introduced to the city by French-Creole colonists in the 18th century. Café Du Monde is an institution and whilst there are now several branches, the original outlet founded in 1862 in the French Market is the best place to go. Open 24/7, the café simply serves hot and cold drinks and trios of beignets covered in mounds of icing sugar that disperses with a puff of wind. Sneeze at your peril! Half the fun is seeing customers tackling the delicious but tricky to eat treats.
Bourbon Street is the nightlife hot spot, where multiple drinking holes include the novel revolving Carousel Bar, although you can face a long wait to climb aboard. Whatever the time of day – or night – you can’t help but relax into the rhythm of local life. Other diverse neighbourhoods include the trendy Arts/Warehouse area, where old industrial buildings have been transformed into museums, galleries and restaurants. A highlight is the huge and poignant National WWII Museum spread over three buildings.
Dating back to 1835, New Orleans has the world’s oldest continuously operating streetcar line. The trams are a great way to get around and discover districts such as Treme, America’s oldest African American neighbourhood.
Elaborate crypts and mausoleums have turned the city’s cemeteries into tourist attractions, and St Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the resting place of legendary ‘voodoo queen’ Marie Laveau, immortalised in the 70s song by Redbone. Unfortunately, a spate of vandalism means the graveyard is now off limits to visitors unless they book an organised guided tour. However, other cemeteries can be freely visited throughout the day and are equally atmospheric, particularly if you are completely alone. The silence was only punctuated by bird song as we walked around Lafayette Cemetery where notable tombs include a communal fire company’s vault with the stone relief of an old fire pump and an unusual metal tomb said to have inspired author Anne Rice when she was writing her novel Interview with a Vampire.
In the interests of accurate reporting I have to say that we never saw a ghost, but if you head towards Café du Monde, where they use around 23kg of icing sugar an hour to smother the beignets, you’ll probably see quite a few people liberally sprinkled with white and resembling sweet spectres.
American Sky offers a four-night New Orleans break staying at the Coach House Hotel from £1,129 on a room only basis, including direct flights with British Airways from Heathrow. For further details call +44 (0)1342 331798 or visit www.americansky.co.uk. For information on New Orleans visit www.neworleans.com
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs courtesy of New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and by Jeannine Williamson