Intoxicating. That’s the word that best describes New Orleans – the famed birthplace of jazz, capital of the occult and the most distinctive and mysterious city in America.

A multicultural melting pot resting on a curve of the Mississippi River, the Big Easy was founded in Louisiana by French colonists in 1718, and makes a big impression despite its modest population of 380,000 (to put that into perspective, New York City’s is 8.4 million).

In fact, it’s like a geographical Rubik’s Cube: impossible to get your head around, a clash of influences and ideas and a rich history that’s almost overpowering.
We truly spent half the trip falling around in a dazed state of befuddlement, just like Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. (FYI, the The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, a NOLA institution, is dedicated to the iconic gay writer, and next takes place from 30 March to 3 April).
The city is also known for the yearly pop of color that is Mardi Gras, an epic street celebration coming up on 9 February. Another of New Orleans’ biggest annual events is the LGBTI extravaganza Southern Decadence, which returns next month (2-7 September). So we decided to take a little NOLA pre-tour, in an attempt to unlock the city’s secrets, from the quirkiest architecture to the best gay bars to the spiciest gumbo in town.


1 The French Quarter

I think I want to live here. The clearly-displayed jewel in a city full of hidden gems, the French Quarter, a Natural Historic Landmark, is the oldest district of NOLA. The colorful characters, the voodoo curiosities and the hopscotch architecture – full of Spanish, French and American influences – are all unforgettable.


2 The cocktails

We absorbed the French Quarter through blurred vision on an informative Gray Line’s Cocktail Walking Tour. It’s no surprise that America’s first cocktail, the Sazerac, was invented here in the 19th century – and this potent, Old Fashioned whiskey drink, all smoky woods, buzzing bitters and electrifying sugar, works like a metaphor for its explosive surroundings. And by the way – it’s legal to consume alcohol on the streets in NOLA.


3 The Creole culinary specialties

A sticky stew of onions, bell peppers, celery, garlic, tomatoes, with spiced meat and/or shellfish – sumptuous Creole gumbo is a fixture on most NOLA menus. Full of French, Spanish, Caribbean and African input, the dish is an another apt metaphor for the wider Creole culture that defines the city and state.

The gumbo at Antoine’s Restaurant, the grandaddy of the French-Creole fine dining scene, is excellent, and made with blue crabs, oysters, and gulf shrimp. It’s been open for 175 years, and Britney Spears recently joined a long line of the great and good who come here to enjoy the old-fashioned, flawless service, and the 25,000-bottle wine collection. The formal atmosphere won’t be for everyone though; for a more laid back vibe and delicious Southern stylings, try Carrollton Market.


4 The jazz music – at every turn

Jazz seduces you everywhere in New Orleans – even on school nights – as we discovered one Wednesday evening on the buzzing Frenchman Street. Passers by seemed drawn by the improv talents of a seemingly random ensemble of musicians, and it was fascinating to watch as reluctant dancers gave into their base urges, almost against their better judgement.

The night before, we caught the irresistible and Grammy Award-winning Rebirth Brass Brand at their Tuesday night slot at the Maple Leaf Bar. Speaking of which, the Maple Leaf was famously featured in Beyonce’s Deja Vu video (as well as the Oak Alley sugar plantation, more on which later).


5 The hedonistic nightlife

Exploring NOLA’s bustling and unpretentious gay scene, mostly centered around the amusingly-named Bourbon Street, while high on jazz and cocktails comes highly recommended. Our favorite was the (again, amusingly-named) Napoleon’s Itch, which was busy midweek. We loved the lack of cover charge, the impossibly fresh mojitos and up-to-the-minute pop soundtrack, plus the owner is totally hot.

Other bars to try include The Corner Pocket and the Bourbon Pub and Parade; gay girls aren’t so well catered for, but GrrlSpot, a pop-up lesbian party, changes location each month. Meanwhile, the best non-gay bar is the effortlessly hip and moody Cure, where mixology is treated like it should be: as a fine art.


6 The other side of the city

The French Quarter, in all its throwback, mishmash charm, is instantly recognizable – but for me at least, the modernity of the extended skyline came as a surprise. New Orleans actually boasts 106 high rises, and to truly immerse yourself in that ‘bright lights, big city’ feel, we recommend the Le Meridien New Orleans. This chic, contemporary, 23-floor hotel has a rooftop pool and spectacular views of the central business district, and is still sparkling after a $29 million renovation. We loved the gumbo in the hotel’s buzzing ground floor restaurant, LMNO.


7 The nearby Plantation Country

For an essential lesson on the history of slavery in Louisiana, head to Plantation Country, and theOak Alley Plantation (above), built in 1837. A gorgeous Greek Revival build, the plantation is framed by a line of humongous canopied oak trees. The nearby Laura Plantation is equally fascinating.

 

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by Jamie Tabberer

Gay Star News