There’s no place like NOLA. In some ways Montreal and New Orleans feel like sister cities, given the ubiquity of the fleur-de-lys and the peculiarities of the societal melange. But there’s something about “the Big Easy,” its particular cultural mix, its tropical climate and its history — as devastating as it has sometimes been, from the era of slavery through the destruction of Hurricane Katrina — that has forged a unique spirit and an incomparable aesthetic, not to mention truly inspirational sounds and flavours.
More than anything, New Orleans is a city of contrasts. Rich and poor. Refined and unruly. Laid back and raging. It’s all part of the nightlife, the restaurant scene, even the atmosphere on the streets.
Montreal to New Orleans, direct
Montrealers can now travel to New Orleans more easily with the launch of direct flights, care of Air Transat, in December. It was in that pre-Xmas period that I ventured to the American South for the first time. (Florida doesn’t count, right?) Three hours and forty minutes later, you’ll immediately feel like you’re very far from home.
Over the three-and-half days I was in New Orleans, I heard two African American men speaking Louisiana Creole. Not once did I hear French — aside from the Parisians and fellow Québécois we encountered at hotels. (We stayed at the NOPSI, ate at the Ritz Carlton, drank at the Monteleone). Like the saints all over Montreal street names, and many of the churches that still stand at what feels like every second corner, the French language in New Orleans is a bit of a relic, based more in the politics of the place than the culture. But through its colonial history, the Creole and Cajun pieces of its cultural fabric are what really set the city apart amid from the socalled American melting pot.
See Bourbon, don’t be Bourbon
While the locals prefer Frenchmen Street (or the latter-day hipster neighbourhood, Bywater), the most famous thoroughfare in town is of course Bourbon Street. It’s a tourist trap, yes, but it’s also unavoidable, and unmissable (at least for your first visit). Plastered with tacky signage and plastered party people, the street is simultaneously not as sleazy as we wanted it to be and more debauched than we’d hoped. Daytime is a little sleepy, but on Friday night, when it turned into a pedestrian zone, it’s as though every block was hosting a bachelor/bachelorette party or FROSH procession — pretty funny, and a little horrifying. As (mostly) friendly drunks zombie-walked in packs from bar to bar (and you can legally order drinks to go), police, firemen and ambulances could be glimpsed down the side streets. And they were needed.
Feast your eyes on all the things
Bourbon runs through the heart of the scenic French Quarter, renowned for its beautiful wrought iron balconies. But another must-see architectural wonder is the Garden District. The Westmount of New Orleans is lined with oak trees and 19th century mansions. Nearby is shopping mecca Magazine Street, the famous Lafayette Cemetery with above-ground tombs — another of the city’s unique features is the inability to bury the dead due to water levels — as well as St. Charles Avenue, where the Mardi Gras parade passes by for the epic celebration on the last Tuesday in February.
Even if you’re not in town for Mardi Gras, you might be around during carnival season, which begins in January. Outside of that winter window (and hurricane season, when you should steer clear — June 1 to Nov. 30), the Mardi Gras Museum gives guided tours of the floats that appear in the Fat Tuesday parade every year.
Gumbo, gator and 25-cent martinis
The only thing that NOLA locals and visitors love more than parading, jazz and football is food. You’d have to make an effort to eat badly there. From high-end hotel restaurants to cafés and lunch spots that have been tourist go-tos for decades to hole-in-the-wall mom and pop joints, French-inspired, Cajun-derived cuisine shines bright. Beignets, bananas Foster, gumbo, jambalaya, po-boys and alligator (we tried it in jerky and blackened formats) are signature dishes. Seafood lovers will never go hungry, and connoisseurs of Southern cooking will delight in dishes like grits on breakfast menus.
You’re likely to roll home from New Orleans with a few extra pounds after consuming all this deep-fried food. And we haven’t properly discussed drinking. French Quarter dives like Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar (est. in the 1700s!) sell big boozy slushies to go; Garden District go-to Commander’s Palace offers 25-cent martinis at lunch (max three, “’cause that’s enough”); the Hotel Monteleone’s famous Carousel Bar mixes mean cocktails like the Sazerac, which originated in New Orleans. It might take a full super-slow rotation of the bar to receive that cocktail, but what goes around comes around.
Good times roll
Of all the cheesy nicknames and expressions associated with New Orleans — the Big Easy, the City That Care Forgot (ew), Paris of the South, N’Awlins (never say this in public) — “laissez les bon temps rouler” is probably the cheesiest, and the most fitting. Thrown around liberally during Mardi Gras, these are words to live by; especially in a place that’s had more than its share of hard times. Making up for lost time makes the party that much more fun. ■
The Air Transat flight from Montreal to New Orleans runs year-round on Thursdays and Sundays. Learn more about travelling from Montreal to New Orleans with Air Transat here.
New Orleans tourism
New Orleans is a city with a lot of Tourism. To learn more about what to do in New Orleans, visit the New Orleans tourism website.
See more Cult MTL travel and tourism articles, like this one to New Orleans, here.
Read the latest issue of Cult MTL here.
To vote for your favourite Montreal people and things in the Best of MTL readers poll, click here.