I’m sitting on a rooftop bar with hubby Peter, my BFF, Wendy, and her husband, Rick, in one of my favorite cities in the world, New Orleans. The drinks are cold, the sky is blue, and the sun is sliding down in the western sky. Sometimes in life there are moments you want to last forever. This is one.
We are all here for a week of food and fun—and a bit of fitness, too. Wendy and I, along with my dear friend, Grace, who lives in New Orleans, have signed up for the half marathon a few days from now. In the meantime, we are hatching plans to enjoy this wild, wicked city. It’s Wendy and Rick’s first time here, so of course a few must-do’s are on our list: oysters at Felix’s, beignets at Café Du Monde, shopping at the French Market, gypsy jazz at The Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street, and a Pimm’s Cup or three.
But we also want to go off the beaten path and explore New Orleans’ lesser known sides. We want to leave the tourists behind and go where the locals go. Sharing my favorite city with our best friends will make this an extra special visit, so whether you’ve been to New Orleans 10 times or not at all, join us as we let the good times roll.
DANCE & BOWL
As the sun sets on our first night in New Orleans, we enjoy the view of the city’s skyline from our comfy couch at Above the Grid, one of NOLA’s newest rooftop bars. This peaceful oasis crowns a luxurious, new hotel in the Central Business District called NOPSI. Developed by Dr. Sheila Johnson, who also owns Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Virginia, the hotel is housed in a former public utilities building. Back in the day, what’s now the hotel’s elegant, expansive lobby was a showroom for refrigerators, ovens, lamps, and other newfangled electrical devices.
We dine at Public Service, the hotel’s signature restaurant. I love the airy, spacious dining room with its white-washed brick walls. At one end in the open kitchen, numerous chefs dressed in white perform a delicate dance as they prepare food for hungry guests. Edgy jazz, clattering dishes, and conversation echo all around us, but our cozy booth provides an intimate setting for our dinner
Our meal is over the top, but then this is New Orleans, known for its incredible cuisine. We share a couple starters: a savory lamb stew and Cajun poutine, a decadent dish featuring French fries, roast beef and gravy, beer cheese, and spring onions sprinkled on top. Yum. For our main course Peter and I split the daily catch, a roasted gulf fish, scored, and deskinned with head and tail. Grilled vegetables on the side are caramelized and tasty, but the fish is revelatory: salty-sweet, moist, cooked perfectly.
The next day is Peter’s birthday—how perfect to celebrate in this lively city. Instead of carousing on Bourbon Street with the tourists, we head to the suburbs to a restaurant called Ye Olde College Inn, a place that’s clearly popular with locals. We soon find out why. I order a delicious salad with pecans, apples, and blue cheese and fried oysters on the side and find a little baby pearl embedded in one of the oysters, which I promptly drop on the floor. Peter has a shrimp po’boy, and after a few drinks, the four of us are ready to Rock ‘n’ Bowl.
Yep, next door to the restaurant is a NOLA institution called Rock ‘n’ Bowl, where you can listen to live bands—think zydeco—and dance and bowl. We do all three. The headliner is Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie, and they are killin’ it. I’m not much of a dancer, but the two martinis I had at dinner help, so Peter and I try a few twirls before sitting down to admire the slick dancers who are do-se-do-ing across the dance floor. Later we rent a lane for an hour and have a blast trying to bowl. I mostly get gutter balls, thanks to the martinis. But it’s a perfect birthday celebration, another milestone reached in a memorable setting.
One day we hop in our rental car and head across Lake Pontchartrain to ride horses at Splendor Farms in Bush, Louisiana. It’s another blue-sky day, and signs of spring are in the air. My horse is an Appaloosa with big brown spots, and he’s shedding up a storm, so before long I’m covered in white hair. We ride our horses along trails through silent woods for more than an hour, just enjoying the stillness and the rhythmic motion of being in the saddle.
Also on the North Shore is a crazy roadside attraction called the Abita Mystery House (aka the UCM Museum). It’s a hodge podge collection of everything you can imagine—toys, paint-by-number paintings, found objects, folk art, and homemade inventions. Wendy, Rick, Peter, and I spend an hour or so getting in touch with our inner children as we explore, discover, and delight in this museum’s bizarre exhibits.
Back in NOLA, we visit another museum—New Orleans Museum of Art or NOMA. Nestled in City Park, it’s one of my favorite art museums with a nice-sized collection of art across the ages. My favorite part is exploring the Sculpture Garden, where hidden among ancient live oaks and Spanish moss, 60+ sculptures create an inspiring landscape. Through May 28 at NOMA, The Art of Fashion is on exhibit featuring some far-out designs organized by archetype and artfully displayed. My friend Grace meets us at NOMA with her almost-two-year-old daughter, Pearl, so we get to view the exhibit through a child’s eyes. All Pearl wants to do is climb on the exhibits, so it makes for an exciting visit.
Grace is doing some PR work for Old New Orleans Rum Distillery, which has been making rum since 1995 and bills itself as the oldest continuous rum distillery in the U.S. So we head over there one afternoon for a tour and tasting. Located in the suburbs, it’s not a huge operation, which is probably why the rum is such high quality. My favorite rum is Amber, which as the name suggests is a golden brown, and tastes like caramel and honey and almonds, perfect for sipping or making a mighty fine cocktail. The distillery’s top seller is Gingeroo, a ready-to-drink cocktail made with rum, spicy ginger, and Louisiana sugar cane. It’s bubbly and refreshing!
The Audubon Zoo is another favorite NOLA attraction, so we spend one afternoon wandering its 58 acres, oohing and aahing at the flamingos, zebras, giraffes, and of course the albino alligator who always looks like he’s barely breathing. We’re having such fun we stay until closing time, and the zoo folks have to chase us out.
Brunch is as popular in New Orleans as it is here in Tidewater, and we quickly find two favorite spots for a late morning nosh and perhaps a Bloody Mary or two. One spot we love in the Marigny, a neighborhood to the east of the French Quarter, is called The Ruby Slipper Café. It’s housed in a former bank and has high ceilings, great food, and often a line of people waiting to get in. They’re known for their killer Bloody Marys, including one that uses bacon-infused vodka and has to-die-for pig-candy bacon as a garnish.
My favorite brunch dish is the hearty Grilled Fish St. Peter, featuring the fish of the day over a cheesy grit cake, topped with sautéed spinach and tomatoes, a skewer of grilled shrimp, and creole mustard hollandaise. Another crazy-good dish is the Eggs Cochon with slow-cooked, apple-braised pork debris served over a buttermilk biscuit, topped with two poached eggs and hollandaise. Decadent but worth every calorie. Of course, more traditional breakfast fare is also available: omelets, pancakes, and French toast. But I can make those at home. When I’m in a city like New Orleans, I forget all the rules of healthy eating and live in the moment.
Another brunch place we love is Belle’s Diner, which serves breakfast all day. Right next to the French Market, Belle’s is a long, narrow restaurant with a formica bar stretching its length on one side and tables lining the opposite wall. Turquoise bar stools and booths add to the 50s-style décor, and exposed brick walls give it a crusty vibe. Belle’s is as cute as a button, and the food is fabulous. One morning I can’t resist debris fries, a decadent mixture of French fries, cheese, and gravy that’s enough to feed all four of us.
One last meal to remember is at Napoleon House. It’s our last day, and Rick still hasn’t had a Muffuletta sandwich, one of New Orleans’ specialties. Grace says Napoleon House has the best, and she’s right. A delicious round sandwich arrives at our table stuffed with cold cuts, cheese, and olive salad. The roll is soft, the meat is warm, the cheese is melted, and the olive salad adds the perfect tangy notes. I order a bowl of gumbo, which is rich and savory. The vibe at Napoleon House is historic—no wonder. It’s housed in a 200-year-old home, and the restaurant itself has been around since 1914. Now owned by Ralph Brennan, Napoleon House is a step back in time. I love the old portraits hanging on the walls, the classical music that plays in the background, and of course the delicious cuisine.
And let’s not forget the reason we are here! The New Orleans Rock ‘n Roll Half Marathon—13.1 miles of running, jogging, and fast walking through the storied streets of the Crescent City. Wendy and I awake Sunday morning, pick up Grace, and find our way to our corral. The morning is chilly, but the clear sky and warm sun promise a beautiful day ahead.
The guys are opting out of the race, but we are fine with having girl time. And we will have plenty. The max time for the race is four hours, and we hope we can finish in time since none of us is as well trained as we wish we were. I’ve run five or six half marathons, but this is Wendy and Grace’s first, so I decide not to worry about my time and just keep pace with them. The music along the way inspires us, and while cheering crowds are few, we do run into some of Grace’s pals around Mile 10, who greet us with signs that say: “Worst Parade Ever” and “Bet You Thought It Said RUM!” They also give Grace a split of champagne, and we take turns sipping from the bottle as we tackle the last three miles.
We cross the finish line, arms linked, smiling, and ready to collapse. Happily, we have probably burned off a lot of the naughty calories we consumed, and of course all those carbs are what got us to the finish line—that and a lot of huffing and puffing.
If you’ve never run a half before, finishing is a fabulous feeling. I always tell people with determination and training, anyone can do 13 miles. I’ve already signed up for next year’s NOLA Half Marathon. Let me know if you want to join me!
Another Lodging Option: Hip Design Hotel
With a name inspired by the iconoclastic Beat Generation of postwar America, The Drifter on Tulane Avenue is a playful respite from New Orleans’ expected offerings, shining a light on a newly hip side of the city. Borrowing from streamline modernism and Googie-style architecture, the hotel offers guests a glimpse into life in midcentury America. Retro yet refreshingly original, the interiors come alive with pastel colors and custom furnishings that contrast brick and concrete walls. www.thedrifterhotel.com