It’s no secret that New Orleans is one of my favorite cities. Its unique small-town vibe, cozy architecture, amazing restaurants, and soulful music make it a divine destination for anyone seeking an escape from the ordinary.
I’ve visited many times over the years alone and with my family, but recently I found myself wanting to share the Big Easy with friends who’d never been.
Traveling with friends can be rewarding particularly if you are visiting a place with lots to do, and New Orleans definitely fits the bill with its mix of accommodations, attractions, and restaurants. Peter and I decided to invite longtime buddies Missy and Ray to come along. I’ve known Missy since we attended Radford many moons ago, and she and her husband Ray have become close friends over the years. We chose to plan our getaway for the week after Christmas, and I began creating a fun-filled itinerary. In the process, it occurred to me that New Orleans is the perfect choice for a college reunion or a family gathering. So here are a few tips for planning the ultimate group getaway to New Orleans.
Even though I wanted to share some of my favorite New Orleans haunts with Missy and Ray, I also wanted to try some new experiences. I’d always wanted to stay in a Louisiana plantation home. Bocage, about an hour west of NOLA, was the perfect choice. This Greek Revival structure, designed in 1837 by architect James Dakin, has been lovingly restored in recent years by Dr. Marion Rundell, a Houston pathologist, and now operates as an elegant bed and breakfast.
“This place is like a museum,” Peter whispered as Bryan, the manager, showed us around. Furnished in authentic antiques, crystal chandeliers, and Oriental rugs, the treasure-filled rooms exuded elegance and extravagance. At first, we felt a little timid about staying in such beautiful surroundings, but the four of us soon made ourselves at home. Rocking chairs on the front porch offered the perfect spot for unwinding after our flight from Norfolk. Later we enjoyed a lovely spread of appetizers, played cards, and shared a bottle of wine in the cozy sitting room.
We dined the next morning under the watchful eye of Napoleon, gazing down from a portrait painted by artist Rembrandt Peale circa 1812. Our breakfast featured delicious omelettes accompanied by locally made boudin sausage served on Limoge china. We agreed our stay at Bocage made us feel like royalty and look forward to returning for more royal pampering one day.
In the French Quarter we arranged to stay in two different lodgings. The first—Jazz Quarters—is located on Rampart Drive, an easy walk from anywhere in the French Quarter. Featuring cute-as-a-button Creole cottages, each with its own unique charm, Jazz Quarters can accommodate 30+ guests and would be ideal for a reunion or a large family gathering. We shared a suite with Missy and Ray that had two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom. Outside under the live oak trees, cozy tables and benches offered the chance to enjoy fresh air and the occasional sunshine that peeked through during our stay. Breakfasts at Jazz Quarters were decadent and filling, served cheerfully by Vincent, the Dutch innkeeper, who also provided great tips on where to go and what to do.
After a couple days at Jazz Quarters, we moved to the historic Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street. This iconic institution had always been on my list of places to stay, and I’m happy to say the service, comfort, and ambiance lived up to its reputation. William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams are among the prominent literary figures who have stayed at Hotel Monteleone, which has been owned and operated by the same Italian family since 1886. Our rooms featured the right mixture of luxury and comfort and offered stunning views of the Mississippi River. Upstairs on the roof, where even better views await, you can take a swim in the rooftop pool or just relax in a sunny spot that feels miles away from Bourbon Street.
Hotel Monteleone is also known as the home of the famous Carousel Bar, a revolving bar that looks like a circus carousel. It’s the perfect place to enjoy one of New Orlean’s signature cocktails. While we were there, the hotel unveiled its new contemporary lounge area adjacent to the Carousel Bar, and on opening night, the trendy venue was packed with a fashionable crowd. Later this spring, the Criollo Restaurant and Lounge will bring a new dining experience to guests of Hotel Monteleone. I got a peek inside the construction zone and can’t wait to see the finished restaurant.
Hotel choices abound in New Orleans, and each one has its own charm. As you plan your reunion, consider what price range everyone can afford and plan accordingly. Jazz Quarters offers comfortable, unique accommodations for a good price, but if you feel like splurging, you’ll love the historic vibe of Hotel Monteleone.
TOOTHSOME & DECADENT
Dining choices, like hotels, are many and varied. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a bad restaurant in New Orleans. I have many favorites, but here are a few in no particular order:
• Felix’s Oyster Bar – If you love oysters, this is the place to go. Make sure you stand at the bar because the shuckers save their largest, most succulent oysters for the bar customers. Order extra because once you start slurping down these salty-sweet oysters, you’ll want more.
• Mother’s – This classic eatery features home-cooked food that satisfies. Peter got the Roast Beef Po’ Boy with Debris—yummy bits of pan-roasted beef—and couldn’t believe the pile of meat stacked on his sandwich. Missy opted for soft shell crabs, which were sweet and tender. Ray tried the seafood platter and described it as “A+, perfectly fried.” I chose the fried chicken, collards, and red beans and rice, a heaping plateful of flavors and textures. Lorraine, our waitress, was a hoot and made us feel like old friends. We loved Mother’s, and I’m sure you will, too.
• Breakfast at Brennan’s is another iconic experience that you just have to experience at least once in your life. First, we sipped a Brandy Milk Punch, which tastes like a milkshake and goes down easy. Next we sampled some of the luscious soups—turtle soup and Creole onion, followed by our main dishes. Mine was a half portion of Eggs Shannon—poached eggs atop fried trout served on a bed of creamed spinach—and a half portion of Oysters Benedict with fried Gulf oysters that were crunchy and sweet. Peter had the Eggs Nouvelle New Orleans: poached eggs on a bed of lump crabmeat with a decadent brandy cream sauce. Believe it or not we even squeezed in some grillades and grits that were superb and then finished our amazing breakfast with flaming Bananas Foster. Needless to say, we waddled out the door!
• Red Fish Grill on Bourbon Street has a cheerful, bright ambiance and a family-friendly vibe. Everything on the menu looked good, so it was hard to choose. We shared two appetizers—Asian Tuna Tartare and BBQ Oysters—that pleased our palates. My main course was hickory-grilled redfish served with a savory assortment of vegetables—mushrooms, peas, onions, potatoes—as well as sausage and lump crab drizzled with a light lemon butter sauce. Yes, it was rich, but in New Orleans over-indulging is part of the fun! For dessert we shared Red Fish Grill’s famous double chocolate bread pudding.
• Bombay Club – Step back into another time at this award-winning cocktail lounge and restaurant, where inviting leather armchairs, wood paneling, and candelit corners echo a gentleman’s club of yesteryear. This venue is perfect for enjoying a round of drinks before heading out for a night on the town. Try the Cool as a Cucumber martini!
• Besh Steakhouse – This elegant restaurant inside Harrah’s Casino serves succulent steaks and seafood dishes designed by Chef John Besh, whose family of restaurants includes August, Lüke, and La Provence. We were wowed by our appetizers: spicy BBQ shrimp, a Besh specialty; decadent pasta shells overflowing with lump crabmeat and bathed in a rich cream sauce; and a lovely presentation of beef tartare served with a quail egg and mezzune salad greens. For my entrée, I had an aged New York strip, rare and beefy with just the right amount of toothsomeness. Peter enjoyed his juicy ribeye and green peppercorn sauce accompanied by huge crunchy, onion rings. After resting a bit, we indulged in a delicious helping of bread pudding with praline sauce for dessert. A decadent meal and one we’ll remember always.
STORIES OF THE SOUTH
New Orleans has a reputation for excessive partying and general debauchery. You can of course let the good times roll during your reunion in New Orleans, but when you wake up with a hangover the first morning you’re in town, you might be ready for some non-alcoholic activities. The following attractions are perfect for both families visiting New Orleans and your college buddies, who are all still big kids inside.
• Audubon Zoo – I’ve visited this zoo many times, and it never fails to enchant. From the pink flamingoes preening in their pond near the zoo entrance to the stately giraffes that roam in the African savanna exhibit, the amazing animal collection will capture your imagination. Peter and I laughed out loud as we watched a bored orangutan thumb through a phone book and an elephant play catch with an old tire. Don’t miss the albino alligators in the Louisiana Swamp exhibit. The best way to get to the zoo is via the St. Charles streetcar, an experience in itself.
• Audubon Aquarium of the Americas – A popular new exhibit at the aquarium is Parakeet Pointe, an 800-ft. outdoor environment that lets you interact with hundreds of colorful parakeets. Another favorite is the bustling colony of Rockhopper and African penguins. You can also view IMAX movies at the aquarium. Now showing is Born To Be Wild 3D, a moving film about rescuing elephants and orangutans.
• New Orleans Museum of Art – Half the fun of visiting this stellar art museum is getting there. After catching a streetcar heading north along Canal St., you’ll pass through Mid-City and continue to the end of the line. Next a five-minute stroll through City Park brings you to the grand entrance of this stunning Neoclassical building, which houses an impressive collection of 40,000 art pieces. Peter and I lunched in Café NOMA—a lovely eatery under the direction of Ralph Brennan and his culinary team. Then we lingered in the outdoor sculpture garden, a tranquil oasis where art and nature commingle in quiet harmony.
• Ogden Museum of Southern Art – One of my favorite things to do when I visit a city is to find out what the locals do. Our visit to New Orleans coincided with Ogden After Hours, a weekly event at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art featuring live music, interviews with musicians, and a kids’ art activity. We loved the bluesy band as well as wandering through the galleries, where Southern art tells the stories of the South.
• Frenchmen Street – On the edge of the Marigny, this humble street is home to the city’s best music venues—Snug Harbor, dba, and my favorite The Spotted Cat. Plan to rendezvous here with your reunion chums to hear a variety of musical styles—think gypsy jazz, eclectic funk, and the blues. Bring your dancing shoes!
IN THE MOMENT
Planning a reunion in New Orleans isn’t rocket science. In fact, this city was made for good times, and there’s no time like the present to gather a group of friends or distant family members to “pass a good time” in this unique destination.
And as your plans coalesce, remember to include some chill time during your reunion. Plan at least one or two unscheduled afternoons to allow everyone the chance to wander around the French Quarter and experience the unexpected allure New Orleans holds in store.
One evening Peter and I found ourselves with an hour to spare before our dinner reservations. We strolled around the Quarter and ended up at Café Envy, a coffeeshop with rickety sidewalk tables and a cool vibe. We ordered coffee and proceeded to watch the world go by. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves immersed in conversation with an itinerant harmonica player, a chain-smoking grandma in a bathrobe, and a tattooed troubadour with a guitar slung over his back.
We were having so much fun, we decided to cancel our fancy dinner reservations and grab a bite at a funky dive bar called Mississippi River Bottom. There we ate debris fries—trust me, you have to try them one time in your life—and listened to the click-clack of a game of pool in the next room. It was way more fun than a fancy dinner would have been.
New Orleans is the perfect place to live in the moment, says my friend Grace, who lives in the French Quarter. Her comment sums up what I love about this city. Here you can forget the past and the future and embrace the moment you’re in. Rally some of your friends and start planning your own reunion in New Orleans soon. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did!
For more information, visit www.neworleanscvb.com and let the good times roll!