“So…. you walked the Garden District?” They gestured in the affirmative. “Took a swamp tour?” Another nod. “Hmm,” my sister sussed. “Well, I think you’ve covered it then!” She raised her glass in a cheers. Now, we assured the other pair of sisters sitting across from us, now we could get down to the real business of New Orleans — eating and drinking ourselves silly.
Just a few days in, and my second trip to New Orleans was turning out much like my last visit to London — the Getting Drunk and Fat Tour™. Just a few short days after Christmas I’d waved New York goodbye, promising to return in about five months when the snow melted, and boarded a flight for New Orleans. To spend time with my ‘lil sis, hostess extraordinaire (just check out the schedule she crafted for my trip!), to ring in the New Year somewhere slightly warmer than New York, and to spend time with Brooklyn bestie Zoe and her sister Emma, who were making their inaugural trip to the Big Easy.
But before we get to all the eating and the drinking that I strongly recommend you partake in on your own New Orleans sojourns, there’s family time. My trips to New Orleans are a little different than most people’s, because for me, the part I look most forward to is getting a heavy hit of sister time and getting a big peek into where Olivia’s spending her days, what she’s spending them on and who she’s spending them with. I spend so much time interacting with my loved ones through a screen — I couldn’t wait to see the new house she’d moved into, help her redecorate her classroom, meet some of her students and spend time with her crew, live and in person.
Isn’t my sister’s apartment adorable?
So I couldn’t have asked for a better welcoming committee at the airport than Olivia and three of her adorable, purse-toting kiddos. Our first destination? Celebration in the Oaks, New Orleans’ own family-friendly Lights in the Park affair. Joined by Zoe and Emma, we were quick to point out that this was classic Louisiana — a neon Santa’s sleigh was pulled by eight cartoon alligators, concession stands sold beer alongside tickets for the carousel, and The Saints had their own dedicated display.
Liv’s girls, giddy to be picked by their teacher for such a special treat, were thrilled. Surrounded by my sister, my best friend and a whole group of giggling girls, so was I.
The evening ended, as any that involve me spending extended times with children do, with wine. It felt good to be on the go again.
The next day, we were at it again. This time picking up Olivia’s co-teacher and a trio of three lucky boys, we made our way downtown to visit New Orlean’s beautiful and strangely appealing Insectarium. A byproduct of hangin’ with my teacher sis? The rare opportunity to feature family-friendly attractions here on Meihoukai in Wanderland!
One of the coolest features of the Insectarium is the bug cafe, where a chef whips up concoctions involving all kind of creepy crawly ingredients. Now, to Anthony Bourdain fans and travelers in the faraway lands of Southeast Asia, eating bugs might not seem like the most thrilling of activities. But to a bunch of first graders from New Orleans? It was big news.
Obviously, Olivia and I came accessorized for the occasion.
When it was time to leave and we were in the midst of an inevitable gift shop meltdown, Olivia turned to me and guiltily promised that it was grown-up time only from here forward. I just gave her a big hug. I’m sure any older sibling can relate to the fact that there is nothing as moving as seeing a person you once shared a crib with all grown up for reals. I couldn’t be prouder.
But, you know, it was time for some grown up entertainment, and so that evening we made our way to Ignatius for dinner with Zoe, Emma, and their hometown friend turned New Orleans transplant. Getting Drunk and Fat Tour™, commence.
Dinner was nice, but it was what came after that really blew me away. Cruising down Oak Street towards Maple Leaf (note to self: spend some serious time exploring Oak Street upon inevitable return to New Orleans) I groaned at the block-long line snaking out of our intended venue. On a balmy night I wouldn’t mind standing around shooting the breeze, but thus far New Orleans had sincerely disappointed us on the temperature front, and it was hovering around the low Fahrenheit fifties. We stood shivering, reassuring ourselves that it would all be worth it when we were inside rocking out to Rebirth, an institution on New Orlean’s big brass band scene.
And then something magical — and, my sister nodded sagely, very New Orleans — happened. A man who appeared to be extremely homeless approached us and asked if we wanted to skip the line and get in free — we just had to tip him. Zoe, Emma and I were extremely skeptical of giving up our hard earned spot in the line, but the NOLA local jumped at the opportunity. At first we stood awkwardly near the entrance and watched him negotiate with the bouncer with a sinking feeling that we were soon going to find ourselves guiltily walking two blocks towards the back of the line. And then, suddenly, we were being ushered inside with a wink. Amazed that we’d just walked in gratis and shaved at least forty minutes of shivering off our evening, we tipped our surprised savior the full entrance fee of $20 each.
The show was amazing — one of the highlights of the week. It was also extremely, crazy, way over-fire-capacity crowded, and when I made the mistake of leaving our camped out corner to try to do a bar run I was almost lost forever in a human stampede. Okay, that may be a tad dramatized, but I did get squished between two very tall men to the point that a bystander felt the need to call out, “Hey! Be careful! That little girl can’t breathe!”
I will never go to New Orleans and not see a big brass band ever again.
I love that when I’m in New Orleans, I just fully hand the reigns over to Olivia. And damn, is she a great tour guide for her new hometown. It seems that a lot of first time travelers to NOLA get stuck on Bourbon Street and in the French Quarter. Don’t get me wrong — I love Bourbon Street and the French Quarter — but there is so much more to this city, and I’m grateful to be shown the best of it by a real insider. One of my favorite off-Quarter evenings was a Teacher’s Night Out to two of Liv’s favorites, Cure and Baru, with a bunch of her favorite girls. Cure, shown below, had killer happy hour cocktails and cheese plates, and Baru, sadly not pictured, served up the absolute best meal I’ve had in the South.
But it wasn’t just Olivia’s suggestions I heeded. After stalking the Instagram of NOLA-lovers Kent and Canaan, I proffered up my one suggestion for the trip — breakfast at District Donuts. Turns out, like many of our destinations this week, it was walking distance from my sister’s place, and in our joy at being the first in line we gluttonously over-ordered. But wow, was it worth it. I made the mistake/best decision ever to follow District Donuts on Instagram, and I would say I price out flights to New Orleans about once a week or so now, whenever they post a photo of their delicious Cereal and Milk creation.
But really, our final day of sister celebrations put all the other days to shame. Because for our last day with the Emma and Zoe dynamic duo, we did New Orleans BIG. You might recall from my last trip my delight at discovering New Orleans’ affinity for 25¢ martini lunch hours. This time, we were headed to the birthplace of that beautiful tradition, the classic New Orleans hotspot Commander’s Palace.
Commander’s Palace is classic South — high heeled, manicured diners being led to their tables by a team of waiters in suits. We bantered with our waiter, who upon realizing Emma was a serious foodie, returned with a copy of the menu signed by the chef. The service, the food, the atmosphere — it’s all fantastic. And surprisingly, so is the price. My meal, including three martinis and a generous gratuity, came to a whopping $35.43.
It’s a New Orleans must-do. Just make reservations early if you’re coming at a busy time like Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest or New Year’s — we got laughed off the phone when we tried to call and add one more to our table.
Like our previous trip’s 25¢ martini lunch extravaganza, we decided to follow this one up with even more indulgence in the form of one of New Orlean’s many cocktail tours. Previously, we’d taken the New Orleans Original Cocktail Walking Tour. This time, we were taking the New Orleans Cocktail History Walking Tour. Huge differences that need discerning, there. For science.
We hadn’t had the best luck on our first cocktail tour. It was rescheduled twice, and we were nursing Mardi Gras hangovers and battling the coldest temperatures of the year on the day it finally happened. This round, we seemed to be similarly cursed — the tour was overbooked due to the holiday, we didn’t get off on the best foot with our guide when we begged to add one more — my sister — to our three person reservation. We quickly realized that in the case of this tour, the more is not the merrier — because of our large group size, we often had to stand outside for the historical lectures and drink on patios rather than inside the bars. Which wouldn’t be a huge deal if it weren’t raining. Like I said, our lush luck was running low.
But those buts aside, it is genuinely a fantastic tour — no wonder it gets rave reviews all over the interwebs. The owner and lead tour guide Dylan — also known, seriously, as Doctor Gumbo — is a New Orleans native who returned to the city post-Katrina after year spent leading food tours in Rome. He knew every bartender and bouncer we encountered, and even had a drink named after him at our final bar. That’s what I call a local.
While the tour might seem pricey at $65, it actually is a good value considering it includes a premium cocktail and all tipping at each of the four venues — not to mention the historical background and local lore we were treated to along the way. There were two drinks available at each bar, allowing couples and pairs to get to taste eight in total.
My favorite venues were SoBou, the W’s chic cocktail bar, and Tujagues, a prohibition-surviving Quarter classic. But even more impressive were what was on the menus. My favorite cocktails of the evening were a Ginger Mint Julep and a Grasshopper — a dessert-like concoction of white Creme de menthe, green Creme de menthe, Creme de Cocoa, whole milk, and a Brandy floater.
I once took a food tour where the guide said a customer should never leave hungry. If you apply that theory to a cocktail tour… we succeeded.
But our marathon day of decadence was not over yet. After reuniting with Olivia for dinner at her favorite upcoming Bywater district restaurant Mariza, we made our way to Frenchman’s Street for live music and dancing. One of the things I love most about New Orleans — the music never stops. Nor does the dancing, even if you do have to return home and change out of heels and into boots in order to enjoy it. Emma and Zoe danced all the way to the airport to catch their red (and bleary, I image) eye flight back North.
It was a sister trip success. So good, in fact, that we already starting plotting Part II for this summer. Not to give too much away, but in involves celebrating our mutual love for pool parties, Britney Spears, and drinking in public. (It’s Vegas, guys. Las Vegas.)
Tragic life lesson: never zoom on an iPhone, parking valet. Never zoom on an iPhone.
I would be lying if I said this trip didn’t end with me briefly entertaining the idea of moving to New Orleans myself (don’t worry Liv, it was brief indeed.) I love the spirit of this city, and I love the life my little sis has built for herself there. I read a quote while I was there that, while I might not agree with one thousand percent, did make me laugh along with the sentiment.
“If there was no New Orleans, America would just be a bunch of free people dying of boredom.” -Judy Deck
I wouldn’t say I was dying of boredom before I first made my way to New Orleans, but I do agree — my life is much richer since I’ve set my sights on it.
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I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in the Viator cocktail tour as part of that program.