A sketch of New Orleans

This was pre Hurricane Katrina.

“In my household, my husband is 46, I just turned 40, and we have two sons who are 16 and 13. So basically we have mid-life crisis, menopause and testosterone poisoning all in one home. It is just not a safe place to loose your sense of humor. “

That was how our cook introduced herself for our Cajun cooking class at the New Orleans School of Cooking, located in the French Quarter. She maintained her humor throughout the entire two hour demonstration class in making the Creole classics like jambalaya, gumbo and pralines. “Pronounced ‘prawleens’,” our cook instructed. “A ‘prayleen’ is prayer while leanin’ against a wall. And don’t get me started on Pee Cans.”  While I enjoyed just about everything about my 5-day stay in the Vieux Carre, this class was the best value for my money. For twenty dollars each, the crowd of 40+ viewers was entertained, instructed in cooking and then we ate the results. All recipes were provided, questions answered and the jokes were at no extra charge.

I’m not much for drinking or partying, so many of my friends questioned my decision to travel to the Marti Gras capital of the U.S. I knew that the French Quarter of New Orleans could entertain without over indulging in alcohol or even a single set of beads tossed from a balcony. As it turns out, I did have ONE drink, but I told myself it was only because a Pat O’Brian’s is an institution and the Hurricane, served in an extra tall and stylish glass, is a standard of the area. I skipped the glass and took one “to go”. New Orleans is one of the few U.S. cities where open alcohol containers are legal on the streets. The drink was like an iced punch and in the July heat it went down easy. Too easy. Not the best practice for a self-confessed lightweight. I knelt to look at a low display window and when I stood up had to stagger to regain my balance. I was drunk. I began giggling like a schoolgirl, not that anyone seemed to notice. It took what little concentration I could muster just to find my hotel, which was only three blocks away. I had to lie down and sober up. Later I learned that hurricanes are made with 4 ounces of alcohol—190 proof alcohol. A second one would have put me under the table until morning.

A must-do in this tourist spot is a city tour. It is a great way to get the history and overall view of the city without need for a car. I recommend taking a bus or van tour the first full day of your stay to an unfamiliar city. While the van tours are more personal, I was pleased with the half-day bus tour that showed us City Park, Garden District, Warehouse District and Quarter. The driver gave a pleasant, non-stop monologue of the area’s unique architecture, historical figures and sites, making it made it possible to quickly get your bearing. I easily spotted enough attractions to keep me busy for 10 days, if I had had that long to stay.

Another way to get oriented to The Quarter alone is a walk along Riverfront Park. You can indulge in an hour long stroll, but allow the better part of a day if you want to time for the shopping malls, pirate ships, Aquarium of the Americas and Imax Theatre that you find along the route. I suggest a picnic lunch to truly enjoy the street performers and watch the river traffic, though. Try a muffalatta, a huge meat and cheese sandwich with a chunky green olive relish. Two people can easily split one with enough left over to feed the gulls. After lunch board the trolley, called streetcars in New Orleans. Yup, Desire is there.

If street performers are your delight, the French Quarter is one of the best places in the US to see them. The Riverfront is perfect for small musical ensembles, particularly saxophone players. Jackson Square is the place to go for more variety. Sit on the steps of one of the oldest Catholic churches in the Americas and watch brass bands, contortionists, people playing glasses of water or roving clowns making balloon animals. This day, the square was filled with tarot card readers, painters, tap dancers and “statues”—actors that froze into a pose so completely that they truly became like stone. One held a stationary cat as well. My favorite performer was an escape artist that truly defied the crowd. He chose two members of the audience to tie him in a straight jacket and then secure him in 3 chains, 4 padlocks and a pair of handcuffs. In less than ten minutes he was free. Since he works only for tips he can ill afford a poor performance, but he was well rewarded this day.

New Orleans is known for its special style of Jazz and there are open air cafes and bars where one can linger over a cool drink and hear some of the best free concerts in America. The best-known open café is the Café du Mond on Decatur Street near the river. The menu is limited to café ole (strong, chicory coffee and hot milk), beignets (a fried donut covered in powdered sugar) and orange juice. Since it was a hot day I chose to have my coffee iced. They are open 24 hours a day and finding a table, even in the wee hours, is difficult. Diners simply wait on the sidelines and rush for an opening.

Another place to experience Jazz is at Preservation Hall, located just off Bourbon Street. Nothing more than a shack with a trombone case for a sign, the place has no atmosphere and doesn’t open until 8pm. The five dollar admission price does not guarantee a chair either. On the chalkboard inside is scrawled, “Requests $.50, Standards $1, Saints $5”, referring to the song “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Despite this meager description, you simply must visit, even if you have to sit on the floor. The musicians seem to just show up willy-nilly and look like old men, well past retirement. The music revealed them to be lively, talented performers. Many are lesser known jazz greats who helped shape this original American music.

The river shapes the history of New Orleans, so I took a cruise on one of the last remaining working steamboats to better view the banks of the Mighty Mississippi. You can board the Natchez for a two hour jazz and dinning cruise. I recommend the evening cruise as the sun sets just over the water on the return trip up river during the summer months.

My choice to visit this southern city in the summer was purely based on financial reasons. Summer is the off season and the best hotel rates are found from June through August. Summer is also brutally hot and humid with daily rain showers that last from a few minutes to hours. Bring an umbrella, hat, sunscreen and the most comfortable walking shoes you can find, with fresh insoles. With the narrow streets and one-way traffic, The Quarter is better for walking than driving, but the concrete, brick and asphalt can exhaust the feet of seasoned hikers. I stayed in the most reasonably priced hotel I could find in The Quarter, so I could shower and lay down for a nap in the afternoon without a commute. The streets are easy to learn in a couple of days. You will not stay lost long in The Quarter. Pick up a map at your hotel or print one off the Internet before you go. Most brochures for attractions and tours in The Quarter have a simple map printed on them. I recommend keeping one in your pocket for quick reference until you learn your way around.

The Quarter is filled with small shops that are much deeper than their street width. The homes are similarly narrow as taxes were once charged by the width of the house. Most of these small “shotgun” houses are closely spaced, but have an inner courtyard with lush gardens nurtured by the constant rains and high humidity of this sub-tropical region. The courtyards are a true oasis and usually include a goldfish pond and trickling fountain designed before air-conditioning was standard. The houses are even painted multicolored pastels to cool the eye.

Ghost Stories from The Big Easy to London

“Travel is educational; it teaches you how to get rid of money in a hurry.”

 ~ S. Barry Lipkin

 I don’t care what happened to the Minnow, I love those three hour tours. When I land in a new city I sign up for a day tour. I see things that I want to go back to or spend more time at. In Rome, Lisbon and Madrid, I joined groups of tourists out of the city by bus. Washington DC and San Francisco have trams. Double-decker buses in London, Manhattan, Shanghai let you get on and off in. You can tour downtown Atlanta on a Segway. But I’m particularly fond of those two to four hour walking tours that show off gardens, old houses and historic landmarks. And for someone who travels alone, it is a good way to see the city and meet new people.

On a lark in New Orleans, I signed up for a ghost tour in the French Quarter. The tour started after dark and we met on a street corner. It was a sweltering July evening, even after the sun was down. The guide was dressed for the macabre with white face paint, black hair, a filmy black gown and blood red fingernails that matched her lips. Before we started she admonished us gravely that this was a very emotional tour. Looking us each straight in the eye, in her most solemn tone, she said that those “sensitive to the spirits” often fainted.

I think I laughed out loud.

She turned out to be a consummate story teller, invoking visions of the departed on every street corner of “Ol Nawlins” I figured her for an out of work actor, who would not be unemployed long. Her eyes glowed with hatred for a merciless killer. When she described a chase through the dark streets, you thought you heard footsteps on the cobblestones. When she spoke of voodoo priestesses, the hair on the back of your neck stood up. A partygoer’s high pitched laughter became a distant scream. It was spine-tingling.

I don’t remember the particulars of any of her stories, just that each was more riveting than the last. I didn’t care if the stories were true. Who would let the facts get in the way of a perfectly good story, anyway?

Near the end of our two hour tour, the guide was gesturing to an upstairs window, telling a tale of a blazing fire and describing how many jumped to their death. Her story was so enthralling that I easily visualized the flames. That why I didn’t see the movement of the woman next to me. I heard her fall facedown onto the cobblestones.

I consider myself a good person. I’ve had first responder training and generally launch into action at the first sign of injury. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but my first thought was not about this woman’s safety. What I thought was, “Wow, This girl is good.”

And I was hooked on ghost tours from then on.

But, I told you that story, so I could tell you this one.

I was sure that the London ghost tour would be the best yet. I actually signed up for two tours to be sure I didn’t miss a great experience. The first was a Jack the Ripper Tour. It had been a sunny November day, but the weather accommodated by turning misty as dusk. Following the footsteps of one of the world’s first documented serial killer was thrilling. While the tour guide was not as dramatic as the one in New Orleans, her subject matter was genuine. The information made more chilling by the fog and her cold, frank delivery. I slept with the light on that night.

The next night was the City Ghost tour. Our tour guide was rotund with a cockney accent, red nose and easy laugh. He explained that he worked as a bus driver through the day so he knew the city and could really show us all the places that mattered. It became clear quickly what mattered to him, though. Every stop on the tour went like this:  “Well now, over ‘ere something really ‘orrible ‘appened many a year ago. People bloody died and all. Really grisly business. I don’t remember all the details, but…’ey look!  Ere’s a pub!” This wasn’t the kind of spirits I was looking for. In fact, this wasn’t a ghost tour, it was a pub crawl. And the guide was (surprise!) well known at each bar. They began pouring his pint before he even sat down. And he didn’t have to pay like the rest of us. Making the best of it, I ordered a pint at the first couple places, but I’m not much of a drinker.

When our guide ushered us to the fifth tavern, he exclaimed we were in for a real treat. “The owner see, he’s a real fancier of Sherlock ‘omes. Ee’s got a museum ‘o sorts upstairs, made up to look just like ‘omes’ study. Why,  ee’s got things up there that old Sherlock hisself owned.”

“Sir,” I frowned. “You do realize that Sherlock Homes is a fictional character, right?”

“Oh, is that right, Love?  Well, cheers!” and with a smile, he emptied his glass.

I took the Tube back to my hotel. I don’t mind being told stories; I just want to be able to believe they might be true.