New Orleans

Trip Start Sep 01, 2008
Trip End Nov 19, 2008

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Flag of United States  , Louisiana
Friday, September 26, 2008

One of the options as you drive towards New Orleans is to get off the main highway and onto the "river road" that winds peacefully past sugarcane fields and old plantation homes - it also winds peacefully past dozens of industrial complexes, petrochemical parks and oil refineries, but never mind. Lots of the plantations are now museums and are open to the public. To decide which of them to visit, we adopted the same strategy as we sometimes used to pick a bottle of wine: see which has a nice name. Then it was easy: we had to visit "Laura Plantation" of course! It was a magical place - an old Creole plantation, the house clad in vibrant colours and the grounds full of beautiful, ancient trees and bright, green plants. We joined a guided tour and were treated to some wonderful stories of the various residents of the house, through the years. Who they loved and who they lost. How they run their business. And the tragedies that befell them. It was incredible how much information they had been able to gather about life on the plantation - much of it was thanks to the detailed memoirs of Laura after whom the plantation was named.

Arriving into New Orleans itself, it was immediately clear that this was a major city. We were met with sprawling highways and a multitude of high, concrete buildings. But when we penetrated the city as far as the "French Quarter", all this fell away and we were surrounded by block after block of finely crafted townhouses. The streets oozed charm and our hotel was a wonderful, peaceful oasis - a set of townhouses connected by inner courtyards with cast iron benches and a pair of little swimming pools. We could reach this courtyard straight from our ground floor room by throwing open the french doors and this is where we ate our breakfast.

The only snag with the French Quarter or New Orleans is that it is also the party centre of the city, if not the state - or even the country. Bourbon street, just two blocks from our hotel, is at the heart of the action and is home to countless bars selling frozen, highly potent and semi-fluorescent alcoholic delights. While this is tolerable, the tone is dramatically lowered by the tacky shops that intersperse the bars and sell all manner of "voodoo", ghost and vampire memorabelia. Oh yes, and the sleezy strip clubs. But never mind, we were only in town for two nights and it seemed right to give the local scene a go. So we ate some creole food and followed that with a local, frozen margherita drink called the "hand granade", which is as lethal as it sounds.

To see another side of New Orleans we also spent an afternoon on an old riverboat - a paddle steamer. It took us on a narrated tour of the river, except that the river at New Orleans is, in fact, an enormous, working port. Much of the tour was therefore dedicated to pointing out where the many oil tankers and freight ships were from and what the various industries factories that lined the river served. But there was a more interesting side to the story too - we were shown some of the ways in which hurricane Katrina had affected the city. Before the storm, New Orleans had a population of almost half a million. Now, the population is around half that as many people who evacuated or lost their homes simply never returned. So from the boat, the tour guide pointed out sectors of the city that lost up to 75% of their inhabitants, schools that have closed and never re-opened and factories that have been shut down. While we could see little direct storm-damage from our vantage point on the river, it was still patently clear that Katrina had a dramatic, lasting impact on the place. Incredible that, with all of the industry here, so much of the city has just shut down, for now, or for good. All in all, it is a city that leaves you with mixed feelings. The French Quarter has undeniable appeal, but has also gone just that little bit too far in its attempts to entertain (and intoxicate) its visitors and it is absolutely creepy to think that so much of the city now lies abandoned.
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