Mysteries, muffulettas and more
As I took the first super sweet bite of my coffee-time treat it was almost as enjoyable watching the customers around me as they attempted to get to grips with the famous New Orleans snack. A woman next to me giggled as she unsuccessfully tried to brush down her once smart black trousers and a small child nearby almost disappeared in a white cloud.
We’re at Café de Monde where it’s almost an obligation to try beignets, one of the local food staples in Louisiana’s largest and most colourful city. Whilst there are now several outlets around town, we opted for the original branch that opened in 1862 in the French Quarter close to the Mississippi waterfront. Choosing what to have isn’t difficult – the menu solely comprises a plate of three beignets with coffee or other drinks – the hardest part is deciding how to tackle the fluffy freshly-baked doughnuts piled high with icing sugar.
It’s reckoned the café gets through 23kg every hour and as it’s open 24/7 that’s a veritable sugar mountain. If you’re feeling really brave you can order beignets to go, and there was a long queue on the day we were there. Possibly best not to try that option on a windy day!
Another Southern treat, which is omnipresent throughout the city, is the muffuletta. Made with salami, cheese and olives, it elevates the humble sandwich to a new level. If you want to try it in stylish surroundings check out Napoleon House centred around a private courtyard in the buzzing French Quarter. The local mayor was the first occupant and in 1821 he offered his home to Napoleon as a refuge during his exile. Although Napoleon never made it, the name stuck. Today it’s an atmospheric restaurant where you can sip the signature Pimm’s Cup cocktail and peruse the menu against a backdrop of classical music.
The French beignets and Italian muffulettas are some of the foods influenced by the city’s past, which has been shaped by European and Caribbean cultures and make it a very tempting destination.
When it’s time to try and work off some of the inevitable excess there are numerous guided walks, many of them centred around the hub of the French Quarter. We were intrigued by the sound of the spooky strolls offered by Haunted History Tours and plucked up the courage to sign up for one, with choices including a pub crawl, graveyard tour and ghost walk. Unable to make up our minds we plumped for the ‘5 in 1’ option which combines snippets of ghosts, vampires, voodoo, witches and unsolved mysteries.
New Orleans is reckoned to be the most haunted city in the United States and St Louis Cemetery No. I, which can be visited as part of a tour, is the resting place of infamous ‘voodoo queen’ Marie Laveau who was immortalised in the 1971 Redbone song The Witch Queen of New Orleans.
Haunted History Tours is run by Sidney Smith, a native New Orleanian who has been getting into the spirit of things for the past 25 years. On hearing us talk he went into an accent perfect impersonation of all four members of The Beatles, and we were certainly made to feel welcome as we joined the rest of our group, mostly Americans from out of town. Although we didn’t have any unexpected sightings on our walk, it was a fun and entertaining two hours and afterwards I couldn’t resist getting the book by Kalila Smith which expands on some of the stories we heard about and covers numerous others. It made a great souvenir. During the walk there was also time to stop off for a drink at Lafitte’s Blacksmiths Shop, which dates back to the 1700s and is recognised as the oldest building still serving as a bar in America.
That said, you’ll never go thirsty in New Orleans especially when the party road Bourbon Street runs right through the French Quarter. We gave it a wide berth, preferring to find some of the less crowded haunts, so to speak, and enjoyed strolling around surrounding roads with their distinctive galleried homes, a style of architecture which runs through the city. Some of the loveliest colonial-style mansions can be found in the leafy Garden District which was close to the Coach House Hotel where we stayed. From here it’s easy to get to other neighbourhoods on board one of the rattling streetcars, or trams, which are another ubiquitous sight.
The hotel, with its spacious modern accommodation and fun room service breakfast served in miniature picnic hampers, occupies a great spot right on the St Charles streetcar line. It’s also within walking distance of attractions including the impressive National World War II Museum spread over three buildings in the cultural Arts/Warehouse district. It includes a dramatic 4D film, Beyond All Boundaries, narrated by Tom Hanks and if you’re interested in wartime history it’s easy to spend half a day there. It’s well worth picking up the New Orleans Pass, which starts from $71 for a day, as it provides free entry to more than 25 attractions, including the museum, and discounts on other tours and places to see.
Along the way you will also find plenty of free entertainment. There are talented buskers throughout the city, including vibrant youth drumming groups, jazz bands and some street entertainers that defy categorisation. We joined a small crowd listening to a bearded man in a red full-length gown and white stole giving a surprising, in every sense, rendition of a Johnny Cash song. On another corner we came across a curious vehicle in the shape of a giant peanut. It’s really no surprise this fun-loving, eclectic city is nicknamed the Big Easy for its relaxed and laid-back attitude.
American Sky offers a four-night break at the Coach House Hotel New Orleans on a room-only basis from £1,129, including direct flights from Heathrow with British Airways. To book or for more information call 01342 331798. For information on New Orleans visit www.neworleans.com.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends American Sky.