In our last post Nashville, what a wonderful world, I made the statement that private campgrounds near attractions are usually sub-par, riding on their sole asset of “location, location, location”. Well, let me begin this post by apologizing to the New Orleans West KOA and rescinding my snide comment. This private park was superior in many of the important ways: immaculate, luxurious bath houses, the best, cleanest (and cheapest) air conditioned laundry room, a lovely pool for cooling off after a long day of sightseeing and a well-stocked camp store.
But the biggest plus this campground has is the personnel. They are not only the friendliest staff we’ve encountered, but they obviously take immense pride in their park. When we arrived, Doreen took us under her wing, explaining where to go, what to do and how to get there. I am sure she has done this thousands of times before, but she handled our needs patiently and with care and concern.
Her husband, Barry, was equally accommodating: he guided us to our nice shady site and helped us back in. He got change for us for the laundry and ensured that the campground was safe at night. Barry suggested music venues and probably the best truly traditional American 24 hour diner—without the traditional grease—we have eaten at in years. Dots Diner is 1/2 mile from the KOA, and 50 years down Memory Lane.
Although about 30 minutes from the French Quarter, this KOA provides a daily shuttle, leaving at 9:00 a.m. and bringing you back at 5:45. If you are night owls like Manny and I, you can ride the shuttle down at 5:00 p.m. when it goes to retrieve the early birds, and take a cab ride back.
If you are lucky enough to get Mike as your shuttle driver, you will get a bonus: he knows and obviously loves New Orleans and gives an informed, enthusiastic tour of the city on the ride down—for free!
On one of these rides, we met the most interesting, adorable couple.
Al and Evelyn Lerman just started RVing three years ago and also chose a Leisure Travel Van, the Unity, with the cozy island bed.
They are two adventuresome people, traveling from Florida to California then back to Maine visiting lots of friends and family along the way.
Evelyn is an accomplished writer —with two published books— and she tries to maintain a daily journal about their adventures which she kindly shares via email. We became fast friends with Al and Evelyn.
At the age of 87, they are living life on the road to the fullest.
Our experience of New Orleans was strange. Frankly, at first, we didn’t like it. It was a Monday night and the streets were all but deserted, giving the town a sad, forlorn feeling. We arrived at dusk and walked up and down the many blocks of the French Quarter.
Although we admired the beautiful architecture, its intricate wrought iron balconies adorned with planter boxes and colorful flowers cascading down the railings, we both were filled with a sense of melancholy.
What saved the day for Manny was the pride he felt learning that New Orleans was once the capital of the Spanish province of Luisiana.
At the end of the week, New Orleans awakens. The crowds fill the streets, partying begins in earnest, and a renewed energy pervades the night air. A trip to New Orleans would not be complete without a stroll down the world renowned Bourbon Street —with its girlie shows, over-sized cocktails, loud bars, bold neon lights and an assortment of unusual street people. We were so glad that we headed over to Frenchmen Street where the locals hang out, and soulful jazz drifts out from bars with names like The Spotted Cat, Blue Nile and Maison.
When a large teenage brass band gathered on a street corner, belting out that familiar New Orleans sound, we felt like we were in an HBO episode of Treme and wouldn’t have been surprised if their teacher, trombone player Antoine Batiste, appeared to collect the tips for them. A huge crowd formed in minutes, gladly filling the band’s coffers.
We were charmed by the little 3 year old boy with a tiny drum hanging around his neck, who tried valiantly to keep up with his older brothers.
On the weekends, scores of artists fill the few blocks of Frenchmen Street. Jewelry designers, blown glass creators and metal sculptors sell their crafts. We even had a poem written for us by Beatrice Moon, poet for hire. Manny asked for a poem to express his love for me. With just a bit of information from us, Beatrice sat at her manual typewriter and started punching out this lovely verse, at moments becoming trance-like, lost in thought, communicating with her personal muse.
Getting around New Orleans is so easy. For just $3.00 a day (or $ 55 a month), you have unlimited access to the city’s buses and vintage street cars, which cover a large area outside the French Quarter. We hopped aboard the air conditioned Riverfront Streetcar Line, which offers glimpses of the mighty Mississippi. We then connected to the St. Charles Streetcar that glides past some of the more affluent neighborhoods, secretly hoping to catch a glimpse of Sandra Bullock, Brad Pitt, Emeril Lagasse or Nicolas Cage. Riding up St. Charles Avenue we got a taste of New Orleans’s past, with its stately 19th century mansions, lavish and ornate architecture and manicured lawns.
Of course, no experience of New Orleans would be complete without sampling some of the local specialties. Unlike some towns, in New Orleans you really can’t judge the quality of a restaurant by the amount of people inside, as there are enough tourists here to make most places appear crowded. We’ve learned to ask locals where they recommend and we got the same resounding responses from a number of people. We were told to have beignets for breakfast at Café du Monde, share the “original” Muffuletta for lunch at the Central Grocery, and eat seafood for dinner at Oceana Grill.
Cafe du Monde was standing room only, so we had our devilishly rich beignets, a deep-fried French pastry topped with a generous sprinkling of powdered sugar, similar to a funnel cake, at an open air cafe across the square, which cleverly capitalized on the Cafe du Monde overflow.
The muffuletta at Central Grocery was delicious, sort of an Italian sub (what we in Philadelphia call a hoagie) served on a huge round bread, crunchy on the outside and soft inside and topped with sesame seeds. Unfortunately, either the owners were having an exceedingly bad day or have simply become jaded by the throngs of tourists who line up for their $15.95 sandwich, but in either case we were greeted by the sourest and most unfriendly attitudes imaginable. I would have sooner eaten my muffuletta listening to light jazz at the picturesque—and friendly—outdoor Market Cafe next door, even if it wasn’t the “original” sandwich.
Dinner at Oceana Grill was sublime. Manny and I shared some sweet tender Gulf oysters on the half shell, then sampled Oceana’s gumbo, a thick creole soup made with seafood and sausage. I can’t even guess at the complex spices that seasoned my flaky blackened Redfish, a mild local whitefish pan broiled to perfection and served with jambalaya, a distant cousin to Spanish paella.
The service was 180 degrees from earlier in the day. Our waiter, David Allen, served us as if we were the king and queen of England. We chatted at length with David and found out that he has served some pretty impressive people like Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Tony Bennett. No wonder he made us feel like celebrities! As busy as he became, David was attentive and gracious. Simply put, David Allen is charming, personable, caring and professional. By the end of the meal, we not only exchanged email addresses but hugs! If you go to New Orleans, be sure to dine at Oceana Grill, and if you are really lucky, you might be served by David Allen, the very best waiter you will ever have.
On our last night in this mesmerizing city, we took a jazz cruise on the Steamboat Natchez, the last steam propelled paddle wheel boat on the Mississippi. We had expected to take the trip earlier in the week, but were unable to due to an unpleasant mix-up in our reservation. Fortunately, Manny took his complaint to just the person who could do something about it— Captain Steven Nicoulin. A true southern gentleman who did not want us to leave disappointed and upset, Captain Nicoulin invited us to be his guests on the Natchez. Not only did he give us a personal tour of the ship, but we heard some of the best dixieland jazz we could have asked for. The Dukes of Dixieland were the perfect way to end our stay in NOLA. Thank you so much Captain Nicoulin. You transformed our experience into one we will always fondly remember.
There is an undercurrent of mystery and magic that flows through New Orleans’s veins and filters into New Orleans’s old buildings and darkened streets. There are ghost tours and seance rooms. Tourists flock to the forty cemeteries that dot the city landscape, leaving offerings at some of the more notorious grave sites like that of the Voodoo high priestess Marie Laveau. Keenly aware of how our feelings about New Orleans transformed completely during our brief stay, Manny and I also fell under NOLA’s magic spell.