The Passion of New Orleans

Photo by Marianne Sabrier •

Photo by Marianne Sabrier •

The first time I met Grace was less than a year after Hurricane Katrina. She worked for the New Orleans tourism department and was guiding a few travel writers on a tour to show us the city was open for business. In fact, the French Quarter looked as good as it always has: cozy streets, ante-Bellum houses in pastel shades, many with wrought-iron balconies, and always everywhere Mardi Gras beads dangled, adding a splash of color and a reminder that life is about more than just working, eating, and sleeping. It’s about living in the moment, savoring delectable cuisine, and listening to music that rocks your bones.

Grace and I became friends on that trip. Nearly half my age, she was young enough to be my daughter, but we connected on a deeper level. To be honest, Grace connects with everyone she meets. She is the sweetest thing. A New Orleans’ native, Grace exudes a free-wheeling, joyous spirit that makes everyone take notice. You can’t meet Grace and not want to be her friend. And this magnetic effect she has on people hasn’t gone to her head. Grace is as natural and normal a human being as you can imagine. The world would be a thousand percent sweeter if there were more Graces around.

In the years since meeting her, Grace and I have connected every time I’ve visited New Orleans. We meet for drinks or a bite. I have introduced her to family and friends, and they too instantly love her. I have to admit Grace is one of the reasons I am addicted to New Orleans: I get to experience the city’s pleasures—music, culture, and yummy food—and I get to see Grace.

A few years ago Grace met Christian, a handsome boat captain who became enamored of her charms—so much so that he left his glamorous job captaining prestigious yachts for Mid-East sheiks and dot-com zillionaires and settled in New Orleans to start a life with Grace. The inevitable day came when Christian proposed to Grace (in the most romantic way, of course: on a blanket under a live oak tree with a bottle of bubbly in Audubon Park), and when I received the wedding invitation in my mailbox, I could not have been more excited.

I knew that this New Orleans trip would be the best yet. Peter and I would visit our favorite haunts, discover new ones, eat, drink, and be merry—and watch one of our favorite people marry the man of her dreams. Travel just doesn’t get any better than this!

The Bombay Club is a favorite spot in the French Quarter for cocktails. It has an Old-World vibe with comfy leather chairs and dark paneling and a piano player crooning Frank Sinatra. Grace and Christian meet us there three days before their wedding. Remarkably calm, the couple talks about their upcoming nuptials and the pending bad weather that threatens to dampen their outdoor wedding plans. Peter and I are happy to spend quality time with our friends so close to their wedding day.

The next day we have a lunch date with Paul Loisel, the communications manager at the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans, who wants to show us some of the hotel’s recent renovations. We’ve stayed here before, and it’s a peaceful oasis just steps from Bourbon St. The rooms are elegant yet comfortable. Our tour includes a look at the luxurious Maison Orleans Suite, which offers a spacious living room and opulent décor. Turns our Grace and Christian will be spending their first night as a married couple at the Ritz-Carlton, a romantic setting, to be sure.

Peter and I are staying nearby at the Astor Crown Plaza New Orleans, another lovely property just a block or so down Canal Street from the Ritz-Carlton. We love being close to the action, but in a peaceful quiet setting. There’s also a rooftop pool, but the windy weather is not very conducive to sunbathing and swimming. 

Thursday night we check out a couple bands in Louis Armstrong Park, part of a free concert series held each fall. We love the music, the people watching, and being outdoors at this cool new park just north of the French Quarter. We bump into Christian, making last minute preparations for the wedding on Saturday. The plan is to hold the ceremony here in Armstrong Park and then have a second line parade to Grace and Christian’s condo, where the reception will be held in an adjoining courtyard. Christian looks frazzled but happy.

After the concert, we head to Tujagues, New Orleans’ second oldest restaurant located across from the French Market. Known for its amazing Creole food, Tujagues has a unique ambience—think white tablecloths, bright lights, white tile floor, and a wall of mirrors. It spite of its sterile appearance, it’s really cozy, especially when you consider the restaurant’s storied past. We watch two strangers who are both dining alone strike up a conversation and decide to dine together. That’s New Orleans for you. Peter and I have an over-the-top dinner, starting with oysters en brochette alongside a lovely shrimp remoulade, followed by our entrées: seasoned lamb for me and fork-tender beef brisket, a house specialty, for Peter. Yum.

On Friday we join a bike tour with Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours: a 12-mile ride that takes us beyond the borders of the French Quarter to neighborhoods where the real folks live. We enjoy our tour through the Bywater and Marigny neighborhoods and stop by Rosealie Alley, a voodoo den where local voodoo practioners hold court. The wooden fences that line the alley are covered in paintings of skeletons and macabre scenes. 

I’m not sure I believe in black magic, voodoo dolls, potions, gris-gris bags, and spirit communication, but I have to admit there is something eerie about this spot. A wind blows, rustling the leaves overhead, as we walk in respectful silence down the alley looking at the paintings. We are forbidden to go past a certain point, and even though there is no one around, I get the weird feeling that we are being watched. 

As we pedal away, the spirits thankfully do not follow. A little later, I hit a pothole and throw my back out, and even today I wonder if my skepticism about the existence of voodoo had something to do with that pothole incident.

The tour continues down Esplanade Avenue lined with gorgeous 19th-century mansions and ancient live oaks. We stop in Saint Louis Cemetery #3 for a few more spooky stories and then bike to City Park, where we enjoy coffee and beignets at Morning Call Café before heading back to the Quarter.

Riding a bike in New Orleans is the best way to discover the city close-up. It’s fun and you can avoid the insane traffic in the French Quarter. Bikes breeze right on by. A certain couple I know have a bicycle built for two, and they make a fine pair as they wheel around the Quarter.

Friday evening we experience a fabulous meal at Vacherie, a restaurant on Toulouse St. Named after a city that is known as a melting pot of cultures, Vacherie reflects that heritage in its menu, which features authentic Cajun food. We start with perfectly fried oysters—plump and juicy with just the right amount of crunch and cayenne. We love Vacherie’s addictive hot, sweet pecans, one of their specialties. I decide to try more small plates and order a sampler with fried green tomatoes, seafood gumbo, and smoky-good collards. Peter tries the grilled red snapper topped with shrimp and crabmeat—decadent, meaty, and flavorful. For dessert we share the best bread pudding I’ve ever had. The dining room’s ambiance is elegant—think gold brocade—but eclectic, and we love our corner table beside the courtyard.

The big day dawns with threatening clouds. And when the sun finally peeks through, sticky hot humidity descends. Nevertheless, Grace is a vision in her billowing, white wedding dress—think lots and lots of lace—and Christian is dashing in his whiter-than-snow captain’s uniform. Luckily, the rain holds off long enough for the ceremony to take place in the park and for Grace and Christian’s second line parade through the Quarter. With our handkerchiefs in hand, Peter and I, along with the other guests, follow the trumpeting and tromboning jazz band and the happy couple while onlookers take photos and the newlyweds beam.

The reception is moved to an historic building on Rampart, and the crowd gets safely inside just as the rain thunders down. They say it’s good luck if it rains on your wedding, so I think Grace and Christian are in for a long, happy marriage. The festivities commence, and everyone is happy to be celebrating the momentous union of these two special people. Eating, drinking, music, and merriment are the order of the day with many toasts and smiles to go around. As the day comes to a close, the sun peeks out long enough to cast a magical glow on this corner of the universe. Perfect.

Our last day in the city is quiet by comparison—just what we need. We head down to the river for brunch at Galvez, a Spanish-Peruvian restaurant that overlooks the Mississippi. In fact, the views from Galvez are the best I’ve scene in the Quarter. The owner, Laura Cedillo, bought the restaurant after Katrina and has been steadily attracting customers ever since. The food is phenomenal. For starters, I try the amazing Spanish soup with chorizo, white beans, and broccoli rabe in a tomato broth. Peter loves his gumbo with andouille sausage. Next we share a beet salad topped with bleu cheese and, for our entrées, Peter orders paella prepared Valencia-style with seafood, and I order one of my all-time favorite dishes, shrimp and grits. Our waiter, Alphé, is wonderful and even suggests a remedy for my back, which is still giving me trouble. 

That afternoon we take the St. Charles Street car through the Garden District to Whole Foods to pick up the remedy Alphé recommended. It’s a stunning day, and as Peter and I walk through the neighborhood, we imagine what it would be like to live here. New Orleans is so unique and spontaneous. It’s passion personified. I know we’ll be back soon—to enjoy the city’s many charms and to visit my special friends, Grace and Christian. 


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