The last time I went to New Orleans for a hedonistic weekend was in 2011. It was over St. Pat’s Day exactly ten years ago—and, by God, it was just as completely hedonistic and decadent as I expected.
There was an appalling amount of Exorcist-esque projectile vomiting in the streets. I watched countless people go from standing fully upright to plummeting face first into the pavement without warning.
And the urine. So much urine.
This time around, I chose to visit New Orleans during the tail-end of a global pandemic right after Mardi Gras—which was all but thwarted when the mayor shut down all bars on Bourbon Street. No booze = no fun. No fun = no rampant spike in Covid cases, I guess. Either way, it was still wildly quiet in the Big Easy this week. Bars reopened, but had to shutter by 11 p.m. For a city that prides itself in partying 24 hours a day, this was quite the blow to retailers and out of town alcoholics.
In more startling news, I chose to visit New Orleans with five years of sobriety under my belt. Believe me, this historic city has a lot more appeal and allure when you’re not hungover for three days straight. I played Joe Tourist—a little bit older, a little bit wiser and, after eating everything in sight, a lotta bit fatter.
Here’s what I gleaned from the past three days:
The French Quarter—from what I recalled—constantly reeked of sewage and stale beer no matter what time of the day or night. Our Uber driver informed us that acrid smell was remedied a few years ago thanks to a revamp of sewer lines and a mandatory power-blasted, soapy scrub down of Bourbon Street in the pre-dawn hours each and every morning. While it wasn’t minty fresh, the streets no longer wreaked of gin, regret and ode de landfill.
Call me dumb, impetuous or foolishly unaware, but the last time I was in New Orleans I always felt safe—even roaming sketchy and/or seedy side streets. I guess any fear factor goes out the window when you’re wasted. This time, I felt an odd sense of constant foreboding. Whenever the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up (which was often), I’d end up darting into a shop or crossing the street. Panhandlers are way more aggressive—and dare I say, daunting—than they were last time. Clearly, the pandemic has had an effect on many people’s livelihoods. On an up note, there were scads of fortune tellers, palm readers and street musicians on various corners to entertain accordingly.
Ten years ago, I’d wolf down a $4 slice of sub-par pepperoni pizza on the street if I was hungry. This time—being the adult I am—I actually had the hotel’s concierge plan our entire culinary experience. He didn’t miss a gastrointestinal beat. I had—hands down—three of the best meals of my life in three days. Each was more spendy than the last. It was 150% worth it. (Shout out, the Shrimp Remoulade at Napoleon’s Café, the Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp and Grits at Mr. B’s and the Salty Malty Ice Cream Pie at GW Fins.) My blood sugar levels will likely be spiked until Easter.
Speaking of food, I forced myself way, way outside my comfort zone. I ate blackened alligator, slurped down turtle soup, and consumed my weight in fried oysters. Nary a one of those had crossed my lips before this past weekend. I also ate parmesan-encrusted sheepshead. I’d never even heard of that particular fish until Monday evening. I remember clarifying with the server, like, three times that it was indeed a fish and not an actual sheep’s head. (Safety first, people.)
Tours have exploded in the last decade. A visit to the National WWII Museum is a must. And I’d grab a two-hour city tour (or cemetery tour, or swamp tour, or plantation tour or …) depending on what trips your trigger. There are even ghost tours and voodoo tours, if that’s your jam. (Be mindful, some of these guided trips can wipe out an entire day—and drinking isn’t allowed on the bus. Neither are beignets, dammit.)
I overspent. I overindulged. And I overtipped. (Servers and bartenders still appeared shellshocked from the downturn of the pandemic. And, yes, fifteen years later, the city continues to rebuild and recover from Katrina. Certain areas look like dilapidated war zones with faint 6 – 8 foot waterlines still noticeable on buildings and fences.)
New Orleans is like Vegas in many respects—after three days, you’re dead. Not spiritually, emotionally or mentally bereft. I mean, physically dead. Had I not left yesterday, I’m sure cardiac arrest was imminent. Also, the blisters on my feet would have caused my feet to explode at some point today. Man, I really gotta start wearing sensible shoes when brick and cobblestone is involved.