Grownup fun in “The Big Easy”
By Chris Chamberlain
I’ve been visiting New Orleans, Louisiana, also known as “The Big Easy,” since I was one of those hurricane-swilling, bead-begging, “whoo-hoo!!” yelling young un’s serpentining my way down Bourbon Street among the sweaty, teeming masses.
Age has mellowed my party habits, however, and time has taught me a lot of valuable lessons about one of my favorite Southern cities. While I still enjoy walking a few blocks on Bourbon Street and might still partake of the occasional daiquiri in a “go cup,” I have learned that New Orleans can really be a wonderful spot for debauchery on demand. You see, as long as you know your way around the rest of the French Quarter or, even better, the multiple other charming neighborhoods of the city, it’s quite possible to experience a lifetime’s worth of incredible music, food, culture and history without ever having to take part in the drunken march of the amateurs.
In fact, there’s so much for the prospective New Orleans visitor to learn, I’ve decided to separate this report into parts: where to stay, what to do, and where to eat and drink. Follow along for tips on planning an adult itinerary in New Orleans.
Where to Stay…
As a tourist destination and popular spot for conventions, sporting events and concerts, New Orleans is blessed with an abundance of lodging options. One great resource to consult is the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau for listings of events, potential itineraries and accommodations including a handy hotel finder. The New Orleans CVB helped me set up a recent research visit where I also covered two food festivals that happened to be held concurrently, but you don’t have to be a member of the media avail yourself of their services.
If you are looking for a charming hotel that is located in the Quarter, but not in the middle of the Bourbon Street craziness, I suggest the Hotel Monteleone. I did not stay there during my most recent trip, but I have enjoyed many visits to this almost 130-year-old property on Royal Street, a block off of Bourbon. The Monteleone offers a variety of rooms and suites, part of its charm. Since it’s such a historic building, many of the rooms within the same rate class have differences between them ranging from subtle to striking. But that’s ok, Monteleone room roulette is part of the fun, and you probably won’t be spending too much time awake in your room anyway. What with the world-famous Carousel Bar off the lobby that actually takes patrons on revolutions around the room while they enjoy classic New Orleans cocktails and the rooftop pool that I personally consider one of my “happy places,” guests know that the public spaces are even more important than the room amenities. Oh, and the Monteleone is reputed to be extremely haunted, so you may not want to stay still for too long.
Another intriguing property just across Canal Street from the Quarter in the Central Business District (CBD to locals) is the International House Hotel. This 117-room hotel was once the home of the world’s first World Trade Center, but today it is a lovely space with a range of room choices, from simply decorated spaces facing a historic courtyard to suites and penthouse options for high rollers who might spend their free time down the street at Harrah’s Casino.
The soaring lobby is tastefully appointed with a zen-like atmosphere. Right off the lobby is the Loa Bar, a sexy space serving up creative cocktails that has long been a personal favorite oasis for a nightcap after an evening of that debauchery on demand I mentioned earlier. Other hotel amenities include complimentary high-speed wireless throughout the property, a modern workout facility and spa services. Valet parking is available for auto travelers, but the CBD is a crowded area, so leave yourself at least 15 to 20 minutes for your car to be retrieved to the front door by the staff. Call the front desk from your room in advance or take advantage of the time to enjoy a drink at Loa.
The area on the other side of Harrah’s is known as the Warehouse District and includes the Riverwalk Mall and massive New Orleans Convention Center. Adjacent to those two structures is the new Omni Riverfront New Orleans. I say “new” because Omni took over the property last year and gave it quite a spiffing up. The result is a hotel that exudes elegance while still showing off some historic charm. Entrance to the Omni via car is simple from Convention Center Boulevard, and valet parking is available with a slightly quicker response time. Thanks to the fact that the mall is right across the street and a cruise ship terminal is attached to the mall, there are also plenty of garage parking areas available within a quick walk of the hotel, close enough to drag a roller bag. However, since these garages know that their patrons need someplace to leave their cars while they shop or cruise, most of them aren’t cheap.
Convenience to the CBD, French Quarter, Mississippi River and streetcars connecting the rest of the city are the ultimate value, though. And the Omni really is a beautiful hotel. We stayed in a Premier King room on the top floor with an additional sitting room attached to the comfortable bedroom which offered views up and down the river and of the cruise ships arriving and departing. Amenities in the hotel and in-room were first class, especially considering that rooms are usually available for less than $150-200 per night. For location, value and luxury, the Omni will definitely be a strong contender for our homebase hotel on future visits to the Big Easy.
A Getaways for Grownups bonus for all three of these properties is the fact that they are all popular destinations for business travelers, leading to a decidedly more adult clientele. One notable exception is in late July when the Hotel Monteleone acts as the headquarters for the annual “Tales of the Cocktail” conference, a gathering of mixologists and spirits aficionados from around the world. In my day gig as a food and drink writer, I’ve visited during Tales several times. Though it is a blast to be in the middle of all that boozy fun, I wouldn’t exactly call the behavior of the attendees “adult.” Present company included. But a 21+ crowd is a good bet during that spirited event.
What To Do…
How should you pass your days and nights in New Orleans? Despite having walked past the front door of the Royal Sonesta Hotel many, many times, I’m ashamed to admit that before this trip I had never visited Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse at 300 Bourbon Street. There is so much unbelievable music within the first ten blocks of Bourbon, it’s easy to miss Irvin Mayfield’s since it’s tucked away facing a courtyard in the center of the Royal Sonesta. But that’s the point; this cool jazz club is a welcome respite from the cacophony of bands competing for tourists’ attention (and money) at the various clubs in the Quarter.
Reservations are recommended to score one of the premium tables in this cozy club, but there’s really not a bad seat in the house. As long as you make it in the door, you’re in position to experience authentic jazz from a variety of New Orleans and touring musicians. The venue is family-friendly, but patrons must be 21+ to enjoy the long list of wine, spirits and beers.
Wednesday nights are especially fortuitous times to visit Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse because those are the nights when the namesake performer leads a smoking band at his club, unless he happens to be out on tour. Despite not having reached the age of 40 yet, the jazz trumpeter has already acquired a lifetime’s worth of musical achievements, receiving a Grammy, Billboard Music Award, leading the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and composing and performing commissioned pieces for orchestras all over the country. In his home club, though, Mayfield is an engaging and talented bandleader, joking with the crowd between songs and allowing the individual members of his smaller combo to showcase their talents during solos.
For serious jazz fans, there is some exceptional music to be heard in the Playhouse. For more casual listeners, the repertoire is sprinkled with enough familiar songs and plenty of fun moments of interaction between the band and the audience to entertain just about anyone. If you haven’t eaten yet when you arrived (What’s wrong with you?! This is New Orleans!), there is also a menu of small plates appropriate for eating on the cocktail tables situated among the seating area.
In addition to being one of the largest indoor stadiums in the world, The Mercedes-Benz Superdome hosts sporting events ranging from college football bowl games to NCAA basketball tourneys to the Super Bowl as well as major concerts, so it’s always worth checking the schedule when you plan a trip to New Orleans. Located right down the street is the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, and on our last visit we discovered a delightful spot to watch sports while waiting for the time to run over to the Dome to see the real thing in person. Vitascope Hall is a bright and airy sports bar that serves typical Louisiana delicacies plus a wide range of sushi paired with a nice selection of regional craft beers. Seating is arranged in cozy little private dining rooms with a few chairs and a couch set up to watch your own personal flat-screen television which the staff will happily tune to whatever station you’d like to watch. Plates are sized to fit on the little coffee tables between the seats, so don’t come expecting a full-blown meal. But an order of charbroiled oysters and a side of crispy duck leg confit will get you through that ballgame with pleasure.
Other than that brief foray onto the first couple of blocks of Bourbon, this itinerary has pretty much avoided the French Quarter, and there are plenty of other options to entertain yourself in this vibrant city without encountering the party people, and a surprising amount of them are free. Walk along Frenchman Street in the Faubourg Marigny northeast of the Quarter and you can hear amazing music of all sorts of styles pouring out of the front doors of clubs. Enjoy from the sidewalk or pay the nominal cover charge (if there even is one) to step inside for the full immersive experience.
Magazine Street is an excellent place to window shop for art, antiques and souvenirs, and there are plenty of fun spots to stop for a snack or a cocktail to keep your energy level (and buzz) up. Royal Street is also well-known for quirky old antique shops where you can find everything from muskets to chandeliers.
Stretch your legs by taking a walk, run or bike ride along the Riverwalk, a path along the levee next to the Mississippi River. Most mornings you can hear a free concert from the steam-driven calliope atop the Steamboat Natchez Riverboat. If you’re like me, though, a little calliope goes a long way….
New Orleans is a festival city, and there’s some big party going on almost every weekend throughout the year. Most of them are either free or have inexpensive admission prices, and they range from historical to hysterical in theme. Check the New Orleans CVB for a calendar of events when vacation planning, but let the following abbreviated list pique your interest:
- New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, April 24 – May 3, 2015
- New Orleans Food and Wine Experience, May 20 – 23, 2015
- Essence Music Festival, July 2 – 5, 2015
- Tales of the Cocktail, July 15 – 19, 2015
- Satchmo Summerfest, July 30 – August 2, 2015
- Southern Decadence, September 2 – 5, 2015
- Crescent City Blues & BBQ Fest, October 16 – 18, 2015
- Voodoo Art & Music Experience, October 30 – November 1, 2015
- Treme Creole Gumbo Festival, November 7 – 8, 2015
- Oak Street Po’ Boy Festival, November 23, 2015
If none of those are enough to motivate you to make a visit to the Big Easy, maybe you’d prefer to take a Caribbean cruise on one of the three large ships that call the city their home port and leave yourself a couple days on either end of the cruise to explore the Big Easy?
But don’t fill up on those onboard buffets, because in the next installment of Getaways for Grownups’ advice for planning a New Orleans vacation, we’ll tell you Where To Eat & Drink in “The City that Care Forgot.”
International House Hotel
221 Camp Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
Omni Riverfront New Orleans
701 Convention Center Boulevard
New Orleans, LA 70130
Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse
Royal Sonesta Hotel
300 Bourbon Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
Hyatt Regency New Orleans
601 Loyola Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70113
– Photo Credits: International House interiors courtesy International House; remainder by Chris Chamberlain
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.