24 AUG 2016:  New Orleans is a city one could easily get swept up in whether it’s watching the budding buskers in the French Quarter, or indulging in the icing sugar-coated beignets at Cafe du Monde, or sinking your teeth into the hefty cold cut-rich muffaletta sandwiches at Central Grocery. That’s not even considering the countless tours one could take.

Here’s a look at three guided tours agents could recommend that come tested and approved from this scribe.

The Steamboat Natchez Cruise

As our boatload of cruisers left this epic river cruise along the Might Mississippi fabulous carnival-like music played from yesteryear. I thought I had heard the finest on board the SS Natchez as the Steamboat Stompers Jazz Trio played, “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” but the best was yet to come.

There he was – Captain Steve Nicoulin cranking the old girl’s whistles of the rare calliope on the top deck in a cloud of steam. The whole scene appeared ghostly as the outline of Captain Steve was covered in a misty shroud while playing the old tune.

To boot, the steam paddleboat has been sailing boat buffs and curious sightseers since its debut in 1975 when the boat company completed work on this steamship with its duo steam boilers named Thelma and Louise.

The Goods: Yes, the steamship hey days are long gone but this paddlewheel beauty is a chance to step back in time to feel the vibe that is old Miss New Orleans. Clients can enjoy a harbour, dinner or a 2-hour Sunday Jazz Brunch cruise.

The tours ply the mighty Mississippi downriver to a wide bend, then return to the city but during that time sit back or wander and listen to an eye-opening narrated tour. Sites include the Lower Ninth Ward, the site of the Battle of New Orleans, the Jackson Barracks from the 1800s now home of the Louisiana National Guard, and industrial giants like the Domino sugar factory including battered buildings that have remained post Hurricane Katrina.

Cruisers can sample a southern lunch buffet, head to the Texas Bar for snacks and see a photo gallery of past guests like Dolly Parton and Muhammad Ali. The boiler room is open for tours, and if you’re lucky, snag some time with the guide. I caught up with the Assistant Captain Steve Villier “the watchman” who is the third Steve on the steamboat. He acknowledged his Louisville, Kentucky roots as he previously worked on the other famous steamship, the Belle of Louisville before moving to New Orleans to work on the illustrious Natchez steamboat with Captain Steve.

The two men are an inseparable duo. “We both come from the same city where we lived across the street from each other. He has three sisters, I have three sisters. He has two brothers, I have two brothers. He’s worked here for 41 years just like me.”

...and yes, they live on the same street across from each other in New Orleans.

Guided Walking Tours

One afternoon, I took the 2-hour French Quarter Walking Tour. It started by the Mississippi, took us over the train tracks overlooking Jackson Square and then we went into the Vieux Carre to discover the backstory of streets named for saints and sinners, and some of the shady and colourful characters New Orleans is famous for. Discover how a gutsy gal named the Baroness de Pontalba survived a bad marriage and an attempted murder plot by the hands of her father-in-law (he shot her four times) who returned to New Orleans, designed and recreated a fashionable French ambiance with her pair of red-bricked buildings which are now landmarks located in the heart of the French Quarter.

Nobody does a cocktail tour better than the guy who helped create the New Orleans Original Cocktail Walking Tour. Picture Joe Gendusa, a local kid at heart whose been hanging out at his beloved haunts ever since he was a kid. That’s when his parents used to take him to the Blue Room at the Roosevelt Hotel for Sunday afternoons.

“We had little chairs by the stage away from our parents and we used to watch the shows,” he says and adds, “There was even an ice show. Imagine a bandstand flipping up and then there was ice, and the show would go on.” Joe fondly recalls the best lunch scene, munching on sandwiches called the Lone Eagle which was a baloney and cheese, and the Flaming Chicken, a skewered roasting chicken on fire presented by the waiter to a bunch of bright eyed tykes. Of course, “We all had to have a Shirley Temple as our parents drank,” he smiles.

Those were the days. Fast forward, Joe’s been retired from his teaching job for some years but for the past 15 years he’s been luring cocktail lovers into his favourite haunts on this original tour. My intro of the resident cocktail history expert was at his beloved The Sazerac Bar in the historic Roosevelt New Orleans hotel, which turns out, is named after the world’s first mixed drink which the bar menu describes as “the official cocktail of New Orleans.”

As Joe explains, “The Sazerac is the mother of everything. From here comes the Old Fashioned, the Cosmopolitan,” and as he continues rhyming off the cocktail list, there’s Andy the head bartender busy concocting the potent beverage (45 percent alcohol) which Joes calls a sipper. “You don’t want to slam this back.”

Not a bad place to begin the illustrious cocktail tour of New Orleans. A fabulous must-do tour even for the teetotallers as you get a behind the scenes look into the makings of some historic drinks which are closely connected to the history of the Big Easy.

On my tour we tucked into countless bars in the French Quarter. One of my fave hang out spots was Tony Seville’s Pirates Alley Cafe and Olde Absinthe House in Pirates Alley. Inside Virginia, the bartender, is making that other favourite firewater, Absinthe, which dates back to pirate days and was a favourite drink with many writers including William Faulkner who once lived next door.

In between pouring the 124 proof I scan the interior decorated with little green fairies and spot the crosses and find baby Jesus flanking the bottleneck. This little figurine is popular for the King Cake Mardi Gras pastry and is aptly used for absinthe drinkers too.

So what’s an Absinthe bar doing behind the St. Louis Cathedral by a ‘Church Quiet Zone” sign on a street dubbed Pirates Alley anyway? Go figure.

That’s the strange beauty of New Orleans now isn’t it?

Related article. Let the Goodtimes Roll Part 1.

 

New Orleans
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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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