“It’s a small town, but it’s a busy city,” said one of my very clever and friendly cabbies. It was everything I needed for my first solo vacation.
There was the music–everywhere, live, and impressive. There was the food–my real reason for visiting and worth every raving compliment it’s received.
And there was lonely time. Lonely time in a loud, new city offers a uniquely valuable type of reflection.
It could have been relaxing if I insisted upon it, but I wanted to see and experience and explore. I don’t prefer being the “I only see one city” type of traveler, but you work with what time you have.
Fortunately, New Orleans is a place one can enjoy for a couple days without getting bored. You can step out of the city and see the swamps, plantations, or above-ground, Parisian-like cemeteries. You can take half a day in each of the different quarters. I could’ve walked around for months from restaurant to bistro to café sampling all of the “best of” foods without running out of options. Returning for one of the zillions of festivals would shed an entirely different light on the city, too. Crawfish festival, anyone?
It’s a city with an old-world feel: dark wood bars, narrow cafés, stone streets, indoor smoking, and no bedtime. It’s magical.
The Tunes: This really is a musician’s city. It floods into the streets. Even beyond the historic French Quarter, you have holes in the wall with live music and locals that come just to listen. This thriving listening culture was ideal for a solo traveler. There was nothing awkward about listening to the music by myself; even locals were doing it. Of course, the fact that I was a female had it’s own implications, but more on that in a second.
One night I told myself I’d avoid the crowded Bourbon Street, but ended up there anyway, drawn in by a band that played everything from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Janis Joplin to Natasha Bedingfield, Elvis, and the Doobie Brothers. There was the Swamp Pop—yes, it exists—made of washboards and banjos, the bluegrass in the courtyard, the Sinatra-singing guitarist on Frenchman Street, and the characteristic saxophonist on the corner. I spent my last night at Tommy’s Wine Bar, listening to a five-person jazz band with a singer that sounded like heaven and looked like a younger, Alabaman Rachel McAdams.
Best Thing I Ever Ate: Oh what tastes! It is here, above Rome or Paris or Los Angeles, that I’ve had my “best thing I ever ate” so far: alligator and crawfish cheesecake at Jacques-Imos. It was closer to a crust-less quiche than a cheesecake, perfectly tender and flavorful. But that wasn’t the only treat. The Oyster Trio at Tommy’s Wine Bar came in at a far second, but was still the tastiest oyster plate I’ve honestly ever had. Then there were the $4/lb crawfish I peeled myself on the side of the road, thanks to a valuable tip from fellow travelers. Of course there are overpriced-but-bland versions of the staples (crawfish étouffée and po-boy sandwiches, for example). Trust Yelp, and trust locals. The long nights make for a more-than-ample brunch variety, too. Brunch is, after all, a necessity in any good cuisine culture. Also, one benefit of eating solo is getting to sneak in ahead of the lines at the must-try places by eating at the bar.
Explore the area: While the music, food, and booze are the most popular attractions, the city has even more to offer. I tagged along with some new Minnesotan friends—who are my new favorite breed of people, by the way—to the oldest cemetery in the city to visit the Voodoo Queen’s grave. We got there just in time to meander, take pictures, and ask for blessings from her supposed grave before the rainstorm poured down on us. The storm was the perfect accompaniment to the centuries-old, cracked mausoleums. We also drove around the Lower Ninth Ward to see the effects of Hurricane Katrina. There was a surprising juxtaposition of boarded shacks next to impressively modern eco-friendly homes. And see the swamps, too!
Traveling solo as a female: I’m glad I stayed at a hostel this time around. I could explore solo while still conversing, meeting, and interacting at home base. Yet, while hostels are made for interaction and social exchange, that inherent desire to meet people is sometimes misunderstood. Just because I’m traveling alone does not mean that I am looking to hook up, nor does it give bartenders the right to look up my information from my bill in order to “friend” me on Facebook. My running around by myself is not a sign of my shyness. I suppose, though, that every environment offers the opportunity for misinterpretation. This is just more practice in forthrightness and line making. However, I did get another opportunity to practice the walking away skill I wrote about last time, and this time it literally involved walking out the door.
Bottom Line: I left with a strong desire to return. When you go, step outside the French Quarter. Walk from the French Market to the Garden District if the weather is nice. Visit River Bend and Frenchman Street to get a local vibe. Most importantly, listen to the cabbies and trust your bartenders for food and/or music advice. The people who are there love being there and they want you to love it, too. And, by golly, you will.