New Orleans: Way Beyond Bourbon Street

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I had the wonderful opportunity to spend much of last week in New Orleans. I attended a NITLE Summit in partnership with Meraki, the makers of our kick-ass 802.11n WiFi system here at SBC. I was there specifically to discuss our deployment with other colleges and universities. Beyond the summit, however, I tacked on about two and a half extra days for two of my favorite travel pursuits: photography and good food.

Kitty at Cafe Beignet

Trust me, I engaged heavily in both. Crawfish etouffee, jambalaya, chicken and andouille gumbo, fried alligator po-boys, creole boudin, and cafe au lait with a nice order of beignets. And, no, I didn’t gain ten pounds because I spent most of my non-eating time walking my ass off all around the French Quarter, Canal Street, Frenchmen Street, the grounds of two amazing plantations and a rather nifty swamp (though, to be honest, I mostly sat in a boat during the latter).

The French Quarter is fascinating to me for its wild variety as well as how quickly everything can change. Start on Royal Street with its quintessential French Quarter architecture and numerous upscale shops, art galleries and fine restaurants. It’s peaceful most any time of the day or night and always elegant. Walk one street over, however, and you end up on raucous Bourbon Street, a veritable circus of lights, loud music, alcohol and all out debauchery. Art galleries over here, very scantily clad strippers calling to you over there. Gaslight-illuminated sidewalks and open-air cafes over here, and Ashley the Bourbon Street Queen holding court over there.

Lady with the One-String Uke

Admittedly, both streets are a ton of fun for a photographer most anytime of day or night. My tastes are more toward Royal Street (I just don’t seem to have the pub crawl gene for some reason), but there’s no way you can’t walk up and down Bourbon a few times just for the sheer entertainment value. It sure as hell looks nothing like home (except for the dude wielding the eight foot cross with ‘He Dat’ written across the top… that, sadly, was disturbingly close to home).

I stayed at the International House hotel just off of Canal Street and next door to the site of the summit that brought me to NOLA. It’s an elegantly decorated place with, for me, one gigantic flaw: no in-room desks. You can imagine how much fun photo editing can be with a laptop on your bed… emphasis on the lap part. Same goes for doing semi-emergency remote server work at 1:30 AM in the same hunched over position. I recommend the hotel if you’re not needing working accommodations or an abundance of power outlets. Admittedly, most people going to NOLA to engage in traditional bacchanalia won’t give a rat’s arse about a desk in their hotel room. This, again, is where I’m apparently missing the fun genes. Oh well.

Beyond my repeated trips in and out of the French Quarter, I spent from early morning until early evening Wednesday on a plantation and swamp tour. I knew the somewhat whirlwind timeframe of cramming in travel, two plantations, lunch and a swamp would mean little more than a sampler… but that’s precisely what I needed as a first-timer. Camera in-hand, I forked over $115 to Old River Road Plantation Adventure to make it all happen. I will say, without hesitation, that they did a top-notch job from start to finish. Our driver and guide, Elmore, had an encyclopedic knowledge of the region and history from the 1600’s onward giving a virtual lecture on everything from Creole culture to architecture, all while driving the bus. I sat in the passenger seat since I wasn’t traveling with anyone and could get in and out a little more easily considering I had a small subset of B&H’s inventory hanging from my body most of the day.

Ashley, The Bourbon St. Queen

We visited Oak Alley plantation, known best for its picturesque 28 Virginia Live Oaks that line the front entrance. Trust me, you’ve seen this place in quite a few movies whether you realize it or not. We then moved on to Evergreen plantation which, as a photographer, appealed to me most. Its trees were covered in more spanish moss than I’ve ever seen in one place as well as having two long rows of original slave cabins on the grounds. The somewhat gray morning meant a diffused light through those moss-covered oaks onto weatherbeaten shacks that were just oozing with texture. I could have spent a full day just crawling around and shooting those scenes in the changing light. But, as I mentioned earlier, the timeframe made this more of a sampler and we moved on to lunch and the swamp tour.

We spent the next hour and a half slowly gliding through a swamp on a 30-foot tour boat seeing alligators, birds, turtles, snakes and one marshmallow-craving raccoon named Lucy. The swamp really was a beautiful place, the gators fascinating and our guide both knowledgeable and highly entertaining. The tour included hands-on with a baby gator named Elvis that we, literally, passed around the boat for ten or fifteen minutes (note: baby gators are far softer than you’d imagine and apparently not inclined to bite). The adult alligators weren’t interested in our stinky hunks of chicken or the bright white marshmallows tossed practically onto their noses. Apparently they were all just coming out of hibernation and, contrary to what I’d assume, not endowed with the munchies. I get hungry between lunch and dinner, so I can’t imagine what coming out of a full winter sleeping in river mud would do to my appetite. Then again, I’m not cold-blooded and my brain is considerably larger than a walnut. Go figure.

Oak Alley

While on the topic of a Louisiana swamp, let me mention one thing critical to the enjoyment of this trip: I was visiting in late March. That is apparently the pleasant thumbnail of sanity between true winter and NOLA summer. I’ve experienced a little of NOLA summer from a past trip and I know my butt would most decidedly NOT be gliding around in a swamp were it not a wonderful 65 degrees with virtually undetectable humidity. I had no idea it was ever this pleasant in NOLA and, throughout the course of my trip, constantly marveled at the sheer pleasantness that enabled me to explore the region without thoughts of throwing myself in front of a Canal Street streetcar. Granted, as slow as those things move, I’d probably just end up with a big bruise to deal with while I continuing to poach in the NOLA humidity.

Evergreen Slave Cabins

Late on Thursday night, I rounded out my trip with a hike clear across the full length of the French Quarter to Frechmen Street. This was on the advice of the desk clerk at my hotel when asked where I might find a decent dessert and some good live music. He wasn’t wrong. The clubs all along there, with doors open to the street, were bursting with a wide variety of jazz. I spent quite a while just wandering from door to door and sampling the different styles. I got that dessert I wanted at a place called the Praline Connection where, at four minutes to closing time, they happily served me a hot bread putting in praline sauce. It was the only dessert I ate the entire week in New Orleans and, frankly, the only one I needed. Excellent.

I’ll mention one more thing from Frenchmen Street: Michael Hayden, Street Poet. This was a young guy with a small, manual typewriter propped up on two milk crates and his typewriter case. The sign attached to his crate-desk advertised all-original poems composed on demand. He didn’t disappoint. I watched him tap out two completely original and personalized poems for some girls that stopped to chat with him. What amazed me was the quality of his work paired with the sheer amount of distraction he was dealing with. A constant stream of questions from the girls, passers-by making comments, street noises, etc… none of it detracted from his ability to whip out poetry at a furious pace. After watching him compose two works, I called my wife back at home, told her she needed to “give someone some information” and handed him the phone. He briefly informed her that he’d be writing her a poem and needed some subject matter. She provided a few hints about the flowers she loves here in Virginia (it’s spring and her hormones start screaming “gardening” this time of year). A few minutes later (and amidst a dozen distractions), he finished his rather elegant poem and read it to her over the phone. I tipped him $20 and the poem is now framed here on our mantle piece.

Elvis, the Baby Gator

What I didn’t have that night was my camera and I’m still kicking myself for opting to leave it back in the hotel room during my Frenchmen St. adventures. I would love to have gotten a bunch of low-light stills and some video of about a dozen different things on that street, not the least of which was Michael’s remarkable poetry endeavors. I dug around online when I got home and, lo and behold, found a small profile of him from a newspaper in Vermont where he lived before taking his creative enterprise on the road to NOLA.

I could keep on writing about all the neat things I experienced in New Orleans last week including the great street musicians, the amazing food (corn and andouille macque choux over white corn grits at Cafe Amelie), the many sights on Bourbon Street, and nifty bits of plantation history. I won’t bore you further, though, and will instead point you toward the photos from the trip. I’ve broken them into four galleries, so be sure to back up and peruse each to see the full adventure.

All photos were shot with a Canon 5D Mark II and either a 24-70mm F2.8L or 70-200 f/4.0L lens. I might put some of the video (both from my 5D and my iPhone) up later.


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One Response to “New Orleans: Way Beyond Bourbon Street”

  1. Kathryn says:

    Great write up Aaron. Sounds like you really made the most of your time there. I very much enjoyed your photos, especially the shots from Evergreen Plantation. I’ll have to remember that place for my next trip to New Orleans.