Sunday, March 31, 2013

30 Days of Why I Love New Orleans - Day 7

Mardi Gras World

                New Orleans, is, of course, world famous for its Mardi Gras celebration.

              And Mardi Gras is one of those occasions that’s absolutely amazing. It’s other things, too, of course. Wild, whacky, fun . . . and the city becomes incredibly expensive and crowded and busy. The best way to see Mardi Gras is from a float, but then, everyone can’t afford a float and come up with the king and the queen and the court and the costumes and price and all that goes with it.

                We’ve all heard that people “flash” for beads to be thrown to them from the floats. I’ve never quite gotten this concept since anyone can buy a massive bag of beads for almost nothing, but . . . hey, catching them is part of the fun. Young people will flash and throng the streets and it’s crazy.

                Mardi Gras originated in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A Catholic society gave up eating meat for the period of Lent and thus the day before giving up meat first became known as “boeuf gras,” or “fatted calf.” That meant, kiddies, get it all in before you have to give it all up.  Mardi is the French word for Tuesday, so Mardi Gras became the celebration before Ash Wednesday.

                Rio celebrates massively, and “Carnivale” in Venice is equally huge. Trinidadians get really carried away, too. But New Orleans is our biggest and best event in the United States. Well, of course!

                It was on March 2, 1699, when the French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville made his way to a little spit of earth that was about 60 miles south of New Orleans. He named it "Pointe du Mardi Gras" –because he and his men figured out that they had come to the area right when Mardi Gras and Lent were upon them. So tradition goes back—way back! (If you’re in the Quarter, you will find yourself on Bienville Street at some time; the great man will not be forgotten!)

                And the people were French, for God’s sake! They had their customs. And they had, and still have, an amazing flair for beautiful things.

                This wonderful custom has come down through the ages. At first, balls happened—which eventually became the grand balls of today. Then “Rex” headed a parade down the street with a real bull.  

If you do come for Mardi Gras, a great thing to do is plan well ahead of time and rent a balcony on Bourbon Street—you’ll be high above the crowd, watching and enjoying. (Have to admit here; it’s not always a good time to be on the street. Some people party a little too hearty and there’s sometimes a fair amount left on the streets by those who over-imbibed and became nauseated. Yep, throw up, guys!) 

                But, hey! You may not mind to be part of the revelry!

                Now we all know that Mardi Gras itself happens only once a year. And New Orleans is a great place to visit year round. Yes, summer is hot. But since I’m from Miami, it’s not
like it really bothers me. And, hey, I’ve been in New York and Virginia in the summer on days when the heat soared higher than it did down further south. 

But weather is not the point. Nor is an exact date. In fact, the point is that we’re looking at a venue where one can go at any time.

                You can “see” something of Mardi Gras all year round.


 That’s because of Mardi Gras World.

                Artists have always amazed me, probably because I don’t have an artistic bone in
my body. What they can create is mind boggling. Truly, there is little quite so spectacular on that plain than the floats that are created for the Mardi Gras parades—unless it’s the
costumes worn.

       Since 1947, the Blaine Kern Studios have been producing the amazing floats you see in the Mardi Gras parades.  Mardi Gras World affords everyone a glace at what goes on to create the fantastic floats in a venue that is beautiful, artistic -- incredible!
        At Mardi Gras World, you can see old floats and new. You can see the artistry that goes into the creation of the floats. Themes abound and you can learn more about the history of the floats themselves, the parade, and Mardi Gras. 
       They have a shuttle that runs around the city on appointed rounds to bring people to and from the city and if you’re anywhere fairly central, it’s an easy hop over.


      From the detailed to the massive, you can see the work of the artists who create the magic of a Mardi Gras parade. You can be beneath a “star-lit” sky and feel that you’re part of a fantasy world.

                You almost feel as if you’ve been to Mardi Gras! (But then again, remember, there are parades in many of the parishes and cities surrounding NOLA, and if you do happen to be there for Mardi Gras, don’t miss “Barkus!” For my animal loving friends, that’s
a dog parade and it occurs a day or so before the big parades. Pure fun!)

                But again, no matter what the season, you can—and should!—visit Mardi Gras World.

                There’s something new there, too, that just opened in 2012. The Café. It sits right on the river and serves up local specialties at very reasonable prices. You can see the specialized fantasy created by man and then the fantastic created by mother nature—the “Big Muddy” or the “Mighty Mississippi” as you enjoy a cocktail or red beans and rice, jambalaya, or gumbo or many other entrees.

                Just watching the river, with Mardi Gras World in the background, is a true New Orleans experience.

                If you go . . . their shuttle stops at 20 different places in
and around the Quarter and downtown and runs a continual loop. The official address is 1380 Port of New Orleans Place. You’re not far from the Quarter; they are located down at the end of Henderson Street in the Central Business District.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Thirty Days of Why I Love New Orleans - Day 5

Rounding the French Quarter           

                The French Quarter , going clockwise, is bounded by the river, Canal Street, Rampart Street, and Esplanade. It’s a fantastic grid of historic buildings, shops, museums, hotels, bed and breakfast establishments and great places to eat. There are wonderful private homes, here, too, and apartments and all kinds of ways to stay for a visit—or forever!

                There’s no way in a 1000 something word blog to really relate the wonder of the French Quarter to you, but I’ll try to hit a few highlights, going around that clock!

               First, there’s the river. That’s where you can board the Steamboat Natchez. And it’s where you can look out and see the majesty of the Mississippi and understand the moniker 
“Crescent City.” The water is river water, dark, sometimes turbulent, and deep—it also makes you understand the term “Mighty Mississippi.”  Just to walk along the river is an experience. You can also catch the Riverfront Line streetcar here; it’s a fun thing to do if you just pick a destination, or hop on to ride out—and ride right back! The streetcars were operating sixty years before the electric lines that made a “trolley” come into being; in NOLA, they are still called streetcars! (There are three streetcar lines—the Riverfront, the Canal Street, and the St. Charles. They’re actually excellent for getting around!)

                You’ll come upon the Aquarium of the Americas as you head to Canal Street; a truly remarkable facility with all manner of creatures. (Aquarium on another day!) The Shops at Canal Street are here—yes, on Canal Street. There are some different stores here—and some chains. But if you need something you can only get at a chain, here’s a convenient place! If you were to cross the street from the Aquarium and the mall, you’d be at Harrah’s, but, ahha! Across the street you are no longer in the boundaries of the French Quarter. 

                Say you walk up Canal side toward Rampart Street. You will pass some souvenir shops, hotels and restaurants. Most of them, even the national—you can get an Arby’s fix here—are housed in quaint buildings; different! If you walk along you’ll come to Rampart, and if you turn and walk along Rampart, you’ll find some restaurants, etc., but you won’t really be in the heart of the quarter which some say stretches really only from the Jackson Square area to Esplanade and Canal and then on up to Bourbon. 

               But you’ll be across from Armstrong Park and the neighborhood on which a TV series has recently been based—Treme. Wonderful people live here; it’s still not a good idea to wander at night.

                When you reach Esplanade, you’ll know it! It’s a grand avenue with a tree laden divider and there are grand mansions on either side. Now, like all else, a lot of these mansions now constitute what I consider to be living history. A beautiful structure may still be privately owned—or it may be a restaurant and shops downstairs and some apartments upstairs. If you like walking, this gorgeous tree-laden street is for you. I’ll also mention here
that it’s where you’ll find Port of Call—a bar/restaurant which serves up some of the finest
hamburgers and baked potatoes you’ll ever have. I’m serious—best baked potatoes. I’m assuming they come from Idaho and I could be wrong. I just know that they’re huge and delicious! 

                Keep on walking down and you’ll reach the French Market. You won’t be doing anything new; the French Market has been an institution since 1791. It’s a great place to go for all kinds of delicious things. Now, you keep walking, and you’ll be amazed at what you can buy. The area houses stalls that sell almost everything in the world. 

                So, you’ve come back to the river. You’ll have passed some unbelievable places, good restaurants shops, all kinds of wonders. When you reach the end of the market and some of the cafes and shops that follow, you’ll be at Café du Monde. 

                This is truly an institution—many people say that if you just brush by NOLA, you must stop at Café du Monde. The menu is small and naturally, it’s famous for its delicious,
powdery beignets. (Word to the wise; I’ve done it—don’t wear black!) Of course, it’s not just the fabulous sugar treat that will draw you here, or the rich, dark coffee (hot or iced!) Sitting at Café du Monde is half the fun. You can find a table where you can watch the heart and throb of the city go on. The mule-drawn carriages that hike tourists around on all kinds of tours (history with or without vampires and ghosts and other-worldly creatures) line up in front of Jackson Square. Mules are here in NOLA because horses can’t stand the heat; the hearty mule does well! Artists set up there, and if you were walking on that side of the street, you could find yourself buying a colorful city scape as you head to catch a carriage. But at Café du Monde, you just watch it all. You have a view of the street performers—those who sing and play musical instruments, and those who pose as statues in different paint or appointments. Some are absolutely awesome in their ability to stand for hours on end without moving!

                You’ll see the fortune tellers there as well; if you have the mind to, you can run across and have you palm read, or find out what the tarot cards have to say about your

                And, resting from your walk at a table at Café du Monde, you can look into Jackson Square and see—Andrew Jackson. He’s astride his rearing horse, hat in hand, ever watchful over the city he saved at the Battle of New Orleans. In the early days, Jackson Square was called Place d’Armes. It was a little more than mush and a field back then, a place where troops could drill, and where criminals might be seen in stocks –and where executions might be carried out.

                Today . . . .

                Don’t think about the executions! Enjoy General Jackson as he waves his hat, and wave back if you’ve the mind to do so.

                It’s NOLA. People will think nothing of it!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Thirty Days of Why I love New Orleans - Day 4


Fifi Mahoneys and More 

           New Orleans is definitely known for shopping, and naturally, I have a few favorite stops to make when I’m there.

                Nola is a place where you can come, where chain store isn’t followed by chain store. Of course, they do have some chain stores, just as they do have malls. But when you come to the French Quarter or
move along Royal Street, you really will find one-of-a-kind shops—the ones we really miss now in so much of the homogenized country and beyond.
                  Yes, many shops in Nola are filled with T-shirts and gadgets, trinkets, and souvenirs, but most are a little bit different and some are very different. 

                Some are for the casual tourist and some are for the connoisseur. 

     There are jewelry stores offering a fleur-di-lis motif on earrings, necklaces, and more, some commonplace and affordable, and some pretty pricey. There are high-end clothing shops  and there are antique shops that offer everything from Civil War rifles, knives, buckles, and so on to exquisite furniture.

You can shop for your kitchen. Buy charming aprons and barbecue implements or beignet mix, coffee—and lord knows! Hot sauce. Glass and china, fine wine, quirky bottle holders and can openers. Crawfish motifs can be seen almost as often as the fleur-de-lis. You can find the very elegant and the silly, risqué fun.

         People who come to New Orleans often usually wind up having a few favorite shops—places where they have to stop because they don’t exist anywhere else. Some eagerly save and await their next chance to purchase an antique washstand or bowl or an exquisite piece of estate jewelry or newly created finery.

         Art! There is incredible and fabulous art to be found. You don’t even need to go to a store—take a walk down Royal or around Jackson Square. You might snag a true treasure from an up and coming name—before they become a name! 
     The galleries here are so fantastic, you could plan a day just looking at whats for sale in the shops and on Jackson Square and Royal Street.

     So, of course, I have a few favorite shops of my own and in there, one that I never miss.

     It isn’t a dress shop or clothing store or even an antique or a  jewelry store or a gallery. My tastes tend to the slightly different.

           Nola is so full of wonderful stores that I couldn’t begin to mention them all (though I will mention more as I move on with these blogs!) But there is one curious and wonderful shop that I—being me—must see when I’m in NOLA. It’s ever-changing. It’s a one-of-a-kind shop that doesn’t carry excellent New Orleans coffee, beignet mix, clothing, jewelry, antiques or Cajun spices hot enough to pull smoke from your head.

                Fifi Mahoney’s. (934 Royal Street)

     And first, of course, I don’t head right in. I look at their window displays because it’s almost like going to a little art show. What they do at Fifi’s with wigs is fun, enchanting, and uniquely Nola

     I and my little group of merry Slushpile Players dress up fairly often to perform what may be defined as “something like dinner theater” or entertainment. We’ve done everything from spoofs of the latest rage in contemporary books or movies to the classics and beyond. So, when you’re looking for a really fine Mad Hatter Wig, crazy vampire wig . . . Mohawk, Oz, Steampunk-or-other wig, where do you head?

        Fifi Mahoney’s.

        First off, I should say, you can buy any kind of a wig here. From lesser materials and funky to a far higher quality. Just want to see what you’d look like with shorter hair, longer hair, darker hair, or light
hair? You can do that here. Want to see what bangs would look like on you—or how you’d look with a Veronica Lake sweep of lock over your forehead? Yes, you can do that.

        Were you ever dying to go chartrueuse? Perhaps wear a mock beehive, a ship, steamboat, or skulls dangling from ponytails? Yes, you can test it out at Fifi’s!

         There are “normal” wigs, and then, of course, there are the designed wigs. Behind the artistry of the wigs here are the creators, Brian and Marci. 

       The two creative geniuses of the wig world have mastered the craft of making hair fun. Check out their web site. It’s  and you’ll see a few of their fantastic pieces. Entertainers from across the city (and the country!) come to them and when it gets close to Mardi Gras or Halloween, the place becomes a veritable madhouse of activity. While Mardi Gras may be celebrated in other exceptional forms across the world, say in Venice or Rio, few know the fervor as those who live in New Orleans. There are “krewes” to dress, kings and queens and royal courts, and if you don’t happen to be part of a krewe or on a float, you’re probably going to a party.

Few party with such flair—or such extravagant wigs! Many to most of these come from Fifi

      For me, walking in and seeing their latest creations is always intriguing and I always find a fun, fantastic, or downright incredible wig that they’ve created and I feel that I must have.

      But they’ll do custom as work as well. Dressing up for an occasion as a sprite or a fairy? You can have long flowing locks in any color of the rainbow threaded with flowers and leaves—and birds, if you so choose. Are you a gambler or a dance hall girl? Dice and cards can adorn your hair—along with poker chips and even a small slot machine, should you so choose!

      Fifi Mahoney’s is on Royal Street, a nice walk if you happen to be staying at the beautiful and historic Hotel Monteleone—or anywhere. No visit is complete without a walk down Royal Street, which we’ll get to later.

     Fifi’s carries all kinds of make-up, too, from the day to day to whacky lashes and               brilliant colors for special events.

      And fun, funky, jewelry, a lot of it locally created and some one-of-a-kind Fun hats!

      And, if you’re fond of your own hair, you can have that taken care of too at the salon in the back.

      Say you’re in NOLA with someone else who is not in the least interested in hair or wigs. (It happens!) The 900 block of Royal has other cool and amazing shops and . . . a Community Coffee shop just across the street on the corner. To me, it’s a bit of seventh heaven—play at the wig shop, and stop in for Community Coffee. Their pecan-praline is to die for! (And I don’t even like flavored coffees!)

Thirty Days of Why I Love New Orleans - Day 3

National World War II Museum and the Civil War Museum (Warehouse District)

                Where to begin? New Orleans is an amazing place to discover museums, big and small. It’s hard to figure out where to start.
                So, we’ll head to the World War II museum. In the scheme of things, it’s fairly new—but that doesn’t take away from the size. We were just there to check on a possible
venue for opening ceremonies for a future con and I was amazed to see the construction going on! It will be absolutely huge. (945 Magazine Street, official address!)
                Huge, we all know, doesn’t mean good. But Nola’s WWII Museum is really both. It’s walking distance from the French Quarter and there’s decent parking when you’re coming from further afield. As the name implies, it tells the story of WWII. There are planes—there are tanks.
There are weapons, uniforms, and more. There are exhibits that grip your heart and don’t let go. Like so many venues in the city, the museum teaches us about the past and makes room for the living—and the future. Walking through the museum, I’m always in awe of the massive scope of what our nation went through and how we contributed and amazed by
some of our allies, as well. I’m also drawn into the small and very human stories of the individual men and women who put their lives on the line. I came across a wonderful story about a Jewish woman who had been in a concentration camp—bound for the death chamber—who managed to escape right at war’s end. She was found hiding along the trail and was terrified at first. The man who found her was an
American soldier. Still frightened, she told him she was Jewish. He told her that he was Jewish, too. They wound up falling in love and marrying and they had a wonderful family and remained happy until his death at eighty-plus separated them.
                The American Sector is a John Besh restaurant and the food is exceptional—and reminiscent of a bygone era as far as the seating, the ambiance, and the food goes. Soup served in tin cans and good old American fare, ice cream, fun stuff—and stuff for those with a healthful-eating life-style as well. Many entrees, naturally, have a bit of local flare, too. If you come to the museum, think about lunch or a cocktail. If you plan your trip, you can have “Dinner with a Curator” and become part of a discussion on specialized topics with a curator and fellow historians. Now, there’s a soda shop, too. 

                You can see a movie at the Solomon Victory Theater, learn what you thought you knew but didn’t, and then listen to the Andrew Sisters inspired Victory Belles; they are great, trust me! You can catch any number of live shows at the Stage Door Canteen, see some of the stars of the era—those who fought, and those who performed for our troops. I’ve seen a tribute to Frank Sinatra there—the voices and performances were excellent. We rented the Canteen for an event once, too, and everyone involved was helpful and wonderful.
They have a pretty decent web site if you want to check out times and what’s showing. Just remember—it’s big! They say you need three hours for the exhibits. You may also want to catch a show and a meal. (I dream some days about the soup and sandwich special!)
                The Civil War Museum is right across the street. (929 Camp Street) This museum opened in 1891 and houses one of the largest collections of Confederate
memorabilia in the United States. I particularly love this museum not because I love war, but because I hate to see history forgotten in any way. The building is beautiful and the exhibits are fascinating and truly part of the American experience that makes us what we are today—still feuding within our states’ rights, but, hopefully, never to face such a tragedy again.
                Here, we see the great scope of things--all that led to our country’s “great divide.” But, more importantly, we see the war through the eyes of those who fought it.  For military strategy buffs, there’s information on who made certain decisions, where plans
were brilliant, and where they went astray. Home life is an important part of the exhibition. And the tragedy that befell our nation becomes all the more evident as we see families torn apart; sons who faced their fathers, brothers who went to war against brothers. Some believed in the sanctity of the nation while others gave their first loyalty to the states. The issue of slavery is not ignored. But the realities are there, too.
                While the National World War II Museum is massive, the Civil War Museum is fairly small. Once again, size means little. It’s one of the best museums on the Confederacy and the “War of Northern Aggression” or the American Civil War you’ll ever see. (Yes, I was in school a while ago; there were still teachers telling it as such back then!)
                There are exhibits here that showcase Jefferson Davis, the one and only President of the Confederacy, and exhibits on the African-American fighting troops. Much to be seen and appreciated—as always, the tragedy of young men fighting and dying, each believing in his (or her, in a few instances!) cause until the true brutality of war sets in. The players in
the great battle that nearly ripped us apart but then made us stronger are seen here—almost as if we were sitting down to tea with them. 
                The thing is, museums teach us. That includes the good—and the bad and the ugly. But, they’re all about the human experience. I grew up in the South so I understand that the economy at the time dictated that the South held the majority of the slaves. I understand as well that some were treated poorly and some were treated well. None of that is the point that we all learned during the war—no man has the right to own another man. The majority of the soldiers fighting for the South did not own slaves—only 4.95 percent of men in the South did. Still, while the Federal government fought the war to preserve the Union, the South was fighting for “states’ rights” and an important right to the South was that to continue with slavery. But history can be strange, too—in New Orleans, men of African heritage sometimes owned other men of African heritage. We now know that no man of any color has any right to own any man of any color, but we learned it all in a very bloody bath. I’m grateful for this museum; it teaches. As I’ve said, we get to see things we did that were not moral; we also see more simply lives, wonderful human beings, and the confusion that will always be the human soul.
                Museums . . . we’ll deal with more later! If you have a chance, these two are excellent! As always, check opening dates and times if you want to go!