Sunday, February 19, 2017

New Orleans: Jazz, Great Food and History. What else do you need?

Thanks to Luke's job not providing any vacation days in his first year, we didn't get out much during that time.  Thankfully, we were able to get away for a few days to New Orleans in the fall.  And what a few days it was!  New Orleans is a blast!

We knew we were in for a good time when, upon our arrival at our hotel, we got upgraded to a larger room with club lounge access and several welcome gifts.  Once we got settled in, it was time to explore!

Fancy hotel lobby!
After some quick research online, we started off our trip with a free walking tour. New Orleans has several of these, so you can choose to learn about history, different neighborhoods, ghosts, etc. It's called a "free" walking tour because you don't pay anything up front; you go on the tour, and then at the end, you can pay the tour guide whatever amount of money you think is fair. This way, you're not overpaying for what might turn out to be a boring or terrible tour, and it's definitely cheaper than prepaid tours.

In fact, we now look for free walking tours whenever we travel. Just search "free walking tour [city]" and there might be one or several options available. It's our favorite way to get acquainted with new locations in a short amount of time!

You can see why it doesn't take much for the city to flood.

We could barely turn around without seeing a view that screamed for a picture.

Good to know.

A style all it's own.

The famous St. Louis Cathedral!

That night, we went to Lafayette Square Park to enjoy the Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival. A better combination hasn't been invented!

The only correct choice is a brisket sandwich!
We strolled through the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, which has some of the most entertaining people-watching opportunities in the world.  There aren't many places where you see a pirate on your tram and then later find out that no, he's not part of a show, that's just how he dressed for an evening stroll around town.

The real objective, though, was to make a beeline for Cafe du Monde and try their famous beignets!! The cafe is open 24 hours and sometimes has pretty bad lines. Fortunately, Brazell luck and good timing were there for us.  We went later in the evening and barely had to wait for a table. The verdict: to me, beignets taste like funnel cake, just in a different form. But I love funnel cake, so I was happy!

Could use some more powdered sugar.

The next day found us on yet another free walking tour, but it was our absolute favorite one, because it was a FOOD tour! And the food in New Orleans is slap-your-mama good. The debate between Cajun and Creole is taken more seriously than most sports rivalries.  After the tour was done, we headed back to a few of the places that our guide recommended for things like jambalaya, gumbo, muffulettas and so much more (I'm getting hungry just thinking about them).

First stop was Central Grocery, where we just had to try the iconic muffuletta sandwich. It contains salami, ham, and other meats, some cheese, marinated olives and pickled vegetables. We were skeptical because it sounds disgusting, but somehow that strange combination of foods magically transforms into a wonderfully tasty meal. And that's coming from two people who hate olives!

So how in the heck do you pronounce muffuletta? If you're being true to its Italian roots, it should be pronounced moo-foo-letta. But I think most people around town call it muff-a-lotta. Either way, the guys behind the counter will know what you mean.

This is a half-size muffuletta. The whole size is an entire round! Luke and I shared the half and it was enough to fill us up.

We ate our mysteriously delicious sandwich while sitting on a bench in the park and listening to jazz music drifting over from the street performer next door (please note: jazz street performers in New Orleans are better than most people you pay to hear play in concert halls in normal cities).

The food and music we enjoyed in this park was Luke's favorite part of the trip.  It was a cool, shady slice of heaven.

Our next mission was to hunt down the best pralines in the city! For this delicious scavenger item, we had to look inside of the French Market, which has dozens of stalls of food and shopping.  There was plenty to see but Vicky had only one goal in mind.

Loretta's, the most delicious pralines in the world! Instead of having the taste and texture of crystallized sugar, these pralines are creamy and come in several different flavors. If you can't visit New Orleans to try them, fret not, because you can order them online and have them shipped to you! So when you can't think of what to get us for birthdays or Christmas, then just send us some Loretta's pralines! I'm 100% serious, here's the link:


Tourists watching a wedding procession -- a common sight.  
I'll pause here for a note on New Orleans weddings.  In most cities, you get married, walk out of the church to a car, then drive to the reception.  Not in New Orleans!  Down there, they book a walking jazz band, grab a policeman for an escort and dance right down Decatur Street with wedding party in tow.  We saw this repeatedly all weekend and even joined the procession for one of them (we weren't being weird, half the people watching joined in).  In New Orleans, a wedding borders on a citywide party and they have them all the time.

Deliberating food choices at the rooftop restaurant! (He chose alligator.)
Since we enjoyed our food tour so much, we signed up for a ghost tour of New Orleans in the evening. We figured it would be spookier that way, especially because the city was already decorated for Halloween!  And this is definitely one of the best cities be in if you want to go looking for ghosts.

St. Louis Cathedral at sunset.

Even at night, the city has an eerie charm

This house and the story associated with it was spooky enough to inspire a season of American Horror Story.

Sadly, our tour guide wasn't particularly great.  Instead of suspenseful, intrigue-filled tales, we were treated to stories delivered with the riveting cadence of a Ben Stein lecture and shown crappy phone pictures with slightly discolored blobs that were supposed to be ghosts.  Oh well. New Orleans still looks cool and spooky after dark, at least.

Dinner at Jimmy J's!

Our third day commenced with a visit to the famed New Orleans Cemetery Number 1, where many of the city's most famous people are buried.  It was quite an interesting experience to see the mixture of new and old tombs, all jammed together like bricks in the Lego box every kid has.  The most visited tomb is unquestionably Marie Laveau, the famed voodoo priestess.  But the most interesting/weirdest tomb easily belongs to a man who's not even dead yet, Nicolas Cage.  His white pyramid fits perfect with his, let's say eccentric, reputation.

For people who can't afford a stand alone tomb, there's space on the wall for you.

Nic Cage's tomb seen here.

The tomb of Marie Laveau, the famed voodoo priestess, gets a lot of attention despite being relatively unremarkable.

The cemetery can be quite a striking place.

After a morning contemplating the transition from this world to the next, we opted for a more relaxing and picturesque afternoon by heading for the Garden District.  The Garden District has just about every gorgeous style of Old South home you can imagine.  They are huge, colorful, and unique.  We even managed to take our eventual Christmas card photo here!

Naturally, finding a cat stopped our progress cold while a certain person photographed it repeatedly, then tried to pet it.  And you have to admit, the cat is really well framed here!

Happy Halloween!

The establishing shot for every movie and TV show set in the old south.

As darkness ended our time in the Garden District, we got to have one last great meal before leaving the next morning.  Overall, it was a great trip and we definitely didn't want to leave.  A return visit to New Orleans is unquestionably in our future and the sooner, the better!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Name 'Grand Canyon' is Well-Earned

After the craziness of our last trip, moving back to the U.S. and getting married (all in the span of 3 months), we tried to slow down. However, a new job and another move didn't really allow our life to take on a semblance of normalcy until the start of the new year.  And normalcy is nice, until it gets boring.

And just about the time boredom might have set in, we headed for Arizona to visit Luke's grandparents and see the Grand Canyon!

The drive up from Phoenix offered some interesting sights: some hot air balloons on the side of the highway, and a quick stop at the family's old vacation cabin! It's too bad that I never got a chance to visit when the grandparents still owned it; I've heard stories of fun memories from that place.

When we arrived at the Grand Canyon, the weather didn't afford us the best views. But it was still incredible to see in person! I was surprised that you can walk right up to the edge in most places instead of being blocked by a safety rail. As long as you're careful and have a bit of common sense when taking pictures, you'll be fine.

It soon became too overcast to see much of anything, so we ducked into a little museum to learn about how the canyon was formed.


That night, we slept in a lodge on the edge of the canyon. The blue sky that greeted us in the morning looked promising for better views!

There ended up being low clouds and some haze, but the sunlight broke through and made the canyon look beautiful anyway. The colors and shadows of the canyon constantly changed as the light shifted, which was amazing to watch.

On our way out, we stopped by Desert View to see the watchtower and lookout point.

There were a few more things to see on the drive back, too.

Once we got back to Phoenix, we got to hang out with our grandparents for a few days! They've now moved out of their big house, but it was a cozy and welcoming place for everyone to relax. We can't wait to visit them at their new home soon!

Caught a bird on the feeder!

View from the front door: Colorful desert paradise. :)