Gulf Coast - New Orleans

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Itinerary, April 2010

Louisiana Bayou Byways
Gulf Coast Biloxi (Mississippi) and Mobile (Alabama)
New Orleans French Quarter, Hurricane Katrina Tour

The End at the Beginning

Leaving New Orleans: The soothing voice of the driver of the Hertz shuttle bus driving us (there were only the two of us in the bus) to New Orleans airport glided over us painlessly.

He could very well have sung it in the manner of Louis Armstrong: "It is a great afternoon here in the Big Easy and I sure hope you had a good time here. Which airline would you be flying today?".

 "United", we say.

"Ahhhhh, flying the friendly skies...You just relax as we will arrive at the gate in time for your flight which will take off gently and fly over the country and, of course, land safely at your destination. Just making this turn here now while you rest for a few minutes as we will arrive surely and safely at your terminal". 

We could almost hear the unspoken refrain "What a wonderful world!", it so fitted in with his baritone cadence and his smiling pleasing manner.

City of New Orleans in the distance
A couple of hours earlier: It was anything but a wonderful world that we had glimpsed through the sights of the districts affected by Hurricane Katrina and the stupefying facts and figures that were effortlessly tossed at us by the driver-guide of the Gray Line Hurricane Katrina Tour while at the same time negotiating the afternoon traffic through the streets of New Orleans and its outlying districts.

It was all too much to take, the descriptions of how the levees were breached (while we watched through the windows at the scene imagining what would have been on the fateful day in 2005), how the freeways looked as they were converted to one-way thoroughfares moving people out of the city, how the looters looted the shops, cops who bolted with their official vehicles, cops who refused to help, cops who braved nature to maintain control, the man-made tragedies compounding what nature did. He was not shy of taking pride in his city's preeminence in certain fields (the longest this, the first that, the biggest this etc.) while also highlighting its vulnerabilities. He made sure that the occupants of the bus were paying attention by throwing the occasional question at them but the answer was always "New Orleans!" or "Louisiana!" and he delighted in the correct responses delivered by the chorus behind him while he drove through the traffic. He did offer some respite from the tour by stopping for coffee and ice cream at the New Orleans City Park mid-way through the tour.

Hurricane Katrina Tour Map

The map below shows the tour route in blue. Starting at the Mississippi river waterfront just outside the French Quarter, the route took us north to the shore of Lake Ponchartrain for a look at how the wealthy neighborhoods by the lakefront recovered from the disaster. After a break in City Park, the tour proceeded eastwards on I-10 before turning right to cross Hwy 90 (the main Gulf Coast route in the days before interstates where built, this is called Chef Menteur Highway which means The Liar) and into St. Bernard and turning right again to go through the Lower Ninth Ward which still shows signs of devastation, before finally completing the circle at the French Quarter.

New Orleans

Monday morning: A quiet walk through the Saint Louis Cemetery, which is the name of three Roman Catholic cemeteries in New Orleans, Louisiana. All of these graves are above ground vaults; most were constructed in the 18th century and 19th century. St. Louis Cemetery #1 is the oldest and most famous. It was opened in 1789, replacing the city's older St. Peter Cemetery (no longer in existence) as the main burial ground when the city was redesigned after a fire in 1788. Several famous New Orleanians were buried here. The cemetery spans just one square block, but is the resting place of over 100,000 dead.
St.Louis Cemetery Number One, New Orleans

Cast iron wraparound balcony in the French Quarter

Jazz Trio performing at Cafe Beignet
Sunday night: We were caught by a never-ending downpour in the French Quarter after walking through its streets (guided by the excellent route suggested in the AAA guidebook) covering:

  • Jackson Square with its colorful characters and the iconic statue of the 7th president and the hero of the Battle of New Orleans,
  • St. Louis Cathedral,
  • the must-do experience of coffee (with chicory) and beignets at the Cafe du Monde,
  • a brief stop by the Mississippi River waterfront,
  • the French Market,
  • Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar,
  • window gazing through the Absinthe museum,
  • standing briefly in the queue for the 8 pm jazz concert at the Preservation Hall,
  • listening to the closing bars of Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon" from the Headhunters album being played by an impromptu street band headed by a very expressive female clarinettist,
  • browsing through a voodoo shop,
  • taking in the decadence of Bourbon Street,
  • watching people walk by with huge beers in their hands just because they can and
  • stopping at Cafe Beignet to watch a Jazz trio (Steamboat Willie) perform.

  • With no idea of how long the rain was going to last (and trying not to think of levees) we gave up and walked into the overpriced Italian restaurant next door for dinner before walking and running our way past several wet city blocks to our hotel.

    Sunday evening: We had some good fortune in running into a kind hearted receptionist at the Holiday Inn Express in New Orleans who, after a few tense moments, agreed to overlook our booking error (we had booked the previous night) and let us stay the night at the same rate.

    New Orleans French Quarter Map

    Gulf Coast

    Sunday afternoon: Stopped outside Beauvoir, the home of the only President of the Confederate States of America and the place where he penned his memoirs. The 51 acre estate, fronting the Gulf of Mexico in the city of Biloxi, Mississippi, was also once the site of the Mississippi Confederate soldier's home, which cared for hundreds of Southern veterans and their wives. We skipped the tour and spent time admiring the estate from outside before the near empty beach beckoned for a closer look. We were rewarded with the sight of skimmers doing an air show by flying low with their lower beaks submerged in the water and then landing smartly together.

    Skimmers on the beach at Biloxi (outside Beauvoir)

    Historic Dauphin Street in Mobile, Alabama
    Sunday morning: The easternmost we got on our Gulf Coast exploration was the city of Mobile, Alabama. The recently completed RSA Battle House Tower skyscraper made for a dramatic entry into the city which was deserted on this morning. We got hold of a Dauphin Street Historic District Walking Tour brochure and covered a few spots. We got an advance sample of New Orleans like cast iron balcony wraps which we would get plenty of later in the evening while walking through the French Quarter. We also visited the deserted Alabama Cruise Terminal by the Mobile Bay waterfront that opens out into the Gulf. Finally we stopped at the Fort Conde Visitor Center to look for fridge magnets.
    Saturday night: It had been a long drive from Baton Rouge and it was dinner time when we reached Ocean Springs, Mississippi. After an excellent Mexican dinner we headed across the bridge on Hwy 90 that connected Ocean Springs to Biloxi to stop at the nearest casino. This bridge had been completely destroyed by Katrina and had to be rebuilt. A small group of people were gathered around the stage on the foyer as the all-female Mustang Sally were rocking the place down with their derivative heavy metal. The sole male bass player looked bored but the women were having a good time taunting the males in the audience and handing out advice in their songs ("Get Her Drunk" went one of the refrains).
    Mustang Sally performing at a Biloxi casino

    Louisiana State Capitol, Baton Rouge
    Saturday evening: Being inveterate travel collectors (Countries, States, State Capitols, National Parks), we could not resist stopping at the tall Louisiana Capitol building and out first look at the Mississippi river on this trip. It was twilight and we were soon on our way heading east towards the state of Mississippi whose border was too close to resist.

    Gulf Coast Map

    Bayou Byways

    Saturday afternoon: We stopped at Breaux Bridge (famous for its Crawfish Festival that draws some 200,000 seafood lovers every year). At the Bayou Teche waterside, a fair was on with music (Cajun, presumably) and food (crawfish, presumably) on a warm and pleasant Saturday afternoon. Cajun is corruption for Acadian - which stands for the French speaking people from Acadia (now Nova Scotia in Canada). These people fled their Canadian homeland and took refuge in New Orleans and blended in. A display on the bayou's bank showed the figure of a long mythical snake that symbolized the Bayou Teche with the various towns (Morgan City, New Iberia, Franklin) marked on the water body. After ice cream and coffee (!) we sped on to Lafayette for a brief stop at the Acadia Visitor Center before hitting the interstate. This section of I-10 was completed in the 70s at great cost as it involved connecting the cities separated by huge masses of coastal swamp. There are no exits/onramps for miles as the freeway seems to just fly through the swamp over water.
    Bayou Teche at Breaux Bridge, Louisiana

    Norbert explaining that it is always 5 o' clock somewhere
    Saturday morning: A lazy morning drive through the Bayou Byways. The Oaklawn Manor near Franklin with its gigantic live oak trees was a highlight. We decided to skip the tour of the antebellum (before Civil War) Shadows-on-the-Teche plantation.

    Saturday mid-day: We picked Norbert LeBlanc's Swamp tour from a directory and called and made "reservations". He is a bit of a celebrity with a quirky accent and a quirkier sense of humor. We reached the shore of Lake Martin and waited for him to come ashore with his previous tour party. He keeps his cell phone with him during his tours and the only way he keeps track of who signed up for his next tour is the received call list on the phone. If anyone calls to cancel, he merely deletes their entry. Of course, once we showed up and announced ourselves, he promptly asked for our number and deleted the entry. Before the tour started he handed out necklaces with green alligator pendants suggesting that we use them in case we capsized and had to encounter alligators. He has had a long and varied career and is a bit of a celebrity having appeared in National Geographic and a French magazine. He recounted his experiences being a government sponsored hunter of alligators when their numbers had grown in previous decades. He showed us photo albums full of these gory deeds and explained in great detail how these alligators were skinned and sometimes eaten. He shared with us some homemade moonshine shooing away objections about the early hour by pulling out a wall clock that showed that it was 5 'o clock somewhere in the world. And yes, we spotted several alligators, herons, egrets, hides and Cypress trees in the so called Flooded Forest.

    Friday afternoon: Creole is a term that has varied usage, but it refers to people who were born in the Louisiana country during the French colonial times regardless of race. We got our exposure to Creole culture in the heart of Plantation Country at Laura's Plantation, where a guided tour narrates the saga of one Creole family. The colored walls distinguish Creole plantations from "American" plantations which have white walls. The Creoles mostly spoke French and used the term Creole to differentiate themselves from the "others" (who were Americans, Europeans etc.). Much of the tour was around the house and the saga of the Duparc family. What stands out in the saga is the status enjoyed by the women in the family as legitimate heirs of the business (something that is not seen in American families during that time). The saga is from the book written by Laura Locoul (1861-1963) based on her own experience growing up in the plantation. Other interesting aspects of the tour included visiting the slave quarters and perusing documents pertaining to them. After the tour, we drove down to Houma where it was too late to do anything of note, so we just went on to Morgan City to stop for the day.

    Laura's Plantation, Vacherie, Louisiana

    Baby Alligators at Jean Lafitte Park
    Friday morning: At 600,000 acres, the Atchafalaya Basin is America's largest river swamp. Stretching from New Orleans to Lafayette, this drive features a lush, liquid world with French accents, wildlife, seafood and a unique musical culture. The Bayou Byways scenic drive's delights include bayous and their wildlife, historical sugar plantations, ancient cypress swamps and a lot more. The route is roughly 200 miles long. We started at New Orleans and headed southwest through the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. We spotted baby and adult alligators on the Bayou Coquille Trail which follows a levee ridge beside the bayou (a term borrowed from the French to refer to slow-moving rivers and creeks in the flat delta country), crosses a cypress swamp and arrives at a vast horizon of freshwater marsh. From there a spur trail follows the Kenta Canal for another half mile.

    Bayou Byways Map

    The route we took began in New Orleans and ended in Lafayette with stops at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park (Barataria Preserve), Laura's Plantation, Houma, Morgan City, Franklin, New Iberia, Breaux Bridge, Lafayette and spanned two days. Highlights were a leisurely stroll in the Barataria Preserve, a guided tour of a Creole Plantation (Laura's) and a 90 minute Swamp Tour.

    The Beginning at the End

    Flying into New Orleans Thursday evening:  Enjoyed the pleasure of listening to the Air Traffic Control conversations on the SFO-Denver leg. It is surprisingly relaxed but protocol heavy as the pilots repeat the instructions given them by the controller just to make sure that they did not mishear. One can hear all the conversations the controllers have with the pilots of the aircraft that are in motion in the region. Every move of the aircraft now made sense as we could relate it to a conversation a few seconds prior. We were surprised by the Denver airport controller hurrying our pilot asking him to speed up his arrival as he had a lot of traffic behind him. After touching down, our pilot got her back with a complaint about some problem with the taxiway which she said she will duly report.

    Google Map with Markers of places visited on this trip

    View 2010-04 Gulf Coast - New Orleans in a larger map

    Google Earth file

    Click here for Google Earth KMZ file of the trip.

    The Photos

    takes you directly to the photo album

    Malini Kaushik & R. Venkatesh