You thought I’d forgotten about New Orleans, hadn’t you?
You read all about my alligator adventure and then went – What? What about the music and the alcohol and the parade?!
Well calm down, because here it comes.
In order to reduce the potential for stress that could come with driving into downtown New Orleans and then paying an arm and a leg for the privilege of parking in the world’s tightest car parking space, Loops and I opted to try out the ferry that leaves from Algiers Point, directly opposite the city on the other side of the Mississippi River, where you can park for free on the street.
My advice – don’t be fooled into thinking the ferry isn’t working, I promise it does run about every 15 minutes or so, even though the terminal might look abandoned from the outside. The ferry gives you a chance to take in the city as a whole from a distance, as well as an opportunity to claim you’ve sailed the Mighty Mississippi. The river is a workhorse, so not a picturesque scene at all. The water is a thick, murky brown with sticks and general natural debris floating in it, and with a constant flow of boating traffic – mammoth barges full of cargo being pushed up and down river by tugboats.
New Orleans, I have discovered, is split into several sections, and I believe the two most visited by people are the Central Business District (CBD) and the French Quarter; and you won’t find two areas less alike.
The CBD is just another large American city with hotels, skyscrapers, offices etc. For me personally, it did not have much to offer. The French Quarter however is pretty as a picture in places, with older brick built buildings, decorative wrought iron railings with trailing plants growing on them, and small streets lined with live music acts and busy market stalls. Yes, this area has more of a European feel to it for sure.
Loops and I had no set plan at all for the day, except to wander the little lanes and see what we stumbled across.
Music was the order of the day with many buildings we passed having the sounds of jazz music floating out the door and saturating the streets outside, or jazz bands set up outside for you to wander past and pause, listening to the brass instruments blast forth boldly into the mid-day air. There was the occasional street performer – magicians or painted people stood stock still; and people selling their artisan wares – pottery, paintings and many ornaments built from remnants of buildings destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
It was just a feast for senses, overwhelming hustle and bustle, noise, sights and smells of the city. People everywhere and yet no-one seemed too much in a hurry, just floating from place to place, letting it all sink in.
We opted for lunch at Pat O’Brien’s, a bar and restaurant which is apparently famous for its standard bearer drink – The Hurricane. It’s a red fruity concoction of passion fruit syrup, lime juice and rum, and if it weren’t for the alcohol in it, it would have tasted pretty nice!
We asked the waitress for some advice regarding the menu, I was determined I wanted to try something southern, and she put forth the suggestion of the muffaletta sandwich, jambalaya and gumbo. The first two were winners, the sandwich in particular was scrumptious – it contained a mix of salami, ham, Mortadella, Swiss cheese and homemade olive saladand, and the focaccia bread it’s served in I’m pretty sure was tomato flavoured which just set off the whole taste experience. The gumbo, I personally wouldn’t bother with again, we had a far better tasting one back at Shaggy’s in Biloxi.
Restored and refreshed by our meal, we carried on with our pavement pounding, visiting the Cathedral, the French Market (more artisan wares and a delicious tropical smoothie from the Organic Banana stall) and the old US Mint building which contained an informative display in the downstairs section on money production in New Orleans, and an unexpected exhibit upstairs on the life and times of Louis Armstrong. It seemed two rather odd things to pair together, but very interesting nonetheless!
Our afternoon ended with us wandering out a little more to the outskirts of the French Quarter and into the residential homes area which I was happy to see followed mostly through with the same architectural theme. It was here that we stumbled upon a historical marker informing us that we were standing at the site of Theophilus Freeman’s slave market, the market from which Solomon Northup was sold – his story told in the book, 12 Years a Slave.
All in all, an enlightening afternoon, and I am glad we made time to at least see the city, albeit a rather brief stop. I can fully appreciate that a single day is not enough to really do the city justice. And if you are wondering if New Orleans might be for you, well, if you love music, drinking and local artisan businesses set in a city with a historical feel, then this is the place for you!
Oh, but wait, that right – the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Well, it was a parade!
We popped back to Pat’s place to see a couple of duelling pianos to get us in the mood before we watched the parade consisting of more brass bands, dancing people in the streets, bead necklaces being thrown into the audience (I’m not sure where it originated from, but it seems everyone needs to wear beads during parades in Louisiana), police cars and a unicorn!
Yes, that is a real, live unicorn.
And that’s all I really have to say about NOLA. That’s New Orleans, Louisiana; in case you weren’t down with the lingo.
It’s time to head west again, which we do, slowly, and in small sections. I find myself enjoying the countryside more and more, the green watery landscapes we pass, a swamp here, a reed bed there; tall bridges spanning marshland, giving you the chance to search for gators. It’s certainly growing on me.
I have selected for us a couple of tourist destinations on route for us to break up the general monotony of driving, the first of which we find in Morgan City.
Now in case you didn’t know it, Louisiana is known for its part in the oil industry here in the US – oil rigs, oil drilling, oil wells – yes, it’s all happening here in the south. So it seems only fitting that we should take the time to find out more about the industry, and what do you know? We can do that right here in Morgan City, because they have their very own offshore oil rig, sitting right there in the river, next to the bank.
Mr Charlie, as the rig is affectionately known, was the ‘first transportable, submersible drilling rig’ built in 1952, and drilled hundreds of well for the industry. As time has gone on and technology has moved forward, Mr Charlie is now spending his retirement being used as a training facility for newcomers to the oil industry, as well as serving as The Rig Museum, where people such as Loops, you and I can come and take a tour and learn just what life on a rig is all about.
Daily tours are available for $6 per person, and if you are really into expanding your general knowledge base (cause who knows when a question about offshore drilling might come up in the next pub quiz), the tour is totally worth it.
For about an hour our tour guide Virgil, who arrived complete with overalls and a thick fluid accent of south (a ‘sloppy’ accent, my buddy AJ calls it), ran through the ins and outs the business. We were told about the general history of the types of oils rigs available (did you know that some offshore rigs are not attached to the seabed, but in fact are on moveable floating barges which can be flooded and sunk underwater for more stability and then held in place by anchors?), we learned about the training and pay for the workers and viewed the living quarters on the rig that workers have to contend with. Virgil walked us through the body of the rig and out onto the top of the platform where we then got instructions on how drilling takes place (with really small drill heads, which surprised me) and how oil is then brought to the surface (first clearing the pipeline with a special ‘mud’ mix to get rid of debris) and then stored or transported off the rig.
We also learned that Mr Charlie had starred in a recent episode of NCIS:NOLA, so not only can I now watch Armageddon and understand and critique the drilling scenes in it, but I claim to have met (and stood on) a TV celebrity.
I also just want to say a quick word about Virgil. From now on, when I think of a good ‘ole southern boy, it will be Virgil who pops into my head. Not only do I love his accent, long and drawn out when he talks (or tawks, as he would pronounce it), but he has a twinkle in his eye, a broad smile, is nice as pie and gives off a relaxed air of a man completely content with himself; like he knows exactly who he is and is not afraid to share that.
At one point we were stood in the recreation room on the rig and he was explaining about how scientists are attempting to gauge how much oil is really present under the earth and that they consider it a non-renewable source of energy. Slowly and deliberately, Virgil holds his hand up to his chest and explains that he is a man of faith and believes that God created the earth and everything on it for man, so while scientists debate how it came about and how long it’ll last, all he knows is that it was put there by God and he’ll use it until it’s gone.
I stood there for a minute and had to think about this one, because personally, I’m with the scientists. I think that things on this planet will run out and I don’t believe anything was created by anyone. So part of me felt flooded with disbelief and worry, that there really are people out there that feel using resources without any kind of consideration is OK.
On the other hand, part of me was just in awe of this man. I would never be so directly open about my thoughts and beliefs face to face with a group of people, especially strangers, because I would totally fear their reaction to my views. It was just a moment when I looked and thought, I really wish I had that level of comfort and strength in myself to just be who I am, with no worry of other people’s judgement of me.
Needless to say, the visit to Mr Charlie was a real treat and I hope that they promote it more locally with better signage to gain greater support, as there were very few indications that the rig is even there – I just happened to spot it in a guide book we picked up at the tourist office.
Our evening was spent in the car park of a Wal-Mart on the outskirts of town, where we of course endured the obligatory train noise we have now come to accept as part of our dry camp routine. I do have to mention this specific Wal-Mart though, because for the first time EVER, I found a pleasant and helpful employee working in it!
Yes, I know, pick your jaw up off of the floor, it’s true.
Loops and I, having completed our evening shop, were queuing to pay and this nice lady approaches us and tells us she can help us at the self-service tills. Little did we know that she actually meant not only was there a space free at the self-serve, but that she would scan and pack the shopping for us instead of us doing it. We thanked her for her help and off she went back to what she was doing – I was shocked!
The next day our destination is Lafayette and another dry camp at a second Wal-Mart. On route, both Loops and I have picked out a fun looking self-guided tour to take (which was also recommended by my grandfather), to learn how Tabasco sauce is made!
It turns out that Louisiana, and in particular Avery Island, is home to the McIlhenny Company who produce the Tabasco sauce you find in those distinctive red and green bottles sat on practically every restaurant you go to.
The company has always been, and remains to be, a family operated business run from Avery Island. It is here they grow the peppers, use the salt mined on the island, blend, age and bottle the sauce. The majority of the employees come from the island or the surrounding towns and villages, some of them having had their family work for the company for several generations. It really is a local business.
The island and factory are easily accessible, even for both Belle and The Beast, and there is not only the factory on site but also an environmental-type park across the road which is also owned by the family. We chose today to stick with the factory tour and for $5.50 per person; another value for money visit.
The tour begins in the museum, which outlines the history of the company, the family and the island. It talks about how the brand became popular with people and then became an iconic image. The displays are well set out and even of interest to someone like me, who has never eaten Tabasco sauce in my life.
Leaving the museum you follow the signposts around the site, heading into a small mock-up green house to show you the different types of peppers grown and used, depending on the flavour sauce (the actual peppers are grown in the fields further away on the island). You are then directed to the barrel house where a video explains the process of readying the oak barrels for use and how the peppers are ground up into a mash and mixed with some salt, before being poured into the barrels where they will mellow for three years.
The barrels are then sealed and the tops covered by salt. I obviously missed the reasoning for this salt – sorry! There is a viewing area for the resting barrels, but I warn you, be ready for the pungent smell! It’s strong, almost to gagging point. I can only assume it is the smell of peppers and old barrels.
Onward to the blending area, where the aged pepper mash is now mixed with vinegar and a tad more salt, and stirred in a giant mechanical bowl for 3 weeks.
Once that’s done, it’s strained to pull out the seeds and skins of the peppers and then sent to the factory to be bottled up and shipped out – all of which you get to see through the viewing windows.
At the very end of the tour you get the chance to pose with a giant plastic Tabasco bottle (because who doesn’t want to do that!) and then head over to the shop on site where in exchange for showing your tour receipt, you get given a couple mini bottles of Tabasco and some spicy beans!
Well, we were thoroughly worn out with all of our learning and had to refuel in the onsite restaurant, pretty much everything either being made or served with Tabasco sauce. Once again my ‘Try the Southern Thing’ kicked in and I decided that even though I don’t really do spicy food, I’d picked not only a food that would have the sauce in it, but also contained crawfish, which I’d been seeing advertised everywhere for days and hadn’t yet been brave enough to try. So I went for the Sothern Biscuit – basically a biscuit (for British people, read scone), with a crawfish etouffee poured over it (that would be crawfish, which look and taste a bit like shrimp but a little stronger in fish taste, mixed with an orange-coloured spicy, creamy tomato and Tabasco flavoured sauce).
Once I got used to the crawfish taste, it was really rather appetising, the biscuit was definitely needed in order to even out the spice in my opinion, but I’d eat it again if offered.
So yet again, another location getting the Button and Loops thumbs up!
Our evening plans, however, didn’t turn out quite to plan. The Wal-Mart we picked to stay at seemed to be in a dodgy part of town, Loops was convinced he’d seen some drug dealers in the car park, and I can’t disagree with him, the people in question looked very suspicious; so we followed our gut and moved over to a Cracker Barrel in a different part of the town. It worked out far better and with the added bonus that we had to go eat inside Cracker Barrel. If anyone ever decides they want to bestow a gift upon Loops and I for just being our fabulous selves – Cracker Barrel gift cards are the way to go! J
Well, it’s time for our third tour in as many days – this time for some rum!
Our final day in Louisiana, before we cross the border into Texas (Texas –can you believe it!), we make a straight shot along the I-10; deciding we can’t take the bone jarring that comes with staying on Highway 90 any longer. It so happens that within spitting distance of the motorway is the factory of Louisiana Spirits, who produce Bayou Rum.
Well, it would just be rude to pass this by. What sort of farewell to Louisiana would that be?
So let us thinking hats on and learn about rum…
First thing, just so you are aware, the Bayou Rum tours are free but take place at set intervals during the day on Tuesday to Saturday only, from 10am-4pm (except 12), on the hour. It just so happens that we arrived a smidge before the 1pm tour, which worked out perfectly for us.
Second thing, the tour is short, which is fine; but don’t think you’ll be there for a couple hours like the other tours I’ve told you about. You watch a 5 minute video, are taken around the small plant and then you get to taste products at the end. All told you are done within about half an hour, 45 minutes at the most.
Finally, they don’t let you take photos of anything apart from these three things…
Right, so what do we now know about rum which we didn’t before?
Well, it’s made of molasses, sugar and yeast. I had no clue about that (not that I’ve given it any real thought bearing in mind I don’t drink, but if someone had asked me to take a guess, sugar wouldn’t have been my answer).
Additionally, it is a relatively simple process to produce. As a most basic description, you blend the molasses and sugar together, heat for a set time and then cool. You then add yeast to this mix (a ‘special blend’ was how the lady described their yeast) and then heat it all again. When it reaches a certain heat, vapours will be given off and this is the actual alcohol being produced. To catch the vapours they use a condenser, which basically cools the vapours to where they become liquid again and store these in a tank. A little more heat and then they begin to taste test, pulling off ‘cuts’ of the alcohol that will either become rum (which has to have a certain alcohol percentage to it) or a rum liqueur. They will then add additional flavourings to these alcohol cuts and then bottle it.
The girl giving the tour uses the right blend of light hearted amusement and information, so that while the tour is short, you come away feeling that it was worth the effort to stop in.
At the end, you are taken to the bar in the shop and allowed to taste 2 samples each. Now, the company produces 4 types of rum, so if it’s just you on your own visiting, you have to pick your two favourites. However, if you are in a pair, they’ll give you all four to try and share. Oh, and they also give you cake. That’s very important. The cake.
Loops is all up for tasting, I worry that I’ll be driving the bus when we leave; the samples they give are a decent size and really, he’s drinking all four as I just take a tiny sip.
If you are a rum person, or use rum in your cooking, I am going to recommend you try the Spiced Bayou Rum. It smells really nice and tastes good too, until the alcohol flavour kicks in (for me).
The cake is totally worth buying. I tried both the plain cake (infused with spiced rum) and the chocolate cake (infused with clementine rum liqueur). The plain cake I found delicious and had it not contained about 6000 calories (remember, rum is sugar!), I would have bought the whole thing for myself and eaten it in a single sitting. Loops preferred the chocolate cake and because he’s not watching his waist line, he bought and ate the whole thing himself (admittedly over a few evenings at least).
And with that, we head off into the sunset for our last evening in Louisiana, camping in the car park of Delta Downs, a casino and horse racetrack. Sadly there was no horse racing, but there was a beautiful sunset and a nice cool evening to enjoy.
Not a bad way to leave the state indeed…