Friday, March 23, 2012

New Orleans Part 2

Wednesday was planned for going to Avery Island and finally making it to New Orleans. Even though we left at 7:30 am, the traffic around Lafayette was awful. Luckily there are several major roads/streets through the town, so we eventually got on our way.

Avery Island is owned by the McIlhenny family and is a salt dome that is eight miles deep .  It is still mined for salt today. The Tabasco plant located on the island is open for tours, although most of the sauce is now made in Central and South America and only the bottling is done at the plant in Louisiana. Outside the factory is set up for tourists and photo ops, so I couldn’t resist.

See, Sid, I can catch a fish too!

I don't know what it is, but it's colorful

The local eatery

Factory welcome

Inside was just as colorful.

Wall sculpture

Wall plaque

A LOT of Tabasco sauce!

Their special peppers are mashed with a small amount of Avery Island salt, placed in white oak casks (that they get from one of the whiskey makers after they’ve been used once to age whiskey) and aged for about three years. Then it is blended with premium white wine vinegar, strained and bottled.
Yep, that's what they do

Barrel soaking the peppers

The bottling floor

Another view of the bottling floor

This day's batch was going to Brazil

There was also this cool 3D model of the island.

Avery Island

 Alligators on the 3D island, just in case

Then it was time for samples! Samples, you say, in a Tabasco factory? Yes. They had Jalapeno and Sweet and Spicy ice creams, all their sauces to try and even Tabasco cola. I had to buy some Bloody Mary mix, as well.
Company store

Sample bar
After learning the history and touring the factory, you’re invited to drive around the 170 acre Avery Jungle Garden.  It was begun by Edward Avery McIlhenny in the1890s.   The azaleas were in full bloom, camellias were just finishing and the wisteria was just starting.
Part of the drive through the garden

Flowering cactus of some kind

Wisteria tunnel


There’s also a Bird City where egrets migrate to nest.  So we saw lots of birds!!! You know how I love the birds.

The rookery

Nesting egret


And did I mention? I saw a live alligator!

Alligator up close

Alligator in bayou

I was still hoping to see one in a truly natural environment, but this was a thrill.

Finally, we stood at the shrine and saw the centuries-old Buddha that was a gift to Mr. Avery in 1936.

Nancy at the entrance to the Buddha shrine

The shrine


The Big Easy was still calling so we finished touring the gardens and left for the final leg of the trip to our primary destination.  On to New Orleans….

We took back roads up to the city so that we could drive along River Road, where a lot of the plantations are located. We peeked at St Joseph’s plantation, Laura plantation and Oak Alley. Here’s a quick view from atop the levee across the road.

Oak Alley

I think driving up on top of that levee was the only time that I scared Nancy with my driving!  But I wanted to get a peek of the Mississippi River as well.

First view of the Mississippi

Getting ready to cross the Mississippi

We pushed on and didn’t have any trouble finding the condo we had rented at all, but the neighborhood wasn’t exactly what we were expecting. There was a drunk sleeping by the fence when we arrived.

Our condo - looks pretty nice, huh?

This was across one street

This was across another street

This is the street the condo was on

The owner of the condo, Glenn, gave us his, I assume, standard introduction to New Orleans. By the time he was finished, Nancy and I were ready to turn around and leave! He was sooooo negative about everything that we really wondered if we had made a mistake in coming here.

But, knowing us, we had to find out for ourselves. Although it was almost dark, we decided to take a drive into the French Quarter (don’t drive there, Glenn said). We wanted to find some public parking (there isn’t much and it’s very expensive, Glenn said) and to locate the building for the cooking class we had signed up for the next day. The streets were narrow and crowded and we got lost and turned around quite a bit, but we just laughed and kept on going. It was dark now and we were hungry, but couldn’t find a place to park and we wary of selecting a place to eat (all the restaurants are very expensive, Glenn said). We pulled into an empty space on Decateur St that looked like it was a parking place, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to come back and find the car towed, for sure. So I popped into a souvenir store and asked if it was okay to park there. Found out that yes, it was cool and it was free after 6 pm (curse you, Glenn). So we parked and happened across one of the meeeellion visitor centers that dot the French Quarter. They recommended an eatery and off we went.

I don’t remember what we ate because I was so tired and cold (hadn’t taken a jacket with me that day), but we had passed Café DuMond on the way to the restaurant. So we stopped there and had…..beignets and coffee! Well, hot chocolate for me.

Looking a bit wind-blown

Can't you see how happy she is?

Before we went back to the condo, we knew we needed to pick up some basic groceries, in case we were too tired to go out to dinner or had a snack attack in the middle of the night. We found the grocery store and our luck was good. A parking place opened up in front of us only about ½ block from the store. Expected the prices in the grocery to be astronomical since it was in the French Quarter, but they weren’t. We picked up some vodka to go with the Bloody Mary mix from the Tabasco factory, plus some other things, and we were in business.

Back to the condo to rest up for the next day.

We had originally planned to take an airboat swamp tour, but after learning that a friend of Nancy’s was going to take us on a boat tour (more about that later), we decided to sign up for a cooking demonstration. Having found the general area of the building where the cooking school was the day before, we had also learned about the streetcar system from the visitor center. Parking was pricey, but not THAT expensive (curses, Glenn), but you know us, we like to do things on the CHEAP! Since the streets of the whole area were used for residential parking, we looked at the map and decided to try to park in a residential area close to a streetcar station. Our condo was just about 4 blocks ouside the actual French Quarter, but given the neighborhood’s appearance, we didn’t want to chance having to walk that far at night. Okay, we had a plan. Well, the area we had targeted ended up being an industrial area, but only a block from the station and, YIKES, we found a whole street nearly empty of parked cars! So we parked and hoped that the car would still be there when we returned!

Our "secret" parking place

We walked just a block to the streetcar and rode the rest to the opposite end of the French Quarter.

Street car interior

Riverfront Streetcar

The Riverwalk along the Mississippi was a cool place. In addition to a long, paved walkway, there’s numerous vendors and street art, plus a three story indoor mall. Since we hadn’t known how long the whole parking and streetcar thing would take, we had a couple of hours to kill before class and any of the shops were open. We watched the very busy! traffic on the Mississippi and ate, AGAIN, beignets and coffee while we waited!

The Riverwalk

Cyndi at the fountain

View of another bridge crossing the river

The ferry from one side to the other

A tugboat

You know I had to get a picture of a bird in here somewhere!

Nancy at the fountain

One of the sculptures on the Riverwalk

Crescent City Cooks was actually a storefront in the Riverwalk mall that conducted classes in learning how to make chicken & andouille gumbo, shrimp etoufee, bananas foster and pralines. There was a private room at the back of the store that overlooked the Mississippi. There were only 6 students that day, so we all got front row seat.

The class was great! Our chef, Scott, and his assistant, Jamie, prepared and served all the food and the portions were significant.

Scott, the chef

Jamie, the assistant, making pralines

Okay, I've seen an alligator already, but I'm just so used to taking pictures.....

Everyone had a front row seat!

Making the chicken and andouille gumbo

Shrimp Etoufee

We learned so much about local cooking. For example, New Orleans cooking is creole, not cajun. Roux, which is common to both types of food, is made with lard in creole cooking, but oil in cajun cooking and crawfish are considered to be a poor man’s food. Cajun cooking is looked at as country fare, while creole dishes are more upscale, pulled from the French. The Lafayette area is considered to be the crawfish capital of the state, which explained the rangers’s remarks when we were at Jean Lafitte. The word gumbo may come from an African word for okra or a Choctaw Indian word for chopped sassafrass leaves (which is what filé is made of).

And praline, the sugary, yummy nutty confection is pronounced “PRAW-line”, not “PRAY-line”. Scott said that since New Orleaneans invented them, they have the right to determine the correct pronunciation!


Bananas foster was purportedly invented by a customer of Brenan’s Restaurant by the name of …..drum roll, please….Mr. Foster when bananas being imported were piling up on the New Orleans docks and the city started a contest for using them up.

Picture of bananas foster here
Oops!  I guess I scarfed them up before I took a picture - sorry!

After the class we were offered a 10% discount on anything in the store, so of course we shopped. Then it was off to Mardi Gras World.

Mardi Gras World is a museum established by Blaine Kerne, who makes 90% of the Mardi Gras floats. It is actually a working warehouse where, along with 17 or 18 others, the floats are created and stored.

Outside Mardi Gras World

This was about 10 feet tall

A misconception that I had was that Mardi Gras was a single parade on a single day.  Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, which is actually the end of the carnival period that runs from Epiphany until the day before Lent begins.  However, it has come to represent the entire carnival period.  This year, about 60 parades were held in and around New Orleans.

Some of the things we saw included:
A row of heads as tall as me

Wooden carriage that many original floats were built omn

An elaborate costume for the Crawfish Queen

I couldn't reach the opening!
Nancy COULD reach the opening, but just barely!

Inside the artist's workshop.  Parts of the floats are made of Styrofoam and are carved, then covered in paper mache.

Another view of the workshop

The company makes props for other businesses as well.  Here are the Chick-Fil-A cows, some complete and others awaiting completion,

King Kong

Queen Kong (who knew?)

Pigs flying float

Stacks of flowers which are made out of two layers of poster board.

Looking down one row of the warehouse

A float

Some more accessories

Float up close

Another float

After each parade, the floats are returned to the warehouse, completely stripped and the whole process is started again.  Pieces and parts are reconfigured and repainted to possibly use again.

After touring Mardi Gras World, another streetcar ride was next on the agenda. There are 3 street car lines that will take you to most tourist areas of the city, but are also used by locals as transportation to work, school and home. A day pass costs just $3 and allows you to ride all day and night and get off and on as many times as you want. It’s a great way to see the city and a great way to rest after a lot of walking.
The best bargain in the city

The St Charles Streetcar travels all the way down (can you guess?)  St. Charles Avenue, which is one border of an area called the Garden District and is supposed to be the most beautiful street in the city. Many celebrities, such as Sandra Bullock, Nicholas Cage and Brad Pitt have houses on this street and it’s easy to see why. Blocks and blocks of one historic house after another, all different and all beautiful.

Historic home

Historic home

Historic home

I liked the glass doors on this one

Even original gas stations were fancy

Yes, people do really live in these homes

Historic home

Another historic home

Historic home

Another home.  Pictures were hard to get since we were moving all the time, but hopefully you get the idea.

Cute street art

Another puppy

St. Charles Ave. is also one of the parade routes and there was evidence everywhere .
Beads in the trees

More beads in the trees

Beads decorating a balcony

More beads in the trees

Beads on the ground.

We rode the St Charles streetcar from one end to the other, then were done for the day. We picked up another streetcar to get back to our car and crossed our fingers that it WAS still there. Success! We had beaten the parking gods today. Time to go back to the condo, mix up the Bloody Marys and have dinner at home.

Before I close, I’ll post some pictures of the condo we rented. It looks pretty nice on the surface, but, unfortunately, once you looked closely, it was really dirty. Filthy, actually. We made do, but I don’t get as high marks as the trip to Savannah for accommodations!

View from the front door

View from the kitchen

View of front entry

At least we had fenced, locked parking and it was quiet. An, after touring around in the humid air of New Orleans, really good air conditioning!

Next up, the French Quarter.

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