As mentioned in the post below, Sarah and I got back last weekend from a trip to New Orleans.

We left on Saturday, 13 Sep 2008, and got back on 20 Sep, 2008. The idea was to take one more big trip before the baby’s arrival in January. Admittedly, New Orleans during hurricane season wouldn’t be most people’s first idea of a vacation destination, but I guess that we’ve always been contrarian like that. Our motivations for choosing New Orleans were twofold. Sarah wanted to see how it was recovering from Katrina so that she could compare it with what she saw when she did relief work for the Red Cross there. I’ve always wanted to go there and it seemed that I should get there before another hurricane takes a stab at wiping the place out. There is no doubt that we benefited in some ways from the recent passage of Hurricane Gustav through the area and the threat that Hurricane Ike posed until it deviated towards Texas. Until the Friday before we left, we encountered very few tourists and could do just about anything we wanted without fear of crowds. It was only at the very end of our trip that tourists started to come back and venues started to fill up.

New Orleans proper (roughly 200,000 people) actually has a smaller population than Madison (roughly 225,000) now. The NOLA metro area is still much larger than Madison’s, but you can see what happens when a city loses half of its population without looking very far. The central business district and many of the larger streets still boast plenty of boarded up and abandoned buildings. We saw people living in FEMA trailers and houses that still had the search and rescue paint on the outside. There are vast swathes of the city that have almost no one living in them, while other parts of town have recovered quite well. I hesitate to say that anywhere has recovered 100%, but certainly areas like the French Quarter are nearly there.

Our original itinerary called for us to spend three nights in New Orleans, and then travel east and west of the city to spend a few more nights before coming back to spend one last night in NOLA. However, due to Gustav and Ike, we spent all seven nights in NOLA. You couldn’t get a hotel room west of the city for love or money as numerous evacuees from coastal LA and TX were occupying the hotel rooms in towns like Lafayette. East of the city, there were rooms to be had, but there wasn’t much reason to stay out there since most of what we wanted to do could be done as day trips.

So what did we do for seven days? We ate. Lots and lots of calories. Probably 3000 at every meal. As one person we met there said, “If it ain’t fried, it ain’t cooked.” Cajun cooking is good, but the first ingredient in most recipes is butter and the last instruction is “deep fry until golden brown”. In addition, all the portions are huge. At the end, we were ordering one entree and a salad, splitting them, and still coming away from the table quite full.

In addition to eating we took the “tour” of the Tabasco factory. Unless you’re already in Lafayette, that’s a factory tour worth skipping. I like Tabasco more than most people, but even I thought the tour wasn’t worth the drive 2.5 hours each way from our hotel. In New Iberia, just north of the Tabasco factory, we had gumbo that was so bad we didn’t eat more than a couple of spoonfuls. The day was saved, however, when we visited Lake Martin and saw alligators and numerous interesting birds.

Another day trip took us east of the city for a swamp boat tour. That was an OK tour, but nothing special. After the tour, Sarah was giving me directions to go somewhere and she said, “if you get to Mississippi, you’ve gone too far.” When I asked how far away it was, and she said, “Five miles”, I replied that we were going to Mississippi. It was one of the states I’d never visited (current count of unvisited states: 8) and Sarah wanted to visit the Gulf Coast, so we went. The beaches were in pretty bad shape due to Gustav, so we drove around looking at the damage, ate dinner at a beachfront restaurant that had recently re-opened, and went back to our hotel.

In New Orleans itself we ate beignets at Cafe du Monde numerous times. They were just too good to miss. In addition, we visited the Insectarium, which is a museum/zoo devoted to insects. One of the exhibits involved local chefs integrating bugs into food and then serving it to customers. We both tried beignets with crickets in them. They go down easy enough, but there definitely is a mental block associated with eating bugs that makes it difficult to ignore the fact that you just ate several crickets. That same day we took in an IMAX film; there were maybe thirty people in the whole theater.

We listened to plenty of jazz, including two shows at Preservation Hall. The first time we went there was no crowd and no waiting. We got right in, got good seats right in front and heard some good jazz. The second time was the night right before we left when all the other tourists came back. There was standing room only and some people had to listen from the hall. We saw Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) play at a show at a club named The Snug Harbor, as well. We had seen Mayfield and NOJO play a show at Madison’s Overture Center and that was a fairly formal show with the band on stage in suits. This was much more casual, with the band members switching out on a small stage and everyone dressed very casually. Finally, we took in a jazz show at a local bar that was pretty good.

We didn’t rent a car for our whole trip there, as the streetcars would take us from our hotel to downtown and back without much fuss. However, we had a rental car for three days so that we could get out of the city proper. Or, more precisely, we had a different rental car every day for three days. The first car we got had tire problems, so we swapped it out for another one. That one developed tire problems, so we swapped it out for a third. The tires on that one held up just long enough for us to turn it back in on the third day. Apparently, that’s a common problem post-hurricane, if the local residents and rental car folks can be believed.

Now we’re back in Madison and trying to work off some of those NOLA calories. We had a good time on the trip, the weather was generally quite cooperative, and we will likely go back for another visit some day in the future.