New Orleans celebrates 300 years


Pamela O’Meara photos/Review • New Orleans has such a high water table that people are buried in vaults above ground in the St. Louis Cemetery, which is more than 200 years old and may be home to ghosts. The city itself, founded by a Frenchman in 1718, celebrates its 300th anniversary this year.

Mardi Gras World is a huge warehouse full of giant, colorful figures for the Mardi Gras parade floats.

The Steamboat Natchez travels back and forth on the Mississippi River giving guests a chance to see New Orleans, watch the sunset and enjoy an authentic Creole buffet dinner.

A series of old newspapers brings news of the war at the Smithsonian-affiliated National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

The Jazz brunch at the outdoor Court of Three Sisters in the French Quarter of New Orleans features a jazz trio and a huge Creole-style buffet.

Pompano is served with asparagus at the famous Antoine’s restaurant in New Orleans.

The famous Café du Monde in the French Quarter of New Orleans serves café au lait and powdered sugar-covered beignets around the clock.

Pamela O’Meara  

Review staff

 

With every bite, powdered sugar from my beignet drifted down onto my shirt, pants and arm, painting my mouth clown-like at Café du Monde, a famous, busy tourist spot open 24-7 in the French Quarter of New Orleans since 1862. 

I sat outdoors and enjoyed a café au lait with the puff pastry while I watched tourists climb into horse-pulled carriages across the street at Jackson Square. The beignet is the Louisiana state doughnut. 

New Orleans celebrates its 300th anniversary this year. Back in 1718, Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville founded the city on high ground 100 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River. 

The French and Spanish alternated control of it until the French sold the city, along with vast tracks of land west of the Mississippi, to the U.S. as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

New Orleans is a fun, historic city and the birthplace of jazz. On my recent trip there, I took a boat ride on the Mississippi, toured Mardi Gras World, visited a cemetery with burial vaults above ground, did a walking tour of the famous French Quarter, visited the National World War ll Museum and ate lots of good food.

 

Mardi Gras World

If you can’t get to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, visit Mardi Gras World, the largest float designing and building facility in the world. It will give you the flavor of the pre-Ash Wednesday event with its huge collection of floats — or at least the gigantic, colorful, cartoon-like figures that go on the floats. It’s worth a visit.

The French Quarter is a great place for walking, and that’s just what we did — starting with a very interesting two-hour guided walking tour of the area. Though you can’t tell by looking, many old brick buildings there are built around courtyards and many have balconies with flowers. It’s slightly mysterious walking around these old buildings when few people are around.

After the tour, we stopped nearby at the crowded Gumbo Shop in a high-ceilinged building that dates to 1795. I chose a delicious shrimp gumbo po boy sandwich, which was loaded with baby shrimp.

 

Ghosts and bones

Next we headed to the St. Louis Cemetery, which opened in 1789 and is one of the most-visited cemeteries in the world. The land is so low there, right at the water table, that people were interred above ground with large markers. 

Back in time, the bodies were not embalmed but put to rest in simple wooden boxes or just a cloth in large burial vaults. Eventually the bodies deteriorated, and the bones would be raked to the bottom of the tomb with a 10-foot pole, as explained by our guide.

Over time, bodies piled up in the vaults. The stench of the cemetery became so strong that flowers were brought to the graves to reduce the foul smell, our guide added.

Nowadays, there’s no bad smell, but ghost tours are popular at the cemetery. Voodoo queen Marie Laveau is buried there, and is said to haunt the place.

 

Hungry history

The nation’s oldest family-owned restaurant, Antoine’s, opened in New Orleans in 1840 as a pension, restaurant and boarding house. It now has 14 dining rooms and is world-famous.  

Lisa Blount, wife of the current owner, told us the history. While Napoleon was still campaigning across Europe, Antoine Alciatore, 18 years old and fresh from France, started as an apprentice in New York, but people suggested that since he spoke French, he should head to New Orleans. 

At the time it was a roadless backwater, but it proved to be a great opportunity — nowadays, New Orleans is known for great food, and Antoine’s is one of its best restaurants.

My dinner was in Antoine’s elegant Mardis Gras memorabilia-filled Rex Proteus Room. The meal included oysters Rockefeller, which was created at Antoine’s, as well as crab and shrimp appetizers, pompono with asparagus, chateaubriand, baked Alaska for dessert and delicious wine. 

Blount mentioned that much wine was consumed there during prohibition in the speakeasy hidden behind the women’s restroom, placed there because the police would be too embarrassed to go in and check.

Another evening we enjoyed a live jazz band and dinner cruise with a Creole buffet on the Steamboat Natchez, the last authentic steamboat on the mighty Mississippi. Sipping wine, we relaxed in lounge chairs to watch the sun set and the sky turn bright pink over the water.

One morning we went to the Court of Three Sisters, where a jazz trio was playing during our leisurely Creole-style brunch in the shady courtyard, complete with a fountain, low hanging trees and grape vines.

 

Nation at war

Our tour of the Smithsonian-affiliated National World War II Museum, considered by some to be the No. 1 attraction in New Orleans, began with a simulation of a train ride as if we were heading off to war. 

The museum tells why the war was fought, how it was won, how the Higgins boats and landing craft that were designed and built in New Orleans helped transport troops, and what the war means today, so everyone can understand the cost of freedom.

With exhibits, multi-media experiences and many personal accounts, the museum immerses visitors in a tour of the European and Pacific theaters of the war. An introductory movie adds more realism: the seats vibrate, the guns are loud and planes fly close overhead. I got choked up from the horror of it all.

New Orleans, a city that was so devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has rebuilt itself and there’s plenty of energy there as it gears up to celebrate its 300th birthday, all year long. 

I loved the city — the history, the food, the mysteriousness of it all — and plan to go back soon to see what I missed, as well as to enjoy another beignet and café au lait.

 


– Pamela O’Meara can be reached at pomeara@lillienews.com or 651-748-7818.

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