Taking it easy in the Big Easy | VailDaily.com

Taking it easy in the Big Easy

Charlie Owen
Vail, CO, Colorado
Charlie Owen/Vail Daily

When most people think of New Orleans, they think of Mardi Gras, the Fleur de Lis, Bourbon Street, and now, unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina. All these things act as symbols for a city with more culture and history than perhaps any other city in America. In fact, New Orleans almost exists outside of the normal conventions we use to define a city.

Everything is done differently in N’awlins: The food, the people, the drinking laws, the architecture, even the speech is vastly different from the rest of the country. But the most exciting thing about New Orleans is the energy, kept alive by its residents and their traditions. It’s something that few outsiders will ever truly understand, but we can get a taste.

When Katrina struck in 2005, over a thousand people died because of flooding, lack of food and water and violence in the chaotic aftermath. Things have gotten better since Katrina hit, but the affects of the hurricane still linger like a ghost in a dark back alley. Nobody wants to talk about it, but when the conversation does occur it goes something like this:

“Did this part of New Orleans get hit by the hurricane?”

“Yeah, but it’s definitely getting better, you can see the water mark on the buildings, but that’s about it.”

“That’s good, glad to hear that things are getting back to normal around here.”

But if you dig deeper and look into the eyes of anybody that has seen the storm’s destruction first-hand, it’s obvious things are not back to normal. New Orleanians just willingly subscribe to a kind of normalcy that ignores the obvious, because it’s necessary for survival.

The French Quarter remains open for business, and is probably the area least affected by Katrina’s wrath, but there is still an overwhelming sense of buried memories, all for the sake of maintaining commerce and lifestyle. For now, forget about it and raise a glass: Drinking is the best way to help the local economy. The bar scene in the Quarter is alive with music, dancing, gambling and any other vice you can think of. It’s a way of life in New Orleans, and that potent mixture of tradition and sin can make the streets very volatile at 4 a.m. ” yes, the bars are open at four a.m. in the Quarter. In fact, they never really close.

But you can’t have a party without a little unrest, and New Orleans has it’s share. The police have their hands full at all hours of the day, as do the fire department and ambulance services. One can’t count the sirens heard wailing in the night, going to or coming from the rescue of some poor civilian who found unlimited access to alcohol too intoxicating.

With so many bars at hand, it can be hard to pick your poison. You can stumble your way into the Funky Pirate, fall backwards into Utopia, or spill your drink inside a hundred different bars, all connected to each other like a brick and concrete Siamese twin. Every square inch of the French Quarter is covered with taverns, voodoo shops, strip clubs, book stores and restaurants, daring the individual to resist the decadent promises of its streets. The smell of vomit mixed with beer stings the nostrils at the corner of Conti and Bourbon, but the next street over the delightful aroma of crawfish jambalaya fills the air.

Want to try some absinthe? Of course you do. Grab a seat outside of the Pirate’s Alley Cafe and enjoy a glass of the ‘Green Menace.’ William Faulkner wrote his first novel next door, and you can still feel his spirit between the walls of the Alley. Maybe you’re in the mood for a Hurricane, New Orleans signature drink. It contains just about every type of alcohol and fruit juice known to man, and you might not wake up the same person the next morning. But Crescent City completists won’t want to skip out on bellying up at Pat O’Brien’s to imbibe the tasty beverage. In the mood to dance? New Orleans is one of the bastions of Dirty South hip-hop, and Utopia is the best place to hit the dance floor and shake your booty all night long.

If you survive Bourbon Street and can still walk the next morning (or afternoon, depending on how late you stay out), then head over to Cafe Du Monde and enjoy a beignet, a French doughnut covered in powdered sugar and served with strong, chickory-spiced coffee. Navigating the narrow streets with a car calls for more effort than it’s worth, and you have to watch all those little shops and cafes through your window instead of experiencing them first-hand. Walking is the best form of transportation unless you have to go out of the Quarter ” and you better have a damn good reason for that. But there are plenty, including going to listen to Harvey Burman play harmonica with Sheena and the Swamp Rats at The Old Point Bar in Algiers, where scenes from “Ray” were filmed. Or you could just take a walk along the Mississippi River, where the breeze coming off the water can keep you from melting in the maddening summer heat. There is too much to do in New Orleans, and unless you have a year to do it all you can’t expect to check off everything on your list during one visit.

Most cities bend at one point to trends or fashions of some kind, but The Big Easy is a place where anyone can be themselves.

“What I love about New Orleans is the spirit of the city,” said Ashley Enlow, a former resident visiting from Atlanta. “The way it lives around me as I walk down the streets, the deep history of the place combined with the music, food, and most of all the people, really makes me feel like I’m home.”

No one gives you the evil eye for wearing certain clothing, or lack thereof. With such a muti-cultural vortex, it’s almost impossible to stand out in the crowd. And if there was ever a time when visiting New Orleans mattered, its today. Much like Vail, it thrives on a tourist economy, and those tourist dollars make all the difference when it comes to getting New Orleans back on track. It’s one of the most visited cities in America, but to understand why, it must be experienced.

In the midst of all the booze, exotic food and Southern comfort, it just might change your life.

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