NEW ORLEANS, LA - The Big Easy is rarely cheap and easy especially during the Grand Dame of all parties, the Mardi Gras Festival, which just finished.
But on a recent road trip across Louisiana, we spent some time in the birthplace of jazz and discovered there are loads of things to see and do for the budget conscious. Here are my top picks.
Café Du Monde
Start your day with a cup of java at New Orleans signature coffee house, Café Du Monde. Although brimming with tourists and locals alike, this historic coffee joint is New Orleans oldest. Sit under their green and white canopy, cooled by outdoor ceiling fans and sip a cup while listening to some morning jazz. The ubiquitous Dr. Saksun serenaded us with some mellow morning music from his alto sax. Be sure to order a serving of sinful beignets. These holeless donuts (three per order) are smothered in icing sugar and are oh so good. Total price tag: $4.50 for two cups of coffee and one order of beignets.
Anytime, anywhere in the French Quarter, a budding musician or a seasoned pro is sure to entertain the passers-by. Big Mama Sunshine sings under a shady tree across from the historic Brennan's Restaurant, birthplace of the famous dessert Bananas Foster. She'll get anyone near her to perform. In an instant, I was immediately cast as her percussionist after she thrust a bread knife and a cheese grater into my hand and started on her lustful rendition of "Down by the Bayou." Over on Royale Street, mime artists stand motionless in the heat as the harmony of a Cajun blues band fills the narrow streets.
St. Charles Streetcar
Hop aboard one of the historic green trolleys for a trip back in time. For over 100 years, these old streetcars fitted with brass and solid mahogany seats have plied the plush avenues of the Garden District. Servicing a 13-mile loop starting at Canal Street, the streetcar travels along the grass boulevards and under a street canopy of live oak and palm trees. The picturesque tour passes antebellum mansions, Tulane and Loyola Universities and the Audubon Zoological Gardens. Formerly this hood was American territory but these days the tony stretch along the Garden district is home to the bewitching author Anne Rice among other celebs. This self-guided trip is a great way to see the city and a chance to meet the friendly locals. Fare: $1.25 one-way.
The big question on everyone's mind while traveling is where to grab cheap eats? At the Central Grocery across from the French Market, order a famous muffaletta. This frisbee-sized sandwich is chockfull of cold cuts, marinated insalata and cheese, all melanged to perfection between two giant frittatas. This thirties-style deli is a people watching paradise. Work your way to the back of the deli amid the jammed shelves full of marinades, pickles and colorful posters of Italia. Pull up a chair, saddle up to the high counter and prepare to bite into the biggest sandwich on the planet. Full orders can and should be shared. Save some greenbacks and split the round sandwich. Price $4US for a half order or $8 for a whole.
Acme Oyster House
When in N'Awlins, it's been part of my ritual to suck back some oysters at the Acme Oyster House. If there's a line-up, it's worth the wait. At this no nonsense diner, a half plateful of raw oysters comes with an array of dips from ketchupy horseradish to fresh lemon slices and will set you back for $3.99 or try their fried oyster po-boy for $6.99.
Hampton Inn Jazzland/Six Flags Area
A 15-minute drive from the French Quarter, this family budget hotel near the Six Flags theme park provides a breakfast buffet and some solitude from the cavorting along Bourbon Street. Free parking (which is a bonus in the Crescent City), makes this off-the-beaten path hotel well worth the short drive from the city centre. Rates start as low as $69 per night. For more info, visit neworleanshamptoninns.com
If you want a break from the cold, check out the bargain barrel prices by mousing over to the New Orleans Convention Bureau's web site neworleanscvb.com. You'll find downloadable coupons on attractions and accommodations. One off-season is December so many hotels have great discounts. In the state of Louisiana, Canadians can enjoy tax-free shopping. Simply show your passport when making a purchase and you'll receive a sales tax voucher that you can redeem when you arrive at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport's Refund Centre. Need more info? Visit louisianataxfree.com
For other travel-related information, call the New Orleans Convention Bureau at toll free 1.800.672.6124