New Orleans, Louisiana

NOLA: The Big Easy beckons

Bourbon Street

“Up here! Up here!” Everyone on the balcony was shouting to parade revellers below, arms outstretched to catch beaded necklaces flung up into the air. I wasn’t even there during Mardi Gras, but in New Orleans (also known as NOLA), there’s always a reason to celebrate and on Bourbon Street, there’s always spontaneous bursts of revelry and music.

But unless you’re a university student on break, don’t linger on Bourbon Street. Instead, walk a few blocks over to Frenchmen Street, a decidedly more charming and quintessentially New Orleans experience. This is where I found a poet-for-hire, moodily lit by neon, telling his tale of how he ended up in NOLA with his typewriter. But the live music was calling—a jumble of jazz and hip hop and rockabilly, spilling out onto the street and tempting me in. The Spotted Cat (spottedcatmusicclub.com) and Snug Harbor (snugjazz.com) are favourites among locals.

Char-grilled oysters; The land of crawfish

But my main goal was to eat my way through New Orleans—the best way to explore such a culturally diverse city with regionally specific cuisine. Char-grilled oysters are a staple in this town, introduced over 20 years ago by Tommy Cvitanovich, owner of Drago’s Seafood Restaurant (dragosrestaurant.com). I’m used to the fresh, briny scent of delicate raw oysters, so the smell of garlic, butter and cheese was inconsonant—until the first bite. The rich sauce that bubbles over during grilling to create caramelized, chewy edges works beautifully with the Gulf’s larger, meatier oysters. Equally delicious but far trickier to eat are crawfish. Seafood boils are a tradition in which crawfish comes steamed in a bucket and dumped over paper in a heap on the table in front of you. Forget the cutlery, dig in with your hands. When you face your first boiled crawfish (it’s inevitable), remember this: pinch the tail, twist the head and pop the meat out.

Liuzza’s shrimp po’boy

Try Bevi Seafood Company (beviseafoodco.com) or Schaefer’s Seafood, which has been around for over 40 years. And don’t leave without trying a po’boy (traditionally fried oysters on baguette-like bread). On a hot tip, I ventured outside the French Quarter to Liuzza’s for her famous BBQ shrimp po’boy (liuzzas.com).

Willa Jean’s cookies

After all that seafood, wash it down with a frosé: frozen rosé. While these adult slurpees can be found in most restaurants throughout New Orleans, this sophisticated version is rumoured to have originated at Willa Jean (willajean.com), a contemporary southern-comfort-food eatery specializing in exquisite baked goods. The cornbread and tartines are just about as famous as the frosés. And if that’s not enough, try a beignet, a French take on a fritter, another sweet treat that NOLA’s known for.

Crypts in one of NOLA’s cemeteries; Go-to spot for voodoo souvenirs

The best place to walk off all this food and drink is through one of New Orleans’ hauntingly poignant cemeteries, nicknamed “cities of the dead”. The most famous is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and its most famous vault belonging to the voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau, an occult and voodoo practitioner during the mid-1800s. Whether or not she had special gifts, she did hold great power over residents who both feared and respected her. Her influence continues today, evidenced by all the “X”s covering her vault. It’s rumoured that you can invoke her spirit by marking an “X” on the tomb, turning around three times, knocking on the tomb, telling her your wish, then returning later to circle your “X” and leaving Laveau an offering. If that’s too complicated, you can always buy a voodoo doll at Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo (voodooneworleans.com) in the French Quarter. Which is what I did. — Catherine Tse