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By Michele McIntyre –
A girls weekend in New Orleans is the perfect tonic when life gets a little too ordinary. Visiting at Christmas time was a bit surreal: Shouldn’t I be preparing for the holiday season rather than frolicking around the French Quarter with my girlfriends? Heck no! It wasn’t hard to get into the Christmas spirit despite the amazing weather (high seventies and sunny on our arrival day), attire of t-shirts and shorts and food that didn’t even remotely resemble traditional holiday fare. The city is decked out in Christmas splendor even if there isn’t a drop of snow within hundreds of miles.
On this girls spa weekend, we opted to skip the spa altogether – although New Orleans has it’s share of wonderful spas ranging from local day spas to luxury hotel spas – and savor the sights and sounds of New Orleans. My mission was to have a great time with the girls while still maintaining some semblance of my usual wellness routine. I needed to balance the rich flavorful food and potent cocktails New Orleans is known for with just enough sleep to avoid getting sick and a bit of exercise each day.
Here are my top picks:
Hotel – Unless you’re the stumble-home-drunk-at-who-knows-what-hour type, you may want to avoid staying on Bourbon Street. Yes, there are some wonderful hotels there. The Royal Sonesta in particular was festively decorated for the holidays and had a lot going on. It’s central Bourbon Street location doesn’t get much better if you want to be in the thick of it all. But here’s the thing: you just can’t escape the raucousness.
For a more refined yet traditional New Orleans experience, bed down on Royal Street. My pick is the iconic Hotel Monteleone located in the heart of Royal Street’s quaint shops and sophisticated dining, yet just one block from Bourbon Street (if that’s important to you). The neighborhood was safe and welcoming and we found just about everything we needed within a few blocks walk of the property. And it’s off-Bourbon Street location guaranteed us enough peace and quiet at night so we could rest peacefully. This can’t be said for all French Quarter accommodations, where the party can go on until the wee hours of the morning.
Still, Hotel Monteleone is fun! Don’t miss a chance to go for a spin on Hotel Monteleone’s famous Carousel Bar. Innovative cocktails, a recently renovated decor and tasty small bites from the bar menu were the perfect way to cap off an evening.
Did I find the balance I was searching for at Hotel Monteleone? I sure did! The top floor fitness center offered state of the art fitness equipment and stunning panoramas of the city and river in a climate controlled environment. Just a few blocks from the hotel is the Woldenberg Riverfront Park where I could run till my heart and legs were content along the Mississippi River. It was particularly beautiful at sunrise. It’s not a long path, but a few trips back and forth and you’ll be ready for a hearty breakfast.
Stanley in Jackson Square is diner food with a Creole twist. They do Eggs Benedict in a multitude of creative ways and they do it well. I was smitten with the Eggs Stella: Cornmeal-crusted soft-shell crab, poached eggs, Canadian bacon and Creole hollandaise on toasted english muffin. But what’s unique about Stanley is you can put your name on the waiting list (and you WILL wait) and then head over to the service bar next door where you can order a mimosa. When your table is ready, the hostess will come outside and find you.
Meltdown Gourmet Popsicles
Once a mobile popsicle truck, the TripAdvisor City Guide app on my iPhone took us right to Meltdown’s brick and mortar location on Dumaine Street. My friends thought I was nuts traipsing all over town for popsicles in December and dragging them with me. (In my defense, it WAS in the upper 70’s and sunny out!) We each shelled out $3 for a gourmet pop and dug in. The salted caramel flavor blew us away – crave-worthy and beyond expectation. If you could only have one more popsicle in your whole life, this would be it!
There are two distinct and very divided camps on the proper place to get you’re beignet fix in the French Quarter: Café Du’Monde or Café Beignet. Café Beignet produces a larger and denser version of the iconic square of fried dough eaten hot sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar. If you like a lighter beignet, you’ll probably prefer Café Du’Monde’s version. Either way, beignets in the French Quarter are almost a requirement when visiting NOLA.
Off the shelf tours can be so, well, canned but they’re a super way to quickly orient you to a new destination. Scheduling a city tour at the beginning of your visit can show you the highlights of your destination so you can decide where to spend your precious time on the remainder of your trip.
That said, Mardi Gras World is well worth it’s weight in beads and the $19.95 admission price (less for seniors and children) for the hour-long tour. Who knew that Mardi Gras features 54 parades over the 12 day period leading up to Fat Tuesday? This tour was filled with fun facts about this annual celebration that defines New Orleans culture and is steeped in rich tradition and history.
There is no better way to sample every dish that is classic New Orleans than the French Quarter Tasting. Come hungry, trust me! Over the course of 3 hours (2 pm to 5 pm) we walked and talked with our knowledgeable guide through the French Quarter and Jackson Square, sampling eight different specialties at seven different classic restaurants and establishments. We learned the distinct differences between Creole and Cajun (most of what you eat in New Orleans is Creole; Cajun food is more predominantly found in the bayou and swamp areas of southwest Louisiana).
The samples, collectively enough for a meal, included:
The best part of the tour, besides the food itself, may have been the behind the scenes access to some of the lesser known dining rooms and memorabilia that most guests of Arnaud’s, Antoines and other legendary New Orleans eating establishments never get to see.
Jazz Brunch at The Court of Two Sisters
No need to wait until Sunday to experience the quintessential New Orleans tradition: the jazz brunch. The Court of Two Sisters offers brunch every day of the week serenaded by a trio of talented jazz musicians. Everything and anything you can want for brunch, and then some, is featured on the buffet: turtle soup, other New Orleans specialties, traditional breakfast foods, a carving station and a wonderful variety of compound salads worthy of expanding your waistline. If you happen to have room left for dessert, you’ll be treated to king cake, Bananas Foster and their famous Courtyard Bread Pudding with whiskey sauce. On the day of our visit, a torrential downpour forced a disappointing closure of the picturesque French Quarter courtyard, but our spirits and appetites weren’t dampened. Our table still had a lovely view of the outdoor seating area and we left full and with the memory of an excellent meal that won’t soon be forgotten.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with discount hotel accommodations and attractions to experience New Orleans and write this review.