ActiveSteve Visits the Big Easy

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Every now and again, life throws you a bone. And even more infrequently, your employer might throw you a bone. Or in my case, you may be able to parlay your way to a decent work trip to attend a conference in a city you’ve always wanted to visit. For this post, I’m going to talk about the fact that I recently got to spend a week in New Orleans for an IEEE Conference. The location of this conference changes yearly, but this time it was in New Orleans. I was down there from Monday – Friday, and although Monday and Friday were primarily the travel days, I still found some time in the schedule to satisfy my curiosity on all things NOLA.

As it turns out, the conference was *very* technical focused, with a much of the content frankly over my head, and not as closely related to my day-to-day work as I’d hoped. As a result, I felt it justified to play a bit of hooky from the program in the later afternoons. As a result, I managed to see at least peripherally a lot of the sights and locations, got out for a couple nice runs downtown and along the levy, as well as a few other adventures. Below are some images I captured in my travels, and read on for a little more about my time in N’awwleans.

To make the most of my time, my adventure started the moment I arrived downtown. I had no sooner checked in and dropped my bags off that I left on foot to get a feel for the town and stroll through the French Quarter and ultimately Bourbon Street. My takeaway is that Bourbon Street is a more brazen and hedonistic strip of humanity than Las Vegas! It felt like a permanent bachelor party on Bourbon, where every bar is a dive bar. Not only that, but most of them feature some sort of live music. This is a scene that would have been very dangerous to the younger version of me! One night there was enough to satisfy my curiosity. I had a couple tasty local beers and caught some decent blues at a small club.

The next morning, I *almost* got my first view of the Mighty Mississippi. Why almost? Well, there was a thick fog covering the river giving it a very ghostly appearance, but overall very cool to see from my hotel room which was looking out over the river. After sitting through most of the day’s program at the conference,  I laced up my shoes and went for a nice 10k run along the river on this side of the river. I got caught out in some really heavy rains, but still enjoyed my run which included running through some of the really old neighbourhoods and ultimately ending up near an abandoned naval  yard looking out on the river. The run worked up quite a thirst, so I made a plan to hit a few breweries for drinks and food before more music.

The plan involved a first stop at the Gordon Biersch Brewery, which had an impressive selection of beers for a ‘chain’ brewery. Over the next 2 days, I ended up sampling them all, with some great results. I also got to meet with (and ultimately have my tab picked up by) the brewmaster. From there, I wandered over to the Crescent City Brewhouse. They specialize in oysters and beer brewing. The former didn’t interest me, but the latter did. Despite that, I ended up sitting at the bar with another out of towner hanging out with the head oyster shucker. We had a great time just chatting and passing the time away. By the time I stumbled out of there into the rainy night air, it was time for some live music. This time, I was headed to an area called Frenchman Street, which is known for local music made by locals for locals. Ultimately,  I landed at a club called dba to see the Treme Brass Band. The venue is pretty well known, featuring a good beer list, and an ever-revolving list of visiting musicians. It was the perfect end to my night. It took a while to walk all the way back to my hotel, but the trip was well worth it.

The next day was split between the conference and more exploration. I managed to take a ferry across the river early in the morning to squeeze out another 10k run, this time along the pedestrian path along the levy on that side. I doubled back in time for the conference for most of the day before ducking out early to catch a steamer boat tour on the Steamboat Natchez, a classic steam-powered riverboat. What better way to experience the river, right? Unfortunately, it was still quite foggy, but overall, I really enjoyed the cruise, which included live Dixieland music on the boat, and a narrated tour of the sights we could intermittently see. To cap off that day, I had an evening social event as part of the conference at the Aquarium of the Americas near the hotel. We had our meal there, and also had free run of most of the aquarium, which was a nice excursion, particularly considering it was still raining out!

On my final full day, I started my morning before the conference by heading out to Cafe du Monde for some world famous New Orleans Beignets. These are basically the NOLA equivalent of Beaver Tails to us. Deep fried batter with icing sugar on it. Delicious though. Combined with my hot chocolate, it gave me the energy to sit through more technical proceedings. But that afternoon, it was time to cap off my touring. Rather than walk everywhere, I picked up a day pass for the ubiquitous streetcars and used them for my next few stops.

First up, the Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone, where I tippled the expensive yet very cosmopolitan Sazerac, the official cocktail of New Orleans. While there, I enjoyed the conversation with both the bartenders as well as a local who had left after Katrina, but still returns regularly to the city he loves. Sadly, I had more adventures to tackle, so I bid adieu and caught the next streetcar to visit one of the newest breweries in town, Courtyard Brewing. It was very quiet on my visit there, but all the better for sampling. While they only brew a few onsite, the have a 16-tap tasting room with lots of visiting taps from other breweries. It was definitely worth the stop and talk with the brewmaster and other passers-by who came from other breweries. It was a great find, and well worth looking up if you are there!

Next up was a bit of culture, as I stepped off the streetcar once again and wandered aimlessly through the famous Garden District, including taking in the haunting Lafayette Cemetary. Unfortunately, they were just closing up as I arrived, so I only had about 10minutes to stroll around the tombs. Frankly, it was enough to get a sense of this place. Very interesting place steeped in history. With my head now clear and a bit of food in my stomach, I made my way to my final destination: the Tap Room at  NOLA Brewing. They’ve only been at it for 8 years now, but they have some very inventive brewers there, and lots of interesting brews to try. While I had planned on just a flight and a couple samples, I ended up sticking around for more than 3 sample flights, and was also treated to a few special brews as a guest of one of the owners. They pulled some additional growlers from a special fridge for me to try. It was damn near impossible to admit that I had to leave at the end of the night. As with all my stops, the locals were incredibly friendly and more than willing to converse with a traveler passing by.

Well, that about summarizes my trip to the Big Easy. My impressions and summary would be as follows: Warm, friendly, interesting personalities, great music, strong spirits, resilient people, and a genuine appreciation for living life as it should be lived. Locals have definitely gone through a lot in the past decade, but their love of life and their culture lives on and grows down there. I’m glad I finally got to visit, if only for 4 nights. I’d say I got a great overview of the Big Easy, and left feeling like I learned a bit more about this city that moves along with the Mississippi. That just leaves Austin and Nashville as the 2 other cities in the U.S. that I’d really like to spend a week in. Guess I’ll have to keep an eye on the conference calendars! Till then, come on back for more race reports!

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