We had several birthdays and a retirement in the neighborhood, so we took a road trip to New Orleans to celebrate with two other couples.
New Orleans is an easy eight-hour drive (all interstate) from Chattanooga through the heart of the Old South. When one considers the time and hassle to get to a large airport, pass through security, wait on a flight, get a car rental and get to your hotel, eight hours is not unreasonable and a lot less expensive than flying.
We stayed near the airport, only 15 minutes from the French Quarter, and it worked out great. A decent hotel inside the French Quarter costs more than $200 per night, but ours was around $100. We found parking in the French Quarter reasonable and close, but there wasn't a big event like Mardi Gras or the Jazz Festival. It can get very busy at those times.
New Orleans, and particularly the French Quarter, is known for its cuisine, and we had some of the best, eating at both chef Emeril's Delmonico and at Arnaud's.
At Delmonico, the setting, service, food and wine were among the best any of us had experienced. Waiters are locals with their own New Orleans flair: "What you gonna have, boss?" Several in our group had the Moulard duck breast, a house specialty. Those who ordered it quacked loudly to us lesser mortals who chose aged steak or fresh Gulf seafood that their choice was by far the "correct" one. However, none of us complained as we rolled out.
Thinking Delmonico could not be beaten, we still tried with dinner at Arnaud's the next evening, also in the French Quarter. It has been a New Orleans institution since 1918, the year World War I ended, and its world-famous bar is named French75 accordingly to pay homage to the dependable and deadly French 75 mm artillery.
Again, the food and service were amazing. The soufflé potatoes had more taste than any tuber I've ever met, and the Gulf fish I had could not have been prepared and seasoned more perfectly. The strolling jazz musicians brightened the evening even more and made the entire experience a memorable, Great Gatsby evening.
Reservations are a must at both places, and entrees range from mid $20s to upper $40s. However, one doesn't leave a fine New Orleans restaurant feeling gouged for the delightful service, superlative food and sensational wine.
Our group did more than eat our way through New Orleans, however. One highlight was the World War II museum, a fascinating place. We spent all day there and could have stayed longer.
An introductory film narrated by Tom Hanks sets the stage and introduces Americans to the significance of the war and its continued impact on our country and the world. The museum is unique in that it not only displays the weapons and other equipment the soldiers employed; it also focuses on the people themselves: life in the barracks, ships, submarines, planes, tanks, foxholes and POW camps. It looks at soldiers' connections with home and incredible tales of heroes. It tells you what it was like storming Normandy beaches on D-Day and what the news correspondents said and wrote.
But it also examines civilian life during the war with rationing, victory gardens and females en masse in the work places that were formerly bastions of males. It is a fitting tribute to what Tom Brokaw labeled "The Greatest Generation."
We also took a three-hour tour of New Orleans itself. A number of companies offer such tours, and they are a fantastic way to learn about the city in a short amount of time. You can take tours via bus, van, bike or on foot.
We chose a van tour because of the smaller group, and we wanted to see more than just one part of the city. We went through the infamous Eighth and Ninth wards that were flooded most heavily during Hurricane Katrina and noted that, while most of the homes have been restored, many still lie in ruins with the rescuers' spraypainted symbols clearly visible by the front doors. Much of the area is below sea level, and we visited a cemetery with all above-ground crypts - and often containing the remains of many generations of a family.
We visited City Park, home to a great museum as well as beautiful gardens, sculptures, restaurants and biking and jogging paths. We ventured through many neighborhoods, each with their own style of architecture. Many large homes still feature the intricate iron scrollwork of the antebellum years, upstairs balconies, full-length windows and soaring columns reminiscent of Tara, the plantation mansion in "Gone With the Wind."
Other neighborhoods have traditional long, narrow "shotgun" houses to take advantage of the long, narrow lots, a feature in New Orleans from the days when Louisiana was a French colony. These houses are rapidly becoming a favorite of the artsy crowd, and many have been tastefully restored with a bright, modern flair.
A special bonus was to see the traditional New Orleans two-story home that former Saints quarterback Archie Manning and his wife purchased in the early '70s. He raised his family there, including famous sons Peyton and Eli, and the elder Mannings still live there.
The tour is a good place to start since it whets your appetite to see more of the fabulous city. Our only problem afterward the tour was where to go from there. There were three women and three men and, since we live in a democratic society and we wanted to keep everyone happy, we voted. The vote was split between men and women, so we did what any red-blooded American men would do - went shopping.
No one was disappointed, though. The French Quarter is a shopping paradise (and I'm the world's greatest anti-shopper). There are antique shops galore (surprisingly, prices were not unreasonable), sidewalk artists and entertainers, famous bars and restaurants for relaxing refreshment and beautiful parks and walkways along the wide Mississippi River. It was a delightful afternoon.
New Orleans is a fascinating city with a unique culture springing from its Spanish, French, Indian, Caribbean and American influences. It's not quite American and not quite anywhere else on earth. The food, history, museums, architecture and shopping make it a great getaway that is relatively close to Chattanooga.
Like the immortal jazz great Louis Armstrong sang, "It's a Wonderful World."