Monday, November 13, 2017

Atlanta, GA and New Orleans, LA

I am very fortunate to be engaged to a pilot - it certainly adds some perks to the relationships. Like, being able to fly with him when a plane has to go down for maintenance. Since the plane is empty, I have the rare opportunity to fly with him in the front (my favorite spot- and a killer view). Back in August we traveled from VA to Atlanta to drop off one of the planes for an engine overhaul, which meant for a short weekend away.
I had not been to Atlanta since college so I was happy to return to get the opportunity to explore a bit more. Though we only had a half day before flying out to NOLA, we did want to spend some time and enjoy a few things in the city. So, after landing the plane, grabbing an uber, and a quick pit stop to the hotel to drop off our luggage, it was time to get out to the city. First stop was the Georgia Aquarium. Even if you are not a kid, this will be such a fun place to visit. There is so much to see and do- it is absolutely huge. You can easily spend a full day here (and I recommend it). We enjoyed the dolphin show and seeing the Otters the best. Go through the tunnel of the oversized tank and you will truly get a 180 degree view of true ocean life. It is mesmerizing.
After our aquarium visit, it was off to Centennial Olympic Park across the street. The park commemorates when the city hosted the 1996 Olympic Games - this is where the athletes stayed. This is worth walking, especially in the summertime. I recommend bringing a picnic lunch and hanging out by the Fountain of Rings. There are great vendors around for water/drinks too. This has an audio walking tour you can do as well. Bonus: the park has free wi-fi to enjoy near the visitors center. This green oasis has free concerts at lunchtime and boasts different music genres from jazz or rock. There is something for everyone here.
One of the best views of the city, where you can also enjoy a cocktail and dinner, is at Sun Dial. The food we found was not the best but we still enjoyed the views. The bar area rotates around, so within 30 minutes, you can sit in the same seat and see the entire skyline. *Update: Since an accident recently, they have disabled this feature* They also have viewfinder spots where you can view the skyline from set areas, separate from those who are dining in. We recommend cocktail hour here.  Afterwards, we returned to our hotel for the evening, as we had a SUPER early departure into NOLA the next morning. Atlanta is definitely on our list of cities to return to, due to our limited time we had. 
Morning came way too soon for us, but we were up early and happy to have a shuttle take us into the airport for our early morning departure to NOLA. I truly recommend finding a hotel in Atlanta that has this service, it is easier when you do not have to worry about a rental car return at such a majorly busy airport, which is why we opted to not get a rental car during our time in Atlanta.
Landing in New Orleans in August is a different kind of hot. It is a southern humidity hot. And, there is nothing quite like it. It was like a heat wave hit at 8am. But, with a storm rolling in, we felt we had an advantage, as southern storms tend to cool temps. (BTW, we were right). We took an uber from the airport to the hotel and were happy with how quick the drive was, even during rush hour. We dropped off our luggage, and began walking around. NOLA is a fantastic city for walking and we did a lot of it. Our first stop was St Louis Cathedral. If you have seen photos of NOLA, it is likely you have seen this major monument of the city, overlooking Jackson Square. It is a beautiful building and one of the oldest in the city.
Jackson Square is bustling with life, from live jazz bands to vendors and a mini-market, there is so much happening around to see and experience. NOLA is known for their food: a mix of creole and french cuisine mixed in one. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else and this is one of the reasons foodie call it a foodie's bucket list mecca. Our first stop was to Tableau, a mix of these two cuisines. We nabbed a spot on the balcony, overlooking Jackson Square and were not disappointed. We did the three course lunch special: Turtle Soup and Tableau Salad for course 1, fried oyster po boy and chicken tableau for course 2 and split a banana foster cheesecake. Everything was stellar.
Next up was the riverwalk along the Mississippi River. We absolutely loved this. As we watched the steamboats leave, we heard musicians playing on the benches the most beautiful jazz I have ever heard. It was magical. NOLA is such a lovely city. You can feel the love of the city in the people and we truly had a great walk along the river. But, it was time to keep going. Next up was the infamous Bourbon Street. Bourbon Street (non Mardi Gras) was quite meh. It was a lot of repeat bars and definitely more towards the party crowd. I mean, we were there during lunch time mid week, but it just did not live up to the hype as shown on Mardi Gras. We were so disappointed we didn't even take a photo there.
One of the places I was most excited about was Hotel Monteleone. This hotel is quite famous, and haunted. But, it is exciting for one big reason. It has the Carousel Bar. Not only is it a true to size actual carousel in the lounge area, the seats rotate around. It is also known for inventing the drink: The Sazerac! If you go, it is a must order. They were phenomenal. We went in to escape the rain, and had quite a few amazing drinks while we waited for the rain to pass. It was well worth the time spent in there, watching the bartenders create concoctions old school. It was worth the watch. If you want a really great place to go, this is a top 5 favorite for us!
No trip to New Orleans is complete without a beignet. We went to Cafe Beignet down the street and grabbed a praline beignet and chicory coffee (a NOLA tradition). I found these too sweet for me personally but they were quite decadent. I really loved people watching from this spot and found it to have a true paris-esque feel to it. It is a nice spot to stop and grab something quick to snack on. Next up, we passed by the House of Blues (they didn't have a show that night or we would have gone), but we did snap a photo. If you find they have a show, I recommend going. This is a super fun venue for live music and must for anyone who really loves music.
As the rain finally let up, it was time to grab a bite to eat before our scheduled walking tour. We were told to meet at Vacherie in Hotel St. Marie. Since we had not eaten in awhile and we were hungry, we decided to grab an early dinner. I had their etouffee, which was stellar!! If you ever have the opportunity to go here, you will not be disappointed. They had some of the best homemade cajun food I have ever had. There is so much flavor in their dishes, it cannot be beat. The gator sausage sliders were pretty good and their local beer flight is a great option as well. The historic walking tour with Strange True Tours was one of the best decisions we did. Although we did not take any photos during our walk, we were really impressed with all of the history in New Orleans, especially from the point-of-view from a local NOLA resident (who happens to love history as much as we do). Our tour lasted over an hour and was a perfect mix of haunted tales, history and interesting facts about the city, including walking by sites where famous shows and movies have been filmed. It was a blast. Honestly, I did not want it to end. There was so much to learn.
But as our tour came to an end, it was time to head back to the riverwalk area to the French Market. One thing I loved about NOLA is the art. From murals to statues, there is so much vibrant life. The buildings are various different colors and there is life booming at every corner of the city. This is a very busy part of the city, but notably because if its close location to the river and shops. Some of the best food is in this area- with parking lots in abundance, it's the center of the bustling part of town.
Our last stop of the evening before heading back to the hotel was for dessert at Cafe du Monde. NOLA is known for beignet but the true mecca for this decadent dessert is Cafe du Monde. They are world famous for these pillows of goodness. And, they are cheap. We found the lines to be short and the to-go window the best way of getting one. Simply go up to the window (cash-only) and order a bag of these. And, take them with you to the nearest park bench to enjoy. While sitting down for breakfast would be ideal for beignets, I found that since they are always open, you can go all day long and enjoy them. And, we almost did! They put so much powdered sugar in the bag that after eating our half dozen, we had more than enough left for a dozen more. Perfect ending to a fun-filled day.
Day 2 in NOLA was somewhat pre-planned. So first stop on our busy itinerary was for breakfast at PJ's Coffee, located right in our hotel. I grabbed a large iced coffee and this spinach and feta pastry (along with two large bottles of water) to go.
We headed straight on over to New Orleans Tour Hub NOLA Cycles to pick up our bike rentals. We had three hours to bike the city and it did not disappoint. Even without having a car, biking is a pretty good option. Unlike our trip to Savannah (using an electric bike there), we still enjoyed biking around town manually. We eventually bike from the main canal area to the Lafitte Greenway. While most of this path has sections still under construction, we enjoyed biking this area. There is a lot to see and do by bike, but be warned, these locals are not the biggest fans of bike traffic and we witnessed two separate bikers almost get hit.
One of the best things to do by bike is to visit the neighborhoods. Getting lost is kind of the best thing in NOLA, when you stumble upon a new street with such beautiful homes, it is hard to just find one favorite. No two homes are the same color and they take pride in being unique. It was one of my favorite things about NOLA (besides the etouffee)!
So, about half way through our bike ride, we were getting hungry for a bite to eat. So, when we bike and saw a charming little restaurant called Horn's in the neighborhood we were biking, we knew we had to check it out. The thing about NOLA is the portions are just tremendous. It is like going home and getting a feast, where family acts as if you have not eaten in months. I ordered the etouffee (which was so filling) and Matt ordered the shrimp po boy that was overwhelming. And with the prices so reasonable, this was a top contender on our list of places we went that weekend.
Continuing our bike ride around the French Quarter from Frenchman Street to Treme, we were overwhelmed. There simply was not enough time to take pictures of every house we found. 
One of the coolest places we stumbled across on our bike ride was Dr. Bob's Art. This particular artist is quite famous in NOLA, for his folk art that captions "Be Nice or Leave", this self-taught artist is a true salt of the earth kinda fellow. And his art speaks to it, transforming normal everyday items into art pieces. Def check him out and his space. While you cannot take photos inside his space, it is a unique spot we recommend checking out.
Once we dropped off our bikes, it was time to hit the famous French Market for a snack and to cool off. One of the other areas of the market is an outdoor vendor marketplace with something for everyone, from gifts and souvenirs to places to grab a drink and a bite to eat. This is a great spot to find something that will appease your senses. We went for Alberto's Cheese and Wine for a bottle of wine to split and hit up Loretta's Authentic Pralines to get another praline beignet. Alberto's was not as impressive as we had hoped for but Loretta's knocked it out of the park. Not only were these people just the kindest folks but the their beignets were the perfect sweet treat. You have to stop here. Trust me on this! And, what is NOLA without seeing a street performer or two lurking nearby. Again, people watching in NOLA is a must!
One thing we did not really plan on going to (but they had an opening so we said WE HAD TO) was Commander's Palace. Once Matt found out there was an opening at the end of their lunch rush, I knew we had to go. So, he made a reservation and we quickly ran back to the hotel to change and Uber over. And, we made it just in time! If you come to NOLA, you have to try to get a reservation for this swanky spot (yup, a dress code is enforced). Commander's Palace is the place of nostalgia; it is iconic. But, if you only come for one thing, come for lunch. I have heard their jazz brunch is the best in the city, but lunchtime is still my go-to for one reason alone: 25 cent martinis. Yes, any martini is 25 cents. And they are heavenly. I loved my lunch (i got the duck and foie gras 'ravioli', angus burger and dessert was turtle cheesecake a la mode). I will say this was a top meal. The ravioli was outstanding and above any expectation I had walking in. 
We decided after our late lunch it was time to walk around a bit, to some of the local shops before heading back into the main part of town, via streetcar. This was an idea setup honestly for the city as the streetcars are efficient and can really take you most places in the city you need to go. It is inexpensive and is not difficult to figure out. We took the streetcar back into town.
On our last evening we knew we wanted to hear live jazz before returning home. We ventured down to the Marigny District to Frenchman Street to find a place for us. There are so many bars and restaurants that have live jazz bands that play every night. It is so hard to find just one. We really liked The Spotted Cat Music Club and listened to Miss Sophie Lee for a bit before moving on.
We were told to just "walk around and when you hear something you like, walk in". So, that is what we did. We walked in a few places but sadly found they were cash-only so we left, until we got to Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro. We loved watching Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra perform that evening. Those guys were so talented and they had so much fun. It was intoxicating. How can you not have fun listening to jazz like that? Fun fact: Delfeayo Marsalis was the mentor of Harry Connick, Jr. of all famous stars you may know today. These guys rocked the house and we loved it. We recommend a balcony spot to see everyone on stage if you plan on attending here. 
After listening to such amazing music, it was time for a bite to eat. We opted for Dat Dog on Frenchman Street.  This joint is a NOLA favorite for their fun themed hotdogs and star wars decor. I enjoyed my etouffee hotdog - and it was stuffed to the brim. I was happy I only ordered one hotdog! However, we could not have picked a better time to sit down if we had wanted to. Right as we sat down on their second floor balcony overlooking the street, on that very corner a band started playing for a large crowd that began forming. By the time we left, the street was so jammed packed the cars could not get through. It was a party right on that street corner. These guys were so talented and they just began playing to raise money for their band. This is how NOLA is every night. It is the city that lives and parties all night long.

Anthony Bourdain summed up it up best: "Go because it's crazy, borderline dysfunctional, permissive, shabby, alcoholic and crazy - and because it looks like nowhere else."

If you ever have the opportunity to visit this vibrant city that is bursting with life, I highly recommend it. This city is booming with people, good people, and they will be good to you. GO! You will be glad you did.

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