A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about tourist sites

Grand Canyon Vignettes

Small scenes from a big place

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The Big Ditch

The Grand Canyon, carved over the past six million years by the slow, never ending wear of water, is a 277 mile long gash across the northern part of Arizona. The Colorado River, which was the carving hand of the canyon, runs through its centre on the way to the Gulf of California, more than a mile below the rim of the canyon. Standing on the rim, it is anywhere from four to ten miles across to the other side.

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I visited The Grand Canyon this past weekend. A visit to a site like Grand Canyon doesn’t really generate a coherent narrative that has a beginning, a middle and an end. Instead, I present vignettes of my visit, a series of short scenes to give a flavour of the trip.

The Day Before

The Grand Canyon is often described in tourist literature as “one of the seven natural wonders of the world.” The literature always seems to fail to mention the source of this claim, or list the other seven wonders of the natural world. In truth, there is no list of the seven wonders of the natural world. Calling the Grand Canyon that is just marketing spin.

I like to think I am above getting excited about such things. I’ve seen canyons, waterfalls, empty plains, tall mountains and many naturally wonderful things. I like to think that I have travelled enough that I can demonstrate a certain amount of blasé attitude towards such things.

Not so for Grand Canyon. Instead, as the clock ticked by the hours on Friday, I found it harder and harder to concentrate on work. Instead, my brain kept jumping to thoughts of being at The Grand Canyon, and I found my excitement level rising by the hour. I wasn’t the jaded, experienced traveller. Instead, I was the giddy, excited child, about to experience wonderment and awe.

I kept imaging myself standing on the rim, looking out over the canyon.

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The First Look

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I arrived at Grand Canyon Village, parked the car and wandered up to the rim. There it was, stretched out before me. Excitement and awe weren’t the feelings that found me. Instead, it was a feeling of being small, and young. Standing beside something so big, so old, you can’t help but put things in perspective. Our time here on the earth is so short and so insignificant that it doesn’t even matter. You have neither the longevity of the canyon nor the power of the river that carved it. You are a speck.

Of course, returning to work on Monday, all the perspective is lost, and all the problems that seemed to shrink away on Saturday return to their regular size.

But for a few moments, it was nice to lose those problems in the depths of canyon’s deepest crevices.

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Pictures Fail Me

I try and take pictures of the canyon, but it is often too big to fit into the frame. Even when I find a place to fit it all in, the picture that comes out doesn’t seem to capture it.

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It is big. It is grand. It is constantly awe-inspiring. I can describe it with a million words, but I can’t get a picture of it.

So instead, I present this. I try and film it, and put it to music to capture the grandeur of the place. I am not sure it is much better than the pictures, but it is probably a little bit better at capturing the place.

If you can’t see this video, go to to view it at Youtube

Sante Fe Railway and Fred Harvey Shape The Grand Canyon Village

On the south rim of the canyon is Grand Canyon Village. Now the primary spot to see the canyon, it cemented this honour in 1901, when the Sante Fe Railway came to town, making this the easiest place to get at the canyon for early 20th century visitors.

The railway depot was completed in 1909, and is built of logs. It is one of only 3 existing railway stations in the USA that is made with logs.

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Though most visitors come to town on bus tours or via car nowadays, the train still comes into town. Today it is a tourist trip of 2 hours from Williams, Arizona up to the Grand Canyon Village, offering various classes of service, including a observation car.

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Many of the prime buildings in Grand Canyon Village were commissioned by Fred Harvey. Mr. Harvey opened a number of restaurants along side railway stations and water stops for the stream trains in the late 1800s. As the stops were short, Mr. Harvey’s offerings were offered quickly, feeding an entire trainload of people in 30 minutes. Despite the fast food, the restaurants were clean, the food served on fine china by beautiful young ladies known as Harvey Girls. The restaurants were a success, and spread rapidly, leading to the first restaurant chain.

When the Sante Fe Railway came to the Grand Canyon, Fred Harvey came with them. He commissioned the El Tovar hotel, a beautiful stone and log building that mirrored the architecture of the area. The hotel still operates today, and provides rooms that are just steps from the south rim of the canyon.

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Across from the El Tovar hotel is the Hopi House, typical of the Pueblo buildings in the area. When it opened, it sold curios and had the local natives performing ceremonies and traditional dances. Today, it sells native crafts.

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Grand Canyon Village is small, with very few human residents. There are a few non-human inhabitants.

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NEVERMORE! (That was for any Poe fans out there)

Hiking the Bright Angel

On Saturday, I hiked the Bright Angel Trail. Bright Angel is a trail that runs down into the canyon from Grand Canyon Village. The trail runs down into the canyon for 8 miles before encountering the Colorado River. In those 8 miles, it drops in elevation from 6,860 feet at the trail head to just 2,480 feet above sea level at the river.

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I wanted to make up for my rather slow plod up Camelback a few weeks ago, so prepared myself for the hike with a good breakfast with a mix of proteins and carbs, and a pack loaded with water, Gatorade, granola bars and raisins. A round trip of 16 miles to the river, or even 12 miles to the look-out at Plateau Point, seemed over ambitious for a single day, but a trip down and back to 3 mile rest-house seemed doable, so that was the plan.

The trail switchbacks back and forth down the canyon as it descends.

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Being inside the canyon provides a different view of the canyon, from the outside looking in. The walls rise up above you, straight up, shear and bright in the sunlight as you hike in the shade.

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After an hour, I arrive at 3 mile house. I rest up, throwing back a bottle of water, a box of raisins and a granola bar to make sure I don’t suffer the same fate as my hike up Camelback where I felt faint. In the hour that it had taken to get down, we had dropped 2,000 feet in altitude. Climbing back up would require a climb to reclaim those 2,000 feet.

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No need to worry this time, even though it seems like I am moving slowly, I fly back up in 2 hours, and arrive back up at the top.

Still feeling energetic, I head out along the Rim Trail, hiking two miles along the rim before returning to Grand Canyon Village. Along the hike, with the sun slowly sinking in the sky, I catch some beautiful shots of the canyon.

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Vertigo: Legs of Cement (A Vlog)

As I walked along viewing the Grand Canyon over two days, I kept wanting to get pictures of myself in front of the canyon. Part of it is to try and provide some perspective on how large the canyon is by giving a point of reference, but another part is the fact that I am just an egotistical jerk.

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Walking along at one point, I saw a really nice rock outcrop, and decided that it would be a perfect place to grab a photo of myself. So I handed off my camera and headed out onto the outcrop. I’ll let the video explain the rest.

If you can’t see this video, go to to view it at Youtube

Williams, Arizona Welcomes Christmas

I stayed in Williams, about one hour south of the south rim. It’s a convenient place to stay to visit, providing both a short ride in the morning, but not pricing itself out of my price range.

As I mentioned earlier, it is also the Southern terminus of the Grand Canyon Railway

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I have recently discovered Priceline and Hotwire as a place to get a cheap hotel. The only problem is that you don’t know what you are getting until you book. As someone who spent the last 10 years travelling for business as a Marriott Rewards Platinum Elite member and constantly booking Marriott hotels, it is a shift to book a hotel blind. But my first experience with the blind booking worked out okay with my hotel in Flagstaff a few weeks ago, so I thought I would give it another try.

Unfortunately, I got a rather downtrodden hotel. On offer was a drab room off a hallway that smelled like the bottom of an ashtray with a window overlooking the highway. The free breakfast consisted of doughy muffins and cereal. Every time I walked into the hotel, the maids had been in to turn off the heat, and when you are up at over 5,000 feet in December, the weather outside is cold, so the room was always like a freezer.

In fact, I would have called the hotel a flea-bag motel, except that the lack of heat in the rooms meant that any insects attempting to live in the place would be frozen to death. Perhaps that was the maid’s plan.

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Outside of the hotel, Williams itself is a nice little town. Like Flagstaff, it sits on the historic path of highway 66, the same of the famous song.

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While I was at the Canyon on Saturday, Williams celebrated the coming holiday of Christmas. Returning to town, I saw a number of people walking around in pyjamas.

“Am I in a town of mental patients,” I wondered.

Turns out that no, I was not. As a tradition, the folks of Williams dress up in their PJs to watch the Santa Claus Parade. Meant to emulate waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve night, I think.

To celebrate the Santa Claus Parade and the upcoming season, the town was decked out in all its holiday finery.

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Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night…

The Little Colorado River

Heading east out of Grand Canyon National park, highway 64 parallels a side canyon that holds the Little Colorado River. The Little Colorado meets up with the Colorado River before entering the canyon.

Despite the diminutive name, the Little Colorado has done a pretty decent job carving its own canyons.

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The View of the Desert From Desert View

Back in Grand Canyon National Park, some 22 miles east from Grand Canyon Village, is Desert View. Desert View provides some of the best views of the Canyon, I think. Shame that Sunday, when I was there, the sun was refusing to come out at all. Even so, I got some nice views of the Colorado River and grabbed some good shots.

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It is called Desert View, I suppose because you can see the desert.

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Built at Desert View is this tower, which is based on a Hopi Indian tower. You can go up it and get some views of the Canyon from a bit higher vantage point. Though, when you are talking about a canyon 10 miles wide and a mile deep, getting up an additional 20 feet in the air doesn’t seem like it would make that big a difference.

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Back from the rim and the tower are a few other replica Hopi buildings.

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And, as everywhere along the south rim, views of canyon abound.

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In Closing

It is a GRAND canyon.

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Posted by GregW 21:28 Archived in USA Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

Open Roads and the Smell of Gunpowder

Road trip down south and into the past visiting the wild, wild west town of Tombstone

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ROAD TRIP!

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On Saturday of the four day weekend, I got into my car and turned south-east. I drove 200 miles, and ventured 130 years into the past to the wild, wild west.

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Tombstone, Arizona was founded in 1879 by Ed Schieffelin. He was in the army, and spent his spare time searching for gold in the area known as Goose Flats. He was told by his fellow soldiers that there is no gold in the hills, and that "the only rock you will find out there will be your own tombstone."

Schieffelin never found gold, but he did find silver. Lots of it. Schieffelin became incredibly rich, and he renamed the town of Goose Flats, calling it Tombstone in honour of the jokes that his fellow soldiers used to make.

Tombstone became a boom town, with it's population rising from 1,000 to 15,000 within one year as miners, prospectors, business people and labourers came to town. The farmers who used the land for their cattle were soon at odds with the new immigrants, and violence was common.

Most famously, on October 26, 1881, there was a gunfight at Harwood's lumberyard where three men died and another three were injured. The local law, including Wyatt Earp, his brother Virgil and tuberculosis sufferer "Doc" Holliday faced off against local cowboys, including Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury and Frank McLaury. The fight lasted 30 seconds, with 30 gunshots ringing out.

The gunfight became mythic, and ended up being known by the name of the nearby horse enclosure.

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The O.K. Corral.

The bodies of Clanton, and the McLaurys were taken up to the graveyard up on Boot Hill.

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Once the silver veins dried up, the town declined, saved from becoming a ghost town by the fact it was the county seat for Cochise County and has the courthouse.

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Today, Tombstone is best known as a tourist destination, and the Allen Street between Third and Sixth is maintained in a semi-historically accurate state.

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There are numerous places where historical re-enactments occur, especially of the gun fights. I saw the show at the Six Gun City, which included a few different historical gunfights.

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Out on Highway 80, the Boot Hill Graveyard still exists. Entrance is free, but for a $2 donation you can get a map and legend to those buried in the cemetery.

George Johnson was hanged after buying a stolen horse, though he didn't know the horse was stolen. Poor dude...

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Margarita was a "dance hall girl," who was quarrelling with another lady of the evening over a man. Gold Dollar, the other girl, stabbed Margarita to death. Must of been a heck of a man to have two prostitutes fight over him in a town full of rich miners.

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It was interesting to see Tombstone, but the whole thing is a little too campy and showy.

The town is still alive, and 1,500 people live there. Walking around, I kept wondering what the residents think of all these tourists tramping through their town, snapping photos of actors dressed up like cowboys, marshalls and madams.

After the gunfight show, I hit the road quickly and got back out on the drive.

Just north of Tombstone the highway was blocked off by the US Border Patrol. They were stopping all the cars heading north. No doubt this was to try and catch any Mexicans that had crossed the border illegally and picked up a ride north. Seeing me, the border guard waved me on without saying a word. Little did he realize that I am, in fact, a foreigner here to steal American jobs. Estupido gringo. Solidarity, my Mexican brothers.

I will point out, in case anyone from the US Border Patrol reads this, that I am here legally under the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), so I'm only stealing American jobs in a job category that has been identified as being one I am legally able to steal American jobs and with the appropriate documentation.

As I got north of Tucson, the sun set in the west, throwing up purple and red light above the mountains in the west, and a sliver of the moon came out. Flipping through the stations on the XM Satellite radio, I came across Don Henley singing "Boys of Summer." I crank up the tune and sing along.

Forget the destination, with the windows down and classic rock playing on the road, the best part about a road trip is the journey.

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Posted by GregW 04:00 Archived in USA Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Blue Water, Red Dust and Planet Orange

Lake Pleasant, Camelback Mountain, downtown Phoenix and the NBA action in US Airways Centre.

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As I stated in my last entry, Thursday was the Thanksgiving holiday here in the USA, and Friday is a kind of defacto holiday as well, so I had a four day break.

On Thursday not much was open, and the skies were grey and threatening. It was not exactly a great day to do much, but I did manage to get out to see Lake Pleasant Regional Park. Lake Pleasant was created by the Waddell Dam, and as the closest major body of water to Phoenix, it is a very popular recreation area.

On Thursday, with the rain and the fact that it is winter, there weren't too many people on the water, but the RV Park was pretty crowded. Lots of folks were out grilling their Thanksgiving dinner. I've never really thought about doing an RV trip, but I must admit that the folks who had their BBQs out and had set up their picnic tables, it looked like it might be fun.

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Waddell Dam, which creates the lake

I did a small hike, but the rain started moving in from the west, and so I turned back after only half a mile.

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Cactuses are very big.

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Here comes the rain...

On the way out of the park, some donkeys were hanging out at the side of the road. I assume they must be wild donkeys, as this is a park and as such a farmers grazing animals wouldn't be allowed in the park.

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Friday is known as Black Friday here in the USA, and is one of the most important shopping days of the year. It is considered the start of the Christmas shopping season, and is called Black Friday because it is often the day of the year when retail stores become profitable for the year - moving from red to black.

It is a crazy day for shopping, and I avoid the malls at all cost. The crowds can be intimidating, and sadly, this year a Walmart worker was trampled to death when opening the doors of a store in Long Island, New York.

I avoided the crowds at the mall and decided to hike up Camelback Mountain. Camelback Mountain is in Phoenix, and is called such because it has two peaks.

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Unfortunately, the hike is very popular, and it was pretty crowded climbing up.

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It is an incredibly tough hike. The trail from Echo Canyon to the summit is only one and a quarter miles long, but rises 1,200 feet in that time. The trail starts with stairs, but quickly becomes a rough and rocky climb, including some areas where scrambling is required.

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I wasn't sure I was going to make it. About a quarter of a mile in, I suddenly found myself very faint and felt dizzy. I had to sit down on a boulder to rest, drink a lot of water and eat a granola bar. I would have turned around right then, but until the dizziness past I didn't want to head in either direction.

After resting for a few minutes and gaining some energy from the food, I was ready to continue the hike up. It was very slow going though. It took me 2 hours and 15 minutes to cover the 1.2 miles, a distance that I could walk in about 30 minutes on flat ground. I took a lot of rest breaks, and a few times I thought about turning back round, but continued on until I did reach the top.

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The view from the top of Camelback is pretty impressive, as most of the rest of the Phoenix area is flat.

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Despite the tough going, lots of people were out hiking the trail and made it to the top, so it was pretty crowded up there.

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Despite the crowds, it is worth doing. The views are amazing, and there is a few bits of wildlife to see.

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After the hike I decided to do something a little less strenuous and decided to walk around downtown Phoenix. Given what I have written about in the blog so far, you might think that Phoenix is all red-rock canyons and hiking, but it is also a modern city, with big tall buildings and major corporations in downtown.

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Chase Bank Building

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Downtown Phoenix reflected in the glass towers

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Bank of America Building

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Arizona Republic, the local paper

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Sandra Day O'Connor Federal Court Building

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Statues outside Hergerger Theatre Centre, Downtown Phoenix

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St Mary's Basilica, Downtown Phoenix

While downtown, I wandered by the US Airways Centre, an arena in downtown.

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Turns out there was a NBA Basketball game on, with the local team - the Phoenix Suns playing the visiting Miami Heat. I went to a nearby ticket broker, bought myself a single ticket and went to the game.

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...what was I talking about? Oh, right, the NBA game. Sorry, I got distracted there for a minute.

After snapping the above photo with the Suns' Dancer, I grabbed myself some good food and headed into the arena.

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The Phoenix Suns has a few famous faces, including thespian, lyricist and sportsman Shaquille O'Neal.

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The team also includes players from Brazil, France, Solvenia, the Virgin Islands and Canada. Steve Nash is a Canadian who was born in South Africa and now plays in Phoenix. Man, he gets around. Unfortunately, he wasn't playing on Friday due to a thigh injury, so the best I could get is this photo from a nearby poster.

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I am not a huge basketball fan, and generally don't watch it at all. The games in person, though, are something else. More than any other sport I have seen, the NBA has a lot going on at all times. It is the only sport where they play music during the course of play, and there is amazing amounts of fan participation and entertainment during the breaks in the game action.

In Phoenix, they call their "universe" Planet Orange, which includes the players, coaches and all the fans. Entering the arena is coming to Planet Orange, and you, as a member of the audience, have a job to do. You are the sixth man, and you need to cheer on your team. It is not a game you are watching, but a mission - a mission for the Phoenix Suns and their fans to beat the Miami Heat.

The program, called "Free Throw," defines Planet Orange as "a world where the atmosphere is electric and the laws of gravity do not apply. It is a world where all the inhabitants share a common trait. They are all fiery, fervent and forever Suns fans, and every one of their attitudes is colored exactly the same. Welcome to Planet Orange. Are you a citizen?"

Photos don't really capture it, so here is some video clips of stuff that was going on during and between the action of the game, so you can get a feel for the level of excitement and entertainment during the game.

If you can't see the video embedded (mostly for Facebook folks), you can go to Youtube to see it now by following this link.

Unfortunately for the citizens of Planet Orange, Phoenix lost the game. That's okay, it is a long season.

Posted by GregW 13:17 Archived in USA Tagged sports tourist_sites Comments (1)

The Ruin of Many a Poor Boy

Rich food, strong drink and late, late nights along Bourbon Street are enough to drive any poor boy to ruin.

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There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it's been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I'm one

New Orleans will kill you.

Anne Rice would have you believe that it is because of all the ghosts, witches and vampires ready to snatch you from the street, but that’s not what will kill you.

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No, it will be a combination of clogged arteries from the rich food, sclerosis of the liver from all the strong alcoholic drinks on offer and exhaustion from lack of sleep.

In fact, given the amount of deep fried and heavily sauced food on offer, I would be surprised if Ms. Rice’s creations Louis, Lestat and Claudia would be able to suck any blood out of what must be thin streams of blood trying to pump helplessly through the residents’ cholesterol lined vessels.

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This is my third entry on New Orleans. The first one dealt with the history and architecture of the city. The second entry was on Katrina’s impact and the rebuilding efforts. This entry is about what you can eat, what you can drink and where you can party in New Orleans.

It is probably a little known fact that New Orleans boasts a very large medical research community. The New Orleans Medical District, anchored by researching and teaching programs from Tulane University and Louisiana State University covers a 40 block area close to the Central Business District.

Why is New Orleans such a hotbed of medical research, you might ask? Here is how the tour guide on my Katrina tour explained it.

“We like to eat, drink and stay out late having fun here in New Orleans. It’s a hard lifestyle and we die young, so if you can make improvements to the health of New Orleans citizens, it’ll work anywhere,” she said, with a touch of a wink in her voice. Myself and the rest of the tour participants laughed, though the laughter became a little more strained and nervous after the tour guide also added seriously that as one of the biggest areas of oil refining in the United States, folks along the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans also suffer some of the highest cancer rates in the USA.

Setting aside that rather depressing news, let us concentrate on the ways to die that are much more fun - those being food, drink and partying.

The poor (in terms of health) but rich (in terms of calories and sweetness) diet starts early, as both local and tourists make their way to Cafe Du Monde on Decatur Street.

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Dating back to 1862, Cafe Du Monde is famous for its cafe au lait and Beignets. A beignet is a deep fried pastry covered with powered sugar. The beignets are served threes, and as a solo traveller I was forced to eat all three myself.

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Actually, forced probably isn’t really the right word there. Hot beignets covered in sugar are not hard to eat at all. In fact, they go down a bit too easy. They somehow manage to be both gooey and fluffy on the inside at the same time with a buttery without being greasy crust.

Cafe Du Monde is also famous for its coffee mixed with chicory, so much so that I had requests to bring back cans of the coffee for friends and family. Personally, trying to choke down the cafe au lait just reminded me why I never drink coffee, I hate the stuff. If you are the sort of person that likes coffee, though, apparently cutting it with chicory, originally a move implemented during a naval blockade during the civil war to preserve the rare coffee that could be sourced by serving customers less coffee beans in their cups, gives the coffee “mellow caramel undertones and smooth texture,” according to Ian McNulty at French Quarter Dining.

So a hit on the doughnuts, a miss on the coffee, but one more thing puts Cafe Du Monde in the plus column - location. It is right at the end of a French Market, just across the street from Jackson Square. With a covered patio, it is a nice place to relax and watch tourists and locals stream by as the artists, fortune tellers and human statues set up for the day on the sidewalks surrounding the square.

Those human statues confuse me. I don’t understand why someone would think that painting their face grey, wearing grey clothes and standing still is a skill that should be rewarded with some of my loose change.

Luckily New Orleans is a good city for walking, so you can spend a few hours wandering around the city working off the beignets before settling in for lunch.

Lunch options are numerous, wonderful, often deep fried and about as healthy as the deep-fried doughy breakfast.

In 1929, New Orleans’ streetcar drivers went on strike. Sympathetic to their cause, restauranteurs Clovis and Benjamin Martin created an inexpensive sandwich to serve the striking workers. They put roast beef and gravy on a piece of French bread, and served them out the back of the restaurant to the streetcar drivers. When one of them would approach the back door, the kitchen workers would call for a sandwich by saying, “here comes another poor boy!” Soon enough, the sandwiches gained the nickname po’ boys.

Today, many places serve po’ boys with all sorts of fillings, the most popular now being fried seafood po’ boys. They come dressed with lettuce, tomatoes and mayo with a pickle spear, or sometimes with slice pickles on the sandwich.

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If the po’ boy isn’t enough for you, head over to the Central Grocery. In 1906 the grocery’s Sicilian owner started serving the sandwiches with capicola, salami, mortadella, emmenthal, and provolone on a muffuletta bread, which gave the sandwich its name. A “full” sandwich is made with the entire loaf of bread. I got a half muffuletta (the smallest serving size at Central Grocery), and found it hard to complete.

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After lunch and another long walk (admittedly a somewhat slow walk while clutching a distended stomach), an afternoon cocktail is called for.

One day I headed over to the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone.

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As you can see form the picture, the Carousel Bar looks like a merry-go-round. More than that, though, it also rotates slowly, doing a full cycle in about 15 minutes. I pulled up a stool and while I moved slowly to my right, I ordered a Sazerac.

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In the 1830s, Antoine Amadie Peychaud, a New Orleans pharmacist started dispensing a combination of cognac and bitters in an egg cup, known in French as a “coquetier.” It is a corruption of that word that gave the world the name cocktail, and as such the Sazerac is considered the first cocktail.

Over the years the recipes for the Sazerac have changed, and nowadays Rye Whisky has replaced Cognac as the base. So famous is the cocktail that on June 23, 2008, The Louisiana House of Representatives proclaimed the Sazerac as New Orleans' official cocktail.

The Sazerac is a good sipping cocktail, with nice scent and a balance of heat and sweetness.

Another afternoon drink option can be found at Pat O’Briens. Pat O’Briens bar was opened in 1933 on St. Peter Street, and was successful enough, even during prohibition, to move to a larger space in 1942. The current location has multiple bars, including a large outdoor patio replete with a fountain that shots flames.

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Due to rationing in the 1940s due to the war, scotch and whiskey were hard to come by, however rum from the Caribbean was plentiful. To obtain the valuable whiskey bottles, bar owners were forced by liquor companies to purchase many cases of rum.

In an attempt to sell some of the massive stocks of rum now on hand, Pat O’Brien started experimenting with potential drinks to drive sales. They eventually came across a successful recipe of rum, lime juice and passion fruit syrup that was served over ice in a glass shaped like a hurricane lamp. The shape of the glass ended up giving the drink its name.

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When complete, you can keep the glass for an extra 3 dollars, if you so choose, as a memento of your drinking. Personally, I drink to forget, not to remember, so I passed on the glass.

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Pat O’Briens is a busy place chock-o-block full of tourists, so for something a little quieter, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar.

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As I stated in a previous entry, the building dates back the early 1700s, and rumour has it that it was used by pirate Jean Lafitte as a place to fence his plundered goods. With all the shutters thrown open the bar gets a nice breeze blowing through, and as it is down at the quieter end of Bourbon Street, it is blissfully tourist free. Well, other than me. Perhaps just tourist-lite, then.

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I tried not too drink too much in the afternoons, as New Orleans definitely ramps it up at night, and I wanted to pace myself. Besides, given what is about to come with dinner, you want your taste buds sharp and your senses keen.

Given that the USA gets 30% of their seafood from the coastal wetlands in Southern Louisiana, it is not surprising that many restaurants in New Orleans feature seafood.

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The Brennan family, immigrants from Ireland, first opened a restaurant in New Orleans in 1946. The various members of the family now own 10 restaurants in New Orleans, including the recently opened Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House. Along with a quite extensive collection of bourbons, the Bourbon House features lots of good seafood, including fresh Louisiana oysters on the half shell, and BBQ shrimp.

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Fuelled up from dinner, Bourbon Street’s nightly party awaits.

Beginning at Canal Street, the next eight blocks of Bourbon Street (named after the French royalty by the way, not the drink) feature bars with live music, restaurants, strip clubs and souvenir shops.

The Cat’s Meow features nightly karaoke, and to give you the courage to try, three beers for the price of one.

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I went to the Cat’s Meow on Sunday night. The New Orleans Saints were playing the Minnesota Vikings in an American Football (NFL) match the next day, and the bar was filled with Minnesota fans who had come in to town for the game.

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In honour of the Minnesota fans, who had a very popular quarterback named Warren Moon, I decided to sing Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival, replacing the words “There is a bad moon on the rise” with “Warren Moon is on the rise.” I am nothing if not clever after three-for-one beers.

I must admit that I didn’t think too much about my song choice, and felt a little guilty singing the lyrics...

I hear hurricanes ablowing.
I know the end is coming soon.
I fear rivers over flowing.
I hear the voice of rage and ruin.

...given the recent history of New Orleans. The locals seem to took it all in stride, though, and I get some compliments on my rendering of the song.

One of the great thing about New Orleans is that there are no laws against consuming alcohol in public, as long as it isn’t in a glass container. Every bar provides you with plastic cups to carry your drink with you when you are ready to leave, and sometimes if you order a special drink, you get a special plastic container. One of those special drinks is the hand grenade.

Created specifically to compete with the Hurricane on the strength scale, the Hand Grenade comes with 5 ounces of alcohol, making it the “most powerful drink” in New Orleans, as the Hurricane only has 4 ounces of alcohol. The 5 ounces of booze is mixed with a secret mix, and is served at the Tropical Isle on Bourbon Street.

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I was just going to take a picture of the glass with the sign in the background, but as I was about to a drunk guy came along and said, “no, no, let me take the picture of you.” He grabbed my camera before I could object, and started to aim the camera. I decided to go with it, and posed.

“Try and get the sign in the background,” I said.

He smiled and nodded, and then proceed to sway back and forth as he tried to frame the photo. “The camera seems to be having trouble focusing,” he slurred, and I wanted to reply that perhaps he was the one having trouble focusing, but held my tongue. Despite the swaying, the photo actually turned out okay.

Not so for the drink. The Hand Grenade may be powerful, but it is really bad. To overcome the alcohol taste, the drink is powerfully sweet. I could only drink half of the drink before wanting to wretch from the sweetness, so I poured the rest down the sink. That’s also the first time I saw the colour of the drink, which previously had been hidden by the retroactive green container. Turns out the drink is a day-glo yellow-green, a colour I have never seen in nature, and frankly rarely on anything other than Ocean Pacific hats from the 1980s.

The best thing about Bourbon Street, though, is the choice of music. Many bars have live music, including jazz, zydeco, blues, country and rock. There are lots of choices. On Sunday night, after the karaoke, I wound up listening to a band at the Krazy Korner, and recorded them playing the last verse of Take It Easy (originally by The Eagles).

And that’s really the best advice for New Orleans, especially if you are spending multiple days there. There is tons of great food, drink and nightlife, but take it easy. You don’t want to burn out too quickly.

Posted by GregW 07:51 Archived in USA Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

The Crescent City

Walking through the history of New Orleans

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This is the first of three entries on my recent trip to New Orleans. This one deals with the history of the city, most of which is quite visible as you walk through her neighbourhoods. The second entry will deal with Katrina, the damage that the hurricane did and the recovery efforts. The third and final entry will deal with food, booze and the general debauchery of Bourbon Street.

New Orleans, Louisiana sits on a strip of land between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, about 100 miles from where the mighty Mississippi drains into the Gulf of Mexico, at a point where the Mississippi River bends. The bend in the river gave New Orleans’ one of it’s nicknames, “The Crescent City.”

The city was founded at the bend in the River in the 1718 by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville. Bienville was living in Biloxi at the time, and was asked by John Law, the Scotsman who was in charge of France’s Company of the West to find a suitable place for a colony. Bienville had seen the site 19 years earlier while on a expedition with his brother Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur D’Iberville to map the Mississippi River and cement France’s claim on their section of North America.

Bienville had liked the site for two reasons. Firstly, the bend made it easy to defend. Secondly, St. John’s Bayou provided a link between the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain, allowing easy military and trade access to the gulf of Mexico. Bienville founded a settlement on high ground and named it New Orleans after duc d’Orleans, the regent of France.

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The town was founded based on the plan of French towns, with a central square called the Place d’Armes and a grid of streets. Earthen mounds topped with wooden walls surrounded the city, protecting it both from potential invaders and the occasional flood from the river.

John Law, the Scot running the Company of the West, marketed New Orleans across Europe as a land of milk and honey, a golden opportunity to become wealthy and live in luxury. In reality, early New Orleans was nothing more than a scattering of huts of cypress, moss and clay, and not much opportunity at all. However, the marketing worked and soon a mix of Europeans joined the French already at the site, and the population grew large enough to replace Biloxi as capital of the French territory of Louisiana in 1723.

In 1727, a group of Ursuline nuns arrived in town and started a convent. They took on the role of educating young French women sent over to New Orleans as potential wives for the mostly male population. The girls became known as les filles a la cassette, or casket girls, after the coffin shaped government supplied box used to cart their possessions to the new world.

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Despite the population growth, the plan for the colony to generate wealth for France failed. The Company of the West and John Law were forced to give up control of New Orleans in 1731, and the French Monarchy took direct control of the city and Louisiana. Plantations started to be established along the Mississippi River near the city, and the city’s wealthier citizens started to develop a society based on the French court, with parties and feasts.

The French Quarter has an undeniable sense of history, but it is certainly no museum piece. The area hosts a number of bars and restaurants and the world famous Bourbon Street, which is a bacchanalian scene any night of the week.

In the early years of the city, France imposed strict trade regulations on New Orleans, and the citizens were barred from trading with anyone but France. Unfortunately for both France and New Orleans, this situation lead to a financial crisis, and King Louis XV granted all the land west of the Mississippi to his cousin, King Charles III of Spain in the treaty of Fountainebleu in 1764. Without the benefit of CNN, however, it was two years until anyone in New Orleans knew of the switch, when governor Don Antonio de Ulloa arrived from Spain to take over control of New Orleans.

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Spain tried to impose similar restrictions on New Orleans, allowing them to only trade with Spain, hampering any economic progress for the city. The citizens of New Orleans revolted against the government, but any rebellion was crushed in 1769 when Don Alexander “Bloody” O’Reilly was dispatched by the Spanish government along with 3000 soldiers to regain control.

New Orleans found a way around trade restrictions, though, and these were boom times for pirates, like Jean Lafitte. Lafitte opened up a “blacksmith shop” in the French Quarter to trade in plundered and illegal goods, including alcohol. The building is still standing in the French Quarter, one of the few buildings dating back before the fires in late 1700s and thus possibly the oldest building in the Mississippi River valley. Today it is a bar, and fitting with the old building, has little electric light inside, making it a magical place for a drink at night.

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in 1795, the Treaty of Madrid opened up trade with America, and the city started to take off. Spain gave the city back to France in 1800, and Napoleon turned around and sold it to the Americans in 1803 for $15 million dollars.

It was in the building called The Cabildo on the Plaza D’Armes where the transfer papers for the Louisiana Purchase were signed.

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The Cabildo is the building on the left, beside St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest catholic church in the United States.

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The canons out front apparently work, if pressed into service. As a prank in 1921 someone loaded one up and fired it. Unfortunately, the canon ball flew clear across the Mississippi River and 6 blocks inland where it nearly killed the occupants of the house that the canon ball smashed into.

It is said the Napoleon had planned to take back Louisiana by force after dealing with those pesky Europeans, but never got the chance because of that small problem of a defeat in Waterloo, Belgium.

The French and Spanish Creole did not take kindly to the idea of being Americans. They liked their courtly society and felt that American governance would mean an end to their European ways. As such, American settlers were pushed to settle on the other side of Canal street, up river from the French Quarter.

The original French and Spanish inhabitants lived mostly in the area that is now known as the French Quarter or the Vieux Carre (old Square), which rightly is the focus of most tourist visits. The French Quarter has suffered a few devastating fires in the mid and late 1700s, but a large number of the buildings date back to the early 1800s and are very well preserved. As the last building boom, after a fire in 1794 happened during Spanish rule, much of the French Quarter has Spanish architecture - lots of balconies, arches and courtyards.

Like most tourists, my first stop in New Orleans after dropping my bags at my hotel was the French Quarter. I spent my first night and all the next day exploring the 90 block area, and returned there every day of my 5 day trip, at the very least for the nightlife on Bourbon street.

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Canal Street is a wide boulevard that separates the French Quarter from the “American sector” of Faubourg St. Mary, which is now known as the Central Business District. There is no canal anywhere close to Canal Street. One was planned, but never built. Today Canal Street is a long boulevard of shopping, mostly discount stores. Street improvements are underway to try and bring in some higher end businesses, though, to make Canal Street a more vibrant part of New Orleans.

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The Central Business District, where the Americans first settled, today is pretty much like anywhere else where Americans settled and made a city - lots of tall, shiny towers where people work in cubicles on computers. Like many downtowns in America, there are shuttered buildings and rundown turn of the 20th century high rises, but also like many downtowns in America, revitalization is underway, trying to bring life to city core after the office workers head home for the day. New Orleans is probably luckier than most, as the French Quarter was never abandoned, so they don’t have to pull people from too far away to bring some people over. The is an area of old warehouses that is being revitalized with shops, bars, restaurants and galleries, and there are plans to build a Jazz area near the Superdome.

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Further uptown from the CBD is where the rich Americans settled in what is known as the Garden District. The area was originally a plantation, but was subdivided to make room for the expanding population of New Orleans. Throughout the 19th century Americans built homes, most in the styles of Victorian, Italianate and Greek Revival.

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Archie Manning, former New Orleans Saints quarterback and father of Peyton and Eli, who are the quarterbacks for the Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants respectively, lives in a home on First Street in the Garden District.

In New Orleans, they don’t bury their dead. When it rains in New Orleans, it tends to flood. And floods tend to churn up anything buried. As such, burying the dead soon meant they would be revisiting you. Therefore, New Orleans started housing their dead above ground in crypts.

New Orleans is the only place where I was warned against walking in the cemeteries by myself. Apparently some of the cemeteries are in rough parts of towns, and the raised crypts are a convenient place for ne’er-do-wells to hide and do harm to unsuspecting tourists. My guidebook did advise against going into some of them without a guide, but suggested that Layfatte Number 1, in the Garden District, was okay for a stroll without a guide.

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As the Americans built mansions upriver, the French started to build them along Esplanade Avenue, which runs from the Mississippi River towards Lake Pontchartrain. The area became known as Esplande Ridge, though it is only a few feet higher than other areas in New Orleans. I guess when you live in a city whose highest point is 35 feet above sea level and seems to be about as flat as a place can be, words like “ridges” and “hills” take on different meanings.

Esplande Ridge today still has many of the mansions built in the 19th century, though some of them seem a little down in the tooth, though there are many that seem very well preserved.

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Across Esplande, further down river are the areas of Faubourg Marigny and Bywater. Faubourg, by the way, means neighbourhood. Originally the Creole suburbs for the French Quarter, today the area of Marigny is an up and coming area, attractive to young hip urban types. There are a number of quirky bars and art galleries along Frenchman Street, the main drag, and many of the houses in Marigny have been restored by the new inhabitants.

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Marigny is also the heart of gay and lesbian New Orleans, which seems to be par for the course in cities - First the artists move in for the cheap rents, then the gay community moves in to create a sense of community, then the young, hip, urban types move in for the vibe, then somebody builds condos and all the artists, gays and urban types find some place else to live. Anyway, Marigny is right now free of condos or proposed condo developments, though I heard that they might be building a cruise ship terminal along the river in Marigny, which would probably mean hotels and shopping malls will replace the nice, tiny houses that are there now.

However, perhaps the artists are already leaving. Bywater, further down river, looks at first glance like a pretty industrial place. However, it is home to many art studios and artists, so perhaps the shift is already on.

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Back to the history. Despite the initial separation between the American and French communities, relations soon warmed after Americans did what they do best, make tons of money. The French wanted in on some of that action, and the Americans wanted in on some of the French culture and community, so soon they started really working together. Then something happened that really forged the community. A combined Creole and American force won a decisive battle in a war that was already over.

In 1812, the British and Americans went to war. Canada was a launching ground for attacks from the North, and in fact the British Army was successful in making it all the way to Washington, D.C., where they set the White House on fire.

The British of course, attacked all up and down the American coast with their naval power. Threatening an attack, American Andrew Jackson and Creole Jean Lafitte sat down together and drew up a plan of defence. Jackson called for a volunteer force to serve, and 5,000 New Orleans residents stood up, both from the American and French sides of Canal Street.

The Battle of New Orleans was fought downriver from New Orleans in what is now St. Benard Parish on January 8, 1815. The battle was a rout, with 2000 dead or wounded Brits to 20 Americans. Andrew Jackson became a national hero for the win, and New Orleans renamed Plaza D’Armes to Jackson Square in his honour.

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Sadly for the dead and wounded, the battle was unnecessary. On December 24, 1814, a Treaty had been signed in Ghent, Belgium putting an end to the war. Unfortunately, again with no CNN and satellite uplinks, neither the Americans nor the British taking part in the battle knew.

The early 1800s also saw the start of boom for New Orleans with the advent of the steam powered riverboat. In 1812 the steamer New Orleans (aptly named) arrived in the city. With the whole of the Mississippi to trade on, New Orleans boomed. In 1840 the trade going through New Orleans’ port was almost as much as was going through New York City, America’s busiest port.

While the port of New Orleans has gone through some ups and downs, today it is still one of the busiest ports in America. Much of the trade along the Mississippi is transferred to or from ocean going vessels in New Orleans. It is rumoured that Governor Huey Long actual built a bridge over the Mississippi low to ensure that New Orleans and Louisiana would always be a vital part of the marine trade.

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Of course, much of that growth in trade in the 1800s came on the backs of African slaves. The slave market in New Orleans was one of the largest in America. Despite that, New Orleans was also home to one of the largest groups of “free men of colour” in the Southern USA.

In 1861, a number of Southern states, including Louisiana seceded from the United States and joined the Confederate States of America. Less than two years later, New Orleans was captured by Admiral David Farragut, and New Orleans was back under American rule. By 1865 the entire South had been brought back into the fold, and the Confederate States of America was no more.

The President of the Confederate States of America for the four short years the breakaway country existed was Jefferson Davis. While travelling in the area in 1889, almost 30 years after his term as the CSAs only president, Jefferson Davis fell ill. He was brought to his friend Judge Charles Fenner’s house in the Garden District. Mr. Davis died there on December 6th, 1889. A stone marker out front commemorates this fact.

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After the war, Louisiana and the south went about rebuilding their economies without slavery. The city of New Orleans grew in size during this time, annexing the nearby towns of Carrollton, Jefferson City and the town right across the river from the French Quarter and the Central Business District, Algiers.

Algiers is connected to New Orleans by a ferry boat, a service that has been running since 1827, though they have updated the boats. Algiers Point, right across the river, is mostly residential with some nice gingerbread houses.

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As New Orleans grew post-civil war, gambling, drinking and prostitution started to thrive as well. Alderman Sidney Story, upset about the vice in the city, proposed moving all illegal activities to their own district, north of the French Quarter. This area became known as Storyville, after the alderman.

Some of the fancier brothels hired musicians to entertain the guests (in between bouts of being entertained by the girls). It was here that jazz music really began to take off, as out of town guests heard the music that was already gaining ground across New Orleans. Jelly Roll Morton was one of the famous musicians that got his start in Storyville, and Louis Armstrong used to listen to the bands in Storyville before becoming famous himself.

In 1917, during World War I, the navy was concerned about sailors getting into too much trouble, and had the area shut down. Little of Storyville’s original buildings remain today, as most of the place was demolished to make way for the Iberville Projects in the 1930s. However, jazz still flourishes in New Orleans, including the world famous Preservation Hall, where nightly concerts are held for the low admission price of $10.

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Like many cities, New Orleans built up a massive network of street cars running on rails through out the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And like many cities, they tore up most of the tracks in the late 20th century to make way for more cars. In fact, the year after Tennessee Williams wrote “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1947, the Desire Street streetcar tracks were pulled up and the route was converted to buses.

Eventually all the street car tracks were pulled up save for the line on St. Charles street. In the early 2000s, New Orleans rediscovered the love of the street car, and 2 new lines have been built, one running along Canal Street to the cemeteries and City Park, and one running along the waterfront.

The system has new cars, but still uses a significant number of the 1920s era wooden streetcars.

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Throughout the 20th century and into the early 21st century, New Orleans continued to grow. In addition to the port, it became a regional financial centre with 50 banks, and a number of new buildings popped up in the Central Business District.

For those of us outside of the shipping or financial industries though, at the start of the 21st century most of us would have known New Orleans for the famous Mardi Gras balls and parades. Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the day before Lent, and as New Orleans is a very Catholic city, they take both the fasting and prayer of Lent and the party leading up to that period of reflection very seriously.

The first Mardi Gras in Louisiana was celebrated by the city’s founding brothers Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville in 1699 at a spot just down river from present day New Orleans. Today, the Mardi Gras festivities run over two weeks, with parades running along St. Charles and Canal Streets, nightly balls and galas, and lots of drunken revelry on Bourbon Street.

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Of course, the world’s attention turned to New Orleans in August and September of 2005 for a completely different reason, when Hurricane Katrina, the subsequent storm surge and the breaking of the levees brought international attention to a city being devastated, the effects of which are still felt today.

Coming up next, Katrina’s impact and where the city stands today in their rebuilding efforts

Posted by GregW 08:48 Archived in USA Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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