The limited availability of flights that American was willing to give us for free through their frequent flyer program meant that we had nearly an entire day left in New Orleans before we had to head home. Though we pondered a variety of breakfast options to begin our last day in town, we decided to be honest with ourselves and admit that we really just wanted to go back to Cafe du Monde for more beignets. They're really that good -- if you find yourself in New Orleans, you absolutely must eat them!
Though the timing of our trip allowed us to get a taste of Mardi Gras season without experiencing the insanity first hand, we decided to delve a little deeper into the annual celebration by doing the single most touristy thing of our entire trip: going to Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World. Despite its name, Mardi Gras World is not, in fact, a Mardi Gras-inspired theme park, but rather, the production and storage facility of Blaine Kern Studios, the company responsible for designing and manufacturing some 90% of the floats used for the Mardi Gras parades. It's open year-round to tourists, and it offers the additional perk of providing shuttle service throughout the French Quarter and parts of the Central Business District. All you have to do is call them, and they dispatch a shuttle to come get you. The cost is surely built into the outrageous admission fee, but it's convenient nonetheless.
A visit to Mardi Gras World includes a piece of king cake, the coffee cake-like confection of yeasted dough wrapped around a cinnamon-sugar filling, topped with sanding sugar in the green, purple, and yellow colors of Mardi Gras, along with a brief video explaining the Mardi Gras culture, and, most significantly, a tour through the float production facility. The tour itself was pretty lame, and not particularly informative. Our specific tour was made all the worse by the inclusion of a pre-school group, which required a general lowering of the level of discourse for the outing. However, the real draw behind Mardi Gras World is that after the tour, they allow visitors to basically wander the warehouse unsupervised, for as long as you care to stay.
|The king's throne from the floats of the krewe of Tuck's.|
From a safety standpoint, it's hard to believe they allow people to interact with the space in this way. After all, forklifts laden with bags of beads are zipping around as workers make their last minute preparations for the parades. It may be less hectic further away from the actual Mardi Gras season, but I'm surprised that they allow visitors so much freedom at the height of their busy season.
|Props from the krewe of Zulu , an African American troop that has been reclaiming traditional stereotypes in their annual parade since 1916.|
Nevertheless, it was cool to be able to wander at our leisure, and see the floats from up-close; even the parade-goers don't get to stand that close. More amusing, however, was the haphazard way the props and components were jammed into the space, leading to numerous incongruous pairings. One had to wonder whether some of them were unintentional (such as Alien looming over a couple sharing a romantic moment), but either way, the disorganization led to some interesting photo ops. Overpriced as it was, I'd still say Mardi Gras world is worth a visit, especially if you're not in town during the actual Mardi Gras season.
Conveniently, after they had picked us up outside of Cafe du Monde, the Mardi Gras World Shuttle dropped us off right on Jackson Square, steps from where we had planned to have lunch at Stanley. Named after the role Marlon Brando made famous in A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley is the sibling restaurant to the fancier Stella! down the street, which serves an elegant dinner menu. Stanley is better known for their brunches and lunches, and, according to the guidebook, some of the best burgers in the city of New Orleans. As I was starting to reach the end of my tolerance for Southern food, a burger was sounding pretty good to me, and I wasn't disappointed.
Plus, ordering the burger at Stanley meant sampling a piece of local history -- Stanley was one of the first restaurants to reopen after Hurricane Katrina, opening before residents were even officially allowed back into town. They served this burger to emergency workers and the media, despite the challenging conditions, and I was glad to be able to give it a try.
Not wanting to stray too far from the hotel with the time until our flight rapidly dwindling, we found ourselves at a bit of a loss as to how to spend the afternoon. The museums we were interested in were too far away, so we decided to stroll through the French Quarter again. We stopped by a small shop on Royal Street that we'd walked by a dozen or more times during our trip that featured a large collection of Limoges boxes, small, hand-painted porcelain decorative boxes from France that my mom collects. Justin and I had long been looking for the right way to thank her for all the help she's given us with our new condo, so we popped in to pick one up for her.
Aimlessly, we wandered down Bourbon street again, noting that the atmosphere was starting to shift. Things were getting more wild, and it was clear that we would be leaving town just at the right moment, before the true revelry and debauchery of Mardi Gras kicked in.
We made one last stop at Pat O'Brien's, the famous bar whose hurricane mix can be purchased at every souvenir shop in the city. Justin and I had spent much of the trip debating whether we wanted to sample the enormous concoction of passion fruit syrup and rum, and while I still had visions that I'd end up vomiting into a gutter afterward, Justin decided that he wanted to give the hurricane a try. Thankfully, Pat O'Brien's had a list of non-alcoholic drinks as well, and I was able to order a sunrise -- a layered combination of orange juice and passion fruit syrup that was surprisingly tasty. During the middle of the day, the scene at Pat O'Brien's is surprisingly laid-back, and we spent a rather lovely interlude on their outdoor patio, complete with gurgling fountain.
Desperate to soak up as much of the city as we could in our final hours, we lingered along Royal Street, taking in the performances of a variety of street musicians. My favorite was a group called Yes Ma'am, which was composed of local hipsters playing a sort of blue grass-inspired music on homemade instruments. There was a fiddler, a banjo, a drum made out of a suitcase, a washboard, and, of course, a wash-tub bass that called to mind the plot behind one of my favorite holiday movies: Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas. I really enjoyed listening to them (and ogling their sweet, sleepy old dog), but it was soon time to make our way back to the hotel to pick up our bags and leave for the airport.
We did make one last, quick stop on our way there. Across the street from our hotel I had noted what I thought was an interesting synagogue, though it turned out that the unusual part-Spanish, part-Eastern European style architecture belonged to the Jesuit Immaculate Conception Church. Not expecting much, I tried the door to the structure and was surprised to find it open on a weekday.
Once inside, we were greeted by an interior that far surpassed the comparatively plain St. Louis Cathedral. Stunning stained glass windows lined the nave, and unique wrought iron pews echoed the balconies seen all over New Orleans. I've never seen pews like that in any other city, and I think it's safe to say that I've seen quite a few churches in my day. My favorite part of the church, naturally, was a pair of mosaics located at the back of the building. Each combined familiar religious iconography with images from the city's history, including the 1789 fire that destroyed most of New Orleans, and triumphant American soldiers during the Battle of New Orleans.
Having satisfied that last whim, it was time for us to collect our possessions and catch a taxi to the airport. We were sad to leave, but I am confident that we will be returning to New Orleans. Not only is it a foodie's dream, the city will always hold significance for us as a place that we dreamt so long about seeing, and as the first major trip we took together. We were so fortunate to be able to take this vacation, and I am very grateful to my father for giving us his frequent flyer miles, hooking us up with a deal on our hotel, and picking up the tab on some of our meals. There would have been no trip without his generosity.