Traveling from an airport into a city can be a challenging task. So it’s good that so many American airports offer shuttle services; a halfway house between an expensive private cab rise and the confusion of trying to find a bus that’s going anywhere near your accommodation. Over the years I’ve found the shuttle service in New Orleans to be especially efficient, and today doesn’t disappoint. Or rather it wouldn’t have done had it not been for my fellow passengers.
I’ve visited NOLA enough times now to know the familiar route from Louis Armstrong Airport to the French Quarter. I usually stay somewhere near the top of the Quarter, and it usually pays off, because a good shuttle driver knows that it’s easier to start at the top and work your way down to the Mississippi, taking into account the Quarter’s strict one way system – one block goes down, the next goes up.
However, our driver today decides that he’s going to do things in reverse. And the passengers don’t like it. At the bottom of Canal Street are three of the biggest hotels. I know this because the driver tells us this. In great detail. Crawling – in zero traffic – between each one and affording us a great story about every building.
“Excuse me sir, but we have to join a cruise at 6pm,” protests and elderly woman. Her husband soon joins in. “Can we just get out here please?”. I’m used to this back and forth having seen it all before. In fact, I can predict that the Homewood Suites by Hilton will be the last drop off point. But as we swing around onto Rampart Street, the driver has a different idea.
“I just want to take you folks along the block here to see Louis Armstrong Park, one of the most…” yes, yes, I know. But my bladder says “Hotel. Now. Quickly”. The remaining elderly couple on the bus are fascinated by the free guided tour. “Sir, can I ask, did you ever meet Louis Armstrong himself?” Absurd, surely? “Well as it happens…” continues the driver…. forever.
After what seems like a further age we finally arrive. NewsMutt is already working out which bar to hit first.
It’s early evening on a Tuesday. My usual routine on these trips is to come to New Orleans first, so I’m normally buzzing after a long flight from London. This evening seems more relaxed, perhaps a little too relaxed; Bourbon Street, usually a sea of music, noise and hustlers, seems eerily quiet. In a post-Covid world, the French Quarter hasn’t got its regular buzz. The visitor numbers are down, and it seems that many venues are suffering.
It’s something of a comedown, because this is a city that has looked tragic events in the eye countless times before, and always responded by coming back just as big and just as loud. On the plus side, it means being able to relax in venues that are normally rammed with revellers. I walk across to Frenchman Street, my favourite road in the whole city. Here, the live music is still going strong, and some of the best performances can be seen at the Spotted Cat.
Jazz music has so many styles that I contend nobody can really define what it is. However, here is a classic performance of ragtime and ballads, done in a very traditional way. Many bars in New Orleans famously boast “no cover charge”, only for the costs to be added on to watered down drinks at sky high prices. Tonight at the Spotted Cat it’s just $5 entry, which is pretty good as there are three different shows through the evening, and you can come and go to other venues as you please.
However, another of my feline favourites is closed tonight and I can’t work out why. Cats Meow is one of Bourbon Street’s institutions, imposing terrible karaoke on its patrons for well over a decade. I later read that there was a fatal shooting here just a week earlier; an off duty bar tender was hit by a ricocheting bullet meant for someone else. It’s a sobering reminded that this city has a grim reputation when it comes to crime.
It’s barely 11pm air everywhere has an air of closing time about it. That can often be deceptive in a place like this, where some of the best musical performances can often be enjoyed way beyond midnight. It is, notably, just a week after Mardi Gras, Perhaps New Orleans is still getting over it.