In recent years there seems to have been a shift in the hospitality sector. Hotels have taken a “back to basics” approach in order to save on costs – toiletries are not always provided in bathrooms, rooms are only cleaned on day three of a stay. There is, though, one constant that appears in just about every American hotel room – the single cup coffee maker. If you’ve never witnessed these unique appliances, think of the 1970s teasmade and it’s pretty much like that. A cupful of cold water is carefully poured into the top, then boiled at high speed before dripping through a coffee bag and onwards to your cup.
The coffee itself is inevitably terrible, and only made worse by the powdered milk whitener which is added to try and improve the flavour. Thankfully, despite being an apartment-hotel, the Homewood Suites offer breakfast with the room. Again, this is a definite shift in policy; for many years breakfast was considered an expensive luxury in American hotels – and surplus to requirements because there’s always a cheap diner just around the corner.
Suitably fortified, a stroll through the French Quarter brings familiar signs for me. At the centre of it all, steps from the banks of the Mississippi River, is Jackson Square and the distinctive outline of St Louis Cathedral.
Once again, something is missing. The visitors. There are some tourists around today, but not nearly as many as there should be. Most of the voices are English; before the Pandemic there would be a global selection of languages being spoken. But some things never change, including the lengthy queue outside the Cafe Du Monde. It’s universally considered to be the best place to get Beignets, the fried square donut served in threes and drenched in icing sugar. They are delicious, but caution is needed – any dark clothing will inevitably be dusted with sugar in the slightest of breezes, making you a possible target for the narcotics squad should you later enter a bar in the same outfit.
In New Orleans, a long queue means one thing. An opportunity. The captive audience is treated to some brilliant music from these guys. I can’t say for certain, but I think they’re the same group I saw here ten years ago – there’s always a four piece band hanging around this part of town.
Donations gratefully received, the line slowly moves into the Cafe Du Monde for their sweet treats. Me? I walk a couple of hundred yards to the French Market where a perfectly good stall sells Beignets for half the price that you’d pay here. There’s no table service and no fancy seating. But the taste is just as good, with the goods served hot from the fryer.
While it’s quiet today, I’m told that the forthcoming weekend will be really busy, with the culmination of the Final Four basketball tournament. This is one of the sport’s biggest events, and thousands will pack out the Superdome for the games. In Woldenburg Park on the waterfront a giant stage has been erected for the after party. I take a curious look at the hotel booking site to see that my room is being sold for almost twice today’s price at the weekend.
For a couple of days now the TV news has been warning of possible tornadoes. New Orleans, of course, knows all about extreme weather events after Hurricane Katrina. What’s mentioned less is the fact that hurricanes, tornadoes and floods happen often in this part of the south causing devastation in their wake. They just don’t get the same global headlines as they may have once done.
And they’re taking the warnings seriously. I decide to go for a walk around the picturesque suburb of Bayou St John – but my regular mode of transport, the streetcars, have been taken out of action as a precaution. A bus takes me to City Park instead, and in the air is a definite feeling that something is on the way; the calm before the storm.
Nobody is on the streets, and I start to wonder whether a walk was a good idea. A tropical, warm wind builds up as I make it to the main thoroughfare of Esplanade Avenue and a welcome coffee shop. Half an hour later, there is still no storm. When I get back to the hotel, the local TV channels have gone into overdrive with rolling coverage of tornadoes sweeping across the south. Nobody does a storm tracker forecast like the Americans. Complex graphics show where the mass of the storm is moving, and where the tornadoes have been confirmed. On the ground, anxious journalists report live from their vehicles, windscreen wipers moving. And then, the same reporters stand, exposed to the elements, to describe what sounds like the end of days.
Even the hotel reception staff urge guests not to venture out – but I do so anyway. I have a waterproof jacket and strong shoes, and I can always shelter in a bar, right? In the end we get a tropical downpour; torrential rain that only lasts about 45 minutes but still manages to turn some of the streets in the French Quarter into small rivers. It’s an extraordinary sight, but thankfully the tornadoes have died out or moved elsewhere.
None of this is great for business, but over on Frenchman Street the music is still playing. At Cafe Negril it’s a jam session with an array of pretty amazing players. The beer is cheap (for a tourist area) and the air conditioning provides welcome relief from the humidity outside.
It’s starting to feel more like the New Orleans I know. The crowd may be a little smaller, but at least it’s a crowd. The music shifts from jazz to funk to ballads in the most eclectic manner and the atmosphere is party like.
All of which is a cause for celebration