The Big Easy isn’t hard to take

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by Nikki Mantell on September 29, 2010

This week, I’m back on the vacation beat, giving Gatineau Hillers the lowdown on a very fun, very economical destination: New Orleans.

Being modern people short on both time and cash, my gentleman friend, Mike, and I went to the Internet to find a cheap pre-winter getaway.

For a mere $440 per person (all taxes included) you can land yourselves a return flight and four-nights stay at a four-star hotel two blocks from the French Quarter, on Priceline.com. (The hitch is flying out of Syracuse International, but from Wakefield it’s a breezy three-and-a-half hour drive, as long as the customs lineup at the border is short.)

The Big Easy is big-time enjoyable this time of year. With 32 C weather (as opposed to 42 C three weeks prior), its sunny skies and warm hospitality (they’re desperate for visitors post-Hurricane Katrina), it feels like a real escape from our cool, rainy Hills.

Add to that the locals’ Southern drawl, sometimes so thick you have to ask three times; the southern food – Po’ boys, muffalatas, jambalaya, deep-fried oysters; and places like the French Quarter with its narrow streets and French and Spanish colonial architecture . . . and you don’t even feel like you are in North America anymore.

There’s lots to do, but of course, this town is known for music.

We could have forked out the $30 to see the Ellis Marsalis trio that happened to be playing at the supper club where we ate the most delicious and surprisingly spiced (chilis, rosemary and something resembling cumin) shrimp dinner on Frenchman Street that first night.

Or we could have wandered over to the infamous Bourbon Street and to have our ears assailed by over-amped cover bands screaming Bon Jovi and Tina Turner songs from the ten blocks of wall-to-wall bars and strip clubs. (Bourbon Street post Katrina has devolved to a combination of the worst elements of Ottawa’s Jazzfest and the Hull strip back in the day: a head-bobbing khakis-and-golf-shirt crowd bumping against packs of wasted women tottering on four-inch heels).

Instead, we struck to the quieter streets. Frenchman Street by night is the up-can-coming corner to find the real deal in New Orleans jazz. We didn’t even venture inside: the street itself was its own impromptu music hall, and besides, it’s legal to drink outside.

At night, the music students unpack their clarinets, enthusiasm and talent to put on put on street concerts of klezmer on one block, Dixieland on the next or an experimental violin and harp by a female duo just another block down.

Daytime in the antique store and gallery-lined Royal Street (parallel to Bourbon) was even more fun. Playing for dollar bills, a six-piece group stopped foot traffic with their top-notch traditional New Orleans Jazz.

A large white woman with a voice that suggested she ate gravel every morning belted out some hurtin’ woman blues (she’s known as Big Mama Sunshine – and to see my video clip of her, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3w5u_0S8Ko).

After the sunset, a 12-piece funk band – half of which is a white-hot horn section – had us literally dancing in the street.

There’s loads to do in NOLA: great shopping, Katrina and plantation bus tours, and then there’s the food.

More on delicious, fatty Southern food next week.