The Final Chapter in NOLA

Waking up on my final day in New Orleans was bittersweet. I was so thankful for the experiences I had throughout the weekend, but I was also wishing I had a few more days to pack in more hidden treasures of this city. I thought a great way to experience a lot of the city at once was by riding the famous street cars.

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There are three different street car lines in New Orleans. The city takes credit as being the first city west of the Allegheny Mountains in the Appalachian Mountain Range to implement passenger rail service. I explored the area through the Canal Street line which runs from the booming business district through the heart of New Orleans. Along the way you see charming villages, historic cemeteries and buildings, endless monuments and the vivacious life of the city through restaurants, bars, shops, and parades. The Saint Charles Line (which was operating with buses in place of street cars when I was in the area so sadly I didn’t get to experience this), is the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world. The street cars made me feel like I was in an Old Hollywood movie set - such a cool experience.

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I then headed to The Country Club for lunch. This club is a hidden oasis located in the Bywater neighborhood and has been around for over 40 years, known for being welcoming and accepting of everyone who walks through their doors. It’s an LGBT staple in the city, but of course everyone is invited to enjoy the beautiful property (even dogs)! They have a serene pool and bar in the back where you can spend the entire day. Each room of the restaurant has its own theme - the one I dined in had hand painted birds resting on vines throughout the four walls. The decor alone is a reason to check out this spot!

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The food was once again, unreal. I started with a fresh grilled tomato salad sourced from local ingredients. The Pan Roasted Louisiana White Shrimp with pecan and green onion popcorn rice, charred cherry tomatoes, red beans, sweet corn and pressed basil was savory and cooked to perfection. The chef surprised me afterwards with a lemon sorbet soaked in limoncello, which brought me right back to my trip in Italy - it was the perfect finishing touch to the meal. The staff afterwards gave me a tour of the property and couldn’t have been nicer. I wish I had time to jump into the pool, but I had to get back to the hotel to get ready for my trip back to New York City.

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Working with the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau to see this city in a completely different light was eye opening. I know the night life in New Orleans is exciting and you should absolutely go out and hear live music and enjoy some cocktails while you’re in town. But you also should experience the beautiful nature, the rich history, the award winning restaurants and the alive culture of New Orleans. The city has so much to offer and there was still so much I could have experienced. I left New Orleans with a new respect and deep appreciation for the people, the culture and the stories that I will forever keep with me.

New Orleans: Day 2

After a non-stop first day in New Orleans, it was time for a relaxing morning at the hotel. The Windsor Court Hotel is a beautiful French-inspired property just minutes away from the historic French Quarter. Decor dating from the 17th to the late 20th centuries filled the space, creating a world that felt authentic to those times. With a spa, fitness facility, rooftop pool and award-winning restaurants (I even broke my no-dairy rule for their Cajun shrimp and smoked tomato pizza), taking in everything the hotel had to offer was a must on the to-do list. I started the day with a dip by their heated pool, and breakfast overlooking the city in their 22nd floor lounge. After easing into the morning, it was time for a new day of adventure.

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The National World War II Museum is considered one of the best museums in the world and it did not disappoint. The museum looks like a Hollywood set, with each room and time period of the war replicated to look like you are transported there. Certain points of this tour felt so real that I couldn’t help but get a little emotional. There were letters from sons to their mothers writing home to say they weren’t sure they were going to make it out of the war alive. Outfits of fallen soldiers lined hallways, weathered flags were on display, and footage of the after-effects of the war played throughout the tour. There was even a huge room of actual aircrafts that pilots flew in the war.

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There is so much to see in this six-acre campus that you could easily spend an entire day there. The museum holds over 250,000 artifacts and more than 9,000 personal accounts (like those letters from soldiers to their mothers). There is even a 4D movie theater that shows the journey through the war. I don’t always have time on trips to stop and take advantage of all the museums, but this was too special to miss. I left the WWII Museum thinking how important it is to remember our nation’s history so that we can grow together and become an even better society.

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After an educational morning, I walked over to Curio for a late lunch. Curio is a new restaurant led by superstar chef Hayley Van Vleet. Aside from some of the friendliest staff around, this spot provides American cuisine with Creole soul. I started with the sushi grade tuna and sea scallop carpaccio and chose the grilled salmon in a lemon shallot vinaigrette and smoked pine cone oil for my entree. I thought that was heaven until Chef Hayley brought out the S’mores Brownie Pie and toasted her homemade marshmallow. It was too beautiful and too delicious to pass up!

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Luckily the hurricane missed New Orleans but we did get a heavy downpour late Saturday afternoon, and some rain into the night, so it was the perfect excuse to head back to the hotel and try out the spa. I opted for the hour-long deep tissue massage and enjoyed every second of the treatment. Soothing sounds of nature and water played throughout the room as I drifted off into a total zen space. Afterwards, I unwinded in the sauna and steam room before heading up to the room for a late dinner in (the super comfortable) bed as the rain passed overnight. After a great day of learning our nation’s history, enjoying unique cuisine and taking advantage of all the hotel has to offer, I went to bed feeling completely satisfied with my trip to New Orleans - and there was still one more day to explore!

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Adventures in New Orleans

New Orleans is a city that has so much more to offer than partying through the early hours of the morning. It is a place rich in culture, filled with some of the kindest people I’ve ever met and, surprisingly, home to a natural oasis. I teamed up with the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau to explore a side to this city many people may not know about.

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I started off the weekend with a kayaking excursion in the Maurepas Swamp, just 25 miles outside of the city. This swamp is the second largest in the country and is home to alligators, bald eagles, white-tailed deer, turtles, several species of birds, and more. Bald cypress trees line the water and can be more than 3,500 years old. The trail is picturesque with a baby blue skyline full of lush greenery. About 15 minutes in, the most incredible thing happened. An alligator jumped up out of the water and barrel-rolled in the air next to my kayak before crashing back down, soaking me with water. Our instructor, Jeff (who was the absolute best) told us that they aren’t usually aggressive with kayakers and just want to get out of the way because they don’t want to be bothered. Jeff explained that the gator probably was sleeping and got startled by the large shadow of the kayak gliding over him. What a sight!

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One sobering thing I learned from this adventure: Louisiana is losing so much land that it equals about a football field a day. Every eight months, that’s about the size of New Jersey alone. He says salt water intrusion, the leveeing of the Mississippi River, and global warming conditions are to blame. Many organizations in New Orleans work to preserve the swamps as much as possible. I am so thankful I got to spend time in Louisiana’s beautiful swamp lands, and I will never forget this experience. Who knew this city could fulfill a nature-loving boy’s fix?

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After a morning on the water, it was time to check out the food scene in New Orleans. I stopped at the award-winning Peche for lunch, a restaurant inspired by the fusion of Spanish, South America, and Gulf Coast cooking. With a glass of rosé by my side, I tried the spicy ground shrimp and noodles and the baked drum with saffron, butternut squash, and tomato in a coconut broth. Contrary to belief, not everything is fried in New Orleans. I was able to find healthy options at all the restaurants I ate at with some of the freshest local seafood around. I am still dreaming of this restaurant!

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Next up was a tour of the Garden District (an area built after the Louisiana Purchase) where the oldest historic mansions and lush gardens fill the oak-lined streets. The famous above-ground Lafayette Cemetery is also in this neighborhood and it is filled with extravagant 19th century tombs. Many television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, American Horror Story, and even some blockbuster films were shot in this cemetery. I definitely felt a haunted energy in this area!

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So at this point you may be thinking how much more can someone do in a day? The answer is simple: so much more because there are just way too many things to see in New Orleans! The Krewe of Armeinius Costume Den was next on my radar. I love a good costume party (and often hand-make part of my Halloween costumes each year), so seeing where the artists make the ornate costumes for the LGBT Mardi Gras celebration, dating back to 1969, was fascinating. I met with famed French Quarter artist Freddie Guess who walked me through the history of costume-making for the city’s festive events. He then demonstrated the craftsmanship that goes into creating the pieces each year. The amount of passion and work that these artists puts into the pieces they create is inspiring. What was really cool to learn about was when the Krewe began these events, the safety of its members depended on secrecy. Now, its one of the largest gay historical archives of its sort in the country. The events the Krewe produces are about celebrating the LGBT community, and New Orleans is a city that very much appreciates and respects the hard work that goes into creating these events for the city.

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I ended the night with a delicious dinner at Sylvain, joined by Dustin and Jeff, an amazing couple who do a lot with local LGBT advocacy efforts. The restaurant is in a former three-story carriage house and is known for its inventive cocktails and fresh local ingredients. Sylvain is a must-try if you’re ever in New Orleans! It’s always nice to meet people making a difference in the community. Dustin focuses on bringing the local LGBT community together to help tell the authentic New Orleans story. He works closely with LGBT event leaders and allies in the hospitality industry to ensure the history of the community is never lost, and works hard to ensure that everyone from all different walks of life can merge together to be one collective community. We ended the evening at the famous carousel bar inside Hotel Monteleone for one final nightcap.

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The first day in New Orleans was jam-packed and I wouldn’t have changed a thing about it. Between getting lost in nature, sampling some local flavors and learning about the history of the city, I went to bed feeling inspired and fulfilled, and I couldn’t wait for what the rest of the trip would bring. Stay tuned for part 2! 😎