Jul 2, 2014

The day I skipped Jazz Fest

One lesson you quickly learn when you travel as a commoner is how to go with the flow.  Your itinerary may not go as scheduled.  You may encounter detours along your journey.  And, occasionally, you may look at what you previously planned, weigh the situation you’re faced with and decide suddenly go in an entirely different direction.   

That’s what happened earlier this year with my friends and I on our first day in the Big Easy between New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival weekends. We had actually timed our arrival to make it possible to attend the first Sunday, as a couple of us were interested in seeing Eric Clapton headline that day.  And John Hiatt, and Tab Benoit, and Irma Thomas, and the list goes on … it was in my opinion the most packed day of the festival. 

It also didn't help that I insisted on posing for this picture.

The first indication that this plan may not have been very well thought out was the fact that we started the day in Jackson, Miss.  The second indication was the fact that we didn't hit the Louisiana state line until about 10 a.m.  Jazz Fest gates open at 11 a.m.  Oh, well, time flies when you’re having fun, and our group was regardless. 

Ken and Don wait for our room ...
It was around noon by the time we reached our destination, the Country Inn & Suites French Quarter, and got in line for valet parking.  And we got good news … one of our rooms was ready. The other would be in about 30 minutes.  So, we could wait a little longer, get settled in and be done with the whole check-in process, or we could check in later that evening. 

Convenience was weighted.  The time it would take to get to Jazz Fest was considered, as well as how much of the festival we’d actually see compared to the cost invested in it.  We came to a decision as a group.

This looks inviting.  
So, we skipped Jazz Fest, walked around the corner to Chuck’s, the nearest dive bar (which was also highly and correctly recommended by Terry Hupp), and waited for the second room to be ready.

You have to love the advertised hours.

Chuck’s is a self-described sports bar, although I was hard pressed to see any evidence why.  Aside from a pool table (and maybe a dart board?), video poker and an occasional LSU Tigers or New Orleans Zephyrs logo on the dark and cluttered walls, I couldn't see a whole lot here that appealed to sports enthusiasts.  In fact, the main sport here seems to be people watching, and some occasional banter with the bartender about whatever movie was on the TV at the time (in this case, “I Am Legend”). 

These are in no way complaints about Chuck’s.  In fact, they’re what make it great.  The place is wonderfully seedy.  The company ranges from thirsty and fearless tourists to service industry folks making a living in the nearby restaurants and hotels.  The bartenders are friendly and down to earth.  The drinks are cheap … and strong.

Plus, how can you not love a dive bar that still has a pay phone?  Yeah, we returned here frequently.  

After we got the call that our second room was ready, we checked in, rested up, and did what many half-inebriated tourists tend to do on their first day in New Orleans – roam the French Quarter. 

Our first stop was a late lunch at Acme Oyster House.  Because it was Jazz Fest Sunday, the perpetual line for a table was non-existent.  We took it as a sign that we were meant to come here.

And, as usual, the oysters on the half shell did not disappoint.  The oyster shooter was less spectacular, but when the shot costs $1.99, your expectations should be limited.  Hot sauce always helps get it down. 

For lunch, I went with the fried shrimp half po-boy and a cup of the soup of the day – soft shell crab and corn bisque.  Both were delicious. 

Our tour continued with a stroll down a remarkably quiet Bourbon Street.  Remember, Jazz Fest was going on in full force by late afternoon.  Still, one of the fascinating things about New Orleans is that you never know who, or what, you may run into. 

Just your typical Sunday afternoon on Bourbon Street.
These ladies were obviously quite self-assured.  I’m afraid, however, I can’t show you the front view in all of their body-painted glory.  They didn't mind being photographed … as long as you paid $5 for the privilege.  To quote Terry Hupp:  “No, thanks.  I’ll keep my memories for free.”

We wrapped up our afternoon tour at Johnny White’s Bar – the Rue St. Peter location

Johnny White’s has long been on my short list of great New Orleans dive bars.  For a relatively small bar favored by locals (especially bikers and Saints fans), it has to be one of the best stocked bars in the Quarter.  

It’s open 24 hours.  It has good drink specials (and it uses Zing Zang in its Bloody Marys!).  It has a sense of humor. 

Seriously, what's with the umbrella?
And its walls are lined with pictures and decorations that sometimes just defy explanation. 

It was an ideal choice for a couple more drinks before we stumbled back to the hotel.  First day of New Orleans was in the books, and I wasn't the least bit disappointed that we missed one of the main reasons we went there in the first place.  My favorite city had proven once again why it truly is the Big Easy … go with the flow, and you’ll have a great time no matter what. 

Look for several more blog posts capturing my most recent New Orleans trip.  Believe it or not, I have many previously undiscovered gems to write about.   

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