Not-quite-New Year's in NOLA

Hanging out in New Orleans (again) between the holidays.

My favorite things, y'all.

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by callen60 on January 9, 2011

I love New Orleans. On this latest visit, I realized that, outside of Washington, DC, I’ve visited NOLA more than any other American city (outside of those I’ve lived in). Five years after Katrina, my affection and admiration for this city’s (and this region’s) residents is undimmed.

It’s fun to come explore new parts of the city, but I also love doing some things each and every time I visit. Even in the depths of the Katrina recovery, people would want you to visit and have fun. First, they’d tell you how grateful they were that you’d come to help. Then they’d tell you to be sure and have some fun while you were in town. And then they’d ask you to tell you friends to come and do the same. This was my fourth post-Katrina trip, and here are a few of the things I love doing on each visit, which I hope will continue to be at least once a year.

Café du Monde: Yeah, yeah, it’s on everybody’s list of things to do. But I love starting as many days as possible here, watching the sun light up St. Louis Cathedral, and hearing life start to return to the French Quarter (from which, at sunrise, it’s only been absent for about 30 or 40 minutes). On my first visit, I camped out here while the rain poured and poured, and I drank coffee after coffee waiting for the torrents to end. If there’s any kind of crowd in town, there’ll be a line a lot earlier than you might expect, so get there early and grab a table right on the edge of Decatur Street. Your other option is the takeout line, but it’s just not the same. It’s not really a day in New Orleans unless you begin it coated with powdered sugar, which is an unavoidable consequence of the mandatory order of three beignets.

Po-Boys: One of my favorite things about New Orleans is the food. You can walk into nearly any restaurant, anywhere in town, and find something great to eat. You can spend $2 or $200 for a meal, and leave wishing that you had those kinds of assurances back home. (That begs the question of why you would drop the big bucks on a meal at one of the city’s many more expensive restaurants, but it’s worth setting those thoughts aside every now and then.) I’ve had po-boys to remember everywhere from Metairie to Algiers to the French Quarter and beyond. Mother’s (in the Central Business district at the NW corner of Poydras and Tchoupitoulas) or Johnny’s in the French Quarter (on St. Louis, just above Decatur) are classic, but the downside is that everyone else knows that, too. Luckily, they’re by no means exclusive. Take the Algiers ferry to Dry Dock Café, if you need another recommendation, but it seems that everybody here makes a great sandwich. It all starts with the bread: a terrific French loaf that crackles as you bite into it, and then gives way completely and lets you get to the filling. My two favorites are roast beef, and fried shrimp. Don’t leave without having one of each.

French Quarter: Frankly, I can do without Bourbon Street. I’m not a prude, but I like my alcohol without having to endure dozens of solicitations for skin and peep shows, much less the above-average chance of having every stage of excessive alcohol consumption demonstrated for you within two blocks. If this makes you nervous (as it has several folks I’ve traveled with), just do your exploring before dinnertime. (Things do start to change a little as nighttime descends.) One of my favorite pastimes is exploring Royal Street, classy relative to Bourbon that’s just a block closer to the river but miles away in stature. Here, the storefronts feature antiques, art, books, clothes, and the occasional restaurant or coffeehouse. Pick a favorite and walk in (and, as in France, be sure to greet the proprietor as you enter). Chances are you’ll either strike up a great conversation, find something cool to look at, make a wonderful purchase, or all three.

On this trip, my daughter and I wandered in to Vintage 329, a memorabilia store. Among other things, we saw a 1957 flag signed by Martin Luther King, Jr. & Coretta Scott King, Roy Wilkins, and Malcolm X (1957); a U.S. flag signed by all recent presidents (Nixon, Carter, Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton and Obama), as well as walls full of autographed music memorabilia, antique maps, and exquisite silver pieces. It’s still New Orleans, though: you can take your drink into 329, but you do have to leave it on top of the jukebox. No cell phones, though: gotta have a little class.

Jackson Square: I think this, and adjacent St. Louis Cathedral, are the center of New Orleans. The cathedral anchored the Creole culture that originally built the city, and provided the canvas on which a rich palette of cultures subsequently made contributions. The cathedral is gorgeous, and the plaza outside is home to musicians, palm readers, performance artists (is staying perfectly still a performance?), and others. If you had one place to go in New Orleans, this would be it. The cathedral is flanked by the Cabildo, now home to several pieces of the Louisiana State Museum. The northern side had a lengthy and moving exhibit on ‘Living With Hurricanes’, which used a brief historical introduction as a lead in to the story of Katrina, with all the horrors, heroism, and pride that accompanied this disaster, our country’s faltering response, and the aftermath. Hang out on one of the benches in the square, enjoy the gardens, and try and figure out just what Andrew Jackson is looking at. Go back and grab another coffee at Café du Monde if you need it, or head up Pirate’s Alley to the wonderfully dense bookstore in Faulkner House (his residence for two years while he wrote for the Times-Picayune).

French Market: From Jackson Square, turn left and head north (downstream) on Decatur to the French Market. The vendors themselves have t-shirts, jewelry, photographs, paintings, packaged foods, masks, and anything else you can imagine, although fresh foods are a little hard to find. Across the street is Central Grocery, home to the famous muffaletta. If you’re not up to a sandwich at the moment, take home a quart of the olive salad that really makes the sandwich; if you are hungry, don’t buy a whole one unless you’ve brought a friend. Any other seasoning or spice or ingredient needed for Cajun or Creole cooking can also be found here. Now’s the time to indulge yourself with a little sweet stuff: head across the market to Evans Candy Shop. There are a lot of places that will sell you a praline, but this is my favorite: it’s a big store, the cases are enormous, and you can grab a sample while the friendly ladies wait out your indecisiveness. After you’ve picked out your flavor of praline, be careful: it may look like a cookie, but you’ll end up unconscious if you eat it too quickly. No other item I know of packs as heavy a sugar punch.


Classic New Orleans food

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by callen60 on January 10, 2011

This place has been here since the 1930’s, and it really looks it on the inside. That’s part of its charm and appeal, as is the no-nonsense attitude of everyone from the greeter to the cashier. Even grills and po' boy places in New Orleans often feature some kind of maitre d’, who manages seating in the restaurant (that’s a nice touch, and keeps people from claiming seats before they get in line, a habit that is rapidly moving up my list of dining pet peeves). There’s plenty of room for a long line in the restaurant, but it can also head out the door and down the steps and up Poydras Street. Once you’re in side, he’ll hand you a menu make sure you don’t block the kitchen door, the kitchen & grill staff will keep you moving, and the cashier will take your order and your check. It’s a really good idea to be ready to order.

The wait could be worth it. Although Mother’s claims to offer ‘the world’s best baked ham’, I wouldn’t know, as I can't stay away from the other items. All the usual New Orleans favorites are here: jambalaya (which, shockingly, they were out of on our visit), crawfish etouffee, gumbos, fried seafood of all varieties, and 15 different po’ boys. The classics are the Ferdi special, combining ham, roast beef, ‘debris’ (as explained on the menu, the roast beef that falls into the gravy while cooking in the oven) and gravy; the Ferdi (which trades the ham for turkey); and the debris po’ boy. I went for red beans and rice with a side of debris; our table was covered with gumbo, shrimp po’ boys, and French fries.

This was our first meal in town, an hour or two after checking into the hotel, and a good re-introduction to New Orleans. Some will complain that the prices at Mother’s are high, and although I’d agree (maybe 20% over those at similar places), don’t let that stop you from visiting. Breakfast is served 24/7, too. And be sure to read the back of their menu for their ‘Katrina Story’, a good summary of what happened to the city and how this one establishment coped.
401 Poydras St.
New Orleans, Louisiana, 70130
(504) 523-9656

Ferry Ride to Po-Boy Heaven

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by callen60 on January 4, 2011

I’m a sucker for a boat ride, especially when it’s free. Put that boat on the Mighty Mississippi, and it’s really hard to pass up. I’ve done this on my last two trips to New Orleans, and it’s quickly become one of my favorite things to do: head down to the ferry dock at the foot of Canal Street, and take the free ride across the river to Algiers, the town on the lower/southern/eastern bank that’s nearly as old as New Orleans itself (founded in 1719).

There are two ferries that leave from this dock, one that heads downriver to Algiers and the other upriver to Gretna (so it’s worth making sure you’re on the right boat). The ferries carry both automobiles and foot/bike traffic, both only cars pay a toll. The lowest deck is open to accommodate those vehicles, but I think it’s the best place to ride. It’s the only place where you can ride outside, and it’s close to the river. Chances are a pelican or two will be trailing the boat, or checking it out as it leaves or approaches the dock.

The ride isn’t long, but provides a nice view of central New Orleans and the French Quarter, with St. Louis Cathedral easily visible. You also get a little small look downriver, where more of the business part of the Mississippi is located.

The dock at Algiers is newer and nicer than its Canal Street partner. Right outside is a statue of Louis Armstrong that kicks off a Jazz History walk that heads back upstream atop the river’s bluff. It’s done by the New Orleans Jazz Historical Park (whose headquarters are in the French Market across the river), and the tour can be accessed by cell phone.

Across the street is the Dry Dock Inn, a great place for lunch. It’s a real neighborhood place that bills itself as ‘Mardi Gras Headquarters’. A few tables are out front on the sidewalk, and right inside the door is a small bar that nearly feels like an addition to the long seating area on the left. A few round tops are up front, with larger table in the back. The walls are covered with pictures, photos, newspaper clippings, trophies and other local memorabilia. The menu looks like it hasn’t been touched in ages, and that’s just fine. A full range of po-boys is available, as well as burgers, fries and other basic New Orleans dishes. The servers like to talk as they fly around, and like everyone else in the city these days, they wanna talk football.

I think I’ve had the roast beef po-boy on each trip here, and there’s probably no reason to change. But everyone I’ve come here with loved what they ordered. After a few minutes of silence, my wife finally said "This is probably the best BLT I’ve ever had."

It’s an easy lunch trip: the ferry leaves Canal Street on the hour and half-hour, and returns from Algiers at quarter after the hour and quarter to. It makes a nice addition to a day in the French Quarter, and I understand that Algiers itself is worth exploring, although I have yet to do that.
Dry Dock Cafe
133 Delaronde St
New Orleans, Louisiana, 70114-2325

Not red beans & rice

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by callen60 on January 1, 2011

We headed to Uptown one morning, hoping to have breakfast here before spending the morning at the zoo. In the end, we did neither, and it worked out OK. Due to a late start, we didn’t make it to the Carrollton St. restaurant until 10, finding a line of locals and visitors that extended out the door. It looked like the entire restaurant would need to turn over in order for us to get seated, so we headed down the street to a nearby installation of La Madeliene, the local bakery/café chain.

Later, as we wandered through the French Quarter in search of a late lunch, my wife said "Hey, isn’t the same place we went to this morning?" On the corner of Chartres and Toulouse, Camellia Grill is now serving the same collection of omelettes, sandwiches, chocolate freezes and other diner favorites that drawn crowds for a long time. Space is at a premium here, with the entire kitchen along the north wall (two big grills and a fryer), behind a big double-u of counter space that seats about thirty. We agreed to split into a group of two and a group of three to get seated faster, and soon the white-clad, black-bowtied waiter was taking our drink order and shouting our food orders back at ‘Chef’.

Word is that the omelettes here are to die for, but for lunch I went with a Reuben, fries, and a Barq’s cream soda. The rest of party had a collection of burgers, chicken strips, and grilled cheeses, all of which were pronounced good. The waiters keep things hopping, keeping each patron’s order on a checklist they leave in front of your place, and never passing it to ‘Chef’—just shouting it at him. There are actually two cooks—one for each grill, and the wait staff also tend the fryer and provide you with your one refill on sodas (which the menu explains is necessary to keep the tables moving). Prices are reasonable ($8 for a reuben made it one of the more expensive things on the menu). It’s a little different from the rest of the French Quarter options, since it doesn’t trade on the 200-year-old Creole legacy for the décor or the food, which was just fine.
Camellia Grill French Quarter
540 Chartres Street
New Orleans, Louisiana
(504) 522-1800


Bargain on Canal Street

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by callen60 on January 1, 2011

We ended up here through Priceline, and were really happy with the result. Traveling with three teen and post-teen children means that we’re well past the days when we jammed the five of us into one room, but conventional searches through Kayak and hotel websites weren’t turning up anything under $100 a room (before taxes). A month out from our trip, Hotwire was showing a four-star hotel in the Central Business District at $59/night, but when I finally got around to booking after Thanksgiving, the price had ‘leaped’ to $63. Without thinking too hard, I bid $63 at Priceline, and woke up when I had my bid immediately accepted. 2 rooms, four nights in a good location for under $600: it was hard to be disappointed with that, even though I kept wondering how low I might have gone.

The Sheraton is on the south side of Canal Street, west of Magazine St. It’s a short walk to the French Quarter: on the other side of Canal, Magazine turns into Decatur Street, so you’re just six short blocks from Jackson Square. The lobby of the Sheraton is dominated by the large Pelican Bar, whose central station is topped by an ornate cupola adorned by a golden pelican (appropriate coiffed with a Santa hat for the holiday season). Surprisingly, it’s the hotel’s only bar, and it was packed for the Saints comeback Monday night win over the rival Falcons. It was fun watching it on the largest screen I’ve yet seen with a highly passionate crowd of all ages.

Rooms at the Sheraton are in the nearly 40-story tower, reached by two banks of elevators that separately serve the upper and lower sections. Some brand new technology was nearly fully installed, where you enter your floor on a keypad, and it both displays and announced the car that will take you to your destination. It didn’t matter how many times I used the elevator, I still got in and turned to punch the floor button on the interior; in some cars, those buttons are currently covered with a sheet metal box that will eventually be removed.

The front desk staff accommodated our check-in time request for adjacent rooms, although one was on the backside of the elevators. Each had two doubles, not queens, with room for a comfortable leather arm chair, desk, and dresser/drink center, topped by a new 37" LCD TV. Two queens would have really pushed the space to the limit. A single serving coffee maker came with two packs of Starbucks Kitama coffee (and one decaf); this now appears to be standard Sheraton equipment. The coffee is really good, but it would be nice to make more than one cup at a time.

Internet use was complimentary in the lobby, and there were at least seven machines available, never all busy at one time. However, internet access in your room was at least $6 a day, which all of five of us proudly managed to do without. (It is a powerful testament to New Orleans’ powers that my daughter proudly announced on day three that she hadn’t Facebooked and hadn’t missed it.) Access to the fitness center also carried a charge, so I braved the uncharacteristically cold weather our first morning and had a great run through the Quarter, out to Fauborg, and up to the edge of Trem&eactue; and back.

We also found it easier than expected to go without housekeeping, for which Sheraton offers a $5 per day incentive for each morning that you decline the maid’s services. Those vouchers are good at the hotel’s restaurants, or you can trade them in for 500 Starwood points instead. We collected $25 in coupons over our stay, which we cashed in for early morning coffee and breakfast at Starbucks on our departure date. Of course, no maid service meant no daily replenishment of our coffee supply; we coped by taking the packs from the kids’ room, and then by grabbing a few more from the maid as she made her way down the hall coping with those who requested her services.

Dealing with your car in the big city is always an issue, and (by comparison) the $30/day for valet parking was tolerable. You don’t want to take your car into the French Quarter anyways, but we did head out to Uptown and the Garden District a few times, and the continual access to the car was a plus.

A check of the hotel’s web site showed that Priceline did indeed give us these rooms at essentially half off, a fantastic price for a center city hotel of this character. I’d consider staying here at full price.
Sheraton New Orleans
New Orleans, Louisiana, 70130

Havin' fun

Old-time Movie House

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by callen60 on January 4, 2011

When our family visited London several years ago, we almost took some good advice: see a movie as a worthy (and cheaper) substitute for a trip to the theater. We eventually decided to just rest up and pack on the last of five full days. On this trip to New Orleans, though, we finally made good use of that advice and lucked in to a neat experience.

The King’s Speech was just opening in the US, but hadn’t yet made it to SW Missouri. When other family members exchanged emails about trying to see it over the holidays at their gatherings, I had to ask what it was. But as I explored the shops at Canal Place a few days later, I found a set of movie theatres on the third floor, featuring convenient evening showtimes of the movie. We planned an evening around a 7:00 showing, and I went back to purchase tickets about 4 pm. It took several transactions for me to catch on, but I was admiring how the spirit of New Orleans extended to the civilized practice of taking an adult beverage into the theatre, I realized that the ticket clerk wasn’t asking me if all five patrons were over 18 in order to offer me a discount.

Back at the hotel, my daughter found that the Prytania Theatre was showing King’s Speech at almost the same time. A quick check of guidebooks indicated that this was an old theatre, one of the first in Louisiana (built in 1915) and the last remaining one-screen establishment in New Orleans. An arched brick façade had clearly been added on the exterior, but all the other features were consistent with classic old theatres: an exit door on the side street (unused; which made post-movie traffic a little difficult); a small lobby, with stairs up to the level of the back rows of seats to accommodate the slope of the seating floor; even an organ console on the front left stage. The other features were highly modern: comfortable new seats (complete with cupholders!), surround sound, digital projection.

We had to wait in the small lobby as the previous showing’s audience exited through the two rear doors back into the lobby. That room was decorated with typical photos and posters, but also included a series of shots of defunct theatres throughout the New Orleans area. It was surprising that there were no other theatres in the city: when we asked our hotel concierge for an alternative to the Canal Place bar/multiplex, the only recommendation was the theatres at the mall in Metairie, 25 minutes away. There must have been several theatres on Canal Street, now filled with Arby’s and souvenir shops, I suppose.

In addition to the first-run movies, the Prytania also runs a classic movie series at noon on Saturdays, Sundays, and Wednesdays, which featured such films as Miracle on 34th Street, The Apartment, Mr. Skeffington and North by Northwest. From central New Orleans, head west on St. Charles through the Garden District to Uptown. Turn south on Leontine; the theatre is on the NW corner of Leontine and Prytania. Tickets were $8.50 for adults, and $7.50 for my three students. And by the way, King’s Speech is really, really good.
Prytania Theatre
5339 Prytania Street
New Orleans, Louisiana, $zip
(504) 891-2787

Something fishy

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by callen60 on January 5, 2011

On my first visit to New Orleans, this place had just opened. The area around it has changed substantially since then, with a Harrah’s hotel/casino that feels like it was just dropped in the middle of Canal Street (especially when approaching Canal from the south). Back in 1990, the Aquarium was easily visible from nearly all directions, but the construction in this area evidently hasn’t affected its popularity.

It’s $18.50 for adults ($2 off with AAA), which seems a little steep, but I tried to forget about the ticket price and enjoy the show, which was easy enough to do. The exhibits are built around four regional habitats: the Caribbean, the Amazon rainforest, the Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico. Right at the start, you walk through one of the featured exhibits: a 25’ tunnel through a 135,000-gallon tank filled with Caribbean creatures, giving you a full senssurround experience of sealife. Manta rays swarm back and forth across the glass, and the other denizens also give you nice closeups of their bright colors and unusual features. The Amazon exhibit reproduces a swath of rainforest, which explains the high clear class construction on the Aquarium’s southern end, which soars over the entrance and lobby. It includes an elevated loop through the treetops, which is where the birds hang out—at least those who are free to fly. Three beautiful species of parrots are back down on the rainforest floor, who remained mute despite the countless entreaties from younger visitors, few of which sounded like parrot calls to me.

Other features include a penguinarium, where I sighted about 15 residents, most of whom were content to stand on the rocks as if they were striking poses. Thankfully, there were two exceptions who spent their time swimming in the tank, where they could be viewed from below the waterline. I also enjoyed the extensive sea horse exhibit, which featured a number of different species, two of whom were paired in a manner evidently typical for these creatures, cruising around the tank together with their tails intertwined.

Not surprisingly, the Aquarium has lots of features aimed at kids, and most visitors were families with young children. The kids play area featured a ‘pet the manta’ tank, which pulled in two of my family members, as well as some nice playground options for blowing off a little steam.

The Audubon Institute operates several facilities throughout New Orleans, including the IMAX theatre here at the aquarium. The new Insectarium, whose positive reviews were not enough to overcome a family-wide aversion to bugs, is just north of here on Canal Street, in one of the old US Mint buildings. Audubon Park, one of the city’s two large green spaces, is owned by the Institute and is home to Audubon Zoo. (In case you’re wondering, John James Audubon was a New Orleanian.) Combination tickets are available to all of these attractions, or to more limited combinations. The largest combo ticket is $35.
Audubon Aquarium of the Americas
1 Canal Street
New Orleans, Louisiana, 70130
(800) 774-7394

Where Mardi Gras is built

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by callen60 on January 6, 2011

Multiple trips to New Orleans have softened my initial aversion to Mardi Gras. I’ve never been here for any significant part of the full ‘season’, having caught the tail end of one parades on a late winter visit a long time ago. But as American cities seem to become more and more similar to each other, I appreciate the distinctiveness of New Orleans and its traditions.

After visiting Mardi Gras World I know a lot more about the city’s most famous custom. Among other nuggets, I learned that the parades don’t go through the French Quarter (and haven’t for 35 years), simply because the city sensibly decided that the narrow streets couldn’t handle the crowds.

Blaine Kern is called ‘Mr. Mardi Gras’ for a reason: for six decades, his company has designed and built the majority of the floats and accompanying statues and ornamentation used in the dozens of Mardi Gras parades (nearly three dozen in the city itself, and another two dozen in other communities). This period of ‘carnival’ leading up to and including Mardi Gras was originally sanctioned by the Catholic church as a legitimate festival in advance of the austerity of Lent, and boy, did New Orleans run with it. The tradition of parades, organized by ‘krewes’ or clubs, dates from just before the Civil War, when a group of concerned, civic-minded and festive citizens surprised the city with this new invention to rescue carnival from the alcohol-fueled crudeness that had some city leaders clamoring to end the celebrations. In one fell swoop, this new ‘Mystick Krewe of Comus’ invented parades with floats and marching bands, lit by torches, or ‘flambeaux’, and krewes that carried them out. There’s little doubt that they drew upon existing parades in Mobile (one founder of Comus had moved from there), but instituting these traditions in New Orleans moved Carnival from a Creole event to a city-wide celebration.

Each krewe is composed of members who pay (sometimes as much as a few thousand dollars) for the fun and honor of riding on the parade floats. In addition, each member must buy the beads, doubloons (commemorative aluminum coins), cups or other items tossed from the float, which runs $500 or more. Each krewe’s captain comes up with a theme for the year’s parade, and Kern’s company (and some competitors) do the rest. Kern actually owns all the floats, which are rented by the krewes, and each year they are painted over, stripped down, and redecorated for a new theme. The Kern artists come up with sketches and designs that the krewes approve, and then the sculpting and painting takes place in Kern’s studios and warehouses.

This massive facility stores all kinds of items from previous parades. It’s a weird kind of museum, with oversized heads (literally) of state, sports figures, clowns, movie scenes, fake trains, and virtually any kind of figure you can imagine. And it’s only one of 20 such warehouses that store the floats and figures for 364 days of the year.

Touring Mardi Gras World begins with a short and informative (although a little dated) movie about Mardi Gras, and your guide then brings in a King Cake to be shared by your group. This is a French tradition, where a small (now plastic) figurine of the Baby Jesus is baked somewhere in the cinnamon-flavored, frosted cake; in more authentic circumstances, the lucky person who has it in his or her slice then buys the next cake (no one in our group owned up to finding it). After snacks, your guide walks you through the facility, explaining more about the traditions, krewes and parades, and then leaves you to explore more on your own if you choose to do so.

We settled on this as an afternoon expedition following our ferry ride to Algiers, and everyone enjoyed it. You’ll come away with beads, cake, and probably a smile: it’s hard not to have fun as you wander among the artifacts of revelry. And by the way, the ubiquitous colors of purple, green and color symbolize justice, faith and power.

If you’re planning to visit, be careful: Mardi Gras World has moved in the last few years, so older information may lead you astray. (It used to be in Algiers, and one was one good reason to ride the free ferry across the Mississippi; we saw outdated billboards on the Algiers side as we boarded for our return trip that almost made us hop out of line). The new location is all the way at the southern end of the Convention Center on Port of New Orleans Drive, the road that runs right along the riverbank. It’s a pretty good walk from Canal Street, but a free shuttle will take you down and/or bank. We walked down, but rode back. Admission is $18.50 (which appears to be a standard price in New Orleans) with a small discount for students.
Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World
1380 Port of New Orleans Place
New Orleans, Louisiana, 70130
(504) 361-7821

American D-Day Museum

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by callen60 on January 11, 2011

Like a lot of people, I wondered why a place billed as the nation’s WWII museum would be in New Orleans, instead of DC. The street name suggests that the answer is Andrew Higgins, whose Higgins Boat Company morphed from provider of flat bottomed, shallow draft boats for chasing fish and oil in the bayous to flat bottomed, shallow draft boats that carried soldiers, jeeps and tanks ashore at Normandy, Sicily, and Guadalcanal. No less a personage than Eisenhower claimed that ‘Higgins won the war for us.’

But the real reason is Stephen Ambrose, historian and personality, America’s ‘Uncle History’. He was the founding father of this museum, and love him or hate him, the end result is a worthy one. Ambrose ended his career here in New Orleans, first as Professor of American History at University of New Orleans, and after retirement, as director of the Eisenhower Center and an entire publishing conglomerate unto himself.

This museum opened in 2000, and although it’s titled as a WWII museum, the real focus is on D-Day. It’s housed in two buildings: a reclaimed warehouse in the (duh) Warehouse district, and the new Solomon Victory Theatre just across the street. It’s a mile and a half down Royal/Magazine Streets from Jackson Square, just a few blocks from the Ponchatrain Expressway. You really have to be headed here, because there’s really not much else in this area. It is somewhat near the monstrous convention center, whose midpoint is about five blocks east towards the river. (Deanie’s Restaurant is just around the corner, and is worth a pre- or post-trip visit. We did both.)

The entrance is off the south side of the museum on the renamed Andrew Higgins Drive. The western side of the museum is high ceilinged, with plane and other vehicles occupying those who are waiting for tickets. The exhibits begin up the stairs, setting the stage for the conflict, and emphasizing how, leading up to the war, America trailed the European powers in every measure of military strength. (Of course, we weren’t part of a continent that had been wracked by conflict for the last four or more centuries.)

This would be a good exhibit on its own, but it’s really there to set the stage for the presentation of the D-Day invasion. The whole installation employs artifacts, visuals, movie reels, interviews with veterans, civilians and other participants to document just how extensive and complete America’s commitment was after Pearl Harbor brought us into the War. I’m more than a passing student of these years, and I learned things at nearly every station. Everything was worth the time I spent, and I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to make it though all the galleries in the half-day we’d allocated to this visit. (And it wasn’t just me—my youngest daughter, a high-school junior, was moving at my pace, while the other three were probably driven more by their growling stomachs than lack of interest).

The highlight for me was a small set of photographs by famed war photographer Robert Capa, who went ashore with American troops at Omaha Beach. As the troops exited one of the LSTs, an NCO mistook him for a soldier, and kicked him in the pants—and Capa charged forward into the fighting, shooting just over 100 images before coming to his senses and returning to one of the landing craft. Shaken, he eventually was evacuated back to England, where a technician accidentally destroyed all but 11 of the negatives. Those few remaining shots of the German defenses, the troops in the water and on the sand, brought home the true nature of that experience in a new way.

I’d take that small set over the new theatre and its one show, ‘Beyond All Boundaries’, billed as a ‘4-D presentation’. It feels much like a Disney experience, with a seven-minute, Tom Hanks narrated pre-show introduction in the lobby before you file into the 300-seat theatre. I won’t give away the details (although the flyers tell all), but this wide screen presentation aims to tell the American WWII experience in 40 minutes of full sensory experience. Given the limitations, it’s not a bad effort and I was glad I went, but found it just a little gimmicky. We followed the advice of one of the docents, who said to sit high up and in the middle. He was right.

Like a lot of museums, this one has a full staff of such committed volunteers. The most touching moment for me came as I looked at a small side exhibit describing the service of a young enlisted man to one of the post-invasion generals, and a kind and generous letter that documented the general’s appreciation for the sergeant’s service. As I turned to continue, a red-vested docent was seated near me, and we struck up a conversation. I saw that this gentleman's badge shared the same name with that sergeant, and he modestly nodded when I asked him if he was the soldier described in the previous display. I thanked him for his service, and went through the rest of the D-Day exhibit feeling just a little different.

detailsAdmission to the museum is $18, ($14 for seniors) and drops to $9 for kids, students, and military. Veterans are, appropriately, free. A combination ticket that includes the show in the Solomon Victory Theatre adds another $5, $4, or $3 respectively (on its own, the movie is a rather steep $10). You can also add on a second day at the museum for $5, which I could have used.
The National World War II Museum
945 Magazine Street
New Orleans, Louisiana, 70130
(504) 528-1944

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