I came to New Orleans thinking this would be a fun place to log the Louisiana leg of our #1000Miles1Year challenge. I first visited New Orleans when I was in my 20’s, a young professional attending a convention with a few dozen colleagues over Halloween. I remembered the city as being sultry, electric, and pulsing with daring enthusiasm.
Twenty years later, now a solo female traveler with a pup in tow, I felt uneasy as I entered the city. New Orleans has a reputation for debauchery; as though the dark and the dirty make their home here. Where will I run? Will it be safe? What if it isn’t? What was I thinking???
New Orleans can be seriously intimidating to a first-time visitor. The French Quarter streets feel incredibly narrow as you creep along in thick traffic. The sky above is squeezed between second-level balconies protruding from many of the buildings. Cars are parallel parked, mish-mash style along the street-sides, sometimes impossible for two vehicles to pass each other in between. Crowds of revelers roam the iron jungle with plastic frothing cups. A shop front displays Mardi Gras masks with creepy pointed noses and a sign that winks “Deurty Boys.” You get the sense that everything existing here is intent on invading your space.
I almost drive right back out. The little voice in my head was screaming, “Absolutely nothing in me wants to be here right now!” But I knew that was really just fear trying to take the wheel, and the something that kept me was the mantra that *fear is not my master*. I was intent on pushing beyond my discomfort and taking in the sights and sounds of this city.
A little sleuthing eventually uncovered a hidden gem called the Bywater District.
I wouldn’t exactly call it soft, but The Big Easy has a more sophisticated side. Just beyond the French Quarter is the Bywater District. I first discovered Crescent Park, a 1.4 mile manicured masterpiece that hugs the mighty Mississippi River. With ample free parking and gates open at sunrise, Justice and I safely logged in our miles here every day. The park is popular with runners and dog walkers, but never really crowded at any hour of the day. There are water fountains, port-o-lets and a fenced dog run too. We stretched out our runs just east of the park to the Poland Street Port, where massive ships dwarf the dock as they gently come to rest.
The neighborhood streets have names like Piety, Louisa, Dauphine and Desire, a bold and soulful stroll with houses dressed in royal blue, pastel pink, lime green, purple punch and every other imagining. White lights and gold beads and red tinsel adorn the otherwise staunch, ornamental wrought iron fences, balconies and doorposts. A sign reads, “No Air BnB! Save our neighborhood.” The locals voice concern that their treasured, quiescent lifestyle will be impugned by the more typical NOLA party animals. There are a couple of Bed and Breakfast Inns that welcome guests to the Bywater District, and they exhibit a debonair grace and sophistication. The Maison de Macarty is an 1860s Victorian home, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It features six guest rooms in the main house, two private cottages, ensuite bath facilities and a mineral water swimming pool.
The Bywater District also has its own share of amazing eateries with convenient, meter-free street parking. The Satsuma Café is a great place to start the day, featuring fresh juices, breakfast and lunch dishes using local and organic ingredients. On the patio, a decorated seamstress bust stands next to a guest in a top hat, the sight of it just quirky enough to satisfy your appetite for the unusual. A few blocks down, The Joint offers true wood-smoked meat, landing it on top ten BBQ lists in publications from Bon Appétit to Zagat. In 2008, The Joint was featured on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” and folks still line up to dig in, with middle-aged professionals in button down oxfords seated at the bar next to free spirits sporting dreadlocks and nose piercings. Next to the shabby Bargain Mart is the classy Oxalis, a whiskey-focused gastropub where you can enjoy Happy Hour specials on small plates and drinks like the Sazerac, a local New Orleans variation of a cognac cocktail in a glass spritzed with absinthe.
I was delighted to spend three days exploring the heart of New Orleans without the debaucherous crowds and tawdry commercialism. Pets are welcome at all of the establishments mentioned above. As day three drew to a close, I concluded my visit at Piety Wharf. With iron pillars and concrete benches, Piety Wharf inspires with inscriptions that evoke the true spirit of New Orleans, like “Freedom: To move at will, to strive with confidence, to dream with a real expectation of achievement, and to be regarded with respect.”