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Breaking out: A New Orleans getaway

by Richard Mason | April 24, 2021 at 9:30 p.m.
Richard Mason

Last week we finally broke out from a year of almost hibernation and headed for New Orleans. We were fully vaccinated, and bored out-of-our minds after staying almost locked up in either our house or office for 14 months.

The regular six hour drive from El Dorado went without a hitch, but this time, instead of cutting across through Farmerville to Monroe, we drove straight to Ruston on a greatly improved four lane highway, a joint undertaking by Arkansas and Louisiana to make 167 South four lanes from Little Rock to Interstate 20. Louisiana has finished their part and Arkansas is not far behind. It took 15 minutes longer, but the easy four lane driving made up for the lost time.

We checked into the Windsor Court Hotel at 1:30, put our bag in the room, and walked down a very quiet Canal Street to Bourbon Street. I remarked to Vertis that New Orleans seemed different with noticeably fewer people on the street. Bourbon was still loud, but certainly not as lively as pre-pandemic Bourbon Street usually is. Most of the bars and restaurants were open, but with very few customers.

Our standard pick for the top restaurant in the city is in the second block off Canal on Bourbon Street and in another five minutes, we had walked the block and a half down Bourbon and had stepped into the foyer of Galatoire’s Restaurant. That’s when I could really tell New Orleans was “lite.” The restaurant was almost empty.

Normally, most of the lunch hour diners would still be there, but as we stood and waited to be seated, it was obvious the restaurant was still suffering from the COVID-19 restrictions. But after we were seated, and when the waiter put the short loaf of warm French bread and soft butter on the table, we smiled. It was as if we had really broken out of our isolation. It had been a year since we had been to New Orleans and that loaf of bread was an exclamation mark that made us know we were back. That’s when I knew the food wasn’t going to suffer from the virus.

We split an Oysters Rockefeller, wishing we both had one, and then, when our waitress said they had fresh caught pompano, we both had the pompano sautéed with crab meat on top. It was a great way to start the trip, and as we sat there smiling and started our meal, I can tell you that after being cooped up with COVID-19 restrictions for a year, we needed the break, and we were in the best mood since the pandemic hit.

Late that afternoon we went downstairs to the Windsor Court Hotel’s Polo Lounge on the third floor, and it was almost empty. We had decided not to have two over-the-top meals in one day, but to have a cheese tray and something to drink in the Lounge. I’ve had a number of cheese trays in hotels before, but this one clearly set a record which will be hard to match.

It was easy to see that New Orleans hadn’t loosened up the COVID-19 restrictions, and it was almost like our initial lockout earlier in the year. Some stores and restaurants were not only masked with social distancing, but still closed. The hotel required masks in every part of the hotel beside your room, and they were shorthanded in service personnel.

I talked with the concierge, and he just shook his head, “We can’t find anyone to hire.” It seems jobs are waiting for people who want to work in New Orleans, but no takers. I told him we’re seeing the same thing in Arkansas.

The next morning we decided to get a little exercise by walking to the World War II Museum, which is only a half dozen blocks down Magazine Street. We had been there before, but not to some of the newer additions.

We ended the museum tour with a walk through the Road to Tokyo exhibit. It was a very emotional experience. The setting was as if you were walking through bombed out villages in a jungles setting, and with the constant video and sound it made for a literally breathtaking experience. We were both emotionally drained. I still can’t believe how realistic the setting was, with everything such as “last letters” from men to died fighting on the beaches.

On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at a great typical New Orleans restaurant called Peche Seafood Grill, and had a super lunch. Vertis had a fried oyster salad, and I had soft-shell crab. It was a great lunch and actually rivaled Galatoire’s. That night we went to Restaurant August, considered one of the top restaurants in the city, and we were disappointed. No, it wasn’t bad, the others were just better.

The next day was our last day in New Orleans, and after an early lunch of shrimp, oysters and gumbo at the Palace Restaurant on Canal Street, we walked over to the River Walk area, which has a great view of the very busy boat and barge trafficked Mississippi River. It’s connected to the Hilton Hotel.

We wanted to do a little shopping in the adjacent Mall. I like to pick off discounted Tommy Bahama shirts from Nordstrom’s “The Rack” and Vertis always heads for the Niemen Marcus closeout store.

In this Mall-like setting on the river there are 86 shops and restaurants; at least, that is what the promo said, but I would estimate between 25% and 30% were closed, and the foot traffic was extremely low. It was rather depressing to walk by store after store without a single shopper inside. Niemen’s was permanently closed, and I decided there were enough old Tommy Bahama shirts in my closet at home.

Next came the movie, “French Exit” — which, after Phillip gave it an 87, I was anxious to see. Well, if you like Michelle Pfeiffer, you will give the flick at least a 95, but you have to just doze into never-never land as the séances and black cat scenes play out, and echoes from a dead former husband liven up the script.

Michelle Pfeiffer is breathtaking as a gorgeous red-haired, almost chain smoking demure former socialite, who moves gracefully through the surreal film. After her husband dies and she is without income, she ends up selling what’s left and moving into her friend’s apartment in Paris, where strange things happen, as she gives away her money like its tainted. This is not a movie for 13 year olds, but a stunning presentation crafted to intrigue, and of course, when Michelle makes her French Exit, you wonder…..

After the movie, we walked a few blocks to the Warehouse District to another one of our favorite restaurants, Grand Isle. The restaurant is about as heavy in Louisiana seafood as you can get. Vertis had a shrimp salad, which was loaded with as many tasty shrimp as you can put on a plate, and I had, of course, the soft-shell crab again plus a delightful salad.

Now, we’re ready to ride out the rest of the pandemic.

Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email [email protected]

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