New Orleans: crawfish, alligators and hospitality

A never-ending sea of tourists descends on French Quarter every year to see its iconic Spanish architecture, sample the local foods and listen to the amazing music. (Mary Lee Hagert/Review)
A never-ending sea of tourists descends on French Quarter every year to see its iconic Spanish architecture, sample the local foods and listen to the amazing music. (Mary Lee Hagert/Review)
Visitors are drawn to historic Jackson Square, where talented jazz bands perform free concerts daily in the plaza between St. Louis Cathedral and the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. (Mary Lee Hagert/Review)
Visitors are drawn to historic Jackson Square, where talented jazz bands perform free concerts daily in the plaza between St. Louis Cathedral and the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. (Mary Lee Hagert/Review)
Hurricane Katrina downed 2,000 trees and destroyed or damaged every building in New Orleans’ unique City Park. Beautifully restored during the past decade, the 1,300-acre park offers a variety of cultural and recreational activities.  (Mary Lee Hagert/Review)
Hurricane Katrina downed 2,000 trees and destroyed or damaged every building in New Orleans’ unique City Park. Beautifully restored during the past decade, the 1,300-acre park offers a variety of cultural and recreational activities. (Mary Lee Hagert/Review)
After the devastation of Katrina, the houses on the picturesque Grand Isle barrier island are now perched on sturdy stilts.  (Mary Lee Hagert/Review)
After the devastation of Katrina, the houses on the picturesque Grand Isle barrier island are now perched on sturdy stilts. (Mary Lee Hagert/Review)
Mule-drawn carriages offer leisurely tours, and drivers tell stories and amusing anecdotes about the city and its colorful past. (Mary Lee Hagert/Review)
Mule-drawn carriages offer leisurely tours, and drivers tell stories and amusing anecdotes about the city and its colorful past. (Mary Lee Hagert/Review)
The beautiful Louisiana barrier island of Grand Isle juts out into the Gulf of Mexico. Grand Isle State Park has soaring brown pelicans, skittering sandpipers and intact seashells along its pristine sandy beach. (Mary Lee Hagert/Review)
The beautiful Louisiana barrier island of Grand Isle juts out into the Gulf of Mexico. Grand Isle State Park has soaring brown pelicans, skittering sandpipers and intact seashells along its pristine sandy beach. (Mary Lee Hagert/Review)
Every year a never-ending sea of visitors flocks to New Orleans. Here they pause for a moment in front of the Presbytère to listen to street musicians. Built in the 1790s, the Presbytère houses Louisiana State Museum exhibits, including “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond.”  (Mary Lee Hagert/Review)
Every year a never-ending sea of visitors flocks to New Orleans. Here they pause for a moment in front of the Presbytère to listen to street musicians. Built in the 1790s, the Presbytère houses Louisiana State Museum exhibits, including “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond.” (Mary Lee Hagert/Review)
A dragonfly hitched a ride on writer Mary Lee Hagert's son Kevin's arm during a bus ride to City Park in New Orleans. (Mary Lee Hagert/Review)
A dragonfly hitched a ride on writer Mary Lee Hagert's son Kevin's arm during a bus ride to City Park in New Orleans. (Mary Lee Hagert/Review)

Surprisingly, the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and catastrophic levee breaks simply was not on my family's radar as we packed our bags in anticipation of an August road trip to New Orleans.

But not long after we pulled out of the driveway and started down Highway 61 — probably about the time we hit Hastings — we began hearing newscasts recounting how far the Big Easy had come in the past decade.

I was riveted to an uplifting speech on the radio by Mayor Mitch Landreiu, in which he described New Orleans as going from "literally being underwater" to becoming "one of the world's most remarkable stories of tragedy and triumph, resurrection and redemption."

The timing of Landreiu's talk couldn't have been better, as we hurtled down the highway toward his sultry, fascinating hometown.

Hospitality abounds

Our first clue that we'd left the Midwest far behind was at a roadside rib joint in southern Arkansas. Noticing us puzzling over the menu items, the young cashier cheerfully explained the differences between the unfamiliar options.

I'm sure she'd had to repeat the same explanation to Northerners countless times before, but that didn't lessen her patience or enthusiasm.

That same helpful, friendly attitude extended to most of the folks in New Orleans, a place where the influx of visitors never ceases.

At major destinations such as this, it might be easy for the locals to get fed up with the onslaught of tourists and begin viewing them as pests to be dismissed rudely or ignored entirely.

But at the St. Louis Cathedral — a prime tourist draw — a parishioner happily answered all our questions, while the amazing jazz music of a young street band drifted in through the church's open doors.

And at the bustling Louisiana state tourism office on the iconic Jackson Square, the clerks patiently gave us detailed info on how to catch a bus to City Park, a serene oasis in the middle of New Orleans. There we stumbled upon a small café and thanks to our waiter's thoughtful explanations of the Cajun cuisine, we had one of the best meals (alligator sausage, crawfish etouffee, chickory café au lait and powder sugar-sprinkled beignets) of the trip.

When one of us inadvertently left behind a wallet in a motel room, the staff — housekeeper Sharon and desk clerk Lauren — called the moment it was found, and we were able to circle back to retrieve it.

Many motel employees in other parts of the country would not have made the effort, but they did, and the contents were intact when Lauren handed the wallet to us.

Warm welcome continues

The next day the heat was withering at Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge when a rattletrap pickup pulled up uncomfortably close to our minivan. We nervously watched as two scruffy men emerged — one with a menacing Bowie knife on his hip.

Feeling thirsty, apprehensive and isolated in the parking lot, the last thing we expected was for the men to open their cooler and kindly hand us bottles of chilled water. 

Noticing our Minnesota plates, they asked if we'd ever seen an alligator in the wild, and my husband replied that he hadn't. They then directed us to a spot in the refuge where a young gator was hanging out.

And perhaps our most memorable day was the lazy one spent on the beautiful Louisiana barrier island of Grand Isle.

It was one of the many places devastated by Katrina and completely rebuilt during the past decade. Like houses ringing Lake Pontchartrain, all the Grand Isle homes are now perched on tall, sturdy stilts.

Except for soaring brown pelicans, skittering sandpipers and one friendly young couple catching soft-shell blue crabs, the pristine beach at the state park was deserted.

Our son Kevin dove into the warm ocean water and was startled when silvery fish jumped just a few feet from him, while I searched for seashells.

The sun was setting when the couple unexpectedly invited us to a beachside crab boil. It was hard to decline their offer, but we needed to drive back to New Orleans.

Later we marveled at their gracious invitation — after all, we were complete strangers. My husband remarked that in Minnesota, we might be friends with people for several years before they extend a dinner invitation.

But our son Christopher pointed out we experienced that sort of generosity every day in southern Louisiana. Even the daily encounters with motel employees in the halls and lobbies of the various places we stayed were notable for marked and friendly politeness. It continually caught our attention.

Despite all the destruction, hardships and losses the region has endured during the past decade, the people haven't lost their genuine sense of hospitality. It steadfastly remains part of their culture.

We pride ourselves on "Minnesota nice" behavior, but I think we would do well to pause a moment and reflect on the New Orleanians' natural congeniality.

We would quickly discover what "nice" really means.

Mary Lee Hagert can be reached at mlhagert@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7820.

 

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