Acouple of years ago, we discovered the French Quarter Festival—a four-day celebration that takes place the second weekend in April in New Orleans. With more than 20 stages scattered throughout the Quarter, upwards of 1,700 local musicians performing throughout the day and evening, and small plates offered by the best neighborhood restaurants in lovely outdoor venues, it’s like a huge neighborhood block party.
This party, though, just happens to be in a neighborhood world-renowned for incredibly talented musicians and fabulous cuisine. We drifted from one venue to another, enjoying jazz, blues, zydeco, gospel, and people watching. We picnicked on savory shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake, crab and artichoke salad, crawfish crepes, and smoked duck po’boys, accompanied by local ice cold Abita IPA. Despite the fact that this is a huge festival, it has a mellow, friendly vibe. We had an absolute blast, and came away with even more affection for “The Big Easy.”
In keeping with our attempt to rein ourselves in a bit (not an easy feat when New Orleans beckons), we stayed five nights at Bayou Segnette State Park, but spent only three days in New Orleans, followed by one day on the trails at nearby Barataria Preserve for a different kind of wild. Adding to our enjoyment were our new friends Ed and Diana, whom we met on Dauphin Island—they decided on the spur of the moment to accompany us to New Orleans for a couple of days.
Bayou Segnette SP is perfectly located for visiting the city—it’s an easy 12-mile drive to the ferry landing in quaint Algiers Point with its plethora of adorable candy-colored 1800’s cottages, and a five-minute ferry ride across the Mississippi, landing in the French Quarter. No driving in the city, no parking issues, and only $2 for the ferry ($1 if you’re over 65). Couldn’t be more stress-free.
On our last visit to New Orleans a couple of years ago, we realized that we needed a guided tour to get the most out of our visit. In general, we avoid tours, preferring to just wander on our own, photographing and exploring at our leisure. But we were interested in learning a bit more about the city without the frustrating experience of “self-guided” walking tours. Trying to read from a brochure of tiny print while stumbling along city streets in search of landmarks is not my idea of fun. But I’m also less than enthralled with the idea of an expensive tour on a crowded tour bus with a bored or overenthusiastic guide delivering corny jokes.
Luckily, we discovered Free Tours by Foot. It’s a pay-what-you-like arrangement, with local freelance tour guides who are highly motivated to deliver excellent tours. I booked reservations for tours of the Garden District and the French Quarter, and we were delighted with both (next time, we’re going to do the Voodoo Tour and the Food Tour). The guides were well informed, engaging, and humorous—we learned a lot about the history, architecture, and culture of New Orleans—including some of the local dirt.
There truly is no other place in the world like New Orleans. A melting pot of culture, religion, ethnic groups, food traditions, and music, it’s one of the oldest cities in the United States and one of the most fascinating. We still have no desire to visit during the insanity of Mardis Gras, and although the Jazz Festival in mid-April is mighty alluring with an incredible line-up of performers—it’s the French Quarter Festival that calls us to return. (All of the locals we met told us that the French Quarter Festival is their favorite, and that they hide out during the other events.)
A few tips for visiting the French Quarter Festival, should you decide to go:
• It’s FREE! The festival is supported by food and beverage purchases, so no coolers or outside food or beverages are allowed. Water is the exception, and you should bring plenty because it’s generally hot in early April. (And you probably don’t want your only beverages to be beer and daiquiris.) The food is terrific, and for the quality, it’s reasonable at $5-8 per small plate.
• Thursday is the mellowest day, with the crowds and events ratcheting up throughout the weekend. Saturday and Sunday at the big waterfront stages you can expect wall-to-wall people. Go early in the day and even the waterfront is manageable.
• Our favorite stages were the smaller ones, especially the Jazz Stage in Jackson Square with its lovely grassy lawn surrounded by billowing white tents of our favorite food vendors, and the Zydeco Stage on Decatur Street (with the lovely courtyard of the National Historical Park French Quarter Visitor Center available for a shady, quiet respite from the crowds and a bathroom that’s not a porta potty being used by thousands. Shhh. Don’t tell!)
• Wear a broad-brimmed hat or bring an umbrella for sun protection. There’s not much shade at many of the pavilions, especially those along the waterfront.
• Bring a folding chair and set it up in a prime location early in the day. You can wander away at any time and come back when you’re ready. If your chair is unoccupied, someone will likely enjoy it while you’re away, but no one will take issue when you return. Locals told us this is expected; it’s all part of the neighborly vibe.
• Don’t miss just wandering the streets of the French Quarter. You’ll find plenty of entertainment—and fabulous musicians—on every corner. It’s also a delight to escape into an open-air coffee shop and watch the crowds go by.
About the campground:
All of the sites at Bayou Segnette State Park are spacious and paved, with grassy lawns and a backdrop of lush green wild shrubs. Water and electric hook-ups, free laundry in the restroom complex, and good Verizon coverage; $28 per night. The big draw for us here is the location—we love being near New Orleans, but with the benefit of returning to a peaceful spot in nature in the evening.
Bonus tip: Don’t miss the wonderful seafood market adjacent to the park—a dozen vendors offer excellent fresh shrimp, crab, and crawfish for some of the most reasonable prices we’ve seen anywhere ($3.99 per pound for beautiful Gulf shrimp).
Next Up: In The Heart Of Cajun Country