The Whitney Plantation is the first slavery museum in America and the first plantation wholly devoted to the slave experience. The other local plantations offer a glamorous look at the 19th century lives of the rich and white but they tend to gloss over the fact that much of that elegance was made possible through tyranny and subjugation. The Whitney tells it exactly like it was.
Bob Dylan once said, “Everything in New Orleans is a good idea.” The man knew what he was talking about. During my recent five day spree there, I was in serious danger of turning into a gluttonous Ignatius J. Reilly from “Confederacy of Dunces.” It’s very hard to say no to New Orleans — she’s a mighty seductive mistress. Before I knew it, my prim West Coast ways (protein shakes, kale, dust-free living) had been superseded by an unquenchable craving for sugar, grease and moldering beauty — and I was all the richer in body and soul for it.
Below, the places I can’t get out of my head.
1. Napoleon House, 500 Chartres Street, French Quarter.
This bar/restaurant could be my new favorite place in the world.
(All photos by Lisa Borgnes Giramonti, 2015.)
The interior is so crazy sexy cool that my companions and I became convinced we’d fallen into a wrinkle in time and become protagonists in a classic Southern novel. FYI, I didn’t add a filter to these photos — this is actually how golden and atmospheric the light is. It looked like a great place for flirting — against those patina-pitted walls, everyone’s skin takes on a luminous glow.
Our waiter told me to order the house drink, a Pimm’s Cup. Yessir.
It’s impossible to take a bad photo of this place.
2. New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, 514 Chartres Street, French Quarter.
Really, you’re thinking? A pharmacy museum?
For one thing, it’s the birthplace of the original “Love Potion No. 9” — which you can casually drop into conversation for the rest of your life whenever that Searchers song comes on.
For another thing, there’s an incredible old soda fountain from the days when Coca Cola actually had cocaine in it. I know.
The museum is self-guided so you can wander indiscriminately past walls of vintage cabinets crammed floor to ceiling with strange-sounding elixirs, ointments, cordials, and purgatives for everything from stomach troubles to the afeared “women’s maladies.”
This marks the first time my son has ever taken an interest in a decorative antique.
3. Faulkner House Books, 624 Pirate’s Alley, French Quarter.
I wish I’d spent more time in this snug literary jewel box, a former home of William Faulkner (who wrote his first book upstairs). The building is owned by Rosemary James and Joe DeSalvo whose enchanting four-story apartment you can see HERE. And look, green-walled bookshelves!
4. Antoine’s Restaurant, 713 St. Louis Street, French Quarter.
Antoine Alciatore opened the doors to this culinary watering hole in 1840 and his descendants still run it — which makes it the oldest family-run restaurant in the country. Oh, and Oysters Rockefeller were invented here in case you’re thinking of ordering some.
The restaurant is a history lesson in itself — a rambling labyrinth of ten dining rooms each decorated in a different style and with its own personal story. In the corridor below you can see a display of museum-quality ceramics given to Antoine’s by other restaurants over the last century.
The Stork Club. Sigh.
I love this brass-studded cabinet housing vintage liqueurs.
Antoine’s takes its food seriously as is evident from the quote on the door by culinary wunderkind Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. (He wrote the still-wonderful 1825 cookbook “The Physiology of Taste” which if you don’t own already you should get in THIS beautiful Modern Library edition translated by M.F.K. Fisher.)
Here’s the Rex Krewe Room dedicated to one of the private clubs that organize Mardi Gras every year. The walls are lined with photos of past members wearing masks and fancy regalia.
Is it just me or do you feel a slight “Eyes Wide Shut” vibe?
5. Royal Pharmacy, 1101 Royal Street.
This is just a quick stop but if you’re in the neighborhood it’s worth poking your head in.
Family-run since the 1930’s, it’s another one of those places that gives you a vertiginous “falling through a wormhole” feeling. Everything is just like it was: the tin-stamped ceiling, the tiled soda fountain, the old medicinal jars and signs.
I’d bet good money that Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams used to stop in for some necessities. (They both lived in houses nearby.)
6. James H. Cohen and Sons Antiques, 437 Royal Street, French Quarter.
My son and his friends went absolutely gaga over this antiques shop and I did too — it’s filled with historically significant treasures like Civil war firearms, medieval swords, Greek and Roman coins and much more. See that glass case in the foreground of the photo with the barrel and starfish? Inside it is precious bounty recovered from centuries-old shipwrecks — I couldn’t take my eyes off all the gold coins still encrusted together with coral.
7. The Columns Hotel, 3811 St. Charles Avenue, Garden District.
This is a great stop for a refreshing libation when you’re visiting the Garden District. You can sit on the wide Italianate porch of this lovely 1883 mansion and watch the gentlefolk saunter by. Interesting tidbit: It’s apparently haunted by “three gentle spirits with impeccable Southern manners” (story HERE).
I ordered a St. Charles Breeze and it was so delicious that it’s on the shortlist to be my summer cocktail.
I snuck a photo of the recipe for you. The waitress told me the Chartreuse is used very sparingly — just coat the inside of the glass with it and then dump it out.
8. Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, 501 Basin Street, Garden District.
Our plans to visit the cemetery sadly didn’t materialize so I took these photos through a crack in the gates. You tour it and tell me what I missed — it looked terrifically spooky.
9. Algiers Ferry, at the foot of Canal Street, French Quarter.
We didn’t really have a desire to take a touristy river cruise but we did want to somehow experience the mighty Mississippi, so we were incredibly thankful when a courtly local gent recommended we hop on the Algiers Ferry. The ten minute boat ride across the river gives you a stunning view of the city’s skyline — and the $2 fare has got to be one of the best deals in the city.
Algiers Point is basically the Brooklyn of New Orleans. We wandered a few blocks around the village which had a charming sleepy quality to it and is home to a rich community of artists and musicians (who must have all been sleeping because we didn’t see a single soul.)
10. Whitney Plantation, Vacherie, Louisiana (about 50 miles from New Orleans)
Did you read the recent article about this newly opened plantation in the New York Times? If you did, then you know why this was the highlight of our trip. If you didn’t, you can get the story HERE.
Behind the big house is a granite Wall of Honor with the names of all the slaves who died in Louisiana. 106,000 names have been engraved on it and there are approximately 240,000 names still to to be researched and confirmed.
Behind the big house is the slave jail. It was moved to the Whitney from another plantation because it dates from the same period and would have been typical of the time.
Walking inside the cast-iron structure, I was immediately struck by the ferocity of the heat. It was harrowing to think of the prisoners collapsing from heatstroke while mere yards away the white folk sipped mint juleps on their shaded porch.
When we finally entered the “big house”, we did so as a slave on the plantation would have — through the back door.
Upstairs the house was decorated with beautiful murals.
Guess who painted all those murals? That’s right.
Guess who sewed those initials onto this cotton chemise? You would be right again.
There is much more to the Whitney Plantation than I’ve described here but some of it must be experienced for yourself first-hand. Go. Just as soon as you can.