The real wild town
New Orleans, your Las Vegas alternative: Fakeness not included
Every so often, grownups like to remind themselves how great it is to be an adult. Men who haven’t smoked a cigarette since they were 15 will light up cheap cigars on a camping trip just because they can. Brides-to-be splurge on bacchanal parties to relive the reverie their girlfriends shared back when they wore Sunday morning’s bloodshot eyes like a badge of pride.
Then there’s the hype-soaked weekend getaway to Las Vegas, the town long branded as a delicious reminder that behaviors forbidden in the first fourth of our lives are now permissible.
Unfortunately, Vegas is terrible. Whatever Sin City used to represent for wild-eyed adults disappeared long before my first and only stay there in 2008. I walked the entire strip seeking only a few cheap libations, a couple of hours at the blackjack tables and maybe a dose of bawdy theatrics in a smoky casino theater.
Instead, I found a giant mall with slot machines.
The same up-market retailers you can find anywhere crowd the interiors of every Strip casino, as if the tourists once drawn there to pointlessly spend their vacation money at the craps table have been replaced by richer travelers who pointlessly spend their cash on $400 sunglasses instead.
Want to feel like an adult for the weekend without the constant sense that other adults are ripping you off? Save your money and drive to New Orleans. Where Vegas has a miniaturized Manhattan skyline and a fake Space Needle, you’ll find the boisterous Big Easy has no need to be anything but itself.
Hop off the street car at Bourbon Street, and the first thing you’ll see is a strip club. While the same chain restaurants that line Omaha frontage roads now overrun New York’s Times Square and other American landmarks, the French Quarter still lives up to its reputation.
Bachelor parties in search of booze and breasts find both in abundance between Big Daddy’s World Famous Love Acts and strip joints where dancers shake their cans in open doorways. Stalls facing the street sell draft beer for as cheap as $2, and bars big and small sell liquor at surprisingly reasonable prices. Most never close.
For a more genteel evening in the Quarter, spy on the palm readers, street musicians and old European architecture of Jackson Square before retreating to the Hotel Monteleone. Its slowly moving Carousel Bar made roughly one full rotation for every sazerac consumed, which becomes a lot more amusing by lap three. Wander over to the free ferry across to Algiers for sunset on the Mississippi. At night’s end, venture back to the square and Café du Monde for a deep-fried desert.
If gambling’s your chosen vice, don’t count New Orleans out. Harrah’s on the riverfront has the same Texas hold ‘em tournaments and Sex in the City II slot machines you’ll find everywhere else. I spend an hour losing money there and found it to be clean, comfortable and on par with L’Auberge du Lac or any of the other higher-end Louisiana casinos that betting Houstonians know well.
Better yet, screw the pre-packaged adult activities and experience some raw jazz. Music seeps through the foundation of New Orleans like swamp water. Kids in brass bands play sidewalks for tips, and troupes bleating ragtime follow wedding parties through the streets of the French Quarter.
You can’t even see a Rat Pack cover band in Las Vegas for less than $50 these days. Nosebleed Cirque du Soleil tickets start at $100. In New Orleans, you can watch all 495 pounds of blues man Big Al Carson perform for free at the Funky Pirate, or just pick up one of the weekly papers to find world-class jazz musicians making their living on stage seven nights a week.
Local writers continue to pen entire books about the restaurants in New Orleans, and I won’t try to best them here. You can’t go wrong with the rabbit and sausage jambalaya at gritty Coop’s Place, where a sign behind the bar reminds guests that you can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning, and waiters serve cocktails on the sidewalk to groups waiting for a table.
Away from the French Quarter, Magazine Street’s funky storefronts offer more local fare and a mellower scene. About $10 will buy more than a meal’s worth of fresh-cooked crabs or crawfish at Big Fisherman Seafood, which are best devoured on the back porch of The Bulldog Pub across the street.
Depending on how you count them, nearly 1,000 non-chain restaurants feed New Orleans. Just about all of them beat the hell out of surfing the buffet sneeze guard with a bunch of obese Midwesterners who just dragged their 8-year-olds through a Vegas casino. Sure, you can splurge on extravagant meals prepared by famous chefs in Las Vegas. But would your really prefer to eat seafood that just spent more time on a plane than you did?
A Southwest promotional fare to Vegas will run vacationing Houstonians about $300, roughly twice the price of the one-hour flight to New Orleans. If you don’t mind the early departure, halve your travel expense by taking the 10-hour Amtrak journey for $100, or simply make the six-hour drive.
At least half a dozen hostels rent bunks starting at $16 to low-budget backpackers, while elegant bed and breakfasts cut from historic mansions and sprawling plantations offer boutique elegance to those spending more. Mid-week, you can stay at the Ritz Carlton a block from Bourbon Street for $170 -- roughly the same as a slow night at the Bellagio.
Travel with Purpose:
There’s no need to be coy about this: New Orleans could use the business. While Vegas collapsed into recession because thousands of its residents bought more house than they could afford, the people of New Orleans can hardly be blamed for the acts of God, government and British Petroleum that afflicted the city in quick succession over the last five years.
Give them a visit. I fell in love with the place as soon as I realized I was making easy friends with colorful locals in every bar I visited. They’re good people, and they’ll show you a hell of a good time.