When Toni was writing Wildest Dreams (first published as In Your Wildest Dreams in 2005) she took a research trip to New Orleans accompanied by her best friend, Robin. Below is the original travelogue from the trip.
Friday, July 9, 2004
Robin and I arrived at the Louis B. Armstrong International Airport around 11 in the morning, where we met our shuttle driver, Richard, a fiftyish ex-hippie who was more than pleased to fill us in on where and where not to go in New Orleans as we made our way to the French Quarter.
We stayed at The Inn on Bourbon, which I highly recommend to anyone headed to New Orleans who might be a bit skittish about walking the dark streets of the French Quarter at night. The Inn on Bourbon is located at Bourbon and Toulouse (and is the old Opera House, by the way) and it's located toward one end of the Bourbon Street party district. Despite its location, however, if you request a quiet room, you actually get one! The place was nice, safe, and other than the few drunken hotel patrons wandering in late at night, our room was truly very quiet. We forwent a balcony on Bourbon Street for this, but I think it was worth it, because we like to sleep. The hotel was in a prime location where you could A) walk out your door and already 'be there,' and B) return to your room from a night on the town without having to venture out of the bright lights.
After checking in, we set out to explore the Quarter. Robin had been to New Orleans on business once years ago, but this was essentially her first time as a tourist. For me, the fourth trip, so I felt like a fairly seasoned traveler.
First, we headed down to the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen at the end of Decatur near Esplanade - a Richard recommendation - where we both ordered the lasagna. Dee-lish! After this, we wandered through shops, where we drooled over colorful shoes and purses and watches, and Robin found the most darling purse for me, deciding she should buy it for my birthday in October because it would so accessorize my little black semi-formal dress, and RWA's national conference was only a couple of weeks away. I wasn't sure, though, so we decided to think about it. I'm a believer that if you're meant to own an item, it will call to you until you come back for it.
After shopping for a few hours, we made our way to Jackson Square, home of the best people-watching in the city. We became much enamored of the music of guitar player/singer, Wil Kennedy, as we watched people walk past, some stopping to have their palms read, others watching the mimes, etc.
Around five, we headed to Muriel's, a restaurant on the corner of the Square, where I had an appointment with manager John Abbott - my first official research on my research trip! I attended a party at Muriel's a few years ago (Harlequin held their party here when RWA National took place in New Orleans in 2001) and spent the bulk of the evening in the most lush and intriguing little room I'd ever seen ~ known by one and all who hung out with me that night as 'the red room.' The room, and another just outside it, gave off, at once, the feelings of luxury, eeriness, and sensuality. We all thought it seemed a bit like a high-priced bordello. The room really struck me, and it was, in fact, the initial inspiration for In Your Wildest Dreams. On the night of the party, I was already thinking that I had to use it in a book, that a seduction had to take place there, and over time, I began to form the loose threads of the story that would later become In Your Wildest Dreams. So I wanted to return to the room in order to soak up its ambience once more, and also to take a few photos.
John Abbott turned out to be a very charming southern gentleman who seemed delighted to show us around. We sat with him in the room for quite some time as he filled us in on the building's history. Turns out that for a short period of five years, the building was a bordello, and a couple of the restaurant's party rooms were decorated in homage to that. Also turns out that the red room has a ghost. The ghost's name is Antoine and after he lost the family home - a house which once sat on the site - Antoine is said to have committed suicide where the red room is situated. There have been over fifty sightings of Antoine in the past four years, most in the red room, which is, by the way, now called 'The Inner Séance.' The outer brothel-type room is known as 'The Outer Séance.' John's personal sighting of Antoine was indeed in the Inner Séance. It's also fun to note that there's a table set for Antoine and his mistress each night, where the staff places wine and bread - to keep Antoine happy.
After leaving Muriel's, we had dinner at Pat O'Brien's. Okay, so I had a big slab of chocolate cake and a hurricane for dinner - it still counted as my evening meal. People complain about Pat O's being touristy and 'unauthentic,' but I don't care - I can't visit The Big Easy without having a hurricane in the courtyard.
After dinner, we explored Bourbon Street, observing all the seemingly normal people who go in to see 'Live Sex Acts' (and I don't mean strippers - according to the pictures outside, we're talking about people having sex on a stage) and I got Robin to try on silly hats in stores (she claims the hurricane had nothing to do with her acquiescence.) We turned in early, though, because we had a big day of tours planned on Saturday.
Saturday, July 10, 2004
We had breakfast at another of my must-do French Quarter haunts, The Café duMonde. There's little in life I love as much as a warm, excessively sugary beignet - even if the place is crowded and the staff is sometimes surly. Tip: Sit outside if possible.
After this, we caught our bus for our swamp tour, one of the main reasons for this trip - and a serious research stop. Much of In Your Wildest Dream takes place on the bayou, and I'd never been to a bayou before, so I had a lot to learn.
We arrived in Westwego, Louisiana, where Captain Bill, a native bayou guy of Cajun descent, took us on a tour of Bayou Segnette. We saw quite a few alligators - most smaller than I expected, but still very cool. They were lured to the boat with marshmallows - apparently an alligator treat! Also saw some snowy egrets, herons, and a beautiful cypress swamp. Bill was a great guy and after the trip, he answered all my questions. The information he supplied has been an enormous help to me!
Enter massive downpour. I mean massive. Combine this with a bus that didn't show up on time and you have a lot of soggy, irritated tourists. At the swamp gift shop, Robin and I bought two lovely plastic rain ponchos decorated with various forms of sea life. We made a stunning pair, let me tell you.
Finally, our delayed bus arrived and dashed us back to the city just in time to catch our next bus, to the Oak Alley Plantation on the famous River Road along the Mississippi. This trip had nothing to do with research, and everything to do with the fact that Robin and I both just swoon over places like plantations. (Although by the time I left, I wanted to set a book there, too!)
It's a long ride to Oak Alley - an hour and fifteen minutes to be exact ~ but I enjoyed seeing the lay of the land, something I find pretty pivotal as a writer. You can look at pictures and listen to descriptions all day, but nothing takes the place of actually seeing it yourself. The downside of the Oak Alley tour was that it continued to rain for most of our visit. The upside was that we were feeling pretty thankful for our sea-life rain ponchos, especially when non-poncho owners began eyeing us with envy. Even in the rain, though, the grounds were beautiful, the 'oak alley' in particular. The house tour, on the other hand, was so-so. Our group was really too large for the rooms, so I felt a bit like cattle being herded in and out, and we were worried about dripping on historic things. But the rooms and furniture were lovely, even if I didn't have time to look at it all as much as I would have liked.
After returning to the city at 5:30, we shopped around a bit on the way back to the room, then tidied up for an evening out. The rain had ended - yahoo! We dined at The Cajun Cabin, where I tried a Po' Boy, only to find out that what they call 'plain chicken' tastes like 'the fiery depths of hell' to my tender mouth. Good thing I had a couple of hurricanes to wash it down!
We loved the Cajun band at The Cajun Cabin - Mitch Cormier and the Can't Hardly Playboys. And we got the best seat in the house - next to the open window that looks out on Bourbon. Good music, good people-watching, and good hurricanes - despite the spicy, spicy chicken, I had a good time.
After dinner, it was back out to explore Bourbon Street by night. If you've never been to New Orleans, Bourbon Street is closed off at night (and sometimes during the day, too) to allow people to walk in the streets. Most drinks are served in go-cups and can be carried anywhere, even into most shops. It's basically a big street party, so even if you don't go into a lot of bars, there's a lot to see.
On this particular night, we shopped for souvenirs and Robin tried on more hats. Then we stood in front of the Hustler Club and caught beads being thrown by the strippers on the balcony. It's perhaps worth noting that I'm not a pro-stripper sort of girl (it's the feminist in me - I really do think it's degrading to women), but since nobody's clothes were coming off, it seemed innocent enough, and I discovered I'm actually pretty good at snagging beads. It's probably also worth noting that I felt the whole strip club/sex club scene on Bourbon seemed a bit better 'hidden' than on my previous visits, meaning that if you don't want to see anything too racy as you stroll down the street, it's not nearly as in-your-face as it was the last time I was there. Okay, yes, there are strippers on balconies, but they had on clothes and there were no open doors with views into the clubs, etc. If there was anything about this that did bother me, it was the people with five- to ten-year-old children catching beads - because hey, no matter how you slice it, they are scantily-clad strippers and there is definitely a sexual aura to Bourbon Street at night.
Bead-catching is hard work, so soon after, we set off for the hotel and turned in - we had another early-morning tour planned.
Sunday, July 11, 2004
We had the most delightful breakfast at L'Madeline's on Jackson Square. The last time I was in New Orleans, I had a hideous meal there - flies on the food, garbage all around, and I wondered why people raved about it. But this time, I can't say enough about the wonderful service, the lovely atmosphere, and the great food. I'm guessing they were just having some sort of bizarre off-day the last time, since it seemed like two different places.
After eating, it was off to our Cemetery Tour at St. Louis Cemetery #1. This is where Voodoo Queen Marie LaVeau is buried and the cemetery contains some of the oldest tombs in the city. Very interesting information on this tour from our wonderful, witty tour guide, Barbara, another native New Orleanian with a rich background. Barbara also answered some questions for me (and soon answered more via e-mail), so finding her was a godsend! The cemetery is located in an area where a couple of scenes in the book take place, so again, it was good to get the 'lay of the land.'
The only downside to the tour was when I almost passed out. Because it was hot. And there are walls around the cemetery, so no breeze. And did I mention it was hot? More than hot, really. I can't even explain it. We had water, as advised, but I nearly went down. I felt a little less like a freak when another guy got woozy, too. (Okay, so he was about eighty, big deal.) After the tour, Barbara walked us over to the Louis B. Armstrong Park - where there was a breeze, thank God!
Next, we stopped off at the Hard Rock Café so Robin could have a snack. I was too hot to eat. Meanwhile, I'd decided I really needed that purse we'd seen on Friday, so we made a plan to go buy it. Only - we couldn't exactly find it. I kept swearing up and down that it was on the lower end of Decatur, but we must have walked the street five times with no luck. So we finally took to other streets, also with no luck. By then, of course, I had to have that purse. My life would not be the same without it. My black dress would be ridiculously drab and dull. So we trudged on.
After hours of searching for the purse (I kid you not), it seemed a rain storm was blowing in. After all the rain the previous day, this did not please us. We had left our sea-life ponchos in the room. Meanwhile, I got this idea that maybe if we retraced our steps from Friday, we would find the purse. I spotted a purse place in the French Market and remembered that we'd just seen 'the purse' when we were looking at these other purses on Friday. I recalled having traveled catty-cornered across some oddly angled streets to reach these purses, which we'd seen from a distance. So we followed this idea, traveling backward as best we could, and I soon spotted a shop in the distance. Thunder boomed overhead. We stepped into the shop just as massive - really massive - rain broke loose and I made a beeline for the back of the store where I found - THE PURSE! We were trapped in the shop for some time due to the rain, but that's okay - we were ridiculously happy because the purse had finally been found. It was on Decatur, by the way. No idea how we kept missing it.
And it probably bears mentioning that I'm not normally the sort of person who enjoys shopping on vacation. I love to shop, and I love vacation, but I don't usually combine the two. However, for me, when in New Orleans, half the fun is wandering the Quarter, and the shops there are filled with unique items you won't find at the mall. In fact, I think my purse was handmade! Can't get that at the mall.
When the rain dropped back from massive downpour to average downpour, Robin convinced me we should make a run for it - Margaritaville was right across the street. Of course, there were about three inches of rain in the street, and I was wearing sandals. Nothing like gross, squishy shoes for a couple of hours.
When we couldn't find anything we wanted on the menu, we left and wandered into the Gazebo Café, an outdoor place with a big awning, in the French Market area. We ate and drank while listening to a good blues band. We're not blues fans, but these guys we liked.
After the rain stopped, we (shockingly enough) shopped a bit more and listened to our guitar guy on the Square, finally buying a CD from him.
Following a quick trip to the room to refresh, we then went on a Ghost Tour. Our guide, John, was terribly entertaining. Of course, I almost passed out. (Honestly, you can't take me anywhere.) This time I blame the heat, the hurricane I'd just finished (yes, you can even take them on your tours), and the truly, utterly macabre story John was telling. (And I don't use the word macabre often, but this stuff actually makes me ill to think about even without the heat and the rum.) I stepped back quietly to lean against a building, trying not to be noticed. But when I stooped down, John noticed, and stopped the tour to check on me. Robin assured him, however, that this happened to me all the time and I'd be fine. My only disappointment in the Ghost Tour was that it was supposed to be 2 hours long, yet actually lasted only a little over an hour. And it wasn't cheap, either. But on the other hand, it was a fun sort of thing to do. (Except for the almost passing out part.)
After the Ghost Tour, it was back to Bourbon for our last night out. We drank at the Funky Pirate and listened to some blues I was less than fond of. But ya gotta love a bar named The Funky Pirate. You just have to. Also stopped off at The Cat's Meow, which is fun sort of karaoke bar, but also the kind of place where they pull people up on the stage and force them to dance and sing against their will. Needless to say, we kept a low profile.
To close out the evening, I caught more beads from the strippers (again, not my usual bag, but it's Bourbon Street, man,) and Robin tried on a few more hats.
Monday, July 12, 2004
We couldn't resist another breakfast at L'Madeline's, which was, again, a true delight, and a place I was sorry to leave behind. After this, Robin bought a pair of shoes - monumental because while I'd been madly shopping for purses, she'd been trying on shoes. It felt like a wild success! With half an hour before we needed to check out of the hotel, we popped into a restaurant on Bourbon called Johnny Whiteside's, where we sat on the balcony and shared a piece of chocolate cake, and I drank my last New Orleans hurricane.
After checking out, our shuttle arrived and - hey, it was Richard again! He was bummed to learn we hadn't gone to any of the places he'd suggested besides the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen, but it was still a fitting end to the journey.
French Quarter Faves:
- Best Hurricane - Mojo's, on Decatur, in the Lower Quarter, by a landslide.
- Worst Hurricane - The Funky Pirate (sorry, Funky Pirate - you're a fun bar, but the drink was undrinkably bad.)
- Fave Chick Shops - Jackie's on Jackson Square (way cute purses and watches!), Violet's (to-die-for dresses!), and Sauvage, (on Decatur, home of 'the purse')
- Fave Non-Chick Shop - Vive la France on Royal
- Fave Bars - The Cajun Cabin, The Funky Pirate, The Famous Door, The Cat's Meow
Have a Drink on Me...
As hurricanes are my favorite drink, both at home and in New Orleans, I have found that no matter where you go, you never get the same drink twice. Thus, while on the lookout for a good hurricane recipe, I asked the bartender at Mojo's, where I had the best hurricane ever, which I now officially declare…
The Perfect Hurricane
1/3 light rum
1/3 spiced rum
1/3 dark rum
a splash grenadine
Enjoy! And as they say in The Big Easy, L'aissez les bon temps roulez—let the good times roll!