Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Touristy Tours Part 1: A Gator’s Favourite Food

Do you know what an alligator's favourite food is? No, it’s not Louisiana local, as you might think. It’s actually marshmallows. Well, to be honest, I can’t say that applies to every alligator – but the gators I got up-close and personal with in the United States were pretty happy to munch on a marshmallow or 50.

Okay, I hear your scepticism. Need proof? See exhibit A below…

This was taken in the canals and bayous just outside New Orleans, Louisiana. Although there are a hundred and one things to do in The Big Easy, it’s also worth getting out and seeing outside the beautiful but touristy French Quarter.

Despite some travelers' aversion to the organised tour – I reckon this is a great way to see the sights of a place and know you're not missing anything. For our swamp tour we were picked up in a bus from our hotel door and driven through the French Quarter and suburbans areas of New Orleans for about 40 minutes, before reaching the tour site at Marrero.
Once there we bought our ticket; there’s the low-key option of experiencing the tour on a cruise boat, where you float leisurely along the canals at a very relaxing pace. Or you can take the high-octane option of an airboat. Given my love of anything with eight or more cylinders and the excitement of a 454 Chevy on the back of a tin boat hull, I chose the latter.

Our tour guide was the real deal. He was born and bred in the Louisiana bayous and proud of it. Whilst telling us about the lives and loves of the Louisiana alligator (they mate early in spring and it's quite an achievement for a baby gator to survive to adulthood – quite often they’re eaten by their own), we also got a history of about the bayous and how devastating hurricane Katrina, and the more recent gulf oil spill, were for the region.

When we boarded the airboat and were handed our ‘optional’ (are you kidding?!?) industrial standard earmuffs, I noticed our guide packing two huge bags of marshmallows. I thought he was nuts, really. It wasn’t until we found a group of gators, who were willing to fight for a soft, fluffy marshmallow, did I actually believe they enjoyed eating them.
Ear muffs  'optional'

Please humour me while I nerd out for a minute and entertain you with some alligator facts I learnt during the tour…

Alligators have terrible eyesight. They really can’t see more than a couple of centimetres in front of their teeth. They were very fond of the lady sitting next to me, wearing a white t-shirt, the exact colour of the marshmallows.

Alligators were almost hunted to the point of extinction in Louisiana. Now, gator hunting is regulated by the government to keep numbers up. The people who live and survive on alligator farming are the only people licensed to hunt.

A bayou has an end and a canal doesn’t. I thought they were one and the same to be honest. But our tour guide informed us the famed bayous, lined with Spanish moss and thick sub tropical undergrowth, eventually come to dead ends and canals are the manmade versioned, frequented by freight barges and always flowing somewhere.

The tour was an amazing 1 hour and 40 minutes of reptilian excitement. Oh, and torrential rain. About 30 seconds after I sat down in the airboat, the heavens opened. We persisted with the tour though, and although I was soaked to the bone and had water in places that should never be wet, it was officially the best outdoor tour I’ve ever done.

What’s the best (or worst) tour you’ve ever experienced?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Top 5 Essential Food Experiences of New Orleans

New Orleans; also known as The Big Easy. Also known as The Big Easy-To-Eat-Lots-While-You’re-There! I happily ate my way around New Orleans when I was there recently. Here are my top picks…

Heaven on a Plate; the Cajun Donut
1. Cajun Donuts. And I am not referring to the famed beignets. Yes, beignets are beautiful, but I have to be honest and say the beignets made famous by Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter are a little bit overrated. What you really need is a cajun donut. They are made with dough and fried, just like a beignet, but the difference is this version is then smothered in melted butter and has the tiniest bit of sugar sprinkled over. The end result is an absolutely divine donut, which melts in your mouth!

2. Oysters. Seafood is something New Orleans is famous for and with good reason. There are so many places to enjoy a good oyster in New Orleans and if you visit the city in June, you may even get to experience the New Orleans Oyster Festival. You can try them fresh in the half-shell, grilled, Kilpatrick, Rockefeller. Try the Acme Oyster Bar, popular with tourists but rightly so.

The original and best; The Po'boy
3. Po'boy Sandwiches. Whoever invented the Po'boy should be declared a saint. These things are scrumptiously southern and I had a couple (ok, maybe five) of the best Po'boys sandwiches in all of America, while in New Orleans. They come so many different ways, but I like mine with the traditional fried oysters and the not so traditional spicy chicken, with some slaw and fries on the side.

4. Crawfish. This freshwater crustacean is on just about every menu in New Orleans and it’s great served simply, but I like to eat my crawfish with some style. Etouffee style to be exact. I had an amazing crawfish etouffee (French for ‘to smoother’). It’s basically crawfish tails smothered in a butter blend of onions, peppers, celery and garlic. Etou-fantastic! Head to Deanie’s Seafood on Iberville Street in the French Quarter for some etouffee excellence.

5. Gator. Vegetarians please stop reading now. Yes, they swim in the bayous around New Orleans but they also taste really good on a stick! You can get gator served so many different ways at so many places in New Orleans, but I had gator on a stick with cajun spices, cooked two ways; fried and grilled. But the burning question; what does it taste like? Well, it’s a bit chewy like beef but it’s white coloured flesh. Get your gator on a stick at Gator-Me-Crazy on Decatur Street. They also have the friendliest waiters in the French Quarter. 


What are your top 5 best foreign foods you've ever laid lips on?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Hustle and Hustle of New Orleans

St Louis Cathedral, New Orleans
Emphasis on the hustle. Sorry if you’re reading this blog thinking it will be full of foolproof travel advice. This was not my smartest or finest hour travel peeps. But I digress...

It was only my sixth day in the US and I was still on that familiar travel high…"I love all these unique places, strangers, friendly people chatting to us just because we’re from another country…"

I was so high that I didn’t have my street smarts with me. (I may also have been high on sugar – I had just moments before had a creole southern breakfast i.e. sweet crepe with creamy cheesy custard and fried apple). I would have to say that before this incident, I prided myself on being a savvy traveller. I always watched my valuables in crowded areas, forever on the look out for pickpockets. Not that day. I got hustled. Big time.

Dictionary definition of ‘Hustle’ is: To obtain something by deceitful or illicit means; practice theft or swindling.To solicit customers. Used of a pimp or prostitute. To misrepresent one's ability in order to deceive someone, especially in gambling.

Me. Pre hustle.
So, here’s a run down of what happened. My Kiwi and I were walking along the mighty Mississippi River when a woman (who had beautiful gold teeth) approached me...

Her: How y’all doin? I bet I can tell you where you got those shiny sneakers...

Travel Mistake #1do not wear your shiny new Nike sneakers in New Orleans. They are as good as a neon sign flashing ‘get your gullible tourist here’.

Smug ol' me thinks she will never know I bought them at home in Australia.
Me: Really?

Travel Mistake #2 - once you open your mouth and speak to the hustler...you are as good as gone.

She then introduces herself....

Her: Let me shake your hand ma’am. Please to meet y'all. Welcome to our beautiful city of New Orleans. I been born and bred here, even survived Katrina. I’ll give you a free shoe clean if I can’t tell you were you got them shoes.

(She had already started to clean my already sparkling white shoes with a tiny cloth and some no-name soap. Actually come to think of it, I’m not even sure it was soap).

Her: Ma’am, if I can tell you where you got them shoes, city and state, you’ll pay for your shoe clean? Shake on it?

Travel Mistake #3 - never shake on anything with a hustler and be arrogant enough to think you will win (and the deal will be fair).

Me: Sure. I promise.

We shake.

Her: So, you got them shoes on your feet, your feet are on the ground in New Orleans, in the state of Louisiana.

Me: S!ht. Damn. I’ve been had.

So naturally I laugh and turn to walk away. I won't be giving her any money, I think to myself, she just conned me! But the two massive guys sitting on a park bench about two metres away don’t think it’s funny. They are apparently with her. So My Kiwi reaches into his wallet and pays the woman her rate – $5 a shoe.

Like I said, not my finest hour! I went to drown my sorrows in sugar - Beignets. More on that next post.

Have you ever been hustled, hassled or hoodwinked? Please share. No names necessary. Your identity will be protected…