New Orleans is a city that has so much more to offer than partying through the early hours of the morning. It is a place rich in culture, filled with some of the kindest people I’ve ever met and, surprisingly, home to a natural oasis. I teamed up with the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau to explore a side to this city many people may not know about.I started off the weekend with a kayaking excursion in the Maurepas Swamp, just 25 miles outside of the city. This swamp is the second largest in the country and is home to alligators, bald eagles, white-tailed deer, turtles, several species of birds, and more. Bald cypress trees line the water and can be more than 3,500 years old. The trail is picturesque with a baby blue skyline full of lush greenery. About 15 minutes in, the most incredible thing happened. An alligator jumped up out of the water and barrel-rolled in the air next to my kayak before crashing back down, soaking me with water. Our instructor, Jeff (who was the absolute best) told us that they aren’t usually aggressive with kayakers and just want to get out of the way because they don’t want to be bothered. Jeff explained that the gator probably was sleeping and got startled by the large shadow of the kayak gliding over him. What a sight!One sobering thing I learned from this adventure: Louisiana is losing so much land that it equals about a football field a day. Every eight months, that’s about the size of New Jersey alone. He says salt water intrusion, the leveeing of the Mississippi River, and global warming conditions are to blame. Many organizations in New Orleans work to preserve the swamps as much as possible. I am so thankful I got to spend time in Louisiana’s beautiful swamp lands, and I will never forget this experience. Who knew this city could fulfill a nature-loving boy’s fix?After a morning on the water, it was time to check out the food scene in New Orleans. I stopped at the award-winning Peche for lunch, a restaurant inspired by the fusion of Spanish, South America, and Gulf Coast cooking. With a glass of rosé by my side, I tried the spicy ground shrimp and noodles and the baked drum with saffron, butternut squash, and tomato in a coconut broth. Contrary to belief, not everything is fried in New Orleans. I was able to find healthy options at all the restaurants I ate at with some of the freshest local seafood around. I am still dreaming of this restaurant!Next up was a tour of the Garden District (an area built after the Louisiana Purchase) where the oldest historic mansions and lush gardens fill the oak-lined streets. The famous above-ground Lafayette Cemetery is also in this neighborhood and it is filled with extravagant 19th century tombs. Many television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, American Horror Story, and even some blockbuster films were shot in this cemetery. I definitely felt a haunted energy in this area!So at this point you may be thinking how much more can someone do in a day? The answer is simple: so much more because there are just way too many things to see in New Orleans! The Krewe of Armeinius Costume Den was next on my radar. I love a good costume party (and often hand-make part of my Halloween costumes each year), so seeing where the artists make the ornate costumes for the LGBT Mardi Gras celebration, dating back to 1969, was fascinating. I met with famed French Quarter artist Freddie Guess who walked me through the history of costume-making for the city’s festive events. He then demonstrated the craftsmanship that goes into creating the pieces each year. The amount of passion and work that these artists puts into the pieces they create is inspiring. What was really cool to learn about was when the Krewe began these events, the safety of its members depended on secrecy. Now, its one of the largest gay historical archives of its sort in the country. The events the Krewe produces are about celebrating the LGBT community, and New Orleans is a city that very much appreciates and respects the hard work that goes into creating these events for the city.I ended the night with a delicious dinner at Sylvain, joined by Dustin and Jeff, an amazing couple who do a lot with local LGBT advocacy efforts. The restaurant is in a former three-story carriage house and is known for its inventive cocktails and fresh local ingredients. Sylvain is a must-try if you’re ever in New Orleans! It’s always nice to meet people making a difference in the community. Dustin focuses on bringing the local LGBT community together to help tell the authentic New Orleans story. He works closely with LGBT event leaders and allies in the hospitality industry to ensure the history of the community is never lost, and works hard to ensure that everyone from all different walks of life can merge together to be one collective community. We ended the evening at the famous carousel bar inside Hotel Monteleone for one final nightcap.The first day in New Orleans was jam-packed and I wouldn’t have changed a thing about it. Between getting lost in nature, sampling some local flavors and learning about the history of the city, I went to bed feeling inspired and fulfilled, and I couldn’t wait for what the rest of the trip would bring.
Stay tuned for part 2!😎