Vibrant. At face value, it means energetic, enthusiastic. It suggests movement, and its secondary definition is “quivering, pulsating.” And vibrant has more particular meaning when applied to color and sound. For color, it implies brightness; for sound, resonation and strength.
Lately, vibrant is a buzzword associated with growing cities. Vibrancy now encapsulates an exciting, diverse, progressive, cultured place to be. A place that’s full of life and full of potential — a place that’s going places, if you will. In fact, vibrant is becoming so synonymous with the desirability of a destination that Google’s first example phrase is “a vibrant cosmopolitan city.”
Often, I find “vibrancy” to be an overused descriptor, or at least used so enthusiastically that it waters down the label.
But then I spent a few days in New Orleans.
Energy so palpable you can feel it, and I’m not just talking about the wild ways of Bourbon Street. Colors so bright it looks like you’re in a photo editor with the saturation dialed up to 100%. A people so strong they’ve emerged from the wreckage of Katrina to build something beautiful.
Something vibrant. In every sense of the word.
It’s not what I expected, to be honest. At best, I expected the city equivalent of a party school. At worst, I expected drab scenery and questionable safety. I found none of those things. (Well, I’m sure there were parties on Bourbon Street, actually. That just wasn’t my scene.)
Instead I found some of the kindest, most interesting people. Some of the most colorful, whimsical buildings. Some of the most delicious, inventive food. (So good, I’ll be devoting a separate post to the NOLA food scene.) Some of the most eccentric, fascinating attractions. And even though I was a solo female in New Orleans, I never felt unsafe.
The Charming French Quarter
I started on Bourbon Street, because that seemed like a classic place to start, and it was steps from my hotel.
However, I found myself drifting off Bourbon and into the surrounding French Quarter after just a few blocks. In the early afternoon, not much was happening anyway, and I wandered off to the side streets of Royal, Chartres, Dauphine and others, enamored with the bright colors, side shops, and hanging gardens.
Just as the colorful houses and buildings were starting to conjure up memories of Europe, I stumbled across the St. Louis Cathedral — a landmark testament to enduring French and European influence in New Orleans. Glistening white and framed by the tropical greenery of Jackson Square, the cathedral adds to the Old World charm of the city.
From the square, I crossed the street to the riverfront to take in the massive, if dirty brown, Mississippi River.
The constant presence of water has proved to be a blessing and a curse for New Orleans. The ports of South Louisiana and New Orleans rank third and fourth in total trade for seaports of the world with about 6,000 vessels passing through New Orleans each year. While that kind of access boosts the economy, it also allows for a disaster like Hurricane Katrina. Staring at the mighty river is a reminder of how powerful — for good and for ill — water can be.
Checking Out City Park
Next up, I decided to take a taxi several miles out of downtown to New Orleans City Park. Unfortunately, I arrived just as the Museum of Art and Sculpture Garden was closing, which was what I had come to see. When I decided I’d just walk around the park instead, it started gushing rain.
Riding New Orleans’ Famous Streetcars
Armed with just a rain jacket and no umbrella (nor much cover), my plans to walk the park were thwarted. Instead, I took a streetcar back to downtown, taking Canal Street nearly from start to finish. I was fascinated by watching the city morph from suburban to commercial to residential to downtown.
That completed most of my first day’s adventures. Thanks to an early morning flight and crushing humidity in the city all day, I was ready for a nap. After the streetcar deposited me back in front of Bourbon Street, I was only steps from my hotel again.
Because I was mostly in town to attend a work conference, my hotel was pretty swanky. I stayed at the Sheraton New Orleans, at Canal and Chartres, twenty floors above the city with a river view. If you have the budget, or happen to be in town for work like I was, I recommend it, especially because it was centrally located to almost everything.
The next couple of days I was in New Orleans were mostly occupied by conference activities. I ate well every night, but like I said, I’ll save that for another post — there’s just so much to talk about!
But when the conference ended, I had a large stretch of free time again before flying home, and I took full advantage.
Multicolored Magazine Street + Garden District
My first plan of action was to find Magazine Street and head into the Lower Garden District. Again, I was surrounded by colorful paint jobs, warehouse vibes, and shotgun houses, a style found all over New Orleans with a much-debated moniker.
Into the Past: New Orleans Pharmacy Museum
Opened in 1816 with one of the first licensed pharmacists in the country at its helm, the Museum is on the site of one of the oldest pharmacies in the U.S., and as such, holds many stories about American medicine. It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places.
To say pharmaceutical history has been colorful would be something of an understatement. Even though I missed most of the full-blown tour, I learned enough from the curator’s fifteen minutes of historical recounting and my own browsing of the museum. Enough to know I’m glad I didn’t live back in the 1800s, or earlier.
On the first floor, I learned about belladonna, the plant that women used to dilate their eyes and make them look more attractive. Of course, it’s also one of the most toxic plants in the Eastern Hemisphere. I heard about the practices of leeches along with the very unsanitary and often un-medicated practices of surgery.
On the second floor, I viewed the current exhibits, The House Call (Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Healthcare in the home), and Aqua Vitale (The Spirited History of Alcoholic Medicine). Did you know that the first successful American cesarian section happened in 1794 in West Virginia? The attending doctor refused to perform it, so the woman’s husband did it, delivering the baby successfully and keeping the mother healthy, too. While he was at it, though, he also removed his wife’s ovaries, saying he “would not be subject to such an ordeal again.” History, ladies and gentleman! It’s fascinating! Also, alcoholic medicine used to be sold with much more pizzazz, if you will. Did you know wine fortifies and refreshes body and brain, and restores health and vitality? Why, of course it does! Vin Mariani Popular French Tonic Wine says so.
After the museum, it was sadly time for me to leave this wonderful, vibrant city that combined so many things I love: southern charm, European style, great history, and beautiful landscapes. (Plus great food!) And it was a good lesson to me, in that so many things are not what you expect them to be. If you’re lucky, they’re even better.
So cheers to your vibrancy, New Orleans! Keep on with it!
This is day 7 in the 12 Days of Travel on The Globe Turner. Stop by tomorrow for day 8 of #12DaysofTravel, a series of travel memories from 2015. There will be a post every day ’til Christmas!