Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 22, 2017
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Gumbo, po-boys, gators and ghosts -- mixing it up in New Orleans

For many tourists, New Orleans means Mardi Gras, jazz, plastic cups of take-out beer and women with conspicuously large Adam's apples hanging over the balconies on Bourbon Street. Indeed, you could easily spend a week in New Orleans and never leave Bourbon Street, where there is enough noise, distraction and vice to keep you occupied 'round the clock.

Many bars and restaurants are open 24 hours a day, or at least until the last customer leaves, and laissez le bon temps rouler (pronounced in drawling N'awlins-style French) is both a motto and a way of life.

But there is much more to be done in the Crescent City -- so named because of the way the Mississippi River curls around it on one side. Here are a few ways you can keep yourself amused while delaying the inevitable night of debauchery.

Take a ghost tour
New Orleans, and especially the French Quarter, is said to be teeming with spirits, both benevolent and evil. There's Jilted Julie, a scorned mistress who still frequents, as naked as the day she was found dead, the building now occupied by the Bottom of the Cup Tea Room on Royal street. A few blocks down, also on Royal, there's the cursed LaLaurie House, where in 1833 a physician and his wife tortured, mutilated and murdered their servants in a notorious case that led to New Orleans being called the "Blight of the Nation. " And not far away is the former home of General Beauregard, who led the Confederate army at the Civil War battle of Shiloh, where over 10,000 of his men died.

And yes, groans and cries can still be heard at these spooky locales, although more often than not they come from tourists reacting to the bad jokes of the guides who lead the ghost tours. One of the longest running is the Haunted History Tour, which also has voodoo and vampire excursions, all conducted by young black-clad guides who spin the local legends with macabre humour and make sure the tour stops for at least one libation in a Haunted Pub. For more information call (504) 861-2727 or visit www.hauntedhistorytours.com.

Explore a swamp
Louisiana has 40 per cent of America's coastal wetlands and although they are disappearing at an alarming rate, you don't need to venture too far from the city to hit the swamp. A 30-minute bus ride with Cypress Swamp Tours will take you to the outskirts of Bayou country, where an authentic Cajun named Captain Tom will guide you on a two-hour boat tour of his crab traps and bullfrogging grounds, while introducing you to some of the local alligators.

Many of the gators will swim up to the boat to be fed marshmallows and chicken and pose for photo opportunities; Captain Tom says this is because they have learned to recognize the sound of his motor and anticipate their reward. He claims, though, that if an unfamiliar boat enters their territory (like, say, a trapper boat), the canny gators will hightail it. He points with pride to the example of Mr. Chopper, a 10-year-old, one-eyed, 3-metre gator who trappers have been unsuccessfully hunting for years, but who beelines for Captain Tom's boat like a torpedo.

Another recommended tour takes place in the Honey Island Swamp, a permanently protected wildlife area. Wetland ecologist Dr. Paul Wagner navigates his small boat into pristine river-swamp backwaters, explaining the ecosystem and pointing out wildlife. This tour is a 90-minute bus ride from New Orleans; both tours provide transportation from your hotel and should be reserved in advance. For more information contact Cypress Swamp Tours at (504) 581-4501 or www. cypressswamp.com. For Honey Island Swamp Tours call (504) 242-5877.

Roll the dice at Harrah's
It's big, it's gaudy, it's air conditioned and it never closes. It's Harrah's casino. For those who don't want to drop $10,000 on a hand of blackjack, there are hundreds of five-cent slot machines that allow you to experience the thrill of gambling without sacrificing your shirt.

Ride the St. Charles Streetcar
The streetcar named Desire is no more but you can still take a great ride, for US$1.25, down St. Charles street. Leaving from the western edge of the French Quarter, the streetcar soon enters the Garden District, famed for its spectacular foliage and grand rambling homes, including mansions owned by vampire icon Anne Rice and Nine Inch Nail Trent Reznor. A good place to get off is at Audubon Park, across from Tulane University, where you can take a stroll and visit the acclaimed zoo.

Take a cooking class
The chefs/teachers at the New Orleans School of Cooking will tell you that the true melting-pot culture of the city can best be discovered by studying its food. In morning and afternoon classes, they mix, stir and fry while explaining the history of New Orleans cuisine. To simplify: the Cajuns relied on pork, hence the importance of sausage and lard, as well as crab, shrimp and crawfish; the Creoles added some fancier French elements; the West Indian slaves threw in okra, rice and lots of spice and it all got mixed up into the jambalaya, gumbo, shrimp ÄtoufÄe and blackened catfish that chefs like Paul Prud'homme and Emeril Lagasse have made famous worldwide.

At the end of the cooking classes, the food is shared and sampled; dishes taught vary from day to day. $US20. The school is at 524 St. Louis. Call (504) 525-2665 or visit www.neworleansschoolofcooking. com for more information.

 

Eat at Antoine's
Speaking of eating, no visit to New Orleans is complete without a meal at Antoine's, in the French Quarter. Founded in 1840 and having passed through incarnations as a speakeasy, bordello and opera house, it's the oldest restaurant in the South. There are 15 dining rooms (like The Rex Room, The Escargot Room and the Mystery Room), secret passageways, a 20,000-bottle wine cellar and an extensive menu specializing in, but hardly limited to, seafood.

Antoine's is famed for its service, and its 32 waiters, who spend eight years in training, are your best bet for meal recommendations. But here are a couple of tips: try a basket of fried potato puffs, a crunchy house specialty and end with CafÄ Diabolique, a large urn of coffee/ brandy that, after being set on fire, erupts into leaping blue flames that your waiter spoons into the air and onto your table. During high season, reservations should be made a month in advance (key days in Mardi Gras, like Proteus Monday, are booked five years in advance). Antoine's is at 713-717 St. Louis. Call (504) 581-4422 or visit www.antoines.com for reservations.

Gobble a po-boy
If you're in a hurry or not in the mood for fine dining, it's time for a po-boy. Po-boys are New Orleans' version of fast food: cheap and huge sub-like sandwiches with roast beef, sausage, shrimp or oysters piled on French bread and dressed to taste. Everyone has a theory as to where the best po-boy can be found. It's hard to go wrong, but a survey of locals revealed the following favourites: CafÄ Maspero on Decatur, across from the Jax Brewery; Mothers on Poydras and Tchoupitoulas; Mandina's down Canal street; Johnny's on St.Louis near Decatur; and the Magazine Po-Boy and Sandwich Shop on Magazine and First street.

Visit the Cities of the Dead
Since it was established in 1728, New Orleans has suffered through 72 epidemics, including some nasty bouts with yellow fever and malaria. This and other factors (disaster, alcohol and violence, to name a few) led to a high turnover rate in people and obviously the dead had to be put somewhere. Modelled on the Spanish system and practical because New Orleans is below sea level, the city's 42 cemeteries have rows upon rows of above-ground tombs, some shiny and ornate and some in the final stages of decay.

One of the best cemetery tours is conducted by Robert Florence, a local author and historian. Starting from the French Quarter, the walking tour concentrates on St. Louis Cemetery #1, which contains the tomb of the city's most famous voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau, as well as -- laying right beside her -- the city's first black mayor, Ernest "Dutch " Morial.

St. Louis #1 was also the site of a scandalous scene from the movie Easy Rider, where Peter Fonda takes LSD and hallucinates wildly about his mother while clutching the Virgin Mary statue on the Italia tomb. After the movie came out, filming was banned in all church cemeteries and remains so; thus the cemetery scenes in Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire were filmed at the public Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District.

The St. Louis #1 tour ends at the nearby Voodoo Spiritual Temple, which is also the home of high priestess Miriam Chamani, an exotic character who will expound on the troubles of the world or, if you pay for a reading, the problems with your own personality. Tours are $US20. For more information call Historical New Orleans Walking Tours at (504) 947-2120.

Peruse the Pharmacy Museum
On display in the Pharmacy Museum are thousands of relics from the medicinal past, a tribute to America's first licensed pharmacist, Louis J. Dufilho, Jr., who built his apothecary shop on the site in 1823. Bizarre drugs and dubious tonics line the walls of the museum, as do a plethora of bygone laxatives, painkillers, strengtheners, voodoo potions and gris-gris amulets. Under glass are the tools of yesteryear's trade, such as tonsil guillotines, eye scalpels, trephination drills, urethral dilators, stone searchers and so on. The first floor of the museum opens into a lush courtyard, where dozens of flourishing medicinal herbs are labeled and explained.

Upstairs is the gynecology and obstetrics area, which comes complete with its own ghost story. It seems that the property's second owner, a doctor who died of syphilis, had performed heinous experiments on pregnant women, some of whom died and were buried in the walls. People who work at the museum talk in hushed tones of bottles that mysteriously break and a wheelchair that has a tendency to move of its own accord.

The Pharmacy Museum is at 514 Chartres Street. For more information call (504) 565-8027 or visit www.pharmacy museum.org.

Get a taste of Mardi Gras
Even if you can't make it to Mardi Gras, when the city and its hotels are jam-packed, you can still get a taste of the event at Mardi Gras World, the largest float-building studio, you guessed it, in the world. Open year round, with artists and sculptors perpetually busy, the studio has floats in various stages of preparation and thousands of papier machÄ and fiberglass props and figures. For another vicarious Mardi Gras experience, Harrah's Casino has a mini outdoor parade every night, which in true Vegas style contains replicas of famous floats and costumes. For more information call (504) 361-7821 or visit www. mardigrasworld.com.

Hit the road
If you want to get further afield, rent a car and take a drive in any direction. Head east and you'll hit Biloxi, Mississippi and the beaches of the Mississippi Gulf Coast; west will bring you to Lafayette and Cajun country, south from there will take you to Avery Island, home of Tabasco sauce; north will take you on the causeway over Lake Pontchartrain and west to Baton Rouge and St. Francisville, which is renowned for its plantations. And of course, whichever way you go, you're going to see lots of stunning Louisiana scenery.

 

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