“In America, there might be better gastronomic destinations than New Orleans, but there is no place more uniquely wonderful. … With the best restaurants in New York, you’ll find something similar to it in Paris or Copenhagen or Chicago. But there is no place like New Orleans. So it’s a must-see city because there’s no explaining it, no describing it. You can’t compare it to anything. So, far and away, New Orleans.”– Anthony Bourdain
In February 2020, just as the pandemic was publicly making its way to American shores, my wife and I traveled to New Orleans, LA. Knowing my interest in exploring the city and that a Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon was coming to town, my wife surprised me by securing my race registration as a birthday gift. She knew how hard a time I had with our home’s sale, so she thought, and I agreed that this race and trip would provide us an opportunity to relax, reset, and be ourselves. With the race purchased, plane travel booked, and hotel secured, we were ready. When February rolled around, our eagerness and excitement to explore a new city was high.
While we knew that the pandemic had been growing globally, there had only been a handful of cases reported in the US by this point, so when it came time to go, we went. We planned to explore, eat great food, visit a WWII museum, and check the city off our list. What we didn’t know at the time is that this would be our last trip of 2020, even though the year had only just begun. As 2020 finally comes to a close, I wanted to reflect on what was one of the best and brightest moments of a challenging year. Let’s head back to NOLA!
We all know that 2020 witnessed the justifiable canceling of half marathons throughout the country. Looking forward, I have signed up for two in-person half marathons for 2021, both of which are Rock n’ Roll series events in Seattle and Savannah. While 2021 is looking more promising for my “runcations,” I was able to travel to Louisiana and complete a half marathon in New Orleans, which, as I said above, proved to be the first and last major thing I did in 2020.
I had always wanted to visit New Orleans. The history, entertainment, excitement, and unique blend of food made it a promising experience. My wife, too, had New Orleans as a “must-see” location, and although we are not Bourbon Street people, we wanted to throw ourselves into the environment and enjoy the city. As I have said in previous posts about half-marathon running, choosing these races is a perfect reason to visit and explore a new city/location. For those months after we booked our plane tickets and hotel accommodations, we scribbled down the places we wanted to visit, the food we wanted to eat, the coffee we wanted to drink, and hopefully establish 2020 as a year of excitement and travel. While 2020 would not be that, it was not New Orlean’s fault.
Friday, February 7th – Welcome to NOLA
“There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better.”– Bob Dylan
We arrived in New Orleans on Friday night, February 7th. We called an Uber from the airport and quickly made our way to our hotel, which was in a perfect location close to everything, but more importantly, across the street from where the race would begin on Sunday. For those who have read my previous half marathon blog posts, I suggest lodging in an Airbnb or hotel close to the start of the race. Why? This half marathon was a Rock n’ Roll event, so the organization is phenomenal, and races usually begin at a location in the heart of a city. Where you stay will generally be close to all the action. Besides, being perfectly situated will make your race day morning as easy and polished as possible.
It was pretty late when we arrived in downtown New Orleans, so we didn’t have much planned, other than to settle into the hotel, walk and find something to eat, and rest up for a full day of exploring on Saturday, the half marathon on Sunday, and we would depart on Monday. A solid three-night stay, plenty of time to enjoy the sights and sounds of the city. The hotel, a Hilton, was lovely and located adjacent to the historic French Quarter and, according to the hotel website, actually a landmark building. The building was built in “1926 as the Louisiana Masonic Temple,” and is currently a member of Historic Hotels of America.” The building was beautiful, but the facade was rendered hidden behind tons of scaffolding because they were preparing for Madi Gras, as the parade would pass directly outside the hotel’s front door.
Walking distance from the Arts District, French Quarter, the excitement of Bourbon Street, and across the street from the Rock n’ Roll half marathon starting line, the Hilton was in a perfect location. The race expo, which we would attend on Saturday, was less than a mile from the hotel and held at the Morial Convention Center. Some “runcations” do not allow for this level of precision when it comes to lodging location. Still, New Orleans was pinpoint perfect, with only the race finish a far distance away, but that would not interfere with our city adventure or require any significant amount of time. Of course, this level of mapping does involve a little planning going in, but if you are willing to do the work and, yes, sometimes pay a little more, it will make the trip so much better and less intimidating.
After arriving at the Hilton and checking in, I noticed that the city was packed, and the hotel filled with other Rock n’ Roll runners, which immediately produced a heightened level of anticipation. After we went to our room, dropped off our bags, we required some food but didn’t want to go too far since we were exhausted. We walked a couple of blocks and found an enjoyable fried chicken joint called Willie’s Chicken Shack. The food was excellent and exactly what we needed after a day’s travel. We ordered a few of their specialty wings and fries, as well as some delicious biscuits. The food went down perfectly, and I paired it with a NOLA Brewing Company Blonde Ale, which was wonderfully crisp and proved I would not be disappointed by beer options in New Orleans. After a short walk around the area, we headed back to the hotel and called it a night. We decided not to push it and left Bourbon Street entertainment for Saturday and Sunday night. No need to squeeze everything into our first night.
Saturday, February 8th – A Day of Historical Reflection & Race Expo
“Every time I close my eyes blowing that trumpet of mine, I look right into the heart of good old New Orleans. It has given me something to live for.”– Louis Armstrong
It seems whenever we are on vacation, we can’t help but get up early. Once up, we decided to get breakfast and coffee, our favorite vacation meal. We found that The Ruby Slipper Cafe, which had great reviews, was in the French Quarter and very close to the hotel. We ventured out to this popular breakfast joint and quickly got a table. We ordered coffee, French Truck Coffee, a local NOLA coffee shop I discussed in a previous blog post. The coffee was divine, and we ordered our food and waited while my wife and I had a wonderful conversation, excited to be on vacation and uncaring of the stress we left at home. I decided to try the Salmon & Avocado Toast, which was terrific. My wife ordered a Build Your Own Omelet, which included everything but the kitchen sink, and she loved it. Once done, we ordered a couple of coffees to go as we enjoyed a walk around the city’s historic areas.
For the next couple of hours, my wife and I walked around the Mississippi River waterfront, strolled along some of the French Quarter’s historic streets, and took a ton of pictures. We had no plans set in stone for this early in the day, other than attending the Rock n’ Roll expo to pick up my race bib in the afternoon. We also planned a visit to the National WWII Museum, which we had been eager to see for some time. My wife and I are both historians who teach US History at a local college, so we made visiting this particular museum in New Orleans an essential part of our day. For my wife, her grandfather Frederick, who sadly passed away nearly two decades ago, was a decorated veteran of WWII. He proudly served in the US Army, fought, and was part of the American push into Germany at the Battle of Remagen, which resulted in the American 1st Army capturing Ludendorff Bridge and moving across the Rhine. He then bravely served in the US defense against the German offensive at the Battle of the Bulge. He was an American hero who inspired my wife in so many ways. Visiting the museum was not a choice but a proud obligation to him and all those who served and supported freedom and the Allied cause and sacrificed, suffered, and perished during the Second World War. Below is a picture of my wife’s grandfather Frederick.
Before throwing ourselves into such an emotional experience, not felt since our visit to Pearl Harbor several years earlier, we continued drinking our coffee and walked around downtown. We walked around Jackson Square, took photos in front of the soaring 18th-century majestic church St. Louis Cathedral. We then shopped at the French Market, observed Preservation Hall’s beauty, and walked by the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. We had a wonderful stroll in Woldenberg Park, which includes the Mississippi Riverwalk and an emotionally gripping Holocaust Memorial. Finally, we were able to get a Cafe Au Lait and Beignet from Café Du Monde.
We decided to go back to the hotel with a morning of exploring behind us and get ready for our visit to the Rock n’ Roll expo. Now, this is a Rock n’ Roll event. For the sake of not repeating myself too much, I implore you to check out my two previous posts, My Top 4 Half Marathon Races and Destination Nashville, TN, both of which discuss Rock n’ Roll expos in San Diego, Denver, and Nashville. All of those half marathons were fantastic, with really great expo experiences. As I said in those posts, Rock n’ Roll does an outstanding job with their expos, and besides the ones I have already mentioned, I have joined the festivities in Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn, two half marathon trips I will chronicle in future posts.
I have done a total of six Rock n’ Roll events, mainly because they are well-organized, have incredible race medals (vital for me), and held in locations I want to visit. Hey, I already signed up for their half marathon events in Seattle and Savannah, so clearly, I am a fan! Still, the expos are not the most crucial part, but they can set a friendly tone for the rest of the day and the race the following morning if successful. It’s sad to say, but Rock n’ Roll’s New Orleans expo was the worst, by far, although it fought a pretty nasty battle for last place with the Rock n’ Roll expo for their Brooklyn event. Why was Brooklyn so bad, you ask? Well, not to ruin my future Brooklyn post’s surprise, but the expo was at MSG in Manhattan. Is Manhattan in Brooklyn? No, no, it is not. Not cool, Rock n’ Roll, not cool.
So, what was wrong with the New Orleans expo? Well, first, it was at a massive convention center, which should not sound like a big deal, but while the entire site was under construction and roughly 90% empty, the expo was literally in the last exhibit hall. Hence, you had to walk the whole length of the center to get to it. It took forever, and the last thing you want to do the day before running 13.1 miles is walk any more than necessary. Second, there were barely any booths/vendors selling merchandise. I don’t usually buy anything anyhow, but it seemed so empty that my wife and I picked up my BiB and left. It was bare bones. All the other expos I have been to have such great energy, but not in New Orleans. Hopefully, this is a one-off. Maybe it was an anomaly, and in the future, the expo will be busy, and the energy high. But for me, the expo in New Orleans was a letdown and solely served as my opportunity to pick up my race bib.
After we left the expo, we decided to go to the National WWII Museum. Let me be brief here and say it is one of the most impressive museums I have ever visited. I should note, I am a historian who has worked in public history before, and this museum left me speechless. I have been to museums in Boston, Washington, D.C., Paris, Brussels, Shanghai – cities worldwide that cover all sorts of historical topics. The history of the Second World War is imperative to learn, understand, and remember. The museum is designed wonderfully for both expert historians and history buffs, the parent and the child, the visual learner, and those who require an interactive touch. I first learned about the museum when in my Ph.D. program in Hawaii. One of my classmates was from New Orleans and had worked at the museum. She spoke highly of it and painted such an amazing picture of it that I immediately put it on my must-visit list.
The museum, as you can see, did not disappoint. It focused on both well-covered aspects of the war and those events, tragedies, and heroes who do not command enough attention from a common perspective. There were many moments when my wife and I were reduced to tears as we walked through the amazingly modern and high-tech exhibits. I was constantly reminded why I went into a career studying, teaching, and researching history. Not since my visit to the In Flanders Field Museum in Ypres, Belgium, which focused on World War I, had a museum cut me emotionally. The personalization and humanity in handling the war’s greatest tragedies were equally impressive and game-changing for me as a historian. So, as you can tell, I am a fan of the National WWII Museum and appreciate how it handled the war’s narrative, both from an American and global perspective.
After we visited the museum, my wife and I were emotionally drained. We spent several hours there, and while impressed by our visit, we needed a snack and a rest before our dinner plans that evening. After a quick stop at Smoothie King, we headed back to the hotel to relax. A few hours later, now rested up, we walked to our restaurant of choice for a pre-race dinner. New Orleans does not lack places to get a meal. Even so, my wife is a wiz when it comes to selecting restaurants. These eateries are either outside the box or the most popular and raved about locations, according to her “sources.” In New Orleans, we decided on the former. It was a little off the path, not near Bourbon Street or other tourist areas, rather an eatery that required a leap. We are always excited to try places, whether they are famous or not, so we headed out to dinner at Maypop with the sun setting over New Orleans.
Maypop is a contemporary and modern Louisiana “eatery serving Southern-Asian fusion including handmade pasta & house-cured meats.” Its atmosphere and decor were modern, with a slight nod to urban chic. A very spacious establishment with a limited amount of food options, keeping the menu straightforward. It was easy finding something to enjoy. Whether it was their unique starters or delicious main course pasta dishes, Maypop provided us with an enjoyable and satisfying meal. Once finished with our dinner, we ventured towards Bourbon Street to throw ourselves into the nighttime party atmosphere of downtown New Orleans. There were a couple of Madi Gras parades going by, which we were lucky to watch and cheer on.
Knowing now that COVID was already in the US, in large numbers, I can’t help but think back to all the crowded areas we were in and how exposed we were without even knowing it. Luckily, we didn’t get sick, but it’s more a reflection on how strange things were at that time and how lucky we were to have one last vacation, one final half marathon race before the world turned inside-out and upside down. In the end, we walked around for a couple of hours that night and then walked back to our hotel. Yes, we were very dull. I had a race in the morning, and I was eager to get some rest and knew even though the race began directly outside the hotel, the anticipation would stop me from getting a full night’s sleep.
Sunday, February 9th – A Fine Day to Run 13.1 Miles
“An American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi Gras in New Orleans.”– Mark Twain
I didn’t get much sleep the night before the race, but that doesn’t usually bother me. Notice I said, “usually,” well, I will come back to that later. Either way, the morning of the race was fantastic. The sky was crisp and blue, and I woke up feeling good. I trained for this half marathon for a couple of months, at least since my last half marathon in October of 2019 at Hersheypark. I felt ready. Roughly thirty-minutes before race time, I headed out the door and through the hotel lobby to the start of the race, which was across the street. I love it when race morning is easy to navigate. A couple of minutes later, I was in my corral and waited for my turn to cross the start line and begin my journey. Just before the “gun” goes off, and we start running, this calm and anticipatory moment is an exciting part of the race. I inch closer to the start, with the energy of the other runners, organizers, and spectators at a fever pitch. Then it’s my turn.
Once we began, I darted out. I did enjoy this half marathon race. Is it in the top 5? Probably not, but Rock n’ Roll half marathons rarely disappoint. The music, the course scenery, and the overall atmosphere are unrivaled. With New Orleans, the course allowed me to see some areas of the city that I had not, and would not, have enough time to explore. According to HalfMarathons.net, the race starts “in downtown New Orleans at the corner of St. Charles and Poydras.” The course then follows “a fast and flat route, which you’ll discover is no surprise, thanks to the fact that much of New Orleans lies at or even below sea level.” As they wrote, and I witnessed, runners proceed on this flat course “from the starting line through the city’s gorgeous Garden District, where many of the city’s true architectural jewels lie, from stately homes to churches and civic buildings.”
For the first few miles of the race, I felt fantastic. The entire race was incredibly flat, with most of it run at an elevation below sea level, so the one thing I didn’t have to worry about was hills. I tried to keep a pretty steady pace. Going too fast has always been my weakness, but instead, I started slow and maintained a comfortable pace with a steady increase in speed as the miles progressed. For the last two-thirds of the race, I felt great keeping my pace and getting water and Gatorade when needed and appropriate. Luckily, the weather was perfect, so I did not overheat, but instead felt cool and knew I could finish this race with comfortability. With no issues, I enjoyed the spectators and sights. As HalfMarathon.net writes, “After the out-and-back along St. Charles — which hits its turnaround point at the northern end of Audubon Park — the course continues in a roughly northeast direction through the city, taking runners up through the French Quarter (where the famed Bourbon Street and the site of Mardi Gras revelry takes place every year) along Decatur Avenue, and then turns left onto Esplanade Avenue. Runners continue in a northwest direction along Esplanade toward New Orleans City Park, where the finish line lies.”
When I finished the race, I felt pretty awesome. I received my finisher medal, which is incredible, and proceeded through the finish area with snacks in hand. At this point, I needed to find the bus pickup area because free shuttles would bring me back to the start of the race, which is where my hotel was, so it was the perfect way to return. In the meantime, my wife was enjoying pastries and coffee from Drip Affogato Bar, which is one of New Orlean’s best coffee shops and cafes, which made me very jealous when I heard about all the goodies she tried. No matter, I found the buses, with some snacks, and proceeded to travel back to downtown New Orleans.
While I had been feeling great after the race, the bus ride home did not make me feel all that great, and in hindsight, I should have had more sleep, more breakfast, and waited before getting on a packed bus that swayed from side to side. By the time I got back to the city, I felt like shit. I mean, I felt motion sickness/seasick. Luckily, my wife is amazing and takes after her mother, who is a nurse. She gave me Dramamine, water and picked me up Willie’s fried chicken, and oh, did that do the trick. It was like magic! I slowly, but eventually, felt incredible. It was a slight blip in what had been a fantastic morning, but with some food and medicine in my tummy, I cleaned up, got dressed, and threw my medal on around my neck to show off my race bling. We proceeded to get a full meal to celebrate my run and explore more of downtown New Orleans.
We had a delicious lunch at Drago’s – Hilton Riverside. Drago’s is a massive place, with an extensive menu appealing to various tastes. I tried the shrimp and grits. It was fantastic. It had the perfect flavors and worked well as a post-race meal. After a couple of hours of eating, drinking, talking and enjoying the calm of the restaurant, my wife and I went for a walk around the French Quarter. We knew we would go back downtown that evening but wanted to spend the rest of the sunlight walking around, but to do so, we needed another cup of coffee. We headed to French Truck Coffee, which has the most incredible coffee. My wife, who is a very particular coffee drinking, loved their iced coffee. With our coffee in hand, we walked and enjoyed as much as we could of New Orleans.
Once we had seen enough, actually once my legs had enough, we headed back to the hotel for a short rest and then an evening in the French Quarter for dinner and drinks. There would be more parades, high-energy activity, so the more rest we got at this point, the better it would be for us later. It was the right choice, as we passed out almost as soon as our heads hit the pillow and slept for what seemed liked hours. My wife and I love to travel, but we need a nap once in a while to make sure we can do what we want.
That night my wife and I walked all around the French Quarter. We explored some side streets, some businesses where activity was high, watched and listened to some of the group tours that walked past us. We admired the unique architecture and different types of drinks that are popular on Bourbon Street. But, like always, we got hungry and needed a place to grab something to eat and fun to drink. We found a cool chic place called Crescent City Brewhouse. As I am a craft beer fan, this seemed a perfect spot. It is the only microbrewery in the French Quarter. The atmosphere of Crescent City was warm, relaxed, and festive. Lucky for us, there was live jazz music performed by a local musician, which allowed us to enjoy our last night in the city with local beer, food, and live music. For a solidly good trip and a fantastic half marathon race that morning, this was a fantastic way to close it out. Oh, did I mention the beer was excellent!
Monday, February 10th – One…No, Two More Breakfasts in NOLA & Return Home
“America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”– Tennessee Williams
The next day, we had an afternoon flight. A later flight allowed us one more opportunity to get breakfast and coffee. First, we headed to French Truck coffee, again, but this time got some food to go along with our delicious iced coffee. Then, once we finished, we headed over to another place for more coffee, and yes, more food. Hey, if this was our last chance to get some coffee in New Orleans, we wanted to fit in more than one establishment. We headed to Congregation Coffee, which was small, but the latte my wife ordered and the regular coffee I ordered had incredible flavors. As I said in a previous blog post, Traveling for Wicked Awesome Coffee, I enjoyed their little alligator “mascot” on the mugs, especially the one with the bowler hat.
Well, after visits to several coffee shops, beautiful areas like the French Quarter and Jackson Square, an inspired WWII Museum, and running a great Rock n’ Roll half marathon series race, my wife and I scheduled an Uber and departed for the airport. If it were not for the half marathon, I am not sure we would have taken the opportunity to travel to the “Big Easy.” While the historical sites were incredible, our walk along Bourbon Street was not for us, even though we enjoyed the energy and excitement, especially now, as the pandemic has made such experiences impossible. I am happy, excited, and thrilled to have signed up for Rock n’ Roll events in Seattle and Savannah for 2021. I am eager to explore those cities, eat fantastic local food, drink wicked awesome coffee, and run another 13.1 miles in each urban environment. For now, I have memories of past “runcations,” like our journey to New Orleans, and thankfully those trips were worthy of remembering. Hopefully, this blog and these posts will serve to inspire others to travel, explore, and run!
Cover Image by mana5280 on Unsplash