August 2009

Beignet machine at Cafe Du Monde. Flour is put through the rollers and cut into squares.

Beignet machine at Cafe Du Monde. Flour is put through the rollers and cut into squares.

On my last day in New Orleans, I decided to get out of the French Quarter area for a bit and head over to the museum district to visit the WWII museum that several people recommended to me. On the way over, I stopped for another tasty beignet breakfast over at Cafe du Monde’s riverwalk location. At that location, I was able to watch barges go up and down the Mississippi river. I also watched beignets getting made, as the machine and the fryer is located next to the order counter behind a window.

The WWII museum had a lot of interesting films and displays about the war. One of my favorite displays included war propaganda and posters. Some of the propaganda included a US comic about how to tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese people and how the Japanese portrayed the US in their media. The blatant racism shown by both sides was shocking but par for the course at that time in history. Some of the other displays included first-hand accounts by people living during the war, interactive maps that showed the major battles of the war and actual planes used at the time. Overall, the museum was a good way to learn not only about WWII, but also the role that the state of Louisiana played in it.

One of several warplanes on display at the museum.

One of several warplanes on display at the museum.

After the museum, I decided to head back over to the Central World Market to get a muffaletta. Unfortunately, I failed to check what days they were opened the first time around and was foiled again in my efforts to get a muff as they were closed on Mondays too.

So I went over to Pat O’Brien’s instead and got their tasty foccacia muffuletta and a glass of New Orlean’s signature drink- the hurricane.

After lunch, it was time to get my bag from the hotel and head over to the airport. The co-worker that I was helping out was gracious enough to give me a lift to the airport. Otherwise, taking a taxi or using the airport shuttle service would have been my other options. The Louis Armstrong International Airport is one of the smaller airports that I’ve been through. It has two runways and most US airlines provide connections from New Orleans to their respective hubs. The advantage of the airport’s smaller size is that getting through security was a breeze. I was through as quickly as I could get my bag on the belt. There’s not a lot of stores or restaurants past security in the B terminal, but that wasn’t an issue for me as my Southwest flight was leaving in an hour anyway.

The flight home was quite light- only 23 passengers on a plane normally designed for 137 people (and I suspect will be

Pat OBrien Hurricane

Pat O'Brien's Hurricane

the lightest load I’ll see this year).

Overall, the trip was amazing. The food alone is worth the visit. The history, the music and the Mardi Gras spirit gives the city a unique culture that can’t be found anywhere else. If I get the chance to return again, I would dine at places I didn’t have time for this trip. I would also go down to the Garden district and maybe take a cruise down the river. And even though the city will be mobbed during Mardi Gras, it would fun to be there with all the people and see the parades.

Laissez les bon temps roulez!

Cafe Du Monde Beignets

Cafe Du Monde Beignets

The number one thing I think of when I think of New Orleans is the cuisine there. From creole to cajun to seafood dishes, there’s a wonderful variety of dishes to choose from. And the number one food item that I wanted to try during the trip was some beignets from Cafe du Monde. So on Sunday morning, I took a stroll down Decauter Street to the cafe. When I got there, the place was already hopping at 8:30 in the morning. Almost every table was taken, and as soon as one came free, it was quickly claimed by someone. I managed to get a table fairly quickly and soon had an order of beignets and a cafe au lait before me. The beignets were drowning in powdered sugar. It’s pretty much impossible not to eat one without getting some of the white stuff on you (and really, that’s half the fun of eating one).  After brushing off all the sugar, I headed over to visit the National Park Service (NPS) office.

National Park Ranger talking about New Orleans

National Park Ranger talking about New Orleans

The NPS has several parks in and around New Orleans. One of the free activities that they offer is a morning walking tour that goes from Decauter St. to the riverwalk area and back over to Jackson Square. Along the way, the ranger talks about the history of the area and points out various places of interest. I found the hourlong tour informative and it served as a nice introduction to the city for me. After the tour, I just walked around the French Quarter for a few hours, visiting places like the old US Mint, Louis Armstrong Park, the French Market and Jackson Square. I did try to stop by the Central World Market for a muffuleta, but they were closed on Sunday. So I headed over to the Gumbo Shop instead to get some tasty chicken and sausage gumbo and shrimp jamabalaya.

After lunch, I wandered down to the riverwalk and took the free ferry across the Mississippi river to Algeirs Point. There really isn’t much to see on that side of the river, but it was a good spot to really look at the city skyline. I also found the area where many Mardi Gras floats used to be built and stored at.

The evening was the highlight of the day for me. My uncle had recommended going to a place called Preservation Hall to hear some good jazz music. The hall itself is quite small and doesn’t offer things you might find in a jazz bar like drinks or dancing space. Instead, the goal of the hall as it’s stated on the website is to “welcom[e] people of all ages interested in having one of the last pure music experiences left on the earth.”

And that is exactly what it was. The doors to the hall opened at 8pm, and when I got there at 8:10 it was nearly full.

The Preservation Hall Band

The Preservation Hall Band

The band that night was going to do three shows of 45 minutes each, separated by 15-minute intermissions. I ended up staying for all three shows. It was a completely immersive experience for me. I had gotten a spot on the floor front and center of the band, so I could watch them work their instruments and hear all their comments. Many of the band members had been playing for several and the leader of the band jokeily introduced most of the songs as “songs that had been played around the city for many, many years”. The band was made up of a saxaphonist, pianest, trumpet/clarinet player, bass, drum, and a vocalist. During some of the later performances, an elderly man in a dashing gold suit would come up and sing and dance to the songs as well.

But the most fun moments came from a 92-year-old woman sitting near the front of the stage. I don’t know what her story was, but she was completely into the music. I got the impression that she may have been in a jazz band in the past. I’m not sure what was more fun- watching the band, or watching her watch the band. She would often close her eyes and sing along or tap her foot to the beat.

Alas, the show had to end evetually. So I headed back to my hotel by walking down Bourbon St. one more time. And ended up getting hit in the head by flying beads. Only in New Orleans.

Stay tuned for Day 3 and the conclusion tomorrow!

Two weeks ago, I had no plans whatsoever for any fun travels or adventures for this past weekend. That all changed with a phone call. A former co-worker who was moving to New Orleans and needed someone who would be willing to drive a car 645 miles from Orlando to New Orleans. It was an opportunity I couldn’t resist. Sure, it meant making a long drive, but it also meant finally going to one of the cities on my 5 list of U.S. cities that I want to visit (right after Chicago, New York City and Portland).

So on Saturday I hopped in the car and made the drive to the Crescent City. The drive itself was easy. Traffic was light on I-10, and I listened to NPR and various comedy CDs along the way. I also stopped and visited a friend I knew in Pensacola. The trip took about 11 hours and I saw the high rises of New Orleans at sunset.

After dropping off the car I went to the Baronne Plaza Hotel.  The hotel is located just one block over from the French Quarter and two blocks down from Bourbon Street. It’s not associated with any hotel chains, so no stay points. But I did get the second night 50% off by booking it through The hotel itself is quite nice- the rooms are neat and well-maintained. The staff was the highlight of the hotel- they were always friendly to me and never failed to greet me whenever I walked through the lobby. The only downside of the hotel is that it’s undergoing some renovations that will not be completed until November. But I didn’t notice any construction noise while I was in my room, and the hotel kept the noise limited to daytime hours to minimize disruptions to guests.

Acme Oyster House

Once I checked into my room for the evening and dropped my luggage off, it was time to hit the town and find some dinner. My former co-worker had mentioned Drago’s or the Acme Oyster House as good spots to get tasty

chargrilled oysters. I chose Acme as it was closer to the hotel. Less then three minutes after leaving my hotel I heard a jazz melody being played and saw people dancing in the street. I had come upon the first of many jazz bands that I would see playing around town.

Acme’s already had a line out the door with people waiting to go in- usually a good sign to me that it’s worth the wait.

So I got in line and ended up getting into a conversation with a couple from Ft. Worth, TX. Like me, they were also making a last-minute trip to the city just to see the place. We ordered the oysters as an appetizer and they were delicious. They had a nice grilled Parmesan flavor to them. I also had their “Fried Peace Maker” po-boy, which has fried shrimp and oysters with a Tabasco-infused mayo. Spicy and very tasty. I’m normally not a big fried food fan, but they did a very nice job with seasoning

and breading the seafood just right.

After dinner, I took a walk down Bourbon St.

Oh. My. Goodness. My first thought was that I had stumbled onto the world’s longest bar crawl. Every other person walking down the street was holding either a bright green hand grenade drink or had beer in clear plastic cups.

Bourbon Street at Night

Bourbon Street

People on the balcony were tossing beads at strangers. Loud techno music from the dance clubs clashed with the jazz music from the swing clubs. Promoters stood on the street and beckoned to anyone who looked their way to come into their club. Strippers stood quietly at the entrances to their cabraret clubs to lure customers in. It was easy to tell Bourbon Street from the other ones around the area- all the buildings had brightly lit neon signs and lights that separated it from the dark alleys of the other streets. I didn’t go into any clubs the first night- I just walked up and down and took it all in. The street was quite busy for a Saturday night on a weekend with no major event going on. I suspect that if Mardi Gras or Jazzfast had been going on, the street would be packed shoulder-to-shoulder with humanity.

As I got to the end of the street, the noise and the faitgue of the day’s drive finally got to me and I headed back to the hotel. I went to bed dreaming of beignets.

Stay tuned for Day 2’s report tomorrow.

As has been reported in numerous blogs and news sites already, JetBlue is offering a deal where from Sept. 8 to Oct. 8, you can fly as much as you want if you buy a pass for $599. The nice thing about the pass is that there’s not a lot of restrictions. The big ones are that you have to book 3 days in advance and that you can’t fly from the same city twice in one day. There’s also no additional taxes or fees for the flights that you take unless you fly to an international destination. Also, if you already have JetBlue flights booked during the pass period, the cost of those flights can be used towards the $599 cost.

Even if you can only use the pass on the weekends, it’s still a great deal since a domestic round-trip fare can easily be $150 or more.  And if you are free most of the month and can fly during the week, Will of the Strategy blog wrote a great post on how to maximize the number of flights that you can take.

If it wasn’t for the fact that I was already travelling for 3 of the 4 weekends, I would seriously consider doing this. Orlando (along with Boston; New York’s JFK; Long Beach; Washington-Dulles and Ft. Lauderdale) are hubs or focus cities for JetBlue, so most of their flights originate from those cities, so I would have had a lot of flight options. It would have also been a good way to see some new states and countries that I haven’t been to yet.

The reason that JetBlue is offering this pass is because September is their lowest month for bookings, so they are trying to increase the number of people flying. They’ve never offered this pass before and they haven’t made any suggestion that they will do it again in the future. I suspect that they probably won’t, since the recession has driven down demand for travel. Once the economy rebounds, they will most likely see demand rise again to pre-recession levels and won’t need to offer great deals like this to get people on planes. So if your schedule allows it, take advantage of this and go  have some fun.

If you are planning to take a weekend trip before the end of September and haven’t booked your travel yet, there’s a great deal being offered through Expedia right now. The deal comes in the form of a $200 off coupon when you use the “flight+hotel” option on Expedia and pick a Intercontinental Hotel Group hotel to stay at. IHG hotels include Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Staybridge Suites and a few other brands.

On the last page of the booking process, there’s a spot to enter in the promo code- 200IHG. If the package value is more then $200, not including taxes and fees, then you will get a $200 discount. This means that you can conceivably book a $250 package and pay only $50 for it (since most taxes and fees seem to be in the $50 range).

The code has to be used by end of August and the trip must be completed by the end of September. Also, only one code can be used per person/credit card. So if there’s several people that want to get in on this deal, each person will have to book it on their own.

The challenging part about this promo is finding hotels that the promo works with since not all IHG hotels are participating. There is a thread on the Slickdeals forum that lists some of the hotels that are and are not participating. Cities that are close to wherever you’re flying out from will generally result in cheaper packages overall since the airfare won’t be as expensive.

It took several dummy bookings in cities like Chicago, Portland and Seattle before I found a nice deal in New York City using the Holiday Inn by Newark airport. Through the promo I was able to get a package deal that cost $130- $79 less then the $209 price of the airfare alone.

The only problem with the package deal is that I didn’t actually want to stay in a hotel all the way out in Newark. No problem- you don’t have to use both the hotel and the airfare portion of the deal. You can use only the part you want and throw away the other part. So for my trip I booked another hotel in the city. It means I’ll have two hotel reservations at the same time, but ironically it’s cheaper to do it that way.

In fact, I was able to save $35/night on my second hotel reservation by booking through They don’t charge any fees for booking through their website and also don’t charge any fees for cancelling a reservation (the hotel may charge a fee if it’s past their deadline to cancel). For most hotels, Quikbooks doesn’t even charge for the room until you check out. So it’s a great way to hold a room without having to commit to a deposit up front. They also offer rates lower then what most hotels are offering and have a best rate guarantee. The downside of the site is that they focus mostly on major cities in the US, so it may be hard to find something if you’re going to a small town.

So if you’re thinking of going on a fall getaway, now is the time to book it. The Expedia promo has already appeared in several travel deal forums and blogs, so the inventory availible may disappear soon.

If you’re able to use this promo, let me know. I’m curious to see what deals people are finding with it.

The aquarium's large viewing window.

The aquarium's large viewing window.

Last weekend I was in Atlanta to spend time with family. As part of the trip, we decided to go visit the Georgia Aquarium. Ever since the aquarium opened in 2005, I’ve been wanting to go see the “world’s largest aquarium”. It has 8.1 million gallons of water holding more then 100,000 animals of 500 different species. They also have several species rarely seen in captivity, like whale sharks, a manta ray and hammerhead sharks.

The first thing visitors walk into is a large lobby that has a food court and entrances to the five different zones of the aquarium. Each zone features animals in different environments like cold water; the tropics; rivers; oceans and local animals found in Georgia. Each zone features tanks with various critters; plus interactive exhibits like touchscreen displays and touch tanks where people can put their hands into shallow pools and feel various critters.

The highlight of the aquarium is the huge viewing tank in the “Ocean Explorer” section. The tank has the whale sharks and the manta ray. It also has a very large panoramic window that is over two stories tall and two feet thick and an underwater viewing tunnel. With all the Plexiglas around, it was easy to view the magnificent creatures. The aquarium provides a viewing guide that visitors can pick up at the entrance and carry around so they can identify various creatures. It’s a small feature, but it’s more useful then looking at guides on the wall. Besides the large tank, the aquarium includes a display about what it took to transport the whales from Japan to the US. It involved a 747, an 36-hour trip (18 hours by air) and many staff to get them safely over. The Georgia Aquarium is the only place outside of Asia where whale sharks can be seen in captivity.

One of my other favorite exhibits was seeing the beluga whales. The last time I saw beluga whales was in Stanley Park in Vancouver, BC. So it was fun to see the playful creatures again. They were the most active creatures in the aquarium, constantly swimming and playing with each other. Another highlight was the touch tanks. It was wonderful being able to feel the gentle sucking of anemones, the rubbery skin of a shark and the scrabbling legs of shrimps.

The aquarium is not perfect though. At the time I was visiting, the aquarium was filled with lots of people including small children. The large number of people sometimes made it hard to get close to tanks and all the chatter created quite a din at times. I suspect that the aquarium would be less crowded when school is in session.

Even with the crowds, the aquarium is worth a visit. If you do plan to come, you may want to wait until November 2010 as a new dolphin exhibit will be opening at that time.

Whale sharks in the Ocean Explorer exhibit

Whale sharks in the Ocean Explorer exhibit

It’s easy to make a day out of visiting the aquarium and the rest of downtown Atlanta. My aquarium visit lasted about 3 hours, but it would be easy to spend more time there. The World of Coke is right next door and both buildings border Centennial Olympic Park. The CNN Center is also nearby, and the light rail system called MARTA provides access to most of the Atlanta area.