When it comes to legends and lore that go beyond the norm, it’s hard to top the doings the “Big Easy” offers for groups. With a history and heritage ranging from voodoo magic to plundering pirates, New Orleans has a colorful and captivating past that can be embraced in myriad ways.
Following is a peek into the history and mystery of New Orleans, and the neighboring parishes of St. Tammany and Jefferson, and how groups can best immerse themselves.
“As you may know, New Orleans is known as America’s Most Haunted City,” says Jenn Lotz, communications and public relations manager for the New Orleans CVB. “And with our history and culture, there is so much for group travelers to experience.”
The city’s “spirited” history is so prevalent, Lotz remarks, that planners even have the option of choosing a hotel block featuring haunted hotels. At the Bourbon Orleans, she says an elderly man smoking a cigar and reading a newspaper is said to haunt the lobby, while the Omni Royal Orleans boasts a supposed 18th century maid who might even tuck you in at night! She also has been known to run a bath and turn the room lights on at odd hours.
But topping the list of haunted hotels is likely the Hotel Monteleone, which has experienced regular ghostly activity for many decades. The spooky doings range from a restaurant door that opens and closes by itself on an almost nightly basis—despite being locked—to an elevator opening on an incorrect floor where guests have then seen the ghosts of young children at play in the corridor. The hotel also offers the lure of a rich literary history, spurred by visits from legendary writers running the gamut from Truman Capote to Ann Rice.
Maybe your group would like some “spirits” with their dinner? Lotz says several local eateries are said to be haunted, including Arnaud’s Restaurant, Muriel’s Restaurant, Brennan’s Restaurant and The Court of Two Sisters.
“So a haunted dine-around is definitely a possibility,” she says.
Taking a tour is an easy way to explore the Big Easy’s eerie side, Lotz adds, including Historic New Orleans Tours and Haunted History Tours. A seasonal option also exists around Halloween, when the Jean Lafitte Swamp Tour takes groups out on the bayou to take in alligators and other wildlife in addition to any pirate ghosts you might happen to spot.
One cool source of tours and other spooky fun is Bloody Mary’s New Orleans Tours, Events and Spirit Encounters. The company organizes ghost hunts, psychic readings, a plethora of paranormal tours, and private events focused on the supernatural. Voodoo fun is on tap as well, ranging from lectures and doll-making to drumming and dancing demos. NewOrleans.com also serves up some top-notch tours sure to instill some chills, including its French Quarter Vampire Tour and Boos and Booze French Quarter Haunting Tour.
Of course, in a city known for its nightlife and tempting taverns, there’s bound to be some watering holes with a taste of the macabre. Among the Big Easy’s best are the Alibi Bar, a late-night favorite with 150 different beers that has seen incidents of knives flying off the bar and into the floor; Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, where ghost sightings have included a seductive woman in an upstairs mirror as well as the spirit of the pirate himself; O’Flaherty’s Irish Channel Pub, with plenty of ghost sightings as well as countless occasions of customers encountering “cold spots”; and The Old Absinthe House, where ghostly gallivanting is said to take place on its own after closing, and chairs and dishes reportedly move around on their own accord in full view of the staff and clientele.
Groups wanting to try a little freelance ghost-hunting of their own will have plenty of choices, particularly with the city’s bevy of above-ground cemeteries serving up some serious spookiness. An area near the intersection of Canal Street and Park Avenue known as the Deathly Portal (due to 13 neighboring cemeteries) has been a hauntings hotbed, with witnesses having reported countless spirit sightings and even full-blown ghostly funeral processions.
Setting aside time for a cemetery stop is a unique way to experience New Orleans, and 42 “Cities of the Dead”—as they are often referred to locally—dot the community. One of the best graveyards for a group outing is Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery, the city’s largest. It shows off gorgeously crafted tombs, eye-catching garden areas and sculptures as tall as 85 feet.
If your group might appreciate an eerie event, late October showcases the Voodoo Music Experience, a Halloween-themed festival that has grown from a one-day concert to a three-day affair featuring top national acts. Held in City Park, this year’s version will take place Oct. 28-30 and feature such big names as Green Day and Neil Young & Crazy Horse.
Of course, the city’s heritage is a fascinating one even for groups eschewing the ghostly fun, and one of the best group experiences is the National WWII Museum. Already a bastion of excellent exhibits and interactivity, the complex will shine even brighter following a $300 million expansion project slated for completion in 2015 and expected to quadruple its size. But the attraction is already beyond worthwhile, with two throwback restaurants that look to update classics of Americana; some amazing rental venues; and private tours that take groups behind the scenes to view rarely seen artifacts and the collection’s vault.
“Guests who experience an event at The National WWII Museum know that it is going to be special the moment they enter,” says Peter Boese, associate vice president of travel and conferences for the museum. “It is hard to match a place so grand, with its emotional history and strong mementos from the past. It’s a great group venue in the heart of New Orleans’ trendy Warehouse District.”
Another great stop for historical exploration is Jackson Square, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960, and an ideal spot for people-watching and taking in the frequent live musical performances.
Neighboring Jefferson Parish is home to the supposedly haunted Huey P. Long Bridge, as well as some sites of quirky historical intrigue. One of the best ways to savor the lore and legend of the area is simply by taking an excursion to the Town of Jean Lafitte, named for the infamous pirate who called the region home.
The historic fishing village hosts a tourist information center that’s among the best of its kind, with a new Fisheries Museum, swamp tours, a nature study center and even a unique display of animatronic marionettes telling the tale of the famous pirate’s life.
Another intriguing historical outing involves checking out the remains of Fort Livingston on Grand Isle. The island’s fascinating past includes serving as the home base for Lafitte and his band of pirates and as a U.S. coastal defense fort.
ST. TAMMANY PARISH
Also known as “Lousiana’s Northshore,” St. Tammany Parish is about a 45-minute drive from New Orleans but a world away with its rural setting. According to LaDana Williams, director of marketing for the St. Tammany Parish Tourist Commission, there is a trio of ways for groups to experience the area’s intriguing past—including the vibrant and varied Abita Mystery House in little Abita Springs.
“It’s a very eclectic collection, and certainly not your typical museum,” Williams says, referring to the funky compound of connected buildings bursting at the seams with art and collectibles gathered over the past century.
Even more mysterious is the Honey Island Swamp, which has a trio of outfitters offering outings from the town of Slidell. Tours highlight the bucolic nature in addition to the local folklore, including tales of an oft-spotted creature known as “the thing” that may be part of the bigfoot family.
“Swamp tours are very popular and we even have three different outfitters providing them,” Williams says. “Tour guides share plenty of folktales along the way, including stories of swamp monsters and other local legends.”
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