The last thing I expected to discover, at brunch, was my new favourite band. But over delicious egg ravioli topped with wild mushrooms and braised rabbit, the psychedelic sound of Sweet Crude filled the air.
“Oh, wow, they are so gooooood…,” I said to myself.
“They are, aren’t they? The way the yolk oozes out is just beautiful,” the chatty Caucasian woman beside me remarked, smacking her lips at the scrumptious gourmet creation before us.
Uh, yeah, that too. But I was actually referring to the local indie rock group on stage.
From the clattering drums that weaved through the upbeat songs to the clever interpolation of harmonies between the vocalists, Sweet Crude was an absolute musical riot. Not your most conventional act at a press brunch, though.
Then again, I was in New Orleans, an American city in Louisiana not exactly known for being subdued or quiet.
Several blocks away from the nearly century-old Orpheum Theater – where my new Spotify obsession performed – is the famous Bourbon Street, where tourists traipsing in drunken stupor late at night are a familiar sight.
Venture in the opposite direction from the night life hotspot, and you can expect to be ambushed by street musicians performing an extensive jazz catalogue at the French Quarter.
Here in the “Big Easy” – or Nola, as the city’s hip young crowd calls it – having a good time is a 24/7 affair. It’s something that Clarence, a middle-aged African-American man with a booming voice, mentioned in our shuttle from the Louis Armstrong International Airport.
“The people of New Orleans might not know everything, but we know how to have fun!” my jovial driver bellowed as we drove along Canal Street to my hotel.
The feel-good vibe in this city is so infectious, it’s almost electric. Less than 24 hours after checking in, I’m shuffling my feet to a Lady Gaga jam – a dozen neon-coloured beads coiled around my neck – at a parade right in front of the hotel.
In town for the IPW 2016 travel trade show, a chunk of my working holiday was spent at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Initially, I had reservations about having the time to explore the city.
But New Orleans is a place where both business and pleasure can be done in equal measure. How can you tell? Right next to the convention centre is The Outlet Collection at Riverwalk – the nation’s first outlet centre in a downtown setting – where I made one trip too many to the Gap outlet.
It helps that most of the attractions are located a stone’s throw from the central business district. That’s how compact New Orleans is as a metropolis.
One moment I was enjoying beignets (fritters) at the 24-hour Cafe Du Monde (go early morning or late at night to avoid the crowd), and the next I was at the entrance of a voodoo museum.
I arrived at the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum at Dumaine Street, with about 15 minutes to spare before it closed at 6pm.
“It’s five dollars to enter, but I’ll make it three since I have to kick you out soon,” the woman in oversized glasses at the reception said grimly.
To be fair, you don’t need a long time to explore the museum as it has only three rooms.
Despite its humble setting, the venue is surprisingly informative, with insightful descriptions about voodoo artefacts and portraits of renowned practitioners such as Marie Laveau.
But seeing dolls with pins stuck into them as well as paintings of half-naked devotees dancing under the moonlight gave me goosebumps. It didn’t help that I accidentally bumped into a low-lying ceremonial stool with an ominous DO NOT SIT sign. Within 10 minutes of browsing around, I was out of the establishment and into the sunny June outdoors.
The museum isn’t the only place where you can get your supernatural fix.
There are a couple of voodoo speciality shops – run by practitioners – located within the French Quarter, with modest displays.
Entry is free but photography is strictly prohibited, with warnings about bad juju for rule breakers. Do bring some salt to ward off evil spirits, not so much to sprinkle on your meals. The food here, from gumbo to crawfish, is seasoned just right.
While one can explore New Orleans on foot, it’s nice to cruise along the Mississippi River and see the city. There are a few tours available but they cover similar trails.
I opted for the Steamboat Natchez riverboat cruise, mainly because it touts itself as New Orlean’s only authentic steamboat. Departing from the shores of the French Quarter, the two-hour journey capitalises on history with a narrative about life on the river in the 1960s.
The steamboat passes the Chalmette Battlefield where the legendary Jean Lafitte defended the city against the British in the Battle of New Orleans. There’s also some commentary on buildings devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Board early, buy an ice cream and choose a seat on the deck on the left side of the boat. That’s where you’ll get the best views of the city’s skyline.
Having watched American Horror Story: Coven, I was lured by the mysterious swamps and bayous.
So, I decided to escape the city and go on an hour’s tour of one of Louisiana’s many swamps. If you’re tight on time, I wouldn’t recommend doing this. Despite an exciting showcase of alligator feeding, the rest of the five-hour-long excursion is uneventful and I often yearned for the metropolis’ energy.
That’s what New Orleans does to you. Once you’ve experienced the city’s colourful vibe, you wouldn’t want to leave.
And as the coach made its way back to the CBD, the call of good times grew louder.
This media trip was sponsored by the US Embassy Kuala Lumpur and IPW.