About half an hour West of Miramar Beach, Florida is the city of Niceville. Before we’d left on our vacation, my dear friend had told me about this place, and we’d prognosticated all kinds of lovely scenarios for Niceville. I had imagined a place something like the fictional Stepford or Smallville, and was fully prepared to see cute little cookie-cutter houses in muted pastel colours standing neatly in rows.
If these are your ideas of Niceville, expunge them immediately. Niceville is a city, not a town. Like all cities, it is ranging and diverse. There are some beautiful areas, houses on the bay, green leafy suburbs. And there are also less salubrious areas, where you try not to meet anyone’s eye, you drive straight through, and you reflect on how much like a set on Zombieland it is.
We stopped only long enough to take a quick photo of me in front of the town sign. It wasn’t until we got home and I was going through the photos that I even noticed the intriguing by-line: Home of the Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival.
I like to imagine that Niceville has an annual festival of 80s hair, people dressed in black tight-fitting jeans and checked shirts, looking all business-at-the-front and raging-party-at-the-back. I know it’s actually an annual seafood and arts festival, but I still like to imagine Billy Ray Cyrus look-alike contestants wandering the streets in semi-organised gangs.
Straight after taking the photo, we hopped back in the car and headed for New Orleans.
New Orleans (or Nawhlins if you’re trying to fit in) is a sexy city with stinky armpits. Its French accented sultriness lures you in, but you can’t avoid the manky debauchery of Bourbon Street. You quickly realise that Bourbon Street is a circus, performance art put on by the tourists for the tourists, a place where the mores of society are suspended. This is not the place the nearby residents seek refuge. If you want those, go just a few streets parallel or perpendicular to Bourbon St and you’ll find delightful little hole-in-the-wall pubs, tucked away on quieter streets, harbouring shell-shocked locals, sheltering from the manic onslaught of out-of-town visitors.
Our stop over in New Orleans included the obligatory breakfast at Cafe du Monde for coffee and beignets. It was, as always, crowded, with a line of people waiting for tables to be free. This, despite the thunder storm and the torrential showers. But it’s worth waiting for a free table to experience the wonderful warm sugary delight of a beignet in the morning. They come in threes on saucers, and are covered in an avalanche of powdered sugar. The coffee’s hot and strong, and the hot chocolates are good. On a morning when the heavens decided to open to monsoon-like rains, those little squares of doughy sweetness were the source of much joy.
This time we also ventured into the French Market. We didn’t have a chance to see it last time we were in NOLA (that’s New Orleans, Louisiana for those not in the know), so it was a delight to explore it this time around.
The French Market is further along Decatur Street, northeast from Cafe du Monde. To get there, you walk past Cafe du Monde and the string of touristy shops along the street. These are pirates’ treasure caves brimming with all the kitschy glitz intrinsic to their ilk. Their siren song lured me in to the murky depths and I was sunk. I did exercise phenomenal restraint, however, limiting my purchase to just one silver tray embossed with a fleur-de-lis, eschewing the many gilt-edged, lurid coloured tea sets that called to me.
Past the rag-tag stores selling African carvings, Rastafarian bags, and assorted delights, lies the Arc de French Market, beckoning tantalisingly. Inside the arch lies a covered market, stalls stretching in rows, vendors clamouring for space. The place assaults every sense and can be overwhelming. Here, the Steampunk sculptor with his top hat and waxed moustache appraises the folk art of the woman who paints on bark. There, the Oyster shuckers hock their wares, tempting passers by to sit at the bar and have their oysters shucked (what noise annoys an oyster? A noisy noise annoys an oyster). The smell of the sea assaults your nostrils as you pass. The noises of people, revving coffee machines, and shifting goods combine seductively with the competing smells of cooking food, human beings, old jewellery, musty Mardi Gras masks, and moth-balled clothes to emulate a migraine hell.
The food joints just inside the entrance offer an eclectic collection of Louisiana cuisine. Everything from gator bites, to fresh shucked oysters at an oyster bar, to gumbo, to crab cake po’ boys and more. Like hungry hobbits preparing for second breakfast, we scoured them all for the one that would be exactly right for us, finally deciding on the crab cake variety on offer at the Heart Cafe. Voted “Best in City”, they really do have wonderful crab cakes, but it’s the service that’s really what will bring me back. The beautiful lady who runs the place makes you feel like you are the most important person in the entire world. She’s old fashioned, down to earth, and boy! can she cook.
The food’s fabulous, the service is excellent, and the ambience is pure Nawhlins. We sat at tables near the cafe (which has bar seating), in front of a French Market advertising wall that optimistically proclaims history made fresh daily.
After eating our fill of delicious crab cakes, we waddled back to the car and set off for home.
About an hour and a half into our drive, we hit Baton Rouge (which we went through on our way to Florida). It was our last opportunity to stop at an Acme Oyster House for grilled oysters, and we couldn’t possibly leave Louisiana without stopping in. So in we oinked for lunch. One dozen grilled oysters each (yes, EACH) later, we waddled out again and set off for home once more.