Hello Travel Lovers!
Last night/this morning we returned from 6 days in New Orleans a.k.a. NOLA, where we enjoyed the 20th Annual Essence Music Festival. Every year, Essence Magazine and their bevvy of major sponsors bring together musicians, celebrities and inspiring speakers for 4 days of concerts, exhibits, empowerment seminars, panels, parties and fun. The event attracts thousands of people from all over the country, and I’ve wanted to attend for years. Once this year’s musical headliner (Prince) was announced, I KNEW I had to be there and immediately purchased tickets. It was also a nice way to surprise Mr. B with a birthday gift to see his all-time favorite artist.
My goal with this post is two-fold: to provide my Essence recap while providing tips for those who plan to attend in the future. We had an amazing time, but I would certainly do things a little differently in the future, if/when we go again.
BVB Tip #1: Get to New Orleans EARLY
If at all possible, try to arrive to New Orleans before the Essence events begin. This year, the festivities got underway on Thursday July 3 with Family Day and free concerts in Woldenberg Riverfront Park. We flew in on Wednesday, which gave us a chance to enjoy the city before the masses arrived. Wednesday evening we had dinner at a local favorite, Mother’s Restaurant, and there was NO line. That is practically unheard of. We walked over to Bourbon Street afterwards, which was active but not packed. We enjoyed a couple of the live bands and introduced our friends to Hand Grenades at Tropical Isle before walking back to the hotel. Arriving early will give you a chance to explore the city a bit and do some of the “touristy” things that will become a bit harder once 500,000 of your friends get to town.
BVB Tip #2: Choose Your Lodging CAREFULLY
There are a plethora of hotels in New Orleans, giving travelers many options when choosing accommodations. Although NOLA is a pedestrian-friendly city, you really need to determine how far you really want to walk. We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn – Convention Center on South Peters St. Our hotel was one block from the Ernest Muriel Convention Center, where most of the daily Festival events took place. Although this was extremely convenient, we were a mile from Bourbon Street and 1.5 miles from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome (where the nightly concerts were held). If you’re planning to party all weekend, stay closer to the French Quarter. If you’re more into the Empowerment Series and events at the Convention Center, our hotel’s location (Warehouse District) was perfect. If you’re planning to attend concerts all three nights, you’ll want to be conveniently close to the Superdome. To be right smack in the middle, look for a hotel in the Central Business District – perhaps on/near Poydras St. And I’d recommend finding one with free breakfast!
BVB Tip #3: Pack Comfortable Shoes
Regardless of where you stay, expect to walk. A LOT. New Orleans is a pedestrian city, and although taxis are available en masse, expect to pay $5 flat rate per person from your hotel to the Superdome. Oh, and good luck finding a cab after the concerts end. Friday night, post-Prince, we were stuck in a horde of humanity and almost EVERYONE was looking for transportation. We ended up walking back to the hotel…1.5 miles in my heels. I didn’t make that mistake again; I brought flats with me for the other two nights. I recognize that it can be challenging to be practical AND cute at the same time: The Superdome will allow you to bring in a larger sized bag, so throw your comfy shoes in there in case you want to rock your heels to the concerts. The trolleys run until late, so if you are fortunate enough to stay on/near the trolley line, you can purchase a day pass for $3 and ride unlimited. In preparation for your trip to NOLA, either factor transportation into your spending budget or bring shoes with nice insoles.
Speaking of which: cute sandals are just that…cute…but not practical for walking long distances on concrete. Make sure your footwear has some sort of cushion or you will pay the price. Each day I clocked in over 11,000 steps, with the max being 15,649 on Saturday. Your feet will take a beating, so choose wisely.
BVB Tip #4: Bring an APPETITE
This tip just goes for New Orleans in general. It’s a city known for its cuisine, and you’ll want to take full advantage of ALL of it. Don’t expect to find a lot of vegetables in your exploration. Fried catfish, gumbo, jambalaya, bread pudding, shrimp po-boys, crab cakes, frozen drinks, hand grenades, hurricanes, beignets….you might need to physically roll yourself out of New Orleans at the end of the weekend. Good thing you’ll be walking 15,000 steps in your good shoes; they offset!
During our weekend we dined at Mother’s (as previously mentioned), Oceana Grill, Deanie’s Seafood, Cafe du Monde, Warehouse Grille, as well as some other quick places along the way. Between the Convention Center and getting ready for the concerts, we didn’t have much time for sit-down dinners, which was regrettable.
BVB Tip #5: Bring TWO Outfits per Day
You will change clothes. A lot. After our Thursday trip to the riverfront, we were drenched with sweat. Although we didn’t have solid plans that night, we all went back to the room to shower and change clothes. The July heat in New Orleans is punishing. Besides the heat, you’ll find that the daytime events have a different vibe than the concerts. So you’ll want to be comfy during the day and dressed at night. We saw a variety of styles during the concerts, from completely casual to “Dressed to Impress”…but a lot more of the latter.
BVB Tip #6: Prepare to Stand in LOTS of Lines
Listen, 550,000 people came to New Orleans for Essence this year. That is a LOT of people. And we were all going to the same events. The Essence Festival events at the Convention Center are free and open to the public, so they draw a large crowd. This year’s major sponsors were Coca-Cola, Walmart, State Farm, Verizon, MSNBC, McDonald’s, Ford, and My Black is Beautiful..and they were ALL giving out free goodies. So the lines were extremely long. There were celebrity meet-and-greets; the lines were long. Lines were long for food. For the women’s bathroom. For drinks. For entry into events. You really have to bring a chunk of patience with you to have a good time. No one warned me about the lines, so they really caught me off-guard. I’ll know for next time!
BVB Tip #7: Have Your Camera Ready!! (And make sure it has a nice ZOOM)
There are plenty of celebrities milling about this Festival; it’s a huge draw every year. Essence released a mobile app which outlined the concert lineup and scheduled celebrity appearances at the Convention Center, but it was by no means all encompassing. Especially during the day. We would be walking through the Convention Center and hear women screaming; that was the clear sign that there was celebrity in our midst. They popped up on the Center Stage, at the Wal-Mart area, State Farm..wherever..and there was really no central location to find out who was appearing when. We stumbled upon a concert by 90’s R&B group Next, a relationship Q&A with Boris Kodjoe and his wife Nicole Ari Parker, a panel featuring Anthony Anderson, Ludacris and Laz Alonso…literally, we had no idea that these things were happening ahead of schedule. I had my iPhone ready to snap pics, but I sure did miss my point-and-shoot with the 12x zoom feature. 😦 (Our DSLR camera didn’t have enough zoom to get good shots)
BVB Tip #8: Main Stage versus Superlounges
One of the biggest and most welcome challenges of the Essence Music Festival was the concert line-up. You have your mainstage performers (i.e. Prince, Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige, etc) and four “Superlounges” throughout the 200-level concourse that also feature artists..at the SAME TIME. Thank goodness for the app, which gave us the schedule for each performance and allowed us to choose wisely. Some of the choices were easy – Friday night, we never left the main arena…while others proved a bit more challenging (Charlie Wilson [who I’ve seen twice but always delivers] versus Raheem DeVaughn). The Superlounges offer a more intimate, standing room only experience. The performances are scheduled until the headliner appears on the main stage. You WILL make sacrifices if two artists that you enjoy appear at the same time…so be ready.
BVB Tip #9: Leave on Monday (or later…)
In some ways, this one is a no-brainer. If you plan to attend ALL of the nightly concerts, then the final concert is on Sunday night. You’ll have to book your return flight for Monday morning or later. We left on Monday night, which gave us another non-Essence day to enjoy New Orleans. We considered booking a tour, but opted to just wing it instead. The airport will be hectic on Monday, so if you can afford to leave on Tuesday, you’ll miss the crowds and have more time to relax and enjoy NOLA.
BVB Tip #10: Visit Frenchmen Street
Everyone knows about Bourbon Street, and the masses will flock there on a daily basis. It’s got a ton of personality, but it’s also crowded, noisy, and can be a bit…smelly…as the night wears on. I love the live bands and atmosphere for the most part, and would definitely tell you to stop through at least once during the Festival. That being said, Bourbon Street will be packed. I’d been to NOLA once before on a non-event weekend and really enjoyed myself on Bourbon St. This time around, the crowds were a bit overwhelming. So as an alternative on Saturday night, we grabbed a cab and headed over to Frenchmen Street, which is much less crowded and offers live music and bars until 4 am. You won’t find Hand Grenades here, but you’ll find a much more relaxed atmosphere. Since we arrived so late (2 am), we only visited one club: Maison. Normally the clubs have no cover, but for that night, our intended destination (Blue Nile) was charging $5. New Orleans will spoil you – cover charges are unheard of! – which is how we ended up at Maison. If you stroll up and down Frenchmen Street at an earlier time, you’ll find restaurants, art galleries and tons of live music. The Spotted Cat Club is the top ranked club in NOLA and is located on Frenchmen. I definitely plan to spend more time here when we return.
BVB Tip #11: Have FUN!!!
Essence is an incredible event, filled to the brim with activities. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the schedule, and I found myself not wanting to miss anything. But you will. There’s no way to be at everything at once. If you buy tickets to a day party, then you’ll miss something at the Convention Center. If you don’t give yourself an exploration day before or after the Festival and want to go sightseeing, then you’ll again miss the Convention Center events. You can’t go wrong, really..this is your vacation and you can tailor it however you desire. As long as you’re having a blast, nothing else really matters!
This weekend has left me with some wonderful memories. Prince popped out during Janelle Monae and Nile Rodgers‘ sets, and then performed a slew of his hits for 2 1/2 hours. Saturday night, The Roots took us on a journey through hip hop, Jill Scott impressed with her vocal ability, Tevin Campbell caused me to relive my adolescence, and Mary J. Blige left her soul on the stage. Sunday, Erykah Badu entertained us with her personality and voice, Raheem DeVaughn reminded us why he’s the Love King and we boarded the Party Train with Charlie Wilson. There was a wonderful Gospel tribute to Yolanda Adams on Sunday, along with inspirational talks by T.D. Jakes, Tyler Perry, Steve Harvey and Iyanla Vanzant. SO much to do, so little time. Let’s do it again next year!!!