Russ Lowthian, HaveFunBiking.com, editor
Seeing the city and its parishes on two-wheels is a fun way to experience the last section of the Mississippi River Trail (MRT) trail before the river opens to the gulf. So, if you are a northerner and occasionally need a brief reprieve from the lingering elements of our climate, like I, New Orleans is a place to consider. As the area continues to rebuild from Katrina, a few year's back, the city has quadrupled its miles of bikeways making it easy for both residents and visitors alike to take to the streets - on bikes. Even the League of American Bicyclists has recently taken note, awarding this city its bronze bicycle friendly community designation. So, if you looking for a fun, four to seven day getaway here are some ideas and opportunities that Marcy and I discovered on our adventure, last April. While it was snowing here at home, biking around the Big Easy was a breeze!
April is the time the fragrance of jasmine whispering through the air and we chose to use bicycles to get around the city on this trip. Besides the non-stop fun in the French Quarter, on two wheels we were able to find many other community pockets, with delicious meals and music hotspots as we explored. Many of the streets are influenced by American, Creole and French cultures, showcasing homes in array of tropical colors.
Getting around the neighborhoods by bike, we discovered, was the best way to experience this town. Thanks to Joey's printable bike friendly map and the Big Easy Bike Coalition, at: BikeEasy.org, getting around New Orleans was straightforward. Besides the miles of bike lanes, bike sharrows (painted V-shaped arrows that are stacked like sergeants stripes on a shirt sleeve that point in the direction of traffic flow of a bike route) and trails, the majority of the city is laid out with one-way streets alternating back and forth, North/South and East/West. First, we downloaded Joey's digital version of the map for planning and then finding a printed edition at a bike shop or one of the tour companies listed below - was a bonus!
The bike map gave us a great chart to maneuver through the neighborhoods when the main bike routes were detoured from one of the many event or construction. Using a combination of the above options made it convenient to go from the French Quarter up to City Park one day; through the Garden District over to the Audubon Park another; and then across the Mississippi River and back by ferry to Algiers another day this trip.
Well worth the seven mile round trip from the French Quarter, we found the Lakeview Area, with several hours spent at the City Park one of the highlights of our visit. Here the gardens and sculptures in the park were impressive. In April, you will find many varieties of roses and several exotic flowers in bloom in the area. For the train buff, the outdoor scale model railroad setting in the park was quite extraordinary, detailed with authentic replicas of buildings and tracks of the southern Louisiana area.
Also, being so close to Lake Pontchartrain, we added several more miles to our day of riding through this section of town. This part of the Big Easy is quite different from the colorful Creole influenced shotgun houses we rode by nesr the French Quarters. On bikes, through these high end neighborhoods with sycamore trees shading the architecturally present pristine lanes, was picture perfect.
In the Algergers neighborhood, after crossing the Mississippi River by ferry, (free passage for bikers and walkers) you will find a bike trail that follows the river up steam. This is the last section of the MRT (Mississippi River Trail), before the Gulf of Mexico. Here, riding along the river, you can view some of the big boats coming in from the ocean and the downtown New Orleans skyline. And, if you are lucky when passing by the warehouses along the trail you may see some of the Mardi Gras floats - sometimes open for a tour.
A ride back on the ferry, a Creole influenced neighborhood, the Marigny/Bywater area is a great place to discover the soul of New Orleans. Here you will find many artists and several hole-in-the-wall places offering great food and music. For ribs, some of the best we have ever feasted on, try the "Joint." For other great entrees, check out Elizabeth's on Chartres St. And don't forget to stop at Dr. Bob's Art Gallery.
A New Orleans self-taught folk artist, Dr. Bob has made the phrase "Be Nice or Leave" as much a part of his identity as the found objects he transforms into his artwork. An eclectic mix of Southern Louisiana influenced art that you can find in his gallery of fun objects. Just pull into the double gates of the complex, pass the lumber yard and park your bike back by the trailer, and introduce yourself.
Visiting the Carrollton, Garden District, and Irish Channel Area from the French Quarter, discover the ease of riding the new bike lane on Magazine Street. Once you arrive in the Garden District, several guided biking and walking tours are available and well worth signing up for to maximize the total experience of your day pedaling around this area. Plus, you will get the inside scoop to good places to eat and local music that showcases the soul of the Big Easy.
Bike Rental: If this is your first time planning a trip to New Orleans and exploring the city on two wheels, leave your bike behind unless you are serious about packing on the miles. Most points of interest are less than 20 mile meandering round trip from the French Quarter area. If you choose to rent and plan to cover more than 12-16 miles in a day, pay a couple bucks more for a bike with multiple speed options. Though the terrain is fairly flat it is not uncommon to encounter a headwind, coming or going - in or out of the different neighborhoods. For shorter distance sightseeing opportunities or when combining public transportation (bus/cable car with bike racks) on your excursion, single speed cruisers bikes work well.
I found several bike rental shops, most around the French Quarter. For one of our days riding we selected Bike Nola Bicycle Rental, because they offered a new fleet of bikes equiped with multi-speeds and hand brakes. They are located on Decatur Street, in the French Quarter in the Courtyard of Greg's Antiques. Their rental fleet comes with LED lights and a lock. Bike helmet, are also available, but we chose bring along our own for this trip. Other rental options I checked out included: Michaels Bicycle Sales, Rental and Service, on Frenchman St. and Ride This Bike Rental and Folding Bike Sales, on Dauphine Street. All three places had Joey's Bike Map, were friendly and helpful with tips on riding around the city.
For neighborhood bike tours that includes a rental, (most are single speed with coaster brakes) we enjoyed a tour of the Marigny/Bywater area, led by the staff of the Confederacy of Cruisers Tour Company. It was fun and our guide offered many food and music suggestions that we checked out later and fully enjoyed.
Places to stay: Many lodging options are available in the French Quarter and the neighborhoods we visited in the New Orleans Area. On this trip we chose an Air B&B stay at the HuckaBuck Village, located about eight blocks from the French Quarters. The home itself is a beautiful old Captain's House with high ceilings, gorgeous woodwork and lots of fun decorations gathered over the years. Liberty and Pops' made Marcy and I feel extremely welcome in their home and were very available for conversations and advice while visiting in their own private garden. A couple bikes were also made available, for days we chose not to rent. (Here I am, to the right, in the HuckaBuck garden on one of their bikes)
For other lodging options throughout the city, places to eat, events and festivals, see the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau web site - it's is a great place to look for more information when planning a bike visit to the Big Easy - the last city on the MRT.
Now back home, it is time to prepare for the first leg of the Mississippi River Trail ride, Park Rapids/Itasca State Park to Big Lake, Minn.