I grew up in New Jersey, far from the world of grits and grillades, y’alls and debutante balls. But I’ve got a bit of a crush on the South. I lived in Memphis, New Orleans, and Shreveport – for more than three years, and I’m intimately familiar with riverboats and racinos (race tracks with slot machines), big hair and bigger waistbands and fried everything – which, I’ll admit, can be a good thing.
For better and for worse, I love the South. And I love New Orleans most of all. So, in spite of my lingering head cold, I left Mr. Smith, my dog and a mountain of work and boarded a plane to the Big Easy with the giddiness of a schoolgirl playing hooky.
And the Soniat House, the boutique hotel where I’d be staying, was just the sort of civilized crash pad I was looking for in an escape. Located in the up-all-night French Quarter, but as my taxi drive pulled up onto a quiet stretch of Chartres, I realized this wasn’t the Quarter that I was familiar with.
Sure, Soniat House’s red brick façade, green shutters and wrought iron balcony are in keeping with the surrounding architecture. But this charming trio of 1830s townhouses has been converted into a 33-room hideaway for travelers keen to experience New Orleans beyond the buzzy Bourbon Street crawl.
Ringing the doorbell, I was greeted by a white-jacketed porter who took my suitcase and escorted me to the registration office. Confession: I’m the type of self-sufficient traveler who likes to be in possession of my bags at all times. But somehow, it seemed right to let go. And, instead of checking my iPhone as I waited, I was content to quietly take in the scene as dusk settled on the leafy courtyard within.
Check-in taken care of, I climbed the winding staircase to the second floor to my Deluxe Room that opened onto a balcony overlooking the courtyard. The room itself was small, but well laid out, with just the right amount of flourishes – a floral upholstered headboard with a gauzy overhang, an antique dresser, and an impressionist style painting over the mantle – to lend personality, without venturing into the territory of fussiness.
Plans for the evening focused on checking out SoBou, a gastropub newcomer from the Commander’s Palace family of restaurants, and, as I walked along Chartres, I had the feeling that the city, like me, was a bit under the weather. The late-night revelers seemed to be nursing their hangovers in the aftermath of Halloween and Voodoo Fest, a weekend-long music and arts festival. Or, perhaps, it was just that I was several blocks from the always-raucous Bourbon Street.
Grabbing a seat at SoBou’s bar, I chatted with head bar chef and ex-New Yorker Abigail Gullo over yellowfin ice cream cones, oyster cocktails, and a fizzy scotch cocktail dubbed Paris Between the Wars. Ending the night with a shot of Abigail’s homemade Negroni, I headed back to my hotel and briefly considered a glass of wine in the inviting first-floor lounge before tucking in beneath my Egyptian cotton sheets.
Feeling well-rested the next morning, I was ready to explore the bordering neighborhoods of the Marigny and the Bywater. But first, breakfast. I’m not usually a breakfast person, but the breakfast at Soniat House is one worth staying in bed for. I rang the front desk and within 20 minutes, warm buttermilk biscuits, homemade strawberry preserves, fresh-squeezed orange juice and café au lait were delivered to my door – on a silver tray. I happily tucked in while plotting my day’s adventures.
New Orleans is a city that’s slow to change, but the Bywater, even on a Tuesday morning, was filled with laptop-toting entrepreneurs, juice-drinking yogis and artists who don’t work regular hours. I happily wandered for a few hours, taking in street art, popping into shops and admiring the Creole cottages, before grabbing lunch at Booty’s Street Food, where the menu is inspired by street food from around the world. And because I was in New Orleans, I was persuaded by my waitress to try the Bywater Bomber: a haute take on a frozen daiquiri with pineapple, orange, lime juice, rose water, Booty's bitters and Old New Orleans Rum.
Midday drinking calls for a siesta and the hushed ambiance of the Soniat House – and those gorgeous Frette linens – were the perfect setting for an afternoon nap.
Energized, I freshened up for dinner at Mariza, an Italian-inspired eatery in a cool, industrial space back in the Bywater. Frenchman Street, a bar-lined stretch of the Marigny where locals go for live music, was a tempting after-dinner activity, but I decided instead to return to the hotel and investigate the lounge and honor bar.
Finding the cozy lounge empty, I took my glass of red wine up to the second floor, gliding down the antique-lined corridor and out to the Chartres-facing wraparound balcony. The street was quiet, save for a ghost tour, which was just wrapping up. I sat, sipped and listened, content to know that I still had one more breakfast in bed to look forward to – and already plotting my return with Mr Smith.