Livin’ Healthy in the Big Easy:

A New Orleans Wellness Vacation

In New Orleans’ nearly 300-year history, it’s been home to pirates, voodoo queens, celebrities, literary giants, important political figures, drag queens, and, in the late 1980s, drunken teen punk rockers like me, living on ramen, Schaeffer’s beer and generic cigarettes. “Wellness” and “mind/body connection” wouldn’t top the word association lists for this iconic city.

But things change. In the 30 years since I lived there, New Orleans rebuilt from a massive hurricane, adding many miles of bike lanes, attracting eager young entrepreneurs, and multiplying the veg options on its famously meat- and seafood-heavy menus. And I got sober, devoted myself to fitness, and expanded my veg diet beyond oriental-flavored ramen.

Now, in the year 2017, as New Orleans turns 299 years old, it’s easy to have a fabulous time there while eating delicious vegetarian food and engaging in healthy activities.

Get the Lay of the Land on Two Wheels

I never rode a bike when I lived in New Orleans. Honestly, I was a little nervous about joining Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours for a spin around the city. Had Louisiana drivers heard of bikes? Would I disappear into one of the city’s notorious potholes?

It turns out that Free Wheelin’ has the antidote to both those problems: Andrew Healan, guide extraordinaire, who manages to impart historical information while protecting tour members from traffic; and bikes specially designed to stand up to New Orleans streets. With their fat tires, tough tubes, and heavy frames, these bicycles are like tanks.

My group of four took the Creole Crescent Tour. In three hours, we rode through the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny, strolled between crypts in an above-ground cemetery and stopped for coffee and beignets in City Park. We saw the place Homer Plessy heroically boarded the white section of a segregated train in 1892, only to have his activism backfire when the judge upheld “separate but equal.” We visited an 803-year-old live oak, the house where Edgar Degas stayed while visiting New Orleans, and the Tomb of the Unknown Slave. It was an interesting and varied introduction for a newcomer to New Orleans, or someone like me, who hadn’t visited in a while. As our guide Andrew pointed out about 10 minutes into our journey, “Congratulations. You did something many visitors never do. You’ve left the French Quarter.”

Take a Fitness Class

For a uniquely New Orleanian fitness experience, join the local “Move Ya Brass” running group for a free Monday night run, or take the beginner-friendly cardio class “Bounce Ya Brass” in Crescent Park. Local musician Robin Barnes founded the running group and Brass classes. Initially, she wanted to regain her health after a serious kidney problem. “It manifested into something bigger,” she told me. Soon she was improving the health of hundreds of people who’ve participated in runs and classes, all set to New Orleans bounce and brass music.

I showed up for “Bounce Ya Brass” on a Tuesday night. Dancer and personal trainer Shanda Domango led the small group who’d braved a thunderstorm to dance together in the park. Luckily, a covered pavilion shielded us from the rain. Domango is tirelessly upbeat and encouraging, and makes her choreography accessible to newbies. “We can still be New Orleanians and live a healthy, active lifestyle,” she told me after class.

Entrepreneur Rupa Mohan started a fitness business catering to travelers. The Sweat Social holds a weekly fitness class at the Loews hotel. Otherwise, it’s fitness on demand. Visitors can book Pilates, yoga, kickboxing, plyometrics, high-intensity interval training Tabata, bodyweight strength, and custom events. They also lead running tours, which combine exercise and New Orleans stories. “We get you into fun city locations as much as possible,” Mohan said. It’s true. I joined a group of students for a 45-minute outdoor Pilates yoga class overlooking the Mississippi River.

Of course, New Orleans has yoga studios, too. A friend recommended Reyn Yoga Studio. I took their Thursday afternoon community-priced class for nine dollars. This lovely studio in the Warehouse District welcomes drop-in students.

Appreciate Local Underground Art

If you want to take a shortcut into the local art scene, visit the Where Y’Art Gallery in the Faubourg Marigny, just outside the French Quarter. Co-founders Collin Ferguson and Catherine Todd are young artists and entrepreneurs who devised their own model for selling art. Over the last three years, they’ve used their charisma and business savvy to start a co-op gallery with 100 members. They help artists connect to pro bono legal services, hook them up with low cost pro photography for their work, improve their websites, coach them in business skills, and rep them to hotel and corporate collections.  “We scour the streets for underground artists,” Ferguson told me when I visited their gallery. While the average gallery takes half the sales price, Where Y’Art takes only a 10 percent commission for online sales and 20 percent for corporate or gallery sales. What’s a better New Orleans souvenir than a new piece of art?

Don’t Forget to Eat

Just kidding. This is New Orleans. Nobody forgets to eat.

Customer favorites at all-vegan Seed include Southern fried nuggets, nachos, artichoke cakes, eggplant po’ boys and raw Pad Thai. I can vouch for the delicious chocolate mousse. They also have an extensive juice menu. This is a wonderful place for people with various dietary restrictions, since the menu notes which dishes are gluten free, soy free, raw or Eat Fit NOLA, which means they meet the health criteria of Ochsner Health System.

The Green Goddess is tucked away on Exchange Alley, an obscure pedestrian-only street in the French Quarter. Chef Paul Artigues owns this omnivore restaurant with a vegan focus. The Green Goddess is known for dishes that “are a little exotic,” he told me, and the menu bears out this claim. Expect dishes like the Puerto Rican-inspired mushroom mofongo, with a delicious plantain cake and spicy mushrooms over handmade mini corn tortillas, and the yam-heavy Indian rolled uttapam.

For slightly more upscale dining in the Warehouse District, pop in to Meril, famous chef Emeril Lagasse’s newest restaurant. Vegetarians and vegans can make a good meal out of the vegetable sides. Or try the exceedingly popular Shaya, an Israeli restaurant owned by James Beard Chef Alon Shaya. It’s garnered tons of press and awards since opening in 2015. And most of the menu is vegan or vegetarian. Dip house-made pita in tershi (pumpkin spread with garlic and chili) and curried fried cauliflower hummus, or wrap it around wood-roasted cabbage with muhammara, tahini, and hazelnuts. I never knew cabbage could taste this good.

More than a Party City

New Orleans will always be known for drinking, rich food, and Mardi Gras-style excess. But those of us who prefer a more wholesome vacation will find plenty to get excited about. I wouldn’t have traded one minute of my time walking, biking, and trying veg delicacies to sit on a French Quarter barstool.

NOLA WELL

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This article is a part of the February / March 2017 issue of Whole Life Times.