Congo Square is quiet now. Traffic forms a dull drone in the distance. A lone percussionist taps out ancient tribal rhythms on a two-headed hand drum. An air compressor used in Rampart Street road construction provides perfectly syncopated whooshes of accompaniment.
Shaded park benches are surrounded by blooming azaleas, magnolia trees and massive live oaks that stretch to provide welcome relief from the blazing midday sun. It’s an oasis of relative solitude located directly across the street from the French Quarter.
Congo Square is quiet now, but in the 18th and 19th centuries this “Place des Nègres” would teem every Sunday with slaves (given the day off under France’s Code Noir) and free people of color. Over 500 people would gather here in fur, fringe, shells and bells to celebrate their African and Creole cultural heritage, playing music, singing and dancing, buying and selling goods in the market.
This area– now part of Tremé, New Orleans‘ oldest African-American neighborhood– was the only place in America where African and Afro-Caribbean people were allowed to preserve their cultural traditions for over a century. When these traditions were blended with those of the European colonialists, it gave birth to a distinctly American fusion that continues to define our nation today.
Congo Square is quiet now. But it’s here that the seeds of American culture as we know it were sown more than 200 years ago. And the scents, sounds and sights that originated here have never been more vital to New Orleans than they are now, 10 years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.
It’s a chilly October morning when we head out with Captain Chris Ludford of Virginia Beach’s Pleasure House Oysters. We step onto his boat loaded with oyster cages, colorful baskets, and various other tools of the oyster farming trade, sitting on massive coolers made to keep his harvest fresh for the local farm-to-table restaurants that serve them.
There’s a crisp breeze and clear blue skies as we pass by Pharrell Williams’ palatial summer home and cross the gaping mouth where the Lynnhaven River feeds into Chesapeake Bay. It’s only 8AM and, other than a few squawking Gulls and Cormorants resting in the shallows at low tide, there’s not a single soul within sight. It’s a tranquil, picturesque scene.
But as we struggle to wake up while nursing huge cups of steaming hot coffee to ward off the chill, Captain Chris– a full-time firefighter who has been fishing these waters since he was a kid– has already been out for hours, and is clearly pumped to show us his passion project.
New Orleans may be best known for its lively culture– swinging jazz, the colorful costumes of Mardi Gras Indians, delectable Creole and Cajun cuisine– but the city has a notorious dark side as well. Voodoo, colonial occupation, the Civil War, pirates, slavery, and an “anything goes” attitude towards excessive behavior all led to a dark, twisted history that continues to shadow the city today.
In his book Haunted Houses, author/paranormal expert Richard Winer wrote, “Take 100 of the most enthusiastic ghost hunters and ask them to name America’s Most Haunted City. Most will spring to their feet yelling, ‘New Orleans!’” We didn’t understand why until we took a Haunted French Quarter Walking Tour, during which we learned more about the historical stories that color the dark underbelly of New Orleans.
According to our guide, Denise Augustine, New Orleans earned its title as “America’s Most Haunted City” partly because of its proximity to the Mississippi River. “Spirits are energy,” she says, “and energy is magnetized by water.” That proximity also caused the city’s serious struggle against Yellow Fever, as well as its longtime strategic occupation by French, Spanish and Union Army forces.
As a result, New Orleans has dozens of history-based tales of murder, tragedy, sinners and saints, from the mysterious massacre of the Sultan’s House and the Civil War spirits said to haunt the Beauregard-Keyes House to the Witch of the French Opera House and Voodoo queen Marie Laveau’s grave at St. Louis Cemetery.
Here are a few of our favorite macabre tales from Haunted New Orleans…
No physical border indicated that we were there– that we were finally in the presence of giants. But, as we drove into the misty shadows of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, we knew.
A foreboding shadow was cast over the car, and I had to crane my neck to get a decent view. The sun was being blocked out on all sides by trees as tall as skyscrapers, and we were traversing the road which cut straight through the park. We had entered a completely different world. We were driving along the Avenue of the Giants, in the shadows of the tallest trees on earth.
The most outstanding display of giant trees you’ll find in northern California’s redwood belt, the Avenue of the Giants is a world-famous scenic drive. This 31-mile portion of old Highway 101 runs parallel to Freeway 101, boasting around 51,000 acres of Redwood groves. It’s a natural phenomenon as awe-inspiring as the Avenue of the Baobabs in Madagascar, and just as unique to this corner of the world.
Visitors from all across the globe are drawn here to witness these ancient forests, which stand at mesmerizing heights. And it was easy to see why: Beams of faint sunlight attempt to force their way through the canopy of towering trees, but what light does sneak in is faint, creating a mystical atmosphere that lends a fairy tale quality to these magical woods.
One of Alaska’s biggest draws is their wealth of spectacular wildlife. At the 200-acre Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, jaws tend to drop in awe… even those of longtime Alaskans who’ve studied Grizzly Bears and other native animal species up close.
With its mission to provide a refuge for orphaned, injured and ill animals who can’t survive in the wild, this is Alaska’s #1 wildlife attraction.
Set on the shores of Turnagain Arm, where it’s surrounded by soaring mountains and glistening glaciers, the center provides a perfect setting in which to learn about Alaskan wildlife and experience some of North America’s most majestic creatures up close.