One of the most popular things to do at an AARP Life@50+ National Event is touring the host city. And as cities go, this one's a gem: New Orleans has so many unique neighborhoods and such a rich culture that there are 14 tours, each offering a distinct slice of the Big Easy.
Most tours — many designed exclusively for AARP — cost $25 to $30. Longer tours, such as the Oak Alley Plantation Tour or the Steamboat Natchez Dinner Jazz Cruise, run $42 to $54. Of course, members can explore the city on their own, but there's nothing like experiencing a new place through the eyes of an informed and entertaining guide.
Mary LaCoste, a former schoolteacher and New Orleans tour guide for 15 years, is a perfect example. She leads the Ghosts & Spirits tour, a slightly tongue-in-cheek lesson in local lore, centered on the French Quarter. LaCoste likes to ham it up, suggesting that visitors begin the tour by sampling some absinthe at a bar called Pirate's Alley. "If you drink one, you might see a ghost," she likes to say. "If you drink two, you'll definitely see a ghost."
LaCoste's tour includes the infamous yellow fever hospital, where over 5,000 residents died in the 1890s, and — as the group makes its way down Royal Street — the sordid story of Madame LaLaurie. The most infamous "ghost" in town, LaLaurie abused and murdered the slaves she kept hidden in her French Quarter mansion, and was eventually run out of town by outraged citizens. Though many insist that her house is haunted, Nicolas Cage bought it several years ago for a reported $3.45 million, then lost it to foreclosure.
Cage makes a notable appearance on another tour, the Cemetery & Voodoo tour. In 2010, the actor built himself a 9-foot-tall, pyramid-shaped tomb in the famous St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, which you'll see along with the tomb of Marie Laveau, the 19th-century enigma known as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. People still come to pay their respects, leaving her their trinkets and notes with the hope that she'll make their wishes come true.
Beyond the city, the Swamp & Bayou tour involves a 45-minute bus ride west, during which guide Lori Donaldson Dowden sets the stage with facts about the rapidly disappearing wetlands of Louisiana. She underscores that when New Orleans was founded, it was surrounded by cypress swamps, "so seeing them gives people a little piece of living history." In addition to living history, the Swamp & Bayou tour offers a view into the diverse wildlife of the wetlands: countless birds, snakes — sometimes rattlesnakes, hanging from cypress trees laced with Spanish moss — and, of course, alligators.
No matter what you decide, you'll definitely want to follow guide Dowden's advice: "Bring your camera. It's all pretty stunning to look at."
Also of interest: Haunted destinations you can't miss.