Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Where to Travel: New Orleans

A recent trip to New Orleans reminded me how much I’m in love with the city.

And really, there’s so much to fall in love with!

While Mardi Gras, spring or summer may seem like the most ideal times to go, I’ll let you in on a little secret: fall is an absolutely wonderful time to visit as well.

By autumn, the stifling humidity that plagues the summer months has been replaced with milder weather, that at most, requires minimum winter attire. There’s also still lots to do in the city—from staple tourist attractions, like taking a haunted ghost tour, to seasonal festivities such as New Year’s Eve at Jackson Square.

There’s definitely so many neighborhoods and restaurants and bars and places I still need/want to check out, but for now, here’s my #WilsonsGuide Top 11 List of New Orleans. It's based on what I’ve experienced so far in my visits over the past 10 years there. Most of the items on the list are in or around the French Quarter, but there's quite a few destinations that are in other parts of the city as well.

Check out my list below, and let me know your favorite stops in New Orleans as well, in the comments section below!

11.) Where to Be Merry: The French Quarter

As New Orleans’ oldest neighborhood, The Quarter features some of the most sightly architecture in the city— immaculate historic 18th-century buildings with sweeping second- and third- floor galleries—narrow streets, and lots of character and charm. Depending on when you go—morning vs. night, holidays vs. any given day—it can be extremely loud, festive and so packed to the point you can’t even move, or it can be serenely peaceful, giving you the opportunity to check out the beautiful buildings, unique shops and ancient streets. Yes, it’s touristy and often smells, mainly the morning after a night of revelry and debauchery, but it’s most certainly not to be missed. Some main attractions include Bourbon Street, Jackson Square, art and antique stores, and scores of restaurants and bars, some of which have made this list. 

10.) Where to Be Merry: The Farmers & Flea Market @ The French Market

From a historical standpoint, it’s the oldest public market in the States; currently, it’s a hodgepodge of colorful vendors and eateries. At the bottom of the French Quarter, The French Market spans six blocks and includes a variety of shops, restaurants and local businesses. More specifically, its Farmers & Flea Market has a more informal vibe, where you can sit down for a casual meal at a food stand, shop for culinary treasures—like hundreds of authentic New Orleans spices and seasonings—and also pick up trinkets and souvenirs to take back home, anything from t-shirts and bags to bed sheets and artwork. I recommend checking out Oscar of New Orleans' stall, pictured below, to find amazing handmade jewelry. He has a kind, welcoming spirit and I have several pairs of his earrings that always get me compliments and have lasted quite a while. The French Market closes on the early side, at 6 p.m. daily, so get there sooner rather than later.


9.) Where to Eat: Beignets @ The Original Cafe Du Monde

On the edge of the French Market is The Original Cafe Du Monde. As one of the city’s oldest coffee shops, it’s got an acclaimed reputation for its beignets and piping hot café au lait. There’s something magical to sampling the French-style doughnuts smothered in powder sugar and unique chicory coffee that’s been served for centuries—all while sitting with 400 of your new best friends. It’s the perfect spot to rest after spending a few hours walking around in the French Quarter and also lends itself to captivating people-watching. The menu is simplistic, with only beignets and coffee, and it’s open 24 hours, seven days a week. Lines can be lengthy, depending what time of the day you go.


8.) Where to Eat: Seafood @ Acme Seafood House

Several of my friends recommended that I stop here, and I’m so glad I did. Keeping the décor simple with plastic black-and-white checkered table covers, glowing red neon signs and basic chairs and tables, Acme Seafood House focuses on getting its namesake right: the delicious seafood it serves. One must-order dish is the Chargrilled Oysters, pictured below. Six, steaming hot oysters are drenched in a creamy butter sauce, accompanied by French bread. The ½ & ½ Platter of fried shrimp and fried fish piled high on top of toasted bread and French fries is also a good pick, with large portions. The fish and shrimp are fried to get the perfect golden brown color and are very flavorful. Also, both seafood gumbo and chicken/andouille gumbo are available (my fave between the two was the seafood gumbo). Inside, it’s jam-packed with customers and the waiting line is agonizingly long outside, but it’s all so worth it. There are other locations throughout the city, but I say head to the oldest one, in the French Quarter, which opened in 1910.


7.) Where to Drink: Libations @ Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar

What better place to grab a drink than in the nation’s first bar! Rumor has it that Lafitte’s is the oldest structure to be used as a bar in the U.S. And while some may dispute this claim, it’s still pretty cool to drink in a building that’s been around and in use since the 1770s. Inside, it literally feels like a trip back into the 18th century, with worn wooden floors, a large brick fireplace and exposed wooden beams. At night, only the glow of candles illuminates the bar, making it feel intimate and cozy. The building itself may be ancient, but the drinks are modern, and you can get pretty much anything—like an infamous New Orleans Hurricane—that you could find at any present-day bar, to enjoy at Lafitte's or on-the-go. It’s located on Bourbon Street, farther east and away from the main section.


6.) Where to Be Merry: Live Music @ Frenchmen Street

If you enjoy live music, then a trip one night to Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood is an absolute must. Bars and nightclubs line a stretch of several blocks, where every single genre of music you could ever imagine—and then some—exists. Jazz, bluegrass, country, R&B, funk, hip-hop—it’s all there, played by both up-and-coming and more established musicians, from locals to world-renowned recording artists. The most appealing aspect of this area is the ease in which you can freely wander in and out of bars—no cover at most establishments—to hear one brilliant band after another, all night long. It’s truly mind-blowing how much talent is here and how easily accessible such an eclectic mix of music is to the general public on any given night.


5.) Where to Be Merry: Woldenberg Park

Woldenberg Park is a narrow stretch of land between the French Quarter to the east and Canal Street to the west. It offers sweeping views of the massive Mississippi River and in general, is just a nice place to pause for a few brief moments and catch the breezes rolling off the river. There’s plenty of park benches facing the water to sit on, a trail for walking or jogging, and multiple stops for the Riverfront Streetcar Line, pictured below. Closer to Canal Street is the relatively new The Outlet Collection at Riverwalk, the States’ first outlet center in a downtown area.


4.) Where to Be Merry: The Louis Armstrong Park

Located in the Tremé neighborhood, The Louis Armstrong Park takes up several blocks and offers lush trees, interestingly shaped bridges, rolling hills, iconic statues and a lovely, large body of water with fountains. The Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts and the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium are also located here, housing theatrical and musical productions. The park itself, peaceful and serene, is quite scenic with lot of camera-ready views. Aside from its intrinsic beauty though, it's home to a special landmark: the Congo Square. It’s here where in the 18th century, slaves would gather to socialize on their days off, dancing and making music, often with heavy African influences. Take a stroll to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city life in a historically significant location.


3.) Where to Be Merry: City Park

And if you really want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, head to City Park in the Lakeview/Lakefront neighborhood. It's one of the country’s largest urban parks, almost 50% larger than NYC’s Central Park! With 1,300 acres of land, there’s a lot to see and do here, from simply basking in nature to checking out art, getting active and participating in fun activities for the kiddies. Some attractions include several gardens, a golf course, tennis courts, biking, walking and jogging paths, the New Orleans Museum of Art and an amusement park, and there's still so much more. You can also simply stare in amazement at the world’s oldest living oak trees here, including a grand oak that’s more than 800 years-old. A calendar of events on the website lists seasonal events.


2.) Where to Be Merry: Swamp Tours

The state of Louisiana comprises almost half of all wetlands found in the Southern States, and fortunately, New Orleans is only a brief drive away from these magnificent wonders of nature. For several hours, you can hop in a boat with a small group and guide to get up close and personal with the spectacular foliage and wildlife in these wetlands. Wind through narrow waterways and bayous and hopefully see lots of animals, including alligators, wild boars and raccoon. In the summer, the wetlands are vibrantly green and the vegetation is thick, but during the fall, they’re shades of brown, and trees have thinned, creating an eerily darker yet equally beautiful landscape. Our guide mentioned fall and winter are ideal times to visit; since the trees are barer than in the summer months, it’s easier to actually point out the animals that live here. There’s a variety of companies in the city offering tours, some also providing free transportation to the swamps. I’ve used Cajun Encounters, which is family-owned and promotes itself as eco-friendly. Their website is below.


1.) Where to Eat: The Sunday Jazz Brunch @ The Columns Hotel

Nestled on St. Charles Ave. in the Garden District and overlooking the historic St. Charles Streetcar Line, The Columns Hotel was originally built in the late 19th century as an Italianette home. It's now been converted into a modestly grandiose hotel with a bustling bar scene and a restaurant that offers a stellar Sunday Brunch. Brunch consists of a mimosa and four courses—soup, salad, entrée and dessert—and dishes are seasonal. When I went here one winter, I had arguably the best gumbo in the city, a beautiful beet salad, a colossal Lump Crab Cake topped with fried green tomato and a lemongrass beurre blanc, and a delectable chocolate cake. Service is extremely attentive and reverential, and we were able to enjoy a leisurely meal without feeling rushed or crowded, all while enjoying the background music of a live acoustic guitarist. And, on a crisp winter day, the food felt so comforting, filling and warm. This is a must for its décor and hearty, authentic food. Fun fact: it's also where Alicia Keys and Maxwell filmed their music video "Fire We Make."


BONUS: Where to Be Merry: All of the Various Events!

There’s scores of large-scale events that not only bring thousands of visitors to New Orleans, but also transform the city into such a lively, welcoming destination. True, there’s Mardi Gras at the beginning of the year, the Jazz and Heritage Festival in the spring, Essence Festival in the summer and so many others, but the fall isn’t void of fantastic events either! The city gets festive for Halloween in October, the Bayou Classic in November and Christmas, New Year’s Eve in December, and also for other festivals and city-wide celebrations. Really, there seems to always be a good reason to visit New Orleans, regardless of the season or the month. See you there soon!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Where to Holiday: Halloween 2014

I’ve seen scores and scores of Halloween lists floating around the internet and popping up in my inbox, so I decided to throw my two cents into the mix and create a specially curated 
#WilsonsGuide Top 10 list of Halloween activities in the Los Angeles area.

From theme parks to festive parades and drink specials, there’s surely something to satisfy everyone, whether you feel like dressing up, dressing down, going hard or taking the more chill option.

Read on to see what’s happening in the city!

10. Halloween Horror Nights @ Universal Studios

The Merriment: Seven mazes, five scare zones and a Terror Tram, all within an area of some of the most recognizable sets from the most beloved movies

The Location: The Valley

The Vibes: Frightening, terrifying, spectacular

Good for: Groups of friends; must be 13+

When-To-Go: now until Sunday, Nov. 2, 7 p.m. – 2 a.m. nightly

The $ Factor: $62 - $219, depending on type of ticket purchased; options include GA, Day/Night Combo, Front of Line Pass and VIP Experience

Parking Situation: A parking lot that's $16 - $35 per car

The 4-1-1: Sure, Universal Studios is where movies are made, but on Halloween, it’s where terror reigns rampant. Arguably the theme park with the best Halloween attractions, the Studios transforms into a playground of abmoninations. There’s creepy mazes filled with unexpected twists and turns, scare zones, the Terror Tram, and of course “scareactors” all over the place, ready to scare the living daylights out of you at any given moment. Everyone should experience Halloween Horror Night at Universal Studios at least once!

For more information: Website

9. Booritos @ Chipotle

The Eats: $3 "boorritos," bowls, salads, tacos and/or kids meals for anyone dressed in costume

The Location: Multiple Locations

The Vibes: Casual

When-To-Go: Friday, Oct. 31, 5 pm. – close

The 4-1-1: On the day of Halloween, Chipotle is continuing its annual fundraiser for its Chipotle Cultivate Foundation, helping to raise funds that will go towards sustainable food initiatives—to add to the more than $2 million that's already been raised. Chipotle burritos are already mad crazy delicious in general, and at this price, it just makes sense to satisfy any pre- or post-Halloween festivities hunger pains here.

For more information: Website

The Merriment: Blocks upon blocks of live entertainment, food vendors and the best costumes in the city

The Location: West Hollywood

The Vibes: Creative and fun

Good for: All ages

When-To-Go: Friday, Oct. 31, 6 – 11 p.m.

The $ Factor: FREE

Parking Situation: Several nearby parking structures offer parking; street parking extremely limited and far away.

The 4-1-1: Probably one of the liveliest and largest Halloween celebration in the city, the West Hollywood Halloween Carnival brings out some of the most entertaining and amusing costumes ever. Take, for example, the one pictured above, where my friends and I met two guys dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz—if she hadn’t made it out of Kansas. You can literally spend hours simply ogling over all of the different costumes. But, aside from people-watching, there are tons of activities throughout the night: a costume contest, live music and many of the nearby bars and restaurants are great to check out, and there will be food trucks stationed around. 

For more information: Website

7. The Spirit and Voodoo of New Orleans @ Sassafras

The Merriment: A splendidly Southern saloon with live music

The Location: Hollywood

The Vibes: Charming, intimate, genteel

Good for: 21+ guests

When-To-Go: Friday, Oct. 31, 9:30 p.m. – 2 a.m.

Parking Situation: Street parking

The 4-1-1: Stepping into Sassafras on any given day is literally like stepping into a different era and location; it literally feels as if you’ve gone back to the 19th century, to a Southern state like Georgia or Louisiana. And on Halloween, this Hollywood bar is kicking up the ante by ushering in the “spirit and voodoo of New Orleans.” The band Reverend Tall Tree will play live blues and there will be a tarot card reader and a fortune teller. Aside from libations and Voodoo Punch, there’s also a costume contest with prizes given to the three best dressed.

For more information: Website

6. The Hobgoblin @ The Raymond/1886

The Drinks: Creatively designed libations with fantastic, one-of-a-kind names and eclectic flavors

The Location: Pasadena

The Vibes: Vintage, cozy, nostalgic

Good for: Small groups

When-To-Go: Friday – Sunday, beginning at 5 p.m.

The $ Factor: $8 - $14 per cocktail

Parking Situation: Valet parking

The 4-1-1: Already a #WilsonsGuide favorite, this former hotel-turned-drinking parlor and restaurant has a hauntingly intriguing past that includes decadent wealth lost during the Great Depression, destructive fires and alleged ghosts that still visit the property. So, it’s the perfect location to partake in a more leisurely subdued Halloween, sipping hand-crafted cocktails, like the special for the weekend, the Hobgoblin. Pictured above, this cocktail is a blend of Applejack brandy, house-made pumpkin syrup, cinnamon and other ingredients, all garnished by a chocolate spider web. A food menu is also available.

For more information: Website

5. The Purge: Breakout

The Merriment: A 30-minute interactive "game" where you must work with members of your team to escape before “the purge” begins

The Location: Mid-City

The Vibes: Suspenseful, psychologically thrilling

Good for: Groups up to six people; must be 18+

When-To-Go: Now until Sunday, Nov. 2, beginning in the afternoon, going until midnight

The $ Factor: $27.50 - $30 plus fees

The 4-1-1: Based on the action-horror film The Purge: Anarchy and made by the film’s producers, Universal Pictures and Blumhouse, this interactive maze is based on the movie and forces you to solve collaborative mind games together in order to move through its various levels and eventually escape it...just in time before "the purge" begins. Four semi-trucks are stationed on Beverly Blvd. Nondescript on the outside, they house cramped cages that will hold you and your group members, dilapidated living rooms, dark, narrow hallways and bloodcurdling surprises in the most unexpected places.

For more information: Website

4. Freaky Friday Halloween Party By The Sea @ Marina Seafood & Steakhouse Restaurant Waterfront

The Merriment: A costume party for the grown and sexy

The Location: Southbay

The Vibes: Lounge, restaurant

Good for: 21+ although 25+ is preferred

When-To-Go: Friday, Oct. 31, 9:30 p.m. – 2 a.m.

The $ Factor: $10 online or before 10:30 p.m.

The 4-1-1: It's a night of sultry R&B, rhythmic reggae and rare grooves. Music will be provided by DJ X-Treme, the self-proclaimed Original BasementSoul Disciple, and DJ Lady Jamar. There will also be a costume contest with a $500 prize. This event is hosted by Vince Gilbert of BlackStar Productions, Ricky Johnson of The Peepgame Group, Mark Bruce of Mark "The Man" Productions and a good friend of mine, Darryl Holmes of Southern Bot ENT.

For more information: Website

3. The Monster’s Ball @ Arena

The Merriment: The self-proclaimed “Sexiest Halloween Party Ever”

The Location: Hollywood

The Vibes: Club

Good for: 21+

When-To-Go: Friday, Oct. 31, 9 p.m. – 3 a.m.

The $ Factor: $15 - $20 plus service charge

Parking Situation: Onsite parking

The 4-1-1: With hosts Ronnie from New Edition/BBD and Shamari DeVoe and DJs EQUE, Mike Smoove and Tagg Team on the 1’s and 2’s, it’s bound to be a night of grooving to R&B, hip-hop and all the 90’s classics. There will be $1,000 costume contest, so be sure to dress for the occasion, and bottle service is available. This is brought to you by Ron & Shamari DeVoe, Diamond Productions, M.S. Entertainment, Doc & Disco, BlackNLA, Honey Collective, TG3 Ent. and Herb The Ent. Spec.

For more information: Website

2. 6th Annual Los Angeles Hayride @ The Old Zoo

The Merriment: Mazes, scare zones and an actual hayride

The Location: Griffith Park

The Vibes: Frightening, ghoulish, chilling

Good for: 8+

When-To-Go: Now until Friday, Oct. 31, 7 p.m. until closing time

The $ Factor: Individual GA; $30 - $58; Season Pass $149; Private wagon for up to 30 people $1,395

The 4-1-1: The “Old Zoo” in Griffith Park has been transformed into a lair where it seriously seems as though the worst of what you could imagine about humanity exists. It’s literally like all of the devastating images from your worst nightmares and from horror movies are now in one location. Attractions include its namesake the Haunted Hayride, the Purgatory House of the Horseman, a Haunted Village, the In Between Dark Maze and the all new Seven Sins Sideshow. Expect not just creepy figures, but flying creatures, tons of special effects and, to even get a few liquids thrown on you.

For more information: Website

1. The 15th Annual Día De Los Muertos @ Hollywood Forever Cemetery

The Merriment: A spirited celebration of life and death within one of the most famous cemeteries in the city

The Location: Hollywood

The Vibes: Festive, colorful, inviting

Good for: All ages

When-To-Go: Saturday, Nov. 1, noon until midnight

The $ Factor: $20 for GA; free children under 4 and adults over 65

The 4-1-1: Day of the Dead—or Día de Los Muertos—is a Mexican holiday with origins in indigenous Aztec culture that’s widely commemorated here in Los Angeles. It pays joyous homage to loved ones who are no longer with us. While there are many Día de Los Muertos celebrations throughout the city, the one at Hollywood Forever is a force to be reckoned with, as it takes place in an actual cemetery, where many Día de Los Muertos celebrations have occured traditionally. There will be live music and performances, more than 100 decorated altars, Aztec dancers, a Cathedral art exhibit and much more. Guests are also highly encouraged—and do—dress in the Calaca tradition, painting their faces as skulls and wearing traditional garb.

For more information: Website

Where will you end up? Let me know in the comments below. See you at one of these places soon!

Friday, October 24, 2014

And Where Do You “Where To?”: Recording Artist Erica Campbell

At the Grand Opening of celebrity stylist Goo-Goo Atkins’ showroom The Style Suite last week, I caught up with the legendary, award-winning singer, Erica Campbell.

As half of the powerhouse duo Mary Mary, Erica Campbell has been on the scene, changing the face of gospel music—and music in general—for more than 15 years. In particular, 2014 has also been an extremely exciting and busy year for her, with the March debut of her first solo album Help, the continuation of her successful reality show Mary Mary and performances in multiple cities, worldwide.

And now this fall, she’s revealed her latest venture: a nail polish line, EC x CC!

During our talk at the showroom's opening event, Erica shared with me more about her new line, her business ventures and of course, where she "where to's" in Los Angeles. Read more below!

WilsonsGuide: What was the inspiration behind this launch? Why now?
Erica Campbell: I love nail polish. I get my nails done all the time. I have two daughters and seven sisters. So nail polish is always somewhere in my house. It’s something that I love. And, I think it’s great for a mom, a woman, a college student—whoever—to have a little glamour in a bottle of your own, as opposed to going to the [nail] shop, looking on the walls and sometimes what we’re looking for is not there. Take your own color—you know exactly what you’re getting. You know there’s nail thinner in it, you know that it won’t crack, that it’s going to polish, that it’s a good product. I love to offer good product, whether it’s nail polish or music.

WilsonsGuide: Do you have a favorite color?
Erica Campbell: That’s so hard—that’s not easy at all! Today I’m wearing hot pink. I do like the blue, and the lime…and the red…and the nude. I like them all (laughs)!

WilsonsGuide: I want to ask you another hard question: because you’re in a lot of different professional ventures—you sing, you have this new line, you have a reality show—is there one business venture that is closer to your heart than another?
Erica Campbell: The closest thing to my heart is my kids and making sure that I leave a legacy for them. That I teach them how to be responsible; that I let them know that you can work and be successful and still be a loving mom and nurture them. That’s what’s most important.

The music I would say, because it’s ministry. It is not just me being fabulous. It’s about inspiration. It’s about motivating people and letting them know that there is an answer, that there is help and that there is hope and you’re not in it alone. That part of the music is really what I love the most. When I know I’m touching lives and changing lives, that’s the most important thing.

    Pictured: Goo-Goo Atkins and Erica Campbell, at The Style Suite Showroom Grand Opening

WilsonsGuide: My blog is all about where to eat, drink and be merry in Los Angeles, so do you have a favorite restaurant, or favorite lounge or anywhere you like to go?
Erica Campbell: I love Katana. It’s seriously one of our faves, but I could also do Wokcano. But I’m a real L.A. girl, so you got to include Roscoe’s in there, too. I just mix it up! I’m a little high end—I could do Crustacean, but I could do Roscoe’s. I could go any way (laughs).

* If you haven’t already, check out my post covering The Style Suite Grand Opening here and also my interview with Erica Campbell's sister Goo-Goo Atkins here!*

Pictured: Erica Campbell with models at The Style Suite Showroom Grand Opening