If you think touring New Orleans means visiting crowded French Quarter bars or tourist-filled Jackson Square, think again.
There’s a lot more to New Orleans than the Bourbon Street cliché, and one of the best ways to see it is to cruise it.
Confederacy of Cruisers, a local company offering bike tours of New Orleans neighborhoods, provides the cruiser - a quiet, coaster-braked bicycle with upright handlebars and overstuffed spring seats. You’ll barely feel the inevitable pothole bumps riding on the wide, thick tires. If you haven’t ridden a bicycle since childhood, don’t worry. You can pedal these with ease.
The bike baskets are perfect for carrying personal items, like cameras. Helmets and water bottles are also provided. Bikes are sized according to height, allowing for a more comfortable fit.
Taking its name from A Confederacy of Dunces, the classic John Kennedy Toole novel that features the particularities of out-of-the way New Orleans neighborhoods and a rich cast of characters, co-owners Jeff Shyman and Lycia Ferguson started the tour company out of their home with five bicycles three years ago.
“We wanted to show people the cultural gumbo that is New Orleans in a fun way,” Shyman said.
Since those early days, their bike fleet has grown exponentially and they have taken more than a thousand visitors on historical and cultural cruising tours through New Orleans neighborhoods including Treme, Faubourg Marigny and the Bywater.
Participants can choose from a variety of slow-paced bicycle tours of neighborhoods with the “The Creole Tour,” “The History of Drinking” and “The Culinary Bike Tour.” “The Creole Tour” offers lessons on architecture, history and culture and the fascinating lives of the landowners in the area. In Faubourg Marigny, for instance, you pedal past blocks that were once part of a plantation the owner lost over a lifetime of craps games.
On the “The History of Drinking” tour, cruisers learn the drinks and drinkers that New Orleans has spawned from the early days of rum smuggling to the present day. This is the only tour with an age requirement of 21 or older, since riders partake in several mandatory stops for cocktails along the way.
The longest tour of the three, “The Culinary Tour,” offers tastes of the history of New Orleans from the earliest French settlers to the African and Italian immigrants. You many sample anything from Senegalese fried plantains to locally made cannoli as you pedal from meal to meal.
Restaurants along the route are guaranteed to be well off the tourist beat, but offer some of the best meals in the city. Riders are advised to come hungry and ignore calorie counting for the day.
Tour groups are limited to eight at a time.
“We like to keep the tours small because we don’t want to burden our neighbors by tying up traffic and creating congestion on the street,” Ferguson said. It also makes it easier to hear what the guide says.
Shyman and Ferguson share tour duties with Lara Desmond and Cassady Cooper. Cooper is the only New Orleans native and is of Creole descent. His family has been in New Orleans since the 1700s.
Each tour guide has researched and taken a part in designing their tour.
Shyman, a history buff, did his research reading books and taking classes at the Cabildo in order to offer tourists accurate historical information.
“Cassady and I are always researching and learning new facts and anecdotes that we’ll add. We find that we have to alter our route every once in a while or else we find ourselves staying at one spot too long and lecturing,” Shyman explained.
Desmond, a bartender for 12 years, penned “The History of Drinking” tour. Desmond still works at the R Bar on Royal Street.
Shyman said the tours are never the same, because they take the interests of the participants into account.
“We have some who are very interested in Katrina and want to explore that information. A lot of people from the North have never heard of the Free People of Color, so another time we may explore that more on a tour,” Shyman explained.
“The hardest thing we have to do is condense all the information we have so it doesn’t end up being a 16-hour tour,” he added.
Confederacy of Cruisers is slated to have its storefront office open on the Royal Street side of Washington Square Park, between Frenchmen and Elysian Fields Avenue, at the end of August. Ferguson boasts that business has grown steadily thanks to word of mouth and positive comments posted on recommendation websites including Yelp and Trip Advisor.
Shyman said the idea for his business came to him while he and Ferguson were on a trip to Peru.
“We were traveling in the Colca Canyon and decided to take a group tour,” Ferguson said. Due to an impending riot, the tour took a chaotic turn, and they ended up having to leave on a bus in the wee hours of the morning. Shyman planted himself next to the tour guide for the next 10 hours.
Shyman explained, “The guide was a local who told stories honestly and refreshingly and shared his passion for his culture.”
For the rest of the tour, Shyman began brainstorming on how he could create a tour business in New Orleans.
“It took until I was 38 years old to realize all my loves of biking, history and talking were finally going to amount to something,” he said.
“None of us would give up this job for anything,” Shyman said.
Colette Dean is a freelance writer and avid cyclist who lives in Baton Rouge with her husband and three children.