The Essence Music Festival (EMF) has yet again taken over the city of New Orleans, where hospitality, food and good times are the rule. When you step off the plane and see the EMF schedule integrated with the airport’s departure and arrival monitors, you know you’re in for an incredible experience. The 2011 Essence Music Festival finds me in NOLA for the first time, and those who have gotten wind that I’m a newbie have bent over backward to make sure it won’t be my last.

Ford Motor Company, a major sponsor of EMF, set up a three-day press junket for the event with the goal in mind of subtly exposing journalists to a few models of their 2011 fleet of vehicles as well as showing their guests a good time.  As day three gets under way and I head toward the home stretch of the 72-hour trip, it’s safe to say, mission accomplished.  This one, I don’t mind “writing home” about.

After being greeted at the airport by one of Ford’s outstanding hired drivers, I was immediately whisked away in our official vehicle for the experience — a plush, white 2012 Ford Explorer, which has undergone amazing design changes to reclaim its spot as one of top-selling SUVs in its class.  It all happened so fast, I was barely able to shake hands with the NOLA heat and humidity that I’ve been told is as present as a ticket-buying attendee at EMF each year.  But I wasn’t complaining … I just settled into the near arctic temps inside “my Explorer” for the weekend.

I met with other guests, and we made our way through the city that’s now as famous for its post-Katrina trials and triumphs as its thick-enough-to-cut-with-a-knife culture and finally arrived at the International House, just two blocks from the French Quarter, for lodging.  Amid the bustling energy of the festival and the French Quarter, the boutique hotel, created by Sean Cummings and LM Pagano, presents as a sanctuary, with Old World architecture and decor designed to indulges the senses.  The ambiance literally made me say “home sweet home,” albeit only for a few days.

From there, it was uphill. With our hosts, our handsome fleet of 2011 Ford Explorers and drivers with the professionalism of the Secret Service seamlessly doing all the grunge work, we were taken away from whatever our realities were prior to the trip, which certainly will be awaiting us patiently once we return.  Along with the festival attendance, here’s what we did:

Day 1:

Greeting inside International House’s intimate LOA lounge with hors d’oeuvres and the signature drink of Patrón and champagne, served in a champagne flute. I’d never tried the drink combo before but, kids, if you try it at home, know that it’s a sneaky one.

Dinner at the world-famous Emeril’s Restaurant. A menu that offered everything from shrimp atop mac and cheese to cast iron-roasted beef and short ribs left me inhaling three courses that included a salad of mixed baby greens and sun-dried tomatoes, sweet barbecue glazed salmon with andouille-potato hash and a mouth-watering vanilla bean creme brulee. It was my first brush with New Orleans cuisine, and my mouth was happy.

Day 2:

Continental breakfast at International House

City tour with native New Orleanian

Private brunch at Calcasieu (the parish its chef, Donald Link, grew up in).  Fried cheese grits, blue crab beignets and Louisiana shrimp salad appetizers set the stage for pan-braised catfish courtbouillon, smothered with tomatoes, peppers and fresh basil, punctuated with chocolate chip bread pudding for dessert.

Three hours of French Quarter reveling

Day 3:

Continental breakfast at International House

Pre-Fourth of July Lunch at VooDoo BBQ (slow cooked, fall-off-the-bone barbecue “joint” born “out of the love of the great city of New Orleans”)

gerald radford