The Drifter Hotel is not an easy place to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Tucked away on a confusing portion of Tulane Avenue not far from the Courthouse, it’s very close to the Brown Derby gas station that used to be stomping grounds for patrons of New Orleans' seedy underbelly. The once desolate area is slowly morphing into an up-and-coming corridor. In the last six months, several of the dilapidated, flea-ridden, pimp-frequented hotels that locals have long been accustomed to driving quickly by on Tulane have been purchased by investors who plan to bring back a 70’s feel, under the guise of trendy boutique hotels that hope to lure the sort of young, hip, bohemian transplants who previously would have only found themselves on the Avenue to make a court date, if then.
The hotel’s aesthetic doesn’t resemble anything else New Orleans has to offer. It’s more reminiscent of a hotel on the outskirts of Los Angeles or just off the side of Route 66 somewhere in the deserts of the Southwest. The lobby has a single desk with one employee doing double duty checking people into the hotel and signing people into the pool, which costs $10 per person and seems to be the basis of the Drifter's appeal. A lone security guard stands idly against the wall making sure no one sneaks by the front desk without paying.
What remains of the small lobby is a sitting area with drably colored, mid-century modern furnishings and a nice wraparound bar that extends to the outside, where pool-goers can order drinks right by the pool. The whole façade is quite enjoyable, especially sitting inside at the bar gazing out at the raucous scene taking place around the pool, which is where I sat and enjoyed several Avery Liliko’i Kepolo beers with a young manager (mid 20s, probably) whose position at the hotel never became exactly clear. He sat at the end of the bar on his Macbook Pro, occasionally asking the bartenders vaguely business-related questions. He was friendly and spoke to me more about the place as an experience than a business, which is absolutely the hotel’s vibe — for better or for worse, depending on your perspective.
“We’re just trying to do something unique and different here,” he tells me. “I mean look, we’ve got a pirate ship out by the pool.” And sure enough, there, across the bar, beyond the pool sat a Mardi Gras float sized pirate ship with a Jolly Roger flying, upon which numerous scantily clad young men and women climbed and swayed to the pounding rhythms of dance music.
“Do people actually stay here?” I asked the manager.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “We have a lot of people who live around here, who just come over and stay on the weekends.”
It makes sense, because at least for the moment there may be no more interesting place in New Orleans to spend a weekend.
The pool area at the Drifter Hotel feels like you just stepped foot inside a hip, self-aware porn shoot directed by the alter-ego of Entourage series regular, Billy Walsh, the art house filmmaker who at some point in the third season gives up indie filmmaking to pursue a career as a porn director under the alias Wally Balls, claiming he will "bring the class back to porn." It’s a place where Axl Rose would feel positively at home.
The inhibitions and the rules are loose by the Drifter pool. The crowd is youthful to the point where individuals of a certain age would likely feel uncomfortable being in attendance. Clothing is optional from the waist up, and a vast majority of the patrons felt comfortable taking advantage of the option.
“It’s clothing optional, and I didn’t feel like others were staring,” a young woman named Aubrey tells me. “But there are three cameras I spotted.”
In a countercultural sense, the Drifter Hotel brings to mind the good old days of the Country Club in the Bywater where clothing was entirely optional and you felt like you were stepping into something that was an in-the-know secret. At this point, the two places don’t even compare. The Country Club is like a tasteful swimsuit shoot while the Drifter Hotel is like a pool scene out of Animal Kingdom.
“Umm, I like it more than the Ace!” Aubrey shared with me. “They’re a lot nicer and they actually give you towels.”
She was, of course, tossing shade at the hip boutique hotel in the CBD with a pool on the roof, trendy bars and rooms, and employees so ingeniously chosen for their fashion sensibilities and appearance that its often impossible to tell the difference between employees and clientele. The pool on top of the Ace Hotel is a more hoity-toity experience than the Drifter — by a long shot — with most cocktails costing over $10, upscale restaurant caliber food being grilled feet from the pool, and bourgeois bros and jet-setting gals posing by the three foot deep, mostly decorative pool like models in a SKYY Vodka print ad.
It seems to me, that at least for now, the Country Club and the Ace Hotel have been supplanted by the Drifter Hotel as the pool-fix spot of the moment.
The music at the Drifter, played by what I suppose is called a DJ these days, a man with an Apple computer and a questionable haircut, is loud and not very good, but it doesn't matter because it's music and all that really seems to matter is an unbridled sort of sexual freedom that doesn't quite make sense. It's as if everyone could immediately start having sex with each other any minute but they don't because they're all above the carnal things in life that they're oddly parodying. It’s the ultimate see-and-be-seen place, but everyone in attendance is too cool to actually intermingle. It’s a high school dance for the Instagram generation. How could one possibly be asked to socialize in real life when they’re too busy posing for pictures to instantly send out to their legions of followers?
The beer selection is excellent — crafts brews abound and the prices are cheap enough ($4 to $5 for the various cans of beer.)
The pool is small and crowded, with a clear-plastic catwalk crossing the far end of it, and is the glue that holds the whole thing together. If it weren't for the pool it would just be people getting weird in a parking lot.
The place reminds me of the line in the pilot of True Detective where Matthew Mcconaughey’s character looks around at a desolate, shuttered strip mall and says the whole thing feels like “somebody's memory of a town.” You can almost feel reality seeping into the ether of the internet. You can sense the beginning of something happening, where something entirely different lived before it. It’s not about how we feel about the change, it’s about the fact it’s happening. It’s about going along for the ride or refusing to buy the ticket. The feeling is free but old, trendy but nostalgic, isolating yet open.
Off in the distance, over the hotel, beyond lightly swaying palm fronds, dusty looking in the sun’s haze, the tops of the downtown skyscrapers can be seen. Beneath them, the devil city lives, smoldering in wet humid heat. The Drifter is an odd amalgamation of everything New Orleans, post-Katrina, embodies. The openness and essence of New Orleans channeled into something new by new people; it's almost certain no one in attendance is from New Orleans, but it's equally as certain that New Orleans means something very important to them, in their own way. My advice would be to see it before it becomes corrupted.