It’s already seven years since the fearsome Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the fabled ‘Crescent City’.
Sadly there are still many unhealed scars in some of the poorer outlying suburbs but it’s business back to normal downtown in ‘The Big Easy’, which has regained its crown as America’s fun city par excellence.
The tourism industry now generates more than US$5 billion a year and 70,000 jobs for the city. With it wealth of clubs, bars and other music venues, New Orleans is justly renowned as a great place for the young but, significantly, visitors aged between 50 and 64 make up the largest demographic – accounting for 38 per cent of the total – reflecting the fact that New Orleans is fully geared to cater for all ages of visitor.
Most of the action centres on the grid of atmosphere-laden narrow streets leading away from the Mississippi River waterfront and Jackson Square, named after US president to be Andrew Jackson at the end of the war of 1812.
Presiding over the north side of the square are the triple spires of Saint. Louis Cathedral, the oldest continuously operating church in North America. The original house of worship on this site was destroyed by a hurricane in 1722, four years after the city’s foundation, Four years later, its successor went up in flames. The present building was completed in 1851 and was designated a cathedral in 1964, subsequently hosting visits by two Popes Paul VI and Jean Paul II.
Of course, a stern-wheel paddle steamer ride on the mighty Mississippi is a tourist must. At 2,300 miles in length and draining 31 US states and two Canadian provinces, this is America’s mightiest river and the fourth longest in the world.
Take the ferry
Cruise ships sail from New Orleans to ports throughout the Caribbean, Central America and beyond. If you don’t have the sea legs for a long voyage try at least to take the ferry that plies between downtown and the satellite city of Algiers, just across the river, providing a spectacular panorama of the New Orleans skyline.
A guided walking tour provides a useful overview before you start exploring deeper. If you feel less energetic then hop on one of the famed tramcars – yes, the colourful wooden vehicles featured in the classic Tennessee Williams’ play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’.
As you’d expect from a town with such a strong French connection, Food is very much on the menu for any visit to New Orleans and you really will be spoilt for choice with all manner of ethnicities represented in the local cookbook but Cajun and Creole cuisine as the definite stars of the show in these parts.
To find the ingredients that weave the magic, take a stroll down to the waterfront French market, originally built in 1870 by architect Joseph Abeillard on the site of an old established Indian trading post, then reconstructed in 1891 following a devastating hurricane – proof that the Mississippi Delta has long suffered from disastrous freak natural events yet always, somehow, manages to pick itself up again afterwards.
New Orleans burgeoning festival seasons kicks off with the 29 French Quarter Fest (April 12-15) – the largest free music spectacle in the South – featuring 800 local musicians, more than 60 of New Orleans’ finest restaurants, family fun with two areas designated for kids, and a return of fireworks on the Mississippi. Attended by around 500,000, this lively event brings a whopping US$ 245-million into the local economy.
Straddling the cusp of April and May (April 27-20 and May 3-4), the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has long been a staple of the spring festival calendar. It’s a seven-day celebration of popular music. 2012’s edition featured the Eagles, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Springsteen in its star-studded line-up.
The New Orleans Wine & Food Experience (May 22-26) is celebrating its 21 year of raising money for local charities while showcasing local food and chefs and national and international wines.
The well-known Tremé neighbourhood was 200 years old last year. The area gave rise to jazz and brass marching bands, Mardi Gras Indians, several prominent leaders of the civil rights movement and, amid its often spectacular architecture, is now home to such key cultural institutions as the New Orleans African American Museum, the Backstreet Cultural Museum, St. Augustine Catholic Church, Armstrong Park and more.
In New Orleans, funerals are more joyous celebrations than mournful wakes and the cemeteries are among its most popular tourist attractions. It’s music more than anything that draws visitors to a city that’s reinvented itself in the wake of Katrina. Be your taste jazz, blues, soul, R&B, zydeco, gospel, country or good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll, the Crescent City will please your eyes. Add the aromas of all that great food to please your nose and all those wonderful colonial-style buildings to feast the eyes and you’ve got a winner.
“Our plans are to reach 13.7 million visitors and US$11-billlion of visitor spending by 2018,” says Convention & Visitors Bureau president and CEO Stephen Perry.
“Visitor demand for New Orleans is on a steady growth trajectory. Of course, tourism doesn’t just happen on its own – it is fuelled by marketing, public relations and aggressive marketing strategies, and that costs money.
“It’s a worthy investment because tourism generates jobs, expands our cultural economy, helps restore our core infrastructure and in the long run generates new tax revenue that benefits every citizen in every one of our neighbourhood.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu and council member Kristin Palmer recently announced a package of reforms that have been designed to transform the ground transportation experience for the city’s visitors. These measures will address such things as improving both vehicle and driver standards, providing accessible taxis for those with disabilities and implementing tough new rules and regulations over taxi operation.
How to get there
There are currently no direct scheduled flights to New Orleans from the UK or Ireland but there are plenty of connecting flights via Miami, Atlanta and other hubs,
How to get around
The Big Easy is a flat, compact and therefore easy to walk city, with low crime rates in its tourist areas.
The city is currently engaged in a major project to upgrade all its transportation facilities. Cabs are cheap and plentiful, many now with disabled access, while there are also lots of buses and, of course, those famous tramcars. Horse-drawn carriage rides around the French Quarter are very popular.
Where to stay
I stayed at the comfortable Maison Dupuy Hotel (www.maisondupuy.com), conveniently located on Toulouse street, right at the heart of the atmosphere-laden French Quarter. A 200-guestroom boutique property, the Maison Dupuy offers an outdoor saltwater swimming pool, set in a lush courtyard, as well as a fitness centre, complimentary high-speed internet access and other amenities.
What and where to eat and drink
New Orleans’ highly cosmopolitan nature is reflected in its kaleidoscopic array of eating places, featuring the cuisines of dozens of different ethnic groups – with everything from funky street food to traditional haute cuisine and cutting edge culinary innovation (it was here that iconic chef Paul Prudhomme revolutionised American kitchen techniques with his high temperature seared and blackened Creole dishes,
Cajun food – gumbo, jambalaya, steamed crawfish – is Louisiana’s gift to good living.
Arnaud’s Jazz Bistro: (www.arnaudsrstaurant.com).
A French Quarter landmark on the corner of Bourbon Street and Bienville Street. Reeking Old World elegance this always-busy bistro mixes classic Creole cuisine and ever-attentive service with the Dixieland music of a strolling trio. If you prefer, you can eat more casually at the bar.
Breakfast at Court of Two Sisters: (www.courtoftwosisters.com)
On Royal Street. An “all you can eat’ buffet format but sophisticated with it. Aim to get a table outdoors in the shady courtyard – a real haven on hot summer days.
The jazz brunch here features more than 80 different items – everything from eggs Benedict, grits and grillades to turtle soup, jambalaya, crawfish Louise and shrimp étoufée – or you can opt to go à la carte of an evening.
631 Rue Royale is the address at which the Camors sisters ran their 19 Century fashion store. Previously, the 600 block was home to five state governors, two state supreme court judges a future justice of the US Supreme Court and a future US president – leasing to its ‘Governors Row’ nickname.
Palm court Jazz Café: Stars and legends of the Crescent City music scene perform nightly in a unique casually elegant that is redolent with the atmosphere of old New Orleans – and the hostess is Nina Buck, an extrovert Yorkshire lass who has lived in the French Quarter since the 1950s.
This is one of the few venues where you can hear and enjoy traditional Dixieland jazz. The food’s good too, featuring such items s shrimp remoulade, crawfish Nantua, jambalaya and pork Maconnais.