story and photos by Kayte Deioma
(Updated 4/1/07) From gracious plantations and historic homes to alligators preening for swamp tours; from the captivating images in Rue Royal art galleries to the jazz, blues, salsa, rock n roll and karaoke emanating from Bourbon Street bars; from the National WWII Museum to the VooDoo Spiritual Temple, New Orleans is open for business. The only things missing are the tourists – which makes it a particularly good time for a visit.
The Grande Dame of the city, the French Quarter or Vieux Carré (literally old quarter), came through the storm with a few cuts and bruises, but with a swish of her feather mask has replaced her sequins and is quickly sewing up the few remaining tears in her Mardi Gras regalia. If you’ve visited before, you’ll be more aware of the empty store fronts, where shops couldn’t keep up their $9,000/month rents without the steady flow of customers. Nevertheless, the lady’s charm twinkles through her flower-laden wrought iron balconies and her unquenchable sparkle of life vanquishes any thought of her early demise.
You know you’re in New Orleans when you sit around the table after a great meal talking about where you’re going to get your next great meal. The obsession with food affects locals and visitors alike. Whether Creole, Cajun, Soul Food or fusion, the cuisine is one of the region’s biggest draws, and there is no shortage of fabulous food post- Katrina.
It is traditional on a visit to New Orleans to be nudged gently into the day with a leisurely chickory-laced café au lait and an order of beignet (pronounced benyay) at the Café du Monde at the foot of Jackson Square. The clippity clop of passing horse-drawn carriages syncopates the ever-present jazz soundtrack of musicians playing for tips on the sidewalk. They will sell you the audio memory on CD, minus the hoof beat. The café is seat-yourself, so pounce when you see chairs being vacated. Only tourists wait for a table to be cleared before staking a claim.
It would be blissfully easy to spend the days going from three hour lunches to three hour dinners, especially on a Sunday, when many restaurants offer a Jazz Brunch. If you absolutely must fit in some sightseeing or a cooling cruise down the Mississippi on the Steamboat Natchez, you can grab a quick muffalletta at Central Grocery or a po’ boy at Mother’s or Johnny’s to cut down on time spent lunching.
Of course, you can always do your sightseeing and dining at the same place. Historic restaurants like Arnaud’s and Antoine’s have their own museums featuring the restaurants’ and their proprietors’ roles in Mardi Gras and other New Orleans social events. You can visit the exhibits of Mardi Gras Queen costumes and photos for free, even if the dining room is out of your budget. Many of the hotels also have exceptional restaurants, like the Hunt Room at the Monteleone and the New Orleans Grill at the Windsor Court.
Restaurant dishes may have similar names from venue to venue, but a gumbo, jambalaya or étouffée can be a completely different dish, depending on the whimsy of the chef. The greatest surprise to me was the bread pudding which seems to have become the competitive dish among pastry chefs, each trying to outdo the other in embellishments on a theme. I couldn’t pick one favorite, but the banana bread pudding in praline sauce at Galatoire’s, the version with caramel sauce and almonds at Tujaque’s and the white chocolate variety with brandy sauce at Mother’s are all outstanding. The hot apple bread pudding with whiskey sauce at the Gumbo Shop is no slouch either, but packs more sugar per bite than the other three.
Click for an appetizing New Orleans Restaurant Slide Show (High speed connection recommended. Click run to start, escape to stop.)
A Good Night’s Sleep
All but two hotels have reopened in the French Quarter and neighboring Central Business District, providing over 30,000 hotel rooms. The hot and humid summer is the slow season in New Orleans, but everything is air conditioned and you can get a lot more for your money. Great accommodations are seriosly discounted in the off season, so you can plan a luxury getaway on family budget.
Service workers have been among the hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, living predominantly in the devastated low-lying areas. Rental properties are now few and far between and rents have tripled, making it difficult for most service workers with families to return.
New Orleans hotels and restaurants have made a valiant effort to track down, take care of and keep their staff employed, but have nevertheless had to re-open with about a third of their pre-Katrina staff. There are a few places where this is noticeable, such as limited room service some places – but for the most part service remains seamless.
There are a variety of traditional historic walking tours of the French Quarter, including a free tour that leaves every morning at 9:30 from the Jean Lafitte State Park Visitors Center on Decatur. If that’s too early, the Cabildo Museum in the Arsenal on Jackson Square, one of the few State museums that is open, offers $12 walking tours of the French Quarter, about half of what some commercial tour companies charge. Grayline offers a unique Southern Comfort Tour for those interested in the history of New Orleans’ bars, restaurants and distinctive libations. Historic New Orleans Tours guides a Weekend Jazz Walk. Most companies have some variation of a VooDoo/Cemetery Tour and/or Ghost Tour.
Carriage tours still depart from Jackson Square as soon as there are enough people to fill a carriage. If you want a private carriage tour you can pay the full rate yourself.
Disaster tours have been getting a lot of publicity, not all favorable. They give a good overview of the devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in New Orleans and surrounding areas. While this may sound morbid, it is really helpful to get some background on the infrastructure, ecosystem and social system before and after the storm. It is ok to take photos of the devastation. In fact, it’s important to take those images back to the people back home who didn’t make the trip. But residents and volunteers complain that they feel like animals in a zoo when people pull up and snap photos of them without asking. So shoot the debris, and just give a friendly wave to the people. (If you’re on your own, most people are usually happy to tell you what they’ve been through if you show a genuine interest.)
GrayLine’s big tour buses are no longer allowed into the hardest hit 9 th Ward flood area, so they visit the two other levee breach neighborhoods. A local company, Tours by Isabelle, runs smaller vans that can go to all three areas. Some hotels use GrayLine as their concierge service, in which case, you might have to look beyond your hotel concierge desk for access to local tour companies.
In addition to the boutiques, souvenir shops and galleries in the French Quarter, the Jax Brewery shopping complex, the Riverwalk and the Shops at Canal Place are all open for business. For the more adventurous, the unique and funky shops and galleries on Magazine Street from the Central Business District to Uptown offer an alternative New Orleans shopping experience. There are several different shopping and dining areas on Magazine Street, broken up by residential stretches.
The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau website, www.NewOrleansCVB.com, updates the status on which hotels, restaurants, clubs and attractions are open and which are still under construction.