Lovin' N'awlins

I have had the pleasure of visiting New Orleans four times, the last being this past week. Although the weather was good (27 degrees, Celsius), there were a few brief showers and the last day it dropped to +10. My recommendation would be to go in April or May, when the temperature is steady and the summer heat has not yet set in.

So what is there to do in NOLA (local term for the city - New Orleans, Louisiana)? Where to begin? It has to be one of the best cities for tourism in the world, catering to everyone’s pleasures, especially those who enjoy great food and good jazz music.

Five or six days is probably enough to see the highlights of the city. The location of your stay is important, especially if you plan on walking a lot. Everyone talks about the French Quarter as the place to be, and it is a unique part of the city, but the warehouse district is a few blocks away and has many hotels, at substantially less cost. In fact, on my previous visits I stayed at the Sonesta on Bourbon Street, and as great as it was, it was noisy and hectic.

Speaking of Bourbon Street (named after King Louis of France who’s surname was BourBON (emphasis on the BON)), it has changed a great deal since my first visit in 1982. Back then there were lots of street musicians, food vendors and tourists. Now it is sex shops, hookers and tourists. Sure, there are still a few good eateries, but most have become quite seedy.

The rest of the French Quarter, however, is picturesque, with amazing buildings in various architectural styles. Most of the activity, aside from Bourbon Street, is centred on the Jackson Square area. The Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France is the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States and is quite elegant to visit. Musicians play their own brand of Jazz on the square in front of the church and Decatur Street, the main thoroughfare of the French Quarter is lined with restaurants and souvenir shops.

One place you must try is The Café Du Monde (on Decatur Street). It is the home of the official Beignet, a New Orleans tradition. Coffee and three ‘donuts’ will run you under $5, but avoid the morning lineups by visiting in the afternoon.

My favourite restaurants in the French Quarter are Dickie Brennan’s (best steaks in North America), Tableau (excellent Drum fish almandine), Jimmy J’s Café (best Po’ Boys in N’Awlins) and the Chophouse on Magazine Street. Be adventurous and try some real Creole or Cajun food in any of the hundreds of eateries in the area.

For the culturists I would recommend the Louisiana Museum, next to the Cathedral in Jackson Square. It gives an interesting and concise history of how the area was settled by French, Germans and Canadians, as well as the historic contribution by the free people of colour, prior to the American takeover in the early 1800’s.

A brand new museum, dedicated to the American contribution in World War II, is located on Magazine Street about 7 or 8 blocks from the French Quarter. A cluster of art galleries and smaller museums are found in the same area.

If shopping is your thing the boutiques along Magazine Street, in the warehouse district will help empty your pockets and if that is not enough, the Riverwalk mall will certainly help in the quest. If you still have a few dollars left you can visit Harrah’s Casino, but note that smoking is permitted (it is in many restaurants, as well).

Two other areas to visit are the Garden District (a 2 hour walking tour will be perfect and usually includes a visit to a cemetery, which is a unique and interesting experience in itself), and the great southern plantations.

Oak Alley is a perfect example of an old American, sugar cane manor whereas the Laura estate is a great example of a restored Creole plantation. Laura was almost demolished a few years ago until the owners discovered the famous story of ‘Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby’ was written there, and consequently responsible for saving the place.

The Garden district is filled with 200 year old mansions protected by the historical society and owned by the wealthier crowd, including John Goodman, Sandra Bullock and Nicholas Cage (although the latter lost his when he declared bankruptcy a few years ago).

New Orleans Cemeteries (as morbid as the subject may seem) offer a unique and different perspective on burying people. The lack of bedrock and a swampy water table make burial underground next to impossible, hence crypts above ground are the burial style of choice, complete with self-contained cremation technology. As I mentioned, a tour is necessary to get a good overview of this unique method of interment.

Another interesting district or area is Frenchmen Street, known for its great food and unique music. The area is still undiscovered by the majority of tourists and is therefore frequented by locals. Be careful not to venture too far out (when you get to Washington Square turn around, as it is not a safe area), as there are many homeless kids living on the outskirts of the area.

A riverboat cruise, a visit to Louis Armstrong Park and shopping at Saks (in the Weston Hotel) are also great activities, but most of all, eat some crawdads, sip on a hurricane and watch the people. If you haven’t been, be sure to add N’Awlins to your bucket list.

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