The city that was four-fifths underwater after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 is now the go-to-destination.
If you are one of those people still visioning New Orleans as being swamped with water, awash in decay and generally not on the tourist radar screen . . . you would be horribly wrong.
In the last few months, “The Big Easy’’ has held a big-time Mardi Gras including countless parades, festivals and food events. This weekend it will host the Final Four basketball tournament and next year (2013) it will host professional football’s Super Bowl in the rebuilt Superdome.
After just returning from a few nights and days in the Crescent City, I can sincerely say that not only is city back, it is thriving.
We were hard-pressed to find the accommodations in the Garden District any of the weekends in late March or April for a quick visit. So we changed our plans and arrived on a Sunday in early March and departed on Tuesday.
The city greeted us on our arrival day with perfect weather even though rain had been predicted. The sun was shining, it was warm, but not too warm and the air was filled with fragrance.
The Garden District lived up to its name. Magnolias and dogwood trees, not to mention the live oaks were blooming. Everywhere large shrubs were wearing a brilliant coat of green. Clematis and roses surrounding small cottages and large mansions were brimming with color.
Numerous beautiful parks, grounded in a rich legacy, showed no unusual signs of decay or disrepair.
The Lower Garden District, the Garden District, Uptown or the Esplanade Ridge all offering residences with some elements such as stacked and covered front porches, stately box columns and sometimes a front door off to one side all require constant maintaining.
But, the Garden District needed no reinventing, because it didn’t suffer unusual damage from the hurricane. This historic residential district which includes many boutiques, shops and restaurants offers a uniquely Southern brand of hospitality.
After we (another couple traveling with us) checked in at The Prytania Oaks, our bed-and-breakfast we walked a short block over to St. Charles Avenue to catch the historic streetcar that runs the length of that storied wide avenue. The trolley can also deliver you to downtown and the French Quarter, as well.
New Orleans is a city best explored by foot or trolley or cab. Park your car in a safe place (the parking lot of our inn) and use it only for forays to areas which you can’t reach by other means, which we did to visit the Lower Ninth Ward.
As is often the case top lodgings in any city often are the most luxurious or best known, this is definitely not true in New Orleans were there are a number of wonderful private residences, bed-and-breakfasts and small inns, most privately owned that offer either well-stocked kitchenettes, microwaves, coffeepots , internet access, free parking and a bountiful breakfast.
Our bed-and-breakfast featured well-appointed antique/modern furnishings, great amenities, and a beautiful enclosed courtyard where you could take your breakfast or enjoy outdoors. The Prytania Oaks Hotel belongs to a Garden District Collection of Fine Boutique Hotels owned by a local family. It includes the Prytania Park Hotel, and The Queen Anne all located close to one another.
For more information: (800) 862-1984 or (504) 524-0427 or www.prytaniaoakshotel.com.
In a city that offers much to see and do for a short visit you must choose and concentrate on how to spend your time without spending too much of it getting around.
Downtown offers big-city shopping, restaurants, large hotels, restaurants and even Harrah’s New Orleans Casino on Canal Street, just a short distance from the Convention Center and the French Quarter which is open 24/7.
The French Quarter offers unique shops, restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, historic cafes, such as Café du Monde for beignets.
In fact, on a morning visit to the French Market and that area, there were literally lines around the block to get into Café du Monde and the Central Market grocery store.
In a city with countless good restaurants you can always find one in which to dine, purchase a coffee, a cocktail, New Orleans po’boy, barbecued oysters or shrimp in any area of the city with a little planning.
You can purchase Aunt Sally’s Original Creamy Pralines at shops in the French Quarter, but also in shops in other neighborhoods.
We were amazed to realize that good bakeries in the city are few and far between. Our mission to find one open on a Monday failed. So you must partake of that good French bread in restaurants, delis or bars.
For you information, planning takes on new meaning when figuring what restaurants, cafes, shops and museums stay open on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays.
For example, Mahoney’s where we dined on some great po’boys on Tuesday, wasn’t open on Sunday. Couchon Butcher (930 Tchoupitoulas Street in the Warehouse District) stays open only to 3 p.m. on Sunday.
Around the corner from our bed-and-breakfast we had an enjoyable late night dinner at Mia’s, a restaurant which offers terrace dining overlooking St. Charles’ Avenue and the trolley.
On Magazine Street (a long shopping, restaurant area which runs parallel to St. Charles Avenue) in the Garden District you can take in any number of establishments offering refreshments from Sucre’, a sweet boutique with fabulous macaroons, pastries, chocolate and gelato, to the Bulldog Beer Garden which offers a patio with a waterfall adorned with beer nozzles as faucets
Classic south Louisiana cuisine can be found throughout the city, but reservations generally seem to be needed.
We made reservations for a late fixe’ price lunch at the celebrated August restaurant, Chef John Besh’s award-winning establishment which is located downtown across the street from the Windsor Court Hotel (an award-winning property) for 1:30 pm. on Monday.
Even though the hostess called to confirm that we would be arriving on time (which we did) we were seated 20 minutes late and only at that time because we kept requesting our table.
It seems that the restaurant was not fully staffed that day and didn’t expect as many diners as actually appeared. Nevertheless, our meal which turned out to be excellent as promised got off to a bad start since we had purposely not eaten a lot during the morning so we could enjoy the three courses at mid-day.
Our sightseeing plans included a visit to the Warehouse or Arts District, where we happened upon the studio of Steve Martin Fine Art. His gallery has been awarded a Fodor’s star (travel guide) for a must see art experience. And European Magazine, “Hailed his gallery as the best small art gallery for exuberant creativity.””
Mr. Martin fortunately was in when we arrived and therefore he could tell us about his art and patrons which included many in the area where we now reside at Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, including commissions for his unusual wire sculptures at the Watercolor Inn.
As mentioned before because of time limitations and closing dates we were just able to get quick visits or exterior views of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (part of the University of New Orleans), the fabulous Contemporary Arts Center, with its replica of a jeep made of cardboard boxes in the lobby, The National WWII Museum (with its own extensive lobby display) and the Civil War Museum.
We were able to take a quick tour by car of the Lower Ninth Ward, the area of New Orleans which bore the brunt of the subsequent flooding of the Mississippi River. What is happening in this area is the subject of many written articles, TV shows and even movies.
Brad Pitt is helping to build new homes and the pastel ones already built are unique, contemporary and built higher above ground.
Many who venture into this area to have a look-see are told to go during the day or on an organized tour. We agreed with this advice. Still you should see the “Brad Pitt houses” several of the planned 76 solar-paneled, pastel-hue homes , which are being built, Fats Domino’s black and yellow mini-mansion and several volunteer groups (either church/school related) working on cleaning up the area.
This area is easily reached once you exit the Clairborne Avenue Bridge (which crosses the Industrial Canal which flooded during Katrina) and make a left turn. Drive through the area and don’t venture further into the other neighborhoods still covered with rampant over-growth.
To reach the Lower Ninth Ward you will travel through Treme, an area which also sustained damage from the hurricane but is now enjoying an economic boost because a television show about the area is being filmed there. We saw tons of equipment, trucks and hundreds of extras lining the streets.
The good times are once again rolling in the Big Easy.