This week I have missed one of the world’s greatest parties when New Orleans celebrated its 152nd mardi gras — but for once I don’t feel too deprived. It’s not just because I’ve experienced this sensational float-fest twice, rather that there’s so much more to this fascinating city than mardi gras and its gaudy green, gold and purple glitter.
New Orleans is the most multi-cultural city in the US — to the point you wonder whether you’re in America at all. It’s not just the Creole cuisine, Spanish architecture and the liberal use of French — there’s also a seductive outlaw mentality which gives the city the refreshing edge New York used to have before it was totally sanitised.
The price, of course, is that at night you should walk only in safe neighbourhoods — but that’s equally true of many other cities.
Tourists will be carried away by the friendliness and exuberance of the people and the presence everywhere of music, colour and fine food and drink.
And just as New Orleans is no longer just about mardi gras, the city is no longer just about the French Quarter, either.
Those who have never visited will certainly want to explore the Quarter’s historic streets with its legendary names — Chartres, Toulouse and others recalling the city’s French past — though Bourbon Street, the most famous of all, is a bar-studded tourist trap that is best avoided.
The must-do tourist things in the Quarter include starting the day in the French Market with chicory-scented coffee and freshly-fried, sugar-dusted beignets. Or, if the appetite is up, with breakfast at Brennans, a veritable institution: think alcoholic eye-openers, artichokes and eggs cooked in more ways — and more exotic ways — than you can imagine, and in an old New Orleans setting.
In the evening, newer French Quarter restaurants like Iris or Nola, serving a contemporary take on Creole cuisine, is a better bet, preceded by Happy Hour at Pat O’Briens, a legendary bar with a terrace that enjoys a perennial buzz.
Jackson Square has a mardi gras museum and another telling the city’s story, but the best museum in the city has got to be the one devoted to World War II. Located close to where the 12,000 Normandy landing craft which helped beat the Germans were made, it tells the whole story of D-Day and what the war cost in American lives.
The museum sits close to the Warehouse District and on the edge of the Magazine Street shopping area which between them are where New Orleans is really at these days in terms of happening spots.
The daunting-to-pronounce Tchoupitoulas Street is now the city’s restaurant row, housing both the flagship restaurant of Emeril Lagasse — America’s Gordon Ramsay — and newer eateries like the elegant, highly-rated August and the more casual but also highly-rated Cochon (despite its name, there is much more on the menu than treif in its delicious Cajun-influenced country cuisine).
The street is also home to the Renaissance Arts Hotel, which makes an excellent and affordable base for this interesting neighbourhood. It sits next to, and across the street from, a whole slew of galleries since local art is another thing New Orleans is all about these days.
At the other end of the neighbourhood, running into the CBD (central business district), sister hotel Pêre Marquette recalls the art deco splendour of the Jazz Age, and has a highly-rated restaurant, MiLa.
Two great free-standing places to eat hereabouts are Donald Link’s Herbsaint and Luke’s, a buzzy relation of August which despite the French decor and menu, is extremely local in ambience.
The nicest way to explore Magazine Street, a long boulevard of eclectic shops and great eating opportunities, is to take the St Charles streetcar from the CBD into the Garden District. Here, on oak-lined leafy streets, sit dozens of gorgeous Greek Revival houses.
For Magazine Street — which runs parallel to St Charles — disembark anywhere after Colosseum Circle. Lovely for lunch or dinner on Magazine is Lilette (contemporary French) while Upperline, sitting just off Magazine a couple of miles uptown, serves excellent and eclectic Creole cuisine. An elegant light shoppers’ lunch is to be had at Sucre, presided over by a fine British pastry chef.
For all there is to see and do in New Orleans, music buffs will want to take a car and head into Cajun country, where there are many unmissable weekend stops for fans of the haunting local music and dance-halls of the bayous, where French is still spoken.
Breaux Bridge makes a great first stop, especially if you get a chance to catch a Zydeco breakfast — think tea-dance at the start of the day — at the Café des Amis. It’s quite something to see everyone downing Bloody Marys and dancing the two-step to a live band at 8.30. Many aficionados leave by 10 to catch the jam session at Savoy’s music shop in Eunice, packed with local fiddlers till noon on Saturday. From there it’s a short hop to Fred’s Lounge in Mamou, a dead little hamlet which comes to life only on Saturday, the one morning Fred’s opens for dancing and a live radio broadcast.
Not that there is any shortage of music in New Orleans itself, where jazz was born. People queue to hear traditional sounds at Preservation Hall, but a more comfortable option is to check out the many jazz bars in the Marigny district just across Esplanade Avenue from the Quarter.
Jazz fans could not do better than visit the home of Louis Armstrong this April when New Orleans’s annual Jazzfest celebrates its 40th anniversary with a terrific line-up that includes Wynton Marsalis, Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin and the slightly less jazzy James Taylor and Earth Wind and Fire.
One of the effects of Katrina is that, with visitor numbers lower than at their peak, it should still be possible to get a room during the festival.
Talking of Katrina, the so-called “devastation tour” of the Lower Ninth Ward and other neighbourhoods destroyed by hurricane and floods is a dubious new attraction — more mawkish even than walking tours of the French Quarter cemetery.
If Brad Pitt has his way, within a couple of years there won’t be much devastation to tour; he has bankrolled a scheme which is rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward and returning displaced residents to smart new floodproof homes on their original sites, while Harry Connick Jr and friends are doing the same for flooded-out performers who live at the nearby Musicians’ Village. Why are all these folks so keen to stay in a city regularly devastated by hurricanes? Because only the most creative, optimistic and irrational types would consider living there in the first place. But thank God for the risk-takers; without them America might have seen its most extraordinary city vanish into the swamp decades ago and then where would we go for jazz.
Go America (0800 316 0194; www.goamerica.co.uk)has return flights London to New Orleans from £446. The Renaissance Arts (www.renaissancehotels.com/msybr) and Pêre Marquette(www.renaissancehotels.com/msydt) have double rooms from around £70. Both are bookable on 08000 1927 1927. Holiday Autos (0871 472 5229; www.holidayautos.co.uk) offer a week’s car hire from £143 per week.
Jewish New Orleans
With a large and long-established community, New Orleans has 10 shuls including the historic Touro Synagogue, one of America’s oldest. Information at: http://neworleans.ujcfedweb.org and www.louisianakashrut.com