New Orleans Overview
What's it really like in the Big Easy after Katrina? Read our Letter from ... New Orleans.
No longer "closed for business" in the wake of the disastrous Hurricane Katrina, which struck the city in August 2005, New Orleans has reawakened with a bang. Major tourist magnets, such as the Superdome, the Aquarium of the Americas, and the Brennan dynasty's Commander's Palace Restaurant, are among those that have reopened.
Indeed, on a recent visit to the city's downtown district, it was almost hard to tell the storm had struck at all. The French Quarter was like normal, with Bourbon Street revelries at full blast, the antique shops and art galleries of Royal Street offering wares both touristic and collection-worthy, and the Friday lunchers were most definitely packing it in at Galatoire's.
And cruise travelers, who had in pre-Katrina years made New Orleans one of the most popular homeports in America, now have a reason to visit (or return, depending). Norwegian Cruise Line maintains a seasonal presence (fall, winter, early spring) there with Norwegian Spirit and Carnival Fantasy offers year round sailings.
There's another reason for cruise ships -- and the passengers they attract -- to return, and that's the opening of a new port facility. The brand-spanking-new Erato Street Terminal is designed to accommodate the industry's bigger ships, along with the crowds that accompany them.
While much of New Orleans' downtown district feels the same as ever following the Katrina aftermath, there are still a few key developments as a result:
Always one of America's more gracious and welcoming cities -- for vacationers, particularly -- New Orleans and its citizens (and by that I mean everyone from folks in the tourism sector to shopkeepers and restaurateurs) seems almost desperate for you to visit. One shop owner in Riverwalk Marketplace, upon selling me a can of Cafe du Monde coffee, asked me anxiously if I'd had a good trip -- and then implored me to "spread the word". She wasn't the first, either.
In a twist on the cliche "what's old is new again," the city's classics -- Brennan's, the fabulous Hotel Monteleone, the aforementioned Commander's Palace and Aquarium of the Americas -- are among those that are back and even better than before due to recent (and unplanned) renovations. As one Hotel Monteleone staffer told us, "we completed our $70 million renovation in November 2004 ... however Katrina remodeled the 16th floor for us. We now have a brand-new, state-of-the-art fitness center, pool deck and pool."
Interestingly, we noticed an emergence of totally new establishments -- bringing a fresh, hip vibe to the city. For instance, Harrah's Hotel, located across Poydras Street from its huge casino, is marble-swanky and feels more like Las Vegas than the Big Easy.
It may seem incongruous (and it's an experience that the state's tourism executives would prefer you didn't have), but Gray Line -- the tour company that's better known for its nostalgic looks at New Orleans (from "Oak Alley Plantations" to "Ghosts and Spirits") -- has created a new tour. It's a must-do for every visitor to the city who really wants to see, first-hand, the swath of wrath cut by Hurricane Katrina. The three-hour tour on a 32-passenger mini-bus focuses on the areas outside of downtown, driving through the worst-hit neighborhoods such as Lakeview, St. Bernard's Parish, the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly East and others. It takes you past levees that broke and through neighborhood after neighborhood still so damaged that they are eerily devoid of residents. It's a sobering and illuminating experience that can be summed up in this overheard comment about the still-obvious damage: "It's like a whale. You've never understood how big it is until you see it."
Beyond what's new and improved, New Orleans retains its savory character, one that makes it one of America's most intriguing cities. The mystique surrounding this Mississippi River city goes way beyond music and revelry. This distinctive flavor can be credited to its early mix of settlers -- Creole and Cajun (along with a bit of influence from the Caribbean) -- and even today infects the city's urban scene, from art to culture to cuisine, with a jovial joie de vivre.
Strictly speaking, Creole describes descendants of the early French colonists who were born in the New World. The Creoles of New Orleans considered themselves French, and for a long time refused to learn English or associate with those who did. Cajuns were also French but they were country folk who had migrated down from Nova Scotia after being expelled by the British. They lived among the bayous and swamps; kept their own French patois, spirited music and dance; and have long maintained the tradition of their signature spicy cuisine. Both influences -- the elegant and the lively -- can still be felt today in New Orleans. One of the happiest results is delectable cuisine, French in style but with an added tang of Cajun spice.
New Orleans was a major early port for products from the Caribbean, and the significant African influence brought by West Indian settlers is most visible in the city's quirky emphasis on voodoo.
Sure, New Orleans, with its eccentric art, culture and cuisine -- not to mention its riverfront locale -- is a nice place from which to embark on or disembark from a cruise trip. But we've got to say: This city, more than just about any port in America, makes a strong case for adding a couple extra days to your stay.
New Orleans Quick Facts
The French Quarter. The most legendary thing about this legendary city, feels movie-esque. This 7-by-15-block area has loads of character with narrow old streets and two- and three-story French- and Spanish-inspired architecture. It is known for its nightlife -- via its plethora of bars and jazz clubs, but the neighborhood is equally fascinating by day. Highlights include intriguing shops and galleries, particularly along Royal Street; the historic Saint Louis Cathedral, located in Jackson Square; and the square itself, a prime people-watching venue and a hangout for artists displaying their work on the sidewalk. The famous French Market, open every day, offers some produce and many stalls loaded with hot sauces and Cajun spices. Beyond is a flea market that is the perfect place for inexpensive souvenirs, from voodoo dolls to Mardi Gras beads and boas. There's also a lovely riverfront park with a walking path.
Organized tours are the best way to gain an insider's view of local history and lore, and to visit the city's unique cemeteries, with their rows of elaborate above-ground tombs. Among the best walking tours are cemetery visits by the non-profit Friends of New Orleans Cemeteries (504-525-3377), and French Quarter history, Garden District/Cemetery and other tours offered by the well-qualified guides of Historic New Orleans (504-947-2120). Gray Line offers a variety of motor-related excursions, including the aforementioned Hurricane Katrina tour.
Jazz lovers should definitely make embarkation or disembarkation an excuse for an overnight stay. The city boasts of a legacy that includes pioneers like Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton -- but you can opt for traditional venues or more contemporary ones. The city's best jazz spots are located in the Fauborg Mariguy neighborhood (at the west end of the French Quarter). Don't miss Snug Harbor (626 Frenchman Street), Cafe Brazil and Ray's Boom Boom Room. In the French Quarter, Preservation Hall (726 St. Peter Street, 800-785-5772), though not a bar, is a premier venue. Another fascinating stop is the Louisiana Music Factory (210 Decatur Street) for its huge collection of jazz recordings.
The growing museum district around Logan Circle will interest art lovers. The handsome new Ogden Museum of Southern Art (925 Camp Street) features artists from throughout the region. The Contemporary Art Center (900 Camp Street) across the road, a combination theater and gallery, is as interesting for its architecture as for its offerings. The National D-Day Museum (945 Magazine Street) is both sobering and inspiring; the highlight is an elaborate reconstruction of the Allied Forces' landing on Normandy in June 1944, but don't miss out on the hour-long flick that traces the invasion.
The Riverfront streetcar leaves from the terminal, making stops throughout the French Quarter, at Harrah's big casino on Canal Street, and on into the French Market. A transfer to the new Canal Street streetcar line allows access to the rest of the city and to the art museum.
Streetcar fare is $1.25 ($1.50 for the riverfront), plus 20 cents per transfer. Visi-tour passes allow unlimited rides on all streetcar and bus lines for $5 per day or $12 for three days. Taxis are also readily available. Taxi meter rates begin at $2.50, with $1.60 per mile thereafter. On our most recent visit in spring 2008, cabs all levy a $1 fuel surcharge (that's $1 per fare, not per person).
An average ride midtown is around $5. (Rates may go up during Mardi Gras or Jazz Festival.)
Cabs from the airport have set rates that are clearly posted.
Cabs from town to the cruise terminal also must adhere to set rates. It's $10 for one, $7 apiece for two or the meter fare, whichever's greater.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships typically dock at the new Erato Street terminal, on the river side of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. There are no real services here (restaurants, etc.), but the terminal does have a pedestrian bridge that connects you to the Riverwalk shopping and dining complex, just a few minutes walk.
Staying in Touch
In the French Quarter, Royal Access Internet Cafe (621 Royal Street, 504-525-0401, daily 9 a.m. - 8 p.m., to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday) offers online access for $5 per 30 minutes, $8 per hour. The Cybercafe at the Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp St., 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. every day) offers free internet service for patrons. The lunch, alas, is not free, but the cafe does feature sandwiches, pastries, gourmet coffees and teas, and cocktails.
French Quarter Casual Lunching: Acme Oyster House (724 Iberville Street, 504-522-5973, from 11 a.m. onward -- lunch and dinner -- everyday) for oyster po'boys. Cafe du Monde (French Market and other locations), famous for cafe au lait and house-made beignets, is a great nosh stop. Other possibilities include the Red Fish Grill (115 Bourbon Street, 504-598-1200, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner 5 p.m. - 11 p.m.; open everyday). On a nice day, pick up a picnic at Central Grocery (923 Decatur Street).
Classic New Orleans Lunch: Lunch pickings are a bit slim in this category (more options exist for dinner) but Galatoire's (209 Bourbon Street, lunch from 11:30 a.m. Tuesday - Saturday, noon on Sunday) is a century-old classic. "Friday Lunch" -- a unique New Orleans custom in which the meal begins at noon and lasts all day (liquid libations are center stage).
Other Great Lunch Spots: If you're visiting the Garden District, two good lunch spots are Lilette (3637 Magazine Street), which specializes in French bistro fare, and Cafe Rani (2917 Magazine Street), an informal spot with a menu that ranges from healthy salads to indulgent burgers. We also like Zea St. Charles (1525 St. Charles); though it's a chain eatery it's got a lively atmosphere and fantastic menu -- the roast chicken is outstanding. It's a great family place -- and you can take the St. Charles streetcar from downtown.
In the warehouse district, try Mulate's (201 Julia Street, 11 - 3 p.m.) for Cajun. The Court of Two Sisters (613 Royal Street, Thursday - Tuesday, from 11 a.m.) offers a jazz buffet.
Less "great" than anticipated was our lunch at Emeril's (800 Tchoupitoulas St., open weekdays from noon to 2 p.m.). Interested in what the fuss was about surrounding this NOLA legend, the menu's slant is creative cooking with a nod to local culinary tradition (and the corn muffins are phenomenal). But it's a chilly place -- service is both haughty and inept, a bad combination. And the photos of the chef himself that are imbedded into tiles that line toilet stalls is a bit over-the-top. In terms of value for money, this was a huge disappointment.
Passengers can walk directly from the terminal into the three-level Riverwalk Marketplace with a variety of touristic shops, food court eateries, and ATM machines (don't miss Cafe du Monde; there's also a store selling necessities that you might have forgotten to pack). Otherwise, you're missing out if you stick around here for too long. The city itself beckons -- and it's an incredibly pedestrian-friendly place.
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