Insider guide to New Orleans

Feb 22, 2011

by AARON PEASLEY

If ever there was a place with a strong survival instinct, it’s New Orleans. In the past three centuries, the city has endured war, fires, economic depression, social revolution, a devastating hurricane and, most recently, a catastrophic oil spill. But five and a half years after Hurricane Katrina brought the city to the brink of obliteration, the Big Easy seems to be bouncing back with its trademark blend of resilience, diversity and hope.

Located less than 150km north of the mouth of the Mississippi River, New Orleans has always marched to its own beat. Before Louisiana statehood was declared in 1812, the territory was traded between the French and Spanish. It fell under American rule in 1803. By the mid-1800s the city was home to an astoundingly diverse population – French, English, African, Swedish, German, Irish and Italian.

That remarkable cultural heritage has made it a city of great paradoxes. By turns swampy and swanky, it’s a city where sadness and joy are embraced with equal gusto; where a history of startling opportunity has played out against economic despair; where the legacy of slavery looms, but exists against a backdrop of strong civil rights and inimitable joie de vivre. Jazz, cocktails, vibrant cuisine and Mardi Gras celebrations are all products of this diversity and part of what makes New Orleans unlike any other city in the world.

Post-Katrina, revitalisation has replaced recovery as the city’s mantra. Tourism rates are nearing pre-Katrina levels and 2010’s Mardi Gras was the best-attended in 25 years. The city is also in touch with its entrepreneurial side. Among other large-scale projects, a $US300m ($303m) development, Reinventing the Crescent, seeks to transform 10km of disused industrial and commercial space by the Mississippi River. The vision is to create a city “front yard”, a mixed-use development with the cultural impact of Chicago’s Millennium Park or New York’s High Line.

Just as they did years ago, city leaders are hoping that culture will transform New Orleans. Even though many citizens were displaced by the hurricane, the city is drawing back a creative class who see great promise in the giant melting pot, channelling their energy into revamping areas such as Magazine Street, which has become one of the city’s most exciting neighbourhoods, a breeding ground for boutiques, hole-in-the-wall bars and quirky food purveyors.

The Lower Ninth Ward, which bore the brunt of the breached levees and lost more than 4000 homes, still resembles a lunar landscape, albeit one with abandoned buildings and few cars. But here, too, are signs of a turnaround. Actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation in 2007 tapped 21 international architects to design sustainable, affordable housing for residents displaced by Katrina. About 80 homes have been completed so far and there are plans to export the concept to other low-income communities around the world.

For all the proposed developments and economic progress, New Orleans clings strongly to its traditions and still knows how to party. Southern rituals, such as an afternoon cocktail, are sacrosanct, as is the morning ritual of beignets (a sort of doughnut) washed down with sweet, chicory-tinged coffee. The same spirit pervades the culinary landscape, perhaps North America’s most dynamic. When the hurricane hit, many of the city’s restaurateurs were first responders, feeding relief workers and residents before opening their restaurants as soon as they could, even if it wasn’t economically viable to do so.

Mark Twain once said “New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.” He’d be pleased to know that not much has changed. The cuisine, with its wildly diverse influences, has always been a reason to visit. Now there are more restaurants than before Katrina. As New Orleanians have shown, it takes a lot more than a hurricane to rob this city of its indelible appetite for life.

Eat

Restaurant August
301 Tchoupitoulas Street.
+1 504 299 9777.
Restaurateur and philanthropist John Besh, who runs six other stellar restaurants in the city, is the man behind the city’s essential splurge. Housed in a patrician four-level residence that dates back to the 1800s, the restaurant typifies New Orleans cuisine...

Cafe Du Monde
800 Decatur Street.
+1 504 525 4544.
www.cafedumonde.com
Perennially popular, this is one of those iconic, tourist-trafficked venues that actually deserves its reputation. Established in 1862 in the city’s French Market area, this 24-hour address is famous for its beignets, those quintessential, doughnut-style treats.

Napoleon House
500 Chartres Street.
+1 504 524 9752.
This classic French Quarter address, its raffish elegance recalling the backdrop from A Streetcar Named Desire, was allegedly offered as a refuge to the exiled Napoleon in 1821...

Iris
321 North Peters Street.
+1 504 299 3944.
Part of the French Quarter’s Bienville House Hotel, this innovative, market-driven bistro is a great option when you’re looking for a lighter alternative to the city’s French-Creole fare...

Cochon
930 Tchoupitoulas Street.
+1 504 588 2123.
This is a place to pig out, literally with a menu comprised of pork specialties such as homemade andouille sausage and smoked bacon and oyster sandwiches...

Drink & Music

The Spotted Cat Music Club
623 Frenchmen Street.
+1 504 943 3887.
www.spottedcatmusicclub.com
In recent years Frenchmen Street has become a less touristy, more authentic antidote to frenetic Bourbon Street. It’s also home to some of the city’s best music venues such as this slightly divey club known for its superior local jazz music. The coolest cats avoid the weekend crowds.

DBA New Orleans
618 Frenchmen Street.
+1 504 942 3731.
www.drinkgoodstuff.com
Local musicians claim the cypress timber room at this venue has superior acoustics. Home to local groups such as The New Orleans Cotton Mouth Kings, its bar features a long list of microbrews.

The Columns Hotel
3811 St Charles Avenue.
+1 504 899 9308.
Make like a proper Southern belle at this Italianate mansion turned hotel in the atmospheric Garden district. Even though one rarely needs an excuse to drink in New Orleans, an alfresco tipple at this swank bar provides a wonderful tonic to the languor of a hot summer afternoon...

Shop

Hov Parfumeur
824 Royal Street.
+1 504 525 7827.
www.hoveparfumeur.com
Redolent of lush gardens and strong liquor, New Orleans is nothing if not fragrant. One can take home the spirit of the city at this essential retail pit stop, which has been selling original perfumes inspired by the South since 1931.

Hazelnut New Orleans
5515 Magazine Street.
+1 504 891 2424.
www.hazelnutneworleans.com
Owned by Mad Men actor Bryan Batt, this idiosyncratic interiors store is a Magazine Street essential. Overflowing artisan-made ceramics, locally designed textiles and classic antiques, it’s a place to pick up a one-of-a-kind object that will always take you back to the Big Easy.

Faulkner House Books
624 Pirate’s Alley.
+1 504 524 2940.
www.faulknerhouse.net
Few cities boast such a rich literary tradition, inspiring writers from Tennessee Williams to Anne Rice. Packed with Southern literature, travel guides and first editions, this atmospheric store was home to William Faulkner, who wrote several books here.

Stay

Soniat House
1133 Chartres Street.
Echoing with local history, this gracious hotel, named after plantation owner Joseph Soniat, feels like the genteel home of the New Orleans aunt you wish you had. In a quiet pocket of the French Quarter, the 33-room hotel features French and English antiques, gilded mirrors and luxe bed linen.

Loft 523
523 Gravier Street.
In a city of grand facades, this chic independent boutique hotel, once a dry-goods warehouse, hides behind a nondescript location. Each of the 18 spacious guestrooms has the urban-resort vibe, with large bathrooms, Aveda toiletries, Herman Miller furniture and free wireless. A five-minute walk from the French Quarter, it couldn’t be more convenient. Pop into the subterranean bar for a nightcap.

Windsor Court Hotel
300 Gravier Street.
Think of this classical property as the English blue blood of the bunch. The hotel’s public spaces speak to its English roots with impressive works by British painters enlivening the marble hallways. For a real treat, reserve one of the plush top-tier rooms, which feature balconies overlooking the Mississippi River.

See & Do

Make It Right Foundation Houses
www.makeitrightnola.org
Brad Pitt’s project housing initiative is popular with tourists. You can visit the houses, situated in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, as part of the Grayline Katrina Tour (graylineneworleans.com/katrina.shtml).

Walking Tour, Garden District Mansions
www.inetours.com
Once its own city known as Lafayette, this atmospheric district was originally the reserve of wealthy merchants who constructed grandiose houses replete with sprawling grounds. From Italianate mansions to Greek Revival piles, these well-preserved homes are a window into another age.

The Museum of the American Cocktail
Suite 169/1 Poydras Street.
+1 504 569 0405.
This quirky institution, which relocated after Katrina, houses an extensive collection of rare spirits, Prohibition-era literature, vintage cocktail equipment, glassware, gadgets and all manner of cocktail memorabilia...

Backstreet Cultural Museum
1116 St Claude Avenue.
+1 504 522 4806.
In a Creole cottage in the neighbourhood known as the “Treme”, this museum is dedicated to the fascinating cultural traditions of New Orleans’ African American citizens...

Source Qantas The Australian Way March 2011

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