Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street
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New Orleans Overview
New Orleans is more than ready for its close-up.
After weathering storms literal and economic, the city is back, and it's been back since 2007, when meetings and conventions returned, Mardi Gras drew 800,000 revelers and the St. Charles Streetcar once again made its way to the leafy Garden District. While annual visitors aren't quite up to the 10.1 million high of 2004, New Orleans' cache continues to rise with both business travelers and tourists, as increasing numbers are drawn to the city's unique intersection of serious fun and business. The hit HBO show Treme (say treh-MAY) brings the real New Orleans to light, a city defined by its brassy music, savory cuisine, historic architecture and cultural diversity.
Whether you have an afternoon in port or a few days pre- or post-cruise to explore, here's some advice: don't take the easy way out when discovering the Big Easy. There is so much more than Bourbon Street honkytonks to this gorgeous city, with its leafy garden district avenues, wrought iron balconies and hidden gastronomic gems.
Easily one of America's most intriguing cities, New Orleans represents a gumbo of cultures, from African and Spanish to Cajun and French, a melding over the last three centuries that deliversdining, music and art so diverse that it truly stands alone.
A major early port for products from the Caribbean, New Orleans was also home to a significant community of Creoles, a term that originally denoted locals with Spanish and French blood, including free people of color. Over time, the term has morphed to include persons of mixed ethnicity, often with Caribbean, African and Native American bloodlines. Yet its early ties to France are perhaps the strongest influence, as evidenced by the ubiquitous fleur de lis signet that is synonymous with the original French Quarter, not to mention the Super Bowl-winning Saints. The French Quarter, with its cobblestone streets and Creole cottages laced with ironwork, is the heart and soul of the town to this day.
Although New Orleans is famous the world over for its fantastic celebration of Mardi Gras and its all-party, all-the-time stretch of Bourbon Street, the mystique surrounding this Mississippi River city goes way beyond revelry. Besides its amazing cuisine, New Orleans keeps the brassy beat of some of America's finest jazz music, from blues-infused to traditional, modern to old school.
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 that this city, more than just about any port in America, makes a strong case for adding a couple extra days to your stay.
There is so much to do, you could return again and again and never be bored.
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In a town where many bars never close and daiquiris are served from drive-through windows, the cocktail culture is as thick as the New Orleans humidity on a swampy August day. But you won't get too many arguments if you head for the Sazerac Bar, a Roosevelt Hotel landmark for decades. Once again under the Roosevelt moniker (it was the Fairmount Hotel for years), the Sazerac is home to not one, but two real deal libations: the Sazerac, made with rye, bitters and (the once again legal) absinthe, and the Ramos Gin Fizz, a frothy shake of gin, lemon and lime juice, egg whites, and sugar.
It's a toss-up. For music-lovers, shake your brass at home to tunes by local faves like Kermit Ruffins and Trombone Shorty. The best place to buy music is the Louisiana Music Factory (210 Decatur Street) in the Quarter, an Indie shop that often has free in-store performances. If it's a toothsome treat you're seeking, pecan pralines, buttery sweet candy patties that also come flavored, are sure to please. Buy them at Praline Connection in the Marigny and at the airport or Aunt Sally's on Decatur.
Yes, they speak English there, with an accent more Brooklyn than Southern. But New Orleanians have a vocabulary all their own. A few examples of N'Awlins speak:
Dressed: the way to order your po'boy if you want it with the works.
Gris gris (gree gree): a voodoo spell or good luck charm.
Lagniappe (lan' yap): widely used in all kinds of contexts, it means a little something extra thrown in gratis. A baker's dozen is one example.
Making groceries: that's what the locals call going to the store to pick up dinner.
Neutral ground: called the median everywhere else, this strip of ground in the middle of a road may refer to what became Canal St., a division between the French Quarter and American sector, or it may have been a meeting spot for the adversarial Spanish and French settlers. Now, it's a place where kids play and people walk their dogs.
Second line: the happy followers of a neighborhood brass band parade.
Where y'at?: the standard New Orleans greeting, equivalent to "what's up?" or "how are you?"
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
There are ATM's all over the French Quarter, and many at banks near Canal St., including Chase at 134 Royal St. and Whitney National Bank, 228 St. Charles Ave. Don't be surprised if fees are higher than you're used to; $2.50 and up is the norm in these parts. Tip: Pick up supplies at Rouses, a newly expanded grocery store at 701 Royal, and get cash back with your purchase (no fee) if you use your ATM card.
Where You're Docked
Located just behind the New Orleans Convention Center on the Mississippi, the Erato St. and Julia St. cruise terminals are in the heart of downtown with easy access to hotels and attractions. There is an ATM available, as well as a refreshment stand serving snacks, coffee and ice cream, and a souvenir kiosk in case you need to make last-minute purchases before boarding.
Thanks to the port's central location, you're a 10-minute walk or a streetcar away from the French Quarter, with its endless array of shopping, music and dining options. Or try your luck at nearby Harrah's, where you can play the slots or stroll along the adjacent Fulton Street Square, a pedestrian walkway with eateries including the seafood-centric Grand Isle and a Gordon Biersch brewpub.
Because the terminals are directly behind the New Orleans Convention Center, adjacent to the warehouse district and central business district, and within walking distance of the historic French Quarter, you don't need to worry about a shuttle service or taxis, although cabs are available. You can either walk 10 short blocks to Canal Street, the beginning of the French Quarter, or take the Riverfront Trolley line for $1.25 per person, with stops at Canal near Harrah's and Decatur, where the popular French Market is. Catch the trolley at the Convention Center, just steps from the terminal.
Watch Out For
Asking a local for directions can be a comedy of errors. Most of the older city neighborhoods were laid out following the crescent-shaped Mississippi River. Except for the French Quarter, which is thankfully in a grid, streets were laid out either following the river's curves or perpendicular to them, not according to north, south, east and west. In N'Awlins, the four compass points are "up" (or "up river" or "up town"), "down" (or "down river" or "down town"), "river" (or "towards the river" or sometimes "in") and "lake" (or "towards the lake" or "back" or sometimes "out"). To stay oriented, just remember that the French Quarter is roughly a one-mile square sandwiched between Canal Street and Esplanade, and the Mississippi and Rampart Street. A good city map helps. And don't even try to pronounce street names like Tchoupitoulas ("CHOP-a-too-lis").
It may not be called Desire, but it's a thrill to take the St. Charles Streetcar into the leafy Garden District, with its many live oak trees and stately homes. Once home to new-money Yankee entrepreneurs shunned by the French Creoles in the Quarter, the Garden District is now a stately residential area with gorgeous architecture and fun shopping on Magazine Street, which features small, unique shops selling antiques, secondhand books, art, fashion and luxury items. The 13.2-mile crescent starts at Canal Street (at Carondelet) and heads uptown, around the riverbend, to Carrolton Avenue, past antebellum mansions, restaurants, hotels, Loyola and Tulane Universities, and the Audubon Zoo. Even if you don't get off, it's a great ride, a bargain at $1.25. (In case you were wondering, the Desire Line ran from 1920 to 1948, down Bourbon, through the French Quarter, to Desire Street in the Bywater neighborhood and back up to Canal.) Call the Regional Transit Authority (504-248-3900) for transit times and info.
Wandering Jackson Square (between Decatur, Chartres, St. Peter and St. Ann Streets), with its cast of ragtag tarot card readers, buggy drivers and street artists, is a definitive New Orleans experience. The iconic statue of Andrew Jackson on his horse, with St. Louis Cathedral looming in the background, may be the one photograph every tourist can't resist. Surrounded by a tall wrought iron fence and filled with banana trees and flowering shrubs, the small green park was once a training ground for the military. Rechristened to honor Jackson's triumph over the Brits in the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson Square is bordered by a flagstone pedestrian mall dotted with shops and street artists.
Make time to stroll Royal Street, a shopping mecca that runs parallel to Bourbon Street, just three blocks from the river. Although known for its concentration of antique shops and art galleries, there's a little bit of everything on this thoroughfare, from well-known restaurants like Brennan's and the posh Rib Room in the Royal Orleans Hotel to funky little boutiques and bars. The mix of artwork is just as quirky. The Rodrigue Studio (721 Royal) showcases the now iconic Blue Dog in all manner of settings, while Painted Alive (827 Royal) is devoted to artist Craig Tracy's adoration of fine art painted on the human form. There's a culinary antiques store, a shop proffering military hardware, and the list goes on. It's great fun, even if you're not a shopper.
The growing museum district around Lee Circle will interest art-lovers. The handsome new Ogden Museum of Southern Art (925 Camp Street) features artists from throughout the region. The Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp Street) across the road, a combination theater and gallery, is as interesting for its architecture as for its offerings.
Countless walking tours are offered in the Quarter, with themes as varied as ghosts and voodoo, and art and architecture. A few to check include a haunted history stroll (504-861-2727), cemetery tours (504-525-3377) and a scandalous cocktail tour (800-979-3370). A free tour offered by the National Park Service includes a dose of history and visits several areas within the French Quarter.
In the French Quarter, Preservation Hall (726 St. Peter Street, 800-785-5772) is a premier venue for straight-ahead jazz and brass dating back to 1961. One of the few all-ages music venues in the Quarter, there is jazz nightly from 8-11 p.m. If you're lucky, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, cultural emissaries for New Orleans jazz around the country and the world, will be off tour and in the house.
Spanning the length of the French Quarter, Bourbon Street is known the world over for its strip joints, tacky souvenir shops and concentration of bars and live music venues. Expect mostly tourists along this stretch of town, with the expected collection of drunks and amateur drinkers on weekends and anytime a convention is in town. Thanks to the city's open-container laws (it's legal to walk around with a drink in a plastic cup), the street is packed with tourists drinking potent Hurricanes, Hand Grenades and Huge Ass Beers from the Steak Pit at Bourbon and Toulouse. While it's fun to experience the scene at least once -- taking in the party, popping in and out of music venues -- don't define New Orleans by this hopped-up, endless party. And, as a rule, eat elsewhere.
Been There, Done That
With a few days to explore, reach beyond the grace and sass of the French Quarter to the Faubourg Marigny, an original Creole neighborhood that's now a mecca of nightclubs, bars and restaurants frequented by more locals than tourists. There, you can hear traditional jazz from patriarch Ellis Marsalis, who plays every Friday at Snug Harbor with his trio (626 Frenchman Street), and see an incredible collection of jazz memorabilia at the Louisiana State Museum Jazz Collection at the Old U.S. Mint (400 Esplanade Ave., 504-568-6968). Items on display include Louis Armstrong's cornet, Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet with its famous "bent" bell and some 10,000 photographs, dating back to the 1950's, of performers at the New Orleans Jazz Club. You'll be just across the street from the French Market, with its clean public restrooms, inexpensive food kiosks and endless souvenir options -- a great stop before you head back to the ship.
Crawl, fly or scuttle to the Audubon Insectarium (423 Canal St.), located in the historic U.S. Custom House on Canal Street, a cool museum all about bugs, butterflies and everything creepy-crawly. See the world from a bug's perspective as you wander through a mysterious Louisiana swamp and a butterfly-filled garden. The museum boasts more than 75 live and interactive exhibits in addition to thousands of mounted specimens.
Located in historic Uptown New Orleans, a block from the river on Magazine Street, Audubon Zoo (6500 Magazine St.) can be accessed by the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar line, which stops in front of Audubon Park, Nola's version of Central Park, complete with jogging paths, gardens and sports fields. At the zoo, you'll find an exotic mix of animals from around the globe, engaging educational programs, hands-on animal encounters and lush gardens. Two natural habitat exhibits are worth a look: the award-winning Louisiana Swamp and Jaguar Jungle.
Even in a city as full of cultural gems and attractions as New Orleans, the National World War II Museum (945 Magazine St.) stands out from the crowd. Originally named the National D-Day Museum, and located in New Orleans because the flat-bottomed Higgins boats used in the invasion were made there, this museum is a must-see for every history buff. Besides extensive and interactive exhibits on the Pacific and European theaters, the museum includes a special section on the Normandy Invasion and thousands of 3D artifacts, representative of the war years both at home and overseas. From the "Steel Pot" helmet to the impressive Sherman tank, the museum's artifacts bring the people and places of World War II into sharp focus. On a lighter note, enjoy the retro 1940's vibe in the American Sector, local chef John Bash's canteen tribute to 1940's comfort food, and his newly opened Soda Shop for hand-crafted sodas and quick bites. Grilled pimento cheese, anyone?
Take a canoe ride down the bayou via Bayou Barn (800-862-2968). Based at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park Preserve -- 20 minutes from downtown -- you can sail your own canoe down Bayou des Families, where you can spot alligators, egrets, turtles, blue herons, bald eagles, moss and more. Rent a canoe for $10 per person (two per canoe) for two hours or $15 per person for the whole day. Guides are available with advance reservations and an additional fee. The park also has walking trails.
With another 20-minute drive from downtown, you can visit the gators at the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge (61389 Highway 434, 985-882-2000), the largest urban refuge in the U.S. Walking trails offer great wildlife and bird-watching. Daily one-hour and 45-minute boat tours are offered along the refuge canals, and free staff-led interpretive programs each weekend include canoe tours, bird-watching trips and explorations by bike and trail.
New Orleans is the best food town in America. Those might be fighting words (sorry Napa, apologies Manhattan) but to the initiated, there's no better place to connect with a culture through its cuisine than the Big Easy. Order lunch there, and you get a history lesson on the side. The New Orleans table has been set by the French and Spanish, enlivened by the West African and Caribbean cuisines of the enslaved Africans, and spiced by the wave of Irish, Italian, German and Asian immigrants who landed on these shores. With the rich bounty of the Gulf literally at its doorstep, New Orleans seafood is unparalleled, and its down-home comfort food is legendary. For a casual munch, try a muffuletta on crusty French bread, stacked with Italian meats and cheeses and garnished with chopped green olive salad. Typical Creole fare is on the rich side, simmered seafood bisques and garlicky etouffee stews with crawfish and sausage. Jambalaya is the local version of paella, made with seafood, chicken and sausage.
For traditional Creole fare, Broussard's (819 Conti, 504-581-3866), with its formal dining room, lovely courtyard and century-old wisteria vine, is one of the best. Under the guidance of chef/owner Gunter Pruess, the restaurant offers a true New Orleans dining experience. The kitchen works magic with sweet Gulf crabmeat in dishes like Crabmeat Broussard's, baked in artichoke-brie bechamel with spinach. Another local favorite is the Redfish Ponchartrain, pan-fried and served on shrimp, crabmeat and oyster mushroom etouffee.
One of the many restaurants connected to the city's multibranched first family of food, Brennan's (417 Royal St., 504-525-9711) specializes in traditional Creole specialties and Louisiana seafood. Start with the famed turtle soup or the seafood gumbo, a lighter version than most because it doesn't start with a roux. The grilled local redfish topped with crabmeat is always delish, and for dessert, try the theatrical tableside flambe bananas foster, an iconic New Orleans dessert created right there.
For more contemporary stylings, head to chef John Besh's August
(301 Tchoupitoulas, 504-299-9777) for extraordinary European-style cuisine with Gulf Coast ingredients in an atmospheric, circa-1800's French-Creole building. A must-have signature dish is the BLT -- buster crabs, lettuce and tomato on pain perdue (a Cajun take on French toast that means "lost bread" in French).
Located in the swanky Roosevelt Hotel, Domenica (123 Barone St., 504-648-6020) dazzles with regional Italian cuisine, what may be the best thin crust pizza in town, spicy seafood and bean brodetto (stew) and fazzoletti (squares of pasta) with house cured guanciale (Italian bacon). Many ingredients are grown on Besh's farm outside of New Orleans.
If you get a hankering for soul food, check out Praline Connection (542 Frenchmen St., 504-943-3934), where great gumbo, fried pickles and excellent fried chicken should keep you full -- at least until you're ready to eat again.
At Cochon (930 Tchoupitoulas St., 504- 588-212), chef co-owner Stephen Stryjewski (who earned the James Beard Award for Best Chef South 2011) and partner Donald Link (who also owns Herbsaint) pay homage to the old-style Cajun Boucherie with the hand crafting of boudin, andouille, smoked bacon and head cheese. Local seafood also stars in succulent crawfish pies and roasted gulf fish done "fisherman-style," along with comfort foods that include spoon bread with okra and tomatoes, roasted oysters and suckling pig. Try the black-bottomed brown butter banana cream pie for dessert.
For a true New Orleans experience, stop by Cafe du Monde (800 Decatur St., 504-525-4544) for cafe au lait and beignets, a N'Awlins version of the donut, deep fried and dusted with powdered sugar. It's open 24/7, so come anytime the spirit moves you.
Also open 24/7, the Clover Grill (900 Bourbon St., 504-598-1010) sticks by its motto, "We Love to Fry and It Shows." The Clover, seen briefly in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," is known for its juicy burgers, cooked under a trademark hubcap (yes, literally).
You say you've been to all the Nola hot dining spots, but I bet you haven't been to Green Goddess (307 Exchange Place., 504-301-3347). It's not big and fancy, but Green Goddess is the real deal. Tucked away behind Royal on Exchange Place, GG's progressive take on soulful cuisine makes use of great Louisiana seafood and produce in an alchemy of flavors and presentation styles that rival anybody in town. Chefs Chris DeBarr and Paul Artigues blow the doors off this tiny eatery with dishes like crawfish cakes served with Spanish romesco sauce, crushed avocado and wasabi tobikko caviar; and seared yellowfin tuna, dusted with fennel pollen accompanied by local watermelon. The $55 all-Louisiana seafood tasting menu is fantastic. And "notorious" isn't understating the bacon sundae made with micro-planed Nueske's Applewood bacon over pecan praline ice cream with a creamy bacon caramel sauce.
Best for a Splurge: In 1886, Antonio Monteleone -- a shoemaker who came to New Orleans from Contessa, Italy, and prospered at his French Quarter boot factory -- bought the 14-room Commercial Hotel and gave it his name. Four generations -- and a $60+ million renovation later -- the family-owned, 600-room Monteleone (214 Royal St., 504-523-3341) is a six-time AAA Four Diamond award-winner and secure in its reputation as a grand hotel. The vibe throughout is retro-European, from the guest rooms' rich fabrics and marble bathrooms to the liveried doormen and the 16-story building's distinctive Baroque facade. With its central location in the French Quarter -- a few blocks from the cruise terminal, Canal St., Jackson Square and the River Walk -- the Monteleone is an ideal home base for exploring the Crescent City in style.
Best Deal: The Queen and Crescent Hotel (344 Camp St., 800-455-3417) is just two blocks from the French Quarter, an intimate, well-priced boutique property that offers a cozy bar, compact Euro-style rooms with original artwork and all the necessities. It's also just steps from Harrah's Casino.
Best Location: A few steps from three streetcar lines, Harrah's and the cruise terminal, Loew's New Orleans (300 Poydras, 504-595-3300) transformed a former office building into a 21-story, four-star hotel, complete with the Brennan family-run Cafe Adelaide (named for colorful Ti Adelaide Martin, co-owner of Commander's Palace) and the Swizzle Stick Bar, named for Adelaide's favorite accoutrement. Rooms are huge and boast endless amenities, from city and river views and laptop-size safes to high-speed Internet access and local art.
Staying in Touch
Most coffee houses and hotels offer Wi-Fi for a fee or free of charge. There are no Internet cafes in the French Quarter.
New Orleans is primarily an embarkation/debarkation port. Although there are no shore excursions, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean both offer debarkation-day city tours. These guided coach tours include narration through New Orleans highlights, such as the French Quarter, Jackson Square, historic Esplanade Avenue, Tulane and Loyola Universities, Audubon Park and Zoological Gardens, and the city's unique cemeteries with their above-ground burial plots.
For More Information
For More Information:
Tourist office: 529 St. Ann St., 504-568-5661
On the Web: www.neworleanscvb.com
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--by Beth D'Addono, Cruise Critic contributor