You can't keep New Orleans down. After weathering economic turmoil in the post-Hurricane Katrina years, the city is not only back ... it's on a roll, with an influx of artists and entrepreneurs drawn to its brassy music, savory cuisine, historic architecture and cultural diversity. Mardi Gras continues to draw massive crowds of revelers, the city remains a favorite for meetings and conventions, and it seems like there's a festival just about every weekend, regardless of the season. (While Jazzfest is the big one, taking up extended weekends in April and May, Essence Fest, French Quarter Fest and even Voodoo Fest have their devotees.) And New Orleans remains a favorite with cruisers; according to Port of New Orleans officials, 60 percent of cruise passengers spend two days or more in the city before or after they board their ships.
Whether you have an afternoon in port or a few days 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 gastronomic gems. New Orleans represents a gumbo of cultures, from African and Spanish to Cajun and French, a melding over the past three centuries that delivers dining, music and art so diverse 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. 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 synonymous with the original French Quarter, not to mention the NFL's New Orleans Saints. The French Quarter, with its cobblestone streets and Creole cottages laced with ironwork, is the heart and soul of the town.
That said, if you have a few days or it's a repeat visit, take time to explore some of New Orleans' other neighborhoods. Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood is the hub of the city's music scene, with jazz clubs and restaurants lining either side of the street (many with no cover charges). The funky Bywater neighborhood has gone beyond its beginnings as an artist enclave, with noted restaurants joining the gallery scene. You could spend a day wandering the shops of Magazine Street, which stretches through the Garden District and Uptown before it reaches leafy Audubon Park. Take a pilgrimage to Congo Square in Treme, arguably where jazz music was born. Even the city's Warehouse District and Central Business District have a number of clubs, sports bars and restaurants, many anchored by New Orleans celebrity chefs such as Emeril Lagasse, Donald Link and John Besh.
There is so much to do, you could return again and again and never be bored. You'll find yourself adopting the New Orleans slogan: Laissez les bon temps rouler! "Let the good times roll!"
New Orleans Cruise Port Address:
920 Port of New Orleans Place, New Orleans, LA 70130
Located just behind the New Orleans Convention Center on the Mississippi, the Erato Street and Julia Street 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.
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; the city's main nickname is the Crescent City. 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. The four compass points are "up" (or "up river" or "uptown"), "down" (or "down river" or "downtown"), "river" (or "toward the river" or sometimes "in") and "lake" (or "toward the lake" or "back" or sometimes "out").
To stay oriented, just remember the French Quarter is roughly a one-mile square sandwiched between Canal Street and Esplanade Avenue, and the Mississippi River and Rampart Street. A good city map helps. If you really want to feel local, try mastering street names like Tchoupitoulas (CHOP-a-too-lis).
There are ATMs all over the French Quarter and many at banks near Canal Street. Tip: Pick up supplies at Rouses, a local grocery store with outposts in the French Quarter (701 Royal) and Central Business District (701 Baronne Street) and get cash back with your purchase (no fee) if you use your ATM card.
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: lettuce, tomato and mayo.
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 could refer to what became Canal Street, a division between the French Quarter and American sector, or it might 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?"
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 (421 Frenchmen Street) in Faubourg Marigny. The indie shop often has free in-store performances. If it's a sweet treat you're seeking, pecan pralines, buttery sweet candy patties that also come flavored, are sure to please. Buy them at Praline Connection in Faubourg Marigny and at the airport or Aunt Sally's on Decatur.
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 an August day. But you won't get too many arguments if you head for the Sazerac Bar, a Roosevelt Hotel landmark for decades. The Sazerac is home to two real-deal libations: the Sazerac, made with rye, bitters and absinthe, and the Ramos Gin Fizz, a frothy shake of gin, lemon and lime juice, egg whites and sugar.