New Orleans is a vibrant 21st century major seaport and one of America’s most historic and unique cities. Having had family living there on several occasions, I had my first glimpse of New Orleans when I was 12 years old. I was especially captivated by the St. Louis Cemetery, with its above-ground graves reminiscent of campfire ghost stories and inscriptions in French, making me glad I did my homework. I was thrilled to see where Nancy Drew had bravely solved the crime of “The Haunted Show Boat” and was looking for modern day criminals lurking in “Pirates Alley.”
Later, as a college student visiting family in the summer, I had a different perspective, spending hours seeing artists at the Brulatour Courtyard and taking free rides on the Mississippi River ferry. He was especially intrigued as he crossed the 23.83-mile Lake Pontchartrain Bridge, the longest bridge in the world with its own cloverleaf twist suspended above the water.
It is one of the most “foreign” cities in the US as its architecture and history bear little resemblance to the coast or the heart of the US From the time of Hernando Cortez in the 16th century, the Spanish and later the French exchanged being the dominant colonial power in the region. Later, New Orleans became part of the US after Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in the early 1800s.
Montreal’s Jean Baptist Le Moyne de Bienville is credited with founding New Orleans in the previous century. Cajun settlers, mainly from eastern Canada, followed when the Mississippi River became a major trade route to the delta. His early American fame dates largely to the often-forgotten war of 1812. Although the Treaty of Ghent had officially ended the war, Gen. Andrew Jackson subsequently led his troops to a decisive American victory over the British. Now commemorated by a life-size statue that overlooks legendary Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter. Andrew Jackson now faces directly the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in North America and a key sight in the Quarter.
This multi-faceted city has also been famous for its annual Mardi Gras, nightlife on Bourbon Street, world-class cuisine, and as the birthplace of jazz. In addition, it features elegant pre-war houses and nearby swamps lined with cypress trees covered in Spanish moss. The flooding during Hurricane Katrina was heartbreaking, as New Orleans’ location on the Mississippi River made it vulnerable once again to heavy flooding.
For tourists, New Orleans has four distinct sectors to visit: 1. The French Quarter or “Vieux Carre” (the “Old Square”), 2. Garden District, 3. Elegant pre-war houses and 4. Bayous .
The French Quarter is the heart of both historic New Orleans and its highly publicized nightlife. Revelers can start their evening by sampling a rum drink from Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane Glass. Right next door, for authentic local jazz, the best venue has always been Preservation Hall, although it was closed for some time after Katrina.
From Jackson Square, it’s a short walk to Cafe du Monde, open 24/7, offering a cup of strong coffee and their famous donuts. As you stroll through the Barrio, you can see a jazz funeral that makes its way through the streets. For more traditional shopping and interests, Royal Street is packed with the best antique shops. Also at Royal, the Brulatour House is in the process of becoming a French Quarter museum. Aside from the fame of his family’s home at 520 Royal, Pierre Brulatour was one of the founders of Universal Pictures and possibly the inspiration for Orson Welles for Citizen Kane. At the base of Royal Street is the luxurious Hotel Monteleone, owned by a family since the 19th century.
Its colorful above-ground cemeteries or “Cities of the Dead” are necessary due to the low sea level / high water table. Inscribed in French, the tombs tell their own story. A short distance from the Quarter is the most famous, the St. Louis Cemetery.
Moving on to the Garden District, the elegant homes are surrounded by ornamental wrought iron fences. I especially loved one of those fences entwined with metallic renderings of yellow ears of corn. The St. Charles Streetcar provides easy access from downtown New Orleans. (The “Streetcar Named Desire” made famous by Tennessee Williams has now become less poetically the “bus named Desire.”) One of the most famous sites in the Garden District is a former New Orleans restaurant, Commander’s Palace, owned by of the Brennan family. My earliest memory was going to lunch on the patio while being greeted by a quacking toucan perched inside a tall white Victorian cage, while more recently I was sitting on the (thankfully) enclosed patio watching a torrential downpour. It’s one of New Orleans’ restaurants with true staying power, as past leaders like Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, and Galatoire’s are being overshadowed by newcomers. Regardless, seafood, especially with a Cajun flavor, tops the local menu favorites. My personal preference is for the crawfish (say “crawfish”) Etoufee.
Next on the tour should be the elegant pre-war houses outside the city. The Ormond plantation and at least 11 others flourished with the growth of cotton and trade along the Mississippi River. Lastly, New Orleans is famous as a marsh country. Those local swamps or marshes are a favorite with tourists looking to catch a glimpse of local wildlife. Once inhabited by pirates, today they are home to perhaps equally dangerous inhabitants, alligators that can grow up to 18 feet, and snakes that glide. Perhaps more welcoming are the large number of turtles, colorful birds, and even the occasional bears.
The best times of the year to go are spring and fall to avoid the humidity of summer or the cold of winter, the latter perhaps being better tolerated by Sugar Bowl fans! Although New Orleans is most famous for its annual pre-Lenten Mardi Gras, spring brings both the popular Jazz Fest and the Annual Spring Fiesta and Historic Home Tour. As always, check out the off-season specials for the best solo traveler prices and start your plans for the upcoming spring season.