Travel feature, Like magazine, April 2015. Click to enlarge. Read below.
Take it easy
There’s no city in the United States that holds a more enduring fascination than New Orleans. A melting pot of cultural influences from Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, thanks to a thriving tourism trade, the city has bounced back from devastation and the Big Easy remains the most colourful jewel in the crown of America’s deep south.
Renowned for music, food, and Mardi Gras, New Orleans is one of America’s most interesting and vibrant tourist destinations. Having absorbed hundreds of years of multiculturalism since it was founded in 1718, locals are right to refer to the city as “a cultural gumbo”. This famous Creole dish is a fitting metaphor for New Orleans’ unique heritage – a spicy mix of ingredients that complement each other without losing their individual flavours.
Founded by the French, gifted to the Spanish, and then sold to the United States in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the once strategic port city was established on a bend of the Mississippi, five feet below sea level. Original French and Spanish settlers were joined by Americans, attracted in their droves to the wealth and permissively cosmopolitan nature of this second Paris. Add immigrants from Germany, Sicily, Ireland, Africa, Haiti and the Caribbean, and the melting pot bubbled over with a diverse mix of culinary, cultural and religious influences that leave their stamp on the city to this day.
From the literary giants who have called the city home to the birth of Jazz, which led to Rock and Roll – the music, food and culture of a city whose motto is simply “Have fun” have left an indelible mark on global culture. Whether you’re seeking bowls full of gumbo, late nights in dark jazz clubs, or strolls through historic neighbourhoods taking in the exquisite Spanish architecture, faded elegance and fancy ironwork, there’s something here to fall in love with.
The liveliest and best know of the city’s neighbourhoods is the French Quarter. The area least affected by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, this is the heart of New Orleans, and from here came the spirit and determination to return the city to its former glory. A must-see for the history, architecture, and renowned jazz clubs, this is where you can experience Mardi Gras atmosphere seven nights a week, stroll through Louis Armstrong Park, and visit the stunning St. Louis cathedral off Jackson Square.
You can take bus or horse-drawn carriage tours, but the best way to see the sights is by foot or bike. Specialist walking tours cover everything from cocktails to cemeteries, or “Cities of the Dead” – so called because New Orleans is on swampland, so its deceased are interred above ground in decorative mausoleums and crypts that have grown to resemble little villages. The most famous, St. Louis Cemetery #1, is the burial place of the legendary “voodoo queen” Marie Laveau. Believers and non-believers alike make pilgrimages to her tomb to make offerings to her spirit in return for what they hope will be blessings, not curses.
The French Quarter is bursting with restaurants, but it pays to go off the beaten track if you want to avoid the tourist traps. New Orleans is a culinary delight and along with great gumbo, shrimp creole, and famous “Po Boy” sandwiches, comes plenty of experimental fusions with other cuisines. In the up-and-coming Warehouse/Arts district, try Cochon (930 Tchoupitoulas Street) for creative but authentic Cajun fare in a laid back renovated warehouse setting, while Luisa’s by the Track, in the Fauberg Marigny area (1518 N. Lopez St.), reportedly has the best Po Boys in the city.
New Orleans and music go together like red beans and rice, and you can always find live jazz, blues, big band and blue grass. For an authentic and educational experience, check out Preservation Hall (726 St. Peter St.) in the French Quarter, but leave the raucous environs of Bourbon Street behind in favour of exploring Frenchmen Street in Fauberg Marigny. Jazz aficionados and music lovers alike will enjoy all that the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (April 24th – May 3rd) has to offer.
From the grandest hotel to the humblest B&B, New Orleans has something for every budget. Put the luxurious Roosevelt hotel (130 Roosevelt Way – rooms from $239 per night) on the top of your wish list. Walking distance from everything the French Quarter has to offer, but away from the fray, from the gilt façade to the crystal chandeliers, this is old school decadence. For a less formal, thoroughly Creole vibe, check out the Frenchmen Hotel (417 Frenchmen St. – doubles from $149 per night), and for a dose of authentic southern style, hospitality and charm, try Ashton’s B&B (2023 Esplanade Avenue – doubles from $229 per night).
Travel to New Orleans as a city break, or make it a stop-off on a multi destination summer holiday, taking in the theme parks of Orlando or the beaches of Miami. American Holidays (021 236 4636) and Tour America (021 2429222) both offer tailor made packages. See americanholidays.com or touramerica.ie for more.