New Orleans fulfils the promise of winter sun, fine food, friendly locals and fabulous live music. Little wonder then that for many who visit, New Orleans immediately becomes their favourite American city says Kaye Holland
When most Brits say they have been to America what they really mean is that they have ticked off Orlando, which is bit like saying you know London because you once got lost in Leicester Square. Or you’re au fait with the Middle East because you’ve ‘done’ Dubai.
Yet while mega malls and Mickey Mouse have a certain appeal, they only give you a limited view of what America has to offer. Orlando and the coastal cities perpetually shine in the US travel spotlight, but for my money, the most original, fascinating and dazzling destination in the States is New Orleans.
Louisiana’s favourite city takes some beating when it comes to diversity (the former French colony was given to the Spanish in 1763, until America took control in 1863) and its’ colourful history can be felt in the medley of architectural styles, think trademark Creole townhouses, shuttered windows, Spanish courtyards and ironic ironwork balconies. The South's foremost city has resisted the pressure to become the same as everywhere else, or as a slogan I spied on a t-shirtin a shop targeting tourists near the port put it: “In New Orleans, normal is a setting on a dryer.”
For make no mistake: Nola boasts an infectious joie de vivre found in few places on earth. Surprised to hear this? I was too - especially considering that the Big Easy hasn’t, ahem, had it easy in recent years.
New Orleans was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 - 80 per cent of the city was flooded when the levee flood prevention system failed and some 1,800 people lost their lives, while more than one million were left homeless. Three years later, just as the Big easy was bouncing back, the global recession occurred. Then in 2010, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico damaged the area’s ecology.
So you’d be forgiven for thinking that New Orleans’s spirit might have been dented, but you’d be wrong. The music never stopped in the Crescent City, which continues to be a place of impromptu parties and parades - and not just during Mardi Gras. Everyday events are elevated to full on fetes or as Jay Dardenne Jnr - Louisiana’s lieutenant governor since 2010 - says: “If it walks, crawls, swims or flies we will salute it with a festival before tossing it in the gumbo pot.”
Boozy Bourbon Street, in the famous French Quarter, is a magnet for visitors looking to join the party - but it’s not always evident why. Actor Channing Tatum may own a bar here - , if you’re interested - but Bourbon Street has a Benidorm feel about it (although if all you’re looking for cheap drinks and liveliness, it certainly does the job).
Much of the true music scene can be found on Frenchmen Street in venues such as Spotted Cat and Three Muses. This is where you should head to sip a Sazerac (New Orleans’ official cocktail) or two, before body bopping to live jazz and blues. However as everywhere hip neighbourhoods come and go and by the time you read this, the scene may well have shifted to the upcoming Bywater district.
Of course all this partying will make you hungry. Fortunately for you, dear reader, food is another part of New Orlean’s pleasures. Food isn’t just for mealtimes here, it’s a culture of its own so be prepared to return at least one dress size larger. Apply the ‘never eat what you could have at home’ rule and get stuck into good tasting local specials such as beignets, jambalaya, gumbo (magic in a bowl), boudin and crawfish. You could easily spend a year eating your way through Nola and barely scratch the surface of the depth and brilliance of it culinary scene but - for what it’s worth - here are few places to check out. Begin with an early breakfast of beignets - aka deep fried fritters sprinkled with powdered sugar and served as square pieces - and cafe au lait at the institution that is Cafe du Monde.
For brunch/lunch, look to the Court of Two Sisters (expect a spread fit for an emperor served against a backdrop of live jazz) and end with an elegant dinner on-board Steamboat Natchez where Captain Don Houghton and his crew will welcome you like family. Watchingthe sun set, deep red fading to pink, over the mighty Mississippi River as you’re serenaded by the Grammy nominated Dukes of Dixieland is a real ' pinch me' moment. Regardless of whether you follow in my footsteps or find your own favourites of your own, do bring your appetite (portions are generous) - and dress up. Denim shorts might cut it in casual LA but not in Louisiana - especially at haute spots such as the colonial style Commander’s Palace.
If you'd like to recreate some of the incredible cuisine you’ve been consuming back home, sign up for a cooking class at Langlois Culinary Crossroads. This a sociable and enjoyable way to learn a little about local Nola culture from celebrated Louisiana cookbook author, Amy Sins, and acquire a cornucopia of classic Cajun and Creole recipes.
Yet as fabulous as New Orlean’s food scene is, for me personally, the city’s real selling point is its street life. Hastily tick off the sights - here’s looking at the Louisiana State Museum, The Old Ursuline Convent et al - and then lose yourself in the street life around Jackson Square, humming as it is with magicians, mimers, musicians and… mystics. Yes really: voodoo is as much a part of New Orleans as Mardi Gras and the French Quarter is thriving psychic readers. I found myself bewitched into handing over US$60 for a reading - well, when in Rome… with Mystic Gina who proved to be eerily accurate. Even if you don’t believe in voodoo, a tarot reading makes for a great dinner party story!
To get the inside story on the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans - Marie Laveau - and other famous former residents like Laura Locoul, a Creole woman and plantation mistress who wrote a journal of her family's life in the old French Quarter - try Le Monde Creole’s ‘Insider’s French Quarter Courtyards & Cemetery Tour.’ The charismatic Bill Coble brings the tour to life dispensing gossip and stories while walking you through the heart stoppingly pretty French Quarter that literary greats - take a bow Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Thornton Wilder and William Faulkner - once called home.
Tempting though it is to stay within the Vieux Carré shopping up a storm on Royal Street (home to too many fabulous shops full of glittering goodies to mention), it’s worth venturing - ideally by the St Charles Avenue streetcar - to the Garden District. Here you’ll find Magazine Street - brimming with galleries, cute cafes - and Lafayette Cemetery, the oldest burial grounds in the city. The family tombs - many made from marble - were built above ground because of the shallow water and, as my visit coincided with All Saints Day, adorned with fresh flowers.
This lovely, leafy district is also where Anne Rice, author of Interview With A Vampire - the hugely successful book that was later turned into a film starring Tom Cruise and a young Kirsten Dunst - resides and visiting her stately home has become a rite of passage for vampire fans.
Alas the author wasn’t in residence during my stay in the Crescent City but I did meet an army of locals who were only too happy to share their world with me, so don’t be surprised if you’re greeted with a cheery“Where y’at?” - slang for “How are you?” on every corner. The characters I met couldn’t get over the fact that, back home in Harrow, I don’t know my neighbours: everyone knows everyone in New Orleans.
With so much on offer (I could have stayed for three months instead of three days and still been left wanting more), chances are you’ll find yourself checking house prices before you leave. It’s that kind of place.
True there remains the small matter of the journey - there are currently no direct flights from Britain to New Orleans - but then the finest things in life aren’t always the easiest to achieve. And while it’s more of a faff to reach the Big Easy than say the Big Apple, it’s worth it when you think about how much sun and fun (the music never stops in New Orleans) awaits.
There’s no point resisting. Much like Tennessee Williams - who once famously remarked “America has only three cities, New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland” - I am forever smitten.
Need to know
For more inspiration and information, visit www.neworleanscvb.com or follow the tourist board on Facebook (New Orleans), Twitter (@NewOrleans) and Instagram (NewOrleansCVB)
New Orleans isn't short of hotels where you can lay your head but if - like me - the older you get, the more stars you need in your life, look to Hotel Le Marais. From the power showers to the the sumptuous beds and buzzy Vive! bar, this upscale boutique hotel is out to leave a comforting impression on its guests. What’s more, it’s location in the heart of the French Quarter is great for getting a sense of The Quarter.
How to get there
Delta Airlines fly from London Heathrow to New Orleans Louis Armstrong via Atlanta, with an average flight time of 14 hours.