New Orleans (pronounced N‘awlins), a city founded in 1718 by the French on a crescent of the Mississippi River in the southern State of Louisiana in America bears little resemblance to the rest of the country. It is refreshingly different and therein lies its allure.
Naming its airport after a jazz musician (Louis Armstrong) reveals its priorities and my pulse quickened as we drove into the historic French Quarter; it felt as though we’d arrived on a Caribbean Island with a balmy clime, painted houses, lush courtyards and street musicians absolutely everywhere.
The kind of place where you let your hair down and turn the volume up. The zesty, feisty city, known for its signature spicy cuisine and resilient spirit has a strong style and culture of its own, unlike what can be America’s “monotonous middle.” New Orleans compels the visitor with Mardi Gras, the Jazz Festival, the constant-party feel, inventive cocktails, delightful music, charming architecture and a riveting story. It’s a whirl unto itself. I couldn’t help smile at the words on a T-shirt; “America has only three cities. New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland. Tennessee Williams.”
The French Quarter
The most special part of New Orleans, its historic French Quarter lies on higher ground, and did not flood when hurricane Katrina was unleashed in 2005. We explored the neat grid of the old quarter on foot, taking in the pretty Creole townhouses (once home to sugar barons and cotton magnates) with intricate cast iron balconies and flickering gaslights. Behind them, the courtyard gardens bloomed with magnolia, jasmine and frangipani. We came across “shotgun houses” where the front and back doors were aligned, allowing a bullet to pass straight through the house. Royal Street and Chartres Street have some of the most charming homes. Bourbon Street, with its neon signs and drinking dens is a popular haunt for tourists, stag parties and frat-happy students.
In and around the central Jackson Square area are the historic St Louis Cathedral, The Cabildo and Presbytere museums, and Frenchmen Street, a short walk east, lights up at night with over a dozen music venues humming with a mélange of music. For traditional Jazz, we lined up at Preservation Hall and Irwin Mayfair’s Jazz Playhouse in the heart of the old quarter.
The city’s areas are based on the old plantation boundaries. The culture here is a heady cocktail of African, Caribbean, French, Spanish and American influences. This is the domain of catholic churches and Voodoo priestesses, of aboveground cemeteries, marching bands, trumpets, trombones and tubas, spicy jambalaya and gumbo dishes and steamboat cruises on the Mississippi River.
‘Creole’ and ‘Cajun’
After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 when the Americans took the area over from the French, the New Orleans port was firmly established and business families from New York, Pennsylvania and other places sprawled southwards. Soon steamboats arrived, replacing flat boats, facilitating trade up country on the vast network of rivers. The second most important port after NY was thrumming with cotton, sugar, indigo and banana shipments, and it led to the building magnificent mansions in the Garden District. ‘The local Louisiana folks,” our guide told us, “strongly preferred to hold on to their French heritage rather than become Anglicized, or Americanized. They began calling themselves “creole.” The opposite of Creole is not white, but American. The word, however, was soon associated with people of mixed European and African heritage. The white creoles began to prefer the epithet, “Cajun,” after “Acadian” (the early French families came from Acadia, in Nova Scotia). French language, catholic churches, above ground cemeteries, the fiddle, guitar and accordion remain their signature influences, topped only by their dishes such as crayfish étouffee and the popular expression, “Laissez les bon temps rouler! Or “Let the good times roll!”
Best time to go
The carnival Mardi Gras is held in February and the Jazz Festival in late April, early May.
How to get there
Fly to Louise Armstrong Airport in New Orleans. Stay at- Soniat House, 1133 Chartres St. This small boutique hotel with 30 rooms straddling a handful of traditional town houses, gave us the feel of living at a friend’s home. The lush courtyards and balconies are a marvelous place to relax in the midst of the French Quarter, steps away from music venues, bars and restaurants.
Villa Convento on Ursuline, St Ursuline Guest House, The Provincial Hotel, Rue Chartres, The Chateaux on Chartres and St Philip.
Special Jazz venues
Preservation Hall, in the heart of the Frenchman quarter provides authentic jazz experiences in an atmospheric and intimate space. Line up for the daily shows at 8 p.m., 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. or reserve at their box office or gift shop between 12 to 5 p.m.
Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta Hotel is a legendary venue for pure Jazz.
Music Venues on Frenchmen St-The Spotted Cat, a popular and cozy music club on 623 Frenchmen St with daily live performances. Snug Harbor 626, Frenchmen Quarter which is a restaurant with a live music room at the back.
Must- see places
The National WWII Museum: B17 bombers, Higgins boats and short movies combine to make this museum one of the top experiences. nationalww2meuseum.org.
New Orleans School of Cooking- Join a class and enjoy a meal after, sampling the local cuisine in the French Quarter. The shop in front has a great selection of seasonings, sauces and spices to carry home. www.nosoc.com 504 620 9464.
The Herman Grima House- Immerse yourself in the lives of residents back in time, in a beautiful Historic House built in 1831 in a 45 minute guided tour that unfolds transom windows, a potager hearth, water cistern and horse stables.
The Southern Food and Beverage Museum in Central City: Visit the website: www.natfab.org.
If you are in need of a guide, contact Randy Bibb, of www.magictoursnola.com, who is well informed and professional.
Firtherafield: Drive to Cajun country and take a boat ride through wild Cypress swamps with lurking alligators, and visit the historic plantation homes. Tours by Isabelle.
Mardi Gras-The carnival starts on Jan 6th and ends 12 days later on Fat Tuesday before lent. It’s a time for drinking and revelry, masks, costumes, beads, parades, floats and music when everyone comes together in a giant celebration of life.
The jazz and cultural heritage festival—This takes place at the end of April and early May over two weekends