updated 12/13/2005 4:13:28 PM ET 2005-12-13T21:13:28

I'd never been to New Orleans. Figured it was time I went. And after a weekend down there, I urge you to go, too.

What's it like now? Through first-time eyes, it is quiet and melancholy, beautiful, wounded, tired but hopeful. And yes, it was fun. If you're looking for a place that's happy to see you, this is it.

My wife and I were the first tourists our cab driver had picked up at freshly carpeted but empty Louis Armstrong airport since Hurricane Katrina. Pre-K, as they say there these days, December was a bit slow. But now, nothing. The hotels are filled with insurance types, FEMA guys and roofers from Texas. No one takes a cab.

"Not one tourist," our cab driver said as we flew down empty I-10. "Not one person come down here for fun." An exaggeration to be sure, but not much of one. For New Orleans, that's another disaster in the making. The convention and visitor's bureau estimates that each household in Louisiana would have to spend an additional $2,969 annually if the New Orleans travel industry did not exist. In 2004, the city hosted 10.1 million visitors who spent $4.9 billion. Since the hurricane, there's been little to displace the aftermath's horrific images, leaving the impression that there's nothing left down there but twisted buildings and mud, and little reason to go.


While many of the city's more than 38,000 hotel rooms are shuttered, and many of the 18,000 that remain are filled with workers, there is vacancy. The Soniat House, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, where we stayed, was charming and quiet. Hidden away in the French Quarter, which remained high and dry, the 19th century hotel showed no signs of damage. A number of locals were staying there, although we never saw them.

Wrapped around two tropical courtyards, the antique-filled rooms have towering ceilings and simple elegance (and, blessedly, after a long day walking around this ruined city, an oversized Jacuzzi). Service is understated and friendly. Breakfast in the room was thick coffee and fresh buttermilk biscuits with sticky strawberry-honey spread. We licked our fingers and read the papers and lingered for hours each morning.

Dinner was easy. Lots of restaurants have reopened in the Quarter. Reservations? No problem. Try the rich sweetbreads at Bayona on Dauphine Street or go to Peristyle, on Dumaine, an upscale bistro with a cozy bustle (locals all, we were told), good wine and a juicy pork loin thick as your wrist. We were the first diners to arrive (a pattern--our stomachs never got off East Coast time whereas the Big Easy is a nocturnal city), which gave us a chance to chat for a while with the bartender there. He asked if anyone up North was talking about them. Was New Orleans still front-page news? I lied a little and said it was.

The city, he explained, is holding its breath. Would the levies get rebuilt stronger? If not, who will move back to a place that will only get flooded again? Just as bad, what if only a few people move back to the devastated neighborhoods?

Talking with him, I heard the anxiety of my fellow New Yorkers during another terrible December, back in 2001. After the attack, would anyone ever come? Would there be new acts of terrorism? Shopping bags on Fifth Avenue that Christmas were the first signs that things were going to be OK and the world would stand by us, one tour bus at a time. New Orleans needs the same thing now, but more so. Tourists can't solve the daunting, complex problems faced by the city, but they can help put some money back into the economy.

But there aren't many tourists. Bourbon Street has the feeling of a gold-rush town in the old West. It's a promenade of tradesmen with cell phones on their belts and plastic cups in their hands. The barstools and tables are empty inside most places. Still, there's music everywhere. Service is instantaneous. Tell the bartender you're visiting for fun and see what happens.

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Being on higher ground, the Garden District fared well during Katrina, though there's more sunlight now that some of the old oaks are gone on St. Charles Avenue. On side streets, nail guns cracked the Saturday afternoon quiet. Fresh paint is going up. Roofing tile is replacing blue tarps (they call it "blue roof," and you get one from FEMA). It was snowing in New York while we ambled past graceful homes under a strong sun.

Elsewhere, it's a different story. The area around the Superdome in the Central Business District is a ready-made set for The Day After II. Lapping the stadium on the elevated walkway, the soft Gulf breeze becomes a sandblasting wind. The images of what happened here are hard to shake. National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue is scheduled to come down soon and take a look. I hope he helps the Saints realize how much they're needed at home. The place needs a good, loud football game to exorcize the silence. They should get the next available Super Bowl, too.

Slideshow: 2005 Holiday Highlights City Park, one of the largest public spaces in America, is a gray plain after weeks spent under the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. Contractors have set up small villages of RVs and tents. Local volunteers are trying to bring back the buildings for weddings in the spring, trying to interest the Professional Golfers' Association in helping to restore one of the four golf courses there. I saw a lone duffer taking aim at a flat spot that once was a green. Anything for some normalcy.

The Lakeview area of the city, hard by the edge of Pontchartrain, is a ruin--as are other neighborhoods near the lake. Block after block of windowless, dead homes with spray-painted signs from FEMA on the walls. In photos, it is heartbreaking. In person, it is much worse. The trees are gone. Trash is piled high on the killed lawns. Late afternoon sun streaks in the air's grainy haze. The only movement: workers hauling away garbage.

See it to be reminded of what these folks are facing. Everyone should. But see other things, too. In the backroom of Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo on Bourbon Street, the Tarot reader is just back from San Francisco and ready to go. We gladly dumped $50 on him to learn about our future (looks good, with caveats). In the Maison Bourbon, trumpeter Jamil Shrif pumped out favorites such as "St. James Infirmary" to a small but appreciative audience. Empty of tourists, the lamplit side streets were thick with the 19th century. On a warm, sunny Sunday morning, the Mississippi was still there, easing by without a sound.

We'd never been there before, but we'll be back as soon as we can. And as we told everyone we met, next time we'll bring friends. We won't forget.

For more information, The New Orleans Convention and Visitors' Bureau has a great Web site at

© 2012


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