Judi Bottoni  /  AP
New Orleans Krewe of Cork parades with the King of Cork Patrick Van Hoorebeek, left, 2007 Queen Gillian Pierce, center, and 2007 Grand Marshal Marchese Ferdinando Frescobaldi, right, from Tuscany, Italy, as they toss beads to people in the French Quarter on Royal Street in New Orleans as the start of parades for the 2007 carnival season begins in New Orleans. Mardi Gras Day is Feb. 20.
Special to msnbc.com
updated 2/12/2007 2:35:51 PM ET 2007-02-12T19:35:51

Make no doubt about it: from a tourist’s perspective, New Orleans is back. All of the major restaurants are now open, as are all the tourist attractions, hotels and music clubs. Yes, much of the city is still facing mammoth challenges, but you’d never know it when strolling through the French Quarter, or dining at one of the famous eateries here … except that the hordes of visitors are AWOL, you won’t have any problem getting a restaurant reservation, and because of a labor shortage, your meal may actually be cooked by the celebrated chef whose name is on the awning, rather than one of his employees. (Many are commenting that the food in NOLA is better than ever before because of this.) And by visiting now, you’re not only treating yourself to a great vacation, you’ll be doing a bit of good: hauling New Orleans back to its feet by an infusion of tourist dollars.

8 a.m. - 9 a.m.:  There’ll be powdered sugar all over your face, hands and probably down your shirt, but there’s no sweeter place—literally—to start the day, than the famed Café du Monde . Usually when a café or restaurant has been this famous for this long (it was founded in 1862), chances are good that it’s just riding on its rep. Not so here: the beignets (a donut-like pastry) and Hercules-strength café au lait are as addictive as they ever were, and the setting can’t be beat.

9 a.m. - noon: Jump back in time at the National World War II Museum , formerly known as the D-Day Museum. The brainchild of the late historian/author Stephen Ambrose, it tells the story of the war through gripping newsreels and documentaries, artifacts, and cutting-edge interactive displays. Be sure to stop one of the volunteer docents strolling through; many are veterans, and hearing their war tales is the highlight of a visit here.

Morning Alternative
Go plantation-hopping. Along the banks of the Mississippi, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, are a number of achingly beautiful, antebellum mansions that will set your hoop skirt a-twirlin’. Many are only an hour or less from New Orleans, allowing you to see a bit of the countryside, learn some history and get back in town in time for a late lunch. Among the many you could choose from are Oak Alley Plantation (so darn purty it played a starring role in the films Interview with the Vampire and Primary Colors); Laura (a Creole house, it educates visitors on the history of that fascinating population); and Destrehan (the closest of the grand plantations to NOLA proper, clocking in at just a half hour away when the traffic’s good).

Noon to 1 p.m.: Grab a muffaletta, New Orlean’s massive, round, signature sandwich, at Central Grocery , where, legend has it, this meat-cadillac was invented. A skyscraping stack of cold cuts, olive salad and good Italian bread, it’s against the law—the law of nature, that is—to try and finish one of these suckers alone. Instead, you’ll want to share the bounty (and salvage your waistline), or at least pack away the left-overs for later.

1 p.m. - 4 p.m.: Face reality. While the French Quarter and large swatches of the Garden District look just fine, many parts of New Orleans are still devastated. Take a tour of the areas still affected by Katrina with Gray Line New Orleans . You’ll see the actual spots where the levees were breached; meet locals with harrowing tales; and tour the Ninth Ward and other areas that are still in shambles, over a year and a half later. If it seems exploitative, know this: a portion of the ticket price goes toward Katrina clean-up operations, petitions are passed during the tour to expedite the funding of hurricane relief, and the guides are all locals, happy for the work and the chance to share their stories. 

Afternoon Alternative
Or don’t face reality and immerse yourself instead in the curlicued iron balconies, the sunset-hued buildings, the statues, chic boutiques and street cafes of the French Quarter. You can do it on your own, flitting in and out of Jackson Square, up Bourbon Street and to the antique-store-laden Royal Street (and the many streets and avenues that intersect these); or by joining a walking tour. Historic New Orleans Tours is a top pick.  Its guides will fill you in on all the gossip and history of this beautifully preserved quarter, which in many ways, hasn’t changed a hair since the 19th century.

5 p.m. - 8 p.m.: Chill out with a saverac (or two), in one of NOLA’s famously-congenial bars. Perhaps you’ll spend your cocktail hour in Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shoppe , a historic hole in the wall, set in the oldest building in the city (built in 1770). For a more upscale tipple, head to the French 75 Bar where the bartenders are “mixoligists” (and expert ones at that) and the atmosphere is ooh la la elegant.

8 p.m. - 10 p.m.: Dive into nouveau Creole cuisine at Cuvee , one of the most celebrated restaurants in the city. Among the many inventions of chef Bob Iacavone, are a ‘Napoleon” of spiced shrimp, a meatloaf of tender Kobe beef, and hush puppy crusted fish with a choux of sweet corn and tasso. All this is served in a warmly inviting dining room of exposed brick and white tablecloths, set in the historic Board of Trade building. And with a name like “Cuvee” (which generally refers to wine from the first pressing of the grape), you know the wine list is going to be first class.

10 p.m. - on: Put your dancing shoes on (or your hearing aid in) and head towards the music. Though New Orleans’ nightlife scene has been curtailed by the dip in tourist numbers, there’s always a hot band playing somewhere in town…you just have to look a bit harder these days to find the party. Some venues to check include the famed Preservation Hall (for classic New Orleans-style Jazz—think lots of brass), Mid City Lanes Rock and Bowl (a great spot for zydeco...and you can bowl in between sets), The Maple Leaf Bar (fun for dancing with a nice outdoor patio), or The Howlin’ Wolf (for all types of sounds, including nationally recognized acts).

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommerguides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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Café Du Monde, 800 Decatur Street, in the French Market, phone 504/581-2914; www.cafedumonde.com/. Open 24 hours a day.

National World War II Museum, 945 Magazine Street, phone 504/527-6012; www.nationalww2museum.org. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. (open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays). Admission is $14.

Oak Alleyis located 60 miles from New Orleans at 3645 La. 18, phone 800/44-ALLEY or 225/265-2151;  www.oakalleyplantation.com. It’s open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and until 5:30 p.m. from March through October. Admission is $10 adults.

Laura Plantation, 2247 La. 18, phone 888/799-7690 or 225/265-7690; www.lauraplantation.com. Open daily 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. Admission $10 adults

Destrehan, 13034 River Rd, phone 504/764-9315; www.destrehanplantation.org/. Open daily 9am-4pm. Admission is $10 adults.

Central Grocery, 923 Decatur Street, phone 504/523-1620.

Gray Line New Orleans, phone 800/535-7786 or 504/569-1401; http://www.graylinesneworleans.com/.

Historic New Orleans Tours, phone 504/947-2120, www.tourneworleans.com

Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, 941 Bourbon Street, phone 504/522-9377.

French 75 Bar, 813 Bienville Street, phone 504/523-5433.

Cuvee, 322 Magazine Street, phone 504/587-9001; www.restaurantcuvee.com/. Reservations essential. Closed Sundays.

Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter’s Street, phone 888/946-JAZZ; www.preservationhall.com/. Cover charge is $8.

Mid City LanesRock ‘n Bowl,4133 S. Carollton Avenue, phone 504/482-3133; www.rockandbowl.com/

The Maple Leaf Bar, 8316 Oak Street, phone 504/866-9359. Cover varies.

Howlin’ Wolf, 907 St. Peter’s Street, phone 504/522-WOLF; www.howlin-wolf/. Cover charges vary and some shows are free.

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommerguides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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