Image: Chateau Sonesta Hotel
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It's a great time to visit New Orleans. Several hotels are offering fabulous deals — including the Chateau Sonesta Hotel, which is offering the 'French Quarter Forever' package, with rates starting at $89 per night.
By John Frenaye Travel columnist
updated 7/11/2007 8:45:34 PM ET 2007-07-12T00:45:34

Can you believe it is nearly two years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the shores of our Gulf Coast? This year is predicted to be an active hurricane season, too — but then again, so was last year. Sometimes I wonder if the qualifications for weather forecaster and craps shooter are the same. But I digress. Rather than predicting the future, let's look at the present and see what is happening down in New Orleans.

If you read this column regularly, you know that I have a fetish for New Orleans. I'm pretty much president of the Boosters Club. It is a city so full of life and vigor that every other city pales by comparison. Even after the battering it took in the hurricane — and contrary to a lot of media claims — the city retains it essential charm: It is a vibrant, saucy, flower-scented, jazz-inflected city of dreams and no tourist should miss it.

But sadly, tourists have been slow to return to New Orleans. Discouraged by the slow recovery and exaggerated crime rates, tourists think about visiting and then decide, "Maybe next year." And that's too bad, because tourism is to New Orleans what oxygen is to you or me. Oxygen allows us to breathe easy; in fact, it gives us life. Right now, New Orleans is still breathing, but without its beloved tourists, it is a city with an asthma problem.

The New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) is turning tourism around with a national media tour that began in New York in April and recently stopped in Chicago. The tour features one of the city's most enduring icons — a streetcar from the St. Charles Streetcar Line, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. During its tour of major U.S. cities, the streetcar will serve as a mobile tourism office and billboard for the Crescent City. Passers-by can book travel to New Orleans, learn about the city's major attractions from CVB representatives, and have their picture taken in the driver's seat of the streetcar. The message is simple: "We're back, and we want you to come and see us."

Over the past year, literally hundreds of people have asked me about New Orleans. The first question is usually, "Is it safe to visit the city?" The answer is a resounding yes, but I also urge common sense. The good news: While certain outlying areas are still reeling from the damage, most tourist areas are up and running, and while there is crime in the city, it is typically not in the areas you would be visiting. The caution: New Orleans is a major city and you can find trouble there the same way you can in my hometown of Annapolis, on a cruise ship, or at a fancy resort in the Caribbean. Use your common sense everywhere you travel — to New Orleans or to your grocery store.

So, what's alive and kicking in New Orleans? The music, the nightlife and the attractions that made New Orleans famous are better than ever. The family-owned and star-chef restaurants are up and running. And a post-Katrina influx of entrepreneurs and investors who see the city as a frontier for new economic opportunities are beginning to make their mark with refurbished buildings, new businesses, and yes, even a new restaurant or two.

So, why not sweat off some pounds in New Orleans this summer? Yes, it is hot and humid, but I have to say there is something wonderful about sweltering beside the Mississippi in this unique town. And besides, there's always air conditioning!

Check out these 10 "Sizzlin' Summer Deals" at some of New Orleans' hotels. There is a package for every budget and they all offer some special amenities. If you want more details, e-mail me or contact the hotel directly.

For more summer vacation deals, visit the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau or call your local travel agent. And if you are interested in a little more than R&R, please consider offering some real sweat equity and take a "voluntour" to New Orleans. The New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau hosts a page on its site that lists opportunities to help New Orleans rebuild and recover. Check it out.

I was in New Orleans shortly after Katrina, and have been there at least six times since, most recently for Mardi Gras in February. I have seen the progress in the tourist areas and in the outskirts, and it is encouraging. Maybe it's time for you to take a look as well. Visit my online photos of the city before and after Katrina.

There! Now there is no excuse. Chicago survived the fire in 1871. San Francisco rebuilt after the earthquake of 1906. We did not desert Miami after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Nor have we turned out backs on the small town of Greensburg, Kan., after tornadoes all but obliterated the town in May of this year. New Orleans deserves the same!

Do you agree? Or disagree? E-mail me or post a comment below.

Photos: Big Easy returns

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  1. Katrina's mess

    A junked car lies near empty houses in the Lakeview neighborhood near the site of the levee breach on the 17th Street Canal, August 29, 2005. More than five months after caused by Hurricane Katrina made landfall, there was little progress in some areas of New Orleans. Today, tours are offered to visitors to have a better understanding of events pre and post Katrina. (David Rae Morris / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Big Easy blues

    Costumed revelers dressed as blue roof tarps pose at the annual MOMs Ball, thrown each year by the Krewe of Misfits, Orphans and Mystics in New Orleans. Many of this years Mardi Gras floats and costumes reference the blue tarps that still protect broken roofs across the city after Hurricane Katrina. (Matthew Cavanaugh / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Soul sounds

    Jen Pearl (L) and Michelle Loughnane stand under an umbrella with a reference to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, April 2006. Jazz Fest '07 will be held on April 27-29 and May 4-6. (Lee Celano / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dancing in the streets

    A member of the Young Olympia Aide and New Look Social Aid and Pleasure Club dances in a second line parade at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. (Lee Celano / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Jeweled celebration

    Members of the Krewe of Thoth throw beads as they travel down St. Charles Avenue where thousands of revelers showed up to enjoy 2006 Mardi Gras festivities. Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday") is the day before Ash Wednesday, and a celebration of the last the day before the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. Mardi Gras 2007 will be observed on Feb. 20. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Eye candy

    Revelers ogle a woman exposing herself on Bourbon St. during Mardi Gras festivities in the French Quarter of New Orleans. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Closing time

    Orleans Parish mounted Police Officers march down Bourbon Street in the French Quarter announcing the official end of Mardi Gras 2006. (Sean Gardner / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A shout for freedom

    "Big Chief" Victor Armstrong wears an elaborate Mardi Gras Indian costume. The Indian tradition of Mardi Gras pays homage to the relationship between Native Americans and escaped African slaves of the 1700s. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
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