• American jazz's birthplace still churns out stars who blow Dixieland from Preservation Hall or wander the streets with their brass bands.
• A mash of Creole, Southern, voodoo and party lifestyles, creating an environment like nowhere else on earth
• Stately Southern charm -- both cultural and architectural -- that held strong despite 2005's devastation.
The rolling of the Big Easy's bon temps may have come to a screeching halt in 2005, but the city's ongoing process of recovering its cultural and gustatorial spiciness continues apace. The ghosts of Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton live on through the musicians pounding the French Quarter's cobblestones, and the living personalities of Anne Rice and Emeril Lagasse can once again show off their love of the city. As the city returns to life, its many layers come back in focus: the stately Ritz-Carltons and antebellum homes; the casino-hopping, bead-throwing parties; the shadowy voodoo practitioners; and a new cutting edge, in the form of city-wide free Wi-Fi, and hotels like the International House replacing the traditional concierge with a "vibe manager."
To Be Seen
The French Quarter. Church spires poke up from the Vieux Carre and wrought-iron balconies peer down. A lone saxophone player crafts a bluesy melody from one Bourbon Street corner, while on the opposite side a bar overflows with Hurricane-toting patrons and strains of Dixieland. Fine French restaurants, a rearing statue of Andrew Jackson: Much of the city's proud diversity is on daily parade in this 90-square-block area. Warehouse District. The warehouses-to-galleries conversion is hardly a new trend, but the Big Easy pulls it off better than most cities. Many of the premier galleries now line Julia Street, and even the Renaissance Arts Hotel boasts a gallery (and original pieces in the rooms). The area is bounded by the central business district, which is replete with many of the city's upscale hotels. Garden District. Eschewing the trendiness of the warehouse district and the many layers of the French Quarter, this area still proudly displays its 19th-century aristocratic roots. Mostly untouched by Katrina, the Victorian, Italianate and Greek Revival mansions remain one of the country's most beautiful collections of a bygone lifestyle.
For The VIP
• Bam! Break bread with Emeril. Skip the TV show and sit down to dinner at the exclusive chef's table adjacent to the kitchen at Emeril's eponymous Warehouse District restaurant. There's only room for eight people, and reservations are not guaranteed. But, if there is availability, a six-course tasting menu awaits (wine pairings optional), and Emeril himself is likely to serve you. Call 504-528-9393 for more details.
• Do Jazzfest like Dizzy. The Big Chief VIP Experience grants ticket holders access to private viewing areas of the famed music festival's three main stages and to an air-conditioned hospitality lounge, where drinks flow freely.
• Dress for bacchanalian success. New Orleans' private social clubs throw decorous black-tie balls around Mardi Gras, and a few open their doors to paying tuxedo- and gown-clad guests. The largest, Endymion, starts selling tickets to its Extravaganza in October.
• Flying high. Enjoy a special one-hour airborne tour of New Orleans for couples. Fly over the city in a beautiful twin-engine Navajo aircraft and revel in your privacy -- it's guaranteed!
• View from the top. Take in a Hornets game at the luxurious Marriott-Renaissance supersuite. Enjoy a bottle of wine while you watch the action from one of the best seats in town.
Hurricane (the drink). Forget waiting in line at Pat O'Brien's for this fruity tourist drink. Natives prefer the Sazerac: rye whiskey (or cognac), Peychaud's Bitters, sugar, Herbsaint anise liqueur and lemon oil. Order it up at the Sazerac Bar and Grill, inside the Fairmont Hotel.
Algiers Point. This original Creole suburb, dating to 1719, serves up some of the best-preserved gingerbread and Creole cottages in New Orleans -- and only now are people waking up to its landmark potential. Go for a stroll before the secret gets out.
Faulkner House Books. Faulkner lived and wrote in this house in the 1920s; today it's full of rare and out-of-print books penned by Southern authors.
When To Go
Winter and spring. Of course, be aware of the dates for Mardi Gras and Jazzfest, when booking flights and hotels becomes a competitive sport. July and August are brutally humid, and as everyone now knows, hurricane season is June to November.