Hurricane hangover? Cures from New Orleans

It's a great time to visit New Orleans. Several hotels are offering fabulous deals — including the , which is offering the 'French Quarter Forever' package, with rates starting at $89 per night.
It's a great time to visit New Orleans. Several hotels are offering fabulous deals — including the , which is offering the 'French Quarter Forever' package, with rates starting at $89 per /
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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.