Whatever your vice, it can probably be found in New Orleans, home of Mardi Gras, zydeco, bimbos and booze. But this bad-ass river town has another side: romantic, soulful, epicurean, and yes, even familial. Take a new look at the Big Easy with the loving eye of a local.
Some say Paris is the most romantic city in the world, but in the absence of a transatlantic ticket, New Orleans might give it a run for the money. From the quaint carriage rides around the French Quarter to the splendor of a streetcar ride along St. Charles Avenue, you will never run short of romantic opportunities. (Did you know that New Orleans, not San Francisco had the first streetcar?)
But according to Christine Decuir of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, a lifetime resident of the city, you can’t beat Woldenburg Park for romance. This tree-lined, brick-paved promenade runs along the riverfront between Canal Street and Esplanade Avenue. Take a moonlight stroll and watch the ships churn their way to the Gulf of Mexico. Have a seat on one of the many benches and listen to the smooth sound of jazz wafting over the river from the not-too-distant French Quarter. If you are lucky, a few dollars might get you a soulful private concert from a street saxophone player.
Do you have kids along with you? As long as you keep the little ones away from the antics on Bourbon Street after 8 p.m., New Orleans can be a great vacation spot for the whole family. Teens will love the shopping at Riverwalk Marketplace or the Shoppes at Canal Place, and of course at the French Market on Decatur Street (pronounced duh-KAY-ter, please).
While there are literally hundreds of organized tours suitable for families, I suggest that a regular streetcar would be a lot more fun than a huge hired motor coach. Along the Mississippi River in the French Quarter is the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, featuring 10,000 animals including a rare white alligator named Spots. The Entergy IMAX Theatre, next door to the aquarium, is always a treat for all ages. A brisk walk will take you to the new National D-Day Museum, opened just five years ago, which offers an interactive tour of U.S. involvement in World War II, with an interesting look at amphibious landing craft—which were designed and built right in New Orleans.
The Audubon Zoo, on Magazine Street, offers a fabulous collection of natural habitats, an elephant show, and the Embraceable Zoo—all in the heart of the Garden District; take the St. Charles streetcar, walk, or take a ferry from the dock next to the aquarium.
Another in-town oasis is City Park, a 1,500-acre playground that offers families an amusement park, the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), boating, fishing, do-nothing relaxation, and 54 holes of golf — rumored to be the cheapest 18 holes you can play in the United States.
There is certainly no shortage of places to eat in New Orleans. Of course, you have world-renowned restaurants like Commander’s Palace, Brennan’s and Emeril’s, but New Orleans also hosts some fabulous lesser-known but equally appetizing restaurants. For a taste of true Creole cooking, head to Bourbon Street and experience lunch or dinner at Galatoire’s, on the corner of Bourbon and Iberville. The service is impeccable, and the chef’s creations are not to be believed. It’s a little pricey (about $100 a couple, including a drink and a tip), but it’s worth every penny. Reservations are suggested. (Galatoire’s, 504-525-2021)
For one of the best burgers in town, venture over to Bourbon and Dumaine and settle in at the Clover Grill. They have been serving traditional American “greasy spoon” cuisine since 1950, and burgers are their specialty. People-watchers will be entertained by parade of drag queens, transsexuals and rockers all decked out in studded leather – both inside and outside of the Clover Grill—staff included! Always a fun time and probably one of the friendliest wait staffs I have ever encountered. No reservations needed, and the grill is open 24/7. (Clover Grill, 504-598-1010)
To settle that morning-after stomach, amble over to Croissant d’Or Patisserie on Ursuline Street between Chartres (pronounced CHAR-ters, please) and Royal. This local favorite has been called the best bakery in the city. In addition to the baked goods (the croissants rival anything you will find in Paris), the bakery offers a very decent breakfast and lunch. The staff can come off as a bit distant or even rude, which is unusual for New Orleans, but that makes the city just that much more eclectic — besides, you are here for the food, not the conversation. Open until 4:30 p.m. every day except Tuesday; no reservations needed. (Croissant d’Or Patisserie, 504-524-4663)
New Orleans is a party city, and you can scratch most any itch you’ve got on Bourbon Street. But if you want to experience more than a full glass of your hooch-du-jour, head to some of the lesser-known haunts. If jazz is your jones, take a walk along Bourbon, passing up Preservation Hall for now, and head for the Faubourg Marginy district, where you’ll find the Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro. This out-of-the-way performance venue is a working artist’s club. The jazz you will hear is not yesterday’s jazz but the jazz that is yet to come. Local iconic families, including the Marsalis and Neville clans, routinely play here.
The place starts swinging around 9 p.m., and a second set plays at 11 — leaving you plenty of time to get into trouble on Bourbon Street. You don’t come to Snug Harbor for the food (it’s marginal); it’s the atmosphere and the passion of the music that take it over the top. Snug Harbor’s signature drink is the Monsoon. It’s wonderful, it’s potent, it’s expensive — and I have no idea what’s in it. (Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, 504-949-0696)
Sightseeing, eating, drinking, dancing, and more drinking are all fine and good, but where do you lay your head at the dawn of a bright day in New Orleans? A lot of people will insist that one of the Bourbon Street hotels is “the” place to be. I agree — if you like the noise of revelry till dawn, the smell of stale beer and worse, and the sound of Public Works cleaning up the mess from the night before. But if you want some peace and quiet, maybe some romance, a fine restaurant, and convenience, look to the Maison Dupuy on Toulouse and Burgundy (pronounced bur-GUN-dy, please). The hotel is made up of seven town homes surrounding one of the largest courtyards in the French Quarter. Festooned in Spanish moss, the courtyard is a charming spot with old-fashioned fountains and wrought-iron chairs, but it also has a welcome swimming pool and hot tub.
The Maison Dupuy is also home to chef Dominique Macquet and his restaurant, Dominique’s, which offers truly international flavor in every creation. Room rates begin at $99 per night. If you have a special occasion, consider the Maison Dupuy’s Honeymoon Suite on the fifth floor ($500 per night) or the Carriage House (Rod Stewart slept there) at $600 per night. (Maison Dupuy, 800-535-9177)
Don’t be a tourist when you head to the Big Easy. Explore it like a local and you’ll soak up more than the alcohol in the Hurricanes and the Hand Grenades. Sample some old jazz at Preservation Hall, and hear the new jazz that is just emerging from this fabulous town. Skip the tourist traps and try some more subdued and local-flavored dining. Heed my tips on the “correct” pronunciation of some streets names, and you’ll fit right in. New Orleans is my favorite domestic destination, and I like to visit several times a year. Each time I discover something new and wonderful. It’s that kind of town. It’s my kind of town.
Interested in exploring New Orleans? Register at the Tripso Forums, and you could win a pair of tickets on US Airways — which would make that Carriage House at the Maison Dupuy a little more doable!
John Frenaye is the president of JVE Group, Inc., a diversified company based in Annapolis, Md. With a background in business management, he writes about the travel industry as an insider with an outsider's perspective. E-mail him or visit his Web site.