After the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, or NOLA as it likes to be known, is definitely back on its feet. There’s a surge of new building and on my visit, they’re even resurfacing the historic Bourbon Street.
What I like about the city is that it’s easy to get around, either by walking, tram or even bus. Indeed you wouldn’t want a car here as parking charges in the French Quarter are exorbitant, even if you’re staying in a hotel. And you should definitely stay in the Quarter, in spite of the noise, as it’s definitely at the heart of things.
French Quarter Walking Tour
I meet my guide after a New Orleans breakfast of coffee and the famous beignets at Café du Monde. I’m right on the banks of the mighty Mississippi and get a brief introduction to the history of the first French settlement.
It’s then a short walk to the French Market, which is an open-air area featuring shopping, dining and live music. There are five blocks of specialty retail shops featuring locally-made jewellery, clothing, cuisine and art. We then leave the banks of the Mississippi and pass the old Ursuline Convent, then turn into Royal Street. This has the archetypal French Quarter architecture, all cast iron balconies and baskets of flowers gracing the fronts of the houses.
Further along, to the left, is the Avart Peretti House on St Peter Street where Tennessee Williams wrote Streetcar Named Desire. I emerge into Jackson Square in front of the iconic Andrew Jackson statue and the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral still in use in North America.
Over the course of a few days, I get to know my way around the quarter and find it at its most delightful in the morning before the crowds arrive. Later in the day, it’s still anarchic enough to avoid tourism chic – I love the bands who set up in the streets and just play. In the evening it gets too much and I prefer the Faubourg Marigny, the adjacent neighbourhood, where Frenchman Street is liked the old days of Bourbon Street – a strip of bars and restaurants with classy live jazz.
Tempted by even more jazz, next day I make my way again to the banks of the Mississippi and climb aboard Steamer Natchez, the 9th paddle boat to bear the name. She was built in 1975 and is one of only two authentic steamboats on the river. There’s buffet-style dining and live jazz throughout the voyage. I take a seat on the upper deck at the front and enjoy the sights along the Mississippi, guided by an interesting commentary.
Later, I cross Canal Street and make my way to the Warehouse District, a 19th century industrial area for storing grain, coffee and produce. When the port moved away, dereliction set in but it was revived by new galleries and museums. The mightiest of which is the National WW2 Museum, a massive hanger of a building, with state of the art interactive exhibits.
On my last day, in true Tennessee Williams style I take the St. Charles Avenue streetcar through the Garden District uptown to the Carrollton-Riverbend neighbourhood. It’s not the fastest way to travel, or the most comfortable but I break it up by getting off and exploring Magazine Street. This follows the curve of the Mississippi, a few blocks north, for six miles and is crammed with antique stores, art galleries, craft shops and boutiques. Of course it also has some fine restaurants and bars.
One of the few reasons to leave New Orleans is to take a swamp boat trip into the Louisiana Swamps & Bayous. I’m here in December when the wildlife is not as abundant but we still manage to see alligators and a variety of birds including white egrets and herons. The tranquillity of nosing down the narrow channels, overhung with Spanish moss, is the real reason for coming here and the narrow draught of the swamp boat means we get to place others can’t reach.