A Guide to New OrleansBelow sea-level in the Gulf of Mexico in southeast Louisiana and lying between Lake Pontchartrain and a bend in the Mississippi River, New Orleans was totally devastated by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. It will be a long time before life returns to normal for New Orleanians, but reconstruction work has been done to restore the renowned French Quarter, heart of the city, which conjures up images of elegant buildings decorated with wrought-iron work. The hurricane season extends from June to November; The Gulf has hot humid summers and wet winters, so the best times to visit are spring and autumn.
Louisiana, controlled by the French until 1803 when the US purchased it from France, became a state in 1812. After the British were defeated at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, there was an economic boom and New Orleans became the nation’s fourth largest city and second busiest port with steamboats plying the river. Fortunes were made from the world’s biggest cotton crops grown along the fertile banks of the Mississippi, but this labour-intensive crop was dependent on slaves and resultant racism flared for the next century. The city’s fortunes waned after the Civil War in 1863. Nothing replaced the cash-cow cotton industry after cheap imports ruined it and unemployment remains high.
New Orleans means Jazz, Mississippi Steamers, wrought-iron work and Mardi Gras. Slave songs sung in the Mississippi Delta became blues and rock ’n roll, while Cajun and Creole food changed the palate of many Americans.
The French Quarter can be walked, but there are buses and taxis (recommended after dark). Enjoy the sights along the basin by riverboat; take a nostalgic ride on the St Charles Avenue Streetcar; go on a cruise on the steamboat Natchez. The former boatmen of the Mississippi steamboats were thugs, and after five days of plying the length of the river, were more than ready for women and liquor at journey’s end, resulting in New Orleans becoming known as ‘The City of Sin’. A legacy of this is Bourbon Street, a hive of bars offering gut-rotting concoctions, strip joints, drag shows, gay clubs and other sleazy places. But there are some excellent restaurants here and the top jazz venue, Preservation Hall. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop is a delightful pub while up the road is Lafitte’s in Exile, the oldest gay bar.
Places to see in the French Quarter are the Old US Mint with wrought-iron railings and balconies now housing the New Orleans Jazz Collection; the gracious 1752 French Colonial Ursuline Convent, the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley, where Bavarian stained-glass windows are a feature; the St Louis Cathedral buildings where you can see Mardi Gras memorabilia; St Anthony’s Garden behind the cathedral where duels took place in the 1700s; the Insectarium in the Federal-style Customs House on Canal Street and the Aquarium containing a Caribbean reef.
Royal Street, the gem of New Orleans, is filled with antique shops in buildings decorated with wrought-iron. The Historic New Orleans Collection, a complex of old houses, has ten galleries displaying diverse works of art; see the Creole American-style Galliler House Museum and the beautiful Lalaurie House, said to be haunted.
Upriver of the French Quarter are: The Garden District, where wealthy American planters and merchants built their mansions surrounded by exquisite gardens; the 340-acre landscaped Audubon Park, once a sugar plantation and site of the World Exposition of 1884, now home to the Audubon Zoo with a Louisiana Swamp full of white alligators, Jaguar Jungle and Flamingo Gardens; and the 1 500-acre City Park, where the New Orleans Museum of Art is housed in a Beaux Arts building; the New Orleans Botanic Garden has charming sculptures among the moss-draped oaks, tropical plants and trees, camellias, magnolias and azaleas, lagoons on which to boat, and a championship golf course.