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Scott McMurren: For history, culture, fun and food, New Orleans is hard to beat
It's easy to mistake New Orleans for a Southern city.
I mean after all, it's on the Gulf Coast.
But the Crescent City (the nickname comes from the dramatic curve in the Mississippi River as it snakes through the city) has international roots: Spanish, French, Italian, African and Irish, among others.
New Orleans’ strategic position at the mouth of the Mississippi River makes it a natural transportation hub -- cruise ships sail from the downtown docks to the Western Caribbean. The “City of New Orleans” train comes in from Chicago every day. Alaska Airlines recently started nonstop service from Seattle to New Orleans. And while the old riverboats that hauled bales of cotton are gone, the Port of New Orleans and the nearby Port of South Louisiana represent the largest shipping ports in the Western Hemisphere. More than half of all U.S. grain exports (corn, soy and wheat) pass through the port. On the import side, the port handles steel, rubber, coffee, fruits and vegetables which, upon arrival, are loaded onto trucks from container ships or onto one of several major rail links.
For travelers, the original townsite, or French Quarter, is the cultural hub of the city. Mardi Gras is over, but there still are strings of beads and decorations hanging from the balconies on Bourbon Street. On a recent Tuesday night, it seemed like the party hadn't stopped since the big parades from a couple of weeks before. During the evenings, large sections of Bourbon Street are closed off for pedestrians, while street musicians stake out strategic corners to play for tips.
You’re wise to ditch your rental car if you plan to stay in the French Quarter. It’s easy to walk around, or to hop a street car to visit other parts of the city. Otherwise, you will pay dearly to park your car (about $40/day).
If you think you can see everything in a day, think again. There’s too much going on, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying some delicious food, an exotic cocktail and some great music.
Cafe du Monde is a cultural touchstone in the Quarter. First opened in 1862, it’s located in the French Market (800 Decatur St.) and it’s open 24 hours a day. Signature items include cafe au lait (half coffee/chickory, half hot milk) and beignets (square doughnuts doused with powdered sugar). This is not the strong espresso coffee we’ve come to expect from Kaladi Brothers. Rather, it’s a robust coffee and chickory blend. For a good espresso, seek out Spitfire Coffee, a couple of blocks away at 627 St. Peter St.
Since you’re right by the river, walk down to the Toulouse Street Dock and catch a two-hour harbor cruise on the Natchez -- a real paddleboat. It’s been 30 years since I sailed on this ship. Marc Becker of the Hotel le Marais, a hotel near the corner of Bourbon and Conti Street, loves to send guests to sail on the ship. “It’s a great way to get some stunning photos, plus the Natchez is an authentic sternwheeler,” he said. You can order a brunch while on board and take a look at the engine room while you’re underway.
From the water, you can see the new National World War II Museum in the distance on Magazine Street. New Orleans has many connections with the war effort. Higgins Industries was located here -- the company manufactured the amphibious landing craft that enabled troops to land on Normandy’s beaches on D-Day. Author and historian Stephen Ambrose, who wrote “Band of Brothers,” lived here and spearheaded the development of this incredible museum.
The new exhibit “The Road to Berlin” chronicles the massive effort that took place between D-Day and the German surrender a year later. This includes detailed history of “Operation Market Garden” and the Battle of the Bulge. Other exhibits focus on the air war, featuring a reconstructed B-17 Flying Fortress, a P-51 Mustang, a B-24 Liberator and other planes hanging from the ceiling. It’s incredible. The staff recommends budgeting four hours to see the movie, participate in “The Final Mission” of the USS Tang submarine and to see the exhibits. We tried and failed to see it all.
Closer to Jackson Square, check out the Historic New Orleans Collection at 533 Royal St. There is a special exhibit about the city’s hero, Andrew Jackson. Jackson saved the city during the War of 1812 and this year marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, which cemented Jackson’s legacy as a war hero -- and later as our 17th president.
There are a couple of things you cannot do in New Orleans: hear bad music or get a bad meal. Aside from the street musicians, there are countless venues for great music. On my first visit to the Quarter, we stopped in at Preservation Hall at 726 St. Peter St. The hall was started in 1961 to honor New Orleans jazz. All ages are welcome for the nightly shows that start at 8 p.m. Conveniently, the famous Pat O’Brien’s Bar is located next door. Honestly, I remember ordering one of the bar’s signature drinks, the Hurricane. But I don’t remember much of what happened afterwards, aside from the really good music at the Preservation Hall. Beware! The Hurricane features 4 ounces of rum and 4 ounces of the bar’s secret sauce. Bonus: You get to keep the glass. I lost mine.
Louisiana seafood enjoys an outsized reputation, for good reason. The shrimp are big. The oysters are big. There’s a big selection of fresh fish, including redfish, snapper, drum, tuna and whatever the freshest catch-of-the-day happens to be. We visited the Red Fish Grill at 115 Bourbon St., run by the same folks who operate the famous Brennan's restaurant. Fresh seafood is their specialty, with a smattering of alligator. Choose from oysters, blue crab or shrimp prepared several different ways, with an emphasis on the grill. I opted for the wood-fire grilled redfish and crawfish tails. Our server said it was a “signature dish” and that it had been on the menu for 17 years. No surprise.
There are a couple of large hotels in the Quarter, including the Royal Sonesta and the Omni Royal Orleans. We opted for a smaller hotel, tucked close to Jackson Square. The Hotel le Marais only has 64 rooms, many of which face the inner courtyard. This central space features a quiet getaway from the bustling Bourbon Street party. There are comfy couches and a bar set up during the spring and summer. Even though it’s 73 degrees outside, it’s still “winter.”
Whether it’s the food, the music, the party atmosphere or the rich history, New Orleans will lure you in with its gracious hospitality. The city suffered through a terrible period because of Hurricane Katrina, although the French Quarter itself was spared the worst flooding and destruction. Still, New Orleans is a city on the rebound and bustling is the term that comes to mind. And the favorite phrase? “Laissez les bons temps rouler,” or “Let the good times roll!”