Reveling in New Orleans’ eclectic charms

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Victor Block
A paddlewheel steamboat docks along the Mississippi River in New Orleans. Boat cruises offer visitors views of the city, food and entertainment.
© Ken Cole | Dreamstime.com

How can you not love a city where rogues and scoundrels are among local “dignitaries” who have streets and bridges named after them? A place that celebrates its oddball residents on a website called EccentricNewOrleans.com? A destination where elegance and decadence go hand in hand?

Welcome to New Orleans, where no matter what your interests, you’re likely to satisfy them and more.

If you enjoy outstanding cuisine — and who doesn’t? — this is the place to be. No matter what your musical preference, it’s here in abundance. The city’s history is as colorful as its varied architecture.

New Orleans’ strong links with its past greet the eye and ear around every turn. The chief challenge facing visitors is avoiding too much of a good thing.

French Quarter and Garden District

The best way to plan your sightseeing is to take advantage of the fact that the city is divided into distinct neighborhoods, each with its own unique appeals.

For many people, New Orleans means the French Quarter. The original district of cobblestone streets — lined by hotels and restaurants, music venues, boutiques and art galleries — is centered on Royal Street.

A short block away on Bourbon Street, the scene is very different. T-shirt shops vie for attention with posters touting adult entertainment. Music spills out of lounges, along with patrons sipping from plastic “take-out cups.” As my wife Fyllis remarked, the scene is like New Year’s Eve, Halloween and the Fourth of July combined.

French Quarter architecture harkens back to its European roots. Graceful townhouses are adorned with cast iron balconies set off by intricate ironwork. Courtyards are filled with lush greenery and flowers surrounding splashing fountains.

A focus of the neighborhood is the French Market, a collection of shops, restaurants and farmers’ stalls that has existed at the same spot for more than two centuries. The longest line usually is outside the famous Café du Monde, waiting to order café au lait and beignets — artery-clogging fried dough slathered in powdered sugar.

Very different is the quiet elegance of the Garden District. Established in the early 19th century, it became a haven for the newly rich, who built stately mansions shaded by towering oak trees. The area’s name refers to magnificent gardens that surround many houses. The neighborhood is a favored hideaway of Sandra Bullock, John Goodman and other Hollywood and sports celebrities.

A horse-drawn carriage travels down a street in New Orleans’ French Quarter, lined with graceful townhouses with wrought-iron railings and home to the country’s largest Mardi Gras celebration, which will next take place on Feb. 12.
© Cafebeanz Company | Dreamstime.com

Touring Treme

Another enclave was little known to out-of-towners until it became the setting for a popular HBO television series. Treme (pronounced treh-MAY) is one of the oldest black neighborhoods in the country.

It was an early haven for free persons of color and African slaves who bought their freedom. Some of them gathered on Sundays to socialize and dance, and the music they played was a forerunner of African influence on American jazz.

The St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, in Treme, is the best known of a number of New Orleans graveyards where the deceased are buried above ground in elaborately decorated stone crypts and mausoleums.

One tomb is believed to be that of Marie Laveau, a legendary “Voodoo Priestess” who was said to possess magical powers. Some present-day visitors scrawl X marks on the grave in the hope that even after death her spirit will grant them a wish.

It’s fitting that near the resting place of the Voodoo Priestess is the Voodoo Spiritual Temple, one of several venues in New Orleans related to that mysterious combination of religion and superstition. Voodoo originated in Africa, was carried to the Western Hemisphere by slaves, and continues to maintain a foothold in New Orleans.

At the Temple, Priestess Miriam Chamani reigns over what is said to be the only “formally established” spiritual temple in New Orleans that adheres to “traditional West African spiritual and healing practices.” Among services that Priestess Miriam offers are blessings, bone readings and removal of curses.

The lavishly decorated altar room and a cultural center attract both voodoo believers and visitors curious about the religion. The complex also includes a small apothecary and a gift shop, which offers items ranging from voodoo dolls and talismans to self-help kits and “candles specially blessed and dressed for many occasions.”

Mardi Gras all year long

In a city with a wealth of museums, the Voodoo Spiritual Temple is certainly one of the more intriguing. Fyllis and I found two others worth a visit. One coveys much of the wonder of Mardi Gras without the wildness.

While the annual Mardi Gras festivities attract hundreds of thousands of celebrants, and celebrate they do, we preferred to skip the crowds and craziness. At the same time, we wanted to savor the flavor of that famous, almost anything goes revelry.

We found the perfect solution at Mardi Gras World where, as its promotional material claims, “Every day is Mardi Gras.” There, in a warehouse so huge I remarked that it should have its own Zip code, artists spend a full year creating floats for the Mardi Gras parade and other events.

We became Lilliputians in a world of giants. Visitors are dwarfed by larger-than-life papier-mâché characters, including gladiators, movie personalities, cartoon figures and fantasy creatures. Flowers are the size of trees, and the “Old woman who lived in a shoe” could move right into oversized footwear.

Fyllis and I also enjoyed the less well known but more mouth-watering displays at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. Exhibits celebrate the food, drink and related culture of New Orleans, Louisiana and the South.

We weren’t surprised to find sections titled “Tout de Sweet: All About Sugar,” “Eating from the Gulf” and “Barbeque Nation.” Less expected were collections in the “Southern Likker” area and another that pays homage to a “true American cultural icon” — the cocktail.

The mighty Mississippi

In recent years, many visitors to New Orleans have toured the Ninth Ward to view remnants of the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina, as well as ongoing recovery and revitalization efforts. Among stark reminders of that disaster are numerous vacant lots where houses once stood, and homes whose doors still bear the chalk marks made by rescuers to indicate if any bodies were found inside.

Recently, the city has started enforcing a ban on tour buses in the Ninth Ward, though tours by bicycle, car and van are still permitted.

The destruction left by Katrina served as a reminder that no matter where you are in New Orleans, you’re never far from the mighty Mississippi River. Because Old Man River rolls along its path several feet higher than the city, held back by those now infamous levees, it is often hidden from view. Yet its importance cannot be overstated.

Without the Mississippi, there would be no New Orleans. On its 2,400 mile journey from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, it carries millions of tons of sediment every day, and it is that soil which created the land that is Louisiana.

Benches along the levee in the French Quarter provide good views of the river as well as the barge and other traffic that make it an important waterway. There also are opportunities to mingle with the vessels’ operators as they chug along.

Since 1827, the free Canal Street Ferry has transported passengers on the short ride to Algiers Point on the opposite shore. There, they may admire the New Orleans skyline and stroll through a charming 19th-century village before hopping aboard for the return trip.

A steamboat river cruise combines views of the city with an authentic taste of the past. The Creole Queen and Steamboat Natchez offer enchanting paddlewheel cruises, including sightseeing and dinner trips.

During our mini-voyage on the Natchez, Fyllis and I alternated listening to the sightseeing narration, bellying up to the buffet, and dancing off a few calories to the foot-tapping music of the Dukes of Dixieland.

As we passed long barges being pushed by tug boats and massive cargo ships coming and going, we understood the comment of Michelle, an on-board food and beverage server. Even after years working on the vessel, she told us, “I still like being out on the river.” To which I replied, “And I like visiting New Orleans.”

The list of things to see and do in New Orleans turned out to be too long for Fyllis and me to complete. Here are some that came recommended to us:

  • See locations where a number of well-known stars and movies were filmed, such as Vivien Leigh (A Streetcar Named Desire), Elvis Presley (King Creole), and Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).
  • Enjoy music that blankets the city, from the iconic Preservation Hall to the modest clubs grouped along Frenchmen Street, to many a corner, where informal ensembles gather to entertain passers-by.
  • Take a ride (fare: $1.25) on the world’s oldest continuously operating streetcars.

Where to eat and stay

When it comes to both dining and accommodations, New Orleans has something for everyone, and is one of those cities where it’s unlikely you’ll have a bad meal.

A restaurant that has been operated by the same family since 1840 must be doing something right. Antoine Alciatore immigrated from France and helped to introduce haute cuisine to New Orleans.

Among less costly dishes that were “invented” there are oysters Rockefeller ($13.75) and shrimp remoulade ($11.75). Antoine’s is at 713 Rue Saint Louis. For more information, call (504) 581-4422 or log onto www.antoines.com.

Less costly and more casual is the Acme Oyster House at 724 Iberville St., a New Orleans institution since 1910. In addition to oysters on the half-shell (six for $8.75, a dozen for $13.50), the menu includes local favorites like seafood gumbo ($5.49 and $7.49) and a New Orleans Medley of jumbalaya (rice, sausage and chicken), red beans and rice, and grilled smoked sausage ($12.99). For more information, call (504) 522-5973 or log onto www.acmeoyster.com.

Choosing to stay just outside the French Quarter, we stayed at the Frenchmen Hotel at 417 Frenchmen St., an intimate, all-suite property in a quiet courtyard setting. A full kitchen provided an opportunity to save money on meals. Rates begin at $89. For more information, call 1-800-831-1781 or log onto www.frenchmenhotel.com.

For those who prefer the bustle of the French Quarter, the Ursuline Guest House at 708 Ursuline Ave. combines an inviting atmosphere with history. Six rooms behind the main house once served as slave quarters. Rates start at $129, but can be less expensive if rooms are paid for in advance. For more information, call 1-800-654-2351 or log onto www.ursulineguesthouse.com.

For more information about visiting New Orleans, call 1-800-672-6124 or log onto www.neworleanscvb.com.

The lowest current roundtrip airfare from the Washington area is $221 on United from BWI. Flights from Reagan National are about $15 higher, and from Dulles the least expensive fare is $392.