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A fresh take on Old New Orleans

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A jazz band plays for tourists in the French Quarter
A jazz band plays for tourists in the French Quarter NANCY WIGSTON PHOTO

Back in 1947, New Orleans native son Louis Armstrong hit the pop charts with a nostalgic tune. “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” Armstrong sang in his honey-and-gravel voice. Lots of changes have occurred since then – not least an airport named in Armstrong’s honour.

Hurricane Katrina is more than 10 years ago, and today the city has much to boast about. If you’re going to New Orleans, prepare to be pleasantly surprised. The “Crescent City” offers both traditional favourites (music, food, festivals) and major new or vastly expanded attractions, making it one of the most popular places in the United States to visit.

Buskers ply their trade on the river front
Buskers ply their trade on the river front

Our hotel, International House – the city’s first “boutique hotel,” in the heart of the Warehouse/Arts District – introduces us to the city’s new chic. This neoclassical building began life in 1906 as a beaux arts- style bank. A real dazzler – white columns, soaring ceilings, red velvet lobby chairs, pillar candles, fresh flowers, a West African fertility bench – the hotel pays homage to the city’s diverse cultural roots.

During our winter stay, International House was alight with watercolour reproductions based on 1896 designs by the city’s first Creole costume-maker, Carlotta Bonnecaze. Her paintings of animals dressed like humans – a peacock, mice, a rat, cats, frogs, dragonflies – capture the “whimsical, curious and ironic” theme of her Carnival floats. Art is everywhere in New Orleans, not least in our hotel.

This serene Canal Street hostelry is just a few blocks from the busy French Quarter. At the Café du Monde (1884) servers deliver platters of beignets and cups of café au lait to the breakfast crowd. Chicory-flavoured coffee scents the morning air; the wide Mississippi River gleams in the morning sun.

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Shopkeepers are just opening their doors as we head over to Jackson Square, a New Orleans landmark anchored by the Cabildo, where the 1803 Louisiana Purchase Transfer occurred; inside, a large canvas celebrates the victorious Battle of New Orleans; other exhibits showcase city history, from Native American times to the 1825 visit of the celebrated revolutionary, the Marquis de Lafayette.

Creole style archicture n
Creole style archicture

On Pirate Alley, a tiny street off Jackson Square, we discover Faulkner House, a National Literary Landmark. In 1925, a young William Faulkner – who’d go on to win the Nobel Prize – rented a room here with an artist friend. When not working on his first novel, Soldier’s Pay, he caroused with literary pals like Sherwood Anderson and his wife Elizabeth. New Orleans appears in several Faulkner novels, and this being New Orleans, his ghost is said to haunt the yellow house on Pirate Alley.

Much stranger creatures than Faulkner greet us at our next stop, The Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium. Open since 2008, this is a true house of curiosities: the world’s largest facility devoted to entomology, with 50 live exhibits featuring an endless array of buggy wonders – Louisiana swamp critters, soon-to-be-butterflies asleep in their cocoons, creepy crawlies of every kind, and finally, the butterfly garden itself, alive with its gorgeous winged inhabitants.

Next stop is New Orleans’ astonishing National World War II Museum. Founded in 2000, the museum is another world,  it’s undergone major expansions and draws enormous crowds to its exhibits, which include a Tom Hanks-produced 4-D film, a 1940s-style cabaret and restaurant, vintage aircraft and military vehicles. Greeted at the entrance to the interactive  “Road to Berlin” exhibit by friendly veterans, we board a Union Pacific train – the kind that took American soldiers to basic training camps.  (A new “Road to Tokyo” exhibit opens this month.)

Next, history becomes personal, as we choose an electronic dog tag representing “our” soldier, one Joe Diamond from New Jersey. We’ll check in with Joe at various stations as he makes his harrowing way through Belgium and Germany as a combat medic.

The road begins in 1942, as the European invasion is being planned in a North African bunker – complete with jeep, howitzer, and sandbags. Battles quickly unfold as we walk through life-like scenes of war: bombed-out towns and villages, snow-covered forests. The road to victory proves noisy and highly dramatic.

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Why, we wonder, is America’s National World War II museum in New Orleans? Inspired by the passion of Stephen Ambrose (author of Band of Brothers), the museum began as the D-Day Museum.

A marching band parades in New Orleans
A marching band parades in New Orleans

Next we tour the Garden District in the comfort of one of the city’s famous streetcars, before perusing the outlet bargains at Riverwalk. Dinner awaits at Antoine’s Restaurant, a New Orleans favourite, where everyone feels special. Since 1840, family-run Antoine’s has embodied the flair and flavour of New Orleans, offering Spanish, French, Alsatian, and Creole dishes.

We lose count of the famous faces on the walls and the exact number of dining rooms – naturally there’s a haunted hallway – but we are impressed with the cosy nook reserved for Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, whose Make It Happen foundation helps restore the city’s Katrina-devastated neighbourhoods.

When our waiter surprises us with a flaming dish of Baked Alaska we too feel like stars, reminded that the Crescent City is synonymous with celebrations, large and small. Come to New Orleans before the Mardi Gras crowds descend, and you’ll happen on the excitement of parades that predate the official holiday. One bright February morning, we cheered the clubs and school bands marching along with dancers young and old strutting their stuff. Diving for beads flung from colourful floats, we experienced the timeless magic that is New Orleans.