You’d have to be living under a rock not to know about the environmental devastation that has hit New Orleans.
The Tourno Synagogue. [B.Kingstone photos]
But the Big Easy has bounced back enough and still has most of the elements that made this U.S port a great city to visit. Certainly, there’s no obvious difficulty for tourists in a city with a population of just under 500,000 where tourism is one of the major industries.
After renting a car, a necessity if you intend to see much of New Orleans, I drove through neighbourhoods that were damaged by hurricane Katrina. The windows of many houses have been boarded up, and the buildings are seemingly beyond salvaging. But beside some of them are houses that have been bravely and successfully renovated.
There’s a small area in the city’s hurricane-battered Lower Ninth Ward with a new housing project that has a most architecturally un-New Orleans look – a solar-powered housing estate that features 21st-century architecture. It takes the edge off the gloom of the area. Actor Brad Pitt’s name is attached to this amazing project of about 150 houses since he helped to fund the development, as I was told by several locals and taxi drivers, who are the city’s “spokespeople.”
And there is a street called Desire in New Orleans. When Tennessee Williams wrote the play A Streetcar Named Desire, there was a streetcar called Desire. However, in the late 1990s, the streetcar was replaced by a bus.
In the French Quarter, jazz is still the draw, although Preservation Hall with its age-old reputation seemed awfully gimmicky. After waiting in a queue for 45 minutes in the hot early evening, I stood in a humid, sticky room for the show. This now seems to be very much a touristy destination.
Surprisingly, if you want good jazz, it’s in a most unlikely spot, and it’s not on Bourbon Street, known for its notorious night life. Jazz can be found at a few open-air restaurants on Decatur Street. You can hear Dixieland jazz there while eating a fine and inexpensive lunch before heading to the nearby Café du Monde for dessert – the café is known for its deep-fried beignets (doughnuts) – and café au lait. If you consider yourself a foodie, then you already know about the extraordinary cuisine in the city’s restaurants.
Not to be missed is a ride on one of the city’s three streetcar lines. The St. Charles streetcar – the oldest continuous line in North America– takes a route past mansions with architecture from Antebellum and Greek Revival to American Colonial, Victorian and Italianate.
The famed Natchez steamboat
There are also two stately synagogues in the city, the Tourno and Congregation Beth Israel.
Another means of orienting yourself in New Orleans is by riding on the famed Natchez steamboat, which travels the length of the city during a two-hour cruise of the Mississippi.
An oddity in the city is the above-ground cemeteries, where the crypts look like small houses.
Then there’s the famous shopping street, Magazine Street, which boasts about six miles of shops, from art galleries and antique shops to stores that sell the latest in clothing and jewelry.
Weinstein’s, which features designer wear, was actor Susan Sarandon’s favourite place while she was filming in New Orleans. And the two 40-something owners of Weinstein’s, Roz and Bonnie, are so un-harassing about sales that they would rather talk about their new exercise class or the “best” hair salon, Paris Parker, on Pyrtania Street.
Mignon Faget (Fage-eh) has been known in New Orleans for the past 40 years for her jewelry, which is often inspired by the city’s architecture and culture. My first encounter with her handcrafted designs was at a small boutique at the shopping mall, The Shops at Canal Street. Faget’s jewelry includes motifs taken from the city’s famed wrought-iron balconies. Also, she loves shells, fish, classic columns and flora. However, while strolling along Magazine Street, I found her larger boutique – call it a flagship store – where Faget offers many more designs and most of them are very tempting.
So if it’s for a weekend getaway, for one of the best eating experiences this side of Paris, for a shopping excursion, for a girlfriend getaway or for music and culture, then almost nothing comes close to New Orleans. And it’s true to its moniker, the Big Easy.