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Top 10 Things to Do in New Orleans
A trip to New Orleans means a postponement of any and all diets, real or imagined. The food in this little burg way down South (how far down? it's five feet below sea level) is a story unto itself. Catfish, jambalaya, gumbo ya-ya -- get ready to eat your way through town. And drink. And dance. Yes, it's a big ol' party in the Big Easy. But if you take a moment to look at New Orleans as a whole, you'll see that there's a lot more going on in the Crescent City than a Pimm's Cup at 4 AM. Read on -- my top ten list is in no particular order, but it will clue you in on some of the finer points on the road to les bon temps.
1. The French Quarter
This is the land of Creoles, those children and descendants of the original French and Spanish settlers. Their legacy is everywhere -- wrought-iron balconies, tall shutters, courtyards redolent of magnolia, a spicy etouffee perfuming the air. Yes, the French Quarter is uniquely New Orleans, and a treat for us all. Bounded by Canal Street, Esplanade Avenue, Rampart Street and the Mississippi River, the Quarter is especially alluring early in the morning when it has that just-scrubbed look, all the sidewalks having been hosed down to wash away the prior night's revelry. Stroll through Jackson Square with its manicured lawns and shrubbery and its namesake (Andrew) on horseback, majestic St. Louis Cathedral looming overhead. You'll soon catch the scent of beignets from nearby Cafe du Monde. Pop on over for some of these heavenly pillows of dough and a chicory-laced cafe au lait. Then pay a visit to the adjacent French Market, a community farmer's market which was the first outdoor produce market in the U.S. Pick up some hot sauce to take home -- with names like TNT, Spitfire Red and Gib's Bottled Hell, who could resist? Shopping of a different sort can be had along Royal Street, where the antique shops and galleries will vie for your (considerable) dollars. A stop for a juicy muffaletta and a Pimm's Cup at the Napoleon House, the oldest bar in the Quarter, should be in order by now. Spend the rest of the afternoon people-watching and wandering along the colorful streets and alleys (Pirate's Alley and Pere Antoine's Alley are particularly enticing) as you get ready for a long (and enjoyable) night. With over 300 restaurants in the French Quarter, you won't go hungry, and tradition dictates that you must end your meal with some serious music and not-so-serious dancing. By the time it's all said and done, you will need a rest. Start thinking about...
2. Sleeping in the French Quarter
French Quarter Hotels are convenient to many New Orleans activities and absolutely reek of charm. Some good choices? The Hotel Maison de Ville is a gem of a property. There are sixteen units in what used to be slave quarters during the 18th century. Trust me, they've been transformed from their humble beginnings, and today are awash in antiques and creature comforts of the highest order. The real destination, however, are the hotel's Audubon Cottages, seven units standing sentry over a lovely pool (the first in-ground pool in the Quarter) and courtyard. Namesake John James Audubon lived in #1 while he worked on his Birds in America series, and many of his original drawings can still be found in the cottages. Liz Taylor favors #2, and Dan Ackroyd continues to return to #3. I really enjoyed #4, a two-bedroom, two-bath townhouse complete with private courtyard, tastefully-appointed living room, dining area, old tapestries, older oils and at least one concession to progress, a TV with VCR (the hotel has a video library). Breakfast comes to your room on a silver tray, and sherry is served in the evening. Those Creoles knew how to live.
727 Toulouse Street
The Soniat House, a genteel inn in a quiet area of the French Quarter, is a collection of 1830s townhouses lovingly brought back to life by Rodney and Frances Smith. Husband Rodney's love of antiques is evident in each of the nearly fifty rooms, all beautifully decorated in a palette of soft tones to complement the elegant furnishings. He's also recently opened an antique shop on the premises. Wife Frances runs the business end of things and is a wealth of information on the area's restaurants, arts and nightlife. The indoor beauty at the Soniat House is matched by the grace and serenity of the outdoor courtyards, lush with foliage, fountains and small tables set about for a drink and quiet reflection. Breakfast is a special treat here, with scrumptious biscuits, homemade strawberry preserves and a tasty cafe au lait delivered to your door. A stay at the Soniat House delivers all the southern charm you can handle.
1133 Chartres Street
The bargain of the Quarter may well be the Hotel Provincial. A cluster of buildings houses over 100 rooms, and the centerpiece of the property is a large and inviting swimming pool, a must on a muggy New Orleans night. The requisite courtyards are also at hand, and rooms are comfortably furnished, many with antiques. Room 316 is 2 bedroom suite with 2 separate bedrooms, 2 full baths, and a living room. Room 412 is really fun -- an interior spiral staircase leads from the downstairs living area to the upstairs bedroom and its canopied bed.
1024 Chartres Street
Check their website www.hotelprovincial.com for prices.
You can experience the top 10 things to do while enjoying your stay at New Orleans Hotels near all the excitement!
3. St. Charles Streetcar
While it's wonderful to spend time in the French Quarter, it's also important to remember to get out of the French Quarter. There is, after all, life beyond a Pat O'Brien's Hurricane. A fun way to get out of the Quarter is to hop on the St. Charles Streetcar, and remember, it's a streetcar, not a trolley. This moving National Historic Landmark starts its run at Canal Street in the Central Business District, clanging through the Garden District, passing Tulane and Loyola Universities (and very green Audubon Park across the street, not to mention the nearby mansions with wraparound porches) and winding up at Palmer Park in Carrollton. It's the best buck you'll spend, even if you have nowhere to go. This 13-mile, 90-minute roundtrip jaunt can be had 24 hours a day. And what happens to this slender green streetcar when it reaches the end of the line? Well, the driver flips the shiny wood bench seats in the opposite direction, heads to the other end of the car (there are controls at both ends) and goes back into town. Pretty neat, and that little tap dance is free. The St. Charles Streetcar is $1 each way; best place to hop on is at Canal or Carondelet Streets in the Central Business District.
4. Faulkner House Books
"I decided to turn my avocation into a vocation," says Joe DeSalvo, owner of Faulkner House Books. Lucky for us he did. His warm and inviting bookshop is located in the French Quarter townhouse where William Faulkner lived while he wrote his first novel, Soldier's Pay, which is once again in print. Fans of the Mississippi legend will find the complete Faulkner here, including first editions. The rest of the books are mainly fiction, with a bit of poetry, biography and local lore for good measure. Most of the books are hardback, which tells you that DeSalvo is a purist (don't miss his collection of first editions in the glass case). DeSalvo, a lawyer by trade, started collecting books years ago. "The law has changed a lot," he muses. Be sure you talk literature when you visit this friendly and very knowledgeable bookseller.
624 Pirate's Alley (behind St. Louis Cathedral) in the French Quarter
Hours are 10-6 seven days a week.
5. Julia Street
The 600 block of Julia Street has a collection of thirteen mid-19th century townhouses often referred to as Julia Row or the Thirteen Sisters. Impressive as they are, architecture isn't the real reason to come to Julia Street and its environs -- it's art. This area, dubbed the "SoHo of the South," now houses some of the city's best art galleries (movement to this part of town began in the 70s), and Julia Street itself counts some of the more interesting among its restored warehouses and townhouses. Pop into Marguerite Oestreicher Fine Arts (626 Julia), Galerie Simonne Stern (518), Arthur Roger (432) and Stills Zinsel (328) for a taste of what's happening on the New Orleans art scene. A block and a half south of Julia is one of New Orleans' best-kept secrets, and a secret it shouldn't be. The Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) is the heart and soul of the area's arts renaissance. A cavernous warehouse space with oodles of gallery room to showcase local artists, it's a contemporary art lover's dream. Sculptor Gene Koss, who runs the glass studio at Tulane University, is responsible for the front desk, a beautiful semicircle of colorful glass plates. Every piece of art you see will seem better (and even more whimsical) than the last. A visit to the CAC is a must while in New Orleans. The CAC is located at 900 Camp Street; admission is free on Thursdays.
6. Garden District
This part of town bears little resemblance to the French Quarter, and there's a darn good reason for it: no French. Americans started arriving in New Orleans after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, a bargain at $15 million thanks to negotiator Thomas Jefferson. These (mostly) Yankees rubbed the Creoles the wrong way, so they set up their own encampment, which they dubbed the city of Lafayette, upriver. It was annexed to New Orleans in 1852, and today we know it as the Garden District, a National Historic Landmark. Why the emphasis on "garden?" Well, most of the families here planted large, lush gardens next to their homes to help counteract the foul odors emanating from the stockyards near the river. The gardens are resplendent in magnolia, palms and live oak. The houses aren't shabby, either, a confection of wrought iron, graceful balconies and Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns as architects imported from Baltimore and Philadelphia engaged in a bigger-is-better rivalry with the Creoles of the French Quarter. Edgar Degas' uncle lived here, despite being French, over a hundred years ago and yes, the painter did visit. Anne Rice maintains two homes here today (clue to house #1: it has a wooden sculpture of a dog on the balcony). Take a tour of the neighborhood (the National Park Service offers an excellent free tour daily) and revel in its magnificence. A great stop for lunch is the venerable Commander's Palace, while fun shopping can be had along Magazine Street. If you get caught in the splendor and can't tear yourself away, spend the night at The Pontchartrain Hotel, the grande dame of Garden District hostelries. Built in 1927 as a residential hotel, The Pontchartrain housed "permanent residents" until 1990. For this reason, the spacious rooms are more like private apartments, furnished with beautiful antiques as well as every possible amenity. Considering the very reasonable prices, opt for a suite, even a grand suite. The Mary Martin Suite includes a piano so that you can fly over the keys like -- you guessed it -- Peter Pan.
The Pontchartrain Hotel
2031 St. Charles Avenue
7. The Mighty Mississippi
It starts at Lake Itasca, Minnesota and winds 2,340 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. When it hits New Orleans, it's a half a mile wide and 200 feet deep. It may be just a river, but in many ways, it's what made New Orleans, shipping having been an integral part of this city's growth. The city's curves follow those of the river, and when locals offer directions, it's not "north" or "south," rather "upriver" or "downriver." You can certainly admire the Mississippi from its banks or from the top of a tall building, but the most fun of all is to take a boat ride on the river itself. The Algiers ferry leaves the Canal Street docks every half-hour starting at 6 AM. Destination is Algiers, best known for Mardi Gras World, a warehouse-cum-fun park where the floats for the annual festival are assembled and housed. Best bet is to take this ferry at twilight, staying on for the round-trip (about 45 minutes) and returning to see the New Orleans skyline twinkling under the Southern skies. The ride is free to pedestrians and a mere dollar for cars. An alternative boat ride is the "zoo cruise" which leaves the River View docks of the Audubon Park Zoo on a regular basis, floating downriver to the Aquarium of the Americas at the foot of Canal Street. You can take the ride in either direction, or both, for a nominal charge. The Mississippi River is hard to miss in New Orleans -- just ask anyone for directions.
8. Friday Lunch
This is not to be confused with lunch on Friday -- Friday Lunch is an event, not just another one of the three square meals. When I quizzed a local restauranteur about this, he remarked "doesn't everyone do Friday Lunch?" You have to love those New Orleanians, they know how to live. Locals seem to talk about Friday Lunch all week -- who to have it with, where to go, what to eat when they get there. The standard-bearer for Friday Lunch has to be Galatoire's, where the line starts to form about an hour before the doors open at 11:30 AM. Reservations aren't taken, and everybody waits in line regardless of status, social or otherwise. The meal is well worth the wait, since most anything on this Creole menu is a winner. It's not uncommon for Friday Lunch at Galatoire's to continue into dinner -- it's that kind of party. Many local restaurants which are open only for dinner are also open for Friday Lunch, among them the excellent Gabrielle and Peristyle. Bayona, chef Susan Spicer's ultra-hot French Quarter spot, is open for lunch all week, and an up-and-coming scene on Friday's (some of the Galatoire's faithful are popping up here). Call first to see if your favorite spot is open for Friday Lunch. If they aren't, they should be.
When you think of New Orleans, you think of food and music, not necessarily in that order. That's just my order. But I wouldn't overlook the music scene in this town. From jazz to blues and zydeco tunes, the Big Easy is a smorgasbord of sound, topped off by the annual Jazz and Blues Festival, held for two weeks in late April every year. During my last visit to this festival, I caught B.B. King and the late Miles Davis in the same show. That's hard to beat. A must-stop is Preservation Hall in the French Quarter, a showcase for traditional jazz which is low on style points and high on musicianship. No food and drink are served, so bring your own, and bear in mind, you'll probably stand (seats are few). Tipitina's is a red-hot dance hall which features top local bands and is a regular stop for the Neville Brothers, solo or en famille. It's bound to be packed, which is half the fun. If you visit on a Sunday evening, get ready for the fais-do-do, a Cajun party featuring finger lickin' red beans and rice and pre-recorded tunes for dancing. Decidedly different is Rock 'n' Bowl at Mid-City Lanes. You got it, music and dancing among the ten-pins. Local heroes Boozoo Chavis and the Iguanas play here regularly, and this is without a doubt one of the most rockin' good times you'll have in town. Music in New Orleans is everywhere -- just call ahead for showtimes and cover charges.
Alas, the best of the best. Food in New Orleans is a way of life and a big part of the city's inimitable charm. I could go on for hours (and pages) about my favorite restaurants, but I've decided to take a different tack. On a recent visit, I asked some of the city's best chefs where they would go for a progressive dinner (excluding their own fine table). Their answers are both interesting and illuminating, and if you're smart, you'll follow their footsteps on your next visit.
Michael Uddo, G&E Courtyard Grill:
Pre-dinner drinks at the Napoleon House; appetizers at the Pelican Club; entrees at the Rib Room in the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel ("they have a great rotisserie"); desserts at Gabrielle; after-dinner drinks at the Chart House ("on the balcony only, overlooking Jackson Square").
Mike Fennelly, Mike's on the Avenue:
Pre-dinner drinks at the Polo Lounge in the Windsor Court Hotel; appetizers at Gautreau's; entrees at Bayona; desserts at Gabrielle ("the Peppermint Patti"); after-dinner drinks at the Napoleon House.
Jeff Tunks, The Grill Room:
Pre-dinner drinks at Bella Luna ("for the view"); appetizers at Emeril's ("and a second appetizer at Bayona"); entrees at Peristyle; desserts at Brigtsen's; after-dinner drinks at the Polo Lounge ("it's cigar-friendly").
Kevin Graham, Graham's and Sapphire:
Pre-dinner drinks at the Napoleon House; appetizers at Hana ("for sushi"); entrees at Taj Mahal in Old Metairie ("great Indian food"); desserts at Sapphire (Chef Graham didn't follow the ground rules here); after-dinner drinks in the revolving bar at the Monteleone Hotel.
Rob Mitchell, Gautreau's:
Pre-dinner drinks at Vizard's; appetizers at NOLA; entrees at Peristyle; desserts at the Windsor Court Hotel; after-dinner drinks at The Columns.
Anne Kearney, Peristyle:
Pre-dinner drinks at Vino, Vino; appetizers at Bayona; entrees at Brigtsen's or Gabrielle; desserts at NOLA; after-dinner drinks at the Napoleon House.
Greg Sonnier, Gabrielle:
Pre-dinner drinks at the Polo Lounge or the Napoleon House; appetizers at Emeril's; entrees at Galatoire's; desserts at the Pelican Club; after-dinner drinks at the Old Absinthe House.
Susan Spicer, Bayona:
Pre-dinner drinks on the rooftop of the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel; appetizers at Mike's on the Avenue; entrees at Brigtsen's; desserts at Peristyle; after-dinner drinks at the Napoleon House.