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Spotlight On: New Orleans, Louisiana

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Bourbon Street signOn the heels of Peter’s radio broadcast in New Orleans and the city’s tipsy celebrations during “Tales of the Cocktail,” Donna M. Owens reports on some of her top tips for travelers to the Big Easy, from Cajun eats to where to you can lend a helping hand.

Strolling down the cobblestone streets of the French Quarter on a balmy spring day, one feels the cultural crosswinds that have shaped the distinctive flavor of the Crescent City.

On a street corner, a few jazz musicians blew shiny horns.

Nearby, a singer belted out a ribald tune. In the same vicinity, a young couple pulled each other close and began an intricate, intimate dance. A small crowd of onlookers applauded and tossed coins and bills into a basket for the performers.

Learn more about New Orleans with Peter’s radio show online:

Meanwhile, the tantalizing aromas of the region’s savory Cajun and Creole cuisine beckon from restaurants and cafés: crawfish, gumbo, shrimp po’ boys, jambalaya and powdered sugar beignets. Tourists wandered into shops filled with everything from vintage clothing to feathered masks and colorful beads. Gallery doors, flung wide open, boast local art.

Nearly four years after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, much work remains to restore housing, jobs, and other essentials here. But tourism is a bright spot. Indeed, while other U.S. destinations have suffered due to the recession, New Orleans was one of the few locales nationwide to actually see increased visitation in 2008.

Ready to Serve“The question is no longer whether the city is ‘ready’ for visitors, but how the economy is affecting the industry,” said Mary Beth Romig, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Despite a drop-off in convention bookings, Romig reports strong attendance for festivals and annual events such as Mardi Gras—in 2009, Mardi Gras reached pre-Katrina crowds with approximately 1 million attendees, compared to 750,000-850,000 in 2008.

As the recovery continues, New Orleans officials aren’t shy about the need for folks to visit. Tourism employs nearly 80,000 people and generates some $5 billion in spending.

A survey conducted by the University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center shows that 7.6 million people visited last year—an increase over 2007, but still nowhere near pre-Katrina visitor levels. According to the CVB, the high for tourism was 2004, when numbers neared the 10 million mark.

This summer, the crowds should swell in the city when several major festivals take place. They include the Satchmo Summerfest, July 31 – August 2; COOLinary New Orleans (a two-month-long version of a restaurant week), August-September; and the gay-friendly Southern Decadence, September 2-7.

VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES IN THE BIG EASY

Rebuilding the Roosevelt HotelDespite the city’s advances, it still has a long way to go. Four years after the devastation and flooding from Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans still sees a steady influx of visitors wanting to help rebuild the city.

Inside the Dragon Café, a tidy soup kitchen at St. George Episcopal Church in Orleans Parish, volunteers dish up red beans and rice to a steady stream of people—everyone from college students to retirees—who’ve come in for a hot, fresh meal.

The church basement became a makeshift haven for not just food, but fellowship. “We rely on our volunteers to help feed ‘em,” explains café manager, Stan Jahncke. “We usually get students who come from all over the country,” he said.

Thousands of Americans, including celebrities like Oprah and Brad Pitt, have given their time and money to help New Orleans and the Gulf Coast with rebuilding efforts.

Find out more about Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Project here.

But you don’t have to be rich or famous to help with the recovery, and there’s still plenty to do. Consider building houses via Habitat for Humanity (The Musicians Village in the 9th Ward is underway), or installing free energy-efficient light bulbs in homes, through Green Light New Orleans, to name a few worthy projects. Non-profit groups like Relief Spark and others will link volunteers to service projects throughout New Orleans, and the city’s CVB has a special “Voluntourism” link on its website as well.

Try an outdoorsy volunteer vacation in this first-person report: Volunteering in New Orleans: Wading Through Wetlands With Common Ground Relief.

Meanwhile, the Marriott hotel chain (www.neworleansmarriott.com), which has five luxury properties in New Orleans (they range from the glamorous art-filled Renaissance Arts Hotel, to the sprawling, refurbished Marriott New Orleans at the Convention Center) is doing its part to help.

Through its “Big Easy Spirit to Serve” program, launched in 2007, travelers visiting the Big Easy can give back in myriad ways. Here’s how: once you book a reservation, a 
”Care Concierge” will email a list of recommended local volunteer groups and opportunities. Meanwhile, a portion ($50) of the room rate is donated to Habitat for Humanity. Last but not least, the hotel offers guests a complimentary breakfast to-go (it’s always better to do good on a full stomach).

Rates range from $149-$259 per night for this package year-round.

For more information, go to www.neworleansinfo.com or neworleansonline.com.

WHERE TO STAY

International House tablesInternational House – This boutique hotel housed inside a historic Beaux-Arts building downtown (they call it the Central Business District) blends worldly sophistication and New Orleans tradition. The vibe is bolstered by a friendly, extremely accommodating staff.

The International House is an aesthetic delight: funky furnishings and treasures—many crafted by local artisans. With plush couches, sparkling chandeliers, mirrors, and candlelit ambience, the look is laid back luxe but reflective of New Orleans historical influences.

Throughout the year, the sweeping lobby becomes the backdrop for special customs and rituals peculiar to New Orleans, including St. John’s Day in June, and Louis Armstrong’s birthday in July. And guests who want to stay connected can check their email at a computer station stationed right in the lobby.

Interior of the International House New OrleansBe sure to dine at Rambla, the hotel’s attached Spanish and French-themed restaurant, where the chef prepares scrumptious tapas and desserts with New Orleans flair (think Andouille croquetas and spiced New Orleans shrimp). Meantime, the hotel’s stylish bar, loa, (the name means “divine spirit”) offers signature cocktails in a setting that’s a fun take on local Voodoo culture. 504-553-9550, www.ihhotel.com

Also consider The Ritz-Carlton Maison New Orleans on Canal Street. Centrally located (a colorful streetcar passes by as well), the hotel offers old-world elegance and some of the nicest doormen in town. 504-524-1331, www.ritzcarlton.com

The Roosevelt Hotel, a Waldforf-Astoria property, just opened its doors on July 1. The building, formerly a Fairmont hotel, was closed for four years after Katrina, and recently invested $145 million to restore the hotel to its former glory. Expect to see plenty of locals lounging in the iconic Sazerac Bar and the Blue Room.

Peter broadcast his radio show from the Roosevelt just as it reopened–check it out here.

WHERE TO EAT

It’s impossible to name all the places where good eating can be had in New Orleans. Here are a few places that we sampled:

BonTon Café – Laid back, classy, this place has been around forever and is popular with locals and tourists alike. Try the shrimp, crab and okra gumbo and the fried catfish.

Dress It – A local recommended this casual eatery, attached to the Omni Royal Crescent Hotel. From the red beans and rice, to the crisp oyster Po’ Boy, the fare was fresh and delicious.

Get more advice on local restaurants with Ask the Locals: New Orleans, Louisiana.

Petunias Restaurant – This cozy spot along St. Louis Street in the French Quarter, has windows that look out on all the action. Tasty Cajun and Creole dishes, mammoth cocktails, and superb service. (ed. note: Petunias recently closed its doors. No word yet on whether it plans to reopen in the near future.)

Cafe du Monde classicCafé Du Monde – As touristy as it is, no one should miss the delectable beignets (New Orleans’ famous version of a powered sugary doughnut), hot chocolate and coffee drinks.

WHERE TO SHOP

United Apparel Liquidators – A hidden gem along Chartres Street in the French Quarter. Designer apparel, great accessories and more.

Forever New Orleans – Visit this Royal Street shop in the French Quarter for pretty keepsakes and souvenirs.

La Belle Galerie – Paintings, limited edition prints, fine photography, and more by local and national African American artists. The gallery helps kick off a big block party in the French Quarter that coincides with the city’s annual Jazz Fest each April.




WHERE TO HEAR MUSIC

Snug Harbor -A celebrated jazz club on Frenchmen Street where esteemed musicians like Ellis Marsalis and Charmaine Neville perform regularly.

House of Blues – Big names and locals all stop through this well-known national chain.

Learn more about local favorites for music venues with Ask the Locals: New Orleans, Louisiana.

CITY TOURS

VIP City Tours – A great way to get an overview of the city’s tourism areas and authentic neighborhoods, including the Lower 9th Ward impacted most by Hurricane Katrina. www.VIPcitytours.com; 504-329-2489

Tours by Isabelle – Isabelle and her staff offer small-group tours of post-Katrina New Orleans, as well as more traditional plantation and bayou tours. For more about Tours by Isabelle, check out Two Years Later, Two Stories of New Orleans.

By Donna M. Owens for PeterGreenberg.com.

More information about New Orleans:

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