By ROGER ALLNUTT
New Orleans knows how to celebrate. You don’t have to be here for Mardi Gras to understand that in The Big Easy, party time is king.
The Big Easy, as it is affectionately known, is the birthplace of traditional jazz. The tradition is carried on at many venues throughout the city and nowadays there is competition from a vast array of other music spilling out from bars and eateries. You’ll even find impromptu groups performing on street pavements. You see some very strange sights as you wander around the area; including semi-naked exhibitionists mingling with partygoers well primed for fun.
The modern history of New Orleans dates back to 1718, with its first 100 years experiencing French or Spanish control. The city has been in American hands since the defeat of the British garrison in 1815 in the Battle of New Orleans. The city rapidly developed as a major port close to the mouth of the Mississippi River and has been thriving ever since. That being said, The city has faced adversity though, with the disastrous Hurricane Katrina in 2005 causing enormous damage to infrastructure and with considerable loss of life. It is still recovering from that setback as many areas of the city still uninhabitable.
The most famous area is the French Quarter. Its narrow streets are lined with distinctive houses with iron trellis balconies. The streets are a catalogue of places well known to all jazz enthusiasts,such as Bourbon St, Canal St, St Louis St and Basin St. Bourbon St is probably the busiest and rowdiest and it is home to the Musical Legends Park with statues of famous jazz artists including Pete Fountain, Al Hirt and Fats Domino.
Bands play in the Park all day. From 10am to 10pm you can listen for free or drop a note or two in the box in appreciation. When I was there a three-piece of piano, trombone and drums was randomly joined by a trumpeter and they had a real blast. The park is famous for Café Beignet serving beignets, a traditional New Orleans delicacy made from deep-fried choux pastry.
Closer to the river, another feature of the French Quarter is St Louis Cathedral next to Jackson Square. The cathedral is the oldest in North America dating from 1720 and is the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of New Orleans. It is notable for its triple steeples towering above its historic neighbours, the Cabildo and the Presbytere. Jackson Square, named after General Andrew Jackson, is a restful oasis of greenery in the bustling city. General Jackson became a national war hero after defeating the British in New Orleans during the War of 1812. Jackson was elected the seventh president of the United States in 1828.
The Presbytere was originally built as a residence for the Capuchin monks of the cathedral. But it has served many purposes and most recently is an excellent museum featuring two themes essential to the New Orleans identity. Firstly, the Louisiana-wide history of Mardi Gras and most dramatically the horror and recovery from Hurricane Katrina. On the opposite side of the cathedral is the Cabildo which focuses on local history. It was the site of the Louisiana Purchase transfer ceremonies in 1803. Nearby the busy French Market is great for a snack or souvenirs.
One of the most recognisable features of New Orleans is the trolley cars. …. There are three different lines across the city. The best known is west from the French Quarter along St Charles Ave leading to the Garden District and beyond. You can buy day passes or single tickets; the exact fare is required. The trolley cars are a great way to explore New Orleans or alternatively try the hop-on-hop-off tourist bus which visits most of the main attractions.
St Charles Ave is lined with a succession of large, solid and wonderfully designed mansions. Most are larger than double story and set in nice gardens. About five kilometres along the route you pass two superb sites. These are Loyola University and Tulane University; two of the best known and top universities in the state of Louisiana.
However there is a lot more to the Garden District, which famously encompasses a 12 by 12 street-block area bounded on two sides by St Charles Ave and Magazine St. In fact there are more wonderful mansions further along in Uptown. It is worth picking up a map of the Garden District to learn the history of some of the mansions and also the famous Lafayette Cemetery in the centre, with tours available. There are many house-like tombs in the cemetery, some serving the same family for generations.
For modern visitors the most remarked house is the ‘Benjamin Button’ house at 2707 Coliseum St. It was used as the nursing home in the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button starring Brad Pitt. If you get hungry exploring the Garden District the elegant Commander’s Palace restaurant across the road from the cemetery is highly recommended.
A bit further out beyond the Garden District is the well regarded Audubon Zoo, a great place for kids.. The site of a zoo since 1884 Audubon Zoo provides displays for around 2000 animals in their natural habitats. My favourites were the cute otters, alligators in a very swampy pool and a most regal looking jaguar that stared at me disdainfully. The Audubon Nature Institute also manages the Aquarium of the Americas closer to the centre of the city.
Not everyone can be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. But if you visit the excellent Mardi Gras World you can get a great idea of the wonderful floats, costumes and other paraphernalia. It also offers a magic behind-the-scenes glimpse of the insight, work and preparation that goes into the event each year. Floats, costumes, large scale models of cartoon characters, sportsmen and other celebrities, largely made out of wood and papier-mâché, are all on display. Since 1947, Blaine Kern Studios has built breathtaking parade floats not only for Mardi Gras in New Orleans but for parades all over the world.
The Mississippi River is famous for its riverboats and some of these are used as casinos since gambling was legalised in Louisiana in 1992. For many tourists a cruise on one of the riverboats with their distinctive paddles at the rear is not to be missed. I took the two hour dinner cruise on the Steamboat Natchez and although the Dukes of Dixieland Jazz Band was excellent darkness precluded much sightseeing.
New Orleans is real Cajun and Creole territory with wonderful food – try the crawfish and gumbo. There are many excellent restaurants throughout the city, the choice is enviable.
For more information check www.neworleanscvb.com
He rented a car in the US through Driveaway Holidays www.driveaway.com.au
Roger Allnutt was assisted in New Orleans by the New Orleans Convention and Visitor Bureau.