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Leave Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York and Florida to the first-timers and head instead to New Orleans, easily the most fascinating and original destination in America.
What’s more, reaching Nola (as New Orleans is affectionately known) is now a doddle: British Airways has been flying direct to Louisiana’s favourite city since 2017. So pack your bags and get going. Just as it was for playwright Tennessee Williams – who once famously remarked, “America has only three cities, New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland” – the Big Easy is sure to become a favourite.
Enviably located just behind the New Orleans Convention Center in the centre of town, the port of New Orleans boasts two adjacent terminals – Julia Street which opened in 1991 and underwent a $23 million renovation in 2011, and the 2006 Erato Street.
There are plans underfoot to convert the old Poland Avenue wharf into a new cruise ship terminal and for good reason: almost 1.2 million passengers boarded cruises in New Orleans in 2018, a new record for the city. That number is only set to increase when American Cruise Line debuts modern river ship American Harmony later this year.
Can I walk to any places of interest?
Passengers are a mere minute’s walk from The Outlet Collection at Riverwalk that’s home to stores such as Lucky Brand and Tommy Bahama. Try your luck at Harrah's New Orleans Casino, a five minute stoll from the port, or walk (10 minutes) to the French Quarter – the heart and soul of New Orleans.
Taxis are available in front of the cruise port but, truth be told, there’s no need for them as most of what you’ll want to see is within easy walking distance.
And, should you have time to explore New Orleans’ other districts – Garden, Uptown, Faubourg Marigny and the funky Bywater – simply take a streetcar. There’s no streetcar named Desire (immortalised in Tennessee Williams’ eponymous play) anymore (the last Desire streetcar rumbled through the French Quarter in 1948) but there are plenty of streetcar lines still in existence, which make getting around a breeze. Even better at just US$1.25 each way, they are a cheap way to travel.
What to see and do
New Orleans was hit, and hard, by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 – some 1,800 people lost their lives, while more than one million were left homeless and 80 percent of the city was flooded when the levee flood prevention system failed. Three short years later, just as the Big Easy was getting back on its feet, the global recession reached Nola stopping tourism in its tracks. Then in 2010, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico damaged the area’s ecology.
All of which means you’d be forgiven for thinking that New Orleans’ spirit might have drowned, but you’d be wrong. The music never stopped in this corner of the States, which continues to be a place of impromptu parades and parties – and not just during Mardi Gras (carnival).
Whether you’re in town for two hours or 24, there’s always something to see and do, so go with the flow and adopt the official New Orleans slogan: Laissez les bon temps rouler! (Let the good times roll!)
What can I do in four hours or less?
The Big Easy is unmatched when it comes to diversity (the former French colony was given to the Spanish in 1763, until America took control in 1863) and its colourful history can be felt in the medley of architectural styles: trademark Creole townhouses, shuttered windows, ironwork balconies and Spanish courtyards are all present and correct in the famous French Quarter and highly Instagrammable.
Once you’ve admired the architecture, stop to soak up the street life especially around Jackson Square, which thrums with musicians, magicians and mystics. Yes, you read right: voodoo is as much a part of New Orleans as Mardi Gras and, consequently, the French Quarter is alive with psychic readers. Even if you’re skeptical when it comes to voodoo, a tarot reading gives you a great story with which to regale your friends and family upon your return home.
For the low-down on Marie Laveau – the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans – and other famous former residents like Laura Locoul, a Creole woman and plantation mistress who wrote a journal of her family’s life in the old French Quarter, sign up for Le Monde Creole’s ‘Insider’s French Quarter Courtyards & Cemetery Tour.’ Charismatic guides bring the tour to life dispensing gossip, while walking you through the pretty French Quarter that literary greats – take a bow Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder – once called home.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
Had your fill of the French Quarter? Take the St Charles Avenue streetcar to the Garden District. Browse Magazine Street – chock full, as it is, of galleries and cute cafes – before looking for Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, where the burial tombs, many made from marble, were built above ground because of the shallow water.
The leafy Lafayette district is also where author Ann Rice of Interview With A Vampire fame lives, and visiting her majestic home has become a must for fans of both the book and of the same name that stars Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.
While I can’t guarantee that you will encounter the scribe during your stay in the Crescent City, you will meet a host of locals who want to share their world with you so expect to be greeted with a cheery “Where y’at?” – slang for “How are you?” on every corner.
When night falls most passengers make for Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, where actor Channing ‘Magic Mike’ Tatum owns a bar (Saints and Sinners). Better still? Escape the tourists and head to Frenchman Street, where most of the proper music scene can be found in venues such as the Spotted Cat and Three Muses.
What can I do with a bit longer?
While it would be easy to spend all of your time in New Awlins (as locals pronounce it), equally it would be a real shame – time permitting – not to press on deeper into Louisiana and see for yourself the contrast between the Big Easy and the surrounding area.
Back in the mid-1800s, the highest concentration of millionaires in America could be found along the 120 mile winding corridor along the Mississippi River. While the south has always been synonymous with cotton, Louisiana’s wealth actually came from massive sugar cane plantations, and that history has been preserved through the plethora of privately owned plantation homes (many of which have featured in films and TV shows such as 12 Years A Slave, True Detective, Django Unchained, The Butler and Primary Colours) that dot the east and west banks of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Try the handsome Laura: a Creole Plantation whose 70 minute tour has been hailed by Lonely Planet as the ‘Best History Tour in the United States’ – and sees animated guides recount the compelling, real-life accounts of seven generations of owners, women, slaves and children who once populated this Creole sugarcane farm.
Within easy driving distance of Laura Plantation lies Oak Alley Plantation, which, owing to its impressive canopy of 28 oaks that lead to an imposing manor, could be straight out a scene from Gone With The Wind.
Want a bit of bite to your southern Louisiana sojourn? One of the best things you can do is take a swamp tour with McGee’s Landing, run by the wonderful David Allemond. The beauty of the Atchafalaya River Basin is stupefying and that’s before you spy George – the bayou’s resident 14 foot ‘gator – dappled by the late afternoon sun.
All told, the subtle charms of the sugar cane plantations and swamps provide a peaceful respite from Nola, where all night parties anchor the calendar.
Eat and drink
Food is a big part of New Orlean’s pleasures. Beignets – deep fried fritters sprinkled with powdered sugar, served as square pieces and accompanied by a creamy cafe au lait – are traditionally eaten at breakfast but can be enjoyed at any time of day.
Other good tasting local dishes to get stuck into include jambalaya (rice with shrimp, chicken and vegetables), boudin (a beloved Cajun sausage) and crawfish.
To drink, it has to be the Sazerac. The tipple was crowned the official cocktail of New Orleans back in 2008 but, in truth, it has always belonged to the Crescent City. Often served with a twist of lemon, the cherry coloured drink combines Cognac, from Sazerac de Forge et Fils in France, absinthe and bitters to devastating effect.
Don’t leave New Orleans without…
Buying a bag of beignet mix at Cafe du Monde (a Nola institution), Mardi Gras beads (carnival jewellery that’s sold in virtually every shop in the Vieux Carré) or perhaps some voodoo potions and products to ward off negative vibes.
Need to know
Flight time from the UK
British Airways is currently the only airline to fly (five times a week) direct from the UK to New Orleans in under 10 hours.
The Big Easy isn’t known for being a particularly safe city: it has claimed the unwanted title of 'America’s most murderous city' several times since Hurricane Katrina. Should that stop you from visiting? No way. Most of the serious crime occurs between gangs, and in areas that tourists are highly unlikely to visit.
Exercise the same caution and common sense that you would in any big city: leave valuables behind, never walk alone at night and listen to your gut. If something seems off, it usually is.
Best time to go
February to May is peak travel time thanks to consistent sunshine and top draw events such as Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. If you don’t mind missing the main parties, consider visiting from September to December when New Orleans is still sunny but easier on the wallet. Avoid July and August when the weather is scorchio.
Sleep in a mere afterthought in New Orleans: most museums and shops are open seven days a week.
One, three, and 31-day unlimited ride “Jazzy Passes” are available to use on New Orleans’ streetcars and cost $3, $9 and $55 respectively.