Frommer's EasyGuide to New Orleans 2015 by Diana K. Schwam by Diana K. Schwam - Read Online

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Frommer

1

The Best of New Orleans

New Orleans should come with a warning label. No, no, not about hurricanes. Forget that. That’s like solely identifying Hawaii with erupting volcanoes. No, this is about the city itself. See, there’s this group of residents known as the never lefts. They are the people who come to New Orleans as tourists, and the city worked its magic on them.

They become spellbound by the beauty of the French Quarter and the Garden District, and marvel that history is alive right beneath their feet. They listen to music flowing from random doorways and street corners—­jazz, Cajun, blues, whatever—­and find themselves moving to a languorous rhythm. They kiss beneath flickering gas lamps, and groove to a brass band in a crowded club long past their usual bedtime. They eat sumptuous, indulgent meals, and scandalously indulge yet again hours later, with 3am beignets at Café du Monde, where they watch the passing human parade. They’ll catch the scent of jasmine and sweet olive (with a whiff of the Caribbean, and a garlic topnote, perhaps) wafting through the moist, honeyed air.

The air . . . aah, the New Orleans air. People say romance is in the air here. It’s true, of course, because the air is dreamy. It’s the dewy ingénue who grows up fast in the first act, softly whispering your name. And if you’re meant to be together, you’ll feel that undeniable flutter, the high-voltage spark that says I’m in your heart forever.

That’s what happens to the never lefts. They came for Mardi Gras, for a festival, a conference, a tryst, a reunion—­just came—­and fell hard. New Orleans does that to people.

What is it about this place? Well, for one thing, New Orleans is where centuries commingle, perhaps not effortlessly but nowhere more fruitfully, as if nothing essential has passed between them. It’s where a barstool or a park bench becomes the opening salvo in a conversation you may never forget—­for raconteurship thrives here. It’s where a masquerade party of old masters, modernists, and bohemian street artists fill the city’s stunning mélange of museums and galleries. It’s a city that actually has an official cocktail—­which speaks volumes to its state of mind. It’s where gumbo—­the savory Creole stew that is often (over) used in describing the city’s multicultural tableau—­is actually an apt metaphor: It speaks of a place that’s deep and mysterious, rich with flavor and plenty spicy, and so much more than the sum of its many disparate parts.

New Orleans, the most unique city in the United States, works its charms like a spell. But don’t take our word for it. Go. See, hear, and taste for yourself. The best way to get inside New Orleans is to plunge right in. Don’t just go for the obvious. Sure, we’ve met people who never left Bourbon Street and had a terrific time, but the city has so much more to offer. Look over the advice that follows, and see if New Orleans casts its seductive spell on you. Perhaps you’ll come to understand the never lefts. Perhaps you’ll even become one.

The most authentic New Orleans Experiences

Do Festivals, Big or Small: Yes to Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras, or French Quarter Fest, but also the smaller fests in New Orleans and nearby towns. If one is on while you’re visiting, seek it out. See p. 40.

Dress Up. Or Down: At better restaurants, men wear jackets—­including seersucker when in season—­and un-ironic hats. Women can and do wear dresses (not just LBDs) and heels. It’s required at the finest spots, optional but frequently done at the more moderate bistros (where jeans are also okay). Dressing down might mean cosplay, wacky wigs, whatever. You can get away with it here.

Frequent Dive Bars, if that’s your thang. For those whose thang it is, this town is siiick with good ones. See p. 178.

Tour the Swamps: Don’t discount this because you think it’s too touristy (New Yorkers still go to Broadway, right?). It’s an absolutely authentic, ecologically and historically fascinating, unique-to-the-region experience. See p. 156.

Ride a Bike: New Orleans is flat and compact, and you can see a lot on two wheels that you might otherwise miss. See p. 234 for rentals and p. 160 for tours.

Cheer the Saints: In the Dome, if possible—­ain’t nothing like it, nowhere. Or at least from a barstool, like everyone else who ain’t in the Dome. See p. 165.

Eat Take-out from Corner Grocery Back Counters: Traditionally done while leaning against a building or sitting on the curb (or on someone’s stoop, which we probably shouldn’t encourage). See p. 88.

Argue about the Best Po’ Boy: Which requires trying a few. See p. 27 or chapter 6.

Go to Church: Despite the reputation for decadence, this is a pretty pious city. Going to church is a wonderful way to get some faith on, hear some astounding gospel, and mingle with the welcoming locals. See p. 137.

Check Out Freebie Concerts: Spring through autumn, free shows bring the locals to Armstrong Park near the French Quarter (Thursdays; www.pufap.org); City Park in Mid-City (Thursdays; p. 142); and Lafayette Square in the CBD (www.wednesdayatthesquare.com).

Stroll the Galleries: There are openings with wine and low-key revelry the first Saturday eve of each month on Julia Street and second Saturdays on St. Claude Avenue (www.scadnola.com), but any time will do. See p. 134.

Eat Indulgent, Unhurried, Fancy Lunches: Especially on Friday.

Chat: Discuss. Debate. Banter. In restaurants, bars, or shops. With people you’ve just met. We’ll give you topics: football, and city politics/ineptitude. Barring your expertise in those arenas, trading anecdotes about your observations as a tourist, discussing a recent meal, or asking for recommendations about your next meal (or other activity) gets the convo started.

Eat with Your Hands: Specifically, peel shrimp and crawfish (in season), best done outdoors; and slurp oysters, best done standing at a bar and jiving with the shucker.

Join the Street Spontaneity: If a wailing trumpet catches your ear, follow the sound till you find it. If the swing band playing in the middle of Royal Street moves you, give your partner a whirl (and drop a few bucks in their hat). And if you’re lucky enough to happen upon a second-line parade passing by, don’t dare watch from the sidewalk. Jump in and high-step it down the street. It’s New Orleans—­it’s what you do.

The best Places to Eat in New Orleans

Best All-Around Dining Experience You Can Have in New Orleans: No surprises here, they’re world-famous for good reason: Commander’s Palace (p. 106), hands down. At the other end of the spectrum, Café du Monde (p. 116). Somewhere in the middle: Brigtsen’s (p. 108).

Best Classic New Orleans Restaurant: Of the three old-line, fine-dining mainstays that have been enjoyed for generations, Arnaud’s is our choice for food; Galatoire’s (p. 77) for the overall experience; Antoine’s (p. 82) for room after amazing room full of history.

Best Contemporary Creole: We’re awfully fond of Herbsaint (p. 101), MiLA (p. 102), and the lovely Coquette (p. 108).

Best Contemporary Cajun: Pork-centric Cochon (p. 103), where you won’t find yo mama’s Cajun, and K-Paul’s (p. 77), the originator and still a standard-bearer.

Best Italian: Irene’s Cuisine (p. 84) represents New Orleans’s traditional Italian; Domenica (p. 104) carries the contemporary banner; and we fell hard for newcomer Marcello’s (p. 102) nuovo Sicilian.

Best Neighborhood Restaurants: New Orleans tucks away some shockingly good restaurants on unassuming residential streets. Clancy’s (p. 105), Elizabeth’s (p. 92), Gautreau’s (p. 109), and Liuzza’s by the Track show the range.

Best Neighbahood Restaurants: In contrast to those above, these are old-school joints, where locals still ask, Hey, dahwlin’, wheah y’at? We’ve gotta go wit da Creole Italian oldies, at Mandina’s (p. 96) and Liuzza’s (p. 95).

Most Innovative Restaurants: The gastronomic trickery at Root (p. 103) and rich uncle Square Root (p. 103) aren’t just sleight of hand. Maurepas Foods (p. 93) is right up there and Killer Poboys (p. 180) pushes the sammie boundaries.

Best Expense or Savings Account Blowouts: Restaurant R’evolution (p. 80), Emeril’s (p. 99), August (p. 99) and $150 prix-fixe Square Root (p. 103).

Best Bistro: Tough choice, given the richness of this category, but La Petite ­Grocery (p. 110), Annunciation (p. 100), and Sylvain (p. 87) figure highly.

Best Outdoor Dining: Start with the pretty courtyards at Bayona (p. 82), Martinique (p. 110), and Café Amelie (p. 86) on starry nights or balmy afternoons; or the scenic balconies at Tableau (p. 85) and Dat Dog (p. 114) on Frenchmen.

Best for Kids: The no-brainers are Café du Monde (p. 116), for powdered sugar mess and mania; the counter at Camellia Grill (p. 113); and a snoball outing (p. 119). Antoine’s (p. 82) offers a good fine-dining introduction.

Best Slightly Offbeat but Utterly New Orleanean Restaurants: Definitely Jacque-Imo’s (p. 109) and Bacchanal (p. 91). Cochon Butcher (p. 104) and the even fancier Upperline (p. 111) fit the category.

Best Seafood: GW Fins sets a high bar (p. 83); Peche (p. 102) and Borgne (p. 100) are strong contenders; straight-up simple Big Fisherman (p. 113) covers the boiled seafood angle.

Best Desserts: A meal at Emeril’s (p. 99) is incomplete without its banana cream pie; ditto Commander’s Palace’s (p. 106) bread pudding soufflé. The Grill Room’s Japanese Pumpkin Cheesecake is a stunner, and the pastry chefs at Lilette (p. 110), La Petite Grocery (p. 110), and Coquette (p. 108) excel. Or head to a specialist at Sucré (p. 118) or Angelo Brocato’s (p. 116).

Best Brunch: Ralph’s on the Park (p. 94) or Dante’s Kitchen (p. 112) can’t miss, while the jazz brunch at Antoine’s (p. 82), Arnaud’s (p. 82), and Commander’s Palace (p. 106) are great fun. Long lines at the casual Biscuits & Buns (p. 97) and Elizabeth’s (p. 92) are full of those in the know.

Restaurants with the Best Cocktail Programs: From a looong list, we’ll go with Kingfish (p. 84), Dominique’s, (p. 109), High Hat (p. 112), and Café Adelaide (p. 101).

Best Wine Lists: The extensive collection at Emeril’s (p. 99), Commander’s Palace (p. 106), and Antoine’s (p. 82) cover every base. The lists at Bayona (p. 82) and Gautreau’s (p. 109) are smaller but well-curated.

Best for Late-Night Eats: Get 24-hour satisfaction at Clover Grill (p. 89), Camellia Grill (p. 113), and Verti Marte (p. 88). For heartier, sit-down fare, La Boca (p. 101), St. Lawrence (219 N. Peters St., www.saintlawrencenola.com), and Yuki (p. 93) serve late. There’s always beignets from Café du Monde (p. 116) or Morning Call (p. 118).

The best Places to Stay in New Orleans

This is a little like deciding on a scoop of ice cream—­so many tasty options to choose from, and different people like different flavors. We’ve tried to narrow down the selections based on specific criteria.

Best Moderately Priced Lodging: In general, you’ll get the biggest bang in the off-season (including the heat of summer), when even luxury properties drop their rates to levels that are hard to pass up. In the Central Business District, the Drury Inn (p. 65) is surprisingly reasonable and an easy hop to the Quarter. In the B&B category, the Chimes (p. 67), a delightful family-owned guesthouse in the Garden District, has generated legions of loyal return guests.

Best Luxury Hotel: At the intimate Audubon Cottages (p. 51), the luxury commences when your 24-hour butler greets you at the private, unmarked entrance. For sheer opulence, attention to your every need, and vast expanses of room, our vote goes to the Windsor Court (p. 64). A Club Level suite, of course.

Best Service: All those in the Luxury category above excel in the service category. We’re also continually impressed by the attentive Loews (p. 65). Of the more modest accommodations, the Campo family makes you feel at home at the Villa Convento (p. 58), as do the Uptown Maison Perrier (p. 67) and Maison de Macarty (p. 61) in the Bywater.

Most Romantic: Romance is wherever you make it, but Ashtons (p. 62) encourages long, languid mornings. Stumbling distance from Napoleon House, the sweet exterior of the St. Helene (508 Chartres St.; www.hotelsthelene.com) belies its sexy, sleek rooms and near-private pool; and The Saint’s outlandish, fiery Lucifer Suite was made for misbehavior (931 Canal St.; www.thesainthotelneworleans.com).

Best for Families: It’s not fancy, but we like the Homewood Suites (p. 65) for the spacious two-room suites, location, and freebie meals. The Richelieu (p. 58) and Maison Dupuy (p. 56) also offer easy comfort and swimming pools.

Best Faaabulous B&B: A lot of B&Bs are crammed with over-the-top antiques, but at the Antebellum (p. 63), they all come with a story. We love the tawdry over-the-topness, hidden hot tub, and actual bordello bed.

Best for Hipness: The elaborate Melrose Mansion (p. 62) is a Victorian mansion on the outside, an oasis of upscale cool inside. In the CBD, the innovative minimalist style and ultra-hip Loa Bar at the International House (p. 64) brings serious swag, as does the Quarter’s violet-hued Le Marais.

Best Funky Little Spot: We’re fond of the sweetly oddball B&W Courtyards (p. 60), the Frenchmen-adjacent Royal Street Inn (p. 61), and the hodge-podgey but well-located ex-brothel now called the Dauphine Orleans (p. 54).

Best Hidden Gem: Just beyond the French Quarter and veiled behind high walls is an enchanting cluster of old plantation buildings in the Tremé, the stunning Jazz Quarters Bed & Breakfast (p. 56). The Claiborne Mansion’s superb suites and splendid pool are a serene oasis a block from the Frenchmen Street mayhem (p. 60).

The best Trip Mementos

Nothing wrong with T-shirts, caps, Mardi Gras beads, and snow globes (except that you can get those anywhere). We offer some alternate ideas.

A Book from Faulkner House: Pick up some reading material from this charming jewel on little Pirate’s Alley, crammed with Louisiana-related tomes (p. 192). Many an author has tried, with varying success, to capture New Orleans on the page. Their efforts may help you know what it means to miss New Orleans. Check out our reading list in chapter 2.

A Photo or Art Book from A Gallery for Fine Photography: The owner calls his impressive shop the only museum where you can buy the art. A fine photograph from one of the many famous photographers represented here is a souvenir you can relish every day—­not to mention a wise investment. If an original isn’t feasible, consider a fine photo book. See p. 190.

A Southern Scent from Hové: This classic perfumery creates its own perfumes and soaps. We got hooked on sachet-favorite vetiver, described as smelling like the South. Locals also adore the scents made from the indigenous sweet olive, and the fine gentlemanly scents. See p. 196.

A Razor from Aidan Gill: Manly and mannerly, the selection of hand-sculpted razors (and other accessories) will charm even the most diehard disposable dude and up his style quotient in a single stroke. Or just take home some smooth cheeks courtesy of an ultraluxe straight-razor shave. See p. 195.

A CD from Louisiana Music Factory: New Orleans’s soundtrack is as essential to your experience as her sights and tastes. A few CDs will keep the good times rolling back home. Check out our recorded-music recommendations in chapter 2; for details on the Louisiana Music Factory, see p. 197.

A Hat from Meyer: We’re mad about Meyer the Hatter, for the selection, the service, and the 100-year-plus history. You’re in the South, chère, you can rock some class headgear. See p. 194.

A be nice or leave Sign: Dr. Bob’s colorful, bottle-cap-edged signs may have proliferated around the city, but they’re still true, local works of folk art, handmade with found materials. Available in a variety of sizes, materials, and sentiments at Pop City, 940 Decatur St. (• 504/528-8559); Funrock’n, 3109 Magazine St. (• 504/895-4102); but it’s more fun to visit Dr. Bob’s Bywater studio, 3027 Chartres St. (• 504/945-2225), open by chance or appointment. Make sure they still carry them.

Fleur-de-lis Jewelry: Gold, silver, glass, cufflink, nose ring, pendant: The selection is unending. Wear it with pride; share it with a smile. Consider something from Mignon Faget (p. 196) or an inexpensive bauble from the flea-market stands at the French Market (p. 186).

Sazerac Glasses: If you’ve taken a shine to the city’s official cocktail, the gift shop at the Roosevelt Hotel (p. 64) has perfect reproductions of their original glasses.

Pralines: The choice for office gifts. And for home. Maybe one for the plane or car on the way there . See p. 192 (and don’t call them pray-lines).

The best of Outdoor New Orleans

Not exactly what you think of when you think Big Easy—­it’s not Yellowstone, after all. But there are some surprisingly wonderful outdoorsy things to do here that will only enhance the vacation you envisioned. Besides, it can’t all be about dark bars and decadent meals. Oh wait, it’s New Orleans. Yes, it can. Still . . . these experiences provide a fine counterpoint and a different perspective.

Kayak Bayou St. John: A guided kayak tour of placid, pretty Bayou St. John is an entrancing way to see this historically significant waterway—­and maybe work off a few bites of fried shrimp po’ boy. See p. 133.

Do City Park: Whatever your outdoor thing, it’s probably doable somewhere in the glorious, 1,300-acre City Park, from pedal-boating to picnicking, birding to bi­cycling, mini-golfing to art-gazing. It’s a great spot for a morning run; so is Audubon Park (p. 141) if you’re staying Uptown. See p. 142.

Tour the Swamps: The swamps are spooky, serene, and fascinating. The gators are spellbinding, and the guides are knowledgeable naturalists who will open your eyes to every flora and fauna in this unique ecoculture. See p. 156.

Ferry Cross the Mississippi: It’s not quite Huck Finn, but a brief cruise on the ferry to the historic Algiers neighborhood is an easy way to roll on the river and take in a different view. See p. 235.

See the City from Two Wheels: Whether you rent a bike (p. 234), take a guided bike tour (p. 160), or roll through on a Segway (p. 161), seeing the flat, compact city via two wheels makes for a sweet ride.

Dine Alfresco: We didn’t say the best of active outdoor New Orleans, did we? A languid, courtyard dinner under the Southern stars (or lunch under an umbrella) at Bayona, Martinique, Café Amelie, Bacchanal, Green Goddess, or Tableau is an experience to be savored.

Do Yoga in the Besthoff Sculpture Garden: We can’t think of a more sublime way to start a Saturday. Especially when it’s followed by beignets and coffee (just steps away at Morning Call cafe). A little yin, a little yang. Saturdays at 8am in City Park (p. 136; • 504/456-5000).

Walk. Walk. And Walk Some More: This city is made for walking. It’s truly the best way to take in the captivating sights, appreciate the silken air, and ogle (or join) the goings-on you will undoubtedly encounter. We won’t bring up the c-word benefits (calories. Oops, drat . . . sorry). No texting while walking, though—­these old sidewalks require your full attention.

The best Museums in New Orleans

New York, Chicago, Paris, Rome . . . great museum cities, all. New Orleans isn’t included in that list, but it’s a surprisingly excellent museum city. Museums also make stellar retreats when the elements become overbearing.

New Orleans African American Museum: Located in the historic Faubourg Tremé, the collection recounts the astounding historical and cultural contributions that emanated from this very neighborhood (and beyond). See p. 154.

Backstreet Museum: To truly appreciate them, you really must see the Mardi Gras Indians’ astounding beaded suits up close (if not in action, then in this collection), and learn about this unique tradition. See p. 134.

The Cabildo: An extensive recollection of Louisiana and New Orleans history, including terrific Mardi Gras exhibits. And Napoleon’s death mask. See p. 128.

The Insectarium: Yes, it is what it sounds like. It’s especially good for families, but unexpectedly captivating even for the bug-averse. See p. 125.

Louisiana Children’s Museum: There’s so much hands-on, interactive fun to be had here (for all ages) that you don’t even realize you’re also learning. See p. 163.

New Orleans Museum of Art: Consistently well-curated exhibits and an excellent permanent collection of all forms of fine art, housed in a stunning, neoclassical-meets-modernist building in the heart of beautiful City Park. See p. 135.

Ogden Museum of Southern Art: A splendid collection of the art of the American South, new and old, in a modern atrium nestled between two historic buildings. See p. 136.

Pharmacy Museum: Leeches and opium and Voodoo spells, oh my. A mightily worthwhile, off-the-wall diversion. See p. 131.

The Presbytère: The excellent exhibit on hurricanes here captures their impact from all aspects; other rotating exhibits are consistently good. See p. 131.

Southern Food and Beverage Museum: Unsurprisingly, given New Orleans’ food and drink obsessions, this museum recently moved to much-expanded quarters. A great diversion for anyone with an interest beyond the next meal. See p. 136.

World War II Museum: It’s the best museum of its kind. Do not miss the world-class collection and interactive displays here. Period. See p. 135.

2

New Orleans in Context

Throughout this book, we talk about the mystique of New Orleans and its intoxicating, ineffable essence. But first, it’s time for some stats. The largest city in Louisiana (pop. 378,000) and one of the chief cities of the South, New Orleans is nearly 100 miles above the mouth of the Mississippi River system and stretches along a strip of land 5 to 8 miles wide between the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain. Surrounded by a river and a lake, the city is largely under sea level. The highest natural point is in City Park, a whopping 35 feet above sea level.

New Orleans has always been known for its jazz-infused joie de vivre, a place where antebellum-meets-bohemia in a high-stepping dance of life, lived fully and out loud. Its recent history, however, is marked by two horrific, well-known events: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the nearby Gulf of Mexico, and the failure of the levee system following Hurricane Katrina. But in this, the 10th anniversary year following that devastation, the city is rebounding so palpably that the air fairly prickles with its energy.

In this chapter, we briefly recount the area’s rich history, starting with today and then reaching back to its foundation, to help explain how New Orleaneans got their resilient, life-affirming yatitude (from Where y’at?—­the local version of How ya doin’?).

New Orleans Today

Since Katrina, a new entrepreneurial drive and creative spirit have engulfed the city. Residency, tourism, and convention numbers have increased since a post-Katrina downturn. Construction cranes crisscross the airspace (particularly along Tulane Avenue, where construction of an ambitious new biomedical corridor is under way), and cameras and booms are seemingly everywhere as the local film industry is, well, booming. Rebuilding and startup projects helped protect New Orleans from the depths of the 2008 recession.

The hopping Frenchmen Street club scene shows no sign of stopping, and there are an astounding 600 more restaurants in the city than there were pre-Katrina. The HBO series Tremé portrayed authentic New Orleans with a (mostly) spot-on eye and a killer soundtrack, focusing a new fascination on the local culture.

Once untrammeled streets like Oak, Freret, and St. Claude have blossomed with business and activity (Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. is primed to join the list soon). The public schools, rebuilt largely as charters, have the test numbers to confirm that the possible is provable.

Still, all is not rosy. While the tourist zones show zero signs of ill wind, those venturing into certain neighborhoods will still find pristine, rebuilt homes next to abandoned blights. Redevelopment of the decimated Lower 9th Ward is sluggish. It’s a massive tabula rasa cleared of its upended homes populated by a few pioneering resettlers and the architectural anachronisms of Make It Right homes (Brad Pitt’s foundation). Yet amid their stark backdrop, these homes and their owners embrace their in-your-face presence, as if to proclaim, Damn right we’re here. And we’ve got solar panels.

The grim images that focused the eyes of the world on New Orleans in August, 2005 are not easily erased, nor should they be. The category 5 storm was downgraded to a category 3 when it hit New Orleans, but the surge was too much for the city’s federal levee system. Its failure flooded 80% of the city, causing 1,836 recorded deaths and all form of astounding, horrifying loss. Some 28,000 people took refuge in the Superdome, the ill-prepared refuge of last resort.

Four and a half years later, the Dome’s home football team, the New Orleans Saints, at long last came marching in with their first-ever Super Bowl victory. The long-derided ’Aints restored what billions in rebuilding funds couldn’t: civic pride.

It may seem trivial, even disrespectful, to cite a football game as a turning point in the city’s rebirth—­but it isn’t. The effects of this real and symbolic victory reached far beyond the ecstatic, extended celebrations—­and they cannot be understated. It was one of many high points in 2010: The prior week, Mitch Landrieu won the mayoral race with 66% of the vote, marking the end to the previous administration’s fumbling, inertia, and corruption. The week after the Saints victory, the largest Mardi Gras crowds in 25 years watched the hyper-exultant parades roll. Two months later, a then-record half-million revelers packed the streets for the French Quarter Fest. The good times were rolling once again, at full speed.

And then, the whammy. One. More. Time. (Eye roll, headshake.)

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill hit, with potent imagery again painting New Orleans black with a wide, crude brush. In reality, New Orleans is some 150 miles from the spill, and those images of taint were far worse than the reality (though state-mates in the affected areas were hard-hit). New Orleans remained utterly unsullied, and much testing showed the sumptuous Gulf seafood was (and is) safe and plentiful.

Although locals will forever mark time as B.K. or A.K. (Before Katrina or After Katrina), New Orleaneans just did what they do: proclaimed their undying love for their city; mixed a cocktail, and set to tidying up. Oh, and throw a few parties for half a million people, and host a Super Bowl, and earn top awards on umpteen Best of travel polls.

The indomitable spirit is intact. The oysters are still sweet, the jasmine air still sultry. Rebirth Brass Band still plays the Maple Leaf on Tuesdays, and parades erupt at random. New Orleans is still the best city in the United States, and the bons temps—­like those beloved Saints of field and song—­go marching in and on, and we’re right there with them. You should be, too. Go, and be in that number.

History 101

In the Beginning

In 1682, explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, claimed the region for France, as he had with lands northward to Canada. His navigational and leadership failures in later explorations resulted in his mutinous murder in Texas in 1687 by his own party, fed up with his life-risking demands. Next, at the turn of the 18th century, two French-Canadian brothers led an expedition from France to rediscover the mouth of the Mississippi. The expedition succeeded, and Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, and 18-year-old Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, staked a claim at a dramatic bend in the river, near where La Salle had stopped almost 2 decades earlier. Iberville also established a fort at Biloxi. Brother Bienville stayed on there, becoming commanding officer of the territory while harboring thoughts of returning to the spot up the river to establish a new capital city.

In 1718 Bienville got his chance. The French monarch was eager to develop, populate, and garner the riches that Louisiana promised. Bienville was charged with finding a suitable location for a settlement, one that would also protect France’s New World holdings from British expansion. Bienville chose the easily defensible high ground at the bend in the river. Although it was some 100 miles inland along the river from the Gulf of Mexico, the site was near St. John’s Bayou, a waterway into Lake Pontchartrain. This back door was convenient for a military defense or escape, and as a trade route (as the Choctaw Indians had long known)—­allowing relatively easy access to the Gulf while bypassing a perilous section of the Mississippi.

The new town was named La Nouvelle-Orléans in honor of the duc d’Orléans, then the regent of France. The property development was entrusted to John Law’s Company of the West. Following the plan of a late French medieval town, a central square (the Place d’Armes) was laid out with streets forming a grid around it. A church, government office, priest’s house, and official residences fronted the square, and earthen ramparts dotted with forts were built around the perimeter. A tiny wooden levee was raised against the river, which still flooded periodically and turned the streets into rivers of mud. Today this area of original settlement is known as the Vieux Carré (old square) and the Place d’Armes as Jackson Square.

A Melting Pot

In its first few years, New Orleans was a community of French officials, adventurers, merchants, slaves, soldiers, and convicts from French prisons, all living in crude huts of cypress, moss, and clay. These were the first ingredients of New Orleans’s population gumbo. The city’s commerce was mainly limited to trade with native tribes and to instituting agricultural production.

To supply people and capital to the colony, John Law’s company essentially pulled the first real estate scam in the New World. The territory and the city were marketed on the continent as Heaven on Earth, full of immediate and boundless opportunities for wealth and luxury. The value of real estate soared, and wealthy Europeans, aristocrats, merchants, exiles, soldiers, and a large contingent of German farmers arrived—­to find only mosquitoes, a raw frontier existence, and swampy land. The scheme nearly bankrupted the French nation, but New Orleans’ population grew, and in 1723 it replaced Biloxi as the capital of the Louisiana territory.

The next year, Bienville approved the Code Noir, which set forth the laws under which African slaves were to be treated and established Catholicism as the territory’s official religion. While it codified slavery and banished Jews from Louisiana, the code did provide slaves recognition and a very slight degree of legal protection, unusual in the South at that time.

Greater New Orleans

A lack of potential wives created a significant barrier to population and societal development. In 1727, a small contingent of Ursuline nuns were sent over and established a convent. While the nuns weren’t exactly eligible, they did provide a temporary home and education to many subsequent shiploads of les filles à la cassette. The cassette girls or casket girls—­named for the government-issue cassettes or casketlike trunks in which they carried their possessions—­were young women of appropriate character sent to Louisiana by the French government to be courted and married by the colonists. (If we’re to believe the current residents of the city, the plan was remarkably successful: Nearly everyone in New Orleans claims descent from the virtuous casket girls or from Spanish or French nobility. By insinuation, that means the colony’s motley initial population of convicts and fallen women was wholly infertile. Hmm . . . )

John Law’s company relinquished its governance of Louisiana in 1731, and the French monarch regained direct control of the territory. In the following decades, planters established estates up and down the river from New Orleans. In the city, wealthier society began to develop a courtly atmosphere on the French model. Amid their rough-and-tumble existence on their plantations, families competed to see who could throw the most opulent parties in their city townhouses.

During the 18th century, colonization of a different sort was taking place to the west, along the Gulf of Mexico. There, many French colonists, displaced by British rule from Acadia, Nova Scotia, made their way south from Canada and formed a rural outpost, where their descendants still live, farm, trap, and speak their unique brand of French to this day. These Acadians’ name has been Anglicized, and we know them today as Cajuns.

Meanwhile, New Orleans commercial development was stymied by trading restrictions imposed by France: The colony could trade only with the mother country. To subvert the restrictions, smugglers and pirates provided alternative markets and transportation for the local crops, furs, bricks, and tar.

As the French saw it, the colony was costing them development money, and the return on investment wasn’t paying off. In 1762, Louis XV traded the city and all of Louisiana west of the Mississippi to his cousin Charles III of Spain in the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau. It took 2 years for the news to reach a shocked New Orleans, and the Spanish took 2 more years to send a governor, Don Antonio de Ulloa. He made few friends among local residents, who eventually demanded Ulloa’s removal. Some proposed the formation of a Louisiana republic. Ulloa was sent packing, and for a time, New Orleans and Louisiana were effectively independent of any foreign power. That came to a crashing end in 1769 when the Spanish sent forth Don Alexander Bloody O’Reilly and 3,000 soldiers. Local leaders of the relatively peaceful rebellion were executed, and Spanish rule was imposed again. With a Gallic shrug, French aristocracy mingled with Spanish nobility, intermarried, and helped to create a new Creole culture.

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