Big Easy Bounce: New Orleans, 10 years after Katrina
Song for the Deep South
A decade since Hurricane Katrina, Vicki Notaro visits a city that has bounced back... and then some.
As we exit the freeway towards the city of New Orleans, one of the first sights that greets us is the now infamous Superdome.
Erected in 1975, the home ground of the NFL's New Orleans Saints was once a symbol of American sporting glory and marvellous modern architecture.
Today, it's known all over the world as the place that sheltered thousands of citizens when Hurricane Katrina struck in late August, 2005.
Ostensibly, my boyfriend and I are visiting New Orleans to see how Louisiana's best-known city has recovered a decade since its devastation. But it's also been on my personal wish-list for years. Known as a party town, yet one steeped in rich culture, electrifying jazz and sensual southern atmospherics, I've been wanting to visit ever since I watched James Bond flash across the bayous in Live and Let Die.
And now I'm here.
We arrive from Boston via an internal flight in the middle of a thunderstorm. The rain has cleared by the time we're dropped off at Hotel Mazarin in the French Quarter, but the air is muggy and the pavements slick.
The French Quarter in New Orleans
The oldest neighbourhood in the city, the Quarter is named for those who first colonised it, though it's now testament to both its French and Spanish history. When you're here, it's easy to forget you're even in America. Walk a couple of blocks to Canal Street however, and you're right back in the USA - chain stores, high rise hotels and wide avenues abound.
But back to the intimacy of the French Quarter.
Looking to Yelp (yelp.ie/new-orleans), we find a highly rated restaurant around the corner. It's love at first bite at K Paul's Louisiana Kitchen (kpauls.com) - the jalapeno and cheese rolls are served with whipped butter and one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth. The fried green tomatoes with chipotle shrimp, blackened drum fish and Louisiana-style crème brûlée that follow are of a similar standard.
Knowing we have a bike tour at 10am the next morning, we stroll down Bourbon Street taking in the neon, the excess and the party people, and retire to bed. Not an easy decision!
The bike tour is a real eye-opener, mind you, making us glad we resisted the lure of the previous night's neon. For three hours, we cycle with a small group led by Teddy from FreeWheelin' NOLA (neworleansbiketour.com). A lifetime resident of the city, his knowledge is encyclopedic. We visit all the famous hot spots, but also many of the areas that no regular tour would show you - the neighbourhood of Treme for example, made famous by the eponymous HBO show.
Teddy tells us over and over again that things change quickly in New Orleans - one minute we're below sea level; the next, we're not. He says it's one of the only cities in the world where you go up to the river, rather than down.
He's candid, shows us some of the homes that have yet to recover from Katrina, and also some of the new, multi-million dollar builds springing up as the city comes back to life. The French Quarter barely experienced the hurricane, we learn. High above sea level, it was nothing more than a bad storm. When the levees burst, neighbourhoods lower down bore the brunt of the floods.
The Steamboat Natchez
We taste our first beignets - deep fried donuts - in New Orleans City Park, a place I didn't even know existed. Its 1,300 acres feature free-roaming turtles and weeping Spanish trees made famous in movies about the Deep South. Everything about New Orleans is intoxicating.
The next day, we climb aboard the Steamboat Natchez (steamboatnatchez.com). I had a romantic idea about cruising the Mississippi on an authentic vessel, but when we arrive we find ourselves the youngest on board by several decades. Still, there are several bars, live jazz and stunning views - until it starts to rain.
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Hours later, we meet the general manager of the New Orleans Hotel Collection for dinner. Marc Becker is also a trained tour guide, and he introduces us to yet another side of New Orleans - the more residential part of the French Quarter, where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have just put their home up for sale. We take in beautiful houses along the way, visit an Irish bar and eat in Marti's (martisnola.com), a French restaurant across from Louis Armstrong Park. While quaffing champagne, we taste our first ever raw oysters. I'm instantly enamoured!
After such highbrow pursuits, we find ourselves back on Bourbon, and finally give in to its lure. New Orleans is the real city that never sleeps, with several bars that serve 24/7, live music into the wee hours and cheap booze to beat the band. Our night starts innocently enough at a place called Fat Catz (440 Bourbon St), where a brass band covers current hits. It ends around 5.30am on a quest for an early morning shrimp Po'boy, the famous local sandwich.
Bourbon Street, and its bourbon, has a lot to answer for.
I'm in love with NOLA. A decade after Katrina, the local economy is beginning to flourish again, though this will forever be a city of extremes; the very wealthy and the poor living side by side. That disastrous hurricane is now part of its history, but it's onwards and upwards.
What to pack
Light clothing, flat shoes and a raincoat are essential. New Orleans is warm for most of the year, and it's very walkable - but it's also prone to thunderstorms that come and go in a flash. Oh, and bring sunglasses - even if it's cloudy, they'll disguise your eyes after the excesses of Bourbon Street.
Where to stay
Hotel Mazarin, New Orleans
The New Orleans Hotel Collection (neworleanshotel collection.com) has four gorgeous boutique hotels in the French Quarter. We split our time between the Mazarin (pictured - old world, elegant) and the Le Marais (hip and modern, with a pool). Rates from $169/€154 for a double. NB: All prices subject to availability/change.
3 Must Do’s
The city's most famous festival runs throughout January and early February, with the highlight of the event, Fat Tuesday, taking place on February 9th in 2016. If you go for Mardi Gras, you'll get a very different impression of the city – but it's a bucket list experience. See mardigrasneworleans.com.
Beyond the French Quarter
We ventured fifteen minutes by cab to the area surrounding Oak Street to hear some live jazz at the Maple Leaf Bar, and to eat at the renowned modern Southern establishment Carollton Market. Both places are worth a visit for some more local flavour away from the tourists.
In the neighbourhood of Faubourg-Marigny, just steps from the French Quarter, you'll find a street lined with bars blaring out live music. Things kick off around 11pm, so go down late, dip in and out of each establishment and aim to end up in The Spotted Cat. See spottedcatmusicclub.com.
Get me there
With no direct flights from Dublin to New Orleans, I'd recommend a multi-centre trip. We flew to Boston with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com), and onwards to NOLA with JetBlue (jetblue.com). Connections are also available from New York, Chicago and Orlando.
See neworleanscvb.com and @VisitNewOrleans for more.