New Orleans is famous for wild and hedonistic year-round partying, but its melting pot of influences make it far more interesting than that.
When we visited the city for its world-famous Mardi Gras celebrations in March, it wasn’t the parades, parties or bead-throwing crowds that stood out.
It is the culture, history, architecture and, above all, indefinable spirit that makes New Orleans one of the world’s most exciting cities.
WHAT MADE THE BIG EASY
Its location in the southeastern state of Louisiana, on the Mississippi River, is a big part of what makes the city so unique.
Its street names and attractive buildings reflect a French and Spanish colonial past overlaid with a multicultural southern heritage. Visitors can brunch on rice and beans with fried chicken or catfish or dine on classic bistro fare at traditional old hotels along with a host of modern fusion restaurants including Justine’s.
The party image of the “Big Easy” was in large part born out of its diverse population’s love for jazz, and the live music scene extends from highly watchable buskers to hugely talented bands at the bars on Frenchmen Street and beyond.
The city has endured more than its fair share of troubles, not least when Hurricane Katrina raged through it in August 2005, and its legacy is evident in the ageing roads and buildings. Drugs and alcohol have also taken a toll, but indefatigable New Orleans has a magic that remains irresistible.
The colourful people who decorate the city’s many parties are not the only beautiful sight to see around here.
As one of the lowest lying areas in the US, the city is essentially built on and surrounded by swampland. And this is the opposite of the murky no man’s land you might expect.
The water of Manchac Swamp glimmers in the sunlight as we kayak past lush cypresses, spotting alligators, herons and wild boars and learning about efforts to protect the threatened and diverse beauty of the state’s swamp and bayous.
Visitors can also visit cotton plantations a short drive from the city, sumptuous and well-preserved homes that reveal a tragic and important history of human slavery.
Swamps were once considered hiding places for slaves and forbidden lands by others, and many have been drained for agriculture and harvesting cypress trees over the past decades. Organisations including New Orleans Kayak Swamp Tours are trying to restore them to their long forgotten glory, and a “much needed retreat” from the worst excesses of Bourbon Street.
GHOSTS AND SPIRITS
The city’s association with vice and sin is a large part of its appeal, and it is rich with myths and legends, ghost stories and spirits.
The French Quarter Haunted Pub Crawl is a chance to revel in debauchery without getting in too much trouble yourself, at bars and former brothels thought to be inhabited with spirits of lonely prostitutes and murdered men.
In its untamed French colonial days, the city’s lack of women meant prostitution was big business. Gallatin Street, where the bustling French Market is today, was one of the first vice districts, stuffed with crumbling lodgings, gangs and axe-wielding prostitutes.
Then came Smokey Row, so dangerous that police refused to patrol and women would charge as little as ten cents to service men on the street. Some would lure men into a den, rob and even kill them.
The scandal led to the establishment of an official red light district in Storyville — home to Louis Armstrong, and the expensive brownstones of Basin Street, where men would pay up to $50 a night and the madams became some of the city’s richest people.
We stay at the Dauphine Hotel, the centre of 19th century vice and now just the right distance to dip in and out of the madness. Its Victorian-style cocktail bar, May Bailey’s, was a 1857 “sporting house” — an elevated brothel with dancing and singing.
Check out the nearby Reverend Zombie’s Voodoo Shop and ghoulish Museum of Death, which revels in grisly exhibits, from embalming tools to the sickening exploits of the most notorious serial killers. Visitors have been known to pass out.
After all this talk of seriousness, there’s only one thing to do — party. And that’s hard to avoid here, where every pub has a story and a group of fun-loving people to meet.
Whether you prefer a sophisticated hotel bar, a chilled-out dive or a carousel in the middle of the floor, the options stretch well beyond the frozen daiquiris of Bourbon Street.
For your one foray into the craziness of Mardi Gras, choose the Royal Sonesta Hotel for its sumptuous interiors, live music and the best balcony for chucking beads at enthusiastic flashers.
The “krewes” of New Orleans have a spectacular parade for everyone, from the epic Zulu parade and Lundi Gras festival to the topsy-turvy St Anne or family-focused Red Beans parade.
In total contrast to Australia, pubgoers are allowed to carry alcoholic drinks on to the street with them, and roadside celebrations continue throughout the year.
Avoid March if you want to skip peak messiness, but the delights of this revitalising ball of energy is something we all need to do once.