Travel

Cruising from the Big Easy: It's real easy ... and rewarding

By Arline and Sam Bleecker

Chicago Tribune

(MCT)

Mark Twain once famously wrote, "The report of my death was an exaggeration." The same could be said of New Orleans.

Much of the coverage of the devastation that Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath wreaked upon New Orleans was, of course, warranted. But an unfortunate side effect of the media's bleak picture of this Mecca for music and Mardi Gras is that fewer tourists, hence cruisers, now visit here. Pity. Because New Orleans delivers an exciting departure port for passengers and warrants even a pre- or post-cruise stay to savor its southern charms.

On our recent stay there, to work with Habitat for Humanity, we discovered a city very much alive and throbbing with expectation (Donald Trump is reportedly building condos here). While there are echoes of mourning (the fabled streetcars are not all back in service yet and many stores, particularly on downtown's periphery, sit vacant) rebuilding goes on at breakneck speed.

Still, an infusion of tourists is essential if this city is ever to fully succeed on its path to recovery.

Jim Besse, a historian, local tour guide and fervent believer in the Big Easy's recoverability, commented on the irony: "The best thing you can do is tell your friends to come here, to stay at a hotel or take a cruise, eat at one of our restaurants and let me and your bus driver and the locals bring back the doctors and the teachers."

As ever, Bourbon Street bounces. Here, round-the-clock revelers drape themselves (and fenceposts and trees) with colorful strings of shiny beads. Parading musicians still bring out the party crowd nightly. Saxophone sounds spill from the bevy of bars that straddle this section of town. Throughout the city, landmark eateries such as Emeril Lagasse's NOLA and Delmonico and Paul Prudhomme's K Paul's, are filled to capacity. Zagat's reports that, of 565 restaurants listed in its Big Easy book, more than 360 - and counting! - are open.

As a jazz Mecca, NOLA remains nonpareil: This month and next, the city will play host to what Newsday calls "the planet's premier music event" - the New Orleans annual jazz festival.

The city has been a center for international trade since 1718, when it was founded by the French. According to the city's port authority, it remains at the center of the world's busiest port complex - Louisiana's Lower Mississippi River. And as home port to several cruise lines, it warrants any cruiser's efforts to get here.

Currently five cruise lines sail from New Orleans, from piers that abut the French Quarter. Carnival Cruise Lines' Fantasy departs year-round on cruises to the Western Caribbean. Also plying Western Caribbean itineraries, Norwegian Cruise Lines' Norwegian Sun schedules departures from October through April; and Royal Caribbean International's Grandeur of the Seas sails from December through April. The recently launched Majestic America Line operates three paddle wheelers from here - the Delta Queen, Mississippi Queen and American Queen - on Mississippi and Ohio River cruises from March through December; and Riverbarge Excursions sails the River Explorer year-round.

Carnival had planned to relocate its Triumph to New Orleans in August, 2008, but in recent disappointing news announced postponement of that move. According to Bob Dickinson, Carnival president and CEO, "... there are lingering misconceptions by the vacationing public as to the recovery of New Orleans' tourism infrastructure, which has necessitated a re-evaluation of our timeline for adding a second ship to that port."

The operative word is "misconception."

In fact, New Orleans lays out the red carpet for passengers wishing to remain near the port during a brief visit. In the past 10 years, the Port of New Orleans invested more than $400 million in state-of-the-art facilities. Among the wharf's jewels: an Imax Theater, currently showing a film of New Orleans before and after Katrina, which gives audiences a sense of the devastation of the hurricane. (For an up-close perspective of Katrina's wrath, guided bus tours take tourists to the obliterated Ninth Ward).

Right on the riverfront, at Cafe du Monde, you can sample New Orleans' distinctive coffee (an acquired taste, as it contains chicory) and the city's signature beignets. For kids, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas houses "the world's only white alligator," Besse boasted. And fear not: the town's treasured tackiness is still intact, highlighted by a year-round "Carnival" emporium at Riverwalk, an enormous mall at the cruise pier.

A stone's throw from the port, the famed French Quarter "is a living, breathing neighborhood where the city's royalty - French queens - are a dime a dozen," Besse quipped. Here, too, he said of New Orleans' signature architecture, is where "the buildings whisper to us" of a steamy Gone with the Wind-like past, and give us his take on the birth of jazz as both religious expression and rumor mill: "In the French Quarter, mammies would chant while stirring the cooking pots of their masters. Like smoke signals, these chants carried the latest gossip from open window to open window."

Nearby, music lovers can check out the Louis Armstrong Museum to see the trumpeter's original horns, which he fiddled with until they fit his uniquely oversized lips.

Away from the French Quarter, in what Besse referred to as the "once-Negro section of the city," jazz and blues drift from neighborhood joints bearing names like Club Unique, Club Fabulous and Club Metro. One evening, we headed to the Mid-city Rock & Bowl, a quirky venue only a ten-minute taxi ride from the French Quarter. Yes, it's a bona-fide bowling alley that draws some of the city's hottest music groups nightly.

During our stay, we stumbled upon a handful of terrific no-brand-name eateries. In the upscale Garden District, where actors Nicolas Cage and John Goodman own palatial homes, we downed some of the best pizza at "Slice" and gawked at one of the odder artifacts in this area: the original coffee house from atop the Eiffel Tower that was moved here about 15 years ago.

Locals, gracious and hospitable to visitors, also shared their favorite secrets: The innkeeper of the inexpensive St. Charles Inn where we stayed steered us to the unimposing Casamonte raw bar on Magazine Street. Sparely furnished and brightly lit, this tiny holdout from the past serves the best fried oysters anywhere and the sweetest raw oysters this side of Manhattan's famous Oyster Bar. We even found a pearl in one!

Besse cautioned us, though: "Do not order a salmon anywhere in N'awlins because it probably took the same Delta flight here that you did!"

Meanwhile, at the airport, a Delta Airlines check-in rep acknowledged that nearly everything in New Orleans is still down about 40 percent, including airlift: "There are not as many planes now, and they're not as big as they used to be. But it's the cruise ships that are making a difference," he said, optimistically.

Cruisers could do worse than make that claim come true.

For information about New Orleans go to frenchquarter.com; neworleansonline.com; neworleanscvb.com; or nola.com. For info about cruise lines that homeport here, visit Carnival Cruise Lines at carnival.com; Norwegian Cruise Line, ncl.com; Royal Caribbean International, royalcaribbean.com; Majestic America Line, majesticamericaline.com; Riverbarge Excursions, riverbarge.com

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© 2007, Chicago Tribune.

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