Signs of the devastating Hurricane Katrina are all around the city.
Signs of the devastating Hurricane Katrina are all around the city. Clementine Norton

Sax in the city of spicy life as its back from big blow

NEW Orleans has no half-measures.

The city makes its presence felt in every sense - from the dripping, oppressive humidity that leaves a film over your skin, to the sound of jazz drifting out of every open door and window, and the pungent aroma of coffee and chicory.

For first-time visitors to New Orleans, the French Quarter - the city's beating heart with its narrow, uneven streets - is the only place to stay.

My husband and I stayed at the Royal Sonesta, a stunning boutique hotel whose lobby has entrances onto the world-famous Bourbon St, where bar-owners proudly claim "the party never stops".

As a pair of foodies in a city famed for its unique cuisine, we skipped the pub scene and headed straight for the food - namely the renowned Cafe Du Monde for coffee and beignets.

Normally we would avoid a place that features in every tourist guide's "top 10", as experience has taught us an increase in publicity often coincides with a decline in food quality and ambience.

But as with many things in New Orleans, our rules were turned topsy turvy.

Not having a sweet tooth, I did not expect the doughnut-like beignets to win me over, but I loved them so much that I've even looked up the recipe to replicate them at home.

A visit to the equally-adored Muriel's the next day proved it, too, was worthy of its rave reviews - particularly the goat's cheese pancakes and tuna carpaccio.

The ambience was equally unforgettable, as the restaurant has a separate "haunted" dining area where, by special request, guests can dine with spirits of a different kind.

New Orleans lore has it the restaurant's building was once home to a gruesome murder, and a ghost now haunts the premises.

The city is full of spooky tales and every other building seems to cash in on ghoul-hunting tourists, with evidence of a gruesome past.

While you might not spot a ghost, chances are much higher you will see a celebrity.

When we visited, entire streets were shut while a Hollywood crew filmed their newest blockbuster, and shop assistants talked idly of seeing Winona Ryder coming out of her make-up trailer.

Celebrities and revellers have always been drawn to New Orleans.

But after 2005 it became synonymous with one tragic event - Hurricane Katrina.

While the city was devastated seven years ago by Katrina, it was a shock to see whole suburbs still showing signs of damage with blue-tarpaulined roofs and abandoned buildings clearly in evidence.

It's now business-as-usual for New Orleans, but it was a startling reminder that there is a long way to go before the city and its people recover.

When we visited in August this year, the population was just 60% of what it had been pre-hurricane, and through the city at large, many business had struggled and eventually closed.

At first glance, it would be difficult to tell that the vibrant French Quarter, had seen any troubles. But the floods have left a mark.

The proliferation of artists selling their wares around St Louis Cathedral paint scenes of rising water not on canvas, but on pieces of timber salvaged from wrecked homes.

Advertised among scores of walking tours available - focusing on history, jazz, vampires, ghosts, voodoo, Creole food, alcohol or any combination of the aforementioned - it was disconcerting to see tours of the ruined Lower Ninth Ward, one of the most hard-hit areas.

In a city famed for its above-ground cemeteries, voodoo dens and vampire lore, it still seemed surprisingly macabre to take busloads of tourists through areas where people were still living in government-supplied trailers as they tried to rebuild their shattered lives.

The controversial tours have proved popular with tourists, according to the lady at the booking office.

But, she admitted, they had attracted spirited criticism from many locals who felt too may people - from politicians and celebrities to tourism operators - have capitalised on the city's pain.

The floods have reignited a fierce patriotism, a lion-hearted pride in those who were born and raised in New Orleans, and lived to tell the thousand strange tales of their city.

The love they have for their city is unchanged by disaster.

And it is unbelievably contagious - I am already dreaming of the time I can go back to New Orleans.

 

NEW ORLEANS ESSENTIALS

  • Chicory coffee and beignets at Cafe Du Monde
  • A ghost tour of the historic French Quarter
  • Visit the stunning St Louis Cathedral
  • Have a drink - or 10 - on Bourbon Street
  • Sample some crayfish etouffee or shrimp gumbo
  • Stop to watch the jazz bands perform on nearly every corner

 

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