The Big Easy and Beyond

by Jill Gleeson

This Winter, Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler in Louisiana!

French Quarter by Charlotte Otto-Bruc

Is there anywhere in the United States as purely exhilarating, as soul-stirring and stimulating to the senses as Louisiana’s fabled city on the Mississippi, New Orleans? A place where a multitude of cultures – French, African, Spanish, American Southern and many more – collide but never clash, New Orleans pulses with a life energy that not even the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina could suppress.

Ten years after the storm, the Big Easy is back, as untamed and glorious as ever, offering visitors the chance to sample some of the world’s finest food, music and fun. As residents proudly, loudly proclaim, “Let the good times roll!”

Founded by the French in 1718, ceded to the Spanish as part of 1793’s Treaty of Paris, bounced back to the French briefly before being sold to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, New Orleans today is a colorful result of its diverse heritage. Among the most unique cultures to call the city home are Cajun, descendants of French settlers from the eastern Canadian Maritimes, called Acadian, who were exiled to southern Louisiana, and Creole, a looser term, signifying those with any combination of French/Spanish/African/Caribbean ancestry.

Cajun and Creole cuisine is justifiably famed the world ‘round for flavorful concoctions, like jambalaya and gumbo, and the city’s French Quarter teems with fine restaurants serving both. For a low-lit, sensual ambiance, nothing beats Broussard’s (broussards.com), a gorgeous Creole-French eatery that’s been a favorite for nearly a century. Festive Muriel’s Jackson Square (muriels.com) dishes out updated Creole fare like blackened redfish, while Kingfish (kingfishneworleans.com) specializes in mouth-watering modern takes on Cajun classics.

Before you wind down your culinary tour, splurge on dinner at the French-Creole legend Antoine’s (antoines.com), which just celebrated its 175th birthday. The birthplace of Oysters Rockefeller, it boasts a labyrinth of regal dining rooms, many filled with treasures, like the crowns worn by Mardi Gras queens.

For dessert, take a stroll to Café du Monde (cafedumonde.com), a French Market staple since 1862. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, they serve perhaps the world’s best beignets, the Gallic version of a powdered doughnut.

As celebrated as New Orleans is for its gastronomy, so it is for its music. Jazz, that most American of art forms, was born in New Orleans around the beginning of the 20th Century. Who fathered it – most say cornetist Buddy Bolden, though Jelly Roll Morton famously fibbed about inventing it – is still debated. What isn’t is that New Orleans to this day remains an epicenter for great music. Jazz has even come back to Bourbon Street with the Grammy-winner Irvin Mayfield’s swish new digs at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. Slurp some mollusks served the way they should be – on the half-shell, with a shot of Tabasco – at the hotel’s Desire Oyster Bar (sonesta.com/royalneworleans), then slide into Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse.

If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, hop aboard the romantic St. Charles streetcar (norta.com), the oldest continuously running streetcar line in the world, and head to Riverbend, a lovely neighborhood five miles west of the French Quarter. Go early and grab a delicious dinner at Carrollton Market (carrolltonmarket.com). For extra fun, sit at the food bar overlooking the kitchen for a chance to chat with the genial Chef Goodenough, then walk a couple blocks to the Maple Leaf Bar (mapleleafbar.com), one of NOLA’s oldest music venues. Bruce Springsteen has been known to drop by when in town, but try to hit it up on a Tuesday when Grammy-winner the Rebirth Brass Band reigns supreme.

New Orleans is filled with glorious neighborhoods, including the Garden District, with its gracious antebellum mansions and the above-ground tombs of shade-dappled Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, where films like Interview with the Vampire were shot. Bywater, which was reborn following Katrina as a cool artists’ enclave, is a blast when experienced by bike, with family-owned Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours (neworleansbiketour.com), which also peddles through Marigny and Treme, providing fun historical tidbits along the way. For a closer look into the city’s rich heritage, wander the cobblestones of its most feted neighborhood with a French Quarter History Tour (tourneworleans.com).

Speaking of the French Quarter, even in the city that really never sleeps, the time eventually comes to bunk down, and the Quarter provides much of NOLA’s best hotel options. For budget-friendly but elegant digs on a quiet street, book a room at the historic Dauphine Orleans (dauphineorleans.com), where John James Audubon painted the Birds of America series from 1821 to 1822. Or, opt for the swank of the Bourbon Orleans (bourbonorleans.com), a recently renovated treasure where you can watch the world go by from a fabulous balcony suite.

Of course, no matter where you stay in New Orleans, you’re never far from the action. The vibrant, vital Big Easy, with good times that never stop and music and culinary scenes that are the envy of the world, is back – and it’s better than ever.

For more information, visit neworleanscvb.com.

New Orleans is so seductive, offering such a seemingly never-ending succession of pleasures, it can be (big) easy to forget there’s more to explore outside its limits. From some of the nation’s most stunning natural landscapes, to the myriad charms of Cajun culture, southern Louisiana is packed with delights that shouldn’t be missed. Tack on a few extra days to that NOLA trip, grab a rental car and hit the road to these hotspots.

About 80 miles north of New Orleans sits Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s capital and its second-largest city. Home of LSU, Baton Rouge is in the midst of a renaissance, with new restaurants, clubs and hotels springing up throughout its historic downtown and along the Mississippi River waterfront. Don’t miss the Old State Capitol (louisianaoldstatecapitol.org), a castle-like Gothic show stopper erected in the mid-1800s with a stunning stained-glass dome. After a visit to the Capitol Park Museum (louisianastatemuseum.org), which gives visitors a fascinating peek into Louisiana’s dramatic history and heritage, refuel with C’est Si Bon Food Tour (batonrougefoodtours.com), a guided walking excursion that stops at Baton Rouge’s best eateries.

If you’d like to gawk at some gators, hit up the entertaining Cajun Pride Swamp Tours, (cajunprideswamptours.com), located off of I-10, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. A bit further north is spectacular Nottoway Plantation (nottoway.com), the South’s largest remaining antebellum mansion. Take a tour, have a meal or treat yourself to a night’s stay.

Lively Lafayette (lafayette.travel), about a 90-minute drive west from Baton Rouge, is the high-spirited heart of Cajun country and a must-stop if only for Randol’s Restaurant and Cajun Dancehall (randols.com). The sprawling joint provides guests with not just the opportunity to sample the culture’s signature dishes like boiled crawfish, but also to two-step across the dance floor to the area’s best Cajun bands.

Meanwhile, for a taste of Creole cuisine at its finest, do brunch at Jolie’s Louisiana Bistro (jolieslouisianabistro.com), which also boasts a stellar collection of paintings by beloved Louisiana “Blue Dog” artist George Rodrigue. The Blue Moon Saloon (bluemoonpresents.com), one of the country’s most charming honky-tonks, offers up live roots music, while Vermilionville (vermilionville.org), presents joyous Sunday afternoon dances with Cajun or Creole bands that bring out the locals. Be sure to take time to browse the rest of the 23-acre folklife park that recreates Acadiana life from 1765 to 1890.

Before leaving the Lafayette area, head 20 minutes northeast to the sweet little burg of Breaux Bridge for breakfast at Café des Amis (cafedesamis.com). The food is fabulous but even better are the live Zydeco bands that get everyone to their feet quicker than six cups of black coffee. If you can’t get enough of Louisiana’s legendary wetlands, continue on to McGee’s Landing (mcgeeslanding.com) for a boat tour of the magnificent Atchafalaya Basin.

If you follow I-10 west until you just about hit Texas, you’ll run smack dab into Lake Charles (visitlakecharles.org), dubbed the Festival Capital of Louisiana thanks to its 75 annual special events. The best place to stay – and play – in the city is the sumptuous L’Auberge Casino Resort (llakecharles.com), which recently renovated its guest rooms to the tune of $20 million. Pop for a decadently opulent suite, book a treatment at the Spa du Lac and laze in a luxury cabana at the private, adults-only pool area. With a Tom Fazio-designed, 18-hole championship golf course, a 70,000-square-foot casino and delectable restaurants like Ember Grille and Wine Bar steak house, you just might not want to leave this world-class resort.

But you should, because the Lake Charles region is surrounded by one of this country’s last remaining great wildernesses. There are a number of ways to immerse yourself in it. Take a sunrise guided boat ride with Grosse Savanne Eco-Tours (grossesavanne-ecotours.com), when the highest number of the 400 species of birds that migrate through the area can be spotted. Or, tool along a slice of the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road (creolenaturetrail.org), which winds for 180 miles through Louisiana’s rugged outback. Adventurers will want to book a thrilling Airboats and Alligators ride (337-274-2395) that usually includes a chance to hold a baby gator.

After all this excitement, grab a bite at Famous Foods (famousfoodsllc.com), a family-owned Creole eatery that serves favorites like boudin, a spicy sausage made with a mixture of rice and various meats. Wrap up your time in Louisiana with a stop at the Bayou Rum distillery (bayourum.com) in nearby Lacassine. Made of mostly home-grown ingredients, Bayou Rum is grabbing headlines for its high quality after just a couple of years in operation. Take a tour, browse the extensive gift shop and – most important – belly up to the tasting bar and laissez les bon temps rouler!