Gear up for Mardi Gras

Sat, Feb 13, 2010, 00:00

FIONA SNEYDhas some advice if you’re heading for New Orleans

HAVING CELEBRATED its first Super Bowl win last weekend, New Orleans is on a high that will make this year’s Mardi Gras even more colourful than usual. This weekend the city will be decked out in the traditional festival colours of gold, purple and green, adding even more vibrancy to the Big Easy, aka Nola and the Crescent City. (Whatever you call it, you should pronounce it Nu Orlins if you want to sound like an authentic southerner.)

The Big Easy is extremely compact, and you’ll likely stay at a hotel within walking distance of everything you will want to see and do. We stayed at the Country Inns Suites, on Magazine Street, and paid a very reasonable $400 for four nights.

Canal Street marks the entry point into the French Quarter for most visitors. It’s also home to a place many visitors will recall: Louisiana Superdome. In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city, in 2005, thousands of locals sought refuge in the arena. Half a decade later it’s clear that New Orleans is making a strong recovery. What’s more, sports such as rugby and lacrosse are growing in popularity, as young people return to the city with skills learned in the places they temporarily relocated to after the devastation.

Your first stop in the Big Easy should be Café du Monde, to taste New Orleans at its best. A stone’s throw from the Mississippi, in the French Market area, this cafe has been serving coffee and beignets since 1862. Served three at a time, beignets – pronounced ben-yay – will tantilise every taste bud. These square doughnuts are reportedly best with milky coffee, but I found hot chocolate a good complement.Visitors to New Orleans will find a lingering urge to revisit Café du Monde, so it’s good to know it’s open around the clock every day except Christmas Day.

The French Market sells everything you might want to own or eat in a Mediterranean setting. The oldest city market in the US, it has been in operation since 1791.

Across the street you’ll find artists lining up their work on the railings of Jackson Square, and if you ask nicely they might even do a piece of work for you while you wait. A statue of Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, is the main focus of this square, which is overlooked by the impressive 18th-century St Louis Cathedral, the oldest continuously active Catholic church in the US.

A walk back towards the Mississippi will bring you to the waterfront area. The steamboat Natchezstands in its red and white finery at the nearby dock. The oldest original vessel of its type on the Mississippi, it now offers lunch and dinner cruises. Having taken the $64.50 (€47) dinner jazz cruise, I would guess that the lunchtime cruise, at $24.50 (€18) – and an extra $10 for lunch – is likely to give you more bang for your buck.

In New Orleans you need to think more about what to eat than where to eat. Besides beignets, seafood dishes abound, as does Creole cuisine. Dishes you’re likely to see on menus include thick, spicy étouffée stew, gumbo seafood stews and po’boy sandwiches. If you’ve space left, try bananas Foster; the fruit is fried in butter, brown sugar, dark rum and banana liqueur, then topped with vanilla ice cream. Good stuff.

As New Orleans is the home of jazz, you should catch one of the free performances in the French Market. The jazz scene is just one aspect of the city’s vibrant nightlife; Bourbon Street throbs with revellers on weekend nights. Make sure to try a strong, fruity hurricane cocktail – first mixed in Pat O’Brien’s French Quarter bar.

I’m not normally a fan of guidebooks’ further-afield pages, but just a few minutes outside New Orleans lie the natural wonders of the bayou. We took a Grey Line tour with an experienced guide who pointed out alligators, turtles and raccoons from the safety of our flat- bottomed metal boat. I won’t spoil it by revealing the guide’s final card, but let’s just say you get a chance to experience the creatures of the bayou up close and personal by the end of the tour.

Go there

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com), with its partner jetBlue, flies to New Orleans from Dublin and Shannon via New York. Delta (delta.com) flies via Atlanta from Dublin. Its Shannon routes opens in May.


mardigrasneworleans.com

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