Easy does it in New Orleans

 

Go New Orleans: Do yourself a favour and stay away from tourist traps like Bourbon Street if you want to discover the true heart of the city, advises one-time resident ADAM ALEXANDER

‘MARDIS GRAS is not a parade. Mardis Gras is not girls flashing on French Quarter balconies. Mardis Gras is not an alcoholic binge,” New Orleans native Chris Rose wrote is his book 1 Dead in Attic. “Mardis Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighbourhoods, and our joy of living. All at once.”

It’s already dark and getting late by the time I arrive in New Orleans, and so I rush down to the French Quarter to the first half-decent restaurant I can find and immediately order a “shrimp po-boy” and a “Dixie”.

The po-boy (a corruption of poor boy) is nothing but some French bread with some Cajun-spiced shrimps thrown into it, the Dixie a southern-made beer to wash it down. But because of where I am, this cheap creole combination, which costs me less than $10 (€7.30), is simply going to be better than any fancy meal I can even remember.

The air is like velvet, and while I’m eating, a whole band suddenly appears right on the street in front of me, with a growing number of tourists trailing after them. A raucous jazz ensemble of quacking trumpets, screeching trombones and big bass drum busking their socks off and immediately giving me goose pimples.

I’m back! Back in Noo Awlins. Back in the Big Easy. Back in a city I once spent over a year living in as a newspaper columnist. And while I haven’t been back even an hour yet, the only thought in my head that isn’t towards heaven already – or my humid, hedonistic, hell-raising idea of it anyway – is: Why? Why in God’s name did I ever leave?

But this is also the first time I’ve been back since Hurricane Katrina almost wiped the place off the map six years ago, and while the memories flooding me are all hopelessly good, I can’t help but wonder is this even the same city any more? Well, only one way to find out, I guess. But the first thing I’ve got to do is get the hell off Bourbon Street.

Sucked-in helplessly no doubt by those famous Sodom and Gomorrah-style images of women hanging off balconies and flashing their boobs – and sometimes a lot more – to the enthralled, intoxicated throngs below, Bourbon Street is where nearly every tourist to New Orleans instinctively heads the moment they get off the plane. But the famous 19th-century sign from the Quarter that says: “Beware Pickpockets and Loose Women” – as applicable today as it ever was – should also perhaps read: “Don’t go there!”

For even at the best of times, Bourbon Street today is nothing but a loud, visceral insult of jarring cover-music blasting from competing bars, tacky souvenir shops selling crap, and drunken half-wits full to the brim with 80-per-cent-proof “hurricanes” and “hand grenades” staggering from one crass, neon strip-joint to the next. The tough, no-nonsense NOPD cops on horse-back slyly watching them, confident at least that if they are forced to beat their brains to mush, half the battle has already been won.

So do yourself a favour and keep walking, away from the neon lights and towards the darkness, until the tub-thumping beat of the last remaining bar is nothing but a faint echo, and until Bourbon Street finally ends with some redemption.

Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar – established 1772 – at the very bottom end of Bourbon is sometimes called the oldest continually occupied bar in the US. Lit with nothing but candles, it’s a wonderfully atmospheric piano bar, set amongst the dreamy, ornate colonial Spanish and French architecture of the Quarter. The only kind of houses, in fact, that have ever made me dream of getting a mortgage.

“I live in the French Quarter,” a man in Lafitte’s tells me, when he overhears me already making real estate enquiries. “I’ve never been happier anywhere else in all my life. Everything’s good when you live in the Quarter.

Only a tourist snatching a grab of what New Orleans has to offer though would not stop to think about the many other people also living here, for whom the city has never really been the Big Easy. The utterly disenfranchised who don’t live in the Quarter or anywhere else that nice, and who in the summer of 2005 were not only disgracefully left to fend for themselves without food or water for nearly a week after Katrina cut off the city, but who were even shot at as they attempted to escape in the crazy hysteria that grew about looters.

And this is why sadly in an edgy city with such disparities, that I’m careful not to veer off those main streets tourists are warned not to stray far from as I make my way to Frenchmen Street next.

Finding Frenchmen Street was always a problem though, even sober. And while I try hard to remember my way there through the flickering gaslight of one of New Orleans most beautifully beguiling streets, Esplanade Avenue, I wonder if this is the reason Frenchmen has remained a place, even to this day, only for “people in the know”.

But Frenchmen Street, a compact musical enclave of jazz clubs and funky bars, is not only where the locals hang out. It’s also a place where you can find yourself listening to regulars such as Charmaine Neville, Ellis Marsalis, and Irvin Mayfield, so close to you in places such as Snug Harbor – dubbed “the classiest jazz club in New Orleans” – it might as well be a private audience.

THE NEXT DAY, I head uptown on the tram along the beautiful Gone With the Wind-style mansions of St Charles Avenue towards the lovely, leafy, sun-dappled university areas of Tulane and Loyola to re-visit my old neighbourhood.

Taking the tram, or the “trolley” as it’s known here, reminds me of the magical night when I found myself stranded on one of these old trams in the middle of a tremendous thunderstorm. Forced suddenly to run home between the cannon of enormous thunderclaps, lightning flashes, and huge puddles of rain, feeling like a pissed-on, pissed-off Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart– only happy. Happier than I’ll ever be again anywhere else, I often think.

“It’s an interesting fact that the majority of people moving to New Orleans have visited the city at least three times as tourists,” says the 24/7 guide to the city. “They fall in love with the history, culture, architecture, food and, of course, the people.”

I’ll say. But then who couldn’t fall in love with a place that effortlessly draws you back in time to the era of the Cotton Club, with its gaslit houses, candlelit piano bars, and old-ragtime Jazz? A place where squirrels chase each other along the exposed power cables draped between the houses as if they were nothing more than washing lines; where centuries old trees grow through the pavements upending the sidewalks, and where – coming home from the pub – you will meet people walking their dogs all hours of the night wearing nothing more charming than their pyjamas. Truly . . .

In short, a big, beautiful movie-set of a place that single-handedly redeems the rest of the US, and oozes so much character that you can’t help but feel like the star yourself. And that’s before you even get to the big old historical plantation houses, and eerily beautiful surrounding swamps, that lie just beyond the city.

It’s a big surprise to me though that I still remember exactly where to get off the tram, and an even better one to find my old neighbourhood just the same.

In New Orleans, it is famously said, everyone is either planning a party, enjoying one or recovering from one. And that night as I revisit all my old drinking haunts, the wonderfully gothic St Joe’s bar on Magazine Street, Tipitina’s on Napoleon, Dos Jefes Uptown Cigar Bar on Tchoupitoulas, I find a New Orleans that is not only still rocking and rolling, but somehow still keeping the secret that it is perhaps the greatest city on earth alive.

At my final, favourite watering hole of all, Le BonTemps Roule also on Magazine Street, where the great trumpet-man Kermit Ruffins is still wowing the locals and tourists alike, I find myself worried and drunk enough though to ask a man dancing next to me like there’s no tomorrow, if anyone here is worried now about the future of New Orleans.

“Nope. Nobody’s worried past the next happy hour,” he says.

New Orleans where to stay and eat

Where to stay

Value:Frenchmen Hotel, 417 Frenchmen Street, 00-1-504-945-5453, frenchmenhotel.com. Where better to be than where the locals hang-out on Frenchmen street in this atmospheric, old hotel right on the edge of the French Quarter. They’ll even throw in a swimming pool in the courtyard. Rates from $89 (€65).

Mid-market: The International House Hotel, 221 Camp Street 00-1-504 553-9550, ihhotel.com. Perfectly positioned for twin assaults on both the French Quarter and Uptown (on the tram), this boutique hotel is not bad value at only $99 (€72).

Upmarket: New Orleans Property Management Service, 1000 Bourbon Street, 00-1-504-343-2663, neworleansreservations.com. Sod the hotels – if this company provides the accommodation it claims to, ranging from affordable studios, to luxury one- and two-bedroomed apartments, why not try living in the Quarter instead, and enjoy neighbours such as Lenny Kravitz, Nicolas Cage, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Where to eat

Value: Camelia Grill, 626 S Carrollten Avenue at St Charles, 00-1-504-309-2679. If you’re not watching your cholesterol too closely, this place has some of the best hangover food in the city. Drool on your stool only a few feet from the griddles and grills in this legit, old-fashioned American diner, and you can literally watch the cheese melt on your burger.

Mid-market: Franky Johnnie’s, 321 Arabella Street, 00-1-504-899-9146. Finger-licking good, this is another great neighbourhood restaurant, the place to get ripping into boiled, spicy crawfish and other great New Orleans favourites, such as red beans and rice, without making any great dent on your wallet.

Upmarket: Emeril’s. 800 Tchoupitoulas Street, 00-1-504-528-9393. Emeril Lagasse is not only one of New Orlean’s finest chef’s, but one of America’s finest as well. For one of the most luxurious dining experiences anywhere, try Emeril’s degustation menu, which costs $75 (€55), changes daily, and presents you with a seven-movement symphony of distinctly New Orleans flavours.

Go there:Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin to New Orleans via New York and Chicago. Continental Airlines (continental.com) flies from Dublin to New Orleans via Newark.