Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Voodoo ...plus the fleur-de-lis and all that jazz

Tips for exploring the renowned charms of New Orleans

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St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 is just one of the many New Orleans cemeteries and other attractions where one begins to understand the charms and challenges of this mysterious and utterly irresistible city.

The crypts and mausoleums are all above-ground, because when you are surrounded by water, by vast Lake Pontchartrain and the mighty Mississippi, not to mention the swamps and bayous that wind their way from the Gulf of Mexico throughout much of the Southern U.S. state of Louisiana, you quickly become conversant in the language of water tables.

Cemeteries in New Orleans, though, are more about the living than the dead, for they are destinations where families gather and celebrate a loved one, where the final resting places are ornate and grandiose, built of marble and granite and bearing inscriptions that trace the generations who lived and died here, all of it testimony to the city's French colonists, Spanish settlers and aristocratic American pedigrees.

New Orleans has been called "the accidental city" (notably by author Lawrence Powell), the place were circumstance, opportunity and social and environmental challenges formed a confluence of culture and tradition that may be the most eclectic -- from food to music to architecture -- of any major U.S. city.

If this is a world-renowned destination famous for its Mardi Gras party spirit, for its indigenous and fusion food, its hurricane-battered stoicism, its jazz roots, its gator- and snake-infested swamps and its Southern charm -- which it is, for all that, and more -- it's easy to see why one simply cannot take it all in on the first go-round.

First of all, be prepared for the sensuality of New Orleans, for the moisture and the heat, for the sweet smell of decay and the eerie quiet of the swamp, for the spicy and aromatic cuisine, the air of naughtiness, the costume culture and the ghostly Spanish moss that hangs like delicate lace from the branches of the ancient live oaks that line the streets.

Colonized in the 1700s by the French (the fleur-de-lis is the most ubiquitous of symbols, on everything from New Orleans Saints uniforms to civic garbage cans), later the Spanish and settled by the African slaves who came to work in the cities and on the plantations, it was the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, which was the sale of the resource-rich territory of Louisiana by the French to the United States for $15 million, that found American opportunists from the north making their way south.

That confluence of cultures turned New Orleans into a city where voodoo queens, aristocrats and business barons shared the streets and parlours, where the food, entertainment and customs began to overlap and where that melding of tradition and economic standing created a metropolis that today offers not only an abundance of that legendary southern charm but also layers of American history.

What you soon learn as a visitor is that resilience is the foundation upon which New Orleans was built. Floods, famine, hurricanes, disease, war -- all devastated the region over three centuries, but all failed to stem its progress or the will of its people to make it work.

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina and its destructive surge, thousands of locals lost their homes, their businesses and their livelihoods. Many left town and never returned (the population is just starting to recover). And while they no longer do organized tours through the flood-ravaged city wards, Katrina remains the most recent reminder of New Orleans's capacity to recover and rebuild.

Yes, its history will fascinate, but remember that you're in New Orleans to have fun, too. Which brings us to Bourbon Street, which shouldn't be missed, but get it out of the way quickly because you will soon have your fill. Every night, Bourbon is party central as hundreds of drunken 20-somethings throw cheap strands of colourful beads from wrought-iron balconies to pretty girls on the cobblestones below, where bosoms are flashed and neon lights burn bright.

It's an experience, but so is the other French Quarter, the one with the marketplace and the unique shopping haunts (check out Marie Leveau's House of Voodoo shop). There are terrific restaurants, beguiling sex shops (Larry Flynt's Hustler Club) and funky bars with names like The Swamp and Saints and Sinners, serving Hand Grenades and Vampire Kisses. And, for jazz buffs, the renowned and historic Preservation Hall is a mecca, with live shows nightly.

And wandering off Bourbon, early in the morning when the sidewalks are getting a scrub, you'll find a quaint residential community of tiny Creole cottages built of cypress wood with rainbow shutters of green, blue, pink, yellow and orange. You'll notice, too, the street names rendered in vintage ceramic tiles embedded in the concrete, walked upon for three centuries.

This, of course, is a city of greats, in music (Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino), food (Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse), literature (Mark Twain, William Faulkner), art (Edgar Degas, John Audubon) and architecture (Beaux Arts, Queen Anne, Greek Revival, American colonial, Victorian, Gothic). And there are reminders of those rich legacies from Faubourg Marigny and the French Quarter to the Treme and Garden districts.

So don't be afraid to be a tourist. Head for the Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter for those famous beignets. Take a paddlewheeler ride on the Mississippi. Hop a noisy airboat through the bayou. Tour an urban cemetery. Visit a jazz museum. Take a lesson at The New Orleans School of Cooking. Ride the St. Charles street car. Shop the vintage store fronts along Magazine Avenue.

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And eat everything in sight, especially the authentic Cajun, Creole and, yes, redneck cuisine. Try an alligator po-boy. Tuck into jambalaya, gumbo and crawfish étouffée. Have sweet potato pancakes with pecan syrup. Savour blackened red fish and blue crab cakes. Sip a mint julep on a balcony under a live oak. And, remember, there's no such thing as too much pecan pie or bread pudding, or too many pralines.

Most of all, talk to the locals, who are intrinsically friendly. With films such as Django Unchanged and 12 Years A Slave currently painting an unvarnished picture of pre- and post-civil war slavery in the Deep South, there seems less a tendency to keep that uncomfortable skeleton in the closet.

At the historic Oak Alley Plantation, for instance -- which is about as Gone With The Wind as it gets and where sugar cane is still produced but where the main house and grounds are now the site of guided tours -- efforts have been made to recognize the contribution of African slaves who once dominated the population of New Orleans.

While Oak Alley's original slave's quarters have long been demolished, the reconstruction of six of the 10 tiny wooden shacks that once housed 113 men, women and children attempts to tell the story of those who lived here and worked the land.

Most of all, though, be prepared for the joie de vivre of New Orleans. This, after all, is the land of southern hospitality, the Big Easy in both name and countenance. And once you've experienced its countless charms, you will find it hard to say goodbye.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2014 E1

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