Good Times In The Big Easy

Here’s how to celebrate finishing the Rock ‘n’ Roll Mardi Gras Marathon or Half Marathon.

Written by: John Mendelsohn

Mention New Orleans, and most people think first of the famous French Quarter, with its unique architecture, great food, and interesting shops. Historic New Orleans walking tours of the Quarter are generally acknowledged as supremely informative and enjoyable. If anything remotely felicitous has happened anywhere in the city, beautiful young women are likely to be on the balconies above the narrow streets displaying their breasts.

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The New Orleans’ Original Cocktail Tour typically lasts around three hours, at no time during which you will be compelled to listen to a lounge pianist playing Melancholy Baby. A splendid introduction to the French Quarter, it’s less a pub crawl, though, than a history tour, during which you’ll learn about the French and Spanish in the city, about Mardi Gras and Katrina, and about some of New Orleans’ most celebrated restaurants. Typically, you’ll enjoy a Pimm’s Cup at Napoleon House, a Sazerac at Antoine’s, a Bayou Bash at Sisters, “lemonade” at Tujague’s, and absinthe at Pirate Alley Café. You’ll probably want to take a taxi back to your hotel at tour’s end, or stagger, rather than drive.

Is it a little ghoulish that Grayline offers a tour called Hurricane Katrina – America’s Greatest Catastrophe? Of course it is. Are you highly like to go on it anyway? Of course you are.

Your guide will proudly show you not just the 9th Ward, but other parts of town that suffered woeful devastation. He’ll explain how the search and recovery was conducted, and point with pride to all the rebuilding that’s been done, including homes donated by such celebrities as Brad Pitt. Given the Saints’ recent Super Bowl victory, you can count on his pointing with particular pride to projects financed by quarterback Drew Brees.

There are those who’ll tell you that there’s no better way to explore the city than on an old-fashioned cruiser-style bicycle, with a knowledgeable tour guide leading the way. Confederacy of Cruisers Bike Tours, named in honor of the wildly overrated novel A Confederacy of Dunces, invites you to savor stories of the culture, history, and architecture of a New Orleans less adventurous visitors rarely glimpse as you pedal around the Creole Fauborgs.

No trip to New Orleans is complete without a visit to the endearingly ramshackle Preservation Hall, where jazz of a sort that nearly everyone enjoys — with the possible exception of a few goateed elitists who believe that jazz that isn’t atonal and anarchic isn’t jazz at all, but bourgeois crapola — will seemingly flourish forever. At $10, it might be the best deal in Louisiana. Get there early, as there are only about 70 seats, each less comfortable than the one beside it. Bring neither alcohol nor earplugs. The former isn’t allowed, and the music is delightfully unamplified.

Airboat Adventures is a favorite way for non-aquaphobes of all ages to see the bayous. In the swamplands where moss drapes the trees, alligators cavort in their natural habitat. If the tour leader’s Cajun-inflected drawl is nearly unintelligible, be consoled by the realization that there are still a few of us left with regional accents.

The New Orleans School of Cooking offers day-long classes for students intent on making themselves delicious bowls of jambalaya, shrimp Creole, gumbo, and other favorite local dishes when they get back to the culinary backwaters in which they reside.

Less than 10 minutes from downtown, you can meditate in the tranquility of The Longue Vue House and Gardens, surrounded by eight acres of gardens containing noteworthy fountains.

The electrifying Kermit Ruffins performs every Thursday evening at Vaughan’s Lounge, in an endearingly shabby, but safe neighborhood, where the folks are friendly and the beer cheap. Don’t be surprised — well, be pleasantly surprised, but not shocked into speechlessness — if, halfway through Kermit’s performance, you’re presented with a huge complimentary bowl of red beans and rice. The cover’s only $10.

Known colloquially as “The St. Louis Cathedral”, the gorgeous Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France is the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States, and one of New Orleans’ most-visited landmarks, not least because of its convenient location in Jackson Square, which is full, in clement weather, of street performers, artists, and even fortune tellers.

Bloody Marie’s Voodoo Best, which takes one to such noteworthy sites as Marie Laveau’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery #1, is thought by many to be the city’s best tour of its type, or maybe people are just saying that for fear of a limb falling off.

Don’t go to the Audubon Zoo expecting the San Diego Zoo with a Cajun accent. It’s fairly tiny, but easily navigated, and with some creatures you might not glimpse at bigger zoos. Many animal-lovers cite elephants Jean and Panya, the Komodo dragon, and white tiger brothers King Rex and King Zulu as their favorites. One of the enjoyable interactive displays at the new Audubon Insectarium, inside the historic Custom House, dares you to get on a stationary bike to race a grasshopper. Afterward, you can snack on insects.

If it’s sweltering, duck into the always-chilly Musee Conti Wax Museum. Most of it is dedicated to the history of New Orleans, but there’s also a section devoted to voodoo and black magic that the faint of heart may want to miss.

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The multitalented John Mendelsohn is a writer, graphic artist, and singer/songwriter who lives near New York City. Check out his new song collection, Sorry We’re Open.

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