The Big Easy is back

The Big Easy will always embrace a celebration. I made this discovery on my first trip to New Orleans, almost nine months after Hurricane Katrina had wrought her devastation on the city. Wandering around the museum-filled Warehouse District, I turned a corner and stumbled upon a group of people sitting in a parking lot next to a trailer decorated with balloons. Displaced by Katrina, this family wasn’t letting that stop them from celebrating a birthday, as music played on a boom box and kids wearing paper hats happily ran around the trailer. It was an unexpected moment, the kind that makes you rejoice in our ability to find happiness in life’s small pleasures.

Although pleasures – small and grand – continue to abound in New Orleans, signs of Katrina are abundant in certain parts of the city and linger in the areas most visitors frequent: the French Quarter (or Vieux Carré), which houses many of the city’s historical sights, renowned restaurants and music clubs; the Garden District, protected as a National Historic District and home to some of the most spectacular mansions and lush gardens you’ll ever see; the funky Warehous District, where many of the galleries and museums are found; and Magazine Street, a six-mile stretch of antique stores, galleries and restaurants. While these areas were relatively unscathed by Katrina’s wrath, I still saw boarded-up windows and gutted buildings, and most restaurants and shops have help-wanted signs in their windows due to the fact that many residents have yet to come home.

Although life is becoming more normal in New Orleans with each passing day, Katrina is still a considerable presence in the lives of the residents who lived through it. Their stories are many, and they’ll willingly share them with you: my airport shuttle bus driver had just returned to his home after he and his family spent eight months living elsewhere; a young couple who evacuated to Austin, Texas, chose to come back quickly – despite having to live without gas and electricity for a month – because he works for a tattoo company, and business was brisk with the National Guard in town; a first-year Tulane law student was rescued by a generous lawyer in Hawaii who flew students there and gave them internships until classes resumed the next semester.

These stories aside, while strolling through the stunning French Quarter with its wrought-iron balconies and hidden alleyways, it’s easy to put the recent tragedy out of your mind. But I felt compelled to see what New Orleanians had endured so I took Gray Line’s Hurricane Katrina tour, which takes you outside the touristy areas to the neighbourhoods that were hardest hit.

An excellent way to really understand what happened, the tour is led by a guide who lived through the experience. Sandi shared her tale of seeking refuge during the storm in the crowded ballroom of a hotel, where there was no electricity or air conditioning and little food. Weeks after being sent to Houston, she returned to rescue her elderly cat and nine pets belonging to friends. I was blown away by the utter destruction still remaining – houses are in ruins and as you read the messages that are scrawled on walls and see the water lines and death toll counts, it brings the shocking tragedy to life in a very real way.

It’s clear that for New Orleans to recover, it needs tourists to return. The good news for travellers is that this is probably one of the best times to visit. You can enjoy the city without the crowds that sometimes overrun it, particularly the French Quarter, while supporting its economic recovery. The week I spent there was wonderful – filled with lovely moments like the night I was the only person strolling down picturesque Dumaine Street, with a full moon shining at the end of the road and a horse-drawn carriage clomping by on a cross street. At this quiet moment, bathed in the light of gas lamps and surrounded by Creole cottages and Victorian row houses, it was easy to imagine myself in another century.

Also of another time was my French Quarter hotel, the Monteleone, an opulent old-world hotel with storied ties to New Orleans’s literary past. One of three U.S. hotels to be named a literary landmark by the Friends of Libraries, the Monteleone has hosted such illustrious guests as Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Truman Capote (who claimed to have been born at the hotel). For book lovers, it boasts the added convenience of being around the corner from Crescent City Books, two fabulous floors of second-hand and antiquarian books and maps, and Faulkner House Books, located in a Pirate’s Alley store that was once Faulkner’s residence.

You really can’t visit New Orleans without stopping in at Café du Monde, a bustling open-air café famous for its chicory café au lait and beignets, delectable deep-fried squares of dough served warm and drenched in powdered sugar. Forgoing my usual granola and yogurt, I started each morning here, people-watching and listening to a street musician who entertained the crowds on his electric guitar with songs ranging from “Blue Skies” to a jazzy version of “The Flintstones.”

I also tended to end most days with music – something you shouldn’t miss in the city that gave birth to jazz. Locals favour Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny, a bohemian area known for its nightlife. In a concentrated area along the southern part of the street, you can take your pick from clubs like the laid-back Spotted Cat, Café Brasil, with its large dance floor, the hip d.b.a. and, one of my favs, Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, a romantic restaurant featuring nightly live music that happens to be a favourite of New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis, whose dad, Ellis, often plays there.

Another place that came highly recommended by several locals was the Palm Court Café on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. Reminiscent of old New Orleans, the Palm Court is a little fancier than a lot of the city’s music clubs and attracts top traditional jazz bands. No matter where you end up, one of the great things about clubs in New Orleans is that the music often spills out into the streets so you can decide beforehand if it’s what you’re in the mood for.

A little down, but certainly not out, post-Katrina New Orleans still has more rewards to offer travellers than a great many cities. As this post-script in a note in the window of a restaurant joyfully proclaims: “P.S. The New Orleans that we love is still here. Please do your part and spread this very good news!”