August 05, 2009 Edition

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New Orleans is rebounding

New Orleans has a lot to offer. Renee and I had each been there many years ago, but not together, and it was fun taking our daughter, Anna. Renee purchased guidebooks, which we would highly recommend doing. With all the lodging, restaurant and entertainment options, it sure helps to have a reference book to get the most out of your visit, and "Frommer's" was our favorite.

While price ranges varied, the rates seemed reasonable for many of the hotels in or near the New Orleans French Quarter. Maybe the lower rates are part of the effort to encourage and rebuild tourism after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or maybe the hot, muggy weather of late July and early August is not the peak season for tourists. However, people we spoke with in the tourism industry said they felt that tourism was finally back and going full steam this summer, four years after the storm.

For us, New Orleans was an eight-hour drive. I ran into some friends from college who had come by train. As one of them said, "You never know who you're going to run into in New Orleans." We stayed in a hotel near the French Quarter, and once we arrived, we never needed or wanted our vehicle until we headed home.

To be relatively close geographically, New Orleans' culture is worlds apart, which just adds to its interest. We did feel connected through our close proximity to the Mississippi River, which flows right by New Orleans.

When you think of New Orleans, the wildness of Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street usually comes to mind. Those facets are only a small slice of the city.

We toured the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas for about two hours, and with more time, we could have visited the Audubon Zoo, Audubon Insectarium and an Imax theater. We enjoyed a streetcar trip up and down St. Charles Avenue, which is lined with beautiful homes, churches, varied architecture, as well as Tulane University and Loyola University.

We spent one afternoon on a city tour that included a thorough explanation of the flooding caused by Katrina and the ongoing efforts to rebuild. We saw the areas where the levees were breached, a dozen or more homes that are being built through the efforts of actor Brad Pitt and empty concrete foundations or concrete steps with no remains of the former houses that once stood there.

It was eerie to see the Xs and circles that were spray-painted on houses to tell rescue workers the number of occupants, dead or alive, as well as pets, that were found in the houses. The Brad Pitt houses are quite unique and unconventional, and all have bright colors and are built up off the ground.

We learned that 70 percent of New Orleans was underwater after Katrina, and the devastating thing was that the water remained there for weeks. Our tour guide pointed out water lines still visible on several structures. A July 31 headline in The Times-Picayune stated, "Analysis of postal data shows city at 76% of pre-Katrina households."

The tour also included New Orleans history, a stop at one of the many cemeteries with above-ground mausoleums, and the homes of several famous people, such as Archie Manning, John Goodman and a former home of author Anne Rice, who wrote "Interview with the Vampire."

Jazz was plentiful all around the French Quarter. The Satchmo Summer Fest, celebrating the life of Louis Armstrong, was underway during the weekend. Jazz groups could be heard playing in many restaurants and taverns, but also in alleys or street corners. We visited Preservation Hall, which opened in 1961 to protect and honor New Orleans jazz. There, we heard a great rendition of "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." Down the street we heard the New Orleans favorite, "When the Saints Go Marching In."

Maybe the best part about New Orleans is the food. Beignets, ˇtouffˇe, gumbo, muffulettas, po' boys, pralines, coffee with chicory, jambalaya and andouille are just some of the food items that seem to have either been invented or perfected in New Orleans. Again, a guidebook is a big help in choosing among the many restaurants, food types and price ranges.

The stories of restaurants reopening after Katrina are now a noteworthy part of each restaurant's history. A famous but inexpensive restaurant called Mother's set up FEMA trailers in its parking lot after the storm. This allowed nine employees and their families a place to live and the ability to reopen the restaurant as soon as possible.

The locals we met were glad to share their Katrina experiences and seemed to enjoy their city and have immense pride in it. "We love our city," said one of them. It was easy for us to agree.

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