Easin' Into The Big Easy

More than seven months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is ready to welcome visitors back with Southern hospitality


IT'S SPRINGTIME IN NEW ORLEANS. The lemon trees and Japanese magnolia are in bloom, and as in years past, the city marks the season with its beloved rite of spring, the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival.

But is the hurricane-wracked and flood-washed city ready to receive guests? My family spent four days at Mardi Gras at the end of February, and I have half a mind to buy another set of plane tickets (which have never been cheaper) and head back down this month for the music festival known as Jazz Fest.

In my view, the city has never been more wonderful, as in full of wonders. Its darkly satirical sense of humor is on display everywhere. Its exuberant, historic urban culture has shaken off the water and is thriving. Its passionate community of misfits and artists and nurses, lovers of life and players of horns and boilers of shellfish, hotel room cleaners and exotic dancers and taxi drivers is bravely returning from evacuation to roofless or gutted houses to clean and to rebuild.

This is the way near-death experiences work, right? They make everything more precious. Everything in New Orleans that survived Hurricane Katrina and the breach of the levees, from the graceful antebellum mansions on St. Charles Avenue to the lush courtyards of the French Quarter to the smile on the face of the waitress bringing your red beans and rice, is more beautiful and intense than ever. And it's everything that's lost -- the closed shop, the dark street, the vacant house, the absent family -- that makes it that way.

So much left

In the French Quarter and the Garden District, there is little evidence of the hurricane or the flood. These are the oldest parts of the city and are built on its highest ground; the physical damage is minimal, though a few spots are closed because the people who ran them lost their homes in other neighborhoods.

But rest assured, you can still have your cafe au lait and beignets at the open-air Cafe du Monde, get your muffuletta from the counter at Central Grocery and your hamburger from the murky depths of Port of Call. You can still wait in line to dine like royalty at Galatoires and take the glass elevator to the martini bar at Emeril Lagasse's Nola. You can still stroll the Moonwalk along the levee and have your fortune told or visit Jackson Square and have your portrait drawn. You can still smell the beer on Bourbon Street from two blocks away. And if you have never done these things, don't wait any longer.

An exquisitely sunny and uniquely joyous carnival season late in February, six months after Katrina, marked a turning point for New Orleans tourism. With a crowd about 70 percent the size of normal squeezed into half as many hotel rooms, the city was still able to take in $200 million.

"The fact that Mardi Gras happened at all was a miracle," says Kim Priez, vice president of tourism for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It was such a treat for us to see those smiling faces for a few days. Since Katrina, all of our wonderful traditions are so much more important to us."

Coming up next is Jazz Fest, held the last weekend of this month and the first weekend of May (April 28-30 and May 5-7 this year). "This will be the most significant Jazz Fest in the history of the city. Bringing back our musicians and confirming that music still has a home here is so important," Priez says.

Though festival organizers reportedly faced a challenge tracking down the far-flung members of local bands and arranging for them to get back to town to play, the festival's bill is evidence of their success. Dozens of New Orleans musicians will be joined by a Milky Way of stars. Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Buffett, Lionel Richie, Dave Matthews Band and Elvis Costello will join Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino, Dr. John, the Radiators, the Meters, Rockin' Dopsie, Irma Thomas and Marcia Ball.

Baltimore native Richard Delheim, an attorney for the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice, went to his first Jazz Fest 15 years ago and said he would go back every year until he died. So far, he's made good on his promise. "Jazz Fest is the perfect distillation of everything wondrous and singular about Louisiana culture," he says.

Jazz Fest takes place at the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course, and the music is presented simultaneously on a number of stages. Rows of food booths serve a smorgasbord of delicacies in $4 and $6 portions: Cochon de lait po-boys, crawfish Monica and andouille gumbo are among the most addictive. It wouldn't be New Orleans without specialty drinks, and you won't want to miss the Katrinarita, the city's bartenders' latest take on the old Hurricane.

The diversity of Jazz Fest is also reflected in its crafts exhibit and art show, with everything from voodoo flags, pine-needle baskets and carnival posters to one-of-a-kind jewelry.

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