A streetcar you'll desire

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 December, 2011, 12:00am


Festival time in New Orleans is looming and if you fancy visiting during Mardi Gras (February) or Jazz Fest (April and May), now's the time to book. At any time of year, however, this city is dedicated like no other to eating, drinking and having a good time. A few handy hints will help you suck the very best out of The Big Easy, like a Louisiana crawfish from its shell.

The historic French Quarter is where you'll want to stay, and there's a huge range of hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs. The best address in town, though, is the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel.

Half a block from the hotel is Brennan's, renowned for having one of America's most indulgent breakfast menus. A typical Brennan's breakfast goes like this: Brandy Milk Punch; Southern baked apple doused in cream and served with cinnamon toast and chicory-laced coffee; crabmeat omelette with sauteed mushrooms; and Bananas Foster - one whole banana sliced lengthways, flambeed in white rum, banana liqueur and brown sugar, served over vanilla ice cream.

It's just a few minutes' walk from the restaurant to the streetcar stop on Canal Street, where you can embark on one of America's quintessential urban rail journeys. In operation since 1835, this is the world's oldest streetcar line. It runs through the Garden District, past dozens of grand 19th century houses, fronted by ornate lead-light windows and stately columns and verandas. Rattle past Loyola University before hopping off at Audubon Park for a stroll to the Mississippi River or a visit to the zoo.

Returning to the French Quarter, you might be ready to lunch Louisiana-style at Acme Oyster House. Its sign, reading 'waitress available sometimes', sums up the organised chaos of this French Quarter institution. Grab a stool at the bar, where oyster shuckers whip open shells and scatter oysters onto trays as fast as you can slurp them down. Follow these briny bivalves with a fried shrimp and oyster 'po' boy' (the definitive Louisiana fast food - a half baguette with filling and salad). They've also got Creole favourites such as seafood gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, fried crawfish and fried soft-shell crab.

For a city famous for its food, it's a good thing New Orleans is also made for walking. Laid out as a simple grid, it's possible to spend days here exploring just a few square blocks. Meander along Royal Street, popping into art galleries, fashion shops, antique stores, sculpture showrooms and strange boutiques selling voodoo charms and handmade jewellery.

A civilised afternoon's stroll should include a decent coffee and, given that Louisiana was a European colony for almost a century, it's not surprising that coffee plays a key role here. Sadly, most of the old bohemian-style coffee houses are long gone, and Starbucks is encroaching fast, but Cafe Rose Nicaud continues to be the roaster of choice for a crowd of loyal locals.

For dinner, there are numerous Old World restaurants serving a tantalising mix of French, Creole and Cajun cooking, but the best are Arnaud's and Antoine's - labyrinthine complexes from the mid-1800s. Arnaud's Cafe Brulot (coffee laced with brandy, flavoured with orange and cloves and then poured down a flaming coil of orange peel) is a true performance piece, while at Antoine's, you could spend half your evening gazing at all the signed portraits of ex-presidents and movie stars who've dined here.

After dark, the city's world-renowned music scene comes to life. There's no shortage of great venues, but Snug Harbor is my jazz club of choice. The spare interior and lamp-lit tables complement the quality performers. Members of the Marsalis family have long been regulars, and New Orleans natives such as Harry Connick Jnr are known to drop by and jam.

If Dixieland and bebop aren't your thing, head to Uptown for a night at Tipitina's. Don't confuse the city's most venerable venue for blues, soul, rock and reggae (and world headquarters for local legends The Neville Brothers and Dr John) with the franchise version in the French Quarter, which offers none of the grand musical heritage and atmosphere of the original.

A visit to New Orleans would be incomplete without a night out on the city's infamous drunken tourist strip, Bourbon Street. But don't expect the highest standard in pre-mixed drinks, which are sold in plastic 'to-go' cups you can drink on the street; and don't spend the evening wandering up and down looking for 'where the action is' - settle on one place with a decent band and make a night of it there.

Finally, an experience not to be missed is zydeco - a rollicking blend of folk, country and bluegrass whose trademark instrument is a tin washboard strummed by hand with bottle tops over the knuckles. Rock 'n' Bowl: Mid City Lanes hosts zydeco bands on Wednesday and Thursday nights.

Taking it easy

How to get there

United flies from Hong Kong to New Orleans daily via Chicago (www.united.com)

Where to stay

Omni Royal Orleans Hotel www.omnihotels.com

Where to eat

Arnaud's, 813 Bienville Street, French Quarter

Antoine's, 713 St Louis Street, French Quarter

Acme Oyster House, 724 Iberville Street, French Quarter

Brennan's, 417 Royal Street, French Quarter

Cafe Rose Nicaud, 632 Frenchmen Street, Faubourg Marigny

Where to drink

Bourbon Street

Live music

Tipitina's, 501 Napoleon Avenue

Snug Harbor, 626 Frenchmen Street, Faubourg Marigny

Rock 'n' Bowl, 4133 South Carrollton Avenue, Mid City


Mardi Gras 2012 (February 18-21) www.mardigrasneworleans.com

Jazz Fest 2012 (April 27-May 6) information and tickets, www.nojazzfest.com