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.
Dr. David Neuburger, a physician in York County, Pa., attended the festival last year for the first time with a group of buddies formed decades ago during their fraternity days at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The group planned to attend again this year and have not let Katrina get in their way. "At this point, partying in New Orleans is our patriotic duty," Neuburger says.
I seem to always end up in New Orleans with children in tow, and have become something of an expert on the city's kid-friendly attractions.
The beautiful Audubon Zoo, near Tulane University on the edge of the Garden District, is open Wednesdays through Sundays, with animals in free-range displays spread out among azaleas and shady oaks. Its swamp exhibit -- a re-creation of a cypress marsh and the Cajun lifestyle that flourishes around it -- is home to an oddly lovable pair of white alligators, who were found as hatchlings up the road in Houma, La. Because they are not albino, but white with black eyes, these alligators are very rare. They look almost extraterrestrial with their knobby white skins and long smiles.
The only absentees from the zoo are the sea lions, which are staying in Galveston, Texas, while their pool is repaired. Sadly, the Aquarium of the Americas, downtown at Canal Place, took a hard hit during the long power loss, and is closed until June.
Storyland, a quaint playground in City Park, which lost a number of its ancient oaks, has just unlocked its gates, and the famous aboveground cemeteries nearby are open for strolling.
The St. Charles Avenue streetcar, always a favorite with my children, will not be open by Jazz Fest, but the parts of the system that are running, the Riverfront and Canal Street lines, are free. Also, the Louisiana Children's Museum in the Warehouse District plans to be welcoming visitors this month.
Seeing the truth
While you are having fun in New Orleans with or without kids, you will want to take time to comprehend the disaster that happened. Start by visiting the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, also in the Warehouse District. It has the largest collection of Southern art of any museum in the United States, and is featuring several Katrina-related exhibits of photography, art and architecture.
Saving Ida Kohlmeyer displays the vibrant oil paintings of this late New Orleans abstract artist, which the museum helped her family rescue from the flood. Come Hell and High Water includes three dozen portraits of Katrina survivors by Thomas Neff, accompanied by their stories. Drastic Changes: Trees of New Orleans Then and Now finds international artist Wolf Kahn returning to sites where he painted the city's majestic arboreal life in 2002, and recording what he sees there now.
Another way to assimilate the changes in the city is to go see them for yourself. That's what Florri Beckley, owner of a housecleaning service in Gaithersburg, decided to do on her first trip to New Orleans last month with a friend.
Along with "the fun and the silliness" they enjoyed on Bourbon Street, the two women signed up for the Post-Katrina Open City Tour offered by Tours by Isabelle. From a starting point in the French Quarter, the 3 1/2 -hour trip goes by the three levee breaches and into the devastated neighborhoods surrounding them.
"We had a very passionate tour guide," Beckley says, "who told about his experiences with the hurricane, the flood and the evacuation as he drove us down streets where all the houses are destroyed and the people are gone. You see the spray-painted markings on the houses -- two dogs, zero people -- it was so eerie.
"People think Katrina is over and done," Beckley says. "But it's not. Everyone should see this."
John Mullen, who took the tour while visiting New Orleans from Tracy's Landing in Maryland, agrees. "You might have seen it on TV, but it's nothing like seeing it with your own eyes," he says.
Though we didn't take Isabelle's tour, my husband and I got a pretty good look at the situation during our visit as we stayed with friends in Lakeview, the neighborhood adjacent to the 17th Street Canal breach.
On the way to our friends' house from the airport, we drove past an endless line of hollowed houses, their empty windows staring, their ruined walls spray-painted with the same markings Beckley saw. Across house after house, mile after mile, ran the waterline, a wide brown stripe hitting the upper part of the front doors. By the breach was the only traffic in the neighborhood: a line of cars filled with people snapping photos of hills of black mud, twisted boats, rusted cars, splintered wood. Across the street, houses were literally torn in half.
Miraculously, the water stopped in our friends' front yard. But their neighborhood lost every shop, gas station, church and restaurant, and shows few signs of recovery six months after the disaster.
Get a room or a table
If you don't have friends to stay with -- or if your friends don't have a house, which is just as likely -- you will need to get a hotel room. That won't be a problem; hotels have been coming back hard and fast since the storm, though amenities and staffing may not be at 100 percent. Most travel Web sites will have plenty of choices among the major chains. You will find lots of local personality at the Hotel Monteleone, the Chateau Sonesta and Villa Convento in the French Quarter, and at the International House in the Warehouse District.
And how about restaurants? We had the opportunity to discuss this with Pableaux Johnson, the local travel and food writer, whom we found taking photos of the costumed locals at the St. Anne's parade in Faubourg Marigny on Fat Tuesday. Johnson's new book, Eating New Orleans: From French Quarter Creole Dining to the Perfect Poboy (Countryman Press), published a month before the flood, gives great background on Louisiana food culture. About 40 percent of the restaurants he recommends are open as of this writing, estimates Johnson, and many more are shooting to serve their first meals during Jazz Fest.
During Mardi Gras, we had a great time at the R&O; Pizza Place, a rambling seafood and pizza joint at the lakefront, just over the bridge into Metairie. Restaurants on the Orleans side were washed away, but in Jefferson Parish, it's business as usual, only more so. You may wait a while for a table but the atmosphere is so welcoming, you probably won't mind. The drinks keep coming, the food finally does, and the sweet and sassy New Orleans waitresses call you "baby" all the while.
The real New Orleans
New Orleans has never been a city that didn't know sorrow and trouble. It has never been simply a theme park or plastic world of conventioneers. What it has always been -- an exquisite, eccentric, endangered place with the most vivid multi-racial and multi-ethnic public life in the United States -- it is more than ever now.
"New Orleans is a world cultural treasure, not just an American one," says Eric Overmyer, a writer for The Wire who lives in Baltimore and New Orleans, and who has spent many a Jazz Fest marveling at the Mardi Gras Indians, the Cajun bands, the brass bands, the social aid and pleasure clubs and second liners. "In the words of Bob Dylan: 'I like a lot of places, but I like New Orleans better.'"
If You Go
Several airlines fly from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to New Orleans. AirTran and Southwest offer round-trip ticket specials from BWI for less than $200.
Where to stay
International House, 221 Camp St., 800-633-5770; ihhotel.com.
Hotel Monteleone, 214 Royal St., 504-523-3341; hotelmonteleone.com.
Chateau Sonesta, 800 Iberville St., 504-586-0800; chateausonesta.com.
Villa Convento, 616 Ursulines St., 800-887-2817; villaconvento.com.
Where to eat
Galatoire's, 209 Bourbon St., 504-525-2021.
Cafe du Monde, 1039 Decatur St., 800-772-2927; cafedumonde.com.
Nola, 534 St. Louis St., 504-522-6652; emerils.com.
Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St.; 504-539-9600; ogdenmuseum.org; adults, $10 ($8 for students and seniors); $5 for ages 5-17; $3 for those younger than 5. Open Thursday evenings and Friday-Sunday.
Audubon Zoo. All but the sea lion exhibit is open. 6500 Magazine St.; 504-581-4629. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. $12 for adults; $9 for seniors; $7 for children.
Tours by Isabelle. The half-day Post-Katrina Open City Tour is $49. 888-223-2093, toursbyisabelle.com.
Jazz and Heritage Festival
Tickets for Jazz Fest are on sale at nojazzfest.com and ticketmaster.com, or by calling 800-488-5252. The tickets are sold by specific weekend, with each ticket valid for a single day's attendance. Prices are $30 in advance, $40 at the gate.
Children's tickets (younger than 12) are $5 in advance and at the gate. Jazz Fest's popular Big Chief VIP Experience provides full weekend passes and VIP amenities for $500 per weekend, $600 with parking. Additional ticket and VIP information is available at nojazzfest.com.
For the latest information on what's open and what's happening, go to neworleanscvb.com, Web site of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, or neworleansonline.com, the official tourism Web site.