GO2 NEW ORLEANS
Book an APT 20-day The Big Easy to The Big Apple tour, taking in New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Washington DC and New York, and your companion flies to the US for free. The tour includes a 12-night luxury land journey and seven-night Mississippi River cruise. Priced from $13,995 a person. Limited seats are available in April and June 2015 and must be booked before February 28. Or preregister now for 2016 departures (Ph 1300 196 420, see aptouring.com.au).
DiscoverAmerica.com N Sunday morning, the streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter are freshly scrubbed. Unlike Roy, a homeless man who clutches his head with both hands while slumped on a doorstep in Charters St. Roy is dishevelled and dusty.
“Hello, my friend, welcome to Nawlins,” Roy says with a whisky-soaked croak that Satchmo would be proud of as he shakes my hand and accepts a fiver.
The French Quarter is peaceful at 10am, something Roy points out isn’t unusual. “They’re all at church, repenting for what they did lastt night,” he says with a cheeky grin. “Y’all come back later today and the sinners will turn it all on its head again.”
Roy says tourists’ “spare dollars” make life that little bit easier in New Orleans. But his reason for remaining a local runs deeper than that. With big, bloodshot eyes and raised brow, he almost seems offended that I’m surprised he didn’t leave after Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. “It’s like a marriage, brother, in death do we part, in sickness and good health,” he says with one hand on my shoulder. “God bless Nawlins’, man, I ain’t never leavin’. It’s my home.”
Nawlins has always done things the hard way, Katrina was just another hurdle in a long line: civil war, fire, floods and disease. This is important for travellers to know, says Robin Rocque, the APT tour guide on our New Orleans tour. Rocque grew up in the Lower 9th Ward, one of the most devastated areas. “When people think of Katrina, they usually think of property damage ... the images on the television, shells of homes, rusted cars and so on,” Robin says, before taking a deep breath. “The real damage was psychologically and spiritually: the men having strokes and heart attacks due to stress, not knowing what was going to happen to their families; the abnormal amount of suicides and those missing people; too many to count.
“A decade later it still pains me to see the (now) empty lot where I spent much of my childhood. The house that my grandfather built is gone. So is the fig tree that I climbed every day, even though it was forbidden to do so. My grandparents’ vegetable garden and yard where I played is but a memory. The church where I was baptised and had my first communion has been completely rebuilt, but holds none of the old familiar memories of the old structure. The Catholic school’s playground where I waved to Fats Domino when he lived across the street, also is gone.”
Later in the day, the peace and quiet evaporates and the noise begins to increase. Before long the streets are alive again with buskers, locals, tourists. Grubby, sexy Bourbon St beckons. The sizzle of barbecue masks less pleasant odours. People are laughing, hugging and smiling. Panhandlers abound and small children bewitch with a tap dance “for a dollar”, only to break your heart as they sneak around a corner to hand their earnings to a modern-day Fagin. A gloriously multicoloured, self-proclaimed “Queen of New Orleans” sashays in front of me, only before hardening her smile the moment after I take a photo as she pops out her hand for “some green to help pay for the Queen’s rent, sweetheart”.
At the Bourbon Cowboy, a country act performs while punters ride a mechanical bull; at Fat Tuesday the iced banana banshee daiquiris take the edge of the humidity; at The Krazy Korner listen to zydeco and R&B.
A group tour like this makes life easy, but New Orleans is a grid-like city and so all you really need to do if exploring the French Quarter on your own is keep between Canal St and the Mississippi River.
SWEET SOUNDS: (clockwise from above) New Orleans is a city with a passion for music and entertainment; a funeral parade; sign in the French Quarter; Mardi Gras masks are common in city stores and markets; and window shopping in the French Quarter....