The week after New Year's I traveled to New Orleans for the first time in years. I have to admit Solange's wedding photos probably sparked the urge to check out what has been cooking down there. The Big Easy always seems its best after a big holiday when everyone is relaxed or more appropriately, recovering. I had come out in the French Quarter during the early Nineties; where a closeted 19 year old college kid could walk into a bar, order a drink, and basically observe this new strange world he was walking into. Throughout my twenties, it was the perfect growing up city, as I began checking out the parks, museums and developing a fondness for slow dining. Post Katrina returns were more frequent to watch the developments and keep an eye on what would become of a place that feels like a second home. So not quite and expert but definitely an observer; New Orleans has always captured my heart. Now having spent a few years away, I was anxious to see what kind of vibe the city was delivering. It wasn't quite what I expected in that there was a laid back appeal but a tangible buzz of new people and new ideas.
As I drove through the Vieux Carre, there was a great sense of relief that it had not lost a bit of gritty appeal but the signs of development were there. Still very bohemian with funky diners and colorful shop windows but an energy flowing from the people navigating the streets as if they had a purpose for being there. In the Nineties and especially post Katrina, the neighborhood felt like a scaled down version of Mad Max, where even in daylight, you walked fast and watched your back. Now the restaurants and shops feel as if they are drawing you out of the nucleus that is the French Quarter.
However, there is no better place to stay than the east side of the Quarter. Give me an exposed brick room, rod iron terrace, ceiling fan, and hopefully a small courtyard pool any day over the mega hotels and more than ever, trendy boutique hotels to the east. That does not mean that I don't still enjoy cashing in my rewards points for a free stay at a chain hotel just for me there is a charm to small businesses. Check into the Hotel St. Marie, Hotel Chateau, Villa Convento or Lafitte Guest House for a tucked away but close to the action stay.
Once situated with a place to sleep, I roamed the streets with no purpose other than to explore. Jackson Square still has a cast of characters that makes grabbing a coffee or a card reading mandatory. Jumping the train tracks to the Mighty Mississippi can relieve any stress you are feeling from the congestion of the French Market. On the banks where there were once people passed out from a drunken stupor; there are now a steady stream of joggers and couples lounging on the rocks to chill while soaking up some winter sun. The river flows in such a way that you get the same feeling as when you stare at an impressionist painting; moody and deep.
As the sun falls, the Quarter awakes to live up to that vampire appeal you read about in Anne Rice novels. The darkness softens all the imperfections of places still in need of repair and suddenly everything is visually stunning. Decatur Street seems sexier and Bourbon Street no longer feels like an adult Chuck E Cheese. After a dinner of crawfish etouffee of course, I headed to the gay area which really has not geographically changed. My first stop was Oz because there is something about stopping into a place before the mob and chatting up the bartenders to see what has changed and where to go but also when you return later a quick moment of eye contact helps you cut the line. Then onto Bourbon St Pub where everyone appeared to congregate to get into the dancing mood. Surveying the crowd, I was impressed at how good looking everyone was. It wasn't like the Chelsea queens of NYC or the tragically hip dudes of Brooklyn but a hybrid. Guys were talkative without feeling creepy and seemed to have mastered walking that line of artistic but masculine. The kind of man that can impress you with his carpentry skills while still having La Mer in the medicine cabinet.
After talking to a few locals it turns out my suspicions were correct. New Orleans is returning to a moment in time where it was a destination of dreamers and doers. Everyone is talking about what projects are in the works and comparing notes on indie bands. The sleazy side is still there but overshadowed by guys looking to have a conversation or possibly an actual date. There were a few eye rolls when people found out that I was visiting from New York City because there are a growing number of New York and California transplants but no attitude. New Orleans is back and fresher than ever.