Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Crescent City Getaway

New Orleans Spanish Street Sign
I love so many of the Spanish influences in New Orleans.

I recently made my 20th trek to New Orleans. Not my 20th overall, my 20th in the last 3 years. I didn't realize it until I started checking back through my Southwest airlines travel history. I've actually been back 27 times since Katrina ravaged the city in August of 2005. I'm officially giving myself expert status!

New Orleans, in my opinion, is the most unique and charismatic U.S. city. It's architecture, food, people, music, lifestyle, even the smells are as close to an old-world European city you will find in the states. It's such a great melting pot. I've run into former mayors, neighbors of mine from Dallas and New York City hedge fund guys who just needed to get away. People seem to let down their guards when they visit New Orleans. Certainly, a cocktail or two might help but when you're there, you almost get a feeling of belonging that is shared among anyone who visits the city.

Those who haven't traveled there since Katrina ask if "it's ok" or "if it's safe". They seem to think FEMA trailers still line Canal street and that looters are hanging outside Galatoire's waiting for diners to leave. In my opinion, it's safer and cleaner than it was pre-Katrina.

I first went back there about five months after Katrina. I stayed at the W Hotel in the Central Business District. THEN were FEMA trailers lining the city. You could still see signs of the flood all over the CBS and French Quarter. There was a distinct water line along the buildings on Canal street. The majority of businesses were still closed. The majority of just about everything from restaurants to hotels and gas stations had yet to reopen. The few places that were open were grateful for the business. At Emeril's eponymous restaurant, the sommelier told of me the wine from the cellar that was floating in ground-level restaurant in the days after the storm. Certainly not a tragedy but definitely a perspective gainer.

I could feel the city's will to rebound from the disaster. I could sense the focus and see determination in the eyes of the people that had come back. I heard stories of those were dead set on returning the city to the magical place it was.

At that point I fell in love. I didn't go back for another year but since then I've done just about everything you can without getting thrown in jail. I've caught beads at Mardi Gras, run a half-marathon, held a cocktail party at my hotel and ate my way through the city without gaining 50 pounds. It's such an easy trip from Dallas' Love Field. Typically, I can get to the airport 30 minutes before my flight and two hours later, I'm having champagne at my hotel.

So these are generally the follow-up questions I get when I tell people I go so frequently: what do you do? where do you stay? where do you EAT? Here you go:

Ritz-Carlton: Typically, I stay here. It's one of the most affordable Ritz-Carltons in the family. I've stayed there for as little as $129/night. It's right on the edge of the Quarter and just across Canal from the CBD. It's beautiful, gracious and smells AMAZINGLY (you'll know what I mean when you get there). Only downside is that there is no pool. The bar gets crowded every night. It's a hotspot. You can enjoy the more subdued Club Level which is offered by every Ritz-Carlton for an added fee. They do five food presentations every day and offer complimentary cocktails. I prefer that because it has more of home vs hotel feel. You can play backgammon in the library while having breakfast or simply read a book in the afternoon after a long day of exploring.

W Hotel, French Quarter: This is such a cute, boutique-like hotel. It's like walking into an actual Quarter residence with the beautiful courtyard. It's small and can get loud at night but a fun little spot. You'll feel like you're staying in someone's Quarter apartment.

W Hotel, CBD: this one is located near Harrah's casino. Looks like an old office-building converted to a hotel. Typical W - very cool. Fun pool

International House: I've stayed here a few times. This is a beautiful Beaux Arts-style boutique hotel in the CBD just a few minutes from the French Quarter. It has a very big-city feel that reminds me of the Dylan Hotel in midtown Manhattan.

The Roosevelt Hotel: This is perhaps the most famous/infamous of New Orleans hotels. The CBD spot reopened this summer after a multimillion dollar renovation. The lobby area is stunning: gilded ceilings, beautifully restored murals and rich hardwood floors. It's an historic preservation marvel. The Sazerac bar is a great scene. It serves period cocktails that are dangerously strong (hello, blackberry julip!). You get a real sense of being transported to a bygone era. It ends there. The room remodels were really disappointing. I stayed there in November, a little more than four months after it opened. The furnishings are cheap, the bathrooms are tiny and the overall feel is more Homestead Suites than Waldorf-Astoria collection Roosevelt. Still there are some good deals to be had at the hotel if you book at the right time. Definitely get a cocktail in the bar.

Some other hotels to consider: Marriott or Sheraton on Canal street, the Renaissance Pere Marquette downtown and the Windsor Court or Lowe's near the Casino.
AVOID: Doubletree near the Casino. I couldn't sleep and stayed up all night at that hotel because the Casino noise was so bad. Our company booked us there for the NBA All-Star game - NIGHTMARE. The walls were so thin, I could here EVERYTHING the person in the next room was doing (Janet had fun that night). I rolled by bag along Canal street at 6am and checked into the Marriott. That particular Doubletree is a rat-hole.