Sitting enjoying a bourbon in May Baily’s Place at the Dauphine Orleans hotel bar, I’m not surprised when a party of tourists troops in. The Dauphine is not just historic but reputedly haunted, and this is a ghost tour in search of the Last Courtesan, the Lost Bride, the Worried General and the Dancing Girl.
The bar was originally a cottage built in 1821 and, like many of the houses in the French Quarter district then known as Storyville, it was a brothel. A legal one, too – with a print of the licence granted to Baily framed on the wall.
One key reason for visiting New Orleans is to see its heritage buildings and soak up the atmosphere and history.
This year is its 300th anniversary, Louisiana having been claimed for French king Louis XIV by the explorer La Salle. When the city on the Mississippi river was founded in 1718, it was named after the Duke of Orleans.
The brothels were closed down by order of the US navy in 1917. By then, New Orleans was renowned as a bohemian destination and a place of refuge, with the freed slaves who lived there bringing many kinds of music and giving birth to jazz. Clients who visit New Orleans this year can enjoy a host of tricentennial events, including exhibitions and food festivals (for a full list of events, see 2018nola.com).
Speaking about the anniversary, Neil Jones, account director for New Orleans & Company and the Louisiana Office of Tourism in the UK and Ireland, says: “It shines a light to inspire people to visit and make the most of all the special events happening year-round. Our trade and tour operator partners have advised strong sales in 2018 and have played a vital role in selling city breaks to New Orleans and fly-drive tours around Louisiana and the Deep South region.”
I’ve been familiar with songs about New Orleans all my life – such as the haunting House of the Rising Sun, adapted from an old folk song, Rising Sun Blues, which is the lament of a prostitute.
Not having visited the city for 40 years, I’m keen to see how much of the atmosphere remains.
The answer is quite a lot if I let my imagination wander, but New Orleans is now a huge tourism destination. The narrow streets of the French Quarter are packed and there seem to be ghost, voodoo or vampire tours on every corner.
We’re shown around by Two Chicks Walking Tours, whose guide Loretta Adkins meets us at Cafe du Monde, a 24/7 New Orleans institution where people queue for sticky doughnuts called beignets. (The tour is bookable via Viator and costs $29.99 for two hours).
She takes us along the old streets by the Mississippi and into the French Quarter, where many of the old houses have escaped commercialisation and must now be worth a fortune.
At the heart of it is infamous Bourbon Street, which is filled with bars and music joints. Venues such as Huge Ass Beers and Hustler Club aren’t our scene, so instead we seek out the boutiques and antique shops of Royal Street and head just outside the Quarter into Frenchman Street for more authentic music.
I want to experience a very traditional jazz club and Preservation Hall, in the heart of the Quarter, was recommended. Booking was a good idea, as the queue is long, but we’re quite taken aback as we go inside.
Preservation Hall is not only tiny but very basic, with seating on benches or on the floor and no bar or toilets. The jazz is pure and traditional, but our backs certainly suffer for art!
We enjoy jazz in more comfort on a harbour cruise on the steamboat Natchez (from $32), which operates three times daily with dining options. Although first operated in 1975, the steam engines date from 1925 and watching the giant paddlewheel in action is truly impressive.
Dining is one of the joys of New Orleans, with typical Creole dishes including gumbo, a stew usually made of seafood; jambalaya (shrimp or sausage in a spicy sauce), red beans and rice; and blackened catfish or chicken.
Antoine’s restaurant, established in 1840, currently has a set lunch menu for just over $20, and invented the dish Oysters Rockefeller. Tujague’s is also excellent and almost as old, and claims to have invented brunch.
Court of the Two Sisters is a huge place with live jazz and a garden, but we prefer the posher Arnaud’s – where else would you find waiters in black tie?
At least one trip out of the city is a must, and we choose Gray Line’s Plantation and Swamp tour, which takes five-and-a-half hours ($89).
First we visit Destrehan, a grand plantation house dating from 1787 where we remember those whose labour sustained it. The biggest slave uprising on US soil also occurred here in 1811. Then we take a swamp boat tour on Cajun Pride, during which sightings of alligators are more or less guaranteed. We also spot raccoons, egrets and turtles.
There’s so much else to see in the city, and we squeeze in a visit to Mardi Gras World to learn how carnival floats are built. We also see some of the impressive lifelike figures that sit atop the floats and ride on a vintage streetcar (not called Desire, although playwright Tennessee Williams lived here) to the lovely Garden District.
New Orleans is a city that will appeal to anyone with a sense of fun who loves history and music. We go home happy, but I still can’t get Bob Dylan’s version of House of the Rising Sun out of my head.
Book it: Jetset Holidays offers a package including Virgin/Delta flights, five nights at the Dauphine New Orleans with transfers, a Plantation and Swamp tour plus an evening jazz cruise with dinner, from £1,279pp departing Heathrow on November 9. jetsetholidays.co.uk
The facts: This historic hotel reopened in 2018 with a pledge to re-establish itself as a New Orleans icon. It dates from 1907 and was badged as the Braniff, Clarion and Radisson after the Jung family sold it in 1971, but became run-down and was closed after being wrecked by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Investors have spent $140 million on the first hotel in the city to combine guest rooms with long-term residences.
Thumbs up: The 207 rooms are spacious with cutting-edge design and facilities, and there’s a real buzz about the place. Clients can enjoy typical Creole cuisine in the restaurant and an array of bourbons at the bar. The streetcar to Canal Place stops right outside.
Thumbs down: Although it’s only a 10-minute walk from the edge of the French Quarter, clients might feel safer getting a taxi at night.
Sell it: This is, in effect, a new hotel with great style and will appeal to clients who want a bustling atmosphere away from the Quarter’s craziness.