New Orleans tourism is back in business
The first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has passed. New Orleans will take years to rebuild. Before Katrina, a typical tourist didn’t visit residential neighborhoods. Now, tour buses drive by the ravaged homes.
Amazingly, the tourist corridor — the French Quarter, the Garden District, the Warehouse Arts District — sustained the least damage.
Tourism was one of the first industries to resume after Hurricane Katrina and is the lifeblood of thousands of businesses. Forever the party city, the Crescent City didn’t let even the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history halt celebration of Mardi Gras, the French Quarter Festival and Jazz Fest.
Now, cruise ships dock in the port, footballs fly at the Louisiana Superdome and the 250-pound sea turtle Midas again swims at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. The shops on Royal Street sell antiques, restaurants take reservations and hotels book guests.
Still, tourism is struggling. If you’ve wondered how you can help the recovery, the answer is simple. Go visit New Orleans.
You can’t sit still
New Orleans is one of the most romantic cities in America. The beloved French Quarter (officially called the Vieux Carre) is nearly 300 years old. Mule-drawn carriages drive past humble cottages, the majestic St. Louis Cathedral, and Creole townhouses with lacy, wrought-iron balconies. The Quarter is a residential area, and the floors above the restaurants, shops, and bars are homes.
|Amazingly intricate ironwork ornaments many buildings in the French Quarter.|
Navigating the French Quarter with a wheelchair can be tricky. The sidewalks are uneven and only some streets have curb cutouts. Doorways to smaller shops are often raised, lacking a ramp, and extremely narrow. (I use a manual wheelchair instead of my power wheelchair in the Quarter. My husband is able to tilt my chair back and get me over high thresholds.)
A great spot for people watching is the outdoor, open-air and accessible Café du Monde, in the French Market across the street from Jackson Square. Deciding what to order is easy. Only one item is on the menu — beignets. The square “donut” covered with powdered sugar was originally created by the Acadians and is perfect for dunking.
Try the chicory coffee prepared au lait (half coffee and half steamed milk). While you relax, a street musician will play his sax and a clown will twist balloons into swords.
Shopping, arts and kids
Stroll to the Jax Brewery (a totally accessible mini-mall), where the view of the Mississippi River is intoxicating. No longer used as a brewhouse, the historic building features four floors of shops, restaurants and bars. Prefer to shop outdoors? America’s oldest public market is the five-block-long French Market. Merchants from around the world participate in the community flea market selling jewelry, crafts and clothing. Go early, to beat the crowds.
The Shops at Canal Place features the upscale retailers you expect to find in a city and some unique to the Big Easy. Local jewelry designer Mignon Faget is a fifth-generation New Orleanian who takes inspiration from her home. The piece to have is a signature fleur-de-lis.
Right Here in New Orleans (RHINO) is an eclectic collection of pottery, paintings and crafts from area artists, who take turns manning the store. The nonprofit Southern Repertory Theatre, located on the third floor, stages new plays by contemporary American playwrights. The theater is wheelchair accessible, and special-needs patrons should arrive half an hour early.
Hop aboard the Riverfront Streetcar Line and enjoy the breeze. Built in 1988, in conjunction with that year’s National Republican Convention, the bright red streetcars run almost two miles between Esplanade and the Morial Convention Center. Hurricane Katrina flooded six of the seven red streetcars. Green streetcars are historic and aren’t accessible.
One of the most power wheelchair-friendly sections of New Orleans is the Arts/Warehouse District. Home to several museums and Harrah’s Casino, the area has been dubbed the SoHo of the South.
If you’re traveling with youngsters, the Louisiana Children’s Museum is a must. Kids will spend hours steering a Mississippi River tugboat, shopping in a pint-size grocery store and standing inside a giant bubble.
Within a two-block radius of the Children’s Museum are the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (a mithsonian affiliate) and the Contemporary Arts Center. The National World War II Museum (formerly the National D-Day Museum) is three stories packed with interactive exhibits, oral history, photos, artifacts and films. The facility is fully accessible and the museum even provides wheelchairs.
Summer in New Orleans is stifling. If you can handle the heat, the off-season offers some of the best hotel rates. October usually brings cooler weather, and sweet olive perfumes the air.
Why not take in a ghost tour? In November, the Swamp Fest at the Audubon Zoo is a Cajun celebration with food, music and crafts. In December, New Orleans is dressed for the season and nearly 100 festivals are held.
If you don’t enjoy large crowds, then it may be best to avoid major tourist draws such as Mardi Gras when sidewalks are jammed. You can, however, see dozens of parades held in the suburbs beginning about two weeks prior to Fat Tuesday. For a calendar listing of New Orleans’ events, visit www.neworleanscvb.com.
When you make reservations for dinner, ask about accessibility. A handy reference for wheelchair users is the online Zagat Restaurant Survey, which was compiled by the New Orleans Advocacy Center in 2003. (The scores of more than 550 restaurants can be found at (www.advocacyla.org/zagat.php). If you need to rent a wheelchair or scooter while in New Orleans, call Mr. Wheelchair ( 834-2810 or  548-9672) for assistance. Access Vans of Louisiana ( 362-9491) has wheelchair-accessible vans for rent.
Pack your passport
Do you occasionally go to Canada for a visit or shopping trip? Does the dreariness of winter make you long for a Caribbean cruise or a getaway to a sunny spot in Mexico? If so, you should be aware of new requirements about documents you must carry for travel in the Western Hemisphere.
Until January, U.S. citizens could enter Canada, Mexico and other Western Hemisphere destinations with only personal identification. But now, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security requires anyone traveling by air between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, or Bermuda to present a valid passport, Air NEXUS card, or U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Mariner Document, or an Alien Registration Card, if applicable.
By January 2008, the regulation may also apply to those traveling by land or sea, including on ferries. If you need to obtain a new passport or renew an expired one, you’ll find information at (877) 487-2778 or travel.state.gov.
Accessibilité à Paris
Sometimes it’s hard to find a place to stay in Europe that meets American standards of accessibility (see Rick Steves’ Easy Access Europe). Even good hotels may offer only an approximation of a comfortable place to stay.
If you’re thinking about a trip to Paris, you might appreciate the opportunity to stay in an apartment that’s been renovated with accessibility in mind. Not only can you find greater comfort, you can also find savings by cooking at home instead of eating in restaurants, and adventure as well as authentic local color by shopping at neighborhood markets.
Handihomes is offering short-term rental apartments in Paris, “truly personalized accommodation in which one can feel at home, receive guests, surrounded by family or friends.” Photos, maps, detailed descriptions and contact information are available at www.handihomes.com.