As any local will tell you, New Orleans is a place where what's worth doing is worth overdoing. Its holiday season lasts from Halloween until Jazz Fest in April. Its unofficial motto is Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler (Let the Good Times Roll). Even its district attorney, when not fighting crime, sings in a cabaret. But beneath the party girl image lies an exotic past. Some neighborhoods are still referred to by the French term faubourg, Spanish colonial architecture dominates the main square, and original slave quarters can be found behind many houses. Jazz was allegedly born in the parlors of its "gentlemen's sporting clubs," in America's first legalized red-light district. It's no wonder people call this sexy, steamy city the Big Easy.
New Orleans's high-end hotels—Maison de Ville, Soniat House, Windsor Court—virtually guarantee a perfect stay. But sometimes checking into a bed-and-breakfast gives a better taste of local culture. Celebrities such as Brad Pitt have gone the B&B route. Why not you?
House on Bayou Road 2275 Bayou Rd.; 800/882-2968 or 504/945-0992, fax 504/945-0993; doubles $125-$250. This mid-city spread embodies the two worlds—Europe and the Caribbean—that collided to form New Orleans. Antiques and Audubon prints fill the seven rooms in the late-18th-century West Indies-style main house and the two private cottages. Extras such as a pool and free in-room sherry make you want to stay forever.
McKendrick-Breaux House 1474 Magazine St.; 888/570-1700 or 504/586-1700, fax 504/522-7138; doubles $90-$130. Live-in owners Eddie and Lisa Breaux and their young son, Aidan, make you feel like a long-lost cousin. The "house" is actually two 1860's Greek Revival residences joined by a courtyard and adorned with replicas of antique gasoliers, eyebrow windows in the attic rooms, and lots of fine molding. On the walls hang works by contemporary local artists, and framed pictures of repeat visitors line mantels and bureaus in many of McKendrick-Breaux's seven guest rooms.
Lafitte Guest House 1003 Bourbon St.; 800/331-7971 or 504/581-2678, fax 504/581-2677; doubles $99-$179. Located at Bourbon Street's residential end, the 14-room Lafitte puts you in the French Quarter but spares you the din of the pulsating crowds and neon daiquiri signs. Each room is different, detailed with half tester beds, claw-foot tubs, and coal-burning fireplaces. Guests mix at a complimentary cocktail hour held nightly in the garish red-and-gold Victorian parlor.
Claiborne Mansion 2111 Dauphine St.; 800/449-7327 or 504/949-7327, fax 504/949-0388; doubles $150-$300. Think California spa meets European boutique hotel and you've got this seven-room Faubourg Marigny favorite pegged. Loll by the pool under ancient live oaks, snack on fresh vegetables from owner Cleo Pelleteri's garden, or head back to your luxe suite and try to guess how many 26-ounce Hurricane glasses you'd need to stack to reach the 14-foot ceilings.
B&W Courtyards 2425 Chartres St.; 800/585-5731 or 504/945-9418, fax 504/949-3483; doubles $99-$200. Farther into the Marigny, where the air is scented by the roasting beans of the nearby Standard Coffee Co., is the five-room B&W Courtyards. "In the Creole tradition, everything important is within," says owner Rob Boyd of B&W's nondescript entrance. "Everything important" includes two courtyards, lush with chocolate-scented orchids and gurgling fountains, and two owners (Boyd and his partner, Kevin Wu) who sit down to breakfast with you every morning to dish about your wild night out.
Catch a glimpse of New Orleans on-screen (too bad the most famous flick set in the city, A Streetcar Named Desire, was filmed mostly on a Hollywood soundstage):
- In Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda took a famous "trip" in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
- Julia Roberts cheated death in The Pelican Brief as she boarded a riverboat in Woldenberg Riverfront Park; the terrorist stalking her was not as lucky.
- Unluckier still was the musician with whom Mickey Rourke chatted at the Maple Leaf Bar in the thriller Angel Heart. The musician learned the hard way not to talk with his mouth full.
- Brooke Shields wasn't even of age when she hung out at the bar of the Columns hotel, playing a prostitute in Louis Malle's Pretty Baby.
- Anne Rice devotees still haunt City Park, where some scenes of Interview with the Vampire were filmed.
- Ellen Barkin proved that a jog along Bayou St. John can be tough on more than just the hamstrings when she was whisked away to Cajun country in The Big Easy.
In the city where the cocktail was invented, you can walk anywhere with a toddy in tow (just keep it in a plastic cup). Beverages of choice:
Hurricane Served in a huge glass, this rum-and-passionfruit-juice drink was made famous at Pat O'Brien's Bar, the French Quarter's boozing mecca.
Sazerac A concoction of bourbon, sugar, bitters, and Herbsaint that will "put hair on your chest," according to a grimacing local at the Sazerac Restaurant.
Abita Beer Brewed across Lake Pontchartrain, Abita comes in several varieties—Amber, Turbodog, and raspberry-flavored Purple Haze.
Dixie Beer Highfalutin quaffers call it "swamp water." But try a Dixie with some fried oysters or boiled crawfish, and you'll be whistling another tune.