Out of Town: New Orleans

by Andrew Collins

New Orleans has long ranked among the top destinations in the United States for gay travelers - it's been the case for decades, and even following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, LGBT tourists were among the first to return to the Big Easy in significant numbers. The city is especially popular with gay visitors during a handful of festivals and events throughout the year, including Southern Decadence, sometimes nicknamed "Gay Mardi Gras," which is coming up soon - it takes place over Labor Day weekend.

Other key events for gay visitors are Halloween weekend at the end of October, New Orleans Gay Pride in late June, and - of course - the city's true Mardi Gras season, which takes place at varying times in late winter (in 2012, the date of Mardi Gras "Fat" Tuesday is Feb. 21. Additionally, Christmas season - throughout December and right into New Year - is a wonderful time to visit, in part because of the mild weather but also because it's a season of very lively parties and special dinners held by numerous restaurants (called reveillon dinners).

Whenever you happen to make your way to this festive city, which has staged a remarkable renaissance since Katrina, you'll find no shortage of fascinating neighborhoods.

First, a word about navigation: the layout of New Orleans is tricky for newcomers. Locals don't use such directional cues as "east," "west," "south," and "north," so leave your compass at home. The city is sandwiched between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, which snakes around the parts of the city with the bulk of the key neighborhoods - hence the nickname, the "Crescent City." So listen instead for directional references to the lake, the river, or a particular neighborhood.

If you're interesting in finding names of the many cool gay bars, desirable restaurants and intriguing shops in New Orleans, consider such resources as the city tourism office's official LGBT visitor website http://www.neworleansonline.com/neworleans/glbt, and commercial sites like http://www.GayNewOrleans.com andhttp://www.AmbushMag.com are also very handy.

Some of the nation's finest examples of late-18th- and 19th-century residential architecture line the streets of the French Quarter, which fringes the river. The Quarter may be the only major entertainment district in America that's frequented just about equally by gays and straights, locals and tourists. Virtually every notable restaurant in the French Quarter (a.k.a. Vieux Carre, which residents pronounce voo-cair-ay) has at least something of a gay following, and you'll find a mixed gay-straight crowd at many bars and hangouts, and the epicenter of the city's gay nightlife scene at the intersection of Bourbon and St. Ann streets (home to venerable bars like Bourbon Pub and Oz). The neighborhood also abounds with hotels and inns with a strong gay following.

Bourbon Street is the Quarter's most famous address, but Decatur Street is a better walking thoroughfare - it's less chaotic and commercial and more diverse, home to good, cheap eateries and offbeat shops. Off Decatur is the entrance to Jackson Square, the historic center of the French Quarter. Behind the gloriously landscaped square is the stunning late-18th-century St. Louis Cathedral. William Faulkner once resided at 624 Pirate's Alley, which is one of two alleys (Pere Antoine is the other) that cut beside the cathedral between Chartres (pronounced "Charters") and Royal streets. At 632 St. Peter Street is the house (now private) in which Tennessee Williams lived when he penned "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Many antiques shops and galleries are along Chartres and Royal streets, as well as in the wonderfully atmospheric French Market, where you can buy everything from local crafts to regional culinary specialties - hot sauces, bits of alligator jerky, gumbo mixes, and so on. Across from the entrance to Jackson Square are steps leading to the Mississippi River and Woldenberg Riverfront Park, which is a relaxing place to explore day or night. The park leads to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, a state-of-the-art facility where marinelife swim in dozens of exhibits.

The neighborhood just downriver from the Quarter - across tree-shaded Esplanade Avenue - is Faubourg Marigny, sometimes lovingly dubbed "Fagburg" Marigny for its sizable GLBT presence. Nearer the Quarter, from about Elysian Fields Avenue to Esplanade, more rainbow flags fly than anywhere else in the city. The next neighborhood downriver, Bywater, has been significantly gentrified in recent years by a newer wave of settlers, many of them gay, who have restored dozens of grand old homes.

The more modern side of New Orleans falls within the Central Business District (CBD), which borders the Canal Street side of the Quarter. There are some prime examples of early 20th-century commercial architecture in and around where Perdido Street intersects with Loyola Avenue, but this district looks like a typical American downtown business section. Toward the river, however, particularly along Julia Street, you'll find the increasingly interesting Warehouse District, which abounds with galleries, restaurants, and some notable museums, including the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the National World War II Museum.

From Canal Street, you can take the streetcar along St. Charles Avenue for several miles clear out to Carrollton Avenue. This trip takes in the city's vibrant Uptown and Carrollton neighborhoods and reveals dozens of historic homes (some open as museums), churches, and trendy dining and shopping districts. Such attractions as Audubon Park and Zoo, Loyola and Tulane universities, and the courtly Garden District round out this part of town. To see the homes and gardens that give the Garden District its name and allure, alight at the Washington Avenue stop and walk a block down Washington to Prytania Street.

Much of the best shopping and dining Uptown is along Magazine Street, which parallels St. Charles a few blocks closer to the river and is especially known for its antiques stores and galleries. A walk along this engaging street reveals a side of city that's far less touristy than the French Quarter.

Where to Stay in New Orleans

Although the usual chain properties are well-represented all over the city, and some of these make excellent lodging options, New Orleans also has an exceptionally high number of guesthouses and inns set inside vintage mansions as well as larger historic hotels. In terms of history and atmosphere, the Hotel Monteleone http://www.hotelmonteleone.com - once a favorite overnight address of Truman Capote, Tennesee Williams, and many other literary greats - is a stand-out. More than 125 years old, the 600-room high rise is in the heart of the French Quarter, has a great spa and a fabulous bar, the Carousel Piano Lounge.

Of larger properties, other great choices are the swanky Ritz-Carlton New Orleans http://www.ritzcarlton.com, which fringes the Quarter and occupies a historic former department store; Harrah's New Orleans http://www.harrahsneworleans.com, which is centrally located, is home to several excellent restaurants, and has beautiful rooms - the casino is in a completely separate building, making it ideal whether or not you're into gaming. Also check out the New Orleans Marriott http://www.marriott.com, which draws a mix of business and leisure travelers, borders the Quarter, and offers a LGBT-oriented "Rainbow NOLA Getaway" package.

If you're more interested in a smaller property, be sure to check out the website of Bed and Breakfast Inns of New Orleans http://www.bbnola.com, which lists nearly 50 reliable properties throughout the city - you can search for them on the site by checking a number of criteria, including "gay-friendly." Some favorites include La Maison Marigny B&B http://www.lamaisonmarigny.com, which is right on Bourbon Street (the quiet end), just a few blocks from numerous bars, and has smartly furnished, eco-friendly rooms; and 1896 O'Malley House http://www.1896omalleyhouse.com, a gorgeous Colonial Revival home in the Mid-City neighborhood (an easy streetcar ride from the Quarter), with lavishly furnished rooms and spectacular breakfasts.

B&W Courtyards http://www.bandwcourtyards.com, in Faubourg Marigny just a short walk from Frenchmen Street's dining and nightlife, is another terrific inn, with intimate and elegant rooms and knowledgeable hosts who know a ton about the neighborhood. And if you're seeking a distinctive accommodation Uptown, near the Garden District, consider the Chimes B&B http://www.chimesneworleans.com, whose five guest rooms are posh but understated, some with original fireplaces, slate floor or heart-of-pine floors, and pitched ceilings. It's one of the most romantic places to stay in New Orleans.

Andrew Collins covers gay travel for the New York Times-owned website http://www.gaytravel.about.com and is the author of "Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA." He can be reached care of this publication or at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.

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