Journalist for Life

Just hours in New Orleans? Plan ahead, so you can let the good times roll

New Orleans is defined by the cliché: So many choices, so little time.

That holds true for those visiting this great American city before or after a cruise. No matter how much time you can spare, there is something here to entertain you. And while many cruise ship passengers prefer to eat all their meals onboard, even when in port, few cities offer so many tempting restaurants.

Museum treats like no other

Your kids may think television and the Web have shown them the world, but wait until they come face-to-snout with a white alligator. A short walk from the cruise terminal at Julia and Erato streets is the wonderfully imaginative Aquarium of the Americas on Canal Street, where a vanilla-colored gator named Spots can be seen. You also can enjoy a pair of delightful sea otters –- fed daily at 2 p.m. -– penguins, a rainbow of tropical fish and a display of sea horses. (if you’re a member of AAA or AARP, show your membership card for a discount on admissions.)

The city’s stereotypes don’t call to mind fun for kiddies, but the Louisiana Children’s Museum, 420 Julia St., offers a range of interactive exhibits. One of the special treats here for everyone who’s read Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi: the computer that lets you steer a ship down the Big Muddy.

Even if you’re not in town in the late winter for the legendary Mardi Gras celebrations, you can experience the glitter and colorful history of that pageant year-round at two places unique to New Orleans:

/ On the edge of the famed French Quarter is the Presbytere (751 Chartres), a National Historic Landmark and part of the Louisiana State Museum system. It has a permanent exhibit on Mardi Gras, including spectacular costumes, tiaras and necklaces.

/ On the riverfront near the convention center is the new home of Blaine Kern Studios, 1380 Port of New Orleans Place. Since 1947, these artists and craftsmen have created the majority of the colorful floats used in these parades and many others elsewhere in the country. The vast complex — 400,000 square feet — is home to Mardi Gras World, which offers tours, plus special event venues and corporate offices.

New Orleans is one of America’s few cities still using streetcars. Here, one runs parallel to the river, from the French Quarter to the Warehouse District, which has been revived with art galleries and artists’ studios. The Canal Street line heads from the river out to City Park, with its Storyland amusement park. The St. Charles Avenue line is a fine ride past fashionable homes in the Garden District.

For something slower-paced, horse-drawn carriages are available for narrated tours of the French Quarter.

A buffet for grown-ups

Mardi Gras is restricted to a few weeks of parades, but the French Quarter exists to feed, tempt and entertain 365 days a year.

Beyond the bars, risqué nightclub shows and ubiquitous carts selling Lucky Dogs to the hungry are retail shops. Royal Street is famed for its quality antique stores. The French Market (1008 N. Peters St.), one of the nation’s oldest public markets, offers original artwork and regional specialties.

The Quarter also boasts art galleries, shops specializing in voodoo items (including custom-made specialties) and a city landmark, Jackson Square.

A short stroll from the cruise terminals is the Riverwalk Marketplace on Poydras Street. Browse more than 100 shops and pop into the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

For night-time adventure, explore Bourbon Street or try your luck at Harrah’s New Orleans Casino on Canal Street.

You’re sure to find good times at Tipitina’s, a concert venue at 501 Napolean, and Mulate’s, the established Cajun food and dance hall, at 201 Julia St.

For something different, put on your dancing shoes and head to the Mid City Bowling Lanes, also called the Rock ‘n’ Bowl, at 3016 S. Carrollton Ave., which offers live music most nights.

Time to eat

There simply are way too many fabulous restaurants to consider without devising a plan. Several standards should be considered first when time is limited.

For breakfast, there’s the legendary Café du Monde on Decatur Street, at the edge of the French Quarter. The bustling Cafe is famous for its bite-sized, powdered-sugar-covered beignets and its chicory coffee.

Of if your appetite can wait until you reach the far end of the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line, pop into the charming Camellia Grill, 626 S. Carrollton Ave., and try the pecan waffles. Don’t be deterred if there is a line of people waiting to get in — that’s just confirmation of your wise choice, and the patrons do move in and out quickly.

It’s tough to beat a New Orleans’ muffaletta -– a round loaf of crusty Italian bread sliced and typically filled with Provolone cheese, Genoa salami, ham and green olives. This meal-on-a bun, a city landmark, was created in 1906 at the Central Grocery, 923 Decatur St.

For the city’s other sandwich staple, try Johnny’s Po-Boys at 511 Saint Louis St., where sandwiches are stuffed with a variety of meats or seafood.

Regional cuisine favorites include Creole -– emphasizing seafood prepared with a mix of West African, French, African-American and Spanish influences -– and Cajun, which is typically more spicy.

Can’t-miss Cajun dishes are served at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, 416 Chartres St.

For Creole cuisine, consider a trip to Royal Street for either Mr. B’s Bistro or Brennan’s. Another good choice is Galatoire’s, 209 Bourbon St. For Creole in simpler surroundings, it’s the Gumbo Shop near the St. Louis Cathedral on Saint Peter Street.

If it’s Sunday, take a cab to splurge on brunch at the beloved Commander’s Palace, 1403 Washington Ave.

Whether in town for a few hours or a couple of days, plan ahead so you can enjoy all New Orleans offers.

End Bag, the new book from Bob Jenkins, collects his best stories from 19 years as travel editor. Available now on View a sample at Read more about End Bag here.

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