New Orleans: hot fun in the summertime
Commander's Palace, a Garden District landmark since 1880, is still one of the most popular spots in town. It offers a real taste of New Orleans from the top notch service to a menu that combines both creative and traditional interpretations of Creole cuisine.
Louisiana oysters are a specialty at the Bourbon House restaurant.
Dusk falls over Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
A street sign glows along Bourbon Street.
A waitress puts powdered suger on plates of beignets at Cafe Du Monde.
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NEW ORLEANS -- Don't flee the heat this summer. Embrace it and experience the benefits of off-season travel with a trip to the Big Easy.
New Orleans in the summer may be steamy and slow, and there's the occasional risk of hurricanes that makes travel insurance a must, but with hotel deals, summer festivals and more thirst-quenching drinks than anywhere else, New Orleans is a relaxing, delicious and surprisingly affordable escape.
As temperatures rise, hotel rates fall, making July and August the most affordable months to travel to New Orleans. The best rates for flights are typically found on discount travel sites such as Expedia or Travelocity, but pre-payment is required, and it can be difficult to change or cancel a reservation. So if flexibility is important, book directly with airlines and hotels.
Many New Orleans hotels offer discounted summer rates, like International House, a boutique hotel near the French Quarter and Magazine Street, with room rates at $79 a night for select nights in June, most of July and all of August.
- Coquette, 2800 Magazine St., Garden District; www.coquette-nola.com, 1-504-265-0421.
- Commander's Palace, 1403 Washington Ave., Garden District; commanderspalace.com, 1-504-899-8221.
- The Parkway Bakery, 538 Hagan Ave., Mid-City; Website, 1-504-482-3047.
- Arnaud's French 75 Bar, 813 Bienville St., French Quarter; www.arnaudsrestaurant.com, 1-504-523-5433.
- Meltdown, 508 Dumaine St., French Quarter; 1-504-301-0905.
- Fleurty Girls, 3117 Magazine St., Garden District; www.fleurtygirl.net, 1-504-388-5324.
- Louisiana State Museum, 751 Chartres St., French Quarter; lsm.crt.state.la.us, 1-504-568-6968.
The New Orleans Marriott's Hot Location, Cool Deal package for adults staying four consecutive nights through Oct. 2 includes rates starting at $99, 20 percent off hotel meals, a $10 Harrah's playing card, and a booklet with $500 in coupons to local attractions and restaurants (use code L9Z when booking).
The Royal Sonesta Hotel New Orleans offers a French Quarter Fling package for travel through September booked by Aug. 31. Rates start at $119 a night for a deluxe room, a bottle of champagne and more than $250 in discounts to popular attractions, sites and museums.
There's no need to rent a car, as parking is expensive and most destinations are easily accessible by streetcar or bus, with taxis available for quick transport. A taxi is usually the easiest and cheapest airport transport, a $31 flat fee for one or two passengers.
According to Tom Fitzmorris, publisher of the culinary website the New Orleans Menu (www.nomenu.com), there are 1,205 restaurants operating around New Orleans. In August, many restaurants will participate in Coolinary New Orleans by offering two-course lunches for $20 or less and three-course dinners for $35 or less.
But some of the best restaurants around town already offer excellent lunch deals, like the lovely Coquette bistro in the Garden District. A $20, three-course lunch menu includes several choices per course. A recent version of the $20 three-course menu (with several choices per course) included chef Michael Stoltzfus' delicious take on shrimp and grits, with local gulf shrimp, Anson Mill's grits, cherry tomatoes and peas; as well as a memorable summer dessert of goat cheese mousse with local strawberries, lavender honey and rhubarb sauce.
Commander's Palace, one of the city's most well-known and well-loved restaurants offers a variety of lunch deals, including the famous 25-cent martini (limit three per customer). The two-course lunch special is a fantastic deal, including any soup or salad and a choice of two entrees, such as shiitake-crusted Gulf fish of the day or Abita-braised pork shoulder served over a crispy crawfish boudin sausage -- the kind of dish that probably doesn't exist outside New Orleans ($18-$20).
Fans of Southern architecture can pick up a free brochure near the host stand offering a self-guided walking tour of the Garden District.
For a more casual dining, take the Canal Street Streetcar north to The Parkway Bakery for a dressed shrimp po'boy, washed down with an Abita beer (the local equivalent of Yuengling). Be sure to read about the history of the restaurant, which dates back to the '20s, on the back of the menu.
Cochon, a contemporary Cajun restaurant which opened in 2006, has won numerous accolades, including a 2011 James Beard Award for Best Chef: South, for chef-owner Stephen Stryjewski. A lengthy list of small plates, salads and sides ($5 to $14) makes a meal here quite affordable, but there's also the Cochon Butcher shop next door, where some say you can pick up the best muffaletta in town ($12).
Between meals, stroll the riverwalk, admiring the expansive view of the Mississippi on one side, and the interesting sculptures and monuments that border the lawn on the other. Street musicians are often here as well, providing a lovely soundtrack for your stroll.
Jazz lovers should consider a trip to Satchmo Summerfest, coming up Aug. 4-7. The free music festival in honor of Louis Armstong's birthday includes live bands all weekend, free seminars and plenty of activities for kids.
The eclectic boutiques, art galleries and antique shops scattered throughout the French Quarter and along Magazine Street make for excellent window shopping. Just past the Apothecary Museum, you'll find the New Orleans Silversmiths shop, where the windows and display cases gleam with polished silver. Pieces range from the ordinary -- cutlery, coffeepots, boxes and gravy boats -- to the unexpected -- a silver holder for a bottle of hot sauce. For souvenirs, try Fleurty Girls on Magazine Street, which sells great graphic T-shirts along with fleur-de-lys-inspired earrings, bags, magnets and more (despite the name, there are many unisex options).
During the heat of the day, escape to a museum, typically so cool you may need a sweater. A new permanent exhibit, "Living With Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond," opened last fall in the Presbytere building of the Louisiana State Museum (adults, $6; kids 12 and under, free). The 6,700-square-foot interactive multimedia exhibit offers a moving glimpse into the struggles of those devastated by the 2005 storm, and also explores the environmental and social factors that make the region so vulnerable to hurricanes.
Other popular museums include the New Orleans Museum of Art, celebrating its centennial this year; the World War II museum, where the 1940s-inspired cafe is run by celebrated New Orleans chef John Besh and the small, quirky Apothecary Museum on Chartres Street in the French Quarter.
While many revel in the freedom to drink anything, anywhere, I'd recommend enjoying a drink "for here" in at least one of New Orleans' iconic cocktail bars ($8-$12). At Arnaud's French 75 Bar, the historically minded cocktail list also includes variations on classics, created by the talented head bartender Chris Hannah. At the Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel, I heard the ancient lore behind the namesake drink's creation, while sipping the best version I've ever tasted.
If you're looking to stay even-headed, stick to frozen treats. New Orleans is full of great ice cream, gelato, frozen yogurt and, of course, the beloved local concoction called a snoball.
This snow-cone variant is made from shaved ice (it's softer than regular sno-cone's advised one vendor), flavored syrups and, if you like, a drizzle of thick, rich condensed milk ($1.50 and up). You'll see vendors and shops nearly everywhere you go, like the small stand near the western entrance of the Ferry to Algiers, another great free activity. It's a short ride, but you're guaranteed a breeze, and the deck is almost entirely protected from the sun.
Gelato is another popular New Orleans dessert, with great versions at the old-school Angelo Brocato in Mid-City (a 15-minute walk from The Parkway) as well as the more recent arrival La Divina Gelato with locations in the French Quarter and Garden District ($2 and up). At the former, you'll find classic Italian flavors as well as house-made cannoli and Italian cookies. At the latter, the gelato is made from mostly local and organic ingredients, with daring flavors like chocolate gorgonzola and honey-sesame goat cheese, alongside more traditional options. You can also make an ice cream sandwich with cookies and gelato of your choice.
For a lighter treat, check out Meltdown, a craft popsicle shop around the corner from the Louisiana State Museum. Pops, made from scratch on site, come in gourmet flavors like pineapple-basil, blackberry-lavendar-lemon, Vietnamese iced coffee and rosewater saffron ($3 each).
Of course there's no better way to cool down than to sip an iced cafe au lait (accompanied by a platter of beignets) at Cafe Du Monde, as famous for its constant line out the door as its chicory coffee and fried treats. On a hot day in June, however, there was no wait.
First Published June 19, 2011 12:00 am