When I stepped off the plane at Louis Armstrong Airport, the first thing I did was find the closest exit. I wanted a whiff of Louisiana air. After months in the New York winter, the luscious swamp air practically danced around my nose. I was traveling with my mother and 19-year-old sister. In December, I had won two round-trip tickets on Southwest Airlines in a raffle for charity, and decided to share my luck with my mother. New Orleans was a city she had always wanted to visit, but hadn’t; I had been there several times during my college years, but had stuck mostly to the French Quarter. We made arrangements for mid-March in order to include my sister during her spring break week.

Our hotel was in a funky part of downtown a few blocks east of the French Quarter. Called Faubourg Marigny, it had the same architecture and narrow streets as the Quarter, but wasn’t polluted with quite as many drunken tourists and hangers-on. Rather, this section of the city has an artsy feel, with brightly painted music clubs and galleries every few feet.

While New Orleans as a whole is full of great activities, the French Quarter is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country and for good reason. The oldest area of the city, it’s unlike anywhere else in the world. The melding of Spanish and French cultures has bred narrow streets filled with beautiful architecture arranged in curving blocks that follow the bed of the mighty Mississippi. In mid-March, the quarter retains a certain quality of hangover from the previous month’s celebration of Mardi Gras.

The Quarter is filled with characters. There are street musicians everywhere, making a living off reliving the early days of jazz a musical form that was, of course, born in this sultry city. In beautiful Saint Louis Cathedral Square, fortunetellers and palm readers are in large supply, a testament to the city’s reputation as the American home of voodoo, a religion practiced by slaves who gathered each Sunday in Congo Square to pray and dance.

Good omens

Just as we finished checking into the hotel and ventured out into our first New Orleans night, a St. Patrick’s Day parade complete with Mardi Gras-style floats and marching jazz bands danced down the street. It was a good omen of the days and nights to come.

Another evening, we walked over to St. Peter Street in the Quarter to catch the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The world-famous band has been playing with a roster of revolving members in this historical hall since 1961. Tourists stand in line for hours to catch one of its 20-minute sets.

Luckily, we got there just in time for the last show of the night and missed a long line. As we settled into the dank, dimly lit hall with its exposed wooden beams and wine-cellar atmosphere, the band played a few classics such as “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Soon, we noticed a small, bedraggled cat sitting at the back of the hall, enjoying the music along with all of the humans. I remembered how cats had frequented the hall when I had first visited several years before. Perhaps this was the origin of the term “cool cat.”

We spent an afternoon riding the famous New Orleans trolley through the garden district. This part of town has many of the city’s most beautiful houses, along with the stunning Tulane University campus.

As we rode the trolley, the sky began to turn dark. The smell of afternoon rain, mixed with the flowers and the dreamlike scenery, created a wonderfully melancholy sensation the sort of thing it would have taken Tennessee Williams two acts to conjure. Even after it started raining hard enough to soak my shirtsleeves, I resisted the urge to close the trolley window.

Swamp and plantation

We set aside another afternoon to take a swamp and plantation tour. At noon, we were picked up by a tour bus, which drove us out into the suburbs. The first stop was Bayou Segnette State Park in the small town of Westwego.

As we waited the 10 minutes before the swamp tour began, I went for a walk through a nearby neighborhood. I marveled at how all of the homes were on stilts (again to prevent flood devastation) and how cats roamed free everywhere, especially a yard filled with old car parts and other junk.

After watching a brief exhibit from a zoologist, we got on a large boat driven by Gary Toups, a tough-as-nails Cajun who said he had grown up on these swamps, learning how to catch alligators and crawfish.

It was a beautiful day, with a light breeze coming up off the water. Toups guided us up and down narrow bayou channels, pointing out well-camouflaged alligators sunning themselves on fallen logs long before anyone else could see them. The Spanish moss hung extravagantly from the magnolia and dogwood, creating a gothic look that seemed fitting for a part of the world that is known for its ghost stories.

Next, the bus took us to the Destrehan Plantation. This old building survived through generations of plantation owners who modified the architecture, only to fall into disuse after being used for a short time as the local headquarters of an oil company. A nonprofit group had taken an interest in the impressive building, restoring it to its historical condition and setting up the rooms as they would have been used during the plantation years. Of course, behind the house, there were simple slave shacks to offset the decadence of the house, along with small structures slaves had used for activities such as cooking for the plantation owners or dyeing and mending their clothing.

This was my favorite day of the trip, not only because of the tours, but because the bus ride took us out of the city and into less well-known parts of Louisiana. We drove past rows of clapboard homes, myriad strip-mall churches with gaudy neon crosses and elaborate cemeteries filled with mausoleums built above ground to prevent the swampy earth from bringing up the bodies in a flood.

That is the beauty of New Orleans. It is a city filled with two kinds of marvels: On one hand, it’s the quintessential Southern city, complete with down-home mannerisms. But, seemingly floating on the thick bayou air is the majestic, mysterious charm of voodoo, ghosts and true decadence.

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