Summer chill in New Orleans
Cellphone serendipity: it's musical magic. It happened as Amtrak's Sunset Limited service was approaching the railway station at New Orleans, only an hour late at the end of a 3200 kilometre, two-day journey from Los Angeles. As I saw the city laid out below the overpass, the intersecting lines of orange streetlights split by the black ribbon of the Mississippi, in my earphones Bob Dylan's raspy voice launched into Duquesne Whistle, the twanging guitar introduction overlaid by the long, melancholy wails of our own, real-life train whistle.
It was a perfectly-timed introduction to this city of blues, jazz, and zydeco, and so much more besides.
Not people, though. It's never been a big city, always less than half a million, and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 shrinking by more than half; and though now the population is climbing steadily, it's still not much bigger than Christchurch. Like that city, it's flat and laid out on an easily-navigated grid system – but there the similarities stop.
Sorry, Christchurch, New Orleans trounces you when it comes to cool. Not actual temperature – in June, the heat and humidity were oppressive – but in its laid-back, chilled-out attitude. It's not called the Big Easy for nothing. "Where else in this country can you grab a cocktail and just sit out on the street?" asked Jeff, leading us on a slow-paced Confederacy of Cruisers bike tour from the French Quarter out through his favourite suburbs.
His promise of "shotgun houses" turned out to be less dramatic than it sounded – homes with no hallways, the room doors aligned for maximum ventilation – but much prettier.
Painted pink, blue, purple, yellow (often all on the same house), some with flickering gas lamps under their porches, they line the pot-holed streets of the Faubourg Marigny where flowering crepe myrtles, oleander, and star jasmine grow.
First populated by European immigrants and free people of colour – Creoles – it's funky and full of good stories, which Jeff was keen to share: among them Bernard Marigny, who brought the dice game craps to America and promptly lost his fortune; Placage, the organised system of mixed-race mistresses; Homer Plessy, whose protest against racial segregation brought about the "separate but equal" ruling that underpinned the Jim Crow laws.
There's a lot of riveting history in New Orleans: local and national, momentous and minor. Some of it is the province of museums like the Presbytere, which covers Hurricane Katrina and, as light relief, the Mardi Gras phenomenon; and the impressive National World War II museum, which followed me home with emails about the soldier whose dog tag I was assigned on entry.
It's so pervasive, though, that even a peaceful tram ride along St Charles St links General Robert E Lee, the cotton industry, Mardi Gras, and yellow fever deaths.
Victims of the disease are buried in the tombs that stand, like a city of miniature marble mansions, inside the walls of the Lafayette Cemetery No 1. It's one of the stops on an open-topped bus tour of the elegant Garden District, famous for its stately antebellum mansions.
A free walking tour here had Jamie talking to us about Nick Cage and Sandra Bullock, the difference between cast and wrought iron decoration, why Spanish moss is like an elm tree, and proudly showing us possibly the best restaurant in the US.
Food is, of course, central to New Orleans life – "If we're not cooking or eating, we're talking about it," Jeff had said, on the bike tour – and the streets are crammed with all sorts of eateries, from a hot dog-shaped vendor's cart on a street corner to a fancy restaurant that's been serving the same menu for 110 years.
As it happens, both of these can be found on Bourbon St, along with scores of bars and nightclubs; but you can eat well anywhere in the city. Perhaps crawfish sausage with loaded fries at Dat Dog; a debris-topped roast beef po'boy from Mother's; an icing sugar-heaped beignet from the Cafe du Monde; maybe fried gator at Cochon.
The live version can be found just a short ride out of the city at the Jean Lafitte Historical Park. Gliding in a flat-bottomed boat along tree-lined canals and into winding bayous, we watched alligators come from all directions, yellow eyes staring unblinking. "Huck Finn had nothing on us, as kids," Captain Jerry boasted, describing his boyhood messing about in boats on the bayou, but admitting there were fewer gators then, before the hunting ban.
We slid into narrow side streams, past creepy-looking wooden shacks overhanging the water, followed by three-legged Snaggletooth: "He suffers from reptile dysfunction," joked Jerry before producing a baby gator for our closer inspection and obligatory cellphone selfie.
Photos are a phone's main function in New Orleans, not music, which is inescapable. It's blasting out of doors and windows along Bourbon St, shared with aficionados in intimate Frenchman St bars, coming from the stage at an Armstrong Park free concert, holding up traffic in a private parade along Canal St, produced by buskers on corners everywhere. It could be kids drumming on plastic buckets, a kilted bagpiper, a brass band, a jazz combo in front of the cathedral, or Tanya and Dorise spinning musical gold in Jackson Square.
That scene sums up the city for me: a fat clown twisting balloon animals; mule-drawn carriages clopping past; artists' paintings hung from the railings around the park; people crowding along the pot-holed street eating, drinking, and laughing. A bronze horse rears against a shimmering blue sky, and around the square are pillared colonial buildings with wrought iron balconies overlooking gnarled live oaks that twinkle with Mardi Gras beads thrown into the branches.
And here are Tanya on violin and Dorise playing her guitar, together sending effortless melodies up into the sultry air.
They are so good, they could charge admission, but instead they busk in the street, happy to be part of the laidback, low-key Crescent City vibe. Once you've been there, you'll understand why.
The writer travelled with some assistance on her visit.
More information: neworleanscvb.com
Getting there: Fly Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.co.nz) to Houston or American Airlines (aa.com) to Los Angeles onwards – or take Amtrak's Sunset Limited service from either city into New Orleans (amtrak.com).
Staying there: There are hotels for all tastes and pockets – mine was the Renaissance Pere Marquette in the French Quarter www.marriott.com