When a city endures a natural disaster, tourism fades into obsolescence. Long after the dust settled, New Orleans began to slowly flip their signs to open, and the cash-registers once again began to chime with familiar regularity. Sadly, however, it never quite feels right tracing the same steps as our touristic predecessors who explored a town bereft of the scars she now wears.

In 2005 New Orleans, or ‘The Big Easy’, was thrust onto the world stage for all the wrong reasons. Eighty percent of the city was devastated by a merciless hurricane known as Katrina. Images of death, distraught and a community under attack were superseded and marred by the images and news reports of violence and looting – inevitably marginalising the tragedy. The city accrued $81 billion in damages, and 800,000 citizens were left displaced.

Eight years on, the reparations continue, but the city is on the mend. For a town that grew to prominence through its inhibitions, its diverse entertainment platform and its rich history of Jazz, the show must go on. With this in mind I step out of the Louis Armstrong Intl. Airport a virtual blank canvas, armed only with a hotel destination and a surplus of recommendations.

As my travel group arrive at the French Quarter of New Orleans we quickly realise that something special is going on. Thousands of college students consume the streets, clutching their beers and balancing their cocktails precariously, chanting in unison. As it turns out, we’ve arrived in town for the Sugar Bowl (Louisville vs Florida) – a college football game of biblical proportions, we’re told. We buy tickets and reserve our allegiance.

Image by Barbara Ann Spengler

To summarize: Friday Night Lights is a fairly accurate representation of college football in America. There are 55,000 people here tonight (a much smaller crowd than expected) to watch university students play sport – the lion’s share are here to champion Louisville, the underdogs, so we are too. As the cheerleaders engage our eyes and the marching band brings our eardrums alive it becomes difficult to conceptualise the spectrum of emotion these players would be feeling. We’re told by a fan that only three of them are likely to make it to the NFL, which means that the other 90% will live their lives trying to emulate the feeling of what’s happening tonight.

Louisville win in a historic upset and we follow the victors onto the streets and out into the night, ready to explore New Orleans.

One of New Orleans’s tourism draw cards is Bourbon Street, which today has transmogrified into 13 blocks of adulterated debauchery. Although relinquishing control to the Americans in the early 1800s, the Spanish left an influential mark on the architecture – much of which still stands today. It’s a stunning contrast to the mayhem we’re now amidst. The lawlessness of New Orleans is astonishing and liberating at the same time. Alcohol is served in plastic cups which allows us to dip in and out of a myriad of bars, each promoting a similar vibe. All varieties of smoking seem to be socially acceptable in almost all venues and it starts to feel like a downsized Las Vegas. Trusting our instinct we blindly select venues and manage to come out relatively unscathed.

Image by Brandon on Flickr, bpprice

A local recommends we stumble west up Bourbon Street and into Jean Lafittes. We take his advice and settle in for a few ales at what turns out to be one of New Orleans’s oldest bars. It’s dark and smokey; a pianist holds court deep in the back pocket of the low ceiling venue and a brimming tip jar is indicative of his popularity. In the 1930s pianists would duel on Bourbon Street to elect the most talented ivory tickler in the room. Tonight, the lonesome pianist is happy to sing us a song as the piano man. We pull up a stool at his grand piano and he invites us to rest our drinks on the lid. His repertoire is extensive and to our delight he obliges a request for some Crowded House. I get the impression that the arts have been sucked out of Bourbon St and replaced by iniquity, which affords Jean Lafittes a special place in the punter’s hearts.

The next afternoon we turn our attention to a less sinful New Orleans – beginning with Oysters. These bivalve molluscs are transported to New Orleans by the thousands and are considered a tourist attraction in their own right. The Acme Oyster House resides in a lane way off Bourbon Street and was recently featured on the show Man vs Food. We manage to beat the extensive dinner queue by slipping in for a late lunch. The oyster shucker stands a foot away from us as we dispatch two dozen of his fresh, Gulf Coast oysters which we wash down with Abita Amber – a local Louisiana brew.

The Big Easy is largely regarded as the birth place of Jazz, which was a significant catalyst for our trip. Homage is paid to the city’s legends at almost every turn and it instills a thirst for the beat. As the sun sets on New Orleans, and our stay, we move to Frenchman St in the 7th Ward and take aim for the Spotted Cat Music Club before bouncing over the road in 3/4 time to the Snug Harbour Jazz Bistro for some gin martinis. The jazz is raw, soulful, and exactly what we were looking for. The dimly lit bars on Frenchman are filled with enthusiasts of the genre – or perhaps just those who seek refuge from the bright lights and booming sounds of Bourbon Street. It makes me wonder how similar clubs would go buried in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, or Melbourne’s North Carlton, or even Brisbane’s Highgate Hill.

Our sojourn penultimately ends in Uptown New Orleans at Jacques-Imo’s – an immensely popular restaurant lauded for its rich, authentic ‘Nawlins’ grub. The old townhouse is teeming with epicures who are as deep in dialogue as they are in food. I order the alligator cheese cake, which to my surprise is a hearty quiche style dish infused with the flesh of the scaly reptile from which it draws its name.

Photo sourced from www.thedemocratictravelers.com

As we wander back down Bourbon St for one last look I start to think about what it would be like to live in the Big Easy. It seems that the tourists I speak to all have a soft spot for New Orleans, yet I wonder how much of their adoration is drawn from the transient nature of the town, promoted by attractions like Bourbon St. Crime and homelessness in New Orleans paint a far different picture than the booze-laden visitors, however this ilk of tourism could well be the lifeblood that keeps New Orleans alive.