Published: March 2013 Southern Boating
© 2013 Troy Gilbert
Cruising past centuries old Spanish forts lost and subsiding in the marsh grass with brown pelicans perched on the bones of ancient lighthouses and fishing camps lost in storms past, New Orleans’ skyline lies in the distance and waits. A city defined by water, shaped by the lazy crescents of the Mississippi River and buttressed by miles of levees that rarely fail, New Orleans is that exiled European society lady that you wish would invite you to dinner parties more often. She is that older, seductive woman that offers everything and is a forgotten cruising destination on the Gulf Coast.
The City That Care Forgot or as its better known, the Big Easy, is known primarily for Bourbon Street, but as all locals will tell you – dig a little deeper and the city will astound you. New Orleans is a maritime city and is in reality an island surrounded to the south by the river, the 633sm Lake Pontchartrain to her north and abundant marshlands filling in the gaps. Inaccessible by anything except for boats until the introduction of railroad bridges in the 19th century, the city is easily attainable by cruisers.
The massive yet misnamed Lake Pontchartrain that forms the city’s northern shore is more of a tidal basin and with a nearly uniform 12′ depth, it is easily navigable and accessible from the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi Sound via the Rigolets pass. Originally built as a resort in the 1830’s on the lake, New Orleans’ neighborhood of West End is the recreational boating heart for the city and alone is older than most cities in North America.
West End is an expansive oak lined park and marina complex built on land reclaimed from the Lake and surrounded by condo high-rises and a resurgent upper middle class neighborhood filled with fine restaurants, coffee shops and nightlife. Home to two yacht clubs including the second oldest club in the United States, the Southern Yacht Club which was founded in 1849, as well as sail lofts, fuel docks, haul outs and ships’s chandleries – West End is a working and full service marina district ideally located to explore the city.
Eight years ago, West End and the surrounding neighborhoods were completely devastated by the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina, but all have made an unheralded comeback. Home to two transient and liveaboard friendly marinas boasting a combined 1,000+ slips including the largest which is currently embarking on a nearly $20M restoration, West End and her park complex has become a national draw for world class boating events and regattas including the National Sailing Hall of Fame’s second induction ceremony in the fall of 2012.
Originally home to a myriad of jazz clubs immortalized by greats such as Louis Armstrong, West End is now home to a legacy of classic New Orleans restaurants within easy walking distance. The line for breakfast at Russell’s Marina Grill is filled with a mix of families, Olympic sailors and shrimpers. A few blocks away, Deanie’s Seafood Restaurant is the anchor for the fishing neighborhood of Bucktown, filled with unassuming markets for the daily catches from the shrimp and crab boats docking less than 50 yards away. Grocery stores, pharmacies and coffee shops are all within a two block walking distance.
Diversified since the storm and catering to modern tastes, great Italian, Mexican and sushi restaurants face the marinas and are all geared for the locals who know and expect good food. Within 15 blocks of West End on Harrison Avenue, your options expand even more. Legendary seafood po-boys can be found at Koz’s and world famous Chef, cookbook author and resident of the Lakefront, Susan Spicer, has her second restaurant, Mondo, located directly across from the West Marine. Down the street, Tony Angelo has his namesake Italian restaurant in an unassuming house that was a regular haunt of Frank Sinatra and the Cosa Nostra – just say “Feed me” to the waiter and order a bottle of chianti and the staff will know you’re a pro as they deliver taste after taste from off the menu.
Across City Park from West End and Lakeview is Bayou St. John and the neighborhood of Faubourg St. John. Here along an ancient Indian path on high ground lies the New Orleans Museum of Art and the finish of Esplanade Avenue. Historic and beautiful homes, coffee shops and restaurants including the classic French bistro, Cafe Degas, which takes its name from the painter Edgar Degas who lived blocks away, all line the avenue leading straight down to the French Quarter.
The heart of the city, the French Quarter, is only a fifteen minute and $20 cab fare from West End, and is always awake and beating. Stroll Bourbon Street once for the experience and then leave the tourists behind. Take a pedicab and hit the local’s bars of the Chart House, the Carousel bar, Cosimo’s and Molly’s at the Market – take your time, people watch. Dinner at Irene’s or Meauxbar push the boundaries of modern Creole cuisine. For a real expedition into world class dining history, Tujaque’s and Galatoire’s are unmatched and both have operated for nearly two centuries.
Located next to the French Quarter and a quick stroll across Esplanade Ave. is Frenchman Street, what has become known as the “Local’s French Quarter” since the 90’s. Here live music abounds with local and touring acts and music pours out of the clubs and onto the street. Catch amazing jazz at Snug Harbor or the Spotted Cat, while more eclectic fare can be found at DBA or the Blue Nile seven days a week.
Exploration of New Orleans is and should be the rule of thumb. Like the Arrondesmonts of Paris but instead growing along the river with the French and Creoles moving downriver and the Americans upriver, the city is a living museum. Hop aboard the oldest continuously running streetcar line in the United States on Canal Street and architecturally page through history as you head Uptown along the majestic oak lined St. Charles Avenue. Here you’ll find miles of mansions built when New Orleans was the banking and cotton capital of the New World as well as Tulane and Loyola Universities.
New Orleans has always been a key port city for North America and like all ports it has an incredibly diversified population and culture. The arts and music flourish and find freedom and inspiration in this atmosphere – from playwrights and writers to artists, musicians and chefs. The same is easily found at West End with her sailmakers and boatwrights, naval architects, Olympic sailors and those that deck out their boats for the Christmas boat parade.
New Orleans is not to be tread lightly for a simple weekend. Vibrant and romantic, the city is full of history, architecture and culture that cannot be learned in a lifetime. Less than two centuries ago one could only approach the city by boat, navigating the curves of her bayous, marshes and the river. New Orleans will give up her secrets, arriving at the helm of a boat is the sultry and less traveled modern path that reaches back through history.