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New Orleans Coming Back Better Than Before? 5 New Reasons to Visit the Big Easy

Think NOLA is a lost cause? Think again.

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The new center shows off the artillery, tanks and airplanes used in the war, including a reassembled B-17E Flying Fortress named My Gal Sal which is viewed by a breathtaking catwalk. My Gal Sal went down on an icecap in Greenland where the crew struggled to stay alive and signaled for help for 11 days before being rescued. The most exciting interactive feature is Final Mission: USS Tang Submarine Experience, which gives you a taste of what life was like in WWII’s Pacific Theater. The Tang sank 33 ships before it was hit by one of its own missiles on a war patrol. Each exhibit visitor is given a card representing an actual crew member, and you are invited to explore the station manned by that member and perform battle actions as the Tang engages Japanese forces.

3. The Food

New Orleans has fewer people now than before the storm, but interestingly, more restaurants. Some think it’s an even better place to eat today, as newcomers are adding flavors and keeping old-timers on their toes. You can, of course, enjoy the classics, such as the delightfully old-school Grill Room at the historic Windsor Hotel, where you are serenaded by live piano as you enjoy selections from a menu that’s not resting on its laurels like those at some of the other venerable NOLA eateries. For French Quarter people-watching, get yourself a window seat overlooking Bourbon Street at Bourbon House at the Astor Crowne Plaza (a superb and convenient hotel, btw) and let the carnival of life cruise by as you enjoy local seafood (try the oysters).

My favorite post-Katrina restaurant has to be Cochon (just a few blocks from the WWII Museum) where celebrated Chef Donald Link works his Cajun magic on pork, seafood and game. Believe me, this man can even turn a dish of cucumbers into something memorable. His dishes are not innovative for the sake of being innovative – they are innovative for the sake of tasting damn good. Other post-Katrina restaurants to try include Root, a Warehouse District newcomer that uses high-tech gear to create flavorful dishes like tea-smoked chicken, and Apolline, a cozy Creole spot on Magazine Street, where the chef is appreciated for his succulent seafood dishes like sautéd black drum.

4. The Parks

The lush vegetation and enchanting outdoor spaces of NOLA are among the most appealing things about the city. Parks were ravaged by Katrina, but happily they have been restored. Louis Armstrong Park, across from the French Quarter, has finally been brought back to life thanks to tireless community activists and city efforts and is once again safe to visit. A new summer music series attracted 50,000 people in its first year, and hopes to grow to twice that size in 2013. The magnificent orchids of the Botanical Garden in New Orleans City Park were nearly wiped out by Katrina, but they are back and were featured in the 2012 Fall Garden Festival.

5. The People

The gumbo of cultures, ethnicities and traditions makes New Orleans one of the most fascinating mixes of human beings in America. Folks tend to be warm, enthusiastic about their city and eager to talk to visitors. Everyone I spoke with on my recent visit was eager to sing the praises of post-Katrina rejuvenation, though many acknowledged that not all New Orleanians have benefitted equally from the city’s renaissance. The Lower 9th Ward, a low-income black neighborhood devastated by the storm, still lacks basic facilities like grocery stores.

The Lower 9th is rebuilding slowly, and there is much appreciation for the houses built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right foundation (however odd their styles appear next to more traditional dwellings). Musicians' Village, a new residential area featuring a state-of-the-art music center, was kicked off by Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis to provide a home for musicians dislocated by the storm.