There's a little bit of spring left in New Orleans, when it's not quite sultry and steamy yet, and plenty to attract visitors to its quaint streets lined with beautiful architecture, cafes, bars, and music, music, music. The party starts soon and continues in the Crescent City (so named for its shape, surrounded by water), through summer, and almost all of its festivals are music-oriented. New Orleans is, after all, home of the Marsalis jazz dynasty, Louis Armstrong, and Harry Connick, Jr., is considered the birthplace of jazz, before it stewed in a jambalaya of Cajun, zydeco and formed other offshoots, and then migrated up the Mississippi to Chicago to meet with the blues.
For those who are looking for an excuse to go to New Orleans right now, the 36th annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (tel. 800/488-5252; www.nojazzfest.com) provides plenty of good reasons. This year organizers have added a new stage devoted to contemporary New Orleans culture, with brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians and secondline dances. It runs from April 22 through May 1, and features the likes of Aaron Neville, B.B. King, Beau Soleil avec Michael Doucet, Jamie Cullum, Buddy Guy, Dr. John, and those who aren't quite jazz but definitely have jazzy moments, such as the Dave Matthews Band and Elvis Costello and Jack Johnson. The Louisiana Heritage Fair is a great spot for authentic Cajun food, more music, and three craft fairs. The Big Chief VIP Experience, which is a premium ticket package, includes all sorts of goodies, such as special accesses to restrooms, air conditioning, re-entry privileges, parking and the like. The tickets for the first weekend are $550; $700 with parking; second weekend costs $650 and $850 with parking. Additionally, special hotel rates are available at select hotels in the city through this site, but each requires a minimum stay (may differ from hotel to hotel). French quarter hotels such as the Alexa, New Orleans Marriot, Royal Sonesta and others go from around $200 a night and up. Tickets for the festival are available through the website also through Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com).
New Orleans, home of the delectable doughy beignet (Café du Monde has the best, and they're open 24 hours), is also a great food town. The New Orleans Food and Wine Experience (tel. 504/529-WINE; www.nowfe.com) runs from May 25-29, with more than 100 local chefs and 800 wines from around the world. It takes place in the French Quarter and Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The fourteen-year-old program includes over 30 "vinters dinners" at area restaurants, "grand tastings" with over 100 restaurants proffering delicacies out for nibbling, food and wine seminars, and events with titles such as"Bubbles and Brunch," a $65 per person champagne jazz brunch at the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel. Events are priced individually, vary according to event, and can be purchased, fittingly, "a la carte" or as part of a package, through the website at www.neworleansonline.com/cuisine/food/nowfe.html.
From July 1-3, the Essence Music Festival (tel. 800/762-9523; www.essence.com/essence/emf), sponsored by Coca-Cola and featuring the godmother of soul, Aretha Franklin, Alicia Keys, Kanye West, Destiny's Child, Me'Shell Ndegeocello, The Roots, Black Eyed Peas and Vivian Green, takes over the city. This one's getting a heavy promotional push; there are a number of deals available surrounding this festival, from giveaways to airline and hotel fare reductions, and all-inclusive packages. The festival typically attracts about a million people, it was started in 1995 and has been hosted in New Orleans every year and also comes with speakers, authors, lectures. Concert ticket prices range in price from $35 to $125 for special-access Golden Circle tickets. In addition to music, there are seventeen different speakers who will lead empowerment seminars during the three-day period, run by the likes of Bishop Noel Jones, author Kevin Powell, actress AJ Johnson, comedian Buddy Lewis and more. If you search from the Essence site itself, there are special rates available at select hotels throughout the city, based on availability; just ask for the Essence Music Festival rate. The rates posted on the site are quoted for three or four-night stays, and start at anywhere around $100 and climb over $300, are rack rates or special festival rates.
The company that manages the Essence Festival, Destination Management (tel. 888/432-9870; www.bigeasy.com/packages-essence-fest.html), is offering all sorts of other deals as well, including discounted round-trip airfares from Baltimore ($280), Los Angeles ($438), New York ($328), Newark ($342), Washington Dulles ($347) and Reagan ($365), and Philadelphia ($400), excluding taxes and fees. The rates are for various airlines but they all depart on June 30 with a July 4 return. There are also hotel packages being offered but the only caveat is that it's non-refundable, payment is due in full at the time of booking, and they only accept Visa and Mastercard. Choose from a three or four-night accommodations package at select hotels and you also get café au lait and beignets at Café du Monde, one club level ticket per guest per room, a year's subscription to Essence magazine, coupons for a riverboat cruise and other attractions (IMAX movies, Audubon Zoo, among others). The three-night package runs anywhere from $299 to $549; the four-night package starts around $349 and runs upwards of $659, both based on double occupancy.
Finally, New Orleans online, the city's official tourism site (www.neworleansonline.com/specials/emfcontest.html ), is sponsoring a promotion -- they're giving away a free trip to the city, concert tickets, accommodations in the French Quarter and round-trip airfare.
Every year the birth of Louis Armstrong brings people out in droves to celebrate, even in the hot, humid days of August 4-7, the weekend closest to his August 4th birthday. The Satchmo Summerfest (tel. 800/673-5725; http://fqfi.org), produced by French Quarter Festivals, Inc., was established in 2001 to honor Armstrong's 100th birthday in his native turf and it's the only annual festival in the United States to honor the legendary trumpeter. The event, which takes place at the Old U.S. Mint in the French Quarter, also includes food, art, and other cultural milieus. Performers confirmed to appear are Chris Clifton, Connie Jones, Soul Rebels Brass Band, Lil' Rascals Brass Band, and Yoshio Toyama, and expect to hear the gamut: big bands, brass bands, early jazz, and New Orleans funk. Check the site frequently for updates, as more performers will be announced. Jazz education has received a big boost lately, and the Satchmo Fest is no exception. Other events that take place during the fest include a "Red Beans and Ricely Yours Luncheon," the fifth annual Satchmo Art Show, and a jazz mass in the historic Treme at the St. Augustine Church. They offer free four-day scholarly seminars on the life of Louis Armstrong, his legacy. Speakers include Michael Cogswell, director of the Louis Armstrong House and Archives at Queens College, New York, Yoshio Toyama, trumpeter; Dan Morgenstern, director of the institute of jazz studies at Rutgers University, and Bob Koester, film historian and co-author of Up From the Cradle of Jazz.
Finally, the city bids adieu to the summer with, you guessed it, yet another party. The aptly named Southern Decadence (tel. 504-522-8047; e-mail: email@example.com; www.southerdecadence.com) celebrates its 34th year of a gay mini-Mardi Gras in the French Quarter over Labor Day weekend, but it really begins in earnest on Wednesday, August 31 and runs through Monday, September 5. Events include the 33rd Southern Decadence Parade, which begins at the favorite haunt the Golden Lantern, and travels on a route only the Grand Marshall knows for an outrageous event of avant-gardism, drag queens, and much reveling. Other events include Drag Queen Bingo, a bead toss, DJ-led dance parties, a closing day party, and other hedonistic endeavors.Many of the events planned have themes, colors, and songs attached to them, unannounced at press time; many events are also free and don't require any tickets or passes.
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