To live your life and not see the beautiful crescent-shaped city of New Orleans and experience all the wondrous things it has to offer might even be more sinful than NOLA's hedonistic tendencies. Despite its well-known opportunities for bacchanalia, New Orleans is a city like no other in the United States, flush with music, gorgeous architecture, mind-blowing food, and a history that couldn't possibly be packed into a single book. The usual attractions are more than worth checking out -- Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, the above-ground graveyards, sipping chickory coffee accompanied by a sugar-coated beignet, slurping down a bowl of thick, stewy gumbo or noshing on a crunchy oyster po' boy -- but of course, there's more.
A few suggestions? An often-overlooked diversion is the ferry to Algiers for a visit to Mardi Gras World, the warehouse on 233 Newton St. (tel. 800/362-8213; www.mardigrasworld.com) where all the floats for the historic parade -- including a 240-foot replica of a riverboat -- are stored, refurbished, and manufactured. In fact, you can often see artisans hard at work creating the newest additions to the parade. Tours are held daily. Shuttle buses are available from the ferry to the warehouse, but the recently renovated foot path, which begins at the statue of NOLA's own Louis Armstrong, and winds its way to Newton Street, is a lovely way to check out the great view of the Mississippi and the adorable, restored shotgun houses of this up-and-coming neighborhood. Strolling and gaping at the intricate Victorian-era homes of the Garden District (where Anne Rice's Vampire Lestat was born, so to speak), or traveling further uptown to lovely Audubon Park and Audubon Zoo (www.auduboninstitute.org) are also well worth the 6-mile trek from the French Quarter. Also part of the greater New Orleans area is Barataria Preserve, 6588 Barataria Blvd., Marerro (tel. 504/589-2330; www.nps.gov/jela/barataria-preserve.htm), where you can explore 20 miles of waterways, 9 of which are exclusively for canoeing, or 8 miles of trails full of local flora and fauna, all for free.
Cajun Country is the place to go for Louisiana swamp tours, where you can get up close and personal (well, perhaps not too close or too personal) with creatures, critters, and cascading cypress trees and Spanish moss of the bayous. A few good options are Alligator Bayou Tours, 35019 Alligator Bayou Rd. (tel. 800/3SWAMPS; www.alligatorbayou.com), 15 minutes from Baton Rouge and dedicated to preserving the natural habitat and wetlands of the 15-mile Spanish Lake Basin where the tours are conducted; Munson's Swamp Tours, 979 Bull Run Rd., Shriever (tel. 985/851-3569; www.munsonswamptours.com), who run their tours entirely on private property (read: no other boats scaring the wildlife away); and Cajun Pride Swamp Tours (tel. 800/467-0758; www.cajunpridetours.com), only 15 minutes from the Louis Armstrong International Aiport in New Orleans and offering plantation tours, Cajun picnics, city tours, or a combination.
On the Mississippi River corridor between New Orleans and St. Francisville you will find some of the most striking examples of antebellum plantations still standing on the Great River Road in the South. Perhaps the most stunning example is Oak Alley, 3645 Hwy. 18, Vacherie (tel. 800/44-ALLEY; www.oakalleyplantation.com), with its enormous quarter-mile of oak trees lined up like sentries leading to the columned entrance to the plantation. While you can't stay in the main Greek Revival mansion, there are guest cottages on the property that include breakfast in the price. Also in Vacherie is the Creole sugar plantation Laura, 2247 Hwy. 18 (tel. 888/799-7690; www.lauraplantation.com), where the West African tales of Br'er Rabbit were first recorded. The tour here bases its information on the 500 pages of diary entries written by the plantation's namesake mistress. If spooky is your bag, the 1796 Myrtles Plantation, 7747 Hwy. 61, St. Francisville (tel. 225/635-6277; www.myrtlesplantation.com), has supposed photographic evidence on its website of its ghostly former inhabitants, and also allows you to stay overnight in the main house, if you dare.