Insider's guide to ... New Orleans

Get the low down on the jewel in the cajun country crown
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The Independent Travel

What's the weather like?

What's the weather like?

"Changeable" doesn't do justice to New Orleans' capricious sub-tropical climate. After a savagely cold spell, when the city was hit by shocking sub-zero temperatures, the weather has - for now - drifted into a drowsy Deep South springtime, just in time for carnival season.

What are the locals complaining about?

Skyrocketing rents on the buildings of the heartbreakingly beautiful, battered old French Quarter are forcing locals out. Meanwhile, well-heeled out-of-towners, who can afford to pay premium rates for a bijou condo with a cast iron balcony, are streaming in.

Who's the talk of the town?

New Orleans has gone Saints crazy. The heroically bad football team, which has yet to win a play-off game - not surprising, maybe, considering they've qualified just four times in 33 years - has ended its dismal losing sequence with a barnstorming head-on run to the Superbowl.

What's the cool drink?

New Orleanians love to drink - the city claims to have invented the cocktail - and, uniquely in America, it's legal to do so in the streets. While the hordes of sozzled conventioneers swaying down Bourbon Street tend to plump for something lethal and pink, locals prefer to sip a Sazerac - whisky, bitters, lemon and ice - or a Ramos gin fizz: a frothy swirl of gin, lemon, egg white, milk, sugar and orange-flower water.

What are people eating?

Anything and everything they can get their hands on. Locals will spend hours arguing about where to get the tastiest gumbo, the briniest raw oysters, the spiciest crawfish or the biggest po-boys (giant, overstuffed French bread sandwiches; "po" is short for "poor") - and then happily eat the whole lot in one sitting.

What's the latest outrageous stuff on TV?

In the aftermath of last year's presidential election fiasco, New Orleanian Democrats have turned to a president who really does look the part - Martin Sheen. His home-spun wisdom is too good to be true in the NBC ratings' topper Oval Office.

Where wouldn't the locals dream of going?

A booze-swilled enclave of beer stalls, karaoke clubs and tired strip joints, Bourbon Street is usually heaving by nightfall - along with many of its visitors. You'll stumble over conventioneers, weekenders, frat-packers on a bender - but there won't be a local in sight.

Where are the locals going that tourists don't know about?

The historic African-American neighbourhood of Tremé. At its heart, Congo Square, where slaves danced, drummed and traded every Sunday up until the mid-1800s, was a breeding ground for jazz and for the spread of voodoo. Today, Tremé's neighbourhood bars, which feature the city's best brass bands, and its superb music festival, held in the grounds of an old church, are swelling local interest in what has always been a culturally vibrant area.

Where are the chic people doing their shopping?

On Saturdays, when the French Quarter gets congested with tourists, savvy locals head off to the antiques barns, groovy thrift stores and arts workshops along Magazine Street, a six-mile swathe that offers the individuality and one-off charm that New Orleans adores.

What's the trendy place to escape to for the weekend?

It's difficult to escape from New Orleans. It's a land unto itself, and people tend to fall in love with the place, get waylaid, and forget to leave. However, when the crowds, or the heat, or the partying get too much, locals drive to the coast, and the string of quiet beaches that run from Mississippi to Florida.

* Samantha Cook is the author of the 'Rough Guide to New Orleans' (£9.99).