By Cheré Coen | Photography courtesy of Cheré Coen and The Historic New Orleans Collection
New Orleans celebrates its 300th anniversary with a blend of the old and the new.
It’s difficult being a travel writer from New Orleans because invariably people ask the usual questions about where to eat, where to stay and what’s my favorite drink on Bourbon Street. Only the last question is easy to answer.
The city offers numerous outstanding restaurants and hotels that range from historic to hip, and a world of amazing possibilities exist outside the French Quarter and that famous street where I never buy a drink (I prefer the indigenous cocktails served all over town). But one thing is for sure: I always recommend viewing the dramatic bend of the massive Mississippi River, the reason New Orleans exists.
In 1699, Lemoyne brothers Iberville and Bienville traveled down the Mississippi River from Canada and claimed the territory for France, but they set up shop mostly along the Gulf Coast. In 1717, when the Company of the West was formed to settle the colony, it resolved “to establish, thirty leagues up the river, a burg which should be called Nouvelle Orleans, where landing would be possible from either the river or Lake Pontchartrain.” In 1718, Bienville cleared an area natives had shown him years earlier, a site that not only offered a strategic port on the Mississippi but allowed shortcuts through bayous to the lake.
And so, New Orleans was born.
This year marks the city’s tricentennial. Naturally, there’s plenty to celebrate.
The Historic New Orleans Collection, the keeper and educator of the city’s history, exhibits historical artifacts and documents in its exhibit, “New Orleans, the Founding Era,” until May 27. The free exhibit in buildings that date back to the 1800s showcases the origins of the city and its people and include local items as well as rare pieces from French, Spanish and Canadian collections.
One of the goals of the city’s tricentennial committee was to restore historic Gallier Hall, a Greek Revival building built in the mid-1800s to serve as City Hall. The newly opened building includes several paintings, including ones of George Washington, Andrew Jackson and the Marquis de Lafayette, and numerous decorative objects.
The St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square remains the icon of the city and one of the oldest basilicas in the country. The New Orleans Archdiocese discusses the role religion played with its exhibit, “The Church in the Crescent: 300 Years of Catholicism in New Orleans,” through June 30 at the Old Ursuline Convent Museum, located inside the circa-1745 Ursuline Convent, considered the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley.
Rounding out the year on Oct. 26, the New Orleans Museum of Art will display art pieces of Philippe II, the French Duke of Orléans at the time of the founding of New Orleans. Philippe collected more than 700 paintings in his lifetime and, even though many pieces disappeared during the French Revolution, they were later purchased by museums across Europe. “The Orléans Collection,” includes pieces from Philippe’s holdings culled from the Uffizi Gallery, the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum, among others.
Several new hotels have sprung up in the city, including the restored historic Jung Hotel at the upper end of downtown on Canal Street; the Cambria Hotel in the Warehouse District; and the NOPSI Hotel, another historic property brought to life from the city’s former power and transportation company. Coming up next year will be the Higgins Hotel & Conference Center, a Hilton property to accompany the National World War II Museum.
Geoffrey Meeker, owner of French Truck Coffee, has created La Nouvelle Chicory Blend for the tricentennial year. The New Orleans-based coffee roaster also has two locations in Memphis.
Toasting the Tricentennial
What’s New Orleans without a few signature cocktails to mark the occasion?
Ralph’s on the Park by City Park, one of the oldest municipal parks in the nation, celebrates with “Our History Told in Cocktails,” concoctions such as “Death in the Oaks,” an homage to when gentlemen dueled under the oaks of City Park in the late 19th century. Enjoy a cocktail, then tour one of the largest city parks in America.
DTB on Oak Street, otherwise known as Down the Bayou, honors the city’s history by creating modern interpretations of classic New Orleans cocktails. Look for DTB’s twists on the brandy milk punch, the Ramos Gin Fizz and a play on the Sazerac called the Louisiana Cocktail, sassafras-infused Sazerac rye with barrel-aged bitters, Balsam Amaro and a pecan oil drizzle.
New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival concludes the first week of May and will exude a tricentennial flare, including fireworks on the final day, said Mark Romig, CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation.
On May 7, New Orleans’ first female mayor, LaToya Cantrell, will be sworn in, and the city presents the Global Summit on Women and Girls in June to offer a global conversation.