No trip to Louisiana is complete without visiting the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans, known as the Big Easy. Built on swamp and marsh, New Orleans has a big brash southern feel and is unlike anywhere else. It's everything you expect and then some – world-class jazz, funk, soul and rap, southern cuisine, quirky characters and a party atmosphere year-round.
First timers should make Bourbon Street their first port of call. It never fails to charm with impromptu brass bands and colourful characters on parade. Bear in mind there's far more to New Orleans than this infamous strip. Mardi Gras (www.mardigrasneworleans.com), which this year was on February 9, is the city's biggest annual event. Other notable events include the Po-Boy festival (www.poboyfest.com), the French Quarter Festival (www.fqfi.org) and the New Orleans Oyster Festival (www.neworleansoysterfestival.org).
New Orleans is known for its French-Creole cuisine, delicious po-boys (poor boy sandwiches) and down home southern fare. Mother's (www.mothersrestaurant.net) is a NOLA classic. Locals and tourists flock to this institution for its comfort food, including bread pudding, famous po-boys stuffed with baked ham and all-day breakfasts. The original Cafe du Monde (www.cafedumonde.com) is a historic coffee shop renowned for its French-style beignets (artery-clogging deep fried dough dusted in icing sugar) and chicory-flavoured cafe au lait. Acme Oyster House (www.acmeoyster.com) is another iconic, no-frills institution for chilled Gulf oysters, oyster and shrimp stuffed po-boys and poopas (bread bowls filled with gumbo, red beans and rice or soup). There's always a queue except mid-afternoon before the evening rush. For a contemporary take on Cajun and southern cuisine, Cochon (www.cochonrestaurant.com; French for pig) specialises in whole-pig boucherie. The setting, in a restored warehouse, feels like an upmarket barbecue. Specialities include oven-roasted oysters, fried alligator and seafood court-bouillon.
Jackson Square at the heart of the French Quarter is worth a mosey (across from Cafe du Monde) for colourful buskers, street musicians and artists. Magazine Street (www.neworleanscvb.com/visit/neighborhoods/magazine-street) with its mix of boutiques, galleries, bars and eclectic food places is a long and interesting strip. Starting at Canal Street, Magazine Street runs all the way to the picturesque Garden District, which oozes southern charm with its antebellum mansions and manicured gardens. It's also where The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was filmed.
Take a mosey along Frenchmen Street (www.frenchmenstreetlive.com), sample authentic New Orleans cocktails and soak up the live music and unique vibe of New Orleans away from the more touristy Bourbon Street. If you're not in town for the Mardi Gras (when the population of New Orleans doubles), visit Mardi Gras World (www.mardigrasworld.com) for a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the work that goes into organising the flamboyant annual extravaganza.
Relive the elegance and drama of 19th-century New Orleans at The Roosevelt (www.therooseveltneworleans.com), one street west of the French Quarter. The Waldorf Astoria property was completed renovated after Hurricane Katrina and offers 504 spacious and elegant rooms, some with huge windows looking out over the cityscape. The hotel's legendary Sazerac Bar is the birthplace of the city's official cocktail of the same name.
If you want to avoid Mardi Gras mania plan your visit in December and January when it's easier to get a room. Steer clear too of July and August when the weather can be stifling. For the best coffee in the French Quarter, Spitfire (www.spitfirecoffee.com) sources coffee from high-quality, small batch roasters. Australian tourists have been seen bowing down to the barista in gratitude.
The writer travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand, which offers non-stop Auckland to Houston services. See www.airnewzealand.com.