The very first time I visited New Orleans, I decided to arrive by train, taking the Southern Crescent, the Amtrak train that starts in Washington, D.C. and terminates in New Orleans. I arrived late (on Amtrak, not a surprise) and got to my hotel around 9:00pm.
Shortly after I arrived, a friend who lives in New Orleans called me.
"So," she asked, "what are you doing later?"
Later? I asked. It's already 9:00pm. What's your definition of later?
More from TODAY.com
Watch therapy dog help boy, 6, move arm again after brain surgeries
At just the right moment, a dog named Tank gave a boy named Jack the motivation he needed to get moving again.
- Pirelli Calendar to feature first-ever plus-size model
- Swarmed! 8 tips on best mosquito bite treatments and repellents
- Best ATMs ever? See how this bank surprised customers in tearjerker ad
- Vacation selfies: Teens love 'em, adults not so much
- Watch therapy dog help boy, 6, move arm again after brain surgeries
"Trust me," she responded. "Be in the lobby at midnight. You won't be disappointed."
And, as the clock struck 12, I was standing in the lobby. Fifteen minutes later, my friend hadn’t arrived. No sign of her at 12:30. Then, at 12:45, as I was about to call it a night and return to my room, a car pulled up to the curb. Five people were already inside.” Get in," she shouted. Where were we going? "You'll see...”
And, fifteen minutes later, I found myself on a riverboat, heading up the Mississippi in the darkness, being serenaded by... The Neville Brothers.
It was a fitting welcome to New Orleans, one I will never forget. And it only got better. Of course there was Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, but my friends also took me over the Huey P. Long Bridge to a wild restaurant called Moska's (think Italian Cajun....), a place where mom was still cooking in the kitchen and old wooden tables with well-worn red and white checked tablecloths were all occupied.
I was introduced to the po boy sandwich at a place called Mothers, and taught the fine art of the mufalletta at the central grocery. (Before eating this sandwich, make sure you're wearing clothing you wish to immediately donate following the meal).
I went out to the Audobon zoo (again by riverboat), and discovered the fine art of cooking, courtesy of chefs like Susan Spicer (Bayona) and John Besh (August).
And I didn't want to leave.
The history, the mythology, and the subterranean energy and rhythm that pulses throughout this city is infectious. It's a cultural intersection of European and Caribbean influences. The street names are French and Spanish. You want Haiti and Africa — you got it, not just in the cuisine and the language, but in the music.
To put things in perspective: New Orleanians were drinking café au lait 250 years before Seattle made its first latté.
If anything, New Orleans is a cultural gumbo where its citizens enthusiastically celebrate their differences. And that means just about anything, anywhere, anytime in the Big Easy where “Laissez les bons temps rouler" — let the good times roll — still rules.
Or ruled, until two years ago. Consider this sobering statistic: New Orleans is the first major American city to be almost drained of its population. Since Katrina, the city is still trying to gain its strength, although many parts of the city are still in a state of limbo. Yes, Bourbon Street and the French Quarter are back, and more and more people are beginning to visit New Orleans. But nowhere near pre-hurricane levels. Before Katrina, New Orleans had and annual 10.1 million visitors. Last year, New Orleans welcomed just 3.7 million, but even that number is somewhat misleading, since so many of those "visitors" were there for relief/volunteer work.
Only about 60 % of the population in New Orleans proper has returned.
Four of its seven general hospitals are still closed. At least 13,000 families still live in trailers. Entire neighborhoods, like the Lower Ninth Ward, are still wastelands. And when I visited earlier this year, right before Mardi Gras, I could see how much work still was unfinished.
And yet, Mardi Gras was a great success. An estimated crowd of 800,000 showed up, and hotels reported a 95 percent occupancy rate.
Not surprisingly, the tourism industry is the largest employer in the metropolitan New Orleans area, and it is the second largest industry in the state of Louisiana. It includes hotels, restaurants, retail, sporting arenas, music venues, museums, galleries and theaters, destination management companies and tour operators.
Before Katrina, there were more than 3400 restaurants in New Orleans. Today, that number is just over 1800. Hotels that had been closed or abandoned in the wake of Katrina have now reopened. (Ironically, the hurricane gave hotels a fast-track for renovations and upgrades). And while air service to Louis Armstrong International Airport was once booming with 162 flights a day, the airport now only operates 119 daily flights.
But things are getting better. Especially for visitors. The convention center is back. Twenty eight bus lines are running, and cruise ships are now returning to the port.
And the good news is that when you go, many of the hidden treasures of New Orleans remain. Places like The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden.
At the New Orleans Museum of Art is a five-acre garden and is one of the premier sculpture gardens in the United States. The garden has 50 sculptures by major twentieth-century European, American, Israeli and Japanese artists. Some of the featured artists are Henry Moore, Jacques Lipchitz, Barbara Hepworth, George Rickey, Louis Bourgeois, and George Segal. The garden is beautifully landscaped mature trees, lagoons, meandering footpaths, a garden pool, and pedestrian bridges. Call 504-658-4100.
The highly-popular Camellia Grill has reopened in the Riverbend area. People missed this restaurant so much they began leaving sticky notes with messages and posted them all over the building's exterior. It got to the point that the front was almost entirely covered with the notes. The chef special omelet and the orange freeze are house specialties. The restaurant also serves a variety of pies, such as pecan, chocolate pecan, apple, and cream pies. (504) 309-2679
Café Du Monde isn’t a hidden treasure. You can’t miss it. It’s a classic place for coffee and doughnuts. The Original Cafe Du Monde Coffee Stand was established in 1862 in the New Orleans French Market. The Cafe is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It closes only on Christmas Day (800) 772-2927, http://www.cafedumonde.com/
I spent three hours inside The National World War II Museum and I highly recommend a visit — it’s a 16,000-square-foot gallery of state-of-the-art, interactive exhibits oral histories from veterans worldwide, artifacts, documents, photographs, hands-on activities and never-before-seen film footage. The exhibits highlight the weeks and days leading up to the D-Days of World War II. It costs $14 per adult and $6 for children. (504) 527-6012, http://www.nationalww2museum.org
The Louisiana Tour Company offers a 2-hour Swamp Tour, and it ventures into the Barataria Swamps and wetlands, which once was home to the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte. Here he also buried his treasure. You will see the Cajuns of the Bayou living in the swamps, a 2000 year-old Indian Burial Mound, a Cajun cemetery and Fishing village, wildlife, such as birds, snakes, turtles, fur animals, and alligators. It costs $24 per adult and $15 per child.
Perhaps most important, New Orleans now offers travelers a way to celebrate the past and contribute to the future. Many visitors are combining vacation trips to the Big Easy with volunteering in the rebuilding effort in neighborhoods like New Orleans East, Lakeview, Gentilly, Upper and Lower Ninth Ward and St. bernards Parrish.
In fact, more than a million people have visited New Orleans to volunteer with the recovery. As a generous outgrowth of Katrina, voluntourism has given a brighter, hopeful outlook. With some coordination, you can help paint and restore a school so the children can return to their neighborhood school.
If you want to help the recovery, you can choose from a variety of programs, such as Habitat for Humanity (Musician's Village), Beacon of Hope, Hands on New Orleans, Common Ground, Kaboom!, Catholic Charities, City Park, and many more.
And remember, if you go to the central grocery for that muffalletta sandwich, wear something you want to throw away!
Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at PeterGreenberg.com.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints