Following disastrous Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in August 2005, and the Gulf oil spill of 2010, New Orleans has, each time, reemerged with a bang. Indeed, on a recent visit to the city's downtown district, it was almost hard to tell that any tragedy had ever struck at all. The French Quarter teemed with shoppers, Bourbon Street revelries were at full blast and the Friday lunchers packed in at Galatoire's.
While certain parts of the city are looking better than ever, there are still wide swaths of New Orleans that still haven't recovered from Katrina's wrath. Gray Line, the tour company that's better known for its nostalgic looks at New Orleans (from "Oak Alley Plantations" to "Cemetery & Voodoo"), has created a tour that's a must-do for every visitor to the city who really wants to see, first-hand, the effects of Hurricane Katrina -- and a host of other local tour companies have followed suit. Tours focus on the areas outside of downtown, driving through the worst-hit neighborhoods such as Lakeview, St. Bernard's Parish, the lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly and others. The tours are a sobering and illuminating experience that can be summed up in this comment we overheard about the still-obvious damage: "It's like a whale. You've never understood how big it is until you see it."
Despite changes good and bad, New Orleans retains the savory character that makes it one of America's most intriguing cities. The mystique surrounding this Mississippi River city goes way beyond music and revelry and can be credited to its early mix of settlers -- Creole and Cajun (along with a bit of influence from the Caribbean) -- that even today infect the city's urban scene, from art to culture to cuisine, with an irrepressible joie d'vivre.
--written by Eleanor Berman and Carolyn Spencer Brown; updated by Sarah Schlichter and Caroline Costello