By Loann Halden
Originally published on Advocate.com January 05 2009 1:00 AM ET
Time was that when work called for a trip to New Orleans, thoughts of ditching the convention center in order to join beaded revelers in their pursuit of live music, beignets, and Sazeracs popped into one's mind. While that characterization is a bit simplistic, New Orleans has always had all that -- and much more -- to offer. Since 2005, thoughts about the city have centered on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Most everyone knows that the city is far from closed -- but it's also worth mentioning that it's not under water, flattened, or overrun with more crime scenes than a season's worth of CSI . It takes more than Mother Nature in diva-gone-mad mode to crush a city that rose from the Louisiana swamp in 1718 and went up in flames twice before the close of the 18th century.
New Orleans is on the rise again. In fact, the city's tourism bureau projects a 10% uptake in corporate confabs in 2009. Considering that, and all the incentives being offered by area hotels, chances are likely that your job may again be taking you to the Big Easy sometime soon. And this city, perhaps more than any other, is custom-made for travelers who want to tack a couple of extra days onto that business trip -- no matter how you want to spend your slip into Southern-style decadence.
Extended Stay There's no need to swap addresses when you're switching from business to pleasure at the Wyndham-operated Bourbon Orleans (717 Orleans St.; 866-513-9744), which first opened in 1817 as the Orleans Ballroom. There are less traditional hotels with a higher coolness factor (International House springs to mind), but none are this close to NOLA's best-known gay clubs, 24-7 Bourbon Pub Parade -- which has a weekly lesbian night on Tuesdays -- and Oz. The smoke-free gay lounge Napoleon's Itch has its own street entrance on the ground floor.
Unwind in the Faubourg Marigny district at the affordable, gay-owned Lions Inn (2517 Chartres St.; 800-485-6846), a rambling 10-room B&B set in two historic residences. The convivial mixed clientele often nudges the tropical poolside wine hour from afternoon into the night.
Convention Exit Strategy Skip that panel on Sarbanes-Oxley Act compliance and discover the New Orleans beckoning beyond the conference center. As the architectural anchor of the French Quarter and oldest continuously operating Catholic church in the country, the triple-spired St. Louis Cathedral deserves a look-both by day, when it's surrounded by street artists, and after dark, when the spotlighted statue in the courtyard, known locally as "Touchdown Jesus," casts a huge shadow across the facade.
When the bayou humidity transforms business attire into a personal purgatory, it's time to shed some layers at The Country Club (634 Louisa St.; 504-945-0742), a gay complex in the Bywater neighborhood with multiple bars, an indoor-outdoor restaurant that serves surprisingly good food, and a heated clothing-optional pool.
Seek out Anais St. John , a Creole singer-model-actress and native New Orleanian, for the kind of ear- and eye-candy that can make lesbians and gay men go weak. If she's crooning in the Polo Club Lounge at the Windsor Court (504-523-6000), even better.
Gay historian Roberts Batson (504-945-6789; firstname.lastname@example.org ) runs 2.5-hour gay heritage walking tours through the French Quarter on Wednesdays and Saturdays (based on demand), expounding on the colorful personalities -- from Truman Capote to Ellen DeGeneres -- who have left their mark on the city. The theatrical Batson is also a guide with Historic New Orleans Tours, which delves into the city's African roots on its cemetery voodoo tour to NOLA's oldest burial ground, the beautifully decaying St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
Meal Plan These tasty restaurant recommendations are ideal for business meetings or when you can't possibly stomach another bite of hotel rubber chicken. Chef Scott Boswell composes the exquisitely inventive global-NOLA fusion dishes -- and Tennessee Williams inspired the name -- at gay-beloved Stella! (1032 Chartres St.; 504-587-0091), where the service is white-glove yet unpretentious. Don't miss the Georges Bank scallops!
Subtly named Eat (900 Dumaine St.; 504-522-7222) is easy to overlook, but not to forget. The modern, gay-popular BYOB restaurant eradicates all divey-diner associations with its menu of French Quarter staples like grilled shrimp over red beans and rice, gumbo, and crawfish pie.
Sample New Orleans's signature beignets, the powdered sugar-coated French bread doughnuts, at Café du Monde (1039 Decatur St.; 800-772-2927) or on the quiet patio of breakfast nook Café Beignet (334-B Royal St.; 504-524-5530).
Reader's Tip: Best place to meet locals"A longtime New Orleans bartender opened the new 700 Club in the French Quarter, so it's had a loyal gay following from the start. The couches in the lounge are a great place to chill out. There's still just as much excitement in New Orleans as there ever was; sometimes you just have to look a little bit harder to find it during the week."-- Brian Rush, New Orleans