I’m recently back from my first visit to New Orleans – NO for short – or as the local wags now call it, “NO Orleans.”

Everyone I meet in England asks, “So, what’s it like now?” To which I can only answer, “I don’t know what it was like before, but I would happily go back.” In fact it is one of the few American cities I felt instinctively, and despite all its woes, that I could live in. And not just because there are still places there where a man can enjoy a smoke without being a pariah.

All the time I was there, locals pleaded with me to spread the word back home that the city is fine, it is open again for the business of pleasure, and getting back on its feet. And true enough it is, albeit slowly – and only in parts. But despite all that has happened to it, it is a great place to visit. The people are mostly friendly and welcoming, apart from the miserable greeter at its most famous (and definitely not best) restaurant Antoine’s. There are wonderful restaurants, great bars, terrific music, art galleries, wall-to-wall voodoo shops, and among the warmest, most laid-back attitudes I’ve encountered in all my travels in the US. There aren’t many streets on this planet of ours where in a stretch of a few hundred yards you can drink a perfect Martini, eat as great a dinner as you’ll find on this planet, listen to a jazz band, have your palm read, pop into a cigar factory, receive a sermon from a Christian with an electronic cross, watch a live sex show, and buy a voodoo spell… The Big Easy is the right word for it – at least, for the parts that still exist. But sadly, for the rest – which is most of the city – it has become the Big Uneasy. The locals lay the blame squarely on the Bush administration and on a weak mayor.

Bush doesn’t care about them they say because they are mostly poor blacks who didn’t vote for him, and the mayor, a year on, has finally got around to creating the illusion of creating a recovery plan – he has asked each ward to come up with a plan within 100 days. The population of NO has been in decline for years. Locals fear that many of those who evacuated to other cities will never return. Before the devastation the population was 450,000. It is now half of that. And part of the problem is that there is nowhere for people to live. Half the police force are living in temporary trailer parks as with many other essential workers. And many of the people I met in my hotel had been living there as permanent residents for the past year.

Interesting crime figure observation: In 2002 and 2003 New Orleans had the unwelcome privilege of boasting the highest murder rate per capita on the North American continent. In 2005 it was still ten times the national average. Since Hurricane Katrina the amount of recorded crimes has dropped dramatically from a year ago. But the number of homicides is up. It seems that natural disasters can wipe out swathes of mankind, but cannot wipe out mankind’s desire to wipe out itself.

Although like the rest of the world I had been glued to my television last year when Katrina struck, I had no idea what I was going to find on my arrival in the city. Tidemarks on some houses perhaps, and a few buildings under repair… Maybe the occasional boat parked on a bungalow rooftop and a disoriented snorkeler or two climbing out of a manhole… But nothing prepared me for what was actually there, or rather, wasn’t there – such as most of it. The storm and flooding not only devastated much of New Orleans itself, but a surrounding area at least the size of England. And I mean devastation – on a quite unimaginable scale. One local police officer likened it to a nuclear bomb having gone off. He’d obviously never seen pictures of Hiroshima. It was more like one of those new generations of bombs the Pentagon has been developing, which vaporizes human beings and other living creatures, but leaves buildings standing.

I hired a driver to take us on a tour of the good and bad parts. He turned up in a stretch Lincoln limo – just about the most crass imaginable vehicle in which to cruise a ruined city – but luckily the blacked out windows spared the few desolate locals still poking around in the ruins our blushes… And the driver, Jerry (Telephone: 504 712 1700) was a brilliant guide. The good parts are mostly intact – the captivating French quarter with its narrow streets lined with French and Spanish colonial buildings, great shops, galleries, bars and restaurants, apart from a skanky stretch of Bourbon Street monopolized by the wall-to wall joints of USA porn baron, Larry Flynt. And Magazine Street with the swanky houses of the Garden District all around. But elsewhere, I promise you, there is nothing like it on our planet. I’m told that the streets of the French Quarter used to be packed with musicians. Now there are just a handful – because there is nowhere for the less affluent to stay.

A New Orleans home 12 months on

We drove for two solid hours through silent, deserted residential streets, row after row of empty houses marked with red crosses, like some medieval plague symbol, to show they had been searched for bodies. Some structures were intact, some had collapsed, many were gone altogether. Desolated shopping malls, petrol stations with their roofs tilted to one side, boarded up Burger Kings, everything worth looting taken long ago. It doesn’t feel like a ghost town, or a ghost city. It feels like a ghost continent. I talked to one church mission volunteer worker who was helping to clear houses – and, for some some unfathomable reason a voluble Bush supporter – who told me that she had been briefed not to open any fridge door – because of what might be inside after one year in the Louisiana heat….

It is a great, unique city, and as a blinkered visitor it would be possible to spend many glorious days there, soaking in all it has to offer without being touched by the problems stemming from Hurricane Katrina. But that would be a mistake, because the problems are a stark reality check to us all just how fragile our civilized world is, and how easily we could lose it. Just one storm was all it took for New Orleans.

For someone like myself, who is interested in all spiritual aspects of human existence, New Orleans is a feast, totally dominated by superstition. The incredible cemeteries are all intact – ironic in a city largely built below sea-level that the best protected people are the rich and the dead. The grand houses of the Garden District sit proudly about any possible rise of flood waters from broken levees. And so do the dead in their grand mausoleums, all buried above ground to guard against the indignity of waterlogged graves.

A New Orleans street you don’t want to live on!

There is an old NO tradition called “confusing the spirit.” When someone dies, the keyhole to the front door is inverted (see photograph of the keyhole in the gates of the Cornstalk Fence Hotel) so the spirit will have problems trying to return to its home…

Inverted Lock, Cornstalk Fence Hotel

And the city houses a strange, dark coincidence in this city. Lee Harvey Oswald went to school here and while he was there, John F Kennedy stayed in a hotel one hundred yards away, around the corner…

Lee Harvey Oswald’s school

The restaurants I can truly recommend are Red Fish – which has a great bar and a wonderfully funky and buzzy main room with brilliant food. Bayona which had the highest quality cuisine and the most charm of any place where I ate on my visit. Emeril’s and August were also highly recommended but I didn’t have time to go to them.

Antoine’s, where George Bush apparently ate while I was there, and which is reputably the best restaurant, left me cold. Despite the place being almost empty, the greeter, a charmless man, made a great show of not being able to find our reservation before finally admitting defeat and permitting us to stay. Our waiter made up in the friendship department, and to some extent redeemed the situation – at least until my starter arrived. Oysters Rockefeller, he assured me, had been invented at Antoines. All I can say is that if that is the truth, God knows how the dish ever survived. What I got looked like six baby elephant turds. Somewhere underneath massive dollops of mashed potato the colour of damp cardboard, lay six diminutive oysters totally mugged by what tasted to me suspiciously like Lea and Perrins Worcester sauce.

Helen, (once a professional chef), had cremated bits of steak entombed in something that on the menu was called Bearnaise Sauce but which bore no relationship to any Bearnaise sauce I have ever experienced. It was a nasty congealed confection that looked like someone had vomited into a yoghurt pot.

At the massively nicer and friendlier Galatoire’s which has bookable tables upstairs, and a wild downstairs room where twice a week is a first-come-first-served lunch party, I had among the best Oysters Rockefeller I have eaten.

Jazz is part of the heart and soul of NO. Snug Harbour is a great place to experience it. Go early and eat there – they do simple food brilliantly – great burgers and one the best tuna steaks I have ever eaten by a gazillion miles. Afterwards we trooped into their small, galleried back room for a 90 minute jazz concert with Ellis Marsalis, the great man himself, accompanied by the local brew, Abita Turbo Dog ale. Double bliss!

And then a flight home on dreaded Continental. I’ve flown Continental four times in my life – and that is four times too many. But that’s another story (and another blog…) I’m told that less than 10% of Americans hold passports and only about 3% ever use one. According to the blurb at the front of this wretched airline’s brochure, by Larry Kellner, Chairman and CEO, Continental in 2006 was ranked the Highest in Customer Satisfaction Among Network Carriers in North America. All I can say is Americans ought to get out more.