For the cruiser tooling down the ICW or in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico – New Orleans easily lives up to its reputation as the “Northernmost Caribbean Town” and is surprisingly accessible. Offering respite, adventure, full service marinas or all the above, the city bangs out a welcome to boaters like a long traveling note from a trumpet reverberating off the pressed tin ceilings in some dark, candlelit jazz club.
At first glance, New Orleans is an inland city surrounded by towns of fishermen and charter captains plying the most productive estuaries and marshes in North America. The reality is quite different. The large 633 square mile Lake Pontchartrain which forms the city’s northern border isn’t really a lake at all, but more of a brackish tidal basin fully accessible from the ICW and directly from the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi Sound. New Orleans is a natural harbor and destination for cruisers looking for something unique.
In a city of neighborhoods that hold their own distinct accents, one of the oldest is West End. Built on land reclaimed from the lake in the 1830’s, New Orleans’ West End is one of the most historic recreational and commercial boating districts in North America. Comprised of two public marinas, expansive parks, boathouses and yacht clubs hosting nearly 1,000 slips for any vessels capable of handling a near uniform depth of 12’ in the lake, West End is an easy shot from the deepwater Rigolets Pass for any transient.
Home to Southern Yacht Club, the second oldest yacht club in the western hemisphere, as well as the legacies of Jimmy Buffet hanging at pier parties in the 1970s and mercenary plots to conquer Caribbean island nations in the 1980s, New Orleans’ West End still holds its romanticism and connection to the past. It is also a cruiser’s gateway to a city recently ranked by Travel & Leisure magazine as a top ten global destination.
The neighboring marina in Bucktown is home port for a fleet of shrimpers and crabbers, This proximity allowed West End to host a legendary array of seafood restaurants including the 140 year old Bruning’s, but sadly all were lost to Hurricane Katrina nine years ago. Today, the seafood restaurants are returning to the marinas and the raft-ups at their docks have again become a standard scene filled with the city’s characters and liveaboards holding court at the bars.
Surrounded by million dollar condominiums and a resurgent middle class neighborhood, West End is infinitely walkable with groceries, coffee shops, sail lofts, haul-outs and ship’s chandleries all calling the lakeshore home. Further east on the Industrial Canal lie even more full service boatyards as well as the Pontchartrain Landing resort and marina.
The city is primarily known for the French Quarter with its seemingly unending array of bars and fine dining, and West End is a quick $20 cab ride away or an even cheaper bus trip. However, New Orleans is so much more than the French Quarter – filled with areas and neighborhoods rarely frequented by tourists. Ride the streetcars down St. Charles Avenue and marvel at the miles upon miles of mansions built when the city was the wealthiest in the nation. Stroll Magazine Street for its endless boutique shopping and quaint eateries housed in 19th century shotguns and sidehall cottages. The entire town is gentrifying at such a rapid pace that there are too many restored historic neighborhoods to stroll or bike over a long weekend. Marigny, Bywater and Mid-City were once dilapidated neighborhoods that are now teeming with young transplants renovating homes built over a century and a half ago. New Orleans has been quietly booming and the national media is finally catching on.
At its heart though, New Orleans is a maritime city, home to one of the busiest ports in the nation. Massive cranes serving the freighters and container ships seem to hover above the historic neighborhoods on the Mississippi River – home to innumerable charter captains commuting down to Venice and Hopedale where they make their living running sportsmen out to fish near offshore oil rigs.
However, West End is the recreational boating epicenter. On any given day, Olympic sailors can be found hobnobbing with sailmakers over the local rums at the yacht clubs or over coffee. Eavesdrop on an America’s Cup sailor telling his tales to the local Coast Guard men and women. New Orleans is defined and shaped by water, as have been the generations who have called her home. Cruisers looking for that off the beaten path destination should pull out their charts to pencil a course very few have logged.