New Orleans for bargain hunters

Who says that visitors have to return from a fascinating visit to New Orleans with empty pocketbooks? Not me. I had a wonderful time and spent very little.

What I discovered was that the savvy traveler can find many free - or nearly so - attractions in New Orleans.

Without taking a free walking tour, you might never hear of Annie Christmas, a legendary giant dock worker. She would make the rounds of the French Quarter dressed in her best red gown and a six-foot chain adorned with charms of the eyes, ears, and noses of uncooperative lovers. Her biggest claim to fame was birthing 12 seven-foot-tall sons - all at one time!

Her story and other local legends are among the biggest bargains in this city. These tidbits give you insights into the city's history and culture that you might not otherwise acquire.

We had wandered into the National Park Service Visitor Center at 419 Decatur Street with bird-watching friends who were seeking directions to the Barataria Preserve swamp.

What we found was the best deal in New Orleans, a free 50-minute historic tour presented daily. Each ranger chooses his own topic, embellished with colorful stories of Mississippi River history and culture. The catch is that the tour is limited to 25 people. Doors open at 9 a.m., but hopefuls begin gathering at the gates by 8, and each person must be present when tickets are handed out.

Other alternatives to pricey diversions are self-guided "Uptown" tours on a Roaring '20s streetcar, reasonably priced bed-and-breakfasts that offer Southern hospitality, and low-cost tours that take you to places where fact meets folklore.

'History' that maybe wasn't

On the French Quarter History Tour, for instance, you will hear of the haunts of Jean Lafitte, smuggler, pirate, and patriot.

The name Lafitte conjures up some of the most colorful historical legends in New Orleans, but there is no conclusive evidence that he ever set foot in the city. He is considered the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, turning the tide against the British during the War of 1812 - although no proof has ever been found that placed him on the battlefield.

The same tour lets you discover the history of New Orleans, which stretches back to 1718, when, some say, the first French settlers became victims of John Law's land scam, the Mississippi Scheme. They were enticed to the French colony with promises of gold, mountains, and beautiful Indian maidens - none of which materialized.

The streetcar is another bargain for self-guided travelers who want to explore more of the sites of yesteryear. The Regional Transit Authority offers one-day ($5) and three-day ($12) passes for unlimited access to all streetcars and buses in the city. These are sold at hotels and major shopping centers.

Before boarding, head to a bookstore to buy "The Streetcar Guide to Uptown New Orleans," which offers a walking and riding tour to sights within easy walking distance of the trolley.

The best place to board the streetcar is in the first block of St. Charles Avenue. Ride it to the Garden District, an area that evolved from a vegetable farm into a fashionable uptown area of lush greenery and magnificent mansions.

Roam the Garden District on foot to appreciate the rich architecture of the antebellum mansions. Only by walking can one discover the rainbowed prisms of leaded-glass windows and the sculptured detailing on the cornices of elegant homes shaded by gnarled oaks.

Digging into Cajun cuisine

Food in this city of contrasts is usually expensive. But those who favor raucous camaraderie can join the multitudes at Paul Prudhomme's K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, 416 Chartres, where blackened redfish was born and where beverages are served in jelly glasses.

However, if you choose not to fight the never-ending line at K-Paul's, you can walk around the corner to Olde Nawlins Cookery at 729 Conti, where Paul's former sous-chef runs his own Cajun restaurant, which has a specialty of Pontchartrain redfish breaded in pecans.

The budget-conscious will want to sample the po' boy sandwiches at Mother's Restaurant (401 Poydras Street), the ubiquitous fish cafes serving peel-'em prawns and oysters on the half-shell, and Popeyes' spicy fried chicken. (New Orleans is Popeyes' original home.)

Window shopping doesn't cost a cent. Be sure to browse through the antique shops on Rue Royale. They're known for princely priced jewelry, paintings, rugs, silver, and china.

And if, like my friends, you decide to try swamping through the Barataria, make sure your shopping takes you by a shoe store. Sneakers and sandals are no help in tromping through mud. Maybe your new shoes won't be the biggest bargain you picked up in the Crescent City, but if you're a bird-watcher, you'll probably decide they're worth it. The prize could be a sighting of the red-crested woodpecker.

For further information, contact the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, 2020 St. Charles Avenue, (504) 566-5011, www.neworleanscvb.com.

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