In 1884 the Louisiana Cotton Exposition drew thousands of visitors to New Orleans. A hundred years later, the Crescent City is again gearing up for an influx of tourists. Although the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition is still a couple of months away, the entire state is preoccupied with preparations. On Poydras Street, not far from the entrance to the fairgrounds, a huge digital clock flashes numbers that indicate the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until the grand opening - on May 12 - of what is billed as America's flashiest affair.
At the best of times New Orleans is not a quiet, lazy town. Now it appears to be in a state of perpetual motion. Tourists, who would do well to go somewhere else, continue to pour into the city, gingerly stepping around construction sites, patiently waiting in endlessly stalled traffic. Undaunted by the noise and dust, they line the levee to watch tooting paddlewheelers come and go, or rock the afternoon away at any one of many afternoon jazz concerts near Jackson Square.
Although the site of the exposition is well sealed off from trespassers, steel skeletons, cranes, and fanciful cupolas etched in white lights hulk over wire fences and barricades. Curious onlookers crowd the Hilton Hotel's rooftop restaurant or board one of the river boats - like the Creole Queen - for a better view of the 82 acres of activity.
''This fair is going to be different because of its quality,'' says John G. Weinmann, commissioner general of the United States for the 1984 World Exposition. ''But,'' he adds, ''it is also going to be fun and have lots of SIZZLE.'' Describing the entertainment whirlwind fairgoers will experience, Weinmann punctuates the theme, ''Rivers of the World - Water as a Source of Life ,'' emphasizing that its site right on the Mississippi is as important as the lakes, lagoons, waterfalls, rainstorms (where you can rent an umbrella), and Kid Washes (where children get hosed down free).
Although 15 major exhibits including a comprehensive show of priceless Vatican masters will vie for attention, a 17-stories-high ferris wheel and a 100 -year-old merry-go-round are certain to add an old-time carnival atmosphere. A working oil rig is being set in place and continuous entertainment on movable stages is calculated to banish the boredom of waiting in line. Dazzling star bookings for the 5,500-seat amphitheater open with Bob Hope's 81st birthday on May 22 and 23.
To be sure, the list of featured attractions seems endless, but in truth most of the corny, camp ideas could be skillfully staged anywhere in the world. The element that makes this fair so unusual and really not reproducible in any other setting, is the fact the very soul of New Orleans has been woven into the fiber of the celebration. That soul echoes in the unmistakable sound of its music.
''This is not pasteurized, homogenized entertainment,'' affirms Karin Giger who is responsible for overall bookings of the fair, ''it is part of what people expect from New Orleans. Since most visitors wouldn't know how to find the real neighborhood bands, we will feature music 12 hours each day.'' She adds that the Jazz and Gospel Tent will stage nonstop classical jazz, soul music, blues, and even jazz funeral processions to remind guests that these curious sounds and customs are unique to Louisiana's cultural melting pot.
As if this is not enough, the Louisiana State Museum at the Cabildo on Jackson Square is staging a stunning exhibit entitled, ''The Sun King - Louis XIV and the New World.'' This major endeavor will display splendid treasures from the Louvre and Versailles (never before seen in this country), and will reflect three major themes: Louis XIV the Man; Louis XIV and the Colonies; Louis XIV as a Patron of the Arts and Sciences. Artifacts will include decorative arts , paintings, tapestries, precious metals, and printed works. (For information: The Louisiana State Museum, Sun King Office, PO Box 2458, New Orleans, La. 70176 . Tel. (504) 568-8074.)
There is no doubt that it will be grand, but once the tents collapse, the lights are snuffed, and the jazz is relegated back to Preservation Hall and the Vieux Carre (French Quarter) streets - will anything remain?
''Absolutely,'' says John Weinmann. ''The fair is merely a catalyst for our No. 1 priority - tourism. The New Orleans Convention Center will be able to accommodate massive trade shows. Hotels are springing up like mushrooms. Old wharves have been rebuilt; there is talk of a permanent warehouse market and the streets improvement is costing almost $50 million.''
Although this smacks of propaganda, it is true. The ''site,'' as it is called down here, is not the only place where one senses a quickened pace. The entire city looks like a house just before a gala party. Streets like Royal and Bourbon , that transect the Quarter, are completely torn up. Indeed, many blocks are impassable. Scaffolding hangs from scores of important landmark buildings. Painters are freshening faded shutters; masons are repointing flaking stone. Yawning doors reveal crumbling interiors in various stages of restoration. Arched windows, intricate plasterwork, and sweeping stairways manage - even in their disrepair - to take your breath away.
State tourist officials estimate that 11 million people will crowd the city this year. Loosely translated, it means that this is a destination where planning is paramount to ensure a hassle-free visit. Although the fair will offer 75 choice locations for dining, the New Orleans experience is incomplete without a few pauses to savor the famed cuisine.
Guarantee yourself a spot by reserving early, or have a local friend book a table for you. All the best restaurants wisely save a certain number of places for regular patrons. ''Sorry, we're filled'' usually means ''all tourist tables are booked.''
Look beyond familiar names like Antoine's and K Paul's Kitchen. There are countless other wonderful places where you will dine sublimely.
Jazz Brunch or dinner at Commander's Palace, 1403 Washington Avenue, is an absolute must, as are the oysters at Cassamento's at 4330 Magazine Street. (But be warned that Cassamento's, like Galatoire's, accepts no reservations and the luncheon line is usually in place by 11:45.) The Upperline, at 1413 Upperline in Uptown, features some of the finest Creole cooking in town and Sbiza's Cafe at 1011 Decatur is much like a Left Bank Parisian bistro. Mosca's on Highway 90 in Jefferson is not to be missed - especially if you have a New Orleanian friend - and newly opened Algiers Landing, on the West Bank, is delightful, not only because of its enviable spot right on the river, but because it is so much fun to ferry across from the Canal Street Dock to get to it. Except for Cassamento's , where fresh oysters can be had for $7, entrees at these restaurants start at about $12 and go up to about $22.
New hotels are opening every day. But, if the glitzy high-rises like the Hilton, Sheraton, and Intercontinental don't fit your picture of New Orleans, try the venerable Pontchartrain on St. Charles Avenue or the Royal Orleans on Royal Street. They are gracious alternatives, but I prefer the ambiance of the Soniat House, the city's finest small hotel. Tucked away near the old Ursuline Convent, it was designed in 1829 as a town house. Combining Creole and Greek revival details, the elegant home is built around a central courtyard brimming with lush vegetation, splashing fountains, and umbrella-shaded tables. Curved staircases, fireplaces, and lacy ironwork have been lovingly restored within the last year. Four-poster beds and polished antiques adorn almost every chamber, and breakfast is served on silver trays. (Reservations: 1133 Chartres Street, New Orleans, La. 70116. Tel. (504) 522-0570. Prices: at the Royal Orleans, doubles cost from $110 to $225; at the Pontchartrain, $95 to $170; and the Soniat, $95 to $135.)
There is much to this sprawling, old, cultured, flat, gentle-yet-electric city. It masquerades with gusto yet is unable to restrain a small-town feeling. Its hospitality is overwhelming. Food, a legend. History, rich. It is in the South, yet is not really Southern. It is French, Spanish, Creole, and Cajun. It is lacy balconies, a streetcar named Desire, music that spills in the streets, and artists who fill the squares. It is jasmine and camellias and a river that is always in a hurry.
Now face-lifted, it is renewed - truly Nouvelle Orleans - waiting once again to be discovered.