Coming back to New Orleans after a long absence is like getting reacquainted with an old friend--a vibrant, stylish, irreverent, food-loving, foot-stomping, good-times-rolling friend.

Jackson Square

From the unapologetic bawdiness of Bourbon Street to the elegant grace of Royal, the French Quarter packs amazing variety into a single neighborhood.

For our first trip back, we decided to try one of the smaller, older hotels in the Quarter, Maison Dupuy, where we found a comfy room, a pretty courtyard pool, and an incredibly friendly staff at a great price. As a bonus, the hotel's on Toulouse, so a left turn out of the lobby will take you straight into the French Quarter.

Because escaping the hustle-bustle of the workaday world is part of any vacation for us, Dave and I like to stay in the Quarter, park the car, grab a good street map, and vacation on foot or by cab. That's definitely the way to go in New Orleans while areas outside the Quarter continue to rebuild. You can also catch a flight or take Amtrak and cab your way to Big Easy fun.

After settling in, we made the obligatory pilgrimage to Bourbon Street. The sing-along at Pat O'Brien's Bar is in full swing again, and it's only a matter of time before somebody requests "You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille." The wrought iron balconies on Royal drip with ferns and flowers, a sight so amazing that even the most focused shopper has to tear herself away from the art and antiques long enough to take it in.

Then there's the food. Mercy. Emeril's, Brennan's, Bacco, Antoine's, Arnaud's, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, Commander's Palace, Galatoire's--the French Quarter's and Garden District's classic restaurants are serving up some of the most incredible dining experiences imaginable. Even the down-home food in New Orleans is fabulous. Locals and tourists alike flock to Central Grocery Company, home of the original muffuletta, and Mother's, where the jambalaya is worth going up a jean size.

Dave and I found a new favorite, Irene's Cuisine, on St. Philip. The Filet Mediterranean ($32-$33) and the Chicken Rose Marino ($18)--plus everything on the dessert menu--were among our favorites. Irene's is the perfect combination: fine food in an elegant setting that makes dinner an event, yet the restaurant isn't the least bit pretentious or stuffy.

Executive chef Nicholas Scalco learned the ropes by washing dishes and waiting tables for his mom, "Miss Irene" DiPietro. After finishing culinary school, he went to Italy to study. "When I got back, my mom said, 'Now forget everything they told you--I'll show you how to do it my way,' " Nicholas said with a grin.

We thanked the folks at Irene's and headed back to our hotel, stopping along the way to check out places we'd like to try on our next visit. Definitely Hotel Royal, a small, tucked-away inn that we stumbled onto. My friend Mark loves Hotel Provincial, so that's on our list too. Wish we'd had more time for Café Du Monde and a swamp tour and the zoo and aquarium, and a ride on the steamboat Natchez and….

NOLA Transportation
Louis Armstrong International Airport is open, with 109 daily flights for 10 different airlines. Amtrak makes daily runs, including the City of New Orleans and the Crescent, and the ports have reopened to cruise traffic. Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean are back, and more are coming.

Cuisine in Cajun Country
"Welcome to my restaurant!" came the lively French-accented voice from behind a screened door in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. We were taking snapshots of Chez Jacqueline when Jacqueline herself spotted us. The next thing we knew, we were salivating over her homemade biscuits, which were light, airy, and as big as MoonPies. Her Cajun omelet was enough food for three, but I did my best.

Jacqueline typifies the spirit of Cajun Country. These folks love to cook for people who love to eat. Dave and I started our boudin sweep in Prairieville, Louisiana, near Baton Rouge, where we had an amazing breakfast at Frank's Restaurant & Smokehouse. Then we made our way to a down-home restaurant called Thibodeaux's in Duson, just outside of Lafayette, where we could've eaten a No. 3 washtub full of the potato salad, and the seafood gumbo held a good day's catch smothered in a chocolate-brown roux. The next day we drove down State 31 through two beautiful towns, St. Martinville and Breaux Bridge, enjoying our visit with Jacqueline before moseying on to Houma for chicken-and-andouille gumbo at Boudreau & Thibodeau's, "open 24 hours in a row."

There's a huge list of places we couldn't get to--and we're more than willing to have another go at it.

What's New On Alabama's Coast
Drive along Beach Boulevard in Gulf Shores these days, and you're sure to notice one thing: several cranes towering over the seashore, erecting new condos and hotels.

The construction boom here reflects the growth and change on this 32-mile stretch of white-sand beaches. The towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, and the bays and beaches extending out from them, remain as family-oriented and casual as ever, but more options are coming online all the time. The Wharf, a tremendous new development in Orange Beach, boasts the largest Ferris wheel in the South, a 10,000-seat amphitheater, restaurants, shops, and a marina. Plans call for hotel rooms, condos, and a golf course. Bama Bayou, a development across the waterway from The Wharf, plans a full water park, dolphin swims, a resort and conference center, and more. Lulu's, the recently relocated restaurant owned by Jimmy Buffet's sister, serves fish sandwiches and shrimp in a setting that resembles a cross between Disneyland and a Florida Keys hideaway.

Alabama's Gulf Coast does not always get the recognition of Florida's, but the sand is as white, the water as pleasant, the days as sunny. With a little digging, you can plan a family vacation you'll remember for a lifetime.

New Orleans

  • Central Grocery Company: 923 Decatur Street; (504) 523-1620. Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
  • Hove Parfumeur: 824 Royal Street; or (504) 525-7827. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
  • Irene's Cuisine: 539 St. Philip Street; (504) 529-8811. Hours: 5:30-10:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
  • Maison Dupuy: 1001 Toulouse Street;, (504) 586-8000, or 1-800-535-9177. Rates: $99-$229 standard/deluxe rooms, $159-$499 suites.
  • Mother's Restaurant: 401 Poydras Street; (504) 523-9656. Hours: Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
  • M.S. Rau Antiques: 630 Royal Street;, (504) 523-5660, 1-800-544-9440. Hours: 9 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
  • New Orleans Steamboat Company: Toulouse Street Wharf; or (504) 586-8777.
  • Pat O'Brien's: 718 St. Peter Street;, (504) 525-4823, or 1-800-597-4823. Hours: bar opens at 4 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 2 p.m. Friday, noon Saturday-Sunday; piano lounge opens at 6 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 2 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
  • Rodrigue Studio: 721 Royal Street; or (504) 581-4244. Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday.
  • St. Louis Cathedral: 615 Pere Antoine Alley (on Jackson Square); or (504) 525-9585. Mass: 5 p.m. Saturday, 9 and 11 a.m. Sunday, 7:30 a.m. Monday-Saturday. Tours: 1:30-3:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday. Admission: free.

Louisiana Cajun Country

  • Boudreau & Thibodeau's: 5602 West Main Street, Houma; or (985) 872-4711.Hours: Open 24 hours.
  • Chez Jacqueline: 114 East Bridge Street, Breaux Bridge; (337) 507-3320. Hours: 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday.
  • Frank's Restaurant & Smokehouse: 17425 Airline Highway, Prairieville; (225) 673-8876. Hours: 5 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 5 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.
  • Joe's Dreyfus Store Restaurant: 2731 Maringouin Road West, Livonia; or (225) 637-2625. Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.
  • Thibodeaux's: 207 North A Street, Duson; (337) 873-3840. Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

"Gulf Coast State of Mind" is from the June 2007 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.