Let the good times roll

In New Orleans, home to Paul Prudhomme, Eggs Sardou and deep-fried crabmeat mushrooms, the keys to successful living can be summarized as follows:- Eat. But leave behind your Zagat guide, which won't tell you about Dooky Chase. Try Dooky's gumbo with sausage and chicken livers, followed by a steaming plate of crawfish etouffee.

- And be merry. When don't the people of New Orleans throw a party? Even an ostensible fitness event like the Mardi Gras Marathon is an occasion for putting on pounds.

- Even the lowly swamp - symbol of the business swindle - is valued here. You'll find motorized boat tours of the swamps that surround New Orleans advertised in every kiosk and tour guide you see in town. Less well-known are the two-hour canoe tours offered by a Mr. Denny (504-643-4839).

- The story of the Amistad has been kept alive by the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, one of the nation's largest archives of African-American history.

- Hailing a cab is like taking a 10-minute personal tour of New Orleans. You usually get an entertaining cabbie whose running commentary is fleet as well. Best taxi service is United Cab (522-9771).

Where to stay

Prices for lodging in New Orleans vary greatly depending on the calendar. During festivals and conventions, rates can soar like an untied party balloon. (A travel agent sometimes can help bring them back to earth.) In the summer months the rates wilt in the muggy conditions.

The city's bed and breakfasts are generally in older homes in the three major districts: the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny and the Garden District. Rates start as low as $50/night and can run to $250/night for deluxe housing. Reserve through Bed and Break-fast Inc. at 800-729-4640; they'll fax you details about each B&B you're interested in.

I stayed at the Parkview Marigny, 726 Frenchmen St., where proprietor Larry Molaison has carefully restored the original appearance of this tall Creole home after acquiring it from an artist with decidedly modern tastes. It couldn't be closer to the haunts of Faubourg Marigny, and Molaison was a font of information about New Orleans. Rooms are $90 to $110.

If you'd prefer to stay in the Garden District, ask for the Chimes, 1146 Constantinople, midway between the St. Charles streetcar line and shopping on Magazine Street. Jill Abbyad keeps several cozy cottages outside her home with husband Charles, who's a maitre d' at Arnaud's. Rooms are $89 to $120.

New Orleans also features small, affordable "guest houses" like the Josephine in the Garden District, with rooms from $95 to $145 (800-779-6361) and Hotel Villa Convento in the French Quarter with rates from $89 to $155 (504-522-1793).

There's a range of acceptable hotel choices inside the French Quarter, from Le Richelieu, with rooms from $95 to $150 (800-535-9653); to the cozy Dauphine Orleans, with on-site parking, rooms from $179 and a $95 summer rate (800-521-7111); to the stunningly appointed rooms of the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, which features a rooftop pool. Rates at the Omni start at a $189 queen bed and go as high as a $909 penthouse suite (504-529-5333).

Where to eat

There's great food around most any corner, but here are two institutions to search out:

- For an unforgettable lunch, it's Uglesich's, a lunch-only dive shoe-horned into a building the size of a tearoom at 1238 Baronne St. in the Ware-house District. Patrons are issued a number at the door and then wait for a table. And wait.

You'll spend an hour or more standing elbow-to-elbow in the waiting area, munching stuffed artichoke buttons and swigging Dixie beer. Chat up the person next to you; you'll probably want to share your table with them to speed things up; 504-523-8571.

- Dooky Chase is an exquisite soul-food restaurant a short cab ride from the French Quarter at 2301 Orleans Ave. This landmark has been serving creole specialties since 1941. Try lunch or call for a reservation for dinner; 504-821-2294.

Museums

Like the city itself, the museums of New Orleans are one of a kind.

The world's only private museum dedicated to voodoo, the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum requires a tour to make sense of the strange artifacts packed into its tiny rooms. Located in the French Quarter at 724 Dumaine St.; call 504-523-7685 for a list of tours.

The more traditional Louisiana State Museum is made up of several historic landmarks in the French Quarter. Five of them are open to the public, including the Presbytere, 1850 House, Cabil-do and Arsenal, all a stone's throw from each other on Jackson Square. A combination ticket gets you into all of them. Included are indigenous art-works and exhibits on the history of New Orleans jazz, the great 1927 flood and the legacy of bayou plantation owner and President Zachary Taylor.

Cemeteries and walking tours

For safety's sake, visitors are implored not to visit the city's historic cemeteries by themselves but to go with a tour group. The voodoo-oriented Magic Walking Tour leaves the Pirate's Alley Cafe on Jackson Square twice a day; 504-588-9693 for info.

The nonprofit preservation group Save Our Cemeteries stages a more conventional walking tour four days a week; 1-888-721-7493 for info. Both tours charge admission.

The National Park Service leads daily tours of the French Quarter and Garden District. You must pick up a pass in advance at the Park Service visitor's bureau, 916 N. Peters St., for details on special walking tours.

- Aaron Barnhart