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New Orleans may be known for the blockbuster celebrations of Mardi Gras, but the Big Easy saves the best for last with a New Year’s Eve bash that lights up the spirits and the sky along the Mississippi River. Plan on arriving a few days before the big night so you’ll have time to explore the city while it’s all decked out for the holidays. Locals line up every year in City Park to see more than a million mesmerizing lights draped over a canopy of live oaks. An easy bus ride from the French Quarter, the “Celebration in the Oaks” lasts the entire month of December. The vintage St. Charles Avenue streetcar, electrified in 1893, offers a ride through the city’s neighborhoods of gracious Georgian mansions and gardens fragrant with sweet olive trees. The Lee Circle stop is down the block from three museums clustered near Camp Street as well as hip galleries on nearby Julia Street, in the Warehouse Arts District. Civil War buffs will want to visit the Confederate Museum, with touching exhibits that include letters from soldiers, while across the street World War II aficionados can listen to poignant taped narratives and see a landing craft at the National D-Day Museum. Next door is the just-opened Ogden Museum of Southern Art, part of the Smithsonian Institute, celebrating art of the South from the 18th century to the present. It’s easy to work up an appetite in pedestrian-friendly New Orleans, and there are enough good restaurants to keep you going until Mardi Gras. For traditional fare, like oyster po’ boy sandwiches, Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar in the French Quarter is the place to go. More about oysters than atmosphere, Felix’s has staying power and still looks much as it did when it first opened in the fifties. Try the Dixie beer, an old New Orleans brew. The buzz about Restaurant August, in the Central Business District, hasn’t let up since it opened just over two years ago. Chef John Besh, a native Louisianan, likes to contrast flavors and cuisines, as in the popular Moroccan-spiced duck with corn polenta and peaches or the bread pudding with candied almonds and Irish whiskey ice cream. The comfy interior of this former 19th-century warehouse is also about contrasts, featuring shiny chandeliers and fine furniture surrounded by exposed brick walls. On weekends the jazz brunch menu at Commander’s Palace offers its signature creamy turtle soup, pecan-crusted fish-of-the-day, and bread pudding souffl� as well as the usual brunch basics. This Garden District legend still deserves the fanfare it’s been getting for years (TV chef Emeril Lagasse got his big break here). Cozy up in the cushy booths at Lilette, also in the Garden District, a bistro with French and Italian accents. The menu, which changes often, might include toothsome spinach gnocchi, lobster salad or sausage dishes. The holidays are a time to put on the Ritz, so why not stay at one? The Ritz-Carlton (Tel. 504-524-1331), on the edge of the French Quarter, is housed in a landmark department store building and boasts marble bathrooms and feather pillows. Afternoon tea is served daily in the lobby lounge, where Limoges porcelain and silver line the shelves. For a bigger splurge, The Maison Orleans (Tel. 504-670-2900), a boutique hotel in the same building complex, offers rooms with demi-canopied beds and lots of French flair, and at the day spa downstairs you can enjoy a candlelit soak in a magnolia bath, followed by a dreamy “Magnolia Massage.” The nearby Fairmont (Tel. 504-529-7111), a classic grand-dame hotel built in 1893 and recently updated, is a must-see at the holidays. Drop in, even if it’s just for a stroll through the block-long lobby, where thousands of holiday lights glisten in a winter wonderland amid the Oriental rugs and potted palms. On New Year’s Eve, the lights provide a dramatic backdrop for guests dressed to the nines for a night of celebrations. As the year winds down, Jackson Square, the grand and gracious riverside square around which the city was built, is the southern version of Times Square. Revelers flock there to enjoy a floor show of street musicians and performers, then cheer in the new year when the ball is dropped at midnight from the top of the nearby Jackson Brewery. Inside this dining and shopping complex is the Riverview Room restaurant, where you can reserve a table to feast on petit filet mignon, toast from an open bar, and dance to the music of the Tom Cats band. Its floor-to-ceiling arched windows provide sweeping views of the river, a perfect perch to watch the fireworks. A midnight cruise on the Creole Queen also hosts a New Year’s Eve dinner party with a jazz band and front-row seats for the pyrotechnics over the river. The only New Year’s resolution you’ll make in New Orleans is to return soon for more of the party mood and food.
IF YOU GO: � Make reservations early, because everything books up fast with Sugar Bowlers and revelers in town for the holidays. � Taxis from New Orleans International Airport are a flat fee of $24 for two. � Web site: visitneworleans.info; click on “Events” for the calendar.

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