TRAVEL writer Mary Herczog thinks New Orleans' best-known restaurants are even better than they were before Hurricane Katrina.
"Because of labor shortages, many of those renowned chefs, who spent much of their time on publicity and circulating among guests, are now at the stoves doing the cooking," she said. "Paul Prudhomme is himself preparing a great many of the meals his restaurant offers."
Herczog mentioned the restaurants in citing reasons for a trip to New Orleans. She recently spent months on the scene revising "Frommer's Portable New Orleans."
Herczog says the purely touristic aspects of New Orleans haven't changed much. The areas of the city that tourists usually visit -- the French Quarter, the Garden District and Uptown -- sustained no flood damage, and only a few structures needed repairs from the storm's wind and rain. Of the major hotels, only one is still undergoing work.
And yet pictures of the devastation from Katrina in other parts of town -- places to which few tourists ever visited -- have cut tourism to New Orleans in half. And Herczog is convinced that only a full recovery of its travel industry can save the economy of New Orleans.
That's not to say there aren't problems. Again, because of labor shortages, few New Orleans hotels offer room service. Rooms aren't as quickly made up as you'd expect in first-class establishments. Some restaurants close an hour earlier than usual or don't stay open as many days as before. If you're a demanding traveler who insists on all the classic touches of service, you may not find them.
But most things that have attracted Americans to this unique city are still there:
* Preservation Hall is once again presenting its venerable jazz musicians, and nearly all the former jazz clubs, bars and other major venues of music and performance art are in full operation.
* The city's famed, world-class zoo is open again, and the important National World War II Museum (which incorporates the D-Day Museum) has reopened with expanded and improved exhibits.
* Cruise ships of Carnival, Royal Caribbean, NCL and Princess are again home-porting there and will set off on their popular autumn and winter sailings beginning this month.
As for the devastation, you can visit it, if you desire, on optional tours operated by Grey Line or a local firm called Tours by Isabel. But if you want to enjoy an immersion in history, culture, music and cuisine comparable to what you would have experienced before Katrina, you can do so once again.
The city needs to get back to normal -- and welcome visitors again.