New Orleans has high hopes for its French Quarter Festival

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Coming off its largest numbers yet for a post-Katrina Mardi Gras, the Big Easy braces itself for the annual French Quarter Festival April 17 to 19, and organizers expect that this year will mark their event's return to pre-Katrina numbers.

Touted as the South's largest free music festival, the event will showcase more than 700 local talents performing music of all genres on 18 stages.

"I think that this year's festival, with some of the new additions in the lineup, the expanded children's area, along with the continuation of some of the great festival traditions, will make this the best French Quarter Festival" since it began in 1984, said Mary Beth Romig, director of communications and public relations for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

For those looking to get a taste of Cajun cuisine, the festival features more than 90 food and beverage booths in Jackson Square, Woldenberg Riverfront Park and the Louisiana State Museum's Old U.S. Mint. Food lovers can also attend "The World's Largest Jazz Brunch," showcasing cuisine from some of the area's finest restaurants.

Last year's festival had more than 425,000 attendees, split about evenly between locals and out-of-towners. To ease crowding, organizers are extending the festival grounds from the Riverfront to Bourbon Street and from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue.

"We're getting the word out this year that [the festival] will be more spread out," said Romig.

Event organizers also point to New Orleans' relative affordability as a source of increased interest.

"With the economy in the state it's in, we're hearing that people are choosing our festival over others because ... it's all free and open to the public," said Mari Schramm, executive director of the festival. "This year, we're thinking we'll reach half a million, the size before Katrina."

Scheduled in conjunction with the festival is the World Championship Oyster Eating Contest, at which the world record was set two years ago when a woman consumed 46 dozen oysters. This year's event is slated for noon on April 18.

"The event draws a huge crowd and gets people down [to the Quarter] early," said Schramm. "Then they stay all day."

Visit www.fqfi.org or call (504) 522-5730.

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