Streetcars traverse the city at a Big Easier pace

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Now that New Orleans' historical St. Charles Avenue streetcars are rumbling a stretch of that legendary thoroughfare for the first time since Hurricane Katrina in late 2005, all three of the Big Easy's streetcar lines are back up and running -- and back on visitors' must-do lists.

Streetcars traverse some of slow-paced, anachronistic New Orleans' grandest boulevards at the relative snail's pace of about 10 mph, making them the perfect media for leisurely sightseeing. Riding the streetcars is not only a good way to adjust to the town's easygoing lifestyle, it's also a good way to reach some of its top attractions.

Lay of the lines

New Orleans was crisscrossed by dozens of streetcar lines, covering hundreds of miles, from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries. All had been torn up and replaced by bus service by the 1960s, but the St. Charles Avenue line, Streetcarstoday said to be the oldest continuously operating steel railway system in the world, was saved thanks to the strenuous efforts of local preservationists.

In 1988, the city opened its first new streetcar route in six decades: the Riverfront Line. Also known as Route 2, the two-mile-long line runs along a dedicated right of way -- meaning off the streets -- on the Mississippi River shoreline, from the New Orleans Convention Center to the French Quarter, at Esplanade Avenue.

A tramway toddler, relatively speaking,  the 20-year-old, seven-streetcar Riverfront Line ties the Warehouse District to the French Quarter and the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, with stops at the Aquarium of the Americas, the Riverwalk Shopping Center and the Ernest M. Morial Convention Center. The line is popular with visitors headed to the French Market and shops along the waterfront.

Sixteen years later, in 2004, a restored Canal Street line took to the tracks, operating for the first time in 40 years. It runs over 5.5 miles from the French Market at the riverfront to City Park Avenue, with a second spur along North Carrollton Avenue, bringing residents and tourists to the shops, restaurants, art galleries and entertainment venues of Mid-City.

Canal Street is served by 24 new streetcars resembling the original models still in use on St. Charles Avenue tracks. Most were damaged in Katrina and are undergoing repair. Meanwhile, service is supplemented by cars from the historical St. Charles line.

St. Charles comes marching in

Indeed, a streetcar ride along St. Charles Avenue is a journey back into New Orleans' storied past. The streetcar line began life back in 1835 as the Carrollton Line, served first by steam-powered streetcars and, later, more primitive but quieter horse-drawn trolleys. In 1893, overhead electricity began to power new cars; that system is still in operation today.

The St. Charles line was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and a decade later, in 1984, declared a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.

The St. Charles service was the last of the three routes to return to service after Katrina. An uptown stretch of the route, from Napoleon Avenue to the end of St. Charles Avenue, better known as Riverbend, reopened just before last Christmas.

Streetcars had been operating from Canal Street, adjacent to the French Quarter, to Napoleon Avenue since early November.

Service on the final stretch of the St. Charles line, along South Carrollton Avenue, is expected to resume in this spring.

The full streetcar route passes top attractions that have reopened since the floods, including dozens of the grand Southern homes for which New Orleans is known. One houses the popular, plantation-style Columns Hotel, built in 1883.

One stop on the St. Charles line leaves visitors within blocks of the Maple Street Book Shop and Children's Book Shop for, respectively, titles by local authors and a wonderful selection of children's books.

Peckish riders can catch a St. Charles Avenue streetcar back downtown and hop off at Washington Avenue. Two blocks away lies Commander's Palace, a legendary Crescent City dining room known for its Creole dishes. Reservations and appropriate attire  -- men must wear jackets -- are required.

Across the street from the restaurant lies Lafayette Cemetery, with its prototypical aboveground tombs, common in the swampy Mississippi Delta. Several firms offer walking tours of the cemetery, including Tour-New-Orleans.com.

Streetcar ABCs

One sight today's visitors will not see is any streetcar named Desire. The Desire Line, immortalized in the Tennessee Williams play, was pulled up in 1948. There had been talk of reviving the line before Katrina, but, given the aftermath of the storm, any resurrection of Desire is likely years away.

The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority operates the city's streetcar system 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Fares are $1.25 for a one-way ride. VisiTour passes are also available, priced at $5 for a one-day pass and $12 for a three-day pass.

Visit www.norta.com for more streetcar fares, schedules and stops information.

Kenneth Kiesnoski is Travel Weekly's Destinations Editor. E-mail him at [email protected].
Casey Kittrell contributed to this story.

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