First Look: New Orleans’ New Luxury Hotel
For such a popular vacation and conference destination, New Orleans has always been surprisingly short on top tier luxury hotels. That is about to change.
In recent pre-pandemic years the city’s leisure profile has been on a steady rise, thanks to a wave of top new attractions and great restaurants. If you haven’t been in a while, noteworthy things to do include the exceptional and ever-expanding National WW II Museum (with its own unique attached hotel) and the popular Sazerac House tour and tasting venue for the city’s signature homegrown cocktail.
On the food front, New Orleans has always had its grand classics full of Cajun and creole influenced specialties such as Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace, Arnaud’s and Galatoire’s, along with its collection of never disappointing Emeril Lagasse eateries (Emeril’s, Delmonico, NOLA, Meril). But it is a new generation of James Beard award winning standout chefs like Alon Shaya and Donald Link who are driving the contemporary culinary scene and bring a heightened level of gastronomic interest and energy to the city. Arguably the two most in demand names in New Orleans cooking right now, both have eateries in the new Four Seasons New Orleans luxury hotel.
Recent years have also seen a substantial wave of mid to upper range boutique hotels opening across the city, many of them in the hip Warehouse District, joining historic but underwhelming French Quarter classics. But in the true luxury category, for as long as I can remember the scant choices have been limited to the Ritz-Carlton and Windsor Court. This adds up to far less luxury lodging for visitors than any U.S. city this big and this popular with tourists. For example, while both are small compared to tourism giants New York, Orlando and Las Vegas, New Orleans and Honolulu are similarly sized cities with high demand for both leisure and corporate travel. New Orleans’ population is appreciably larger, and according to the two city’s visitors bureau websites, in 2018, a normal pre-pandemic year, New Orleans drew almost exactly double the 9.9 million tourists that visited Hawaii’s largest city. Yet Honolulu has two to three times the number of top tier luxury hotels.
That’s why the new Four Seasons, opening in one-week (August 17, 2021) is such a big deal – it is exactly what the city needs to fuel a tourism rebound, though sadly, the lack of enthusiasm for vaccinations and masking across the South, both strategies already been demonstrated to speed up reopening and a return to normalcy, have plunged placed like New Orleans into continued uncertainty. Just two days ago it was announced that Jazz Fest, a hugely popular 10-day festival that is one of the city’s biggest draws, will be cancelled for the second straight year as a result. But dramatically rising infection rates in Louisiana also finally promoted a rise in vaccination rates, so hopefully at some point, travelers will want to return to the City That Care Forgot, and when they do, they will be glad there’s a top new hotel in town.
In addition to bringing the first taste of one of the world’s most awarded and well-known luxury hotel brands – and its famously good service – to the Big Easy, there are several other notable advantages. The first is a prime location, right on the Mississippi, straddling the French Quarter and Downtown Central Business District (CBD), and within easy walking range of the city’s fast-growing Arts and Warehouse District where most of the top museums and many new eateries are. Guests have direct access to the riverfront promenade. Every tourist visiting New Orleans wants to explore the French Quarter, but for many reasons it is not always the most pleasant place to sleep, and all of the hotels within it are further from these other highlighted neighborhoods. Set at the foot of Canal Street, the main throughfare separating the French Quarter and CBD, Four Seasons guests are just steps from the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, the Harrah’s Casino, Sazerac House, the popular river cruises and the wonderful ferry trip to Algiers. It is also very close to the just renamed Caesars Superdome, where the New Orleans Saints play. Finally, the hotel is essentially at the hub for all four of the city’s fabled streetcar lines, offering an easy and extremely colorful ride to other more far-flung key attractions, such as City Park, the famous above ground cemeteries and the route down the riverfront.
The location simply cannot be beat, and then there is the hotel itself. Designed by famed modernist architect Edward Durell Stone, the 34-story tower curves along a bend in the river and has 341 guest rooms and suites, plus 92 private residences. The top two floors encompass an indoor/outdoor observation deck rising 350 feet above the riverfront and featuring 360-degree panoramic views of New Orleans, sure to be worth a visit even if you are staying elsewhere.
Evoking a sanctuary in the high-energy city, accommodations and décor were inspired by the historic gardens and native materials of New Orleans. Just as the fantastic newer Boston property, Four Seasons One Dalton Street (read review here), opted to put is pool, spa, salon and fitness center on the 7th floor to offer panoramic views, here they went for the 5th floor, home to the spa, fitness center, and an outdoor rooftop pool deck all overlooking the mighty the Mississippi River.
Likewise, recent Four Seasons openings have featured a standardized laundry list of upscale room features, so here you have the floor-to-ceiling windows (River or City view) with automated blackout curtains, signature Four Seasons beds and linens, Carrara marble bathrooms, 65-inch flatscreen television, tablet for in-room controls and hotel services, bedside charging stations, Nespresso coffee maker and tea kettle, and twice daily housekeeping with evening turndown service. More unusual touches to inspire a local feel include white shiplap walls, soft whitewashed oak accents and a plaster relief of magnolia leaves.
While overshadowed by food and music, art is very important and taken very seriously in New Orleans, and the Windsor Court has long boasted a museum style public collection that warrants its own printed tour guide and draws in non-guests. Four Seasons has taken the same tact with an extensive mixed medium collection that sprawls through the bars, restaurants and public spaces, inside and out, including sculptural works in the outdoor garden, pool deck, and port-cochere. Works range from oil paintings to photographs and the common theme is a celebration of all things New Orleans.
Food is extremely important in New Orleans, where locals famously don’t put up with the subpar, and a handful of recent destination restaurants have been in hotels, breaking a longtime standalone mold. That’s likely to be the case here thanks to the gastronomic celebrity firepower. Not only are Link and Shaya both winners of the coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef South, but they are also the only two to ever have their New Orleans eateries win Best New U.S. Restaurant. Shaya’s Chandelier Bar is the energy center and gathering point of the hotel, showcasing the city’s many contributions to the cocktail canon, the French 75, Sazerac, Ramos Gin Fizz and a grown-up version of the sickly sweet Hurricanes poured across the French Quarter. There is also champagne and lots of it, claiming to be the city’s deepest premium list, with offerings like Dom Perignon by the glass, a rarity. This is all accompanied with a menu of sharable small bites.
Shaya also operates Miss River, an ingredient-driven tribute to New Orleans’ grand dining history, featuring his creative take on beloved local dishes, with ingredients sourced from Shaya’s extensive network of local fishermen, farmers and other purveyors. Regional signature dishes include a whole carved buttermilk fried chicken with dipping sauces, to share; clay pot dirty rice with seared duck breast, duck egg yolk and scallions; salt-crusted Gulf red snapper with rosemary, lemon and extra virgin olive oil; and Duck and Andouille Gumbo with dark roux, filé, Louisiana rice, potato salad, and spring onions. The restaurant also features a massive wine program, new and old world, with lots of tableside cart presentations.
Multi-James Beard Award winning chef Donald Link was raised hunting, fishing, and cooking along the waterways of Southwest Louisiana, and deeply knows the flavors of the region. His portfolio includes Peche, consistently ranked among the city’s best eateries, plus standouts Cochon, Herbsaint, La Boulangerie, Calcasieu, Gianna, and a personal favorite of mine, artisanal butcher driven deli Cochon Butcher. Link’s newest restaurant is here in the hotel, Chemin à la Mer. It sits on the fifth floor with indoor and outdoor seating and sweeping views of the Mississippi. The Louisiana and French menu showcases a seafood and oyster bar with a large selection of oysters, shrimp, crab, ceviches and more, all harvested from Louisiana and Gulf waters. Entrées include classic and specialty steaks and seafood dishes Link finds through his travels around the world. Chemin à la Mer is not quite ready for next week’s grand opening, but is expected to start serving breakfast, lunch and dinner daily next month.