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Room at the Inn
If visiting an over-worked Santa at a congested mall is rough on your holiday spirit, try one of the various hotel wonderlands for holiday tea instead. This year's gingerbread house at the Windsor Court Hotel (300 Gravier St., 523-6000) is a reproduction of King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein Castle. Tea seatings in Le Salon are at 11:30 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. daily. The Fairmont Hotel's (123 Baronne St., 529-4848) annual block-long Angel Hair Christmas Lobby tradition began in the 1930s; today Blaine Kern Jr. does the decorating. Call for a schedule of the Fairmont's Teddy Bear Tea, which includes storytelling, snacks, cider, hot chocolate and Santa for children. Traditional tea service and Champagne Tea are available for adults. A 40-foot Christmas tree is the centerpiece for the children's Nutcracker teas and adults' traditional tea services at the Ritz Carlton-New Orleans (921 Canal St., 524-1331). Call for seating times.

Whole Wide World
The Dec. 4 opening of the new Whole Foods Market in Uptown's Arabella bus barn was an event. There were so many free samples that you didn't have to buy dinner. The biggest surprise for me was the variety of high-end, gourmet foods -- produce (baby kohlrabi), meat (ostrich) and seafood (octopus), as well as packaged goods, cheeses and alcohol. Walking through at least once for curiosity's sake is worth anyone's time, though I encourage shoppers to milk the coveted parking spaces for all they're worth. The surrounding neighborhood is rife with small businesses, and they need local support more now than ever. Chez Nous Charcuterie (5701 Magazine St., 899-7303), a gourmet-to-go hub, is across the street. All Natural Foods & Deli (5517 Magazine St., 891-2651) down the block has been selling organic produce and packaged products for years, and I haven't found a deli more consistent in quality. Last week I walked out with a cup of potato-kale soup, a serving of beet and cucumber salad, and an organic gala apple for about $6. La Boulangerie (4526 Magazine St., 269-3777) further down (not quite within walking distance) now sells individual pizzas topped with cheese, herbs and olives for $3, and nearby Eve's Market (4601 Freret St., 891-4015) carries organic beef and all-natural chickens.

Bloody Well Right
New at Marisol (437 Esplanade Ave., 943-1912): a complimentary Bloody Mary with the purchase of any Sunday brunch entree. Also look for the Mexican-inspired dishes Chef Pete Vazquez added to his tapas and dinner menus after a food-centric trip to Puerto Vallarta.


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