By Heidi Hess
Mischief, mayhem, debauchery, Voodoo … sounds like the perfect family vacation, doesn’t it? That’s right. I took my family to New Orleans for summer vacation. I can hear your thoughts. “What kind of a mom takes her kids to a place like that?” Me. I did. And not only am I going to tell you why you should too, but I’ll give you some great places in the Big Easy designed specifically for kids. Trust me, you’ll have a good time, they will have a good time AND (>gasp<) they might come away from this experience better, smarter, more well-rounded kids.
A few things come to mind when people think of NOLA: Mardi Gras, Jazz, Voodoo, Beignets and Bourbon Street. While the actual French Quarter is just a few blocks by a few blocks it is packed with interesting places and lots of history. We started off our day walking through the French Market. It’s an open-air mall that is one of the oldest market/mall/trade areas in the country. The natives used this area to trade fish and wears right off the bank of the Mississippi. There are a host of colorful characters selling their items – many handmade. Oscar of New Orleans is one of those people. He crafts pins and earrings out of brightly hued polymer clay. Looking at his work is a treat, but the real fun is speaking with him. He’s vibrant, flamboyant – just like the city he calls home.
A visit to New Orleans isn’t complete unless you stop at the legendary Cafe du Monde. Yes, there’s a line. And yes, by the time you are done you will be covered in confectionery sugar (I recommend wearing light-colored clothes they day you go…unless you want to be branded a tourist). Sugar covered shirts and shorts are unavoidable if you eat beignets the way they are intended to be eaten – eyes closed, savoring every bite of these delicious French donuts, with an audible “Umm….”. All of us loved the beignets and vowed we would be back.
Next stop is right across the street – Jackson Square. We did a quick visit to the St. Louis Cathedral. I mean, not only is it the place where Princess Tiana marries Prince Nevan in Disney’s Princess and The Frog but it’s also the oldest operating cathedral in the country. The stained glass here is breath taking and interestingly enough my son asked a lot of questions about stained glass. With older kids, you just never know what will strike their fancy.
On either side of the cathedral are two museums: The Cabildo and The Presbytere. The Louisiana Purchase was signed in The Cabildo AND Napoleon’s death mask was a must see here. On the other side of St. Louis Cathedral is The Presbytere. They feature two exhibits: the history of Mardi Gras and Hurricane Katrina. It was recommended that if you go, start with the Mardi Gras exhibit upstairs and then make your way down to the exhibit on Hurricane Katrina. My teenage kids enjoyed both of them but if you have littles, I might pass on it.
Speaking of entertaining the littles, did I mention the awesome aquarium they have here? Audubon Aquarium of the America’s is a great place to go on a really hot day and what kid doesn’t love the aquarium? Also, kids of all ages will love Blaine Kerns Mardi Gras World. This is a walking tour of the warehouses that house the Mardi Gras floats. You are taken through the whole process – illustration, beginning construction, painting… and then you see the finished product. It was the highlight of our vacation. The kids absolutely loved seeing these floats up close and personal. Sidenote: it comes with a slice of King cake. This little slice of heaven is a Mardi Gras tradition that has a plastic baby baked inside the cake. The kids and I had fun figuring out if any of us had won the prize (nope… no baby in our cake)!
No trip to New Orleans would be complete without experiencing something that was born here. I’m not talking a good Sazerac or Hurricane, no, NOLA is the birthplace of jazz. Preservation Hall is where it all started but getting tickets to the shows is difficult and it’s not very family friendly. Even still, we did find a few places that had dinner with live jazz. Namely the Palm Court Jazz Cafe and Snug Harbor. They have menus that cater specifically to kids (think chicken nuggets and the like). Another good way to expose young ones to jazz is on the riverboat cruises they have that ride up and down the Mississippi. There are day tours, lunch or dinner cruises too, but they all have live jazz. I love jazz but what I really wanted to hear was Zydeco. And oddly enough, the best local place to hear Zydeco is at Rock ’N’ Bowl – it’s a bowling alley that has live Zydeco concerts 8pm on Thursday nights. You can take the kids, go bowling, eat some yummy local food and listen or rather dance to Zydeco.
New Orleans is colorful and fun, but we would be missing a big part of its history by ignoring its darker side. Disney doesn’t shy away from it. Why should we? But there are ways to keep it light, entertaining and educational. We booked a ghost tour and were treated to age-appropriate tales of hauntings and history. Voodoo is mentioned a lot here. My kids think of Voodoo as Dr. Facilier from The Princess and the Frog. So just the mention that this might be real made them a little nervous. But I don’t shy away from things and if I’m fearful of something I learn as much as I can about it. I hope to pass that on to my kids. This is the perfect example. We visited Marie Laveau’s Voodoo Shop, Reverend Zombie’s Voodoo Shop and also the History of Voodoo Museum. We spoke to several knowledgeable and kind people in the stores and museum to realize that, just like lots of things, the emphasis has been placed on the bad parts. That Hollywood has put a sick and horrific twist on this religion that is still actively practiced today. Were we converted? Nope. Jesus is still my home boy. But the kids and I learned enough to not be scared and know that this is much deeper than a half day delve…. Basically, we realized that we know what we don’t know but we figured out a few things that put us at ease.
On our last day we did some sovereign shopping. Please don’t do this on Bourbon Street. A word about Bourbon Street: it’s disgusting. Royal Street is just a few blocks closer to the Mississippi and it is Bourbon Streets classy cousin. There are some really great shops along here. There is one that specializes in stationary, quills, ink and sealing wax – how very old school. Shops filled with colorfully decorated masks as well as a few Christmas stores can be found here and are all locally owned.
After picking up an iron Fleur de lis for Ryan and an earring/necklace combo for Savannah we had one more spot to hit on our way out. That’s right. You guessed it. By the time we piled into the car to drive home our dark color clothes had a light dusting of white confectionery sugar. We were fat and happy and finally didn’t care if we looked like tourist because, well, we were. What is it about travel that enriches us? There are things that you and the kids learn by getting outside of your element… by pushing the boundaries. There are lessons that can’t be taught in the classroom. And one of them, if not the most important is: Life is short. Eat the Beignets – or six.
Happy travels ~ HH
Super Mom by day, feisty writer by night. Heidi Hess, a 40+ year resident of Palm Beach County, considers herself a native. In her spare time, she dabbles in writing, painting and loves to travel.