Kiddin' Around the Big Easy
by Terri Mandell & E. J. Campfield

Contrary to popular belief, New Orleans is not just for adults only...

In the nation's most notorious party town, it's legal to drink in the streets as long as your booze is in a cup, and over indulgence in food is a matter of civic pride, hence New Orleans' status as home to the highest percentage of overweight people in America. During Mardi Gras each year, decadence reaches new highs, as pumped up party animals from all over the globe keep the streets of the French Quarter packed to capacity 24 hours a day, cruising, dancing, yelling and drinking.

Many of the city's civil codes simply go out the window during the celebration, and the police are basically there to stand by making sure nobody gets hurt. But even when Mardi Gras is not going on, The French Quarter, the city's primary tourist area, is jammed with tourists, artists, musicians, psychics, poets and every imaginable life form blended together in a bright wash of noise and color.

Where to Take the Kids

While parts of The Quarter are probably not suitable for children, other parts are specifically designed for them, such as upper Decatur Street, which is in the process of transforming itself into a mini entertainment district for families. Only a short walk away, the waterfront area known as Riverwalk provides a slightly more sedate environment where kids and parents can find steamboat cruises, a trolley tour, and other family fare.

But the French Quarter is only a tiny part of New Orleans, and although it's loaded with history and charm, families can find plenty of culture, entertainment and outdoor activities just about anywhere around the city. We recently spent five days there with our two kids, and found it to be a remarkably child-friendly place. New Orleans is famous for its world-class zoo and aquarium, conveniently located adjacent to an IMAX theater, which makes for an entire day of family fun without ever having to move your car, which is a good thing, since driving and parking anywhere near downtown or the riverfront area is a nightmare.

The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau has a little publication called "99 Things For Kids," and it proved to be an important resource, listing museums, art & cultural events, historic sites, river and bayou cruises, parks and playscapes of all kinds. We were mightily impressed with this list, having visited dozens of cities as a family and rarely finding a guide so thoroughly researched, informative and easy to use. Once we got hold of this precious little pamphlet, the rest was easy.

We decided to begin with a bayou tour, and word had it around town that the Chacahoula Swamp Tour was the best bet. For a mere $20 for adults and $12 for kids, we were picked up in a spotless van by Captain Jerome Dupre, a native Cajun who grew up on the bayou hunting alligators with his family, and eventually turned his knowledge of local culture and his boating skills into a family business.

We were taken, along with a small group of other tourists, to a little home on the edge of the bayou, where two more vans full of people joined us for a traditional Cajun meal served by Mrs. Dupre. After lunch, we piled into Jerome's 22-passenger swamp boat for a 60-minute tour of some fascinating country. His narrative was entertaining and informative, with tales of alligators, trappers, Indians, government agents and eccentric local characters woven into his descriptions of plant life and ecological issues facing the Louisiana Bayou.

Back on dry land, the Louisiana Childrens' Museum, which has recently tripled in size by way of a $2.8 million renovation, has been rated as one of the top ten childrens' museums by two national parenting magazines. It features hands-on science labs, exhibits about physical fitness complete with a program called "Challenges" designed to build sensitivity toward physically and mentally challenged persons. Visitors are able to simulate loss of hearing, sight or movement through the use of high tech headsets and other tools. There's a waterworks display where the kids can build their own dams, and a simulated television studio where children can be star "anchors" on their own news shows. For younger kids, there's a mini supermarket with real cash registers and shopping carts, and a tugboat that gives kids a chance to be both captain and the crew by supervising boat operations and loading sacks of coffee and other cargo onto the boat.

Another highly recommended attraction for very young children is a little fairy tale theme park called Storyland, located inside New Orleans City Park. The park itself has a lot to offer on its 1500 acres, including horseback riding, concerts, boating and amusement rides, but Storyland is a little mini city of larger-than-life storybook gingerbread houses and storybook exhibits for climbing, sliding and pretending. Storyland was recently rated one of the country's ten best playgrounds by CHILD magazine.

If storybooks are a bit too tame for your tribe, there is an abundance of haunted history tours, which your kids will probably find fascinating, as they listen to scary stories while visiting one haunted mansion after another. Graveyard tours are a big thing here too, since New Orleans is the home of Anne Rice, voodoo and vampires, and there are dozens of tour operators taking advantage of the unusual graveyards in the area. It appears that the area is so swampy that the ground water level is only a few feet below the surface, so the dead are buried almost at surface level. This makes for much folklore and speculation about wandering spirits, and a great source of fantasy for kids who are into the Goosebumps books.

New Orleans can also provide your children with a valuable history lesson in the form of a plantation tour. There are dozens of tours to choose from, most of which present an eerie juxtaposition between the horrors of slave life and the grandeur of the old south. Some of the most notable plantations are Oak Alley, an 1800 mansion which stands at the end of a mile of 28 magnificent live oaks (seen in many movies); the Destrehan Plantation, which is oldest in the area, built in 1787; and Laura Plantation, the home of Br'er Rabbit.

Where to Stay and How to Get Around

Back at the waterfront, the easiest way to get around is by way of a streetcar that costs about a dollar and takes you all along the Riverfront and St. Charles Avenue. Walking tours of the French Quarter are great, and here's a hot tip: don't pay for the ones you see advertised everywhere. The National Park Service offers them for free.

As far as accommodations go, we recommend staying outside of the French Quarter, primarily because it's so noisy and expensive otherwise.. Most of the hotels in The Quarter are charming and romantic, and you can't beat the ambiance. But if you have kids, you might want to think about something a little more practical. We opted for something 20 minutes out of town... the Airport Hilton, which was both comfortable and affordable, and offers baby-sitting services.The only down side was driving back and forth. The streets are not well-signed, so even with a map, navigation was difficult. Parking in town is expensive and the streets are confusing. Your best bet is to drive downtown, park for the day, and take taxis or trolleys wherever you want to go. An in-room breakfast, and then lunch and dinner in town is an ideal plan if your kids can manage such a long day.

Trial by Food

And speaking of meals, New Orleans is famous for its cuisine, and we made a point of sampling a lot of it. Our favorite restaurant was a little place in the Garden District (another important area to visit, full of old mansions, gorgeous gardens and quaint shops) off St. Charles Avenue, called Upperline. The owner, JoAnn Clevenger, has turned the place into a gallery for local artist, and a kid-friendly neighborhood hangout with an exceptionally imaginative menu. Our other favorite eateries included Kelsey's, run by a delightful young couple with two young children. Dad's the chef, and the food is extraordinary.

We also liked The Half Shell for an authentic Louisiana breakfast, and if you can get a sitter, it's a great place for listening to late night jazz with the locals. Our peak lunch experience was at the Royal Cafe in The Quarter, where we sat on the balcony eating shrimp Creole on a warm bright January day with a blues band playing in the street below us.

Finally, as all tourists do, we had dinner at Brennan's, a New Orleans tradition that goes back forever, and is not to be missed. Brennan's has one of the most extensive wine lists in the city, and that's saying a lot, since we found the wine selection at most other places to be somewhat limited (we're from California... we're spoiled). Brennan's is a great place for breakfast, lunch or dinner, and is very family-friendly.

Another place that came highly recommended by the locals was Tujaque's (pronounced two-jocks), which regrettably, we didn't have a chance to visit, but by all accounts is one of the most happening places in town.

In all, New Orleans is an experience not to be missed, with our without kids. If you're from any part of the country where the south -- particularly the Cajun and Creole south -- is a mystery to you, then visiting New Orleans is a must in terms of giving your kids a well-rounded view of the melting pot we live in. The weather is stifling in the summer, but great during winter, spring and fall, and the party goes on year round.

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Terri Mandell & E. J. Campfield are travel writers and parents who live in Los Angeles.

Copyright ©2000 byTerri Mandell & E. J. Campfield. All rights reserved.