When I told friends that my husband, David, and I were taking our two sons to New Orleans for a long weekend, they reacted as if we'd planned to spend a few days at a tattoo parlor. Are you kidding?America's longest-running frat party?That den of moral turpitude?
First, we live in New York City, which isn't exactly Disneyland—yet. Second, it turns out that much of what grown-ups love about New Orleans—its laid-back atmosphere, its hint of mystery, its theatricality—appeals to kids, too. After four eventful days, we had a new reason to call it the Big Easy: it couldn't be easier with children.
Day One: Black Magic, White Sugar
Right away, the boys notice that they're someplace different. We hop into a taxi at the airport to find its back window lined with stuffed animals—a rare decorating touch for a cab. An hour later, strolling the French Quarter, we pass a souvenir stand displaying made-in-China voodoo dolls. Is that an alligator head with beer bottles in its mouth?I should have explained the word funky before we left home.
First stop: New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. This is no normal town, say the looks in the boys' eyes. Maybe it's the dried bat, the strings of garlic, the human skull surrounded by offerings of coins, beads, and candy. Or the wishing stump, which six-year-old Evan takes to heart, solemnly following the instructions on the sign: Write down your wish on a piece of paper ("I officially wish my voodoo doll would come alive"), wrap some coins in the paper, drop it all into the stump, knock nine times, and offer a prayer to Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen. Across a spooky little courtyard is a room hung with odd masks and paintings, where you can watch a video. Most popular segment: dancers with snakes twined around their heads.
Back on the street in the French Quarter, the boys are intrigued by all they see. They closely question a goateed palm reader lounging at a table in Jackson Square; they fail to gawk (they're New Yorkers) at a gray-bearded, tattooed man in a top hat and formal wear. We make the obligatory stop at Café du Monde, where the boys gobble beignets and leave thoroughly dusted with powdered sugar.
Dinner that night is at Jacques-Imo's Café. The chef himself greets us, dressed in white toque and red-pepper-print shorts, and helps us thread our way through a front dining room, the kitchen, and a busy bar to reach the garden out back. The roofed space is surrounded by a fence painted with undersea and jungle scenes. Though there's no kids' menu, children are clearly welcome.
We order a range of dishes, which arrive in no particular order—but no one's really paying attention. Our four-year-old, Oliver, is digging in the dirt (at least until we notice). Evan tries risotto with crawfish and wild mushrooms; Ollie agrees to fried chicken, but both end up concentrating on french fries. If this is moral turpitude, they'll survive. Besides, why should we be the only people in town to worry about healthful food?So we dig into spicy garlic-fried oysters; grilled mahimahi in a sauce of jalapeño, shrimp, and pecans; highly seasoned corn maquechoux; and mashed sweet potatoes so sugary they set our teeth on edge.
We all sleep like babies at the elegant Claiborne Mansion; it has 14-foot-high ceilings and a garden with a swimming pool. The owner has thoughtfully set up two Winnie-the-Pooh sleeping bags—for the boys, not David and me—under a screen tent in our suite's parlor room.
Day Two: Mardi Gras (or Close Enough)
The following morning, we set off with maps and plans. We ride alongside the Mississippi in the Riverfront streetcar, shiny and polished with red paint and mahogany trim. On the river, the paddle wheelers are awaiting passengers, and "You Are My Sunshine" plays on a steam calliope. But we're heading to the rough-and-ready ferry that shuttles across the river to the historic neighborhood of Algiers. While Ollie anxiously scans the water for bull sharks, Evan muses, "Why do they call it Old Man River?It's not fair to girls. They should call it Old Person River." In five minutes we've reached the other side, where a van greets new arrivals to deliver them to Mardi Gras World.
Only a really wacky parent would consider taking young kids to Mardi Gras itself, but this has to be the next best thing: warehouses filled with floats, statues, giant heads (Liz Taylor! Clark Gable!), and fanciful creatures of all sorts (dragons, mermaids, Michael Jackson)—some freshly painted in incredible colors and details, others dusty and half ripped apart, with fiberglass noses hanging off. It's the last word in tawdriness, and the boys are in heaven. Before we leave, Evan insists on buying a feather mask that makes him look like an owl.
Next stop is the amazing Children's Museum, housed in the gallery-rich Warehouse District. There seems to be something here for everyone under age 45, if Dave is any proof. He's enthralled by a video driving game that tests reaction time. "Good news," he crows. "I'm average." Many children's-museum staples are here, but given a New Orleans touch—a science-related section has a "gator pull" that teaches about inclined surfaces, the play supermarket is stocked with Zatarain's crab boil and other local products. A highlight: pulling on a rope in the Water Works area raises a Hula Hoop that, for a few magical seconds, encloses your body in a huge soap bubble.
Dinner is another unqualified success. Kids aren't just welcomed to Red Fish Grill; they're indulged. We're seated in a booth beside a window that looks into the kitchen, so the boys spend half the wait crayoning their menus, the rest watching the action. They can choose from shrimp, grilled cheese, and angel-hair pasta, and yes, they do want fries with that. Though the decoration is all over the map (big metal sculptures, gingerbread trim, zaps of colored neon), the restaurant's cavernous size, concrete floor, and pleasant din are ideal for young diners. And get this: the waiter offers to bring the kids' meals with our appetizers. Our food?Great jambalaya and hickory-grilled trout. And how about that plate of desserts on the house?
As we stroll back to our hotel, Evan alarms tipsy nightclubbers by popping out at them in his feather mask. But it takes only one down-and-dirty block of Bourbon Street after dark to confirm that some parts of New Orleans are not quite PG-13. Ollie is asleep in his father's arms, so he misses the carny streetscape. But Evan's head swivels like an oscillating fan. Uh, why doesn't that woman have all her clothes on?