Day Three: Amazing Grace and the Human Slinky
"Hello, cutie!" calls one of the singers to Evan during the Sunday gospel brunch at the Praline Connection Gospel & Blues Hall. "I like that mask!" Though there are mostly tourists here, the atmosphere is still warm and enthusiastic. The stage is flanked by long tables covered with food: scrambled eggs, grits, biscuits, fried fish, shrimp étouffée, stuffed peppers, baked macaroni. At one point, the lead singer invites kids to come to the stage and sing backup (my two suffer a rare attack of shyness). For the finale, the whole audience parades around the room to the tune of "Down by the Riverside," waving white napkins and shaking hands with the staff and singers. We emerge from the building joyous, slightly dazed, and blinking in the sunlight.
On a short visit to New Orleans, the French Quarter is where to focus your time. We are entertained by the street performers in Jackson Square (the Human Slinky draws a crowd of several hundred), then go for a ride in a carriage (called buggies here) through the narrow streets, taking in the fern-laden wrought-iron balconies.
For a change of pace we head outside the heart of the city for dinner, to a place not even many taxi drivers seem to know. Sid-Mar's is in Bucktown, a residential area on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, seven miles northwest of the French Quarter. It's a bit of a cab ride, but you'll feel a long way from Mardi Gras. You eat on a wooden-floored, screened porch with (if you're lucky) a sunset view of the lake. The porch has a corrugated roof and Formica tables; the menu lists burgers, pasta, and deep-fried catfish, oysters, shrimp, and soft-shell crab. And yes, we'll all have fries with that.
Day Four: Bye-bye, Bayou
We've saved the best for last. We start at the aquarium, right down by the river. The shark tank is enough to delight my boys, but I'm enchanted by the ethereal jellyfish that pulsate in time to New Age music. There's lots of Louisiana content: a bayou section has a Cajun cottage, two owls, a bald eagle, and the star of the show, a white alligator that floats about looking pallid and slightly repellent.
Next we board the paddle wheeler John James Audubon, on which we've booked a 45-minute cruise up to the zoo. The finest views are from the top deck, where you can sit and watch the comings and goings of a working port. Lunch is available, too—hot dogs, chicken fingers, even gumbo.
It's early afternoon when we reach the zoo. What do we like best?The archaeological dig in the mist-filled Jaguar Jungle, where the boys brush sand away to reveal "Mayan" stone sculptures (this attraction covers the broadest age range: 12-year-olds can act like Indiana Jones; two-year-olds treat it like a giant sandbox). The Louisiana Swamp, with gators lolling just off the boardwalk (and a special attendant to warn kids not to tease the animals with long sticks—that means you, Oliver!). Then there's the gigantic live oak that seems made for climbing. And plenty more besides; we only scratch the surface. To top it all off: a ride back to the French Quarter on the St. Charles streetcar.
Rather than rely on room service, we pick up dinner at Ralph & Kacoo's, a fun restaurant that also does takeout. Portions are huge (it is possible to have more crawfish than you can eat) and the food is tasty; there's a kids' menu here too. Luckily, George of the Jungle is on TV in our room, and that makes some people very happy while other people pack up to go.
When we depart for the airport to catch a 7 a.m. flight, we're not too groggy to notice the crescent moon shining over the Crescent City, and the taxi radio softly playing jazz piano. Even kids ages four and six recognize that New Orleans is a special place. And despite all they've seen and heard and tasted, they leave New Orleans with their morals intact—and not a single tattoo.