Three years ago, I worked with the New Orleans Tourism Board on one of my absolute favorite projects to date: It involved spending three days exploring the city with my family, and having various dreams come true (ZOMG SASSY THE PENGUIN).
So in celebration of Mardi Gras, here’s a throwback to the trip – including plenty of recommendations should you decide to take a jaunt down to this very loveliest and warmest and most magical of cities.
We spent our first afternoon wandering through the French Quarter, popping into boutiques and voodoo shops and ending up at Three Muses (recommended by reader @kmrussellecki via Instagram) for live jazz and gulf fish crudo. After dinner, we crossed the street to explore the Frenchmen Art Market, an open-air space where you can chat with local artisans while checking out their crafts, jewelry, and canvases (favorite finds: cameras, teapots and books repurposed into Edison-bulb light fixtures by Junk Evangelist). We were planning to Uber back to our hotel, but our kids ended up catching a second wind (weirdos), so we walked back through Jackson Park instead, listening to buskers play harmonicas while the sun set.
You know, I grew up in New York City and have always thought of it as very singular in that the city feels like a living, breathing entity of its own…but New Orleans is alive.
We started our second day in New Orleans on a party bus – as all good days should obviously start – and drove out to Honey Island Swamp for a close encounter with some alligators. And when I say “close encounter,” I mean hi that alligator is twelve inches away and slamming against our boat because he REALLY would like to eat that marshmallow and right now thanks. Fortunately, the alligators were way more interested in said marshmallows than in our fingers (which we were nevertheless warned to please keep inside the railings, as they apparently “look like hot dogs”).
Fingers behind the railings. Check.
When I found out we were doing a swamp tour with Cajun Encounters as part of our visit, I was sort of “mmm. Innnnteresting.” I knew it would be beautiful and such, but I also pictured mile-wide mosquito swarms and soul-destroying humidity and the occasional sighting way off in the distance of what might be an alligator but is probably a log.
What we experienced instead was – and I apologize for the lack of originality, but I’m going to have to keep using this word to describe our trip – completely magical. We boarded a little open-top boat and made our way down the river , watching blue egrets fly over the reeds, pointing out cypress trees and little turtle families, and then getting a seeeeriously good look at alligators ranging in size from under two feet to well over six. And then came my favorite part: a slow drift through the swamp with Spanish moss hanging over our heads and the sound of wild boars moving through the brush way off in the distance.
I felt like I was in The Notebook. Minus the romance, of course; children screaming “THERE’S ANOTHER ALLIGATOR!” while simultaneously inhaling Lunchables have a tendency to kill that part. But still:
P.S. My son’s hands-down favorite part was obviously the enormous yellow spider that we saw hanging out in a tree, looking all ready to kill us and stuff. I was obviously sliiiightly more inclined towards the blue egrets, but to each his own, right?
Cafe Du Monde | New Orleans
I think my face here pretty much says it all. Our last day in New Orleans started with a beignet-driven meltdown. (Seriously. My children – particularly my daughter, whose nickname when she is being ornery, FYI, is “Sassypants” – were categorically incapable of handling the presence in their lives of beignets, and the end result was Goldie collapsed on the ground in full spread-eagle mode. This did, however, also result in a man walking by laying down on the ground next to her and having his own temper tantrum to try to distract her, which was mayyyyybe one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.)
The picture above was taken ten minutes post-meltdown, when Goldie had finally been appeased by a beignet. You know, the one that we had never said that she couldn’t have, but that sparked a meltdown anyway because she…didn’t believe us that she could…have it? I have no idea.
Anyway, things went uphill from there.
Ohhhh, just learning to drive a vintage streetcar and then going for a just-us-four ride through the city, nbd. The reason for this: the streetcar system – which was damaged by Katrina but has been restored to working order – is one of the loveliest attractions in New Orleans. They’re charming (the St. Charles line streetcars have mahogany seats, leather straps and exposed light bulbs), they’re relaxing, and they’re apparently how many people commute to work, which makes me want to move to New Orleans immediately (we did actually fantasize about this briefly while wandering through the Garden District and looking at the architecture).
Riding through the streets with their hands in the breeze practically made my children comatose. Which, given how the day started, was an excellent development.
We hopped off the streetcar in the Garden District, did the aforementioned house-fantasizing, and made our way over to Magazine Street, where I could have very easily spent every cent I have because hellooooo antiques market. (I ended up buying a multistrand necklace that started out being $85 and ended up being $25 either because I am an excellent negotiator or because the proprietor wanted my children to step away from the expensive antique china as soon as possible).
Two more favorite stops: Dat Dog, where the kids ate octopus-shaped hot dogs and I ate the single best hot dog I have ever eaten in my life (and I’m from NYC, so I am snobby about my hot dogs), and the kids’ boutique Pippen Lane, where I found black leotard with a sparkly black tutu that they were selling alongside a felt penguin mask. I desperately tried to convince my daughter to be a sparkly be-tutued penguin for Halloween, but to no avail: she’s holding strong on the Pink Princess idea.
…And above, there I am having my greatest childhood dreams come to life in the form of a penguin named Sassy. (Could the name possibly be any more perfect? Also the photo is blurry because I was freaking. Out.)
YOU GUYS. I HELD A PENGUIN. (Yeah yeah, my children got to hold him too. But I HELD A PENGUIN.)
Or at least I got to hold him for a minute. Because shortly thereafter Sassy fell completely in love with Kendrick – a.k.a. the member of our party least enthusiastic about penguin-holding – and literally would not leave his lap or stop performing what our guide called “mating behaviors.” It was as amazing to witness as you’d imagine.
Sassy + Kendrick 4 Eva.
(This is actually a thing that you can totally do at the Audubon Aquarium – it’s called the Penguin Experience, and also involves getting to help make the penguin food, and helping transport the penguin that you hang out with through the aquarium and back to his exhibit, which essentially transforms you into a celebrity for the duration of the stroll, because people freak the F out when they see penguins rolling by.)
Oh my goodness, New Orleans. Thank you for this trip. It was a dream come true.