Want a marshmallow?
The 6-foot-long alligator, dubbed Otis by the locals, who’s minus one foot and swimming alongside our boat certainly does. We’re in the Honey Island Swamp in Slidell, La., on Louisiana’s Northshore on the Pearl River Swamp Eco Tour. It’s another world from New Orleans, though we are just 40 minutes from downtown, across Lake Pontchartrain.
Our guide, John Royen, tells us the gators think the marshmallows are turtle eggs. We’re relieved to hear the marshmallows are actually good for their digestion. We see ibis nesting in the tall trees, a great blue heron, wild baby hogs and spooky “Cypress knees” that look like giant fingers sticking up in the swamp, though they are really keeping the roots and the tree in place. Let’s not forget the creepy gray-green Spanish moss hanging from the trees, so named by the Choctaw Indians after the beards on the Spanish Conquistadors’ faces. The Choctaws had no facial hair, Royen explained, and the moss, apparently, reminded them of the beards.
Sure, New Orleans is famous for its food, its music and raucous partying. (The famous revolving Merry-go-Round Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter was packed every night of our visit.) But I discovered, there is a lot more here for families than many think – starting with the popular and plenty spooky Swamp Tours (have you heard about the swamp monsters?) Louisiana, we learn, is 70 percent swamp. This one – so named because of the honey bees that build their hives in the hollows of certain trees – stretches for 250 square miles. It’s bigger than Washington, D.C.
Certainly there are plenty of places to stay. I liked the historic Omni Royal Orleans for its central French Quarter location, its rooftop saltwater pool and the Omni Kitchen Kids backpack that kids get upon check-in that sports fun health and nutrition-themed games (Apple A Day Maze ), jokes (What is Dracula’s favorite fruit – a NECKtarine), recipes (turkey tortilla pinwheels) and goodies (think a twisty straw with a smiling tomato top made to match a travelers’ drinking cup, which are given at the hotel restaurant) – all designed to promote healthier eating on family vacations.
In and around the city, there are plenty of places, of course, to encourage kids to try new foods. “It is a rare child that doesn’t eat gumbo, red beans, jambalaya or etouffee. “Those dishes pretty much run through our veins,” jokes New Orleans food blogger Lorin Gaudin.
You won’t have to push them to taste a sugar-covered beignet, which is lighter and fluffier than any doughnut.
Everywhere you turn, there are stories about pirates, ghosts, voodoo and steamboats on the Mississippi River to engage them, suggests Naif Shahady, who offers terrific New Orleans Culinary History Tours appropriate for foodie teens and private tours for families.
Talk about the lessons of Hurricane Katrina and how far the city has come in the past nine years. The excellent “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” exhibit, complete with drawings done by children who were evacuated at the Louisiana State Museum, is a good starting point. The kids will also love the Mardi Gras exhibit with the impossibly ornate and glittery costumes, crowns and scepters.
We loved the National World War II Museum with its personal artifacts (the wallet of a 17-year-old Medal of Honor winner, for example) and stations where those who lived through the war recount their experiences. (More from the kids who volunteer there in a later column.)
Let’s not forget the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium just a few blocks from the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in downtown New Orleans with its interactive “Geaux Fish!” exhibit exploring the importance of the Louisiana fishing industry. (How many local species can you identify?) They are all part of the Audubon Nature Institute, along with the Audubon Zoo. Despite the heat, kids were having a blast in the huge City Park – one of the largest in the country – with its outdoor Besthoff Sculpture Garden.