Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Two Holiday Outings: Cirque Dreams Holidaze and Celebration in the Oaks

Frosty the Snowman at Celebration in the Oaks
During this magical holiday season, we decided to take the kiddos on a tour of some of the "magic" happening around town. At nearly 4 years old, Charles seemed prepared for his debut into the theater scene. A travelzoo offer got us $11 tickets to Cirque Dreams Holidaze, and although the acrobatic circus show started a bit late in the evening, we couldn't pass up the deal.

All dressed up in his collared shirt and navy pants, Charles had even allowed us to brush his hair before we set out for the Mahalia Jackson Theater. Armstrong Park's fountains of water danced in the artificial light, and we half ran (a.k.a. chased down Charles) over the various bridges to see what sculptures had been added since our last visit. When my feet started screaming at the heels I was wearing, I resorted to telling Charles he'd better stick close or else the ogres living behind the trees would get him. I'm sure my stories will one day give this child a complex, but at the time, it convinced him to walk beside us.

A performer balances rings in the air.
He was excited, though, by his big-boy night out, and every little detail enthralled him - right down to his favorite-color-blue lights that lit the stairways to our seats. And the show itself was captivating with fast-paced music, lots of color and twisting and turning acrobats performing nearly impossible feats. From juggling and roller skating to flying and clothes changing, these performers were true artists of their trade and kept us all hanging on the edge of our seats.

Two child star performers particularly impressed Charles, and throughout intermission, he practiced his own moves by balancing both legs and arms on the chairs around us. By the second half, he was reaching his limit though, and after he watched two acts through half-closed lids and sprawled across our laps, Paul and I hoisted him up and exited the theater. Before passing out in his car seat, he gave me a sheepish smile and said, "You know the girl with the thing on her head, she was pretty, mom."

The evening's success gave us confidence to take both kids over (a few days later) to City Park's Celebration in the Oaks. Every inch of the Botanical Gardens, Storyland and Carousel Gardens were covered in "a festival of lights."

Rides spin and twist at City Park's amusement park
While August ooh'd and aah'd at the colors and pointed at every light his stroller got near, Charles was fixated on the rides in the amusement park. People were zooming in circles on the Scrambler and Tilt-a-Whirl and falling from the sky on the Monkey Jump. He stared wide-eyed, but glued to his seat, too afraid to move an inch...until he spotted the carousel. Now this was his kind of ride, and several minutes later he was up on a horse grinning with delight. Meanwhile, August was crying his eyes out, perhaps scared that his big brother was galloping away into the night.

The lights became more elaborate as you entered the Botanical Gardens, and at one point, they flashed and created fantastic displays illuminating the story of the "Cajun Night Before Christmas." In other spots, dripping icicles covered massive live oaks and Frosty the Snowman danced under the stars. It was indeed a magical place, and the boys enjoyed every moment of it.

New Orleans' celebrity Mr. Bingle at Celebration in the Oaks

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Family Traditions at Percy Quin State Park

Percy Quin State Park and Lake Tangipahoa
For more than 40 years, my husband's family has spent a December weekend at a cabin at Percy Quin State Park. Continuing the family tradition, we headed up I-55 toward McComb, Miss., and met the relatives at a large cabin on the lake.

Our lovely cabin
After a quick detour in Manchac for a seafood lunch at Middendorf's, we arrived at the park by mid-afternoon. The fire was already roaring in the den's large, brick fireplace. My mother-in-law had hung festive lights and miniature Christmas trees around the great room to make us all feel at home. Everyone quickly dragged in their luggage and claimed their spot in the 5-bed cabin before heading out the back porch and down to the lake.

The 700-acre Lake Tangipahoa, surrounded by fragrant pine trees and a hiking trail, serves as the focal point of this park constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. We watched the sun set below the trees and then hurried back inside as the temperature rapidly fell. The evening entailed hot dogs and marshmallow smores roasted over the fire as the children played hide and seek.

Saturday always follows the same routine, with more relatives and friends arriving to spend the day with us. For breakfast, we utilized the kitchen this time and left the fire for warming cold hands and toes. Then we all set off on our annual hike, starting on the paved trail behind the cabin.

The lodge at Percy Quin
Once the sidewalk ended, our group continued following the lake toward the main lodge, where we all took a break for the kids to play the old-fashioned pin-ball machine and video games. With its exposed beams and large fireplace, the lodge, although underutilized, is a beautiful testament to the work of the CCC. Our self-made trail continued through the woods to the playground, passing a raised pipe along the way that has served as a balance beam for as long as I can remember.

This year, with several small children present, we stopped our walk short at the playground, where the kids romped and the adults knocked mistletoe out of the trees. In past years, though, we often set off over a bridge and into the woods a bit before turning back. The afternoon was filled with coffee and conversation, while the older children built a fort in the red cliffs overlooking the lake to our left.

Even our three-year-old paused for the scenery.
I always look forward to this trip every year, and this one didn't disappoint. While some things may have changed, such as the flat screen TV we immediately unplugged and the championship golf course by the entrance, all in all, Percy Quin is much the same as usual. Quiet and peaceful, it forces you to relax and slow down. There is nothing spectacular about our trip--no wild adventure sports or amazing discoveries, but somehow it has become one of my favorite times of the year. And as I watched the fog slowly burn off the morning lake, I realized once again that this is a special place.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dinosaurs Attack at Audubon Zoo

Up close and personal with dinosaurs

To build up the anticipation for visiting the Lafayette Science Museum's Dinosaurs exhibit, we ended our long Thanksgiving weekend with a trip to the Audubon Zoo and its own Dinosaur Adventure. The normally packed zoo was nearly empty on this bitter cold and dreary day. Once we bundled up, though, we were elated at the free reign we had.

Elephants pack up their toys at the end of the show.
Every visit to the zoo starts with a stop at the elephants. For the first time, we caught it just right to see the elephant show, where Charles was able to pet one of the giant animals. After the talk ended, the elephants packed up to head indoors to eat, with one closing the gate with his trunk while the other lifted a large tire with his mouth and walked away.

We made a quick tour of the monkeys and marveled at the sea lions playing under water before Charles had reached his limit and ran at top speed toward the dinosaurs. I watched as Paul chased him down and casually carried August in the direction of the roaring noises. We entered the steamy prehistoric setting and gawked at the insanely realistic animals. They are truly the oddest creatures I've ever seen, some with heads covered in horns and others that hiss a stream of water at you.

Sea lions play in their watery habitat.
Charles lived for days like this and rattled off the various names that I couldn't even pronounce. At three years old, he has become an expert on dinosaurs, even to the point of watching National Geographic documentaries about them. Only one of the creatures stumped him, and he required my assistance to read the sign citing the long, foreign-sounding name.

August, on the other hand, grew more scared by the moment, and when he started clutching me tight and screaming back at the animals, I knew it was time to abort. We instead did some Christmas shopping in the gift shop while the other two marveled at the king T-Rex attacking a triceratops.

A white alligator relaxes by the water's edge.
I don't think a zoo will ever be the same for these kids now that they've been mesmerized by the dinosaurs. We continued on, laughing at the giraffes chasing each other around their cage and the black bears playing in their bath tub. The white alligators probably ranked second on their list, though they held a close tie with the elephants. The swamp monster was definitely in the top five as well.

As we exited the Louisiana swamp, the rain returned, and we cut the rest of our tour short. As with every visit, the zoo was a complete success and remains a standard on our local treasures list.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Barataria Buccaneers' Day

Sweetgum seeds in the forest
Our latest trip took us back to one of our earliest adventure locations - Jean Lafitte National Park. It was Barataria Buccaneers' Day at the Barataria Preserve in Marrero, and Charles was on a mission to become a Junior Ranger/Privateer.

We came prepared this time, carrying a dinosaur lunchbox of sandwiches and snacks, and chose the Visitor's Center as our hiking launch site. One-year-old August was snoring in his stroller before we reached the glass doors leading to the information center. I sat outside with him while Paul chased our three-year-old on a 90-second tour of the wildlife display. When they emerged, Charles proudly announced he had touched every animal in the building before darting off down the trail.
Jean Lafitte's boardwalk trails
We walked at a brisk pace, following close behind those short legs running at top speed. He had reserves of energy, and the Palmetto Trail's flat boardwalks through lush greenery were the perfect place to wear him down. I saw several lizards flee his approach, and the only thing that stopped him in his tracks was a noise in the underbrush beside us. While we searched for a snake, I coaxed him into his stroller with the promise of graham crackers.

The Palmetto Trail ends at the parking lot for the Bayou Coquille Trail, and it was here that the park service had set up a kids' tent complete with coloring pages, a scavenger hunt and pirate eye patches. Now down to one good eye, Charles concentrated hard on coloring the National Park Service badge his favorite color blue to earn his Junior Ranger badge.

An alligator watches us closely from her hiding spot.
Meanwhile, we continued our walk, amazed at the lack of water in the area. The normally high-water Bayou Coquille and Lower Kenta Canal were both choked over with plants, giving the appearance of land where water once stood. We had even lost hope in seeing an alligator until we reached the Pipeline Canal, where a high bridge offered a bird's eye view of full-grown female gator.

At the trail's end, a ranger sat at the boat launch offering free canoe rides. Paul and Charles suited up in their life jackets and paddled away in the canoe, while August giggled wildly and threw himself into the remaining life jackets. After the excitement was over, we found a quiet spot to sit and have our picnic lunch before heading back the way we had come.

A canoe tour of Pipeline Canal
Our one stop on the return trip was to hand in Charles' coloring page, where the ranger made him raise his right hand (well, he thought it was his right!) and swore him in as a Junior Ranger. He proudly wore his badge, which gave him permission to boss around mommy and daddy all throughout the last leg of our four-mile hike.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Knighted at Ren Fest

Ren Fest participants stroll the streets of Albright

Every November on the outskirts of Hammond, men, women and children dust off their swords and corsets and step back in time to the village of Albright. They become the centerpiece of the Louisiana Renaissance Festival, affectionately known as Ren Fest, and they open their doors wide to the public.

Our wagon awaits...
Our family of four accepted the invitation and set off for our hour-long drive from New Orleans. The adventure began the second we emerged from the car. A horse-drawn wagon pulled up at our feet and offered us a ride to the front entrance. Charles was on board with lightning speed and waited with as much patience as a three-year-old can muster while others climbed inside.

Our chauffeur dropped us at the castle gates, and the dust stirred beneath us as we made our way along the dirt road. The village has grown over its 12 years, and many permanent houses and shops now create a surprisingly real town settled around a tranquil lake. I glanced in a costume rental shop, where tourists were trading their street clothes for period clothing. While costumes and fake accents are optional in Albright, many of the visitors seem to embrace the role playing.

A village shop
The kids were fascinated by the entire place. I've never seen them both so quiet and wide-eyed in their whole lives. We strolled a quarter of the path around the lake, browsing through candle-making, jewelry and toy shops before stopping to watch a sword-fighting, comedy show. Paul and I cracked up at the slightly bawdy comedians who enjoyed heckling each other and the audience. Meanwhile, Charles was captivated by the clanging of their steel swords, while August collected pine cones on the ground next to us.

Next up, we forewent the giant turkey legs in favor of Mediterranean food and made a picnic under some pine trees by the lake. We caught a portion of a belly dancing show during lunch before trying out some hoola-hoops and juggling stix.

Queen Elizabeth I knights Charles
The more we walked, the more we saw--from dungeons to jousting, living history demonstrations to a magic show. Charles suckered us into buying him a wooden pirate sword--with a blue handle, of course--and he has been torturing his little brother with it ever since. He also developed a slight crush on Queen Elizabeth I and was shaking with anticipation when he found out she was going to "knight" him. After she touched his shoulders and top of his head with her sword and then belted a loud "hip hip huzzah," he left with the full belief that he was now King.

Our journey back in time ended on that note, and we eased ourselves back into reality by stopping for coffee in downtown Hammond. By the time we hit the interstate, both kids had passed out in the back seat and amazingly were out for the night.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Halloween Hauntings

Skeletons emerge from a house on St. Charles Ave.
This Halloween weekend, we took advantage of the ghouls and goblins haunting New Orleans. We kicked it off Friday night at Audubon Zoo's "Boo at the Zoo," where hundreds of Jedis, princesses and fairytale characters had replaced the usual wild animals found at the zoo. We had left the little one home with his Omi (granny) and brought T-Rex Charlie out for the festivities.

A French Quarter butler
Charles was in his element, stomping around in his miniature dinosaur costume, playing toddler games and trying out his "trick or treat!" yell. Bag overflowing with candy, he begged us to take him on the ghost train, which unfortunately was not recommended for a three year old. Instead, we entered the Dinosaur Adventure, which looked creepily realistic in the dark. Charles was scared just enough to keep him clinging to me, and we both jumped when one of those sneaky reptiles shot a spray of water out of his mouth right at our foreheads.

On Saturday, before attending a Halloween party in the French Quarter, we strolled the historic streets looking for decorations. The French Market had donned a large pumpkin around its entrance and set up a mini maze for children, while several homes greeted visitors with spooky butlers and flying witches. Meanwhile, on St. Charles Avenue, some of the city's most beautiful mansions had transformed into haunted houses, with skeletons playing across their yards and jack-o-lanterns staring us down with glowing eyes.

Having a haunting good time in Faubourg St. John
By the time Halloween Day arrived, I already had to sew up both tails on the well-worn T-Rex and Triceratops costumes. Paul and I both left work early to prepare the kids for Faubourg St. John's "Bounty on the Bayou." Policemen passing out glowing necklaces had blocked the streets surrounding Fortier Park, where children of all ages were munching on free hotdogs and popcorn. Every house in the area was open for trick or treating, and we made a haul in candy--lots and lots of candy that has now somehow found its way into every room in my house. I counted the night a victory when Charles looked up at me under his dinosaur head and said, "Only two more houses, mommy. Then we're done."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Weekend of NOLA Festivals

City Park's Botanical Gardens
When October arrives, those lazy summer months fall to the wayside and festival season kicks into high gear. I had our calendar booked and had mentally prepared the family for a packed weekend.

Pony rides at the Children's Book Festival
We started off Saturday strapping the kids in their strollers, loading them up with dinosaurs and drink cups and setting off for Latter Library on St. Charles Avenue. The New Orleans Children's Book Festival was already swarming with pint-sized individuals and their parents when we arrived. Stacks of free books, categorized by age, lined the entrance walk. Charles nearly squealed with delight when his plea for a dinosaur book was answered with My Teacher is a Dinosaur, while August happily slobbered all over his First Big Book of Animals.

Hosted by New Orleans' First Lady Cheryl Landrieu and Ruby Bridges, icon of public schools integration, the annual event featured storytelling, book signings, free food, pony rides, kids activities and lots of free books. We took pictures with the Mayor and then ate our jambalaya and Lucky Dogs in a shady spot under a tree.

Giraffes taking in the Celebración Latina
After a walk back to the house and a brief rest, we headed off in the car to the Celebración Latina at Audubon Zoo. Latin American dancers shimmied to the beat while Charles showed the crowd a few moves of his own. We lounged in the field by the stage for a bit, taking in the smells of Spanish food and picking out our dinner options. The kids didn't last long in one spot though, and we soon made our way around the sea lions, past Monkey Hill and over to our favorites - the giraffes and mysterious white alligators.

Fall Garden Festival at the Botanical Gardens
We all slept sound that night, re-energizing ourselves for the Fall Garden Festival at City Park's Botanical Gardens. We're regulars at the Botanical Gardens, enjoying their normally quiet setting. The place transforms with the Garden Festival, though, when rows of vendors offer plants ranging from everyday standards to the rare and exotic. Charles and I painted pumpkins--and his face--at the children's table, while Paul and August made the rounds buying up dozens of plants for our already overflowing yard.

We didn't make our last destination for the weekend. I suppose I was a bit overzealous in my planning, and the Crescent City Blues and Barbecue Festival fell to the wayside. Even though we missed seeing famous musicians playing soul and blues music and passed up eating some tasty barbecue, I still wanted to mention it for all those wanting to check it out next year.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Straight Drive Down Carrollton Ave.

Colorful, locally grown bell peppers at Hollygrove Market

Every Fall, I feel the urge to search the web for u-pick farms and local produce. I'm not much of a gardener myself, shying away from dirty fingernails and mosquito attacks, but the prospect of pumpkin patches and fairytale gourds draws me out to the country—normally. This time, though, we traveled less than a mile before pulling up at an urban farm.

The gardens at Hollygrove Market
Hollygrove Market & Farm on New Orleans' Olive Street boasts rows of community gardens and a produce market with fresh fruits, vegetables, milk and even meats. We picked up our first satsumas of the season and inquired as to "What's in the Box?". For $25, every week you can get a box of seasonal produce all grown from the region. This week's box included mustard greens, rice, sweet potatoes, squash, okra, green onions, arugula, satsumas, microgreens, corn, turnip greens and cornmeal—all from Louisiana and Mississippi communities. The only thing not at the market was a pumpkin patch, but we still managed to nab a couple for sale.

The Pitot House on Bayou St. John
Following Carrollton Ave. toward Lake Pontchartrain, our next stop was a walk along Bayou St. John to the Pitot House. Thanks to a friend's Groupon purchase, we were card-carrying members of the Creole country house built in 1799. Once home to notable residents such as Edgar Degas' great-grandmother, New Orleans' first American mayor and Mother Cabrini (America's first named saint), the Pitot House is now owned by the Louisiana Landmark Society and open for tours and special events.

Three-year-old Charles picked most of the flowers in the front yard before we strapped both kids in strollers and took a quick tour of the house and its period furnishings. The home takes you back in time to when living on Bayou St. John meant living in the countryside. Two rooms that particularly stood out were the dining room, with its warm brick floor and modest, but elegant, dining table, and the upstairs parlor with doors opened wide to a veranda overlooking the bayou.

Ruins of Fort St. John
By this point, the kids had become balls of energy, and we headed toward the lakefront and the ruins of Fort St. John where they could run—or crawl—until they passed out from exhaustion. The fort, built in the early 18th century, was the first erected in New Orleans, and it defended the city at the mouth of Bayou St. John. Today, all that is left are a few brick ramparts and some rock pillars, resting at the foot of a levee holding in the bayou.

Charles and I raced each other to the flood control structure dividing the bayou's waters from those of Lake Pontchartrain. Younger brother August giggled with delight while he bounced on my hip with each step forward. We topped off the visit with a few pushes on the tree swing, and then made our way back home to renew our search for a pumpkin patch.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Two Northshore Parks: Fontainebleau and Northlake Nature Center

Cabins at Fontainebleau State Park
Boys will be boys. That's the one thing I have discovered to be overwhelmingly true about our three-year-old son, whose favorite color is blue, is obsessed with dinosaurs and thinks the greatest achievement in life is to find every bug that exists on this planet. Put a net in his right hand and a broken telescope in his left, and an adventure is already in the making. Take him to a state park with alligators, snakes and turtles, and his weekend dreams have come true.

Marsh trail at Fontainebleau
Hugging Lake Pontchartrain's northern shoreline, Fontainebleau State Park is ideal for its close proximity to New Orleans and the prospect of a breeze blowing off the lake. We arrived early, paid our $1 per person fee and drove a quick loop to get the park's layout. The visitor's center and sugar mill ruins immediately caught our attention, but after driving across the longest bridge in the world to get here, we needed a long path to stretch our legs.

Parking by the water park and watching a group head off toward the beach, we crossed the open field to the hiking trail. It was well-maintained, providing an easy push for our strollers. A family on bikes cycled past and then we were alone in the forest. Some of the largest dragonflies I'd ever seen were out in full force, seemingly guiding our way to the water ahead.

We had entered the nearly 5-mile trail on its last leg, and it wasn't long before the trees opened up to a surprisingly tranquil marsh. A long boardwalk stretched out over the water, and the only sounds were jumping fish and the occasional splash of a bird diving for lunch. At the end of the pier, we relaxed on a bench for several minutes, enjoying the peaceful setting until Paul spotted an alligator eyeing us from the dark water below.

Fontainebleau State Park Visitor's Center
It was the heat, rather than the wildlife, that forced us to return the way we had come and take a break in the air conditioning while driving out to see the park's cabin rentals. Perched on stilts over the water, the large cabins were secluded from the rest of the park and offered uninhibited views of Lake Pontchartrain. The ranger at the visitor center said they sometimes book a year in advance for peak seasons. We picked up a brochure and then explored the center, with its exposed beams, life-sized black bear and 600-year-old dugout canoe. The building offered a brief history of the area and fit in nicely with the sugar mill ruins crumbling outside its back doors.

Not far away in Old Mandeville, we grabbed lunch at The Broken Egg, the birth place of the breakfast and lunch chain called Another Broken Egg. In between playing dinosaurs, the kids managed to find time to devour a stack of pancakes while Paul and I opted for the lunch menu. Afterward, we took a quick look at the lake before heading back for round two of hiking.

Northlake Nature Center
The Northlake Nature Center lies across the street from Fontainebleau and offers a bit more of a rustic hiking experience. The strollers jolted over the tree roots as we made our way through the trail. A beaver pond was overrun by the same giant dragonflies we'd seen earlier, and Charles was ecstatic as he chased them down with his bug net. We scared away at least two snakes on our journey and became masters at scaling falling trees blocking the way ahead.

By the end of the day, we left with two sufficiently exhausted kids and a day's worth of exercise in a natural setting. Of course, we also came away with countless bug bites... 

Budding entomologist

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Escaping to St. Francisville

Grace Church of West Feliciana Parish
After suffering through three days of rain over Labor Day weekend, I watched in disbelief as a week full of sunshine mocked me out my office window. Saturday couldn't come fast enough, and we were up and out the door before the geckos had even fled our porch from the night before.

We had saved this trip to St. Francisville until we had the perfect weather conditions, where every historic home glittered in the sunlight and low water levels provided access to the nation's largest cypress tree. Yet no matter how many times we visit this "best of the small towns," we always begin our adventure at Grace Church of West Feliciana Parish. Take two steps into the surrounding, tree-shrouded cemetery and you become immersed in history, walking among elaborately carved headstones honoring those who died nearly 200 years ago. The entire area gives the sense of treading through the pages of a book. Three-year-old, dinosaur hunter Charles must have shared the mystique, spinning me a tale of T-Rex eggs and triceratops bones lying just beneath the surface.
Magnolia Cafe

From the cemetery, we strolled around the historic district, making sure to peek in Grandmother's Buttons, before following a motorcycle crew to lunch at Magnolia Cafe. Outside on the screened-in porch, Paul and I filled up on overstuffed sandwiches, while August flirted with our table neighbors and Charles showed us his collection of dinosaur fossils in between mouthfuls of shrimp.

Our plans had included a trip to the garden ruins of Afton Villa, but a quick stop at the local tourist information let us know they didn't open until October 1. Instead, we left with a recommendation to visit Oakley Plantation, where famous naturalist John James Audubon once worked as a tutor while creating 32 of his intricate bird paintings. Charles spent his time here giving the resident peacock an afternoon workout followed by making us a meal of mushrooms and osage oranges in the cooking pot on display outside a slave cabin.

Oakley Plantation
Back downtown, we stopped in for an afternoon coffee at Birdman Coffee and Books and treated the kids to some chocolate ice cream. Rejuvenated, we headed back out, this time down a gravel road deep into Louisiana's wild country. Egrets and blue herons eyed us carefully as we passed their hunting grounds on our way to Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge. Our destination was the National Grand Champion bald cypress tree, accessible by land only from July through December and flooded by the Mississippi River the rest of the year. A short, half-mile hike led to the base of the tree, which unfortunately we could only admire for a few minutes before the inevitable mosquitoes launched their attack. So, while worth the visit, I would definitely recommend bringing bug spray.

Sufficiently exhausted, the kids slept soundly the whole way home, not even waking as we shouted the obligatory "Geaux Tigers!" while driving back over the LSU lakes.
National Grand Champion Bald Cypress

Monday, August 29, 2011

Across the River to Algiers Point

The Vallette-Barrett Plantation House on Pelican Avenue

Today we hopped in the car and started driving with no destination in mind. Heading toward downtown New Orleans, we made a split second decision to cross the Crescent City Connection when the bridge appeared in the distance. The first exit on the Westbank may not stand out as a tourist destination, but veer off General DeGaulle, follow the road past Federal City to the river and you arrive at Algiers Point.

Tout de Suite Cafe
Touted as the second oldest neighborhood in New Orleans, Algiers Point sits directly across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter. Originally the site of a slaughterhouse used by French settlers in the 1700s, today the area, with its tree-lined streets leading past homes and stores as old as the 1840s, reminded us of a smaller version of Uptown New Orleans.

We dropped in Tout de Suite Cafe for a quick iced coffee, but their appetizing muffins and croissants convinced us to stay for a second breakfast. While we ate, three-year-old Charles entertained other patrons by dancing a little jig to the live guitar music. When he decided the show was over, he darted out the door with us tailing behind.

Confetti Park
A few blocks down Verret Street, and we hit the jackpot with a small playground. Confetti Park, with its whimsical fence and mosaic walkway, is complete with slides, swings and ride-on toys. Here, Baby August bounced around on a bug car, while Charles blackened his fingernails by filling a dump truck with dirt.

Strapping them in their strollers, we walked past colorful plantations, shotguns and creole cottages. We had stopped to comment on the architecture when we heard a child's squeal of delight. On the tree next to us was the empty shell of a cicada, which is now crouched on my coffee table staring at me with its sightless round eyes. A bug catcher on our bookshelf houses a dozen of his friends, the fruits of our walk turned scavenger hunt.

Old Masonic Hall on Olivier Street
As we wove up and down streets looking for the critters, we caught the attention of one gentleman who, noticing our random path through town, asked if we were visiting and offered us a brochure. In this community where everyone knows each other, a family of new faces stood out immediately. We chatted a while and found out his house on Olivier Street was once a former Masonic Temple later used as a dance hall where early Jazz musician Buddy Bolden played.

Our walk ended by a focal point of the neighborhood--Holy Name of Mary Church, an imposing Gothic church with 75 stained glass windows crafted in Germany. We drove out of town along the river, viewing New Orleans' skyline from across the water. As we headed back to the bridge, a line of people waited to board the free passenger ferry ($1 roundtrip for vehicles), which would carry them from "The Point" to the foot of Canal Street.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Art and Planes in New Orleans' Warehouse District

One of several Walter Anderson paintings on display at the Ogden
The air conditioning is running nonstop these days. I find as I get older, I have less tolerance for the heat, while the kiddos seem to be oblivious to it. In a desperate effort to keep them inside, I was allowing them to empty my tupperware drawer into a chaotic pile across my kitchen floor. By the time they were pretending to "swim" in it, I felt an urge to visit someone else's indoor playground. The museums in New Orleans' warehouse district were beckoning us, and we answered the call.

Airplanes inside the World War II Museum
We wheeled the strollers into the National World War II Museum first. While I wouldn't consider the museum's solemn hallways as suitable for two small children, the airplane-filled lobby is eye candy to them. It's free to step inside and stroll around the planes, tanks and Higgins boat displayed in the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion. For those without small kids - and with several hours to spare - it's worth the admission to take a complete tour of the museum, including the 4-D movie, Beyond All Boundaries, showing in the Solomon Victory Theater.

Confederate Museum and Ogden Museum of Southern Art
Across the street, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art's modern building is home to a wide variety of paintings, sculptures, photographs and everything in between - all created by Southern artists. Charles particularly loves coming here on Thursday evenings, when he can dance to live music and try his hand at his own art project. It was much quieter during our visit today, however, and we took our time wandering through the galleries. A must-see is the colorful watercolors, oil paintings and drawings of two Gulf Coast artists, John Alexander and Walter Anderson, on exhibit now. Our visits here always end with a stop on the roof, where you can see expansive views of the city.

For lunch, we crossed back to the World War II Museum's American Sector restaurant, where Chef John Besh whips up tongue sandwiches alongside hearty American dishes. Kid's meals are served in old school lunch boxes, complete with a toy surprise.

Upon leaving, we debated whether to head to one of the other museums in walking distance. The Confederate Museum and the Contemporary Arts Center are both fascinating in their own way, while the kids would have been thrilled to go to the Louisiana Children's Museum. But a meltdown from one kid and a yawn from the other made our decision to save those for next time.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Summer in the French Quarter

Louis Armstrong Park
Back from a two week vacation along the coast of California, it was rough stepping off the plane in a fleece jacket into a wall of hot, sticky air. Everything instantly slowed to a crawl -- breathing got harder, walking became an enormous task and carrying luggage farther than the luggage cart was out of the question. But inside the refrigerated car, I felt my senses slowly return. I found myself admiring the lush, green surroundings and, by the time the live oak alley along Carrollton greeted our return, I was happy to be back home.

Lights in Louis Armstrong Park
Summers in the South are best spent in wide, open spaces (where your chances of a breeze increase slightly), in a pool (where the water is nearly as hot as the air) or inside a wonderfully air-conditioned home. I usually wouldn't count the Quarter as a top summer destination, but our family braved the heat in our excitement to see the partially reopened Louis Armstrong Park.

Technically on the outskirts of the Quarter in the Tremé, Louis Armstrong Park lies on the backside of Rampart Street. The park's winding lake snakes beneath graceful bridges, leading us along tree-lined paths past buildings, statues and an open space marking the site of Congo Square, where slaves were once allowed to meet, sing and dance.

Croissant D'or Patisserie
Home to the Mahalia Jackson Theatre, the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park's Perseverance Hall (reopened June 18th) and the still shuttered, Katrina-damaged New Orleans Municipal Auditorium, the park and its buildings have had a somewhat unstable history since the 2005 hurricane. Today, however, it was putting on a show for us, delighting Charles and August with its colorful dragonflies and offering Paul and me a nearly secluded, peaceful walk through crepe myrtles, cypress trees and antique roses.

Unfortunately, no amount of shade could protect us completely from the sun's intense heat, and we soon set off for Croissant D'or Patisserie on Ursulines Avenue. Minutes later we were sipping iced coffees and eating French pastries on the outdoor patio, while three-year-old Charles was chasing birds and playing in the fountain.

Rejuvenated, we stepped back on the street and paused to smile at baby August staring in wide-eyed wonder at a horse and its carriage steps in front of us. A short walk farther, and we decided to make one last stop inside the walled gardens of Old Ursuline Convent, touted as the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley.

St. Mary's Church at Old Ursuline Convent
Since 1752, the building has served many functions -- from convent to school to showcase for the Archdiocese's archives. After a brief tour of the beautiful church and historical rooms, we allowed Charles a few more minutes of running through the formal gardens before conceding that our drenched clothes were a sign to turn in the day and relax in the coolness of our house. There was much more to see in the Quarter, but it would have to wait until another blog.