Monday, February 21, 2011

Bayou St. John and City Park

Some days you know from the minute you wake up that today is not a day to go traveling. The piles of laundry are glaring at you, the empty fridge is pleading to be filled and the impending start of the workweek is gnawing at your conscience. But, then again, the weather was gorgeous - a perfect 73 degrees in mid-February - and we just couldn't bear to stay inside. So we compromised and decided to venture out to some of our favorite places in the city before rushing home to do the chores.

Scenic Bayou St. John
New Orleans is a city filled with hidden gems waiting to be discovered. Unlike the French Quarter or the Audubon Zoo, these are the places not labeled on the map, the places no one draws attention to, yet they are often some of the most interesting. Bayou St. John is one such area. A natural bayou starting at Lake Pontchartrain, the waterway was once used by Native Americans, trappers and early explorers as an early transportation route. Today, lavish homes grace its edges, and canoes are often seen skimming its surface.

We started the morning out near the bayou's mouth at the lake, where the remnants of Fort St. Jean are slowly vanishing into nature. Hitched on my hip, Baby August was, as usual, content with being along for ride. Charles, on the other hand, marched out of the car as if he owned the place. Climbing on the crumbling brick walls, scaling the nearby levee and chasing lizards, he was merely warming up his endless reserves of energy.

Tree swing in City Park's Couturie Forest
Next stop was the Couturie Forest in City Park. Heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina, the trail no longer immerses you deep in the woods. But, it's still secluded and quiet, meandering along one of the park's many bayous. We hiked along the wood-chipped path, commenting on the growth of the more than 2,000 trees planted last year. Soon, it would be a thriving forest again.

The first half of the walk was fairly uneventful. August had long since dozed off, lulled to sleep by the warm breeze pushing us along. Charles was racing ahead, searching out the tree swing he knew was around the corner. As my husband pushed him high in the air, I watched a group of turtles sunbathing on a log. A duck gliding to a stop in the water drew my gaze up, and I gasped as I noticed a 5-foot alligator staring back at me from a nearby island. Aside from the child-sized tee-pee next to the swing, the alligator was certainly the highlight of Charles' trip. We had to bribe him with the promise of shrimp for lunch to tear him away and head back to the car.

Parkway Bakery and Tavern
Starving after the morning's exertion, we stopped off at Parkway Bakery and Tavern for some poboys and sweet potato fries. The place was packed, but service was quick, and we soon sunk our teeth into the shrimp and catfish overflowing the soft French bread. Parkway sits at the far end of Bayou St. John and is an ideal place to leave your car and take a walk along one of the most scenic spots in the city.

With just an hour left until Charles' dreaded afternoon nap, we decided to treat him to a hot chocolate and some last-minute playtime at "the little park by the coffee shop." On a small side street branching off of Esplanade Avenue stands an eclectic grouping of shops and restaurants, including Fair Grinds coffeehouse. Considering the place his second home, my toddler walked up to the counter and ordered his drink before we made it through the door. After slurping it down, he ran outside to find the coveted tricycle the shop keeps on hand for pint-sized visitors. We patiently followed behind, sipping our coffees as he made his slow circuit around the block.

Quality time spent in Fortier Park.
After the tricycle was once again stowed away under the outside stairs, we crossed the street to Fortier Park, a tiny gem lovingly landscaped and decorated by the park's neighbors. We hit all the high points, from rearranging the horses on the chess boards to reading the laminated children's poetry books tied to the benches. An elaborately carved birdhouse--complete with kitchen table, chair and bed--provides an ideal home for the plastic lizard who's joined us on today's trip. Downing the final drops of my coffee, I check my watch and break the news that it's time to head home where nap time and chores await us.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

An Adventure at the Rural Life Museum

Armed with his Batman jacket and Elmo sippy cup, my son, Charles, stood outside the car giddy with excitement. Today he was going on an adventure to Baton Rouge (ok, so maybe he thought he was going to the zoo) but we knew he was going to have fun regardless. So after buckling him in--surrounded by enough toys to last the hour drive to our destination--and clicking the baby's car seat into place, we set off on our journey.

Mid-morning traffic wasn't terrible, and we made good time getting to our first turnoff at Essen Lane. We had been to the Rural Life Museum before, back during our college years, but never to the adjacent Windrush Gardens--and never with kids. I've found that I discover everything anew when I revisit a place with my toddler, whose interests (and eye-level) are very different from my own.

As we drove down the winding road that led us back to the museum, we marveled at how we felt completely set apart from the city, although we were smack dab in the middle of it. In the time it took me to unload the baby, Charles was already climbing a massive column from Louisiana State University's original Hill Memorial Library. My husband chased him inside the Visitor Center, where he took a whirlwind tour of the old carriages while we paid our admission.
Ox at the Rural Life Museum

The woman at the front desk informed us that the ox outside had just been fed a pumpkin, so I let my husband poke around the museum while the kids and I went to peek at the giant animal. We heard the ox before we saw it, its deep moo overpowering the air around us. I can't recall ever being face-to-face with an ox before, and as he gave me a hard, unblinking stare, I understood the awe and fear that was showing in Charles' eyes.

Another young boy shrieked at the ox and broke the trance he had caught us in. James, who turned out to be a year older than Charles, was a fearless child and laughed at our timidness around the beast. His enthusiasm was catching, and Charles and he became instant friends, inseparable the rest of the time at the museum.

Acadian home (built pre-1805)
Aside from the ox, the outdoor section included 32 buildings illustrating a working plantation and folk and Creole architecture. While James flitted from one structure to the next, Charles followed him in lockstep. They posed for pictures in the outhouse, raced across wooden porches, pointed out the pint-sized "Charlie chairs" that furnished many of the buildings and fished with their stick fishing poles in a small bayou.

Windrush Gardens
I was most impressed by the simple, yet beautiful church, while my husband the gardener saw great potential in the winter Windrush Gardens that promised a multitude of spring flowers. An accidental turn led us to a lovely lake before we made our way back onto the map and through the maze of the plantation garden. James offered us some comic relief when the "squirrel" attacking him, which elicited some high-pitched screams from the once fearless toddler, turned out to be a strand of moss caught in the heel of his shoes.

After a tearful goodbye between the new best friends, we filled our now starving stomachs with boudin balls and red beans and rice from the The Chimes restaurant just off LSU's campus. As all dining-out experiences are with us, it was an interesting 43 and a half minutes, but we made it through without completely destroying the place.

LSU's Mike the Tiger
It was late afternoon when we entered LSU's campus and weighed our options against the fact that Charles was still napless for the day. But we were encouraged by the baby's amazingly good mood-he hadn't made a peep the entire trip-and pressed on to see the school's highlights. So just like the kid in his favorite book, Born to be a Tiger, Charles scaled the Indian Mounds, roared at Mike the Tiger, gazed up at Tiger Stadium (and begged for a way inside the locked gates) and threw his LSU football through the arches in the Quad.

As we drove away that evening, I realized, once again, we had overdone it as usual. Both kids were now squalling and both parents were exhausted. But as the youngsters fell asleep in their car seats, we breathed a sigh of relief at the quiet and inwardly smiled at the amazing adventure we had just given our children.