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."