With its fine cuisine, smoky jazz clubs, and rowdy nightlife, New Orleans isn't usually considered a destination for children. On a recent visit there, even our 13-year-old son--embarrassed in the presence of his parents by Bourbon Street's strip joints and lewd T-shirt shops--remarked, "Do you think this place is appropriate for kids?"
O.K., so maybe this particular thoroughfare is a bit raucous, and more protective parents might want to steer clear. (We reasoned that our kids weren't seeing anything they hadn't already encountered in PG-13 movies.) But Bourbon Street notwithstanding, New Orleans is, in fact, a wonderfully engaging place for school-age children and young teens. In our four-night stay, we enjoyed a mostly family-friendly version of the music, food, and festivities that earn this town its motto, Laissez les bon temps rouler, or "Let the good times roll."
As a city that attracts some 11 million visitors each year, there are endless options for lodging, ranging from modern, high-rise hotels near the Convention Center to funky old inns scattered throughout the touristy French Quarter. We stayed at the Lamothe House, a restored Victorian mansion that is moderately priced. Our spacious two-room suite was dark and dog-eared, but the compensation was charm: An iron-gated balcony overlooked a jasmine-planted courtyard with a pool. On the edge of the Quarter, the hotel made the perfect base for our on-foot explorations. Our first order of business: find food.
We figured that world-class restaurants such as the Pelican Club or Galatoire's would be lost on our children, so we sought out more casual dining spots. At the Praline Connection, an authentic soul food restaurant, we stuffed ourselves with fried chicken, collards, corn bread, and memorable macaroni and cheese. Another night we slurped oysters and ate catfish at the Acme Oyster House, a noisy, down-home eatery that's been around since 1910. We lunched on Italian muffuletta sandwiches, a New Orleans specialty, at the Central Grocery, and enjoyed a hearty breakfast at Mother's, a Southern-style greasy spoon where our Northern-bred kids tried grits and gravy for the first time.
We also took in a fair sampling of the city's music. Though many of the best performers play in bars where kids aren't allowed, New Orleans' trademark sounds are blaring everywhere. We crammed into the historic Preservation Hall to hear the house band play traditional jazz. We spent an evening at Mulates, a cajun-and-zydeco dance hall with a live band and dance instructors to help you learn the easy steps. Street musicians abound, and one of the best riffs we heard was by a curbside saxophonist belting out the blues.
SWAMP TOUR. New Orleans offers the usual family attractions: an aquarium, a zoo, and a sizable children's museum. There's also the newly opened Jazzland, a 140-acre theme park featuring live music and 30 rides and attractions. More appealing to us, though, were activities we couldn't do elsewhere. One day we took a 45-minute van trip out to a wildlife preserve for a two-hour swamp tour that the kids loved. Another morning, my son and husband took a steamboat ride up the Mississippi, while my daughter and I went to a class--on preparing jambalaya, pralines, and bread pudding--at the New Orleans School of Cooking.
That afternoon we went on a "ghost tour," a walk through the famed above-ground cemetery that's home to the tomb of a legendary voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. We were more spooked, though, by a tour guide who warned us about the city's street crime and boasted that she carries a gun in her fanny pack. Although New Orleans crime rates have been declining in recent years, robberies, assaults, and car break-ins are still a serious problem. We kept an eye on our belongings, took cabs after dark, and stayed away from certain parts of town.
Mostly, we favored the French Quarter, which is heavily patrolled. Its narrow streets, lined with Creole, French, and Spanish architecture, have a carnival feel. Our kids loved ambling in and out of music shops, voodoo stores, and cheesy boutiques filled with masks, boas, and silly hats, and they loved the street performers. So we wandered repeatedly up and down Bourbon Street, mostly at the insistence of my 13-year-old son--who later declared that to be the best part of the trip.