The Big Easy for Families

The Big Easy for Families photo

Sophisticated New Orleans, long known for its nightlife and cuisine has always been easy for adults, but now it's easy for families, too. Noted for the ribald clubs and propensity of bars that populate the French Quarter, the Big Easy, as it's more commonly known, was scarcely a place for children, and wholesome things to do were at a minimum. But not anymore.

In recent years, especially after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, more and more family attractions, including suitable fare for children, have appeared on the scene, and all are easily accessible from many of the historic hotels of New Orleans' French Quarter.

The center of action for both adults and children is Jackson Square, that lively hub of the French Quarter. Here, the sights and sounds of Creole New Orleans call out to you.

Begin at the Riverwalk where you'll feel the presence of "Ole Man River," the mighty Mississippi, at every curve of the half-mile marketplace, whether you catch a glimpse through the backs of shops or during meals in restaurants that offer views through floor-to-ceiling windows. The complex contains 140 shops and cafes, and street performers provide spontaneous entertainment.

Along the Riverwalk, you can board either of two paddlewheel steamboats — the Cajun Queen and the Creole Queen — newer representations of a bygone era. These faithful reproductions of mid-19th paddlewheelers that called on ports up and down the river offer excursions and jazz dinner cruises. They're a great way to experience life on the river while taking in a bit of history and kids travel at a reduced rate.

One cruise in particular appeals to the younger set. The Cotton Blossom Zoo Cruise runs between Audubon Land at the Audubon Zoo and Canal Street three times daily. And the seven-mile journey begins right at the Riverwalk.

As one of the country's top five zoos, the Audubon Zoo contains waterfalls, shady lagoons, lush tropical vegetation and exotic flowers — a breathtaking setting on 58 acres for more than 1,000 animals. Mixed exhibits show the animals in their natural habitats and there is the Children's Village. Rare and endangered species — a white tiger, twin orangutans, clouded leopards and bald eagles — is the acclaimed Louisiana Swamp Exhibit. The facilities capture the character of an early 20th century swamp and an early swamp village. Such native critters as alligators, black bears, armadillos, rep-tiles an nutria abound near the murky swamp water. Every day there are elephant shows and sea lion feedings.

Another way to entertain your kids is by taking them on a ride on one of the city's streetcars. The fabled St. Charles Streetcar, the world's oldest continually operating street railway, runs regularly on its uptown route. Visitors can stop at the zoo or continue on to Carrollton through the Garden District. The ride on this vintage vehicle is an experience in itself.

Now four vintage streetcars, termed the "Ladies in Red," run on a 1.9-mile line linking the cultural and commercial developments along the revitalized riverfront. Though fares on both are nominal, you'll need exact change.

And for some real adventure, consider taking your family on one of the Cypress Swamp Tours. Venture into the Louisiana swamps and partake of their unspoiled beauty. You'll see alligators, cranes and other birds, and turtles in their natural habitats from tour boats handled operated by Cajun guides. They'll even pick you up at your hotel.

If you don't want to go on a commercial excursion, you can book one of several tours with the National Park Service. Yes, that's right. The entire French Quarter is a national historical park. Historical walking tours, better for older children, focus on the daily life of a Creole family, or a chilling trip to the St. Louis Cemetery to visit the grave of infamous voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. You can also take a trip out to the Barataria Preserve with a National Park ranger. Instead of riding through the swamp, you'll travel on wooden walkways, allowing your kids time to pause and watch the wildlife. You must reserve any of the tours ahead.

If the kids enjoy the swamp tour, they'll love the Louisiana Nature & Science Center. This 86-acre natural wildlife preserve contains many hands-on exhibits, a thriving beehive, wildlife viewing area, a planetarium and teaching greenhouse. Kids can watch the formation of a river delta or try on a giant turtle shell. A full-time naturalist is on hand to answer questions. There's also a planetarium. After viewing the exhibits, your family can walk any or all of the three nature trails to see wild flowers and wetlands.

After doing all of the above, you might just want to relax for a half hour on a horse-drawn carriage ride through the French Quarter.