Life is full of trade-offs. For people who love to travel, one of the main ones is the work/time/money challenge. For example, if I want to travel, I have to work to make money for travel. But if I want to keep my job, I have to show up for work. And this can severely cut into my travel time. Usually I’m pretty good at spreading out my vacation time, trading shifts and banking overtime in order to get the days off I need, but this August I sort of hit a brick wall. It just seemed that everyone else at work also wanted those weeks off and there was no extra time to be found. I had one stretch of four days off in the middle of the month and that was going to be it. So what’s a person to do? Stay home? Don’t be ridiculous.
I did a bit of research and found out that there were direct flights New Orleans one of my favourite places, from Seattle and they were actually quite reasonably priced. If we left on Wednesday morning we could be in the Crescent City by suppertime. That would give us two full days in the city plus another half day on Saturday before we flew back, arriving back home in time for bed on Saturday evening. What could be easier?
So, at six am on a Wednesday morning we found ourselves dragging two sleepy children into the car and heading across the border to Seattle. We arrived in plenty of time to catch our 11 am flight to Louis Armstrong International airport on the outskirts of New Orleans and at 5 pm we stepped out into the muggy, tropical air of an entirely different world.
The 15 minute taxi ride to our hotel took us past sprawling neighbourhoods of scruffy, low slung houses and enormous cemeteries with whitewashed, above ground tombs. We swooped off the elevated highway into the downtown and past the infamous Superdome on the way to our hotel in the business district, part of our favourite hotel chain, Homewood Suites. The hotel was great for this stay with all the amenities we’ve come to expect from the chain: two room suite, full kitchen, friendly staff, free breakfast and free refreshments in the evening. We arrived in time to grab some snacks and drinks and have a quick swim in the indoor pool, which was a very welcome perk in that climate in August.
There’s just something about New Orleans that’s hard to describe if you haven’t been there. It’s such a unique place and just driving into town had me all excited, even though we hadn’t yet made it to the centre of the city. So I had the family up bright and early to head out for the 15 minute walk from the hotel to the French Quarter. As we approached Canal Street the familiar architecture began to appear here and there and the first sight of Canal street with the vintage street cars rolling down the centre of the street and the palm trees swaying in the breeze added to the otherworldly charm. Even the people looked different, with gentlemen in real seersucker suits and brimmed hats and older ladies in dresses carrying fans scattered here and there amongst the more sloppily dressed tourists.
Oh, and it was hot. Did I mention it was hot? It turns out that August is a great time to get great deals on trips to New Orleans because no one with any sense goes there in the middle of summer. It’s just too stinking hot. But, we don’t have a lot of choice in when we get to travel and we actually coped with the high temperatures surprisingly well. Yes, there were lots of complaints from the kids, but it’s amazing how far a few ice creams, cold drinks and the promise of a swim at the hotel can go in placating hot and grumpy kids.
Anyway, once we crossed Canal Street we dove into the French Quarter itself and took our time walking towards the cathedral in the centre of the neighbourhood. It was striking, it was beautiful, but it was also real. Sidewalks were broken and uneven, beautiful restored buildings dripping with flowers sat next to crumbling relics. Fancy boutique stores were located next to bars that would make a pirate feel right at home. The city’s 200 plus years of history was apparent in every post and light fixture and all the trinket stores and tourist shops could not hide the fact that this was a real living, and evolving, city.
We did a quick look through the impressive St Louis Cathedral, which was a cool respite on an already hot morning, and on the square outside a man warming up with his jazz band asked my daughter if she liked princesses and played her Disney songs on his trombone. We headed to the French Market from there and browsed in a few shops. My son found a swamp themed Lego set, which we agreed could qualify as a “New Orleans” souvenir and my daughter bought a souvenir teddy. The market was filled with all kinds of interesting items including dried alligator heads and feet, voodoo relics and every kind of hot sauce you could imagine.
After a lunch of po’ boys at an outdoor cafe with a live jazz band playing we headed along the riverfront to the newly refurbished Audubon Aquarium, which was nearly destroyed ten years ago in Hurricane Katrina. It isn’t huge but it’s packed with great exhibits and it made a great, air conditioned break from the heat of the afternoon. We spent a few hours there checking out the fish, the tropical gallery, turtles, frogs and birds. My kids’ favourite was a tank where you could touch and pet the rays. It certainly doesn’t compare with some of the huge aquariums you can find in other places, but it was impressive for a place that is right in the middle of a major city.
After the aquarium we went back to the French Quarter in search of another New Orleans specialty; beignets. We had passed by the famous Cafe du Monde earlier in the day and had decided the huge line wasn’t worth it, but we found a great little place on Royal Street called the Cafe Beignet that was supposed to be a close second. The line here was much more manageable and we even managed to snag a table for four where we could enjoy our delicious squares of sugary fried dough and sweet tea. The kids didn’t like all the food in New Orleans, but the beignets were definitely a hit!
And that was our first day of family fun in New Orleans. Was it ridiculously hot? Yes. Was it scruffy? Oh yes. Did we see rough areas, dive bars and people who had done way too much partying? Yep, yep and yep. Did we have a crazy good time with the kids despite all that? You’d better believe it. And that was just day one!