New Orleans is a destination that refuses to fit in a box. Categorizing this Louisiana ‘berg as a foodie mecca, a romantic getaway, a historic charmer, a volunteer/humanitarian project, or a party zone would all be correct, in part. What about an appealing place to take your young family? Haven’t heard that one as much. In fact, before our recent visit, I’d heard just the opposite. Dirty, smelly, full of drunks and swindlers…basically a place you’d avoid at all costs with your darling littles. Still NoLA was calling me. The architecture! The beignets! The jazz trumpeter on the balcony! We were road tripping from Houston to the Alabama coast with time to spare, passing right by, and it drew me in. Without much research and with some trepidation mixed with excitement, I headed down into the French Quarter for a night- five kids ages 11 down to five months and a supportive but slightly reluctant husband in tow.
First on the list: somewhere to sleep. Let me qualify: somewhere safe, near the action but not too rowdy, interesting, affordable and available last-minute. Priceline and Expedia are my easy go-to starting places for a quick hotel search. Nothing fancy, but they get the “find me a last minute hotel deal” done. Enter the Hotel Oliver. The price was right, space was a ground-floor suite with exposed brick walls and a lofted sleeping area, check-in was a hipster with old school pen and paper in the foyer of a 1800’s mansion just enough steps away from Bourbon Street and Jackson Square to be fairly quiet. Our night in New Orleans was off to a good start. After some humorous attempts to unload our massive luggage stash and large family on the one-way-very-narrow-construction-muddled cobblestone street in front of the hotel, we were in.
Next stop: food. Not just any food- we were looking for memorable Cajun/Creole seafood, with a craft adult beverage and ambiance worthy of my NoLA foodie dreams. Yelp led us to The Royal Oyster House, where our large family was welcomed warmly and seated at a fantastic table in the back of the house. What ensued was one of the most delish meals we’ve ever had in all of our travels. If was full of creamy seafood-y goodness, perfect Cajun bloody marys, Oysters Rockefeller, and oh-my-lordy the desserts…save room and thank me later. I know there are a multitude of fabulous restaurants in the Quarter, but trust my family’s five-star experience at Royal Oyster and check it out for yourself- whether you are traveling with kids or not.
I couldn’t put the night to bed without a stroll down Bourbon Street, but we aren’t crazy and didn’t want to parade our children through anything too wild. Wisely, we opted to walk down the architecturally fabulous cobblestone street just as the sun was setting and the nightlife was waking up. Lively jazzy music streamed out of open-air bars, smells of fried food and alcohol and cigarette smoke and garbage filled the air, and my kids were wide-eyed. A quartet was playing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” so we stopped and took some souvenir iphone photos/videos for Snapchat, then hightailed it back to our hotel. Flickering lanterns hanging alongside cascading flowering window boxes lit our way back to our cozy hotel, where we tucked ourselves safely in our room by 8:45PM. Two things- 1: that was just exactly late enough to be out on the streets with children and 2: I’d love to return childless and enjoy a drink and some smoky soulful jazz in one of those cozy bars with my main man, this time after dark.
Morning came quietly, and with it our last hours in the city. There was no way in hell I was leaving New Orleans without beignets…lots and lots of beignets. We walked the ½ mile or so past shop windows brimming with feathery masks, the beaded trees of Jackson Square and a handful of folks huddled on benches or street corners, perhaps sleeping off last night’s revelries. Cafe DuMonde provided coffee with chicory and plates of powdered sugar loaded fried dough magic. We ordered a plate for everyone, and not one of us finished, but we stuffed as many sugar-coma-inducing bites in as we could. Mind you, my five-month-old baby was hanging out in my baby wrap this whole time, and nursing him in the crowded open air cafe with a trumpeter in the background and powdered sugar poofing down on his little head is one of the sweetest memories I have from our time in the Quarter.
After we left the French Quarter we drove over the impressively long, straight, daunting, entertaining Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. I’m generally not a paranoid person but I don’t love bridges, and this one is a doozy. As the longest continuous bridge over water in the world, land isn’t visible in any direction for 8 of its 24 miles. The kids and my husband loved it; I, however, felt like I held my breath the entire time, praying there wouldn’t be an accident or collapse or Transformer incident to trap us out their or send us plunging into the lake. Boring story- we lived to tell the tale.
Just like that we were out of NoLA and onto the interstate heading east to the family-friendly, familiar beaches of Alabama. Our short stay in New Orleans was full of new sensory experiences for our children, amazing food, and some moments that stretched us a bit out of our travel comfort zone. Was it worth it? Absolutely! Would I recommend it to everyone? Probably not. It’s not the easiest place to keep track of everyone and keep them clean, fed, and safe. If you have several very young children it may not be worth the trouble, as much of the charm will be over their heads and the practical concerns will distract you from the things you’re there to enjoy. In general I felt quite safe, but their were a few times a street-side salesman got a little pushy; the man following us on his bicycle loudly trying to get us to pay him to guess where my husband bought his shoes for example. Harmless, but could be a bit frightening to a younger child. The homelessness and dirt and grime are real, and will take some explaining, as will the drinking culture and evidence of voodoo/dark magic that are unavoidable. However, those conversations are worth having, and it’s so good for children to see a world outside of their comfortable hometown bubbles and have to ask those hard questions. After all, isn’t that a significant part of why we travel with our children? In conversations we’ve had since our NoLA stay, a few of my kids have mentioned that they didn’t love that city as much as other places we’ve been. Fine! It is not really a place that caters to small children. It’s no Disney. However I loved it and would return in a heartbeat, with or without my brood. Put on your big boy/girl travel pants and give it a try…and eat a beignet or two for us while you’re at it.