Never in one million years did I think I would ever take my family on a family vacation to New Orleans. New Orleans was never a destination, in my mind, that screamed "bring your kids here!" After all, for most of us outsiders, New Orleans is synonymous with Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street. If you had asked me what I thought we were going to do there with two boys under the age of three, I would have laughed, shrugged my shoulders and said, "well, there's a zoo?"
And then we did it. We traveled there as a family of four to spend four days exploring the city and taking part in all that New Orleans has to offer families. You'll have to excuse me while I remove my foot from my mouth because from my lips to god's ears, it was one of the greatest, most fun family vacations we've ever taken.
I may have even fallen in love with the city and cannot wait to return.
Our days there were packed with fun and although we tried our hardest to squeeze in the best that New Orleans had to offer, there were still some things I wish we had more time to see and do! Not to mention eat. Oh, the food. That should be a whole post unto itself.
It would be remiss to write a vacation recap post and not include our accommodations. My hat is off to the staff of the JW Marriott as they made our stay feel just like home but with a much better view. Everything was perfect from our larger than large suite that allowed the boys to sleep in their own "room," to the staff who were so warm, welcoming and hospitable. Within minutes Carter was famous and every where we turned a staff member would stop what they were doing to say hi and scoop him up to let him see out a nearby window.
We were greeted with a wonderful welcome bag full of so many fun and exciting New Orleans treats. I especially loved my new t-shirt signed by Drew Brees (Who dat!) and the bags of Zapp's potato chips. Within minutes of settling into our room, we had already polished off an entire bag of the Crawtators and having blown through the one and only bag we brought back to Maryland with us, I'm already trying to figure out ways to satiate our craving for the spiciest, most delicious chips ever.
After a quick snack and change of clothes, we hit the ground running. We knew we wanted to stretch our legs and let the toddler blow off some steam after being cooped up on the plane for so long so we walked the few short blocks to Jackson Square. That's another great thing about the JW. Located in the Business District of the French Quarter and just a block from Bourbon Street, we were within walking distance of so much of what makes New Orleans well, New Orleans.
No matter the hour of day, the Square was a flurry of activity. From tarot card readers and fortune tellers to street artists selling their wares or making beautiful music, there was much to see and do. Our suggestions? Grab a couple beignets and frozen Cafe au Lait from Cafe Du Monde or, if it's after noon, a hurricane from any nearby street corner and head on over to relax in the park.
Speaking of beignets, they are an absolute must-have. I vowed to eat Maclane's weight in them prior to our arrival and I'm almost certain I did just that. Whether they are from Cafe Du Monde or Cafe Beignet, they are a New Orleans must-eat. Carter absolutely loved the sole fact that he was allowed "cake" for breakfast! Only in New Orleans, sir!
While we're on the subject of must-eats, after many recommendations, we decided to indulge in the char-grilled oysters from Acme Oyster House as well as the same plate from Drago's. They are literally to die for. Lemon-y and parmesean-cheesy and just all around incredible. While at Drago's, we also enjoyed alligator "fingers" with a spicy creole aioli and spicy Cajun boiled shrimp. The shrimp poboys and seafood muffaletta from Johnny's were just as good as everyone said they would be and the dogs from Dat Dog on Magazine Street were the icing on the cake. Sriracha, sour cream and onions on a spicy sausage? I'm drooling once again just thinking about it. The boys loved the atmosphere of Dat Dog and even more, the pomme frites!
My thoughts on dining in Nola with kids? You can do anything if you start early enough. If that means booking dinner reservations at 4:30pm to avoid meltdowns and crowded restaurants? So be it. We may have eaten early nearly every night but it was worth it.
Our second day in Nola brought us to the Aquarium of the Americas as well as the Insectarium. Each of these adventures is a short walk from where we were staying and what's better is that it's a beautiful walk down along the banks of the Mississippi. The boys loved watching the steamboats sail by and we even caught the Steam Calliope playing atop the Natchez!
The aquarium was nothing short of a blast! Both of the boys were absolutely enamored with the giant fish tank tunnel you can walk through immediately upon entering the aquarium doors. We must've spent twenty minutes watching the fish (and the divers!) swim around the tank. The divers were so much fun and really interacted with the kids!
I loved seeing the infamous albino alligator and Carter was especially fond of the sharks! One of the must-do's at the aquarium is the Parakeet House where for a small fee you can purchase little feed sticks and enter into a sanctuary where hundreds of parakeets fly freely around, often landing on your bag, shoulders or even your head while you walk around offering them tasty birdie treats.
Despite being a building that housed millions of creepy crawlies, our next stop was the Insectarium. A short walk down from the aquarium, I couldn't wait to take the boys here. By now you must know that this trip involved a lot of walking. Imagine the most walking you've ever done in four days and multiple it by a hundred thousand.
If I had one word of advice for you, it's bring comfortable shoes. I walked the city in flip flops and TOMS and my feet still ache.
The Insectarium was so neat. Word to the wise, shortly after entering the building there is an interactive exhibit that revolves around the world under the ground. Sounds great, right? Well, it's dark, for starters. So if your kids don't like the dark? Steer clear. If that doesn't scare them but a larger than life animatronic spider coming at them from a hole in the wall will? You'd best skip this exhibit. We didn't know any better and I've never seen my toddler run faster than the minute he saw that spider.
Unfortunately, this kind of put a damper on his experience as he proceeded to run through nearly every exhibit afterwards. It did, however, provide hours of laughter for both the husband and myself. By the time we reached the zen Butterfly Garden our toddler was ready (and willing!) to see some bugs.
There's even a big cafe on-site where they serve tasty critter treats! Cinnamon and sugar roundworms, anyone?
The following morning, after a delicious breakfast at the Camellia Grill, we boarded the St. Charles street car line for the Audubon Zoo. The Camellia Grill was such a wonderful experience. Old-fashioned diner-type setting with comparably delicious food and sweet company. Carter loved saddling up to the counter and ordering pancakes which were made extra special with Mickey ears. Get there early though- it fills up quick!
The street car was an attraction unto itself. Carter loved climbing the stairs, buying his day pass, choosing his seat and riding "the big red train" as he preferred to call it. Ridden through the Garden District proved to be chock full of beautiful sights including pristinely manicured gardens and beautiful mansions.
I think that the zoo was by far one of my most favorite attractions. Although it was a bit hot and sticky this day, we had so much fun walking the grounds and checking out all of the animals. In addition to the animals one would typically see at the zoo, there was an entire exhibit full of dinosaurs that just blew Carter's little mind.
Because it was so hot and sticky this day, we decided to take full advantage of "The Cool Zoo," a water park within the zoo that caters to children both young and old. Both Carter and Maclane had just the best time ever playing in the water. My mom-heart practically skipped a few beats as Carter climbed and slid with reckless abandon. I would recommend donning your own bathing suit so as to better chase your kids through the small water park or waiting until they're a little bit older than 3 to take advantage of it. At nearly 1, Maclane was the perfect age for the smaller activities but at nearly 3 and fearless, Carter wanted to run and jump and play with the "big kids" on the giant pirate ship and that about gave me a heart attack.
After some shaved ice and a trip through the zoo gift shop, we were zoo'd out and ready for our next adventure. The following morning, Saturday, marked the first day of the Creole Tomato festival in the French Market, a festival that promised great food, even greater music and lot's of family fun. As we walked through the market, we were privy to brass band music, cooking demonstrations and free tomato samples!
Once we had our fill of the festival, we piled into a taxi cab and headed out to Magazine Street where I knew I wanted to do a little shopping before we flew home the next day. After popping in and out of a few fantastic little boutiques, I found the perfect summer maxi dress at The Red Carpet boutique.
One boutique that is certain not to be missed is OrientExpressed. I knew the minute we booked our trip that it wouldn't be complete without a visit to this one of a kind children's clothing and home goods boutique. I could have sworn I heard angels singing the minute I opened the door to the store and within minutes I had an arm's full of clothing for the boys.
It was about the time that the toddler threw himself down to the ground in a napless fit that I knew it would be in our best interest to head back to the hotel. We had tickets to board the steamboat Natchez that afternoon and as much as I wanted to experience this, I didn't think spending two hours on a boat with two over-tired children was the best of ideas.
After a restful nap back at the hotel, we decided to take another long stroll through the Quarter. Stopping in and out of the boutiques, sampling more local food and drink, picking up a couple of adorable appliqued t-shirts from Nola Kids and finally landing in the Little Toy Shop down by the river. I swear the boys' eyes were as wide as saucers the moment we stepped up into the store. We allowed them to pick out a few "treats" to remember their trip by. Maclane picked a puppy puppet and Carter, a taxi cab and fire truck. This shop was full of so many unique gifts- it's a must-stop for anyone with small children!
After three days of non-stop fun, I could tell the boys were exhausted. That's the thing about traveling with little kids. As much as you want to see and do it all, you have to keep in mind that it's such a shock to their systems- to be out of their element, away from their "normal," and trying their hardest to adapt to a new routine. I was so proud of how well the boys behaved. They were truly such troopers! Of course there were meltdowns here and there but nothing a beignet or virgin frozen daiquiri couldn't solve!
After a quick dip in the hotel pool followed by baths and fresh jammies, we settled in for a relaxing night of movie-watching and room service. It was fun to watch the city come alive from the beautiful view of our hotel room and after three very busy days, even more fun to watch it sitting comfortably with my feet up and with a Sazerac in hand.
There's just something about New Orleans. I've been told either you love it or you hate it and I can say without a doubt that I absolutely loved it. I loved every minute of it- even the hottest, stickiest, sweatiest moments. The people are one of a kind and the energy throughout the city is like nothing I've ever felt in a city.
Can you take your family to New Orleans and have a great time? Absolutely. Two weeks ago I wasn't a believer. I would have laughed at the thought but after spending four priceless days there with my husband and our two boys under the age of three, I am most definitely a believer.
A believer who can't wait to return. If you're looking to take a family vacation, I strongly encourage you to #followyournola. I promise you'll thank me later. Visit Follow Your Nola to start planning.
Brand Disclosure: I am so grateful for the opportunity to take this vacation with my family, a vacation that likely wouldn't have happened otherwise. Priceless memories were made and for that, I will always be thankful for this sponsored opportunity. I received no financial compensation for this post but did received an all-expense paid trip to New Orleans through the New Orleans Travel and Tourism board.