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- More from Jacky Runice
How could one not be drawn to the unique melting pot history of New Orleans with its extraordinary food and music, myriad flags flown over the last 300 years and legends of voodoo, pirates and political bandits?
There's nothing like recent history, however, to really stir the soul -- as in what Katrina wrought -- and the very reason you should plan to take the family to this national treasure.
Whether your kids are 6 years old, sixth graders or well into adolescence, know that New Orleans is an extremely kid-friendly town despite its unruly reputation. Just like you wouldn't pass up a family trip to Amsterdam because of its infamous red-light district, you won't be hanging with conventioneers on Bourbon Street, so don't sweat the wicked characterization. New Orleans does tell us that it's OK to be a little naughty and color outside the lines and that living in lockstep is no way to really live at all.
Start the day in a perfectly wonderful way at the historic Cafe du Monde with just-made beignets buried under hills of powdered sugar. The kids can gulp chocolate milk while you fuel with a potent cafe au lait.
The New Orleans landmark, circa 1862, is directly across from Jackson Square where you can snag a carriage ride for a little history of the French Quarter or get a cab headed for the Warehouse District, also called "the SoHo of the South," where you'll find the award-winning Louisiana Children's Museum (www.lcm.org) as well as the National WWII Museum (www.ddaymuseum.org). On view until March 30 is "Duty, Honor, Country: When Baseball Went to War," an exhibition featuring many hands-on activities.
Depending upon your crew's ages and interests, you could pencil in stops at the Presbytere, which houses an amazing permanent exhibition on Mardi Gras; The Cabildo, one of the most historically significant buildings in America; the landmark Audubon Zoo; or the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, one of the top aquariums in the nation.
Take it from a local tour guide, Eugenia Rainey, who moved from Chicago six years ago with her three children, ages 4, 7 and 9. "We have a wonderful zoo and aquarium and you can take a boat down the river from one to the other so you get three outings in one," she said. "There is also City Park with the New Orleans Museum of Art, a storyland playground and amusement park. Swamp tours are great for kids for fun and to learn about the importance of wetlands," said Rainey.
"The Louisiana Children's Museum is extraordinary and now the St. Charles streetcar is back up and running. Kids love trains and a ride on the streetcar is great fun. The St. Charles streetcar will take you to Audubon Park and Zoo, and the Canal Streetcar will take you to City Park. Both parks are fun to let your kids run around and both parks have stables," said Rainey.
"You can also take the Algiers ferry across the river to Mardi Gras World and see where the floats are built and live in the off-season," said Rainey. "New Orleans holds lots of festivals, open-air opportunities to listen to music and learn. Jazz Fest has a section just for kids, although the entire event can be fun as well as a learning experience."
Get your gang to historic Preservation Hall for a jazz experience sans alcohol. The music begins nightly at 8 p.m., but a line usually forms outside around 7:30 p.m.
New Orleans is a great walking city and its temperate fall-to-spring weather begs for strolls or joining one of the fascinating walking tours offered by Haunted History Tours, the city's largest walking tour company. Older kids and teens will be enthralled by a ghost, voodoo, vampire or cemetery tour. Go to www.hauntedhistorytours.com or call (504) 861-2727.
No tour can touch the emotional Hurricane Katrina bus tour offered by Gray Line. It's three hours of information about the city's history, its importance to the nation as our second-busiest port, chronology of events leading up to the storm and views of the areas hardest hit by the country's worst natural catastrophe. Presented by an eyewitness and native New Orleanian, you'll understand how oil and gas pipelines, manmade levees and a vanishing coastline made for a lethal mix on Aug. 29, 2005. (Many employees, including Gray Line New Orleans Vice President Greg Hoffman, lost homes to the storm.) Go to http://buyneworleanstours.com for tour details.
Plan a meager diet before and after your New Orleans vacation, because you'll want to eat your way around the Crescent City. Napoleon House, a favorite French Quarter haunt of Tennessee Williams, features opera, a small menu with bargain prices and a cozy European atmosphere.
Introduce your palate to culinary traditions found at Cochon. The in-house boucherie offers homemade boudin and andouille sausage as well as head cheese, while the bar serves up mint juleps and even snorts of moonshine.
Don't fret about the costs. Zagat recently named New Orleans the second-most-affordable restaurant city in America.
Tourism is the economic engine of New Orleans, so your visit is not only great for your family, but it's helping the city's operating budget. You'll find super deals all around town, such as the fantastic packages put together by the five Marriott and Renaissance Hotels of New Orleans. The Big Easy's Papa Noel package, valid through Dec. 30, offers rates starting at $89 per night. Valid year-round, the Ultimate N'awlins Getaway includes streetcar tokens, gift cards at Cafe du Monde, Pat O'Brien's, Central Grocery and more starting at $149 per night.
Consider one of the getaway deals specifically for families that offer more than 40 percent in savings through May: Louisiana Children's Museum Package at the New Orleans Marriott at the Convention Center; Four Legs or Fins at the New Orleans Marriott; or the Aquarium Package at the JW Marriott New Orleans. The hotels all feature fabulous restaurants and are steps from the French Quarter, Central Business District and the smart Warehouse and Arts Districts. Go to www.marriott.com or ring (866) 530-3763.
For information on New Orleans, visit the official tourism site for the city of New Orleans, www.neworleansonline.com.