Memphis Zoo

Memphis Zoo
Location: Memphis, TN
Cost: $15/adult $10/kid ages 2-11; Parking $5
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, several

Our final stop of this trip was the Memphis Zoo; The main draw for us was the Giant Panda exhibit. My 1-year old has a stuffed panda that is her favorite toy so we wanted to take her to see the real thing. For only $15 per adult (that’s cheap for zoo admission) this was an amazing zoo.

We arrived about 15 minutes before the zoo opened.  We were following an internet tip to save money on parking by just parking in the nearby park for free but wanted to give ourselves additional time in case we got lost.  The zoo basically sits right next to the park so it’s not difficult for you to find if you go that route.  It did save us the $5 but it was a bit longer of a walk (which wouldn’t have been an issue except the weather finally turned on us and it was pouring when we left the zoo later that afternoon).  There is a nice plaza at the front entrance and the kids had fun posing with all the animal statues while we waited for the zoo to open.

The zoo was divided into several themed areas including China (where the panda indoor and outdoor exhibits are), Primate Canyon (gorillas, lemurs, etc), Africa, Northwest Passage (polar bears, sea lions), Teton Trek (Grizzley’s, wolves), Hippo Camp, Cat Country, a petting zoo and a few other random exhibits.  Each themed area was done really well.  All the exhibits looked to be in great shape and were very large.

The zoo also had a few animal shows that are included in the price of your ticket.  The shows are seasonal so check with the front desk for times.  We saw the Sea Lion Show.  We were at the zoo on a cloudy Friday so seating wasn’t too much of an issue (although there were several day camps there with us) on a Saturday or Sunday you would probably want to arrive a few minutes early for good seats.  The show lasted about 15 minutes and with several trainers working with 4 of the adult sea lions.  The show was entertaining.

The zoo (like all zoos) also had several add-on experiences you could purchase.  There is a tram ride ($2/ person all day pass), carousel ($2/ ride), farm train ($2/ride), Giraffe feeding ($5/person), Camel Rides ($5/person), Stingray Bay ($3/person + $2/feeding cup) and the Budgie House (it’s free to enter but feeding sticks are $1 each).  We allowed the kids to pick one experience.  They choose to ride the camels because that was not something we have available at our home zoo.  Because the kids were so little an adult had to ride with them (you have to pay for the adult).  The ride was basically just one loop around the camel yard (they did stop the camel in front of me so I could get a nice picture) and then the kids got to pet the camel when they got off.  I don’t think it was a great deal for the cost but it’s probably a better deal than feeding a giraffe a piece of lettuce for the same cost.

We happened to be at the zoo when they were having a Ripley’s Believe It or Not exhibit.  There were random animal facts associated with Ripley’s posted throughout the zoo along with several unique sculptures (like three 20-foot-long lions made completely out of crocheted yarn).  In the Expo Building located in the Once Upon a Farm exhibit there were several other hands on exhibits that kids (and adults) could try to beat/match the world records.

We ended up eating at the zoo.  The zoo does allow coolers and had a very nice picnic area near the Northwest Passage.  We decided to eat at the Cat Café which is the main eating establishment.  There is a nice playground just outside the café, so during nice weather you could get food and sit there while the kids burn some energy (this is about the point when it started raining, we sat inside).  The Cat Café had a fairly unique set up.  It had three station options with different types of food: Memphis Grille (burgers, chicken fingers, fries), Sabino’s (deli subs, soups, etc) and Pranzo’s Pizza.  Each station had its own pay window, so if your group wants different things you are either going to have to split up or wait in multiple lines.  The food also came out at extremely different rates.  My brother-in-law got pizza which was grab and go while I ordered from the Grille because the girls wanted chicken strips.  He was done eating before my pager even buzzed for me to pick up my order.  There was a nice condiment bar in the center for ketchup, mustard, napkins and other offerings.  The seating area was big but not big enough once the rain started coming down.  Food prices were what you would expect from a zoo.  The food was fairly good and the sandwiches from the Grille were made fresh.

There were several gift shops throughout the zoo but the main gift shop at the front entrance had a good selection of the items available at the side gift shops so you can wait to do your shopping at the very end.  We found several penny smashing machines scattered throughout the zoo.  I would also suggest bringing either quick drying clothes or your child’s swimsuit along with a towel if you come during warmer weather.  There was a very nice splash fountain near the entrance of the Teton Trek.  Also at the front of the zoo there is a wading river that ends in a small children’s wading pool complete with lifeguards.  I didn’t see anything about this on the zoo’s website.  Unfortunately, due to weather the wading pool was not open during our visit.

Overall impression: This is a high quality zoo.  The exhibits were amazing with lots of difficult to find animals (giant pandas are only found at 4 or 5 zoos nationwide).  The zoo was well maintained and very clean.  The price point was very good.  Additionally, they let you bring in outside food and drink.  This is a must visit zoo.

Adam and Miss A riding the camel
Miss A and Miss L at the entrance

Vicksburg National Military Park

Vicksburg National Military Park
Location: Vicksburg, MS
Cost: $20/vehicle
Smashed Penny Machine: No

The town of Vicksburg is on the Mississippi River about an hour West of Jackson, MS.  We left our hotel in New Orleans that morning about 8:30. It was roughly a three and half hour drive up.  Vicksburg National Military Park is a large battle field so be prepared to devote several hours to the park especially if you are doing the Jr Ranger program.

After paying entrance fee, you can choose to park at the Visitor’s Center or begin the drive through the park.  Unless you know a lot about the battle I’d suggest stopping at the Visitor’s Center first.  The Visitor’s Center had a short film about the battle (20 minutes long plays at the top of the hour and every half hour).  There is also a small museum that will give plenty of background regarding the battle.  You can also pick-up a copy of the self-guided tour from the ranger’s station or they have an app and you can get it all straight to your phone.  The Visitor’s Center also has a small gift shop and bookstore.

As you drive through the park you’ll past numerous monuments.  Most monuments do not have parking or paths to get up to them.   Most are close enough to the road that you can see them fairly well from the car.  Many are very beautiful monuments so they are worth seeing for the art. I’d suggest (unless you are really, really into Civil War history) just stopping at some of the bigger monuments.  I’d suggest stops at Illinois and the Shirley House (next to each other), Kentucky (if you can get to it, road closures made some parts of the park hard to get to), Mississippi, and Wisconsin.  Unfortunately, one of the main roads through the park is currently closed, so to see the whole park you are going to have to do some doubling back.  This added considerably to the amount of time it took us to tour the park.

In addition to the monuments, the park is also home to the USS Cairo Gunboat and a second museum dedicated to the boat.  The museum has a short video (about 15 minutes) that details the process of bringing the wrecked ship back to the surface.  There are also several display cases with artifacts found in the wreckage.  A smaller book store is located here.  There are also bathrooms (since this is on the opposite end of the park from the main Visitor’s Center, this is important information).  You can also walk aboard the USS Cairo itself.  The ship is mostly just a hull skeleton but some interesting features have survived.  Across the street from the USS Cairo is Vicksburg National Cemetery which is the final resting place of over 17,000 Civil War troops along with other veterans through the Korean War.

After stopping at the Cairo, we exited the park and drove through town to get back to the main Visitor’s Center (again one of main roads is currently closed) so we wouldn’t have to back track through parts of the park we had just driven through a little bit earlier.  You wouldn’t necessarily have to return to the main Visitor’s Center but there wasn’t a ranger on duty at the USS Cairo Museum.  In order to complete the Jr Ranger program, the girls had to go back to the main ranger desk.  The girls also received historic trading cards at this location in addition to their Jr Ranger badges.

Overall impression: I’m not going to sugar coat it, unless you are really into history battlefields tend to be rather boring to visit.   That being said I do think it’s very important for people to visit battlefields to remember what formed us into the people we are today.  Another plus of visiting is it really does help history come alive for a kid that has studied this or will study it in the future.  My dad is a major Civil War buff.  We visited one historic battlefield on nearly every vacation of my childhood.  While many of them aren’t exciting to a kid, it was neat that during class I’d be able to say that I had been to wherever we were talking about and would occasionally get to bring in pictures from various family vacations.  If you have kids in tow, check out the National Parks website and see if you can schedule your visit on a day that they have battlefield reenactments going on.

Vicksburg is going to take you easily two hours or more to tour depending on how quickly you read/listen to the tour and how many monuments you stop at.  There are a few other sites in Vicksburg you could stop at including Biedenharn Coca-cola Museum, The Old Depot Museum, Riverfront and the Riverfront Murals and several historic homes.  It would be easy to make a day trip over from Jackson or combine it with a stop in Jackson.

Miss A in front of a monument
Miss A and Miss L in front of the Cairo

The French Quarter

French Quarter
New Orleans, LA
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, at Café Du Monde

For our stay in New Orleans we decided not to stay in the French Quarter.  This decision was based partially on cost and partially on we weren’t sure what to expect out of the French Quarter after dark (there are things I’m not ready to explain to my seven-year-old).  We stayed at the Holiday Inn Downtown which is a few blocks from the Superdome.  The hotel was very nice.  It had an attached parking garage (additional parking fee per day), a restaurant/lounge in the lobby, a fitness center and a “roof top” pool.  The pool was outside on a patio on the 8th floor several floors of the hotel rise above the pool which meant the pool stayed shaded for a good part of the day.   We ate breakfast both days at the restaurant which was reasonably priced ($7-$10 per adult entrée and kids eat free with purchase of adult entrée), the food was very good and the staff was great.  There were plenty of other restaurants within an easy walk of the hotel.

The French Quarter was about twenty blocks away from our hotel.  The hotel staff suggested against walking that distance especially with four kids in tow.  They suggested using the RTA Streetcars.  The Streetcars are run by the New Orleans Transit Authority.  You can buy single ride passes or Jazzy Passes (multiple ride passes, we bought 1-day passes for $3.00/person ages 3 and up).  Passes can be purchased from the driver, at RTA Ticket Vending Machines or online (http://www.norta.com/Fares-Passes/Overview).  If you plan on buying from the driver, you must have EXACT change.  Even if you are not used to using public transit the streetcars are fairly easy to figure out.  There are five lines.  Each line follows the same path.  When it reached the end that streetcar turns and around and does the same path in reverse.  We were able to catch the Canal Street trolley about three blocks from the hotel.  When that line ended at Harrah’s casino, we switched to the River Front line which takes you right to the French Quarter.  Super easy.  Trolleys run about every 20-30 minutes (closer together during busier times of the year).  Drivers were super helpful and willing to give instructions to anyone that needed help.  Most the time the trolleys weren’t too crowded.  We only had to stand for two rides and even then the kids had seats.  We had a reservation for at 10:30 carriage ride so we made sure to give ourselves plenty of time to get to the French Quarter.  It took about 30 minutes between walking, waiting on trolley’s and riding to destinations to reach our final destination.  We might have been able to drive down faster but we didn’t have to hassle with finding (and paying) for parking.

We pre-booked a carriage tour with Royal Carriage Tours.  The carriages meet in front of Jackson Square so it’s super easy to find.  We arrived to the park about 20 minutes early so we spent a little bit of time exploring the park (there are drinking fountains in the park, they aren’t the coldest but it is free water if you are in need or want to refill bottles).  We also took a few minutes to look around St Louis Cathedral.  The Cathedral is an active church so you have to pay attention to the signs to make sure there isn’t service or another event going on.  They have brochures for self-guided tours and a small gift shop in the back of the church.  They request that you keep a quiet volume as you tour the church to be respectful of those that might be using the church.  The artwork on the ceiling and on the walls is amazing.  It was worth the brief visit (it was brief because toddlers only sort of get the idea of respectful noise level).  If your trip has older children or only adults, plan about thirty minutes to an hour to complete the full self-guided tour.

By the time we got done looking around the cathedral it was time to meet our carriage.  You can pre-book a carriage ride through the company’s website (https://www.neworleanscarriages.com/) or they were allowing people to book as they walked up.  Walk-up is based on availability so if you are going during a busy season or want to do the more restricted tours like the Ghost Tours I’d suggest pre-ordering tickets.  The company offers both 30 minute and 1 hour-long tours.  We opted for a 1-hour tour that included touring St Louis Cemetery No 1.   Our carriage was covered which was nice because even at 10 AM it was already hot.  Just a heads up the carriages share the road with cars.  The cars don’t always share the road nicely.  It can be a little nerve-racking but the tour guide was really good at keeping the mule moving at the pace she wanted and allowing traffic to go by as often as possible.

Our tour guide was very knowledgeable about the city.  During the tour she ran almost constant commentary pointing out historic buildings and various architectural features of the homes and businesses.  She also made some great suggestions for dinner and other activities for after we completed the tours.  She also gave us the tour St Louis Cemetery No 1 as well.  If you aren’t aware of it, the cemeteries in the old part of the city are mostly above ground and consists of lots of mausoleums some of which are very intricate.  There is almost no shade inside the cemetery (except for what the taller graves offer) either bring water or buy a bottle from the guy selling it out front.  Whatever the temperate on the street was it felt easily 10 degrees hotter in the cemetery.  There is no breeze, no shade and you are surrounded by concrete.  Our tour guide also did a great job of taking us to the more famous tombs in the cemetery as well as explaining the culture of how people were (and still are) buried in the cemetery as well as how families care for the tombs.  Although it may seem macabre, the cemetery tour was very cool and I would highly recommend it.  After our tour ended and we returned to Jackson Square, the tour guide allowed each of our kids to thank our mule and feed her a small treat.

Our next stop was the New Orleans Jazz Historical Park.  This is a small park run by the National Parks Service right in the middle of the French Quarter.  The park is dedicated to educating people about Jazz music.  It was about three blocks away from Jackson Square right on Decatur St.  The building is set back off the street behind a small courtyard but there was easy to follow signage on the main street.  We arrived just as the ranger was beginning a talk on the history of Jazz music.  The ranger was very informative (especially to someone like myself that doesn’t know much about music), did a great job keeping his audience participating in the discussion, and was a talented player as he played a selection of songs to help showcase what he was discussing.  It was also a great way to get to spend an hour sitting down in air conditioning.  After his presentation the ranger sat to answer any additional questions.  He also checked our daughter’s Jr Ranger books and did a very funny oath (on top of the normal serve and protect, he had them swear to eat veggies and clean their rooms without complaint).  There was also a small gift shop/bookstore that was part of the park.

After learning about Jazz we did some window shopping, actual shopping and then stopped for a lite lunch at Café Beignet.  The sandwiches were fairly large for the price and breakfast was served all day.  Service was fast and friendly and the food was served quickly.  It was an open air restaurant so be prepared for the birds.  After lunch the dads took the toddlers back to the hotel in hopes of getting the two of them to take naps (the toddlers not the dads).

My sister, myself and our two daughters decided to walk down to the French Market to do some souvenir shopping.  Of all the things we did on this trip, the French Market was the only real let down for me.  The French Market is a large open aired market (it does have a roof so you get out of the sun).  I was expecting a lot of local artists selling unique finds.  While there were some of those, 75% of the stalls were the same cheap foreign-made trinkets that every other gift shop had.  Most the stalls weren’t even selling items cheaper than the gift shops and at least gift shops had air conditioning.  I know that the vendors rotate in the market so maybe you get more local artists on a weekend.  We did find a stall that was selling Mardi Gras mask at a fairly good deal so each daughter bought themselves a mask to take home.  The girls also got a snow-cone that was fairly large for the price.  I will admit that the food court at the market looked amazing and I wish we would have walked down here for lunch.  After our shopping we decided to return to the hotel as well to swim and take a little rest before coming back for dinner later in the day.

After getting some pool time and much-needed showers for everyone, we returned to the French Quarter around 5 in the evening for dinner.  Our tour guide from the carriage rides in the morning had suggested Crescent City Brewhouse as a good stop for dinner with kids that would have a live Jazz band.  Unfortunately, the band plays at the front of the house which is the bar, so we couldn’t see them while we ate but we could hear them.  We had a nice dinner featuring lots of creole favorites and we tried some local drinks in the Pimm’s Cup and a Hurricane.  Food was very good (we all split meals to save room for beignets for dessert later) and the staff was friendly.  We stopped and watched the band for a few minutes as we were leaving.  We did a little more souvenir shopping.  The weather had cooled down quite a bit as the sun was going down.

For an after dinner treat we stopped by the famous Café Du Monde for beignets.  Every time we had walked by the café during the day, the café had been full.  The restaurant is open aired so I can imagine it’s not the greatest experience trying to eat piping hot beignets in 95-degree weather with 90% humidity while packed in with 150 other people.  By 7 in the evening there were only a handful of other diners and we were able to get two tables (small café tables that seat 3-4 guests) next to each other.  We ordered two orders of beignets to split and some waters (I know you are supposed to get coffee with them but it was still easily 85 degrees out and I wouldn’t have slept if I had drunk coffee that late in the evening).  There are three beignets per order and unless you are really hungry I would suggest splitting an order.  Each beignet was about the size of my palm, they were made fresh and topped with a mound of powdered sugar.  Service was very quick and I’d highly suggest stopping to get an order as a snack (they taste similar to a funnel cake).  Café Du Monde also had a few smashed penny machines so the girls were able to add to their collection.

We decided to call it a night after our snack.   We had about 15 minutes till the next trolley was due at the station, so we crossed the tracks and stood on the Moonwalk next to the Mississippi and watched the boats.  We were very lucky to hear the Steamboat Natchez’s Calliope play before it set sail for its evening dinner cruise.

Overall impression: We loved the French Quarter.  It’s a little bit of everything all rolled into one.  There is a modern urban side and the historic side of the city all right together.  It is a large tourist destination and while I never once felt unsafe, use your brain and be alert.  There are a lot of street performers as well.  While watching them is technically free they do expect a tip if you stop to watch.  For the most part all the performers were very nice.  Just remember to be aware of your surroundings and belongings.  We were out of the French Quarter before nightfall (with 4 kids in tow, nightlife wasn’t big on our agenda).  Overall I would say that New Orleans is a great family destination.

Mule drawn carriage ride
Miss A says she belongs in the city
Miss A and Miss E
St Louis Cemetery 1
French Market finds
Riding the trolley

Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours

Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours
Location: Slidell, LA
Cost: $25/adult, $15/child
Smashed Penny Machine: No

This was probably the most unique experience we had on the trip and honestly one of my favorites.  Slidell is about a half an hour outside of New Orleans.  There are several tour companies that do swamp tours in the area.  This one had covered boats.  In the late May heat that was a major plus.  They also offer hotel pickup and drop off if you are staying in New Orleans and don’t have a car.  The drive between Slidell and New Orleans is fun because you get to cross part of Lake Pontchartrain which is so big that you are basically on a bridge and just surrounded by open water.

Dr. Wagner’s Swamp Tours depart from Crawford Landing on the West Pearl River.  Pay attention to parking as this is a public boat launch.  Reservations are required before hand.  You can use the form on their website (http://www.honeyislandswamp.com/) or call.  If you use the form they’ll call you.  You have to talk to them for the reservation.    There is a fee for all members of your party.  We had to pay for the toddlers even though they sat on our laps the whole time.

Arrive to your tour early.  You have to park and then check in at the gift shop (there are indoor bathrooms in the gift shop).  Also they only took cash so be prepared for that.  We arrived for our tour about 30 minutes early.  Which was plenty of time to check in, use the restroom (boat ride is two hours long so make sure everyone in your group goes to the restroom before heading out) and look around the gift shop before it got too crowded.  There is also a nice covered patio on the front of the gift shop where you can wait.  They started boarding our tour boat about 15 minutes early.  They had snacks and bottles of water for sell in the gift shop but they didn’t seem to mind people bringing their own water bottles on board.  Just a heads up during main season they make sure to get a maximum number of people on the boats.  While I wasn’t Disney-level smooshed into the seat, you will be sharing your space with 20-30 other people so be considerate.

The boats are operated by local tour guides that know the bayou very well.  Our tour guide Rene was also very funny with a mix of lame puns and other jokes to keep you entertained while searching for wildlife.  We saw several bird species and snake.  Rene was also good at pointing out various plant life that is unique to the area.  Initially we didn’t have much luck finding alligators so the guide moved us to a different part of the swamp.

Side note when you see an alligator you don’t have to jump up to get a picture if it is on the other side of the boat.  The tour guides did a good job of rotating the boat so both sides could see the alligators.

Further downstream we had much better luck spotting alligators.  You can tell the local alligator population is very familiar with the swamp tours.  Once the alligators spot the boats they normally swim toward them for a treat.  Oddly it’s not illegal by state law in Louisiana (individual Parish laws may exist) to feed alligators.  As a result, most the swamp tours will feed the alligators marshmallows to attract alligators to the boat.  From what I can tell online (and that goes along with what the tour guide said), the marshmallows are fairly harmless to the alligators.  So you will get to see lots of alligators as they come out looking for the treats.  Please remember though an alligator is a large, powerful predator; do not attempt to feed one yourself.  I am personally a little torn on the ethical ecological implications of feeding the alligators.  It’s probably not a great thing for the wild animals, although it’s not going to make them dependent on humans (a 6-foot alligator needs more food than a few marshmallows a day) it does make them associate humans with food.  However, this is really the only way the average person is going to see the awesome speed and power of an adult alligator (our guide got a 5-foot alligator to jump 4 feet out of the water for a marshmallow – seriously don’t mess with wild alligators).

After coming back to port, the kids each picked out a small souvenir at the gift shop which was very reasonably priced.  From there we headed for New Orleans.

Overall impression: We had a great time on the tour.  The tour guide was very nice and had a lot of good information about the swamp.   The kids really enjoyed seeing alligators up close.

Watching alligators from the porch
Boat ride

Gulf Islands National Seashore Park – Davis Bayou

Gulf Islands National Seashore Park – Davis Bayou
Location: Ocean Springs, MS
Cost: Free
Smashed Penny Machine: No

Gulf Islands National Seashore is actually a large string of barrier islands that stretch from the Fort Walton Beach area in Florida across to Mississippi.  It includes several islands, historic forts and smaller hiking areas.  Some of these locations are very primitive with little to no facilities and some of the islands are only reachable via private boat.  The Davis Bayou area is just outside Ocean Springs and it offers hiking, picnicking, camping and a visitor’s center.

We arrived at opening on a Tuesday morning and had the park to ourselves.  We walked the boardwalk trail around the visitor’s center which offered nice views of the bayou.  This was a very easy walk and very accessible for wheelchairs or strollers.  The path was also mostly shaded.

The visitor’s center has a nice museum that has several interactive elements for the kids to learn about the wildlife in the park.  I really enjoyed the carved representations of the local wildlife that was on display throughout the visitor’s center.  They also had a short film (about 20 minutes) about the importance of the barrier islands and the surrounding saltwater marshes.  After watching the film our girls completed their Jr Ranger books and received their badges.

Although it was a warm morning, we decided to do a short hike through some of the woods on a trail that went through parts of the bayou to see if we could spot some alligators.  The trail was NOT stroller friendly and honestly wasn’t well marked (either that or people have been going out and making their own trails).  We didn’t get too lost thought.  We didn’t see any alligators but we saw some birds, a snake, some lizards and a really big bull frog.  The kids had fun keeping on the lookout for wildlife.

Overall impression: The park was very quiet (it was a Tuesday morning) we only saw maybe 5 other people total.  It was a nice stop to learn more about the local eco system.  Other parts of the national seashore are probably a bit more exciting as they have beaches but this is a very nice park. If you have an hour or two (you could probably spend all day if you really like hiking) it’s worth the stop.

Fort Morgan, AL

Fort Morgan, AL
Cost: $7/adult, $4/kid (6 and under free)
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, but it was broken

In an attempt to escape the lingering effects of the tropical storm, we decided to check out Fort Morgan.  The fort sits at the very end of the East peninsula that form Mobile Bay.  The fort is about a 30-minute drive from Gulf Shores via a two lane highway that takes you through mostly residential areas.  There are few restaurants and beach rental in this direction as well.  You can also get to the fort by taking the ferry from Dauphin Island (drive on).  Due to rough surf caused by the tropical storm, the ferry was closed so we were unable to check that out.

Fort Morgan (and the forts that sat on that site previously) projected Mobile Bay and the city of Mobile.  It played a major role in the Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War.  The fort was an active military base through World War 2.

If no one is at the guard gate to take fees (there wasn’t when we arrived because it was later in the afternoon), park and just go into the museum to pay.  You’ll get a map of the grounds that gives some background on the fort.  The museum is informative but small.  There is also a small gift shop here.  The restrooms are in a separate building near the parking lot.  Bathrooms weren’t dirty but they aren’t fancy either (no a/c).  The only other facilities they had were two soda vending machines near the bathrooms so be prepared and bring some water with you.

The park also has beach access and fishing access from the beach.  There isn’t much in the way of amenities here (no life guards) so the beach was pretty empty.  This might be a nice stop if you are looking for a quiet place to bird watch or just walk along the beach.  The view wasn’t quite as nice as in Gulf Shores mostly because you are staring at a bunch of off shore oil rigs.

The main fort is directly across the parking lot from the museum.  You’ll walk through a small tunnel to enter the main fort.  There are free guided tours available at select times (check out their website for times: http://fort-morgan.org/) and the fort is open for self-guided tours during business hours.  Most the fort is a maze of empty rooms.  There are a few rooms that have been redone to show what the soldiers’ bunk rooms, an officer quarters and the washer women quarters would have looked like during the Civil War.  You can’t walk through these rooms but you can look at them through the windows.  You can also walk around the top battlements.  That gives you a nice view of the surrounding area.  Getting to the top is not handicap or stroller accessible (most the lower level is) and it’s a bit of a climb up some rather steep stairs to the top.  Walking around gives you a good feel of what life would have been like for the men stationed here.

There are a few other areas to walk around that are outside the main fort.  We also walked around the Federal Siege Lines where there are some Civil War era cannons set up in the earthen fortifications.  The kids enjoyed “firing” on the fort.  We also found a few really nice shells in the sand on the path.

Be aware there is not much shade (except inside the tunnels of the main fort) so be prepared with sun screen and water.

Overall impression: We enjoyed learning a little about the history of the fort.  The kids enjoyed being able to explore all the “hidden” rooms in the tunnels and walking the battlements.  It was an enjoyable stop and a nice way to spend a few hours in the greater

Gulf Shores, AL

Gulf Shores, AL
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, at a souvenir shop (Souvenir City)

For cost savings reasons (it was a holiday weekend), we stayed about 45 minutes away from Gulf Shores in a suburb of Mobile; Daphne, AL.  The drive from Daphne to Gulf Shores was four lane highway and a very easy drive.  We knew we were only doing one day at the beach so this made a lot of sense for us.  We did drive down the main strip along the beach and there are lots of options in Gulf Shores right on the beach (hotels/condos/beach houses) if that would work better for your family.

Gulf Shores has several public beaches (complete list: https://www.gulfshores.com/things-to-do/beach-water/beaches.aspx#sm.0000zy9sux31ze3wval1xyzsa1sgu).  With four kids in tow we knew we wanted a beach with facilities.  We opted to go to Gulf Shores Main Public Beach.  There are two parking lots that are right next to the beach.  There are parking fees ($5 for 4 hours, $10 for all day).  You pay at the automated parking kiosk and then place your receipt in your window.

The beach is very nice and well maintained.  Next to the parking lots are several covered picnic tables so you could easily picnic off the sand if you wanted to.  There was a nice bathroom that was in good repair and fairly clean (I don’t think you can count sand against them at the beach but toilet paper was stocked and trash wasn’t over flowing).  There were outside showers to rinse off.  There are life guards on duty.  There were several trashcans placed along the beach which were also not overflowing.  They had a tractor out raking the sand to pick-up trash and debris from the sand.  The sand was a beautiful white and very fine.  We did find some seashells but nothing really fantastic.

Now we got semi-unlucky as a tropical storm came ashore that morning in Florida.

The pros of having a large storm coming ashore nearby:

  1. We arrived at the beach at 9:30 on Memorial Day it was us and the reporters from The Weather Channel.
  2. It was overcast all morning (sunscreen anyway, hubby and brother in law both did a poor job of that and got very nice sunburns) so the temperature was nice.
  3. Storm surge had caused a small tidal pool on the beach (about mid shin deep on me) that the toddlers loved splashing in.

 

The cons of having a large storm coming ashore nearby:

  1. The storm surge caused us to be under red flag warnings. The surf was NOT swimmable.  We took the older girls out to what was knee deep water on us and even that was hard.  The waves would about push an adult over and the rip tide would yank the sand out from under your feet.  The kids still had a good time playing in the shallows.
  2. While we were eating lunch (which we luckily had vetoed picnicking on the beach like we had originally thought) there was torrential rain downpour for about 20 minutes. Then it would downpour off and on the rest the afternoon.

Lesson learned: Bad weather in the Gulf might change your plans, be flexible.

We had originally planned to spend the whole day at the beach.  However, since we were unable to really swim in the water and there are only so many sandcastles you can build we decided to find a sit down lunch and come up with something else to do for the afternoon.

We decided to eat lunch at Lulu’s Gulf Shores which had been suggested on some travel websites.  The restaurant (entertainment venue might be a better term though) is on the bay so it’s about a 10-minute drive from the beach.   The restaurant offers free bottles of water in coolers all around the property which was nice while we waited for a table (you almost always have to wait for a table when you are a party of 8).  We also checked out the gift shop which had a fair selection of items.  You aren’t going to find good deals here but everything was fairly reasonable.  The dining area is mostly opened air but completely covered (I assume they have the ability to close it in during cooler months).  We were seated on the outside patio that is next to the giant sand pit.  Lulu’s provides sand toys and it has a small water feature so your kids can play while you wait for your food or you could hang out at the bar across from the patio and enjoy adult beverages while your kids played.   Service was very good.  Prices and portion sizes are what you’d expect for seafood in a tourist town.  I think you would get more of the atmosphere of the restaurant if you came for dinner.  They had a stage for a live band and there were ropes courses available for the kids but they were not open at lunch time.  Overall it was a fine meal.

After lunch Gulf Shores was due to have random bands of heavy rain.  We opted to do some souvenir shopping and then head west to see if we could get a little away from the storm.  We did our shopping at Souvenir City.  We scientifically picked this place because the door way is a giant shark that you walk through its mouth to get inside and the older kids HAD to go there.  If you decide to go there, park in the back lot and the front lot has one entrance so if there is no available parking your stuck doing an awkward 3-point turnaround in a crowded parking lot (the back entrance is a pirate ship).   The store is very large and had a large variety of items (hold tight to your kids, you would not want to lose a kid in this store).  Most the stuff they had you could probably purchase from Amazon so it’s not unique finds.  Prices were so-so.  We did find a few smashed penny machines and I managed to find some locally made ornaments that we purchased one of.  If you are looking for unique or local items, this is not your stop.

After the kids were done spending some of their money, we decided to check out Fort Morgan.

Overall impression: Gulf Shores is a nice town.  I kept seeing people say it wasn’t touristy like Destin.  I disagree.  It was touristy but not nearly as crowded as the beaches in Florida.  The beaches were very nice and very clean.  It had all your normal tourist offerings (go carts, ice cream shops, putt-putt, water parks) plus it’s not too far from Mobile (about an hour) so you could make and easy week long vacation here.

Playing in the sand at Lulu’s
Front entrance to Souvenir City

Beaches and Bayou Overview

We took a Memorial Day week trip to the beach and then to New Orleans to experience the bayou.  We tagged along with my sister and her family for this trip so a lot of our trip was set by them (we decided we were going after they had already started booking hotels and experiences).

Travel group: Myself (34), my husband (32), our two daughters (7,1), my sister (28), my brother-in-law (30), their daughter and son (5,2).

Time of trip: Late May/Early June

Day 1 Travel Evansville to Daphne, AL

Day 2 Gulf Shores, AL
Gulf Shores Public Beaches – Gulf Place
LuLu’s Gulf Shores
Fort Morgan State Historic Site

Day 3 Travel Daphen, AL to Ocean Springs, MS
Gulf Islands National Seashore Park
Travel Ocean Springs, MS to Slidell, LA
Dr Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours
Travel Slidell to New Orleans
Holiday Inn Downtown Superdome

Day 4 French Quarter
Jackson Square
St Louis Cathedral
Mule Carriage Tour
St Louis Cemetery No 1
New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park
Cafe Beignet
French Market
Crescent City Brewhouse
Café Du Monde

Day 5 Travel New Orleans to Vicksburg, MS
Vicksburg National Military Park
Travel Canton, MS to Memphis, TN

Day 6 Memphis Zoo
Lambert’s Café, Sikeston, MO
Travel Sikeston to Evansville