This summer we decided to do a tour of the American Southwest. Since the first half of the trip followed very close to Route 66, we HAD to do some traditionally roadside stops. A lot of these locations have tons of other cool things to do in the area (several of the parks could be a trip of their own) so pretty much any single day could be turned into a longer trip. This overall trip had a lot of windshield time (over 4400 miles total) but it is very doable. We had a large traveling party (as usual). Total there were 10 people in our group (in two cars): my parents (ages 59), my family (34, 32, 7, 1), and my sister’s family (30, 28, 5, 2). Also for our time in Santa Fe my older sister drove down from Colorado Springs and met us for the day with her family (41, 39, 13, 11).
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial
Location: 3027 East South Street; Lincoln City, IN 47552
Smashed Penny Machine: No
Lincoln Boyhood Park is about an hour East of Evansville and about an hour and fifteen minutes West of Louisville. The park is fairly small containing a small visitor’s center, a living historical farm, a few hiking trails and a small picnic area. The park is directly across the highway (and is connected via trails) to Lincoln State Park which is run by the state of Indiana. The state park is quite a bit bigger and offers more hiking, several picnic areas, two lakes (one of which has a swimming beach), a campground and cabins for rent. You can find out more information about the state park here: https://www.in.gov/dnr/parklake/2979.htm
We started our afternoon at the visitor’s center. The visitor’s center has a short film (about 15 minutes) that tells about Abraham Lincoln’s childhood and young adulthood in Southern Indiana. There is also a small museum that details about Lincoln’s life and about pioneer life in the early 1800’s. In the main hall way of the visitor’s center is a small selection of books and souvenirs available for purchase. If you have kids in your group, you can also get the Jr Ranger booklet from the front desk. I would also highly encourage you to use the restroom at the visitor’s center. The other bathrooms in the national park including the ones by the picnic area are primitive, outhouse style restrooms.
After exploring the visitor’s center, we decided to hike to the living historical farm. After leaving the visitor’s center follow the trail past the flag pole and then stay on the left path for the shortest distance to the farm. Along this route you will also pass the Pioneer Cemetery. This is the resting place for several people who once resided in the general area as well for Lincoln’s mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln. The trail will also walk directly past the picnic area and the primitive restrooms. Just before the farm, there is a very short path to the left which is a memorial built on the site of the cabin where the family lived.
The living history farm is a depiction of what a typical early 1800’s farm would have looked like in the area. The farm is open and staffed from about mid-April through the end of September. During offseason you can walk to the farm but none of the buildings are open. The farm is staffed by people in period clothing. Throughout the day the staff does typical chores a family farm would have had to complete from cooking meals, sewing, caring for animals and crops and chopping firewood. Since the needs of the farm are ever-changing each visit is somewhat unique. On this visit, a staff member was spinning wool into thread on a spinning wheel. Other members of the staff were telling stories of frontier life and answering questions. The staff is very good at interacting with kids and recruiting them to help around the farm. It’s a neat hands-on experience that helps bring a little bit of history to life.
The farm’s main building is the family one-room cabin. There is also a smoke house (they had bacon curing during our visit), a woodworking shop, chicken cope, barn (sheep, horse, cow) and family garden. Kids are free to gently explore the cabin and grounds.
Past the farm there is a short hike (maybe 200 yards round trip) to the well the family would have used for water. There is nothing very exciting to see and the trail dead ends here. We took the hike because one of the farm workers sent the girls on a “mission” to bring back a bucket of water so they could see what chores would have been like for kids on the farm. It wasn’t a bad hike just nothing exciting.
The hike back from the farm we took the Trail of Twelve stones. The trail (about a half mile) passes twelve stone from various buildings that were important to Lincoln’s life and small plaque explaining the stone. They aren’t very exciting stones unless you are really, really into history from this time period. However, it’s an easy hike through the woods and it brings you back to the pioneer cemetery so it makes a nice loop from the farm back to the Visitor’s Center. The kids then turned in their Jr Ranger books and received their badges.
Overall: This is not a very large park (especially by Federal park standards), but a very nice park to visit. You could spend easily two to three hours exploring but could see the highlights very easily in an hour if you were pressed for time. There are a lot of other things to do in the general area so it would be easy to make this part of a longer day trip or even a small weekend getaway. Other things in the area include Lincoln State Park, the town of Santa Claus and Holiday World theme park.
St Louis Zoo
Location: 1 Government Drive; St Louis, MO 63310
Price: Admission is free
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, several located throughout the park
The St Louis Zoo is a very large zoo. It is located in St Louis’s historic Forest Park just off of I-64 a little West of downtown. Admission to the zoo is completely free. There are several attractions in the zoo that cost an additional fee: Railroad ($7.95/all-day pass), Sea Lion Show ($4), Children’s Zoo ($4), Stingray Petting ($4/person, $1/food cup), Carousel ($3/ride; adults must pay to accompany child), 4D Theater ($5) – if you are planning on doing more than one get an Adventure Pass ($12.95/person) at the front gate that gives you access to each of these. There is also a $15 fee for parking at either zoo parking lot. The zoo is part of Forest Park so you can park your car anywhere parking is legal in the park for free. However, parking near the zoo fills up very quickly on weekends and in the summer.
We entered the zoo at the South Entrance. If you are wanting to purchase the Adventure Pass, you’ll do that at the windows before you enter the zoo. There are bathrooms just to the left of the gift shop (also to your left). A map kiosk and an information booth is just to your right. We headed to the right to the historic area of the zoo. The hill is a pretty steep climb so I always choose to tour this part of the zoo either first thing or later in the afternoon to avoid hiking it in the heat of the day. There are two indoor exhibits here: the reptile house and the monkey house. Both are good ways to spend time if the weather isn’t cooperating with you.
We worked our way counter-clockwise through the zoo. Because we had arrived a little later than we had originally planned (traffic coming into the zoo – this was the first day in weeks where the Midwest wasn’t melt your face hot with 900% humidity so the zoo was VERY busy), we stopped at East Refreshments on the top of Historic Hill for a lite lunch. We split a cheese burger basket and a chicken strip basket between the four of us. Both came with a side of fries and a small drink. It was plenty of food to share and was reasonably priced (for a zoo) costing us just under $20. The seating here is all outdoors and partially shaded at noon.
One thing I would highly suggest is investing in a Zoo sipper cup. Currently they are $10.99 per cup with $1.00 refills. If you park in the parking lot, you will get a $1 off coupon to use. Also these cups NEVER expire. So if you are like us and live semi close (we visit about once a year), you can bring the cup back and still get $1.00 refills. We buy just one cup and share it but there are discounts if you buy multiple cups at a time.
Our favorite exhibits when the weather gets warm are the penguin/puffins coast and the polar bear. Both have indoor viewing. Penguin and Puffin Coast is kept at a temperature that the penguins like so it’s always nice and chilly inside (just a warning exiting this exhibit you are dropped right into the middle of a gift shop theme park style). Sea Lion Sound also has indoor viewing (a tunnel under the enclosure). Check your times on your map, if you are within 10 minutes of the next Sea Lion feeding don’t go into the tunnels. The Sea Lions go to where they’ll be fed waiting on the keeper and you can’t see them from within the tunnel. Both of these attractions can see lines during busy visit days. Waits typically aren’t more than 10-15 minutes.
We ended our day with a ride on the Zoo Train. The train makes a full loop of the zoo (including 3 well-lit tunnels). There are stops in all the major areas of the zoo (Historic Hill, Red Rocks, Lakeside Crossing, River’s Edge, The Wild, Discover Corner) and tickets are good for all day riding so you could use the train to travel around the zoo. On busy days the waits to board can be fairly long (we waited about 30 minutes).
Overall: There is a lot to see and do at the St Louis Zoo. Its 100% worth the stop if you are in the area or can make a day trip of it. Plan to spend a minimum of 3 hours here to see everything. We love this zoo and make a tradition of coming over every year.
Marengo Cave National Landmark
Location: 400 E State Road 64, Marengo, IN
Price: Tours start at 18/adult and 10/kid 3-12
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, located in the gift shop
Marengo is about an hour and half East of Evansville and about 45 minutes West of Louisville, KY. Marengo Caves is just outside of town and is part of the larger Indiana Caverns system. The park has two guided cave tours, a nature trail, a crawl maze (it’s supposed to simulate cave exploring minus the dirt), a gift shop/snack bar, camp grounds and picnic areas. The surrounding area also offers several state parks, two additional caves and other outdoor recreation such as canoeing.
They offer two tours of the cave one is about 40 minutes long and the other is about 60 minutes long. The caves are not accessible to wheelchairs or strollers and you cannot bring a backpack carrier (I would think you could probably do a front pack) so if you are bringing a little one in you’ll have to carry them or they have to walk.
We opted for the 60-minute tour. Tours depart the gift shop about every 30 minutes during the summer season so we had about a 20-minute wait. We used the time to get a bathroom break, look around the gift shop and relax in the rocking chairs on the covered porch. There is a short 5-minute hike on a paved path from the gift shop to the entrance of the cave.
The interior of the cave is damp (this was a very wet cave with several puddles that you needed to step over) and cool (about 52-degree year round). I found the interior temp refreshing with how hot and humid it was outside but little ones might need a light jacket. Most of the tour is very well-lit but there are two parts of this tour that little ones that have fears of the dark might have issues (there was one part that was lit by “lanterns” so you could see how the early cave explorers would have come through and then at another point they turn off the lights so you can see how dark the cave really is). The actual walk is not hard but you are on your feet for the full hour there is nowhere to sit. Some spots have fairly low ceilings so anyone over 5’7” may have to duck but these were not frequent. Also to exit the cave you must walk up a flight of uneven stone stairs little ones may need help.
The tour guide was fairly informative about the history of the cave and a little bit about the geology of the cave. He did say he had only been working at the cave a few months. A more experienced tour guide probably would have added a little more to the experience but the tour was fine. The tour ends on the back side of the gift shop.
Overall it was a good tour and a nice stop. If you did both tours and explored the gift shop, I would say you would need to plan about 2.5 to 3 hours. We were there about 2 hours (our tour ran a little longer than 60 minutes and we were about 20 minutes early for our tour). There were dining options in Marengo (about 5 minutes from the cave) or Leavenworth (about 15 minutes from the cave). If you are driving through the area or are looking for an easy day trip. We spent about 3 hours in the area (not counting a 5K race we had run that morning) including a late lunch at the Overlook Restaurant in Leavenworth (it’s a small sit down restaurant that overlooks the Ohio River, mid-priced, home-cooking style food).
Day trips are a great way to see some really cool things near your home town. Since they are close to home they normally won’t cost as much because you don’t have to worry about hotels. I live in Evansville, IN which is in the Southwest Corner of the state. Because of our location many great day trips for us might also make a good day trip if you are coming from Indianapolis, IN (3 hours Northeast), St Louis, MO (2.5 hours West), Louisville, KY (2 hours East), Cincinnati, OH (3.5 hours Northeast) or Nashville, TN (2.5 hours South).
Alabama Welcome Center
Location: I-65 (Southbound lanes only) near Huntsville, AL
Attraction: Saturn IB rocket
As you are entering Alabama headed south via I-65, your first stop should be the Alabama Welcome Center. This is cooler than other welcome centers. Although it does offer all the same amenities as normal rest stop – bathrooms, vending machines, picnic tables, etc, this rest stop features a real life space ship. At one end of the parking lot stands a Saturn IB rocket. The Saturn IB rocket was used during the Apollo missions (https://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/rocketry/imagegallery/rh_Saturn-1B.jpg.html#.Wylu3KdKgdU). There is now a safety fence around the rocket so you can’t walk under it anymore but it’s still a pretty cool thing to walk over to see while you stretch your legs. Inside the information building there are also a few pieces of NASA history (spacesuit, etc) and a cardboard cutout where your kid can get their picture as an astronaut. This is a great spot for a short stop for a bathroom break and picture op with the rocket.
There is just something fun about random roadside attractions. They are never anything big enough to plan a whole trip around but sometimes that can be a real highlight of the trip. These are great ways to spend a couple of minutes stretching your legs, using the restroom and getting a fun picture.
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.
Vicksburg National Military Park
Location: Vicksburg, MS
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.
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.