The mercury is making a run for it, and it's tempting to spend your free time in New Orleans touring a hotel pool. But summertime options for entertaining (particularly for families traveling to New Orleans) have grown exponentially thanks to the juggernaut that is New Orleans tourism. Here are some cool tours and tips from my week-long hometown safari. Tours may be all be booked through NewOrleans.com, a comprehensive box office for New Orleans tours.
AMERICAN PHOTO SAFARI
American Photo Safari offers a walking tour of the French Quarter and Mississippi Riverfront while a professional photographer gives tips to shutterbugs of all skill levels. Guide Chris Loomis is not a camera elitist, participants receive as much advice with a point-and-shoot camera as with professional photography equipment. The class includes Loomis' camera slide rule, which comes with settings for shooting modes, composition, depth of field and other factors that are easy to forget with a point-and-shoot camera. Tours of the French Quarter or Garden District last approximately 2.5 hours, and historic information about the French Quarter and Mississippi River are lagniappe. Take the early-morning tour for a cooler stroll.
HONEY ISLAND SWAMP NIGHT TOUR
Cajun Encounters has added an evening tour of the Honey Island Swamp, which generally allows the temperatures to dip below 80 degrees before embarking. Is the swamp scary as hell at night? Yes. But the photos will be something to alarm friends and family with on Facebook. As families of wild boars crawl through cypress trees and Spanish moss to see who has come to call, it's easy to see where the legend of the Honey Island Swamp Monster may have originated. Guides live locally, and uncovered tour boats are small, so it's easy to ask questions such as: "Do wild boars eat people?" Tour boats with a capacity of 22 are lit with spotlights all around for easy viewing deep into the swamp, where passengers will see indigenous spiders, water snakes, nutria and alligators (whose eyes shine bright red at night). When the boat lights are briefly shut off, an immense blanket of stars covers the Honey Island Swamp, 30 miles from New Orleans. Our guide noted that we were welcome to ask him anything, so a shout rang out: "Can you sing Born on the Bayou?" Apparently, anything but that.
OAK ALLEY PLANTATION
For a day trip rich in history, take an air conditioned shuttle bus to Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, where not only is the mansion air conditioned, but cold mint juleps and lemonade also await. The Creole mansion has been fully restored with guided tours offering the history of Jacques Telesphore Roman, his bride Celina, and their sugar plantation. The iconic avenue of 300-year old live oaks have been featured in everything from Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt's Interview with the Vampire to Bo and Hope's wedding on Days of Our Lives. As the story goes, Jacques built the home to entice his wife to spend more time at the plantation, but the high life in New Orleans drew Celina, who was apparently the Kim Kardashian of her day. By the time Jacques passed away, the mansion was deeply in debt. Josephine Stewart, the plantation's last resident owner, established the Oak Alley Foundation and set it up as a living monument. The drawing room has details down to the dainty screens women used to shield their faces from candlelight, keeping their makeup set. Makeup at the time was made of beeswax, hence the term: "mind your beeswax."
A tour of Laura Plantation could qualify as a class in the pre-Civil War south. The guides' expertise runs deep, and proceeds from tours are being used to restore the buildings one by one. The site features a working garden, the original overseers' cottage and slave quarters known as "the row." As a child, Laura was part of a Creole matriarchy. Fortunately for posterity, once she moved to St. Louis she wrote "Memories of the Old Plantation Home" about her namesake. Over 150,000 copies of her book, which is offered in the gift shop, have been sold. The tour, based on Laura Locoul Gore's memories, was chosen by Lonely Planet as one of the best history tours in the United States. It's easy to see why, as her spirit stays with you long after the tour. A photo on the mansion wall shows Laura celebrating her 100th birthday with the Archbishop. Shortly afterwards, she is said to have asked him: "Do you want to dance?"
Back in New Orleans, get your cool on at the Audubon Zoo. If this truly is the year of the Mayan leap, they would be right at home with the zoo's Mayan exhibit, the Jaguar Jungle complete with a sand pit and archeological finds for the time traveler at heart. A large stone carving also comes with a warning that trespassers will be sacrificed. But climb away at the Cool Zoo splash park featuring some of the happiest kids you'll find on a hot summer day. Admission to the Cool Zoo is an additional $7 (payable at the zoo ticket office). With seals splashing, lions lazing and giraffes galloping toward their lunch, Audubon Zoo offers a full day of entertainment no matter what the weather.
The new Audubon Insectarium inhabits a Federal building, the U.S. Custom House, on Canal Street so be ready for a metal detector. Once you're cleared for nature, the insectarium has animatronics worthy of the Audubon brand. Traveling with foodies or brave kids? Belly up for an insect treat. While perusing the menu, a little girl leaned over and told me, "The hardest part is getting used to the crunch of the heads." We are raising a hearty generation. Fun factoid: Louis Armstrong apparently drank a brew made from boiled cockroaches whenever he had a sore throat as a child. That's straight from the Eat-A-Bug Cookbook available at the insectarium. The 4-D Awards Night movie had the crowd literally jumping out of their seats, and is included in the cost of admission.
AUDUBON BUTTERFLY GARDEN
The Audubon Insectarium hosts a zen butterfly habitat, included with the cost of admission. Butterflies flutter freely when they're not snacking on ripe bananas. A lone butterfly tried to slip out of on my husband's shoulder and almost made it to Canal Street before I spotted him and alerted staffers with a butterfly net. The atmosphere of a zen Japanese garden, complete with koi pond, helps you understand why only one butterfly attempted to reach the sweltering 98 degree outside world.
AUDUBON AQUARIUM OF THE AMERICAS
The Audubon Aquarium boasts a show-stopping entrance archway with tropical fish circling overhead. Stingray smiles slide along the glass and sand sharks scratch their backs on the bottom of their oceanic habitat. Sea otters Buck and Emma splash, and in their own exhibit penguins dive and swim. If you make it for feeding time, guides give special delivery to an old-timer who's earned the right to have his food brought to the top of his rock. A stingray touch pool offers visitors the chance to high five, and even feed a passing cow nose stingray. Another huge hit with children of all ages is the Animal Grossology exhibit. Word to the wise, when you spray the bottle labeled "Defense," nothing good is headed toward your nostrils.
AUDUBON PARAKEET POINTE
Parakeet pointe is a relatively new addition to the Audubon Aquarium, included with the price of admission. Parakeet seed sticks are available for purchase - a good way to greet any new friend. The 800-square foot outdoor exhibit overlooking the Mississippi River features parakeets, who mate for life, flying overhead in all the colors of the rainbow.
As we took our first tour, the American Photo Safari, a bird relieved itself on my shirt in Jackson Square. And there's your full circle.
Slideshow photos by Jeff Beninato