Easy on the Family

Adult fascinations are everywhere in the French Quarter and beyond, but the Big Easy can also work its magic on a younger crowd.

New Orleans

May 12, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff

There's a lot to be said for visiting New Orleans without the kids, and friends said most of it to us: The greatest music is in 21-and-over joints. Children whose idea of haute cuisine is a hot dog will not appreciate etouffee and gumbo. Bourbon Street after dark is not a fit sight for the very young. There are no rides.

But family power relationships being what they are these days, our party in the Big Easy consisted of four adults and five children: our friends' 14-year-old son; our son, 10; our daughters, 14 and 17; and my older daughter's pal, also 17. And we learned that for children in double digits who bring a sense of curiosity and adventure, this place can be a terrific destination.

Any city, after all, that offers street music, riverboats, wild parades, spooky graveyards and voodoo tours is unlikely to be dismissed by a preteen or teen-ager with that ultimate condemnation: BOR-ing.

If your family has had enough of the canned pleasures of the Magic Kingdom and like principalities, the authenticity and unpredictability of New Orleans can be very welcome.

I understand the adults-only appeal of the nightlife. But watching our kids get their faces painted, learn how a washtub bass works and hear how many white Americans have African ancestry, I think we would have been crazy not to bring them. For sheer human display, spontaneous and unpackaged, give me New Orleans over a dozen Disney Worlds.

And guess what? There are rides. One of the finest (and cheapest, at a price of exactly nothing) is the ferry that crosses the Mississippi from the French Quarter to the old neighborhood of Algiers Point. We rode over not long before dusk, accompanied by a few dozen commuters. The muddy waves jumped in the wind before an unseasonable thunderstorm.

A friendly local who was all beard and belly regaled us with tales from a life watching this highway of history and commerce. As the ferry dodged freighters and barges, the man told us the water is rising, threatening to top the earthen levees.

The levees are all that keep New Orleans from washing downriver to the Gulf of Mexico, he said.

"Just about the whole town is not just below sea level, it's below river level," he said. He told the kids about watching a ship that caught fire and burned for 12 hours, threatening to melt the girders of the bridge above -- until it sank, joining countless other foundered ships. The river is so deep here -- 320 feet in the middle, the man said -- that no one has to worry about river traffic running aground on the wreckage of the past.

There is rich history submerged in this city, and not just in the river. This is not a where-am-I place of look-alike franchises, though it was disappointing to find a shiny new Harrah's casino with ersatz everything occupying a huge swath of land near the water.

You could devote a visit entirely to the worship of food, trying out the muffulettas and the jambalayas, tracing the marks of multiple cultures, the French and Spanish and African and Caribbean, distinguishing urban Creole from country Cajun influences.

There is something to eat here for everyone, even a picky 10-year-old who declared some magnificent dishes "disgusting." "Well," says Nathan, searching his memory for something nice to say about New Orleans food, "I love beignets."

Undoubtedly, he could have lived happily for days on a diet consisting only of those deep-fried, sugar-powdered pieces of paradise. "Sweet, sugary and good" is his verdict.

You could spend all your time on jazz here at its source, following its tributaries in blues and slave hollers, ragtime and band music. A worthwhile evening before you go might be spent watching the first two episodes in Ken Burns' TV history of jazz, a good introduction to the central role of New Orleans and of its most famous sons, the genius Louis Armstrong; tell the kids about how he got his start in the band of the Colored Waifs' Home.

Or you could dedicate your visit to history; there is no better place to learn the rich and tragic story of race in America. This city was home not only to the nation's busiest slave market (where thousands of people sold by their Maryland owners to Baltimore slave dealers were shipped) but also to free people of color who considered themselves, with good evidence, far superior to the ill-educated white Americans who invaded after the Louisiana purchase.

New Orleans sounds

Taking the family means compromise, but in a few days we got at least an introduction to what the city offers.

Our numbers dictated that we economize with a US Airways package deal that landed us in a Comfort Inn worthy of a sitcom. The two 17-year-olds, Martha and Kate, entering their assigned room at 11 p.m., were surprised to see, first, a pair of shoes, and then, a man asleep in the bed. The hapless desk clerk dispatched a maintenance man, who opened the door, rousted the guest, and shouted into his walkie-talkie: "Have we got a Mr. Fader registered?"

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