There is a reason the National Lampoon's family vacation movies were such phenomenal hits in the '80s and '90s. They depicted the realities, though hyperbolized, of the typical family vacation, and were and continue to be hugely relatable because we all know how tragically hilarious it can be to watch our own vacation plans take a different turn than we expected. How could you watch those films about the Griswolds without thinking of fond and hilarious memories of your own family travels? I mean, we all have a cousin Eddie…am I right? This is simply the truth about family vacations. They are imperfect and stressful, but loads of laughs and fun in the mix as well. The struggle is part of the romance of it all.
Our recent family trip to New Orleans was no exception when it comes to family vacations. There were some kinks in our plans. There were some unwanted surprises. There were certainly Griswold moments and childish arguments between the only adults in the group, but all things considered, each one of us would choose to go back, and no one (except perhaps those of us doling out the money) was ready to come home.
New Orleans: I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the city. You tend to get mixed reviews. Some hate it and never wish to return, while others have made it the destination of their annual family vacation and look forward to spending more and more time there. On day one of our stay, I would have put myself in the first camp. In the first three hours of our New Orleans experience, I was internally screaming, "Take me home!" I'm dead serious. I had come to terms with the idea that we may have made a terrible decision. When you're planning a trip, you have this mental image of what it will be like. For me, I was envisioning us walking out of our hotel and hopping on a quaint little streetcar and riding it to our first breakfast experience at the famous Café Du Monde. That is not exactly how it went down.
As it turned out, there was construction outside our hotel and the streetcar wasn't running. No biggie, we thought. We'll just walk down to where we can pick up the streetcar and, in the process, take in the beautiful scenery on St. Charles Avenue. Again, image shattered by reality. The walk, though beautiful, was longer than we expected. The humidity? Also more than we expected. Our 3-year old? More 3-year oldish than we expected. Once we found and took advantage of the streetcar, it didn't take us directly to the cafe, so we then had to navigate the streets and find our way on our own.
Important piece of advice #1: When traveling, it's key to remember what decade in which you are living and the technological advantages it affords you. We, for instance, are living in 2015. There is little need for paper maps. These things called smart phones now exist and they have this app that tells you exactly how to get anywhere you need to be. Without realizing our archaic methods, we were referencing a map we had picked up at the hotel. What can I say? We were hot and hungry and lost and toting around four hot and hungry and lost children. Our brains weren't functioning at their fullest capacity. This classifies as one of the Griswold-esque moments of our trip that made me want to cry and punch things, but that I am now laughing about as I type. When we threw away our paper map and forked over the money for a cab, things started to look up. Cabs: totally worth the money.
What should have been a 10-15 minute drive downtown, turned into an hour-and-a-half trek. But we made it to Café Du Monde! And I wish I could say we ate there. We did not, however. Apparently, everyone in the city of New Orleans had the very same plan at the very same time and were all attempting to check "having beignets" off their "What to Do in New Orleans" list. Oh, the line. The crowd. The chaos.
Take me home! Important piece of advice #2: When traveling, be flexible. Truly, I tell you, the gift of flexibility is no joking matter, and it's something we all gradually worked to embrace during this vacation. And guess what? Because we were flexible and left Café Du Monde, we got to sit down in an air-conditioned cafe up the road and listen to a jazz band that was playing while we ate. No jazz band at Café Du Monde! Food and good mood music are very instrumental in recomposing oneself. We ate, rehydrated, refocused and by the end of our breakfast, the kids were all smiling again and dancing to the jazz band.
I was still looking for my smile, but we had a new game plan, and it involved the indoor aquarium. Keyword being 'INDOOR'! The New Orleans heat is no joke!
From there, the magic I was envisioning when planning our family trip to New Orleans started to happen. We caught a cute little trolley and rode a few blocks along the Mississippi River to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.
After standing in line for a bit, we entered child heaven. For kids, it doesn't get much cooler than petting stingrays and watching sharks swim above and below you, or getting to look eye to eye with penguins or an eight-foot python. Vacation magic. Wide eyes. Stimulated brains and imaginations. My smile returned and my appreciation for the city of New Orleans began to sprout and grow.
The next two days were so great. Rather than hopping on buses and streetcars, we decided that with four kids in tow it was easier to navigate the city via our car. Just driving around, looking at the beautiful, diverse architecture was worth the trip for me — from the colorful Creole shotgun homes to the American three-story townhouses to the Colonial-style mansions of the Garden District. Being able to understand the layout of the city and gather our bearings helped us make daily plans and see why so many choose to visit and revisit New Orleans.
New Orleans might be simultaneously the most European-like American city and the most American of all American cities. Its streets filled with colors, music, street performers, artists, and quaint eateries gave me flashbacks to parts of Italy, France, and Germany. Yet, one could make a case that outside of Plymouth Rock and Boston, few other American cities boast as much American history and are as representative of our diverse ethnic and cultural heritages as The Big Easy. And, other than the beignets, there is very little sugarcoating going on in New Orleans. It feels very authentic, and, yes, gritty, but it's grit that we learned to appreciate.
We hit as many traditional New Orleans hot spots as possible. We shopped the lovely shops on Magazine Street (all of which were shockingly welcoming and friendly to my children); roamed Lafayette Cemetery No. 1's ornate, above-ground, Southern gothic stone crypts; consumed great seafood, gumbo, jambalaya, etoufee, and poboys; and perused Jackson Square in all its architectural and street-performer glory (my personal favorite). We even found ourselves (albeit accidentally) driving down Bourbon Street at 4 p.m. on a Friday — just before things were about to get rowdy. Oh, the things my kids learned on that little strip! Silas and Tristin kept begging every day to go back to Bourbon Street. I guess scantily-clad ladies and men dressed as vampires leave quite an impression with 12-year-old girls and 8-year-old boys. And, while I'm fully aware some parents might not be comfortable with their kids seeing and experiencing such things, and understandably so, I'm glad they experienced it. I feel like seeing those things in the appropriate context, with parents present, readily willing to discuss, cultivates a relationship of openness, where you can talk about anything. I certainly don't want to warp my kids, but we didn't see anything damaging. I mean, there were tourists with kids in strollers walking Bourbon Street, so there really wasn't anything too major to deconstruct for the kiddos. In taking this trip, it was our goal to see new things and try new things, whether it be Bourbon Street or Tom's first experience with chopsticks at a Vietnamese restaurant or the other kids' first taste of alligator sausage. We wanted broader horizons and a larger worldview than our little Arkansas town can provide. New Orleans was great for that.
Another highlight of the trip for me was the National World War II museum. It would probably be best suited for ages eight and up. Our 6-year-old and 3-year-old weren't really able to appreciate how cool the museum truly was. There is an interactive submarine experience at the museum that we were planning to take the kids to do, but in true Griswold fashion, we missed the time it was showing. Oh, well. You win some; you lose some. I can't tell you how much I learned at the WWII museum. I'm embarrassed to admit how little I really knew about why we went to war and what our soldiers went through to fight that war. Truly humbling. And, we got to meet a couple of WWII veterans and thank them for their service! New Orleans is rich with educational opportunities for families. I only wish we could have taken advantage of more while we were there. There's an insectarium, a phenomenal zoo, a riverboat you can ride down the Mississippi, art museums, and more. With four kids, you have to pick and choose; you can't do it all or you would be significantly broke
and significantly exhausted.
Oh! And fear ye not, we finally had beignets, and it was such a pleasing experience. We hit up Morning Call in City Park, which couldn't have been a more polar opposite venture from our Café Du Monde attempt. I'm sure Café Du Monde is special, but with four kids and a desire to chase the least stressful situation as possible, Morning Call couldn't have been more scenic and quaint and peaceful and perfect. Speaking of scenic, City Park is such a dreamy little setting for kids. The live oaks were
Alice in Wonderland large with spider-like limbs cascading all around and stretching down to the ground like nature's playground, and situated right next to the man-made monkey bars and jungle gym. After meandering through museums and high trafficked streets, wide open spaces were a much-welcomed treat.
Each evening, after taking in the sites around the city, we would end our day by ordering in dinner and spending some time by the hotel pool. *Important piece of advice #3: If you travel somewhere hot, book a place with a pool. This is nonnegotiable. It will drastically improve your ability to cope. Even if your ONE hotel room is, say, way too small for six people. But no one here is pointing any fingers at any spouses. We had a pool. And free breakfast in the mornings. Well worth the entirely too close of quarters for five nights. As our oldest said, it was cozy.
So we aced day two and three in New Orleans. We were already planning our second trip to NOLA and discussing what we would and wouldn't do next time. The kids were even ready to pack up and move there! Family vacation success! The morning-one fiasco was just a mere blip in our memory at that point. Then came day four. *Important piece of advice #4: When traveling with kids, know when to leave. In my experience it is on day four. We, however, chose to leave on day five.
It has been several years since we have been to the beach as a family, and two of our kids have no memory of it. Since New Orleans is only an hour or so from a beach, we told the kids we'd use day four of our trip to drive down and score a beach day. They were beyond excited — had been talking about going to the beach every day up until this point. Now, I've been to the beaches of Alabama. They aren't quite as lovely as the beaches of Florida, but they still feel like saltwater beaches. There are waves and soft white sand, and lots of folks building sandcastles and soaking in the sun and playing beach sports and the like. Mississippi beaches — at least the one at which we found ourselves — are in another category. As we drove into the beach zone, we found it a bit odd that there were almost no other people on these beaches. I saw two families on a two-mile stretch of beach. Now, there were boats. There were plenty of boats. Just very few people swimming in the waters. I saw not a single wave. There was nowhere to shower off or go to the restroom. It just wasn't exactly what we were expecting. But we were willing to give it go. Then we got a text from a friend about flesh-eating bacteria in the water just a few miles down the road. My husband, in his mind, had committed to having a beach day, so he was still doing this. I, in my mind, was seeing my children lose limbs. As you can imagine, there wasn't exactly romance in the air. We, the Griswolds, pulled over, and my husband and I excused ourselves — frustrated at having not planned better, hungry, and hot (note to self: pack snacks) — from the vehicle so as to have the absurd argument that followed. After we had gotten that out of our systems, we decided to walk down to the water and check out things. As we approached the surf, and I use that term loosely, Tristin spotted a jellyfish. A dead jellyfish, as it turned out to be. "Hey, kids, come look at this jellyfish!" Then we saw another. And another. And a whole school of dead jellyfish in these flesh-eating bacteria-ridden waters. "Nobody get in the water!" I yelled. Turns out the school of deceased jellyfish had to do more with the boats than the perceived bacterial threat, but nonetheless, we were done! We left that Mississippi beach. We got in the car and back to New Orleans we drove. Our "beach day" turned out to be the equivalent of the Griswold's Wally World.
After our jellyfish/flesh-eating bacteria "beach" experience, we never really salvaged the day. We tried, but nothing would really fall into place. So we did the only thing we knew to do under such circumstances: Pool and food. Food in the way of sno-balls at Hansen's Sno-Bliz, the decades-old shaved ice stand where you can get shaved ice with your favorite flavor and sweetened condensed milk on top! Yes, you read that correctly, condensed milk. Quite good. While waiting in line we chatted with locals, particularly a young dad who was bringing his little one to enjoy Hansen's just as his dad had done for him years prior. Our visit to Hansen's was a nice way to wind down the trip — on a sugar high.
The next morning, our last in New Orleans, we packed up our belongings and let the kids swim until it was checkout time, hoping to wear them out so they might sleep a few of the eight hours home. As we were leaving the hotel, I asked Enid, our six-year-old, if she was ready to go back home. She said, "Well, I'm ready to catch a nap!" A smug smile grew across my face as my husband and I settled in our places for the long trip back to reality. We turned on the first of four movies my kids would watch on the way home (*Important piece of advice #5: DVD PLAYER + HEADPHONES!!!!!!), and we adults actually spent hours TALKING, believe it or not. We talked about how beneficial the trip had been for our family and were inspired to start imagining and planning the next.
Family vacations, at least when you have young kids, aren't necessarily relaxing, and while no one should leave on a vacation with children and expect it to be all smiles and high fives, you also shouldn't let the inevitable rough patches hinder you from taking the leap into the world that is family vacation. No matter the frustrations you encounter along the way, the time spent together, the shared memories you make, the perspective you and your kids gain, the unreasonable and (later) hilarious "Griswold" arguments you have with your spouse will make it all worth it. Anytime we take a trip, even if it's a small one, we always come home eager to do it again. It's like the wise Kelly Clarkson says, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."