Experiencing the Holidays

Experiencing the Holidays

Celebration in the Oaks at New Orleans’ City Park

With Thanksgiving behind us and the tree ready for decorating in our front room, I can officially say we’re full swing into the holiday spirit. This is the time of year I make my wish list of must-hit events and prepare the kids for running full steam ahead until Christmas.

Caroling at Miracle on Fulton Street

We start with the tried and true ones, from Celebration in the Oaks at City Park to Santa, real reindeer and fake “snow” at the Miracle on Fulton Street. Then there’s the winter wonderland created in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel and the evening out sans children for a special Reveillon dinner.

We also try to mix in a few new experiences to brighten the holidays. Last year, we tried a children’s rendition of the Nutcracker at Loyola University and a staging of A Christmas Carol at the Contemporary Arts Center. For New Year’s, we ventured north to Natchitoches to experience the Christmas Festival of Lights, well worth the trip for anyone thinking of visiting this beautiful, historic town.

Natchitoches’ Christmas Festival of Lights

This year, I’ve been eyeing the Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker at the New Orleans Saenger. Perhaps we’ll set off out of town again to experience what the rest of the state has to offer. This weekend, the small town of Arnaudville pulls together some of the region’s best artists for Fire and Water: Le Feu et l’Eau Rural Arts Celebration. 

It’s also the time for holiday bonfires, which, believe it or not, we have never seen! Oak Alley hosts their 38th Annual Christmas Bonfire Party this Saturday, Dec. 7. The 24th Annual Festival of the Bonfires lights up next weekend in Lutcher, offering a glimpse into the much-anticipated Christmas Eve bonfire spectacular in Gramercy and Lutcher.

With so much going on, it’s hard to decide where to even begin. Perhaps start with my article in Country Roads on ways for “Lighting the Dark” this holiday season or check out their Calendar of Events for endless possibilities. Maybe we’ll see you around town as you discover the joy of winter in Louisiana.

Mr. Bingle at Celebration in the Oaks
St. Bernard: From Old Arabi to Shell Beach

St. Bernard: From Old Arabi to Shell Beach

A feathered resident of Shell Beach

Nearly two years ago, we drove the San Bernardo Scenic Byway through St. Bernard Parish, headed for the Chalmette Battlefield and the Los Islenos Fiesta. This weekend we returned to hit a few spots we had missed on our initial journey, starting with Old Arabi and finishing in Shell Beach where another Louisiana roadway abruptly ends at a large body of water.

Old courthouse and jail in Arabi

As soon as you cross into St. Bernard Parish, you reach the Old Arabi Historic District. A quick drive up and down the roads leads past a number of historic sites, such as the “Andy Griffith-style” jail built in 1911. The beautifully designed Maumus Center, St. Bernard’s first high school that later served as a community center, was gutted and undergoing a massive overhaul that would undoubtedly return this building to its previous splendor. 

LeBeau Plantation

One of the most fascinating landmarks in Old Arabi is LeBeau Plantation, an 1854 mansion boarded up and presiding over a large open field. The very sight of it conjures up ideas of ghost stories and tales untold. Down the street, however, the Greek Revival Cavaroc House appears in pristine condition at the end of a row of majestic palm trees. The two homes can’t be more different, though. While one stands in near ruin yet proudly displayed for photographs, the other is a bright gem next to the industrialized Domino Sugar Refinery yet tightly guarded against any would-be sightseers. In fact, try to take a picture of this mansion, and you’ll be tracked down, instructed to delete all your photos and have your license plate number recorded. I’m talking hyper-security.

So we carried on, following the scenic byway past the Chalmette National Historic Park and National Cemetery and under a lane of live oaks known as the Dockville Oaks. When the main road split and headed east, we turned right and continued alongside the Mississippi River to St. Bernard State Park. Letting the kids run out some energy, we started with a short nature trail linking the picnic area to the swimming pool, a top attraction during the hot summer months. Luckily, they were in the mood to run because one pause and the mosquitoes attacked. We escaped quickly and found safety in the open picnic area, where we ate our PB&J sandwiches next to a very curious lizard. Halfway through the gourmet meal, the kids spotted the playground and went off to climb, jump and make sand castles–in between sneaking around poles to “spy” on the girls celebrating a birthday party.

The Old Courthouse near the Los Islenos Fiesta

It was a nice break before climbing back in the car and backtracking our way to the byway again. We soon approached the Old Courthouse, an impressive building for any city, but even more so being located in the largely rural section of the parish. Just past the courthouse, a long line of people and the flickering lights of carnival rides alerted us that we had once again visited during the Los Islenos Fiesta. We were tempted to stop but chose to continue on to our destination of Shell Beach, the tiny fishing community we had not reached previously because the road was closed. Alas, a few minutes later and we discovered that the road was still closed two years later. This time, however, we were not so easily thwarted, and instead turned the car around and returned west until we found a crossover to Highway 46, a parallel route to the byway. 

Katrina Memorial

The highway bypassed the small towns and provided a quicker route to Florissant Highway, the far-reaching road to Shell Beach and Hopedale. Ruins of homes, vehicles and bare, dead trees stood as hurricane casualties, leaving the eerie impression that we were approaching nothing more than an abandoned village. And then the scenery changed and a waterway stacked with colorful boats led to a thriving, vibrant community. Pelicans guided the last few miles of our drive until we parked in front a memorial dedicated to those who died during Hurricane Katrina. A large cross bearing the face of Jesus was rooted in the waters before us, and a plaque listed the names of the St. Bernard residents who passed.

Climbing out of the car, I mistakenly thought ash was falling from the sky around me. It only took a moment to realize it was a flurry of biting gnats. A family, with every inch of their bodies covered with clothing, was fishing and crabbing here, and the birds sat patiently awaiting their next catch. In the distance, the remains of a large fort was oddly out of place floating above a sea of marsh grass. While I swatted the bugs, the kids seemed oblivious, instead chasing birds and collecting oyster shells before we gave up and retreated to the car.

Crabber protected from the gnats

Our final stop was Sebastopol Plantation, a place we had fond memories of from our previous visit. We passed through the gate thinking we would soon see owner Alberta Lewis, who would gladly let the boys marvel at the chicken coop. Instead, we found her son, who broke the news that his mother had passed away. However, he was just as eager to let us roam the property. Since our last visit, and before Alberta had died, she had acquired a set of turkeys to add to her collection of chickens, roosters and peacocks. Much larger than I expected, the male turkey strutted and shimmied all around us, preparing for a showdown with our four-year-old, who was only slightly taller than the bird. It was the perfect ending to our day’s adventures and left us with much to talk about later.

Sebastopol’s turkey

Thanksgiving Pow Wow

Dancer at the Poarch Band of Creek Indians Pow Wow

Growing up in Alabama, a Thanksgiving family tradition was to visit the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Atmore, Ala., for their annual Pow Wow. This year, we continued the tradition by bringing our children to see the colorful costume displays, rhythmic dancing and Native American crafts.

Dancers compete at the Pow Wow

As the only federally recognized Indian tribe in Alabama, the Poarch Creek Indians trace their roots back to the original Creek Nation found throughout Alabama and Georgia. Today, the Indians live in a mostly rural reservation, dotted with sprawling cotton and corn fields and supplemented by a towering casino.

Although we arrived before lunch, the parking lot was nearly filled to capacity. A shuttle whisked us from our cars to the front entrance, where a small ticket booth marked the entrance to the large arena. The steady beat of drums signaled the location of the dancing competitions, and we climbed the bleachers to watch the men twirl and jump in their elaborately decorated and highly feathered outfits. The women, although much more subdued, showcased simpler yet exquisite costumes and a quiet graceful footwork.

While my nieces took time to pose with a few Native Americans, we headed out in search of food. Roasted corn, buffalo burgers, Indian tacos and fry bread were just a few of the options, and, of course, we tried them all.

Jumping high

I was amazed at how long the kids had lasted before darting over to the children’s area. They marveled and pointed at the bounce house maze and the bigger kids spinning and jumping in various stomach-turning machines. While their cousins braved the bungee cord jumper, demonstrating their mad flipping skills, my two settled on the pony ride–or at least looked at the ponies before deciding they were still a bit too scary.

Just then, a child walked by with a bow and arrow, and all thoughts of rides were immediately over. A double row of booths lined the outer edges of the festival, and we steadily made our way past one after another. The souvenirs and crafts were nearly overwhelming, as each booth offered beautiful displays of dreamcatchers, animal-print shirts, wooden toys and just about anything else imaginable.

Native crafts for sale

Wooden alligator and pop gun in hand, we settled down for one more round of dancing before giving in to the yawns for nap time. A stop by a final booth on our way out landed us prized, buffalo-tooth necklaces, a lasting souvenir for mom and dad.

Life in the Swamp

Life in the Swamp

Live music at the Iberville Swamp Life Expo

More times than I can count, we’ve driven the I-10 between Baton Rouge and Lafayette as a straight-shot, watching the Atchafalaya swamps through our windshield tour. This weekend, though, we ventured off the Grosse Tete exit for what I thought was a small swamp exhibit at the Visitor’s Center. Instead, we discovered an amazing gem of a festival, with more free food and live music than we could ever imagine.

Animals on display at the Iberville Swamp Life Expo

We knew something was up when every road in the small town was lined with parked cars. The sounds of Cajun music filled the air as we walked the short distance from our car to the Iberville Swamp Life Expo. Shaded by live oaks and set alongside the peaceful Bayou Grosse Tete, the bustling event was in sharp contrast to the tranquil scenery.

A path of booths circled the property, and we began by browsing the largely functional art on display. Talented John James Clark’s rare display of hand-carved cypress boats looked too pristine for actual use, and artist Charlene Hebert’s oil paintings depicted life in the Atchafalaya. Naturally, the kids were drawn to animal skins and turtle shells on display, and my youngest even set up residence in an exhibitor’s folding chair – determined to just sit and people watch.

A big pot of jambalaya at the Expo

And then came the food. We started off slow, with a piece of bread dipped in the wild flavor of homemade cane syrup. As we rounded the corner, I discovered the Cajun-made Bread Pudding and couldn’t resist its perfect consistency. I kept telling myself, “Life is short, so eat dessert first.” The next half hour was a whirlwind of Crawfish Etouffee d’Atchafalaya, Big Cajun Wild Duck and Andouille Gumbo, Big Pete’s Cajun Cracklins and Bayou Land Mustard Greens and Pig Tails.

We were all walking a bit slower when my four-year-old, Charles, spotted a whole alligator being carved up before our eyes. The still-warm meat melted in our mouths, and Charles was thrilled to shovel it in while boasting to anyone who would listen that he was a “carnivore.” The cooks must have been won over by him because they sent us home with a pair of alligator feet (skin still on), which my husband strategically “forgot” in a friend’s freezer.

Plantation in northern Iberville Parish

After watching the crowd dance to the music for a bit, we continued on our journey, heading north toward Rosedale and Maringouin on a driving tour of historic homes. The Parish website offers a downloadable map marking the locations of several privately owned, but still exquisite plantations. We made the loop up 76 and down 77, passing fields of sugar cane and green pastures all lying on the outskirts of the Atchafalaya Basin levee.

It was a nice reprieve before jumping back on the interstate and soaring past this area’s untamed wilderness. Although we researched hikes in the Atchafalaya, particularly in the Sherburne Wildlife Management Area, the notice of hunting season made us shy away, and the kids were still too small for a canoe trip. Determined though to introduce them to the region, we opted for the next best choice, stopping at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s cypress swamp.

Resident of the cypress swamp at ULL

Hidden behind a campus of buildings, the surprisingly large swamp presented more than we bargained for. Initially thrilled to spot a baby alligator among the abundant frogs and turtles, we became slightly nervous as a line of much larger alligators started following our movements around the lake. By the time we circled the entire area, we had seen more than a half dozen of the powerful animals. At one point, a student studying dropped his paper in the water, and I cringed as he reached over and lifted it out, half expecting a gator to get there first.

It was quite the experience, and of course, the kids were beyond excited by our day’s adventures. We finished strong with boudin grilled cheese sandwiches from Johnson’s Boucaniere in downtown Lafayette, before announcing that our diets started Monday.

Johnson’s Boucaniere in downtown Lafayette
Harvest Days at the Rural Life Museum

Harvest Days at the Rural Life Museum

A blacksmith stokes his fire at Harvest Days

Saturday brought with it the first day of fall, and because you wouldn’t know it by the weather, we decided to celebrate by visiting the Harvest Days festival at Louisiana State University’s Rural Life Museum. For its 16th year running, the outdoor museum showcased a living history of 19th century rural Louisiana, and we spent the day walking through their fascinating lifestyle.

19th century violinist

The journey through time began inside the exhibit barn, where you can find anything and everything from antique farm equipment to an old hearse to a baby walker. The normally quiet, static museum was a bustle of activity, with visitors mingling with docents, a woman carrying her pet duck puppet and wood carvers whittling away at small figures. We stopped to visit with one woman rhythmically pedaling a spinning wheel, turning balls of wool into a long, fine thread. She explained how wool is easier to spin than cotton, which requires a faster turn of the wheel because it is a slicker material.

Mule and buggy rides

As you exited the back door, the village emerged, with sleeping tents set up throughout the property and small cooking fires smoldering in the day’s heat. Two mules pulled up in front of us, tugging behind them a buggy full of passengers, and 2-year-old August launched into a series of neighs. Our normally fearless children were actually timid around the animals, so we passed up the buggy tour and opted to walk instead.

“Homeowners” led us on guided tours through their 200-year-old houses, proudly pointing out the furniture and architecture of each. We watched the blacksmith stoke his fire until it was nice and hot, and the kids took turns pulling the rope on the steam engine to make the whistle blow. A harvest spread dominated the kitchen, where we encountered the delicious smells of pumpkins stuffed with baked apples and fried sweet potatoes.

Louisiana folk architecture at the museum

The boom of a cannon was a constant background noise, reminding us that a Civil War reenactment was taking place across the field. We headed in the opposite direction, though, away from the “scary” noise and over toward the corn maze. Along the way, we stopped to smell some cane syrup being boiled and took a turn at grinding corn off the stalk.

An opening in the back fence led to the labyrinth of corn, where our 4-year-old pointed the way ahead. I have to admit, we finally cheated and charged right through the corn to get to the other side. Our reward was a handful of water balloons meant to be launched at wooden targets, but instead popped on top of the kids’ heads. Soaked through, they were delighted by the afternoon of fun and begged to return again.

The daunting corn maze
French Quarter Fest…with Kids

French Quarter Fest…with Kids

St. Louis Cathedral is the backdrop for the music at Jackson Square.

French Quarter Fest, the largest free music festival in the South, is four, packed days of more than 800 local musicians playing on 22 stages throughout the Quarter’s historic streets and waterfront. Now in its 29th year, the event has ballooned into a massive festival rivaling that of the famous Jazz Fest occurring just a few weeks later.

An iconic horse and carriage tour

It’s a tricky busy, though, trying to navigate an extremely well-attended festival with two very “energetic” little boys. Gone are the days when we could lounge in a lawn chair under a shade tree in Jackson Square, sipping daiquiris and savoring food from local restaurants while relaxing to a weekend of free music.

This year, we had to be strategic in our festival-going. We arrived early, strolling the nearly empty streets for more than an hour before the music started up and thousands of people seemed to materialize out of nowhere.The horse and carriage tours sauntering along the roads kept the kids’ attention, while we mapped out our route.

Palmetto Bug Stompers

Our musical tour began with the classical stage at St. Mary’s Church at the Ursuline Convent, where the first show of the morning was Opera on Tap. We managed to make it through two songs before our oldest decided to try his own rendition of opera singing. Next up was the French Market Traditional Jazz Stage, where the crowd was dancing some fancy footwork to the Palmetto Bug Stompers. The beat was lively and so were the kids, bopping their heads around to the rhythm.

A slow song set our strollers in motion again, and as attention spans lasted through two, maybe three songs at a time, we hopped from stage to stage throughout the day. Luckily, there seemed to be music on nearly every corner, and we didn’t have to walk far to find the next group of toe-tapping musicians and the fans surrounding them.

Festival-goers dancing in the streets.

Our path took us from Dutch Alley to Jackson Square, Preservation Hall to the Hermann-Grima House. We grabbed several dishes of food along the way and mostly ate on the run. Despite the lack of time to “savor” the flavors, we still appreciated the tasty delights served up by some of the city’s best restaurants, and our youngest took a particular liking to some grillades and cheese grits produced by K-Paul’s.

Local artists took advantage of the huge crowds.

Throughout the day, our senses were captured over and over again, enveloped by the sights, sounds and tastes of an event that can only take place in New Orleans. For one long weekend, the city’s most talented musicians bring to life every steamy street corner, green space and dark, historic building. Meanwhile, the walls and fences are hung with colorful artwork for sale, and the rest of the space is covered in tempting food booths. It’s a chance to discover places you’ve never seen and sounds you’ve never heard, so if you didn’t make it this year, you should mark your calendar for April 2013.