Big Easy with a baby on board? It’s still easy
NEW ORLEANS -- As we made our way through the French Quarter, reeling from the swampy air and the midday cacophony of Bourbon Street, we could almost taste the jambalaya.
During our exhaustive research for this four-day jaunt, everyone had recommended Coop’s Place, tourists and locals alike. Cheap, good, and Cajun, they said. The perfect spot for our inaugural lunch.
I opened the door, basked briefly in the icy air conditioning, and then stepped aside to let my husband roll in with the stroller. But the tattooed waitress, with a shake of her head, told us - without much Southern charm - that children were not allowed. Something about the electronic poker machines.
We reluctantly withdrew to the steamy sidewalk and contemplated our next move, pretty certain we had made a disastrous miscalculation. We had been warned - by just about everybody - that we should leave the kid behind when we went to this city of sin.
But I work full time (feels like more than that most days) and didn’t want to spend four days away from my 16-month-old daughter. And yes, we probably could have picked a more wholesome family vacation spot, but choosing a destination for my 40th birthday celebration had been the subject of long and often contentious negotiations.
I would have been content on a Caribbean beach, but Andrew insisted on culture. The Grand Canyon was in the running but we reached an impasse over accommodations: I wanted to stay at a comfortable hotel with a pool and fizzy drinks (it was my birthday after all); Andrew pushed for a glorified hut. Ireland? Too expensive. The Cape? Too familiar.
New Orleans? Cheap airfare. Good deals on nice hotels. Tasty cuisine. Interesting architecture. Rich history. And a couple of friends live there whom we had been meaning to visit for a while.
The only restriction, it seemed, was that children weren’t allowed in bars that didn’t serve food, a sacrifice we surely could make.
No one, however, had mentioned the poker machine exception, an oversight that left us dejected as we stood outside Coop’s, our carefully laid plans already foiled.
But in the end, that was our only serious defeat. The restaurant we stumbled into for our delayed lunch made up for its lack of ambience with a nice high chair for Clara and one of the best appetizers we had in New Orleans, a sublime barbecued shrimp dish that went down well with Abita lager in a frosted mug.
Without a baby, we figured, we probably would have indulged in ill-advised excesses, staying out too late, spending too much money, sleeping until noon, and catching only a glimmer of the city beyond the French Quarter.
But instead (thanks to Clara’s unfailing internal clock) we were up each morning by 6:30 and soon wandering the city, marveling at the wondrous street sweepers that had scrubbed away all signs of the evening’s decadence, leaving a damp trail of suds in their wake.
We had Jackson Square to ourselves and ate our first beignets at Café Du Monde while steam was still rising from the dew-dampened tables at the 24-hour cafe.
By noon of our first full day, we had already taken a trip on the famous St. Charles Avenue Streetcar, toured the Garden District and the crypts of Lafayette Cemetery, and gussied ourselves up for a family lunch at venerable Galatoire’s.
This quintessentially New Orleans institution, with its tuxedoed waiters, white tablecloths, and ladies with big hats, welcomed us without question. Clara munched on rolls and played with a silver spoon, while we washed down trout amandine and crawfish étouffée with a lovely Pouilly-Fuissé - the extravagant meal a gift from my parents, who had dined at the Bourbon Street landmark decades ago.
Clara lunched with us when we had our first muffuletta at Ignatius Eatery, on Magazine Street in Uptown. She played on the table when I tried my first Pimm’s and lemonade at the Napoleon House in the Quarter. She slept as friends drove slowly through the Lower Ninth Ward, showing us Katrina’s lingering devastation and new life in this once-forgotten part of the city.
Since Clara’s birth, we have tried to be parents who incorporate their child into their existing lives, rather than let the little slobbery creature dictate a completely new reality.
At 2 weeks, she accompanied us to a matinee of the movie “Juno,’’ napping and nursing quietly one weekday afternoon while my husband and I were both still on leave. At 5 months, Clara made her debut in the bleachers at Fenway Park, an adventure lasting just three innings because of blistering sun and a quick eight-run deficit. She’s been to most of our old haunts, joining us for chili and chowder at the Sevens in Beacon Hill and steak quesadillas at Salsa’s in Southie.
The key, we have learned, is proper planning and never more so than for New Orleans. Lugging our bulky jogging stroller through airport security paid dividends when we hit those unpredictable streets. It became our Sherpa on wheels, carrying baby accessories, water, guide books, wallets, and cameras.
Another invaluable decision: Paying a little extra to stay in a hotel with a rooftop pool, where Clara could splash and play when the confines of the stroller and streetcars became too much. The posh Royal Omni Orleans was fairly affordable because of a discount we received for booking at least three weeks early and paying the tab up front.
On our last morning, watching hungover revelers line up at Café du Monde, we decided that it was the right trip at the right time. Any younger, and Clara might have been less content in her stroller, watching the world roll by. Any older, and she might have asked some uncomfortable questions about the sometimes inappropriate behavior and lewd signage, such as the pinups of nearly naked women outside Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club on Bourbon Street.
Our one regret, which could be attributed to Clara, is that we never made it out to hear live music, a near-crime in this city. But we caught snippets of zydeco and jazz as we walked the Quarter, which unfailingly prompted Clara to start clapping.
On our first day, a trombone player on Royal Street spotted our stroller and interrupted “When the Saints Go Marching In’’ with a quick rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.’’ Clara beamed and all memory of our Coop’s disappointment vanished.
Jennifer Peter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.