New Orleans, Louisiana, is (or was, before the flood) an awe-inspiring city, full of odd characters—past and present. Few locations can rival this city’s history, music, food, or festivities. The Garden District and above-ground cemeteries draw millions of tourists each year, and the legendary French Quarter never fails to live up to its reputation, unless you’ve sworn off alcohol . . . or fun.
But if you have a broader sense of adventure, then follow our example and tread off the beaten path into the endless bayous—extensive marsh-like regions of endless swamp, drooping trees, and unparalleled wildlife. Bayous embody majesty and mystery, danger and grace. All before lunch.
The locals are mostly friendly, hospitable, and proud of their land. Many enterprising individuals offer guided tours through the deciduous rainforests that surround the bayou, but be forewarned: these tours inevitably start early in the morning. They like to get a jump on the snakes and alligators that are sleeping off a long night prowling for dinner.
Our ride began at a chilly 7:00 AM and ended at a dry, sweltering noon. The riverboats designed for the bayou’s shallow waters don’t use standard propellers. They simply wouldn’t work in the thick, tangled plant life that flourishes just below the surface. Instead, the boats employ above-board fans driven by gas engines so loud you can’t even talk to yourself.
We bumped along for two deafening hours and then sat for a long silent hour, where we found ourselves miles from a Dixie Voodoo Lager, hungry for a glimpse of life-threatening jaws or aquatic aliens, the big fan resembling a bobbing behind us like a grave marker. Like the others on this tour, we expected to see wildlife—hanging precariously from trees, popping snouts out of the water, posing for pictures while poised to grab a nearby snack. Or a hand.
We wouldn’t go so far as to say we were cheated, but we saw precisely one snake, and it wasn’t even very big. It wiggled out of a tree and fell with a plop into the water, where it shimmered in the light for another few seconds before disappearing altogether. We didn’t even have time to take a picture. That was it. No alligators, no waterfowl, not even any fish.
Of course, the hour we spent waiting wasn’t entirely without drama. After a half hour, the driver tried and failed to restart the engine. Several times. Though the noise did nothing to help our chances of spotting wildlife, we prayed for him to succeed. As much as we wanted to see an alligator, we didn’t want it to be the last thing we ever saw. When the engine roared to life, destroying the spooky silence that’s indigenous to the bayou, we actually cheered.
Wildlife doesn’t linger, and there are no guarantees, either in life or in the bayou. The toothless driver—who spoke Cajun, a complex mixture of French and English—said he couldn’t remember the last time his tour didn’t see a single reptile. Our first response, filtered through our years traveling the world, was: “Get a quieter boat, dude!” But we held our tongue until the more rational second response kicked in: “You probably say that to every tour!”
If you want our advice, research your guide before you go. Find one whose dock is near the wildlife estuaries. Ask for the silent treatment—a boat with a quiet engine. Make sure they not only care about their customers, they care about the wildlife, too.
Little Known Fact: If they ask you whether or not you suck the heads, don’t be offended. They’re referring to crawfish, and eating them separates the locals from the tourists.
Lessons Learned: Plan for rain whatever the season. Bring a camera, plenty of mosquito repellent, and a good book, just in case your trip ended like ours. While the bayou can offer an adventure, its charms are often well hidden. Like buried treasure, the reward (a great photo or a vivid spectacle) goes to those willing to dig a little, sometimes into their own limits of endurance.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 4
Inactivity Guide: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 4/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Louis Armstrong International Airport
Native Population: 312,000, half of what it was in 1960
Normal Attractions: Are you kidding? The French Quarter, Mardi Gras, rooting for the ’Aints at the Superdome, the Jazz & Heritage Festival, the music, food, and alcohol, plus the abundance of tourists.
Final Point of Interest: In one nationwide poll, the city was voted the 25th of 25 US cities for safety and cleanliness. Let’s face it: this is a family vacation destination like Siberia is an exotic seaside beach.