Ever since I visited New Orleans with friends when I was in my twenties, I have been in love with Louisiana food and culture. I’ve been to New Orleans a few more times since then, but haven’t been back since before Hurricane Katrina. When I met the representative from Visit Jefferson Parish, the parish just outside of New Orleans, at the TMS Family Conference in Kansas City this fall and she started talking to us about Family Gras, swamp tours in Louisiana, airboat tours New Orleans style, and the Louisiana Oyster Trail, I was chomping at the bit for a chance to visit. Seriously guys, have I not told you how I now LOVE oysters! I fell in love with Gulf Coast oysters during my visit to Gulf Shores Alabama earlier this year and I was just itching for a chance to try Louisiana oysters.
When Glenn and I visited New Orleans over 10 years ago, we had a blast on our Louisiana airboat tours. On that occasion, our guide even jumped in the water with the alligators! So I was thrilled when I was invited down to experience (and taste) all that Jefferson Parish had to offer.
Situated just outside of New Orleans, Jefferson Parish is more suburban, giving families a safe and affordable alternative to staying downtown. It also makes it easier to experience more of what Louisiana has to offer outside of the city. For example, if you are traveling in January or February, be sure to plan a visit during Jefferson Parish’s Family Gras. A clean, family-friendly alternative to Mardi Gras, with parades, pageantry, food, and concerts — without the chaos. The Parish is also working hard to renovate its few historic downtown districts, and hosts events and concerts on the waterfront of downtown Gretna, with spectacular views of the New Orleans city skyline.
You can also get out and experience nature at the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park. This is a perfect place for families to get out in nature but also see the landscape that makes this part of the country so unique. The Barataria Preserve, which is just one part of the larger park, offers 23,000 acres of bayous, swamps, marshes, and forests, and is one of the best ways to see Louisiana alligators. There are a number of boardwalks and dirt trails through the preserve, as well as Park Ranger programs and kids can earn a Junior Ranger badge. Some of the wildlife in the Preserve include alligators, nutrias (a nuisance rodents that is eating up the grasses), and over 200 species of birds. We didn’t run into much during our stroll through the woods, but the spanish moss dripping off the trees and the way the light filters through the branches gives it that mysterious feel of the bayou.
Louisiana Airboat Tours
A true highlight of my trip was our Louisiana swamp tour experience. We headed out on one of Louisiana Tour Company’s smaller, six-passenger airboats, making for a great viewing experience. The larger boats fit 16 passengers, so it might be a bit harder to see or get a great photo.
The ideal time to take a Louisiana airboat tour is in April through October, when the big alligators are out. We went in early November, so many of the bigger gators had already gone into hibernation, but we still saw enough to make for a thrilling experience. I’ve had a couple of people comment that they would be nervous to be so close to an alligator but there is really nothing to worry about. You stay in the boat and the gators stay in the water or on land. The boats are flat and go a maximum of 40 mph. So while you may feel like you are flying, you aren’t hitting any big waves the way you would in the open ocean and even when the pilot banks for curves, it isn’t that much of a bend. Take a look…
The nice thing about going when we did was the beautiful weather — not too hot or humid. One thing you might want to keep in mind both at the Barataria Preserve and the swamp tours is that it can get buggy so apply some bug spray before you go. The tours last about two hours and the swamp is located only about 35 minutes from downtown New Orleans, so it is easy to fit airboat tours into a half day of your New Orleans visit and the company even picks up from your hotel!
While you are heading out into the swamp, you wear protective headphones to muffle the sound of the loud fan that powers the airboat. This experience is definitely NOT for young kids that are very sensitive to noise. Luckily, when you stop and the fan is turned off, it is so peaceful and quiet that you can hear the birds calling nearby. Our guides was extremely knowledgeable about the swamp, the alligators, and all the wildlife in the area. It has always been my experience that Louisiana airboat pilots have a love and passion for the swamp.
We saw blue herons, egrets, cormorants, and plenty of gators! We also learned about the destructive elements in the swamp, both manmade and natural, like the imported nutria, or river rat, that has done more damage than can be contained.
Louisiana Oyster Trail
All this exploring gave me quite an appetite and I was eager to sample the local Louisiana oysters. The Jefferson Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Louisiana Tourism Recovery Program created the Jefferson Parish Louisiana Oyster Trail in 2012 to help build the confidence once again in Louisiana’s shellfish after the BP oil spill. The trail has 26 participating restaurants, each one marked by a three-foot tall oyster sculpture. These sculptures are jointly designed and hand-painted by a local artist. Following the trail will lead you from the metropolitan areas surrounding Lake Pontchartrain & the Mississippi River all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
This area is known for its chargrilled oysters, which come in a variety of flavors and styles. We started our eating bonanza at the Acme Oyster House, which also has locations in downtown New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Gulf Shores AL and even Sandestin, FL. This casual, family-friendly restaurant is definitely a good place to first sample oysters. I was the only one of the group that was interested in raw oysters, and actually ended up liking them better than the chargrilled because the cooked ones are a bit chewier. Good thing since I then had the plate to myself! After filling up on oysters, I was still able to squeeze in the seafood etoufee, another local speciality, which features shrimp seasoned in a buttery roux over rice, and it was delicious. I wish I could have taken my leftovers home.
But if we thought that was good, our next stop on the Louisiana Oyster Trail was out near the Barataria Preserve at Restaurant des Families. The restaurant is in a rural setting, with a swamp out back. Don’t venture back there though. At first we thought the alligator on the grass was a sculpture but halfway through the meal we saw it had moved to the water — watch out! Luckily you don’t need to venture out back because the restaurant features tall windows to enjoy the view. The decor here is what I’d call upscale rustic with wood beams and wood-framed windows bringing nature inside.
The food here also really stepped it up a notch and we were treated to a chef’s tasting menu, providing the opportunity to try so many of the local specialities. We started off with an alligator stuffed mushroom. I have to say, you really mostly taste the stuffing so this is nothing to be afraid of. You also don’t need to be concerned about eating alligator from a conservation standpoint, as alligator are in no way endangered. We sampled a variety of oysters — including chargrilled oysters with parmesan and butter, oysters rockefeller with spinach and cream, and oyster Lafitte, which was probably my favorite.
Next came a round of soups and gumbos — turtle soup, seafood gumbo and chicken and sausage gumbo. Even though the turtle soup didn’t taste particularly gamey, I still had trouble getting past the thought of turtle, so I mostly focused on the two gumbos. Of the selection, the chicken and sausage was probably my favorite, mostly because I love andouille sausage.
We finished off our meal with a decadent pecan pie, served warm, cobbler-style and topped with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce. I’m not a fan of pecans but these were chopped teeny tiny and were oh so sweet so even I had a few scrumptious bites.
So if you are heading down to New Orleans, be sure to also get out of the city and head into Jefferson Parish for a Louisiana airboat tour and a journey down the Louisiana Oyster Trail.
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Note: My visit was hosted by Visit Jefferson Parish. Our airboat tour was provided by Louisiana Tour Company. All opinions are my own.