Mardi Gras - one of the most beloved and celebrated times of the year for residents of Orleans and Jefferson Parishes. But did you know that elsewhere in Louisiana it’s just another day at the office? It just may be that you’re not a paradegoer (gasp!) and judgment aside, the good news is that there is the opportunity for a plethora of family fun elsewhere in our great state. Chances are if you live in or around New Orleans or Metairie, you probably won’t have to work on Fat Tuesday (Feb. 13). This may come as a surprise, but the same doesn’t hold true for most of the cities in Louisiana. In fact, if catching beads and watching beautiful floats is not your idea of a good time, this may be the perfect time to take your family on a day trip to several great tourist spots within (or outside of) the state. Depending on your job, you may even have the ability to add Lundi Gras to this previously impromptu trip, making this a truly exciting, extended excursion to the treasures that lie just a few hours away:
Avery Island - Less than 2-1/2 hours west of our city is the home of the world-famous Tabasco Sauce. Admission to the factory tour and museum is only $5.50 per person, and free for children under 4. Be adventurous and taste Tabasco-flavored ice cream and sodas while learning about the historic McIlhenny Company’s prized creation. You can even dine at the Tabasco Restaurant 1868, where all food is seasoned with Tabasco Sauce! If that isn’t enough fun, venture across the street to their sister attraction, Jungle Gardens and Bird City Tours. A beautiful botanical garden/bird sanctuary, the 170-acre attraction is also home to the astounding, 900-year-old statue of Buddha. Tickets are $8 for adults, $5 for children under 12.
Global Wildlife Center - This 7-day-a-week attraction is located on 900 acres of land in Folsom, Louisiana and is home to 4,000 endangered animals from all over the world. Take a safari tour and personally feed the bison, giraffes, camels, longhorns, deer and so many more. Tickets for adults are $19, Seniors $17, Children 2-11 $13, 1 & under get in free. Animal feed is extra, but well worth it. This ride is only 80 minutes from New Orleans for an experience you won’t soon forget. Here’s a lunch tip: While you’re in Folsom, you may also want to check out some of the best fried chicken in the state (believe it or not) at Jr. Food Mart, located at 82322 LA-25. You won’t be disappointed!
Natchez, MS - Just over three hours Northwest from New Orleans is one of the South’s greatest tourist cities - Natchez on the Mississippi River. Visit the National Historic Park (including Melrose Estate, the William Johnson House and the site of Fort Rosalie), the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, and the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture, just to name a few. These three attractions are all free and open to the public, with guided tours of the Melrose Mansion ranging in price from $5 to $10. For more information on the city’s great offerings, visit visitnatchez.com.
Biedenharn Museum and Gardens - Located less than 5 hours away in Monroe, is the Biedenharn Museum and Gardens, with three museums in one! The fabulous Coke Museum and Coca-Cola Memorabilia Collection (where you can drink a bottled Coke out of their old-time soda machine for only 5 cents!), the Bible Museum and Biedenharn Home. Tickets for all three attractions are only $6 for adults and $4 for children under 12. This one may work better if you have both days off, as the museum is closed on Monday. While in Monroe, you can also check out the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo ($6 for adults, children under 2 get in free), the Northeast Louisiana Children’s Museum ($6 a person) and the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum, the latter of which is absolutely free!
Vicksburg, MS - If you’re anxious to learn about America’s first bottler of Coke, Joseph Biedenharn, but just don’t want to drive all the way to Monroe, then why not visit the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum just 3 and 1/2 hours north at Vicksburg, MS? This is the actual site where Coca-Cola was first bottled in 1894. Admission is just $3.50 for adults and children over 12, $2.50 for ages 6-11 and kids 5 & under get in free. Also make it a point to visit the Vicksburg National Military Park, the site of the legendary “Battle of Vicksburg” in 1863. This park does things a little bit differently - they charge by the vehicle, but it’s only $15 for 7 full days! Two or more days would be very well spent at this national treasure, which is also home to the USS Cairo and Museum. Last but not least is Vicksburg’s Antique Doll & Toy Museum, which must be seen to be believed!
National Hansen’s Disease Museum - Just over 70 minutes to the west is the town of Carville, LA. Commemorating the 1921 site of the National Leprosarium, one of only two former leprosy hospitals in the entire United States. Officially known as “Hansen’s Disease,” named after the Norwegian physician who identified the bacterium, the National Hansen’s Disease Museum is a fascinating study into the lives of the individuals who were stricken with this illness, some who were cured and many of whom unfortunately never left the grounds upon entering. Learn about the daily lives of the patients, the advances in treatment and the brave individuals who cared for the sick and fought the disease with science. Admission is absolutely free and there’s even a self-guided driving tour (with CD) throughout the grounds, which also serves as a fully-functional National Guard base.
Shreveport, Bossier City - These twin cities aren’t as far away as you think, just 5 hours. A Monday and Tuesday spent here will allow you to visit the historic Municipal Auditorium (where Elvis performed his first national gig), the Sci-Port Discovery Center (open Monday, admission is $13 for adults and $10 for children and seniors), the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum (admission free), the Shreveport Water Works Museum (free) and so many more. You can also indulge in some fine shopping and dining at the Pierre Bossier Mall. For more information visit shreveport-bossier.org
Natchitoches, LA - If you are, in fact, driving across the state to Shreveport/Bossier City, then Natchitoches is just 30 minutes from your destination, plus it’s on the way. Why stop here? It’s the home of Louisiana’s famous “Natchitoches Meat Pie,” one of the state’s great culinary creations. Need another reason? Natchitoches is home to the Cane River Creole National Historical Park (including Oakland and Magnolia Plantations) where admission is free. There’s also the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame & Northwest Louisiana History Museum (closed on Monday), admission is $5 for adults, $4 for students, seniors and military and kids 6 and under get in free. Once again, there are way too many things to mention, please visit natchitoches.com for a complete list of attractions.
Gibsland, LA - Halfway between Shreveport and Monroe is the little town of Gibsland, home of the site where the notorious Depression-era outlaws Bonnie and Clyde met their fate. There’s a great museum celebrating the lives and deaths of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker - The Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum ($7 admission) and just eight miles south of town is the highway marker where the two were killed. Combine this with a trip to either Northwest or Northeast Louisiana for a very exciting bonus attraction.
Abita Mystery House and UCM Museum - Open 7 days a week and just an hour away in Abita Springs is the strangest, weirdest and most wonderful museum you’re likely to ever see. A collection of inventions, oddities, found objects and old arcade machines, admission is only $3.
Well, there you have it: 10 ideas to compete with Mardi Gras, for those so inclined. Runner-ups include the Easy Rider sidewalk marker in Morganza and the vampire bat on the water tower in Transylvania (yes, a real town in Louisiana), but I’d only recommend those if you’re passing through to somewhere else. I’d be willing to bet that if you tried one or two of these options, this may just become a yearly ritual. There are enough attractions in our great state to last a lifetime. So, take advantage of it!