One of the loveliest city parks in the country is within a stone's throw of the Mississippi coast, boasting groves of live oaks, live animals and live music.
- story by Lisa Monti, photos by Lisa Monti and courtesy Audubon Nature Institute
Native Indians were the first to live on the land, which later became part of the nation’s first commercial sugar plantation. Confederate soldiers camped on the grounds, which has also housed a Union hospital. The park started to take on its current configuration in preparation for Louisiana’s first world’s fair in 1884.
New Orleans bought the land in 1871 and renamed Upper City Park in honor of the artist John James Audubon, who painted many of the subjects in his landmark “Birds of America” while in Louisiana.
At the turn of the century, none other than John Charles Olmstead, the landscape architect whose family firm designed New York’s iconic Central Park, was hired to develop the New Orleans park. Eden indeed.
Visitors to the park today can relax or be as active as they want to be. Besides the 300 acres of green space, the park offers a jogging path, tennis courts, riding stables, soccer and baseball fields, a lagoon, picnic shelters, a pool, playgrounds and the Audubon Golf Club with its Clubhouse Cafe.
And, of course, the Zoo, which is where our outing started.
The Audubon Park Zoo
As you might expect on a gorgeous spring day, going to Audubon’s park and zoo was on a lot of people’s minds. The parking lot was competitive, with young families unloading small children and their strollers. In front of the entrance, a very long line of yellow school buses delivered big kids, many in official uniforms or casual matching T shirts so their chaperones could keep them together.
Free maps from the ticket booth will help you find your way to all the exhibits and amenities but you can also wing it, following the somewhat circular path around and through the zoo.
You certainly can’t miss the first attraction - a flock of coral-colored flamingos - just steps inside the entrance. It’s impossible not to stop and get lost in their quirky movements and those delicate legs and amazingly flexible necks.
Consider the flamingos the zoo’s warmup act to something like 1,500 animals, many rare and endangered. If you are a fan of public television’s gentle nature shows, you will be thoroughly entertained by the exotic and the familiar animals you see.
There’s Asian-themed exhibits, with sun bears, Amur leopards and Malayan tiger, and also the large Elephant Pavilion with resident orangutans The free-flight Aviary houses some 30 different birds you can see up close. Continuing along the pedestrian path you’ll come to the the South America Pampas, the Primates area and the African Savanna which has an engaging troop of gorillas, graceful giraffes and African painted dogs.
Jaguar Jungle, modeled after a Mayan rainforest complete with jaguars, giant anteaters, spider monkeys, macaws and Brazilian ocelots, just opened its expansion on March 23.
The large Louisiana Swamp exhibit, always a favorite, spotlights the state’s culture, wildlife and history and is chock full of gators, turtles and a bear, which was napping in the shade during our walk through the exhibit.
We saw work being done to create a large new habitat for lions when they return to the zoo in 2019 in their own African Savanna.
We unintentionally missed the frog exhibit but climbed up famous Monkey Hill, a 1930s Works Progress Administration project, and petted a goat snacking in the Watoto Walk animal encounter experience.
You can easily get in your 10,000 steps at the zoo but if you would rather ride, get a ticket on the Swamp Train for a small fee. It travels the pedestrian path and stops at all the major exhibits.
As you would expect, there are plenty of places to stop between exhibits, rest up, get a cold drink and a snack or meal. After we made the rounds, we drove a short distance in the park over to the Audubon Clubhouse Cafe for a late lunch.
Our table on the broad veranda overlooked the golf course and more gorgeous oak trees. We watched golfers tee off in tournament play and a wedding planner show clients around the grounds near the clubhouse. Easy to see why brides pick this gorgeous venue for their big day.
The cafe’s lunch menu is limited but good, with a few soups, salads, sandwiches, sides and desserts. The baby spinach salad was a standout with fresh strawberries and goat cheese, applewood bacon bits and spiced pecans with a sweet and sour dressing. Grilled gulf fish tacos and the steak marinated in chimichurri were both good choices and we left ready for the drive home.
Special Events at the Park & Zoo
Audubon Park and Zoo are perfect day trip destinations, especially when the weather is good for being outdoors. As with all things New Orleans, Audubon also is the perfect venue forfestivals and other events hosted all year long.
Up next is the popular Mother’s Day event at the Zoo on May 13. It’s presented by Children’s Hospital and Touro Infirmary and features Irma Thomas. Moms of all ages get free admission in honor of their day and it’s one of the most popular annual events on the Audubon calendar.
One Bay St. Louis resident, Jeannette Bolte, is a big fan of the annual event and wouldn't miss it. She depends on the Mother’s Day concerts for "a perfect, joyous, life-affirming moment."
Part of the annual tradition Jeannette likes best is when several generations of moms stand right in front of the stage, and sing along to "Break Away" with Irma. The women know the song so well, none of them "misses a beat, a note or a word."
“They’re dancing too, and, it seems to me, celebrating each other, motherhood, the beauty of music, of Irma, of her musicians... of the perfection of that moment," says Jeannette.
"And the back drop, enhancing the image, of people scattered under the oaks - of vendors generously, playfully negotiating with children for trinkets to give to their Moms; of exceptionally good festival food...But that family and Irma, all smiling and laughing and moving in sync..."
"I'm always hoping that they'll be back [the next year], and always hoping that, one of these Mother's Days, I'll get those 'Break Away' words right."
"And one more thing," Jeannette adds, smiling. "My husband never dances with me, unless it's Mother's Day, at Audubon Park, when Irma's there."