Day Tripping April/May 2018
- story by Lisa Monti, photos by Lisa Monti and courtesy Audubon Nature Institute
The weather on this particular Friday morning in March could not have been more perfect for a day trip to Audubon Park and the Zoo in uptown New Orleans.
If it’s been a while since you have visited these adjacent attractions, or haven’t ever been, make plans to head on over soon. It’s a full-day outdoors outing so it’s good to match your trip around the weather.
Audubon Park, all manicured and green, is aptly described both as an urban Eden and a peaceful mecca, a place to take in the natural beauty of more than 4,000 trees including old Live oaks, lagoons and gardens.
Situated between St. Charles Avenue and the Mississippi River, the 400-acre park has a stately feeling and rightfully so given its location and pedigree.
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.
And, of course, the Zoo, which is where our outing started.
The Audubon Park Zoo
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."