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Nature and Knowledge in New Orleans: The Audubon Park and Zoo

After a few days in a city, I start to get a little stressed.  I need to be outside, preferably near trees, ideally not near anyone else.  Maybe it’s a personal space thing more than an urban/rural thing.  I don’t know.  But it’s something that I know about myself–and it’s the thing that led me to have an absolutely terrific day in New Orleans exploring beyond the French Quarter.

See? Fun and novel form of transportation. If a bit slow.

All of the guide books tell you to take the streetcar through the garden district.  Far be it from me to ignore the guide books, so I dutifully headed out early in the morning, bound for Canal Street to board the St. Charles streetcar.

Having done it once, I can confidently say–maybe you should ignore the guide books.  If you’re not in a hurry–and I wasn’t, so that was good–the streetcar is a fun and novel way to ‘see’ the Garden district and get from the French Quarter to the Audubon Park area.  However, it is very, very, very slow.  I think it took something like fifteen minutes for everyone at the Canal Street stop to board.  I guess they all read the same guide book as me!

I suppose I could have stopped midway, gotten off the streetcar, and walked around.  In retrospect, that’s what I should have done.  Because you can see the lovely tree-lined streets of the Garden District from the streetcar–you just can’t take very good photos of them.  Which is a shame, because it really is quite lovely what with the Spanish moss and Mardi Gras beads dangling from the tree limbs.  However, as I was wedged up against a window by the crowd of guide-book-toting passengers, I chose to continue on my way to my final destination–Audubon Park.

Audubon Park with a bit of Loyola in the background--I think.

The one good thing the streetcar does–at least in my opinion–is drop you off at the top of Audubon Park.  I say that this is my opinion because the resulting long walk through the park was just what I was looking for as an escape from the city.  If you’re trying to save time and energy and just want to go to the zoo, take a cab directly there.  But I have to caution you against this, because the park itself was a highlight of my visit.

At one point that morning, a local friend sent me a text message asking what I was up to.  My reply–walking around the park taking photos of trees.  She only laughed a little.  But that’s exactly what I did for maybe an hour and a half.  It was lovely.  I strolled down the wide, tree-covered path, which occasionally backed up to the beautifully landscaped yards of whitewashed houses, snapping photos all along the way.

I’ve never seen a prettier urban park, and this includes the insanely well-manicured public gardens in Paris.  If you don’t believe me, check out the photo at the top of this post.  It’s currently the wallpaper on the computer upon which I am currently writing.  And every time I see it, I smile–and begin to contemplate searching for airfare back to New Orleans.

Despite my slow pace, frequent photo stops, and meandering route, I eventually found myself at the entrance to the Audubon Zoo.  It was before noon on a sunny Friday morning, and the place was quite deserted.  After a brief stop for some fuel–possibly the most disgusting thing I ate while in Nola, concession stand chili cheese fries–I met up with my local friend (she’d since stopped laughing at my tree photography and came out to join me) and headed out to explore the zoo.

The swamp section of the zoo. No, the whole place doesn't look like this. Just this little part.

The Audubon Zoo reminded me a lot of a theme park, in that there were different sections devoted to different habitats.  There’s even an Africa and Asia section that, at times, seemed like a scaled-down version of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. But by far the best part was the Louisiana swamp habitat, where you can walk amongst alligators and along raised wooden pathways above the swamp.  It was truly very beautiful and peaceful–at lunch time on a Friday in late January, my friend and I practically had the entire zoo to ourselves.

In addition to being visually appealing and ever-so-photogenic, Audubon Zoo possesses another one of my favorite qualities–it was very educational.  If you’re considering taking your children to New Orleans, a visit to Audubon Zoo would easily replace a day’s worth of school instruction.  There are the traditional signs and displays that explain the different lands and how each animal present fits into that specific ecosystem and other various things that you expect from a zoo.  But there’s also literature scattered throughout the park–Walt Whitman quotes and Emily Dickinson poems and ancient proverbs written in both English and what appeared to be some sort of Mayan language–making a day at the Audubon zoo a true cross-curricular day of fun (how’s that for some serious teacher talk?)  Additionally, interesting bits of trivia can be found throughout the zoo if you look closely enough  Want to know how often a sloth poops?  Visit the ladies room near the concession stand!

I highly recommend a visit to the Audubon Park and Zoo to anyone visiting New Orleans.  It’s a great break from the city conveniently located within the city itself.  Wear your walking shoes, take a camera, and have a lovely day.  And then go back to the French Quarter in the evening for more food and drinks.  After all, man cannot live on fresh air alone.

How to get to the Audubon Park and Zoo from the French Quarter: To reach Audubon park from the French Quarter, walk upriver on Royal Street until you cross over Canal.  You’ll know you are at the stop when you see a group of guide-book-toting tourists just like you.  Take the streetcar until you reach Loyola.  Exit the streetcar make a left, crossing over the tracks.  The park will be directly in front of you.  Follow the path that leads to the right and you’ll eventually–after a pretty serious walk–reach the zoo.  Consider returning via taxi or on the Magazine Street Bus, which will not require a return walk through the park.  

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