BATON ROUGE, La. – Baton Rouge is the sort of place most of us pass through on our way somewhere else. I never thought there was much to do there, but when travel plans called for a visit, I packed up the family to check it out. I learned I was wrong.
After a weekend there, we love Baton Rouge.
Traveling with children is a challenge. “Why do we have to go to Baton Rouge,” Harlan, my nine-year old, asked. “Why do you always make me go places I don’t want to go? We never go anywhere fun. How far is it? Catherine! Stop touching me! Mom! Catherine keeps looking at me! How much longer do I have to sit in this stinky car? This is going to be boring! How much farther?!”
We were still in the driveway.
Baton Rouge lies in a beautiful and historic part of Louisiana near bayous, plantations and Cajun country. It makes an excellent base of operations for tours through the old south, in close proximity as it is to Natchez and Vicksburg and the many fine plantations that still dot the countryside near the Mississippi.
Walking into the lobby of the Embassy Suites Baton Rouge froze Harlan in mid complaint.
Harlan at the Embassy Suites (Photo JW Picht)
After they stopped to gape at the trees and the waterfall, Harlan and seven-year old Catherine ran to the koi pond and started naming the fish. I was left with an appreciation for how important the right hotel can be for a family outing. The Embassy Suites was perfect for us.
The hotel is located on Constitution Avenue, just off I-10 and only a few minutes from such family tourist destinations as downtown, the LSU campus, the Magnolia Mounds plantation, and the Bluebonnet swamp and nature center.
Our room was actually a suite (the “suite” in “Embassy Suites” means what it says) – a bathroom, a living room with kitchenette opening to the hotel atrium, and the bedroom. It was clean, comfortable and quiet.
The room arrangement let me work after the kids went to bed and let them watch TV in the morning before I was ready to start my day. The TVs in the bedroom and the living room also let me get my morning news fix without interrupting cartoons.
The Embassy Suites signature breakfast is included in the room and includes standard breakfast items like cereal, yogurt, pastry, fruit, juices, milk and coffee, as well as a station for hot foods. Choices made to order include omelets - I always choose tomatoes, spinach, jalapenos and cheese with salsa on top – scrambled eggs and pancakes, with sides of hash browns, grits, bacon and biscuits.
It was all tasty and filling, holding us well into the afternoon.
Comfortably settled at the Embassy Suites and with some helpful tips from the people at the front desk – a wonderfully warm and cheerful bunch – we set out to explore Baton Rouge.
“Awesome!” The kids raced to the top of the hill where Louisiana’s old state capitol sits. The building is an ornate architectural confection on the outside, a cross between a castle and a wedding cake. The inside is a riot of stained glass over a beautiful spiral staircase.
Baton Rouge Statehouse (Photo J.W. Picht)
The kids only cared about the hill. It’s a great hill to roll down.
Stained glass rotunda ceiling at the Statehouse (Photo J.W. Picht)
When we finally got them to come inside, they agreed that the building was pretty neat. It houses the free (I love free) Museum of Political History. The most interesting parts for us were those devoted to Huey Long, Louisiana’s controversial governor, or most controversial governor - we’ve had more than our fair share of controversial governors.
Capitol staircase (Photo J.W. Picht)
There were a couple of statues of Long, we listened to one of his speeches, we listened to the music that was written for his funeral, and we learned about the controversy surrounding his assassination.
The museum is compact enough that the kids didn’t get bored and cranky before we were ready to go.
Across and down the street a block we got another “awesome!” This was for the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Kidd (DD-661). The Kidd, a Fletcher-class destroyer that served in the Atlantic and at Okinawa, was moved up the Mississippi River to Baton Rouge where it is being carefully restored to its full WWII splendor.
A model boat at the Nautical Center Museum (Photo J.W. Picht)
The Kidd is connected to the Nautical Center, a museum of naval history that includes a superb collection of model ships. Harlan and I were entranced. We looked at canons in a mockup of the USS Constitution, watched a film about the USS Baton Rouge, a Los Angeles-class nuclear hunter-killer submarine, and looked at a variety of naval memorabilia.
But the big draw was the destroyer.
The U.S. Kidd destroyer (Photo J.W. Picht)
A self-guided tour takes you through the galley, down into the crew quarters, up to the bridge and past torpedoes, guns and depth charges. The kids sat at the anti-aircraft guns and wondered how to make them fire. They were fascinated by the bathroom facilities, where Catherine whispered in shock, “there are no stalls for the toilet
Harlan at the ready (Photo J.W. Picht)
At the end of the tour we met Leroy Jenkins, a former crewmember who now describes life on the Kidd to anyone who cares to stop and listen. He’s well worth listening to. Even Harlan listened: This was the man who could tell him what it took to fire the Kidd’s guns.
“Why can’t we fire the guns over the river? They should let us shoot at the river,” Harlan insisted. Mr. Jenkins graciously agreed, then suggested that there might be some silly laws against it.
Mr. Leroy Jenkins aboard the Kidd (Photo J.W. Picht)
Next to the Naval Center is Baton Rouge’s Veterans’ Memorial. An A-6 attack plane soars above it on its plinth.
Down the street, directly across from the old statehouse, is the Louisiana Art and Science Museum. My wife and I would have liked to look at the art collection, and they have a great activity room where you can park your kids while you do that, but we decided we wanted to go to the planetarium first.
Item two on our Baton Rouge to-do list – The Louisiana Art and Science Museum. We never made it to the art.
The Louisiana Art and Science Museum (Photo J.W. Picht)
Our children loved the planetarium. Even Catherine was entranced by the show, which after an introduction to the night sky and the planets focused on the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX). Harlan peppered me with questions during and after the show.
Afterwards we looked at the planets, all modeled to scale, hanging from the ceiling, then weighed ourselves on Jupiter and Mars.
We wanted to see the museum’s mummies, but it was mid afternoon and hunger dictated that we go to lunch.
After lunch we wanted to visit the highly recommended Bluebonnet swamp and nature center. Unfortunately it was too late for the swamp (it closes at 4:00), so we went with plan B: the LSU campus.
Item one on our Baton Rouge to-do list – Bluebonnet swamp.
Mike the Tiger, LSU’s mascot, has an enclosure fit for a Louisiana politician across the street from the football stadium. Even without a home game he was surrounded by adoring fans.
From there we walked to the oldest known structures in North America, a pair of 5,000-year old Indian mounds on the LSU campus. Their original purpose is unknown. With all the deference they could muster for that sort of antiquity, my kids set to rolling down the mounds. We let them roll until they were exhausted, then headed back to the hotel.
With meals and an hour in the hotel pool, our day was full, probably fuller than it needed to be. By the time we got back to the hotel, the kids were exhausted. So were Lisa and I.
Our first full day in Baton Rouge was fun for all of us, and it left us with a list of things to do next time: Bluebonnet swamp, the art museum and mummies, the Magnolia Mounds plantation and an alligator tour.
There are boat tours into the vast swamps of the Atchafalaya basin. Wildlife refuges and scenic towns abound in the region. We decided to visit one of those towns, St. Francisville, home to at least two fine plantations. One, the Myrtles, is haunted. You can read about it here.
We opted to visit Rosedown Plantation.
Rosedown Plantation doesn’t offer a restaurant or accommodations. It’s simply one of the finest examples of plantation architecture in Louisiana. It’s owned by the state of Louisiana and is open for tours 362 days per year.
Rosedown Plantation (Photo J.W. Picht)
Harlan and Catherine were delighted with Rosedown’s gardens. One area is composed of maze-like walkways lined by hedges. They raced along the paths in a winding game of “tag” with yells of laughter. The season for most of the flowers had passed, but the gardens were still a calm and elegant place to sit and think for a while. “Catherine! You’re ‘it’! Stop cheating!” Sort of calm.
Rosedown’s main house is a spectacular example of antebellum plantation architecture. To one side of the house is the doctor’s office, and behind it is the house where the last of the original owner’s family lived before she sold the plantation. We peered in windows and went in the doctor’s office, but we had more places to visit and couldn’t wait for a tour of the main house.
There’s another item for our Baton Rouge to-do list.
Being home to the state capitol and LSU, Baton Rouge boasts many fine restaurants, but this was a family outing, so fine dining was out. It was Friday night, and for our first meal in Baton Rouge we headed to the Nicholson Lane location of a local chain, the family-friendly Voodoo BBQ and Grill.
“Ooh, a magic meal! Please, may I have a magic meal?” Catherine was easy.
Harlan was in a bad mood, wanting one of those major chain kids’ meals with a toy, and he refused to order anything. I ordered the Slow Smoked Brisket platter ($8.99) and Lisa ordered the pulled Slow Smoked Pork sandwich ($5.29).
The brisket was good, but having spent most of my college years eating Texas barbecue, I wasn’t blown away by it. The “mango crystal” sauce was very good, not too sweet and with a gentle heat. The “Mojo” sauce was tangy with a more assertive bite to it. The item I really, really loved was the side of corn pudding. I could have eaten a bigger bowl of that. My wife’s sandwich was also good, nicely moist.
Catherine loved her “magic meal” of macaroni and cheese ($3.99). The fries were crisp and fresh, and that impressed me since we ordered only a half hour before closing time. Harlan finally broke down and asked if he might have a “magic meal,” too. He ate it all and even broke into a smile.
I ordered the white chocolate bread pudding ($3.29) for dessert. It was, like most Louisiana bread puddings, on the dense side. Most are also so sweet they make your teeth rot just by looking at them. This one wasn’t. The sweetness was surprisingly moderate. It was served by Erin, the delightfully cheerful, but not manic, as major chains often demand their cheerful servers to be, woman who took our order when we walked in.
When we got back to the Embassy Suites, I asked a woman working at the front desk, “what’s the best Cajun family restaurant in Baton Rouge?” Without even stopping to think she answered, “Parrain’s” and printed out the directions for me. “Parrain” is French for “Godfather.” You’ll wish you had a godfather like Parrain.
We went there Saturday afternoon. Was it good? It was stellar! Lisa and I started with the Eggplant Ponchartrain ($11.95), fried eggplant covered with crabmeat in hollandaise. The hollandaise was perfectly seasoned, the crabmeat sweet and tender.
It was an excellent dish.
My main course was The Delacroix ($18.95), grilled fish topped with a mustard cream sauce with crawfish and shrimp. The fish was grilled perfectly and the sauce didn’t overwhelm it. The side of garlic potatoes was also excellent. My wife’s fried shrimp ($14.95) were plump and juicy and not at all oily, my usual gripe with fried shrimp.
Harlan and Catherine had the mini corn dogs (they looked a lot like Vienna sausages) with hushpuppies. I tried one of Catherine’s hushpuppies (necessary research) and then asked whether she wouldn’t please let me have another.
We ordered two desserts: blackberry cheesecake and pecan pie ($4.50 each). Pecan pie is another of those desserts that’s often too sweet, but this one was just right. It was served hot with ice cream. We liked it better than the blackberry cheesecake, which was just a bit more delicately flavored than it needed to be. It was, however, nicely creamy. It came on a layer of white cake rather than in a standard cheesecake crust. The effect was a little more cake-like than I really like.
Parrain’s is an excellent family restaurant: It’s casual, has good food for children, outstanding grown-up food for their parents, is moderately priced and is open all day from lunch through dinner.
The servers were very nice, too, waiting patiently as my daughter ran about the (mercifully empty) dining room to measure everything she could reach with her tape-measure, including them.
Baton Rouge is a family-friendly city. It’s easy on the budget and it’s got enough to do to keep a family busy for more than you can pack into a weekend. Whether your interests are nature and wildlife, history and museums, restaurants or college football, it has something to offer.
The people we dealt with were invariably kind, helpful and hospitable. And we have a list of things to do next time we’re there. Lisa and I might try to make the trip without children to see a different side of the city, but we’ll be happy to go back either way.
James Picht teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La. From the age of 6, he always knew what he wanted to be. Economist wasn’t it. But after accidentally falling in to it, he found that he liked it. Now he also likes raising his two children, being a husband to Lisa, exploring Louisiana and taking pictures of trees at night.
Hilton Worldwide is the hotel of choice for Out and About
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