Want a marshmallow?
The 6-foot-long alligator, dubbed Otis by the locals, who's minus one foot and swimming alongside our boat, certainly does. We're in the Honey Island Swamp in Slidell, Louisiana, on Louisiana's Northshore on the Pearl River Swamp Eco-Tours. It's another world from New Orleans, though we are just 40 minutes from downtown, across Lake Pontchartrain.
Our guide, John Royen, tells us the gators think the marshmallows are turtle eggs (and that they're actually good for their digestion). We see Ibis nesting in the tall trees, a Great Blue Heron, wild baby hogs and spooky "cypress knees" that look like giant fingers sticking up in the swamp. Let's not forget the creepy gray-green Spanish moss hanging from the trees, so named by the Choctaw Indians after the beards on the Spanish conquistadors' faces.
Jambalaya and pirates
Sure, New Orleans is famous for its food, its music and raucous partying. But I discovered there is a lot more here for families than many think -- starting with the popular Swamp Tours. Louisiana, we learn, is 70 percent swamp.
Certainly there are plenty of places to stay. I liked the historic Omni Royal Orleans for its central French Quarter location, its rooftop saltwater pool and the backpack that kids get upon check-in that sports fun health- and nutrition-themed games.
In and around the city, there are plenty of places, of course, to encourage kids to try new foods. "It is a rare child that doesn't eat gumbo, red beans, jambalaya or étouffée," jokes New Orleans food blogger Lorin Gaudin. "Those dishes pretty much run through our veins."
You won't have to push them to taste a sugar-covered beignet, which is lighter and fluffier than any doughnut.
Everywhere you turn, there are stories about pirates, ghosts, voodoo and steamboats on the Mississippi River to engage them, says Naif Shahady, who offers terrific New Orleans Culinary History Tours appropriate for foodie teens and private tours for families.
Talk about the lessons of Hurricane Katrina and how far the city has come in the past nine years. The excellent "Living With Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond" exhibit, complete with drawings done by children who were evacuated, is at the Louisiana State Museum, and a good starting point. The kids will also love the Mardi Gras exhibit with the impossibly ornate and glittery costumes, crowns and scepters.
We loved the National World War II Museum with its personal artifacts (the wallet of a 17-year-old Medal of Honor winner, for example) and stations where those who lived through the war recount their experiences.
Let's not forget the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium just a few blocks from the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in downtown New Orleans with its interactive "Geaux Fish!" exhibit on the Louisiana fishing industry.
Despite the heat, kids were having a blast in the huge City Park -- one of the largest in the country -- with its outdoor sculpture garden, paddleboats, antique carousel, miniature train and more.
First-time visitors certainly should take a trek out to River Road and New Orleans Plantation Country to see what life was like before the Civil War when these big sugar plantations were worked by slaves who lived in bare, cramped cabins. (There are many tours offered that include transportation from New Orleans hotels.) Visit Laura plantation where the tales of Br'er Rabbit were first recorded in a slave cabin dating to 1840.
We toured Destrehan Plantation on the banks of the Mississippi River, the closest to New Orleans, with demonstrations daily on everything from open-hearth cooking to African-American herbal remedies.
Know the difference between a swamp and a bayou? A swamp is an entire ecosystem -- kind of like a flooded forest, our guide Royen explains on our tour, as he navigates a bayou, which is a secondary, narrower waterway.
September, Royen says, is the one month out of the year that those who own property in the swamp can hunt alligators to keep their numbers down. The biggest gator on record was found right in this swamp -- 19 feet, 2 inches long and more than 1,400 pounds.
When we get back, Otis the gator is waiting. Another marshmallow, please.