You don't have to board a plane and spend a month's salary to have a great vacation. There are plenty of fun adventures to share with your family within a day's drive of New Orleans, so you can take a few day or weekend trips to enjoy a longer stay. Here are some ideas for fun family vacations.
Just 40 miles from New Orleans, the Mississippi Gulf Coast in Hancock County provides a wealth of activities, including a paved walking/jogging/bicycling path linking two cities that have long been favored tourist areas.
"Our beaches are all open, and we have a wonderful walking path between Waveland and Bay St. Louis," says Beth Carriere, executive director of the Hancock County Tourism Development Bureau (www.mswestcoast.com). "If you're into birding, many of our water birds are out all the time now — white pelicans, blue herons, brown pelicans and more.
"The StennisSphere-NASA at the John C. Stennis Space Center (228-688-2370, Bay St. Louis; www.nasa.gov) is good for a half-day at least," Carriere adds. Visitors can take free tours of the museum of space artifacts, beginning at a launch pad and including a 3-D visualization lab, a moon rock, a space shuttle engine, an exhibit to help you visualize life on Mars and more. (It's closed on Sundays and holidays.)
The kids should enjoy a trip to Gulf Islands Waterpark in Gulfport (228-328-1266; www.gulfislandswaterpark.com), which has a wave pool, water slides, movies and concerts. There also are deep-sea fishing charters and five 18-hole championship golf courses in the area.
Carriere says Bay St. Louis is a great place for a "girlfriend's getaway," where women can spend the day shopping in boutiques and touring galleries in Old Town, dine in locally owned restaurants, some located in renovated historic homes, and end with a relaxing trip to a spa.
"We have the highest concentration (in the country) of locally owned local-cuisine restaurants," she says. "Dining is always good everyday, everywhere. There's the Alice Moseley Folk Art Museum; it's a big treat. There's the Mockingbird Cafe ... with artisan bread sandwiches named after characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. Next door is a three-story historic building that's been refurbished and is full of little shops." To finish the day, she suggests a trip to the Silver Slipper or Hollywood casino. On Sunday, Carriere says, you must make it to St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church, where a full Southern gospel choir sings Mass. Follow that with a jazz brunch at Silver Slipper Casino cafe, which includes live entertainment.
When you visit www.mswestcoast.org, click on the sweepstakes banner and enter to win a Caribbean cruise for two to be awarded July 1. It's the first of several sweepstakes to be given away throughout the year.
Staying in state is another vacation option. The Festival International (www.festivalinternational.com) is a five-day event centered around 735 Jefferson St. in Lafayette April 22-26.
"There is a lot to do at the festival," says Adrienne Stewart, marketing coordinator for the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's free, and in this day and age there are few things that are free. It's a family event, so bring the children. We have a place for children and the whole family to enjoy."
The festival features more than 100 musical performances by musicians from over 70 countries, mostly from the Francophone world.
"It's a festival that celebrates the French heritage of Louisiana," Stewart says. "It's like a look at the world without having to travel. They bring their heritage with them, and we get to experience it."
The festival includes six music stages with performers such as Marc Broussard, Tarace Boulba of France, Pine Leaf Boys, Bonerama, Dengue Fever from Cambodia, Dobet Guahore of the Ivory Coast, Rootz Underground and many others from Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Guinea, India and elsewhere.
There also are food courts, street musicians, arts and crafts areas, cultural workshops, art galleries, international cooking demonstrations, a 5K run and a silent auction at the Acadiana Center for the Arts. Visitors also can explore the historic downtown Lafayette area.
Discover how fun history can be at Pensacola, Fla.'s 450th anniversary celebration. Battle of Pensacola re-enactment events are scheduled May 8 and 9 and include festivals, parades, exhibits, a torch-lit walking tour, children's activities at Fort George, period music performances and more.
After the battle, there's a luncheon at The Right Place, a historic home, with costumed servers talking about different stages of the battle and how it went, says Ashley Chisholm, a spokeswoman for the Pensacola Bay Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The battle will have authentic costumes. They went to Hollywood and even the U.K. to get just the right costumes."
Pensacola also has about 52 miles of beaches for sun lovers, and one of the world's largest naval aviation museums. "It has more than 150 historic aircraft," Chism says. "It is 300,000 square feet and they have simulators, an IMAX theater and three tours. You can easily spend a day or two in there."
The city also is home to the Blue Angels naval flying squadron, which allows visitors to watch their practices on many Tuesday and Wednesday mornings throughout November. In addition the Blue Angels are the highlight of the Pensacola Beach Airshow July 10-11, which also features vintage and new aircraft and demonstrations by other pilots.
Historic Pensacola Village has a museum of commerce and buildings from turn-of-the century through the mid-1950s. In addition, there are free concerts during the summer. The Bands on the Beach series starts May 5, with free performances from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday at the Gulf Side Pavilion, Sounds of Summer concerts from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays in June on the Boardwalk and other free concerts at Seville Square downtown.
"We have a really great downtown," Chism says. "It has a thriving arts scene, Saenger Theatre, symphony, opera, art galleries and great dining. Most of our restaurants are locally owned. The Pensacola lighthouse is the nation's fourth tallest brick lighthouse and is supposedly haunted. Of course, there are all the fishing and water sports you can think of."
Biloxi, Miss., features present-day fun on the backdrop of history. Visitors can take two-hour, half day or whole-day sails on two schooners that sail seven days a week and visit Horn Island, a wilderness area where you can beachcomb, look at wildlife, swim and more, says Robin Krohn David of the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum, which is rebuilding after being destroyed during Hurricane Katrina.
The museum holds a Wooden Boat Show May 16-17, billed as the largest gathering of watercraft — historic, antique, classic, contemporary and models — on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The show also includes exhibits by artisans, demonstrations, cast net contests, music, food and children's activities.
The Great Biloxi Schooner Race is scheduled June 6 and kicks off a weekend of activities for the Blessing of the Fleet celebration.
David says one of the most popular events for the summer are the eight Sea and Sail Adventure Camps for children ages 6-13. Each camp is a week long. "In our camp, children learn to throw a cast net, fish on the pier, go to Horn Island for a full day — the younger ones go to Deer Island, which is closer — they go to the children's museum and learn of their heritage and history. The parents can play in the casinos all day while their children are at camp."
If you don't want to add wear and tear to your own vehicle, or need more room for your road trip, Enterprise Rent-A-Car (www.enterprise.com) is offering 50 percent off weekend rentals of up to a full-size car all summer long — with unlimited mileage, says Enterprise spokesman Kurt Kleve. The company has 22 outlets in the New Orleans area (58 in Louisiana) and offers free pickup and delivery of cars as well as low rates for minivans, SUVs and 15-passenger vans, weekday and weeklong rates.
"A lot of people have found it's cheaper to rent a car from Enterprise than to drive their own car," Kleve says. "The cars are all in excellent condition and they are all new or one or two years old."