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"Drain the swamp."

Is there any sadder phrase?

And I’m not talking about politics. I’m talking about actual swamps, eco-systems that are crucial to the groundwater of North America; that teem with life and that compete with golden sand beaches and purple-hued mountains in their unalloyed pulchritude.

They’re also a heckuva lot of fun to tour, as many who go to New Orleans know. Alongside strolls of the French Quarter, the city’s above-ground cemeteries and its World War II museum, these half-day trips may well be the most popular way visitors fight off hangovers from the party the night before. I can say from experience that a swamp cruise is far more effective than Tylenol.

Busses pick up visitors from their hotels in New Orleans about three times daily for a 45-minute trip to the wetlands. Soon, you’re immersed in an other-worldly landscape of submerged trees, with witch-fingered roots shooting up from the brackish water. The air around you is atwitter with birds, including that debutante of the winged world, strutting white egrets.

Something floats by and everyone in the boat cranes their own (shorter) necks. Nope, just a “scary stick”, says a bayou-born guide with a voice as musical as a Louis Armstrong trumpet solo. 

But then suddenly, a snout does emerge, and the star enters center stage. The American Alligator is a wondrous creature to behold, and even more fascinating to study. If your guide is a good one (and most seem to be) they'll rattle off a roster of improbable facts about this goliath—they have two sets of eyelids, including a clear one that acts as goggles underwater; they can hold their breath for up to 45 minutes when active and up to 12 hours when hibernating; the gender of alligators depends on the temperature of the compost nest they’re in when they hatch (above 86 degrees male, below female). It all makes seeing this 85-million-year-old (or so) critter even more electrifying.

And then, out of the corner of your eye you’ll see bristly wild boars rooting through the mud, a careful raccoon gazing down at them from the branch of a tree. Everywhere, shrouds of Spanish Moss flutter to and fro in the lazy breeze, as turtles putter by or sun themselves on rocks. And you wonder how anyone would ever disparage this wonderland.

Forget draining the swamp. Let’s enjoy them, using our tourist dollars to keep them protected.

And drain the politicians instead.

If you go

There are a number of companies that guide visitors through the various swamps surrounding the city (about one-third of the state of Louisiana is swampland). Trips cost between $22 and $59, depending on the size and type of boat, and whether you get transportation from NOLA. Some of the best are:

Cajun Encounters (www.cajunencounters.com): Airboat tour
Canoe & Trail Adventures (www.canoeandtrail.com): Kayak or canoe tour
Cajun Pride Swamp Tours (www.cajunprideswamptours.com): Airboat tour