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Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain

Once a weekend retreat for wealthy New Orleanians, the area known as St. Tammany Parish today is a year-round haven for artists and young professionals fleeing urban life for Victorian mansions and water views. The 24-mile-long causeway over Lake Pontchartrain delivers weary travelers from the Big Easy to a world of fresh air, trails through piney woods, and federally protected wetlands. But a backwoods bumpkinland this is not. Galleries, antiques shops, nationally recognized chefs, and commodious B&B's conspire to make the Northshore an escapist's Shangri-la.

Where to Stay

Garden Guest House B&B 34514 Bayou Liberty Rd., Slidell; 888/255-0335 or 504/641-0335, fax 888/255-0335; suites from $90. The guest cottage and the greenhouse on this property are roughly the same size, which will give you an idea of the importance here of growing things. Bromeliads and ferns coat nearly every possible surface, while gardenias, camellias, and azaleas add bold color. The cottage is split into a pair of two-bedroom suites, decked out with English antiques and paintings by Louisiana artists. If you're real nice, owners Paul and Bonnie Taliancich might let you take a bromeliad when you leave.

Little River Bluffs 11030 Garden Lane, Folsom; 504/796-5257, fax 504/796-0002; two-night minimum stay, from $175. If you're on the lam, Little River's three-cottage, 65-acre setup is the place to hide out; guests are pretty much left to their own devices. They can pass the time gathering the wild chanterelles that grow among the pines, fishing for bass or perch in the property's small pond, or sitting on the deck at night and admiring the glowworms as they illuminate the riverbank.

Trail's End B&B 71648 Maple St., Abita Springs; 504/867-9899, fax 504/875-1031; doubles from $100. The draw at this four-room, 1890's white Victorian is undoubtedly its location right in the center of town. The broad, rocker-lined porch is the perfect place to retire after a long day biking or blading on the 22-mile Tammany Trace, which runs right past the front door.

Woods Hole Inn 78253 Woods Hole Lane, Folsom; 504/796-9077, fax 504/796-5444; doubles from $120. If Hansel and Gretel settled in Louisiana, Woods Hole is where they'd be: a perfect little house trimmed with gingerbread and filled with stone fireplaces and cedar-scented rooms. Dark wood interiors are brightened by white slipcovered furniture and aromatic candles. Think Swiss chalet meets New Age retreat, and you've got the picture.

While the B&B's on the Northshore are stocked with a generous amount of country appeal, they are mostly small and self-catering. If you know right off that you'll need more attention, the best bet is the Courtyard by Marriott (101 N. Park Blvd., Covington; 800/321-2211 or 504/871-0244, fax 504/867-9938; doubles from $89). It doesn't have much country flair, but there is a pool.

Three Rivers Art Festival

The Northshore is chockablock with festivals and fairs throughout the year. In the winter, there's Christmas in the Country; in summer it's the Bluesberry Festival. But autumn's big draw is the Three Rivers Art Festival in Covington, a juried show featuring more than 100 artists from around the country. On November 13 and 14, they'll set up their kiosks along historic Columbia Street, where browsers will be able to ogle — and buy — everything from handmade jewelry to wrought-iron garden furniture and large-scale oil paintings. Children can keep busy making their own masterpieces at the hands-on activities tent near the Bogue Falaya river landing. For more information, call the St. Tammany Parish Tourist & Convention Commission at 800/634-9443 or 504/892-0520.

Out of Africa, in Louisiana

How's this for surreal?The plates on your rental car say Louisiana, and you've just come from lunch at a little restaurant down on the bayou, yet there in front of you, sure as the nose on your face, is a six-foot-tall baby giraffe, coyly blinking her three-inch-long lashes.

This is the Global Wildlife Center, the Northshore's answer to Disney's Animal Kingdom. And no matter what roadside petting zoos you may have been to in your life, you've never done anything that compares to this.

As you wait at the visitors' center for a tractor-pulled covered wagon to take you on your trip, gray-feathered emus and rheas poke around curiously but never let you get too close. They are just a couple of the 40 species you'll see during the 1 1/2-hour tour through the park. And while the big birds remain always a bit out of reach, other groups of the 2,700 free-ranging animals in the park are far more congenial.

The key to extreme mammal close-ups comes in the shape of the cups of feed you can buy at the visitors' center. Every penny you spend on the food is worth its weight in gold—if you like cuddling with animals you've seen only on National Geographic specials.

On one recent tour, shortly after the covered wagon lurched through the cattle guard, a clique of four giraffes started to close in. Men, women, and children leaned out of their seats as far as their bodies would allow and started shaking the contents of their cups enticingly. They didn't need to try so hard. In a moment, the giraffes were upon them and all the visitors were breathless as the towering longnecks stuck their fuzzy noses into the cups and chewed the contents like so many tall, lean cows. Grown men practically pushed kids out of the way to pet, cuddle, and nuzzle them. Women jostled for position to be photographed kissing them on the cheeks, as if they were rock stars. Some little kids just stared with grins the size of footballs, utterly speechless. The giraffes regally tolerated this undignified human behavior for the sake of an afternoon snack.

"Cup-stealer alert!" cried one of the guides as a herd of Cape eland trotted up. These African antelope have spiraled horns and gentle brown eyes, and they can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. They are also aggressive feeders and have a reputation for pulling the cups right out of tourists' hands.

As you make your way through the park's 900 acres, a guide chimes in with facts about the animals: "To your left are the Father David deer. They're originally from China, and today there are only about three thousand of them left in the world. We started out with twelve, and now we have forty.

"Over in that clearing are the camels. We have Bactrians, which have two humps, and dromedaries, which have one. An easy way to remember the names is that the letter B for Bactrian has two bumps, and the letter D for dromedary has one.

"These are blackbuck antelope from India. You can tell the dominant male in the herd, because he gets a shade darker every time he mates. The darkest one is the boss."

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