Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain
Published: June 2009
By Malia Boyd
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.
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.
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.
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."
And so it goes through open savanna, shaded ponds, and wooded areas. Staggeringly ugly, pug-faced bison stare at you nonchalantly. Watusi cattle and Texas longhorns commingle under a tree. Llamas approach and threaten to spit on you.
Mercifully, there are no predators in the park. Sure, it would be transfixing to see a mama lion and her cubs. But picture that mama chasing wildebeests stampeding toward your wagon at dinnertime, and you realize that there's some of nature's glory you'd rather not see in person.
Global Wildlife Center, 26389 Hwy. 40, Folsom; 504/624-9453; $10 adults, $9 seniors, $8 for children under 12. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; call ahead for tour times.
Like its city-slickin' cousin to the south (Orleans Parish), St. Tammany is blessed with great food. Every little town has at least one bastion of excellent taste, and there are places for every budget and level of formality.
Artesia 21516 Hwy. 36, Abita Springs; 504/892-1662; dinner for two $80. Set in a glade hung with Spanish moss, this former Victorian-era health spa is the hot spot on the Northshore. Food & Wine thought enough of its chef, John Besh, to crown him one of its Best New Chefs of 1999. After eating a few bites of his hickory-smoked salmon or the slow-roasted duck, you'll understand why.
Dakota 629 N. Hwy. 190, Covington; 504/892-3712; dinner for two $80. The inauspicious location, between a Best Western and a car wash on the main drag of town, belies the high-end Louisiana cuisine inside. Piles of fresh flowers complement yards of raw and polished wood. Walls are decked with giant French Art Deco and Art Nouveau posters, and the 500-bottle wine list provides stimulating reading.
La Provence 20 Hwy. 190, Lacombe; 504/626-7662; dinner for two $70. If New Orleans were Paris, then the Northshore would undoubtedly be Provence, or so it seems when the white-haired Provençal chef Chris Kerageorgiou dishes up his French delights. After 28 years of creating flan d'aubergine and foie de veau, this transplanted European has developed a cult following that includes every gastronome in an 80-mile radius.
Magnolia Grill 315 N. Vermont St., Covington; 504/893-0402; lunch for two $20. For a lazy lunch of sandwiches or burgers, pop into the Magnolia, plop down on the screened-in porch, and make your lunch last. But get there early. Some days it seems the whole town has had the same idea.
Mescaleros Southwest Grill 208 Lee Lane, Covington; 504/875-0432; lunch for two $30. After a morning of exercising your wallet at the shops on Lee Lane, Mescaleros, with its shrimp tamales and mango margaritas, is the place to recuperate. It's hard to go wrong in a restaurant that offers six kinds of tortillas and an 82-entry tequila list.
Morton's 702 Water St., Madisonville; 504/845-4970; dinner for two $35. Sitting on the deck at sunset for boiled or fried seafood and watching the boats come in from a day of cruising the Tchefuncte River is a ritual here. But bring your mosquito repellent: the Louisiana state bird is very active when the weather's warm.
There are two types of people in the world: those who drink wine, and those who drink beer. I drink vodka, so I felt qualified to write objectively about the free tours offered by Tammany's temples to grape and grain — Pontchartrain Vineyards (81250 Old Military Rd., Bush; 504/892-9742; tours by appointment) and the Abita Brewing Co. (21084 Hwy. 36, Abita Springs; 800/737-2311 or 504/893-3143).
In the fall, when the air is crisp and the sky pink, you can almost imagine as you look over Pontchartrain Vineyards' 35 acres that you're in some kind of lilliputian Napa. It's run by former lawyer and self-taught vintner John Seago and his wife, Susan. His 20-minute tour of the wine-making facilities can get very technical; I was far more fascinated to find out that nearly everything is done by hand here — from the harvesting to the bottling — than I was to hear about the effect of carbon dioxide on the fermentation process. In any case, the payoff comes soon enough, as you make your way into the terra-cotta tasting area. Susan is fairly itching to let you sample the seven wines (five whites and two reds) currently for sale. The Seagos must be doing something right: three of their whites have won medals at wine competitions in California and Texas.
The Abita brewery, responsible for one of the most famous local brews, is only a 10-minute drive from the vineyard, but it might as well be in another world. (It's more Paul Prudhomme than Escoffier.) Tours are conducted on weekends, but when I showed up one Sunday, the place was empty. After wandering around for a few minutes among bags of grain and big silver vats, I eventually ran into Abe, a brewer shod in Birkenstocks and sporting a goatee. I was not at all surprised to find out that Abe got into brewing because he loves to drink beer. The 1 p.m. tour started promptly at 1:20, and wound up in the tasting room, dominated by five tapped kegs. Turbodog, Purple Haze, Golden, and Amber are the favorites; Abita also makes five seasonal brews.
Swamp tours are a dime a dozen in Louisiana. Most of them are long on lore and short on facts. Dr. Paul Wagner's Honey Island Swamp Tour is the thinking tourist's solution. Wagner is a tall-tale-teller with credentials: namely a bachelor's in biology, a master's in aquatic ecology, and a Ph.D. in marine biology. Fall is probably the best time to go. The cypresses are turning a fiery red-orange, the alligators are very active, and it's pleasantly cool.
At the outset of the tour, Wagner dangles a titillating possibility: we might be lucky enough today to see the elusive El Whoppo, the biggest alligator in the swamp. A Hollywood-proportioned gator is the Holy Grail of any self-respecting tour, and Wagner knows it.
Sure enough, 35 minutes later, Wagner's voice crackles with electricity and the boat lurches around to starboard. El Whoppo is a gator of biblical proportions. As he approaches, people recoil in stunned silence.
"He's fourteen foot long and weighs a thousand pounds—big enough to eat people," says Wagner. "Hold on to your children," he advises worried-looking parents. A sick glee falls over the passengers as Whoppo's full body surfaces and he opens his gargantuan jaws. We sit transfixed and speechless until Whoppo chugs away into the thick cover of the bayou.
Dr. Wagner's Honey Island Swamp Tours, Crawford Landing at the West Pearl River, Slidell; 504/641-1769, fax 504/643-3960; adults $20, children 12 and under $10. Reservations recommended; no credit cards.
Tubing and canoeing on the Bogue Chitto (pronounced "boh-gah cheetah" by locals) is an institution in southeastern Louisiana. And H. L. and Florence Mizell (that's Mr. Red and Miz Flo to you), with 1,000 tubes and 36 aluminum canoes, have the best game in town for rentals. There's not a native in these parts who hasn't spent a summer day or a fall weekend floating down the river's curvaceous, languid path on one of the big black tubes or in a canoe.
And why not?There are few more-relaxing escapes in this region than slapping on your sunscreen, loading your vessel with a bounteous cooler (no Styrofoam or glass, please), and drifting through the murky water as 70-pound catfish swim beneath you and wild turkeys gobble in the brush of the banks. The water is refreshingly cool, even on the hottest day, and it never moves more than a few miles an hour, so you're forced to just kick back, sip a grape Nehi, and let the oaks and pines pass right by you. Extreme-sports enthusiasts need not apply.
The season lasts from the spring (around April) through the fall; Red and Flo reckon that the water gets a little too cold for tubing after the middle of October, though, so you'll have to be content with the two-man canoes.
Bogue Chitto Canoeing & Tubing Center, 10237 Choctaw River Rd., Bogalusa; 504/735-1173; open 8 a.m.-3 p.m. daily. Tubing: adults $7; $6 for kids under 12. Canoeing: one-hour trip, $25 per boat; four-hour trip, $30.
The Northshore is populated by former urbanites who lost their taste for big crowds, small lots, and high crime. Fortunately, when it comes to shopping, folks here prefer to behave more like landed gentry than down-to-earth ruralists. Consumerism in Covington, especially, is a dream.
Start out on Lee Lane, where striped banners wave in front of turn-of-the-century cottages-cum-stores year-round, giving the short strip of road a perpetual street-fair feel. Backstreet Gourmet & Gifts (214 Lee Lane; 504/893-3533) serves up all manner of sweet jams, savory sauces, and kitchen gadgets for the die-hard cook. At Intimate Home (218 Lee Lane; 800/551-3923 or 504/898-6368), you can cuddle up in Peacock Alley bedding, wrap up in Susan Dunn robes, push up with Donna Karan bras, and clean up with Italy's Acca Kappa wheat germ soaps. Besides a fine range of antique furniture from Empire to Primitive, Walker House Ltd. (221 Lee Lane; 504/893-4235) also has a whimsical collection of garden accoutrements, from decorative wrought-iron window boxes to fountains made out of washtubs and other found objects. If you just can't get enough bed-and-bath ware, the Linen Closet (315 Lee Lane, Suite 101; 504/893-2347) carries Bischoff, Frette, and Anichini duvets, coverlets, and shams, along with other hard-to-find items, such as Arcopedico shoes made in Portugal. Before you leave Lee Lane for good, pop into Coffee Rani (234 Lee Lane; 504/893-6158) for a rejuvenating cup of herbal tea or one of the trademark salads (the size of a small garden).
Within a few blocks you'll come across a bevy of other equally pleasing choices. Everything at Antiques de Provence (708 E. Boston St.; 504/875-0087) is authentically French—from the giant olive jars to the decidedly haughty attitude of the staff. Unlike in the rest of Louisiana, the air at Hasslock Studios (334 N. Vermont St.; 888/427-7562 or 504/893-6648) can get pretty dry, since they fire their own majolica pottery there six days a week. They fill custom orders, hold fun workshops, and will even take you on a studio tour. Two Peas in a Pod (228 N. Columbia St.; 504/892-4349) beguiles with painted cribs, lamps, loads of pillows, and candle sconces. H. J. Smith's Son (308 N. Columbia St.; 504/892-0460) has got to be the granddaddy of all country stores. Not only does it sell ox yokes and 20 kinds of cast-iron stoves, but the 123-year-old shop also doubles as a classic country kitsch museum—with free admission. On the other side of the style spectrum, Claiborne House (320 N. Columbia St.; 504/893-0766) carries large stone tabletops, carved wood fireplace mantels, ornate mirrors, and custom-made wood and iron furniture.
At first glance, Legato Gallery (424 N. Columbia St.; 504/893-9115) may set off your cheese alarm, but take a closer look. There's some fun stuff here—jewelry, sculpture, paintings—and it's almost all made by Louisiana artists. But the best art on the Northshore can be found at Brunner Gallery (522 N. New Hampshire St.; 504/893-0444), with shows that change monthly and a respectable stable of local, regional, and national artists.