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Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain

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.

Where to Eat

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.

A Tale of Two Tastings

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.

Looking for El Whoppo

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.


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