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A Staycation guide for Louisianians

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Louisiana residents just happen to live in a state targeted by folks in the other 49 as a top vacation destination. A desire to experience the great food, culture and outdoor activities Louisiana offers leads people from Maine to Minnesota to pack their bags and head for the Bayou State.

If your vacation budget this year doesn’t stretch to a cross-country trip – or if you just want to see what all the others are excited about – plan a “staycation” in Louisiana instead. Check out the ways you can relax, have fun and recharge your batteries right in your own backyard. Because you won’t spend a lot of time flying or driving to some distant destination, you’ll use less of your precious time off sitting around airports or behind the wheel of a car. That leaves more days for having a good time, and isn’t that what vacations are all about?

Whether your hometown is one of Louisiana’s exciting big cities or its many charming smaller towns, you’ll run out of vacation days long before you run out of things to do.

Northern Delights

Those who hail from North Louisiana can choose from myriad ways to vacation close to home. This part of the state bears the nickname Sportsman’s Paradise, a tribute to its rolling hills and many lakes, rivers and state parks. But you needn’t go far to enjoy more urban entertainment, including casinos, restaurants, theaters and shops.

If museum-hopping is your thing, opportunities abound. One standout is the Biedenharn Museum & Gardens in Monroe. Joseph Biedenharn, the first bottler of Coca-Cola, built the magnificent mansion in 1914. Today, guests can tour the historic home, furnished with antiques, as well as the beautiful gardens, a Bible museum and displays of Coke memorabilia.

Those interested in military history can take in the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum of Louisiana in Monroe or the Louisiana Military Museum in Ruston.

Smaller specialty museums are often fascinating. Two in North Louisiana are the Germantown Colony Museum near Minden and the Herbert S. Ford Memorial Museum in Homer. The former is the site of a utopian community founded by a group of Germans in the 1830s; the community lasted 40 years, and several of their buildings and a cemetery remain. The Ford Museum is a detailed look at North Louisiana history from pre-Columbian times to the present day and contains period rooms such as a general store, a medical office and a hotel room. The exhibits give visitors a real feel for life in days gone by.

In Ruston, home to the popular Louisiana Peach Festival, the 18-block Historic District lets visitors admire period architecture while they shop and dine.

If you crave outdoor relaxation, head for the region’s many golf courses and state parks. You can glimpse a variety of native wildlife at Olde Oaks, an Audubon Golf Trail course near Shreveport, while creeks add interest to the 300-acre Black Bear Golf Course in Delhi. Spend your vacation days in a cabin or camp site at Lake D’Arbonne State Park, where you can fish, swim, bike or go bird-watching. The fishing is also great at Poverty Point Reservoir State Park, near Delhi. If you like canoeing, try the 6,400-acre lake at Lake Claiborne State Park.

Another outdoor treat is the Gardens of the American Rose Center in Shreveport, where more than 20,000 roses perfume the air. The gardens are lovely in spring, summer and into fall; during the winter holidays, thousands of twinkling lights turn it into a wonderland, complete with train rides.

Vacationing with the kids? Don’t miss Shreveport’s Sci-Port – Louisiana’s Science Center, more than 90,000 square feet of interactive, educational fun for families. Kids can learn about science, math and outer space in hundreds of exhibits and catch a flick at the IMAX Dome Theatre. Chimp Haven, a national chimpanzee sanctuary, is located just 22 miles from Shreveport; on Chimp Discovery Days, visitors are admitted to see the chimps and their habitat.

Kids and water go together like peanut butter and jelly, and in addition to swimming in the region’s state parks, try Splash Kingdom Family Waterpark in Shreveport, featuring slides, a lazy river and a special area for the small fry.

Shopping, placing a wager or two and taking in a show are other popular vacation pastimes. Don’t miss the breathtaking Strand Theatre in Shreveport, built in 1925 and lovingly restored. It reopened in 1984 and provides an opulent backdrop for concerts, plays and touring Broadway shows. In the Shreveport-Bossier City entertainment districts, you can try your luck at several casinos and Harrah’s Louisiana Downs, a casino and race track. This summer will bring the grand opening of Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville Casino Resort.
Bossier City is noted for its giant riverfront mall, Louisiana Boardwalk, with more than 70 outlet stores along with an IMAX theater and restaurants. Or try Monroe’s Antique Alley, blocks and blocks of antiques shops.

Other fun side trips include visits to the tasting room at Landry Vineyards in the hills of West Monroe and Vieux Carré Gourmet, also in Monroe, which specializes in food with a New Orleans flavor.

Speaking of flavor, the cuisine in northern Louisiana has something for everyone. “Barbecue is big, and catfish is king,” says Louisiana food commentator Ian McNulty (see his column, p. 20). Restaurants run from white-tablecloth to neighborhood cafés, and you can also take advantage of summer’s sunny weather and pick up some regional favorites, including pecans, blueberries and those juicy Ruston peaches for a picnic in the park.

With a little advance planning, you can schedule your staycation to coincide with one or two of North Louisiana’s festivals. Popular gatherings include the Franklin Parish Catfish fest in Winnsboro, the Teddy Bear Festival in Tallulah, Ruston’s Louisiana Peach Festival and the Germantown Bluegrass Festival in Minden.

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