Paul F. Stahls Jr.This old Municipal Association coffee mug with its fine-print list of towns, Abbeville to Zwolle – a constant companion through half of Louisiana Life’s 25 years – is as good as a journal for recording memories of past adventures.
There are the Big Seven – New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Alexandria, Monroe, Lafayette, Lake Charles – and, no less colorful, smaller cities and towns from Homer to Houma, Dubach to Dulac, Mound to Mamou, ranging across map and alphabet with memories of folks met and sights seen in Baldwin, Coushatta, DeRidder, Farmerville, Harrisonburg, Provencal, Vidalia …
Lots of coffee, lots of places, so let’s raise our cups of Luzianne and Nakatosh to the wonderments of Louisiana and take a whirlwind tour of 25 sights we’ve seen before over this quarter-century, and would most like to visit again and again.
25. Magic Marker. The lead feature of our very first issue was a journey up Highway 1 from Grand Isle to Louisiana’s Arkansas-Texas corner. There, a few paces east of the blacktop at the base of a stout old hardwood, is Louisiana’s “cornerstone” – a brass-capped marker rising less than a foot in height to mark the meeting place of three states. So dramatically simple it is, so dedicated to its lonely mission, that it edges out, in the affection of many of us, the 1841 Texas-Louisiana boundary marker near Logansport and even the towering national monument marking the Battle of New Orleans at Chalmette.
24. Favorite diners, rural and urban. The old dining room at Stelly’s – at the crossing of U.S. 71 and Louisiana 10 in LeBeau – boasts shrimp burgers, crab burgers, good pies and conversation pieces like 1930s slot machines, giant snapping turtle (corpus delectable) and an old – but working – woody phone booth. The establishment’s north wing offers a filling station and watering hole, its south wing a perfect country grocery complete with good boudin.
Favorite urban diner (with prejudice) is “my diner” in New Orleans: Betsy’s Pancake House on Canal Street, whose staff and clientele are “so New Orleans” you wouldn’t be surprised to see Ignatius Reilly from Confederacy of Dunces having a pyloric valve attack at the next table. Great red beans greet you on Mondays, and Betsy McDaniel claims, with justification, the “best pancakes in the South” – a fact to which recent breakfast guest George W. Bush will attest.
23. Judgment Call. We love all our courthouse squares – the heart and soul of so many of our towns – but the square in Clinton wins on two points: the white-columned East Feliciana Courthouse co-starred with Paul Newman in The Long, Hot Summer and the square also boasts a handsome half-block of antebellum office buildings called Lawyers Row.
22. Tops in Topography. Louisiana’s highest point, Driskill Mountain in Bienville Parish (southwest of Ruston via I-20 and Louisiana 507.) At 535 feet above sea level, this is a place of steep hiking trails, singing pines and far horizons.
21. Most Missed. Remember the tulips and windmills of Newellton’s Dutch Gardens? Evenings of history set to music in the outdoor drama Louisiana Cavalier, in its own amphitheater atop Red River’s Grand Ecore Bluff? Salt mine tours at Avery and Jefferson Islands? How about Hot Wells Resort near Alexandria (cozy rooms, big pool, mineral baths)? The winner, now on the Preservation Resource Center’s endangered list but still salvageable, is our “little Peabody,” the grand old Hotel Bentley of Alexandria. It was saved in the 1980s and must be saved again.
20. Highlight of the High Lights. The New Basin Canal Lighthouse in New Orleans, toppled by Katrina, is rising again as a Lakefront museum. The nearby Port Pontchartrain Light still stands vigil at old Pontchartrain Beach. And, the Sabine Pass Light at Louisiana’s southwest corner hung tough through Rita as it has through Audrey and every other storm since 1856. Our winner, however, by virtue of pleasing proportions and dramatic location, is the old Tchefuncte River Light on Pontchartrain’s north shore. Access is by boat, west along the lakeshore from the mouth of the Tchefuncte – but overland access is being planned by the history-minded folk of Madisonville.
Information available at the Old Jail Museum, (985) 845-2100.
19. Levee View. Lots of homes and businesses along the Red River and Ouachita back right up to the levees, so you can stroll to the tops of the levees without even crossing a road. Our best levee view of all, though, is from a table at the West Bank Eatery in Vidalia, where one can enjoy catfish and a panorama of shifting midstream sands where Jim Bowie fought that famous “Sandbar Duel,” as the bluffs of Natchez provide a backdrop far across the Mississippi.
18. Favorite Forest. Kisatchie National Forest is scattered in “divisions” across Central and North Louisiana, but the choicest spot is the Longleaf Trail Vista near the southern tip if Natchitoches Parish. It’s an odd range of high mesa-topped hills called the Kisatchie Wold, two of which are ringed by steps and walkways laid with slabs of colorful sandstone. You can see for miles from the stone gazebo atop the main mesa, and don’t fret if your kids clamber up one of the exposed boulders. Generations have survived it; this one will too.
17. Lakeside Lagniappe. Fishing’s fine at every puddle in the Sportsman’s Paradise, from specks in the brackish lakes to big bass at inland lakes like Toledo Bend. So how do we single one out? Lake Palourde, near Morgan City on the fringe of the Atchafalaya, has an ace in the hole called Brownell Carillon Park, where you’ll enjoy cypress trees, nature trails and half-hourly tintinabulation of the bells-bells-bells. (Poe would love it!) A film crew used this same jungle-like area about 100 years ago to shoot the first Tarzan film, Tarzan of the Apes.
16. Spookiest Spot. Ghosts at Oak Alley, Loyd Hall and others have gotten good publicity, but no other spot can match the national clamor the books, films, PBS specials – about the wails of murder victims, dead duelists, wounded soldiers, jealous wives and maimed mistresses at the Myrtles in St. Francisville.
You’re welcome to spend a night … but will you?
15. Toughest Track. Thanksgiving, as you know, is the day the nation gives thanks for the opening of racing season at the Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans. We love Delta Downs raking in all that Texas dough in Vinton, the Super Derby and other big purses at dazzling Louisiana Downs in Bossier and, of course, the famous “Ils sont parties” starting call at Evangeline Downs near Opelousas, but the Fair Grounds (home of the century-old Louisiana Derby) is the beloved track that burned in 1993, flooded in Katrina and rises again and again to remain the oldest continuous racing site in America.
14. “Cruising” Zone. Music-hunters’ favorite district for barhopping is still the French Quarter, but lately it’s expanded to encompass Cafe Brazil, Snug Harbor, Checkpoint Charlie, DBA and other clubs of “Faubourg” Marigny.
13. Main Street. From Arlington on the east and on past the St. Mary Courthouse to Shadowlawn on the west, Main Street in the Bayou Teche town of Franklin has a collection of historic homes that rivals St. Charles Avenue’s in New Orleans. Trivia: the side arms of the vintage streetlights along the narrow boulevard swivel sideways for safe passage by cane trucks in grinding season.
12. Greatest Grounds. Couldn’t argue if you chose the battlefields of Port Hudson (longest siege of the Civil War) or Mansfield/Pleasant Hill (last significant Confederate victory), but consider that the mounds and the three-quarter-mile-wide central complex of ridges at Poverty Point, on the bayou-border of East and West Carroll parishes, were built 1,500 years before Christ. It’s the starting point for Louisiana’s newly designated “Ancient Mounds Trail,” final great project of State Archaeologist Tom Eubanks who passed away earlier this year.
11. Driving Tour. We’re blessed with an abundance of floral drives – the Redbud Trail around Vivian, Dogwood Trail in Kisatchie and Azalea Trail through Lafayette – but our year-round favorite nature tour is the nationally acclaimed Creole Nature Trail through the wetlands below Lake Charles. It’s a region devastated by Hurricane Rita, with some interpretive centers and observation facilities still out of commission, but the wildlife stayed – the birds of winter are back and the roads are passable.
10. Cityscape Escape. Our most interesting urban cluster of sights and sites is Baton Rouge’s riverfront. The levee and elevated walkways offer dramatic overviews, but browse at ground level to best enjoy the parks and plazas filled with fountains and statuary, the galleries of the Arts and Science Center and brand new Louisiana State University (LSU) art museum, the political-film archives of the castle-esque Old State Capitol and the riverside Veterans Memorial and Museum (World War II destroyer, listing of war casualties in Memorial Plaza and military museum featuring statues of Louisiana heroes and a P-40 “Flying Tiger.”)
9. Antiques Cluster. If there’s anything better than a good antiques shop it’s a bunch of them, like the clusters you’ll find in Ponchatoula, Antiques Alley in Monroe or Royal and Magazine streets in New Orleans. But the St. Landry town of Washington wins it – most every building in town being an historic treasure and a good percentage of them housing antiques shops.
8. Liveliest History. “Living History” means historic structures peopled with costumed guides, storytellers and craftsmen – places like the Caspiana Plantation complex at LSU- Shreveport and Oakley House near St. Francisville. Lafayette’s “Vermilionville” wins this by the sheer scope of this re-creation of 1765-1890 Cajun life, complete with authentic Acadian structures and armies of musicians, cooks and crafters.
7. Best Bets. Louisiana’s three American Indian casinos offer such cultural lagniappe as fine museums and great arts and crafts outlets. Shreveport-Bossier’s cluster of Red River casinos is Vegas without the hassle. The palatial L’Auberge du Lac in Lake Charles is a monument to opulence. And there’s our fleet of neon steamboats. Harrah’s-New Orleans, however, comes up aces with its prime Canal Street location, its Mardi Gras decor and that true casino je nes c’est qois.
6. Greatest Gridiron. The stadiums of our youth command our individual loyalties forever (from old State Fair/Heritage Stadium in Shreveport to art deco Tad Gormley at New Orleans City Park), and the reborn Superdome claims the pride and loyalty of an entire state. It’s the stadiums of our college days, however, that own our souls. Great arenas like those at Bradshaw’s Tech, Doug Williams’ Grambling, Hebert’s Northwestern, Delhomme’s La.-Lafayette. But with heartfelt apologies to those and the rest, when Mike the Tiger circles Death Valley and the Golden Band kicks into its pregame “Hold that Tiger” quickstep, the hair on your neck bristles every single time and you realize that on a chilly Saturday night in fall, there’s really only one place to be in the whole wide world.
5. Art and Historic Museums. Of all our scores of worthwhile museums and galleries, the Ogden Museum in New Orleans has amassed our most complete collection of works representing significant periods and important individual creators of Louisiana and Southern art. The internationally acclaimed LSU Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge – a remarkable collection of the structures and accoutrements of plantation industry and life – has launched a “Whispers of Change” campaign to finance its first major expansion of exhibit space and other necessary facilities.
To pledge support, contact the Campaign Director at (225) 763-5591 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
4. Treasure Island. We’re blessed with a wildly varied selection of public gardens, including the estate gardens of Longue Vue in New Orleans and American Rose Society gardens near Shreveport, and plantation parterre gardens in cotton and cane country. The salt-dome paradise called Avery Island in Iberia Parish, however, presents its own world of variety, offering tours of its Jungle Gardens, its Bird City egret and heron rookeries, not to mention its pepper fields and Tabasco bottling facilities.
3. Plantation Pick. It’s the trees, stupid! Everyone loves Melrose on Cane River for “best story,” Creole on westbank River Road for “best stories,” Houmas House on the east bank for best Louisiana Greek Revival (despite the front yard’s new pedestrian “highway” that would have brought poor hush-hushed Sweet Charlotte right back out on the gallery with that shotgun) and Jeanerette’s Alice Plantation (nee Fuselier) for its perfect West Indies architecture, but … c’mon. You know it has to be Oak Alley – with that world-famed view of the mansion’s 28 columns and avenue of 28 massive live oaks. I’m guessing they’ve got 350 more years. Then we plant 28 more. Then we wait.
2. Religious Choice. Of all our churches, small, large, simple and elaborate, the oldest and most revered is St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the ancient Cabildo, it is the centerpiece of Jackson Square, which has been the wellspring of all Louisiana history – secular and ecclesiastic – from the first decades of Louisiana’s existence.
1. Landmarks, Major and Minor. We all know what “major” landmark rises above the rest in significance and popularity, but what about everyday structures that somehow survived long enough to earn landmark status? The cotton press at Magnolia Plantation on Cane River, the incredible barn at Audubon’s Oakley, that classic wellhouse at the West Feliciana Courthouse, the tiny Palladian butterhouse at Oaklawn on Bayou Teche … All, however, pale to insignificance next to the swankest outhouse in Louisiana history: the grand, Greek Revival, two-roomed, pedimented and pilastered brick privy in the perfect formal garden of Evergreen Plantation (now open for tours), on the westbank River Road in St. Charles Parish.
And that major landmark? Our 70-year-old “New” Capitol, of course, with its art and symbolism proclaiming our greatness, right down to the big bronze map of Louisiana in Memorial Hall where little rivers ran red with the blood of Willie Stark/Huey Long in this year’s remake of Every Man a King.