The kids are back in school, your vacation days are spent and you’re already wondering about holiday gifts for the in-laws – but don’t let the back-to-school blues get you down. Who says summer fun stops in August?
There are a host of one-day getaways right here in Louisiana that will give you the chance to grab a last breath of summer before the season is truly over. And in case your wallet is a little light from that lengthy July vacation to Fiji, don’t stress – these options are all affordable and a just short drive from New Orleans. Tell Old Man Winter to hold your coat, because you’re not going to need it just yet.
Global Wildlife Center. Did you know that when zebras are born, they spend the first hours of their lives memorizing their mother’s stripe pattern? Visitors can learn this and more at the Global Wildlife Center, the largest free-roaming animal preserve in the U.S. Here, guests can get up close and personal with over 30 species, which roam comfortably across 900 acres of land. There are over 4,000 animals on the preserve, employee Katie Pennison says.
Global Wildlife residents include camels, zebras, kangaroos, bison, impala, red deer and giraffes (including newly born Dusty).
The main attraction at the Center is the hour-and-a-half long covered wagon ride through the preserve. Guests can buy buckets of animal feed at the gift shop to treat the animals when the wagon makes stops throughout the tour.
The very knowledgeable guides have more than animal facts to share with visitors; they also have some great stories about the animals and their lives on the preserve. One particularly funny story involves a group of bad-tempered boy scouts and how they learned why they shouldn’t poke otherwise good-natured Ernie the llama in the eye (did you know llama “spit” is actually projectile vomit?). Another great tale is that of naughty Jonas the Rhesus monkey, who rode one of the other animals to start the only stampede ever at the Center (also explaining why they don’t have monkeys anymore). Guides also tell a sweet story of how the animals banded together and all miraculously survived during Hurricane Katrina.
Sadly there are no lions or tigers to see on the tour. This is because, fair enough, they would eat the other animals, tour guides explain. If somehow you don’t see your favorite herbivore on the tour, guests can make suggestions in the gift shop for animals that they’d like to see join the Global Wildlife Center family. Fingers crossed they’ll have some sloths soon.
Global Wildlife Center, 26389 Highway 40, Folsom, (985) 624-WILD. Approx. driving time: 1 hour and 10 minutes.
Kliebert’s Turtle & Alligator Tours, Inc. “He was young when his father used to take him out into the swamp picking up turtle eggs and alligator eggs,” Jennifer Kliebert says of her father, owner Harvey Kliebert. “He practiced hatching them and he decided that’s what he wanted to do, – raise turtles.”
Since it’s start in 1956, Kliebert’s Turtle & Alligator farm has grown to house around 40,000 Mobilian turtles and about 5,000 alligators on the 25-acre property.
True turtle lovers fear not, our wee web-footed friends are exported to countries such as Italy, China and Mexico as pets, not delicacies. Sale of pet turtles was banned in the U.S. in the 1970s because of salmonella, which now can be treated while the turtles are still in the shell.
The gators however, are harvested for meat, teeth, heads and hides when they’re around five or six years old. “We say ‘harvested’ because we get a lot of field trips,” Anita Brandon, Mr. Kliebert’s daughter-in-law, says. “The alligators came as an extra hobby,” Kliebert explains. “In 1957, my dad collected 250 alligator eggs from the swamp and hatched them.” Kliebert says those original alligators are still on the farm and they’re turning 50 years old this year. She assures the farm now only harvests eggs from their own alligators, not from the wild.
The reptiles at Kliebert’s live as they would in the wild, hibernating four months a year, which is why the farm is only open to the public March through October.
Before they lay down for a long winter’s nap each year, the animals are the stars of “Alligator Day,” an annual celebration that began in 1984. This year Alligator Day will be held Sept. 15. There will be a host of fun activities for the kiddies, a beer booth for the grownups and tours every half-hour starting around 11 a.m. Alligator Day will also offer tasty vittles for sale and live Cajun music.
Speaking of tasty vittles … another great reason to visit Kliebert’s is that you’ll pass Middendorf’s restaurant while you’re driving to and from town. Make a point to stop in for some thin fried catfish – it’s good stuff.
Kliebert’s Turtle & Alligator Tours, Inc., 41083 West Yellow Water Road, Hammond, (985) 345-3617. Approx. driving time: 1 hour.
Nottoway Plantation. At just over 53,000 square feet, Nottoway Plantation is one of the most majestic plantation homes in Louisiana.
“Nottoway is one of the largest remaining plantations in the South today,” guide Dallas Landry says, telling guests about Nottoway’s first owners: sugar cane farmers John and Emily Hampden Randolph and their 11 children.
The Randolph family moved into the home in 1859, 10 years after construction began (think about that the next time you’re angry with your contractors). You may recognize the plantation from films including Heaven’s Prisoners (starring Teri Hatcher and Alec Baldwin) and Hard Target (starring Jean-Claude van Damme), both filmed in part at Nottoway.
The plantation’s caretakers have gone to great lengths to restore the house to its original state, using roughly 1,700 documents found in the attic, including the diary of the Randolphs’ daughter Cornelia, as points of reference. Cornelia’s diary gave details from the color of furniture upholstery, down to the patterns on her bedroom carpet, Landry says.
In addition to details on décor, this young woman’s diary explained a little about fixtures in the home, like the gasolier in the entranceway that caretakers now know was purchased on Royal Street.
Nottoway’s collection of antiques also includes a genuine rolling pin bed. This unique piece of furniture has a removable rolling pin on the headboard which servants would remove and use to smooth the feathers in the mattress each day to ensure a lump-free night’s sleep.
The plantation has passed through the hands of several owners since the Randolphs and is currently owned by an Aussie who incidentally also owns a nearby hospital. “He calls it his vacation home,” Landry says of the current owner.
If you find that a few hours visit just isn’t long enough, the plantation also operates as a bed and breakfast, with rooms running $115-$275 a night. And if you work up an appetite from your long stroll through the past, there’s a restaurant on the grounds open for lunch and dinner, serving Southern favorites such as crawfish and jambalaya.
Nottoway Plantation, 30970 Highway 405, White Castle, (866) 428-4748. Approx. driving time: 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Pontchartrain Vineyards and Winery. Nestled on 40 acres of Louisiana farmland, Pontchartrain Vineyards provides a cozy setting for an afternoon away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. Visitors can relax on the small patio, stroll through the grape fields and of course, sample some of the vineyard’s tasty wines for just $4 a person.
John Seago, a former lawyer, and his wife Susan, a former schoolteacher, left their respective careers over a decade ago to pursue the arduous but rewarding task of running a vineyard.
“The fact that we’re still standing since 1991 is pretty remarkable,” John says.
John explains that as a native New Orleanian, he’s always felt strongly about the place of food in culture. He also feels a fine wine can and should enhance the dining experience and it was this passion that led him to winemaking.
The vineyard produces around 2,500 cases of wine a year, a small output as vineyards go but the Seagos know their stuff. John and Susan can tell you about everything from how to politely sip and spit to the effect of soil quality and humidity on different varieties of grapes.
If you’re looking for a little more out of your visit, the vineyard is also hosting a concert series called “Jazz’n the Vines” with acts like Theresa Andersson and Tim Laughlin performing on select dates through October.
Pontchartrain Vineyards and Winery, 81250 Old Military Road (Highway 1082), Bush, (985) 892-9742. Approx. driving time: 1 hour and 10 minutes.