One of the great things about living in New Orleans is that when the travel bug bites, the regions surrounding the city pack a diverse range of interesting places and attractions to visit within such a short, accessible distance.
Chalk that up to the mix of people that shaped the area’s history and the dynamic interplay of land and water that inform daily life and culture in this unique corner of the world. Cross a river, or just a parish line, and you can find yourself in a fascinatingly different area with plenty to explore.
Below, we outline five getaways – from the Louisiana swamps to shimmering Gulf Coast beaches to historic towns and charming villages – that make easy day trip destinations or weekend excursions from New Orleans.
Beer, Bikes and Whimsy in a Northshore Village
It was the artesian water bubbling up in Abita Springs that launched its early identity as a tourist destination. Turn-of-the-century city dwellers regularly made the trek over Lake Pontchartrain to stay in a cluster of small hotels and take the local waters, sometimes with the encouragement of their physicians.
Nowadays, a healthy interest in cycling, the lure of yard sale bargains, old time country music and perhaps the state’s most unusual museum are among the big draws to this St. Tammany Parish village, an easy 40-minute drive from the city.
But that artesian water still plays a central role, too. After all, it’s the prime ingredient for products from the Abita Brewing Co., the state’s largest brewer. The brewery has developed an attractive welcome center for its popular brewery tours (21084 Highway 36, Abita Springs, (985) 893-3143; www.abita.com), where day-trippers converge to learn about the beer-making process and sample the end results.
Meanwhile, the brewery’s original home in the center of the village has been turned into the Abita Brew Pub (72011 Holly St., Abita Springs, (985) 892-5837; www.abitabrewpub.com), a tavern with a shady beer garden situated beside a stretch of the Tammany Trace. A one-time rail line-turned-recreation trail, the trace is a haven for bicyclers, joggers and skaters stretching 28 miles from Covington to Slidell, and it brings a whole cycling culture to Abita Springs, a natural rest stop along the route. Local artist John Preble even hosts the Louisiana Bicycle Festival each June on the Saturday before Father’s Day (see www.labicyclefestival.com).
Preble is also the mastermind behind the UCM Museum (22275 Highway 36)
Abita Springs, (985) 892-2624; www.ucmmuseum.com), or “you see ’em museum,” a spoofy showcase of roadside attractions, bizarre collections and motorized dioramas crammed into a vintage service station and ramshackle campus of outbuildings.
A few blocks away, Town Hall is periodically transformed into an intimate Louisiana roots music exhibition for the Abita Springs Opry (www.abitaopry.com). Bluegrass, Southern gospel and country string bands play these lively, family-oriented mini-festivals, and the modest, clapboard town hall building fills to capacity. Opry dates this spring are March 20, April 17 and May 15, and the series continues in the fall.
The biggest draw on the village’s calendar, however, is the Abita Springs Whole Town Yard Sale, scheduled for March 27 this year. Thousands of visitors begin arriving at the break of dawn to get first crack at family yard sales held all over town and at the large flea market held in the town center.
Travel Tip. Those interested in the brewing arts should also hit Heiner Brau (226 Lockwood St., Covington, (985) 893-2884; www.heinerbrau.com), a tiny, Bavarian-style brewery about three miles away in downtown Covington.
The Tammany Trace begins near Heiner Brau, so visitors can easily chart their own bicycle brewery tour between Covington and Abita Springs.
Over the Top in a Levee Town
A raucous zydeco dance crowd shuffling their boots across a plywood floor overlooking the swamp; a plate of crawfish etouffee on a deck overlooking a quiet bayou; a night spent in a cottage under the mossy boughs of cypress trees. To conjure these archetypal south Louisiana images is sometimes to picture them deep in backwoods settings only the locals can find. That is why Henderson is such a pleasant surprise.
This small town in St. Martin Parish is situated just off Interstate 10, about 20 minutes east of Lafayette and right on the very edge of the great Atchafalaya Basin, the largest swamp in North America. Drive just a few minutes from the interstate off-ramps and you’ll find yourself on the basin’s doorstep.
The action in Henderson lies along the basin levee – or rather, up and over, on the “wet side” of the levee. Here, a string of marinas have sprouted a profusion of other businesses, including restaurants, bars and dancehalls all directly facing the wild Atchafalaya landscape.
On Sunday afternoons, the place to be is Angelle’s Whiskey River Landing (1365 Henderson Levee Road, Henderson; (337) 228-2277; www.whiskeyriverlanding.net), where zydeco bands perform into the early evening and a lively, friendly dance crowd packs in under the rattling metal roof. Closer to town, and on the “dry side” of the basin levee, Pat’s Fisherman’s Wharf (1008 Henderson Levee Road, Henderson; (337) 228-7512; www.patsfishermanswharf.com) has evolved into a huge dancehall with music on weekend nights, a restaurant perched over tranquil Bayou Amy and its own motel.
Some of these operations, like McGee’s Landing (1337 Henderson Levee Road, Henderson, (337) 228-2384; www.mcgeeslanding.com), offer houseboat rentals. You can stay berthed at the marina dock, using it like a floating motel cabin while exploring the area by day, or, for the ultimate experience, you may have the boat pushed out to a quiet swamp cove for total seclusion.
During the day, narrated boat tours offer glimpses of the sprawling swamp’s stoic beauty and teeming wildlife, including alligators. From Henderson, it’s a quick jaunt to nearby bayou towns like Breaux Bridge (www.breauxbridgelive.com), with its boutiques, restaurants and galleries, and St. Martinville (www.stmartinville.org), with its Acadian cultural centers, while the “Cajun Capital,” Lafayette (www.lafayettetravel.com), is within easy striking distance.
“Island” Hopping in Iberia Parish
It seems that the colossal geological oddity of the salt dome should be compelling enough all on its own. But in south Louisiana, a host of interesting attractions and history attach themselves to these extraordinary land features, anchoring them as enduring tourist destinations.
The Gulf Coast is riddled with gigantic, subterranean pillars of salt. These enormous mineral deposits, shaped by geological pressure, might plunge several miles deep. In some cases their very tips jut to the surface, forming salt domes like the formations known as Avery Island and Jefferson Island in Iberia Parish. These sites are miles inland, but they do indeed look like islands rising from the sea of uniformly flat plains, marshes or cane fields surrounding them, hence the name.
Of the two, Avery Island is by far the better known. After all, the island’s name is printed on millions of bottles of Tabasco Sauce (www.tabasco.com), which are all manufactured here by the McIlhenny Co.
A lone, slim blacktop road leads six miles from the charming bayou town of New Iberia to a short bridge spanning a moat-like bayou that partially rings Avery Island. Cross the bridge, pay the privately collected $1 toll and suddenly it feels as though you’ve ventured into a self-contained world.
This is a salt and pepper kingdom. The seed crop for the iconic Tabasco hot pepper sauce is grown on the island, and salt added to the recipe comes from mines delving into the massive dome. The property, which was the scene of a Civil War skirmish, also supports active oil wells and a small village of homes for McIlhenny family members and company workers. The marquee attraction is the Tabasco factory tour, which is free though very brief and confined mostly to a visitor center and video screening room. But the essential and absorbing lure of Avery Island is the Jungle Gardens, a 250-acre collection of botanical gardens and wildlife sanctuaries set amid the wildly rolling contours of the salt dome, with is kettle ponds, steep ridges and meandering bayous. Roads for cars and bikes and footpaths for hikers lace the property, which includes picnic areas, a Buddha temple and the island’s famed Bird City, a rookery for thousands of snowy egrets. Migratory birds are out in force during spring, which is also when camellias, azaleas and irises bathe the gardens in color and fragrance. Keep an eye out for alligators too.
Meanwhile, Jefferson Island sits about 13 miles away and is well worth its own visit. There are 20 acres of the Rip Van Winkle Gardens (www.ripvanwinklegardens.com) to explore and guided tours of the Joseph Jefferson Home, a Steamboat Gothic-style mansion built as the winter retreat for its namesake, a renowned 19th century actor. The entire site is perched on the banks of Lake Peigneur, which offers cool breezes and placid views but had its part in a mind-boggling event here still known as “the Catastrophe.” That’s when, in 1980, a hole formed in the salt dome underneath the lake, suddenly sucking its contents, several barges, much land and a Jefferson Island home into the salt mines below, like a whirlpool over a giant bath drain. The gardens’ visitor center includes a detailed recounting of this bizarre event, one of the many intriguing chapters in the story of south Louisiana’s salt dome islands.
Travel Tip: If gazing at the inner workings of the Tabasco factory has you craving spicy food, you’re certainly in the right area. The route between New Orleans and Avery Island is peppered with some fantastic boiled seafood joints, and spring marks the shank of crawfish season. Try Guiding Star, (4404 Highway 90 West, New Iberia, (337) 365-9113) or Boiling Point (7413 Highway 90 West, New Iberia, (337) 365-7596).
Exploring “English Louisiana”
You don’t need to travel very far from New Orleans and the surrounding bayou country to realize just how starkly the region differs from the rest of the South. For a vivid and captivating demonstration, travel up to St. Francisville, a West Feliciana Parish town with a rich history and rolling geography quite apart from Cajun and Creole Louisiana.
St. Francisville is about 25 miles northwest of Baton Rouge, high on ridges over the Mississippi River and in the heart of “English Louisiana.” It is the second-oldest incorporated town in the state, though its enduring identity developed after waves of British loyalists settled in the area after the American Revolution. They created a community of gothic churches with oak-shaded graveyards, a densely settled downtown that is now home to more than 140 historic homes and a cluster of grand plantations in the surrounding countryside, many of which are open to the public today.
During the third weekend in March, (March 19-21 this year), the West Feliciana Historical Society holds its Audubon Pilgrimage (www.audubonpilgrimage.info), a community-wide festival with tours of homes, formal gardens and churches led by costumed characters, plus social events in the evening. The festival celebrates the time that artist-naturalist John James Audubon spent in the area, working as a tutor for a wealthy family and developing his famous bird folios on the side. The historic plantation where he stayed, Oakley House (1788 Highway 965, St. Francisville, (888) 677-2838; www.crt.state.la.us/Parks/iaudubon.aspx), is open year-round as a state museum.
Other historic homes in and around St. Francisville have been converted into B&Bs (see www.stfrancisville.us for listings), including the Myrtles Plantation (7747 Highway 61, St. Francisville, (225) 635-6277; www.myrtlesplantation.com), which burnishes a reputation for ghosts.
The nearby Port Hudson State Historic Site (236 Highway 61, Jackson, (888) 677-3400; www.crt.state.la.us/parks/ipthudson.aspx) commemorates a decisive Civil War battle for control of the Mississippi.
Visitors today can tour a military history museum devoted to the epic clash and sure-footed hikers can explore miles of trails that swoop and dive through steep, densely wooded steep ravines.
Each spring and fall, many visitors descend on the area for the Angola Prison Rodeo, a one-of-a-kind experience held at the nearby Angola State Penitentiary. Inmates volunteer to compete in often-outlandish rodeo stunts while hundreds more sell their crafts and artwork to the public. (See www.angolarodeo.com for dates and visitor rules.)
Shipping Off for Ship Island
Louisiana has a vast coastline, but this marshy shore comes up pretty short in the beach department. That’s why so many locals head east to visit our Gulf Coast neighbors in search of sand.
General wisdom holds that the farther one gets from the outlet of the sediment-laden Mississippi River the closer one gets to blue water, white sand pristine perfection. But then there’s West Ship Island, a sandy, sparsely-developed oasis for beach lovers accessed at the end of a mere one-hour drive to Gulfport, Miss. and a reliably pleasant ferry ride a dozen miles off the coast.
The whole island is essentially an offshore beach, with sheltered water on the north side and open, surf-prone blue Gulf waters along the south beaches. This is your ace in the hole for an easy beach outing that feels much farther away from home than the actual mileage.
West Ship Island is part of a string of narrow, sandy barrier islands stretching from Florida to Mississippi that are maintained by the National Park Service and known as the Gulf Islands National Seashore (www.nps.gov/guis). The island is accessible only by private boat or via the ferry service from Ship Island Excursions (see www.msshipisland.com) in Gulfport, which begins service for the 2010 season on March 20.
It turns out this leg of getting there is part of the fun. Gaggles of island-bound visitors gather on the ferry’s decks, smartly outfitted with sunhats and tugging rolling coolers with their lunch and beverages for the day (remember: no glass allowed). Dolphins usually appear along the ferry as the vessel exits the harbor to the delight of passengers, and ahead the low, sandy bump of West Ship Island holds down the horizon.
Disembarking on the island, you’ll find a boardwalk stretching for one-third of a mile to the Gulf-side beach. A small cluster of service buildings offers bathroom and shower facilities, plus food concessions and beach chair and umbrella rentals.
For the rest of the day, the island is essentially yours to gently enjoy. Kids frolic in the waves or scavenge for shells and groups of young friends unpack their coolers and get to picnicking. Anglers cast for flounder, red drum and speckled trout. Some go for hikes through the island’s grassy interior with bird watching lists. Others take a ranger-guided tour of the island’s Civil War-era Fort Massachusetts, where they can learn about island history or just get a break from the sun within the vaulted chambers of the weathered-brick structure.
Everyone must leave the island when the day is done so, as the final ferry departure time looms, the sandy, sun-kissed visitors start shuffling their sandals toward the dock. As the ferry begins plowing back to Gulfport, dolphins once again typically trail behind, leaping through the frothy wake as if waving goodbye at the end of the beach island visit.
About the author: Ian McNulty is a frequent contributor to New Orleans Magazine and the author of the forthcoming travelougue Louisiana Rambles: Exploring America’s Cajun and Creole Heartland, due out fall 2010.