History and Hollywood in New Orleans’ Garden District

History and Hollywood in New Orleans’ Garden District

 

Another Garden District Beauty

In the midst of t-ball and swim lessons, we’ve been sticking close to home as of late, taking short adventures in and around New Orleans. Our latest outing was something we rarely do, a guided walking tour of one of the most extravagant sections of the city – the Garden District. Once home to wealthy Americans looking to settle outside of the French Quarter, today many of the area’s mansions boast historic signs detailing fascinating stories that often end with links to Hollywood stars.

We met our guide, Kevin from NOLA Native Tours, on Magazine Street at the Defend New Orleans store. The early morning weather was clear with a cool breeze that made the shaded sidewalks comfortable on this mid-summer day. Kevin led us north on 1st Street, deep into the heart of the quiet neighborhood. Aside from the occasional dog-walker, we had the street to ourselves, with no one watching us gawk at the beautiful homes before us.

In the early 1800s, this area was known as the city of Lafayette, eventually annexed by the city of New Orleans in 1852. Our tour guide pointed out notable architecture styles, from Victorian to Italianate and Greek Revival, all with varying degrees of cast iron railings and flickering Bevelo gas lanterns. I was particularly fascinated by the large marble slab lying by the curb in front of one of the homes. I never would have guessed it was once used as a step for ladies exiting carriages, a fact that so easily painted an imaginary scene of well-dressed revelers arriving in their carriage for an evening party.

Cornstalk Fence

We passed the home where Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy, died. Nearby, vampire-author Anne Rice grew up in the Brevard-Rice house, just a few steps away from the Mannings’ mansion (yes, that would be the Mannings…football icons Archie, Peyton and Eli). On Prytania, the French flag waved in front of the French Consulate, while across the street, a rectory once built for Redemptorist priests later became another possession of Anne Rice and then actor Nicholas Cage. Meanwhile, an intricate cornstalk fence surrounded one grand home, proving that the famous fence does exist outside of the French Quarter.

The tour paused at the Rink, a collection of boutique stores, the Garden District Book Shop and a coffee shop, before unleashing us inside Lafayette Cemetery Number 1. We spent nearly half an hour here, photographing the elaborate above-ground tombs with springy plants emerging from their crevices. This city of dead is crowded and slightly crumbling, details that somehow make it even more alluring.

Lafayette Cemetery

The last stretch of our journey showcased one of the city’s best-known restaurants – Commander’s Palace, and exquisite homes perhaps more famous for their architecture than for their Hollywood owners (Sandra Bullock and John Goodman). It was a pleasant walk in the hands of a knowledgeable tour guide, one who casually turned a morning stroll into an exploration of beauty, time and entertainment.

Sandra Bullock’s Garden District Home
Cane River Creole to Kisatchie National Forest

Cane River Creole to Kisatchie National Forest

From downtown Natchitoches, we took the winding Highway 494 out the east side of town into the rural countryside. Approximately 116,000 acres surrounding Natchitoches make up the Cane River National Heritage Area, which includes several state historic sites, national historic landmarks and the Cane River Creole National Historical Park. The latter is where we were headed, in search of learning more about the Creoles who once thrived in this area.

We had an ambitious day planned, stopping by both plantations included in the National Historical Park, Melrose Plantation in between and then Kisatchie National Forest on the back end of the trip. The route led us first to Oakland Plantation, where we rushed from the parking lot to the nearby pavilion, trying our best to escape the frigid morning air. We picked up a self-guided walking tour and followed the well-defined path toward the tractor shed and mule barn. Not only is the National Park property free to visit, but the scattered out buildings are all open wide for easy touring. We poked our heads inside one building after another, admiring the construction and discussing the old tools and remnants of the past.

Oakland Plantation Store

The path steered us toward the old store and post office, which today serves as the Visitor’s Center. Inside, the drafty store held many of the same items available for purchase from when the site was a working plantation. As we poked around, a ranger appeared offering a tour of the main house. Luckily, we were the only ones present at the time, so she adjusted the tour to accommodate the attention spans of a four and two year old. After swearing the kids in as honorary rangers, she showed us the rare and highly guarded bottle garden, where old glass bottles lined the plant beds. We then entered the house, viewing an interesting mix of antique furnishings and modern conveniences such as a TV and “new” kitchen. The ranger told us about the owners, African Americans and Cane River Creoles who once lived and worked here before their property became a testament to the past.

Oakland’s Bottle Garden

 

Honorary Ranger Charles

From Oakland, the road followed the river to Melrose Plantation, significant for the artist colony it once held and the cook turned self-taught artist known as Clementine Hunter. We paid to tour the grounds, and started on the far side of the main house by an abandoned cellar. The kids were overjoyed to find the remains of an armadillo inside, and four-year-old Charles busied himself snapping hundreds of photos with my husband’s iphone. Caught up in his excitement, he dropped the phone inside the doorless building, and Paul was forced to jump through an open window into the pit below to retrieve his phone.

Melrose Plantation
Africa House at Melrose Plantation

Adventure now over, we were able to hustle the kids around to the property’s other historic buildings, such as the Yucca House built between 1796 and 1814 and the highly unusual Africa House and its upstairs Clementine Hunter murals. Hunter’s own small cottage was nearby, another favorite of the children for the lizard that had taken refuge from the cold on her porch.

By now needing lunch, we didn’t stay long at Melrose but were glad we stopped to view this important piece of Louisiana history. The Cane River trail stays true to its past, depicting rural life in the Natchitoches area. Unfortunately for us, this also meant no restaurants in sight. So we scrounged around for the last of our snacks and carried on to Magnolia Plantation, the second of the two National Park properties.

Slave Cabin at Magnolia Plantation

The main house at Magnolia is still privately owned, but the store, a collection of slave houses and a gin barn are all open to the public. Stopping to briefly chat with the ranger inside the Visitor’s Center, he encouraged us to walk the lands and take a look inside the gin at the only wooden screw-type cotton press remaining in its original site. A stack of paper bags lay next to a sign encouraging visitors to gather pecans, so we gave each of the kids their assignment and let them loose. While they competed to see who could find more pecans, we walked around the eight brick slave cabins and viewed the exhibit inside the farthest one. A modified Catholic miraculous medal and several bottles were displayed, evidence of hoodoo rituals and a reminder to me of the Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures” show shot here.

Kisatchie National Forest

The ranger had directed us toward a gas station selling sandwiches, where we stopped to refuel both ourselves and the car before crossing I-49 to the Kisatchie Ranger District of Kisatchie National Forest. Home to the 17-mile Longleaf Scenic Byway, the Kisatchie District is touted as one of the most beautiful locations in the state, featuring a landscape of buttes and mesas rarely seen in Louisiana. Shortly into the drive, we stopped at the Longleaf Vista Recreation Area to stretch our legs on the mile and a half interpretive trail.

We were rewarded with a tranquil stream and expansive views of the surrounding wilderness on a surprisingly strenuous hike. Perhaps the difficulty came from carrying kids up and down countless stairs to the flat tops of buttes, but the scenery was well worth the effort. We had even heard rumors that fossils could be found in these hills, but luck was not on our side this time around and we returned only with the pictures and memories from the day’s events.

Hiking a Butte at Kisatchie

 

Sunset at Kisatchie National Forest

Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

Bundled in puffy jackets and hoods, we fought the weekend’s blustery weather and – in between Mardi Gras parades – carved out some time to discover another of Southeast Louisiana’s (SELA) eight National Wildlife Refuges. Encompassing nearly 19,000 acres of Lake Pontchartrain’s north shore, Big Branch Marsh NWR is another one of those remote gems, completely hidden within plain site of 1.2 million people.

Because of its close proximity to Big Branch Marsh, we began our journey at the Visitor Center for all eight of the SELA refuges. Just north of where Highways 434 and 190 intersect in Lacombe, this impressive complex was far beyond our expectations. A former Redemptorist seminary, the vast property retains the feel of a religious retreat with contemplative trails winding through sasanquas and camellias past a grotto, Bayou Lacombe and a cemetery for Redemptorist priests.

SELA Refuges Visitor’s Center

Stepping inside the Visitor’s Center, we instantly realized this cross-shaped building with vaulted ceilings was the former chapel. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had done an amazing job turning the space into a natural science museum, complete with displays highlighting the eight refuges, preserved animals, a video and an interactive cabin. The kids gawked at the black bear and alligator before scaling the ramp to the intriguing shack. Inside, a dark room hid various Louisiana wildlife. I handed Charles an available flashlight and watched with delight as he discovered owls, snakes, turtles, deer and a bobcat. Every time his light landed on one of the lifelike eyes, it triggered the hoots and growls of the featured animal.

One of the many camellias along the Camellia Trail

Outside, we followed the grotto and camellia trails past hundreds of blooming camellias, losing count as to the number of varieties of pinks, reds, whites, striped and polk-a-dot flowers. As Paul paused to read the names of the priests buried in the cemetery, the kids and I traveled the final camellia lane where we discovered the find of the century – at least to a three-year-old. A two-foot snakeskin completely intact appeared to be slithering across the path. It now holds a place on his dresser next to his cicada shells and caterpillar cocoon that hopefully will soon become a monarch butterfly.

The pine forest of Big Branch Marsh NWR

The sun was well on its way in its descent into the horizon, so we hurried back along Highway 190 to the Big Branch Marsh boardwalk and nature trail. A half-mile, self-guided tour immersed us into pine flatwoods that opened up to a lilly pad covered freshwater marsh. The wind was brutal in the open area, at one point launching an empty stroller into the water, but the serene views of saw grass and birds were well worth our endeavors. However, at the end of the boardwalk, we followed the limestone trail back to our car rather than continue along the 4-mile roundtrip Boy Scout Road Tour.

Dinosaurs Attack at Audubon Zoo

Dinosaurs Attack at Audubon Zoo

To build up the anticipation for visiting the Lafayette Science Museum’s Dinosaurs exhibit, we ended our long Thanksgiving weekend with a trip to the Audubon Zoo and its own Dinosaur Adventure. The normally packed zoo was nearly empty on this bitter cold and dreary day. Once we bundled up, though, we were elated at the free reign we had.

Up close and personal with dinosaurs

 

Elephants pack up their toys at the end of the show.

Every visit to the zoo starts with a stop at the elephants. For the first time, we caught it just right to see the elephant show, where Charles was able to pet one of the giant animals. After the talk ended, the elephants packed up to head indoors to eat, with one closing the gate with his trunk while the other lifted a large tire with his mouth and walked away.

We made a quick tour of the monkeys and marveled at the sea lions playing under water before Charles had reached his limit and ran at top speed toward the dinosaurs. I watched as Paul chased him down and casually carried August in the direction of the roaring noises. We entered the steamy prehistoric setting and gawked at the insanely realistic animals. They are truly the oddest creatures I’ve ever seen, some with heads covered in horns and others that hiss a stream of water at you.

Sea lions play in their watery habitat.

Charles lived for days like this and rattled off the various names that I couldn’t even pronounce. At three years old, he has become an expert on dinosaurs, even to the point of watching National Geographic documentaries about them. Only one of the creatures stumped him, and he required my assistance to read the sign citing the long, foreign-sounding name.

August, on the other hand, grew more scared by the moment, and when he started clutching me tight and screaming back at the animals, I knew it was time to abort. We instead did some Christmas shopping in the gift shop while the other two marveled at the king T-Rex attacking a triceratops.

A white alligator relaxes by the water’s edge.

I don’t think a zoo will ever be the same for these kids now that they’ve been mesmerized by the dinosaurs. We continued on, laughing at the giraffes chasing each other around their cage and the black bears playing in their bath tub. The white alligators probably ranked second on their list, though they held a close tie with the elephants. The swamp monster was definitely in the top five as well.

As we exited the Louisiana swamp, the rain returned, and we cut the rest of our tour short. As with every visit, the zoo was a complete success and remains a standard on our local treasures list.