History Lesson at Port Hudson

History Lesson at Port Hudson

On previous trips to St. Francisville, we always head straight for the historic town, walking the shaded main streets and shopping at Grandmother’s Buttons before setting off to tour a nearby plantation. Although we see the sign for Port Hudson State Historic Site as we pass, we never stop, always having a slight aversion to taking toddlers to a battle site. On our most recent trip, though, we had a change of heart and decided it was finally time for us to veer off the road and check it out.

Port Hudson State Historic Site

As is most often the case, we were pleasantly surprised by our decision. A model state facility, Port Hudson was immaculately kept up, with 6 miles of wipe-open trails for exploring and a child-friendly ranger who welcomed the kids and their insanity with open arms. An informative exhibit inside the museum offered miniature models of soldiers and horses that captured the kids’ imaginations, while the sad details of the actual battle were left to those old enough to read.

Golden-silk spider

The longest siege in American military history took place at Port Hudson, where for 48 days 6,800 Confederate soldiers held off 30,000 Union troops. There were thousands of casualties before the Confederates finally surrendered after hearing that Vicksburg had surrendered. The site is also important as being the first battle in which African American troops from Louisiana were allowed to participate in the battle, fighting for the Union army against the Confederates. Port Hudson later became a recruiting center for African-American troops.

After brushing up on our history and watching the ranger let the kids try on a canteen and practice moving a small cannon, we began our journey on the trails outside. It first led us through an open field to original cannons used in the Civil War battle here. Then, looping around, it immersed us into a shady forest with giant spiders weaving webs right over our heads and small bluffs offering elevation changes not often seen in Louisiana.

Fort Babcock

At Fort Desperate, an elevated boardwalk led us over the earthen hills built by the soldiers, and signs spoke of sharpshooters watching Union soldiers as they dug trenches to get closer to their enemy. We then crossed Foster Creek and found Fort Babcock, another series of earthen hills left behind to nature and the tiny frogs and lizards jumping and scurrying about through the fallen leaves. While the kids tested their bug-catching skills, we tried to imagine thousands of young soldiers hiding here in these woods 150 years ago.

Train car on display in town

The day was still early when we left Port Hudson, so we headed toward St. Francisville to pick up a bite to eat at Magnolia Cafe. On a whim, we decided to drive to the edge of town to view the Mississippi River and were surprised to find the road leading nearly straight up to the water’s edge. From here, we turned back and stopped off to investigate an old train car left behind from the West Feliciana Railroad. The kids climbed over every inch of it before we herded them back into the car to find out if the road was open to Cat Island.

Drive to Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge

As we crossed the low-lying bridge over a local river, we were excited to realize that the road was not flooded as it had been on previous visits. A family jumped across rocks in the scenic river while we headed out into the country, past several sightings of grazing deer to the dirt road that leads to Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge. A lack of signage and our own poor guessing at directions helped us “get lost in Louisiana” yet again before we finally found our way to the destination. Inside the refuge, we parked at the trailhead for the old cypress trees and walked the short distance to the viewing platform for the National Champion Bald Cypress – an enormous, ancient tree dominating the old growth forest around it. We took our time admiring this grandfather of trees, which spends half of every year swimming in the floodwaters of the Mississippi River. It’s a sight to see and the perfect ending to our day of adventure.

National Champion Bald Cypress
Tickfaw State Park and Lake Maurepas’ Northshore

Tickfaw State Park and Lake Maurepas’ Northshore

Bridge over the Tickfaw River

On a whim, we recently decided to take a little drive and check out Tickfaw State Park in Springfield, not far from Ponchatoula and Hammond. It was a scenic journey, north on I-55 through that swampy strip of land sectioning off Lake Maurepas from Lake Pontchartrain. Near Ponchatoula, we headed west into the country, first past some surprisingly large, elegant homes that slowly tapered down to more rustic, rural houses. We passed a few notable spots along the way, including a sign about an old Spanish fort and Springfield’s role in the West Florida Revolution.

Cypress/tupelo swamp behind the Nature Center

Once we arrived at Tickfaw State Park, we headed straight to the Nature Center, which the website says houses an 800-gallon aquarium filled with fish from the Tickfaw River. Unfortunately, a posted sign said the Center was closed on Sundays and Mondays, which I assume is the sad result of state park budget cuts. After a quick round of pouting, we perked ourselves up with a picnic lunch and then set off to discover the boardwalk trail leading out from behind the building.

The route began in a quiet cypress and tupelo swamp, where cypress knees extended high above the murky water and skinks were prolific on the boardwalk’s railings. After a short walk, we emerged on dry land in a more traditional forest of hardwood trees. The kids carefully selected walking sticks from the broken branches scattered about, and then we made our way back to the Nature Center where we peaked in the back window and saw the aquarium.

Five-lined skink with blue tail

Farther back in the park, another trail led us along a boardwalk to a bridge over the Tickfaw River. I thought those striped, blue-tailed skinks had been abundant before, but here they seemed to have taken over the place. Our five-year-old could hardly walk two feet before crouching down to sneak up on the next one. The river was muddy and lazy, winding through a serene stand of trees. We ventured along its banks, spotting countless frogs and water turtles and watching for signs of fish before backtracking to the elevated trail.

Our last stop was the playground, a destination our youngest begs for daily and one we always have to save until the end–or else we’ll never make it anyplace else! So while the kids climbed and slid their way up and over the equipment, we rested on the nearby benches. I was nearly certain the splash park would be next up on the list, but a sudden shower had us instead running for the shelter of the car.

Old Hardhide in Ponchatoula

To kill time, we drove the streets back toward the entrance, veering off here and there to see what we had missed along the way. This is how we found ourselves at a small pond, walking the circular trail around its perimeter and watching with wide-eyed wonder as the resident alligator swam along beside us.

With alligators on the mind, we had to stop on our way out in Ponchatoula, where Old Hardhide lives in his cage in the middle of downtown. He was relaxing on the side of his pond, silently snoozing while we snapped photos of the kids squatting only a foot away on the opposite side of his chainlink fence. Next door, the old town depot from 1894 beckoned us inside with the promise of arts, crafts and antiques. The kids talked us into buying them toy alligator head grabbers in return for them smiling for a photo in front of the old locomotive across the street.

Middendorf’s Restaurant

For the day’s finale, we pulled off the interstate in Manchac for some of Middendorf’s famous thin-fried fish. We ate our fill and followed it up with homemade ice cream before taking our leftover bread outdoors to feed the seagulls. While we stood there on the small pier with birds circling our heads, a train barreled past, flying across its narrow bridge over Lake Maurepas. By now, the kids had discovered the giant sand pit behind the restaurant and set up shop next to the palm trees, building tiny villages with toy trucks and buckets. I’ll only say it was “difficult” to persuade them to leave. Yet, as the sun set over the tiny fishing village, reflecting off the water and highlighting the floating lily pads, we all smiled at the beauty of this place that was so perfectly Louisiana.

Manchac
End of the Road in Plaquemines

End of the Road in Plaquemines

End of the road in Plaquemines Parish

It’s not easy to get lost in Plaquemines Parish. There’s one main road that runs down the left side of the Mississippi River and one down the right. Once you get on it, you simply drive straight ahead until you reach the end. We chose Highway 23 on the left side and spent the day exploring our rural neighbor.

Looking for bugs in the Woodlands Conservancy

It was late morning before we headed out, jumping on the Crescent City Connection to cross the Mississippi and then exiting nearly immediately at General De Gaulle Dr. The road leads away from the city and high onto a bridge over the Intracoastal Canal, curving back down to drop us in the middle of pasture land. Just a short jaunt from here is Woodlands Conservancy, home to 13 miles of hiking and equestrian trails winding through forests and canals.

Although the 6-mile Bottomland Trail was intriguing with its promise of 10 World War II Ammunition Magazines, we glanced at our 2 and 4-year-old kids and chose the easier 1.1-mile Upland Trail for our own sanity. The recently wet trail, which began by snaking out alongside a canal, was now hardened mud perfectly capturing the footprints of the deer that walked the path before us. Charles, dressed in his entomologist outfit, examined the footprints with his magnifying glass in between chasing the crickets and large mosquitos in hopes of capturing one for his bug catcher.

Becnel’s Farmers Market

Soon, the trail veered away from the water and entered the forest, where thousands of yellow flowers blanketed the ground.  Being little gentlemen, they picked flowers for their mommy while dad photographed them foraging in a mass of yellow. Every so often, the trail passed a large swamp maple dropping dark red leaves to the ground or a giant cypress standing watch over the smaller trees surrounding it. It was a pleasant, leisurely walk through nature that looped back to the beginning and ended near a pavilion perfect for a post-hike snack.

The food only made our stomachs grumble more, so back in the car and now on Highway 23, we made our next stop Becnel’s Farmers Market. Here, we re-energized on tamales, boudin and alligator sausage, while the kids enjoyed hot dogs from the small food vendor next door. Before continuing on, we browsed the many citrus trees for sale and admired the Blue Angel plane elevated in the air across the street at the Naval Air Station.

Woodland Plantation

As we drove south, the land around us thinned, leaving an uneasy feeling of vulnerability. Modest homes intermingled with sprawling refineries in this landscape dominated by fishing and oil. In the midst of this rural community lies the lovely, red-roofed Woodland Plantation, famous for its image gracing the label of Southern Comfort bottles since 1934. We parked by the main house and knocked on the front door, which swung open at our touch. Now a bed and breakfast, the plantation is open for browsing and viewing by anyone who chances by, and we explored each of the cozy rooms filled with antique furniture.

Next door, the old St. Patrick’s Church was moved to this location and now served as Spirits Hall, where six-course dinners are served up to anyone making reservations. The hostess told us how most of the guests were fishermen who stayed overnight before going out on one of the fishing charters arranged by the plantation staff. At the end of the day, the chef cleans and cooks their catch and serves it up in a delicious meal.

The property, including the plantation, received nine feet of water from last year’s Hurricane Isaac, yet you never would have known it. In addition to the main house and church turned dining hall, the beautifully landscaped acreage contained a newly renovated overseer’s house, an old slave cabin currently under repair and the ruins of the sugarcane mill. We strolled the property, at ease to make ourselves at home, while the kids giggled and squealed at the affectionate attention of the home’s cats.

Fort Jackson

We had a difficult time persuading them to leave the cats behind so we could continue down the road to Fort Jackson. Built between 1822 and 1832, the fort played a role in the Civil War and stands in a prominent spot overlooking the Mississippi River. Information is hard to come by online regarding the fort’s status, and although last year’s 150th Civil War Anniversary website states that the sight is open daily, we found the gates locked and signs posted saying no public entrance.

We made the most of our time there, though, and walked around the outer wall of the fort, which at times afforded glimpses into the fort’s interior. A monument on the bank of the river denoted the spot where the first Mardi Gras took place in 1699 and another showed a picture of the explorer LaSalle underneath a cross soaring up into the sky. As we walked, something–“perhaps the loch ness monster,” Charles informed us–seemed to follow us in the moat below, leaping into the air every so often to show its large black head.

Plaque denoting Bayou Mardi Gras with MS River in background

As the sun lowered, the air chilled and we hurried to reach our final destination – the end of the road. It wasn’t hard to find the flat Tidewater Road only inches higher than the water lapping at its sides. Cypress trees graced both sides of the road, and countless birds perched in their ghostly limbs, making this a prime spot for birding enthusiasts. We even spotted a flash of hot pink and jumped at finding the elusive roseate spoonbill standing silently in the water.

At the end, the road simply disappeared and a sign welcomed us to the “southernmost point in Louisiana,” where another refinery reminded us of the big business dominating Louisiana’s coast. Yet, as unnatural as it looked in that cypress swamp, its presence didn’t deter the thousands of birds sitting along every pipe and building there.

It was dark as we drove back to the city along the same road and encountered a mass of lights floating above the houses to our right. We were shocked to realize it was a cruise ship making its way south along the Mississippi, a city in itself, seemingly hovering in the air beyond the hard-working residents of this parish.

Two worlds at the end of the road: cypress trees…

 

 And a refinery – both covered in birds

 

The City of Lights: Natchitoches

Natchitoches’ Front Street aglow with lights

I’ve wanted to visit the city of Natchitoches ever since first hearing about it in college. The town’s name alone implies someplace special and unique. Dubbed the “City of Lights” in honor of its Christmas light show during the holidays, Natchitoches has been featured in all the regional magazines as one of the must-see Southern towns.

View of the Red River from Grand Ecore Visitor’s Center

I don’t know what took us so long to get there, but we finally booked our hotel and began the four-hour drive northwest over the New Year’s weekend. Despite leaving early, we arrived late Saturday afternoon and took a quick drive-by peak at downtown before heading north to the Grand Ecore Visitor’s Center. Perched on an 80-foot bluff along the Red River, the Visitor Center offers spectacular views as well as a short trail along the bluff’s edge. Inside, various exhibits outline the history of the area, from paleontology and Native Americans to the Civil War and the importance of the Red River. We had made it just before closing time, and the kids had a brief window to try their hands at a simulator where they navigated a ship through a lock in the river.

Front Street

The gate closed behind us as we left the site to drive back into Natchitoches’ historic district. The evening sky was darkening already, and the city’s lights were blinking on over the street and across the banks of the Cane River Lake. Front Street, with its ornate buildings decorated with elaborate cast iron railings, was packed with people mingling about waiting for the last fireworks show of the holiday season. We mingled among them, window shopping through the Christmas-themed display of the 1863 Kaffie Frederick Hardware Store and peaking down alleys and into intimate restaurants.

Chilled from the winter air, we popped inside the Cane Brake Cafe for a late café au lait, “real” chocolate milk and the finest cupcakes I have ever seen, with a giant magnolia icing flower placed delicately on top. After the boys were re-sugarized, we let them loose along the river, where they danced under the fake snow blowing overhead and chatted with horses waiting for their next buggy tour. We made it the full length of the light show before racing back to the car, blowing warm air on our frost-bitten fingers.

Lasyone’s Meat Pie

Cruising Second Street to take in more sightseeing, we spotted the famous Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant. Rarely open past three o’clock, the restaurant had made an exception for the festival, and we landed one of the last tables for the night. To say their meat pies were good is a severe understatement. I’ve tried so-called “authentic Natchitoches meat pies” at several festivals in New Orleans, and they pale in comparison to the real thing. These amazing puffs of beef and pork melt in your mouth and are excellent paired with red beans and rice. My only regret is we didn’t buy a dozen frozen ones to bring home with us. The fireworks began as we exited the restaurant, and with my youngest crying in terror, we packed them into the car and found a church parking lot with a front-row view.

Day two in Natchitoches started at the National Fish Hatchery. Although the main hatchery is closed on Sundays, we tested the front door and discovered the aquarium is apparently open all the time. It was a large room lined with oversized fish tanks and a child-sized viewing platform underneath. My four-year-old snapped dozens of pictures, capturing every fish in the place, while August ran from tank to tank pointing and screaming “fish, fish!” I busied myself with the miniature Caddo Indian village depicting how life would have been for the Native Americans who had once thrived here, several of whom were found in a burial ground underneath the hatchery.

Ft. St. Jean Baptiste Historic Site

Returning to downtown in the daylight, we stopped to view the tops of the recreated 18th century buildings in the Ft. St. Jean Baptiste Historic Site. Unfortunately closed on Sundays, we had to settle with our miniscule look over the back fence and write it on the list for next time. Moving on, we snapped the obligatory photo of the “Steel Magnolias” house as well as pictures of the countless bed and breakfasts up and down nearly every street. Each one was more pristine and beautiful than the previous, and I wondered how anyone chose in which one to stay.

Roque House

At the end of the Cane Riverbank, we found the Roque House, an 1803, Creole architecture home moved to this location in 1967. The large roof of cypress shingles seems to cloak the building underneath, accented by exposed cypress posts placed right in the ground and filled with “bousillage,” a mixture of mud, Spanish moss and animal hair. Amazingly, the entire home was built with no nails.

Behind the house, a massive iron gate stood partially open, inviting us into a small park with a gentle waterfall to the river. We had the place to ourselves, and the kids chased each other back and forth across the bridges. It was our last stop before taking off for the Cane River Creole National Historical Park and Kisatchie National Forest, a journey worthy of its own separate blog.

Return to Grand Isle

Fishing Pier at Grand Isle State Park

It’s amazing how much can change in a year. Last April, we visited Grand Isle for the annual Migratory Bird Festival, an event the whole island embraces as residents open their yards to birding enthusiasts. The island was bustling with activity, but some of the key attractions – such as the state park’s beaches – were closed due to tar balls lingering on the sand after the BP Oil Spill. Fast forward to 2012 and the sand is cleaner than ever and children were even playing in the ocean waters.

“Shrimp Boy” Charlie

It’s a hefty drive for us – two and a half hours from New Orleans – so we scooted out of the house at 6:30 a.m. to make it in plenty of time for our 9:30 a.m. chartered fishing appointment. Poor August had to hang back with the grandparents, but Charles was giddy with thoughts of his day in the limelight. On the boat, our host Pat Bellanger took us to some of the best fishing spots around the island. It was exhilarating scaling the waves in the Gulf while porpoises played hide and seek around us.

Our guide offered us prime views of Fort Livingston, where Charles’ imagination was captured with thoughts of buried pirate treasure. I initially wondered if the trip might be too much for the four year old, but he reveled in being our “shrimp boy” – providing bait whenever needed – and gained a new best friend in the striped sheephead we reeled in. (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the fish he was singing to “sleep” was soon going to be chopped up for our dinner.)

Pelican Rookery at Queen Bess Island

Before heading back to dock, we were treated to a spin around Queen Bess Island, better known to the locals as Bird Island. It was here, amidst hundreds of nesting brown pelicans, that we caught site of hot pink wings flapping in the wind and I saw my first of many roseate spoonbills. These amazingly colorful birds did their best to hide within the recesses of the island, while the pelicans made a great showing of flying about, boldly flaunting their triumph over the oil that once threatened to destroy them and their habitat. It was a place I never knew existed, and its brilliance made me question what else I have missed seeing in the world.

Back on land, a voracious appetite had overtaken us, and we tried the poboys (our favorite traveling food) at the Starfish Restaurant. They loaded us up with seafood, and we left with full bellies and a renewed urge to see more of the island.

Grand Isle State Park

The day was getting warmer when we entered Grand Isle State Park, and we tossed on some shorts and kicked off our shoes to take a walk. We made our way down the long stretch of sand toward the Gulf and dipped our feet in the lukewarm waters while Charles attempted to keep his beach ball from blowing away in the wind. A particularly strong gust sent the ball all the way back toward the grassy sand dunes, which turned out to be a stroke of good luck as it landed right beside a patch of moon snails waiting to be scooped up.

Feeling sun kissed, we next drove to the shady hiking trail maintained by the Nature Conservancy. Walking along the Lafitte Woods Nature Preserve, we scoped out the path that would soon be teeming with amateur and professional birders searching out the rarest migrating birds during the Migratory Bird Festival April 20-22.

View from Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge

As the sun settled into the evening sky, we made one last stop on our way out at Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge. A long, bumpy road snakes through the marsh, taking you from Highway 1 to the sand-covered island. For those with four-wheel drive, you can take your car out onto the sand and park right up at the water’s edge. Even in a Jeep, though, we chose to play it safe and stop at the island’s entrance.  We took one last leisurely walk, marveling at the man-of-wars washed up on shore, before snapping  a few parting pictures of pelicans flying over the sunset.

Exploring the Gulf Coast: Dauphin Island, Alabama

Exploring the Gulf Coast: Dauphin Island, Alabama

Dauphin Island’s white sand beaches

A short road trip out of state landed us in Alabama’s Dauphin Island, a barrier island at the mouth of Mobile Bay. Vacation hotspot for locals more so than tourists, you won’t find any shopping outlets or putt putt golf here, but rather quiet neighborhoods overlooking the bay and expansive, white-sand beaches. Unless, of course, you visit during the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, the largest fishing tournament in the world.

The island’s residential side

Lucky enough to have family to stay with on the island, we arrived late in the evening to put us in reach of an early morning beach walk. We were the only car parked at the public beach, and a cold breeze followed us as we walked along barefoot across the ultra-fine sand toward the Gulf’s lapping waves. I remember years ago watching the waters beneath the fishing pier and elevated picnic areas. Today, more sand has drifted to the west end of the island, making the beach wider than ever and the pier jut out over a sea of sand.

Trails through Shell Mound Park

I gathered small seashells while Charles chased the seagulls and Paul photographed the rather large mounds of what appeared to be jellyfish. We were able to enjoy the views for half an hour before August began whimpering in the cold, and we sought shelter in a more contained part of the island. Shell Mound Park marks the site of prehistoric mounds built by early Native Americans. Today, only a few oyster shells poking up through the path belie that this hilly nature walk is an important archaeological site.

With hiking on our mind, we ventured farther down the island to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary. Miles of walking trails cut across 164 acres of land protecting one of the best places in the country to view migrating birds. A boardwalk leads past pines and live oaks to an overlook at Galliard Lake. Continuing on, you eventually emerge back at the beach’s sand dunes.

Historic Fort Gaines

On the far east side of the 14-mile-long island stands Fort Gaines, built in 1821 and integral in the Battle of New Orleans, the fort is famous for Admiral Farragut’s command “Damn the torpedoes – full speed ahead!” It’s a well-preserved fortification and reenactments are held here throughout the year. Other highlights of the east side are the Estuarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and a ferry across the Bay to Historic Fort Morgan. There’s never enough time to discover it all, though, and our weekend ended all too quickly.