Into the Wild: Northlake Nature Center and Big Branch Marsh

Into the Wild: Northlake Nature Center and Big Branch Marsh

Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

On this gorgeous fall weekend, we took advantage of the weather to revisit two of our favorite hiking trails on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Despite being surrounded by towns and cars and people, the Northlake Nature Center and Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge offer quiet seclusion deep within nature. (Well, they were quiet until we arrived with our two wild kiddos!)

Spotting turtles in the pond

Part of the experience of any trip we take is getting there, and the kids have come to crave their snack-filled, Scooby Doo watching car ride as the beginning of their grand adventure. Once we arrive at our first stop, their tummies are full and they have enough energy built up to run a marathon. As usual, our five-year-old darted out of the car before we even stopped the engine. He was on a hunt for lizards, something he has become a pro at catching.

It’s been more than a year since we last visited the Northlake Nature Center, located across the street from Fountainbleau State Park. While the initial entrance looked the same, as we started walking into the woods, we noticed many improvements to the boardwalk and new trails weaving in between old ones. It was shaded and cool in the forest, and although we caught sight of monstrous mosquitoes, they seemed to spare us from harm during our mid-afternoon walk.

Swamp at the Northlake Nature Center

Engraved signs shaped like rocks provided a non-intrusive education on the area’s wide variety of trees and their names. At the beaver pond, our oldest spotted the distinctive head of a red-eared slider turtle, and as we watched, several more popped up around him. From here, we took the Eagle Trail, which led us past a small cypress-tupelo swamp and through the pine forest to the edge of the Nature Center near Pelican Park (a local ball park). The path changed many times, from the initial boardwalk to a cushy pine needle pathway, then to the paved portion of a bicycle trail followed by a wide road lined with large rocks. It began to rain on us at this point, and the kids tucked away inside their strollers while we turned onto the last leg of the trail leading us back around to the beginning boardwalk. When we reached the beaver pond again, they sprinted and squealed their way back to the car, spooking any wild animals that may have been lurking in the shadows.

Big Branch Marsh


From the Nature Center, we headed toward Lacombe and the remote Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. As it was Sunday, the Visitor’s Center was closed, but this hands-on display inside an old church is definitely worth a visit if you haven’t been before. The main hiking path in Big Branch is the Boy Scout Road boardwalk and trail, located off Transmitter Road. The boardwalk itself begins through one of the most peaceful settings in south Louisiana. A scattered pine forest opens up into a marsh decorated with lily pads and their lovely white blooms. Although only a 1/4-mile long, the boardwalk brings you to a magical place not often experienced.  Unfortunately the rain picked back up, and once again we were deterred from venturing out along the 4.5-mile Boy Scout Road leading to Bayou Lacombe. Perhaps next time, we’ll discover what lies beyond the boardwalk…

Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans

Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans

Civil War Memorial to the Army of Tennessee, Louisiana Division

In a city known for its cemeteries, each one is more unique and beautiful than the last. One of our favorites, though, is Metairie Cemetery, built on the grounds of a former horse racing track. Opened in 1838, it was the premiere race track of the South, competing with New York. During the Civil War, the race track went bankrupt and never reopened. The site later became an army training camp before being transformed into a cemetery in 1872. Lagoons spanned by stone bridges once meandered along the property’s borders, but when the old Basin Canal was filled to build the Pontchartrain Expressway, many of the lagoons suffered a similar fate.

When the weather is nice and the park is packed, we drive to the cemetery, park our car and begin walking the circular track past the countless tombs. While the kids focus on the ants and ladybugs, we read the names of those buried here, looking for familiar ones and admiring the ornate statues and architecture.

In addition to highlighting the most historic crypts along its Louisiana Heritage Trail, Metairie Cemetery is the final resting place of many prominent New Orleanians. Below are some highlights:

Civil War Memorial to the Washington Artillery
Civil War Memorial to the Army of Northern Virginia, Louisiana Division
Daniel Moriarty’s monument to the memory of his wife

Original tomb of Storyville madame Josie Arlington
Mausoleum of famed gambler “Never-Smile” Harrington

Tomb of William Claiborne, first American Governor of Louisiana

Marble sarcophagus of Eugene Lacosst (hairdresser, speculator and art collector)

 

15-ton, 18-foot limestone, Celtic cross

  

(Center) Islamic-designed Larendon tomb, built by Gen. Beauregard for his daughter

Mausoleum of Charles T. Howard, philanthropist & founder of the Louisiana Lottery

Statue inside Charles Howard’s tomb

  

David McCan tomb located on Millionaire’s Row

Close up of the McCan tomb

Brunswig Mausoleum on Millionaire’s Row

Close up of the Brunswig Mausoleum’s Sphinx

One of many picturesque avenues of tombs

Angel of Grief at tomb of Chapman Hyams (stockbroker, art collector & philanthropist)

Isaac Delgado Sarcophagus (sugar broker & namesake of Delgado Community College)

One of the many angels gracing the top of tombs

Avenue of tombs
History and Hollywood in New Orleans’ Garden District

History and Hollywood in New Orleans’ Garden District

1st Street Mansion

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
New Orleans: Paddlewheels, History and Beignets

New Orleans: Paddlewheels, History and Beignets

Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral

On a coveted three day holiday weekend, t-ball and birthday parties kept us tied to the city, so we used the extra day to explore our hometown. It’s so easy to settle into work and school routines during the week, and take off exploring the unique small towns and parishes on our days off. Yet, I also find that we often forget how interesting our own city of New Orleans is, so we donned our tourist hats and headed to the French Quarter.

Being a local has a few perks, such as knowing to park at the foot of Canal Street at the Shops at Canal Place. We spent five minutes buying the kids a muffin at Starbucks, and then immediately took our parking ticket to the Concierge to be validated (a nice savings in parking fees). Another perk was catching half-price tickets to the paddlewheeler Creole Queen on Travelzoo – all the motivation we needed to try out the river cruise.

Aboard the Creole Queen

We walked the short distance to the boat’s dock and secured our tickets for the daily excursion. The line to board was already wrapped around the side of the Riverwalk, and with one glance at the kids, we knew they were not going to wait. So we instead strolled along the river, watching the massive ships go to and from the busiest port complex in the world. We returned as the last of the passengers took their group photo and passed through security. The downside of waiting to the end was no more available seats on the ship’s deck, but seeing as our two- and five-year-old rarely sit for long, it wasn’t that big of a deal.

View of the city from the Creole Queen

We watched as they unwound the ropes holding the boat to the dock and started up the paddlewheel, slowly propelling us out into the middle of the river. Inside people were lining up for hot food and cold drinks, while we toured the boat, investigating the view from every floor and side. A narrator pointed out memorable locations, and the kids discovered hiding places under overhanging decks and built-in “slides” next to indoor stairways. We relished in the breeze counteracting the hot sun, and hid in the shadows when we needed a break. Before long, we passed the Bywater, the Industrial Canal and the Louisiana National Guard’s headquarters at Jackson Barracks on our way south to Chalmette Battlefield in St. Bernard Parish.

As many times as we’ve walked the grounds and toured the home at this National Historical Park, we

Musket firing demonstrations at Chalmette Battlefield

had never arrived via the river and never visited on a day when costumed living historians had set up camp on the property. We learned how young ladies looked “graceful” while playing games, explored a tent and common items carried by 1815 soldiers and watched musket firing demonstrations that had our youngest shouting “No!” at the volunteers. Meanwhile, our oldest, Charles, was anxiously listening for the one long and two short whistles that would signal our five minutes to reboard. As soon as they blew, he took off running toward the boat, warning us he would leave us behind if we didn’t make it back in time.

Cafe du Monde beignets

The kids were tired when we finally arrived back at port, so we popped them in the strollers and let them relax as we walked along the river down into the heart of the Quarter to Cafe du Monde. Once again, the line for outdoor seating was stretched far out beyond the famous cafe, but we strolled right past them and entered the air conditioned indoor area and grabbed one of several empty tables.  Here, we re-energized with cafe au lait, and the kids perked up with a great deal of powdered sugar on top of their beignets. You could sense the sugar settling into their system, sending jolts of energy through every inch of their tiny bodies. 

Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square

Rearing to go, we crossed the street to Jackson Square, greeting the mules lined up waiting to lead
buggy tours. While August “neighed” at them, Charles spotted a balloon man and scored them both balloon swords, which came in quite handy for the sword fight that ensued around the statue of Andrew Jackson. The Quarter was alive with music and street performers, brass bands and cheering crowds. A wedding party paused to snap photos outside St. Louis Cathedral before the bride took a deep breath and entered the church doors. We took it all in for a while, venturing around back of the Cathedral to investigate the artists there and savoring the vibrancy for which New Orleans is known.

Musicians on Royal Street

When the musicians paused, we took our cue and headed up Chartres to the Napoleon House for a dinner of shrimp remoulade and red beans and rice for the kids. Paul and I topped it off with a Pimms Cup, a light, summer drink, and reminisced about our own wedding reception held upstairs here more than 10 years ago. Built in 1797, the house was offered in 1821 as an escape to exiled Napoleon. Although the French leader never made it to Louisiana, the restaurant and bar today pay homage to him through paintings, statues and various decorations all depicting Napoleon and his life.

Napoleon House
St. Bernard: From Old Arabi to Shell Beach

St. Bernard: From Old Arabi to Shell Beach

A feathered resident of Shell Beach

Nearly two years ago, we drove the San Bernardo Scenic Byway through St. Bernard Parish, headed for the Chalmette Battlefield and the Los Islenos Fiesta. This weekend we returned to hit a few spots we had missed on our initial journey, starting with Old Arabi and finishing in Shell Beach where another Louisiana roadway abruptly ends at a large body of water.

Old courthouse and jail in Arabi

As soon as you cross into St. Bernard Parish, you reach the Old Arabi Historic District. A quick drive up and down the roads leads past a number of historic sites, such as the “Andy Griffith-style” jail built in 1911. The beautifully designed Maumus Center, St. Bernard’s first high school that later served as a community center, was gutted and undergoing a massive overhaul that would undoubtedly return this building to its previous splendor. 

LeBeau Plantation

One of the most fascinating landmarks in Old Arabi is LeBeau Plantation, an 1854 mansion boarded up and presiding over a large open field. The very sight of it conjures up ideas of ghost stories and tales untold. Down the street, however, the Greek Revival Cavaroc House appears in pristine condition at the end of a row of majestic palm trees. The two homes can’t be more different, though. While one stands in near ruin yet proudly displayed for photographs, the other is a bright gem next to the industrialized Domino Sugar Refinery yet tightly guarded against any would-be sightseers. In fact, try to take a picture of this mansion, and you’ll be tracked down, instructed to delete all your photos and have your license plate number recorded. I’m talking hyper-security.

So we carried on, following the scenic byway past the Chalmette National Historic Park and National Cemetery and under a lane of live oaks known as the Dockville Oaks. When the main road split and headed east, we turned right and continued alongside the Mississippi River to St. Bernard State Park. Letting the kids run out some energy, we started with a short nature trail linking the picnic area to the swimming pool, a top attraction during the hot summer months. Luckily, they were in the mood to run because one pause and the mosquitoes attacked. We escaped quickly and found safety in the open picnic area, where we ate our PB&J sandwiches next to a very curious lizard. Halfway through the gourmet meal, the kids spotted the playground and went off to climb, jump and make sand castles–in between sneaking around poles to “spy” on the girls celebrating a birthday party.

The Old Courthouse near the Los Islenos Fiesta

It was a nice break before climbing back in the car and backtracking our way to the byway again. We soon approached the Old Courthouse, an impressive building for any city, but even more so being located in the largely rural section of the parish. Just past the courthouse, a long line of people and the flickering lights of carnival rides alerted us that we had once again visited during the Los Islenos Fiesta. We were tempted to stop but chose to continue on to our destination of Shell Beach, the tiny fishing community we had not reached previously because the road was closed. Alas, a few minutes later and we discovered that the road was still closed two years later. This time, however, we were not so easily thwarted, and instead turned the car around and returned west until we found a crossover to Highway 46, a parallel route to the byway. 

Katrina Memorial

The highway bypassed the small towns and provided a quicker route to Florissant Highway, the far-reaching road to Shell Beach and Hopedale. Ruins of homes, vehicles and bare, dead trees stood as hurricane casualties, leaving the eerie impression that we were approaching nothing more than an abandoned village. And then the scenery changed and a waterway stacked with colorful boats led to a thriving, vibrant community. Pelicans guided the last few miles of our drive until we parked in front a memorial dedicated to those who died during Hurricane Katrina. A large cross bearing the face of Jesus was rooted in the waters before us, and a plaque listed the names of the St. Bernard residents who passed.

Climbing out of the car, I mistakenly thought ash was falling from the sky around me. It only took a moment to realize it was a flurry of biting gnats. A family, with every inch of their bodies covered with clothing, was fishing and crabbing here, and the birds sat patiently awaiting their next catch. In the distance, the remains of a large fort was oddly out of place floating above a sea of marsh grass. While I swatted the bugs, the kids seemed oblivious, instead chasing birds and collecting oyster shells before we gave up and retreated to the car.

Crabber protected from the gnats

Our final stop was Sebastopol Plantation, a place we had fond memories of from our previous visit. We passed through the gate thinking we would soon see owner Alberta Lewis, who would gladly let the boys marvel at the chicken coop. Instead, we found her son, who broke the news that his mother had passed away. However, he was just as eager to let us roam the property. Since our last visit, and before Alberta had died, she had acquired a set of turkeys to add to her collection of chickens, roosters and peacocks. Much larger than I expected, the male turkey strutted and shimmied all around us, preparing for a showdown with our four-year-old, who was only slightly taller than the bird. It was the perfect ending to our day’s adventures and left us with much to talk about later.

Sebastopol’s turkey
Tulane’s “Faces of the Maya”

Tulane’s “Faces of the Maya”

Tulane University’s “Faces of the Maya” Exhibit

On our evening walks around Uptown New Orleans, we’ve discovered one the best places to take rambunctious kids is Tulane University. We get a little bit of exercise walking there, and they get to jump out as soon as we reach the university and let loose. It’s the perfect place to hunt for cicadas and stick bugs, climb in the rock garden, play in the fountains and chase the stray cats that seem to thrive on campus.

Carved Stone Head

As part of our routine, we stop in the Anthropology building for a water and bathroom break and to peak in the main office at the fascinating decorated skeleton occupying the corner chair. During the recent hype over the end of the Maya calendar, a Times-Picayune article came out about a Maya exhibit in this very building we so often frequented. “Faces of the Maya: Profiles in Continuity and Resilience” was hidden two floors above us in Dinwiddie Hall’s Middle American Research Institute.

Normally only open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the museum was fairly inaccessible to us. However, on our latest walk across campus, we decided to ascend the steps to the third floor to maybe catch a glimpse of the exhibit through the window. Luckily, the Institute Director Marcello Canuto must have heard all the ruckus we were making outside his office, and upon discovering what we were up to, gladly opened the museum for us.

It was quite an amazing display depicting the Maya culture, from carved figurines and pottery examples to delicate jewelry and ballgame rubbings. The story of the Maya is intertwined with the artifacts, leading the viewer through the civilization’s earliest existence to today’s descendants who still live throughout southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.

Plaster Cast from Palenque God House

The kids were drawn to a plaster model of El Castillo, a scaled-down version of a Maya temple-pyramid with a series of steps perfectly sized for the butterfly that we had picked up on today’s outing. An accompanying description explained that when the sun hits the platform during the equinox, snakes appear to slither down the pyramid–a sight I can only imagine to be awe-inspiring.

Nearby, I was drawn to a plaster cast of an altar so intricately detailed I could have spent hours staring at it. Alas, as I looked up, the kids were already out the door and headed down the stairs. I briefly stopped one last time to admire a vibrant painting of three Maya men seemingly deep in discussion before darting out the door and shouting a quick “thanks” to Director Canuto.

Painting of the Maya