Tickfaw State Park and Lake Maurepas’ Northshore

Tickfaw State Park and Lake Maurepas’ Northshore

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
Donaldsonville to Plaquemine on the Mississippi River’s Westbank

Donaldsonville to Plaquemine on the Mississippi River’s Westbank

There is no shortage of scenic roads in this state, including many portions of Louisiana Highway 1. The longest road in the state, it runs from Grand Isle to north of Shreveport. We tackled a small portion of it last weekend, driving from Donaldsonville to Port Allen up the westbank of the Mississippi River before crossing over to end at Baton Rouge.

Former Department Store, B. Lemann & Bro. building, in Donaldsonville

Just a short distance from the Sunshine Bridge, Donaldsonville stands as the parish seat of Ascension Parish and a former capitol of the state of Louisiana (back in 1830). The town’s population and importance in history have fluctuated over the years, as evidenced by the vine-covered ruins of homes just off the main roads of Louisiana’s second largest historic district. Yet, the downtown streets are lined with impressive buildings that testify to this town’s importance and prosperity in the 1800s, long before the industrial plants entered the scene of this agricultural economy.

Many of the buildings are maintained today, such as the red brick courthouse and the one-time department store B. Lemann & Bro. building, both designed by architect James Freret. My particular favorites were the elk-adorned Italianate Elks Lodge and the “For Sale” Bel House, which looked like it was plucked right out of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Donaldsonville also lays claim to primitive artist Alvin Batiste.

Nottoway Plantation

 

From here, we continued north toward Iberville Parish and the town of White Castle, famous for the south’s largest plantation resort – Nottoway Plantation. With 64 rooms and 53,000 square feet within the walls of this massive palace, Nottoway is best seen from River Road, where its white-columned front faces the Mississippi River. Built in 1859, this plantation was a modern marvel for its day, boasting running water in the bathrooms and gas lighting throughout the home’s interior. Today, the plantation has indeed become a resort, with a Grand Pavilion, a Mansion Restaurant, outdoor pool and cabana, and tennis courts. On the day we visited, tents were pitched throughout the property and RV’s lined the outer edges of the parking lot. We hadn’t passed a soul on River Road, yet Nottoway was swarming with people – certainly a hot attraction for the area.

Madonna Chapel

In sharp contrast to Nottoway, the world’s smallest church resides just up the road in Bayou Goula. The tiny, one-room Madonna Chapel is sandwiched between a new house and a field of grazing cattle. We initially passed the site and, after turning around, pulled off the edge of River Road to make our own parking space. The kids bolted in the white picket fence in search of the hidden key to unlock the chapel. It wasn’t really “hidden,” only tucked away inside a box labeled “key,” but seeing as neither of them can read yet, they had quite the scavenger hunt.

The chapel was stifling hot inside, and we left the door open wide as we gazed at the small altar covered in statues of Jesus and Mary and read its touching story. Only eight feet square, the chapel was built in 1903 by a farmer, Anthony Gullo, who promised to build a church to the Madonna if she helped his oldest son recover from a serious illness. An annual mass is held here on August 15 in celebration of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother.

St. Raphael Cemetery

Our next stop was St. Raphael Cemetery, a crumbling grouping of graves and monuments laid out in the bend of the river across the Mississippi from St. Gabriel. Aside from the interesting architecture of the tombs, this is also the final resting spot for Louisiana’s 15th governor, Paul Octave Hebert.

River Road reconnected with Highway 1 in Plaquemine. A summer thunderstorm was rolling in as we pulled up to the Plaquemine Lock State Historic Site, and the skies opened up the moment we entered the lockhouse. The friendly, knowledgeable state park guide welcomed us to the museum and seemed to cater to our every need. Our two-year-old, August, was mesmerized by the working scale model of the lock system, anxiously watching the tiny lock doors open and the boat slowly make its way inside the lock. My husband grabbed a complimentary coffee and headed up the winding staircase for pristine views of the Mississippi River.

Plaquemine Lock State Historic Site

As the rain stormed on, the ranger started a funny movie about singing fish to entertain the kids so we were free to browse the exhibits. We discovered the lock was built between 1895 and 1909 to connect the river with Bayou Plaquemine and was designed by Col. Goethals, who later became chief engineer of the Panama Canal. It operated for 52 years until shutting down when a larger lock was built in Port Allen.

When we ventured outside again to view the structure itself, my five-year-old, Charles, spotted an oversized beetle hiding in the doorjamb. Our host then pointed out an even larger beetle (scarily large) that thrilled Charles for the rest of the weekend. He made the bug a home in a coffee cup and carried him all over the property, from our walk up the levee to our stroll across the lock bridge and far below to the lovely waterfront boardwalk. After we (and the bugs) finished our journey, we drove the streets of Plaquemine, gazing at the historic homes and the St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, “The Cathedral on the Bayou.”

 

St. John the Evangelist in Plaquemine

 

Historic Home in Plaquemine

 

Morgan City to Avery Island

Morgan City to Avery Island

On one of the last cool weekends before summer, we jumped in the car to visit Avery Island, home to Tabasco as well as the beautiful oasis, Jungle Gardens. On previous trips, we always took I-10 from New Orleans to Breaux Bridge and then headed south. This time, however, we made our way along the southern route, traveling Highway 90 through Morgan City, Patterson and Franklin before reaching our destination.

Atchafalaya River as seen from Morgan City

The drive brought us through scenic vistas of classic Louisiana swamps. While the kids watched “Ice Age” in the back of the car, we immersed ourselves in the abundant cypress trees basking in the dark waters prolific in this part of the state. Our first destination was Morgan City, sporting a slogan “Right in the Middle of Everywhere” and famous for its annual Shrimp and Petroleum Festival (the name says it all). On a map, Morgan City makes up half of an island surrounded by countless lakes, rivers, bayous and various other bodies of water twisting and turning around the floating land.

Southwest Reef Lighthouse

We headed straight for the historic downtown toward Front Street and the towering floodwall protecting the city from the Atchafalaya River. The road led us to an opening in the floodwall, and we parked at the edge of the river beside a handful of people fishing. The kids were elated to finally stretch their legs and set off at a sprint along the dock. We raced behind, taking in the muddy river and the boats tied up at its side. Before long, we ascended the stairs to the floodwall and looked down at the city below. Traffic was light on this Saturday morning, yet shops appeared to be opening in the historic buildings.

The floodwall gave us a great view of the river, and the three bridges spanning across it–one for trains and the other two for cars. One of them, the Long-Allen Bridge, boasted a pier resting on one of the deepest foundations in the world (176 feet below low water stage) when it was built in 1933. Across the river, a bright red lighthouse stared back at us. Known as Southwest Reef, the lighthouse was built in 1858 and relocated in 1987 from the Atchafalaya Bay to a park in Berwick.

Wedell-Williams Aviation and Cypress Sawmill Museum

After our walk, we drove the streets admiring the buildings, churches and parks. It was a brief stay, though, as we had several other destinations for the day including the Louisiana State Museum in Patterson. The Wedell-Williams Aviation and Cypress Sawmill Museum showcases two very different occupations that were both integral to this small town.

On one side of the museum, brightly colored airplanes are scattered about both the floor and ceiling. In 1928, pilot Jimmie Wedell and oilman and timber baron Harry Williams joined forces to design aircrafts in Patterson that were faster than the competition. At the announcement of the movie, we all grabbed a seat and waited for the multiple screens to lower across the room. The kids were wide-eyed as planes raced from screen to screen and simulated wind blew in our faces. Wedell and Williams were daredevils of their time who used their fearless talents to revolutionize the aviation industry.

The fascinating crawfish home in front of the museum

Across the lobby, the cypress sawmill museum tells the industry’s story through pictures, giant logs and, if possible, even larger saws. Louisiana played a critical role in the country’s logging industry, and at one time, Patterson was home to the largest sawmill in the world. It was both amazing and eye-opening, and exactly the right size for the attention spans of our kiddos. We had just wrapped up our tour when they scooted out the front door to investigate the crawfish homes on the front lawn, oblivious to the jet mounted just above their heads.

Franklin’s Historic District

Down the road in Franklin, we took a whirlwind tour of the downtown, which boasts over 400 historic structures. I have to say I have never seen so many historic signs all standing in one place. We immensely enjoyed the scenic main street, filled with shops and picturesque light poles. Spanning out on either side were pristine white mansions, shrouded in a canopy of moss-covered live oaks. One block away, the much-talked-about Bayou Teche flows past the homes, adding to the laid back, Southern feel already emanating from the town.

Tabasco Factory at Avery Island

It was nearly 3 o’clock by the time we arrived at Avery Island, paying our dollar toll to cross the bridge to enter Tabasco territory. Home to the McIlhenny hot sauce empire, Avery Island sits on one of five salt domes found in this part of Louisiana. They say that the salt here is “as deep as Mount Everest is tall,” a mind boggling thought. The factory was closed the day we visited, but we were still able to tour the facility that strongly smelled of the spicy sauce. The kids were thrilled when the tour guide gave them samples of miniature Tabasco bottles, which have now taken a spot of fame in their own collections at home.

Snowy Egrets at Jungle Gardens

Aside from Tabasco, Avery Island is home to the wild and beautiful Jungle Gardens. A driving tour through the 170-acre gardens brought us past alligator-filled ponds, an 800-year-old Buddha and countless live oaks, azaleas, camellias and bamboo. Thankfully, the unseasonably cool weather kept the mosquitoes at bay so we could enjoy exploring every inch of the property. It was also the perfect time of year for the nesting snowy egrets, which came in droves to the elevated platforms known as “Bird City.”

Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge

All in all, it was probably one of our most successful adventures already, but we added one final stop to complete the tour. On the return drive, we veered off south of Centerville to enter the Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge, established in part to protect Louisiana’s black bear population. While we weren’t looking for bears, we were intrigued by the Garden City boardwalk trail, which we never would have found without this map. We parked by the levee and walked the short distance to an even shorter boardwalk through the swamp. The water underneath was eerily still, clogged with vegetation in this thriving forest; yet the trees overhead were alive with songbirds, each twilling a different tune and flitting about from branch to branch in a blur of colors. We paused a moment to admire them all before climbing back in the car for the return trip home.

Live oaks at Avery Island’s Jungle Gardens

 

Pointe Coupee Parish: New Roads & Livonia

Pointe Coupee Parish: New Roads & Livonia

In all of our years visiting picturesque St. Francisville, we had never made it across the river to visit its sister city, New Roads. When an advertised Historic House Tour caught my attention, our weekend plans were sealed and we loaded the car with toys for our two-hour drive from New Orleans.
Pier and boat house on False River

We followed LA 1 and the Louisiana Scenic Bayou Byway to the southeastern edge of False River, an oxbow lake once part of the Mississippi River before it changed route and cut off the lake. The main road runs along a steep dropoff, creating a unique effect where the homes on our left were at eye level yet we were driving beside rooftops on our right. Graceful plantations with sprawling lawns dominated the road’s left side, and newer homes with lines of piers jutting out into the water stood to the right.

 

Pointe Coupee Parish Museum and Tourist Center

Colorful balloons bouncing in the wind beckoned us to stop at the Pointe Coupee Parish Museum and Tourist Center, where a table of coffee, homemade cookies and free gourds awaited our arrival. The kids darted through the small museum, not even bothering to look up before exiting out the back door to look for frogs in the sugar kettle out back. They were relatively contained within the fenced yard, so we managed to squeeze out a few minutes of conversation with the tour guides. Turns out the house itself was from nearby Parlange Plantation, and items in the museum documented life in 18th and early 19th century Louisiana. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building, according to the National Park Service, is “a rare example of a log cabin type construction in a Creole type house.”

Randall Oak

From here, we followed the balloon trail, our marker for all the open houses on the tour. Down the road was the Randall Oak, a beauty of a live oak making its way to the top of the Live Oak Registry. Although a center split gives the impression of two separate trees grown together, the tree’s owner assured us it was only one massive oak. Poydras College once stood nearby this location,  where Professor James Randall wrote the poem, “Maryland, My Maryland,” which is today Maryland’s official state song. While here, we peaked next door at Mon Reve’, a lovely French Creole home that unfortunately had dropped out of the historic homes tour.

St. Mary of False River

Our map from the Visitor’s Center led us into downtown New Roads. As soon as we entered, we parked our car for a stroll along Main Street.We skirted in between buildings to access public docks where half a dozen people were out fishing for the day on False River. A few boats passed by as well, undoubtedly enjoying the warm sunshine and cool afternoon breeze. We took note of several interesting restaurants located in historic buildings, such as Ma Mama’s Kitchen, but we forewent a lengthy, sit-down lunch in favor of quick club sandwiches and grilled cheese at the local Cafe.

After eating, the kids exhausted some of their energy playing in the beautiful gardens surrounding St. Mary of False River Church, a Gothic-style church completed in 1907. A few blocks down, Pointe Coupee Parish Court House is another focal point of the town, resembling a medieval castle erected on Main Street.

Market at the Mill

Back in the car, we visited more historic homes on the list, such as the LeJeune House, home to a family with 12 children–all of whom never married. The Samson House, also known as Pointe Coupee Bed and Breakfast, and the Pourciau House were another two landmarks on the tour. Our final stop in downtown was the Market at the Mill, a retired cottonseed oil mill that happened to be hosting its three-day, annual “shopping extravaganza” of antique and vintage items. From the look of the parking lot, it appeared to be a very popular destination.

The town and surrounding area is quite lovely, and we drove around a while longer just sightseeing while the kids snoozed in the backseat. For the route home, we detoured on LA78 toward Frisco and on to Livonia, searching for an Indian mound we had read about in the book New Roads and Old Rivers: Louisiana’s Historic Pointe Coupee Parish. Built between 700 AD and 1200 AD by the Coles Creek Culture, the mound is uniquely out of place next to a Dollar General Store. However, upon contacting the town, we learned that it was donated by the property owners to the town, and plans are in the works for highlighting its prominence in Louisiana’s history.

Livonia Mound

 

The City of Lights: Natchitoches

The City of Lights: Natchitoches

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.

Walter Anderson’s Ocean Springs

Walter Anderson’s Ocean Springs

A short day trip from New Orleans, Ocean Springs is one of those small towns for which America is famous. Its historic downtown has quaint shops and restaurants lined up along a walkable main street, jutting off perpendicularly from a railroad line that runs straight through town.

Train Depot housing “Realizations”

We went to Ocean Springs to learn about its most famous resident–Walter Anderson. The schizophrenic turned reclusive Anderson was a brilliant artist in the mid-1900s known for his colorful and quite fanciful paintings. Our first taste of his artwork was inside the old train depot next door to the Visitor’s Center. Run by Anderson’s family, “Realizations” has turned his kid-friendly designs into t-shirts, purses, bookmarks, posters and more.

After buying Charles a hat with his favorite pelican on it and August a toddler tee with a frog, we scooted outside to the Saturday Fresh Market taking place in the depot’s parking lot. Here, we sampled homemade goodies and browsed the produce and plants for sale before continuing down Washington Avenue.

At Al Fresco’s Italian Bistro, we sat in the courtyard and watched the birds play in the fountains while eating a tasty–but quick–lunch. We had to keep moving before the boys began splashing in the fountains, so we were soon back out on the sidewalk browsing store windows on our way to the Walter Anderson Museum of Art.

Shearwater Pottery showroom

Dedicated to Walter Anderson’s artwork, this museum houses more than 900 pieces of art, including elaborate murals depicting his life and discoveries on the Gulf Coast. We stood for an eternity gazing at the Community Center murals, pointing out the animals and scenes hidden within it. Then we marveled at how he created the “Little Room” murals without a sole seeing them until after his death.

Our next stop took us to the family business. Shearwater Pottery was started by Walter’s brother Peter and is today owned by Peter’s four children, three of whom carry on the tradition of crafting decorative, functional clay pieces. The workshop, annex and showroom are tucked away in the woods close to the water’s edge. The drive to visit the shop is almost as scenic as the pottery itself, as you pass a boat-filled marina on an inlet off the Gulf.

Views from the Gulf Islands National Seashore trail

By this point, the kids were starting to get antsy and needed some quality “hyper” time. So we headed off to Gulf Islands National Seashore to hike the scenic, coastal forest trail. They zoomed across the pathways, stopping briefly to search for fish and turtles in the still waters beneath the fishing pier. Then they looped back around to the Visitor’s Center where exhibits detailed the area’s beauty and mystique.

For a small town, we were surprised at how after a day’s worth of adventures, we still didn’t see all the area had to offer. Future trips may take us to the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center, a boat trip out to the barrier islands or further explorations of downtown.