Rip Van Winkle Gardens

Rip Van Winkle Gardens

The name “Rip Van Winkle Gardens” stuck in my head from the first time I heard it. It’s been on our to-do list for ages, and our recent visit proved the place to be as memorable as its name.

Joseph Jefferson Mansion

We made a weekend of the trip, not missing a chance to spend a Friday night with our friend in Baton Rouge. Of course, we made the obligatory visit to Mike the Tiger and brought our picnic dinner to the hill-top tables at the Manship School of Mass Communication. Then we tucked the kids in for the night, ready for their road-trip adventure the next morning.

Cypress Island Preserve at Lake Martin

Every time I cross the Baton Rouge bridge over the Mississippi River and begin heading west, I’m reminded of larger trips we’ve taken to the desert Southwest and beyond. Particularly the drive through Henderson Swamp and its scattered, water-logged cypress trees puts me in vacation mindset.

We didn’t quite make it to Lafayette, but instead veered south through Breaux Bridge and, as on a previous trip, stopped at Lake Martin for a stroll along the Nature Conservancy’s Cypress Island Preserve boardwalk. This time we were in for a double treat. Not only was the visitor’s center open, but the nesting birds were out in full force. We escaped the oppressive heat inside the quaint visitor’s center, where the kids poked and prodded the touchable animal shells and skins on display and we visited with the two helpful staff.

St. Martinville

Back outside, we sweated our way along the boardwalk, still managing to enjoy the scenery, before hopping in the car to drive the lake’s east side. This proved to be the best viewing spot for the thousands of egrets and herons flying around the trees. Flashes of pink signaled the presence of roseate spoonbills in the area as well.

From Lake Martin, we again dined at La Petite Paris Cafe in St. Martinville, where the waitress remembered us from our last rowdy, lunchtime visit. (I thought I saw fear in her eyes when we walked through the doors!) We relived our walk down to the Evangeline Oak on the banks of the Bayou Teche, and then set off on our final stretch of road to Jefferson Island.

We traveled the back roads through miles of Louisiana countryside to reach our destination. The land rises as you approach the gardens through a line of live oak trees. Like nearby Avery Island (of the Tabasco fame), Jefferson Island is one of five coastal salt domes emerging upwards of 100 feet above sea level. In 1870, Actor Joseph Jefferson built his mansion on top of one dome and spent 36 winters in his home alongside expansive Lake Peigneur. Future owner J. Lyle Bayless, Jr., surrounded the house with acres of gardens in the 1950s, naming them in honor of the actor who was best-known for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle.

Rip Van Winkle Gardens

Today, the house and gardens are open to the public, and the property also offers a visitor’s center/gift shop, conference center, cafe and a bed and breakfast. The location is a picturesque backdrop for weddings, but we came to explore the trees, plants and bugs that make up the fairytale gardens.

Snaking out from behind the gift shop, the path branched off into a series of options. A peacock strutted by us, while a massive cat eyed us suspiciously from atop a statue. We took the high ground, skirting a Japanese Teahouse and desperately trying to catch a dragonfly at the garden pond. A plaque underneath one live oak tree marked the spot where Pirate Jean Lafitte’s treasure was found. We had to wonder whether this was true…

Joseph Jefferson Mansion

The house itself is a four-story, elegant mansion gazing down at the flowing green lawn below. Cottages behind the home beckoned as a bed and breakfast where overnight visitors could awaken to the crowing of the nearby rooster. Completing the circle, we found our way back to the visitor’s center with Lake Peigneur off to our right. Water skiers bounced across the serene waters that hid a tragic history. In 1980, a drilling rig struck a salt cavern, and a hole opened in the lake that turned into a tumultous waterfall draining the water and sucking in 65 acres of the gardens. The theater shows live video taken of the event.

It was a successful adventure for us, particularly as our four-year-old left with a bug catcher of tadpoles. On the ride home, he entertained us with stories of the frogs that would soon live in our house as his younger brother snoozed loudly beside him.

Garden Statues
Return to Grand Isle

Return to Grand Isle

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.

On the Hunt for Dinosaurs…and a Hike at Lake Martin

On the Hunt for Dinosaurs…and a Hike at Lake Martin

Louisiana is not known for dinosaurs – that much I have learned through my Internet searching. Now Wyoming, Colorado and the Dakotas, they’re a different story. Unfortunately the pleads of a three-year-old are not compelling enough to make me drive 26 hours to view a bunch of skeletons. Lucky for him, and the rest of our family, the Lafayette Science Museum is featuring the American Museum of Natural History’s traveling “Dinosaurs” exhibit.

T-Rex on display at the Lafayette Science Museum

The drive is still a bit much to make without stopping, so we planned a layover at a friend’s house in Baton Rouge. While in town, we couldn’t pass up a glimpse of LSU’s Mike the Tiger, and the trip to campus reminded us of old anthropology classes in the Howe Russell building and the fossils and rocks on display there.

LSU’s allosaurus skeleton

It promised to be a great “starting off” site for our dinosaur adventures, but when we entered the front doors, Charles nearly squealed with delight at the sight before us. Although the child can’t read, he instantly spouted out that this skeleton on display was “an allosaurus – a carnivore that walked on two feet and had three fingers, not two like T-Rex.” (I must say, I will never understand his obsession with the fingers.) The discovery kept us occupied for quite some time, and Charles discussed the similarities and differences of dinosaurs in lengthy detail well into the night.

The next morning we moved on to Lafayette and headed into the heart of downtown. Our first stop was brunch at The French Press, where we gorged ourselves on the Cajun Benedict: toasted French bread, Hebert’s boudin and two poached-medium eggs topped with chicken and andouille gumbo and fresh scallions. Shortly after, we waddled across the Parc Sans Souci toward the Lafayette Science Museum.

Lafayette Science Museum

While the planetarium is closed for a digital upgrade, the main attraction until March 11 is the “Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries” exhibit. The $5 tickets seemed like a bargain when we entered the far hall and came face to face with a giant T-Rex skeleton (complete with two fingers on each hand). He beckoned us inside to explore a life-sized steel and fiberglass apatosaurus, fossilized footprints and a diorama of eastern Asia as it looked 130 million years ago. After making two rounds through the displays, we grabbed some coloring sheets at the end and walked out the doors. I paused in confusion as we exited – what, no gift shop? Although a huge missed opportunity for the museum, it was a lifesaver for us, as gift shops almost always end in meltdowns.

Cypress trees at Lake Martin

The afternoon’s adventures winded down with a short drive out into the countryside and a leisurely stroll through the Nature Conservancy’s Cypress Island Preserve at Lake Martin. A loop boardwalk and levee trail offered prime glimpses into the moss-covered, cypress tupelo swamp that serves as a bird haven in late spring. Sunsets are reportedly divine at this picturesque spot, and the lake comes to life when thousands of herons, egrets and roseate spoonbills make this their home during nesting season. The area was scarcely occupied when we visited, though, and I left with the impression that we had found a jewel tucked away inside the state.

St. Tammany’s East Side: Slidell

St. Tammany’s East Side: Slidell

6:15 a.m. and both kids were up and rearing to go. Charles was pulling on his shoes while asking me in the sweetest toddler voice possible, “Mommy, can we go on an adventure today?” August squealed in agreement. I checked the temperature, and it was already 80 degrees out and rising rapidly.

Over bowls of cereal, we struggled with our obvious dilemma–where could we go that was outside the city yet close enough to explore before the afternoon heat fried us all.  “How about Camp Salmen?” Paul suggested, and off we went across the lake toward Slidell.

One of countless grasshoppers

Home to boy scouts for nearly 60 years, Camp Salmen was later acquired by St. Tammany Parish and is undergoing a transformation into a nature park. As we stepped out into the baking heat, scenic Bayou Liberty beckoned us over to its cooling waters.

With every step we took forward, the ground seemed to come alive around us. Enormous grasshoppers  circled our feet, and Charles thought we had brought him to Heaven. Overcome with both fear and excitement, he was shaking each time he reached his small fingers down to catch another one. Before we knew it, we had a Ziploc bag full of the black and red-striped insects.

Garden designed around Camp Salmen ruins

The poor critters were carried on a tour across the property, from the boardwalk by the bayou to the garden-bed ruins. We made it through two separate trails before succumbing to the heat and running through a nearby sprinkler while retreating to the car. Our tour was enough to show that the parish has great plans for this work-in-progress park, which promises to be one of the most scenic sites in St. Tammany.

After a quick detour to the Dollar Store to buy another bug catcher, we stopped off in Old Towne Slidell for a burger and fried pickles at the Times Grill. The restaurant is located on Front Street, which runs along Bayou Bonfouca. Old Towne houses several antique shops, clothing stores and Heritage Park with its playground, walking paths and boat launch.

For the more adventuresome, Slidell is also the launching site for tours of Honey Island Swamp and The Nature Conservancy’s White Kitchen Preserve. Skipping the swamp tour for today, we did swing by The Nature Conservancy site where a short boardwalk offered a peak into the area’s wetlands as well as a chance to see a bald eagle nest.

Grand Isle: Louisiana’s Barrier Island

Grand Isle: Louisiana’s Barrier Island

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know a blue jay from a bluebird, but experts and amateurs alike are welcome at the Grand Isle Migratory Bird Festival…at least that’s what my husband, Paul, told me while packing us up for a two-hour drive to Grand Isle. I was quite doubtful that our three-year-old would be welcome among groups of whispering, tip-toeing bird watchers, but I plugged in the portable DVD player and took out the map for the drive.

Pelicans skimming the ocean.

There are two important things to know before you even get to Grand Isle: going one mile too fast will earn you a speeding ticket in Golden Meadow and the new, white bridge leading to the island is a toll bridge with no toll booth. Once you conquer these two obstacles, you emerge on a decent-sized island known for its fishing, birding and, of course, proximity to oil.

We picked up some poboys at the elevated deli near the beginning of the island and carried them over to the beach for a picnic lunch. The wind whipped in our face, blowing sand and our napkins across the parking lot, but Charles was oblivious while he marched off with bucket and shovel in hand. The beach here is not the fine white sand you find in Florida, but rather crushed shells packed tight into a solid surface. We soon found out there are other perks, though, as a dolphin playfully danced through the ocean right in front of us while dozens of brown pelicans skimmed the surface of the water searching for food.

Charles on his first fishing trip

Finishing off lunch, we drove to the far end of the island to Grand Isle State Park. The park was free for the birding festival, but the beach was closed due to large amounts of tar balls showing up at the water’s edge. As we walked the length of the fishing pier, we gazed longingly at the finer, silky sand that was off-limits to visitors. Several weekend vacationers were manning fishing poles at the end of the T-shaped pier, and in the 20 minutes we watched, they pulled in four catfish and an enormous sting ray. Charles even got to guard a fishing pole while one kid left to drop his latest catch in the ice chest.

Birdwatchers in the Grilleta Tract

On to the birding festival, we parked our car at the Nature Conservancy trail head marking the entrance to the Grilleta Tract. One of the last remaining stands of maritime forest on the island, it’s a prime location for a phenomenon known as a “fallout.” When thousands of exhausted, migrating birds fly into a thunderstorm, they are forced to fall out of the sky and seek refuge in the island’s trees. Our arrival didn’t coincide with a storm, but we still saw hundreds of birds — and dozens of onlookers — along the trail. We were oblivious to what we were looking at, but made a good showing by hiding behind our camera and binoculars. We almost got away with it until a serious birdwatcher carrying an actual telescope asked us what we were taking photos of, and Paul answered, “the trees.”

View from the golf cart

The trail ended at the backyard of Bobby Santini, who welcomed us onto his property to view his pictures of birds and taste the berries from his mulberry tree. This is where our second goof occurred when the “roosters” I pointed out to Charles went inside their coop to lay some eggs. At that point, I figured we could give up our act. Charles’ sudden interest in Mr. Bobby’s golf cart had him taking the toddler and Paul for a ride, while I sat on the porch swing with August, who flirted away with Mrs. Santini. It turned out the native Grand Islanders lived in a 213-year-old house — the oldest on the island — and it had survived both hurricanes Betsy and Katrina.

The golf ride revealed a great playground just a few streets away, and the kids and I stopped over to explore it while Paul went back for the car. Later, back on the main road searching for a dinner spot, we found a cute souvenir shop where Charles landed a pirate’s hat and Paul picked up some shells. The shop owner’s recommendation then led us to Sarah’s Restaurant where we pigged out on fried fish and potato salad, and Charles scared the other patrons with his rendition of a pirate. After a long day, I rewarded myself with a daiquiri for the ride home as we drove back out onto the thin road surrounded by endless wetlands on either side.

Lake Pontchartrain’s Northshore

Lake Pontchartrain’s Northshore

Every Monday morning, thousands of people wake up at the crack of dawn to leave their homes and drive across the longest bridge in the world to their jobs in the city. A lover of sleep and a hater of traffic, I’ve always wondered what could possess someone to willingly choose that daily commute across Lake Pontchartrain. But as one coworker described it, there’s a certain point on the drive home when the New Orleans’ skyline fades away and so does all the stress that comes with it. St. Tammany Parish, also known as the Northshore, is home to quaint towns that pride themselves on not being a suburb of New Orleans. This weekend, we decided to see what it is about the Northshore that lures people across that 24-mile-long Causeway Bridge.

Getting a late start, we were already hungry for lunch before we reached the Interstate. So we rerouted our original plans, bypassing Mandeville and Covington and heading straight for Abita Springs and the Abita Brew Pub. Once the home to the actual brewery, now the restaurant serves up oversized portions of salads, hamburgers and other entrees along with a wide selection of Abita beer. Eating establishments are always touchy with two small kids, but the free crayons and coloring sheet went a long way toward keeping Charles in check until his shrimp and french fries arrived. Of course, he scarfed them down in 2.4 seconds and then bolted out of his chair in search of mischief. Luckily, I have learned to eat equally fast and was able to guide him out the door while my husband, Paul, paid.

Indian princess kneeling over the spring

Abita Springs is tiny as far as towns go. It’s one of those places where if you blink while driving too fast, you’ll miss the downtown. You’ll be sorry if you do, though. Walking out the front door of the Brew Pub, we found ourselves standing on the Tammany Trace, a railroad track turned into a bike/jog/horseback ride path that runs across St. Tammany Parish. The Trace plunges you deep into nature and then opens up at each town or city it passes. Dodging the bicyclists, we crossed the trail and headed toward the large gazebo built in 1884 for the New Orleans World’s Fair. It was reconstructed over — what else — but the famous spring that once lured tourists with its clean waters. Today, a statue of an Indian princess kneels over the bubbling water.

Lion’s Head fountain pouring spring water

As we walked toward the town museum, Charles spotted a man carrying an instrument and ran off to investigate. Within minutes, several more musicians arrived and started up their weekly concert. We admired the music until the museum guide revealed to Charles the secret for starting up the water park and then gave him a cup to collect water from the lion’s head fountain. He was so fascinated by drinking the water pouring out of the lion’s mouth that he never even noticed the playground looming large behind us.

Anxious to continue our journey, Paul steered us toward the car and the Nature Conservancy’s Abita Creek Flatwoods Preserve where a boardwalk runs through a long-leaf pine savanna and swamp. Unfortunately, the carnivorous yellow pitcher plants were not in season, but it was still a pleasant walk on a perfect, 70-degree day.

Back on the road, we headed south on 59 and stopped off at Tammany Trace Headquarters and the Kids Konnection playground. While I fed August his unappetizing jar of turkey and vegetable dinner, Paul and Charles went off to play in the sand pit. At the visitor center half a mile down the road, we picked up glossy brochures highlighting all the places we missed before continuing on to scenic Mandeville. A drive along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain tempted us to stop the car and take a stroll. Behind us, couples enjoyed romantic dinners in restaurants overlooking the sun setting on the massive lake.

Seven Sisters live oak tree

There was only time for one last stop before making our way back across the bridge, and Paul led us deep into a neighborhood to find the  Seven Sisters, the oldest live oak tree in Louisiana. He couldn’t hide his enthusiasm at finding the gem and had to sneak up the driveway of the private property to take this picture.

While the kids were lulled to sleep by the monotonous bumps of the bridge, I pulled out the brochures and made a quick wish list for the future. We had only touched the stem of St. Tammany Parish and had much to go back and see. So what’s on the list for next time? Well, for starters, there’s Fountainebleau State Park, Camp Salmen, the Global Wildlife Center, Saint Joseph Abbey, and on and on and on…