St. Bernard: From Old Arabi to Shell Beach

St. Bernard: From Old Arabi to 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
Two Holiday Outings: Cirque Dreams Holidaze and Celebration in the Oaks

Two Holiday Outings: Cirque Dreams Holidaze and Celebration in the Oaks

During this magical holiday season, we decided to take the kiddos on a tour of some of the “magic” happening around town. At nearly 4 years old, Charles seemed prepared for his debut into the theater scene. A travelzoo offer got us $11 tickets to Cirque Dreams Holidaze, and although the acrobatic circus show started a bit late in the evening, we couldn’t pass up the deal.

Frosty the Snowman at Celebration in the Oaks

All dressed up in his collared shirt and navy pants, Charles had even allowed us to brush his hair before we set out for the Mahalia Jackson Theater. Armstrong Park’s fountains of water danced in the artificial light, and we half ran (a.k.a. chased down Charles) over the various bridges to see what sculptures had been added since our last visit. When my feet started screaming at the heels I was wearing, I resorted to telling Charles he’d better stick close or else the ogres living behind the trees would get him. I’m sure my stories will one day give this child a complex, but at the time, it convinced him to walk beside us.

A performer balances rings in the air.

He was excited, though, by his big-boy night out, and every little detail enthralled him – right down to his favorite-color-blue lights that lit the stairways to our seats. And the show itself was captivating with fast-paced music, lots of color and twisting and turning acrobats performing nearly impossible feats. From juggling and roller skating to flying and clothes changing, these performers were true artists of their trade and kept us all hanging on the edge of our seats.

Two child star performers particularly impressed Charles, and throughout intermission, he practiced his own moves by balancing both legs and arms on the chairs around us. By the second half, he was reaching his limit though, and after he watched two acts through half-closed lids and sprawled across our laps, Paul and I hoisted him up and exited the theater. Before passing out in his car seat, he gave me a sheepish smile and said, “You know the girl with the thing on her head, she was pretty, mom.”

The evening’s success gave us confidence to take both kids over (a few days later) to City Park’s Celebration in the Oaks. Every inch of the Botanical Gardens, Storyland and Carousel Gardens were covered in “a festival of lights.”

Rides spin and twist at City Park’s amusement park

While August ooh’d and aah’d at the colors and pointed at every light his stroller got near, Charles was fixated on the rides in the amusement park. People were zooming in circles on the Scrambler and Tilt-a-Whirl and falling from the sky on the Monkey Jump. He stared wide-eyed, but glued to his seat, too afraid to move an inch…until he spotted the carousel. Now this was his kind of ride, and several minutes later he was up on a horse grinning with delight. Meanwhile, August was crying his eyes out, perhaps scared that his big brother was galloping away into the night.

The lights became more elaborate as you entered the Botanical Gardens, and at one point, they flashed and created fantastic displays illuminating the story of the “Cajun Night Before Christmas.” In other spots, dripping icicles covered massive live oaks and Frosty the Snowman danced under the stars. It was indeed a magical place, and the boys enjoyed every moment of it.

Family Traditions at Percy Quin State Park

Family Traditions at Percy Quin State Park

For more than 40 years, my husband’s family has spent a December weekend at a cabin at Percy Quin State Park. Continuing the family tradition, we headed up I-55 toward McComb, Miss., and met the relatives at a large cabin on the lake.

Our lovely cabin

After a quick detour in Manchac for a seafood lunch at Middendorf’s, we arrived at the park by mid-afternoon. The fire was already roaring in the den’s large, brick fireplace. My mother-in-law had hung festive lights and miniature Christmas trees around the great room to make us all feel at home. Everyone quickly dragged in their luggage and claimed their spot in the 5-bed cabin before heading out the back porch and down to the lake.

The 700-acre Lake Tangipahoa, surrounded by fragrant pine trees and a hiking trail, serves as the focal point of this park constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. We watched the sun set below the trees and then hurried back inside as the temperature rapidly fell. The evening entailed hot dogs and marshmallow smores roasted over the fire as the children played hide and seek.

Saturday always follows the same routine, with more relatives and friends arriving to spend the day with us. For breakfast, we utilized the kitchen this time and left the fire for warming cold hands and toes. Then we all set off on our annual hike, starting on the paved trail behind the cabin.

The lodge at Percy Quin

Once the sidewalk ended, our group continued following the lake toward the main lodge, where we all took a break for the kids to play the old-fashioned pin-ball machine and video games. With its exposed beams and large fireplace, the lodge, although underutilized, is a beautiful testament to the work of the CCC. Our self-made trail continued through the woods to the playground, passing a raised pipe along the way that has served as a balance beam for as long as I can remember.

This year, with several small children present, we stopped our walk short at the playground, where the kids romped and the adults knocked mistletoe out of the trees. In past years, though, we often set off over a bridge and into the woods a bit before turning back. The afternoon was filled with coffee and conversation, while the older children built a fort in the red cliffs overlooking the lake to our left.

Even our three-year-old paused for the scenery.

I always look forward to this trip every year, and this one didn’t disappoint. While some things may have changed, such as the flat screen TV we immediately unplugged and the championship golf course by the entrance, all in all, Percy Quin is much the same as usual. Quiet and peaceful, it forces you to relax and slow down. There is nothing spectacular about our trip–no wild adventure sports or amazing discoveries, but somehow it has become one of my favorite times of the year. And as I watched the fog slowly burn off the morning lake, I realized once again that this is a special place.

Barataria Buccaneers’ Day

Barataria Buccaneers’ Day

Our latest trip took us back to one of our earliest adventure locations – Jean Lafitte National Park. It was Barataria Buccaneers’ Day at the Barataria Preserve in Marrero, and Charles was on a mission to become a Junior Ranger/Privateer.

Sweetgum seeds in the forest

We came prepared this time, carrying a dinosaur lunchbox of sandwiches and snacks, and chose the Visitor’s Center as our hiking launch site. One-year-old August was snoring in his stroller before we reached the glass doors leading to the information center. I sat outside with him while Paul chased our three-year-old on a 90-second tour of the wildlife display. When they emerged, Charles proudly announced he had touched every animal in the building before darting off down the trail.

We walked at a brisk pace, following close behind those short legs running at top speed. He had reserves of energy, and the Palmetto Trail’s flat boardwalks through lush greenery were the perfect place to wear him down. I saw several lizards flee his approach, and the only thing that stopped him in his tracks was a noise in the underbrush beside us. While we searched for a snake, I coaxed him into his stroller with the promise of graham crackers.

The Palmetto Trail ends at the parking lot for the Bayou Coquille Trail, and it was here that the park service had set up a kids’ tent complete with coloring pages, a scavenger hunt and pirate eye patches. Now down to one good eye, Charles concentrated hard on coloring the National Park Service badge his favorite color blue to earn his Junior Ranger badge.

An alligator watches us closely from her hiding spot.

Meanwhile, we continued our walk, amazed at the lack of water in the area. The normally high-water Bayou Coquille and Lower Kenta Canal were both choked over with plants, giving the appearance of land where water once stood. We had even lost hope in seeing an alligator until we reached the Pipeline Canal, where a high bridge offered a bird’s eye view of full-grown female gator.

At the trail’s end, a ranger sat at the boat launch offering free canoe rides. Paul and Charles suited up in their life jackets and paddled away in the canoe, while August giggled wildly and threw himself into the remaining life jackets. After the excitement was over, we found a quiet spot to sit and have our picnic lunch before heading back the way we had come.

A canoe tour of Pipeline Canal

Our one stop on the return trip was to hand in Charles’ coloring page, where the ranger made him raise his right hand (well, he thought it was his right!) and swore him in as a Junior Ranger. He proudly wore his badge, which gave him permission to boss around mommy and daddy all throughout the last leg of our four-mile hike.

Two Northshore Parks: Fontainebleau and Northlake Nature Center

Two Northshore Parks: Fontainebleau and Northlake Nature Center

Boys will be boys. That’s the one thing I have discovered to be overwhelmingly true about our three-year-old son, whose favorite color is blue, is obsessed with dinosaurs and thinks the greatest achievement in life is to find every bug that exists on this planet. Put a net in his right hand and a broken telescope in his left, and an adventure is already in the making. Take him to a state park with alligators, snakes and turtles, and his weekend dreams have come true.

Cabins at Fontainebleau State Park

 

Marsh trail at Fontainebleau

Hugging Lake Pontchartrain’s northern shoreline, Fontainebleau State Park is ideal for its close proximity to New Orleans and the prospect of a breeze blowing off the lake. We arrived early, paid our $1 per person fee and drove a quick loop to get the park’s layout. The visitor’s center and sugar mill ruins immediately caught our attention, but after driving across the longest bridge in the world to get here, we needed a long path to stretch our legs.

Parking by the water park and watching a group head off toward the beach, we crossed the open field to the hiking trail. It was well-maintained, providing an easy push for our strollers. A family on bikes cycled past and then we were alone in the forest. Some of the largest dragonflies I’d ever seen were out in full force, seemingly guiding our way to the water ahead.

We had entered the nearly 5-mile trail on its last leg, and it wasn’t long before the trees opened up to a surprisingly tranquil marsh. A long boardwalk stretched out over the water, and the only sounds were jumping fish and the occasional splash of a bird diving for lunch. At the end of the pier, we relaxed on a bench for several minutes, enjoying the peaceful setting until Paul spotted an alligator eyeing us from the dark water below.

Fontainebleau State Park Visitor’s Center

It was the heat, rather than the wildlife, that forced us to return the way we had come and take a break in the air conditioning while driving out to see the park’s cabin rentals. Perched on stilts over the water, the large cabins were secluded from the rest of the park and offered uninhibited views of Lake Pontchartrain. The ranger at the visitor center said they sometimes book a year in advance for peak seasons. We picked up a brochure and then explored the center, with its exposed beams, life-sized black bear and 600-year-old dugout canoe. The building offered a brief history of the area and fit in nicely with the sugar mill ruins crumbling outside its back doors.

Not far away in Old Mandeville, we grabbed lunch at The Broken Egg, the birth place of the breakfast and lunch chain called Another Broken Egg. In between playing dinosaurs, the kids managed to find time to devour a stack of pancakes while Paul and I opted for the lunch menu. Afterward, we took a quick look at the lake before heading back for round two of hiking.

Northlake Nature Center

The Northlake Nature Center lies across the street from Fontainebleau and offers a bit more of a rustic hiking experience. The strollers jolted over the tree roots as we made our way through the trail. A beaver pond was overrun by the same giant dragonflies we’d seen earlier, and Charles was ecstatic as he chased them down with his bug net. We scared away at least two snakes on our journey and became masters at scaling falling trees blocking the way ahead.

By the end of the day, we left with two sufficiently exhausted kids and a day’s worth of exercise in a natural setting. Of course, we also came away with countless bug bites…

Budding entomologist
Across the River to Algiers Point

Across the River to Algiers Point

Today we hopped in the car and started driving with no destination in mind. Heading toward downtown New Orleans, we made a split second decision to cross the Crescent City Connection when the bridge appeared in the distance. The first exit on the Westbank may not stand out as a tourist destination, but veer off General DeGaulle, follow the road past Federal City to the river and you arrive at Algiers Point.

Tout de Suite Cafe

Touted as the second oldest neighborhood in New Orleans, Algiers Point sits directly across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter. Originally the site of a slaughterhouse used by French settlers in the 1700s, today the area, with its tree-lined streets leading past homes and stores as old as the 1840s, reminded us of a smaller version of Uptown New Orleans.

We dropped in Tout de Suite Cafe for a quick iced coffee, but their appetizing muffins and croissants convinced us to stay for a second breakfast. While we ate, three-year-old Charles entertained other patrons by dancing a little jig to the live guitar music. When he decided the show was over, he darted out the door with us tailing behind.

Confetti Park

A few blocks down Verret Street, and we hit the jackpot with a small playground. Confetti Park, with its whimsical fence and mosaic walkway, is complete with slides, swings and ride-on toys. Here, Baby August bounced around on a bug car, while Charles blackened his fingernails by filling a dump truck with dirt.

Strapping them in their strollers, we walked past colorful plantations, shotguns and creole cottages. We had stopped to comment on the architecture when we heard a child’s squeal of delight. On the tree next to us was the empty shell of a cicada, which is now crouched on my coffee table staring at me with its sightless round eyes. A bug catcher on our bookshelf houses a dozen of his friends, the fruits of our walk turned scavenger hunt.

Old Masonic Hall on Olivier Street

As we wove up and down streets looking for the critters, we caught the attention of one gentleman who, noticing our random path through town, asked if we were visiting and offered us a brochure. In this community where everyone knows each other, a family of new faces stood out immediately. We chatted a while and found out his house on Olivier Street was once a former Masonic Temple later used as a dance hall where early Jazz musician Buddy Bolden played.

Our walk ended by a focal point of the neighborhood–Holy Name of Mary Church, an imposing Gothic church with 75 stained glass windows crafted in Germany. We drove out of town along the river, viewing New Orleans’ skyline from across the water. As we headed back to the bridge, a line of people waited to board the free passenger ferry ($1 roundtrip for vehicles), which would carry them from “The Point” to the foot of Canal Street.