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
Down in Da Parish

Down in Da Parish

Lured into St. Bernard Parish by a festival, we ended up staying late into the evening to see plantations, a battlefield and chickens. That’s right, chickens kept us out way past nap time. But I digress. It all started when I saw the newspaper article about the Los Islenos Festival. Having skipped it the last two years, I was determined to go. So we called a friend who lived in “The Parish,” as St. Bernardians call their beloved home, and made plans to meet up with her there.

LeBeau Plantation

Driving along the back end of the French Quarter, past Bywater and the Lower Ninth Ward, we had a short pit stop to see two plantations that, although within walking distance of each other, are as different as night and day. LeBeau Plantation’s boarded up remains stand eerily proud behind a deep, grass field and a chain link fence. The new roof is in curious contrast to the gaping holes in the wall, but the home lends itself to being photographed. Meanwhile, on the property of the Domino Sugar Plant, the stately Cavaroc mansion appears well-loved in its pristine state. A word to the wise, though, snapping a picture of this beauty will earn you the disdain of the Domino Sugar guards, who descended upon our car, scrawling down our name and license plate number like we were suspected terrorists.

Chalmette Battlefield

Fleeing the scene of the crime, we continued on to Chalmette Battlefield, which marks the site of the Battle of New Orleans where General Andrew Jackson and his ragtag group of American troops held off the British attack during the final struggle of the War of 1812. Beginning in the newly built visitor’s center, we pressed the button to start the video while I mentally calculated how long I had before having to take off in a chase after Charles. Amazingly, the moving lights of an accompanying diorama kept his attention, and for the first time in years, we were able to see an entire movie. In the end, I broke his attention and dragged him away to look at a large drum so he didn’t see the final results of the war graphically displayed across the screen.

Back outside, he proudly waved his miniature American flag while we led him toward the oddly small Beauregard Plantation, built on the property in 1840. After posing for family pictures in front of our pretend home, we explored the empty rooms inside. The temperature dropped remarkably when we stepped onto the marble floors and felt the cool breeze blowing across the open, facing doors in every room. August lazily watched Charles racing through the house, while I stopped the toddler in his tracks by pointing out a “secret” door to the attic. Little did I know that the door would become the primary topic of discussion for the rest of the day, leading to elaborate stories about a six-armed green monster locked away by the superhero Batman.

The plantation sits on the edge of the Mississippi River levee, and after a quick climb up the steps, we were delighted to catch a glimpse of the Creole Queen paddlewheeler floating by. Another top attraction at the site is the multitudes of crawfish chimneys lining the path to the cannons. Charles was fascinated with peering inside, desperately trying to see the crawfish at the bottom.

Los Islenos Festival

Now starving, we made a beeline down the San Bernardo Scenic Byway, passing under an avenue of live oak trees flanking the roadway, to the food booths at the Los Islenos Festival. Advertised as “A celebration of Louisiana’s Spanish Heritage,” the festival paid tribute to the Canary Islanders who settled in the region in the 1700s. Along with Spanish food, music and dancing, we found local craft booths and spacewalks scattered throughout the Los Islenos Historic Village. After refueling on paella and sangria, we explored the museum-quality homes and their endless contribution of “secret doors.”

We enjoyed a few moments of rest while listening to the large group of Spanish singers on stage before packing everyone up and heading home. One last detour was meant to be a quick in and out picture of the Sebastopol Plantation. Being a private residence, we were surprised to see a sign advertising free tours from noon to 4 p.m. Not only is it a rare event to stumble upon free entrance into a plantation, it is even more amazing that at 4:30 p.m., the owner and curator, Alberta Lewis, saw us stop our car and came to offer us a tour past closing time.

Sebastopol Plantation

Charles, August and I made it almost through the history of the first room before having to go outside and spare the house from damage. While Paul was given a guided presentation of the 180-year-old house, the kids and I met a friend of the owner who engaged Charles in picking up pecans across the expansive yard. He then led us to the chicken coop, where roosters, chickens and two peacocks strutted all around our feet. We left carrying a basket of pecans, half a carton of fresh eggs and a lasting memory of the generosity of two St. Bernardians (one of whom also happened to be the talented artist behind Haydel’s king cake dolls).