21 JUN 2010: These days there’s no getting around talking about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Mention Louisiana and you’re most likely to envision oil and gooey black tar balls making their way up the Mississippi River to Baton Rouge. Well I can tell you it ain’t so. I just returned a few days ago from Shreveport, LA and St. Tammany Parish and the folks down there want your clients to visit.
Tourism is a big industry here, and right now this state is desperate to keep its local economies afloat. I dined in luxe restos and roadside diners, toured wilderness refuges, and managed to rub shoulders with alligator lovers, etouffee connoisseurs and shrimp fishermen – who all maintained that undeniable gift that Louisianians hold dear: laissez les bon temps rouler. That’s ‘let the good times roll’.
The thing is, these locals have a steely resilience toward adversity. They survived hurricanes like Katrina and Rita. Heck even my own godfather, Öcsi Bácsi (a retired oil engineer who owned a roadside motel outside New Iberia), was not going to let a little old thing like a hurricane get the better of him. Ask me what he did when Rita arrived; well, that’s a whole other story.
In New Orleans, we explored the French Quarter and it was hopping with festivals. People moseyed along Bourbon, Royal and Decatur Streets like always. And the historic St. Charles streetcar was busy taking patrons along the Garden District.
North of New Orleans is Louisiana’s Northshore. You can cross off two superlatives from your bucket list when driving this 39-km stretch. Drive along the Causeway Bridge into Mandeville in St. Tammany Parish and you just drove the world’s longest bridge over the second largest saltwater lake in the United States, Lake Pontchartrain. You can’t see the other side for the lake is so big.
For real southern hospitality, head over to Louie and the Redhead Lady in Mandeville. This popular roadside diner is big on friendly customer service and serves haute diner food. Louie Finnan, owner and chef, is a self-confessed culinary purist. Only the best is good enough for him.
“Would you serve your mother that? That’s what I live by when we cook here,” Louie says as a plateful of fried oysters hits the table. “Now that’s what they oughta look like,” he smiles broadly at the golden nuggets.
The haute part is orange juice from California, Canadian bacon and a six-grain bread from acclaimed chef Susan Spicer in New Orleans. Family recipes are culled into cultural mosaics showcasing an all-you-can-eat Fried Shrimp Platter (US$8.99); Eggplant Algiers with Louie’s Stairway to Heaven (US$13) and the house specialty, a trio platter (US$13.99) of fried catfish, shrimp and oysters. Come plenty hungry.
Seafood is a staple here so when the news first broke of the BP oil spill restaurants stocked up on their staples. “I got a freezer full of shrimp and oysters I bought last month. I’ll use that until it’s gone,” he notes.
Accommodations run the gamut from no-nonsense chains like the newly opened Country Inn & Suites equipped with a fitness center, pool, free Internet and continental breakfast including happy hour served at 5:30pm Monday through Thursday with wine and appetizers.
Quaint B&Bs are great alternatives to spend time with the locals. I stayed at a charming spot called Camellia House B&B in the historic district of Covington. Inn keepers Linda and Don Chambless have a wealth of suggestions on local activities and dining options. The on-site pool was a fabulous surprise.
Critter watching is a must down here. Families can spend hours at the safari-friendly Global Wildlife Center in Folsom touring via a private jeep or a tractor-driven train across this southern savannah. Over 4,000 animals roam in secure areas. Picture European Red deer, bison, giraffes, and a Bactrian camel named Aladdin.
Christina Cooper, the center’s education and development director, nursed Skippy the red kangaroo, and now his playground is open for photo-ops and friendly petting sessions. He’s very soft, cute and cuddly. Actress Elizabeth Shue visited four times with her kids. “She loved the place so much,” says Christina.
Local wildlife roams freely at the Honey Island Swamp. Four tour operators are available to whisk clients on an out-of-this-world guided swamp tour. I took Dr. Paul Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours in which sightings of the biggest American alligator ever are guaranteed! El Whappo is his name. The 14-foot male lives in the Gum Bayou and enjoys snacking on wild boar.
I asked Paul Trahan, the owner, what would happen if the oil should ever reach these parts. This nature reserve is northeast of Lake Pontchartrain. “We’re going to be affected and if we get a hurricane that oil’s going everywhere.”
June is usually a slow season but on the day of my swamp tour, a boat load of us shimmied into the aluminum covered craft. We drifted down the Spanish moss dripping bayou through alleys of tall grasses. The swamp gets more beautiful and richer by the moment. Great blue herons stand on driftwood like sentinels with their long wings turned outward catching the sun.
All the while watching this nature show, I wondered if this would be the last time any of us would see the Honey Island Swamp in its full glory.
Dr. Paul Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours (www.honeyislandswamp.com).
Where to eat: This culinary scene arguably rivals that of New Orleans from the luxe La Provence, helmed by Northshore native Chef John Besh and up and coming chef de cuisine Erick Loos IV, to Lola where this sensational husband and wife team Keith and Nealy Frentz carved their teeth at the notable Brennan’s of New Orleans. I loved the amiable Louie at Louie and the Redhead Lady who waves to his customers and is known to pull up a seat for long chats.
Sleep: Camellia House B&B (www.camelliahouse.net) and Country Inn & Suites (www.countryinns.com/covingtonla)
For updates on the oil slick affecting Louisiana visit www.emergency.louisiana.gov. For updates on St. Tammany Parish visit the parish government’s web site www.stpgov.org. For travel information visit www.louisiananorthshore.com
Louisiana views: photo credit: Ilona Kauremszky