Nature, nostalgia, and numerous recreation opportunities combine to make the northern shores of Lake Ponchartrain a perfect retreat — even if you aren’t from the Crescent City.
By Carolyn Thornton
On hot days, mothers watch their toddlers play at an interactive fountain at the Tammany Trace trailhead in Mandeville, Louisiana. The water spouts triggered by “lily pad” buttons are in a paved area outlined in the shape of Lake Ponchartrain. This simple, yet sophisticated, fountain symbolizes the lake’s Northshore region, whose slogan is “Where New Orleans Comes to Play.” That’s been true of this piney woods playground since the 1800s.
Lake Ponchartrain’s southern shore is occupied by the city of New Orleans. Before highway bridges existed, ferry boats and trains brought the first weekenders and summer guests from the city to the Northshore. By the late 1950s, the 24-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway linking New Orleans with Mandeville was completed, making the journey a quick half-hour commute.
Today the Northshore area, which also includes the towns of Abita Springs, Bush, Covington, Folsom, Lacombe, Madisonville, and Slidell, is more popular than ever, with its wide range of family-oriented diversions. By basing your motorhome at one of the area’s state parks or private RV campgrounds, you can be in the heart of the action. If your destination is New Orleans, camping in the Northshore area and commuting to town in your towed vehicle makes city driving much easier. Round-trip tolls across the Causeway (collected on the Northshore side only) are $3 for cars, $6 for vehicles with two axles, $9 for vehicles with three axles, and $12 for vehicles with four axles. Recreation vehicles are permitted on the Causeway as long as a wind advisory is not in effect. Tune your radio to AM 1700 for up-to-the-minute Causeway travel information.
If you don’t have a towed vehicle, consider staying at Fontainebleau State Park, where you can bike into the surrounding towns of Slidell, Mandeville, and Abita Springs via the Tammany Trace. This 31-mile Rails-to-Trails path follows the former route of the Illinois Central Railroad’s “Lakeshore Line” railway. Cyclists, in-line skaters, horseback riders, and hikers enjoy using this predominantly flat pathway that traverses Bayou Castine, Bayou Cane, wetlands, and pine forests — 12 ecological regions in all. For more information about Tammany Trace, call (800) 438-7223. Bicycles can be rented at the Kickstand Bike Rental in Mandeville (985-626-9300) or the Abita Springs Bike Rental (985-867-3323). Fountainebleau State Park is open year-round; for details, see the “Area Campgrounds” section at the end of this article.
Venture across U.S. 190 from Fontainebleau State Park to explore the boardwalk trails of Northlake Nature Center, home of the Great Louisiana Bird Fest each April. Guided treks to birding sites within St. Tammany Parish are the mainstay of this four-day event. In addition to cypress swamps, beaver dams, and the site of an archaeological survey where Acolapissa Indians lived 700 years ago, the Northlake Nature Center contains the ruins of a clubhouse and golf course planned for Governor Richard W. Leche. When Governor Leche was imprisoned after a 1939 scandal, the course was never finished. Not to worry; visiting golfers can tee off at three public courses in Slidell and one in Abita Springs. The nature center is open year-round from dawn to dusk and admission is free. For more information, call (985) 626-1238 or visit www.northlakenature.org.
The ultimate adventure for Northshore nature lovers is to board a boat operated by Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours, which departs from Crawford Landing near Slidell. Alligators (I counted seven during a recent tour), turtles, herons, water hyacinths, and centuries-old cypress groves are among nature’s highlights.
“We like to explain the value of wetlands,” said boat captain Barry Bagert, who defined a swamp as a flooded forest. He grew up hunting and fishing here. “It’s like showing someone your home,” he said.
Contrary to what most visitors guess, snakes and alligators are not the most dangerous swamp creatures. Red wasps are, and Mr. Bagert gave their nests a wide berth. He was much more comfortable tossing a marshmallow to “El Whoppo,” an alligator who lives in the Honey Island Swamp. The alligator’s name comes from its size, which is said to be approximately 14 feet long, although no one has ever gotten close enough for an exact measurement. For more information and to make tour reservations, call (985) 641-1769 or visit www.honeyislandswamp.com.
At the Global Wildlife Center in Folsom, you can take a 90-minute African-style safari tour without the hassles of visas, vaccinations, jetlag, or the expense of foreign travel. Here, every day is Mardi Gras — for the animals, that is, who beg for treats from visitors riding in covered wagons. Giraffes, zebras, camels, eland (African antelopes), and seven kinds of deer are among the 2,000 exotic and endangered animals that roam free on the center’s 900 acres. The animals’ favorite game is tug-of-war with your bucket of feed. The beasts usually win, which means you’ll be purchasing more feed halfway through the tour. The center is open year-round, seven days a week. For tour times and more information, call (985) 624-9453 or visit www.globalwildlife.com.
Speaking of Mardi Gras, Northshore festivities are more family-oriented and less crazy than those in the Crescent City. Street parades roll through Slidell, Covington, and Mandeville. Instead of throwing doubloon favors during the parade, the Original Krewe of Orpheus in Mandeville tosses “pineloons.” In this parody, prototype pinecones are sprayed Mardi Gras gold, green, and purple with an Orpheus doubloon attached to the bottom so that they will stand up like miniature Christmas trees. In Madisonville, a flotilla of decorated boats becomes a traffic stopper, keeping the drawbridge at State Route 22 open as it parades past. Motorhomers who camp two miles east at Fairview-Riverside State Park often can watch the boats assemble on the Tchefuncte (that’s “cha-funk-ta”) River.
Even if you don’t catch a thing at a Mardi Gras parade, you won’t have to leave the Northshore empty-handed. Shopping runs the gamut, from factory outlet stores in Slidell to name-brand department stores there and in Mandeville. Slidell’s Antique District in Olde Towne is bordered by Front Street and the railroad tracks, Robert Street, and Sgt. Alfred Drive. Several antiques dealers and markets are located next to art galleries, gift shops, and restaurants in this historic section of town.
Arrowed signs point the way to a cache of antique shops, boutiques, and artists’ galleries centered on and near Columbia Street in downtown Covington. At Art on Columbia, artists share studio space and take turns manning the store. Among them are Kathy Goertzen’s silk painting, Sandra Shaw-Jurenka’s painted children’s furniture, and Joan Bly’s garden mosaics. Louisiana flora and fauna — crabs, shrimp, fish, irises, and eggplants — are among the signature ceramic designs of Hasslock Studios on North Vermont Street. Perhaps you’d like to assemble a personal souvenir during a bead jewelry lesson at Stringbean’s Artwear (East Lockwood at Columbia). Nostalgic for things Granny used to buy? Putter around the H.J. Smith’s Son General Store and Museum, which has been in the same family since 1876.
If certain items — a seed cleaner or an icebox with lazy Susan-style shelves — in the general store look strange to contemporary shoppers, just wait until you see the odd collection housed at the UCM Museum in downtown Abita Springs. What was once a one-room, two-pump service station has been transformed into a wild and wacky collection of … well … stuff. Worn-out computer motherboards and modem boards cover the ceiling. Bottle caps march up and around door frames. License plates and photos of car wrecks decorate the walls. And that’s just the backdrop to what is, in fact, only the gift shop. A fee of $3 allows access to the funky folk art collection of John Preble, who claims to have more paint-by-number oil paintings than the Smithsonian Institution. A quirky collection of garden hoses, barbed wire, and bicycles (that honor the proximity of the Tammany Trace) also are part of the scene. Most amusing is Prebles’ animated 30-foot-long “River Road” miniature town, which illustrates southern Louisiana lifestyles. The museum is open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily except for major holidays. For information, call (985) 892-2624 or visit www.ucmmuseum.com.
American Indians once lived in the Abita Springs area. Legend tells of an ailing Choctaw maiden who was left beside the “Ibeta” springs with a hammock, some food, and a dipper to drink the water. Within a month she was cured. Word of the mineral-rich water spread. To escape the yellow fever epidemic of the late-19th century, New Orleans residents flocked to Abita Springs. By the turn of the century, the area was booming with four hotels, numerous boarding houses, five stores, and a company that bottled the spring water and shipped it throughout the United States.
The spring water that made the town famous is still being bottled by the Abita Springs Water Company. Visitors can experience fine dining at the Artesia Manor restaurant, which is housed in a former resort hotel building from the early part of the 20th century. Take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Abita Brewery & Brew Pub on State Route 36, or at least stop by for a root beer or brew. The pub makes a worthy destination for thirsty bikers of the Tammany Trace. Abita Springs’ narrow streets and tight corners are not suitable for larger motorhomes.
A gravel driveway and more tight turns that favor cars over motorhomes are found at Pontchartrain Vineyards and Winery, near the town of Bush. Since 1991, owners John and Sue Seago have grown grapes for table wines in the classic French tradition. They point out that they grow Blanc Du Bois and Cynthiana/Norton wine grapes, not the native muscadine variety. Their wines, such as Le Trolley and Zydeco Rosato, are whimsically named to celebrate the region. Jazz ‘n the Vines concerts, held the second and fourth Saturdays of each month from May through October, encourage the grapes to grow while music lovers ease back with picnic baskets, blankets, and folding chairs for an evening beneath the stars. For more information, call (985) 892-9742 or visit www.pontchartrainvineyards.com.
What is wine without cheese? On the Northshore, Creole cream cheese is making a comeback thanks to the Mauthe Dairy in Folsom. Smoother and creamier than commercial cottage cheese, Creole cream cheese is traditionally served on buttered French bread with salt and pepper. You can stock up on Creole cream cheese and fresh produce Saturday mornings and Wednesday afternoons at the Farmers’ Market in Covington on the City Hall grounds. Chefs’ demonstrations and music add to the experience.
The Northshore’s newest attraction is the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum and Research Center in Madisonville. The first phase of the museum covers frontier life and the commercial uses of luggers and schooners, which put this tiny town on the map. Phase two, which opened October 1, 2002, includes a 3/4-scale replica of a Louisiana steamboat at a dock. The addition also includes a 38-seat theater where visitors can watch a movie about the area’s history during the mid-1800s. When the museum is completed, other exhibits will cover Madisonville’s heyday during the early 1900s, and the secrecy surrounding a submarine built for the Civil War. Models, photographs, and memories from old-timers will recall the days when the Northshore area was New Orleans’ best-kept secret. For more information, call (985) 845-9200 or visit www.lpbmaritimemuseum.com
The following list focuses on Northshore area campgrounds only; many other RV parks can be found in the greater New Orleans area. Check your campground directory or Family Motor Coaching’s “Business Service Directory” for additional listings.
17145 Million Dollar Road
Covington, LA 70435
This campground offers 275 full-hookup sites and amenities such as a water slide, swimming pools, mini-golf, a game room, and fishing.
Fairview-Riverside State Park
P.O. Box 856
119 Fairview Drive
Madisonville, LA 70447
(877) 226-7652 (Reservations only)
Offers 81 sites with water and electricity. Amenities include pier fishing, lake crabbing, and canoeing (supply your own canoe).
Fontainebleau State Park
U.S. Highway 190
Mandeville, LA 70448
(877) 226-7652 (Reservations Only)
This campground offers 126 sites with water and electricity and amenities such as hiking, swimming, and fishing. The Tammany Trace runs through the park.
New Orleans East KOA
56009 Highway 433
Slidell, LA 70461
Includes 99 full-hookup sites, 27 sites with water and electric, with amenities such as a swimming pool, fishing, mini golf. Offers free shuttles to New Orleans, plus riverboat, plantation, and swamp excursions.
Pine Crest RV and Mobile Home Park
2601 Old Spanish Trail
Slidell, LA 70461
Offers more than 100 pull-through sites with an average size of 60 feet by 30 feet. Most are shaded. Full hookups, LP gas service, and RV service on site.