Before You Go
For more information, contact St. Tammany Parish Tourist Commission at 1-800-634-9443 or visit online at the Web site
To plan your trip, stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, TripTiks and TourBook guides.

A boy getting a good laugh while feeding a buffalo at the Global Wildlife Center. /Louisiana Office of Tourism photos

Escape across the lake
The North Shore serves as a retreat for New Orleans, with galleries, a scenic rails-to-trails path, shopping and animal encounters

Published: Jul/Aug 2002
By Carolyn Thornton

New Orleanians, seeking to escape the city’s heat a century ago, boarded the Susquehanna or New Camelia lake boats to the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain. During the 2 1/2-hour crossing, passengers dined or danced to music played by onboard bands. Some strolled the decks, alerting others when the pines of the North Shore appeared.

Thanks to the 24-mile-long Causeway Bridge, today’s journey only takes half an hour, but one thing hasn’t changed. The North Shore is still the Crescent City’s playground, and Southern travelers are discovering diversions undreamed of a hundred years ago.

Yesterday’s resort, today’s playground

In the early 1900s bathhouses, boarding houses, resort hotels, and a couple of casinos lined Mandeville’s beachfront. Today, the only beach is at Fontainebleau State Park, which once was the sugar plantation of founder Bernard de Marigny de Mandeville.

In the oldest part of town–where the steamboats once landed–the lakefront has been preserved as green space. A paved path meanders beside weathered live oaks. Facing the lake, new residences have borrowed architectural elements from the past, complementing the remaining historic homes. The old pharmacy has been resurrected as a restaurant. The former movie theater is now a nightclub. Houses along the narrow side streets have been converted into art galleries, boutiques or bed and breakfast lodging.

A few blocks inland, the headquarters for the Tammany Trace puts Mandeville in the heart of the 31-mile rails-to-trail pathway that connects Slidell in eastern St. Tammany Parish with Abita Springs north of Mandeville.

Piney woods watering hole

A green caboose marks the trailhead for the Tammany Trace in Abita Springs, a 19th-century resort renown for its sulfur-rich springs. During its heyday, three trains ran daily between New Orleans and Abita Springs. Passengers could find lodging in four resort hotels or a number of boarding houses. Abita had five stores and a bottling company that sold spring water around the country.

Today, Abita’s water is still bottled at the Abita Springs Brewery (weekend tours available) and served at the brew pub and restaurant next door (near the bike trail). A 60-foot-wide gazebo in Abita Tourist Park marks the site where the spring once flowed.

Abita Springs is a quiet country town but giggles come from behind the door of the 1950s-style gas station that is home to the UCM Museum (pronounced “you-see-’em museum”). UCM stands for Unusual Collection and Miniature town, a quirky title for the catchall collection of artist and collector John Preble. Doors, walls, windows and ceilings are decorated with bottle caps, license plates and worn-out computer innards–and that’s just in the front-room gift shop.

Beyond lies a wild, wacky world of imaginative, manufactured creations, including a “bassigator” (half bass, half alligator), a “dogigator” (half dog, half alligator) and a “quackigator” (half duck, guessed it).

This hands-on museum appeals to children because, as Preble says, “If it breaks, it can be fixed.”

Preble, whose paintings have been exhibited at the New Orleans Museum of Art, claims to have nearly as many paint-by-number works of art as the Smithsonian. The most amusing of Preble’s trash-to-treasure endless oddities are his hand-built animated River Road scenes. Miniature buildings depict businesses named after relatives.

On a serious note, the classroom and studio of the North Shore Art Academy is located in a Creole cottage on the UCM Museum grounds. Preble and visiting artists teach the classes.

For the love of art and music

A furniture craftsman at work in Covington, which offers a treasure trove of galleries and boutiques featuring art, crafts, furniture and more. /Louisiana Office of Tourism photos
While all the North Shore towns appeal to artists and art lovers, Covington has the largest cache of galleries and artists-in-residence. As a sampling, the Legato Gallery features Louisiana artists from painters to metal workers. The Brunner Gallery exhibits contemporary works by local, regional and national artists. Hasslock Studios offers tours and workshops in Majolica pottery.

Columbia Street, a pedestrian’s delight, offers stores such as Art on Columbia, where a group of talented friends display their personal creations of painted furniture, jewelry and decorative items. A few blocks down the street, H.J. Smith’s Son has been operating as a general store since 1876. The store’s hardware museum is filled with vintage items and photographs.

Between May and October, music lovers arrive at Pontchartrain Vineyards on state Highway 1082 with lawn chairs, blankets, picnic dinners and a thirst for the vineyard’s table wines and great concerts.

“Wine was produced in St. Tammany before Prohibition,” said vintner John Seago, who produces wines in the classic French tradition, but gives them names unique to the region (Zydeco Rosato). Jazz ‘n’ the Vines performances are equally diverse.

New to the North Shore is phase one of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum and Research Center in Madisonville. The first exhibit area, Wood and Water, shows how wooden boats shaped the development of Louisiana communities. An exhibit depicting the Madisonville port in 1900 is due to open this fall, and an area about Civil War’s secret weapon, a submarine, will open in winter 2003.

The museum’s main fund-raising event is the September Wooden Boat Festival (Sept. 28–29), highlighted by the Quick & Dirty Boat Building Parade and Race. Teams of four (often dressed in costumes) have two days to build a water-worthy craft from identical sets of materials. Awards go to the first to sink, the best-crafted and the race winner.

Animal attractions

These giraffe are among more than 3,000 animals that roam on 900 acres at the Global Wildlife Center near Folsom . /Louisiana Office of Tourism photos
At the Global Wildlife Center near Folsom, there’s a daily parade of animals, more than 3,000 in total. Eland, giraffe, bison, zebra and deer roam over 900 acres. Visitors ride in covered wagons through the park, and the animals flock to the train to get a snack.

A guide instructed me to use both hands to hold the bottom of my bucket, although I lost the container to a greedy camel. Since this is a common occurrence, intermittent stops allow time to purchase additional feed.

For truly wild encounters, Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp tours near Slidell take nature lovers into an ancient flooded forest. As passengers spied turtles, alligators, herons and egrets, guide Barry Bagert nosed the flat-bottom boat into a waterway protected by the Nature Conservancy. Bald cypress with “knees” protruding from their root systems and tupelo gum with swollen bases from years spent in water blocked the sunlight.

“We want people to understand the swamp, the way it works and the value of wetlands. It’s like showing someone your home,” Bagert said.

That sentiment applies to the North Shore as well.

Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.

Contents may not be reproduced in whole or in part unless expressly authorized in writing by AAA Traveler Magazines.