Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Grand Isle: Louisiana's Barrier Island

Grand Isle State Park
I'll be the first to admit that I don't know a blue jay from a bluebird, but experts and amateurs alike are welcome at the Grand Isle Migratory Bird Festival...at least that's what my husband, Paul, told me while packing us up for a two-hour drive to Grand Isle. I was quite doubtful that our three-year-old would be welcome among groups of whispering, tip-toeing bird watchers, but I plugged in the portable DVD player and took out the map for the drive.

Pelicans skimming the ocean.
There are two important things to know before you even get to Grand Isle: going one mile too fast will earn you a speeding ticket in Golden Meadow and the new, white bridge leading to the island is a toll bridge with no toll booth. Once you conquer these two obstacles, you emerge on a decent-sized island known for its fishing, birding and, of course, proximity to oil.

We picked up some poboys at the elevated deli near the beginning of the island and carried them over to the beach for a picnic lunch. The wind whipped in our face, blowing sand and our napkins across the parking lot, but Charles was oblivious while he marched off with bucket and shovel in hand. The beach here is not the fine white sand you find in Florida, but rather crushed shells packed tight into a solid surface. We soon found out there are other perks, though, as a dolphin playfully danced through the ocean right in front of us while dozens of brown pelicans skimmed the surface of the water searching for food.

Charles on his first fishing trip
Finishing off lunch, we drove to the far end of the island to Grand Isle State Park. The park was free for the birding festival, but the beach was closed due to large amounts of tar balls showing up at the water's edge. As we walked the length of the fishing pier, we gazed longingly at the finer, silky sand that was off-limits to visitors. Several weekend vacationers were manning fishing poles at the end of the T-shaped pier, and in the 20 minutes we watched, they pulled in four catfish and an enormous sting ray. Charles even got to guard a fishing pole while one kid left to drop his latest catch in the ice chest.

Birdwatchers in the Grilleta Tract
On to the birding festival, we parked our car at the Nature Conservancy trail head marking the entrance to the Grilleta Tract. One of the last remaining stands of maritime forest on the island, it's a prime location for a phenomenon known as a "fallout." When thousands of exhausted, migrating birds fly into a thunderstorm, they are forced to fall out of the sky and seek refuge in the island's trees. Our arrival didn't coincide with a storm, but we still saw hundreds of birds -- and dozens of onlookers -- along the trail. We were oblivious to what we were looking at, but made a good showing by hiding behind our camera and binoculars. We almost got away with it until a serious birdwatcher carrying an actual telescope asked us what we were taking photos of, and Paul answered, "the trees."

View from the golf cart
The trail ended at the backyard of Bobby Santini, who welcomed us onto his property to view his pictures of birds and taste the berries from his mulberry tree. This is where our second goof occurred when the "roosters" I pointed out to Charles went inside their coop to lay some eggs. At that point, I figured we could give up our act. Charles' sudden interest in Mr. Bobby's golf cart had him taking the toddler and Paul for a ride, while I sat on the porch swing with August, who flirted away with Mrs. Santini. It turned out the native Grand Islanders lived in a 213-year-old house -- the oldest on the island -- and it had survived both hurricanes Betsy and Katrina.

The golf ride revealed a great playground just a few streets away, and the kids and I stopped over to explore it while Paul went back for the car. Later, back on the main road searching for a dinner spot, we found a cute souvenir shop where Charles landed a pirate's hat and Paul picked up some shells. The shop owner's recommendation then led us to Sarah's Restaurant where we pigged out on fried fish and potato salad, and Charles scared the other patrons with his rendition of a pirate. After a long day, I rewarded myself with a daiquiri for the ride home as we drove back out onto the thin road surrounded by endless wetlands on either side.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Neighboring State

Dolphin sculpture

NOTE: While this blog is tagged for travel within Louisiana, I've decided to branch out a bit and give a glimpse into a neighboring state. 

Heading east on I-10, a bathroom break for our finally potty-trained (yes!) 3-year-old turned into a destination at the Mississippi Welcome Center. The NASA shuttle stop first caught my attention, where buses were whisking families away to a tour of the nearby Stennis Space Center. Tugging August out of his carseat, I turned and caught a glimpse of the spider-shaped Lunar Lander hoisted in the air behind us. I just knew this was going to fascinate Charles as much as me, and I was giddy when I spun around to point it out to him.

He was nowhere in sight, and I had a moment of panic until I heard a familiar clacking noise. There he was, halfway across the well-manicured lawn, pushing his bubble-blowing lawnmower his cousin had given him for his birthday. I couldn't believe the attention he was getting. At least seven people shouted comments his way, most asking him to come mow their yard next. He was oblivious to his audience, fully intent on his mission at hand. I sighed as I jogged over to redirect him to the original reason we stopped, while my husband Paul went inside the main lobby to add to our extensive collection of travel brochures.
Charles, August and the lawnmower

Back outside, I managed to convince the family to cross the street and view the Apollo-era Lunar Lander, but I never seemed to garner the awe and amazement I was shooting for. That lawnmower was just too much competition. Oh, well. At least I was impressed.

Beyond the Welcome Center, we had traveled that day to Mississippi to visit Pass Christian, a coastal town that was having their annual "Art in the Pass" festival. Nestled up snug against the Gulf Coast, the town was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina and remnants of its damage could still be seen in the barren pillars marking the spots of past homes. But much of the town had returned, and the festival took place in a lovely park complete with a bandstand, playground and Marvin Miller's oversized wooden sculptures carved into the remains of once mighty oak trees.

Art booths at Art in the Pass
Nearly 100 artists exhibited their works in booths, while local vendors offered up various options for lunch. We racked up in the children's tent, leaving with a bag full of crayons, environmental coloring books and a stuffed sandhill crane. The event was typical of most other art festivals--except for the view. A quick run across Highway 90 and we were shoeless and walking across a sandy beach toward the water. It took the kids some time to get used to the squishy feeling between their toes, but soon Charles abandoned all reservations and was squealing with delight while chasing seagulls across the beach.

After a monumental effort to drag the kids back to the car, we headed off in search of coffee. Our quest led us along 90 over an impressive new bridge to Bay St. Louis. I was pleasantly surprised by the "downtown" area that ranked high on my list of best small towns. There wasn't much time left in the day for a thorough investigation, but the drive by St. Stanislaus College Prep and our quick cruise up Main Street left me wondering why I had never been here before.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Closer look at City Park

Antique carousel in the Amusement Park
Journalist Chris Rose was on the news the other night expounding on how most people don't play tourist in their own city. He, for example, had never been to the World War II Museum or Preservation Hall. While I had both of these covered, there were some places in New Orleans still left to discover. Take City Park. I have probably been there hundreds of times and, despite Charles' wide-eyed, open-mouthed stare every time the pint-sized train tooted past us, I had never ridden with him on it. So today we were taking a concentrated section of the park and exploring its full potential.

Miniature train garden in the Botanical Garden
We started off low-key with a leisurely stroll through the Botanical Garden. (A useful tip, buy a City Park membership, and enjoy free admission to the Botanical Garden, Storyland and the Amusement Park.) Built by the Works Project Administration (WPA), the Garden takes you on a winding journey past fish ponds, a rose garden, ancient live oaks, a butterfly garden, a Japanese tea garden and much more. Flowing sculptures by Enrique Alferez hold prominent spots among the vibrant flowers.

A favorite of my three-year-old was the tropical rainforest, where a surprise snake hides deep within the waterfall's cavern. The only way we could lure him away was by tempting him with the hunt for lizards in the cactus garden. The final stop was the miniature train garden featuring small streetcars and trains chugging along amidst carved New Orleans homes and buildings. It's the perfect place to build anticipation and excitement over the upcoming train ride.
Mother Goose takes flight in Storyland

A short walk down the road past a giant Little Bo Peep and Humpty Dumpty lies the entrance to Storyland - a whimsical playground for young children. While Charles pretended to be Captain Hook battling Peter Pan on board the pirate ship, August came out of his usual Moby-wrap induced sleep and opened one eye to peer warily at the Big Bad Wolf hiding in Grandma's House. From Pinocchio's whale to the old lady who lived in a shoe, every childhood fairytale memory was vividly brought to life.

City Park's train
Storyland's back gate opens up into an amusement park complete with a roller coaster, twirling and spinning rides and country fair-style games. The lights and sounds were still scary to the eyes of a toddler, so we bypassed it all heading to the far side of the park. Only the carousel, exquisitely restored after Katrina, caused a slight pause in reaching our destination. But when we saw the crowd boarding the train, we ran to catch up and grabbed two seats near the very back.

With a blow of its whistle, the train pulled out onto the tracks, taking us on a sightseeing tour of the south side of the park. We waved at bystanders, pointed out the swans relaxing under a bridge and watched the streetcar clatter by on Carrollton Avenue. The duration was just perfect as attention spans were maxing out right as we pulled alongside the Botanical Gardens and soon slowed to a stop.

Irises blooming in the Sculpture Garden
Breaking for a snack and juice, we enjoyed two minutes of relaxation before carrying on to one of my favorite places in City Park - the Sculpture Garden. Anything goes here in this artistic haven, from monkeys morphing into humans and an enormous spider with spindly legs to blue dogs and oversized Mardi Gras beads in trees. April is iris time in south Louisiana, and we were greeted with a rainbow of blooming irises gracing the edge of the water that cuts a path through the sculptures.

It was a packed morning and early afternoon, but for once, we made it home in time for a late lunch and Charles' nap. Meanwhile, my daydreams of catching a few minutes of shut eye were dashed once I realized, after having slept through most of our day's adventures, August was now rearing to go...