Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Stroll Down Oak Street

Main streets across the country have designed themselves into one-stop destinations, luring us in with fancy sidewalks and nice landscaping and then keeping us there with an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants and coffee shops. Uptown New Orleans has several of these main streets--Magazine, Maple, Freret and the newly overhauled Oak Street (home to the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival).

Rue de la Course on Oak and Carrollton
Feeling a burst of energy Friday evening, we picked the kids up from daycare and took them out on the town to Oak Street. First stop was Rue de la Course coffee shop, which looking back was probably the source of our energy burst. Housed in an old bank building with ultra high ceilings, the shop offers interesting views of gargoyles and owls, which always manage to catch Charles' attention while we enjoy the first few sips of coffee.

Hard decisions at Blue Cypress Books
Then we were off to stroll the street, peaking in a few used clothing stores before visiting Blue Cypress Books. The kids and I sat on the floor by the children's section, rummaging through the second-hand books. The resident cat decided to join us for a while until August, crawling and dragging along a jack-in-the-box, chased him across the store. We bought an interesting paperback and sat on the nearby corner bench, listening to the streetcar rattle by while we read about a frog and his adventures in the city.

Across the street, Skip N' Whistle displayed an array of New Orleans' themed t-shirts. Before we could shop around, though, Charles had escaped up the roped-off stairs and we had to drag him off to our next destination--recently opened Tru Burger. The burgers, hot dogs and fries were perfect for an evening meal with the kiddos, but anyone out for an adult meal might want to venture farther down the road to Jacques-Imo's or Cowbell.
So many choices at Adventure Ice Cream

As if we hadn't eaten enough for one night, we crossed the street once again to Adventure Ice Cream. Made with milk from Kleinpeter Farms Dairy, the creamy ice cream was a big hit with both kids and Paul and I snuck a few bites as well. The perfect ending might have been a walk along the Mississippi River levee just up the street, but relaxing on our couch before an early bedtime was divine as well.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

St. Tammany's East Side: Slidell

Boardwalk through Camp Salmen Nature Park
6:15 a.m. and both kids were up and rearing to go. Charles was pulling on his shoes while asking me in the sweetest toddler voice possible, "Mommy, can we go on an adventure today?" August squealed in agreement. I checked the temperature, and it was already 80 degrees out and rising rapidly.

Over bowls of cereal, we struggled with our obvious dilemma--where could we go that was outside the city yet close enough to explore before the afternoon heat fried us all.  "How about Camp Salmen?" Paul suggested, and off we went across the lake toward Slidell.

One of countless grasshoppers
Home to boy scouts for nearly 60 years, Camp Salmen was later acquired by St. Tammany Parish and is undergoing a transformation into a nature park. As we stepped out into the baking heat, scenic Bayou Liberty beckoned us over to its cooling waters.

With every step we took forward, the ground seemed to come alive around us. Enormous grasshoppers  circled our feet, and Charles thought we had brought him to Heaven. Overcome with both fear and excitement, he was shaking each time he reached his small fingers down to catch another one. Before we knew it, we had a Ziploc bag full of the black and red-striped insects.

Garden designed around Camp Salmen ruins
The poor critters were carried on a tour across the property, from the boardwalk by the bayou to the garden-bed ruins. We made it through two separate trails before succumbing to the heat and running through a nearby sprinkler while retreating to the car. Our tour was enough to show that the parish has great plans for this work-in-progress park, which promises to be one of the most scenic sites in St. Tammany.

After a quick detour to the Dollar Store to buy another bug catcher, we stopped off in Old Towne Slidell for a burger and fried pickles at the Times Grill. The restaurant is located on Front Street, which runs along Bayou Bonfouca. Old Towne houses several antique shops, clothing stores and Heritage Park with its playground, walking paths and boat launch.

For the more adventuresome, Slidell is also the launching site for tours of Honey Island Swamp and The Nature Conservancy's White Kitchen Preserve. Skipping the swamp tour for today, we did swing by The Nature Conservancy site where a short boardwalk offered a peak into the area's wetlands as well as a chance to see a bald eagle nest.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hidden Away in Houma


Scenic Bayou Black

Amidst all the flooding concerns of late, towns in the path of the Morganza Spillway have garnered a lot of attention--including ours. Like all those people seen perched on the edge of the Bonnet Carre, we wanted to be part of the action, but certainly not too close. Houma seemed like a reasonable compromise, with homes sandbagged and lined with Tiger Dam, but actually no water in sight.

Southdown Plantation
On the relatively quick drive down, I pulled out our guidebooks and started mapping out the day. Houma's most famous landmark appeared to be Southdown Plantation, a pink and green, 19th century manor house that stands as a monument to the once booming sugar industry in Terrebonne Parish. Today the mansion is home to the Terrebonne Museum of history, culture and arts, as well as musician Tab Benoit's Voice of the Wetlands festival every October. We've learned not to even attempt taking the kids on a house tour, but we did stretch our legs by walking the expansive yard, still searching for a cicada for Charles' bug catcher.

Lunch at The French Loaf offered possibly the best poboys we've ever tasted--lightly fried seafood and fluffy, crisp bread. It was by chance that we stopped here, driving along Park Ave. searching for food. I even had second thoughts about going inside the non-descript, wooden shack, but I'm certainly glad we did.

Peacock at Wildlife Gardens
Rejuvenated and ready to pick up our tour again, we drove Little Bayou Black Road, looking for more plantations and enjoying the rural scenery. Taking a detour onto Bull Run Road, we saw several people boarding a boat at Munson's Swamp Tours and passed the entrance to Bois d'Arc Gardens, an iris garden open in March and April to visitors.

Looping around onto Bayou Black Road, we were headed to the Wildlife Gardens for a walking tour through a cypress swamp. We were expecting a more prominent entrance than the rustic signs pointing the way and a closed-up shop. Despite being a bed and breakfast, the gardens were empty of any humans, but several colorful peacocks beckoned us inside. A trail overtaken by large spiders led us past several cabins and around a small pond.

Trail through Wildlife Gardens
After running into dead ends over several bridges, we were about to turn back when we spotted an enormous alligator inside a short, wire cage. Intimidated by the lack of protection separating us, we kept our distance while following the path around what turned out to be an alligator farm. Several more gators, each larger than the last, lay eerily still within the fencing, although we could feel them following us with their eyes. A trapper's cabin stood at the far end of the trail, and a separate cage held more than a dozen frisky, hissing juvenile gators.


The hair on my neck rose as I finally realized we were carrying two small children, surrounded by these fierce creatures on a dark, wooded property that we were possibly trespassing on. Paul snapped one last picture, and we nearly ran out of the area, breathing a sigh of relief as we reached our car and the peacock perched in the tree above us.

Walking path and bridges along Bayou Terrebonne
The rest of Bayou Black Road was tranquil and relaxing, and we made one last stop for a short hike at Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge before heading back into town. The day had become a scorcher and the kids were overdue for a nap, but I wanted to see the nicely landscaped park in front of the parish courthouse and the elegant path along Bayou Terrebonne. To complete the day, we picked up a basket of peaches from one of the fruit stands lining the road, dreaming of the peach and blueberry cobbler they soon would become.