Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Two Northshore Parks: Fontainebleau and Northlake Nature Center

Cabins at Fontainebleau State Park
Boys will be boys. That's the one thing I have discovered to be overwhelmingly true about our three-year-old son, whose favorite color is blue, is obsessed with dinosaurs and thinks the greatest achievement in life is to find every bug that exists on this planet. Put a net in his right hand and a broken telescope in his left, and an adventure is already in the making. Take him to a state park with alligators, snakes and turtles, and his weekend dreams have come true.

Marsh trail at Fontainebleau
Hugging Lake Pontchartrain's northern shoreline, Fontainebleau State Park is ideal for its close proximity to New Orleans and the prospect of a breeze blowing off the lake. We arrived early, paid our $1 per person fee and drove a quick loop to get the park's layout. The visitor's center and sugar mill ruins immediately caught our attention, but after driving across the longest bridge in the world to get here, we needed a long path to stretch our legs.

Parking by the water park and watching a group head off toward the beach, we crossed the open field to the hiking trail. It was well-maintained, providing an easy push for our strollers. A family on bikes cycled past and then we were alone in the forest. Some of the largest dragonflies I'd ever seen were out in full force, seemingly guiding our way to the water ahead.

We had entered the nearly 5-mile trail on its last leg, and it wasn't long before the trees opened up to a surprisingly tranquil marsh. A long boardwalk stretched out over the water, and the only sounds were jumping fish and the occasional splash of a bird diving for lunch. At the end of the pier, we relaxed on a bench for several minutes, enjoying the peaceful setting until Paul spotted an alligator eyeing us from the dark water below.

Fontainebleau State Park Visitor's Center
It was the heat, rather than the wildlife, that forced us to return the way we had come and take a break in the air conditioning while driving out to see the park's cabin rentals. Perched on stilts over the water, the large cabins were secluded from the rest of the park and offered uninhibited views of Lake Pontchartrain. The ranger at the visitor center said they sometimes book a year in advance for peak seasons. We picked up a brochure and then explored the center, with its exposed beams, life-sized black bear and 600-year-old dugout canoe. The building offered a brief history of the area and fit in nicely with the sugar mill ruins crumbling outside its back doors.

Not far away in Old Mandeville, we grabbed lunch at The Broken Egg, the birth place of the breakfast and lunch chain called Another Broken Egg. In between playing dinosaurs, the kids managed to find time to devour a stack of pancakes while Paul and I opted for the lunch menu. Afterward, we took a quick look at the lake before heading back for round two of hiking.

Northlake Nature Center
The Northlake Nature Center lies across the street from Fontainebleau and offers a bit more of a rustic hiking experience. The strollers jolted over the tree roots as we made our way through the trail. A beaver pond was overrun by the same giant dragonflies we'd seen earlier, and Charles was ecstatic as he chased them down with his bug net. We scared away at least two snakes on our journey and became masters at scaling falling trees blocking the way ahead.

By the end of the day, we left with two sufficiently exhausted kids and a day's worth of exercise in a natural setting. Of course, we also came away with countless bug bites... 

Budding entomologist

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Escaping to St. Francisville

Grace Church of West Feliciana Parish
After suffering through three days of rain over Labor Day weekend, I watched in disbelief as a week full of sunshine mocked me out my office window. Saturday couldn't come fast enough, and we were up and out the door before the geckos had even fled our porch from the night before.

We had saved this trip to St. Francisville until we had the perfect weather conditions, where every historic home glittered in the sunlight and low water levels provided access to the nation's largest cypress tree. Yet no matter how many times we visit this "best of the small towns," we always begin our adventure at Grace Church of West Feliciana Parish. Take two steps into the surrounding, tree-shrouded cemetery and you become immersed in history, walking among elaborately carved headstones honoring those who died nearly 200 years ago. The entire area gives the sense of treading through the pages of a book. Three-year-old, dinosaur hunter Charles must have shared the mystique, spinning me a tale of T-Rex eggs and triceratops bones lying just beneath the surface.
Magnolia Cafe

From the cemetery, we strolled around the historic district, making sure to peek in Grandmother's Buttons, before following a motorcycle crew to lunch at Magnolia Cafe. Outside on the screened-in porch, Paul and I filled up on overstuffed sandwiches, while August flirted with our table neighbors and Charles showed us his collection of dinosaur fossils in between mouthfuls of shrimp.

Our plans had included a trip to the garden ruins of Afton Villa, but a quick stop at the local tourist information let us know they didn't open until October 1. Instead, we left with a recommendation to visit Oakley Plantation, where famous naturalist John James Audubon once worked as a tutor while creating 32 of his intricate bird paintings. Charles spent his time here giving the resident peacock an afternoon workout followed by making us a meal of mushrooms and osage oranges in the cooking pot on display outside a slave cabin.

Oakley Plantation
Back downtown, we stopped in for an afternoon coffee at Birdman Coffee and Books and treated the kids to some chocolate ice cream. Rejuvenated, we headed back out, this time down a gravel road deep into Louisiana's wild country. Egrets and blue herons eyed us carefully as we passed their hunting grounds on our way to Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge. Our destination was the National Grand Champion bald cypress tree, accessible by land only from July through December and flooded by the Mississippi River the rest of the year. A short, half-mile hike led to the base of the tree, which unfortunately we could only admire for a few minutes before the inevitable mosquitoes launched their attack. So, while worth the visit, I would definitely recommend bringing bug spray.

Sufficiently exhausted, the kids slept soundly the whole way home, not even waking as we shouted the obligatory "Geaux Tigers!" while driving back over the LSU lakes.
National Grand Champion Bald Cypress