Tuesday, March 19, 2013

St. Bernard: From Old Arabi to Shell Beach

A feathered resident of Shell Beach

Nearly two years ago, we drove the San Bernardo Scenic Byway through St. Bernard Parish, headed for the Chalmette Battlefield and the Los Islenos Fiesta. This weekend we returned to hit a few spots we had missed on our initial journey, starting with Old Arabi and finishing in Shell Beach where another Louisiana roadway abruptly ends at a large body of water.

Old courthouse and jail in Arabi
As soon as you cross into St. Bernard Parish, you reach the Old Arabi Historic District. A quick drive up and down the roads leads past a number of historic sites, such as the "Andy Griffith-style" jail built in 1911. The beautifully designed Maumus Center, St. Bernard's first high school that later served as a community center, was gutted and undergoing a massive overhaul that would undoubtedly return this building to its previous splendor. 

LeBeau Plantation
One of the most fascinating landmarks in Old Arabi is LeBeau Plantation, an 1854 mansion boarded up and presiding over a large open field. The very sight of it conjures up ideas of ghost stories and tales untold. Down the street, however, the Greek Revival Cavaroc House appears in pristine condition at the end of a row of majestic palm trees. The two homes can't be more different, though. While one stands in near ruin yet proudly displayed for photographs, the other is a bright gem next to the industrialized Domino Sugar Refinery yet tightly guarded against any would-be sightseers. In fact, try to take a picture of this mansion, and you'll be tracked down, instructed to delete all your photos and have your license plate number recorded. I'm talking hyper-security.

So we carried on, following the scenic byway past the Chalmette National Historic Park and National Cemetery and under a lane of live oaks known as the Dockville Oaks. When the main road split and headed east, we turned right and continued alongside the Mississippi River to St. Bernard State Park. Letting the kids run out some energy, we started with a short nature trail linking the picnic area to the swimming pool, a top attraction during the hot summer months. Luckily, they were in the mood to run because one pause and the mosquitoes attacked. We escaped quickly and found safety in the open picnic area, where we ate our PB&J sandwiches next to a very curious lizard. Halfway through the gourmet meal, the kids spotted the playground and went off to climb, jump and make sand castles--in between sneaking around poles to "spy" on the girls celebrating a birthday party.

The Old Courthouse near the Los Islenos Fiesta
It was a nice break before climbing back in the car and backtracking our way to the byway again. We soon approached the Old Courthouse, an impressive building for any city, but even more so being located in the largely rural section of the parish. Just past the courthouse, a long line of people and the flickering lights of carnival rides alerted us that we had once again visited during the Los Islenos Fiesta. We were tempted to stop but chose to continue on to our destination of Shell Beach, the tiny fishing community we had not reached previously because the road was closed. Alas, a few minutes later and we discovered that the road was still closed two years later. This time, however, we were not so easily thwarted, and instead turned the car around and returned west until we found a crossover to Highway 46, a parallel route to the byway. 
Katrina Memorial

The highway bypassed the small towns and provided a quicker route to Florissant Highway, the far-reaching road to Shell Beach and Hopedale. Ruins of homes, vehicles and bare, dead trees stood as hurricane casualties, leaving the eerie impression that we were approaching nothing more than an abandoned village. And then the scenery changed and a waterway stacked with colorful boats led to a thriving, vibrant community. Pelicans guided the last few miles of our drive until we parked in front a memorial dedicated to those who died during Hurricane Katrina. A large cross bearing the face of Jesus was rooted in the waters before us, and a plaque listed the names of the St. Bernard residents who passed.

Climbing out of the car, I mistakenly thought ash was falling from the sky around me. It only took a moment to realize it was a flurry of biting gnats. A family, with every inch of their bodies covered with clothing, was fishing and crabbing here, and the birds sat patiently awaiting their next catch. In the distance, the remains of a large fort was oddly out of place floating above a sea of marsh grass. While I swatted the bugs, the kids seemed oblivious, instead chasing birds and collecting oyster shells before we gave up and retreated to the car.

Crabber protected from the gnats
Our final stop was Sebastopol Plantation, a place we had fond memories of from our previous visit. We passed through the gate thinking we would soon see owner Alberta Lewis, who would gladly let the boys marvel at the chicken coop. Instead, we found her son, who broke the news that his mother had passed away. However, he was just as eager to let us roam the property. Since our last visit, and before Alberta had died, she had acquired a set of turkeys to add to her collection of chickens, roosters and peacocks. Much larger than I expected, the male turkey strutted and shimmied all around us, preparing for a showdown with our four-year-old, who was only slightly taller than the bird. It was the perfect ending to our day's adventures and left us with much to talk about later.

Sebastopol's turkey

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A River Road Weekend

Laura Plantation
It's a rare event that we have an adults-only weekend, but acknowledging the antiques and information-filled tours at many River Road plantations, we reserved our trip there for just such a time. We started late on Saturday (after soccer, of course), dropped the kids at their grandparents and headed out I-10 toward Sorrento.

First up was dinner at The Cabin Restaurant, an original slave cabin from Monroe Plantation. Newspaper still plastered the inside, once used to insulate the former home. Filled with old farming equipment, our back dining room was built to look like a garçonnière, where bachelors stayed on a plantation. The food was hearty and low-key, with the chicken and sausage gumbo coming as a top recommendation from our waitress. There appeared to be a collection of old buildings in the courtyard--slave cabins, a general store and the first Catholic school established for children of color, but unfortunately it was too dark to look around.

Bocage Plantation
Our destination for the evening was Bocage Plantation, a masterfully restored plantation home built in 1837 on land once owned by a descendant of Christopher Columbus. Now open as a bed and breakfast, the four-bedroom mansion offers guests the ultimate in luxury. Our host greeted us with a tour of our room, the first-floor Venetian Room decorated with rich colors, an inlaid ivory bed and antiques we've only seen in the finest of homes. With a glass of wine in hand, we spent the evening in good conversation with our fellow guests--a doctor from Houston, an engineer from Baton Rouge and our gracious manager and tour guide Roberto.

In the garden outside Bocage Plantation
We awoke to the smell of bacon (yum!) and marveled at the walk-in steam shower that fought for our attention against the elaborate breakfast waiting for us in the dining room. Our master chef Igor, a native from Ukraine, whipped up omelets, biscuits and apple pancakes all served on fine china alongside our fruit-filled crystal bowls and espresso. Although he spoke little English, he told us of his love of black and white photos, so the pictures featured in this blog are converted in his honor.

The morning was chilly outside, but we bundled up and walked the grounds for better views of the mansion. Horses grazed in the fields next to us and ruins lay in the back of the property from when sugar cane used to be harvested and burned on the property. We said our goodbyes and pointed the car toward the Sunshine Bridge, crossing the Mississippi River and carrying on to the other side.

American Queen Steamboat
Traveling south, we were struck by the sight of a steamboat docked along the river's bank. We quickly pulled over and climbed the levee to get a better view of the American Queen, stopped in Vacherie on its voyage from New Orleans to Memphis. Turning around, we smiled at the familiar row of 300-year-old live oaks lining the path to Oak Alley Plantation, probably one of the most photographed places in the country. We only had a minute to take in the view, though, before we continued on to make our tour at Laura Plantation.

Slave cabin at Laura Plantation
The elevated and brightly colored Laura Plantation home stands as a tribute to the generations of Creoles and their slaves who once lived on this property. In one of the most captivating Louisiana accents I've ever heard, Stephen, our tour guide, led us through the history of Laura Locoul's family. The tour is based on Laura's memoirs and spares no details in describing the lives of her ancestors, from their business successes to their personal sacrifices, from the raw, but generally accepted treatment of slaves to the family's own downfalls. It's a thought-provoking tour--one that will stay with me for quite some time.

Unfortunately, there is only so much time in a weekend, and the rest of River Road's grand plantations had to be saved for another day and another adventure. 

Oak Alley Plantation