Gators and eco-tours join high-quality antiques and art in luring locals and visitors to the quiet small towns outside Louisiana's urban center.
By ROBERT N. JENKINS
Published August 15, 2004
[Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg]
Ten acres of carefully tended landscaping are the trademark of the Garden Guest House B&B, just west of Slidell, La.
SLIDELL, La. - Clarence Brown, whose 1982 Grammy Award bears a plaque with his professional name, "Gatemouth," is again holding a match to an impossibly tiny pipe. The bowl is smaller than his thumb, and he gets it lit for perhaps the sixth time in the past half-hour.
By now, no one at his table in the Smoke-N-Blues BBQ in the Texan's adopted hometown expects it to stay lit. But relighting the pipe gives Gatemouth - everyone calls him that - something to do while his new CD is between tracks.
Once the music starts again, the black-clad Gatemouth glides back into his role as narrator/teacher/maestro. He tells those at his table, as well as the half-dozen lunch customers at other tables, what song is coming next, which instrument he will be playing.
"Now that's me on the fiddle. . . . You can make it squeal, you can make it talk, too," - and breaking into a smile - "but I'm not gonna tell you what it says."
The scene in the Smoke-N-Blues is fairly common, for Gatemouth is a fixture in this tiny community. Slidell is where he keeps his three black 1970s Cadillac El Dorados. It is where he returns after each gig that adds up to six months a year on the road.
Slidell is about a half-hour drive - but a world away - from New Orleans' famed French Quarter. Though he doesn't say it, Gatemouth represents urban flight.
"I would not live in New Orleans," he declares, "for no money. I lived there for two years, but no more. I was there recently, recording, and someone sprayed white paint on my car."
He is comfortable in Slidell, in the vast part of Louisiana that is not New Orleans. So are tens of thousands of other, less-noteworthy folks. They either have moved to such small towns as Slidell and neighboring Mandeville, Covington and Abita Springs, or they drive to them to shop, dine and enjoy life away from work.
Promised land across the lake
All those small towns, on the north side of vast Lake Pontchartrain, became more desirable to New Orleanians after the second span of the cross-lake causeway was completed in the late 1960s. The population of St. Tammany Parish has nearly tripled since 1970.
Even so, just 197,000 people ramble around nearly 1,700 square miles. That is more land than Pinellas and Hillsborough combined but fewer people than live in St. Petersburg.
Plenty of other folks drive the nearly 24-mile causeway to the "Northshore" to go day-tripping. They find specialty shops, galleries, tree-shaded B&Bs, fishing and birding. Some go just to sit in the Abita Brewery & Brew Pub and see how many of the dozen or so fresh beers and ales they can differentiate before they start to wobble.
Thus, the Northshore is returning to the position it held for decades, dating to the late Victorian era. Back then, the New Orleans crowd would board lake steamers - and later, pile into motorcars - to picnic by and swim in Pontchartrain.
The well-to-do had summer homes on the Northshore, where it was a few degrees cooler than in the steamy city. Other folks would rent rooms for the weekend. With the arrival of affordable cars and then planes, peoples' vacation horizons expanded.
But then the Causeway got a parallel two-lane highway, rejuvenating the other side of the lake.
The attractions are varied. The little towns have enough quality antique shops to offer competition to the tony places along New Orleans' Royal Street. Art galleries run the gamut.
Three blocks apart in Covington, for instance, are the Brunner Gallery and Art on Columbia. Brunner, which also has galleries in Dallas and Park City, Utah, displays pieces priced in the thousands. Art on Columbia is a simpler set of rooms offering works from nine local artists, yet the quality is such that the shop was featured in Southern Living.
These stores don't cater just to visitors; there are all those new residents who have found all they need in the parish. Many of them work in the Northshore's flourishing tourism industry.
For instance, Linda Chambless says she and her husband, Don, "escaped" New Orleans, their hometown, after selling his printing business about 10 years ago.
They bought a handsome 1920s "raised-cottage" home in Covington. Don opened a lawn maintenance and landscaping business; Linda gave up her work as a computer-program analyst and took a degree as a master gardener.
They have filled the house with designer touches, converted a section into a B&B, added an inviting pool and, next to it, a hot tub within a gazebo. B&B guests find extra bathing suits and robes in the armoire.
Stopping to wave as friends drive by, Linda says that not even their daughter, Sarah, 15, misses the big city because they see themselves firmly rooted in this 191-year-old community.
Neil and Tiffany Benson knew small town life because both were natives of Slidell and worked in a bank there. But Neil wasn't satisfied using his business management degree as a mortgage broker. So he chose a more comfortable workplace: the 250-square-mile Honey Island Swamp.
He created Pearl River Eco Tours and got his Coast Guard captain's license. Now, he and another employee take 20-passenger, flat-bottom boats into a small segment of the swamp. He points out the alligators, herons, eagles, otters and other wildlife, stopping for photo ops for the passengers.
Though his 3-year-old company is a small player in the area's ecotourism business - most of the customers are tourists visiting New Orleans - Neil can begin his narration by noting that the boat is gliding along canals that his great-great-grandfather helped dig.
The huge chunk of undeveloped wetlands is a resting place for migrating birds. Hummingbirds, warblers and tanagers land in it by the thousands after spending 18 to 20 hours flying from Mexico across the Gulf. They may take as long as three days to recuperate before heading north, so April and May are particularly good times for birders to tour the swamp.
From alligators to Gator Girl
If visitors want a heavy dose of alligator, they can head to nearby Covington and Louisiana's only licensed alligator ranch. The motto at Insta-Gator Ranch and Hatchery Education Foundation is, "The alligator industry from hatching to handbag."
A guide explains that the survival rate of the ranch-grown alligators is above 90 percent and in the wild, the 9-inch hatchlings are prey for everything from big bullfrogs to wading birds. About 6 percent of newborn gators survive in the wild.
During a 90-minute tour of Insta-Gator, visitors learn about a mother alligator's nesting routine, how a difference of 5 degrees on the nest determines the sex of the embryos and how a pilot in an ultralight plane drops poles with GPS beacons to help Insta-Gator workers on boats find the nests. Eggs are harvested and the gators raised on the ranch for four years, with about 14 percent returned to the wild and the rest destined to become exotic cuisine, handbags or shoes.
One highlight is watching a staffer wade in a shallow pool with about a dozen 4-foot-long gators; another thrill is touching little alligators as well as one of the 4-footers, its mouth taped shut.
A few miles away in Abita Springs is something even more unusual, even bizarre: the 11-year-old UCM Museum. It is not a roadside attraction; it is the roadside.
Artist John Preble is the genius behind the wildly clever displays. To begin with, visitors experience the, um, museum campus itself. The entrance is through the front door of a 1920s-era gas station, the driveway of which is cluttered with rental bicycles for use on the adjacent 31-mile Tammany Trace trail.
Once inside the gas station, visitors looking past the funny and sometimes risque trinkets see that the walls and ceilings are covered with cell phones, computer keyboards and mice, bottle caps, license plates, circuit boards . . .
Customers then walk out the back door, passing an authentic Creole-style cottage that is Preble's studio (visitors welcome) and past the pseudo-cage holding Buford the Bassigator. This is Preble's imagination run wild, in the form of a 22-foot-long papier-mache creature that is part fish, mostly gator. Buford makes guest appearances at parades and celebrations.
Next is an Airstream trailer that unfortunately has been pierced by a flying saucer.
Then it's back inside - inside the House of Shards, a building with stucco exterior that has been plastered with pieces of tile and mirror.
Within are upright video game consoles, paint-by-number works, a barbed-wire collection. But the prime displays are several dioramas of scenes from life in the South, each with tiny clay figures fashioned by Preble and bearing a resemblance to the famed Mr. Bill characters.
Pushing a button at each diorama adds motion. In a New Orleans funeral scene, for instance, the door to the hearse opens and the parading musicians sway back and forth. In Tragedy on Dogpound Road - a Tornado Strikes Dub's Trailer Court, a funnel rotates to show that it holds a cow and a lawn chair, the roof lifts off a trailer and a fireworks stand is twirled to reveal that it doubles as a Christmas tree sales booth.
If you can't figure out whether Preble is toying with you, just ask him. Looking rumpled, as if he hasn't had time to change for company, Preble explains in his machine-gun delivery:
"I've always lived like this. I'm the guy who walks down the side of the road and picks up shiny stuff. When he died, his family finds that room he kept it all in and they destroy his museum. They didn't want anyone to know Uncle Charlie is whacko."
Actually, Preble is an accomplished artist, specializing in portraits of what he calls the green-eyed people: "Louisianans of mixed heritage: the French, blacks, Native Americans who settled the state. Many of them have green eyes."
A few of his 1,000 or so green-eyed portraits are in the cottage studio. A couple of them rest on one of the pianos donated to Preble. But he looks at his fingers, not the portraits, as he pounds out some boogie-woogie.
On a bench near him are a power drill and a roll of duct tape. Old magazines and more green-eyed people are stacked elsewhere. Standing in the middle of the studio is an unfinished statue of Gator Girl, a female mannequin on which Preble has seamlessly crafted an alligator head.
The artist playfully drapes an arm across the mannequin's shoulders, almost cuddling it, and says of the UCM, "This is folk art. It is the alphabet world of John Preble. My paintings and this collection are my hobby."
He pauses and then dispels the idea that any of the museum should be taken too seriously:
"The first day we opened the museum, we had one person show up. The next day, business was down."
He smiles even before you can laugh.
If you go
GETTING THERE: Direct and connecting flights go between the Tampa Bay area and New Orleans. Slidell and the other towns mentioned are on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
SEEING THE SIGHTS: The Brunner Gallery and Art on Columbia are on Columbia Street in Covington. For information on opening hours, call Brunner at 985 893-0444 or go to www.brunnergallery.com call Art on Columbia at (985) 893-0870. For information on the town's other galleries, call the St. Tammany Art Association at (985) 892-8650.
Pearl River Eco cq Tours offers daytime and night tours into Honey Island Swamp and conducts tours of New Orleans and Louisiana plantations. Pearl River will pick up swampgoers in New Orleans.
The company is located about 35 miles east of the city, near the junction of U.S. highways 90 and 190, east of Slidell. For more information, to make reservations or to check on accessibility for wheelchair users, call toll-free 1-866-597-9267 or 985 649-4200, or go to www.pearlriverecotours.com cq.
Rather have your alligators close enough to stroke, or want to see babies hatch? Insta-Gator Ranch and Hatchery Education Foundation is the place. In addition to the easygoing biology lecture during the 90-minute tour, visitors can see thousands of the critters, in clear water, and also view the leather-tanning area for those gators that who aren't going back to the swamp.
You can even adopt a newborn that will be released into the wild after it reaches at least 3 feet in length. Adoptive parents receive a sort of baby book and color photo of the youngster hitting the swamp's open water for the first time.
All places on this tour are accessible. The ranch is open Tuesday through Saturday. It is located in Covington, about an hour's drive north of New Orleans and or half an hour west of Slidell. Call for directions and to make reservations: 985 892-3669; www.Insta-GatorRanch.com
The name of the UCM Museum is another of creator John Preble's jokes: It is pronounced you-see-um, to rhyme with museum. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except for major holidays - and perhaps when Preble escorts Buford the Bassigator in someone's parade.
The museum is accessible, but wheelchair users may find some aisles narrow.
UCM is about 5 miles from Interstate 12, on Louisiana Hwy. 36, in tiny Abita Springs. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, except on major holidays. Call toll-free 1-888-211-5731; http://ucmmuseum.com
STAYING THERE: I can recommend the two B&Bs in which I stayed.
Linda and Don Chambless' cq Camellia House B&B has a single guest suite, with so many country-chic touches you feel you are interrupting a magazine photo shoot. The room has a full bathroom and a mini-kitchen on its sun porch, which Linda stocks with fresh cookies, pastries, and fruit, plus cereal, juice and coffee.
The Garden Guest House B&B is about 2 miles west of Slidell, nestled in its own 10-acre estate. The lush landscaping around the two buildings that make up comprise this B&B is on view through multiple large windows and porches. Indoors, antiques and fireplaces make this inn welcoming.
Owners Bonnie and Paul Taliancich cq have devoted 31 years to their labor of love. Guests can have a hot breakfast with the owners or eat in their own living rooms.
For information, go to www.gardenbb.com for reservations call toll-free 1-888-255-0355 or 985 641-0335.
EATING THERE: Barbecue joints, brew pubs, family-friendly places, elegant resort dining - the Northshore has good eating in all of these. Some of the places mentioned here have menus on their Web sites:
* Smoke-N-Bluescq BBQ uses pecan wood to smoke its chicken, beef and pork, and there are squeeze bottles of sauce on the tables. You might try the smoked green onion sausage.
* Try the sampler - five to eight big servings - at the Abita Brew Pub in Abita Springs. It is a full restaurant, open daily. The pub is about 4 miles off Interstate 12 on Highway 59. Call 985 892-5837 or go to www.abita.com for a map.
* Shady Brady's is in a restored "cottage" a few blocks from Lake Pontchartrain in old Mandeville. It is presided over by New Orleans restaurant veterans Liberty and Christopher Brady, who are likely to come by the table and bring lagniappe - the little something extra traditional to Louisiana hospitality.
Shady's has too many choices: from the oysters and blue cheese appetizer, to grilled chicken breast with garlic spinach topped with wild mushroom hollandaise sauce, from smoked-veal meatloaf to gumbo to po'boy sandwiches. . . .
Open Tuesday through Saturday; 301 Lafitte St., Mandeville. (985) 727-5580.
* More upscale is Annadele's Plantation Restaurant, featured in Bon Appetit this year. Appetizers include pecan and andouille-encrusted oysters, and chile-dusted flash-fried calamari; entrees range from duckling with Grand Marnier sauce to soy barbecued salmon filet.
Annadele's is open for dinner Monday through Saturday, lunch Monday through Friday, plus Sunday brunch. The restaurant and four B&B rooms are in a restored, 19th -century plantation home.
Annadele's is at 71495 Chestnut St. Covington, about 3.5 miles from Interstate 12 at the U.S. 190W exit. 985 809-7669; www.annadeles.com
FOR MORE INFORMATION: The parish's informative tourism Web site includes event calendars, a trip planner, accommodations information and booking, discount packages and coupons. Go to www.neworleansnorthshore.com Call toll-free 1-800-634-9443.