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An El Whoppo of a Vacation
Family Adventures on the Northshore
By Deborah Geigis Berr
—You really want to find out?” the captain asked, as El Whoppo disappeared into the 50-mile-long swamp.
El Whoppo wasn’t the only local who welcomed us to St. Tammany Parish. Just 45 minutes from top New Orleans attractions, including the new Insectarium and the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, St. Tammany has long drawn families who desire vacations with a relaxed pace, small-town charms and country outings you won’t find anywhere else. As a parent, I appreciate the area’s diverse creatures, along with all the creature comforts that make adventures with kids more manageable: clean, affordable hotels with pools, locally owned restaurants that serve superb cuisine with a child-friendly attitude and open spaces where kids can blow off steam.
It’s free, for example, to bike, stroll or skate on the Tammany Trace, a 31-mile rail-trail that meanders past loblolly pines, live oaks and magnolias. At the trailhead on the Trace in old Mandeville (site of many kid-pleasing events, including the Mardi Paws dog parade in February), families can splash in a fountain shaped like Lake Pontchartrain.
The Kids Konnection playground, also in Mandeville, also appeals to families. The majority of the equipment – 70 percent – is handicapped-accessible.
In every respect, Insta-Gator Ranch and Hatchery – the only one of Louisiana’s 60 alligator ranches open to the public for educational tours – was a touching experience. Due to tenacious predators, only six percent of young ’gators survive in the wild, so the ranch helps boost the population by harvesting eggs and raising the animals until they are four feet long and better able to protect themselves.
—Alligators are cool guys,” said our biologist-guide Steve, as he introduced a roomful of children to a baby
—I did it, Mama,” Cady said, gliding two fingers along the creature’s trim body.
With 1.5 million ’gators in its marshes, Louisiana has more of them than anywhere else in the country, but the area also boasts animals from China, India and Africa at Global Wildlife Center. The 900-acre preserve in Folsom invites families to meet 4,000 free-roaming residents on guided tours aboard a tractor-pulled covered wagon. Talk about a warm, fuzzy welcome.
As the wagon traversed the well-maintained grounds, camels, giraffes and bison approached for cups of feed and fraternizing. —Look, mom, a giraffe!” Cady shouted, as the regal creature stuck his head in the wagon and ate directly from Cady’s cup.
Rainy days, come my way
If it rains on your trip, you’re covered. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we stopped at a vintage gas station along the Tammany Trace in Abita Springs to inspect the folk art-filled Abita Mystery House at the UCM Museum (it stands for Unusual Collections and Mini-Town). What’s been called —Louisiana’s most eccentric museum” is an eclectic jumble of buildings housing 50,000 found and recycled objects, including a pocket comb collection and intricately crafted miniature dioramas depicting everything from a New Orleans Jazz Funeral to a haunted Southern plantation.
We toured the House of Shards, a cottage crafted from thousands of pieces of tiles, mirrors and glass and examined an Airstream trailer that appeared to have been hit by a UFO.
—Are those real aliens?” Cady wanted to know as she peeked through the trailer window.
At Madisonville’s Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum, which highlights the area’s nautical and cultural history, young detectives can embark on a scavenger hunt to find a figurine of a woman baking bread in a swamp-themed diorama, a turtle skull and a schooner rudder. They’ll love the 12-and-a-half-foot-long mounted alligator, too.
As you might imagine, Cady and I developed an appetite for more than adventure. Child-friendly places to nosh abound in St. Tammany Parish. Our trip ended at Downtown Gifts, Soda Fountain and Café in Covington.
Located in a building dating to 1837, the restaurant lives up to its name and its heritage. Kids can sidle up to the counter and choose from 14 ice cream and shake flavors. Cady ordered a good, old-fashioned strawberry shake and slurped up every last drop. You could say we both thoroughly enjoyed our vacation down to the last drop, too.