By Teresa Otto | TravelAwaits.com
St. Tammany Parish, also known as Louisiana’s Northshore, is an easy day trip from New Orleans across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. Northshore begins on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, a 630-square-mile body of water that’s the second-largest inland saltwater lake in the United States (after Utah’s Great Salt Lake).
A network of communities offers plenty for those interested in history, museums, shopping, and sampling seafood. From touring historic mansions in Madisonville and Mandeville to visiting Abita Springs’ wacky mystery museum to shopping for antiques in Covington, Northshore satisfies many tastes.
For outdoor enthusiasts, activities abound. The lake and the surrounding wetlands provide a massive estuary teeming with wildlife — from birds to nutria to alligators — in Fontainebleau State Park near Mandeville and the Honey Island Swamp near Slidell. You’ll find free-range giraffes, bison, camels, and elands in Folsom.
Read on for 12 fantastic things to do along Lake Pontchartrain’s Northshore in Louisiana.
1. Marvel At The Mystery House
If you’ve ever been to Tinkertown in New Mexico, you’ll know the inspiration behind John Preble’s Abita Mystery House. It’s chock-full of everything from paint-by-number artwork to bottles of hot sauce to Preble’s combo animal creations — like a chicken with an alligator head called Claire the Cluckagator.
Preble also made the dioramas. Check out the tornado diorama, the New Orleans jazz funeral diorama, and the Oh Lord Why? diorama featuring a woman banging her head against a brick wall. A mom with school-age children took one look at it and said, “She must be homeschooling!”
Pro Tip: A sign at the wheelchair-accessible museum reads, “Have your next wedding here.” I’m just throwing that out there in case you’re getting married soon and are still looking for a venue.
2. Tour Historic Homes
Near Madisonville, the 99-acre Fairview-Riverside State Park sits along the Tchefuncte River’s shores. Massive oak trees and a boardwalk next to the river provide ample opportunity to spot birds.
Otis House was built in 1885 by lumber baron William Theodore Jay. Wide porches wrap around the Queen Anne-style house on both the first and second floors and offer lovely views of the river and cool breezes. Once inside, you’ll see period furnishings, housewares, old photographs, and even an 1870s fire extinguisher called the Hayward Hand Grenade.
Pro Tip: The museum welcomes visitors by appointment only.
To visit an 1850s Anglo-Creole home in Old Town Mandeville, tour the Jean Baptiste Lang Creole House Museum. Lang, a New Orleans tobacco merchant, came to Mandeville in the summers to enjoy the milder temperatures and the breezes off nearby Lake Pontchartrain.
Although the house underwent extensive restoration after Hurricane Katrina, original features remain and are highlighted on the docent-led tour, including the hand-painted faux finish on the walls to make them appear like oak paneling.
Pro Tip: The Lang House is wheelchair accessible. If you have further interest in seeing historic homes, pick up the walking tour map for Old Town Mandeville while you’re there.
3. Learn About Local History At Area Museums
Madisonville’s Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum pays tribute to the Jahncke Shipyard, which began building ships on this site in 1900. The shipyard received a commission to build six wooden warships for World War I and employed 2,200 men. You’ll also see exhibits on lighthouses along the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and dioramas about bayou life.
Pro Tip: The museum is wheelchair accessible.
Within a wooden schoolhouse built in 1912, the Bayou Lacombe Museum in the town of Lacombe covers the history of the area, beginning with the Choctaw (Chahta) people. An original book written by a Smithsonian Institution anthropologist, David Bushnell, about the Choctaw tribe is in the museum. You’ll also see a collection of Choctaw arrowheads, dancing costumes, beadwork, pottery, and handwoven baskets.
Additional exhibits focus on lumber baron John Davis and military veterans from Lacombe.
Pro Tip: The museum is open by appointment only.
4. Learn About Alligators
Near Mandeville, the Insta-Gator Ranch & Hatchery offers educational, hands-on tours daily. Louisiana has more alligators than all of the other states combined, in part due to its successful state-regulated breeding program. Alligator numbers had dipped dangerously low because of overhunting and habitat loss until ranches such as Insta-Gator began collecting eggs and reintroducing about 10 percent of the juvenile alligators back into the wild.
If you’ve ever wanted to see an alligator hatch, this is the place to do it. The eggs collected in the wild hatch in August and early September, and you can be a part of the process if you visit at this time. Reservations for the hatching experience are recommended.
Pro Tip: The tours involve a short walk and are mainly outdoors but in the shade. The facilities are wheelchair accessible.
5. Go On A Swamp Tour
Slidell’s Cajun Encounters Swamp Tour introduces visitors to the Honey Island Swamp, where you’re likely to see an alligator gliding by your boat. In addition to talking about the wildlife (alligators, wild boar, and nutria) and birds in the area, our guide discussed the early days of logging cypress trees and floating them downriver.
Pro Tip: The swamp tour boat does not have restrooms. Mosquitoes and biting no-see-ums were thick on the evening tour. According to our guide, the Victoria’s Secret perfume Amber Romance is a very effective repellent.
Alternatively, you can go on a guided kayak tour of Cane Bayou, near Fontainebleau State Park, with Bayou Adventure in Lacombe.
6. Walk Or Bike The Tammany Trace
A railroad line once connected the towns in St. Tammany Parish. The railroad tracks have since been removed, and a paved, 31-mile trail now runs from Covington to Slidell. The Tammany Trace, as it is called, links towns for walkers, in-line skaters, and bicyclists. Visit the website for a map and trail etiquette.
Pro Tip: No pets are allowed on the Tammany Trace.
7. Enjoy The Sunset At Fontainebleau State Park
Near Mandeville, Fontainebleau State Park has wetlands trails, historic sugar mill ruins, a forest of massive oak trees commemorating the enslaved people who once worked on the plantation, and a beach with a pier that is ideally suited for watching the sunset.
8. Browse The Shops
Looking for antiques or local artwork? Head to Covington’s historic downtown and browse the boutiques, art galleries, and antique shops along Lee Lane, East Rutland Street, and Columbia Street. The area, called the Division of St. John, has long been a place of trade. Many shops are located in quaint cottages surrounded by picket fences in the walkable downtown.
In Mandeville, check out Girod Street. It has antiques, boutiques, art galleries, and Das Schulerhas, a Christmas store with Louisiana-made gifts for year-round giving.
9. Enjoy Northshore’s Bounty
Visit one of St. Tammany’s farmers markets, where you can buy beautiful produce, handmade crafts, and artwork. You can also sample barbecue, Middle Eastern food, and homemade jams, jellies, and bread.
Pro Tip: Farmers markets are held year-round in most of the communities. Visit Northshore’s website for details.
10. Eat Some Comfort Food
For a cup of tea, head to the English Tea Room on Covington’s East Rutland. They serve breakfast, lunch, and high tea daily. For fine dining with a focus on seafood, head to Oxlot 9 in Covington.
While in Abita Springs, enjoy a slice of pizza or a calzone at Mama D’s Pizza or a cold brew at Abita Brew Pub.
Hambone specializes in Gulf Coast comfort food and is located on Girod Street in Old Town Mandeville. The Book & The Bean nearby pairs a nice selection of books for sale with freshly brewed coffee and tea.
For a Saturday Cajun brunch or Sunday jazz brunch in Slidell, make reservations at Palmettos on the Bayou. Save room for dessert, and head to the Old Town Slidell Soda Shop.
11. Celebrate Everything
From January to December, Northshore celebrates festivals, beginning with Mardi Gras and ending with Christmas. The event calendar includes a town-wide garage sale in Abita Springs and a wooden boat festival in Madisonville (a nod to its history of shipbuilding). Music festivals promote blues bands and buskers, and food and wine festivals celebrate crawfish, crab, and locally produced wines. If you’re more interested in antiques and art, Slidell hosts an antique street fair, and Covington invites artists to its juried annual art fair. And for carnival rides and funnel cakes, put the St. Tammany Parish Fair in late September on your calendar.
Pro Tip: For a list of events, visit Northshore’s website.