By Alexandra Kennon | Country Roads Magazine
I’ve got to be honest: When I was first asked if I wanted to go “glamping,” I practically rolled my eyes. A portmanteau of “glamour” and “camping,” the two concepts seemed entirely mutually exclusive. Glamour conjures visions of fashion models, YouTube makeup artists, and Instagram influencers. As someone whose childhood was heavily peppered with camping trips along the secluded banks of the Mississippi River, I can confidently say that while the excursions make up some of my fondest memories, venturing into the wild to commune with nature and use the bathroom in the woods tends to be anything but glamorous, in my experience.
The trip I was asked to take, however, was a far cry from the rougher campouts of my youth—the term “glamping” is used, and aptly, because Louisiana State Parks have recently partnered with national company Tentrr (whose name amusingly reminded me of the dating app I may or may not have recently downloaded, then promptly deleted). Tentrr specializes in placing luxury campsites complete with large expedition tents, elevated wooden decks, Adirondack chairs, and picnic tables in remote, scenic locations so vacationers can enjoy the beauty of the outdoors without all the frustration and effort of a traditional camping trip. Typically, Tentrr works with private landowners, making Louisiana’s only the second state park system the company has partnered with. Launched in November, the partnership includes over sixty sites—each chosen as spots of particular natural beauty—in eight Louisiana State Parks, including Fontainebleau in Mandeville.
My home base of New Orleans is only a short drive across the Causeway, and after the dystopian rollercoaster of 2020, I found myself heavily in the market for rejuvenation in the form of a scenic view and some fresh air.
IT CERTAINLY SOUNDED LIKE AN ADVENTURE, BUT I WAS A BIT NERVOUS AT THE PROSPECT OF NAVIGATING LAKE PONTCHARTRAIN WITH ALL OF MY LUGGAGE IN A TINY BOAT. I HAVE EXPERIENCE CANOEING, AS WELL AS CAPSIZING.
Tentrr’s accommodations thankfully rendered my admittedly rusty camp-making abilities basically unnecessary—they promised a spacious, heavy-canvas tent with a peaked roof tall enough to stand in without crouching, a queen-sized bed, a camp toilet, and even a propane space heater (which, it being December, I would be especially grateful for). Our particular lakeside campsite at Fontainebleau was accessible only by boat, meaning we would have to put ourselves and our belongings into a canoe and paddle for about twenty minutes from the car to reach our private beach. It certainly sounded like an adventure, but I was a bit nervous at the prospect of navigating Lake Pontchartrain with all of my luggage in a tiny boat. I have experience canoeing, as well as capsizing. Before embarking on the trip that Saturday, I looked up the projected weather and typed “Can hypothermia set in at forty-five degrees” into the Google search bar. I learned that, in fact, it can—particularly if one is wet. Perfect.
Embracing the “glam” in “glamping,” I asked my friend Lexi to accompany me. Lexi had never been camping before (and, if we’re being honest, given Tentrr’s accommodations, she still hasn’t really), and is the type of person to actually subscribe to YouTube makeup artists and possess a substantial designer wardrobe. She’s one of the most “glam” people I know. Between the two of us, I thought, we’d have this “glamping” thing covered.
Knowing the relative luxury that awaited us, I woke up the morning of our adventure with nothing packed. I began to throw some warm—but cute—clothes into a bag before pulling up Tentrr’s handy packing list. A lantern, bed linens, some toilet paper, plastic reusable wine glasses, and cutlery went in with the clothes. I texted Lexi to ask if she needed anything from the grocery store before I picked her up, since I had plans to grab a bottle of wine by new local winery Ole Orleans, along with a few other necessities. “Goat cheese” was her sole response. Nothing if not practical. I grabbed a truffled goat cheese along with a Gumbeaux merlot, but couldn’t find a long camp lighter as I was hoping. Ah well: we had wine.
The Gumbeaux Merlot by Ole Orleans Winery, which contrary to its name is a new winery based in New Orleans.
I picked Lexi up, and as we piled her substantial belongings into my car (we both packed a bit over-zealously for a one-night stay), I became concerned about fitting all of our stuff in that single canoe—and we still weren’t done stocking up. Music blasting and excitement (with some anxiety on my end, remembering the hypothermia Google results) palpable, we made our way across the Causeway to Mandeville. The first Northshore stop for more necessities: Mandeville Bake Shop.
A WARM, SUGARY SMELL ENGULFED US AS WE ENTERED THE MODEST STOREFRONT, AND OUR SELF-CONTROL FLED THE BUILDING. THE BEMUSED YOUNG MAN BEHIND THE DISPLAY CASE PILED DOBERGE SQUARES, BAKLAVA ROLLS, MINI-CHEESECAKES, TURTLE COOKIES, CINNAMON ROLLS, AND APPLE HAND PIES INTO A BOX AT OUR ZEALOUS REQUESTS.
A warm, sugary smell engulfed us as we entered the modest storefront, and our self-control fled the building. The bemused young man behind the display case piled Doberge squares, baklava rolls, mini-cheesecakes, turtle cookies, cinnamon rolls, and apple hand pies into a box at our zealous requests. “Wait—need a pecan boat, too!” Lexi chimed as we checked out. “Because we’re about to get on an actual boat.” Can’t argue with that logic. Even with all our splurging, the total was only thirteen bucks and some change—my kind of bakery.
Next we headed to Hambone, where several knowledgeable Northshore residents had directed me for notoriously good fried chicken and batched cocktails (served in half-gallon mason jars, no less). As we approached the restaurant, the Mandeville Trailhead Farmer’s Market beckoned with its Christmas lights and tented vendors. Lexi promptly bought a dozen jams from the father-daughter jarring duo called Ryan’s Kitchen; some for Christmas gifts and some to accompany our charcuterie spread. We also grabbed some creamed wildflower honey from friendly local beekeeper Jerry of Bee Sweet Honey, as well as gardenia-scented aloe vera loofah soaps and natural bug repellent (see, practical!) from The Vera Soap Company. Arms full of goodies, we turned back to the fried chicken.
Kyn Gray, our friendly server who took our order at Hambone, brandishes the most important part of our spread: the spiked strawberry hibiscus lemonade.
As we approached Hambone’s adorable white and teal trimmed cottage, Kyn, the convivial server with whom I’d placed the order on the phone, brought us a gargantuan brown bag. Inside was our fried chicken with an extra side of biscuits and pecan butter, deviled eggs, smoked fish dip with plantain chips, and, of course, our mason jar of spiked strawberry hibiscus lemonade. Now we were prepared.
Shannon from Bayou Adventure, the local swamp tour and canoe/kayak rental company who provided our canoe, and Patrick, our Tentrr “Camp Keeper,” each greeted us warmly as we pulled up to the pier and began to unload our spoils. Lexi tossed cheeses and jellies into her large rolling suitcase (“We need both of these: one is sweet, one is spicy”—again, inarguable), and Shannon and Patrick kindly helped us load up the canoe. If there was any judgement regarding our over-packing, they hid it well. When we reached the red canoe awaiting us on the beach, two links of fresh boudin loaded with green onions and just the right pork-to-rice ratio were sitting, hot and ready, in the boat. Trying to ascertain where the gift was from, I learned that Shannon and her husband Jeff “have a guy” who makes it for them, and they carry it at their Bayou Adventure storefront just down the road. They’ll even put a po-boy or breakfast sandwich in the boat for you if you like—their company motto, “Yeah, we do that!” is printed on the back of their shirts, and they mean it.
THE TRIP WAS JUST LONG ENOUGH TO JUSTIFY OUR FRIED CHICKEN AND DESSERT SPREAD WITH THE LIGHT UPPER-BODY WORKOUT, AND TO ENJOY A SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT UPON FEELING THE CRUNCH OF THE SEA SHELLS STREWN ABOUT OUR OWN PERSONAL BEACH.
I’d never paddled on Lake Pontchartrain before, and considering the vastness of the “Child of the Gulf,” I was surprised at how pleasant and easy it was to reach our campsite, guided by Patrick in another canoe. The trip was just long enough to justify our fried chicken and dessert spread with the light upper-body workout, and to enjoy a sense of accomplishment upon feeling the crunch of the sea shells strewn about our own personal beach. Patrick was a good sport about taking some iPhone photos of us before shoving back off, leaving us to set up camp—well, lay out the charcuterie board, anyway. Camp was already set up, just begging to be posted on Instagram.
Hambone's fried chicken, biscuits, smoked fish dip with plantain chips, and deviled eggs; along with Bayou Adventure's boudin and an assortment of other treats, made for a more-than-substantial camp dinner.
Though our campsite came equipped with plenty of firewood for the night, my father as well as my former Girl Scout troop leaders will be disappointed to learn that despite packing a wide variety of cheeses and accompanying dried salami and jams, all I brought to start a fire was a Bic cigarette lighter and two back issues of Country Roads (I admit with apologies to our good-natured publishers Ashley and James). Though the briny breeze off of the lake approaching sunset brought a brief moment of panic as I initially failed to get a flame to catch (really, do yourself a favor and bring some lighter fluid), Lexi holding open her jacket to block the wind and a good deal of determination (“Imagine how the cave women must have felt!”) finally allowed us to get a nice fire going in the pit.
BETWEEN BIG BITES OF MOIST, FLAVORFUL DRUMSTICKS AND BUTTERY, CRUMBLY BISCUITS SLOPPILY RUBBED WITH PECAN BUTTER, THE TWO OF US EASILY DEPLETED THE TWINE-RIMMED MASON JAR AS WE WATCHED THE SUN SET.
We busted out Hambone’s boozy strawberry hibiscus lemonade to celebrate our warming victory, clinking plastic stemless glasses together. The cocktail was an ideal blend of just-sweetened-enough natural fruit juice with a substantial amount of vodka. Between big bites of moist, flavorful drumsticks and buttery, crumbly biscuits sloppily rubbed with pecan butter, the two of us easily depleted the twine-rimmed mason jar as we watched the sun set. There was something simultaneously empowering and cozy about not only looking out at the seemingly infinite water on a beach just for us, but also being equipped with such an extensive spread of food and drink, a warm tent, and comfortable bed awaiting. For two relatively high-maintenance individuals, we had everything we could possibly want, plus some. We busted out the Ole Orleans merlot, which was full-bodied and not-too-dry, while laughing over the events of the year and trying (and failing) to play “Never Have I Ever”.
The whole experience inspired feelings of Thoreau’s Walden meets early-2000s reality show The Simple Life, primary differences being that the Pontchartrain is a whole lot more voluminous than Walden, and Lexi and I have a whole lot less money and influence than Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. Long after the sun set over the lake, when the fire began to settle into embers and we had finished the wine, we retreated into our toasty tent and sat on the bed pairing salty cheeses with jams from the farmer’s market. Then, we tore into the Doberge squares and baklava, saving the remaining baked goods for our breakfast, before falling into the kind of deep sleep that only indulgence in good wine, food, and a comfortable mattress can provide. The soft, rhythmic sound of the waves didn’t hurt, either.
THE WHOLE EXPERIENCE INSPIRED FEELINGS OF THOREAU’S WALDEN MEETS EARLY-2000S REALITY SHOW THE SIMPLE LIFE, PRIMARY DIFFERENCES BEING THAT THE PONTCHARTRAIN IS A WHOLE LOT MORE VOLUMINOUS THAN WALDEN, AND LEXI AND I HAVE A WHOLE LOT LESS MONEY AND INFLUENCE THAN PARIS HILTON AND NICOLE RICHIE.
The next morning I awoke before Lexi, and my breath caught as I unzipped the front of our tent to reveal the later stages of a bright, clear sunrise reflected on the lake. As I sat in an Adirondack chair sipping cold brew coffee, I couldn’t help but feel a bit cliché, yet sincere, watching the waves lapping at our little beach before returning to the vastness from which they came. In that moment, my phone battery long-dead, my mind started to wander in the surprised and ecstatic freedom of prolonged distance from a screen. With the only audible sounds the motion of the water and the birds overhead, I imagined each gentle wave taking a bit of the hurt of 2020 and carrying it out toward the far away Causeway, submerging it, and leaving in its place only fresh air and sea shells.