By Senior Editor Marcia Bradford
During previous trips to New Orleans I have often glanced at the long causeway dissecting Lake Pontchartrain as I followed I-10 southward into the heart of the Big Easy and thought I’d like to check out the area. In mid-September that idea became a reality and I found there are many things to enjoy throughout St. Tammany Parish and many reasons to return for further exploration.
As the name indicates, Louisiana’s Northshore extends along the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, from Slidell at the east end to Covington at the west end, with several small and unique towns in between. All areas of St. Tammany Parish, as the area is officially known, are within 45 minutes to an hour of the city of New Orleans. While there is a cultural connection to the Crescent City – both feature some of the same Creole and Cajun flavors and music—this area is in some ways a separate world, with its own pace and characteristics.
Largest Area Meeting Facility
My journey began at the Northshore Harbor Center in Slidell, where General Manager Kathy Lowery and Sales Manager Valerie Waeltz gave me a tour of the 45,000-square-foot facility. Opened in 2005, just months before Hurricane Katrina struck, one of the earliest functions of this venue was to serve as a Red Cross shelter. Even though the facility had sustained a bit of damage from the hurricane and subsequent flooding, the Northshore Harbor Center staff were able to provide access to undamaged areas and were on hand to help out 24 hours a day for several weeks. “The Red Cross used our Box Office as their office,” Lowrey said. “We definitely did not think that our first event would be to create a shelter for storm victims, but it was great to provide a place that let people stay close to home. It was also a great learning experience for all the staff. Since that time, we have developed and have in place a policy that explains how to prepare for a major weather event.”
Once normal conditions returned, and ever since, the Northshore Harbor Center has conducted “business as planned,” which includes hosting conferences, concerts, corporate retreats, banquets, Mardi Gras balls and sports events, mostly regional in nature, according to Waeltz. During my visit, part of the 18,000-square-foot Grand Hall, which is the facility’s largest space, was being set up for Northshore on Tap, offering tastings of the many area breweries. Lowrey said this large space is often used is for training. CVS, for example has recreated one of its stores in the building to train managers, while Best Buy has brought in all types of equipment to train its “Geek Squad” on operation and repair methods. True Vision, a lifestyle chain, also uses the facility for employee training. “These companies like the Harbor Center because it has the technology and space to suit their needs, but also is away from a lot of distractions,” Lowrey said. “The idea is for attendees to focus on the training while they are here and to network with each other.”
A Tree House in Mandeville
When I arrived in nearby Mandeville, my second stop, I saw a cool looking treehouse set into the woods. I soon found out that the building is home to the St. Tammany Tourist Commission, where I met with Senior Sales Manager Zondra Jones. She shared some of the area’s history with me, explaining that many river names, such as Bogue Falaya, Tchefuncte and Abita are drawn from the early Native American occupants of the area. Additionally, the term “parish” is derived from European influence, which began in the 1700s, and the African-American heritage can be seen in local culture and traditions, along with the Creole and Cajun influence. However, settlement along the Northshore really took off in the 1800s, when affluent people from New Orleans would travel in steamboats across the lake to enjoy the fresh breezes, spring water and small resorts. The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum in Madisonville provides an overview of the area’s settlement and maritime history, including the Tchefuncte River Lighthouse (built in 1837).
Jones related that the area’s affordability, laid-back atmosphere, the many nature trails and historic attractions, along with excellent food and beverage venues, are all a draw for associations, corporate groups, reunions and sports events. “We have an easy, comfortable pace and people enjoy all the different communities,” she said. “If they want to head into New Orleans it’s just a short distance away.”
She added that the area is also a draw for eco-tourism summits and groups that like to spend free time fishing, kayaking and canoeing the numerous area waterways. “The St. Tammany Trace, a 30-mile ‘Rails to Trails’ pathway, which runs along the river for 30 miles is very popular with bikers and hikers,” she added.
As advertised, lunch at St. Roch’s Family Restaurant provided “A little bit of New Orleans in a little part of Mandeville.” Located in the Old Mandeville historic area, the corner restaurant occupies a building that dates back to the late 1800s and the menu features unique seafood specialties along with New Orleans-area staples, such as gumbo and red beans and rice.
Mandeville’s Multi-Purpose Venue
During visit to the Castine Center at Pelican Park in Mandeville, Supervisor Tracy Roskens explained that this Northshore event venue is used for many fundraising events, Mardi Gras balls and awards ceremonies in addition to sports events. The main event space can accommodate nearly 3,000 for receptions or musical performances, she said. A smaller room, which accommodates weddings and receptions, is also used by groups such as the scrapbooking club that was there during my visit. Pelican Park has 32 athletic fields, two gyms, a walking trail, dog park, batting cages, sand volleyball courts, 18-hole disc golf course and parking for over 1,700 vehicles.
Covington’s Conference Center
During my Northshore visit I stayed in one of the 31 renovated interior guestrooms at the Clarion Inn & Suites Conference Center in Covington, which provided easy access to the spacious lobby, indoor/outdoor pool and garden area.
During a tour, Director of Sales Jude Beck told me that the property, which has 155 guest rooms and 9,000 square feet of banquet and meeting space, is the largest conference hotel on the Northshore. The 3,500-square-foot Pontchartain Ballroom, an elegant space with beautiful chandeliers, has a dedicated bar and a second-floor balcony that overlooks the room. Sales Coordinator Patsy McNeill said it is often used for weddings, graduation ceremonies and awards banquets. Other spaces include the 3,075-square-foot Grand Ballroom, the Bogue Falaya conference room, which accommodates 12, and the Veranda Room, for smaller classroom meetings or banquets. The lobby can also be reserved for receptions and banquets.
“Most of our business is regional, but we do host some statewide groups, such as the Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association and the Louisiana Board of Dentistry,” Beck said. In November, the facility will host the second annual St. Tammany Collector’s Convention, a popular event in which historic toys, comic books and other collectibles are sold and traded.
On-site catering is provided by the hotel restaurant, The Rocks, featuring “Straight from the Farm” cuisine and signature cocktails.
Each of the Northshore towns I visited had their own historic areas and Old Covington was just a short drive away from my hotel. Once there, I found plenty of public parking, which allowed me to stroll the charming streets, where gracious stores and homes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries feature art galleries, shops and restaurants. Here you’ll find the Covington Trail Head Visitor’s Center, with an outdoor bandstand, indoor exhibit halls and gallery, the St. Tammany Art Association, with gallery spaces and art studios and St. John’s Coffeehouse. The Bogue Falaya River borders the area and I was able to take in a free concert, one of many held there throughout the year.
A subsequent visit to this area for the fantastic Sunday brunch at the OxLot 9, the fabulous restaurant at the Southern Hotel, was a special treat. Named to honor the town’s original grid, this upscale Southern bistro is led by Chef Jeffrey Hansell and is an elegant place to enjoy gourmet meals. The Southern Hotel is a gorgeous historic property, with 40 guest rooms and two suites, the 2,160-square-foot Camellia Ballroom, a courtyard that accommodates 70 for receptions and other small to mid-sized meeting spaces. Built in 1907 as a physical and spiritual retreat, the property was completely renovated beginning in 2011 and reopened in 2014. Having returned to its place as the town’s glamorous yet comfortable gathering spot, the hotel features local art throughout. Of special interest is the Cypress Bar, where large murals of historic Covington postcards adorn the walls.
Gator Gazing and Beer Tasting
Anyone who wants to check out the wildlife of the area will enjoy a Cajun Encounters Swamp Tour, based in Slidell. This eco-friendly adventure takes groups on small boats through the Honey Island Swamp, home to alligators, wild boars, ducks, geese and all sorts of birds, where moss-laden cypress trees frame a setting unique to coastal Louisiana. It can be almost mystical at times, especially on cloudy, rainy days, as I experienced it.
After a morning of viewing swamp creatures, it was time to travel to quirky Abita Springs for a tour of the Abita Brewing Company. After learning about the brewing process, we were able to taste several of the local beers, which are made with water drawn from deep local wells and use no preservatives or additives. The new visitors center, just outside the historic area, offers tours and special events, while the original brewery in Historic Abita Springs now serves as a restaurant/ brewpub. Abita Springs is highly recommended for people that love quaint and charming small towns with their own personality. A must-see is the UCM Museum. Strung out through several buildings, including an old service station and a 90-year Creole cottage, it is full of memorabilia, both strange and enticing.
Other Outstanding Attractions
There are many other attractions I hope to experience on future visits, but among those I was able to enjoy were the Covington Brew House, offering several types of small-batch, locally-brewed beers, and the Columbia Street Tap Room & Grill, also in Covington. Anyone seeking a taste of the good life offered along the Northshore during the Victorian age should visit Mandeville’s shoreline, where a long and winding parkway borders Lake Pontchartrain. The Lakehouse, which offers elegant upscale dining in a historic house, is one of several restaurants that offer great views of the lake, where the sunsets are outstanding.
New Event for the Northshore
At various stops on my visit there was a lot of excitement about the upcoming “Camellia City Smooth Jazz Festival,” a new festival for the area, which was held in early October. Hosted at the Northshore Harbor Center in Slidell, the event brought some of the country’s top smooth jazz musicians and was expected to draw fans from throughout the U.S.
For more information on this unique part of the South, visit www.louisiananorthshore.com.