At 4:30 AM, I awoke to the sound of thunder and rain pelting down on the roof above my bed. I checked the weather app on my phone to verify that the storm was expected to end by mid-morning, and I quickly drifted back to sleep for a couple more hours.
Linda, the owner of the B&B, had prepared our breakfast before our arrival and placed it in our kitchenette. In addition to the spinach quiche and fresh strawberries in the refrigerator, there were also slices of banana bread and cranberry muffins on a glass-covered serving tray. While eating our breakfast in the terrace room overlooking the pool & gardens below, we realized that the rain had subsided.
I decided to take a walking tour of Covington following the map that Linda had provided us upon our arrival the previous night. I stopped at the HJ Smith & Sons General Store & Museum and admired the collection of antique farm equipment, hardware tools and transportation artifacts (stagecoach and hand-carved canoe) on exhibit.
I walked over to Brooke’s Bike Shop, which displayed a wide range of vintage and new bicycles for sale and rent. Circling back to the B&B, I passed several charming shops and lamented that I didn’t have more time to peruse the local boutiques.
Joyce and I loaded our panniers on our bikes and thanked our charming southern hostess before embarking on a quick riding tour of Covington, the parish seat of St. Tammany Parish. I suspect that this historic Northshore village attracts many tourists and locals who want to visit the specialty shops and enjoy the Cajun cuisine.
With some help from a few local residents, we located the trailhead and began our 28 mile journey to Slidell. Heading east from Covington, the asphalt trail follows the original Illinois Railroad passageway. The Trace is lined on both sides with loblolly pines, live oak trees, and wetlands. Although it was still a little early in the season for alligators, I was on the lookout for them as we pedaled within feet of ideal gator habitat. We heard lots of birds (maybe waterthrush) that made shrill clicking sounds, and we saw a large turtle sunning himself along the banks of a swampy stream. When I turned around to take his picture, he quickly crawled back into the opaque water and out of sight.
Between Covington and Abita Springs, we crossed the Tchefuncte and Abita Rivers. In Abita Springs, we saw the namesake brewpub and a vintage service station which had been converted into a mystery house full of southern Louisiana folk items and “junk.”
Continuing east from Abita Springs, the trail turned south toward Lake Pontchartrain. We passed a large park and children’s museum about halfway to Mandeville. As we entered Mandeville, we turned south onto Florida Street and biked a couple of blocks to Liz’s Where Y’at Diner where we ordered a sandwich and chips to go. The service was fast and Liz, the owner, came over to personally introduce herself.
We pedaled back to the Trace and continued our ride through Mandeville. At the Lamarque Street intersection, we turned right and rode a few blocks to the historic Dew Drop Jazz & Social Hall (dewdropjazzhall.com), which was built in 1895 and is considered to be the world’s oldest rural jazz hall. Jazz events are still scheduled on select Saturdays throughout the spring at this rustic wooden structure surrounded by majestic live oak trees.
We followed Lamarque Street two blocks north of the Trace to Ruby’s Roadhouse – a local pub and a stage for local, national, and international musicians. Poking our heads into the smoke-filled bar was enough for two teetotalers from Georgia 🙂 . We jumped back on our bikes and continued three miles south to Fontainebleau State Park where we planned to eat a picnic lunch.
Entering the state park, the ranger waived us through without charging us a daily use fee. I’m not sure whether he assumed that we were over 62 or whether there’s no charge for bicyclists 🙂 . We rode through the park and down to the shore of Lake Pontchartrain where we parked our bikes and found a nice spot to enjoy our lunch. Although it was a little breezy, the temperature was close to 70 degrees, and a young man was learning to paddleboard in the murky waters stretching toward the horizon. We spotted pelicans diving for their lunch and marveled at the expansive 24-mile bridge connecting Mandeville to New Orleans. After eating our lunch, we walked out on the fishing pier and then biked over to the restrooms at the campground before resuming our ride on the Trace.
The stretch from Fontainebleau SP to Lacombe was remote and marshy. There were cypress knees in the swampy waters along the trail, and we spotted a yellow flowering plant which we aptly named swamp flower since we didn’t know its true identity 🙂 .
Bayou Lacombe was the most stunningly beautiful area on the trail! There was a well-maintained restroom facility and drawbridge operator office located on the west side of the bayou. The southern waterway fed into Lake Pontchartrain, and boat docks lined the northern inlet toward the village of Lacombe. The ranger who manned the crane-driven drawbridge told us that there were several exclusive homes with large yachts further inland. Fortunately, we arrived to the crossing before 6 PM, which is when they raise the bridge for the night. Otherwise, we would have had to turn around and bike back to the previous highway crossing to bypass the drawbridge.
After leaving the bayou, we rode 7 miles east to the Slidell Trailhead, which is actually 4.5 miles from downtown Slidell. Currently, the trail ends near a busy shopping center, and we decided that it was too dangerous to bike along the highway to our hotel. We called Uber and were rejected at least twice because the drivers did not want to haul our folding bikes. Finally, we got a driver with a large SUV, and we loaded the bikes with no trouble.
We checked into the Best Western Plus about 6 PM and pushed our bikes down to our room, which fortunately was located on the first floor. After a quick change of clothes, we hailed another Uber car to take us to New Orleans. Our driver was British and extremely friendly and helpful. He gave us good advice about when/how to visit New Orleans and some safe tips for taking Uber back to our hotel later that night.
It took about 35 minutes to drive across Lake Pontchartrain to the corner of Canal Street & St Charles Street in the heart of New Orleans. As soon as we stepped out of the car, I felt much safer than I had during my previous visit to New Orleans about 20 years ago. Canal Street was so lit up that it looked almost like daylight, and there were police and streetcar monitors everywhere.
We took a streetcar for a few blocks and then walked toward Decatur Street to Café du Monde where we each ordered three French beignets and milk 🙂 . Realizing that Aunt Sally’s, home of the New Orleans famous pralines (pronounced prawline in New Orleans), was closing soon, I left Joyce at the café and scurried next door to purchase boxes of the decadent sweets to carry back home. I rejoined Joyce where we gorged ourselves on the powdered sugar covered beignets while listening to the jazz band playing on the sidewalk next to the cafe. Deciding that we were no longer hungry for dinner, we walked back to Canal Street where we boarded another streetcar that made a loop down St. Charles Street toward Tulane University. Although it was dark and the ride was longer than expected, we enjoyed seeing the magnificently decorated southern homes along the route. When the streetcar returned to Canal Street, we called Uber and rode back to our hotel in Slidell. We arrived at the Best Western after 11 PM…yawn!