Tessa and I had two objectives for our sister trip to New Orleans:
- Go on an airboat tour in the swamp/marsh
- Visit a cemetery
We failed at visiting a cemetery but we succeeded at going on an airboat tour. Our airboat tour operator had an option to collect and drop-off at our hotel but the price for this transportation was greater than the cost of renting a car for the day so we opted for the car. In retrospect, we should have rented a car for the duration of our stay because it would have given us full flexibility with our schedule and we could have done more things outside of the city.
The airboat departed from Lafitte, LA which was a 30-minute drive from New Orleans. There were literal bus loads of people standing on the docks waiting to be ushered to their boats when we arrived. Every passenger had a color-coded bracelet that mapped to a specific boat. There were big boats (not recommended) and small boats (recommended). We boarded our small boat and met the four other passengers: A father and son duo from England and a couple from Seattle who Tessa believes has never left Seattle until that very moment.
After the short introductions and a brief safety lecture, we put on our earmuffs and we departed from the jetty as a snail’s pace because we were in a no-wake/no noise zone and airboats are fucking loud!
Our blazing fast departure…
We aired(?) for a long time before finally arriving at an area on the edge of the marsh which our guide called Île flottantes meaning floating islands. Locals refer to this area as floating islands because the earth seen on the surface of the water is just floating blobs of earth. It’s a good spot for wildlife because they do not need to worry about their nest’s flooding with tides or storms. Their little floating island moves with the water level, unlike Abandoned Jazzland.
Almost immediately we found a 7 foot gator. She looked tiny and I had a hard time believing she was 7 feet long. Our guide explained that to gauge the length of a gator, measure the length from the tip of their nose to their eyes in inches and then replace inches with feet. As an example, 7 inches would mean the gator is about 7 feet long.
Our guide lured the gator to our boat by throwing marshmallows in the water and spearing hot dogs on a stick and taunting the gator with the sticks. He said gators like both of those foods and I thought what the fuck?
We spent a lot of time with the gator while our guide answered questions and scared the English boy by waving the hot dog on a stick in front of his legs while telling us he could get the gator to jump out of the water.
The most interesting thing I learned during the Q&A was in respect to how the path of hurricanes affects or does not affect New Orleans. Our guide explained that hurricanes that make landfall to the west of New Orleans are very problematic for the city and hurricanes which make landfall to the east of New Orleans typically do not cause problems. The reason has to do with the rotation of the hurricane.
Hurricanes north of the equator spin counterclockwise and tropical cyclones (i.e. hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones) south of the equator spin clockwise.
Hurricanes to the west of New Orleans push water from the Gulf into the city and hurricanes to the east of New Orleans push water out to the Gulf as shown in my very easy to understand graphic.
After the Q&A session, we then “aired” to a large body of water and had a great view of New Orleans. It was this view that made me realize just how extremely flat this area of the country is.
From there we “aired” to a more traditional marshy area with big trees smothered in Spanish Moss. We saw more gators, turtles, and birds.
The water was very calm in this area and I enjoyed soaking in all the vitamin D through my many layers of clothing. Even though the temperatures were in the mid-70’s, it was very cold on the airboat.
An hour-and-a-half after departure, we were back at the jetty and alighted our boat. Tessa then drove as fast as possible to lunch because we were both “hungover hungry”.
After lunch, our next scheduled activity of the day was to visit a few plantations. Our drive from New Orleans to Destrehan Plantation was about 35 minutes and it was not at all what I was expecting on many levels. First, the main house could be seen from the road. The road was busier than I had expected and did not have a shoulder where we could pull over, hop out and take a few photos.
We planned on touring one plantation but did not know which one and since we’d gotten significantly buzzed the night before and failed to plan the excursion, we were going to have to wing it. I knew that we would not tour Destrehan Plantation because it is the closest plantation to New Orleans which meant it was one of the more popular plantations and I wanted something a bit less traveled. In addition, I wasn’t in love with the way it looked and it didn’t call my name so-to-speak.
After I took the photo, we focused on the next plantation and a rough itinerary for our self-guided plantation tour. I feel like Mark Twain really led us astray on the whole plantation/River Road thing. In the late 19th century, he jotted down in his diary that there were so many plantations and dwellings along the Mississippi River that it looked like a spacious street.
We believed Mr. Twain and assumed that the next plantation would be a 5-10 minute drive down River Road with beautiful views of the Mighty Mississippi but two minutes into our research, we realized that it was a 30-minute drive between plantations! Touring Louisiana’s plantations requires a full day, of which we did not have.
Disappointed, we aborted the plantation mission.
Then came another problem… what do we do next? I looked at Google Maps and suggested we drive across Lake Pontchartrain. Tessa agreed but only if we stopped for a Wendy’s Frosty and so we turned around and set our eyes on the 630 square mile brackish estuary a few miles away.
Lake Pontchartrain Causeway
Lake Pontchartrain is roughly oval-shaped and averages 12-14 feet deep but there are deeper sections that are dredged for ships. The max length is 40 miles and the max width is 24 miles. It’s a very big lake.
The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway crosses the lake and is the longest bridge over water in the world. The Causeway is comprised of two parallel bridges separated by 80 ft and connected by seven emergency-only crossovers. The length of the longer of the two bridges is 23.83 miles. The bridges were completed in 1956 and 1969 and are supported by 9,500 concrete pillars.
We entered the Causeway via the south in Metarie (pronounced met-are-ee) and shockingly, there was no toll. The bridge, however, is not toll-free. If you enter via the north in Mandeville, you will be required to fork over a Fiver, less if you have a Toll Tag. Pre-1999, tolls were collected at both ends of the bridge but the south entrance toll was omitted to help ease traffic congestion.
The opening of the Causeway reduced travel time between the communities on the northern shores of the lake to New Orleans by 50 minutes!
It’s important to know that it is a 20-minute commitment to drive across the lake each way and there are no pullover areas where you can stop and take pictures. I recommend having a minimum of two people in the car – one to drive and the other read fun facts, DJ and take photos.
Visibility was great but we could not see the other side of the lake until about 10 minutes into the drive. Though the lake is roughly the same depth (shipping channels aside), the color of the water was different on the south and north sides of the lake.
The water was brown on the south side and it was blue on the north side. The sky was free of clouds, so shadows on the surface were not causing this illusion. Perhaps the deep shipping channels are in the north end?
Hurricane Katrina damaged the bridge but the damage was mostly limited to the turnarounds. In total, 17 spans were lost. Other than this incident, the bridges have never sustained major damage from any other hurricane or natural occurrence which is surprising.
After Katrina struck on August 29th, the Causeway was closed for repairs and then reopened on September 19th to emergency vehicles only. Later it opened to general traffic with tolls suspended until mid-October.
Fun Fact: There are six other highway bridges in Louisiana which span 5 miles or more.
Once safely across the bridge, we went on a self-guided tour of the north side of the lake which had a grassy knoll, trees, benches, and biking trails. A man was chucking a tennis ball in the lake and his yellow Labrador would jump off the wall, retrieve the ball and wait for it to be chucked again.
To get to the shore, we drove down a quaint residential street. Some homes were on stilts whereas others were not. Some of the homes were massive, possibly 4,000+ sq ft sitting on concrete pillars. Homes on stilts are not something I’d seen before and it was fascinating. Some people parked their cars under their homes which looked strange and I concluded that if you need to put your house on stilts, then you probably should not build a house on the site.