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NORTH SHORE LOUISIANA:
SO MUCH MORE THAN ALL THAT JAZZ
By Lauren Kramer
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

Our jeep is stationary and I'm marveling at the scenery when I feel someone nuzzling my back very gently. Turning slowly I find myself eye to eye with an adult zebra whose broad smile displays a set of large, yellow teeth. His message is clear: "Corn, please, ma'am!"

This being the Global Wildlife Center in Folsom, La., the zebra knows only too well that private jeep tours like ours are well stocked with one of his favorite treats dried corn. I fill my plastic cup and pour corn directly into his gaping mouth, watching as my new friend guzzles the food in seconds

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3. At Global Wildlife Center visitors get close-up encounters with the animals, who approach the vehicles eager for food handouts. Credit: Lauren Kramer

The largest free-roaming wildlife park in the country, the Global Wildlife Center's 900 acres are filled with 30 species of very tame herbivores and omnivores from all over the world. There are Somalian giraffe, Chinese Father David deer, South American rhea birds, African eland and zebra, Australian kangaroos, Indian black buck and at least 1,000 fallow deer.

The animals scamper toward the jeeps and wagon tours for food handouts and their proximity allows close encounters. Some animals feed directly out of our hands and others open their mouths gratefully as my daughter Sarah and I pour food inside.

We'd crossed the 24-mile Causeway from New Orleans to St. Tammamy Parish a few days earlier, intent on exploring Louisiana's North Shore. With Lake Pontchartrain behind us we quickly learned that the nine communities that comprise the parish offer the warm friendliness of the south coupled with a great selection of outdoor, family friendly attractions from giraffes to swamp monsters and beady-eyed alligators.

2. Honey Island: Pearl River Eco-Tours offers swamp tours where visitors can see (and feed) wild hogs, alligators and raccoons. Photo credit: Louisiana North Shore Tourism

We started out on the still waters of Cane Bayou in Lacombe, paddling past trees heavy with Spanish moss and turtles sunning lazily on upturned logs. With Fontainebleu State Park on one side of the bayou and a national wildlife refuge on the other, this is a landscape untouched by time, one as perfect today as it was 150 years ago. I had bare feet drifting overboard the kayak when our guide, Shannon Villemarette, owner of Bayou Adventure, pointed out a statuesque 10-foot alligator a few yards away. "Best to put your feet back in the boat," she said. I followed her advice, thinking there seemed little point attracting reptilian attention in a place this remote.

Later that day, though, Captain John was determined to do just that. Our guide on the Honey Island Swamp had attached a white marshmallow to the end of a stick and was dangling it off the end of our boat. Within seconds we were in the company of an alligator - a small one, but a reptile whose larger relatives weren't far away. "They think these are turtle eggs," explained the Captain of the Pearl River Eco-Tour excursion.

1. Bayou Canoe: A gentle kayak down one of the North Shore's many bayous is a peaceful way to experience the area's sights, sounds and wildlife. Credit: Louisiana North Shore Tourism

The two-hour tour takes us deep into the swamp and we putter gently through some of its narrow channels, examining the plant life. Bald cypress trees point their skinny knees out of the water while Spanish moss hangs like thick, ghostly white hair from their branches. The Captain pulls closer to the bank to peer at unusually large tracks in the mud. "I have no idea who or what made these prints," he says, shaking his head. "I've also been out here at night and heard sounds I can't identify. I'm not saying it's the swamp monster. I'm just saying, I don't know."

Later, hungry for a meal, we were directed to a nearby bistro, the funky, colorful eatery called Liz's Where Y'at Diner. We snuck into one of the bright blue booths, ordered a late breakfast and watched a cheerful scene unfold as proprietor Liz Munson greeted us and other diners with her signature welcome of conversation, warm smiles and genuine warmth. "That's my grandmother's recipe for grits," she said, looking at my plate of the house special, Where Y'at Bennies. "But people don't just come here for the food. They come because they get taken care of here...because they can feel the love."

4. Liz's Where Y'At Diner is a colorful, cheerful restaurant specializing in Southern comfort food and warm hospitality

Munson, a bundle of joyful energy who waited tables for 16 years before opening her diner, flits from table to table, touching each of her patrons with the personal warmth that has made her eatery a popular fixture the past five years. "We specialize in turning peoples' day around here, because this is a place they feel warm and relaxed," she says candidly. "You come as strangers, but you leave as friends," she says, giving us a warm embrace when it's time to go. True to her words, we can't help hoping we'll be back.

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IF YOU GO:

For general information on area attractions, accommodation and dining visit http://www.LouisianaNorthshore.com.

Where to stay: Covington's new boutique Southern Hotel is an elegant oasis of comfort in a 150-year-old building located in the heart of the city's historic center. http://www.Southernhotel.com; (844) 866-1907

Global Wildlife Center offers wagon tours (kids $11, adults $17) and private jeep tours at $35 per person. http://www.Globalwildlife.com; (985) 796-3535

Kayak rentals and guided bayou tours are offered at http://www.bayouadventure.com in Lacombe. http://www.Bayouadventure.com; (985) 882-9208. For swamp tours contact Pearl River Eco-Tours at http://www.pearlriverecotours.com; (985) 892-0708

Liz's Where Y'At Diner is open for all-day breakfast and lunch through 5pm, seven days a week. http://www.Lizswhereyatdiner.com; (985) 626-8477

PHOTOS: Credits as below:

1. Bayou Canoe: A gentle kayak down one of the North Shore's many bayous is a peaceful way to experience the area's sights, sounds and wildlife. Credit: Louisiana North Shore Tourism

2. Honey Island: Pearl River Eco-Tours offers swamp tours where visitors can see (and feed) wild hogs, alligators and raccoons. Photo credit: Louisiana North Shore Tourism

3. At Global Wildlife Center visitors get close-up encounters with the animals, who approach the vehicles eager for food handouts. Credit: Lauren Kramer

4. Liz's Where Y'At Diner is a colorful, cheerful restaurant specializing in Southern comfort food and warm hospitality.

Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.TravelWritersTales.com

 


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