In the mid-1800s, the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain was deemed one of the healthiest places in the United States by the government because so few people there were affected by viruses devastating the rest of the country, including New Orleans on the south side of the lake.
Around the same time, spring water in the area was discovered to have minerals that doctors said could heal and calm. By 1900, towns closest to where tourists would arrive, including Covington, Louisiana, had established high-end resorts to accommodate the elite looking to escape the city.
In the past two decades, though, the Northshore has grown into a destination of its own. You can explore small Southern towns, find soft adventure among 80,000 acres of green spaces and waterways, and have culinary experiences on par with what you’ll taste in the French Quarter 45 miles away. Moderate temperatures allow attractions to stay open year-round, and events and festivals keep the winter months exciting.
The parish ranges from rolling horse country on the west end to swamps in the east. The three largest towns are Covington (population: 10,500), Mandeville (12,300), and Slidell (27,800), where you can fly into Slidell Airport. Hours after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region in 2005, the airport—on the northwest edge of Slidell—was the only one in the area operational. Using generator power, it served as the main relief site for military and rescue operations.
Another public airport option is St. Tammany Regional Airport on the western side of the parish. It is in Abita Springs and just a 10-minute drive to either Covington or Mandeville.
I stayed in Covington at the resort-like Southern Hotel for my two-night stay on the Northshore. I could have easily spent all my time here enjoying the spa, pool, and bar, whose walls feature murals based on hand-tinted vintage postcards of yesteryear. The 1907 structure, built as a hotel but later becoming retail and office space, reopened in 2014 after a complete refurbishment.
The ground floor of the 42-room hotel features a destination dining spot, Oxlot 9, where chef Jeffrey Hansell is revered for an upscale, Gulf-inspired menu featuring locally sourced seafood, game, and meats.
The restaurant’s name comes from the design of the block where the hotel sits. Covington’s original city grid in the 1800s included ox lots in the center of city blocks, used to tie up horses and oxen. These lots are now mostly used for vehicle parking, though the unique city planning is one reason Covington’s downtown earned its national historic district designation.
There are another two dozen restaurants within walking distance of the hotel, including Del Porto Ristorante, owned by a husband-and-wife chef team and three-time James Beard Award semifinalists, and LOLA, owned by another chef couple cooking local inspired food in the city’s historic train depot.
Covington’s core stretches beyond the historic downtown blocks to include a broader cultural district of fine art galleries, one-of-a-kind shops, restaurants, and museums. There’s Lee Lane, a short street crammed with antique shops and eclectic boutiques, and a few blocks to the west is a concentration of art galleries on Columbia Street. St. Tammany Art Association is based in the town’s 19th century art house building and organizes a monthly outdoor juried market of visual arts and crafts March through December at the Covington Trailhead.
The trailhead is for Tammany Trace, a 31-mile rail-trail that covers five Northshore communities. Within a block of the trail in Covington is one of two locations of Brooks’ Bike Shop, a full-service shop that rents bicycles and also guides tours on two wheels.
Ride toward Abita Springs to visit the state’s oldest craft brewery. Abita Brewery is now also the largest in Louisiana and makes sodas in addition to the 25 beers they’ll brew and package by the end of 2019. You can take a guided or self-guided tour of the facility they upgraded to in 1994 or have lunch in their original brewery from 1986, which is now their brewpub.
I spent about four hours on the water while on the Northshore and I still wanted more time. I had a peaceful and relaxing paddle through Cane Bayou with Canoe and Trail Adventures. All of their guided tours are with master naturalists, so I learned the differences between a bayou, swamp, and marsh, and also that Lake Pontchartrain is an estuary rather than a lake because it opens to the Gulf of Mexico. Cane is one of about 10 bayous that flow into the lake and the only one that is largely still in its natural state, protected by being between Fontainebleau State Park and Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.
I also took a two-hour ride with Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours in Slidell. The boats hold no more than 26 people and the captain narrates as he guides the vessel. The moss-draped cypress trees were beautiful reflecting in the water of what the captain said is one of the least-altered river swamps in the country. His voice brought out alligators throughout the tour. They would follow alongside the boat and expect a treat (a marshmallow).
After the morning swamp tour, I didn’t want the views to end, so I drove to another waterfront for lunch: Lakeshore Marina at Lake Pontchartrain. The Blind Tiger has an island vibe—including a sand beach, a casual menu, and tasty rum drinks. At the marina, you also can connect with a guide for an inland or coastal fishing experience. Outfitters like Angling Adventures of Louisiana operate year-round and can split the trip between fishing for freshwater fish and heading to Biloxi Marsh, known for its redfish.
Before leaving Slidell, stop at Emma’s Famous Pralines for what many say are the best version of these traditional southern candies. Ms. Emma makes them by hand individually, using an old family recipe and large copper pots. She also sells other Louisiana-inspired treats in her small shop. Call before you go, 985-641-9151, as she is a one-woman operation. There will be a variety of flavors, don’t miss rum, my favorite.
Try them all by taking a 12-count sampler pack home with you. Sound like a true Southerner by correctly pronouncing the treat a praw-leen versus pray-leen.