Get out of town
By Jen Reeder

There is so much to do in New Orleans that it can be hard to leave. But for those in need of an afternoon or weekend getaway, the solution is just a Causeway-ride away – and doesn’t involve visiting a swamp or a plantation.

The UCM Museum, at 22275 Hwy. 36 in Abita Springs, is a one-of-a-kind attraction brimming with a sense of humor. The brainchild of local artist John Preble is like a TGI Friday restaurant on acid (so it’s a good thing the Abita Brewery is close by). Cell phones, license plates and keyboards are stuck to walls; lamps are made of Popsicle sticks. Vintage arcade machines, baby pianos and leg shackles from the old Abita Springs jail coexist with bottle cap collections and hand-painted signs like “No taxpayer’s buck was wasted on this family museum.” Push the button under “Insult yourself” and a recording might announce, “You’re a big slobbering creepy dweeb!”

The House of Shards, which is covered in thousands of shards of glass, mirrors and plates, is near the bassigator – an abomination with the head of an alligator but a fish’s tail. Then there are the dioramas, handmade inventions featuring miniature scenes of Louisiana life, from a jazz funeral to Martians invading Mardi Gras. These are also touch friendly; the push of a button makes zombies pop out of coffins or an outhouse door (under the miniature sign “Library”) fly open.

“It’s like a hobby that got out of hand,” Preble laughs. “Come with a sense of humor.”

Preble says the UCM Museum has broad appeal, enticing families, coffee shop hipsters and even teens.

“That’s one biggie that I’m proud of – it’s extremely hard to impress teenagers,” he says.

The UCM Museum also rents bicycles for a nominal fee since it is located next to the Tammany Trace, a 28-mile bike trail that runs along the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Cycling the Trace is a great way to work off a beer gut while exploring the area. The paved (and flat) bikeway runs from Covington to Lacombe, passing through Abita Springs, Mandeville and Slidell, as well as wetlands, wooded areas and Fontainebleau State Park.

The Trace is a rails-to-trails conversion – the only one in Louisiana. It follows the path of the Illinois Central Railroad, which is convenient since it crosses 31 bridges. The Tammany Trace was named a Millennium Legacy Trail, an honor bestowed by the White House in 1999 to U.S. trails that reflect the essence and spirit of states and territories.

“The best thing about it is it offers so much,” says Trace Executive Director Lisa Pratt. “There’s something for everyone, whether you want to walk, ride your bike, bring your horse, spent time with family…you can see birds, wildlife, jump off the trail and do something unique for the day like got to a restaurant or market…it’s recreation, exercise and tourism.”

Pratt says rangers patrol the trail from daylight to dark to keep it safe and clean for the approximately 11,000 visitors a month. The Trace hosts races, concerts and other events; check the website for upcoming events, she says, at www.tammanytrace.org.

Fontainebleau State Park can be a side trip from the Tammany Trace, or a destination in its own right. Southeast of Mandeville on US 190, it features 2,800 acres on Lake Pontchartrain. There is plenty of camping, with 126 “improved” campsites (read: RV), unimproved campsites (for people who want a less noisy experience), and 200 undesignated campsites (go figure). Campground guests at one of three group camps can swim in the group swimming pool during the summer months. The public gets to swim in a pool with a great view of the lake, which everyone knows is not for swimming.

Conversely, the lake is great for boating, and the park has a boat ramp (non-motorized sailboats only). It’s in the day use section of the park, where picnickers can gaze out at the maritime activity from sites with tables and grills, or while sunning on the beach.

The real draw, of course, is the natural setting, so there is an interpretive nature trail as well as a longer hike for which frogs, birds and insects provide the background music. Birdwatchers love these trails, but with over 400 different species of animals in the park area, be on the lookout for turkeys as well as mink. The brick remains of a sugar mill, nestled in trees back on the park road, look really cool on a misty day and are historic:  the mill was built in 1829 by Bernard de Marigny de Mandeville.

Fairview-Riverside State Park, two miles east of Madisonville, is much smaller at 99 acres but it has charms of its own. It offers camping and picnicking as well as fishing, crabbing, and water skiing on the Tchefuncte River, which winds around the park. There are playgrounds for the kids and lots of old oak trees draped in Spanish moss, which turns fiery orange at sunset.

The park is a major field trip destination because of Otis House, a 19th century home on the National Register of Historic Places. It originally housed a sawmill owner and his family, and later was a summer home for Frank Otis, who left the property to the state when he died in 1962.

They’ve done a lot with the place, and it’s easy to understand why adult principals would inflict the 45-minute tour on fidgety school children. But adults – who have more of a grasp of the fleeting nature of time – will be more interested in the experience. (One note in the guest book said, “I remember when.”)  The guides explain the historical significance and purpose of all aspects of the house, such as door-sized windows to avoid paying the door tax (!), spider images sewn onto quilts because spiders were good luck for eating disease-spreading mosquitoes, and an old apple peeling crank machine whose purpose is obvious but is still fun to watch peel an apple into one long, coiled strip.

Essentially, if you’re the kind of person who likes to watch Jeopardy, you’ll love the Otis House.

Pontchartrain Vineyards is the option for people who want nature without exertion – and a glass of wine. The drive to Louisiana’s answer to Napa, about 15 minutes from Covington, passes by horse farms and feels a world away from New Orleans. What makes Pontchartrain Vineyards unique is that wines are produced specifically to compliment Louisiana cuisine.

“I was born and raised in the city of New Orleans, and like most people here you take the eating experience for granted – you have to go away to see how much our culture celebrates food,” says founder John Seago. “Wine is food.”

A $3 tasting fee offers the chance to sample seven wines crafted with that in mind. For example, the 2001 Le Trolley, an award winner, is compatible with oysters and Gulf fish prepared with rich sauces, according to the tasting notes. The tasting room overlooks the vineyards, so bringing a picnic and enjoying a bottle of wine on the patio is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. And every 2nd and 4th Saturday from May to October, Pontchartrain Vineyards hosts Jazz’n the Vines, and outdoor concert series from 6:30 p.m. – 9 p.m.

Of course, no getaways list would be complete without mentioning the Abita Brewery in Abita Springs. This is a chance to make a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Abita Amber, Light, Golden, Turbodog, and Purple Haze, among others. These microbrews offer more flavor and alcohol content than what you’ll find in a national brand like Bud, as a visit to the brewery’s tap room will prove.

Most other brewery tours around the country force visitors to learn about the preparation of beer with a tour of the facility, and the trip to the tasting room is the prize at the end of the tour. Not so at Abita – the tour starts in the tasting room, and visitors sample the different brews and are even encouraged to “grab a full one” for the informational tour. Clearly, these folks know and love beer.

Tours take place Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., and Sundays at 1 p.m. The brewery is just a stone’s throw away from the Abita Brew Pub, at 72011 Holly St., which serves draft Abita beer as well as delicious pub grub like spinach and artichoke dip and seafood po-boys.

 

SIDEBAR:

If you go:

UCM Museum
22275 Hwy. 36 in Abita Springs
985/892-2624
Open 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily, except major holidays
$3 admission, kids 3 and under free
http://ucmmuseum.com

Tammany Trace
Trail runs from Covington to Lacombe (bridge being repaired at Bayou Lacombe is temporarily isolating 14 miles of the route between Slidell and Lacombe).
Open 7:30 a.m. – dusk
www.tammanytrace.org

Fontainebleau State Park
Hwy. 190 near Mandeville
985/624-4443
$2 day use fee
www.lastateparks.com

Fairview-Riverside State Park
Hwy. 22 in Madisonville
985/845-3318
$2 day use fee/$2 Otis House tour
www.lastateparks.com

Pontchartrain Vineyards and Winery
81250 Old Military Rd. (Hwy. 1082), Bush
985/892-9742
$3 tasting fee7
www.pontchartrainvineyards.com

Abita Brewery
21084 Hwy. 36, Abita Springs
985/893-3143
Free
www.abita.com