June 10th – Louisiana Conservationist Magazine
GRAND ISLE: AN ADVENTURE CLOSE TO HOME
By: Kristy Christiansen
Photos by Jackson Hill
As the parents of two children being raised in the city, we spend our weekends treating the boys to “adventures” across the state—and sometimes across the country. In fact, we travel a lot. Our oldest, who just turned four, has been to California three times and seen the Redwoods, Sequoias, Yosemite and Death Valley. He’s built sand castles on the beautiful, but cold beaches of Oregon and Washington, posed with the dinosaur skeletons in D.C.’s Natural History Museum, and hiked the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina.
Yet, if you asked him today where he wanted to go on his next adventure, he will say one of two places – New Orleans’ Audubon Zoo or Grand Isle. It’s easy to overlook the beauty of your own state. How many people travel to a new city or country, break out the guide book and go page by page through all the attractions to see? Yet, why do we so often dismiss the splendor in our own backyards?
Grand Isle is a gem floating in the marshes of Louisiana’s elusive coast. Perched on the edge of a landscape rapidly eroding away, the island’s presence is a permanent fixture transcending time. To be fair, there’s nothing about the island that screams “Put me on your bucket list.” There’s no largest tree or national park, no five-star resort or extreme sporting. On the surface, it’s another rural town known for its proximity to big fish and even bigger oil rigs. In reality, a weekend here can transform your life, making a lasting impression of a cherished vacation.
To children and adults alike, Grand Isle is a place where you can let the warm air envelop your being and slow down your pace in life, allowing you to do as much or as little as you desire. It’s a place where you can lounge on the beach for countless hours, watching the porpoises and pelicans go about their daily routine. You can fish from nearly every inch of the island, and if you still yearn for more, you can take a boat out to test the waters offshore. Meanwhile, the bird sightings on this top migration spot verge on phenomenal.
A vacation here can take on any number of variances, but one of my favorite trips to Grand Isle was during last year’s Migratory Bird Festival. An early morning drive led us through the watery marshes that seemingly shield the barrier island from the encroaching Gulf waters. As the final bridge descended upon the island, we decided to feed our hunger pangs before venturing any farther.
We picked up some poboys at Bridgeside Marina and carried them over to the nearby beach for a picnic lunch. The wind whipped in our face, blowing sand and our napkins across the parking lot, but our 3-year-old was oblivious while he marched off with bucket and shovel in hand. The beach here is not the fine white sand you find in Florida, but it stills serves its purpose as a base for elaborate sand castles. There are other perks too, as the wild animals seem to linger closer to the shoreline than I’ve seen elsewhere. The porpoises appear within arm’s reach, while the pelicans swoop just overhead.
After lunch, we drove to the far end of the island to Grand Isle State Park. The park was free for the birding festival, and we took advantage of its viewing platform to gaze out across the island. A leisurely walk down the 400-foot fishing pier led us to several weekend vacationers manning fishing poles. In the 20 minutes we stood watching, there seemed to be a constant influx of fish and even an enormous sting ray was reeled in. We later learned that more than 280 species of fish swim in the salty waters around the island, and that’s not to mention the countless crabs and shrimp.
On to the birding festival, we parked our car at the Nature Conservancy trailhead marking the entrance to the Grilleta Tract. One of the last remaining stands of maritime forest on the island, it’s a prime location for a phenomenon known as a “fallout.” When thousands of exhausted, migrating birds fly into a thunderstorm, they are forced to fall out of the sky and seek refuge in the island’s trees. Our arrival didn’t coincide with a storm, but we still saw hundreds of colorful birds—and dozens of onlookers—along the trail.
The trail ended at the backyard of Bobby Santini, who welcomed us onto his property to view his pictures of birds and taste the berries from his mulberry tree. Our eldest son’s sudden interest in Mr. Bobby’s golf cart had him taking the toddler and my husband for a ride. Meanwhile, I sat on the porch swing with our 1-year-old, who flirted away with Mrs. Santini. It turned out the native Grand Islanders lived in a 213-year-old house—the oldest on the island—and it had survived both hurricanes Betsy and Katrina.
The golf cart ride revealed a great playground just a few streets away, and we stopped over to explore it and let the kids run off some energy. Later, back on the main road searching for a dinner spot, we found a cute souvenir shop where we landed a pirate’s hat and picked up some shells. The shop’s owner recommended some fried fish at one of the local seafood restaurants along the main road and we eagerly devoured our food.
We left late in the evening, watching the final pink rays fade below the horizon while laughing quietly at the kids knocked out in the carseats behind us. It was a long day for our little family of four, but it made the first of many Grand Isle memories for us.
Subsequent journeys revealed how much more we had missed on that initial trip, such as the joys of taking out a chartered fishing boat, the amazing sights at the pelican rookery known as Queen Bess Island and the simple lure of a quiet walk on neighboring Elmer’s Island.
Next time, I’m determined to pitch my tent on the beach at Grand Isle State Park and fall asleep at the water’s edge. Perhaps we can even explore Fort Livingston or search for the forgotten, buried treasure of frequent visitor Pirate Jean Lafitte. As the kids grow older, I’m sure their interests will change as well, but there’s something about this wild, natural island that continues to beckon us year after year.
May-June 2012 – Louisiana Life Magazine
GRAND ISLE – LIFE ON A BARRIER ISLAND
BY CINDY ROSS
PHOTOGRAPHED BY STEVE WEWERKA
Five-year-old Mica takes careful aim, leans into her pitch and tosses the metal washer down the hole in the plywood box 15 feet away. Every night she plays with her dad and a handful of other Grand Islanders here at the pavilion at Bridge Side Marina on Grand Isle. They play washers for four hours at a time while the radio cranks out lively music, the squawking seagulls dip and dive and the ocean breeze tosses your hair and your cares away.
Life is simple on Grand Isle. The camaraderie of tossing metal washers night after night is plenty of entertainment.
I learned during the first few hours of my visit that the residents of Grand Isle march to the beat of a different drummer. It is a place where up to 100 golf carts drive the streets, sharing the road with the automobiles and trucks, albeit on the roads’ shoulders.
Locals include an array of such characters as Leon, who years ago grew tired of driving his skiff around the far end of the island to go fishing, so he got out his hand shovel and dug a 1-foot-by-1-foot trench and let the current do the rest. Within one month, you could pass with a 4-foot-wide boat. Now there is easy access to fish the bay through Leon’s Cut. This is “island-making” at its best.
Grand Isle in southern Jefferson Parish is separated from the mainland of southern Louisiana by more than a narrow isthmus of water. They sport a separate mentality, an alternative way of thinking and looking at life.
They are in their own world.
Maybe that is because the residents deal with a boatload of challenges. If you just kept score with what the weather doles out to them, you’d count 12 disasters in the past six years. They continually get their butts kicked while living out on the only inhabited Louisiana barrier island. It just goes along with the territory. So maybe they take liberties wherever they can.
These people know how to do hurricanes; it’s practically routine for them. It is part of their molecular makeup. They seem to work together on auto pilot, as one organism, when the hurricane warnings go into effect.
Many evacuate to the town of Thibodaux, 80 miles away. When it is safe to return but before electricity is restored, they all cart their food down to the fire station where they can access water and everyone cooks outdoors like the extended island family that they are.
You would think they would tire of this lifestyle, but Grand Islanders are tough and resilient. The Gulf oil disaster, however, was the first time cracks appeared in their strength. But these amazingly resourceful people did not wait until Washington, D.C., studied their situation to come up with an “official” plan. They rolled up their shirt sleeves, drove to Home Depots on the mainland and purchased Shop-Vacs with their own money. They swept and sucked up the black goo on their own. They pulled 3 miles of floating vinyl booms around the oil and corralled it, pumping 1,400 gallons of it into trucks that they carted away. This was all before the White House gave them instructions or permission to make a move. The oil was threatening their island, their home, their wildlife and fish, their beaches, and they believe in taking care of their own and doing whatever it takes to get the job done.
Grand Isle is 7 miles long and 1 mile wide – “depending on which day they measure it,” as the local joke goes – and its entire south side boasts a beautiful sand beach.
It may be most famous for its excellent angling and fishing rodeos, with more than 20 held a year. The rodeos benefit local scholarships, tree-planting, beatifying the beach and creating sport fields. They are a huge draw, with the largest being the International Tarpon Rodeo dating back to 1928. “It’s an experience,” the locals claim. They line their pickup beds and fill them with water, creating “Cajun Jacuzzis,” and lounge back there sucking on cold ones. It is a family event, however, and there are plenty of events just for kids.
Life here is laid-back. Residents drive their golf carts and four-wheelers to the Starfish Restaurant for breakfast. Sporting their alligator cowboy boots, they feast on grits and flaky biscuits and share the gossip of the day over endless cups of coffee. For dinner, we feast on seafood poor boys and seafood platters at Sarah’s Restaurant. One of the waitresses is Miss Grand Isle, and she’s gearing up for Miss Louisiana. We ask her to practice walking the runway with our teetering plates of grub. Great food and entertainment are never in short supply on Grand Isle.
The message coming out of the town right now is that Grand Isle is alive and doing well. They want the oysters to come back, and the shrimpers and fishermen are happy to get back to work. The fishing is great, and Louisiana seafood is the safest in the world right now because there are so many tests being conducted on it!
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May 2012 – Louisiana Travel
JOURNEY TO GRAND ISLE
Pack your fishing pole and birding binoculars for this simple beach getaway that offers a chance to get away from it all in the splendor of Louisiana’s outdoors.
By Kristy Christiansen
There’s a solitary strip of road that cuts a path through the marsh and black mangroves to connect a traveler between Louisiana’s mainland and the state’s only inhabited barrier island. Grand Isle is the end of the road for Louisiana Highway 1, and it’s arguably one of the most dramatic locations along the 436-mile-long highway. It’s here that you can roll down the windows to breathe in the salt air and then venture over a short sand dune to take in the views of endless Gulf waves.
More than a hundred years ago, Kate Chopin so eloquently wrote in The Awakening, “The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude.” This is still the lure of Grand Isle today. Tourists aren’t drawn here for the extravagant condos and silky white sand that belong to Florida’s beaches. They come to Grand Isle to experience life at its simplest and purest, to catch a glimpse of the raw wilderness this land used to be–and sometimes still is.
Start your journey at the island’s far end at Grand Isle State Park, where you’re likely to find more people fishing off the pier than sunbathing on the sand. The beach here reflects the various elements at work in nature. The sand appears weathered by the sun and waves continuously beating on the shore. It’s not uncommon to find rows of shells washed up alongside a sun-bleached, three-foot skeleton of a fish.
The family-friendly park allows you to pitch a tent on the beach, so you can fall asleep under the multitude of stars to the peaceful sounds of the sea. You’ll wake to the sight of porpoises breaking the water’s surface, sending a morning greeting to the pelicans skimming through the air above them. If sleeping in a tent on the sand is a little too rustic, stay in a motel or rent one of the many available island camps. Either way, it’s worth staying the night so you can get up early to cast a line in the waters.
On an island where fishing is a livelihood to locals, the options are endless. Grand Isle boasts 280 species of fish, and you can catch them from almost any spot on or off the island. There are two major piers—one at the state park and one known as the “Old Fishing Bridge” next to the Caminada Bridge. At last count, there were more than 30 charter fishing companies, several marinas and bait shops and even kayak rentals.
You can fish day or night, right off the beach or from a boat bobbing in the waves. If you’re curious where they are biting today, ask a local—who not only will know but will happily share with you expert advice. You can even compete against fellow anglers in dozens of fishing rodeos, including the nation’s oldest—the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo. Rather have someone else do the work for you? There are several restaurants along the main road or you can pick up fresh fish, shrimp or crabs from marinas and local fishermen.
When visiting in the spring, you’ll share the island with another frequent tourist—thousands of migrating birds. The Nature Conservancy maintains nature hikes through the island’s last remaining stand of oak-hackberry forest, where the birds tend to congregate when in town. The annual Migratory Bird Festival celebrates the feathered friends’ arrival. Another prime location for bird watching is Queen Bess Island, a nesting site home to hundreds of pelicans and the brilliantly pink roseate spoonbills.
March 23, 2012 – This appeared on the Country Roads Blog.
RETURN TO GRAND ISLE
It’s amazing how much can change in a year. Last April, we visited Grand Isle for the annual Migratory Bird Festival, an event the whole island embraces as residents open their yards to birding enthusiasts. The island was bustling with activity, but some of the key attractions – such as the state park’s beaches – were closed due to tar balls lingering on the sand after the BP Oil Spill. Fast forward to 2012 and the sand is cleaner than ever and children were even playing in the ocean waters.
It’s a hefty drive for us – two and a half hours from New Orleans – so we scooted out of the house at 6:30 a.m. to make it in plenty of time for our 9:30 a.m. chartered fishing appointment. Poor August had to hang back with the grandparents, but Charles was giddy with thoughts of his day in the limelight. On the boat, our host Pat Bellanger took us to some of the best fishing spots around the island. It was exhilarating scaling the waves in the Gulf while porpoises played hide and seek around us.
Our guide offered us prime views of Fort Livingston, where Charles’ imagination was captured with thoughts of buried pirate treasure. I initially wondered if the trip might be too much for the four year old, but he reveled in being our “shrimp boy” – providing bait whenever needed – and gained a new best friend in the striped sheephead we reeled in. (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the fish he was singing to “sleep” was soon going to be chopped up for our dinner.)
Before heading back to dock, we were treated to a spin around Queen Bess Island, better known to the locals as Bird Island. It was here, amidst hundreds of nesting brown pelicans, that we caught site of hot pink wings flapping in the wind and I saw my first of many roseate spoonbills. These amazingly colorful birds did their best to hide within the recesses of the island, while the pelicans made a great showing of flying about, boldly flaunting their triumph over the oil that once threatened to destroy them and their habitat. It was a place I never knew existed, and its brilliance made me question what else I have missed seeing in the world.
Back on land, a voracious appetite had overtaken us, and we tried the poboys (our favorite traveling food) at the Starfish Restaurant. They loaded us up with seafood, and we left with full bellies and a renewed urge to see more of the island.
The day was getting warmer when we entered Grand Isle State Park, and we tossed on some shorts and kicked off our shoes to take a walk. We made our way down the long stretch of sand toward the Gulf and dipped our feet in the lukewarm waters while Charles attempted to keep his beach ball from blowing away in the wind. A particularly strong gust sent the ball all the way back toward the grassy sand dunes, which turned out to be a stroke of good luck as it landed right beside a patch of moon snails waiting to be scooped up.
Feeling sun kissed, we next drove to the shady hiking trail maintained by the Nature Conservancy. Walking along the Lafitte Woods Nature Preserve, we scoped out the path that would soon be teeming with amateur and professional birders searching out the rarest migrating birds during the Migratory Bird Festival April 20-22.
As the sun settled into the evening sky, we made one last stop on our way out at Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge. A long, bumpy road snakes through the marsh, taking you from Highway 1 to the sand-covered island. For those with four-wheel drive, you can take your car out onto the sand and park right up at the water’s edge. Even in a Jeep, though, we chose to play it safe and stop at the island’s entrance. We took one last leisurely walk, marveling at the man-of-wars washed up on shore, before snapping a few parting pictures of pelicans flying over the sunset.