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September 2014 – Into the Wild of Grand Isle

Into the Wild of Grand Isle (Country Roads Magazine)
All kinds of folks—from quiet birders to rowdy rodeo fishermen—enjoy this island outpost
Written by Jyl Benson
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Grand Isle State Park is the only state-owned-and-operated beach on the Louisiana Gulf Coast.
Photo by Lucie Monk

Were it not for the sparse, spooky ruins of the 160-room Ocean Club Resort hiding under leaves in the woods, it would be easy to dismiss as fiction the genteel Riviera-like Grand Isle of the Victorian era that Kate Chopin described in her seminal novel The Awakening. The magic and mystery she illustrated so eloquently remain; but the collection of resorts to which the wealthy fled via steamer to escape the unbearable heat and yellow fever plaguing New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century vanished into the fury of a late season hurricane on October 1, 1893, never to be rebuilt. What began as a fishing paradise in its earliest days of use by the Chitimacha tribe returned to just that following the deadly storm.

Jean Landry, an employee of the Nature Conservancy who also serves as the community’s unofficial historian, first showed me the ruins nearly twenty years ago, and I still get a shiver when I think of the patches of ornately tiled terrace peeking out through the rubbish, the only physical reminder of the opulence once found in this now untamed site.

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Of sea and air

There’s no mistaking the importance of the local seafood industry as you travel the road that brings you to Grand Isle. The winding highway hangs tight to Bayou Lafourche with assorted vessels moored on and working the waterway—houseboats, tugs, oyster dredgers, shrimp trawlers, and barges. Despite the waterfront locale, there’s nary a resort, condo, outlet mall, nor waterpark to be found. If that’s an environment that makes you think “vacation,” you’re in for a pretty primitive surprise. This southerly tip of Louisiana—split between the bottom of Lafourche Parish and a toe of Jefferson Parish—is a fishing community that never pretends to be anything else.

Grand Isle is a land of survivors and proud natives as well as a cornucopia of natural riches waiting to be harvested from the Gulf of Mexico and its bordering estuaries and marshes. Louisiana’s bounty has been celebrated as the “Sportsman’s Paradise” on state license plates since 1958, and Grand Isle aptly represents the claim. Sportsmen from throughout the world flock here annually from April through October for casual recreational fishing as well as the fiercely competitive rodeos and tournaments.

Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island, Grand Isle consists of marsh habitat, beaches, and chenier forests situated at the mouth of Barataria Bay where it meets the Gulf of Mexico. Unless you travel by boat or float plane, there’s one way in and one way out: the elevated bridge on LA Highway 1 between Leeville and Port Fourchon. Passes can be purchased either at the toll’s dedicated customer service center in Golden Meadow (on Highway 1) or by logging on to geauxpass.com; or you may simply pay a fee to the attendant who mans the little booth at the edge of the bridge or use the in-lane machines that accept cash (exact change not required), debit cards, or credit cards. The area around Golden Meadow is notorious for speed traps, so beware. The local constabularies are never on vacation.

Elmer’s Island, a 230-acre wildlife refuge just off Highway 1 on the way to Grand Isle from Port Fourchon is accessible by a winding dirt and shell road with a strict speed limit of fifteen miles per hour due to the poor road conditions. Administered by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and located directly across the Caminada Pass from Grand Isle, the island offers excellent surf fishing and boat access for daily public use from thirty minutes before sunrise to thirty minutes after sunset.

The finger-like, seaside projection of two-lane Highway 1 descends from the automobile causeway at the west end of Grand Isle. Never mind that the same highway stretches 436.2 miles on the other side of the descent into the northwest corner of the state to nearly Shreveport; when you complete the seven-mile drive on this side of the bridge, the road terminates at what looks and feels like the end of the world. Nothing is visible beyond the vast expanse of the steel blue sea Chopin found so seductive.

For the people of Grand Isle, that seductive sea is both the giver of life and prosperity and the harbinger of death and destruction. Looking out at the vast stretches of the Gulf, it’s easy to grasp that one-third of the nation’s seafood is supplied by this body of water, teeming with over 280 species of finfish alone. Many of the 1,500 year-round inhabitants of the community earn their livings as commercial seafood harvesters; others work in the oil and gas industry, tapping into the abundant deep pockets of crude oil locked thousands of feet beneath the floor of the sea.

Situated on the front line to the Gulf, the community has also been smacked by disaster after disaster. In rapid succession the area took grand-slam punches—resulting in near total devastation—from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which hit the Louisiana coastline in late August and early September 2005. Hurricane Gustav made landfall on September 1, 2008, twenty miles to the west in Cocodrie. The manmade mess of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion and consequent oil spill wreaked environmental havoc starting in April 2010 and devastated the seafood industry for nearly two years. Hurricane Isaac made a direct hit in 2012. Regardless, the people who live here just take it in stride and continue to rebuild. They love the area intensely and make every effort to preserve and protect the unique, largely self-sustaining lifestyle it affords them.

A siren song for the rowdy and the peaceful alike

From crabbing to lounging on well-kept beaches, there are any number of activities on the island to keep a visitor busy; but its two most popular events nicely represent the extreme ends of the entertainment spectrum available to Grand Isle guests.

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Established in 1928, the annual Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo has grown into one of the premier saltwater fishing rodeos in the United States. The big, rowdy competition draws as many as twenty thousand hell-raising, hard-partying, deep sea fishermen and their big toys to the island annually over a long weekend in late July. The wilds of their cherished peaceful environs upset by the wilds of the rodeo, this is a time when most year-round residents rent out their homes and leave town.

This massive celebration, centered around the capture of monster finfish set to the soundtrack of hundreds of roaring outboard motors, is radically juxtaposed by another popular observance: the Grand Isle Migratory Bird Festival. Each spring since 1997, flocks of binocular-bearing birdwatchers have arrived to greet the spring migrants returning across the Gulf from their South American winter habitat. This peninsula, sticking out into the Gulf, is the first thing the weary birds see after weeks of flight; and the passerines, raptors, and colonial birds put on an enthusiastic and colorful show as they meet up with the gulls, terns, pelicans, and other shorebirds that constitute the island’s year-round avian residents. For some of these species, the chenier habitat is essential for breeding; so there’s the whole “love fest” aspect to observe as well.

Originally, the festival was held on a single day; but fervent birdwatchers have fueled its growth to a three-day event during which they roam the marsh and hardwood forests, binoculars and spotting scopes in hand, seeking out the numerous species of migratory birds flapping about in the trees. It’s an open party, and private landowners generally allow bird watchers and ornithologists to traipse across their properties in search of visual prey. Bird banding and mist netting demonstrations lend added drama to the festival.

Birders that can’t make it down for the festival can pick up free Birding Trail maps at the Grand Isle Port Commission Visitor’s Center year round.

For those who prefer to skip these larger gatherings in favor of a quieter, lazier getaway, find a nicely-outfitted cabin or camp to rent for a long weekend and enjoy the raw beauty of this island outpost, while it’s still there.

Details. Details. Details.

In 2010, Yahoo! Travel named Grand Isle one of America’s Top 10 Winter Beach Retreats. In 2011, Yahoo! News named it one of the Top 5 Island Getaways.

Explore

Grand Isle State Park on the east end of the island provides overnight camping accommodations and is the only state-owned-and-operated beach on the Louisiana Gulf Coast. The park comprises 150 acres, with nearly three miles of hiking trails. The park’s nine hundred-foot pier reaches straight into the Gulf—ideal for fishing and crabbing. crt.state.la.us/louisiana-state-parks/parks/grand-isle-state-park/index.

The observation tower at the park affords an excellent vantage point for viewing Grand Terre, the barrier island home of smuggler brothers Jean and Pierre Lafitte and their band of criminal compatriots who frequented Grand Isle.

The abandoned ruins of Fort Livingston are on the westernmost tip of Grand Terre and are visible from both the observation tower as well as the park’s pier. Fort Livingston was built in the early nineteenth century as coastal defense and protection for New Orleans against possible naval threats from the Gulf via Barataria Bay. Now the fort can only be accessed by boat.

Lodging

Most visitors to the island stay at the handful of marina motels, bed and breakfasts, and waterside camps available for rent. Houses and camps are elevated on stilts and are still tagged by name and decorative signs, as they were before addresses were mandated by 911 emergency response regulations. grandislerentals.com.

With both furnished apartments for long stays and rooms for shorter ones, the centrally located Sand Dollar Marina Motel is the host for many annual Grand Isle fishing tournaments, including the Tarpon Rodeo. There’s a full-service deli, a laundromat, a fish-cleaning area, a tack and bait shop, and an RV park. 158 Sand Dollar Court. (985) 787-2500. grand-isle.com/sanddollar/motel.

A full-service facility, the cabins at Bridgeside Marina Cabins, RV Park and Beach Front Cabins are fully furnished. The larger, more private camps are just at the edge of the property, as is an adjacent trailer park with hook-ups. Two fishing piers with lights and a fish cleaning area are additional perks. 1618 LA Highway 1, Grand Isle. (985) 787-2418. bridgesidecabinsandmarina.net.

Charters

If you’re after the big fish as opposed to tossing a line from the surf, hire one of the many Coast Guard-accredited charter captains in the area. Their knowledge of the water, currents, and ichthyology is seemingly innate, and they stay abreast of the weather patterns and changing channels. They pride themselves on knowing the “insider spots,” where the best catches can be found, often going out ahead of their charters to ensure the fish are biting. Rates are determined by duration of trip, mileage, number of passengers, and fuel costs. If you can’t bear to get your hands dirty, all the charters offer fish-cleaning services.

Be on the lookout for bottlenose dolphins in the inner marshes. They’ll rush to you, jumping, and chase after your boat in what seems like a game of tag. Fishing may be great, but watching the dolphins will make your heart sing.

Located in the heart of the Barataria National Estuary, breeding grounds for most of the Gulf of Mexico fish species, Capt. Bobby Lynn’s chartered boats can accommodate up to sixteen people. Catered parties are a specialty of Bobby Lynn’s Marina. (985) 396-2678. bobbylynns.com.

Records have been set on the boats of Capt. Chris Moran of Cajun Made Charters. The captain has fished the inland and offshore waters his entire life. He also owns Moran’s Marina Complex in Port Fourchon. (985) 396-2442. cajunmadecharters.com.

Dining

At the end of the day the stunning view from the deck at Bridgeside Marina Deli makes meals here unforgettable, especially at dusk when the shrimp trawlers are coming back from the Caminada Pass. There’s a wide-ranging menu, but the fresh, local seafood sandwiches are especially good. The grilled shrimp sandwich, whether on French bread or a bun, is one of the deli’s best sellers for good reason—amazingly delicious just-caught shrimp. (985) 787-2418. bridgesidecabinsandmarina.net.

Other restaurants on the island include the Hurricane Hole, 1865 Highway 1, (985) 787-3663; Lighthouse Restaurant, 116 Chighizola Lane, (985) 787-3331; Sarah’s Seafood Restaurant, 2987 Highway 1, (985) 787-2995; and Starfish Restaurant, 3027 Highway 1, (985) 787-2711.