I’ve lived in this wonderful city for a decade, and while I’ve done a pretty good job exploring my adopted hometown, I have failed miserably at getting out into the treasures that are her surrounding towns, cities, parks and waterways. Until now.
Here, I’ll get out and explore anything and everything that could make a really fun weekend trip from the hustle and bustle (read: dancing and eating) of the Crescent City.
The adventure: Bicycle from brewery to brewery (to brewery to brewery) via the Northshore’s Tammany Trace.
Drive time from New Orleans: Approximately 50 minutes
Time required for adventure: 8 to 24 hours
Let’s Learn About Where the Heck We’re Going
The first settlers to arrive in what is now the Northshore of Lake Pontchartrain were the ancestors of today’s American Indians, who settled in the area’s lush forests and numerous waterways approximately 10,000 years ago. By the time Europeans arrived to the region, tribes such as the Choctaw, Tchefuncte, Acolapissa, Houma had left their mark and established communities.
The area was part of what was known as “the Florida parishes” and was not included in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. However, when Louisiana became a state in 1812, St. Tammany Parish was defined as the land between the Tangipahoa and Pearl rivers.
Many of the Northshore’s towns were established in the early 19th century, including Mandeville, which was founded in 1830 by the uber-eccentric Bernard Marigny de Mandeville (who also founded what is now New Orleans’ Marigny neighborhood).
This north side of Lake Pontchartrain had lively timber, boat-building, brick-making, and farming industries, and Creole communities like the one in Lacombe are evidence of those early residents.
By the end of the 19th century, however, wealthy New Orleanians would flock across the lake by steamboat and railroad to its many hotels, inns and restaurants, often staying on the Northshore for months at a time. This connection was strengthened further in 1956 with the building of the 24-mile Causeway Bridge over the lake, the longest continuous bridge over water in the world.
Over the decades, the communities of the Northshore have grown, and taken on unique identities of their own. But thousands of years later, it’s still the lush forests and many waterways that attract many of its residents and visitors.
Why I Want to Go. And Why You Should, Too!
Many city-folk might think of the Northshore as a collection of bland and boring towns where once-cool New Orleanians drive off to when it’s time to start a family. But there’s a lot to love on this side of Lake Pontchartrain, and chief among it is nature! Explore sprawling Fontainebleau State Park. Take a kayak out on the region’s many rivers and bayous. Or, get on your bikes and enjoy Louisiana’s very first rails-to-trails bike path — the Tammany Trace!
By connecting five towns on the Northshore (and so many breweries!), the Trace serves as a physical manifestation of the collective spirit of community so many people I spoke with mentioned.
When I asked Heidi Guerra, the marketing manager for Abita Brewing Company, what she’d recommend I check out during my visit, for example, her response was emblematic of that spirit. “We’d love to recommend every establishment on the Northshore,” she said, “because we’re that proud of our community. It has something for everyone — whether you’re biking through for a beer with friends, enjoying the day with family, craving a delicious bite to eat, or simply looking to enjoy nature, the Northshore’s got it.”
During my trip, I found beers that were produced as a collaboration between several local brewers, and I learned of monthly brewery/bicycle crawls organized to create a stronger community and introduce residents to more of the hardworking businesses in the area.
That sense of togetherness was a huge part of the Northshore’s charm.
Where are We Staying?
I left New Orleans early on Saturday morning, stopped at the Rouses for beer and grillables, and made my way to Fontainebleau State Park, just east of Mandeville. The park was once the site of Bernard Marigny de Mandeville’s sugar plantation, and remnants can still be seen today.
I’m heading to the park to set up camp, but that’s not a requirement for this adventure. In fact, there are many options:
- Don’t have time for an overnight escapade? You could bike between all the breweries in a day and head home that afternoon, but you’ll definitely want a designated driver to get you back safely. An Uber is a possibility and will only cost a total of $50 to $60 each way, which is not too bad if you’re splitting it between three or four people!
- If you’re not much of an outdoorsy person, you could book a hotel or inn in towns like Covington, Abita Springs or Mandeville. Each of these communities are on the main bike path that connects the breweries.
- Or you could camp, which is what I did. Fontainbleau State Park is beautiful, has plenty of tent spots (rates start at $25, plus a $3 entrance fee), and even a cabin if you prefer glamping to camping. The main bike path to the breweries goes right through the park, and it’s just a short peddle to our first beer in Mandeville.
So what is this mythical bike path I keep mentioning?
The Tammany Trace is a 31-mile bike path that goes from near the edge of Slidell (one day, it will go into downtown Slidell) all the way to the center of Covington. But in this adventure, we’re just going from the park to Covington, and back.
The corridor was once the Illinois Central Railroad line, but after it was abandoned, it was purchased in 1992 by the St. Tammany Parish government, which has slowly but surely asphalted the path and converted train trestles into pedestrian bridges.
After I reserved a camp spot and set up my tent, I began biking the 2 1/2 miles toward my first beer in Mandeville.
From the park to Covington, it’s nearly a 15-mile bike ride. Add the return trip, and that makes quite a trek! I brought plenty of water, sunscreen, snacks and — of course — a comfortable bicycle. But if you don’t have a bicycle of your own — no worries! Brooks’ Bike Shop offers rentals ($25/day) at its locations in Mandeville (five blocks from the Trace) and Covington (on the Trace). And if you get a flat it’s a short Uber ride to get you back to one of those shops for a quick repair.
Old Mandeville, Old Rail
I left Fontainebleau State Park at about 9:30 a.m. and arrived at the Mandeville Trailhead 30 minutes later. The Old Rail Brewing Company doesn’t open up until 11 a.m., so I had some time to spare.
Fortunately, the Mandeville Trailhead Community Farmers’ Market takes place every Saturday from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. There are more than 50 vendors selling everything from artwork and wood-crafted items, to clothing and children’s toys to pottery, soaps and lotions.
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Oh, and obviously, a bunch of food! To the surprise of no one who knows me, that’s what caught my eye. I indulged in a breakfast taco (fine, two breakfast tacos), some beef jerky, a nut bar and just about every free sample I could find. The market was busy (which was a sharp contrast to the ghost town that is the Bywater the morning after a big Friday night out), and I sat down to listen to a guitarist entertain the crowd.
But, when the clock struck 11 a.m., it was time for my first beer of the day!
I walked over to Old Rail Brewing, a train station for that old Illinois Central Railroad line I was telling you about earlier (and an even older steam locomotive before that — important for carrying timber to markets out of town). I cozied up at the bar, and the sun shone through the large windows, filling the massive room, with its high ceilings and exposed-brick interior.
“We take a lot of pride that we’re located on the trace and trailhead here in Old Mandeville,” explained brewmaster Matthew Horney. “We think we and any of the breweries along the Trace, really, are the perfect spot for anyone biking through!”
The beer menu is full of classics that the brewery serves year-round, as well as a handful of seasonal specials. I went with the Migration Tropical Milkshake IPA — flavored with mango, pineapple, strawberry and vanilla bean.
“But we welcome families, too!” Horney said, and there were several families chowing down on an early lunch at the same time I was there.
The food is definitely chow-worthy, and Old Rail sports a menu full of Southern favorites. I kicked things off with the house-made pimento cheese spread, with grilled ciabatta and pickled corn, and then I finished with the Burger of the Month: a “Greek Burger” with feta cheese spread, kalamata olives, sun-dried tomatoes and arugula on a bun from nearby Randazzo’s bakery.
A great first stop, but the adventure wasn’t to hang out in Mandeville all day (which will make for a fine future adventure, by the way)! So I got back on my bike and rode.
Untouched Since the Time of the Dinosaurs!
The bike ride to Abita Springs is about 8.7 miles. Chafunkta Brewing is en route, but we’ll hit that on the way back!
The ride is long, but lovely. Unlike my bike commute around New Orleans, I wasn’t in danger of falling into a single pothole! (What amazing world is this?!) Most of the trip was tree-covered, breezy, and full of tiny (harmless) wildlife. The highlight was a family (or maybe they were just good friends?) of six turtles sunning on a branch hanging over a stream beside the Trace.
There are three Abita-owned spots to grab beer in Abita Springs, and I planned to try them all. First, the bike path swings right by downtown’s Abita Brew Pub, where — from 1986 until operations moved to its current location (we’ll be heading there shortly) in 1994 — Abita beer was originally made. Today, it’s a rustic-feeling restaurant where one can choose from many Abita (and visiting) beers they have on tap, as well as enjoy a really nice meal.
I had other plans for second-lunch, so I sat at the bar with a growing number of friendly locals and made quick work of their delicious Bourbon Street Rye Pale Ale (9.5% ABV, watch out!) before heading back on my bike to the brewery, itself.
I arrived at Abita Brewing Company just in time for their 2 p.m. tour. On Saturdays, they have 30-minute tours offered every 30 minutes from 10:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. Back when I first visited Abita, 10 years ago, the tours were basically an all-you-can-drink free-for-all. My fellow Americorps friends and I would make the trek from New Orleans several times a month for an hour of unlimited free beer, and whatever mess you’re imagining is exactly what happened.
My memory is a little cloudy from those Saturday trips, but I do remember an introduction video we saw so many times I was able to quote it: “The water in Abita beer is so pure it’s been untouched since the time of the dinosaurs!” the video declared (and we declared along with it).
Times have changed for the best, I suppose. These days, the tours are $5, and come with four 4-ounce tastings. The upside is the tours felt more informative, but that’s probably just the result of me remembering what was said.
Beside the brewery is the Tap Room, open from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m., where you can order a tasting, pint or growler at the inside bar, outside courtyard or beer garden. I went with their Lazy Iguana Juicy IPA, “a juicy take on the popular Pina Colada!”
There’s a lot more to Abita Springs than beer, but we’ll have to save that for another weekend because we’re on a mission and Covington is our next stop.
Lost a Brewery, Got a Chick-Parm
Three-and-a-half miles from Abita — along more beautifully-maintained bike trail and a fun stretch over a lengthy wooden bridge — is Covington, home to St. Tammany Parish’s most bustling downtown.
Covington Brewhouse used to be right here at the end of the Tammany Trace, but unfortunately, in January 2019, it closed down after 15 years of operation. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty to do!
Maybe it was because I’d biked 15 miles to get here, or maybe it’s because I had drank four beers along the way, or maybe it’s because it was really that good. Whatever the reason, the chicken Parmesan at Mattina Bella — just off the bike path — may have been the best I’ve ever had! (I’m a New Yorker, originally — I know good chicken parmesan!)
By the time I finished savoring, it was 3:45 p.m., and the sun wasn’t going to be up forever. I grabbed a quick beer at Covington’s Columbia Street Tap Room and Grill (a local institution for craft beer and music) and then made my way back in the direction of Fontainebleau State Park.
The Journey Back
But, of course, I had a pair of stops to make en route.
First was the Chafunkta Brewing Company, between Abita Springs and Mandeville. Open since 2011, the brewery was named after an early indigenous settlement in what is now Mandeville.
This family-owned and operated brewery is all about community. The brew pub is a great place to sit and enjoy a beer while talking to your friends or watching whatever game is on TV. Chafunkta also organizes regular beer/bike crawls with other breweries along the Trace.
Many of Chafunkta’s beers are available in New Orleans, so I opted for one I hadn’t seen before: the Bayou Blaze, an easy-drinking Irish Red.
Then, with the sun changing hew and dropping lower in the sky, I pedaled onward to my final beer stop of the day — Mandeville’s Barley Oak. And here’s the truth: If Barley Oak wasn’t on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain, I’d stop here multiple times a week. It’s that awesome.
The bar is on the second story of a large lakefront home, and its high ceilings with wooden beams, a long bar and comfy leather couches all work together to evoke the feel of an old German biergarten. Barley Oak might be a few blocks off the Trace, but its balcony overlooks the lake. And watching the sunset over Lake Pontchartrain, while sipping on a mug of one of their more than 100 craft beers, is by far the nicest sunset I’ve experienced in the NOLA Metro area.
I enjoyed a second pint, devoured an order of soft pretzels and beer cheese from the extensive menu and then let the cool lake wind brush my face during my twilight bike ride back to camp.
Back to my campsite, I started a fire, cracked open a beer and a book, and basked in a clear night under the stars — just far enough away from city life.
The Next Morning
I had to head back to New Orleans pretty early the next day, and I plan on visiting each of these towns (as well as Fontainebleau) on isolated weekend trips for this series. But, if you have some time, there’s plenty of great hiking and kayaking to be had in the park and I’ve heard some wonderful things about the Flamjeaux Coffee in Old Mandeville, just a few blocks from Old Rail Brewing.
But, like I said, that’s an adventure for another day. See you then!