Those unfamiliar with the Northshore have likely heard of places like Mandeville, Covington and Madisonville, reachable only by crossing one of the world's longest bridges, or the Twin Spans on the eastern side of the city. But those once-sleepy towns, along with the likes of Abita Springs and Folsom, became bedroom communities for New Orleans once the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway was built in 1956. It's like a different place, with lots of undeveloped land, quaint shops and outdoor recreation, that at the same time feels familiar.
Ponchatoula and Hammond grew up along the railroad and thrived as the local agricultural economy went from timber to strawberries and higher education. To the east, along I-10, Slidell's population exploded with the arrival of the space age and NASA's moon rocket construction and test facilities constructed in eastern New Orleans and Mississippi. Before then, steamboats and ferries regularly made the trip until the 1930s when travel to the Northshore became an hours-long trek by car or train.
New Orleans' ties to the other bank of Lake Pontchartrain go back a lot further than the Causeway, which until last year held the Guinness World Record as the longest bridge over water in the world. Bernard Marigny, whose namesake Faubourg Marigny is on the South Shore, founded Mandeville on land adjacent to his sugar plantation, Fontainebleau. The massive brick ruins of the sugar mill, which Marigny built in 1828, remain one of the attractions of Fontainebleau State Park, a 2,800-acre park offering camping, swimming and nature trails.
Passing through Fontainebleau and tying St. Tammany Parish together is the Tammany Trace. A rails-to-trails project, the Tammany Trace links Slidell, Lacombe, Mandeville, Abita Springs and Covington together with 31 miles of converted railroad tracks that host bicyclists, skaters, runners, walkers and horseback riders. Each of the cities along the Trace have built their own trailhead facilities, providing a place for trail users to rest or to begin their treks. The trailheads host concerts, farmers markets and other events.
Serious exercise calls for refreshment, and the Abita Brewing Co. can take care of both thirst and hunger. Located in Abita Springs, the brewing company bottles its nationally distributed Turbodog, Amber, Jockamo IPA and seasonal offerings in a facility with a visitor's center and tasting room. The brewery's old plant on the Abita trailhead is now a restaurant, the Abita Brew Pub.
Only a few minutes away by car (or a little longer by bike on the Trace) and at trail's end you'll find Covington's trailhead and its monumental statue of Ronald Reagan. Across the street is Covington Brewhouse (formerly Heiner Brau) cranking out a steady supply of microbrews.
In Mandeville, there's the Barley Oak for a huge selection of beer with a great view of the lake. Its owners are set to open their own brewpub, the Old Rail, on the Tammany Trace Mandeville trailhead.
Southshore foodies may be familiar with Trey Yuen's Mandeville and Hammond locations and The Dakota Restaurant in Covington. Other fine-dining options are Del Porto and Lola in Covington, Juniper and Nuvolari's in Mandeville, Keith Young's Steakhouse in Madisonville, Jacmel Inn in Hammond, La Provence and Impastato's in Lacombe and Palmettos and Young's in Slidell.
For old-time seafood dining, there's Vera's in Slidell, Rips on the Lake in Mandeville and Morton's in Madisonville. Middendorf's might be considered on the way to and not on the Northshore, but either way, it's classic Louisiana waterside seafood dining.
A nice sprinkling of Thai and sushi restaurants have joined the dining scene in recent years, complementing Asian cuisine offered by long-established Chinese restaurants. There are lots of Hispanic restaurants, and Covington seems to be an early New Orleans-area testing ground for some national chains like Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Steak 'N Shake. There also are lots of mom and pop po-boy joints, sno-ball stands and cafes.
The Northshore is part of the area's music history. Just a few blocks from the Mandeville lakefront is the Dew Drop Jazz and Social Hall. The bargeboard landmark was built in 1895, and jazz historians says it was an important stop on the early jazz circuit. Musicians would travel by steamer to the Northshore, play the Dew Drop and other lakefront venues, then hop a train and perform their way to the resorts in Abita Springs and Covington, returning at the end of the weekend to catch a boat back to New Orleans. Kid Ory, Papa Celestin, Louis Armstrong and scores of New Orleans jazz men are known to have played the Dew Drop. The nonprofit Friends of the Dew Drop maintains the building and hosts regular concerts there.
The area has always attracted artists — writers, sculptors, painters, glassmakers, potters and others. Novelist Walker Percy — a literary heavyweight and the man credited with getting John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces published — made Covington his home, calling it a "non-place" (relative to New Orleans) where he could work in peace.
Covington's Three Rivers Art Festival hosts more than 200 artists each November for a juried art market. In addition, the St. Tammany Art Association and the City of Slidell's Cultural Affairs office each work with the New Orleans Museum of Art to bring exhibits to Covington and Slidell regularly.
There's shopping everywhere. Ponchatoula, Hammond, Mandeville, Covington and Slidell offer antiques, clothing stores and art galleries in small-town settings, along with a couple of major malls along I-12. You'll find a variety of options that aren't available on the South Shore, including a Kohl's department store and a host of local shops.
In addition to Three Rivers, festival opportunities include the Blues and BBQ Festival and annual Louisiana Renaissance Festival in Hammond, the Mandeville Seafood Festival and Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival. Covington celebrates its bicentennial on July 4, 2013, and will host a series of events leading up to Independence Day.
Natives called the waves of commuters who moved to the Northshore over the past decades "come heres" and are still undecided whether the second- or third- generation of commuter families qualify as Northshore natives. But you don't have to leave New Orleans for good to "come here." Take a day trip or two — explore what the Northshore has to offer and you may become a regular visitor.