Authentic encounters await travelers in Louisiana destinations, large and small.
That’s what eight tour operator and travel planner readers of The Group Travel Leader discovered during a five-day familiarization tour of the state hosted by the Louisiana Office of Tourism. The tour took them to New Orleans, as well as smaller communities within a short drive of the Big Easy, where they got to know the local wildlife, admired the beautiful waterfront scenery and enjoyed the best of the area’s culture and cuisine.
Follow along on this itinerary to begin planning a Louisiana adventure for your group.
• Arrival in Metairie
• NOLA Motorsports
• Sunset walk alongside Lake Pontchartrain
• Dinner at Drago’s
Travel planners began their trips by flying into New Orleans’ airport or driving to Metairie, a New Orleans suburb on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain in Jefferson Parish. Once everyone arrived at the hotel there, the group departed to tour NOLA Motorsports Park, a high-adrenaline auto racing complex in nearby Avondale. The group toured the grounds, where squealing tires and revving engines are a regular part of the soundscape, and got to experience a race of their own on the park’s high-speed go-kart track. Next, the group made a quick stop at the Westwego Shrimp Lot to sample Louisiana seafood products before returning to Metairie for a sunset stroll and daiquiris on the banks of Lake Ponchartrain. They finished the day with dinner at Drago’s — famous for its charbroiled oysters — before overnighting at the New Orleans Marriot Metairie at Lakeway.
• Breakfast at Café du Monde
• Depart for Bayou Lafourche
• Laurel Valley Plantation
• Lunch at Spahr’s
• Depart for Houma area
• Greenwood Gator Farm
• Houma Travel Visitor Center
• Depart for Jefferson Parish
• Dinner at Middendorf’s Manchac
The second day of the FAM was a busy one, with experiences in three different parishes west of New Orleans. The first stop was at the Metairie location of Café du Monde for beignets and café au lait. Next, the group headed to Lafourche Parish, where they toured the historic Laurel Valley Plantation and enjoyed a delicious seafood lunch at Spahr’s. From there, they continued west to Terrebonne Parish, where they enjoyed a fascinating visit to Greenwood Gator Farm and a reception at the beautiful Houma Travel Visitor Center. Finally, they headed north to Jefferson Parish, where they enjoyed a deluxe catfish dinner with Oktoberfest brews at Middendorf’s in Manchac before overnighting at Hampton Inn in Hammond.
Laurel Valley Plantation
Founded in the early 1800s, Laurel Valley Plantation is the area’s largest surviving historic sugarcane plantation. Visitors begin with a stop at a small museum and general store before proceeding to the plantation grounds, where dozens of 1840s slave cabins still remain amidst the sugarcane fields. During the tour, docents describe the way sugarcane was farmed and refined and share details about well-known movies that were filmed at the plantation, including scenes from the Ray Charles biopic “Ray.”
Greenwood Gator Farm
Alligator farming is big business in Louisiana, and Greenwood Gator Farm gives visitors an inside look at these fascinating creatures. The farm raises between 10,000 and 12,000 gators each year, and its visitor center walks guests through each step of the process. Along the way, visitors learn how gator eggs are harvested from the wild, how the animals are raised and how their meat and skin are used around the world. Guides share interesting facts about the animals and introduce visitors to baby alligators. At the end of the tour, guests can feed marshmallows to adult gators from behind the safety of a chain-link fence.
Houma Travel Visitor Center
Less than an hour’s drive southwest of New Orleans, Houma is the epicenter of Louisiana’s Bayou Country. Opened in 2018, the Houma Travel Visitor Center is a beautiful facility with architectural accents made with locally harvested oyster shells. Inside, guests find interactive exhibits, streaming videos and other resources introducing them to the area’s ecology, history, culture and other points of interest.
• Global Wildlife Center
• Shopping in Ponchatoula
• Lunch and wildlife encounter at La Carreta
• Depart for St. Tammany Parish
• Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum
• Covington Trailhead Museum
• Tour and dinner at the Southern Hotel
The group started their third day in Louisiana with thrilling animal experiences at the Global Wildlife Center in Folsom. Next, they traveled to nearby Ponchatoula, where they explored several shops in the charming downtown area, where they also had lunch and wildlife encounters hosted by local animal experts. After a photo stop with Ponchatoula’s iconic giant strawberry, they departed for St. Tammany Parish on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. There they explored the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum in Madisonville and learned more about the area’s history at the Covington Trailhead Museum. They finished the day with a reception, art tour and fabulous dinner at The Southern, a boutique hotel in Covington.
Global Wildlife Center
In Tangipahoa Parish, the Global Wildlife Center is an animal lover’s paradise. On open-air vehicle tours, travelers have up-close encounters with the 3,000-4,000 animals that live on the center’s 900 acres, including giraffes, deer, buffalo, llamas, alpaca and numerous varieties of birds. Groups can see the property via the tram tour, which stays on gravel paths, or book private excursions on World War II-era Pinzgauer vehicles that drive off-road throughout the property. Visitors should make sure to buy some animal feed at the park and have their cameras at the ready — many of the animals reach their heads right into the vehicles to eat out of people’s hands.
Known as Louisiana’s strawberry capital, Ponchatoula is a charming, walkable town with a creative side. Many groups enjoy free time browsing downtown for antiques, handmade artwork and local produce at shops such as Berry Town Produce, the Collinswood and the Louisiana Treasures Museum. The group made shopping stops at four local establishments — Ruth’s, Flowers By Linda, A Touch of Country and The Country Market — before paying a visit to the habitat of Old Hardhide, a live alligator mascot who makes his home in the center of town.
At La Carreta, visitors get fresh Mexican-inspired dishes in a fun and creative atmosphere. The restaurant features a great private dining area with a stage. For the FAM, a musical duo performed during lunch. After the meal was served, a representative from Kliebert’s Gator Tours brought out turtles, snakes and juvenile alligators for the group to hold and pose with. Members also visited the selfie stations set up on the restaurant’s second floor before walking over to the Big Berry sculpture downtown for a group photo.
Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum
Situated on the banks of the Tchefuncte River in Madisonville, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum introduces visitors to the maritime history of Lake Pontchartrain and Louisiana. Visitors see a variety of historic watercraft, from pirogues and canoes to re-creation steamboats and a Civil War-era submarine. There’s also a fascinating collection of handmade models of 24 lighthouses from around the state. Films, interpretive programs and other interactive touches round out the experience for groups.
Covington Trailhead Museum
Spanning 31 miles in St. Tammany Parish, the Tammany Trace is a former railroad that has been converted to a paved path for walking, biking and other recreation activities. In Covington, the Covington Trailhead Museum is both a jumping-off point for adventures on the Tammany Trace and a museum giving visitors an overview of the area. An 11-minute film educates visitors on the history of Covington. There are also rotating exhibits showcasing the creativity of area artists.
• Breakfast at Sweet Olive Market and Bakery
• Cajun Encounters Swamp Tour
• Depart for New Orleans
• Lunch at the Bourbon House
• Sazerac House
• Happy hour at Drury Plaza
• New Orleans School of Cooking
Travel planners enjoyed a gourmet breakfast at Sweet Olive Market in Mandeville before heading for Slidell for a fascinating swamp tour with Cajun Encounters. Afterward, they made their way to New Orleans, where they ate lunch at the iconic Bourbon House before touring the new Sazerac House attraction to learn all about the Sazerac company and the cocktail named in its honor. They then checked into the Drury Plaza Hotel, where they enjoyed a hosted happy hour before heading to the New Orleans School of Cooking for a memorable evening of classic Cajun and Creole Cuisine.
Cajun Encounters Swamp Tour
In Slidell, the Honey Island Swamp is home to hundreds of species of birds and wildlife and makes an ideal setting for a Louisiana swamp tour. Cajun Encounters takes groups on flat-bottom boat excursions through the swamp with native guides who teach them about the ancient bald cypress trees and the many creatures that live among them. Guests almost always see alligators on the tours and may also see turtles, wild pigs and birds such as great blue herons and great white egrets. The tours also showcase a “Cajun village” where locals live on homes only accessible via boat.
When it opened in 2019 at the corner of Canal and Magazine streets, Sazerac House became one of New Orleans’ most popular new attractions. The free interactive museum introduces visitors to the history of the city by way of its cocktail culture through a combination of inventive video exhibits and live experiences. Guests learn about the history of the Sazerac company and the cocktail that bears its name. They can sample three different cocktails and watch as whiskey is distilled in a small working still on site. There’s also an extensive gift shop and a photo-friendly wall installation with more than 1,000 bottles of Sazerac products.
New Orleans School of Cooking
In a city known for its legendary culinary institutions, the New Orleans School of Cooking offers a distinctive culinary experience. Here visitors can see behind the scenes as local chefs prepare iconic dishes or even participate in hands-on cooking classes. The FAM group was treated to a demonstration during which the instructor prepared a corn and crab bisque, crawfish etouffee, bread pudding and pralines. The group learned about the history of Cajun and Creole cuisine while watching them be prepared, then had their fill of each dish before browsing the gift shop for spices, cookbooks and other kitchen essentials.
• Vue Orleans
• Depart for home
After breakfast at the Drury Plaza, the group wrapped up their time in Louisiana with a visit to Vue Orleans, one of the newest attractions in the city. At the foot of Canal Street on the banks of the Mississippi River, Vue Orleans is a multifaceted attraction. On the lower levels, a series of immersive and interactive video displays introduce visitors to the history of New Orleans and the cultural trends that developed there. Visitors then enter elevators and ascend 34 stories above street level to an indoor observation deck that uses high-tech viewfinders to help them identify and learn more about New Orleans landmarks. The final stop is an open-air observation deck one story higher, offering gorgeous 360-degree views of the city that remained in the travel planners’ minds as they began their journeys home.
For more information on this itinerary or planning a trip to Louisiana, contact:
Louisiana Office of Tourism