You don’t need snow to find your Christmas spirit.
That’s what seven readers of The Group Travel Leader learned on a five-day holiday-themed familiarization tour hosted by the parishes of Louisiana’s River Region. The group hopped from parish to parish to experience the holiday attractions in each and enjoy Louisiana’s famous hospitality. They saw the region’s already colorful landscape transformed into a winter wonderland, not with weather but with strings of lights, soul food and Christmas cheer. And they got to participate in some of the area’s most integral Christmas traditions, from small-town parades spreading joy through the community to the bonfires said to guide Papa Noel on his Christmas Eve journey.
Follow along with their itinerary for some ideas on crafting your next holiday tour in Louisiana’s River Region.
• Arrive in Kenner
• Dinner at Gendusa’s Italian Eatery
• Holiday laser show at Kenner Planetarium
• Historic Rivertown’s Christmas Village
• Overnight in Kenner
After arriving in Kenner and checking in at the Holiday Inn New Orleans Airport North, group travel planners headed to Kenner’s Historic Rivertown for a delicious dinner at Gendusa’s Italian Eatery, famous for its massive portions. After their meal, guests explored Historic Rivertown, where they got to see a Christmas-themed laser show at the Rivertown Science Center and Kenner Planetarium. They finished the evening by walking around Historic Rivertown’s Christmas Village, which is Kenner’s Heritage Park transformed by countless strings of twinkling lights and holiday décor.
For more information on Kenner please email Carolyn Barrett at Visit Kenner, or go to visitkenner.us.
• Visit Jean Baptiste Lang Creole House Museum in Mandeville
• Shop at Mandeville’s Christmas Past Festival
• Tour Insta-Gator Ranch and Hatchery in Covington
• Dine at Abita Roasting Company in Madisonville
• Participate in Ponchatoula’s Christmas Parade
• Christmas at Rise in Tickfaw
• Dine at Tope La Restaurant in Hammond
• Overnight in Hammond
Day two of the Holiday FAM began with a hearty breakfast of shrimp and grits and beignets at the Holiday Inn New Orleans Airport North. The group was joined by Santa and Mrs. Claus for breakfast and a photo-op before heading off to the Northshore. They stopped at the Jean Baptiste Lang Creole House Museum and then shopped at the Mandeville Christmas Past Festival. From there, they traveled to Covington to meet some of Louisiana’s most notorious scaly creatures at Insta-Gator Ranch and Hatchery. After dining at Abita Roasting Company in Madisonville, the travel planners headed to Tangipahoa Parish to sip on some strawberry daiquiris and hop on board a float at the Ponchatoula Christmas Parade, from which they tossed beads and toys to parade spectators. The evening finished with everyone enjoying a dinner of hearty pasta and seafood dishes at Tope La Restaurant before checking into the Hampton Inn Hammond for a good night’s sleep.
Mandeville’s Christmas Past Festival
Mandeville’s Christmas Past Festival, an annual event held in Mandeville one Saturday in December, has been spreading Christmas cheer for more than 19 years. It’s no wonder. The event is a huge hit with the community, featuring booths lining several blocks selling artisan-made goods and local food and beverages. Shoppers will find everything from locally roasted coffee beans to handmade home décor to jewelry. Das Schulerhaus Christmas Boutique, a year-round Christmas boutique selling ornaments and other Christmas décor, is also on the festival route.
Insta-Gator Ranch and Hatchery
There’s no better place to learn about Louisiana’s alligator population than at Insta-Gator Ranch and Hatchery. Founded in 1989, it began as part of a highly successful effort to replenish the American alligator population. Today it offers interactive tours that let visitors meet and interact with the gators. During their visit to the ranch, groups can see gator enclosures, feed them marshmallows and even hold them. If they visit in August, they may get to participate in one of the most coveted experiences at Insta-Gator Ranch: letting an alligator egg hatch in your hand.
Ponchatoula’s Christmas Parade
Ponchatoula is known as Louisiana’s Strawberry Capital, thanks to its abundant and delicious strawberry crop. That’s why it’s no surprise that the annual Ponchatoula Christmas Parade features a strawberry-themed float, headed by the Strawberry king and queen, along with many other floats from which riders toss beads, toys and candy to spectators. Groups can watch the parade from the sidelines with a strawberry daiquiri in hand or even arrange to ride on a parade float to partake in the fun.
Christmas at Rise
A festive light show, plentiful photo-ops and a holiday performance are all part of Christmas at Rise. This magical campus in Tickfaw is enchanting for groups of all ages. Visitors can walk through tunnels of Christmas lights and get photos with Santa and Mrs. Claus, Elsa and Olaf from Disney’s’ “Frozen” and even the Grinch. There’s also an arena for snowball fights and a show on a hayride, where actors jump on and off the wagon as they regale guests with an interactive Christmas story.
For more information on St. Tammany Parish please email Tanya Leader with Visit the Northshore, or go to visitthenorthshore.com.
For more information on Tangipahoa Parish please email Emily McKneely Matise with the Tangipahoa Parish CVB, or go to tangitourism.com.
• Breakfast at Son of a Biscuit in Hammond
• Cajun Village and Coffee House in Sorrento
• Houmas House Estate and Gardens in Darrow
• Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie
• Bonfire at Felicity Plantation in Vacherie
• Nightcap at Legends Sports Bar and Grill in Vacherie
• Overnight in LaPlace
The third day of the holiday FAM kicked off with breakfast at Son of a Biscuit in Hammond, where groups enjoyed scrumptious meals like chicken and red velvet waffles. Then the group headed to Ascension Parish’s Cajun Village and Coffee House to shop for souvenirs and treats at this collection of shops. Up next was a visit to Houmas House Estate and Gardens, home to Great River Road Museum, where the travel planners enjoyed a buffet lunch at the plantation’s Dixie Café before going on a guided tour of the home and perusing the museum. The group traveled to a couple other plantations that evening, including Oak Alley Plantation in St. James Parish, where they enjoyed a mint julep and a tour, and nearby Felicity Plantation, where they had dinner and watched a bonfire and fireworks show. The evening ended with a nightcap at Legends Sports Bar and Grill and an overnight at Hampton Inn LaPlace.
Cajun Village and Coffee House
This collection of restored Acadian buildings houses a café and several shops, which sell everything from sports memorabilia to home goods to Cajun spices and food. The café offers classics like beignets and café au lait for groups to enjoy while they shop for souvenirs and gifts. Visitors can also wander over to the village’s pond to catch a glimpse of their two live alligators.
Houmas House Estate and Gardens
Houmas House Estate and Gardens is known for its sprawling, beautifully manicured gardens and its opulent plantation mansion. It’s also home to three restaurants, lodging and the recently opened Great River Road Museum, which chronicles the history of life along the lower Mississippi. Groups can choose from several tours of this massive estate and eat at one of its three restaurants.
Oak Alley Plantation
Famous for 28 massive oak trees that form a picturesque arch leading up the 1839 Greek revival mansion, Oak Alley Plantation is a historic sugarcane plantation in Vacherie. Today the plantation is dedicated to educating visitors about its 200-plus-year history, offering tours of the grounds, slave quarters and the plantation mansion, complete with exhibits and period furnishings. Travelers can perk up their tours with mint juleps.
Still owned by the family that purchased it in the late 19th century, this historic sugar plantation was built as a wedding gift for a daughter in a prominent Southern family. The plantation house has been restored, and the property still features original slave quarters. It was used as a set for the movies “The Skeleton Key” and “12 Years a Slave.” Groups can tour the property, eat a catered meal in the main hall of the house and end the evening with a bonfire and fireworks show.
For more information on Ascension Parish please email Tracy Browning with the Ascension Parish Tourism Commission, or go to aptcla.com.
For more information on Louisiana’s River Parishes, please email Willma Harvey with the River Parishes Tourist Commission, or go to lariverparishes.com.
• Breakfast at Chung’s Heavenly Sweets in LaPlace
• Bonfires on the Levee in Garyville
• Lunch at Venue at the Bank
• Dinner in a Snow Globe in Gretna
• Holiday Lights at LaFreniere Park in Metairie
• Overnight in Kenner
The fourth day of the FAM began with a breakfast of beignets and pastries at Chung’s Heavenly Sweets, a local café in LaPlace. After a quick holiday photo-op, the group headed to Garyville to meet with Blood, Sweat and Bonfires, the group that makes some of the most iconic bonfires in the area. They got to see this year’s project, a 40-foot-long wooden alligator gar, and learn about the process of making the bonfires a reality. Then, the group had a catered lunch at the Venue at the Bank, a venue consisting of the repurposed Garyville Bank that has also been used as a film set for “The Highwaymen.” Following lunch, the group traveled to Jefferson Parish. They enjoyed a catered dinner under Christmas lights in bubble tents and headed to Lafreniere Park to see holiday lights and drink a cup of hot chocolate before turning in at the DoubleTree by Hilton New Orleans Airport North.
Bonfires on the Levee
One of Louisiana’s most famous holiday traditions is the lighting of bonfires on Christmas Eve to light the way for Papa Noel, the Cajun Santa Claus. In the River Parishes, nearly 200 bonfires are lit each year. Groups can see some interesting bonfires being constructed on the levee in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Blood, Sweat and Bonfires is a group of friends responsible for crafting some of the area’s most impressive and uniquely structured bonfires in recent years, including a massive bullfrog, a replica of the Garyville Bank and a crab. Groups can meet with Blood, Sweat and Bonfires, see their work in progress and learn about the construction of this regional tradition.
Dinner in a Snow Globe
The “snow globes” are actually clear bubble tents set up in Gretna and illuminated with Christmas lights in the trees overhead. Still, the effect is just as magical. These bubble tents are available for rent; groups can arrange for a local restaurant to cater a meal of traditional Cajun favorites to be enjoyed amongst this magical holiday backdrop. For added ambience, groups can arrange for live music and an alligator photo-op.
Holiday Lights at LaFreniere Park
Lafreniere Park is already known as a magical space year-round, but during the Christmas season, 10 million LED lights transform the park into a holiday haven. Groups can participate in walking or driving tours of the park to see its dozens of light displays, take pictures and sip hot cocoa. They should also keep an eye out for festive Christmas characters take photos with.
For more information on Jefferson Parish please email Angela Matherne with Jefferson CVB, or go to visitjeffersonparish.com.
• Farewell breakfast
• Depart for home
On the final day of the FAM, the group gathered for breakfast at the DoubleTree with all their hosts from each of the parishes they visited. After a meal spent swapping pictures, stories and laughter, attendees departed for home.