There’s only one way onto Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island, Grand Isle—the LA1 toll bridge that stretches high into the air, across Bayou Lafourche and over miles of wetlands, heavy with tourist traffic and, yes, semis hauling crude oil day and night from neighboring Port Fourchon.
It’s better to slow down around here, anyway. As former residents of New Orleans, two hours north of Grand Isle, Mom and I already know that. We arrive after our long drive from Houston still full from lunch at the inimitable Prejean’s in Lafayette, our leftover gumbo and potato salad safely buckled in the backseat, our windows rolled down to let in the salt air, and our eyes taking in all the sights—the beach in the distance, the sunset reflecting off the glassy swamp water, and the fishing boats and oil rigs dotting the horizon. This isn’t regular paradise, after all: It’s Sportsman’s Paradise, as South Louisiana likes to call itself.
And though most people just come for the fishing—it’s not really a swimming destination—Mom and I have mostly come for the eco side of things. The birds, the wildlife, and, okay fine, the shrimp po-boys, too.
At the Blue Dolphin Inn & Cottages, our gracious host Mike shows us how to operate the new air-conditioning system in our cheery yellow stilt-legged cabin. He hands us towels and tells us the story of how, back when he worked on an oil rig off the coast, he was stabbed in the eye by a piece of scrap metal and had to be air-lifted off during a storm.
Now he spends his days handing out towels, asking guests not to fry fish in their cottages, and explaining how the state’s oil drillers, which are responsible for 90 percent of our nation’s offshore crude production, actually contribute to the fishing industry here—by donating oil platforms to Louisiana’s Artificial Reef Program.
“You all like to trout-fish?” he asks, informing us that each spring, guests actually get tired of catching them. That doesn’t seem possible on this seven-mile, fish-camp-dotted island, where tens of thousands of anglers head each year for July’s Tarpon Rodeo, now in its 92nd year, and fall’s redfish season. We tell him we’re just in search of nature and birds and maybe some beer.
“Oh, we have plenty of all that, all right,” he says, handing us a map of the island, which includes the Grand Isle Birding Trail. The next morning, binoculars in tow, Mom and I set out to scope the local avian scene. We discover beach, salt marsh, and wooded forest habitats that are home to species from raptors to waterfowl, and learn that the birding is especially good in April, when 150-plus species of songbird pass through the island’s oak-hackberry forest.
We visit the town’s cemetery, where we discover the island’s rooster population; a marina, where we witness an osprey being chased off by two meddling warblers; and the glorious Grand Isle State Park, which we spend hours exploring.
Hurricanes have hit Grand Isle directly once every eight years or so for at least a century, moving the sands and reshaping the barrier island over time. We step onto those very sands for a walk as porpoises jump in the surf, and head out for a hike on the state park’s fiddler-crab-covered trail system, ending up at a pier where an ever-hopeful egret supervises an empty fish-cleaning station. “Sorry,” we tell it, and I’m pretty sure it rolls its eyes at us, the only two humans it’s ever encountered who have no fishing licenses.
But perhaps the easiest birding of all can be found on the main drag of Grand Isle, which is lined with wetlands and speckled with cord grass and mangrove islands planted, a sign informs us, by the Floating Islands Project. In Louisiana, and especially around Grand Isle, the wetlands are vanishing at an alarming rate—one million acres have been lost over a century, the result of sea-level rise, industrial development, and natural and manmade disasters. The state has announced it cannot keep up with restoration, so the Coastal Conservation Association has stepped in, installing 6,000 square feet of islands covered in thousands of native plants.
Judging by the number of anglers casting right off the side of the road, the fish love these manmade islands, and so do the birds. Dozens of pelicans perch on No Wake signs, and white egrets transform bone-dead swamp trees into giant stalks of cotton. “Look there,” Mom screams, as I almost plow into the truck in front of me, which slows and pulls onto the shoulder to—what else?—fish. “Can you believe it?” she says. “It’s a great blue heron.”
I pull to the shoulder, too. I’ve never seen one in my life. It’s the largest of all herons, and a sight to behold—this one seems almost carved from driftwood, camouflaged by the dilapidated dock post it perches upon except for its signature black-and-white stripe and large eyes. We open the car doors, iPhones in hand, and it cranes its head toward us. Then it’s gone.
Back at the cottage, we hang out on the front porch swing, watching locals mosey past in golf carts. As the sun sets over the Gulf, we take swigs of Abita Amber, feel the breeze on our sunburnt skin, and decide Grand Isle is a regular old paradise after all.
- Go for broke with a seafood platter at Starfish—fried softshell crab, oysters, shrimp, catfish, and stuffed crab—before rolling yourself back to the fishing camp.
- Order the plump fried shrimp po-boy and take it to the back deck at Artie’s Sports Bar (3162 Hwy. 1), a town favorite overlooking the Gulf.
- Pet-friendly and unpretentious, the cottages at Blue Dolphin Inn & Cottages offer beachy vibes, cute if no-frills houses on stilts, and easy access to the beach itself. From $85 per night.
- For something a little more upscale, try the Hurricane Hole, a resort offering both condos and hotel rooms, a kiddie splash pad and pool, a restaurant and bar, a marina, and great views of the Gulf and the wetlands. From $135 per night.
- Charter fishing trips abound on the island. Whether you intend to land a big one from offshore, with a fishing bow, or while sitting in a kayak, there’s a guide for you.
- The 160-acre Grand Isle State Park offers birding, fishing, crabbing, swimming, boating, hiking, and more.
- On your way back to Houston, stop at lush, semitropical Jungle Gardens on Avery Island, a splendid, 170-acre garden home to azaleas, camellias, and more gorgeous blooms. You’ll also spot gators, plenty of birds, and a peaceful Buddhist temple among the old oaks and dripping moss.
Another destination for fishing and birding on the Louisiana coast:
For a quiet beach getaway, head to the north shore of New Orleans—not directly on the Gulf of Mexico, but the neighboring massive, majestic Lake Pontchartrain—where small waves lap on the shore of the park. Camping is cool, but those in-the-know book the incredible stilt-house cabins located right on the water months in advance. It’s worth it, and you’ll want to visit nearby Abita Springs and Mandeville, too.