Grand Isle has been one of Louisiana’s most popular local getaway spots for more than a century. The state’s only inhabited barrier island, it’s a one-road-in, one-road-out beach town with bars, beaches and plenty to do outdoors.
It’s an island that looms large in the imagination. It’s been the subject of film and literature, perhaps most notably in the form of Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel “The Awakening.”
Due to its small size and isolation, it’s also been an occasional getaway for less savory elements. Carlos Marcello once had a camp there and, famously, Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger had a couple of stints living on the island while on the run in the mid-1990s.
Though the sliver of land has had a tough time over the past few years — most notably after being given a severe beating in 2021 by Hurricane Ida — it’s once again open to all. The island makes for a great weekend away, playing host to a very different kind of Louisiana experience.
The road to the island heads past a host of small towns before opening out, via a bridge by the Caminada Pass, over the wide expanse of the Gulf of Mexico. It makes for a picturesque entrance.
An exercise in resilience
One of Grand Isle’s most distinctive aspects is its stilt houses, memorialized in countless photos, paintings and even, recently, a beer label. Tall and spindly, they’re often between 4 and 16 feet high and are very much a necessity. Driving into the island at high tide, as a prime example, it’s impossible to miss many driveways at the western end covered in water.
Grand Isle is no stranger to being on the receiving end of environmental impacts, including sea level rise, subsidence and hurricanes. Hurricane Ida damaged every building on the island, flattened more than 700 structures and knocked out its power for 138 days. The after-effects still exist. One of the more notable wrecks is the Wateredge Beach Resort, once a decent-sized hotel that is now a rickety, open-air platform, standing forlornly in the center of town.
Yet, Grand Isle locals are resilient, and many homes have been completely rebuilt (the long fishing pier just opened, too). As its history has shown, it’ll take more than a storm, even a major one, to get residents off the island they love.
Travel in style
Grand Isle is relatively small, but it’s not small enough to walk from one end to the other.
Instead, do as the locals do and grab a golf cart from one of the many rental places in town. While prices vary, it can range in the area of $125 for a day, and zipping around on one opens up a world of possibilities. They’re especially good for getting around the large and popular beach, which can be reached from the road by openings in sand dunes.
Check out the birds and fishes
A startling 280 species of fish can be found in the waters around the island, meaning there’s plenty on offer for keen fishers of all abilities. Fishing can be done from the island itself, though for those looking to head out a bit further in search of bigger prey, there are plenty of fishing charters available.
Grand Isle is also known as a treat for birdwatchers. Shorebirds can be spotted on the beach year-round — terns, brown pelicans, gulls and the like — while the island also serves as a resting spot for migrating birds twice a year. More information about the birds, and where and when to see them, can be found at https://townofgrandisle.com/birding.
Plenty to eat and drink
There are several restaurants dotted around, many with a shabby-chic, beachy feel. While there’s a wide variety of dishes, they are, for obvious reasons, especially well-known for the seafood. The Starfish Restaurant, in particular, provides a great selection in a relaxed setting.
If you’re after a drink, Pirate Island Daiquiri is charmingly bare-bones (with, it says, the cheapest beer on the island), while, judging by the full parking lot out front, Tommy’s Bar and Restaurant is a hit with the locals.
The State Park
Grand Isle State Park, at the easternmost tip of the island, was closed for nearly two years in the wake of Ida. It finally opened in early June, and though the damage is still on display (one of the former bathhouses is still a wreck, for one) it’s been well and truly tidied up. It’s also a good place to stay: Sites with water and electrical hookups are on offer, while 14 designated beach campsites are also available.
There’s nothing quite like taking a nighttime stroll along the beach, dodging scurrying crabs by the hundreds, then waking up to a brilliant seaside sunrise. Be sure to bring your bug spray. Reservations can be made at www.reservelastateparks.com.