Written by Kristy Christiansen
Sleeping under the stars and other grand adventures on a barrier island beach.
The wind was roaring through our open windows as we passed the guard’s gate at Grand Isle State Park and slowly made our way back to the sparsely populated campground.
As some of the earliest campers to arrive on this blustery day, we had free reign to choose the ideal spot for our tent. Circling the loop several times, we debated our options before giving up and letting our four-year-old, Charles, pick his favorite location.
It was the first time we had brought both Charles and his younger brother, two-year-old August, on a true tent-camping experience. They were giddy with excitement, and the enthusiasm was contagious. They tumbled out of the car, chasing each other through the grass while my husband, Paul, and I inspected our newly purchased tent.
Now that there were four of us, we had upgraded to the family tent, splurging on a model that boasted pre-installed poles and a set-up time of less than two minutes. Amazingly, the description was true, and in no time we were peering out through the blue-tinted flaps, watching a flock of brown pelicans fly over our cave-like shelter.
As with any typical camping trip, we discovered while unpacking all the necessary items we left behind—like the pump for our air mattress. Thankfully, the local Sureway Supermarket turned out to be the equivalent of a miniature Wal-Mart, stocked with anything and everything needed for an island stay.
Armed with our supplies, we checked the time and headed off to meet Kristen and Danny Wray, owners of Calmwater Charters. In addition to catamaran or kayak fishing excursions, the couple offer guided walking tours and eco tours by boat. We opted for an abbreviated boat tour around the calmer waters of Grand Isle’s north side.
The kids eyed their life vests warily and clutched us tightly as Danny accelerated the boat through the rolling waves. He navigated us past shrimp boats, oil companies and heliports, while Kristen pointed out landmarks and gave us a history lesson of the area.
August squeezed his eyes so tightly closed that he ended up falling asleep after only a few minutes on the open water, right at the moment when dozens of dolphins appeared. They swam and leapt all around our boat, as if inviting us into a game of chase.
We perched on the edge of our seats, following their every movement and rushing to be the first to spot the next one. Kristen smiled at our excitement, letting the conversation lapse while we focused on the playful dolphins—a scene she was undoubtedly used to observing. They led us around the island’s edge, drawing our boat toward Grand Terre and the remains of the massive Fort Livingston.
Kristen touched Charles’s shoulder and beckoned toward Grand Terre, “That’s where Jean Lafitte the Pirate, or Privateer as he liked to call himself, used to stay. He used the island as a base to watch for incoming ships, and then sent his men to take the ships and cargo and sell the goods.”
Charles glanced at me to verify if she was telling him the truth. When I nodded at him, he whispered in a concerned voice, “Are there pirates there now?” I assured him if there were, he was safe with us.
Our boat headed back before we hit the choppy waves of the open Gulf waters. We counted pelicans on the return trip and Kristen talked about nearby Queen Bess Island, a nesting retreat for hundreds of brown pelicans and hot pink roseate spoonbills. We had visited the island once before and agreed it was a magical place.
At the dock, August opened his eyes sleepily as Kristen handed the kids coloring and activity books. Saying our goodbyes, we promised to return again and then set off back to camp for a dinner of hot dogs roasted over a fire. We dug out our log made of coffee grinds that we discovered in the eco-friendly, grilling section of Whole Foods Market. While reading the directions, we laughed at ourselves for being caught up in the novelty of coffee “wood.” Despite our reservations, we lit the log—package and all—and watched the flames slowly catch and spread out into a nice-sized fire.
On our grass palette around the pit, we enjoyed the fire’s warmth while twirling our hot dogs for even cooking. It was a basic meal, but one of the kids’ favorites, and after much deliberation while packing, I had decided I wasn’t up for cooking a full-blown dinner over an open fire. In short, it was perfect.
While we were out boating, the campground had filled up with overnight guests. As the sun went down, several retreated to the lights of their RVs, perhaps testing the signal strength of the state park’s wireless internet, while others set off for a late evening of fishing. We persuaded the kids to lie down on their backs and gaze up at the multitude of stars—a sight not often seen at home in the city. Before long, Paul spotted a shooting star, the first of many to briefly leave their trail across the sky.
Despite all of our pre-trip planning, we instantly realized when we retired for the night that a full-size, blow-up mattress is not nearly large enough for four people—no matter how short two of them may be. So while the munchkins snored their way through the night, Paul and I tossed and turned, counting down the minutes to daybreak.
We were up at first light, pulling clothes on the kids and hitting the bathhouse before walking the long boardwalk to the beach just across the levee from our tent. It was the moment the kids had been waiting for, and they were prepared with buckets to collect their finds. I led them in the direction of shells littered across the wet sand at the water’s edge, but as they say, boys will be boys and shells were not on their agenda. No, Charles was on a hunt for “fossils,” essentially giant carcasses of fish bones washed ashore some time ago and dried out by the hot sun.
“Now this is a really nice one, mom. It could even be a dinosaur bone!” he exclaimed while shoveling the bones into his bucket of curiosities. I shook my head and hoped that these remains were not traveling back to my house.
Meanwhile, August was already down the beach, squealing with delight as he chased seagulls and sent them squawking into the sky. We let them play a while before dragging them back to the tent for a breakfast of muffins and fruit.
From beach to forest—we decided next to explore another side of Grand Isle, one of the last remaining tracts of oak-hackberry trees. Protected and maintained by The Nature Conservancy, the small trail off the main road leads into one of the state’s top birding locations, although two giggling, running children do wonders for scaring birds away.
It was an enjoyable walk, though, offering a stark change of scenery from the wide open beach we had left behind an hour ago. We took our time, investigating the various paths that often dead ended at some of the island’s oldest houses.
By the time we made it back to our car, we were nearing check-out time and reluctantly turned back to break down our campsite. Next time, we thought, we’ll stay the full weekend—as soon as we figure out our sleeping arrangements.
Details. Details. Details.
Grand Isle State Park
Admiral Craik Drive
Grand Isle, LA
For reservations, call 1-877-CAMP-N-LA (877-226-7652)