New Or­leans vis­i­tors swap Bour­bon Street for Span­ish moss on Beyond the Bayou tours.

A long­time New Or­leans res­i­dent knows that there is far more to see in Louisiana than the city

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY DIANE DANIEL travel@wash­post.com Daniel is a writer based in the Nether­lands. Her web­site is by­di­anedaniel.com.

Three years after New Or­leans res­i­dent Jared Stern­berg formed Gond­wana Eco­tours, a travel com­pany that or­ga­nizes cul­tural and en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­cur­sions to such far-flung places as Ecuador and Rwanda, he de­cided to start a sim­i­lar busi­ness in Louisiana. Late last year, the 31-year-old grad­u­ate of Tu­lane Univer­sity Law School opened Beyond the Bayou, which bridges a gap be­tween the Big Easy and the lessvis­ited desti­na­tions out­side the city that are rich with cul­ture and na­ture. Of­fer­ings in­clude kayak­ing in Atchafalaya Basin north­west of the city, the coun­try’s largest river swamp at nearly 1 mil­lion acres; vis­it­ing lo­cal en­ter­prises deep in Ca­jun Coun­try; and a tour of the Whit­ney Plan­ta­tion on the Mis­sis­sippi River in Edgard, which is fo­cused solely on telling the story of slav­ery.

Q. You grew up in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. What were your first im­pres­sions of New Or­leans when you moved there in 2010?

A. I re­mem­ber think­ing that the peo­ple were warmer and the cul­ture felt richer — and, of course, the food was amaz­ing. But I also re­mem­ber think­ing that the na­ture was not that im­pres­sive. For one thing, I didn’t have a car, so I was al­ways in the city. Later, after I started ex­plor­ing more and had ac­cess to boats and kayaks and ca­noes, I re­al­ized how gor­geous the swamps are and how amaz­ing the na­ture is. A ma­jor turn­ing point was when I went to a friend’s fish­ing camp on this spec­tac­u­lar swamp, man­aged by an old Ca­jun guy I could barely un­der­stand.

Q. Why did you de­cide to start tours in Louisiana, when you spe­cial­ize in in­ter­na­tional travel?

A. For one thing, peo­ple kept asking me why I didn’t of­fer some­thing closer to home. But mostly it’s be­cause there’s so much more to see than what is in the city, and I want to share that. So many peo­ple come here to visit and they lis­ten to world-class mu­sic, go to the French Quar­ter, eat beignets and they have a won­der­ful im­pres­sion of New Or­leans — as they should — but not any true im­pres­sion of Louisiana.

Q . You make a point of telling vis­i­tors that your guides on the wa­ter don’t feed the wildlife, es­pe­cially al­li­ga­tors. Is that an is­sue?

A. I work with sev­eral lo­cal guides be­cause, in cases where some­thing al­ready was of­fered, I didn’t want to com­pete with ex­ist­ing com­pa­nies. While I was re­search­ing po­ten­tial part­ners, I went on or called sev­eral mud boat tours. Those are flat-bot­tom boats for go­ing through shal­low wa­ter. They all fed the wildlife. They throw out marsh­mal­lows and hot dogs so the tourists can take photos of al­li­ga­tors. One of them even passed around a baby al­li­ga­tor with its mouth taped shut with elec­tri­cal tape so every­one on­board could feel it and take a photo. If some­one asks me if they’ll see an al­li­ga­tor on one of our tours, I say, “Well, it de­pends on na­ture. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t.”

Q. How else do you put the “eco” in your tours?

A. When we’re on the wa­ter, we also tell peo­ple about wet­lands loss. We have ma­te­ri­als on that and other things in the car if they want to read about it while we’re driv­ing to the swamp. We also give guests re­us­able wa­ter bot­tles and lo­cal fruit. In the fu­ture, I hope to car­bon off­set all the trips. Our em­ploy­ees par­tic­i­pate in lo­cal wa­ter­way cleanup ef­forts, and we di­rect guests who are in­ter­ested to or­ga­ni­za­tions where they can do­nate or be­come in­volved in sav­ing the wa­ter­ways.

Q. Do fun-lov­ing tourists in New Or­leans want that kind of ed­u­ca­tional tour?

A. I do think there’s a mar­ket for it, and though it’s not the big­gest, I think it’s grow­ing. I look at that not as a hin­drance but as an op­por­tu­nity. For in­stance, I’ve seen post­ings on­line by peo­ple look­ing for swamp tours that don’t feed the al­li­ga­tors.

Q. What are some of your cul­tural stops?

A. A fa­vorite has been our “Roots of Cre­ole Cul­ture Tour,” which in­cludes a tour of the his­toric Treme neigh­bor­hood to learn about African Amer­i­can his­tory and the mu­si­cians who started there. We also go to the Whit­ney Plan­ta­tion, which is de­voted to telling the story of the slave trade and plan­ta­tion life. It leaves a big im­pact and pays trib­ute to what a plan­ta­tion was really about. That’s the real his­tory of what hap­pened in our coun­try, and you can’t sweep it un­der the rug. If you don’t un­der­stand where racism came from, how are you go­ing to un­der­stand where it is to­day?

Q. How do you in­tro­duce peo­ple to the Ca­jun cul­ture?

A. Ba­si­cally, we’re find­ing the van­guards of cul­ture and sup­port­ing them the best we can be­cause Ca­jun cul­ture is dis­ap­pear­ing, just like the wet­lands. We have overnight tours around Lafayette, where we visit Marc Savoy, an ac­cor­dion player, and he talks about the his­tory and cul­ture of zy­deco mu­sic; and we also visit Guidry Farms, an or­ganic pecan farm, where we have a lit­tle tour and learn how they make pecan but­ter and oil. We also have a chef that gives us cook­ing les­sons at our B&B. We’re go­ing to start hav­ing him meet us at the farm to have a seafood boil. One of our tours is for four days, which I never planned to do, but after go­ing out there and see­ing how deep and rich that cul­ture is — I could eas­ily do a week trip.

Q. Your other tour com­pany has of­fered trips to sev­eral desti­na­tions on three con­ti­nents. How does South­ern Louisiana com­pare?

A. A really great ex­am­ple is I went to Ecuador again with my trip in De­cem­ber. So we go all the way there to see the Ama­zon and I see some of the ex­act same species we see in the swamp here — and a lot of scenery in Louisiana looks fairly sim­i­lar. It’s not as grand, but hon­estly, in some places, it’s com­pa­ra­ble in terms of nat­u­ral beauty and rich­ness. I think Louisiana is, for my money, the most unique place in the United States and, with­out a doubt, on par with other desti­na­tions in terms of cul­ture.

ADRIENNE BATTISTELLA

Jared Stern­berg founded Beyond the Bayou after sev­eral years of of­fer­ing over­seas eco-ex­cur­sions in Rwanda and Ecuador.

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