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 less-visited 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.
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IF YOU GO
Beyond the Bayou
5126 Frankin St., New Orleans
Half-day trips start at $59 per person, not including transportation; full-day outings, including transportation, range from $159 to $199 per person; overnight trips range from $549 to $1,499, including transportation, lodging and meals.
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Daniel is a writer based in the Netherlands. Her website is bydianedaniel.com.