Bayou St. John is one of the key reasons New Orleans exists. This body of water originally extended from the outskirts of New Orleans to Lake Pontchartrain. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, was commissioned to establish a settlement in Louisiana that would both make money and protect French holdings in the New World from British expansion. Bienville chose the spot where New Orleans now sits because he recognized the strategic importance of the Bayou St. John’s “back-door” access to Lake Pontchartrain, and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico. Boats could enter the lake from the Gulf, then follow the Bayou to its conclusion. From there, they were within easy portage distance of the mouth of the Mississippi River. Native Americans had used this route for years.

The early path from the city to the bayou is today’s Bayou Road, an extension of Governor Nicholls Street in the French Quarter. Modern-day Gentilly Boulevard, which crosses the bayou, was another Native American trail—it led around the lake and on to settlements as far as Florida.

As New Orleans grew and prospered, the bayou became a suburb as planters moved out along its shores. In the early 1800s, a canal was dug to connect the waterway with the city, reaching a basin at the edge of Congo Square (which begat today’s Basin Street). The Bayou became a popular recreation area, lined with fine restaurants and dance halls (and meeting places for Voodoo practitioners, who held secret ceremonies along its shores). Gradually, New Orleans reached beyond the French Quarter and enveloped the whole area—overtaking farmland, plantation homes, and resorts.

The canal was filled in long ago, and the bayou is a meek re-creation of itself (though plans to re-open nearby floodgates, allowing more natural ebb and flow from Lake Pontchartrain, may soon bring its ecosystem closer to its thriving original state). It is no longer navigable (even if it were, bridges were built too low to permit the passage of watercraft other than kayaks), but residents still prize their waterfront sites, and kayaks, rowboats and paddleboards make use of the bayou’s smooth surface. This is one of the prettiest areas of New Orleans—full of the old houses tourists love to marvel at without the hustle, bustle, and confusion of more high-profile locations. A stroll along the banks and through the nearby neighborhoods is one of our favorite things to do on a nice afternoon.

Getting There: The simplest way to reach St. John’s Bayou from the French Quarter is to drive straight up Esplanade Avenue about 20 blocks (or grab the bus that says esplanade at any of the bus stops along the avenue). Right before you reach the Bayou, you’ll pass St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 (just past Leda St.). It’s the final resting place of many prominent New Orleaneans, among them Father Adrien Rouquette, who lived and worked among the Choctaw; Storyville photographer E. J. Bellocq; and Thomy Lafon, the black philanthropist who bought the old Orleans Ballroom as an orphanage for African-American children and put an end to its infamous “quadroon balls”. Walking just past the cemetery, turn left onto Moss Street, which runs along the banks of St. John’s Bayou. To see an example of an 18th-century West Indies–style plantation house, stop at the Pitot House, 1440 Moss St.

Esplanade leads into City Park at Wisner Boulevard—you’ll see an equestrian statue in the center of the traffic circle just outside City Park’s grand entrance. Turn left on Wisner for about 3 miles as it hugs the border of City Park. It’ll jog right into Beauregard Street; then turn right on Cloverleaf and look for water—and Lakeshore Drive. Turn left. You’ve reached Lake Pontchartrain, which you’ve probably figured out.  Meander along Lakeshore Drive for a couple of miles until you reach a marina (the road will curve and become West End Blvd.). It’s hard to believe that this area (called Lakeshore), home to commercial fishing since the late 1800s, was totally devastated by the 17th Street Canal breech. The storm piled boats atop each other, smashed buildings into rubble, and destroyed a lighthouse. Now, there’s a thriving restaurant hub and shopping along Harrison Avenue, and the nearby Lakeview residential neighborhood boasts some of the highest property values around. That canal is just ahead of you, as is the fishing-oriented Bucktown neighborhood. But this is probably a good spot to turn back—or hit up Deanie’s for old-school seafood just like a local.

Lake Pontchartrain is some 40 miles long and 25 miles wide, and is bisected by the 24-mile Greater New Orleans Causeway, the world’s longest over-water bridge.