Where the Heart Is: Ian Somerhalder reflects on the allure of his Louisiana parish

”There’s something magical about going back. There’s nothing like it.”

Photograph by Glass Jar Photography

“I wanted to feel something again,” vampire Damon Salvatore once said in The Vampire Diaries. “And when I decided to come back home, it all came rushing back, just like I hoped it would.”

Life imitates art for actor Ian Somerhalder, who played Salvatore for eight seasons on the hit show. Though he has lived in sizable metropoles including New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Toronto (where he’s filming his current sci-fi horror series V Wars), nothing comes close to the allure of the tiny towns in southeastern Louisiana that provided the backdrop for his formative years. “There’s something magical about going back,” says forty-one-year-old Somerhalder, who is based in Southern California with his wife, actress Nikki Reed, and daughter Bodhi. “There’s nothing like it.”

Somerhalder grew up in St. Tammany Parish on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, opposite New Orleans. Money was tight, but he says he has only fond memories of that time. “The bayous and rivers that snake through those places—they are all part of my being,” he says. He and his brother Robert used to set crab traps at the mouth of Bayou Lacombe before the sun came up and fish for trout, sac-a-lait, and amberjack to cook for family meals. “We had an abundance of life, energy, family, and culture,” he says. “Most people don’t get to grow up with that.”

These days, when his plane lands in New Orleans, his dad picks him up and hands him a strong cup of coffee and a beignet before they take the twenty-four-mile Lake Pontchartrain Causeway home. Depending on Somerhalder’s mood, his first stop might be the Mandeville lakefront (“It’s stunning, with hundred-year-old trees”), Covington’s 1876 H.J. Smith & Sons General Store (“We used to get our horse feed there; when you live in a big city, you forget that these places still exist”), or Roy’s Knife & Archery Shop (“I used to buy my pocket knives there—back then, an eight-year-old could ride his bike to a shop and buy a pocket knife”).

The Ian Somerhalder Foundation advocates animal rescue and rehabilitation.

Photograph by Omaze

Somerhalder loves a good meal, and he heartily recommends the food in St. Tammany Parish. When he’s away, he dreams about bayou staples like trout amandine and Louisiana blue crab cakes, which he orders at Morton’s Seafood Restaurant and Bar in Madisonville, situated on the Tchefuncte River. He also has fond memories of digging into hand-tossed pies with friends at McClain’s Pizzeria in Mandeville, which his sister Robyn once co-owned and operated. And he says Sal & Judy’s Restaurant in Lacombe is one of the primary reasons the parish has become a food lover’s destination. “It’s a tiny place that sells burgers and pasta, but it’s so good, people come from New Orleans to eat there,” he says.

When he’s not eating his way through his trips home, Somerhalder loves to get outdoors. A vocal environmentalist and creator of the conservation-focused Ian Somerhalder Foundation, he regularly heads to Covington’s thirteen-acre Bogue Falaya Park, tucked along the river of the same name, to simply look out on the water. For a bit of exercise, he bikes along Tammany Trace’s thirty-one miles of trails, which follow an 1810 railroad line connecting the parish’s towns. (He recommends pausing at Abita Brewing Company for a root beer before getting back on the trail.) He also enjoys taking the Honey Island Swamp Tour in the nearly 70,000-acre preserve of the same name. “You float through vast swaths of swamp and marshland,” he says. “From boat level, you see alligators, herons, and ducks.”

While Somerhalder stays with family when he’s home, he recommends out-of-towners try the Southern Hotel, housed within a historic 1907 building in the heart of downtown Covington. For those who want to spend a night or two on the water, he’s a fan of the cabins and campsites at Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville. He calls this 2,800-acre former sugar plantation “a magical place, because it’s right on the lakefront, where you can see the area’s biodiversity.” Somerhalder suggests casting a line or setting a crab trap to catch your own meal.

Years of fame and living on the glossy West Coast haven’t polished away Somerhalder’s love of Louisiana’s murky bayou water, moss-draped trees, and amber glasses of sweet tea. “Talking about all of this makes me miss home so much,” he says, adding that he’s grateful for regular trips back to Louisiana that give him something to look forward to. Thanks in part to his conservation work, Somerhalder can trust that the sights, sounds, and tastes of St. Tammany Parish will always be there to reinforce his love of home.

Highland Bakery

Kathryn McCrary Photography

Take a Bite Out of the Peach State

Somerhalder lived in Georgia’s capital from 2009 to 2017 while filming The Vampire Diaries. “Atlanta is as much a part of my life as Los Angeles or New York,” he says. Here are some of his favorite food finds:

Victory Sandwich Bar
For casual nights out, he and his friends (including his now-wife) rode bikes to the original Inman Park location of this low-key eatery to “play ping pong and drink Jack-and-Coke slushies.”

Rathbun’s and Krog Bar
High-end restaurants by chef Kevin Rathbun (“He’s a good buddy”) were in Somerhalder’s regular rotation. “I love Rathbun’s, and we practically lived at Krog Bar,” he says.

Highland Bakery
Somerhalder fondly remembers sprinting on the Atlanta BeltLine to earn his best-loved brunches at this morning staple. “The peanut butter French toast is stupid good,” he says.

This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Southbound magazine.