As destinations court the growing number of travelers who plan vacations around good food and local culinary specialties, Lafayette, La., knows it has an ace in the hole: As the self-proclaimed home of Louisiana's Cajun culture, this is the place to come for authentic gumbo, boudin, etouffee, andouille and jambalaya.
The city is featured in a new campaign by the Louisiana Office of Tourism called Culinary Trails, designed to entice food lovers not only to New Orleans but to areas beyond.
Lafayette and its neighboring southern parishes, all within a day-trip distance of 2.5 hours by car from New Orleans, comprise Bayou Bounty, one of five itineraries created by the tourism agency for the culinary campaign.
"Talk about a no-brainer," said Gerald Breaux, executive director of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission. "We know people come to Louisiana to eat. We're the capital of Cajun country. You name it -- crawfish, shrimp, oysters -- we have it."
The Louisiana promotion includes a 30-page brochure and website section at www.louisianatravel.com/culinary, with maps, restaurants and food information.
It is the uniqueness and unpretentiousness of Cajun food that draws food lovers to Lafayette, according to Sandra Day, a local food writer who led a recent press tour. And food is integral to the culture, she said.
"Because we are so close to the Gulf of Mexico, and most families include a fisherman or two, we have a very high standard of freshness of seafood," she said. "Local cooks are very skilled."
The area's biggest food-related attraction lies 17 miles south of Lafayette on Avery Island, the home of spicy Tabasco pepper sauce, created in 1868 by the McIlhenny family. A visit is highlighted by an eight-minute film of the history of Tabasco followed by a tour of the bottling plant. A large gift shop offers Tabasco-themed souvenirs.
But it is at funky, family-owned corner stores such as the Old Tyme Grocery in Lafayette and gas stations such as Suire's in the nearby hamlet of Kaplan where visitors can get a down-home food experience like no other.
"Since most of them hire experienced Cajun cooks, you'd be surprised at how good 'gas station gastronomy' can be," said Day. "Don't leave without going to a plate lunch house or grocery that serves home cooking, which always includes some sort of rice and gravy dish such as smothered pork, shrimp stew, crawfish etouffee or chicken fricassee."
A culinary tour of the area also wouldn't be complete without sampling restaurants that combine food and Cajun music.
At Mulate's, six miles outside Lafayette in Breaux Bridge, fried fish is the specialty. But the real attraction is the infectious joie de vivre of the place.
While diners enjoy plates piled high with catfish, shrimp and fries, Cajun bands play and families with children, grandparents and teenagers kick up their heels and dance a two-step. Randol's and Prejean's are two other similar restaurant/dance halls.
Plenty of places in town offer a chance to attend traditional dances, or fais-do-do (pronounced "fay-doe-doe"), with songs sung in the local dialect. The Blue Moon Saloon, a Lafayette bar and club on the back porch of the Blue Moon Guesthouse, is one of the area's top places for bands playing zydeco, Cajun and what's now being called "roots" music. That's music that springs from a mix of cultures and that has grown out of folk traditions with instruments that might include a fiddle, banjo, accordion and drum.
Food and music aside, it is the history and culture of the Acadians, today called Cajuns, that makes for some fascinating educational experiences on a visit to Lafayette, which is the center of the French-speaking part of Louisiana.
The National Park Service's Acadian Cultural Center on the banks of the city's Bayou Vermillion is the best place to start. The center shows a short movie on the plight of the Acadians, French Catholics who settled in Nova Scotia in 1605 and were expelled in 1755 by the English governor when they refused to pledge allegiance to the British crown and the Anglican Church. Forced from their homes, many eventually settled in south Louisiana.
1800s atmosphere in Vermillionville
Next door is Vermillionville, a museum of six historical Acadian homes and 13 reproductions of period buildings, including a chapel, a blacksmith shop and a schoolhouse.
One house is La Maison Mouton, a reconstruction of a basic, four-room Acadian house with no windows (only shutters were used against the elements). Docents in period costumes demonstrate spinning, weaving and storytelling common in 19th century life.
Vermillionville also has a restaurant serving local cuisine, cooking classes and performances of Cajun and zydeco music.
The Acadian Museum in the small town of Erath, about a half-hour drive southwest of Lafayette, contains only three rooms but is a wealth of information about Acadian history. The rooms, crammed like a packrat's attic, include paintings and maps depicting the expulsions of the Acadians from Nova Scotia and their adjustment to their new land. Admission is free.
Another stop for food, culture and history is New Iberia, a half-hour southeast of Lafayette.
Founded in 1779 by Spaniards from Malaga, it is the only surviving town from Louisiana's Spanish colonial period.
In a nod to its rich history, street signs are posted in French, English and Spanish. One must-see is Shadows on the Teche, an 1834 plantation home (open daily for tours: see www.shadowsontheteche.org) that is the only National Trust Historic House in Louisiana.
Nearby, Clementine's, an upscale restaurant, serves Cajun food in a restored historical building.
New Iberia's charming downtown, with towering live oaks cloaked in Spanish moss, and surrounding marshes, swamps and bayous is the setting for author James Lee Burke's best-selling detective novels.
The town is expected to attract Hollywood fame in the next few months with the release of a movie filmed in New Iberia, "In the Electric Mist," starring Tommy Lee Jones and based on a Burke novel.
For more information on the area, contact the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission at (800) 346-1958, (337) 232-3737 and www.lafayettetravel.com.