Visitors experience the spice of life in Cajun country

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Once isolated by impassable wetlands, Louisianas Cajun country has been linked by modern highways to cities such as New Orleans and Houston for decades. However, the region still offers authentic tastes of local Cajun -- short for Acadian, or French Canadian -- culture across 22 parishes, as Louisiana counties are called.

Large portions of Cajun country -- settled by French speakers expelled from Canadas Maritime Provinces in 1755 -- still remain wild, yet are now accessible. The Cajun wilds retain the feel of a primeval time, with wetland stands of towering cypress hung in greybeard Spanish moss.

The wetlands are home to stately white egrets and herons and flamingo-pink roseate spoonbills as well as alligators that loll about in steely-eyed superiority.

Theres plenty for birders and fishermen to appreciate in Cajun country, whether on the shores of Lake Wilson or on a flat-bottom boat tour of the Atchafalaya Basin, flooded in a network of bays and inlets.

What gives a visit its true worth is the combination of history and culture that adds a distinctive sense of place.

Lafayette, my local jumping-off point, lies within an hours drive of Baton Rouge, 2.5 hours from New Orleans. In Lafayette, the Cajun past began in the 1750s with the arrival of the first French-speaking settlers exiled by the British from Nova Scotia, or Acadia, as French Canadians called it. In the centuries that followed, Cajun culture evolved its own language, music, food and lifestyle, even after the Louisiana Purchase brought the region under the U.S. flag.

Dining out in Cajun country is a treat, with local menus big on fried oysters, catfish and crawfish as well as gumbo and jambalaya, spicy soups and stews loaded with andouille sausage and seafood. Bread pudding is the favored dessert. 

A free-spirited people, the Cajuns preserved their heritage by adapting the musical and culinary traditions they brought with them to suit the climate of their new home. Both remain key elements in making a visit to Cajun country special.

In Lafayette, I found three dinner clubs that feature live Cajun music seven nights a week. Local people are friendly and out to have a good time, and visitors are welcome to join in. 

While some local plantation homes were lost during the Civil War, others survived and have been restored. Now open to visitors, they are reminders of the gracious side of plantation life, in stark contrast to the institution of slavery.

In New Iberia, a name attesting to the fact that Cajun country also has a Spanish past, I visited Shadows-on-the-Teche, the Teche being a small bayou, which is what locals call rivers and streams. Built in 1834 as the manor for a sugar plantation, it is now managed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The next day I set out for the beautifully furnished Rip Van Winkle House and Gardens on Jefferson Island. The island refers to a salt dome under the estate grounds, which rise from a lakeside lined with magnificent oak, azalea and camellia.

My visit to Houmas House proved a fitting finale to my plantation tour. A grand antebellum mansion surrounded by centuries-old oaks and formal gardens, Houmas House is now home to a restaurant, Latils Landing, that was named one of Americas 20 best new restaurants by Esquire magazine in 2005.

Les bons temps

Music is at the soul of Cajun culture. Sung in French, English or a combination of the two, the local musical vernacular is country music with a Celto-Gallic edge, sometimes wildly rhythmic, sometimes soulfully poignant.

Restaurants in Lafayette such as Randols, Mulates and Prejeans have Cajun music and dance nightly. Food-wise, expect big, flavorful portions of Cajun dishes.

Those in search of an in-depth look at Cajun culture should head to the National Park Services Acadian Cultural Center, where displays, films and literature add a fascinating perspective to an area vacation.

The adjacent Vermilionville heritage park, one of two such institutions in Lafayette (the other is called Acadian Village) offers historical Cajun homes, moved from other locations and reconfigured in a village setting where musicians and crafters provide demonstrations.

The spiritual side of Cajun culture is attested to by Lafayettes Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, with its marbled interior lit by stained-glass windows. Other Cajun churches welcome visitors to nearby small towns such as Breaux Bridge, Abbeville and St. Martinville.

At the McIlhenny Tabasco Factory at Avery Island, all but the exact recipe thats made the hot-pepper sauce one of the worlds best-known condiment brands is revealed. After the factory tour, visit the shop for a scoop of chili pepper ice cream, which tastes much better than it sounds.

McIlhennys also runs the adjacent Jungle Garden, renowned for showy egrets and the worlds largest collection of camellias.

Lafayette is a university town, with 18,000 students enrolled at its University of Louisiana campus, where the Paul and Lulu Hilliard Museum offers traveling exhibits.

Accommodations-wise, I stayed at the new Hilton Garden Inn, across the street from the university arena, the Cajundome, 10 minutes from downtown. The hotels indoor pool and spa are a plus, and its convenient in relation to all day-trip options.

Cajun country provides a perfect rural complement to the urban pleasures of New Orleans or Baton Rouge.

For information on Cajun country tourism, contact the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission at (800) 346-1958 or visit www.lafayettetravel.com.

To contact reporter Allan Seiden, send e-mail to [email protected].

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