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
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
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
What gives a
visit its true worth is the combination of history and culture that
adds a distinctive sense of place.
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.
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.
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
Lafayette such as Randols, Mulates and Prejeans have Cajun music
and dance nightly. Food-wise, expect big, flavorful portions of
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
provides a perfect rural complement to the urban pleasures of New
Orleans or Baton Rouge.
on Cajun country tourism, contact the Lafayette Convention and
Visitors Commission at (800) 346-1958 or visit www.lafayettetravel.com.
reporter Allan Seiden, send e-mail to [email protected].