The Riverfronts of Southwest Louisiana
In the January/ February issue, Baton Rouge became the starting point of a yearlong Traveler pilgrimage to interesting urban riverfronts all around the state. This time, we’re visiting the Calcasieu River, Bayou Teche and the Atchafalaya River to explore cities and towns that belly up to those famous and historic streams, visits that, strung together, would amount to a very pleasant whirlwind tour of Southwest Louisiana.
Near the end of its trip to the Gulf, the Calcasieu River balloons out, briefly, to create a beach-lined lake that shares a name with the city that surrounds it –– Lake Charles, first known informally as Charlie’s Lake in honor of early settler Charles Sallier. Our favorite pirate, Jean Laffite, frequently used the lake for safe harbor, becoming a popular figure in local lore and inspiration for Contraband Days, the city’s jolliest annual event (April 27-May 9 this year).
Stop first at the Convention and Visitors Bureau, located at sandside between Interstate 10 and the lake, to get the requisite brochures and tour maps (including the by-request-only architectural guide called “Guide to Historic Calcasieu Parish”).
This might just be the kid-friendliest city in the state, as you’ll discover when you explore the lakefront and historic district. Scattered between bicentenary cemeteries and modern convention facilities, the lakefront presents an array of playgrounds that range from conventional to architecturally dazzling, not to mention the additional playground facilities at the south shore’s sprawling Prien Lake Park and the two-story fun-filled Children’s Museum in the Historic District (complete with a lever demonstration that involves lifting 300 pounds of Laffite’s treasure).
The historic residential district, composed mainly of Victorian mansions and cottages that sprang up
after the town’s devastating fire of 1910, boasts pleasant bed-and-breakfasts as well as art outlets.
To pass the imposing homes of such historic figures as reform governor Sam Houston Jones, follow Shell Beach Drive around the south shore. Below the lake, the Calcasieu resumes the shape of a river and flows by massive L’Auberge du Lac Casino Resort as it continues its meander toward the Gulf. Before it can even get past the city limits, however, it pauses again to create Indian Bay and Prien Lake, where you’ll find the final two waterfront attractions of Lake Charles. LaFleur Beach on the bay is a good spot for picnicking and sunning on the sand, and Prien Lake Park offers pavilions, picnic tables and a scenic bayside jogging path.
Sixty miles east of the Calcasieu, the Vermilion River flows through the city first called Vermilionville. Even though the river was the original settlement’s primary trade route, businesses and substantial homes of the 19th century were built back a bit, on higher ground. Today’s Lafayette, therefore, has no old “riverfront district,” per se, but there’s more than enough activity along the river for visitors and locals to enjoy.
My favorite spots in the city to view the Vermilion are the guestroom windows and big swimming pool deck of the Lafayette Hilton on Pinhook Road. The deck actually extends to the riverbank,
thus providing a grand view of the settlement’s original crossing point, which is marked today by Pinhook’s
old (and becoming rare) vertical-lift bridge.
Because of the river and that vital crossing, Vermilionville’s first inn was established there, on the east bank, sometime before 1818, and it still stands at 1304 Pinhook. Behind its columned façade, additions to the original cypress inn have provided sufficient space for the kitchens, lounge and dining rooms of today’s Cafe Vermilionville, where Louisiana duck, fish, veal and prime beef are prepared with a local touch to please regular patrons and visitors from around the world.
Upstream, two of the city’s top attractions overlook the Vermilion where it curves around the Lafayette Airport. The two actually share a mission: preservation and interpretation of the unique culture established in Louisiana by Acadian exiles in the mid-1700s. The historic theme park called Vermilionville (300 Fisher Road) is a cluster of vintage Acadian dwellings and other structures, staffed by skilled and costumed craftsmen, storytellers, cooks and musicians, that create a vivid portrayal of life in that era, and an outpost of Lafitte National Park called the Acadian Cultural Center (501 Fisher Road) stands nearby. The cultural center presents a timeline of Acadian history, complete with artifacts, photographs, films and recordings that tell the story of the earliest Cajun architecture, livelihoods, music, cuisine and customs.
A few miles east of the Vermilion, romantic and scenic old Bayou Teche flows through Breaux Bridge and
on through other household-word bayou towns, finally flowing into the Lower Atchafalaya River near Morgan City.
Over the course of two-plus centuries, the town of Breaux Bridge has grown around Pont Breaux, or Breaux’s bridge, which originated as a footbridge built by Firmin Breaux in 1799. His son Agricole built a bridge suitable for wagon traffic in 1818, and it was Agricole’s 33-year-old widow, Scholastique Picou Breaux, who drew up plans for development of the town in 1829.
From their intersections with Bridge Street, Poydras Street leads downstream on the east bank and St. Bernard and Washington streets follow the west bank. Along the way stand clusters of pleasant bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and Cajun music spots, and nearby, in Parc du Pont, stands a 20-foot statue of Scholastique unveiled in 1996.
Down the bayou a bit, another statue of another Acadian heroine is waiting in St. Martinville. The tragic character of Evangeline passed this way in Longfellow’s epic poem, a silent-movie version was filmed nearby in 1929, and actress Dolores del Rio loaned her image to Evangeline for the statue and film.
Major points of interest can be found along Main Street all the way from the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Area on the upper outskirts of town to the 1853 St. Martin Courthouse several blocks below St. Martin’s Church, but the church square with its antebellum rectory, Petit Paris Museum and Evangeline statue is the unquestioned heart of town. Adjacent to the square along Main Street stand landmarks like the old Duchamp family town house (their plantation stood just a long carriage ride away) and St. Martinville’s old brick Opera House. The delight of town and plantation folks, the Opera House was built around 1830 and now houses an arts and collectibles shop and still offers regular theatrical productions.
The streets that flank the square are lined with shops, a bakery, restaurants (notably La Maison steak and seafood restaurant and its Alligator Bar) and, at 221 Bridge St., the town’s sole surviving “Sunday house” (private), an 1815 bousillage treasure now cloaked in brick. Such weekend cottages were kept by plantation families for attending Mass and socializing. Behind the square, New Market Street leads along the bayou from the famous Evangeline Oak and circa-1835 Old Castillo Hotel (now a restaurant and bed-and-breakfast) to two very significant structures: the Acadian Memorial and, next door, the town’s Information Center and Cultural Heritage Center.
Albeit on a much smaller scale, the Acadian Memorial is the Ellis Island of Cajun country, honoring –– by way of an immense mural, a granite Wall of Names and a bayou-side Eternal Flame –– the 3,000 Acadians known to have survived the exile and international wanderings that led from Nova Scotia to Louisiana. The two next-door museums tell more about the Cajuns through artworks and interactive exhibits, and, with a 26-foot mural, text panels and artifacts, about the lives and contributions of slaves and freemen before and after the Civil War.
In the heart of nearby New Iberia, the old waterfront business district on Main Street offers the grandest interaction of town and Teche to be found, thanks to big brick Bouligny Plaza with its bust of founder Francisco Bouligny and sweeping view of the bayou.
It’s azalea time, so stop first at the Iberia Visitor Center –– U.S. 90 at Center Street (Louisiana 14) –– for an Azalea Trail Guide but also grab copies of the town’s attractions map and two Historic District walking tours (residential and commercial). All those maps lead to Main Street (winner of the Great American Main Street Award of 2005), where points of interest (historic, commercial and culinary) line the sidewalks from antebellum Epiphany Church to famed Shadows-on-the-Teche plantation. Cool and colorful signs such as Evangeline Theater and KANE Radio line the street. The old theater is soon to open as a parish museum, and you might see author James Lee Burke at Victor’s Cafeteria –– or you might spot him in Books along the Teche. But if not, Lorraine and Howard Pinkston will tell him hello for you and point you toward the “Burke section” of his locally set Dave Robicheaux detective stories.
Next down the Teche comes Jeanerette, where a stop is always required at the Bicentennial Park and Museum at 500 Main St., with its bayou-side playground and picnicking. Its museum and library are dedicated to the history of the town, region and sugar cane industry. Then comes Franklin, where the sightseeing begins at the classic Grevemberg
House Museum, and the drive along Main Street is a parade of antebellum Greek Revival homes.
You’ll pass many other landmark homes along the bayou from Franklin to Garden Center, Centerville and finally Patterson (the Cajun Coast Visitor Center is at 112 Main St.), where the Teche melds into the Lower Atchafalaya –– a sprawling body which soon joins the main course of the Atchafalaya at Morgan City.
You know you’re at a significant place in Louisiana history and lore when you see those two great monuments –– a vintage shrimp boat and a miniature oil rig –– in the neutral ground of Morgan City’s downtown Brashear Avenue, celebrating the “marriage of convenience” between shrimping and offshore drilling (romanticized but dramatically celebrated by the old Jimmy Stewart movie of 1953 called Thunder Bay).
Down along the Atchafalaya itself, the Morgan City Historic District begins at Front Street and encompasses a dozen blocks of Victorian architecture, unique museums and old churches. Take a walk along the top of the flood wall to enjoy the wonderfully restored storefronts of Front Street, and then visit the shops to find antique and decorative goodies at Plantation Treasures and everything imaginable at 138-year-old Shannon Hardware. At the end of the street rises the world’s first transportable oil rig, the “Mr. Charlie,” which is also believed to be the only rig on earth that welcomes the general public to come aboard. The Rig Museum is open daily except Sundays.