A Staycation guide for Louisianians
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Cajun Good Times
If you live in Louisiana’s Cajun Country, you already know how many fun things there are to do right in your own backyard. But if you’re like most of us, the pressure of work and caring for family means most of your free time is spent taking care of everyday business. Vacation time, then, is the perfect opportunity to experience for yourself all the riches that lie in your neck of the woods.
Cajun Country takes its name from the Acadians, French Catholics who fled Acadie (Nova Scotia) and eventually settled in South Louisiana. Their rich culture endures today and can be enjoyed in the region’s unique food, music and festivals.
People sometimes equate Cajun food with hot, spicy food. In reality, Cajun cuisine is delicious because it makes use of the fish, game and crops that are plentiful in the region. One of the favorite foods is boudin, a flavorful sausage sold in dozens of small grocery stores and even gas stations throughout the region.
Many of Cajun Country’s attractions center on the area’s history. In Lafayette, for example, both the Acadian Village and Vermilionville illustrate life in the past. Acadian Village is a folk life museum focused on 19th-century Cajun life, while Vermilionville shows how 18th-century Acadian settlers lived.
Evangeline Oak Park in St. Martinville is home to an ancient live oak named for the heroine of Longfellow’s famous poem. The park also contains an African American museum recounting the lives of slaves and free people of color.
In Lake Charles, take time to view the historic Charpentier District. Long ago, lumbermen used available pine in the area to build tall, angular homes. The area is now on the National Historic Registry.
Crowley, between Lafayette and Lake Charles, celebrates the area’s rice crop in many ways. The Historic Rice Theatre, an art deco beauty built in 1940, has been lovingly restored and features local music events. Crowley also boasts the J.D. Miller Music Recording Studio Museum, opened in 1946 and restored to its original state. The studio once recorded tunes by local Cajun, zydeco, blues, country and swamp pop artists.
If you are a Cajun music buff, be sure to visit Opelousas, the birthplace of zydeco king Clifton Chenier. The town draws people from all around to its Original Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival. Opelousas also has plenty of history; founded in 1720 by the French, it’s the state’s third-oldest city and served as the capital of Confederate Louisiana for a short time. The town’s historic district has many beautiful antebellum and Victorian homes, as well as historic churches and cemeteries. And like most Cajun towns, you’ll find lots of places to sample the region’s delicious boudin, crawfish étouffée and other delights.
Children will find much to do in Cajun Country. Both Lafayette and Lake Charles have children’s museums. In DeQuincy, let kids see the train cars at the DeQuincy Railroad Museum. Adjacent to the museum is a playground with rides.
A visit to beautiful Avery Island brings tours of the famous Tabasco factory. In the island’s Jungle Gardens, you can see exotic plants, as well as deer, alligator and snowy egrets, among other wildlife.
A real fixture in Cajun Country is Fred’s Lounge in the little town of Mamou. The lounge is open only on Saturdays from 7:30 a.m. to about 2 p.m., and you’ll find plenty of folks dancing as the lively Cajun music is broadcast for a radio program. In Eunice, visit the Liberty Theatre to enjoy a live radio show with zydeco music.
Cajun Country is sometimes called Louisiana’s festival capital. There are so many fests that you’re almost sure to find one coinciding with your vacation. Like omelets? At Abbeville’s Giant Omelette Celebration, cooks make a 5,000-egg omelet in a 12-foot skillet. The fest is said to harken back to a time when Napoleon ordered French villagers to bring out all their eggs to feed his soldiers.
Meanwhile, the Rayne Frog Festival holds frog-jumping and frog-racing contests – bring your own contender. The Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette includes music, food and arts and crafts; Crowley’s Rice Festival celebrates the harvesting of the rice crop; and the Contraband Days-Louisiana Pirate Festival in Lake Charles recalls the days of pirate Jean Lafitte.
Like so much of Louisiana, Cajun Country provides lots of outdoor entertainment. The swamps and wetlands of the vast Atchafalaya Basin, the nation’s largest river-swamp, is heaven for those who like to bicycle, camp, hunt, fish, play golf or spot birds. Calcasieu Lake near Lake Charles is well-known for its abundant fish, including trout, redfish and flounder.
Chicot State Park near Ville Platte is more than 6,000 acres of natural beauty. If you crave catching largemouth bass or bluegill, here’s your spot. Ditto for those who enjoy hiking, backpacking, cycling and camping. Cabins are available, too. The Louisiana State Arboretum, located within the park, is a stately beech forest with nature trails. Native plants along the trails are labeled so you can increase your knowledge of Louisiana plant life.
Check out the Creole Nature Trail, a state scenic route, which is composed of Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge, Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, Peveto Woods Bird & Butterfly Sanctuary and Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, from which you can view alligator and shorebirds. Or try the Lake Charles Boardwalk, which follows the lake and is popular with walkers, bikers and joggers.
For a different type of relaxation, spend a day or two at one of the area’s gambling venues. Bet on the horses at Delta Downs Racetrack Casino Hotel in Vinton, or try the slots and table games at the Isle of Capri Casino Hotel and L’Auberge Casino Resort, both in Lake Charles.
In short, there’s no need to feel down if your vacation budget this year doesn’t permit an expensive trek to a far-flung destination. You can satisfy just about any vacation-related yen you have not far from your own backyard.