There are times, and they seem to be more frequent as the years roll on by, when recharging your batteries becomes not just a good thing, but a necessary thing. Of course, we are not talking about electric appliances or your car. We are talking about you.
For me, while an interesting destination is always very attractive, I like the journey just as much. Yes, museums and theatre performances by big name stars, plus changes of scenery are great. But I also like the road to be traveled. I want to see new sights, stop and eat new foods, meet new friends. Along the Gulf Coast, we are fortunate to be in close proximity to truly different kinds of places. We, of course have the beach. Then there are communities that still proudly wear their history. Military history and military installations always offer gee-whiz experiences. We have many styles of cuisines and we have people who are living parallel lives to ours but they are living different lives. It’s all very interesting and educational. And don’t forget fun.
One of the regions of which I never tire is Acadiana, the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun Country. Going there and having a bad time is just not possible. The people are warm. The history is deep, often heart-breaking. The culture lives. And the food is unbeatable. Even New Orleans, the culinary capital of America, acknowledges the joys coming out of the kitchens throughout Acadiana.
Located in Southwest Louisiana, but not too far west where you start experiencing the influence of Texas, this region is basically prairie land blended with swamps blended with ground you cannot walk on. If you like forests or beaches, you’d best travel elsewhere.
As the Cajuns made their way down the east coast of the United States after being expelled from Acadia, now Nova Scotia, in Canada by the English in the mid-1700s, they were seeking a place where they would not be bothered again by a monarchy, where they could practice their religion and live their lives as hunters, trappers, fishermen and farmers.
In Acadiana, they found paradise. That’s not to say carving an existence from swampland that often flooded or was regularly ravaged by hurricanes was easy. It was not. But they were able to live their way, with their ways, and among their own. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the great American poet, composed one of his most honored epics, Evangeline, telling the cruel story of the Acadian expulsion and the eventual landing at what is today St. Martinville.
From here the trappers headed for the grassland, the fishermen and the hunters towards the Atchafalaya Swamp near Breaux Bridge, the farmers went north towards the Cajun Prairie towns of Opelousas, Eunice, Crowley, Mamou and Church Point, and the professional service providers like lawyers and accountants settled in the area of Lafayette.
Their language was, and still is, a patois, a blend of English and French, but not the French you hear in Paris today. Their French is the French of aristocratic society of the 1700s, and because they have been isolated for almost 300 years, the language has not progressed. Rather, the new words in the Cajun Patois are English. So they still speak with an almost musical rhythm and you can understand some of the words and common expressions, but probably not all, unless you grew up Cajun.
Did someone mention music? Oh boy, can these folks pump out a song, usually in French, and using the fiddle, accordion, triangle and a wearable washboard propping up the beat, recently expanding to guitar and piano. They call it “zydeco,” and there is no music played anywhere else that is as exciting, as fun and as joyous as zydeco. Some of the Cajuns still play their old French-based repertoire but most all today are influenced by zydeco. The challenge: try to keep your feet and body still when a Cajun band gets it all going on. Infectious.
Ready to spend a weekend in Cajun Country? Here’s your itinerary:
Start in Lafayette.
Lafayette will be your base camp. Homewood Suites, Staybridge Suites, Fairfield Inn and Suites and Hampton Inn and Suites all offer larger rooms, many amenities and are quite comfortable.
Out you go to St. Martinville, about 20 minutes away (Highway 90 South to LA 96, east), right on Bayou Teche where the Cajuns originally landed. This church was constructed in 1836 on the site of the previous church, and just outside is the statue and legendary burial location of Evangeline, Gabriel’s beautiful lady.
Stroll the town, then head over to Longfellow-Evangeline State Park. Check out the old home, a more or less authentic and historic home depicting the life of well-to-do Cajuns from the early 1800s, and there is a cabin depicting how regular people lived in that period.
At this point you have a big decision to make: Do you enjoy a Cajun lunch or even brunch at Café Des Amis in Breaux Bridge, or do you go on to Henderson for some crawfish? Always a tough choice.
If you decide to go for the crawfish, drive north on LA 31 towards Breaux Bridge, go through that little town, right by Café Des Amis, the perfect Cajun lunch spot noted above, heading over to an even smaller village, Henderson. Cross Bayou Teche onto Rees Street, then to Highway 352, Latiolais Street. Take a right (east) and go towards the levee of the Atchafalaya Swamp, America’s largest fresh water swamp. At the end of the road is Pat’s, famous for crawfish and great seafood. Enjoy an LA 31 beer, brewed right in the neighborhood.
You are now very close to I-10 just to your north and you can head back to Lafayette, west, or you can double-back to explore Breaux Bridge, heading back west on LA 94.
On this day, head north on Interstate 49, stopping about 10 miles up the road in the picturesque village of Grand Coteau. This seemingly remote area is where, in 1837, the Jesuit Order for the entire New Orleans (Southern) Province placed their college, St. Charles College. Here, young men studying for the Jesuit priesthood have very few distractions from their education and their vocation.
Grand Coteau is also the site of a Catholic girls' academy, founded in 1821.
Just across Interstate 49 from Grand Coteau is a legendary antebellum home, Chretien Point. Constructed in 1831, Hypolite Chretien was a wealthy cotton farmer and wanted for his family the grandest home in the region. The plantation once encompassed more than 3,000 acres.
The famous scene in the movie and the novel, Gone with the Wind, notes a Union soldier coming up the stairs of the grand Southern home to steal the family jewelry with Miss Scarlett ultimately shooting the looter on the stairway. That stairway, and that story, is a direct lift from Chretien Point’s history.
From Chretien Point, head north on 182, or double-back to I-49 North, and spend some time in the town of Opelousas. It is named for the Opelousas Indians who occupied this land prior to and during the time French settlers were arriving from Nova Scotia (Acadia). During the Civil War, after the fall of Baton Rouge to the North, Opelousas became Louisiana’s state capital. Reconstruction saw the seat of state government return to where it is today in Baton Rouge.
Opelousas most famous son is Jim Bowie, inventor of a multi-purpose knife and hero of the Siege of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas.
For lunch, don’t miss Mama’s Fried Chicken, located at 508 E. Landry Street.
A trip west on Highway 190 towards Eunice about 20 miles from Opelousas, will give you a pretty good appreciation of the term, Cajun Prairie. Founded in 1894, and named for founder C.C. Dawson's second wife, Eunice defines itself as the capital of that prairie.
Then head south on LA 13 about 20 miles to Crowley, the heart of America’s rice production. You will also pass sugar cane fields. Agriculturally, this is interesting country.
Roam around Crowley a bit, check out the silos, then return east on I-10 to Lafayette, which offers many fine cultural diversions, like museums, natural history exhibits, a major university, historic places and excellent shopping. As well as fine food and drink.
Blue Dog Café, Vermilionville, Dwight’s, French Press Café, Charley G’s and Jolie’s Louisiana Bistro all offer top-level Cajun cuisine in a style that maybe you have not enjoyed before. Spicy but not hot; savory but not sweet; deep and simple, the result of many family traditions and generations.
For some live music, and maybe smoky – as in cigarette – atmosphere, check out Atmosphere, Bob’s, Randol’s, Prejean’s, La Poussiere or the best darn club in South Louisiana, Fred’s in Mamou, about 45 minutes north, outside Opelousas.
Does that sound like a great weekend, or what? Don’t just sit there. Make that hotel reservation now. Pass a good time, cha’!