The town of Jean Lafitte invites you to meet its favorite pirate and explore his Barataria wetlands with dry feet. Predictably, the town holds the title of unofficial guardian of its namesake’s place in history, but local bragging rights don’t end there. It’s also gateway to huge Lafitte National Park, the vast fishing and recreation waters of Lake Salvador, its famed swamp and marshland wilderness called Barataria and its role as popular hunting grounds for the beloved Louisiana Iris. Winding through it all is Bayou Barataria, ancient smuggling route and site of the annual Blessing of the Shrimping Fleet and July’s newly reorganized Jean Lafitte Pirogue Races (504-756-3714).
For flower lovers the famously “beardless” Louisiana Iris is as precious as any treasure buried by privateer and smuggler Jean Lafitte, and although it’s a wildflower and prefers swampland, it’s known, nurtured, transplanted, hybridized and exhibited as avidly as domesticated “show flowers” like roses and camellias.
Local chapters of the Society for Louisiana Irises (listed at louisianas.org) might report variations in nature’s schedules, but around Jean Lafitte the blooms appear for about two weeks each year, usually between mid-March and mid-April, in lawns, gardens and shallow roadside waters, and along a boardwalk in the heart of town and the National Park’s elevated Coquille and Visitor Center walkways just minutes away on La. 45. Check at nps.gov/jela/barataria-preserve-trails-and-waterways.htm for dates of the Park’s Spring Wildflower Walk and Swamp Science Festival.
From Gretna on New Orleans’ west bank, La. 45 and 3134 lead south to cross the Barataria/Intracoastal Bridge into Jean Lafitte, where the combined Visitor Center and Pirate Museum at 799 Jean Lafitte Blvd. waits to welcome guests (504-689-2299, townofjeanlafitte.com, closed Mondays).
Baratarian landscapes are introduced vividly in the center’s theater, but it’s the pirate ship, large-scale figures and vintage 12-panel continuous puppet show that best tell the legends of Andy Jackson and his “Buccaneer” buddy at the Battle of New Orleans.
Downstream, after a stop at the Lafitte Art Gallery and Gifts at 2608 Jean Lafitte (search “Jean Lafitte art” on Facebook; closed Monday and Tuesday), it’s a short drive farther down the boulevard to City Park Drive where a left turn leads one block to hours of pleasant activities. Start with the mile-long Wetlands Trace boardwalk that loops through a 40-acre Nature Study Park, passing features like a rookery (where egrets nest March through June), pavilions and benches, where walkers can relax while scanning the surroundings for wildlife, waterfowl and swampland plants like lilies, orchids and irises.
Adjacent to the boardwalk’s gate, the handsome new Multi-Purpose Center stands as a monument to the town’s survival after years of almost annual disasters, from hurricanes and killer floods to the BP oil-spill travesty. The prime attraction inside the Center is Lafitte’s Barataria Museum (504-689-7888, townofjeanlafitte.com, closed Mondays), which serves as a monument to the never-say-die spirit of Baratarians in the face of today’s coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion.
Other exhibits in the museum present wetland animal life like beautifully mounted mink and otters arranged alongside a surprising variety of spectacularly preserved birdlife, while other displays trace the life of Lafitte and share the folklore, folk crafts and traditions of early and contemporary Baratarians.
Perhaps the most dramatically presented are the exhibits of pirogues, handmade decoys, traps, nets, tanning tools, pelt-drying boards and oyster tongs, all vital for wresting livelihoods from the wetlands and all enhanced by the personal experiences of enthusiastic curators like Jill Darda who actually worked shrimpboats and dried muskrats under the tutelage of parents and relatives.
Finally, heed this advice: don’t depart Lafitte’s Barataria Museum without pausing in its theater to enjoy the film’s stunning wetlands scenes of Barataria, ending with an actual appearance by a great Louisiana celebrity you’ll be delighted to meet.
Jean Lafitte is a small town with very few restaurants, but the dishes are as memorable as the list is short.
JAN’S CAJUN RESTAURANT4831 Jean Lafitte Blvd.
Cajun favorites plus American comfort foods. Closed Sunday and Monday.
VOLEO’S SEAFOOD RESTAURANT5134 Nunez St.
Cajun and German specialties plus all-American favorites. Closed Sundays.
RESTAURANT des FAMILLES7163 Barataria Blvd.
Haute Cajun cuisine daily and champagne Sunday brunch. Closed Mondays.
Beyond the boardwalks lies a wet and wild world that deserves a closer look, and sightseeing vessels manned by knowledgeable guides are waiting at dockside to share that world.
AIRBOAT ADVENTURES5145 Fleming Park Rd.
9:45 a.m., 12 p.m.,
2 p.m., plus 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. on occasion.
“PIRATE VENTURE” SWAMP ADVENTURES3064 Privateer Blvd.
Custom tours: choice of sunrise, sunset, daytime or night.
JEAN LAFITTE SWAMP TOURS6601 Leo Kerner Pkwy.
Launch times: 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., plus 11:45 a.m. and 3:45 p.m. on occasion.
LOUISIANA SWAMP TOURS9706 Barataria Blvd.
Launch Times: 9:40 a.m., 12:10 p.m., 2:10 p.m. and 4:15 p.m.
For fishing adventures, the town’s website for visitor information (townofjeanlafitte.com) provides a long list of charter captains, plus boat-owner facilities like marinas, ramps and even lodges for overnighters wishing to launch on-site.