Travel to Cajun Country and sample hot sauce, meet a gator, and dance the night away.
“Watch out for bears,” the sign said as we strolled by a stand of bamboo trees. Peter and I were taking a self-guided tour on Avery Island, Louisiana. Ring a bell? It’s home to Tabasco Pepper Sauce, the iconic condiment invented by Edmund McIlhenny in 1868. We didn’t see any bears during our Avery Island Experience tour, but we learned a lot about Tabasco, a spicy favorite at our house.
Visiting Avery Island was just one of the reasons Peter and I had journeyed to Lafayette, Louisiana, about two hours west of New Orleans. Known as Cajun Country, this friendly area is famous for its food, festivals, and fun. Over the years we’ve been to New Orleans many times, but this more authentic, less touristy region was always on my radar. During our four-day stay, we discovered that Lafayette is a unique destination with lots to do. People here really know how to enjoy life. So let’s go to Lafayette, y’all, and join the fun!
Discover the Past in Vermilionville
Paddle Up the Bayou Vermilion and Lunch at Café 20.3
Folks in Lafayette struck me as being some of the friendliest I’ve ever met. Maybe it’s their Southern manners. One morning I walked by a gentleman in T-Coons, a breakfast joint in Lafayette, and he looked me right in the eye and said, “Morning, ma’am.” I felt he acknowledged me as a human being, a rarity between strangers. More than once I observed people treating each other with dignity and respect, regardless of color, class, or creed. It was a breath of fresh air.
Many of the people here are proud of their Cajun roots. But what does Cajun mean anyhow? Turns out the term refers to a group of French Acadians from Canada who were expelled by the British and resettled in these parts. Peter and I saw a film at the Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette about the deportation. Some say it amounted to genocide since many Acadians, including women and children, died during the journey south. Longfellow’s poem “Evangeline” tells of one couple separated during this expulsion.
The cultural center is adjacent to Vermilionville Living History Museum & Folklife Park, which tells the story of life in Acadiana from 1765 to 1890. Some of the buildings are authentic historic buildings; others are recreated. We toured the village one drizzly afternoon and chatted with costumed docents: a woman spinning wool and a blacksmith forging iron.
The village sits beside the Bayou Vermilion, so Peter and I decided to explore the waterway by kayak. Luckily the rain stopped, so we paddled leisurely upstream before turning back and heading to Café 20.3, where paddlers can pull up for a quick bite and a cold beer. We shared some Frentz Fries, fries topped with roast beef debris, gravy, and cheese—decadent and definitely not good for the figure.
Food in these parts is crazy good: boiled crawfish, oyster poboys, gumbo, and boudin, to name a few. Peter and I decided to take a food tour to get a taste of the local cuisine. We met Marie Ducote-Comeaux, who started Cajun Food Tours about six years ago, and her daughter, Whitney, in Breaux Bridge, a cute little town not far from Lafayette. Our first stop was Cajun Market donuts, where we sampled doughnuts—natch—and boudin that Marie brought from Rees Street Market.
Boudin is a unique sausage made with rice that has many variations. “We’re passionate about our boudin,” said Marie. “If we have a favorite, we usually buy the t-shirt and put the bumper sticker on our car.” The version we tried was hot, spicy, and delicious. There’s even a Boudin Trail in Lafayette, where you can sample some of the many varieties.
We also tried andouille sausage on the tour at a cute bistro called Joie de Vivre. It was great, especially with the housemade Negra Modelo mustard. At Chez Jacqueline, we sampled “oeufs a la Parisienne” or eggs topped with crab. The owner, Jacqueline, was born in France, and when Peter asked her how she ended up in Breaux Bridge, she said mysteriously, “The wind blew me in” and smiled.
At Cochon Cannery, we tasted bacon jam (not my favorite) and bacon salt (yum!). The bearded, tattoed owner, Dustie Latiolais, and his wife, Denise, began selling their wares at festivals, and their business took off. We chatted about all the various festivals and cook-offs in the area, and Dustie said, “It’s always a party!”
Find Your Favorite Festival
From Courir de Mardi Gras to the Boudin Cookoff
While New Orleans is home to the state’s most famous Mardi Gras celebration, Lafayette has its own unique spin. Courir de Mardi Gras, for example, involves masked, costumed horsemen who ride through the countryside begging for ingredients for a communal gumbo. The tradition involves dancing and singing for live chickens, rice, onions, and flour to be used in the gumbo. It’s a throwback to medieval times, and one day I hope to watch, or even better, ride with a courir.
Our visit took place a few weeks before Fat Tuesday, so we just missed Lafayette’s Mardi Gras festivities. Coming up April 24-28, 2019, is Cycle Zydeco, Louisiana’s Cajun & Creole Cycling Festival—three days of partying, four days of riding, and one “incredible bon temp,” the organizers say. Priorities are to eat, drink, dance, then ride to the next location. Distances range from 38 to 62 miles, and riders wear crazy costumes, so I hear. Cycle Zydeco also coincides with Lafayette’s annual Festival International, a free music festival that brings bands from across the globe. Sounds like a blast!
Festivals are nonstop in Cajun Country. There’s Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, Boudin Cook Off, Festivals Acadiens et Creole, Cajun & Creole Christmas, Mid-Winter Fair & Rodeo, and then it’s time to think about Mardi Gras again! If you like music, food, and dancing, this is the place to be.
One evening we attended a Cajun Jam Night at Blue Moon Saloon in Lafayette. A funky, downhome place, Blue Moon is full of character and characters. Musicians came and went during several sets the night we attended. Some played instruments, some sang soulful Cajun music. I’m a fiddle and accordion fan, so I was in my element. Peter and I met nice local folks, as well as people who traveled from Sweden and Belgium to hear and play this unique music.
Dancing is a big part of Cajun culture, and the region has dozens of dancehalls, where people gather for music and merriment. One spot, Randol’s, has live music and dancing 365 days of the year. You can watch the band and the dancers through a glass wall while you dine in the restaurant.
It was a quiet night at Randol’s, with not many folks on the dance floor. I enjoyed seeing a new dad dancing with his maybe eight-month-old son in his arms. The infant had on ear protectors, but I’m sure he could still hear the lively music. The father and son were alone on the dance floor, swinging and swaying with smiles on their faces.
Peter and I tucked into charbroiled oysters, followed by a platter of boiled crawfish—spicy and sooo good. They say nearby Breaux Bridge was the first place to serve crawfish, and today it’s known as the Crawfish Capital of the World. I am definitely a fan of those succulent mudbugs!
Meet an Alligator in Atchafalaya Basin
Thrilling Airboat Ride with McGee’s Swamp Tours
A swamp tour was on Peter’s bucket list, so we met Byron Lemaire at McGee’s Louisiana Swamp Tours & Adventures in Henderson for a somewhat bumpy airboat tour on the Atchafalaya Basin. In fact, with the wind picking up, Byron said conditions were borderline, but he delivered us safely back to the dock after an informative 90-minute tour.
The Atchafalaya is a beautiful swamp with 1.4 million acres and trees that are up to 120 years old, many of them cypresses draped in Spanish moss. Along the banks of peaceful manmade canals you sometimes see big alligators sunning on the banks. Byron told us about one special alligator that he got to know and love in the swamp. A 15-footer, the alligator ended up being killed by a trapper, who only got $5 a foot for the gator. “I’d have paid him five times as much to leave him be,” Byron said. I felt the same way.
Our only glimpse of gators was back on Avery Island at an attraction called Jungle Gardens adjacent to the Tabasco Factory. It’s a beautifully preserved nature sanctuary, where the McIlhenny family planted trees and flowers from around the world. Huge live oaks dot the gardens, including a 300-year-old tree named after President Grover Cleveland, who reportedly hugged the tree during his visit in 1891. Who knew Grover Cleveland was our nation’s first tree hugger!
We spotted baby gators about three feet long as we strolled along one of the trails to a massive Buddha statue that overlooks a peaceful lagoon. Said to be 900 years old, the Buddha was a gift to McIlhenny in 1936. It’s customary to leave a token offering when you visit a Buddha. All I had was a string of Mardi Gras beads, which I left on a small altar beside the temple. Then I made a wish: to come back one day to Cajun Country for more of its unique culture, friendly folks, tasty food, and festivities. The Buddha seemed to wink at me as I turned to leave—as if to say, “Come on back soon, y’all. We’ll be waiting.”
What You Need To Know
Here are tips for visiting Lafayette and Cajun Country
Find out about Lafayette’s next festival, where to stay, where to eat, and where to dance at www.lafayettetravel.com.
Stay at the Tru by Hilton Lafayette River Ranch in Lafayette. The folks are friendly, the vibe is chill, and the beds are comfy. Plus it’s super affordable!
The Cajun Food Tour in Breaux Bridge is a fun way to learn about the local cuisine. Be sure and tell Marie and Whitney hello!
Plan to spend a couple hours at Tabasco Experience on Avery Island. I hear the Bloody Marys are awesome in the Tabasco Restaurant 1868!
Take a nature break at Jungle Gardens also on Avery Island. Don’t miss the Buddha statue, and watch out for the baby alligators!
For more of Peggy’s travel adventures, visit www.tidewaterwomen.com/travel