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Lafayette Lifts the Spirits

It’s nearly impossible to visit Lafayette, Louisiana, and not be happy. And I mean happy, happy, happy. A 2014 study from Harvard, no less, calculated that Lafayette was the happiest city in the U.S.

Lafayette is the heart and soul of Louisiana’s region known formally as Acadiana but more broadly labeled Cajun Country. The city exudes a joie de vivre that is palpable, and that joy of living spills out in music, food and festivals that are tinged with a special cultural heritage that dates from the 1600s in coastal Canada.

You probably know the basic story. Early French colonists in the Canadian maritime provinces, Acadia, became unwelcome in their new homes when the British took over Canada in the early 1700s. The British solution to the French-speaking Catholics on their new turf was wholesale expulsion.

The Acadians were deposited along the Eastern Seaboard and even in the West Indies. Louisiana, with its own French Catholic heritage, became a subsequent destination, and the Acadians found space there, particularly west of New Orleans, where they farmed, trapped, fished and maintained their identity, although “Acadian” became “Cajun” along the way.

The Cajun region remained largely isolated from much of the evolving American culture for many decades. World War I, which took Cajun doughboys out of the bayous, was seen as the first wholesale opening of the French-speaking, fun-loving, close-to-the-land culture.

The distinctiveness of Cajun country remains vibrant, and Lafayette, population 128,000, is the hub city for an area dotted with many small communities.

Festive Environment

Lafayette rocks during two annual cultural festivals. Autumn fun is at Festivals Acadiens et Creoles, October 10-13, with two musical stages, the Bayou Food Festival, art shows, craft displays and a “fais do do,” or dance. The fest’s authenticity is proven at its opening ceremony, not a ribbon-cutting but rather, a boudin-cutting. Boudin is the ultimate Cajun snack food, a slightly spicy sausagelike treat with multiple recipes that generate ongoing debates about which is best.

“This is when you can experience all aspects of our culture,” said Ben Berthelot, executive director of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Bureau, noting that festival activity is in the heart of the city at Girard Park next to the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. The university, by the way, has a swamp right on campus, which allows you to see alligators and other critters without leaving the city.

The Festival International de Louisiane is an even bigger blast every spring; in 2020, it will be held April 22-16. Organizers call it “the largest international music and arts festival in the United States, with a special emphasis on the connection between Acadiana and the Francophone world.” Annual attendance is more than 300,000, and musical artists come from more than 20 countries.

Cajun Demonstration

Though the two festivals are short-term targets for cultural immersion, there’s a year-round — and quieter — way to get a Cajun baptism. That’s at a living-history attraction called Vermilionville. It’s a representation of a village from 1765 to 1890 that features 19 restored and reproduced buildings. Real people bring it to life.

Stroll around, and you’ll meet Cajun accordion player Jules Guidry, weaver and spinner Brenda LaLonde, woodcarver Cliff Mire, fiddle player D’Jalma Garnier and many others who know the folkways and folktales of the region.

Be sure to patronize La Cuisine de Maman, or Mama’s Kitchen, a restaurant where excellent gumbo competes for attention with chicken and sausage jambalaya, crawfish etouffee, shrimp etouffee and other temptations.

Seating is in the restaurant’s main room or on a glass-enclosed porch that overlooks Bayou Vermilion. If you time it right, you’ll see a traditionally built bateau glide by with passengers out to explore Bayou Vermilion. A Vermilionville restoration specialist built the boat.

Saturdays are especially known for music because of a free Cajun jam session that Vermilionville and the Cajun French Music Association organize. Fiddle and accordion are guaranteed, and as the literature says, there are “no amps, no filter, just pure Cajun music from the heart.”

Tastes and Tunes

Music and food are basic ingredients in virtually every Cajun recipe for fun. Restaurants such as Prejean’s, where a 14-foot-long alligator named Big Al rules in the middle of the dining room, and Randol’s have great reputations for boiled crawfish, crawfish etouffee, gumbo and wild game dishes and for live Cajun bands and dance floors where you can work off some calories.

The club entertainment scene in Lafayette is substantial, too, and the Blue Moon Saloon is a prime example. Music, cold beer and dancing are a nightly mix.

“Live music is everywhere in Lafayette,” the CVB’s Berthelot said. “I could hear a different band every night of the week if I had the energy.”

Another peek into the music scene can be had at Martin’s Accordions. Delve only slightly into the region’s musical heritage, and you’ll learn distinctions between pure Cajun music and zydeco music. Cajun music emphasizes fiddles and t-fers, or triangles; zydeco rocks with accordions and the vest frottoir, an over-the-front percussion instrument that resembles an old-fashioned washboard. Martin’s has been making beautifully decorated accordions for more than 30 years, and group tours are available.

Culinary Exploration

All visits to Lafayette circle back to food, and Marie Ducote-Comeaux can be your guide. Her Cajun Food Tours business was a hit from its start in 2012. In a previous life, she was a history teacher, but she left the classroom, bought a bus and began showcasing Acadiana’s down-home food scene.

She makes sure you get a taste of Cajun history along with boudin, alligator, gumbo, cracklins, fried seafood and, maybe, Cajun bread pudding, too. Let’s just say she’s a concierge for the region’s culture and restaurants alike. A tour visits five restaurants: places such as Don’s Seafood, Poor Boy’s Riverside Inn, Poupart’s Bakery, Johnson’s Boucaniere and T-Coon’s, where Monday’s plate lunch special is smothered rabbit.

“A tour, and you get to eat too? How cool is that!” she said, laughingly explaining the core of her business model. “Don’t eat before you come, and wear your stretchy pants.”

A few hours with Ducote-Comeaux verifies that Lafayette is one happy place. And she can prove that by teaching you how the locals pronounce Lafayette.

Say “LAUGH-ah-ette,” and you’ll fit right in.