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Push the Boundaries in Louisiana

You could spend a lifetime — not the three hours and 45 minutes that Google maps says is possible — traveling across Louisiana from Slidell to Lake Charles, and you’d have no excuse for ever being bored.

Along 240 miles of Interstate 10 is a world of entertainment, history, music, hurricanes (the cocktail type), food you generally don’t see frequently in other places, and alligators — big alligators.

You can feel the vibes of a jazz trio in the city where that musical form was born; drive for miles just a few feet above a swamp someone must teach you how to pronounce (Atchafalaya); learn how resilient Canadian farmers endured exile in the 1700s to become today’s Cajuns; and maybe toss down a $5 chip to see whether you’re lucky at roulette.

Not that other parts of Louisiana don’t have their attractions, but the collection of cities, towns and crossroad communities on the south side of Louisiana deliver hundreds of ideas for tour itineraries.

New Orleans

New Orleans, of course, could be a destination unto itself. Europeans began poking around in 1542, and French settlement began in 1718. The Spanish were in charge for 40 years, the British wanted in on the deal and then came the Americans. With only a few exceptions — such as the War of 1812’s Battle of New Orleans — it seems there has been a party going on ever since.

One result of New Orleans’ joie de vivre and mix of cultures is jazz music. It sprang up here, and some historians even point to a specific location, Congo Square, where enslaved Africans were able to gather as early as the 1740s for community, dance and music.

The New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park tells that story and even has a jazz band featuring National Park Service rangers. The park’s visitor center is in the French Quarter, just two blocks from Jackson Square. Nearby Preservation Hall is a mecca for traditional jazz and a stretch of just a few blocks on Frenchmen Street has a half-dozen destination jazz clubs to explore.

Mardi Gras, which began as a one-day blast preceding Ash Wednesday and the austerity of Lent, has grown into an entire season of parades and revelry throughout metropolitan New Orleans (to say nothing about similar frivolities in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles and elsewhere).

Even if you’re not around for Mardi Gras season in New Orleans, you can get the sense of the festival’s magnitude at Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, where you can see how the biggest and gaudiest parade floats are built. As a bonus, you get a taste of king cake, too. More year-round Mardi Gras reminders are at the Capitol Park Museum in Baton Rouge and the Mardi Gras Museum of the Imperial Calcasieu, a five-parish region around Lake Charles. That museum owns almost 600 Mardi Gras gala gowns, each costing up to $6,000 and most worn only once.

Cajun Country

As you migrate west on I-10, you get a good look at the initially difficult to pronounce Atchafalaya (uh-CHAF-uh-LIE-uh) Basin as you enter Acadiana, a multi-parish region otherwise known as Cajun country. Lafayette (population 121,000) is the hub of Acadiana, but stop for a swamp tour before getting there.

McGee’s Swamp Tours in Henderson has been introducing groups to the Atchafalaya Swamp for decades, explaining how cypress trees grow, pointing out herons, eagles and other birds and keeping an eye out for alligators — because everybody wants to see alligators in Louisiana. The Atchafalaya is bigger than Florida’s Everglades and is America’s largest river swamp. McGee boat tours are enlightening instead of ominous and thrilling rather than scary. You can float along on a traditional excursion boat or roar through the swamp on an airboat.

St. Martinville, another stop before Lafayette, is a small town, but a great place to grasp an enormous story. It is here that a tree and a poem help explain the origins of Cajun culture.

The poem is “Evangeline,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s tale of young lovers torn apart when the imperial British pushed colonists of French heritage out of Atlantic Canada and into exile. The refugees called it the Great Upheaval or the Great Expulsion, and many made it to south Louisiana, where the Acadian label eventually became Cajun. The time period was 1755-64.

The tree is a sprawling live oak along Bayou Teche, where the star-crossed lovers supposedly reunited. Today, this story would be called historical fiction, but it serves the purpose of explaining why you hear lovely Cajun-French accents from the refugees’ descendants.


The exiled nascent Cajuns were hardscrabble farmers who learned to survive in a landscape that was far from ideal and very unlike their Canadian homes. They built pirogues (narrow, shallow-draft canoes) to navigate the slow-moving rivers (bayous) and learned to live on nature’s bounty (crawfish, waterfowl, fish and oysters), all the while celebrating family and good times.

More of their story comes to life in Lafayette at a year-round attraction called Vermilionville.

Through 19 restored and reproduced buildings, Vermilionville represents an Acadian village from 1765-1890. Its staff of woodcarvers, weavers, spinners and musicians make Vermilionville especially vibrant. Vermilionville can be filling, too, when you sample authentic Cajun recipes at La Cuisine de Maman (Mama’s Kitchen), a restaurant where excellent gumbo competes for attention with chicken and sausage jambalaya, crawfish etouffee, shrimp etouffee and other temptations.

A glass-enclosed porch at Mama’s Kitchen overlooks Bayou Vermilion, where you may see a traditionally built bateau full of Vermilionville passengers glide by. A Vermilionville restoration specialist built the boat.

Cajun food heritage is the reason former history teacher Marie Ducote abandoned the classroom and began carting visitors around Lafayette and the region on her Cajun Food Tours. A tour with Ducote hits several restaurants and food outlets and includes the ultimate Cajun snack food, boudin. That’s a mildly spicy rice-and-meat sausage, whose makers don’t share their recipes. For a true boudin experience, drop off I-10 at Scott and pick from a half-dozen boudin restaurants. Scott calls itself the Boudin Capital of the World.

Lafayette delivers festival activity throughout the year, but especially notable ones happen in spring and fall.

The Festival International de Louisiane is a five-day celebration every April that fills downtown with music, dancing and food. 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 almost two dozen countries.

Come October, it is the four-day Festivals Acadiens et Creoles that make all the noise. It includes two musical stages, art shows, craft displays, a fais do do (dance) and its own food event called the Bayou Food Festival. The Bayou Food Festival starts not with a ribbon-cutting but with a boudin-cutting.

Lake Charles

More cultural mixing is farther along I-10 in Southwest Louisiana, where Lake Charles is the big city (population 85,000). It’s almost to Texas, which helps explain the addition of cowboy influences to the region’s Creole and Cajun flavors. Proof of the mixture is that the sports teams at the local university, McNeese State, are the Cowboys and Cowgirls. Their mascot is a cowboy named Rowdy, while the city’s own mascot is Gumbo Gator.

Lake Charles offers a truly surprising pair of major attractions: casinos and yet another chance to see nature in the raw, including alligators, along the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road.

Even for groups that aren’t into gaming, three resort casinos add an extra dose of first-class rooms, entertainment, dining and sports to Lake Charles. There are 2,350 guest rooms spread between the L’Auberge Casino Resort, the Golden Nugget Lake Charles and the Horseshoe Lake Charles.

The Contraband Bayou Golf Club at the L’Auberge is the only public Tom Fazio course in Louisiana, and the Golden Nugget offers its 7,000-yard championship Country Club Course. A boardwalk links the L’Auberge and the Golden Nugget.

Outside the city is a natural treasure, the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, that takes you on as much of a 180-mile driving route as you care to explore. It goes deep into what is called the “Louisiana Outback.” It’s a quiet land of freshwater marshes, saltwater marshes, cypress swamps, coastal prairies and beaches — a variety of terrains you might not expect in one location.

This is one of the top nature photography and birding areas in the country (more than 400 species migrate through here), and it’s unusual enough that having a naturalist bring it into focus is a bonus.

Companies such as Grosse Savanne Eco Tours have experts with that expertise, and they can help you spot pink-billed roseate spoonbills, herons, sandhill cranes, kingfishers, turtles, otters, muskrats, deer and, yes, alligators. Big alligators.