A rollicking road trip through the bayous of Louisiana—bring an appetite and dancing shoes, because this is a party you won't want to miss!
Every Saturday morning at an accordion shop in Eunice, Louisiana, there's a jam session. The musicians, about 20 of them, play virtually nonstop. My wife and I joined the crowd in tapping our toes or keeping beat with a triangle, an instrument most of us know from childhood. One little girl, about eight, caught the rhythm with a pair of spoons. Bound together, the spoons made a clacking sound when slapped against her thigh. As should be obvious by now, this is a journey into another culture; you're as likely to hear Cajun French spoken as English. It's like going overseas, but to a land where everything seems to cost less than at home: A room at a good chain motel goes for under $50 a night for two. A shrimp dinner at Mulate's, a famous Cajun family restaurant and dance hall in Breaux Bridge (which has since closed), costs just $12.95. With the shrimp, you get jambalaya, cole slaw, French fries, garlic bread, and a night of Cajun song and dance.
Cajun Country, made up of 22 southwestern Louisiana parishes, is a lush landscape of woods, swamps, and fields of rice and sugarcane. It's the home of the friendly, fun-loving (and also somewhat shy) descendants of the Acadians. They were a French-speaking, Catholic people who were brutally expelled by the British from their Nova Scotia farms in 1755 and found sanctuary in what was then French Louisiana.
In the early 1900s, Louisiana authorities tried to suppress Cajun culture, banning the use of French in schools. But in recent decades, the Cajuns have repossessed their heritage and display an obvious pride. One major unifying force is Cajun music and dance, which is something of a family affair.
At Mulate's, or any other family dance hall, the youngsters start to dance before their feet touch the floor. When my wife and I first came here, we saw a dad scoop up his infant daughter while the mom picked up their son; the entire family joined in a fancy two-step to a five-piece band. Around the crowded floor they twirled, the youngsters beaming in their parents' arms.
Day one: New Orleans to Lafayette, 150 miles
Either from the city or the airport, the drive initially follows I-10 north, skirting the southwestern edge of massive Lake Pontchartrain and then skimming across a swamp, an eerie blend of beauty and decay. Soon enough, though, you'll leave the interstate for State Route 22/70, a back road winding past sugarcane fields and murky bayous, the local name for a sluggish stream. The region is less than prosperous, and many residences appear to be (at least from the outside) little more than weather-worn shanties.
Follow the signs to the Sunshine Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River; after crossing it, take Route 1 north to White Castle, where you should stop for a tour of Nottoway Plantation (225/545-2730; adults, $10). The 64-room Nottoway is no shanty; it's one of the largest plantation homes in the South. It isn't Cajun, but it would be a shame to pass it by. Of Greek Revival and Italianate style-long balconies and lots of columns-the house was built just before the Civil War by a sugar planter from Virginia. As the story goes, it was saved from destruction by a Northern gunboat officer who had been a guest there before the war.
Continue on Route 1, then take Route 77 north to I-10, picking the interstate up again as it angles west. Rising up on tall stilts, the highway tiptoes across the 595,000-acre Atchafa-laya River Basin, America's largest swamp wilderness. Moss-covered oak and cypress trees stretch into the distance. Two hundred species of birds and an abundance of other wildlife are found here, drawing fishing enthusiasts, nature photographers, and boaters. Stop in at the Bayou Teche Visitors Center (337/332-8500) for information about swamp tours, which are priced from $12 to $25 per person.
Save Mulate's for evening and head into neighboring Lafayette, the capital of Cajun Country. You can get a basic course in Cajun life at the Acadian Cultural Center, part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (no fee). An excellent movie, shown with French subtitles, dramatizes the Acadian exodus from Nova Scotia to Louisiana, and the museum displays examples of early Cajun farm implements, clothing, and housing styles. When my wife picked up a pair of musical spoons in the gift shop, ranger David Domengeaux promptly showed her how to play them, slapping them against his thigh with a fine, rhythmic beat. "I was born doing this," said Domengeaux, who plays in a band in his free time.
Up the road is Vermilionville ($8), where Cajun structures (some historic, others reconstructed) create a typical village of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Visit the school, the church, a four-room home, the barn. Talk to the blacksmith, catch a ride on the muscle-powered ferry, and step into the bakery for a "pig's ear" ($1), a crisp Cajun pastry dripping with honey-like cane sugar.
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