ROAD TRIP

Drive Through Cajun Country

Reader Eliana Osborn and her friend were psyched for the zydeco music and plantations of Cajun country. But who knew they'd soon be eating alligator?

By Eliana Osborn, Tuesday, Feb 24, 2009, 12:00 AM

Rosedown Plantation

Rosedown Plantation

(Chris Granger)

DAY 1

When Jenny and I were roommates in London 10 years ago, we vagabonded around Europe and laughed our way through sketchy hotels, impossible-to-follow directions, and more than one visit to a foreign hospital. Since then, we've both married and had kids, and we now live 700 miles apart—she's an English teacher in Utah, I'm a stay-at-home mom in Yuma, Ariz. We were due for another grand adventure. We'd been longing to see the old South, so we set our sights on sultry southern Louisiana.

We kick off the trip at Baton Rouge's Capitol Park, a cluster of green spaces and government buildings in the heart of downtown. Sandra at the Welcome Center gives us our first big hit of Southern hospitality, sending us on our way with maps, a local's perspective on politics (Governor Bobby Jindal is "young and good-looking"), and food recommendations. The self-guided tour of the area—about a mile square—seems just our speed: I'm four months pregnant and not moving quickly.

The 34-storyLouisiana State Capitolbuilding is famous for being the tallest state capitol in the U.S. It was here that senator and presidential hopeful Huey Long was assassinated in 1935—one of the bullet holes is still visible in a marble pillar. At the observation deck on the 27th floor, Jenny and I stare out at a lot of riverboat casinos. But what's impressive to us desert Westerners is the size of the Mississippi River. I live in a place that gets just a few inches of rain a year, so this looks like an awful lot of water.

Across the capitol grounds is the newLouisiana State Museum, its mirrored-glass façade a nice contrast to the capitol building's art deco design. Jenny and I are particularly intrigued by the full-size shrimp boat, à la Forrest Gump, and the collection of memorabilia that details how native son Louis Armstrong went from juvenile delinquent to U.S. jazz ambassador. Our next stop, a few blocks away, is theOld Louisiana State Capitol, where we marvel at the stained-glass dome until we're dizzy. Back outside, we're blanketed by the humidity; it's time to head to Sandra's top recommendation.

Poor Boy Lloyd'sis the real thing: People are spilling in from the surrounding office buildings. We order boiled-shrimp po'boys at the counter, snag the last table, and savor the air-conditioning. When our sandwiches arrive, they're overflowing with fresh, juicy shrimp, and we're happy campers; if only we'd ordered the plate-size onion rings.

It takes us about an hour to drive toPointe Coupee Bed & Breakfast, in New Roads, where we're spending the night. After we check in, husband-and-wife owners

Jim and Sam McVea shoo us out the door so we can get to their favorite restaurant,Ma Mama's Kitchen, before it closes. The food is worth the rush: seafood gumbo, softshell crabs, and something magical called seafood boulettes, crab and shrimp cakes served over a spicy risotto. Back at the B&B, we feel like we're staying in grandma's spare room, with straw hats, framed lace, and more floral patterns than I can count.

LODGING
Pointe Coupee Bed & Breakfast
405 Richey St., New Roads, 800/832-7412, manornetworks.com, $145

FOOD
Poor Boy Lloyd's
201 Florida St., Baton Rouge, 225/387-2271, po'boy $6

Ma Mama's Kitchen
124 W. Main St., New Roads, 225/618-2424, entrées from $12

ACTIVITIES

Louisiana State Capitol
State Capitol Dr., Baton Rouge, 225/342-7317, free

Louisiana State Museum–Baton Rouge
660 N. Fourth St., Baton Rouge, 225/342-5428, lsm.crt.state.la.us, $6

Old Louisiana State Capitol
100 North Blvd., Baton Rouge, 800/488-2968, free

DAY 2

Sam serves us a great breakfast of buttery biscuits and Creole grits made with bacon, tomatoes, red peppers, and onions. The house is overstuffed with knickknacks, but that same hoarding instinct is fun and eclectic in the gardens, with their wide-leafed Asian paper trees, wind chimes, and pretty pieces of ironwork. There's even a tiny pool, and Jenny and I are tempted to jump in despite the fact that a downpour has coincided with our tour.

We're planning to check out the plantations in St. Francisville, across the Mississippi River, and are thrilled to learn that the ferry costs only $1 round trip. When we get off the boat, we can't resist doing a little shopping at a boutique calledGrandmother's Buttons. The shop mixes random gag gifts—denture ice-cube trays—with jewelry made from antique buttons. Jenny splurges on a pair of silver-button earrings, and I covet them for the rest of our trip.

Rosedown Plantation, a couple of miles outside of town, is one of the largest plantations in the state and the one all the locals have told us not to miss. It covers nearly 400 acres and offers a stunning look into the world of the upper classes. We skip the guided tour and walk the grounds on our own. I can't get over the 200-year-old oaks with Spanish moss dripping from their branches—a far cry from my backyard cacti.

TheDays Inn and Suitesin Eunice isn't exactly full of character, but we don't mind; we're in town for a purpose.Rendez-Vous des Cajuns, a gathering of local bands, has been taking place every Saturday night at the town's Liberty Theater for 22 years. We hear two Cajun ensembles, each consisting of a fiddle, an accordion, drums, a guitar, and a bass. The best part of the night is watching couples dance in front of the stage. Some are beginners, but most are graceful older pairs who circle in perfect time. From what I can tell, they're doing a fast waltz; too bad Jenny and I don't have the moves.

Horace Trahan, the lead singer of one of the bands, talked to us before the show and mentioned he'd be performing later atNick's on 2nd, down the block, so we make it our dinner destination. We sit outside in a lovely courtyard with fountains and greenery and decide to start with the fried alligator bites. Jenny isn't too keen on eating the reptiles she was just photographing, but she's a trouper and gives them a shot. Thumbs-up: They have a great kicky batter. My entrée, red snapper with seafood au gratin, is huge and rich. We're stuffed, but we cap off the meal with a phenomenal multi­layered chocolate cake. As we head out, some guys in a zydeco group try to convince us to stay. These Southern men have a whole different charm than what we're used to.

LODGING
Days Inn and Suites Eunice
1251 E. Laurel Ave., Hwy. 190E, Eunice, 337/457-3040, daysinn.com, from $83

FOOD
Nick's on 2nd
123 S. Second St., Eunice, 337/457-4921, nickson2nd.com, entrées from $13

ACTIVITIES
Rosedown Plantation
12501 Hwy. 10, St. Francisville, 225/635-3332, $10

Rendez-Vous des Cajuns
Liberty Theater, 200 Park Ave., Eunice, 337/457-7389, $5

SHOPPING
Grandmother's Buttons
9814 Royal St., St. Francisville, 800/580-6941, grandmothersbuttons.com

DAY 3

After staying up in bed talking in the dark—the best part about any girls' trip—we get a late start. In Kaplan, we spotComeaux's French Market, where we redeem ourselves nutritionally from all that fried food with some plums that turn out to be perfect.

Our destination is Avery Island, home to my husband's favorite condiment: Tabasco sauce. At theMcIlhenny Company Tabasco Factory, we learn that mashed-up red peppers age for three years in whiskey barrels from Jack Daniel's. I've been to the Jack Daniel's Distillery in Tennessee, and this bit of trivia strikes me as recycling at its best.

The 20-minute tour leaves us wondering what to do with the rest of our day. We decide to check outAcadian Village, a re-creation that depicts the life of early French settlers. The settlement is a bit worse for the wear (to be honest, it reminds me of deserted houses in horror movies). The only thing of real interest is the Doctor's Museum, with medicines and tools from the turn of the 20th century—which make us very grateful to be living in the 21st century.

Driving intoRip Van Winkle Gardenslifts our spirits. Formerly the private residence of stage actor Joseph Jefferson, famous for playing Rip Van Winkle, the 25-acre estate now has a B&B with such extraordinary semitropical plantings that people come for day tours. Our room is in Cook's Cottage, and we're the only guests tonight; we feel like lords—or rather ladies—of the manor.

For our last meal, we decide it's time to start curing our Cajun seafood addiction.Alesi Pizza House, according to the menu, has been in business for more than 50 years, and our waiter seems very proud of that fact. We go for the house specialty: cheese, bacon, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, and bell peppers on a thin crust. It's some of the best pizza either of us has ever had.

Our cottage back at the B&B comes with a smorgasbord of goodies—wine, cheese, and crackers, plus muffins and cereal for breakfast—and only one channel on the television. Anywhere else this might be annoying, but here it feels perfect. We settle into bed, munching on microwave popcorn, watching the lone channel, and savoring the last night of our trip. With a baby coming soon, I won't be able to travel again for a while. Still, on the way to the airport the next morning, I hear myself pressuring Jenny to commit to our next adventure.

LODGING

Rip Van Winkle Gardens
5505 Rip Van Winkle Rd., New Iberia, 337/359-8525, ripvanwinklegardens.com, $150

FOOD
Comeaux's French Market 301 W. Veteran's Memorial Dr., Kaplan, 337/643-6759

Alesi Pizza House
4110 Johnston St., Lafayette, 337/984-1823, pizza from $9

ACTIVITIES
McIlhenny Company Tabasco Factory
Hwy. 329, Avery Island, 337/365-8173, tabasco.com, free

Acadian Village
200 Greenleaf Dr., Lafayette, 337/981-2364, acadianvillage.org, $8

FINDING THE WAY

The airport in Baton Rouge is about eight miles from the launch point for this trip, but you'll probably have better luck finding cheap flights into New Orleans. From there, jump on Interstate 10, which leads northwest to Baton Rouge. The drive takes about an hour and a half.

SULTRY SOUTHERN LOUISIANA