Cajun Country

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Stephen Finn / Dreamstime.com

Crescent city connection bridge with New Orleans skyline

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.

Day two: Lafayette to Eunice and back, 130 miles

From Lafayette, take I-49 north to Opelousas and U.S. 190 west to Eunice. First stop on Saturday is the free 9 a.m. to noon jam session at the Savoy Music Center. Marc Savoy is an accordionist with the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band. He also makes accordions, and on Saturdays he opens his shop for a jam that draws the locals for miles around. Skilled players set the pace; to join in as an amateur, do so quietly from the audience.

Get to Savoy's early, and then connect to Route 13 eight miles north to Fred's Lounge in little Mamou. The town calls itself the "Cajun music capital of the world." On Saturdays (9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.), Fred's becomes a Cajun dance hall-adults only-with a live radio broadcast on KVPI-AM/1050. (Tune in on your way.) The place looks like a dive, but it's one of the hallowed halls of Cajun music, packed with locals two-stepping on the tiny dance floor. A bar drink is the price of admission; we bought Bloody Marys for $3 apiece.

Double back to Eunice and check out a trio of attractions (no fee at any): the Cajun Music Hall of Fame & Museum, the Eunice Museum (to learn about the region's rowdy Mardi Gras), and the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center, another unit of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park.

North of the swamplands, the prairie spawned Cajun cowboys called vachers, whose story is told at the cultural center. Saturdays at 3 p.m. the center stages an hour-long Cajun-music concert, and volunteers teach dances like the basic two-step. If you want more music, catch the live Cajun Radio & TV Show ($5), broadcast from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Eunice's Liberty Theater (S. 2nd and Park Ave., 337/457-7389). Return to Lafayette via Route 13 south and I-10 east. If all this hasn't sated your desire for Cajun music, dine at Bubba Frey's on Saturday nights, six miles south of Eunice (29017 Crowley Eunice Hwy., 337/550-1992; shrimp platter, $10). Local tourist information: 877/948-8004, cajuntravel.com.

Day three: Lafayette to New Orleans via St. Martinville and New Iberia, 200 miles

Nearby on the Bayou Teche, the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site ($2) occupies a lovely park filled with moss-heavy oaks. There's an eighteenth-century, rustic Cajun cabin of the type used by the first arrivals, and a nineteenth-century Acadian farmstead, Maison Olivier, which includes a family home, outdoor kitchen, barn, and slave quarters.

Continue south on Route 31 to New Iberia, where you can learn about Cajun rice culture at the Konriko Company Store ($3.25), America's oldest rice mill (or so they say). On a 40-minute tour (except Sundays), you'll see rice cakes and other products being made and packaged. For details about famed Tabasco pepper sauce, a Cajun favorite, take Route 329 to Avery Island and the Tabasco factory (no fee). Jungle Garden ($6), located on the salt island rising above the surrounding marshes where the peppers for the sauce are grown, earns its name with azaleas, camellias, and lots of exotic trees.

Return to U.S. 90 and proceed past Morgan City to near Houma, connecting to Route 20 north to Thibodaux. The final stop is the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center (no fee), a third part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. The center recalls the life of the Acadians who settled in the swamplands. Among the items on display are various fishing skiffs and a bit of dried Spanish moss. The ubiquitous moss was put to good use as mattress stuffing, wadding for early firearms, protective cover for seeds, and even toilet tissue.

Then follow Route 1 east to U.S. 90 to New Orleans. At Boutte, take I-310 north to I-10 east to the airport to catch a late-afternoon flight home. One thing's for certain: You'll never look at those moss-draped oaks the same way again.

Making plans

For a week's car rental for a mid-July trip, National (nationalcar.com) and Alamo (alamo.com) quoted $130 for a compact car with unlimited mileage. Next was Thrifty (thrifty.com) at $145.

Festivals with food, music, and a fais do-do (street dance) are scheduled nearly every week somewhere in Cajun Country. They're great fun at minimal cost. The Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission (800/346-1958, lafayettetravel.com) publishes an events calendar.

In Lafayette, pick up a free copy of the Times of Acadiana (337/289-6300, timesofacadiana.com), a tabloid weekly distributed at motels, restaurants, and other tourist sites. Its calendar lists places and dates to hear music in Cajun Country. In one issue, I counted more than 100 venues for the week.

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