When people think of Louisiana, this – and New Orleans – is the image that comes to mind: miles of bayou, sawdust-strewn shacks, a unique take on French and lots of good food. Welcome to Cajun Country, also called Acadiana for the French settlers exiled from L'Acadie (now Nova Scotia, Canada) by the British in 1755. Cajuns are the largest French-speaking minority in the USA, and while you may not hear French spoken at the grocery store, it's still present in radio shows, church services and the sing-song lilt of local English accents.
It's largely a socially conservative region, but the Cajuns also have a well-deserved reputation for hedonism. It's hard to find a bad meal here; jambalaya (a rice-based dish with tomatoes, sausage and shrimp) and crawfish étouffée are prepared slowly with pride, and if folks aren't fishing, they're probably dancing. Don't expect to sit on the sidelines…allons danson (let's dance).
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Cajun Country.
This section of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, south of New Orleans near the town of Marrero (and Crown Point), provides the easiest access to the dense swamplands that ring New Orleans. The 8 miles of boardwalk trails are a stunning way to tread lightly through the swamp, but sadly, the area's wildlife – which does include plenty of alligators – can be tough to spot due to the proliferation of invasive water hyacinth.
LUMCON? Sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, right? Well, there is science here, but it's all fact, and still fascinating. LUMCON is one of the premier research facilities dedicated to the Gulf of Mexico. At the consortium's DeFelice Marine Center, there are nature trails running through hairy tufts of grassy marsh, several small aquariums, and an observation tower offering unbeatable views of the great swaths of flat, fuzzy wetlands that make up the south Louisiana coast.
A wonderful place to access the natural beauty of Cajun country. The excellent arboretum is fun for kids and informative for adults, and deserves enormous accolades for its open, airy design. Miles of trails extend into the nearby forests, cypress swamps and wetlands. If you can, stay for early evening – the sunsets over the Spanish-moss-draped trees that fringe Lake Chicot are superb.
This excellent National Park Service site is a comprehensive introduction to Cajun culture. The on-site museum gives an overview of Acadian history, but the real draws are the extensive activities schedule and events calendar, which include walking tours, boat tours on the bayou, Cajun music nights (5:30pm to 6:30pm Monday) and Francophone conversation circles (5:30pm to 7pm Tuesday) – it's an experience just to be a fly on the wall for that last engagement.
This tranquil, recreated 19th-century Cajun village wends along the bayou near the airport. Friendly, enthusiastic costumed docents explain Cajun, Creole and Native American history, and local bands or dance-hall-esque events go off on Sunday (1pm to 4pm). Guided boat tours of Bayou Vermilion are also offered at 10:30am Tuesday to Saturday in spring and fall; you can combine a boat tour with a buffet lunch and a visit to Vermilionville for $31.50/27.50 per adult/child.
This lake – a mossy green dollop surrounded by thin trees and cypress trunks – serves as a wonderful, easily accessible introduction to bayou landscapes. A few walking paths, as well as a boardwalk, take visitors over the mirror-reflection sheen of the swamp, while overhead thousands of great and cattle egrets and blue herons perch in haughty indifference.
In 1890 Tabasco founder EA McIlhenny started this bird sanctuary on Avery Island. At Jungle Gardens you can drive or walk through 250 acres of moss-covered live oaks and subtropical jungle flora. There’s an amazing array of waterbirds (especially snowy egrets, which nest here in astounding numbers) as well as turtles and alligators.
Driving here feels a bit like entering Oz. After stopping and waiting for the gate to lift, you drive onto Avery Island – which isn’t really an island, rather a salt dome that extends 8 miles below the surface. The salt mined here goes into Tabasco sauce, as do locally grown peppers (you learn all this during the tour's wonderfully corny intro video).
This grand, Gothic Greek Revival plantation house sits on the banks of – you guessed it – Bayou Teche, a geographic location that adds to its eerie, frozen-in-swamp-time atmosphere. More than 17,000 papers describing the most minute details of the house’s history were left in the attic, making this one of Louisiana's best-documented historic plantations. Tours begin 15 minutes after the hour.