September 1, 2006
By ALICIA AULT
LAFAYETTE is the geographic and cultural center of French-speaking Louisiana, and the jumping-off point for exploring the roots of the state?s distinctly foreign feel. The town proper reflects little of the region?s legacy, which also includes Spanish planters, Haitian and African slaves, American Indians and, later, waves of German, Italian and other immigrants. But Louisiana?s essence is a short drive away, with plantation country to the south, the Atchafalaya Basin to the east and the prairie towns and musical and gastronomical incubators of Opelousas, Eunice, Ville Platte and Mamou to the north. Home to hundreds of oil- and natural-gas-related businesses, Lafayette Parish?s fortunes are rising, driven by oil profits, the quest for new fuel sources and the rebuilding of offshore rigs damaged by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. The region has added 1,500 hotel rooms in the last four years, according to the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, and 15,000 residents, mostly people from New Orleans with Acadian roots who arrived after Katrina. Lafayette — 129 miles from New Orleans — is traditionally even more laid back than the Big Easy. Handwritten signs sitting in shop windows that declare ?gone fishing? should be taken literally.
1) WHY FIDDLES SOB
Get acclimated at the Acadian Cultural Center of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (501 Fisher Road, 337-232-0789; www.nps.gov/jela), a small National Park Service-operated museum across from the Lafayette Regional Airport. The exhibits may be a bit dated, but the story — a rich culture built on forced migration to a strange land where hunting, fishing, making music and dancing still underpin much of life — is timeless. Sit back in the air-conditioned movie theater and take in the 40-minute saga of the Acadians? expulsion from Nova Scotia in the 1750?s.
2) BAPTISM OF FIRE
Start your culinary tour at Prejean?s Restaurant (3480 Interstate 49, North Lafayette; 337-896-3247), a semi-haute tribute to that South Louisiana trinity of salt, fat and deep-frying. ?If you?re on a diet, you came to the wrong place,? chirped our waiter, Sebastian. Prejean?s has the scent of a tourist trap, with a 14-foot, 600-pound alligator watching over the dining room, but the food is the real deal. Start with the crawfish enchilada ($6.99), a baked cheese-covered tortilla rolled in a deathly rich crawfish-tail-studded velouté and move on to the blackened catfish étouffée, a moist fillet topped with a pile of roux-covered crawfish tails ($17.99). Most diners stagger out with a parting gift — a box of leftovers.
3) ROOTS AND BEER
Since opening in 2002, the Blue Moon Saloon (215 East Convent Street, 877-766-2583; www.bluemoonpresents.com) has grown from a quirky youth hostel to a premier place to listen to local Cajun, zydeco and swamp pop, as well as national roots acts like the Iguanas and the Weary Boys. The stage is tucked under the Blue Moon Guesthouse?s tin-roofed back porch, where dancers step and swirl on the surprisingly slick boards. The tiki-shack-like main bar dispenses cold beer and tropical cocktails with equal aplomb to the hip 20- to 30-something crowd that perches in the nooks and crannies that give the space such a homey feel. Cover charges range from $5 to $10.
4) BOOGIE-WOOGIE OMELETS
After eight years, it?s no longer a novelty, but the zydeco breakfast at Café Des Amis in Breaux Bridge (140 East Bridge Street, 337-332-5273) still packs them in every Saturday morning from 8:30 until the band stops at 11. A former state legislator, Dickie Breaux, holds court at a table by the kitchen, surveying couples jammed onto the postage-stamp-size dance floor and the wait staff flying by with mimosas ($4) and eggs Begnaud ($7.95), two eggs on a grilled biscuit covered with crawfish étouffée, and accompanied by cheese grits flecked with andouille.
5) BIRDS ARE THE WORD
Three miles from Breaux Bridge lies one of the largest wading-bird rookeries in North America, a 2,800-acre swamp known as Lake Martin in the Cypress Island Preserve. Each spring, some 20,000 herons, ibises, roseate spoonbills and other species nest in the buttonwood bushes and cypress trees, staying until July. Birds and other wildlife can be seen just about any time of year, though, and Lake Martin is a haven for birdwatchers, boaters, fishermen and hunters. The lake is the focus of frequent debate about its stewardship — the Nature Conservancy manages some areas. Last spring, something spooked the birds, leading literally thousands to abandon egg-filled nests.
6) A CAJUN HOME COMPANION
Another Saturday tradition in Cajun country is the live radio show, top left, broadcast from the Liberty Theater in Eunice, ?Rendez-Vous Des Cajuns.? The broadcast, on KRVS-FM 88.7 (www.krvs.org), began in 1987 when the Liberty, a former 1920?s vaudeville theater, was restored. Munch popcorn and listen to Barry Jean Ancelet?s half-French, half-English patter, peppered with Cajun in-jokes, or take a twirl on the wooden floor that separates the audience from the stage. We two-stepped and waltzed to Courtney Granger and His Darling Buds, giving us the bragging rights that we?ve danced on Cajun radio. The doors open at 4 p.m., and the show runs from 6 to 7:30 p.m.. The admission is $5. (337-457-7389; www.eunice-la.com/libertyschedule.html).
7) SOHO IN GRAND COTEAU
Near a convent on Grand Coteau?s main street is an understated restaurant whose ambience somehow suggests a cross between a quiet country inn and Manhattan chic. The polished wood floors and oversize Kodachrome-rich photographs of local flora and fauna are the perfect backdrop to the sophisticated Louisiana-rooted offerings at Catahoula?s (234 Martin Luther King Drive, 337-662-2275). The meals are still heavily influenced by the fat-salt-deep-fry trinity. We started with the sweet potato jolivette ($8) — a flash-fried sweet potato grit cake covered with crawfish tails soaking in a smoky, wine-dark, bacon-infused reduction — followed by a savory crabmeat cheesecake ($24), a Frisbee-size crab pie baked in cheese custard, and seafood extraordinaire ($28), a buffet of shrimp, ahi tuna, gravlax and crabmeat. The wine list is serious and deep.
8) RED-HOT MUSIC, TOO
There is never a shortage of live music in and around Lafayette. Head downtown to the growing strip of bars and nightclubs clustered on Jefferson Street, including Nitetown (524 Jefferson Street, 337-593-8551; www.nitetowndowntown.com), which had Marcia Ball on our visit, and 307 Downtown (307 Jefferson Street, 337-262-0307; www.307downtown.com), which had two New Orleans groups, the Hot 8 Brass Band and Big Sam?s Funky Nation. Grant Street Dancehall (113 West Grant Street, 337-237-8513; www.grantstreetdancehall.com) has just reopened and is again booking swamp pop, blues, Cajun, zydeco and national acts like Ani DiFranco. Randol?s Restaurant & Cajun Dancehall (2320 Kaliste Saloom Road, 337-981-7080; www.randols.com) is host mostly to Cajun music. For zydeco check the full listings and directions provided by the Patsy Report (http://thepatsyreport.arnb.org/).
9) SCALAWAGS AND ALLIGATORS
It would be a crime against Louisiana nature to leave without getting to the Atchafalaya Basin. Covering 595,000 acres, the Atchafalaya is home to myriad plants and animals, including the inevitable alligator, at least 250 species of birds and the endangered Louisiana black bear. You?ll find an affable guide in Coerte Voorhies, a semiretired geologist and Lafayette native who started his Atchafalaya Experience in 1990 (tours $45; 338 North Sterling Street, 337-233-7816). Mr. Voorhies — a man?s man straight out of Hemingway — can summon an osprey with his birdcalls and entertain for hours with yarns about Louisiana scalawags.
10) MIGHTY FINE MUDBUGS
Watch the beehive of water-oriented activities from the porch overlooking the Atchafalaya at McGee?s Landing (1337 Henderson Levee Road, Breaux Bridge; 337-228-2384) as you chow down on boiled crawfish ($12.99 for 3 pounds). Coming from the mid-Atlantic, we knew all about picking crabs, but not the art of freeing a mudbug?s meat. Our waitress, Chrysta Collet, gave us a quick lesson, but we were poor students.
11) HONKY-TONK SABBATH
You won?t stay parched for long at this honky-tonk. Once named one of the 50 best bars in America by Men?s Journal, Angelle?s Whiskey River Landing (Henderson Levee Road, Henderson, 337-228-8567) is equally well known for a dance style — the Whiskey River Jitterbug — as for its occasionally rough-and-tumble crowds. Several hundred people, many in their finest Western wear, pack the low-slung plywood building for the Sunday afternoon dances, which feature either zydeco — usually Geno Delafose — or Cajun. Dancing is encouraged on all surfaces, bars included. You?ll be humming all the way back to the airport.
Visitors to Lafayette can choose from among three airports: Lafayette Regional, Baton Rouge Ryan (52 miles away) or New Orleans Louis Armstrong (129 miles away). Fares from New York are cheaper into Baton Rouge (about $250 round trip) and New Orleans (under $200), compared with about $350 into Lafayette. A rental car is a must.
Most of the major hotel chains have outlets downtown and around crossroads of Interstates 10 and 49 north of Lafayette. For a more intimate stay, accompanied by lessons in history, culture and the current political landscape, try Bois Des Chênes Bed & Breakfast (338 North Sterling Street, 337-233-7816; www.hometown.aol.com/boisdchene/bois.htm), owned by the tour guide Coerte Voorhies and his wife, Marjorie, who also have a side business collecting and restoring antiques.
Only eight miles from Lafayette in Breaux Bridge is Maison Des Amis (111 Washington Street, 337-507-3399; www.maisondesamis.com), a four-room Creole cottage-style bed-and-breakfast overlooking the Bayou Teche. Rooms are $100 to $125.