This area, also called Acadiana (though you won’t find that on the maps) has a history and culture unique in America. It consists of a rough triangle of Louisiana made up of 22 parishes (counties), from St. Landry at the top of the triangle to the Gulf of Mexico at its base. Lafayette is the unofficial “capital” of Acadiana.
Tuning in to Cajun Country
Our standard soundtrack for the drive from New Orleans to Cajun Country begins with the excellent WWOZ 90.7 FM (to which we’re assiduously tuned while in the city). After an hour on the road, static takes over, signaling the unwrapping of whatever new music we’ve recently purchased from Louisiana Music Factory. In about half a CD’s time, we can usually pull in KBON 101.1 FM for some rollickin’ Cajun and zydeco tunes. At that point we know we’ve arrived, as much in geography as mood.
Meet the Cajuns
The Cajun’s history is a sad one, but it produced a people and a culture well worth knowing. In the early 1600s, colonists from France began settling the southeastern coast of Canada in a region of Nova Scotia they named Acadia. They developed a peaceful agricultural society based on the values of a strong Catholic faith, deep love of family, and respect for their relatively small landholdings.
This pastoral existence was isolated from Europe for nearly 150 years, until Acadia became the property of the British. The king’s representatives tried to force the Acadians to pledge allegiance to the British Crown, renounce Catholicism, and embrace the king’s Protestantism, but for decades they steadfastly refused. Finally, the British governor of the region sent in troops. Villages were burned and families separated as ships were loaded to deport them. A 10-year diaspora began, scattering them to France, England, America’s East Coast, and the West Indies. Hundreds of lives were lost to the terrible conditions onboard.
In 1765, Bernard Andry brought 231 men, women, and children to reestablish a permanent home in Louisiana, a natural destination due to its strong French background. These industrious settlers worked the swampy, wildlife-infested lands, building levees, draining fields, and planting many of the farms you still see here.
Much of this essay was provided by author, historian, and two-time Grammy nominee Ann Allen Savoy, who, along with her husband, Marc (an acclaimed accordion maker) are members of the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band and several other groups. The Savoys are celebrated keepers of the culture, not least for having spawned a musical dynasty. All four of their talented children are carrying the cultural torch through their own music and art.
The French influence in Louisiana is one of the things that sets the state apart from the rest of the United States. Although French is spoken by many of the older Cajuns (ages 60 and up), most middle-aged Louisianans don’t speak the language. This is partially because knowledge of the French language, from the 1930s on, became associated with a lack of business success or education. Cajun music was considered hokey, and Cajun culture on the whole was denigrated and stigmatized.
Today, Cajun culture has experienced a resurgence of popularity and respect. The young people are emphatically adopting their ancestors’ language, music, recipes, and other traditions and proudly speak with the sharp, bright Cajun accent.
Cajun French is peppered with beautiful old words dating from Louis XIV, unused in France and historically intriguing. It is not a dialect of French, however; many words have been localized (a mosquito can be called a marougouin in one area, a moustique in another, a cousin elsewhere), and “Franglish” is common (“On va revenir right back”—”We’ll be right back”).
Additionally, the fascinating Creole language is still spoken by many black Louisianans. A compilation of French and African dialects, it is quite different from standard French, though Cajuns and black Creoles can speak and understand both languages.
Boudin: Get Linked In
It’s hard to decide which is more important to a Cajun: food or music. In the early days when instruments were scarce, Cajuns held dances to a cappella voices. With roots probably found in medieval France, the strains came in the form of a brisk two-step or a waltz. Traditional groups still play mostly acoustic instruments—a fiddle, an accordion, a triangle, maybe a guitar, and the traditional high, loud wail.
The best place to hear real Cajun music is on someone’s back porch, the time-honored spot for eating some gumbo and listening to several generations of players jamming. If you can’t wrangle an invitation, the local dance halls on any weekend will do just fine. It’s quite the social scene, and there are usually willing dance coaches for newbies (don’t be shy—everyone will be watching the really good dancers; you should, too). The following 3-day Cajun weekend takes you on a well-rounded musical introduction to this region.
Planning Your Trip
You’ll see and do a lot during this 3-day weekend, which includes options to customize the trip based on your own interests. A bit of adventurous meandering on your own will most definitely reward you with more finds.
It’s awfully fun to visit Acadiana during Cajun Mardi Gras, Festival International de Louisiane, Festivals Acadiens et Creoles, or the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival—but any weekend will do. There’s plenty of music throughout the year and often a small festival somewhere in the area. If you find one, you simply have to go: they’re almost guaranteed to be a memorable social, cultural, and musical experience. (We’ll never forget our first Yambilee).
For tons of good detailed information, contact the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission (www.lafayettetravel.com; tel. 800/346-1958 in the U.S., 800/543-5340 in Canada, or 337/232-3737).
If you only have one day, Tours by Isabelle (www.toursbyisabelle.com; tel. 888/223-2093 or 504/391-3544) offers round-trip van tours that will introduce you to the area ($81 and up). Plan in advance, because they may not be offered every day. Each year, Festival Tours International offers a stellar music-focused tour of the area during the 3 days between Jazz Fest weekends.
A Cajun 3-Day WeekendThe suggested itinerary for a 3-day side trip from New Orleans to Cajun Country is designed to introduce you to this marvelous, singular culture. The drive from New Orleans is about 2 ½ to 3 hours, mostly via I-10 (140 miles from New Orleans). If you opt to drive back via U.S. 90, it’s about 170 miles. You’ll be based in Lafayette and going to the smaller towns of Eunice, Mamou, and St. Martinville for a thorough immersion in real Cajun culture. We’ve provided main highway directions; a GPS will help get you to the recommended in-town destinations.
Friday, Day 1: Lafayette
Leave New Orleans early in the day and head for the River Road (Hwy. 18) plantations to tour a plantation. Or head directly to Lafayette. Tip: Try to avoid going through Baton Rouge at afternoon rush hour.
Lafayette is a midsize city of 120,000, with a university (LSU) and plenty of hotel options. But we recommend you opt for an atmospheric B&B instead. Check in at Aaah! T’Frere’s Bed & Breakfast (1905 Verot School Rd., Lafayette; www.tfreres.com; tel. 800/984-9347 or 337/984-9347; doubles $135) or Bois de Chenes Bed & Breakfast (338 N. Sterling St., Lafayette; www.boisdechenes.com; tel. 337/233-7816; doubles $110–$150).
Plan to arrive in time for lunch and go directly to Creole Lunch House (713 12th St., Lafayette; www.facebook.com/creolesstuffedbread; tel. 337/232-9929). Get a couple of stuffed breads and whatever’s been smothered that day (chicken thighs, pork chop, shoe, it’s all gonna be ridiculously good).
Relax or take a drive around town. Visit the Church of St. John the Evangelist (515 Cathedral St., Lafayette; www.saintjohncathedral.org; tel. 337/232-1322), a splendid Dutch Romanesque edifice done in red and white brick, with fine stained glass dating to 1916.
For dinner, try Charley G’s (3809 Ambassador Caffery Pkwy., Lafayette; www.charleygs.com; tel. 337/981-0108), one of Lafayette’s better seafood houses. If you have room, squeeze in a sundae from Borden’s (1103 Jefferson St., Lafayette; www.bordensicecreamshoppe.com; tel. 337/235-9291), an ice cream parlor that’s hardly changed since it scooped its first cone of creamy goodness back in 1940. Otherwise, head back and hit your relaxing veranda and cushy bed—Saturday is a full day.
Saturday, Day 2: Eunice & Mamou
Make the 35-minute drive to the Savoy Music Center, 3 miles east of Eunice (Hwy. 190 E.; www.savoymusiccenter.com; tel. 337/457-9563; Tues–Fri 9am–5pm, closed for lunch noon–1:30pm; Sat jam 9am–noon). On weekdays this working music store sells instruments, equipment, and Marc Savoy’s exquisite, world-renowned, hand-crafted accordions (check out the folk-art aphorisms scrawled on his workshop cabinets, if you can). At the Saturday-morning jam sessions, this nondescript, faded-green building becomes the spiritual center of Cajun music, and an experience not to be missed. Local and visiting musicians young and old gather to savor this unpretentious, unparalleled music and culture. It’s probably the closest thing to that back-porch experience you’ll find. Bring some boudin, an instrument, or just an interest.
Stay and savor this utter authenticity, or cut out (no later than 11:30) to head for the alternate universe known as Fred’s Lounge in Mamou, about 20 minutes north (west on U.S. 190, then right on LA 13; 420 6th St.; tel. 337/468-5411; Sat 8am–2pm; music starts at 9am). This is the other end of the Cajun music spectrum, a small-town bar that for half a century has hosted Saturday daytime dances starting in the early morn. Couples waltz and two-step around the mid-floor bandstand, while 80-something matriarch Tante Sue drinks shots and otherwise presides. It’s pure dance-hall stuff (leaning toward the country-western side of Cajun, but much of it in French), where hardworking locals let loose. And we do mean loose (remember, they started with Coors while you were still on coffee).
Back to Eunice, sample a down-home lunch at Ruby’s (221 W. Walnut Ave., Eunice; tel. 337/550-7665). Get the thick, crisp-fried pork chops if they’re on the day’s menu, and some stewed okra. Revise all that if the crawfish étouffée is on (or just get both; it’s a long break before dinner).
Take in some mellow museum time at the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center (250 W. Park Ave.; www.nps.gov/jela/prairie-acadian-cultural-center-eunice.htm; tel. 337/457-8499; free admission, donations accepted; Wed–Fri 9:30am–4:30pm, Sat 9:30am–6pm), a terrific small collection. Most objects on display were acquired from local families who had owned them for generations, and craft demonstrations, cooking demos, or dance lessons may be in the offing. The most worthy attraction may help dispel the myths and patronizing stereotypes perpetuated by the recent rash of Louisiana-based reality shows.
Each Saturday, when the Cultural Center shuts down, visitors—well, the entire town—migrate next door to the 1924 Liberty Theater (2nd St. and Park Ave.; www.eunice-la.com; tel. 337/457-7389; $5; doors open at 4pm, show 6–7:30pm), where the all-French show “Rendez-vous des Cajuns” kicks off with live music, dancing, and jokey storytelling. Even if you speak non French, you’ll get it. Note:Tickets go on sale at 4pm, so you may need to take a break from the Cultural Center to buy them lest they sell out. If you can’t make it (big mistake), tune in to 1490 on your AM channel (locally) or krvs.org for the stream.
Your dinner bell is probably ringing loudly, and porky delights await you back in Lafayette at Johnson’s Boucaniere (1111 St. John St., Lafayette; www.johnsonsboucaniere.com; tel. 337/269-8878; Tues–Thurs 10am–6pm, Fri 10am–9pm, Sat 7am–9pm). The Johnson family has been smoking meats since 1937, and their brisket (and that crazy grilled cheese and boudin ball sandwich) should not be missed. There are only a few tables, so if you’re weary, call in your order from the road and take it to enjoy back at your B&B.
Still up for more? Check out what’s on at the Blue Moon Saloon (215 E. Convent St., Lafayette; www.bluemoonpresents.com; tel. 337/234-2422; cover $10–$20; Wed–Sat 8pm–close), the city’s premier live music venue. Cajun, zydeco, and all forms of modern alternative roots music brings in the LSU student body and others. For more traditional Cajun music and dancing, two-step to Randol’s (2320 Kaliste Saloom Rd.; www.randols.com; tel. 337/981-7080; Sun–Thurs 5–9:30pm, Fri–Sat 5–10:30pm). You may be joined by fellow tourists on the dance floor, but on Saturday nights you’ll certainly find an easygoing, accessible scene (you can dine here as well, but the dance scene trumps the cuisine). For the adventurous night owl, find your way to the outskirts of town and El Sido’s (1523 N. St. Antoine St., Lafayette; www.facebook.com/pages/El-Sidos-Zydeco-Blues-Club.; tel. 337/235-0647; cover $7–$15; Fri–Sat 9pm–2am, occasionally Sun–Mon during festival weekends). It’s not always easy to find out what’s on at the gritty, long-standing roadhouse, but on Saturday night it’s a good bet it’s zydeco, often with a bluesy or urban edge, and some astoundingly good dancing. It gets going around 10pm.
Sunday, Day 3: Lafayette & St. Martinville
After a relaxing breakfast at your B&B, visit Vermilionville (300 Fisher Rd., off Surrey St.; www.vermilionville.org; tel. 337/233-4077; $10 adults, $8 seniors, $6 students, free for children 5 and under; Tues–Sun 10am–4pm; admission desk closes at 3pm), a Cajun-Creole settlement reconstructed on the bayou’s banks, where costumed staff and craftspeople demonstrate activities of 18th- to 19th-century daily life and musicians jam. While it sounds like a kitschy “Cajunland” theme park, it’s actually quite a good introduction to the culture.
Or take the Atchafalaya Experience, Lafayette (www.theatchafalayaexperience.com; tel. 337/277-4726 or 337/233-7816; $50 ages 13 and up, $25 children 8–12, free for 7 and under [1 per family]; call for times and reservations), an outstanding swamp, bird, and wildlife tour led by virtuoso naturalists who were raised on these bayous (if you’re staying at Bois des Chenes B&B, it’s the men of the house). If you have not yet taken to the waters of the Louisiana swamps, seeing this stunning, primeval, vital ecosystem is a must-do, and these guides are as good as it gets. Bring a hat, sunscreen, water, and insect repellent.
Lunch returns you to downtown Lafayette to the French Press (214 E. Vermilion St.; www.thefrenchpresslafayette.com; tel. 337/233-9449; Mon–Fri 7am–2pm, Sat–Sun 9am–2pm, Fri–Sat 5:30–9pm), a casual but refined spot on the higher end of the hipness scale. The biscuit sliders with boudin balls and sugarcane syrup are to kill for; the chicken and waffles aren’t far behind. If you’re ready for lighter fare, the winning shrimp salad boasts a kicking rémoulade.
To further experience the history, legend, and romance of this region, take a leisurely drive to the lovely, historic burg of St. Martinville. Get there by taking Pinhook Road to the small country route, LA 96, and driving 16 miles to reach the peaceful town square. St. Martinville dates from 1765, when it was a military station. It was once known as “la Petite Paris” for the many French aristocrats who settled here after fleeing the French Revolution.
The town centers around St. Martin du Tours Church, constructed in 1836—the fourth-oldest Roman Catholic church in Louisiana—and poetry. Besides its natural and historic charm, the town is the home of Evangeline Emmeline, the (debatably) fictional heroine of Longfellow’s tragic poem. A statue of her next to the church was donated to the town in 1929 by a movie company that filmed the epic here; star Dolores del Rio supposedly posed for the sculptor. At Port Street and Bayou Teche is the ancient Evangeline Oak and commemorative mural, where self-proclaimed descendants claim Emmeline’s boat landed after her arduous journey from Nova Scotia.
From St. Martinville, return to New Orleans via I-10 again, or alternately, via U.S. 90 for a different view. It’s slightly longer and moderately more interesting.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.