Cajun country stretches across southern Louisiana from Houma in the east, via Lafayette, the hub of the region, into Texas. It’s a region best enjoyed away from the larger towns, by visiting the many old-style hamlets that, despite modernization, can still be found cut off from civilization in soupy bayous, coastal marshes and inland swamps.
Cajuns are descended from the French colonists of Acadia, part of Nova Scotia, which was taken by the British in 1713. The Catholic Acadians, who had fished, hunted and farmed for more than a century, refused to renounce their faith and swear allegiance to the English king, and in 1755 the British expelled them all, separating families and burning towns. About 2500 ended up in French Louisiana, where they were given land to set up small farming communities, enabling them to rebuild the culture they had left behind. Hunting, farming and trapping, they lived in relative isolation until the 1940s, when major roads were built, immigrants from other states poured in to work in the oil business, and Cajun music, popularized by local musicians such as accordionist Iry Lejeune, came to national attention. Since then, the history of the Cajuns has continued to be one of struggle. The erosion of coastal wetlands threatens the existence of entire communities; the silting up of the Atchafalaya Basin is having adverse effects on fishing and shrimping; and not only are coastal towns in the firing line of devastating hurricanes, including Katrina, that hurtle up from the Gulf of Mexico, but also catastrophic oil spills, such as the BP disaster of 2010. After Roosevelt’s administration decreed that all American children should speak English in schools, French was practically wiped out in Cajun country, and the local patois of the older inhabitants, with its strong African influences, was kept alive primarily by music. Since the 1980s, CODOFIL (the Council for Development of French in Louisiana) has been devoted to preserving the region’s indigenous language and culture, and today you will find many signs, brochures and shopfronts written in French.
Cajun and zydeco fais-do-dos – dances, with live bands, held mostly on weekends – are great fun, and visitors will find plenty of opportunity to dance, whether at a restaurant, a club or one of the region’s many festivals.Read More
Swamp tours are available from many landings in the Atchafalaya Basin; you’ll pass numerous signs pinned to the old cypress trees along the roadside. The basin is an eerie place: in some places cars cut right across on the enormous concrete I-10 above, and old houseboats lie abandoned. The best tours take you further out, to the backwoods; wherever you go, you’ll see scores of fishing boats and plenty of wildlife, including sunbathing alligators.
Cajun and zydeco music venues
Cajun and zydeco music venues
It’s easy to “pass a good time” in Cajun country, especially if you’re here at the weekend, when the fais-do-dos are traditionally held, or during any of its many festivals. Cajun music is a jangling, infectious melange of nasal vocals backed by jumping accordion, violin and triangle, fuelled by traces of country, swing, jazz and blues. Zydeco is similar, but sexier, more blues-based, and usually played by black Creole musicians. Though songs are in French, the patois heard in both bears only a passing resemblance to the language spoken in France. Music is never performed without space for dancing; everyone can join in. As well as the popular restaurants Café des Amis and Prejean’s, plus the Blue Moon Guest House, venues include record stores, river landings and the streets themselves. Sadly, old-time zydeco dance halls are dying out, but a few still exist. Check the music listings in the free weekly Times of Acadiana (theadvertiser.com) or Independent (theind.com); log onto zydecoonline.com, or simply look for signs saying “French dance here tonight”.
Held almost weekly it seems, Cajun festivals provide an enjoyable way to experience the food and music of the region. Note that for the larger events, it’s a good idea to reserve a room in advance. The following is merely a sampler; for full details, check with any tourist office in the area.
Mardi Gras (Feb/March; louisianatravel.com/cajun-mardi-gras). Cajun Carnival differs from its city cousin; although there are private balls, parties and formal parades, it is a far more countrified and very family-oriented affair. There’s plenty of music and street dancing, of course, and villages like Eunice, Church Point and Mamou are the scene of the mischievous, somewhat surreal Courir du Mardi Gras.
Catfish Festival Washington, near Opelousas (spring, but dates vary each year, so check the website; townofwashingtonla.org). A lively weekend festival featuring arts, crafts, parades, catfish cookoffs and lots of zydeco.
World Championship Crawfish Étouffée Cookoff Eunice (last Sun in March, or the third Sun, if Easter falls on the last one; eunice-la.com). The place to taste the very best mudbugs, accompanied by great local music and a fierce spirit of competition among the scores of teams.
Festival International de Louisiane Lafayette (last full week in April; festivalinternational.com). Huge, free five-day festival with big-name participants from all over the French-speaking world, celebrating a wealth of indigenous music, culture and food.
Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival Breaux Bridge (first full weekend of May, Fri–Sun; bbcrawfest.com). Crawfish-eating contests, étouffée cookoffs and mudbug races, along with music, craft stalls and dancing.
Opelousas Spice and Music Festival Opelousas (June; OpelousasSpiceAndMusicFestival.com). Two-day extravaganza of zydeco, fiddle jams and cookoffs.
Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival Plaisance, near Opelousas (Sat before Labor Day; zydeco.org). A month of zydeco-related events culminates in a full day of top zydeco performers playing turbo-fuelled “black Creole” music. Also regional cuisine, arts and crafts, talks, dancing and workshops.
Mamou Cajun Music Festival Mamou (Fri & Sat in early Sept; mamoucajunmusicfestival.com). Traditional live music, food, crafts, games and boudin-eating contests.
Festivals Acadiens et Créoles Lafayette (late Sept or early Oct; festivalsacadiens.com). Huge three-day festival, with Cajun, zydeco and traditional French bands, as well as indigenous crafts and food.
Louisiana Yambilee Opelousas (last week in Oct; yambilee.com). Opelousas celebrates the sweet potato in a big way, with food stalls, auctions, zydeco music, competitions and the marvelously named Lil’ Miss Yum Yum beauty contest.