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, like Katrina, that hurtle up from the Gulf of Mexico, but also catastrophic oil spills, like 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. Although Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana, is not actually in Cajun country, heading out this way from New Orleans, via the plantations on the banks of the Mississippi, makes an easy approach.Read More
Crossing the river at Lutcher brings you to Vacherie and the fascinating Laura plantation (daily 10am–4pm; $18; w www.lauraplantation.com). Rather than dwelling lovingly on priceless antiques, the tours here, which draw upon a wealth of historical documents – from slave accounts and photographs to private diaries – sketch a vivid picture of day-to-day plantation life in multicultural Louisiana. Nine miles upriver from Laura, Oak Alley, the quintessential image of the antebellum plantation home, is an opulent Greek Revival mansion dating from 1839 – the magnificent oaks that form a canopy over the driveway are 150 years older (Mon–Fri 10am–4pm, Sat & Sun 10am–5pm; $15; w www.oakalleyplantation.com). You can stay in pretty B&B cottages in the grounds (t 225/265-2151; $131–160). Eighteen miles south of Baton Rouge on the west bank, Nottoway (1859) is the largest surviving plantation home in the South, a huge, white Italianate edifice with 64 rooms (daily 9am–4pm; $20, $8 grounds only). The house also has fancy B&B rooms (t 225/545-2730, w www.nottoway.com; $161–200).
Touring Cajun country
Touring Cajun country
You could easily drive through tiny BREAUX BRIDGE, eight miles east of Lafayette, and miss it, which would be a shame. Quite apart from its old-fashioned main street, its crawfish-emblazoned steel bridge over the Bayou Teche, and its handful of B&Bs, restaurants and music venues, it also makes an appealing base for swamp tours, and for exploring the Lake Martin nature reserve, three miles south on Hwy-31. There’s an end-of-the-earth feel to the reserve, where land turns to water, and it’s a great experience to drive – or walk the trails – past vistas of tangled cypress flickering with Spanish moss and encroaching greenery creeping onto the narrow road. From February to June tens of thousands of birds nest at the lake, and there’s an abundance of birdlife year-round, not to mention busy nutria splashing through the undergrowth and alligators dozing in the sun. If you fancy paddling a canoe through this wilderness, contact Pack and Paddle, 601 E Pinhook Rd, Lafayette (t 337/232-5854, w www.packpaddle.com; closed Sun).
Tiny NATCHITOCHES (pronounced “Nakitish”), in the sleepy cottonfields of the Cane River, is the oldest European settlement in Louisiana, having begun life as a French trading post in 1714. With its lovingly restored Creole architecture, Natchitoches’s Front Street, on the river, bears a passing resemblance to New Orleans’s French Quarter – its lacy iron balconies, spiral staircases and cobbled courtyards complemented by old-style stores. Fleurs-de-lis on the St Denis Walk of Honor commemorate celebrities with local connections, such as John Wayne, Clementine Hunter and the cast of the movie Steel Magnolias, which was set and filmed here in 1988.
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 (reviewed on opposite), 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 (w www.timesofacadiana.com) or Independent (w www.theind.com); log onto w www.zydecoonline.com, or simply look for signs saying “French dance here tonight”.
Angelle’s Whiskey River Landing
1365 Henderson Levee Rd, Henderson, Breaux Bridge t 337/228-2277, w www.whiskeyriverlanding.net. Lively Cajun and zydeco parties on Sun afternoons (4–8pm).
El Sid O’s
1523 N St Antoine St, Lafayette t 337/235-0647. This old favourite is open for dancing Fri & Sat, with great zydeco and blues bands.
420 6th St, Mamou, 10 miles north of Eunice t 337/468-5411. Welcoming lounge presided over by the delightful Tante Sue, with music, dancing and lots of drinking. Sat only, 7am–2pm.
Grant Street Dancehall
113 W Grant St, Lafayette t 337/237-8513, w www.grantstreetlive.com. Eclectic music barn in downtown Lafayette hosting hip-hop, swamp pop, New Orleans jazz, brass and blues, as well as Cajun and zydeco.
1215 Grand Point Rd, Breaux Bridge t 337/332-1721, w www.lapoussiere.com. The old folks’ favourite, this venerable dance hall – where most people speak French – hosts fais-do-dos (Sat night & Sun afternoon).
1337 Henderson Levee Rd, Breaux Bridge t 337/228-2384, w www.mcgeeslanding.com. A swamp tour outfit-cum-café-cum-music venue hosting live music on Sat & Sun afternoons.
Pat’s Atchafalaya Club
1008 Henderson Levee Rd, Henderson, Breaux Bridge t 337/228-7512, w www.patsfishermanswharf.com. Large dance hall on the levee, linked to Pat’s seafood restaurant, and hosting Cajun, zydeco and swamp pop bands Fri–Sun.
Rendezvous des Cajuns
Liberty Center for Performing Arts, S 2nd St and Park Ave, Eunice t 337/457-7389, w www.eunice-la.com/libertyschedule.html. Family-oriented and hugely popular live Cajun/zydeco radio and TV show, mostly in French. Sat 6–7.30pm. Cover $5.
Savoy Music Center
4413 Hwy-190 E, 3 miles east of Eunice t 337/457-9563, w savoymusiccenter.com. Free jam sessions (Sat 9am–noon) at this Cajun record store and accordion workshop are a local institution. Store closed Sun & Mon.
8393 Hwy-182 N, Opelousas t 337/942-6242. Famed old locals’ venue for zydeco music and dancing. Usually Fri & Sat but call to check.
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. Some tours are conducted by Cajuns who see the basin as more than just a tourist attraction and provide fascinating personal commentaries.
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.
(Feb/March). 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. w www.lsue.edu/acadgate/mardmain.htm.
Washington, near Opelousas (spring, but dates vary each year, so check the website). A lively weekend festival featuring arts, crafts, parades, catfish cookoffs and lots of zydeco. w www.townofwashingtonla.org/catfishfest.html.
World Championship Crawfish Étouffée Cookoff
Eunice (last Sun in March, or the third Sun, if Easter falls on the last one). The place to taste the very best mudbugs, accompanied by great local music and a fierce spirit of competition among the scores of teams. w www.eunice-la.com/index.php/things-to-do/area-festivals.
Festival International de Louisiane
Lafayette (last full week in April). 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. w www.festivalinternational.com.
Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival
Breaux Bridge (first full weekend of May, Fri–Sun). Crawfish-eating contests, étouffée cookoffs and mudbug races, along with music, craft stalls and dancing. w www.bbcrawfest.com.
Opelousas Spice and Music Festival
Opelousas (June). Three-day extravaganza of zydeco, fiddle jams and cookoffs. w www.OpelousasSpiceAndMusicFestival.com.
Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival
Plaisance, near Opelousas (Sat before Labor Day). A month of zydeco-related events culminates in a full day of top zydeco performers playing turbo-fuelled “black Creole” music. Also regional cuisine, African-American arts and crafts, talks, dancing and workshops. w www.zydeco.org.
Mamou Cajun Music Festival
Mamou (Fri & Sat in mid- or late Aug). Traditional live music, food, crafts, beer-drinking and boudin-eating contests. w www.mamoucajunmusicfestival.com.
Festivals Acadiens et Créoles
Lafayette (late Sept or early Oct). Huge three-day festival, with Cajun, zydeco and traditional French bands, as well as indigenous crafts and food. w www.festivalsacadiens.com.
Opelousas (last week in Oct). Opelousas celebrates the sweet potato in a big way, with food stalls, auctions, zydeco music, competitions and the marvellously named Lil’ Miss Yum Yum beauty contest. w www.yambilee.com.