New Orleans might hog the limelight, but there's no end of things to do in Louisiana. Here, Rough Guides author Charles Hodgkins takes us on a tour of the state's beguiling south.
While it's easy to understand why New Orleans dominates most discussions of southern Louisiana, there's much more to the lower areas of the Pelican State than the Big Easy. It's a storied region that exists apart from the rest of the United States, a heady mix of cultures – most notably Cajun, but also a bit of Creole – happily sequestered on its own terms in a waterlogged place south of the actual South.
Whether you're cruising the swamps of Acadiana in a crawfish skiff, standing reflectively on the porch of a slave cabin on a 200-year-old sugarcane plantation, or driving over countless bridges to a sandy barrier island at the end of the highway, there's nowhere else quite like southern Louisiana.
Culture and crawfish in Cajun Country
At the heart of Louisiana's Francophone Cajun country lies Lafayette, the state's fourth-most populous city and one of its greatest cultural hubs. It's the all-but-official capital of the state's Acadiana region. Although English is the dominant language in and around Lafayette, it's hardly uncommon to overhear Acadian French – especially each Wednesday night at Lafayette's Blue Moon Saloon's weekly Cajun jam.
Within about 15 miles of Lafayette are a day's worth (at least) of historically significant literary locations, worthwhile museums, nature excursions and small-town Acadiana charms.
St Martinville, a 25-minute drive southeast of Lafayette, is home not only to the Evangeline Oak, immortalised in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem "Evangeline" and still standing sentinel on the west bank of Bayou Teche, but also a waterside complex housing the African American Museum and the Museum of the Acadian Memorial. Each museum relates moving tales from involuntary migrations of the eighteenth century that forever impacted this region: the former interprets stories gathered from over 300 years of African–American history in southern Louisiana, while the latter describes the deportation of the Acadians from eastern Canada and their eventual resettlement in present-day Acadiana.
Another small Cajun town worthy of a few hours' lingering is Breaux Bridge, the self-anointed "Crawfish Capital of the World", where a handful of excellent restaurants vie for visitors' palates. Try airy and pleasant Café des Amis, known equally for its delectable gumbo and Saturday zydeco breakfasts.
Naturally, no visit to southern Louisiana is complete without embarking on a swamp tour, and with wildlife-rich Lake Martin a mere ten-minute drive from Breaux Bridge, you'd be hard-pressed to find a reason (poor weather notwithstading) to not enjoy an outing on the lake's murky waters. The area's top guiding outfit is Cajun Country Swamp Tours, operated by father-and-son duo Butch and Shawn Guchereau, extra-knowledgeable locals who interpret the lake's signature botany and teeming birdlife (cormorants, ibis, egrets, herons) in velvety Cajun drawls. Odds are strong you'll also spot an alligator or two throughout the two-hour tour.
History and politics in Baton Rouge
Abutting the east bank of the Mississippi River, Baton Rouge is Louisiana's state government centre, a major shipping port and home to the state's largest university, Louisiana State. The city's odd name, which translates to "Red Stick" in English, stems from an early French explorer who, upon arrival, spotted a wooden pole draped with bloody carcasses that marked a boundary between tribal hunting grounds. Intervening centuries have seen the city under French, British, and Spanish rule, as well as the Confederacy during the US Civil War.
It's no surprise, then, that Baton Rouge's colourful political past makes for its most uniquely compelling attraction. Louisiana's Museum of Political History, housed in the Old State Capitol – dubbed "that monstrosity on the Mississippi" by Mark Twain – takes a refreshingly no-holds-barred approach to the state's notorious history of corruption. Check out the extensive permanent exhibition on infamous Governor/Senator Huey "the Kingfish" Long, who ruled Louisiana politics with an iron fist from the late 1920s until his 1935 death at the hands of an assailant.
Ten minutes away by foot from the Old State Capitol, Long's highest-profile construction project (and the site of his assassination), the current State Capitol, is free to visit and also worth an extended look. The 1932 building and tower (at 450 feet, the tallest capitol in the US) is a lovely piece of Art Deco showmanship, flanked by 30 acres of landscaped gardens. Ascend to the 27th floor observation deck for commanding views of the ever-growing city, the muddy Mississippi and beyond.
Along River Road
Twisting out of metropolitan Baton Rouge along the Mississippi River southeasterly toward New Orleans, the so-called River Road penetrates Creole-influenced areas of southern Louisiana, winding its way through a peculiar medley of inviting historic plantations and eyesore petrochemical plants. The small town of Donaldsonville is a good stop-off for wandering among huge live oaks that stretch over quiet backstreets like spindly arms; Charles Street boasts a particularly lovely canopy of these trees.
The best of the area's plantation tours is offered at Laura Plantation on the edge of Vacherie, an hour's-plus drive from Baton Rouge. Here, longtime-local guides relate tales of the sugarcane plantation's heyday, when it was one of the few woman-run sugarcane operations in the nineteenth century. Hour-long tours lead through the recently restored "Big House", adjacent gardens, and, soberingly, into an austere slave cabin.
Off the beaten track in Grand Isle
Ambitious road-trippers will want to continue their southern Louisiana adventure by trekking out to the end-of-the-road community of Grand Isle, a pancake-flat, storm-prone place set on a wafer-thin barrier island bang against the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly every structure in sight here is built one storey above ground.
With a year-round population of just over 1000 (although tens of thousands of seasonal visitors can descend on the town during summer), Grand Isle is an assuredly sleepy place more often than not; it's best-known as a main embarkation point for deep-sea fishing trips. Be sure to drive toward the far eastern end of the island to remote Grand Isle State Park, where nature trails invite quiet exploration and a lengthy pier extends over Gulf waters for excellent bird-watching, as well as fishing for tarpon, speckled trout and redfish.