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Did You Know…?
- Louisiana is the world’s largest source of crayfish; it produces 87% of the U.S. supply.
- Tabasco sauce originated on Avery Island in the 19th century.
- New Orleans’ St. Louis Cathedral is the oldest U.S. cathedral in continuous use.
- Louisiana was named for France’s King Louis XIV.
- A major flood could cover one-third of the state, which has 1,650 miles of levees.
The southern half of Louisiana — the area vacationers visit most often — is the closest thing to a foreign country in the U.S. The food, the lifestyle, the music, the politics and even the language make Louisiana an exotic anomaly among U.S. vacation choices.
The state’s landscape also includes river towns, casinos and the former plantation homes that remind us of the antebellum South. Besides, the state has unique natural features: the Mississippi delta and the mysterious bayous.
Most people experience the state first in New Orleans. Despite the infamous 2005 Hurricane Katrina, the French Quarter survives more or less as it was because that area rests on a knoll that largely protected it from flood waters. Tourists have come back, where they can still hear the jazz, eat great food and attend the city’s festivals.
Anyone interested in carnivals is intrigued by the New Orleans Mardi Gras, but the Crescent City is not the only place with a pre-Lenten event worth seeing; there are numerous Mardi Gras in smaller towns and cities.
As for what makes Louisiana so exotic: The southern part of the state is populated by descendants of French and Spanish explorers (Creoles), who often intermarried with immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. Adding even more spice are the Cajun people (the Acadians) who came from Nova Scotia and settled the bayou country. Each of these cultures remains distinct, and each offers a unique contribution to Louisiana’s history and feeling.
The bayous are a short drive from New Orleans. Here a descendant of the Acadians guides visitors through cypress swamps that seem incredibly ancient. Tourists also recapture something of the past with cruises along the Mississippi or visits to towns or plantations that have preserved their history. Those with quite different interests journey to the great river for gaming time on a riverboat or head to land-based casinos.
As Katrina reminded us big time, the area has a hurricane season. Also, regardless of season, the weather can be problematic. It’s hot and humid in the summer, and the air feels a bit wet all year despite high winter winds.
Things to do for Venturers
- Plan early to attend the Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Or visit and even participate in a small-town Mardi Gras in the Prairie Acadiana area.
- For as long as it is appropriate, consider voluntourism: Help repaint buildings or clean up and restore a park in New Orleans.
- Tour the McIlhenny Tabasco Factory at Avery Island, then eat chili pepper ice cream.
- Enter the International Tarpon Rodeo, a fishing tournament, in Grand Isle in July. Or, go another time and fish for big catches at your leisure.
- Go horseback riding in the Kisatchie National Forest. You can tool around on an ATV, too, but only on designated trails to protect the ecology.
- Participate in the Tour Lafitte cycling event in May in Lake Charles, choosing from among five routes: 62.5 miles, 50 miles, 35 miles, 25 miles and 10 miles. Or, choose the arm wrestling competition, or the crayfish eating contest. All are part of the annual 12-day Contraband Days recalling the pirate, Jean Lafitte, said to have hidden out in the Lake Charles area. In a reenactment, the pirate’s character captures the mayor, puts him on trial and forces him to walk the plank.
Things to do for Centrics
- You can gamble in Louisiana, in some cases on riverboats, but some venues were disrupted by Katrina. Check on the status of casinos when making plans.
- At mealtime, dig in. Menus in Cajun country are loaded with fried oysters, catfish, crayfish, gumbo and jambalaya. Also, check out spicy soups and stews made rich with andouille sausage and seafood.
- Take a tour out on the bayous to see the fabled swamplands for yourself and the area settled by those long-ago Acadian arrivals.
- Enjoy a rich opportunity to rack up a long list of bird sightings at some of the Wetland Birding Trail’s 115 sites along the Gulf Coast.
- Drive the Promised Land Scenic Byway, which involves some travel on the levee road. It will take you through Henderson, St. Martinville and Breaux Bridge. You also can take a swamp tour in the Atchafalaya Basin — and find plenty of authentic Cajun and Creole foods.
- Attend the annual Giant Omelette Festival in Abbeville, where you will get a free serving from the 5,000-egg omelette made before your eyes in a 12-foot skillet. Also, see your first antique tractor egg-cracking competition, then hang around to sample the crab pies, gumbo, jambalaya plus things like pork chop salad and beer-can chicken.
Things to do for Authentics
- Tour some of the state’s famous plantations: Houmas House, Oak Alley Plantation and Nottaway are three of many. Some serve meals.
- Attend the family-friendly Mardi Gras in Lafayette.
- Food is an impressive theme in Louisiana. Besides the Natchitoches Meat Pie Festival, you might plan a trip around any of these: the Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge, the Strawberry Festival in Pontchatoula or the Tamale Fiesta in Zwolle. And, regardless of festivals, sample sugar-covered beignets with strong coffee
- Play golf. Select from members of the state’s Audubon Golf Trail for starters. You can play at the site of an 1812 battlefield (remember the War of 1812?) or an old plantation.
- Get smarter about Louisiana’s early Cajun settlers by visiting one of the heritage sites (Acadian Village and Vermilionville) in Lafayette. They are reconstructed villages created by assembling historic homes and buildings, and adding some re-creations. At Vermilionville, costumed volunteers demonstrate traditional Cajun crafts.
- Dance to live music at nightclubs in Lake Charles. Also, the casinos here are open 24/7, just in case.
For more information, consult Louisiana Travel at www.louisianatravel.com