Lafayette — Heart of Cajun Country & so much more

Lafayette, the heart of Cajun Country in South Louisiana, has been buzzing for several years now. Known for its vibrant Cajun and zydeco music, the town’s musicians have garnered international nods and raked up a few Grammys. Its culinary scene, once strictly a Cajun food mecca, has expanded and evolved, one of the reasons Lafayette was named “Best for Food” by Rand McNally’s 2011 “Best of the Road” contest and the 2012 “Tastiest Town in the South” by Southern Living magazine.

Boiled crawfish with corn - a favorite Cajun dish

Boiled crawfish with corn – a favorite Cajun dish

The Lafayette Utilities System installed a citywide fiber optics service that’s been making headlines everywhere, attracting national companies and film professionals — Harry Potter’s 3-D effects were created here. And this past year Lafayette was named best in job growth and low unemployment and one of 20 finalists in the Mayor’s Challenge by Blumberg Philanthropies, picked from more than 300 cities nationwide.

Ask people who live in Lafayette, however, and they’ll tell you it’s the people who make it so special. Lafayette is rich in culture, history, food and fun and all of that stems from its residents. Here people work hard but at the end of the day love to eat good food, listen to great music and dance the night away. Or as they say in Cajun Country, “pass a good time” or “laissez les bon temps roullez” or “let the good times roll.”

So if you’re headed to Lafayette, be sure and bring your dance shoes. On any given night live music can be found in a variety of styles at a host of music venues, from roots rock at the Blue Moon Saloon and Guest House to traditional Cajun and zydeco at restaurants with dance floors, such as Randol’s. There’s even a week of music classes, jam sessions and culinary instruction at the annual spring Dewey Balfa Cajun and Creole Heritage Week, for those who want to learn everything there is to know about Cajun and Creole culture — and join in the fun.

Blue Moon Saloon - credit Blue Moon Saloon & Guest House

Blue Moon Saloon – credit Blue Moon Saloon & Guest House

Every spring and fall Lafayette is home to world-renown festivals and free concert series are held in “parcs” in downtown Lafayette. Festival International de Louisiane takes over downtown streets with several stages of music, arts and crafts and of course that delectable cuisine on the last weekend of April. It’s one of the world’s largest free outdoor music events, bringing in musicians from all over the Francophone world. In October, Festivals Acadiens et Crèoles offers both traditional and modern Cajun and zydeco music on several stages in Girard Park, along with Louisiana crafts, food and cultural lectures. Lafayette Mardi Gras celebrations range from the family-friendly parades and balls in town to the unique rural Courir de Mardi Gras celebrations, where participants ride horseback begging for ingredients to a gumbo. The annual courirs hail back to medieval times.

The accordion is one of the main instruments used in zydeco music

The accordion is one of the main instruments used in zydeco music

Lafayette’s historic sites explain area history of Cajun and Creole settlers, who created an American heritage like no other. Visitors may stroll back in time at Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park, and the historic Acadian Village. Both sites offer live music and special events year-round.

Attractions include the Zoo of Acadiana, the Children’s Museum of Acadiana, the Lafayette Science Museum and plenty of outdoors activities, from hunting and fishing to biking along established trails and canoeing and kayaking in nearby bayous and Lake Martin. There are several state parks nearby, including Lake Fausse Point, the Louisiana Arboretum, Chicot State Park and St. Martinville’s Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site. All are fun destinations for those touring or sightseeing.

Louisiana Bayou - Lake Martin

Louisiana Bayou – Lake Martin

And because the Cajun culture is still vibrant in Lafayette and surrounding areas, it’s possible to hear French being spoken. There are weekly French tables throughout “Acadiana” where people gather for conversation and community and visitors are always welcome. And for those who want to bring their instruments, there are numerous jam sessions held monthly in the area as well, from the monthly Second Saturday ArtWalk to regular sessions at the Scott Welcome Center. Age is never a consideration, not is the ability to sing in French.

Lafayette lies about two hours west of New Orleans and just south of Interstate 10. Known as “coastal South,” the weather is often hot and humid in the summer but fall and spring are gorgeous times to visit, with flowers blooming for months. Winters are practically non-existent. Because it’s almost a subtropical zone, rain showers are likely throughout most of the year, sometimes violent. Be prepared for sunshine one minute and thunderclaps the next.

If you are interested in visiting southern states, check out our Charleston Vacation Packages and start planning your next vacation!

Cheré Coen is a Lafayette, La., travel writer and author, but a native of New Orleans. Her latest book is “Exploring Cajun Country: A Tour of Historic Acadiana.” Follow her at WeirdSouth.blogspot.com

Day Trips From Charleston

Charleston has something for everyone, so there’s always plenty to do. But if you get restless for a little more variety, the city’s central location on the South Carolina coast offers plenty of easy day trips to explore the Southeast.

Here are six popular destinations within two hours’ drive of Charleston:

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Myrtle Beach with Skywheel, South Carolina

MYRTLE BEACH: The broad, sparkling sands along the “Grand Strand” provide a classic beach experience more commonly associated with Florida or the Jersey shore. Amusement parks, arcades, miniature golf, Ripley’s Aquarium, and a new 1.2-mile boardwalk anchored by the “Skywheel” Ferris wheel make this a popular destination for youngsters and their families. Myrtle Beach is known as the “Golf Capital of America” for its numerous, well-manicured courses. Nightlife includes theaters with live musical performances, fresh seafood restaurants, and clubs where you can learn the Carolina shag – a Southern style of beach dancing that originated in Myrtle Beach. For a more laid-back outing, check out nearby Murrells Inlet (the “Seafood Capital of South Carolina”); the mansions and grounds at Hopsewee Plantation, built in 1735; or the dramatic collection of outdoor figurative sculptures at Brookgreen Gardens.

Hilton Head Harbor with lighthouse

Hilton Head Harbor with lighthouse

HILTON HEAD ISLAND: Located midway between Charleston and Savannah, Hilton Head is consistently ranked as one of the “Top 10 Best U.S. Islands” by Conde Nast readers. “Golf Island” is home to more than 20 championship courses and regularly hosts the PGA Tour. The island also boasts a number of top-rated tennis facilities, with more than 350 courts in all three Grand Slam surfaces – including covered courts so play can continue during the occasional rain shower. Hilton Head has also been voted one of the Top 10 beaches for families. Explore the tidal waters by kayak or paddleboard, or sail the Atlantic Ocean. Upscale resorts, shopping at 200-plus retail and outlet stores, and more than 250 restaurants complete the picture.

COLUMBIA: The “River City” is the capital of the Palmetto State, drawing visitors to cosmopolitan restaurants, live music, theaters, public art, and historic buildings. Tour the Hampton Preston Mansion and Gardens, originally constructed in 1818. Explore Riverbanks Zoo & Gardens, home to more than 2,000 animals and one of the country’s top botanical gardens. Outdoor enthusiasts can hike or canoe through the old growth bottomland forests of Congaree National Park. Or head to 50,000-acre Lake Murray for boating, fishing and picnicking.

FLORENCE:  A regional center for sports, shopping and the arts, the “Magic City” area offers diverse cultural and recreational opportunities. Hop into a pace car and challenge the Darlington Speedway — the NASCAR track billed as “Too Tough to Tame”. Or for a quieter outing, visit the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden in Bishopville, where the self-taught artist has created a stunning collection of living sculptures.

BEAUFORT: Imagine a colonial seaport with antebellum mansions overlooking the Atlanta Ocean, and you’ll picture Beaufort – the location for such films as “The Big Chill” and “The Great Santini”. Enjoy a horse-drawn carriage ride in the Landmark Historic District, or paddle down the Beaufort River on a guided kayak tour. This charming city provides a perfect quiet Lowcountry getaway.

Augusta, Georgia skyline

Augusta, Georgia skyline

 AUGUSTA, GA: The world comes to Augusta each April for the Masters Golf tournament. But there’s plenty to see and do year-round at this thriving city on the Georgia-South Carolina border. Relive the musical career of Augusta’s own James Brown at the Augusta Museum of History, which recently expanded its permanent exhibit honoring the “Godfather of Soul”. Ride a Petersburg flatboat along the historic Augusta Canal. Or look for blue heron, red-shoulder hawks, bobcats and alligators in their natural habitat at 1,100-acre Phinizy Swamp Nature Park.

Once you’ve had a taste of these nearby coastal and inland destinations, it will be time to head back to Charleston for more fun!

If you are interested in visiting Charleston, South Carolina check out our Charleston Vacation Packages and start planning your next vacation!

Bobby L. Hickman is a freelance travel and business journalist based in Atlanta who specializes in the Southeast. His work has appeared in such publications as Southern Living, Georgia Trend, and TravelMuse.com. You can contact him through www.blhickman.com

Weekend Trips from Charleston

While visitors to Charleston will find plenty to keep them busy, the city can also serves as a convenient base for trips to other popular destinations in the Southeast. Here are four popular destinations within a few hours’ drive of Charleston.

Least Terns, Alameda NAS CA

Horse cart in Savannah, Georgia

SAVANNAH, GA: Charleston and Savannah are only 100 miles apart, but each seaport is unique enough that visitors to either city find plenty of reasons to visit the other. They have much in common – centuries of history, fine restaurants, boutique shopping, low country cuisine, nearby beaches and ghost tours. But the “Hostess City of the South” was spared the destruction that engulfed much of the South during the Civil War, allowing more of its historical homes and estates to remain unharmed. Downtown Savannah has dozens of public squares featuring lush gardens framed by Spanish moss-draped live oaks. Paula Deen lives here, and visitors line up around the block to eat at her “The Lady & Sons” restaurant. The Savannah College of Art and Design adds a hip vibe, powering a youthful community that thrives on indie music venues and art film houses.

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World’s Largest Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia

ATLANTA, GA: The “hub of the New South” has added a thriving urban restaurant scene to its traditional attractions of upscale hotels, Six Flags amusement parks, professional sports teams, and non-stop nightlife at the renovated Underground Atlanta complex. Like Charleston 265 miles away, Atlanta was decimated by the Civil War. However, it has rebuilt itself as a truly international city, as confirmed when it hosted the 1996 Olympic Games. The Georgia Aquarium is the world’s largest, housing more than 120,000 animals — most notably the beluga whale. Tours are also available of such Atlanta icons as the CNN Studios, the World of Coca-Cola and the home where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind.

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Biltmore Estate Front Lawn in Asheville, North Carolina

ASHEVILLE, NC: This funky art colony in the Blue Ridge Mountains lures visitors with locally-owned galleries, distinctive restaurants, luxurious accommodations and diverse performance venues. Located 260 miles from Charleston, Asheville sits inside the Pisgah National Forest, where nature lovers enjoy spectacular wilderness scenery while hiking, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, horseback riding and zip lining. The best known attraction here is the elegant Biltmore Home, America’s largest house with 250 rooms. Originally the family home of George Vanderbilt, the Biltmore Estate’s 8,000 acres include acres of gardens, 22 miles of hiking trailers, the Winery at Antler Hill Village, and an outdoor adventure center featuring Segway tours and leisurely paddles  on the French Broad River.

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Smoky Mountains

SMOKY MOUNTAINS, TN/NC: Drive another hour west of Asheville and you are in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s visited park. Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, the park is known for its stunning mountain vistas, roaring streams, diverse ecosystems, and preservation of Southern Appalachian culture. The Appalachian Trail (the 2,000-mile pathway from Georgia to Maine) traverses the park. More than 800 miles of maintained trails allow visitors of all abilities to explore thundering waterfalls and quiet rustic forests. Native American culture is the focus in Cherokee, North Carolina, where the Eastern Band of the Cherokees offer museums, authentic crafts and Harrah’s Casino. Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, are home to the Dollywood amusement park and the area’s largest concentration of outlet shopping malls, while Gatlinburg (located inside the park’s borders) is a vibrant resort town that claims the invention of miniature golf.

Sprinkle in a few other nearby cities – like Augusta, Georgia, home of The Masters golf tournament, and Charlotte, North Carolina, which hosts the U.S. Whitewater Center – and you can find plenty of excursions  to expand on your Charleston experience.

If you are interested in visiting the Charleston, South Carolina area check out our Charleston Vacation Packages and start planning your next vacation!

Bobby L. Hickman is a freelance travel and business journalist based in Atlanta who specializes in the Southeast. His work has appeared in such publications as Southern Living, Georgia Trend, and TravelMuse.com. You can contact him through www.blhickman.com

Charming Charleston

Charleston, South Carolina, must be pretty special to be voted the “top city destination in the world” by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler. And it is special. From its antebellum architecture and historic attractions to a thriving dining scene, cultural treasures, nearby beaches and world-class golf, Charleston is one of a kind.

History is the major draw here. Founded in 1670, Charleston was the wealthiest seaport south of Philadelphia during Colonial times.  It has survived earthquakes, hurricanes, and attacks from the Spanish, French, Native Americans, pirates, and the British during the Revolutionary War. The Civil War began here when Confederate troops fired the first shots at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. (Fort Sumter is only accessible through boat tours, but it can also been seen clearly from dramatic viewpoints around the harbor such as Battery Park, Patriots’ Park, the USS Yorktown, and the colorful townhouses known as Rainbow Road.) Charleston’s prosperity was wiped out during the years of war and reconstruction. But the city has rebuilt its economy while preserving and restoring its rich architectural heritage.

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Cobblestone Street in Charleston

The best time to visit Charleston is spring (April through June), when blooming azaleas, magnolias and wisteria accent cobblestone streets and lush gardens. The weather is mild – the average daily high is 75 degrees and the low is 54, with 52 inches of rain annually. Spring and summer are the busiest seasons, but most summertime visitors hit the nearby beaches to escape the sticky heat. Fall is the shoulder season, so the streets are less crowded. While the weather varies widely in October and November, you can easily enjoy the city’s beauty before grey winter days arrive.

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Morris Island Lighthouse in Charleston

Charleston lies where the Ashley and Cooper merge at Charleston Harbor. But within a few miles are the sand dunes, sea oats and calm ocean waves of barrier islands such as Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island and Seabrook Island. Kiawah Island is an upscale retreat with pristine beaches, internationally-known golf courses and sweeping views of the low country marshes. Charming Folly Beach on Folly Island is a popular resort boasting vacation rentals, live music and fresh seafood.

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Fresh seafood

Speaking of food: The dominant local style is low country cuisine, which originated in the coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia. Low country cuisine combines ingredients commonly found in the area (native seafood such as shrimp, oysters, and crabs, and vegetables including rice, potatoes and okra) through such cultural influences Cajun, Caribbean, Southern and African). She-crab soup, shrimp and grits, and the stew-like low country boil are among the best-loved dishes. Some of the top low country restaurants in the area include 82 Queen and Poogan’s Porch and Slightly North of Broad.

However, Charleston is more than low country cuisine, with a slew of nationally-recognized restaurants and chefs (including three consecutive James Beard award winners). Husk – named best new restaurant in America for 2011 by Bon Appetit – serves bold dishes made only with ingredients grown in the South. FIG was an early farm-to-table restaurant that defines contemporary Charleston with its fresh fish and local vegetables. For dessert, you can’t beat Cupcake, where the name says it all.

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Lush vegetation in Charleston

A city with so much history is naturally filled with museums, gardens and well-preserved homes. The Museum Mile is a section of Meeting Street that is home to six museums, five historic houses, four scenic parks and numerous public buildings. Several estates surround the city, such as Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant, a former 17,000-acre cotton plantation with a formal garden nestled among moss-draped live oaks. Magnolia Plantation includes a guided tour of the home and a one-hour tram tour of the estate’s gardens, wetlands and marshes. Drayton Hall on the Ashley River is the only plantation to survive both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.

Families will enjoy the South Carolina Aquarium on Charleston Harbor, the most visited attraction in Charleston. Nine major exhibit areas allow visitors of all ages to experience the natural environments and aquatic life found in estuaries, mountains and streams across the Palmetto State. At Charles Towne Landing, site of the first English settlement in the Carolinas, youngsters can visit “The Adventure”, a replica of a 17th century sailing vessel. The landing is also home to the Animal Forest, a natural habitat zoo that features animals such as alligators, black bears, wolves, puma, and bisons that are (or were) indigenous to the region.

The Charleston area offers a rare combination of history, outdoor recreation, Southern charm and cosmopolitan sophistication that will leave you agreeing with savvy travelers that Charleston should be on everyone’s “bucket list”.

Check out California Tours Charleston Vacations and start planning your vacation today!

Bobby L. Hickman is a freelance travel and business journalist based in Atlanta who specializes in the Southeast. His work has appeared in such publications as Southern Living, Georgia Trend, and TravelMuse.com. You can contact him through www.blhickman.com