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

Deep South Traveling

One of the most egregious mistakes people make about the South and Southerners is that residents of this corner of America are all the same. In fact, each Southern state has its own unique accent, cultures and traditions, with regions within each state sometimes vastly different from others. Historically the South consisted of mostly Protestants from the British Isles and African Americans brought in as slaves, with South Louisiana like an island with its Catholic French and Spanish ancestry and the New Orleans melting pot. But because of geographical differences and the influx of other immigrants, each region became unique.

The South as a whole can be divided into many sub-regions, the largest being the Deep South, once defined for the rich soil used for growing cotton. Today, Southerners consider the Deep South as that area hugging the Gulf of Mexico, a region filled with live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss that reaches over to the Atlantic and slightly up the East Coast. South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and parts of Louisiana fit into this category.

Appalachian Mountains

Appalachian Mountains

The Deep South has much to offer the traveler. Lovers of both early American history and the Civil War will want to visit Georgia’s many historic sites, from its Civil War battlefields to the hip college town of Athens, home to the University of Georgia, the oldest state-chartered university in the United States. Heading towards the coast is the historic and charming city of Savannah with its delightful town squares and ancient cotton warehouses. Nearby are miles of Low Country marshlands, islands and rivers with Charlestown, South Carolina, to the north, another charming Southern city seeped in American history.

Quartz from the Appalachian Mountains makes its way to the Florida Panhandle through rivers and streams and that’s why the “Emerald Coast” offers dazzling beaches of quartz sand along the Gulf. The deep-water “Fathom Curve” that exists close to Destin, plus the unique beaches, gives this area its name, for the waters are indeed breathtakingly emerald. Much of the Panhandle beaches have been preserved, so natural beach settings are coupled with beachfront destinations.

Bust of Rosa Parks Photo credit: Chere Coen

Bust of Rosa Parks
Photo credit: Chere Coen

Alabama offers a wide range of diversity, from Gulf Shores beaches to the northeast mountains to the innovations of NASA in Huntsville. One of the South’s most inspiring experiences is the Alabama Civil Rights Museum Trail. Visitors may walk the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, learn about the Montgomery Bus Boycott at the Rosa Parks Museum and follow in the Rev. Martin Luther King’s footsteps, from his Montgomery parsonage to his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Next door in Mississippi visitors can learn the origins of America’s music, visiting the birthplace of Elvis and the Delta, land of the blues. For years the state of Mississippi has been erecting markers honoring its music and visitors can experience these historic spots with the Mississippi Blues Trail and the Country Music Trail. Naturally, Mississippi is home to numerous music festivals as well.

Bend in the Mississippi River

Bend in the Mississippi River

It’s also been said that something in the Mississippi water produces great writers, for the state is home to literary greats Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams and John Grisham, among others. The Deep South as a whole has more than its share of outstanding writers and visitors can view where they created in the Southern Literary Trail.

And what’s a trip to the Deep South without visiting New Orleans, that eclectic, charismatic city where care forgot? New Orleans has something for everyone, a playground for those looking to escape inhibitions, a food-lovers heaven, a unique slice of American history and fun for the entire family with its parks, festivals and award-winning zoo and aquarium.

The big question may be when to visit. Most of the year, Deep South weather is a joy — colorful springs, warm falls for outdoor fun and football and mild winters attracting snow birds (the people kind).

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