Bayou Byways

Taking a trip through Cajun Country

By: Graham Simmons

New Orleans is the capital of jazz, Zydeco and Cajun music, but Cajun Country, set among the wetlands and bayous of the Atchafalaya Basin a couple hours west of New Orleans, is a world apart.

Kirk Guidry has been living on the Atchafalaya for 58 years. “I didn’t get to New Orleans until I was 24 years old,” he said. “Before that time, Cajun Country was completely cut off from the rest of the United States. And in any case, who would want to visit a part of the country where they spoke French?”

Between 1967 and 1972, engineers eventually succeeded in building a bridge over the Atchafalaya. Today, Cajun Country is more accessible than ever before. Cajun music, the renowned Cajun cuisine and Acadian culture all lend spice to the outstanding natural attractions of the region.

Where to Start
A road trip will probably start in New Orleans, using one of two major approach routes to Cajun Country. The fastest way is to take Interstate 10; from New Orleans, the Cajun “capital” Lafayette is just two hours away. A slower route, the southern U.S. Highway 90, passes through Thibodaux and Houma.

The northern approach from New Orleans, is possibly the better introduction to Cajun country, allowing easy access to the homelands of both major Cajun groups the Bayou Cajuns and the Prairie Cajuns. It is said that Prairie Cajuns are tied to the land, whereas Bayou Cajuns are tied to the water. But both groups are equally friendly to visitors in fact, I can’t remember receiving a warmer welcome anywhere.

Just off Interstate 10, the little town of Henderson is a great place to start an exploration of Cajun Country’s wetlands. Just east of Henderson, the NPS Interpretive Center is a “must-stop.” Known as the Atchafalaya welcome center, it is housed in an authentic Acadian-style home, and offers an excellent video presentation, introducing visitors to the wonders of the Atchafalaya. Pick up their Bayou Teche Corridor map one of a set of four maps that together detail the whole of the Atchafalaya Heritage Area. Introductory boat tours
of the Atchafalaya wetlands operate from the banks of the Henderson levee, in particular from McGee’s Landing. From Henderson, many routes through the Bayou Teche Corridor, known as the heart of Acadian Louisiana, can be taken; a recommended trip is along the scenic Henderson Levee Road (state highways 352 and 96) through Catahoula to St. Martinville.

What to See
St. Martinville is one of the most picturesque and evocative cities in the United States. Its Evangeline Oak Tree is the subject of Longfellow’s classic poem “Evangeline,” which vividly depicts the tragic events surrounding the deportation of the Acadians from Canada in 1755. The Acadian Memorial is a sobering record of those times with a plaque detailing the names of the deportees.

From 1819 to 1943, steamboats plied the Bayou Teche River. An invigorating and enjoyable walk along the Bayou Teche boardwalk in New Iberia, gives a great feel for the mystique of the river. New Iberia is also gateway to some of the finest antebellum mansions in the South, including the National Trust-listed Shadows on the Teche.

When to Go
The heritage of Cajun Country is celebrated every spring in Lafayette, at the Festival International de Louisiane. This giant, free festival attracts crowds of up to 200,000 people over four days in April.

A 40-minute drive from Lafayette just out of the village of Breaux Bridge, a cool getaway is the stunning Lake Martin bird rookery. A huge phalanx of birds, including Crimson Roseates, ibis and grand egrets, nearly blocks out the sunlight as they flit from tree to tree, while alligators sun themselves in the shallows.

At the Liberty Theatre in downtown Eunice, the jovial host, Barry Ancelet, presents the renowned live Cajun music program “Rendezvous des Cajuns.” On a reserve just out of Eunice, the air redolent with the honey-sweet aroma of goldenrod and mountain mint, Malcolm Vidrine and Tom Hillman of the Cajun Prairie Habitat Preservation Society are making heroic efforts to rehabilitate some of the 3 million acres of degraded prairieland.

The final point of call on this road trip is Chicot State Park, on Bayou Chicot, part of Prairie Cajun territory, near the town of Ville Platte. The Park is the venue for the annual Dewey Balfa Cajun Creole Roots Heritage Festival, named after a pioneer of Cajun music. The festival takes place the weekend after the Festival International de Louisiane. Chicot Park, crisscrossed by a series of lily-covered lakes, is an awesome place to hold a musical gathering and the whole Park resounds with bird calls at other, quieter times.

After a “total immersion” in Cajun Country, visitors start to empathize with the tragic but upbeat heritage of the Cajuns. The Cajuns seem to hold a secret that the rest of us are just learning that this is indeed one of the most nature-blessed places in America.


Atchafalaya Heritage Area

Getting There:
From New Orleans take Highway I-10 or 90.
Continental Airlines flies from Los Angeles to Lafayette via Houston.

Festivals: Festival International de Louisiane will be held from April 26-30, 2006; April 25-29, 2007; and April 23-27, 2008.

The Dewey Balfa Cajun Creole Roots Heritage Festival is held over the weekend immediately preceding the weekend of the Festival International de Louisiane.

Eco-Tourism: America’s largest wetland the Atchafalaya Swamp cuts right through French Louisiana. The area is still largely an untouched wilderness teeming with birdlife and infested with alligators.

Airboat Tours: Cruises of the Atchafalaya are offered by (among others) the following operators:
Marshfield Boat Landing Off Highway 96, Loreauville
(Operates out of New Iberia)

McGee’s Landing and Atchafalaya Basin Tours 1333 Henderson Levee Rd., Henderson (about 30
minutes northeast of Lafayette).