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
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,
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
Atchafalaya Heritage Area
Getting There: From New Orleans take Highway I-10 or
Continental Airlines flies from Los Angeles to Lafayette via
Festivals: Festival International de Louisiane
will be held from April 26-30, 2006; April 25-29, 2007; and April
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).