Jaunt: New Orleans to Cajun Country and back
Distance: 817 km
Fuel: 1 1/2 tanks
Duration: 2 days
Prime Time: Winter, when it’s balmy in comparison to your neck of the woods!
Tunes: Undisputed king of the zydeco Clifton Chenier’s 1975 Bogalusa Boogie, which Chenier and his band recorded entirely in one day, or modern Cajun quintet the Red Stick Ramblers’ 2007 record, Made in the Shade.
Even if New Orleans hasn’t fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina, its soulful, bold spirit endures. The whole area is slowly rehabilitating with new residents, architecture and ideas.
The countryside to the west, known as Cajun Country, is used to the extreme weather that batters its coast every year. It’s part and parcel of this unique region with a southern twang and French influence. Ultimately, there’s not a storm that could quell Cajun Country’s disposition for good food, great music and easy livin’.
Leg One: New Orleans to Lafayette (approx. 250 km)
Head west out of New Orleans on Airline Highway (US-61), which flanks the airport to the south. The strip-mall clutter is soon left behind as you climb onto Interstate 310 by way of a stilted on-ramp that soars dramatically before setting you gently down on a swampland road, silhouetted to the left and right by the spooky skeletons of cypress trees. The grey beards they appear to be wearing are Spanish moss. About 16 kilometres west of the airport, you’ll cross the Mississippi River at Luling, then merge onto U.S. Hwy. 90, the main artery that bisects Cajun Country.
Stock up on satsumas and other local fruit at a roadside stand and drive on through the small towns of Boutte and Paradis – New Orleans’s last-gasp exurbs.
Rurality takes over in the parishes (tiny counties) of St. Charles and Lafourche, as you dart across narrow bridges over the ponds connecting Lac des Allemands with Lake Salvador. For lunch, stop at one of the handful of roadside catfish shacks; the fish in these parts is legendary. Around Raceland, a mere 20 km from the lake, the landscape changes dramatically. Now, instead of open water, you’re surrounded by maples, oaks and sweet gum trees. Another 20 minutes past Houma, the road climbs above water again, this time onto elevated concrete columns from which you might spot a few egrets and alligators pottering around in the swamp below.
If you like the melancholy feel of rusted industrial landscapes, spend some time exploring the ports at Amelia and Morgan City, and the dredged canals that allow big ships and equipment to service oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Many poor Cajun families entered the middle class on the back of the 20th-century oil boom. In the ’80s, however, when cheaper sources were discovered, the area drifted back into an economic somnolence that is only kept from total desertion by the continued presence of offshore rigs.
Once past the Atchafalaya River, west of Morgan City, you’ll enter a flatness so vast that the earth’s curve seems mythical. The grasses dwarfing your vehicle (depending on the season of your visit) are in fact sugarcane; the harvest occurs from September to December. During this period, truck-drawn wagons haul the cane to the processing facility as quickly as possible because, as soon as it’s cut, it begins to lose its sugar content. During the harvest, farmers purge the fields of excess leaves and the caramel smell of burning cane fills the air. The moisture-rich roots and stalks, however, remain intact.
One worthy stop, less than an hour from Lafayette, is in the small town of Jeanerette; just make a left on Main Street and follow it until you come to LeJeune’s, the oldest bakery in Louisiana (337-276-5690). When the red light outside is on, it means there’s a freshly baked batch of one of the only two baked goods LeJeune’s produces: crusty French bread made with a little bit of lard, for extra crackle, and the gingerbread logs known to locals as “stage planks.”
Keep going straight and, just out of town, you’ll rejoin Louisiana Hwy. 182 and cruise into New Iberia 15 km later. The highway turns into a beautiful, surprisingly affluent-looking road lined with ancient live oaks and the kind of porches that practically demand a mint julep. This is New Iberia’s Main Street, and eventually it leads to Shadows-on-the-Teche, an antebellum plantation house (think Tara) preserved by the National Trust (337-369-6446; shadows ontheteche.org). It’s now surrounded by private homes whose gardens you can spy across the canal from Shadows’ own diligently landscaped grounds. After a stroll outdoors, wander inside for a guided tour of the plantation house, restored to its original 19th-century splendour.
Make a left on Louisiana Hwy. 14 and another left on Hwy. 329 to head for Avery Island, where Tabasco sauce has been made since it was invented by Edmund McIlhenny in 1868. Although the recipe itself is a secret, the company alleges it still uses the founder’s original formula. Today, as many as 700,000 bottles a day are filled with the hot sauce and packaged in the Avery Island factory, which is open to visitors (1-888-222-7261).
Even more worthwhile are the island’s Jungle Gardens, a 170-hectare expanse of subtropical plants (Japanese camellias, Egyptian papyrus, azaleas) and animals (white-tailed deer, alligators, herons). The refuge was initially set up by McIlhenny for egrets en-- dangered by the fin de siècle affinity for long, white plumes in women’s hats. He started with eight birds, but today thousands return each spring as part of their migration.
Good eats: On the way back to US-90, hit up the Guiding Star restaurant just outside New Iberia for crawfish and crabs boiled in Tabasco-spiced water (337-365-9113), or the Boiling Point, which specializes in soft-shell crab, fried crawfish and thin-cut onion rings (337-365-7596). For a few more options, drive the final 25 clicks to Lafayette for Charley G’s famous crab cakes (337-981-0108), Préjean’s fried oysters or fried crawfish tails (337- 896-3247), or Mulate’s grilled catfish topped with crawfish etouffée (337-332-4648). The latter two restaurants have live Cajun bands playing nearly every night of the week. Good sleeps: Indulge in the oversized bathtubs at the Juliet Hotel, on Jefferson St. (337-261-2225). Local colour: Be sure to catch some music: Grant Street (337-237-8513) and the Blue Moon saloon (1-877-766-2583) are two good options, but the local weeklies, the Times and the Independent, have all the listings.
Leg Two: Lafayette to New Orleans (approx. 566 km)
Head southeast on Jefferson St. and make a left on Pinhook Road, driving the three clicks to T-Coon’s for breakfast (337-233-0422). Try anything on biscuits; they’re so buttery it almost hurts. If you’re feeling especially indulgent, pick up some hot beignets to go. Head to Kaliste Saloom Road, make a right at Broussard Rd., then jog left onto Louisiana Hwy. 167. At Abbeville, springtime is prime crawfish season. Look for Cajun Claws Crawfish on Charity St. (337-893-9437). Otherwise, use the bypass and make a right onto Louisiana Hwy. 14, the Jean Lafitte Scenic Byway, which goes through flat miles of agricultural land where locals on porches are liable to give a slow wave as you drive by, kicking up dust.
At Lake Arthur, stop for a stroll on the boardwalk. The historic downtown is well preserved, as are the heritage homes built around the lake. A turnoff 22 km after
Lake Arthur takes you into the Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge, some 13,000 hectares of marsh populated by nutria, alligator, mink and geese. It’s a popular spot for fishing, hunting, hiking, wildlife observation and boating. Continue on through Hayes, Bell City and, finally, Holmwood. Once there, take a left onto Hwy. 27 and head south to the Gulf of Mexico.
Leave Hwy. 27 behind to travel east on Hwy. 82 through the tiny coastal towns of Oak Grove and Grand Chenier, and through the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, where you can sport fish, cast-net shrimp and crab in season. Continue on through the cattle, rice, crawfish and, yes, alligator farms (the latter are still harvested for their meat and valuable skins) of Forked Island and Esther.
Back in Abbeville, retrace your steps for 26 km until making a left onto Hwy. 3073 on the outskirts of Lafayette’s Ambassador Caffery Parkway. The ugly suburban quality of this road is worth it for the final destination: the Best Stop in Scott, Louisiana (337-233-5805). Follow signs for Hwy. 93 until you arrive. The supermarket is legendary for its boudin (sausage), cracklin’ (fried pig skin), tasso (smoked pork) and all manner of other Louisiana specialty meats. Try the fried boudin balls, which are particularly delicious.
There are two options for getting back to New Orleans: you can retrace your path on Hwy. 90, the scenic option you took into Cajun Country, or you can jet east on Interstate 10, which should put you back in New Orleans in two and a half hours.