Louisiana's Acadiana greets visitors with a heritage
as rich as the darkest roux
By Jean B. Bloom
Cajun Country, a travel destination that is unique to south Louisiana, offers unbounded hospitality to visitors. It's an interesting paradox how people with such a painful history can be so welcoming.
A serene setting at the Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette, where the tumultuous history of Louisiana's Cajuns is reveled./ Bernard Block photo
French-speaking Catholics settled Acadie (now Nova Scotia) in 1605 and lived there under French rule until 1713. Faced with the refusal of the Acadians to pledge allegiance to the British crown and Anglican Church, English Gov. Charles Lawrence, acting on his own without orders from the crown, called for the expulsion of some 18,000 Acadians in 1755.
Few families escaped the tragedies spawned by many desperate years of wandering and rejection in strange environments. More than half lost their lives.
However, the king of Spain allowed the exiles to settle in south Louisiana in 1784. The French aristocracy living in New Orleans was not accepting of the Acadians, who headed west into unsettled territory. They received land grants, settled in and etched their distinctive, centuries-old culture into this new land. Today, a large percentage of Acadianas residents are descendents of original Acadian settlers.
Acadian culture lives in Lafayette
Acadian lore is a magnet for travelers. The culture is obvious in cooking, music, dance, historic landmarks, and replicated villages. Winding bayous and acres of navigable marshes and swamps call to adventurous visitors eager to experience wildlife and water delicacies dear to the Cajun palate.
Acadianas heartland spreads over eight parishes, but its hub is Lafayette. This 180-year-old city offers a range of accommodations, and much of what to see and do is within or close to the city and easily accessed by Interstates 10 and 49 or the Evangeline Throughway.
For the best initial historical overview, start at the Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette, part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. The center is a storehouse of artworks, artifacts, storyboards and interactive exhibits that trace Acadian life. Be sure to see a 45-minute film that dramatically chronicles the shameful agony and pathos of the deportation, and sets the stage for the rest of your Acadiana visit.
Vermilionville, a Cajun/Creole heritage and folk life park, is just down the road from the center. Its 23 acres set with nearly 20 structures are laid out to form an Acadian village that authentically replicates folk life and culture between 1765 and 1890. On various schedules, story tellers and crafts experts shed light about the life and times. An animated Rebecca Begnaud explained to us the Cajun way of healing.
A winding, rustic trail is attractively bordered by indigenous trees and plants, all numbered and described in a fact-filled folder that also details the various structures.
Near the entrance, check out the cooking school. Gertie DeJean, 73, demonstrated how to make jambalaya, and offered samples. Popular Cajun or zydeco dance bands play in a big hall on weekends, and a small restaurant serves typical Cajun and Creole lunches.
On another day, you might want to amble through the Acadian Village, also in Lafayette, another showcase of authentic Acadian homes. Along with eight memorabilia-filled historic buildings, theres a re-created general store, a doctor's office with an 1890s array of medical equipment, instruments and books, and a small Native American Museum with a collection of artifacts from area tribes.
More Cajun sites
St. Martinville, a hamlet just outside Lafayette, is another lore-filled area worthy of a visit. Among a handful of attractions, all set around the town square is the Acadian Memorial, which focuses on the exiles through a large mural, a wall of their names and multi-media shows. The Museum of the Acadian Memorial, located next door, has an extensive display of archival material. The other half of the building houses a newly opened African American Museum
Anyone familiar with Henry Wadsworth Longfellows classic 1847 saga, Evangeline, a heartbreaking tale of young Acadian lovers torn apart by the exiling, will want to see the glorious Evangeline Oak. The story and tree symbolize the tragedies families faced during those turbulent years.
Look for Lennis and Ophe Romero, street musicians who have performed Cajun tunes near the tree for years.
Set aside time for an Atchafalaya adventure. It's North America's largest river basin swamp, and one of the top 10 wilderness areas in the United States.
We hooked up with Coerte Voorhies Jr., a long-time Cajun Country resident and geologist. Voorhies has explored the swamp since he was a child. He's quick with facts and stories, and he knows where the wild things are. Over several hours, his outboard boat sliced through marshes of thick, green duckweed, sped across Lake St. Martin and slid into waters dotted with cypress trees made ghostly looking by hanging tentacles of Spanish moss.
Voorhies and his wife also operate Bois des Chênes, one of the many fine bed-and-breakfast inns in the area. The original building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Good gravy (and much more)
Mama Redell, who teaches cooking and manages Randols Restaurant and Cajun Dance Hall in Lafayette, says good Cajun cooking is all in the roux or gravy base. Roy Lyons is an internationally celebrated chef who owns Chef Roys Frog City Café in Rayne, just west of Lafayette off Interstate 10. Both restaurants are popular with locals and feature the ubiquitous spicy seafood gumbo and main dish staples, like crawfish étouffée, catfish fillet, fried oysters, shrimp and crab cakes.
The two eateries were quite different. Randols is large and rough-hewn, with an offset room featuring local Cajun bands and dancing. Their music has a unique sound that some call bluegrass with a French accent. Get up on the dance floor and someone will take you through the gliding two-step and Cajun jitterbug. No dancing at Chef Roys, but a few slot machines near the bar may tempt your luck.
All together, Cajun Country offers the visitor a lot.
Jean B. Bloom is a contributor from North Miami Beach, Fla.
May/Jun 2002 Issue
|BEFORE YOU GO
For more information, contact the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-346-1958, or visit online at www.lafayettetravel.com.