Why a Louisiana Trip is Different — in All the Right Ways

Aug 14, 2019

Laissez les bon temps rouler. Let the good times roll. Five little words that say a lot about why you need some Louisiana in your life. First, as an unofficial state motto, what’s not to love? By all means: Bring on the good times, asap.

Second, the language—i.e., francais. There aren’t too many places you can go in the U.S. that make you feel as if you’ve traveled truly abroad. But Louisiana, with all its French holdovers (and please let us remind you, they include beignets) often makes you feel like you’ve not only left the States, but also occasionally, this dimension—and we mean that in the best possible way.

Life just seems to rotate on a different axis here, where any hour of any day might bring a no-holds-barred parade that you’re fully expected to join (more on second lines soon), and an entire season is dedicated to Carnival (more on that soon, too)—and “suck the heads, pinch the tails” is an utterly appropriate thing to say in polite company (and yes, we’ll explain that in a minute as well).

Point is, this is the kind of place you travel to when you need a real change of pace—and we’ve got just the lineup of only-in-Louisiana experiences for you.     

Louisiana foods and the fall festivals that celebrate them

If—on arrival—you followed your appetite straight to the richest gumbo, creamiest étouffée, best-dressed po-boy, and (here’s where all the head-sucking and tail-pinching come in) juiciest crawfish, you’d be doing things right. Louisiana’s cuisine is arguably the most direct route to the surreal state of being you’re going for here. So, by all means: Park yourself in front of the first heaping platter you find of freshwater crustaceans that look and taste like tiny lobsters—then pick your starter, twist off the head, suck the spice, peel the top layer of shell, pinch the tail, pop the meat in your mouth, and boom: You’re practically a local. Granted, crawfish boils are a seasonal activity, and they tend to kick off around the same time as Carnival (see below). And though they may show up as early as November in particularly warm years, certain foods are guaranteed in the fall—thanks to a whole lineup of festivals

In September, in the oldest permanent settlement of the Louisiana Purchase, you’ll find the Natchitoches Meat Pie Festival, a celebration of the official state meat pie. Stuffed with ground beef and pork, onions, peppers, and garlic, the deep-fried hand pie has been a regional obsession since the late 1700s—and is now served up with hot air balloon rides, beer and live music (or at least during the festival).

Now flip to October for two epic food fights: First, the 30th annual World Champion Gumbo Cookoff in New Iberia, whose contestants would get the boot for even thinking of bringing a pre-made roux (pronounced “roo,” this essential element of gumbo is taken way seriously) and second, the Boudin Wars, a yearly event in Sulphur, where local chefs competing for the “Best Boudin in Southwest Louisiana” title. Your ticket scores you generous samples of boudin (the state’s trademark sausage, often filled with rice, onions, and green peppers) and a chance to vote for your favorite. Come November, hit the trifecta in Monroe: The Blues, Brews and BBQ Festival. That’s a powerful combination. Also in November (we warned you Louisiana was different!), there’s the Giant Omelette Celebration in Abbeville, a tradition honoring an old legend: While traveling near Bessieres, France, Napoleon once ate an omelette so tasty that he ordered the townspeople to gather all the local eggs and prepare an omelette large enough to feed his army. So now, every year, Louisiana chefs whip up a 5,000-egg omelette (and a 600-egg kids’ version).

Still hungry? Good, because New Orleans—not to be outdone—also delivers some binge-worthy November events, namely the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival (think softshell crab po-boys; escargot po-boys, alligator sausage po-boys; lobster po-boys, and 60 more) followed by the Beignet Fest, where, if you do things right, you’ll be in sugar-powdered carb coma by day’s end.

Cajun/Creole culture

First things first: a quick refresher on what these terms mean, as they’re often—erroneously—believed to be interchangeable. Cajuns are descendants of the French colonists who were expelled from Canada in the 1700s after the Seven Years’ War, many of whom settled in southwest Louisiana, later known as Acadiana. Louisiana Creoles are trickier to define, but they’re generally considered either the descendants of French and Spanish colonists, or a racial combination of white, African and/or Native American. What’s not hard to explain is these French-speaking populations are to thank for an enormous amount of Louisiana culture—food, music, arts—plus a whole lot of joie de vivre.

For an excellent intro to Cajun and Creole culture, attend Lafayette’s Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, a free, three-day music, food, and crafts celebration, with six stages and two dozen local food vendors.

Ready for more immersion? The first step—sorry, pun totally intended—is taking Zydeco Dance lessons, offered each Monday at Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Opelousas, the Zydeco capital of the world. And you must also kick up your heels at a fais do-do (Cajun dance party). The Blue Moon Saloon in Lafayette is always a stellar choice. Once you’ve mastered the steps, time to learn about the instruments behind the music. While fiddle (brought by French settlers to Canada’s Acadia colony in the early 1600s) tends to take center stage, accordion, triangle, and frottoir (washboard vest), are equally notable. Tour Lafayette’s Martin Accordions to see gorgeous the button accordions that have been handmade by three generations of the Martin family and hear the history of Cajun, Creole, and Zydeco music—plus, quite possibly the best tunes of your trip (which is saying a lot).

Dive deeper Cajun culture at the Acadian Museum in Erath, home to rare artefacts and memorabilia—or at Arcadian Books & Art Prints in New Orleans, where you’ll find books in Cajun French (among countless others).

Surely you’re thirsting for more culture, so what are you waiting for? Grab a classic Creole cocktail (which, lest you forget, you can carry down the street). Forget Hurricanes (fruity slushies with guaranteed hangovers) and savor a Sazerac instead. Legend has it the Sazerac, invented in Antoine Amédée Peychaud’s New Orleans apothecary, was the world’s first cocktail—and it’s especially tasty with absinthe from Atelier Vie (open for tastings and tours on weekends).

More of a beer drinker? Visit Bayou Teche Brewery, a discarded railroad car-turned-microbrewery in Arnaudville, to sip some next-level brews (most with Cajun French names, to help preserve the language). Tours are in French and English, and Sundays draw a crowd for jam sessions and bourré games. (Pronounced “boo-ray,” this is the Cajun version of a now-obsolete French card game that came to Louisiana in the early 1800s, took root, and stayed put).

Carnival season

Louisiana enjoys five distinct seasons, and our personal favorite is Carnival. With festivities kicking off on Twelfth Night and rolling through Fat Tuesday, we’re talking weeks of public parades, private parties, costuming, dancing and day-drinking. The biggest event, of course, is Mardi Gras day in New Orleans, but we’ll come back to that.

Why? Because the Mardi Gras merriment isn’t limited to the Big Easy. Throughout the state, you can find infinite celebrations of the lead-up to Lent. Take Shreveport’s Krewe of Barkus and Meoux Parade, in which elaborately costumed pets—mostly dogs, but also cats, goats, donkeys, horses, and pigs—strut their stuff. (And this is cuteness for a cause: The krewe supports programs benefitting animals in need.) Alexandria also throws a rocking—and family-friendly—variation on the theme, with a Mardi Gras Party at the Zoo that includes a children’s parade, costumed characters, and zoo animals.

And to understand Louisiana’s uniqueness on a whole other level, visit small towns like Eunice, Mamou, Church Point, and Grand Prairie, where Fat Tuesday sees masked and costumed horseback riders carrying live chickens, onions, and other sundries. The perfectly logical reason? The point of these signature celebrations, Courir de Mardi Gras, is to score ingredients for a communal gumbo by riding or running house to house. 

Now back to New Orleans, which annually hosts some 60 parades, 800 floats, and 1.4 million revelers—from the tiniest tots to the senior-est citizens. That’s right: Despite what you’ve heard, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras isn’t merely a bacchanal for the Bourbon-Street set. Truth be told, the celebration is mostly a community affair for children, families and neighbors, and has been for some time. To get the historical overview, check out Mardi Gras: It's Carnival Time in Louisiana! This permanent exhibit at New Orleans' The Presbytère—an 18th-century landmark in the middle of Jackson Square—leads you everywhere from a 1699 Shrove Tuesday celebration on the Mississippi to a virtual modern-day float ride, complete with bead-begging crowds in the round.

And here’s another fun FYI: you need not visit the Crescent City during carnival season to catch a parade. Choose any random day or night, and chances are you’ll happen upon one. Second-line parades—honoring weddings, funerals, festivals or fundraisers—abound. In fact, there’s one nearly every Sunday in the fall and spring, complete with brass band playing and members of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs decked in feathered and flowered pastel suits and twirling parasols. A fabulous photo op, for sure, but even better when you’re in the shot. So don’t be shy: Jump in. A “second-line,” by definition, involves those who join the parade and dance along.  

The crazy gorgeous nature

Where else would you willingly sign up to tour a swamp? Of course, Louisiana's swamps are so gorgeous—some verging on mystical fairylands—they may become your favorite experience. The Bayou State—home to the million-acre Atchafalaya National Heritage Area (the nation's largest river swamp)—has hundreds of waterways, with nearly as many ways to see them. Care to drift quietly in your own kayak, birdwatching? Done. Want a breakneck, adrenaline-pumping airboat ride through the bayou? Check. Eco-tours? Hiking trails? Sunset cruises? Yes, yes, and yes. Or maybe you’d prefer to amble well above the swamp (and gators) on an elevated boardwalk? As you wish.

One favorite is Cypress Island Preserve, which is protected by the Nature Conservancy. Think ancient live Oaks, Tupelo Gum, and Cypress trees draped with romantic Spanish Moss and teeming with life: enormous birds, jumping fish, turtles, and gators galore. You can paddle a rented kayak here, or book a two-hour tour through the bayous on Cajun Country Swamp Tours’ environmentally responsible crawfish skiffs. (Always look for companies that operate small, quiet boats and don’t feed the alligators.)

Then there’s the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge, where you can fish, paddle, hike, bike, and camp. The 15,000-acre refuge is home to thousands of wetlands creatures including egrets, herons, and ibis, not to mention loads of fish and gators. You might even spot a Bald Eagle or Louisiana black bear. Want to spend the night? Rent from Houseboat Adventures and fall asleep to strangely soothing swamp sounds.

For a more central swampland, just 17 miles from New Orleans is Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve, with 23,000 acres of bayous, marshes and forests to wander. Take a guided tour or a cell-phone tour of the Barataria Preserve, or simply follow the boardwalks and dirt trails with your eyes peeled for armadillos, otters, opossums, minx, brown pelicans (the Louisiana state bird), and, you guessed it, gators, who sometimes like to bask on the banks.

But arguably the best way to experience a bayou? A party on the water—which is exactly what you'll find at the Shake Your Trail Feather Festival in Breaux Bridge on Oct. 19. A celebration of the 130-mile-long Bayou Teche National Paddle Trail, the music- and dance-fest happens in the Parc des Ponts, where a 19th century bayou bridge doubles as a stage. Bonus points if you rent a kayak or canoe from the Bayou Teche Experience and join the Paddle to the Party—a two-hour boating on the bayou session accompanied by a floating Cajun band. Do this, and there's no question: You've achieved peak Louisiana. 

To start planning your trip today, visit LouisianaTravel.com and order your free travel guide.

This year, Travelzoo is falling for the South. Check out our picks for the best eye-popping autumn colors, entertaining festivals, charming small towns and mouth-watering foodie finds.

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