Story and photos by Babbie De Derian

Lafayette City Sign

The Lafayette, Louisiana Way of Life

“I throw strands of colorful beads to the cheering crowd
as our float rolls through town. I am here to celebrate
Mardi Gras, and the tastes and sounds of Arcadia”

Lafayette, at the heart of Louisiana's Cajun and Creole Country, is an  out-of-the-ordinary destination with a history that dates back to the 18th Century; locals are warm and welcoming, and life revolves around  tradition, family and fun. It is a foodies paradise and a two- step  dancing town known for "letting the good times roll" ... and roll they  did on my recent invite to the greatest free party on earth, a colorful  celebration known as Mardi Gras.

My  American Airlines flight from LaGuardia, with a connection in Dallas, is stress- free, and I arrive in Lafayette refreshed and excited to be  here. My large room at the Hilton Doubletree is well appointed; the  strong massage shower and fluffy towels a welcome treat, and the lobby  bar, a great place for a nightcap.

Lafayette Mardigras

Mardi Gras, established by the Catholic Church, takes place 40 days  preceding Easter. The season of Carnival begins on Jan 6th., known as  the 12th night and the day the Christ child was visited by the three  Kings; with this date comes an old tradition of sharing “King Cakes”.  Usually baked with a small baby token inside, King Cakes are filled with delicious things like pecan pralines, cream cheese, fruit and preserves … and then decorated in the carnival’s official colors: purple for  justice, green for faith and gold for power (selected in 1872 by King  Rex, the King of New Orleans Carnival). Whoever gets the slice with the  token must buy the next cake, and so on and so on. Lafayette residents  celebrate Mardi Gras week with the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras,  balls, pageants, marching bands and eight parades. Krewes (private  social organizations made up of men, women, children and families)  organize and sponsor the floats. Any group of people can pull together to create a krewe as long as it is man powered and the throws are  eco-friendly.

Lafayette Inaugural Krewe de Canailles Costume

Friday

The Inaugural Krewe de Canailles is a walking parade made up of individual sub-krewes. When the parade is  over, we follow the New Native Brass Marching Band and the Lost Bayou  Ramblers straight to the door of Warehouse 535 for the afterparty. The  room quickly fills with revelers dressed in outrageous costumes and  masks; it is a party to end all parties, and I get caught up in the  fantasy of the moment. 

Lafayette Tabasco Bottles

Saturday

"Tabasco in any language translates as "good flavors and good times". TABASCO pepper sauces have been made on Avery Island for 150 years. Every chef  worth his pepper sauce has a favorite Tabasco flavor. We follow the  process with a tour that takes us from the growing of the peppers in the hothouses to the harvest, mashing, processing, tasting and bottling. We let our taste buds guide us at the tasting bar before purchasing our  favorite. Avery Island is also home to one of the world's most  beautifully preserved nature sanctuaries with plants and flowers from  around the world, alligators, deer, snowy egrets, bears and bobcats. 

Lafayette Rip Van Winkle House

The Rip Van Winkle Gardens, a magical setting and a recognized jewel in Arcadia, tells the story of  Lake Peigneur and the Joseph Jefferson Home. It was built in 1870 as a  winter hunting lodge for Joseph Jefferson, a painter and 19th century  actor who played the part of Rip Van Winkle over 4500 times on stage. We stroll the gardens where peacocks roam freely, join a scheduled tour of the house, and then lunch on Cajun and Creole fare at Café Jefferson.

Lafayette Grouse Room

7:00 P.M.

The Krewe of Bonaparte Parade rolls through town, and we are in the VIP  viewing stands shouting for our share of Mardi Gras beads. After the  last float passes, we head off to The Grouse Room, Lafayette's newest  venue and the place to be tonight; Jamie Bergeron & The Kickin  Cajuns, one of the most popular acts along the Gulf Coast, are there  jamming, and I get a chance to practice and perfect my two-step.  Lafayette's Dance Halls and live music venues are very much a way of  enjoying life to its fullest; Miller's Zydeco Hall of Fame, with its weekend line-up of the most famous musicians on the zydeco circuit, attracts the biggest crowds.

Sunday

We take a stroll back in time with a visit to Vermilionville, a 23-acre  restored historic village that depicts Arcadian and Creole Culture from  1765 to 1890; their performance center features live music every Sunday

Lafayette Sans Souci Gallery

The San Souci Gallery, home to the Louisiana Crafts Guild, was voted one of the top places to shop in the South. Steeped in local history, it is a  treasure trove of original artisan pottery, jewelry, glass and textiles. I am attracted to the work of three times US Pottery Olympics  Champion Bruce Odell who uses RAKU, an ancient Japanese fast-firing  technique, to create a spectrum of metallic color.

Lafayette Lake Martin Bird Sanctuary

Monday

The road to Lake Martin Bird Sanctuary is magical. The bleak cloudy sky  intensifies my emotions as we rumble down a dirt road, muddy from a week of rain. White egrets flit by; a flash of a grey deer catches my eye;  surreal trees with sculptured branches and empty bird nests rise from  alligator mating sanctuaries. Cory Werk, founder of Bayou Teche Experiences, helps us slide our canoes into the water, and then leads us on a  fascinating informative mini-expedition through the alligator swamp  habitat.

Lafayette Annual Lundi Gras Boucherie

In the afternoon, we drive inland to the town of Eunice, in the farming Parrish of St Landry. We’ve been invited to their Annual Lundi Gras Boucherie, a celebratory pig roast that is held in a huge barn at Lakeview RV  Park. Tradition began as a way to survive the winter months with plenty  of food; today it is a community celebration that begins with a live hog butchering and dishes prepared by local chefs. When we arrive, parts  are being stirred into huge caldrons; ribs and chops slow cooking in the outdoor smokehouse. We buy $2.00 tickets and wait in line to be served  every part of the pig, which we wash down with Turbo beer. It is a  festive afternoon; the zydeco band has the crowd stomping and twirling.

Lafayette Lakeview Zydeco

The Queen Evangeline Parade and the prestigious Krewe of Gabriel, bills itself as the most fun filled  and family-oriented Mardi Gras celebration in the South. Founded in  1934 by local businessmen to coordinate and expand Mardi Gras  celebrations in Lafayette, today, they give more than financial support: actively selecting the bands, assisting in the production of the  pageant, Ball and parade, and as a liaison with local government  agencies. The Mardi Gras Ball of Tableau, symbolizes and reunites  Arcadian sweethearts King Gabriel and Queen Evangeline, separated during the expulsion of the Arcadians from Nova Scotia, immortalized in  Longfellow's Evangeline.

Lafayette Eunice Courir de Mardi Gras

The Eunice Courir de Mardi Gras, a rural Fat Tuesday tradition, (also known as “the running of the  chicken”) dates back to when the town was first established in the 19th Century. This celebration is rooted in early “begging rituals”; riders  on horseback, wearing clothes, made from collected scraps of fabric, and whimsical masks to hide their identity, went from house to house  soliciting “donations” of food items needed to prepare a community  gumbo. In response, farmers would release a chicken saying “if you catch it, you can have it”. The modern enactment of this tradition brings  more than 2,000 members of the community and friends out for a day of  mischief and fun; a highlight being the “release and running of the  chickens€”. It is not easy to catch a squawking chicken as it runs  frantically around the field, but who ever does, gets to keep it. People dressed in colorful costumes, wearing tall cone shaped hats and scary  masks, gather on foot, horseback and on flatbed trucks to ride or walk  through the fields, farms and town. The challenge is to be  unrecognizable and not talk so you can act silly and do things without  anyone knowing who you are.  It is a day of outrageous antics, and a  highlight of my visit. 

After a week of experiencing a few of Lafayette’s not-to-be-missed attractions,  it is my turn to be part of a Krewe and throw beads to the crowd.

Jim Richard, an active humanitarian is all about giving back to the  community. Known as the Godfather of comedy, Jim produces the Cajun  Comic Relief, an annual charity event, and sponsors a Mardi Gras Parade  float. He graciously invites us to ride on his float. Once on-board, we  open hundreds of bags filled with colorful strands of Mardi Gras beads;  hang them on hooks; adjust our masks and begin flinging strand after  strand into the energized crowds that line the streets... a ritual that  dates back to the 1870s. As our float continues its three - hour  procession through town, thousands of cheering parade goers shout “throw me something Mister/Sister”, to get my attention; I am surprised at  how adept everyone, including children, are at catching the beads.

Lafayette Dancers

Our farewell dinner at Randol’s is a touching ode to Lafayette’s gracious  Southern hospitality. Platters of raw oysters, crawfish boil and crab  cakes are brought to the table; we sip our last glasses of wine,  toasting to a memorable Mardi Gras.

Lafayette, steeped in tradition and history, is all about its people; with its full calendar of indoor and outdoor activities, it’s a special place to be  any time of the year. The melodic and moaning stories their Cajun music  tells will pull at your heart strings; their rhythmic Zydeco music will  have you stomping the two- step, just as I did with a tall handsome  cowboy.

To quote Ben Berthelot, Executive Director of the CVB, “We invite you to come see why we were  voted the happiest city by the Wall Street Journal. Our people are some  of the nicest around; our culture shines through our music, food and  festivals, and I love that my kids are able to grow up in such a  culturally rich environment. We promise you will leave with your belly full and a smile on your face” - which is exactly what I did.

For more info on Lafayette and Eunice:

www.lafayette.travel.com

www.cajuntravel.com

 

 

 

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