Story and photos by Melanie Votaw
The Creole and Cajun Culture of Southern Louisiana
While New Orleans is Louisiana’s premiere travel destination, you have to make your way southwest to get an experience of true Creole and Cajun cultures. The two traditions have blended a bit over the years, especially in terms of food and music, but I’ll leave you to discover the true differences when you visit the state. Nobody can explain it better to “ya’ll” than the locals. All you need to know before you go is that southern Louisiana is unique.
My visit this past August began at the L’Auberge Casino Resort in Lake Charles, a small city not far from the Texas border. And the resort is practically a city in and of itself. I got lost a few times trying to find my way around the place. Besides the casino, it has a spa, pool, golf club, plenty of stores, six restaurants, a dessert shop, and meeting facilities on site. The accommodations are upscale, but the property caters to gamblers and families alike.
In addition to the Mardi Gras Museum, the Dequincy Railroad Museum, and the USS Orleck Naval Museum, Lake Charles boasts the Creole Nature Trail, beautiful wetlands that they call “Louisiana’s outback.” There are beaches and wildlife (yes, including alligators), and you can go boating, fishing, and bird watching in the area.
To see other parts of southern Louisiana, I recommend renting a car and taking day trips. There aren’t many luxury hotels outside of Lake Charles or Lafayette, so if top-notch accommodations are important to you, you might want to make your way back to Lake Charles in the evenings or drive through Lafayette toward Charenton, where you can stay at the Cypress Bayou Casino & Hotel. The property is run by the Sovereign Nation of the Chitimacha Indian tribe, famous for their baskets and the preservation of their language. While you’re there, check out their museum on the reservation for some interesting history.
Then, drive for about a half hour to Patterson for the Wedell-Williams Aviation Collection and the cypress sawmill museum. The aviation museum was one of my favorite stops in the state. While the collection consists primarily of replicas of early airplanes, they are stunning, and the history of Louisiana aviation pioneers in the 1920’s (including women) is truly inspiring. The neighboring sawmill museum fills you in on the importance of cypress in the history of Louisiana.
Just 20 minutes away is Franklin, where you’ll find Oaklawn Manor, a 200-year-old estate now owned by former Louisiana Governor Mike Foster. Inside, the governor has an impressive collection of bird decoys and a chair once owned by Napoleon. The grounds include grand oak trees wearing tendrils of Spanish moss.
Also in Franklin is the antebellum Grevemberg House, a historic building with stunning antique furnishings. The guide has worked there for decades and knows just about everything about the home.
As you drive farther east, you will eventually land in Houma, about an hour southeast of Franklin and an hour southwest of New Orleans. Houma is true Cajun country, where you can hear down-home music and find just about everything under the sun battered and fried. Yes, you can eat alligator, fried pickles, shrimp, crab, crawfish, gumbo, and boudin – a type of sausage. Try Boudreau and Thibodeau’s Cajun Cookin’. This is far from elegant dining, but it’s an authentic experience where classic Boudreau and Thibodeau jokes fill the walls.
Twenty minutes north of Houma is the Ardoyne Plantation in Schriever, which is still owned by descendants of the original owners. The plantation’s website says, “This plantation is one of the first post-Civil War operations and is an example of how the South transitioned from slavery to the Industrial Revolution. Members of the Shaffer family are still involved with the sugarcane industry today.” Word is that when they tried to relocate a pair of boots from their original spot, they heard ghostly footsteps. The footsteps only stopped when the boots were returned to their rightful place
Less than a half hour south of Houma is Chauvin, the location of the Kenny Hill folk art Chauvin Sculpture Garden. What’s fascinating about this is that no one knows what happened to Kenny Hill, who abandoned his more than 100 concrete sculptures in 2000. Filled with intense religious imagery, it’s a mysterious place.
Of course, while you’re in bayou country, you have to take a cypress swamp tour. One of the most entertaining is run by Captain Ron “Black” Guidry, aka “Alligator Man” or “Cajun Man.” His covered boat leaves rain or shine from Marina Drive 15 miles west of Houma. He’ll make jokes, play music, and call the alligators and feed them as they leap up to grab meat from a pole. He’ll also tell you about the flora, fauna, and industries of the cypress swamp.
So many people visit Louisiana and think the French Quarter is all there is. While I love the Quarter as much as the next person, there is much more to enjoy in the state, and there’s nowhere else like it on earth.
© October 2014 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.