The southwestern region of Louisiana is officially called Acadiana but most people find themselves saying, “I’m going to Cajun country.” I was drawn to the region’s heritage and hoped to eat Cajun food, listen to zydeco, and maybe head out on the bayou. What I didn’t expect: soul-stirring natural beauty and a unique community with a layered history that continues to thrive and adapt.
I set off for Lafayette Parish which welcomes roughly 3 million people each year. Here, in the center of Acadiana which showcases the region’s fiddle-and-accordion-driven music and cultural events like the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles (October 8-10, 2021).
Whether you’re coming for the weekend or planning an extended stay, the “Happiest City in America” has numerous family-friendly things to do. From foodies, history and cultural buffs, and geocachers to the more adventurous outdoor activities, Lafayette has the perfect experience waiting for you.
Lafayette Parish is surrounded by wetlands, so there’s no better way to experience the area than by boat. Hop aboard a swamp tour via airboat or rent a kayak. It’s also a birding paradise. Visit Bayou Vermilion, Lake Martin, or Avery Island with binoculars in hand. Admire the plant life on the Lafayette Azalea Trail or Avery Island’s Jungle Gardens, a 170-acre complex with azaleas, camellias, and even wildlife. And don’t forget your camera!
Lafayette is known as “The Hub City” because of its proximity to major roadways heading north, south, east, and west that lead locals and visitors to explore smaller towns. Though Lafayette is the largest city in the region, a great portion of its rich culture here is driven by surrounding communities, the gems that makeup Acadiana, a 22-parish (county) region.
Canadians make up the largest group of international visitors which makes sense. The word Cajun is an Anglicization of Acadien, the French Catholic ethnic group that in the 18th century was expelled from eastern Canada (largely Nova Scotia) by the British in what became known as Le Grand Dérangement, or the Great Upheaval. Thousands ended up on the bayous of Catholic, French-speaking Louisiana.
Lafayette Parish has received countless awards for its culinary scene including Southern Living’s Tastiest Town in the South. Where else can you tour a rice plantation, a crawfish farm, a meat market, and a chile pepper growing facility before enjoying a dish that combines them all? Avery Island’s Tabasco Experience is perhaps the best-known foodie attraction. And the area also has its own Boudin Trail (What is boudin? Rice, pork, and spices in a smoked sausage casing, served in links or in boudin balls which are deep-fried cousins of the iconic Cajun delicacy). Don’t miss the opportunity to chow down on dishes like crawfish etouffee, cracklins, and gumbo. The Lafayette area also has both down-home eateries that have been here for decades and new restaurants with modern interpretations of the traditional cuisine.
My first stop was Breaux Bridge, the “Crawfish Capital of the World.” Nestled along the banks of the slow-rolling Bayou Teche, Breaux Bridge is a gorgeous historic town with world-class restaurants and a thriving Cajun music and folk art scene. Conveniently located just off I-10 at Exit 109, nine miles east of Lafayette, Breaux Bridge is a great place to stop off for a meal and an even better place to camp at a local RV park (see below) and stay awhile.
The bridge itself isn’t much to see (though you can’t miss it)—it’s a tall, slightly rusty metal drawbridge that spans the Teche (pronounced “tesh”). The downtown stretch of Bridge Street, though, is adorable. Antique shops, boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants span several blocks; strolling the length of the strip can easily fill an afternoon.
Breaux Bridge is the gateway to authentic Cajun culture in south Louisiana with traditional Cajun and funky Zydeco music, world-famous cuisine, and a rich history filled with interesting stories. Breaux Bridge is home to the world-famous Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival every May (May 6-8, 2022) where thousands converge on the little city to pay homage to Louisiana’s famous crustacean.
Just outside of Breaux Bridge is the gorgeous Lake Martin, a wildlife-filled preserve and rookery that’s protected and administrated by the Nature Conservancy. You can drive or walk along the edge of the lake and see alligators, egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills, nutria, and many more critters of various sizes hiding among the bald cypress and water lilies. There are several tour operators offering boat tours: Champagne’s Swamp Tours dock right at the entrance to Rookery Road and offer an eco-friendly tour experience. You can also rent canoes and kayaks and take your own trip around the lake.
Just a bit further out of town, in the neighboring hamlet of Henderson, you’ll find access to one of the largest swamp ecosystems in the United States, the Atchafalaya Basin. McGee’s Landing Basin Swamp Tours take you into the basin for a look at some of the plants and wildlife that thrive in its murky waters, including the aforementioned gators and wading birds. And it goes without saying, the fishing’s great here and in Lake Martin. They don’t call Louisiana the Sportsman’s Paradise for nothing.
The McIlhenny Company still operates at its original home on Avery Island which is a must-do when visiting Acadiana. Built on a salt dome, it’s a mysteriously beautiful place where the red chile peppers grow, the factory hums, and abundant wildlife can be seen in Jungle Gardens. Tour the history and production of TABASCO Sauce including TABASCO Museum, Blending and Bottling, TABASCO Country Store, and 1868! Restaurant, a casual eatery serving spicy, authentic Cajun favorites and other classic favorites seasoned with TABASCO Sauce. Experience the natural beauty and tranquility of Jungle Gardens, a 170-acre semitropical garden on Avery Island. Enjoy the gently rolling landscape, botanical treasures, and abundant wildlife. Attractions range from beautiful flowers to birds to a 900-year-old Buddha, a magnificent centuries-old statue on the grounds. Thousands of snowy egrets nest in Bird City.
Where to Stay
Cajun Palms RV Resort, Henderson
New in 2009 with paved streets, Cajun Palms offers long pull-through sites that range in length from 55 to 75 feet. Not to be ignored are the back-ins to the lake in the 55-60 foot range. Pull through and back-in sites have 20 feet of space between each concrete pad. Easy-on, easy-off Interstate 10 (Exit 115) at Henderson (near Breaux Bridge).
Poche’s RV Park, Breaux Bridge
Poche’s RV Park is a pleasant and unique location with excellent fishing and birding. RV sites are located on several sides of a pond overlooking the water. Sites are concrete and level and separated by grass. Picnic tables are located at every site with fire rings at every other site. During our last visit, the interior road was in rough driving condition. Top tip: The owners also have a great little Cajun market with a really good restaurant a mile or so away on the road to Breaux Bridge.
Frog City RV Park, Duson
Frog City RV Park opened in 2006. The park is located just off I-10 in Duson, a small town 10 miles west of Lafayette and deep in the beautiful Cajun countryside. With 62 spacious RV sites, Frog City offers Wi-Fi, cable TV, pull-through sites, a swimming pool, coin-operated laundry, and private hot showers that are sparkling clean. Guests receive a unique welcome package upon arrival.
Goodbye joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh
Me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou
My yvonne, the sweetest one, me oh my oh
Son of a gun, well have good fun on the bayou.
—Lyrics and recording by Hank Williams, Sr., 1954