As I drove across the Atchafalaya Basin, cypress knees and moss-draped trees covered the landscape as far as the eye could see. I was only 130 miles from New Orleans but may as well have been in another world.
While Lafayette has often been an unknown backwater to many New Orleanians (some even confuse it with Lafitte), it has long drawn tourists from around the world. As the gateway to Cajun Country, it often serves as a base for exploring the Atchafalaya Basin and the dozens of small towns that run from New Iberia to Mamou.
While the word “Acadiana” was being used in the 1960s, it wasn’t until former-Governor Edwin Edwards signed a bill in 1971 officially designating the 22 parish region as Acadiana, with Lafayette as the de facto capital. It is one of the largest and most diverse areas of the state, encompassing swamps, prairies, dense forests and dozens of small towns such as Eunice, Mamou, Crowley, Ville Platte and Rayne.
Stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the open lands of the Cajun Prairie, Acadiana remains heavily tied to the land, evident in its endless miles of sugarcane and rice fields (which are converted to crawfish farms in the spring) surrounded by swamps and winding bayous. Even the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL) has a swamp in the middle of campus, chockful of snakes, alligators and other wildlife.
RUE JEFFERSON UNDER A BLUE MOON
As the sun started to set, I discovered a small city with a big atmosphere that is home to an up-and-coming nightlife. Dozens of new clubs and restaurants host some of the finest acts Louisiana has to offer. It was only a few years ago that the city’s downtown area was deserted, with the exception of the Friday night block parties known as Downtown Alive!. But the recent explosion of venues is transforming Lafayette into the hottest musical town in Louisiana (outside of New Orleans, of course).
One of the city’s main live music venues, Grant Street Dancehall has been a bastion of musical diversity for the past 23 years, hosting all genres of music from metal to zydeco. Everyone from Boozoo Chavis and Stevie Ray Vaughan to Korn and 311 has graced its stage over the past couple decades. Inside this former railroad depot, I found a small zydeco dance session in progress with a mix of locals and tourists eager to master the footwork and hip-shaking skills that are so prevalent in Southwestern Louisiana. Visitors quickly learn that while New Orleans may be the capital of jazz and second lines, it doesn’t hold a candle in the wind to Acadiana’s love for zydeco and two-stepping.
From Grant Street to Johnson Street, the clean and landscaped Rue Jefferson is quickly becoming a major nightlife destination in its own right. A miniature version of a cross between New Orleans’ Decatur and Frenchmen streets (only cleaner and safer), travelers can find numerous genres of live music here just about any night of the week. It was only a Thursday night when I stumbled into town, but there were hundreds, if not a thousand or more people weaving in and out of the clubs and wandering the sidewalks. While a Spanish-speaking family served cheap eats near a park bench, a rock band took the stage at a club across the street, and a jazz pianist played a small and intimate candlelit lounge. I walked down the block to discover a new dance club with a capacity of 1,000 and almost a dozen bars in between, all preparing for their weekend crowds. The picture couldn’t be further from the perception of Cajun Country as a rural backwater.
As one of Rue Jefferson’s prime music venues, the newly-established 307 Jazz & Blues Club has only been in business six months but it quickly grew to be one of the hottest jazz and blues clubs in the state. I found the front room teeming with young professionals, while jazz and blues enthusiasts grabbed tables in the intimate and candlit back lounge. In a city that is known for zydeco and rowdy college clubs, no one would have ever guessed that a place like this would have survived, but business has been so good and crowds so heavy that the club is actually in the process of expanding. Just across the street and just as unexpected, I found the local sophisticated well-to-do and James Bond wannabes nibbling on sushi to the sounds of techno music at the Tsunami. It was one of the first establishments to take the risk of opening downtown, and its success has launched a wave of growth.
Towards the end of the block, I found Renaissance Niteclub, a multilevel bar that hosts a variety of acts playing everything from blues and funk to zydeco and rock. It is one of the few clubs that can host a techno dance party one night and live funk and blues from New Orleans the next. It’s not hard to miss the raucous coming from Root Hogs, a rowdy sports bar with a bizarre name that hosts Southern rock and blues acts from all over Louisiana.
One hundred and thirty-six miles may seem quite a ride for a night out on the town, but those who want to crash in Lafayette can always stay at one of the state’s most interesting guest houses. Far from a run-of-the-mill hotel, the Blue Moon Guest House offers private rooms and hostel-style accommodations in an Acadian-style home on the outskirts of downtown, hidden in a residential neighborhood behind a vine-covered fence. I felt as if I were trespassing as I made my way to the funky backyard Blue Moon Saloon. Just about every night of the week, live bands—including acts such as Mike West, Bluerunners and Li’l Buck Sinegal—set up on the back porch and play in a setting that’s more like a backyard barbecue than a bona fide music venue. Every Wednesday night, the Cajun jam draws musicians from all over Acadiana, as well as dancers who come to waltz under the stars.
TWO-STEPPIN’ ACROSS ACADIANA
On the weekends, Lafayette hosts live zydeco at two of the state’s most famous dancehalls, Hamilton Club and El Sid-O’s. Owned and operated by Sid Williams, brother of Nathan Williams (Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas), El-Sido-O’s is known throughout Acadiana as the premier zydeco dancehall. Opened on Mother’s Day 1983, it has since hosted just about every major zydeco artist. Ted Koppel recently featured it on Nightline’s “American Routes” series, and not a week goes by when curious tourists don’t stop by El Sid-O’s or Sid’s One Stop, Sid Williams’ convenience store.
Although they are occasionally more popular with tourists than locals, Randol’s and Prejean’s both have regular live Cajun and zydeco music and dancing, as well as great food. While many zydeco dance halls only open on the weekends, these restaurants are popular standbys, offering music every day of the week.
Further east in Henderson, on the edge of the Atchafalaya Basin, Angelle’s Whiskey River Landing a great place to find a fais do do (meaning “go to sleep” in Cajun French) celebration every Sunday. With the club perched high above the swamp, dancers can peer out into the Basin while shaking their legs to the sounds of zydeco. Should the urge hit you to head out into the wilderness, they also offer boat tours of the Atchafalaya Basin. Back in Breaux Bridge, you’ll find acoustic music at Café des Amis on Wednesdays and their famed Zydeco Breakfast on Saturday mornings.
No event has drawn more visitors to Acadiana than the massive Festival International de Louisiane, the largest outdoor Francophone event in the country. Now entering its 18th year and growing larger with every season, this festival is spread throughout downtown Lafayette and draws visitors from all over the world and acts from just about every continent. Always held at the same time as New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Festival, it’s beginning to steal away visitors who are seeking a less commercialized and crowded event. More than 200,000 people came to the free event this year, and it has become such part of downtown Lafayette that permanent parks and stages have been built around the city for it.
Attracting more than 100,000 visitors to Girard Park, the annual Festival Acadians (September 19-21) celebrates regional culture with food, crafts and Cajun and zydeco music. And for those who have the stamina to two-step for 12 continuous hours, the annual Zydeco Extravaganza often host some of the hottest zydeco acts around.
HEADING OUT ON THE CAJUN PRAIRIE
Lafayette and its vicinity may be the center of attention and de facto capital of Cajun Country, but all across the Cajun Prairie, every small town proclaims to be the capitol of something—Rayne is the “Frog Capital of the World”; Opelousas is the “Yam Capital of Louisiana”; Ville Platte is the “Swamp Pop Capital of the World” and “Smoked Meat Capital of the World”, while Church Point is the “Cajun Musicians Capital” (designated in by the Louisiana State Legislature in 1995 because there are more than 150 Cajun musicians who live in the community).
When most people in Louisiana are drinking their Saturday morning coffee, patrons at Fred’s Lounge in Mamou are drinking their morning beer and two-stepping to traditional Cajun music. It’s a Saturday morning tradition and radio show that has been going strong since 1962 and is broadcast live throughout the Cajun Prairie on KVPI 1050 AM from 9:15 a.m. until 11 a.m. It was only 10 a.m. when I arrived at Fred’s, but most patrons had beers and Bloody Marys in their hands, while manager “Tante” Sue was busy making announcements and dancing with tourists who had come from as far away as Japan.
If drinking first thing in the morning and chasing chickens isn’t your thing, try the Rendez-Vous des Cajuns radio and TV show at the Liberty Theatre in Eunice. Every Saturday night, locals and tourists alike gather to hear Cajun music and humorists who more often than not throw out the compulsory “Boudreaux and Thibodeaux” joke. Down in the “Rice Capital of America” Crowley, the Rice Theatre, one of Cajun Country’s landmarks, hosts country, Cajun and gospel acts on the weekends. The town’s Rice Festival (Oct. 16-18) attracts more than 150,000 people every year and has become one of Southwestern Louisiana’s most popular events.
Heading south out of Lafayette on I-49, I stopped off at Vermilionville, an impressive re-creation of a traditional Cajun village just the way it was back in the late 18th century. Wandering the 23 acres, I found homes reflecting the Acadian lifestyle, costumed craftspeople, interpreters and living historians. They have Cajun and Creole cooking demonstrations three times a day as well as live Cajun music on Sundays.
Further south, through the sugarcane fields in New Iberia—home to legendary Louisiana Sugarcane Festival, Bojangle’s, a popular dance spot, hosts zydeco acts such as Geno Delafose and Doug Kershaw. Those looking for a little peace and quiet can head off to the weaving dirt roads that lead through the 200 acres of the Avery Island Jungle Gardens, a cool hideaway of bamboo forests and bayous filled with alligators and thousands of snowy egrets in “Bird City.” It’s also where countless bottles of Tabasco sauce are manufactured. By the way, each bottle contains at least 720 drops of Louisiana’s hottest sauce.
When you’ve had enough washboard scraping, boudin eating and Cajun culture, consider returning to New Orleans by way of Highway 90/I-49. Running south, parallel to Bayou Teche and the Atchafalaya Basin, it heads to the coastal oil port of Morgan City before cutting through endless miles of swamp and water-logged Houma. Besides the usual shredded truck tires, motorists occasionally encounter shredded alligators.