Whether it’s the rich flavour of crawfish gumbo, the compelling rhythms of a zydeco band, or the delicious tingling of your spine when you meet a ghost, Louisiana is full of sensory delights.
By Eric and Katharine Fletcher
As our headlights pierced the early morning darkness, we spied white puffs resembling cotton balls clustered in the cyprus trees. Suddenly, one, then another ibis burst from its perch and soared aloft, their generous white wingspans looking ghostly in the gloom.
Dawn had come to Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Swamp. The creatures were stirring. We were passing by the first of many ibis rookeries, where the great white birds roost together for safety at night.
We were a handful of explorers intent upon discovering how swamp critters rise and shine come morning time. Boarding a broad, shallow-draught motorboat, we quietly nudged our way through the cyprus-filled waterworld. For that is what the swamp is: as far as our eyes could see, the broad expanse of water was punctuated by trees draped with strands of Spanish moss.
Our adventure, the first of our four-day trip to Lafayette, introduced us to our first sensory Louisiana smorgasbord. For here in the swamp, we were treated not only to first-ever, close-up views of flora and fauna. Birdsong filled the air as the sun rose. The pungent smell of the swamp embraced us at one (and only one) protected spot. And the rough texture of the cyprus, tupelo and button-bush trees growing in the water created a texture inviting our touch.
As we navigated through the trees, we grew intimate with the creatures of the swamp. Those “cotton ball” ibis were everywhere but now they were statue-like, on stilt legs, hunting frogs and fish for breakfast. Brilliant balls of scarlet and pink puffs in the trees suddenly took to the air and, silhouetted against the azure sky, we could see why they are called roseate spoonbills. Their long thin beaks have an improbable-looking round tip, resembling a soup spoon. All the better for digging about in the muck for food!
Returning to land, we drove to our next adventure, the exploration of historic St. Martinville – the home of Evangeline. This village boasts a history that connects Canada to Louisiana, for here we found the Acadian Memorial, the Evangeline Oak, Longfellow-Evangeline State Commemorative Area and the St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church with its poignant statue of the love-torn Evangeline.
Southern Louisiana is a must-see holiday destination for any Canadian intrigued with Canada’s history. For it is here that many Acadians came to live after their horrendous expulsion from the Maritimes in 1755. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow spun his epic poem, Evangeline, around this historic dislocation of a people and destruction of a way of life. His romantic tale tells how two lovers, Evangeline and Gabriel, are separated. Throughout her life, the troubled heroine seeks her beloved, only to find him years later on his deathbed.
The people of St. Martinville tell a different tale. And they should know, for these Acadian descendents, called Cajuns, (a derivative of “Acadians”) claim kinship with the real “Evangeline” and “Gabriel.” Emmeline Labiche and Louis Arceneaux were the star-crossed lovers and it is here in St. Martinville that Emmeline discovered her Louis after years of searching, beneath the branches of this ancient oak tree. Her delight crumbled when Louis revealed he had married, despairing of ever finding his beloved Emmeline. The sadness engulfed her and she died of a broken heart.
The tale is so interwoven into the story of the Acadians that it is impossible... and perhaps unimportant... to separate fact from fiction. For what is important is the celebration of courage, determination and dignity. We cannot help admiring how Cajun traditions flavour this part of Louisiana.
It’s a flavour that permeates the cuisine… and music. Where else can you find that spicy mix of hot peppers, crawfish, okra, tomatoes and rice that’s known as gumbo? Whether it’s alligator, spiced sausage or crawfish that you try, the flavour is tastily piquante.
Meanwhile, the music compels you to dance. At Vermilionville, a 23 acre living history museum of Acadian/Creole life, a dance troupe called Renaissance ‘Cadienne keeps old-style dances, songs and music alive. Men and women dressed in homespun clothing performed the Danse Ronde, a Reel from Nova Scotia, and a Québec wedding dance called La Bastrange.
Later that night, after dining on Creole elk and a delectable filet of alligator wrapped around a crabcake, we went to the El Sido’s Zydeco and Blues Club. Wow. Zydeco music is contemporary Black Creole music native to south Louisiana. We cannot imagine anyone not leaping up and dancing to it: certainly the entire dance floor was packed when we were there.
It’s the frotoir, or metal washboard, that adds the special spice to zydeco. Imagine a raspy-sounding beat that gets into your bones and that’s it: it just asks your body to move to the music that sounds like a little bit of blues with a shake of New Orleans jazz and spiced with some gospel.
Our final “must-see-and-do” tip for a well-rounded visit to Lafayette is a visit to Chretien Point Plantation. One of the few French-style plantation houses left, the main living area is on the second level, with full-width balconies – called galleries – where you can enjoy the evening breezes well above the grounds below. Now a B&B, its rooms are spacious and filled with period furniture… and the ghost of Felicité Chretien. Men beware: she loves to tempt you into playing a hand of cards... women be cautious with your jewellery, for she has a good eye for gems.
The once-cotton plantation is no more and, when present owners Louis and Jeanne Cornay purchased it as their dream home-in-the-country, it was so neglected and forlorn that cows wandered its ground floor. Now completely refurbished, the historic home resembles Tara of Gone with the Wind fame, complete with a tale of how Felicité Chretien (a distant relative of our prime minister Jean Chretien) shot a pirate on her sweeping staircase…
So many tales. So much to intrigue and excite the senses. So much living history that entwines our two countries. Lafayette in Southern Louisiana is the place to go for an unparalleled sensory delight.
And if all of the above hasn’t whetted your appetite for visiting Cajun country, make your way to the Jazz Festival in Montreal during the first two weeks of July. Just as they have in past years, the state of Louisiana will be sponsoring a stage and will have a great variety of Cajun and Zydeco musicians to help give you that extra boost!
We took American Airlines from Ottawa to Lafayette via Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth. We hear that Air Canada is planning to increase the size of jet for its Toronto-New Orleans flights. From New Orleans, Lafayette is about a 2 hour drive.
Chretien Point Plantation, 650 Chretien Point Road, Sunset, LA 70584, (318) 662-5876 or 1-800-880-7050 with bed and breakfast from US$95.
Where to eat
Prejean’s Restaurant, 318-896-3247, for unforgettable Cajun-French food and live music.
Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission, 1-800-543-5340, www.lafayettetravel.com. Ask these extraordinary helpful folks for information on St. Martinville, the Atchafalaya Basin swamp tour, McGee’s Landing restaurant and boat tours, and even how you can tour a crawfish packing plant!