If you want to drive a New Orleanian crazy, call us Cajun.
It’s the nail-on-the-chalkboard equivalent of calling our beloved city “Nawlins” or putting kale in gumbo.
While these compliments are well-intentioned when visitors proclaim how much they love our Cajun culture or how spicy our Cajun food tastes, it takes all of my New Orleanian self-control to hold back many an eye-roll in these conversations.
To set the record straight, New Orleans culture hails to Creole roots – a beautiful and colorful menagerie of French, Spanish, Native American, African and the Caribbean. Cajuns are our next door neighbors and friends in southwest Louisiana and who deserve credit for their own vibrant culture and history.
Given that both cultures developed in part to distinguish their French heritage and devout Catholic faith, it is easy to see why tourists easily mix the two when visiting south Louisiana.
Although I’ve lived in New Orleans all my life, I never took the time to visit our Cajun cousins next door and dive deeper into their captivating culture and history. With our girls off of school for Fall break, we decided to pack up our car and head southwest to learn more about the culture of New Orleans’ mistaken identity.
With only three days to pack in as much history and culture as possible, we decided to narrow down our scope to one activity a day with plenty of food options that still make my mouth water just thinking about them.
Taking the scenic Highway 90 over the Interstate is a must – first it’s often quicker due to high volumes of traffic in Baton Rouge, but it also puts you in the right state of mind for Cajun country. Time moves slower down on the bayou and for good reason – taking time to soak in all the history and culture, from the very Cajuns themselves, can be an experience of itself. After making the hour and a half drive, we stopped off in New Iberia to visit Jefferson Island. After a longer car drive than they were used to, my girls loved being able to stretch their legs and run throughout the beautiful Rip Van Winkle Gardens. The history of the island is both charming and mysterious with legends of buried pirate treasure, a guided tour Victorian Jefferson mansion and the chaos surrounding a drilling accident in 1980. A rig pierced one of the giant caverns of the Diamond Crystal Salt Mine, flooding the entire mine and resulting in a vortex that swallowed the lake, 65 acres of native wood land, a welcome center, a glass conservatory, and a new home just built on the lake. Although the local dining spot on the property, Jefferson Cafe, was closed when we were there, but I have it on good authority from everyone we encountered that we need to make the trip back for the crabmeat au gratin alone.
A trip to Cajun country without stopping to visit Avery Island is like visiting New Orleans without seeing the French Quarter. Most commonly known as the birthplace of Tabasco pepper sauce, Avery Island has been owned for over 180 years by the Marsh, Avery, and McIlhenny families. Taking a tour of the museum and factory and getting to sample some unconventional pairings like strawberry ice cream with a dash Tabasco and learning more about the unique settlements of the island are fascinating. After a tour of the factory, drive through the lush Jungle Gardens, but take time for frequent stops to let your little ones run underneath the mystical Spanish moss and visit the bird conservatory founded by Tabasco sauce heir and conservationist Edward Avery McIlhenny. There is a cafe on the grounds where we enjoyed a glass of wine while sitting on a porch swing, but we stopped at French Press in downtown Lafayette for the most delicious brunch before heading to the island.
Taking an airboat tour of the swamps has been on my bucket list for some time. As a child, I was fascinated by the idea of witches and werewolves, then as an adult watching “True Detective” on HBO, and it’s hard not to imagine all the mysteries those murky waters hold. After researching a few options we went with McGee’s Swamp Tours as they had the most amount of options for tours and types of boats. We were not disappointed. Our guide did not hold us to the timeframe we paid for and spent extra time to show us remote coves where only the sounds of wildlife can be heard. He even made sure we got a front row seat as he introduced us to some of his “friends” in the swamp. (Check out the video below for more) After our tour we enjoyed some fantastic “Cajun fare” of the trip at Pat Fisherman’s Wharf – where we, of course, saw more alligators.
We cannot wait to make a trip back to visit what we missed and the take time exploring places off-the-beaten path. Although our trip was brief, our bellies and our hearts were full after our time in Cajun country. As expected, the culture was rich, the people hospitable and everyone willing and proud to explain their history and heritage to a couple of New Orleans neighbors.
Ça c’est bon sha.