Lafayette, Baton Rouge and New Orleans: Great Art, Great Food, Great Music
Soon after I arrived for my whirlwind tour of Louisiana Music Festivals, a Lafayette gourmet imparted this wisdom: “I love the food in New Orleans. Just don’t call it Cajun.” Lesson learned. This was, in fact, the first of many lessons I learned during my travels in Louisiana.
There’s more to this place than even I, a long time devotee of the Bayou State’s food and music, would have thought.
First there’s Lafayette -- the small, Southern city with an internationally renowned music festival, great food and all kinds of cultural activities. And Arnaudville -- a sleepy little hidden gem of a town with a diverse artists’ community.
Baton Rouge is known for its music and art, but it was the history that stood out to me. And, while New Orleans could hardly be considered a hidden gem, there is so much more to it than Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras.
Our tour kicked off with the International Music Festival in Lafayette. This festival attracts top musical acts from across the world: we saw Amameresso Agofomma, a traditional Drum & Dance group with fantastic harmonies and great dance routines. It was their first trip to America, and their excitement was contagious.
There are also quite a few native Louisiana bands that celebrate their state’s rich cultural history with their music. I was able to catch Sherman Robertson and Chic Gamine. The standout of the evening was one such native: Marc Broussard.
Broussard is a much loved local boy who made it big, and for good reason. He is a wonderful performer who has stayed true to his Cajun roots. He also brought out a Canadian trio of girls who sang so beautifully that they brought the raucous group to total silence.
Marc Broussard's live performances are even better than his records. He says so himself, "Every time I come out with a record, they're like, 'It's good but it doesn't do the live show justice.'"
One of the greatest things about Lafayette is its cultural pride: there are murals all over the city by local artists. And the Acadiana Center for the Arts highlights the goings on in town. I wish we could have stayed longer to see a few exhibits or concerts. Their website is a great place to look when you're planning a trip to the area. It's got links to the best places in town.
There's Jolie's Louisiana Bistro in Lafayette, which serves upscale Cajun food. Their Andouille hash browns are to die for.
Andouille is actually a type of sausage that the French brought with them to Cajun country and it's used in everything: jambalaya, soups, rice and beans and, notably, hash browns. It's a local standby but, luckily, it can be shipped anywhere if you to to cajunsausage.com.
A Zydeco Breakfast
After a late night of loud music and Jack Daniels cocktails, the best remedy is a good breakfast. Lucky for us, there is a Cajun breakfast tradition for just such a thing; a Zydeco breakfast.
Started by the farmers in the area who didn’t have time to party in the evening, a Zydeco breakfast starts early, around 8:00 am. Despite the untraditional hour, it’s still a party. Good drinks, good food and dancing until late… in the morning.
We had our Zydeco breakfast at Café Des Amis in Breaux Bridge, and it was one of the top three meals of a trip full of meals. If you are lucky enough to go to a Zydeco breakfast, come early. The lines are often long but it’s worth the wait for the hearty, traditional Cajun food.
Cajun culture is central to the part of Louisiana that surrounds Lake Charles. The word “Cajun” is a derivative of “Arcadian.”
Arcadians were the largest group of settlers in the area around Lake Charles in Louisiana. Originally from France, they started a settlement in Canada but they were soon chased out, so they headed south to Louisiana.
Throughout the years their French roots have mixed with the myriad of other cultural presences in the area. The result is a culture that’s unique and an incredibly strong presence in Louisiana.
Even streetside diners show off their Cajun roots with dishes like Eggs Sardou (poached eggs with creamed spinach atop artichoke hearts and hollandaise sauce) and sweet potato pancakes, which we were lucky enough to have at Café des Amis’ celebration.
An Exceptional Town
The best part of that party was that afterwards, we still had the whole day ahead of us. And we spent it in a small town called Arnaudville.
A town as far off the beaten path as Arnaudville may not seem enough to warrant a whole day, but it is an exceptional town. There are fantastic art galleries, great restaurants and a rich culture.
We were treated to a meal by Maureen Little, of Virtual Bistro Catering that knocked our socks off. Grilled vegetable salad and homemade jambalaya with Louisiana rice with sweet mint water -- I didn’t care how full I was, I made room.
Little’s meals are made of the freshest, local ingredients, and eating them conjures up images of leisurely summer days whiled away on big Southern porches.
The Pulse of the Art World
One such porch could be found at the bed & breakfast we visited next. Bed & breakfast is a bit of a misnomer for Bayou Blues: it’s also an artists’ studio and gallery. The artists’ presence is everywhere, which adds a touch of luxury to the otherwise spare rooms.
Furthermore, the art is diverse and progressive. Bayou Blues has partnered with a larger gallery down the street, the Steeplevue Gallery, that really has their finger on the pulse of the art world. Check them out on Facebook.
Going in there is a great look into the future of the art world, which I certainly didn’t expect to find in Arnaudville, pop. 1,398. But then again, I quickly learned to expect the unexpected on this trip.
This is not to say there weren’t signs of the good old fashioned South: the porch at the bed & breakfast looks straight onto the bayou, and the view is spectacular.
Meals are served on this porch, and the proprietress cooks good, simple fare that would warm the cockles of any world-weary traveler’s heart.
And for any wandering minstrels passing through, there’s a stringed instruments studio, Tom's Fiddle and Bow, next door. There you can repair your instrument or get a new one. There are also regular jam sessions, classes and impromptu concerts going on to satisfy your local music fix.
The photographs scattered throughout the studio would make any classic-rock lover swoon before he even hears the stories that go with them. Believe me when I tell you, the owner has some good ones.
I trust our tour guide when she says that of all the towns surrounding Lafayette, this is the one not to miss. There was so much we didn’t get to see -- the theater that’s being built now, the antique shops, and the city buildings that are being restored.
But the best part is the people: they are so happy to welcome visitors into their community, even if only for a day.
On to Eunice
After Arnaudville we pressed on to Eunice, which has the Liberty Theater. This theater is the original Grand Old Opry. Every group that performs there signs the wall backstage, and it’s an autograph collector’s dream.
In its heydey, this theater played host to Fattie Arbuckle, Tex Ritter, Jimmy Clanton, The Bowery Boys and Roy Rogers.
Cajun music may have faded from the mainstream, but this hall still does a great business and gets audience members from around the world. Some of their more recent acts include Corey Ledet, Lost Bayou Ramblers and Tee-Joe Romero and the Big Road Playboys.
The town of Eunice also has some great festivals, especially for foodies. The Crawfish Festival, the Peaches Festival, the Jambalaya Festival, are just a few good ways to spend a day in Eunice.
We passed by dozens of towns just as interesting as Eunice and Arnaudville, so when you’re planning a trip to Lafayette, be sure to set aside a couple of days for the surrounding areas. You’ll be glad you did.
The Main Attraction is the Blues
In Baton Rouge we stayed at the Marriot Hotel, which has a great bar and food that you’d never guess came from a hotel. Everything was delicious, and the servers went above and beyond.
That said, if you’re in Baton Rouge, you should absolutely get out of the hotel for meals. There are so many great restaurants with po' boys, sausage and rice, and delicious ribs. The dining area at the Blues Festival alone set me back a few meals.
Of course, the main attraction at the Baton Rouge Blues Festival is, obviously, the blues. I was lucky enough to see Bobby "Blue" Bland, Charlie Musselwhite, Troy Turner and the immortal Percy Sledge and the Aces.
I just couldn’t step away from the stage. Sitting in front of Bobby’s performance with a giant cup of sweet tea is one of my top ten moments throughout the whole trip.
The music and the crowd were electrifying: everyone’s dancing, the night air is the perfect temperature, and Huey Long’s castle is a fitting backdrop.
Huey Long's Castle
You can't go anywhere in Baton Rouge without finding evidence of their most famous (or, some would say, infamous) governor. His capitol building is visible all over town and it is definitely something to see. He built it during his reign as governor and was assassinated outside of it.
Say what you will, the man had style. It’s a gorgeous building and the view from the top is a panoramic of the city.
I took a break during the festival and found another great historical building: the Old Governor’s Mansion. Their mission is to preserve the history of Baton Rouge and their exhibits are great: artistic, compelling and still true to the story of Louisiana’s capital.
Of course, the best place to discover Baton Rouge’s history is the Louisiana State Museum. It’s got great, modern architecture (think big glossy floors and fountains) and a wide range of exhibits about all of Louisiana and its diverse residents. I’m not much of a museum girl, but I could have spent all day there.
The music was, of course, fabulous, but the food was definitely the main attraction of the trip. So after a long day of museums and blues, I was in the mood for a po' boy. For those not in the know, a po' boy is a type of sandwich which has some type of fried meat (I recommend crawfish), lettuce, tomato and a sauce of the restaurant’s choosing.
It's a creamy, spicy concoction that I’ve tried to recreate myself at home with no success. It’s definitely a prerequisite for a successful Louisiana trip. I had several over the course of the trip, and that first one was the best of the bunch.
Baton Rouge was a great stop -- there’s nothing like late nights with old blues singers to cure what ails you.
A Happy Camper
That said, I was one happy camper when we rolled into New Orleans. This city has something for everyone; it is what you make it.
There are many that just want to come enjoy the libations on Bourbon Street and leave with knickknacks and Mardi Gras beads (which festoon the streets year round), and there’s plenty of room for them.
But there’s also room for those that want hidden antique stores and little boutiques. History buffs, music freaks, foodies, and adrenaline junkies alike can have a great time in New Orleans.
We stayed at Hotel Monteleone, a five star hotel in the gorgeous French Quarter with a rooftop pool and a world famous bar. The rooms are something out of eighteenth century France, but with huge TVS and prompt room service.
I am always a proponent of getting out of the hotel on vacations, but their brunch is something worth staying in for -- the eggs Benedict and bananas Foster are the best I’ve had.
Of course, when you do get out of the hotel, there are tons of options. For upscale Creole food, try Arnaud’s. It’s fantastic, and the murals on the wall depict some of New Orleans’ more colorful lore.
For breakfast, Café Du Monde is a must, but I recommend getting it to go: the sitting area is crowded and the service is slow. But there’s a lovely park across the street and café au lait and beignets are the perfect picnic.
Now, if the weather is bad or if you’re just in the mood to sit at real tables, on the other side of the square from Café Du Monde is That Café. That Café has the best food and the slowest service in New Orleans. Of course, it’s worth the wait since their seafood is so fresh and the hollandaise sauce has a great kick to it.
And the Music
Having gone on for so long about the food, I feel obliged to mention the whole reason we were in town: the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. A ticket to this festival is a bargain: there are four stages, all of which have first class acts. Dave Matthews Band, Erykah Badu, Etta James and Wilco were among the headliners this year.
Anyone who takes the time to wander away from the main stage can find some equally entertaining acts: my favorite was Mavis Staples. She and her family were in a band that toured with Martin Luther King as he traveled around the country spreading the good word, providing people with the inspiration they needed to make a change.
Her performances reflect that desire to constantly improve, to keep striving. "We've got to keep pushing to make the world a better place," she says. "Things are better but we’re not where we need to be and we’ll never turn back."
The music schedule is chock full of great acts. The hardest part is deciding who to see.
It was just as hard to tear myself away from the booths and exhibits: they’re distributed by geographic area. There’s a Native American section, an African section and a native New Orleans section.
There are local artists and vendors distributed throughout, and supporting them is rewarding for everyone involved.
The art and the wares are beautiful and so full of the local spirit and joie de vivre. The best part is that in these modern times most of the artists have websites and can ship across the country.
A Few Tips
There are a few things that will ensure you a good time at the Jazz Fest. One is sunscreen: it is always hot in New Orleans, and walking around in the sun can cut short your visit so bring some along and wear a hat while you’re at it. Even the most experienced tanners could get burnt.
The other is water and sweet rose tea, which can be bought once inside. There are restrooms everywhere, so there’s no reason not to stay hydrated. I also recommend going to the Fest at least two weekends in a row. They spread the headliners out across three weeks, and I was mighty sad to miss two out of those three weekends.
After a long day out in the sun buying art and seeing fabulous musicians I was sorely tempted to fall into the down feather bed at the Hotel Monteleone but I’m glad I pressed on.
Nighttime is the right time in New Orleans so long as you’re careful and travel with at least one other person. Bourbon Street wasn’t for me, but the main drag is fantastic.
There are carts selling late night fuel: po' boys, tacos and water. We went to Whatever, the and a local told me it's one of New Orleans best kept secrets. I thought it was one of the weirdest places I’d ever been but the drinks are good and cheap so I loved it anyway.
The Big K
When I got back from my trip, the first thing people asked was about the Big K: Katrina. They wanted to know whether they were still rebuilding, how they were recovering and was it the same city.
Here’s what I told them: yes, they are rebuilding, and they are slowly recovering. No, it’s not the same city but it’s still a great one. It may be even better having come through this incredible tragedy without losing its spirit.
The lower Ninth Ward is a hard place to visit, but it’s so worth it. There are houses going up all the time, and no one is idle; they’re always working, always moving.
Of course, there’s still a lot to be done, and many will never return. It’s been almost five years since they were displaced from their homes, and they’ve built lives elsewhere. But the important thing is not how far there is to go, but how far they have come already and with very little help.
I’ve always known that New Orleans was a remarkable city, and now I know it’s part of a remarkable state.
The Louisiana way is a warm, welcoming, progressive and surprising way of life. One of my fellow travelers said, “Well, I know this is one hell of a place because I’d move here in a second.”
I agree, but I couldn’t begin to decide which city since each one was better than the next.
Read more GoNOMAD stories by Sarah Banks Hartshorne:
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Louisiana
Like this on Facebook: