Louisiana's Cajun Coast: Canoeing and Cavorting
By: Kathleen Broadhurst
Between hurricane damage and oil spills Louisiana has had its fair share of disaster. But now the Cajun Coast is in recovery and despite some setbacks Louisiana is pulling tourists back, luring them in with beautiful swamps, fantastic fishing and delicious, safe, seafood.
Deep in Louisiana’s bayous lies a secret. While New Orleans may have clubs, bars and other metropolitan attractions the backwaters of the bayous hides the magic of Louisiana, the heart of Cajun traditions.
South Central Louisiana, namely the parishes of St. Mary and Terrebonne are not only a “sportsman’s paradise” but also a hidden gem for those who seek to explore off the beaten trail and get under the skin of local culture. With delicious cuisine, beautiful wildlife and a welcoming atmosphere this often-overlooked corner of the world has much to offer.
The Cajun Coast is a diverse mixture of peoples and cultures. Here, Native American, African, Caribbean, French, Spanish, and Italian traditions have mixed together to create a blend unique to South Louisiana. No other place in the country will you find this fascinating and delicious combination.
Cajun Coastal Wonders
For those who seek the pure experience of nature and are looking for something exceptional there is no better place than the Cajun Coast. Filled with luscious cypress swamps, the Atchafalaya basin is home to many diverse forms of wildlife.
To get a closer look at some of them spend the day paddling in the swamps with the National Fish and Wildlife Services as your guide. Donovan Garcia is the local expert and his friendly demeanor and knowledge of the Bayou Teche’s waterways is unmatched.
He took me, along with a group of curious explorers, deep into the swamps. Equipped with green canoes, life vests and water bottles we paddled six miles into Bayou Teche’s twisting waterways, cypress tress shaded over the water and Spanish Moss hung off the branches like beards of forest spirits.
Life in the swamps is everywhere you look; two alligators peeked out from under floating plants and a spider as big as my hand clung to a tree trunk. Garcia’s patient explanation of the bayous opened my eyes to the beauty of the swamps.
If you are looking for a less physically demanding experience or one that will show you around at top speed check out Cajun Jack’s Swamp tours.
Cajun Jack is well known to the locals, “ He’s not normal” Jo Ann of Jo Jo’s Café told me. Not normal he may be but he is also filled with knowledge and information about the bayous and the people that inhabit them.
A Bayou born Cajun himself Cajun Jack will take you past the few remaining floating swamp houses, explain the nuances of crawfish fishing and point out where the alligators are, all while yelling at you to sit down and calling every man aboard “Dawg”.
The bayous, Captain Jack explains, are actually the highways of the swamp. The dense and surreal landscape is home to a dwindling number of people as the bayou community shrinks in response to modern convinces and demands. Still there are those who chose to build next to, if no longer on, the water.
As we plied our way down the river the difference between rich and poor was evident. On one side of the river large mansions stood while the other side was a hodgepodge of riverboats, floating houses and shacks.
“See on this side is where the rich people live, “ Cajun Jack said, pointing to the mansions, “ and on that side is where the happy people live.” Pointing to the shacks, shanties and houseboats.
“Now I want you to picture a summer evening, a crawfish boil happening and everyone gathering outside on the lawn. When everyone sits down and looks out across the river, who do you think has the better view?” We all look out at the manicured lawn and agree, the “ happy” people have the wining deal.
Alligators! Oh my!
The natural abundance of wildlife is overwhelming and makes Southern Louisiana a must-see stop for nature enthusiasts. For birding or just a pleasant walk through the swamps Mandalay National Nature Reserve is perfect for spotting an egret up close. Photographers will be pleased with the lovely atmosphere of the place and families will enjoy the free entrance.
For a real Cajun treat you need to head over to Greenwood Gator Farm where “Gator Girl” Tracy Schexnayder will explain the ins and outs of the gator farming business. The farm raises 8,000 gators a year for their skins and meat and also takes in about 3,000 wild gators for their skins during hunting season.
The eggs are collected from nests during laying season and are brought back to the farm to be hatched and raised. Gator Girl is warm and friendly and happy to tell you all about gators (did you know they can hold their breath for two hours?).
Although Gator Girl’s job may seem cruel, and her description of the skinning process is not for the squeamish, the fact remains that the farm releases 1,000 of their gators back into the wild every year, effectively stocking local wild populations.
“In the wild only three percent of hatched gators will survive to be adults” Tracy tells me “ but when we put them back they have a 28 percent survival rate ‘cause they are a bit bigger.”
“They respond to voice recognition.” Tracy says with a smile “ so when I come into the pens and talk to them they come right over.” If you want to you can even hold one of the young ones. “ Not what you’d expect are they? They’re really soft” Gator Girl tells me as I get a grip on a young one and she’s right there’s nothing cold or slimy about them.
If your gator experience has whetted, not killed, your appetite you can eat Gator Girls’ gator at Big Al’s in Houma. It’s surprisingly good when cooked right, and tastes pretty much like chicken or “ just like frog legs,” as Gator Girl says.
Louisiana is nothing if not the sport fisherman’s paradise. It even says it on the license plates. Huge amounts of life make the warm waters of Mississippi and their tributaries home, and that’s before you even get to the Gulf.
Whether its Speckled Bass, Red Fish, Black Drum, Cobia or Catfish the Louisiana coast will reel you in. Head to Sportsman’s Paradise in Chauvin to charter a boat and a guide and head out into the salty marshes or the Gulf of Mexico for a day of fishing to remember. You don’t need to be an expert to have good time I hauled in a few big ones myself.
You can take in five Redfish per person and for a small fee the guys at Sportsman’s will clean your fish and owner and chef Connie Townsend will cook ‘em up. If you are real nice she’ll sit with you, share a beer and talk a spell about her life and fishing.
While you are in town make sure to stop in at Cecil Lapeyrouse Grocery,Inc. There you will find a fantastic and eclectic collection of Americana nostalgia and antiques along with basic sundries, ice cream and old fashioned candy. Take a walk out back to see the waterside gas station and admire the whimsically landscaped garden.
Just beyond Cecil’s there is the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) Observation tower. Inside you will find information about local wildlife and a gallery to view student’s art. A great stop for families you can get an up-close look at some of the marshes critters. The view from the observation tower is worthy of a few snapshots.
Oil and Water
Louisiana was still recovering from hurricane Katrina when another disaster hit. The BP oil spill spewed an estimated 53,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf and affected thousands of miles of Louisiana coast. It also effectively shut down the shrimp and fishing industry that so many coastal towns rely on for income.
A year on and the Cajun Coast is still experiencing the effects. Restaurants who used to buy Louisiana seafood are shying away worried about potential health risks.” Our reputation has been damaged more than our coasts” Connie Townsend, owner of Sportsman’s delight and head cook says as I eat the Red Fish I caught earlier.
The relationship between the oil and fishing industries is complex. Both are often the only source of employment for towns and cities lining the gulf coast and while it is true that fishing is often very good around oil rigs, where fish and shrimp hide in the relative safety of the structures, the oil industry has left an indelible mark on the region’s environment.
Captain Robert Hunnicutt of Sportsman’s Paradise Charter Fishing took me out on his boat for a fishing trip in the Chauvin area salt marshes. Many species of fish call these marshes home, from black drum to red fish to flounder as well as bottlenose dolphins. As we navigated the twisting marshes looking for the sweet spot we talked about the oil industry’s effect on the environment.
“Everything you see here” Robert said pointing to open water “this all used to be marshes, but ‘cause the oil wells out here need to be reached they cut canals through.” Seawater flooded into the canals and started to erode the sandy banks where grasses lived, as more grass was washed way more soil was left exposed. Seasonal hurricanes hastened the damage.
Louisiana loses the equivalent of one football field of land every 30 minutes to erosion. Because of levees that contain the Mississippi River’s muddy waters the bayous, swamps and marshes do not get the silt needed to regenerate. This is made worse by man-made canals dug through swamps to lay down oil pipeline.
“It breaks my heart” Robert said, “to see all this gone.” He pointed to a home standing on delicate stilts, like a water bird. “ This camp you see here, this marsh used to be full of them.” But now all that remains is pillions.
The Cajun Coats is known throughout Louisiana, if not the world for their first class seafood. However, for many food conscious travelers the question remains, “is the seafood safe?” While the BP executives and locals tied to the shrimp and fishing industry assert that yes it is, others are holding out their views.
“What we do know is that Louisiana seafood is being tested more than any other seafood on the market.” Carrie Stansbury says, and while she’s right I can’t help but remember that her husband works in the oil industry.
“The seafood is safe. It’s safe and there’s more of it than ever, “ Connie Townsend tells me. “ The fish and the shrimp have been left alone for a year, they’ve come back stronger than before.”
While I can’t say for sure it’s safe, it’s certainly delicious. They say Louisiana has four seasons, Crab, Shrimp, Crawfish and Oyster and wherever you go to eat you will be delighted by the freshness and quality of the local catch.
Jo Ann Blanchard is Matron Owner and maître d’hotel of Jo Jo’s Café in Morgan City. Her son Brian Blanchard is the chef and his food is just marvelous. Jo Jo’s is a real treat. With its combination of Cajun and Italian it makes for a rich and flavorful dinner. The crab cakes may just be the best on the planet and the seafood crepe is a house specialty. For dessert make sure you try the Frangelico parfait.
If boiled seafood is more your thing than you can’t beat Susie’s Seafood. Located in downtown Morgan City you order by the pound. Get the crawfish if it’s in season, there’s nothing more Cajun. The wait staff brings out your choice in steaming buckets and dumps them right on the table.
At Atchafalaya Gulf Course you can grab a satisfying lunch and then play a round or two on their expansive and well-manicured greens. Try the crab salad in artichokes and don’t forget a side of home made onion rings or fried pickles.
In Houma you can try alligator (from Greenwood Gator Farms) at Big Al’s. The lively atmosphere makes it easy to understand why this spot is a local favorite. 1921 Seafood is a Houma staple. Their ‘After the Boil’ seafood soup is a creamy blend of shrimp, oysters, clam and corn and is similar to a spicy clam chowder.
At least one morning make sure you eat breakfast at Ronnie’s Famous Donuts, their hot glazed are reminiscent of Crispy Creams and their Red Velvet Cake donuts are a sweet tooth’s dream
Whether you are a nature enthusiast, a sportsman a foodie or a family vacationer Louisiana’s Cajun Coast is a wonderful and intriguing place to go.
If You Go
Morgan City and Houma are great as central bases to explore the area. All the attractions and activities in this article are no more than and hour from each hotel and most are half hour. Restaurants are located close to the hotels and shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to get to.
How to get there:
Fly into Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. Renting a car is essential to getting around Southern Louisiana. Morgan City, LA is about and hour and a half from New Orleans and Houma, LA is about an hour outside of New Orleans.
Where to stay:
520 Roderick St.,
Morgan City, LA
There are many accommodation options in Houma including:
Quality Hotel, 210 South Hollywood Rd.,
142 Library Blvd
Where to eat:
Café JoJo, 624 Front Street, Morgan City, 985.384.9291
Susie’s Seafood, 6701 Hwy 182 E, Morgan City, 985.702.0274
Big Al’s, 1377 West Tunnel Blvd., Houma, 985.876.4030
1921 Seafood, 1522 Barrow Street, Houma, 70360, 985.868.7098
Mr. Ronnie’s Famous Hot Donuts, 1171 W. Tunnel Blvd., Houma, 985.868.9065
What to do:
Paddling at Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge, Willow St., Franklin
Atchafalaya Golf Course, 9400 Cotten Rd., Patterson, 985.395.GOLF
Wedell-Williams Aviation and Cypress Sawmill Museums 118 Cotton Road, Patterson, 985.399.1268
Cajun Jack’s Swamp Tour, 112 Main St., Patterson, 985.395.7420
Greenwood Gator Farm, 125 Gator Court, Gibson, 985.804.0744
Birding at Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge– Nature Trail,
3599 Bayou Black Drive (off of LA 182), Houma, 985.853.1078
Sportsman’s Paradise, 6830 Hwy 56, Chauvin, 985.594.2414
Cecil Lapeyrouse Grocery, Inc. 7243 Shoreline Dr. Chauvin LA 985.594.3054
LUMCON Observation Tower 8124 Highway 56 Chauvin, Louisiana 985.851.2800
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Kathleen is a writer and photographer based in Boston. She focuses her lens around the globe on issues of sustainability, tourism, and the environment. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @kat_abroad