Loafing Louisiana – Hold the Bourbon, Please
So it’s the morning of day three of your week-long vacation in Louisiana. Let’s review your trip so far.
Day One—check into hotel, head straight to the Quarter, drink until three am.
Day Two—eat breakfast, head straight to the Quarter, drink until three am.
Day Three—What are your plans for today? Head straight to the Quarter and drink until three am.? Really?
Over the years, I’ve known a lot of people who visited Louisiana. Friends, co-workers, relatives. Invariably, they come back from vacation bleary-eyed and hungover.
“Where did you go?” I’d ask them.
“Bourbon Street. What else is there to do?”
What else is there to do? Plenty.
First off, let’s just try to ease you out of the Quarter. I know it’s scary but don’t worry. We won’t go far…at first.
We’ll start out a few blocks south of the Quarter along Convention Center Boulevard. Just across from the actual Convention Center, we come to Mulate’s (pronounced “MOO-latts” if ya wanna sound like a local).
Mulate’s describes itself as “the original Cajun restaurant, famous for preserving and celebrating the food, music and culture found in the small towns and along the bayous of south Louisiana.” This is the real deal…authentic Cajun food. Not the stuff they peddle to the tourists in the Quarter. But Mulate’s isn’t just about the food. They are also well known as the place to go for authentic Cajun music and dancing. In fact, the first musician ever booked at the original Mulate’s was Zachary Richard (pronounced “REE-shard” if ya wanna sound like a local), one of the archetypal Cajun singer/songwriters—he squeezes a pretty mean accordion.
So the music’s talking to you, huh? Wanna hear some more good stuff? Let’s just sashay a few miles down the road toTchoupitoulas St. (pronounced “shop-it-TOOL-us” if ya wanna sound like a local) to Tipitina’s (pronounced Tip-eh-TEE-nas if ya wanna…oh, never mind).
Named for the famous song by Professor Longhair (who performed there frequently before his death in 1980), Tipitina’s is all about the music. Some of the many performers who have appeared—and even recorded—at Tipitina’s include Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Phish. There’s even a story floating around that WWOZ radio station once had their studios in the room above the bar and would literally broadcast “Live From Tipitina’s” by lowering a microphone down through a hole in the floor. I ain’t gonna vouch for that one.
Now for something completely different.
New Orleans is known for it’s history and the many museums which tout it. But there’s one museum you might be surprised to find in the Crescent City. The D-Day Museum, now formally known as the “National World War II Museum,” is located just a couple of miles away from Tipitina’s.
The museum, which opened on June 6, 2000 (the 56th anniversary of D-Day), does not exclusively focus on the Normandy invasion, but covers all the war, both the European and Pacific theatres. Among other exhibits, there are actual aircraft on display, including a British Spitfire and a German Messerschmitt fighter. In addition, there are a number of personal artifacts and belongings contributed by World War II veterans. In fact, a heartwarming story of a woman who actually found herself referenced in a diary on display at the museum recently (May 2013) made the news.
What did I tell you? It actually is possible to have fun in New Orleans without stumbling through the Quarter, right? Great. Now get in the car, because we’re about to discover fun in Louisiana outside of New Orleans.
About 45-minutes north of New Orleans, in the small town of Abita Springs, is a place you might have heard of. The Abita Brewery is where all those delicious Abita Springs beers come from. The brewery itself is available for tours (and, yes Virginia, there is a tasting room). There is also a brew pub a couple of miles away in the building which first housed the brewery before it outgrew that location. The pub is available for parties and the kitchen produces excellent food. I can personally vouch for the Eggplant Napoleon, Abita Boudin Quail and the Shrimp/Oyster Combination Po-Boy.
We’ll head west now to the area around Lafayette. Home of the USL “Ragin’ Cajuns,” Lafayette is thought of by many Louisiana residents as perhaps the most fun place in the state. Some local folk even like to say “we’re the ones who showed New Orleans how to party.” They may have a point. Over the years, Lafayette and USL, in particular, have become known as party central in south Louisiana. The administration at USL has tried to downplay the image but, let’s face it—how do you un-ring that bell?
But forget about the partying. What really sets the Lafayette area apart is the food. Remember Mulate’s? Remember that authentic, Cajun taste? How it was not just a bunch of hot sauce dumped over rice, but real flavor? Well, guess where it came from. The original Mulate’s location was opened in Breaux Bridge, about ten miles east of Lafayette. This is the area to visit if you want real ettouffee, real jambalaya and real boudin (in my opinion, boudin is perhaps the finest culinary treat the Cajun culture has ever contributed to the world). Check out the dozen or so restaurants that make up the “Cajun Boudin Trail,” for a real meat-lovers’ treat.
Okay, so have I convinced you that there is food, there are drinks and you can find culture outside of the French Quarter? Good. What’s that? New Orleans still has one thing over the rest of Louisiana? What might that be? Mardi Gras, huh? Well, not necessarily.
About an hour north of Lafayette is the town of Mamou, in Evangeline Parish. Mamou is well known for its music and musicians, and describes itself as “The Cajun Music Capital of the World.” But Mamou has something else. Mamou has the most unique and interesting Mardi Gras tradition in all of Louisiana. The Courir de Mardi Gras. This is not your father’s Mardi Gras. This is not just another parade of high school marching bands with floats throwing beads. This will send you back to the old days.
The courir begins the day before with a city-wide street dance. Among others, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys have been known to appear. The next morning, a group of masked riders on horseback, accompanied by musicians and various townspeople, roam through the streets of Mamou demanding tribute from the residents. Chicken, sausage, and other foods are donated while the riders “threaten” holdouts with various pranks. Once the ride is complete, the revelers bring the bounty they have collected to the center of town where a huge gumbo is cooked up and served out to all who are there, followed by yet another street dance.
Heading back east, after a couple of hours we come to the Capital City—Baton Rouge. Home of the LSU “Fighting Tigers,” some people have called Baton Rouge “the most football crazy town in the country,” and LSU “the last of the great party schools,” so it should come as no surprise that the neighborhoods around the campus are festooned with bars, pubs and nightclubs. Plan on having a designated driver.
Those who loved the D-Day Museum in New Orleans will enjoy touring the USS Kidd—a decommissioned, Fletcher-class destroyer that saw service in both World War II and Korea and is now parked in the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge’s River Center. The ship is available for daily tours.
If you’re feeling lucky, take your chances at one of Baton Rouge’s many riverboat casinos. Or, if you prefer something a bit more sedate, you can tour one of the many surviving antebellum plantation homes…they don’t call Baton Rouge “plantation country” for nothing.
Finally, if you don’t mind a bit of a drive, point the car north towards West Monroe. It’s almost a four-hour drive but if you really want to get in touch with your inner redneck, you can visit the Duck Commander company—the site of the famous “Duck Dynasty” show on A&E. While the factory does not offer formal tours, their website says “We would be HAPPY, HAPPY, HAPPY for you to come by and say ‘HEY’…the Duckmen are in and out of the store most every day giving you a chance to get a picture or a signature.” Who knows, maybe “Miss Kay” will invite you to stay for supper.
I hope I’ve convinced you that there is life and loafing all over Louisiana. There’s nothing wrong with the French Quarter for a good time—sometimes you just have to get one of those Pat O’Brien hurricanes. But don’t feel like you’re limited to one thing, especially if you’re traveling with a family—little loafers under the age of twenty-one aren’t going to have nearly as good a time on Bourbon Street as mom and dad, anyway. So branch out a little. Try something new. You just might like it.