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Saturday, Jul 26, 2014
Lifestyle Stories

The Cajun Coast: S. Louisiana a cornucopia for the traveler


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Some people say travelers from the Tampa Bay area can’t easily access a foreign country by car. Those people clearly never have experienced Louisiana.

Named after Louis XIV of France, the Pelican State distinguishes itself with counties that are called parishes; band music that consists of fiddles, accordions and washboards; natives who speak with a drawl that seems to exclude vowels; and food that is a gastric Gatling gun of Creole and Cajun flavors.

None of this is more noticeable than in the southeastern portion of Louisiana stretching from Morgan City to Houma to New Orleans. With that region circled on a map, we planned to transform daydreams into a weeklong reality: Old South ambiance with a culinary pig-out.

We jumped into our jalopy in Clearwater and set our sights on Morgan City. (partaking in an overnighter in Florida’s Panhandle to break the highway monotony and to acclimate our psyches to a more laidback pace).

We’d arranged accommodations at “Gone with theWind”-style mansions converted to bed and breakfast inns in the Morgan City and Houma areas, while opting for a modern, upscale hotel in flamboyant New Orleans.

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Only 90 minutes southwest of New Orleans, St. Mary Parish’s old South cluster of historic towns bills itself as the Cajun Coast and offers a wide variety of activities. We began immediately upon arrival in Patterson by stepping aboard a boat at Cajun Jack’s Swamp Tour (www.cajunjack.com).

Born in the heart of the Atchafalaya Basin and now in his 60s, the personable Jack Hebert took us and several other couples on a winding 40-mile sightseeing tour twixt the cypress-lined bayous.

While pointing out landmarks, spinning tales about himself and discussing the basics of trapping, crabbing and crawfishing, Hebert noted the absence of alligators. “Gators hibernate in the winter months by burying themselves under muddy banks and in deep holes,” he said, adding that the giant critters don’t take kindly to being awakened.

Museums abound in these parts, too, and we visited several. The small Chitimacha Museum (www.chirimacha.gov) in Charenton features exhibits and videos about the first Indian inhabitants of the region and their masterful basket-weaving skills. The Louisiana State Museum (http://lsm.crt.state.la.us) in Patterson showcases 1930s aircraft in one wing and a sawmill exhibit in another with artifacts and photographs of this early industry. We particularly enjoyed a tour of the International Petroleum Museum & Exhibition (www.rigmuseum.com) in Morgan City. Nicknamed “Mr. Charlie,” it’s a working offshore drilling rig used primarily as a training facility.

We also dropped by the Todd Art Gallery (www.toddphotocreations.com) and met owner Francis Todd, who has spent a lifetime capturing the beauty and history of the area on film.

A must-see in rural Franklin is Oaklawn Manor (www.oaklawnmanor.com), a phenomenal 1837 Greek revival mansion with displays of Fabergé eggs, first-edition Audubon book sets, gorgeous tapestries, magnificent chandeliers and ornately handcrafted 1800s furniture. The mansion and plantation served as a set for two movies, including “The Drowning Pool” with Paul Newman, and Newman built a gazebo on the grounds as a rest area between takes.

However, the centerpiece of our stay in St. Mary Parish was the luxurious Fairfax House (www.thefairfaxhouse.net), an antebellum home near Franklin’s historic district. The B&B features six elegant rooms with gorgeous antique furniture and memorabilia. Our bed was the most comfortable we’ve ever slept in. The porch and shimmering pillars, manicured grounds and moss-laden oaks created quite the memorable sight from the distant street. Innkeeper Cheryl Kemper added the perfect touch each morning with whatever-you-desire breakfasts, fruits, juices, sweets and tasty grits with her secret gravy.

Only a fool counts calories in a land where food is the main reason for existence. Cajun cuisine is rightly famous for giant portions of fried Gulf seafood, gumbo, jambalaya, boiled shrimp or crabs — especially those little red crawfish crabs so popular and abundant in the swamps and marshes across southern Louisiana.

One evening at Susie’s Seafood in Morgan City, we sat among locals and tourists alike as waitresses spilled huge tubs of crawfish directly onto the butcher-block paper covering the tables — it’s a matter of pride to see who will create the biggest pile of empty tail shells at each table. A Cajun symphony ensued with the hammering of blue crab claws and the snapping of crawfish tails. The pungent scent of cooked shrimp wafted through the air as Merle Haggard tunes echoed from the jukebox.

Other good local eateries include the Atchafalaya Café (try the tasty oyster platter), the Atchafalalya Golf Course (nice shrimp and corn bisque) and The Forest (flavorful seafood etouffee and heavenly bread pudding).

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A scant 35 miles east of Morgan City in Terrebonne Parish is Houma (pronounced HOME-uh), a comfy village turned city that accounts for 20 percent of Louisiana’s oil and commercial fishing industries. Here there’s a joie de vivre, an enjoyment of life, that’s apparent at the Cajun dance halls, neighborhood crawfish boils and frequent festivals.

The area provides another peek into a rural Louisiana that dotes on dining experiences while fiercely embracing its Cajun traditions. Menus run amok with varieties of boiled and fried favorites, including those at 1921 Seafood, a lively restaurant with wool-shirted, jeaned patrons emitting familiar expressions like “y’all” and “dawg.” But when a respite from the onslaught of informal Cajun food is desired, plenty of specialty eateries can be found. Milano’s downtown is a good example, with an elegant motif and Italian fare. The Almond Duck Strips appetizer with a zippy ginger sauce dip is unforgettable.

We decided to eschew the museum scene in Houma for a combined eco-tour and fishing trip with captain Wendy Billiot (www.bayouwoman.com). Wendy is a seasoned wetlands tour guide in this portion of the Atchafalaya Basin as well as an outdoor journalist, children’s book author and charter fishing guide.

We relished the crisp, cool air in our faces during the boat ride to Lake Decade. We drifted or anchored at times while casting a popping cork with a plastic lure — a common rig effective on trout. After a good many catches, and releases, Billiot upped the anchor and we cruised through a beautiful cypress-lined bayou. Tying up to a rickety wood-planked dock, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch on an old picnic table at a fish camp.

Billiot offered many interesting tidbits about the flora and fauna, as well as concerns about the ever-shrinking loss of habitat. One such worry involves the influx of nutria, a large rodent that’s become the scourge of the swamp.

Nutria eat the roots of plants that hold vegetation in place, she said. “That in turn erodes soil and decreases the buffer zones when big storms hit, which literally shrinks the size of Louisiana.”

Tired at day’s end, we decided to rest up at Twelve Oaks Plantation (www.twelveoaksplantation.com) in Houma. This picturesque property along Bayou Black didn’t disappoint. As the name suggests, the lovely mansion sits amid 12 oak trees covered with playful squirrels. Barbara Cenac used to walk by the home as a schoolteacher, daydreaming about one day owning the property — and as fate would have it she ultimately did just that.

Twelve Oaks is a working sugarcane plantation oozing with a distinctive Southern décor of porches, balconies, historical memorabilia and rich antique furniture. Amenities include wireless Internet, coffee 24 hours a day, an indoor pool and Jacuzzi, and, of course, full-course breakfasts of pancakes, eggs, waffles, muffins, pastries and pretty much anything one might request the night before.

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With unbridled zeal, we chose New Orleans as the terminus city of our Cajun coast odyssey. It’s true enough that Louisiana is a lot more than just New Orleans, but any visit that bypasses this soulful and bubbly city is a missed opportunity.

As galloping gourmets keenly aware of the world-famous restaurants dotting the city’s French Quarter and Garden District, we let our taste buds take over. The first such stop: lunch at Emeril’s Delmonico Restaurant (www.emerils.com) on St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District. Owned by renowned chef Emeril Lagasse, the contemporary Creole menu is a sauce lover’s concerto.

While the Pumpkin Gnocchi appetizer and entrees of Grilled Lemon-Oregano Shrimp and Pompano Remoulade tasted absolutely divine, a cup of gumbo — absolutely the best we’ve ever enjoyed — and a dessert of Café Au Lait Crème Brulee exploded the salivary glands with every sumptuous bite.

A dinner was dedicated to the venerable Commander’s Palace (www.commanderspalace.com) on Washington Avenue. A New Orleans landmark since 1880 and the crown jewel of the Brennan family’s restaurant dynasty, it had been a marvelous dining experience for me 15 years ago. I found it to be even better now with the service astounding. The kitchen pulsated with the controlled chaos of a battlefield; commandants scrutinized every move and soldiers scuried with their orders.

Managing owner Lally Brennan flowed from table to table to ensure service and food was perfect. The Turtle Soup tasted yummy and a 17-ounce Osso Busco entrée became the largest and most flavorful lamb shank my incisors ever met. The Wild White Shrimp & Grits is a fusion of fire-roasted chilies and corn, caramelized sweet onions and charred tomatoes over garlic-mascarpone grits with cognac shrimp and veal fond — a solid 10 on the yummy meter.

While fabulous dining establishments abound in New Orleans, we would be remiss to exclude Arnaud’s (www.arnaudsrestaurant.com), a personal favorite. Located off Bourbon Street and the epitome of French Quarter ambiance, you can choose between the traditional dining room (which we favor) and the lively jazz bistro with a strolling Dixieland trio. The Arnaud’s magic has always been its perfect sauces — just one creamy concoction can require a dozen or more ingredients. Shrimp Arnaud, for example, is the signature appetizer and the Creole remoulade sauce coating the Gulf shrimp will totally rock your world. The same is true of Oysters Bienville, an Arnaud’s original featuring oysters bathed in a white wine sauce along with an amalgam of shrimp, mushrooms, herbs and seasonings. C’est magnifique.

Rick, our waiter, declared that a sharp knife wouldn’t be necessary with the Filet Mignon Charlemund. Indeed, it arrived a perfect medium rare as ordered, and peeled off in tender, savory layers with just a fork. The Bananas Foster for two, prepared tableside, was a perfect send off, featuring bananas sautéed in butter, brown sugar and cinnamon, then flamed with rum and banana liquor over French vanilla ice cream.

With activities numerous and our time limited, we stayed busy day and night. In the French Quarter, we hit Pat O’Brien’s to swig their celebrated Hurricane cocktails and sing along with the dueling pianos. At The Bayou Club, we tapped feet to the extraordinary rhythm-and-blues Zydeco music featuring a fiddler, accordionist and washboard player. And, of course, just strolling down Bourbon Street invites a visual barrage of haughty scenes and earthy merriment that’s always a hoot.

For a special treat, tour the French Quarter for an hour in a mule-drawn carriage. Royal Carriages (www.neworleanscarriages.com), for one, does just that, and we sat back as if in another era while Ron, our driver, described landmarks, courtyards, historic buildings and famous residences. At one point we stopped at an open-to-the-public Catholic graveyard that includes the tomb of the famed voodoo queen Marie Laveau.

“New Orleans has survived fire, yellow fever, British attacks and more, recently hurricanes, but keeps right on ticking,” Ron said. “Interestingly, most of the architecture is actually Spanish, not French.”

The carriage picked us up just outside Café du Monde (www.cafedumonde.com), the original French Quarter coffeehouse in Jackson Square. The time-honored drill is to dip the beignets here into your cup of chicory coffee.

As we’d fancied staying in a more eclectic hotel in this vibrant city, the International House (www.ihhotel.com) fit the bill perfectly. Located two blocks from the French Quarter and just off the main drag of Canal Street, this is one fine boutique hotel.

The International House presents a variety of sizes and price ranges with its 117 rooms and suites — all entirely smoke-free — and we found ours (#305) to be tastefully contemporary and a welcome respite from the bustling din of Bourbon Street. Among the copious amenities: micro-stereos, Aveda bath products, large bathrooms, and designer furnishings and bed linens. All in all, it’s a comfortable and upbeat hotel with a very convenient location.

We hated to leave Louisiana after such a stellar week of great pleasures and splendid experiences. From the rural parishes to the glitter of New Orleans, from the swampy bayous to the peerless piquant cuisines, the Cajun coast is most definitely an invigorating and transforming adventure.

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