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Trip Report Louisiana: visiting Lafayette & New Orleans

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Here is a trip report on our two weeks in Lafayette and New Orleans, two back-to-back Elderhostel pograms with lots about food, music, dancing, history, culture. We had a great time for sure. Oh yes...new name for Elderhostel is Exploritas and anyone 21 and older can enroll in their wonderful learning programs. So we left Springfield, MO, with an overnight in Little Rock and upon arrival next day at the Ramada Inn in Lafayette had orientation and group intros. Dinner consisted of beef brisket, dirty rice, macque choux (spiced sweet corn), banana pudding.

Our Cajun experience (theme of the program) started with a morning trip to Jean Lafitte Cultural Center for some orientation films. In the mid-1700s the French speaking Acadians were deported by the British from what is now Nova Scotia and many eventually ended up in Louisiana. These Cajuns settled in the swamplands known as the Atchafalaya Basin, pretty much isolated til WW I & II. They eeked out a living with crawfish and cattle. Next stop was Vermilionville which is a folk life village representative of the Cajun culture. Various original buildings have been relocated on the grounds. (www.vermilionville.org)

By the way, University of Louisiana at Lafayette has a special Francophone program including advanced degree studies. There is a revival of interest in French culture now in these parts and today some public schools in the area have teaching in both Cajun and modern French...as I get it Cajun is kind of an old form of the language with some peculiarities and additions. Lunch at the village was at La Cuisine de Maman...cajun gumbo, jambalaya, bread pudding. And we have never tasted such delicious bread pudding...recipe not devulged but we found out later what made it so scrumptous.

Back to the hotel for a talk by David Greely, fiddler and historian. He is founder of a local group known as Mamou Playboys. Cajun music is really big in this part of the world.
(http://davidgreely.com) He can trace his ancestry back to original Acadian roots, family like many migrating to France and then coming to this area. Next a session on the local food, about being raised on rice and gravy (meaning various sauces). So we learned about a dark roux and medium grain rice and pork tasso (seasoned ham) and andouille (sausage) gumbo fille and okra from Africa used as a thickener. Dinner was non-Cajun: croissant sandwiches, chips, crudites, cookies. Well, crudites (crew-de-tays) are Cajun I guess....raw cut up veggies with sauce as appetizers.

First thing next morning: Cajun dance lessons! Lou and Cal Courville are well known in the area as teachers of the Cajun waltz and two step. (www.dancecajun.com) The waltz you can do but the two step around the room is pretty lively, especially with variations. We got their dvd Danser Avec Nous! for practice back home. Next a driving tour downtown with a stop for lunch at a local favorite...Dwyer's Cafe. This is a plate lunch spot where you go to the kitchen counter and order meat plus 3 sides, then find a table if you can. Very popular and authentic! After lunch we continued to a famous old live oak maybe over 500 years old...St. John's Oak outside the church of same name. Huge trunk and extended heavy branches! We had a short detour because of police sirens leading a motorcade with a limo. Found out it wasn't some dignitary but a scene being shot for a future movie of "Secretariat." After lunch: trip into the country. To be continued. Does anyone want me to include some recipes?

Ozarksbill walongman@yahoo.com

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    To continue: at Begnaud House we learned about crawfish and rice farming. Many who grow rice also harvest crawfish which digs down into the wet soil and then is ready for eating from December through about June. People just love crawfish, according to the colorful Mama Redell who gave us a talk with slides. You eat the meat of the tail and suck the heads.

    Next stop at the Martin accordian shop. The Martin family hand makes accordians for a wide market. Bellows come from Italy. The Martin family band performed mostly Cajun music for us with son Joel on the accordion and grandpa Junior on steel guitar. The CD we bought is "L'Ange de la Chapelle." (martinaccordion.com) Tragically Joel's father was recently killed in an auto accident.

    Dinner at Deano's was unique...pizza with a Louisiana twist. We got a seafood pizza, Cajun executioner (HOT), muffalata pie with olive and cheese mix, plus fried pickles.

    Next day a trip to Poche's Country Club for a talk by Greg Guirard. The place was decked out for Halloween. Greg doesn't get out much...he's an old timer devoted to preserving the Atchafalaya Basin (a-chaf-a-LIE-a) where cypress trees were logged out years ago. He is an accomplished artist with beautiful pictures in a book. Most residents have left and he talked about one old lady who stayed on in her cabin. It is a battle to keep the basin from being polluted because of oil drilling and degredation pressures.

    Unfortunately plans for a boat tour of the swamp from McGee's Landing were cancelled as a big storm came up. Lunch at Poche's in Breaux Bridge was another plate lunch. On the menu are such selections as crawfish sausage, chicken andouille, smoked alligator and tur-duc-ken (chicken stuffed and then stuffed into a duck and then both stuffed inside a turkey). Popular meal here with many take outs is pork boudin (mixture of pork, liver, onions, riced and special seasonings stuffed in hog casing). We ate shrimp etoufee, yams, corn, slaw and a praline. (www.pochesmarket.com)

    Evening program was a film on the history and evolution of Cajun and Zydeco music...J-ai Ete au Bal (I Went to the Dance). Cajun has a distinctly French flavor and many in the area do speak as well as sing in Cajun French. Zydeco with a more African influence has a distinctly heavier beat, including a washboard played with spoons, almost like rock at times, and is in English.

    Time to eat...again! Some of us went to Randol's which is a popular place with a dance floor. We ate a delicious seafood baked fondue and salad. Didn't get on the dance floor as did some friends. Place was reserved at 8 p.m. for the cast and crew of "Secretariat" being filmed in the area. And this included John Malkovich. (www.randols.com)

    To be continued

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    Finishing up the Lafayette part of this report, next morning dance lesson again with Lou & Cal Courville, this time at the hotel instead of university. I did worse than before in some respects, i.e., the cross over. We are getting ready for night doings. Our lunch buffet was at Taste N Sea in New Iberia. (www.tastensea.com) Each day has a special. They have a soulfood breakfast. Our selection on this Friday was fried fish, carrots, peas, collard greens, homemade bread pudding.

    This field trip to New Iberia was to tour Shadows-on-the-Tech historic home. It is a Southern plantation and gardens on Bayou Tech with live oaks draped with Spanish moss. The interesting part is how well documented the history of four generations is with letters, papers, etc. Lovely bayou out back. (www.shadowsontheteche.org) We encountered a homecoming parade and we collected the glass beads thrown to take home to kids. Driving down back roads such as to Iberia and St. Martinville is where you really see Cajun country. By the way, in a new book out on "The Cajuns" (2005) author Dean Jobb starts out with this sentence: "This is the story of one of the great crimes of history, a brutal act of genocide committed two and a half centuries ago." He refers to that forced exile at the point of guns from what was known as Acadie. Many pages later he writes, "The family tree of every Acadian clan is a testament to the upheaval of the deportation and its tragic legacy of wasted lives." But today we can see how these people prospered in a land of aligators and swamps! At one time there was an effort to force children to learn English only. But for nearly three centuries Cajun, African, French and Native American cultures mix as if in a gumbo.

    On to our next stop on Avery Island...to the Tabasco factory.
    We are familiar with the Tabasco brand pepper sance (and I for one have long used it) and here is where it is made from plants grown elsewhere and poured into those little bottles. Actually it is a complicated process and the mash from pepper plants mixed with salt from the island is left to ferment for three years. In the company store is a great variety of products including many non-food items bearing the Tabasco label. We sampled some hot flavored ice cream! (www.tabasco.com)

    To finish out our Cajun experience was a night out at Mulate's Restaurant, well know place for dining and dancing.
    (mulatesbreauxbridge@msn.com) With music by Lee Benoit many of us ventured out on the dance floor. For dining I chose the speciality of the house...seasoned catfish filet topped with etouffee sauce, (wife got suffed crab) and stuffed potato, jambalaya, cole slaw. Too much!

    So check out the next morning and on to New Orleans. Along the Mississippi are many antebellum plantations and we stopped off at one...Houmas House (www.houmashouse.com)
    We took a tour of this lovely place now owned by one man and well managed. This is just out of Baton Rouge. Once a tourist pointed out to a guide that a many was messing around in the garden and was informed that actually that was the owner! We did enjoy a pleasant lunch (though a long wait due to some order mixup) of Bourbon shrimp, potatoes, peas, crawfish salad, chickory coffee.

    Continuing in New Orleans

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    I'm loving your report so far. Thanks for such a great report. It sounds like you are having a great time.

    I have not taken an elderhostel trip, but it sounds like it would be a good idea.

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    Just a brief side comment about Elderhostel, now called Exploritas and now admitting anyone 21 and older. Yes, we have enjoyed many such programs, mostly in U. S. with one in Canada and one in Ireland. The New Orleans week was our 30th...all have been good and some excellent.

    We've traveled overseas with Grand Circle (5 X) and on our own...and just signed up for an Exploritas Adventures Afloat for next March in Hawaii. We like the price and the educational component and companionship with alert people (also not into shopping, gaming, complaining as a rule).

    Here's hoping we continue with good health for more travel...coming up family visits in Wichita, Florida, Boston.
    Ozarksbill

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    I loved into their tours a few years ago, but never got around to taking one. Perhaps I should revisit their catalogue. Sounds like you've really enjoyed their tours.

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    On to New Orleans! A favorite destination of course for so many and there are numerous reviews. We ourselves were there in 1975 with three children. But only for two days. We stayed in the French Quarter at Felton House, an upstairs room in a charming place with an inner court and garden on Chartres St. I remember relaxing walks to Cafe du Monde. It is the same place I believe remodeled years ago and known now as Soniat House with some good recommendations.(www.soniathouse.com)
    There are so many places to stay!

    But I digress because in our Exploritas program we were lodged at the Holiday Inn not far from the Super Dome, also Cith Hall. Good enough accomodations including restaurant but a bit of a walk to the French Quarter. This part of New Orleans has many empty and run down office buildings and needs a new life. The motel has a jazz theme and includes a huge model of a clarinet on the side of the building. So we arrived from Lafayette with free time to explore on a Saturday evening. We headed for Bourobn Street of course. And it was pretty lively as expected. Evening meal was at Oceana Grill with jambalaya, catfish po-boy, washed down with the local brew Abita amber. A wedding party marched by led by a brass band...folks here love their parades. Trudged back to Holiday Inn.

    Next day as recommended by friends we hopped on the St. Charles street car and rode to the end of the line, passing on this Sunday morning churches such as a Presbyterian with Scottish bagpipers at the door! Also going through the Garden District to be visited later. Getting off we purchased coffee and beignet and sat in a park for awhile, then back aboard for the return trip. This time we had sense enough to show our Medicare cards for a senior fare of 40 cents (instead of $1.25).

    Lunch was down at Pierre Masperos on Chartres St. (www.originalpierremaspero.com) And we looked at art on Jackson Square and heard jazz combos here and there.
    We got back to the hotel for orientation and dinner...and a lecture on "What is the French Quarter?" This by the colorful Anne Leonhard, more on her later. Without getting into details N. O. was French and Spanish and then American after 1803. The French Quarter is the earliest part and there is quite a mix of ethnic ancestry, a good dose of Creole but lots of other groups. N.O. has always been a lively port city welcoming new comers. Check for details here: www.frenchquarter.com.

    To be continued

    Ozarksbill

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    Hi ozarksbill,

    I have enjoyed very much reading your tales of Cajun country. I was especially interested to read your report living in Quebec and having numerous Acadian (but from the province of New Brunswick, Canada) friends. The tragedy of "le grand derangement" links the history of eastern Canada with that of Louisiana, but yet I find it fascinating how a unique cooking and dancing style was developed among the Louisiana Cajuns. In Louisiana, I've only been to New Orleans and been on the interstate from there to Houston; your report inspires me to want to check out the region some more!

    Thanks for sharing! Best wishes, Daniel

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    I have been enjoying your trip report. My husband and I recently watched a movie you might enjoy--Schultze gets the Blues, a German movie about a retired salt mine worker who plays polkas on the accordion, then becomes fascinated with zydeco music and Cajun culture

    I was also interested to learn that elderhostel is now Exploritas--maybe we can take a family trip somewhere when our younger son is old enough

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    Quick reply before going on...yes definitely Daniel, do check out Cajun country...or as it is also called Creole Country. We have a Quebecois son-in-law Daniel now in Florida and I am urging he and his wife to visit given the upsurge in the Cajun/French history and culture. And yes, VVTraveler a German influence definitely with accordian which replaced the fiddle for dancing since it is louder. Next step up in loudness is Zydeco with more of a rock and roll dance step instead of the Cajun two step. And thanks for the movie tip. Interesting idea...Exploritas with younger son. So why not?

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    Continuing my report on NOLA. I am wondering how folks down there have been exuberant about their 8-0 Saints victory in the Dome (close to our hotel) but also anxious about the threat of Hurricane Ida which may be coming ashore further East. A reminder that the hurricanes not only flooded N.O. but also the whole coastal area (our church has had mission trips to Pearlington, MS) and also damaged the inland marsh lands.

    A morning lecture by guide/expert Jerry McCurdy was about the history of N.O. Some points to note: this was a busy port city especially after the Louisiana Purchase, a city where most folks are born locally and stay, and where many ethnic groups have settled such as Afro-americans, Italian, Irish, German, and also French. Early years this was mainly a defensive position against the English and not settled much. There was a significant native Indian population who were quite self-sufficient...most Europeans sought a better life elsewhere with no mosquitoes, heat, disease. But there was a influx of prisoners, vagrants, adventurers. African slaves were valued for their skills as rice growers, fishermen, iron mongers, indigo manufacturers. A Creole population emerged of mixed races, a heritage now being revived.

    The afternoon was a thorough bus trip to view the Hurricane Katrina damage, led by Jerry, starting at Ponchartrain Point restaurant. Lake Ponchartrain is where one sees wrecked lakeside dwellings with some remodeling. The well constructed levees along the lake and also the Mississippi River pretty well held. The problem was that the canals leading from the city to the lake breached. Fodor's New Orleans guide (2008) has a map showing a time line of the damage, also a post-Katrina tour.

    So we saw lots of destroyed properties and empty lots in the Lakeview area where the 17th Street Canal breached. There was a great surge of water from the lake and also the pumps failed. We moved on to the Gentilly and City Park areas, eventually to the considerable destruction in the Ninth Ward. Again this was due to Industrial Canal breaches.
    Whole areas have empty and damaged houses, also vacant lots. Several former shopping centers are now only vast empty cement parking lots. On one corner sits a non-descript vacant building used for directions like this: "Go to the dead Walgreens and turn left." One house is where Fats Domino was rescued (barely) out of an upstairs window.

    Yes, there is some recovery. Here and there houses are being rennovated. Of course, in many cases it isn't clear what the future is for a whole neighborhood...so why move in when you don't know who else will come. But in one section Winton Marcellis and other musicians have sponsored a good number of Habitat houses. N.O. is moving ahead. Also locals credit Brad Pitt for his work constructing innovative eco-friendly houses, quite different in appearance from conventional ones. (Note: Brad is from my city of Spfld, MO, with brother a prominent businessman).

    Dinner was at a quite ordinary but honored place which opened up as soon as possible after the hurricane to feed folks
    ...Deanie's Seafood Restaurant (www.deanies.com). We had red beans and rice and crawfish etouffee.

    Well, this has been a little history and mostly our hurricane tour and with a real knowledgeable guide and that is an important part of N.O today.
    More later. ozarksbill
    (www.hurricanekatrinarelief.com/photo_gallery.html)
    (www.katrinadestruction.com)

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    Before setting forth, a couple of interesting lectures about NOLA. In speaking of "Living Below Sea Level" Nellie Wilson who has been involved with major development projects points to engineering plus tenacity. N.O. is in the wetlands as you see when driving into the city and this is perfect for rice cultivation. 41% of the U. S. drains down the Mississippi right by N.O. Actually the Gulf is another 100 miles further on. We might imagine the days of many steamboats docked along the river's edge. The city has huge pumping stations to get water to Lake Ponchartain...with the canal levees failing as we know. Along the banks of the Mississippi the levees are now 27 feet high. The French Quarter was built early on higher gound but developers have put house on land definitely in the flood plain.

    Then a lecture on literature by Joanne Sealy who is an actress and owns a bookstore...Faulkner House Book Shop which we will visit. I won't bore you with info except a reminder of earlier N.O. writers such as Geo. Washington Cable, Kate Chopin, Wm. Faulkner, Tennesse Williams, and many later ones including some mystery writers.

    Lunch at the Holiday Inn Streetcar Buffet with excellent catfish or smothered chicken and departure for the French Quarter. To most tourists this is truly N.O. We all do love to wander around looking at paintings on Jackson Square and listening to jazz groups. We went to both Mardi Gras Museum and Cabildo (History museum) where the Plessy v. Ferguson case 1896 established a precedent later revoked that separate is equal. Down to Cafe du Monde on Decatur for cafe au lait and beignet...do some remember the excessive powered sugar that got on your blouse/shirt? Remoulade on Christina was our dinner spot with turtle soup, meat pie etouffee, Abita draft. Finally a little stroll down Bourbon Street which is always lively...with such sights as www.bustoutburlesque.com

    See www.frenchquarter.com www.faulknerhousebooks.net
    http://friendsofthecabildo.org for a walking tour

    Continued...
    ozarksbill

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    In his talk about N.O. architecture Jerry McCurdy spent time describing the shotgun house which you will see everywhere, somes a double shotgun. We took a archtectural tour of the Garden District, just off St. Charles. It has an old world charm with large mansions on small lots shaded by many live oaks. Two houses we spent time along First Street looking at were the Payne House where Jefferson Davis died and the Brevard House where Anne Rice once lived. Fodors has a good walking guide. These huge mansions have immense upkeep and some show signs of wear...also some concern about creeping commercialism along St. Charles St.

    Dinner afterwards was at Copelands on St. Charles, a N.O. favorite. Our menu choice: spinach-apple-walnut salad, eggplant napoleon, wine, chocolate pralines.

    Earlier in the day we had a picnic lunch (muffalata) on the banks of the river and attended a performance by Jim and Martha Hession at the National Park Jazz Museum
    (www.artistopia.com/hessionsession) This little museum not far from Cafe du Monde preserves the N.O. jazz past and present. Hession himself has a valuable collection of original sheet music from old time jazz greats. We returned another day for a program on Songs of the Underground Railroad. (www.nps.gov/jazz)

    Also during the week a tour of the above ground cemeteries. Very intreresting...and did you know that the bones of many are packed into one burial site, all above ground?

    OK, to finish up...we went one day to the Hermann Grima House which is a typical family dwelling in the French Quarter, built 1831. (http://www.hgghh.org) Lunch that day was at Harrah's Casino...they do have a fabulous buffet and we went back to more traditional food (less Cajun/Creole).
    Might check this: www.gmc.edu/library/neworleans/index.htm for more on NOLA.

    More time lounging around Jackson Square...and locating the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie house. Took a free ferry over to Algiers but nothing to see. Final fun evening just relaxing at Cafe Beignet on Bourbon St. after dining at Remoulade listening to jazz...Steamboat Willie trio. We did not get the the Preservation Hall this time as we did years ago.

    Enough! Though could mention lectures on Mardi Gras and Huey Long! Traveling north would recommend lunch at Copelands in Monroe, Lousiana, (BBQ shrimp, grits, etc.) and also at unique Larry's Pizza in Sheridan, Arkansas. And we stopped off in Little Rock to see Clinton Presidential Library and the Central High museum.

    ozarksbill

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