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Side Trips from New Orleans
The land that gave the world one of its great cuisines—and a refuge for French-Canadian exiles in the 18th century—is worth at least one overnight. Lafayette, with its attractive downtown and plentiful accommodations, makes a good hub for exploring the region. The Cajun kitsch can be a bit much at times, but there are some outstanding restaurants and museums, including the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum and Acadian Village, a re-creation of an early-19th-century Acadian settlement. Venture south to picturesque Abbeville, where restaurants serve up some mean oysters on the half shell, or to New Iberia and nearby Avery Island, home of the famous Tabasco hot sauce and a gorgeous 250-acre garden. Breaux Bridge, site of the annual Crawfish Festival, has antiques shops and some excellent Cajun restaurants, including Café des Amis and Mulate's, both known for their dance parties. St. Martinville, south of Breaux Bridge, is an attractive small town and home of the Evangeline Oak, immortalized in Longfellow's classic poem "Evangeline."
To the north lie Grand Coteau, a quaint, historic village set on a natural bluff, and Opelousas, a hotbed of zydeco music; nearby Plaisance hosts the annual Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music festival each Labor Day weekend. A bit farther afield, the normally quiet town of Mamou goes bonkers on Fat Tuesday, when the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras takes to the streets; Saturday mornings, little Fred's Lounge gets packed to the gills with locals and more than a few tourists two-stepping and waltzing to live Cajun music.
For Gone with the Wind fans, the stretch of the Mississippi north of New Orleans is the ultimate Southern experience. Tour buses ply the highway on both sides of the river, but with a car and a map, it's easy to explore on your own. Fortunes were made here in the 18th and 19th centuries—on the backs of the slaves that worked these plantations—and vestiges of the Old South's wealthy heyday remain in the region's lavish homes, many lovingly restored and open to the public. Highlights include Oak Alley, with its procession of ancient oak trees that flank the entrance; Houmas House, notable for its architecture, gardens, and fine Latil's Landing restaurant; and Nottoway, the largest extant plantation house. Several homes offer accommodations and dining for those who want to linger.
Many of the small towns that dot Plantation Country are fun to explore, but St. Francisville, about 25 miles north of Baton Rouge, deserves special mention. The historic town center is a well-preserved collection of antebellum homes and buildings, and the river landing there is one of the few places in south Louisiana where the Mississippi isn't hemmed in by levees. A cluster of fine plantation homes are nearby, including Rosedown Plantation and Gardens and the attractive Oakley House at Audubon State Historic Site, where John James Audubon taught drawing to the plantation owner's daughter while executing some of the works in his Birds of America series. Baton Rouge itself is worth a visit to see the Old State Capitol (and the new one, where Governor Huey P. Long met his untimely end) and its lively downtown.
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