“Union, Justice, and Confidence” is Louisiana’s official state motto, but that’s so boring compared with “Laissez les bons temps rouler” (“Let the good times roll”), which better sets the tone for a state known for colorful multinational history, jazz, crawfish, beer and outdoor parties.
Louisiana is simultaneously compact and packed — with attractions, activities and good times, that is. Bustling New Orleans almost always is the starting point, but much awaits in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles and dots on the map in between.
Here’s a sampler that includes the beauty of the oldest Catholic cathedral in the U.S., alligator encounters, an opportunity to cook jambalaya, an almost-private vantage point for a Mardi Gras parade, a sinus-clearing visit to a hot sauce factory and a visit to “Louisiana’s Outback.”
Hotelier Kent Wasmuth at the Hotel Monteleone, celebrating its 135th birthday this year, knows groups will jump into the energy coursing through the French Quarter, but he recommends two slow-yourself-down activities, too, noting, “There is depth in New Orleans to be enjoyed.”
First is a collection of 13 historic French Quarter buildings collectively known as the Historic New Orleans Collection. Its new exhibition center on Royal Street changes installations frequently, and Frommer’s editors labeled its Louisiana History Galleries “the best introduction to the city that a visitor can get.” Group members can set their own pace with guidance from cellphone tours. Regardless of what else you see in the French Quarter, you’ll be drawn to the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest in the U.S.
Wasmuth’s second suggestion is perhaps a surprise: a quiet visit to Woldenberg Park, adjacent to the French Quarter and providing unobstructed views of the Mississippi River.
“Too often, people fail to go see the river, its beauty and its power,” he said. “It is a magnificent sight. People don’t realize what the river means to the city and the nation.”
Food, of course, drives much New Orleans activity. Food and travel writer Beth D’Addono, author of “100 Things To Do in New Orleans Before You Die,” advocates exploration. For instance, she recently organized a progressive dinner through the Bywater neighborhood — Baccanal Wine and Music, Compton’s Bywater American Bistro and the Bywater Bakery — and can coach group leaders about other multistop meals.
It may sound odd, but she recommends that adults go to the brand-new Louisiana Children’s Museum in City Park, but that they go for a quiet breakfast before the kids show up at 10 a.m. The Acorn cafe, a Dickie Brennan restaurant, overlooks the Little Lake, where a footbridge features a fog sculpture by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya. The fog appears every 30 minutes, and temperature, humidity and wind make each presentation different.
Willma Harvey, director of sales at New Orleans Plantation Country, suggests you do some cooking and singing as well as sightseeing in her three parishes, or counties, north of New Orleans. Of the 10 plantation homes there, Laura Plantation at Vacherie is a solid choice to explain the plantation economy before choosing among other famous plantations, such as Oak Alley, Destrehan, Evergreen and Whitney. Whitney, which opened in 2014, is the region’s only plantation museum to focus exclusively on slavery.
Harvey loves her area’s newest attraction, Spuddy’s Cajun Cooking Experience, which opened in 2019 in Vacherie to complement an existing restaurant. The experience is a totally hands-on time with Spuddy Faucheaux III to learn how to make andouille, jambalaya and gumbo. Spuddy, born the year the Sputnik satellite was launched, enjoys groups. He says each multihour experience ends the same happy Cajun way: “We’re going to eat, and we’re going to have fun. We’ll have a few beers with our new friends. We’ll have a party.”
Another place to peek into Louisiana’s centuries-old tradition of making andouille is at Wayne Jacob’s Smokehouse and Restaurant in LaPlace, the self-proclaimed Andouille Capital of the World. Learn how latter-day German immigrants adapted their French predecessors’ love of sausage.
Visit Historic Riverlands in Reserve to join the singing that Harvey brags about. Historic Riverlands, caretaker of the original Our Lady of Grace sanctuary, itself on the National Register of Historic Places, presents the “Soul River Musical Journey” for groups. It is a trip through African American history, and groups often get caught up in the music and sing along. Leader Rita Perrilloux cites times she has brought in New Orleans musicians for extra flair. “We tailor-make every tour, so lengths vary,” she said. “If a group wants bells and whistles, we can accommodate.”
Singing of a different kind is a new attraction just upriver in Baton Rouge, the state capital. It is a gleaming sculpture — so reflective that it’s reminiscent of “The Bean” in Chicago — called “Sing the River.” The sculpture, a gift from the Rotary Club, connects to sensors in the Mississippi River and plays music that corresponds to the rise and fall of the water. It’s a great location for a group photo.
Baton Rouge is well known for attractions such as the tallest state capitol in the nation and the history-laden Capitol Park Museum, but Tracy Francis, national sales manager for Visit Baton Rouge, encourages groups to explore the city’s festival and arts scenes.
The Baton Rouge Blues Festival, which Francis noted is one of the oldest in the country, features local and international performers every April, and Baton Rouge’s Mardi Gras celebration is another event to consider. A special treat is the Spanish Town Mardi Gras Parade, always the Saturday before Fat Tuesday. A viewing tip: Have your group gravitate to the Capitol Park Museum, which offers reviewing stands, food and museum access; i.e., restrooms.
On the arts, culture and history scenes, ask Francis for tips to explore the Mid City Cultural District and its various galleries, cafes and businesses, such as the Market at Circa 1857. To learn about the other side of life from the plantation economy, visit the LSU Rural Life Museum, a substantial collection of houses and farm buildings that show how poor whites, slaves and free people of color lived on the farm.
Turn left at Baton Rouge and zip through the Atchafalaya Swamp to the heart of Acadiana: Lafayette. Although you hear about Cajuns all over Louisiana, this is the center of the Cajun universe. Get a crash course in Cajun heritage at Vermilionville, a village from 1765 to 1890 with 19 restored and reproduced buildings. You can take a boat ride on Bayou Vermilionville, listen to Cajun musicians playing the accordion, fiddle and triangle, and dine at Mama’s Kitchen.
Continue your education at St. Martinville by having your picture taken under the Evangeline Oak, an ancient tree named for the heroine of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Evangeline.” Another nearby site for a fun photo is the Breaux Bridge water tower, which is adorned with the biggest crawfish you’ve ever seen.
Speaking of crawfish, this is the place to chow down on the tasty crustaceans. Lafayette’s website displays three dozen crawfish joints. Two especially group-friendly ones are Prejean’s — Big Al is the 14-foot-long alligator in the middle of the dining room — and Randol’s, where bands such as the Cajun Ramblers and the Louisiana Stars keep people, even non-Cajuns, on the dance floor. For a total food immersion, find Cajun Food Tours, where each tour hits five restaurants. The owner’s advice: “Don’t eat before you come, and wear your stretchy pants.”
Add some spice to your visit at Avery Island, home of Tabasco sauce. The factory tour explains Tabasco’s 150-year history — it began with a desire to spice up the bland food of the 1860s Reconstruction South — and how it takes 28 days to brew every batch of the hot sauce now sold worldwide. Cap off a meal at Tabasco with a visit to Jungle Gardens and Bird City, which isn’t as hokey as it sounds. It’s an egret rookery and wildlife sanctuary that thousands of snowy egrets call home, as do alligators and other swamp critters. No cages here.
If it’s alligators, egrets and other wildlife you want, head to Lake Charles and southwest Louisiana to tour part of the 180-mile Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, one of only 43 designated scenic byways in the U.S. First, however, get an explanation of what’s called Louisiana’s Outback at Adventure Point, an information center that explains Louisiana culture and the vast stretches of marshland, prairie and cypress swamps that await you. Outfitters such as Grosse Savanne Eco Tours are great guides. This is quite the area for nature photographers.
Back in Lake Charles, there is nightlife instead of wildlife, along with golf and spa opportunities, at four casino properties. Mardi Gras gets its due here, too, with the Mardi Gras Museum of the Imperial Calcasieu, a five-parish region that displays almost 600 Mardi Gras gowns. Most are worn only once, although each costs up to $6,000. Only New Orleans has a bigger Mardi Gras celebration than Lake Charles.
A sedate but still interesting attraction is the 1911 Historic City Hall Arts and Cultural Center. Its gallery spaces change frequently. That’s why works by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Norman Rockwell, Ansel Adams and Tasha Tudor have been shown in this corner of Louisiana.