3 Spicy Side Trips to Take From New Orleans
When cooler temperatures finally kick in, the time is right to book travel to warmer climates. The American South makes a nice winter escape, and it's always fun to broaden your experiences along the Louisiana coast.
Almost every traveler knows New Orleans. It's a prime destination for incredible food, live music and luxe hotels, plus it has an easy-to-reach airport. But once you're seasoned with all that Crescent City know-how, consider sampling some spicy Cajun culture beyond the French Quarter. Here are three easy side trips from New Orleans where you can dive deeper into the sights, sounds and zesty flavors of southern Louisiana.
1. Spice It up in New Iberia
Drive about 2.5 hours west from New Orleans and you may catch a faint whiff of vinegar and pepper mash in the air. Welcome to New Iberia, home of the Tabasco Museum and plant on Avery Island, where you can at long last discover the origins of the world's most famous hot sauce.
Use your points-earning plastic to buy factory-tour tickets, join one of its new cooking classes and grab lunch at the casual, delicious café — and sample an array of Tabasco flavors, of course. Leave time for Tabasco's Jungle Gardens driving tour across 170 acres of Avery Island, where you'll see lush flora and native fauna, including the occasional alligator.
Afterward, head into town to see why New Iberia's central boulevard is newly accredited by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. You'll find the circa-1929 Evangeline Theater, 19th-century Victorian homes and a slew of indie boutiques. Fill up at Jane's Seafood, the town hotspot for boiled crawfish, crabs and shrimp, po'boys and other Cajun faves. Or try the unbelievable seafood gumbo at nearby Jefferson Island's Rip Van Winkle Gardens, where you can tour the property's landmarked 1870 mansion or spend the night in one of its cute cottages (rates start at $120 per night). If you're around on the first Saturday of the month, head over to the Delcambre Seafood and Farmers Market for fresh oysters right off the boat.
2. Get Down at a Honky-Tonk in St. Mary Parish
Louisiana is the only US state that uses the term "parish" instead of "county," and St. Mary Parish embodies the region's rich character. Less than a 90-minute drive from New Orleans is Morgan City, a compact town home to an emerging music scene, thanks to the Last Honky Tonk Music Series. Settle in at The Acadiana Bar and Grill for live shows and dancing in its newly expanded space. Stroll historic Front Street to climb the seawall for Atchafalaya River views and to visit the Rig Museum, as in oil rig — it's nicknamed "Mr. Charlie" and is the only authentic (albeit retired) oil rig open for public tours.
Just a 25-minute drive past the sugarcane fields is Franklin, the parish seat and home to the historic plantation house, Oaklawn Manor. Open for daily tours, the landmarked Greek Revival mansion is outfitted with its original decor and artwork, and sits on a shady estate along the banks of Bayou Teche. Head into downtown Franklin, founded in 1808, to see why its Main Street is on the National Register of Historic Places. For far older history, hit the Chitimacha Museum in neighboring Charenton to learn about the parish's first residents, a Native American tribe whose language was saved from extinction not long ago.
3. Make Mardi Gras Happen in Lake Charles
A bit farther west is Lake Charles, which is well worth the three-hour jaunt from New Orleans for a couple of big reasons, the first being its flamboyant Mardi Gras Museum. Located in a former school, it exhibits nearly 300 wildly embellished costumes from decades past and replicates the experience of standing on a Mardi Gras float — with free beads for souvenirs.
Lake Charles is also home to Leonard's Food Quarters, a Cajun-Creole eatery that makes some of the state's best boudin, the savory meat-and-rice sausage famous across Acadiana (the official name of French Louisiana). Wash it down at one of "Lake Chuck's" two local craft brewery pubs, Crying Eagle and Rikenjaks, a favorite beer brand resurrected after an eight-year brewing hiatus.
This being swamp country, top off your Cajun side trip with a bona fide Gulf Coast excursion down the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road. Join a Grosse Savanne Eco Tour for a real-deal boat ride across the marshes just outside Lake Charles. The gators may be out, along with birds, snakes and other "Louisiana Outback" wildlife — wholly different from the wildlife of Bourbon Street.
What are your favorite things to do along the Louisiana coast? Tell us about them, below.