Rising 126 feet above the earth where it’s been nurtured for some 500 years, the cathedral’s gnarly live oak, whose massive branches twist around its trunk like petrified tentacles, is said to be one of the largest in the country. Metal supports rest beneath its lower arms, gently nudging against gravity. A tangle of ferns grows in its shadows. Standing in front of the tree, shaded by its vine-covered mass, it’s hard not to be humbled by the history it represents.
It’s only fitting that such a tree should be rooted in Lafayette—a town where time almost seems to stand still. This is the heart of Cajun Country, and the customs steeped within its soil have endured for generations, dating back to the antebellum arrival of the Acadians. It’s a place where the town elders still speak the same heavily diphthonged Cajun French dialect, where accents hang as thick as the Louisiana humidity, where a pot of gumbo’s always on, cher, and where the first few beats of swirling zydeco are an inescapable invitation to a turn around the dance floor. In other words, it’s unlike most other locales across the country that have lost their grasp on time-honored traditions. In truth, it’s one of the country’s last true cultural enclaves.
It’s also one hell of a good time.
Cajuns, it turns out, just know something the rest of us don’t about living les bons temps, as they call it. Theirs is an easy, breezy lifestyle of back-porch barbecues and block parties, of family values and deep-rooted faith. And it would seem there’s something to it all: In a recent study conducted by professors at Harvard and the Vancouver School, Lafayette was determined to be the happiest city in the U.S. (Other towns rounding out the top five? All nearby: Houma, Shreveport-Bossier City, Baton Rouge and Alexandria.)
It’s easy to see all of this on display, even minutes after pulling up into town. First stop? Lunch, because honestly, these Cajuns just want to make sure you’re well-fed.
You’ll smell Johnson’s Boucaniere (that’s Cajun for smokehouse) well before you see it. In fact, you can smell it for blocks, not long after leaving Interstate 49 behind. But opening the swinging screen door, it’s unclear what hits you first—the heady scent of hickory smoke or the twang of accordion spilling out of the radio. After hearing the specials from the proprietor—“Ooooh, I’d get you some of dat cornbread dressing; we just got some real good fresh eggs from down the street der”—and placing your order, you’ll be told that when your order’s up, you can manger. The smells, the sounds, the accents, the attitude—it’s a gumbo pot of sensory overload, and it’s not the last time you’ll experience it while on the ground in Lafayette.
In fact, it doesn’t quite matter where you go—the town is awash in Cajun culture. Leaving Johnson’s and setting out to explore the area, you’ll see that “streets” turn to “rues,” changing from the southern (Hydrangea Street, Myrtle Street) to the saintly (Rue St. Mary, Rue St. John). Iron-faced markers spout off an encyclopedia’s worth of Lafayette history, all in French. City parks boast names like “Sans Souci”—Without a Care—and a waltzing medley of guitar and fiddle pours from beer-soaked bar after beer-soaked bar. Eventually, you’ll find it impossible to resist, and you’ll follow the trail of zydeco into a Cajun dance hall—all low-lit, wood-paneled walls and circle after circle of twirling couples. You might be invited out onto the dance floor. Better yet, you might be invited back next weekend when the whole group’s set to celebrate a woman named Rose’s 80th birthday with a big pot of jambalaya.
But you don’t have to be an octogenarian to appreciate the strong Cajun tradition and live the bons temps lifestyle. Downtown, where you’re just as likely to spot a decades-old plate-lunch cafe as a high-end sushi bar, young folks with surnames like “Girouard,” “Fontenot” and “Guilbeau” are setting up shop, opening restaurants and helming boutique galleries. As you pull up a seat at a bar for a cold brew, the 20-something bartender will be happy to entertain your questions on how to make the perfect seafood gumbo. (Hint: It’s all about the wet roux, the spice blend, and, you know, don’t forget to stir.)
THE LAFAYETTE LIST
Digging Deep into Cajun Country
This refurbished warehouse tucked among downtown Lafayette’s trendy boutiques, galleries and cafes feels far more San Francisco than southern Louisiana. Towering 17-foot ceilings, gigantic industrial windows and chic, modern touches fill the nine apartment-style rooms, which are an ideal place to unwind after a long day of exploring. (403 S. Buchanan St.; buchananlofts.com)
Walk under a canopy of old-growth cypress shrouded in Spanish moss to reach this restored 1840s French-Creole cottage, a longtime passion project of owner Madeleine Cenac. The three-room cottage—listed on the National Register of Historic Places—fits snugly between Lafayette and neighbor Breaux Bridge on scenic Lake Martin and offers the chance to hole up in one of the area’s finest examples of vernacular Acadian architecture. (1015 John D. Herbert Drive, Breaux Bridge; maisonmadeleine.com)
T’Frere’s House B&B
If you’re looking for a bed and breakfast with a bit of that “chez nous est chez vous” Cajun hospitality, look no further than T’Frere’s, where the owners greet you with mint-tea juleps and crab custards on the porch, and where you’ll curl up to sleep in an antique four-poster bed. (1905 Verot School Road; tfrereshouse.com)
//EAT & DRINK
Olde Tyme Grocery
Owned by a New Orleans native, this wee white cottage churns out an impressive amount of Crescent City-style po’boys each day. Should you find yourself in town during Lent, swing by on Fridays for one of Olde Tyme’s storied crawfish sammies, which—if the decades of T-shirts lining the grocery’s walls are any indication—are about as time-honored as local traditions come. (218 W. St. Mary Blvd.; oldetymegrocery.com)
The French Press
The three words you need to know if you’re brunching (and you should be) at this gorgeously appointed former printing press: Sweet Baby Breesus. A fried boudin ball pressed with praline bacon between a cane-syrup-soaked buttermilk biscuit, this little bite of heaven exemplifies all that James Beard-nominated chef Justin Girouard is about—fanciful, inventive takes on home-style Cajun classics. (214 E. Vermillion St.; thefrenchpresslafayette.com)
Cafe des Amis
We’d be lying if we said it was all about the food at this quaint Breaux Bridge eatery because it ain’t—not that they don’t put out a mean cup of richly rouxed gumbo. Instead, it’s the weekly Saturday-morning breakfast set to live zydeco music that’s the draw, attracting high-steppers from miles around for a rollicking round of Cajun two-steppin.’ Come early—as in, by 8 a.m.—to snag a seat. (140 E. Bridge St., Breaux Bridge; cafedesamis.com)
The hand-painted “Hot Boudin To-day” sign hanging out front is basically the equivalent of a stop sign, as Johnson’s boudin (savory, spicy pork-and-rice-stuffed sausage) is capable of bringing St. John Street traffic to a halt. And if you do find yourself lured inside by the promise of fresh boudin, what’s to stop you from ordering a plate lunch to enjoy on the charming covered patio—maybe some smoked brisket with a side of cornbread dressing? (1111 St. John St.; johnsonsboucaniere.com)
Pamplona Tapas Bar and Restaurant
At some point during your trip, smoked meats and sauce-smothered seafood—glorious as they are—may start to wear a little thin on your taste buds. If you hit the gumbo wall, be sure to reserve a table at this swanky Spanish spot. A Cajun-food coma is nothing a goat-cheese croquette and cava cocktail can’t fix. (631 Jefferson St.; pamplonatapas.com)
Social Southern Table & Bar
Maybe it has something to do with that whole “happiest city in the land” designation, but Lafayette locals are a good-lookin’ bunch—and when these good-lookin’ folks want to see and be seen, they head to this equally attractive hot spot for killer craft cocktails and fancified Southern fare. (3901 Johnston St.; socialsouthern.com)
Blue Moon Saloon
This friendly honky-tonk hosts the biggest names in Cajun music—think Lost Bayou Ramblers and Feufollet—on its back-porch stage, as well as a handful of music lovers in its hostel-like guesthouse. In town midweek? Make sure to pop in for the weekly Cajun jam sessions, held every Wednesday evening. (215 E. Convent St.; bluemoonpresents.com)
La Poussiere Cajun Dancehall
Still fais do-do-ing after almost six decades, this authentic Cajun dance hall seems almost frozen in the past. But a “past” filled with sweethearts swinging across a crowded dance floor to accordion-tinged zydeco on a Sunday afternoon is still very much the present in Breaux Bridge, and those carrying on the tradition seem all the better for it. (1215 Grand Pointe Ave., Breaux Bridge; lapoussiere.com)
Bayou Teche Brewing
Helmed by a trio of brewmasters hellbent on producing beers that can mix and mingle with Cajun cuisine, this farmhouse brewery is well worth the drive out to nearby Arnaudville. With bottles plastered with labels like “Louisiana 31 Bière Noire” and “Saison d’Ecrevisses,” there’s a little taste of Acadiana in every sip. (1106 Bushville Highway, Arnaudville; bayoutechebrewing.com)
Cajun Country Swamp Tours
It’s hard to resist the siren song of the Louisiana bayou—all knotty cypress, swaying Spanish moss and eerily calm, mirrorlike water. Hop on a crawfish skiff and sneak in among the tupelo trees to see it for yourself—you might even glimpse a gator or two. (1209 Rookery Road, Breaux Bridge; cajuncountryswamptours.com)
Genterie Supply Co.
Follow up your brunch at The French Press with a visit to handsome next-door neighbor Genterie Supply Co., which has everything the modern man needs to stay groomed and well-garbed, like Wolverine boots, Herschel Supply Co. bags and Baxter shaving kits. (210 E. Vermillion St.; genterie.com)
This swanky planned community that would be equally at home among 30A’s Seaside and Rosemary Beach boasts Lafayette’s premier alfresco shopping center. Stop in at Red Arrow Workshop for cheeky souvenirs and gifts, Maven for on-trend wardrobe pieces, and The Backpacker for all things outdoors before getting a taste of home at Arkansas export Paul Michael Company. (1100 Camellia Blvd.; shopriverranch.com)
Sans Souci Fine Crafts Gallery
Housed in one of Lafayette’s oldest buildings, this charming gallery is teeming with locally produced crafts, all made by members of the Louisiana Crafts Guild. When we stopped in, we fell for a collection of intricately beaded bracelets and necklaces, all painstakingly handmade by a local octogenarian. (219 E. Vermillion St.; louisianacrafts.org)