Length: About 210 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Spring and fall.
Words to the wise: If you rent a pirogue (a canoelike boat) for a private swamp tour, be careful; they tip over easily.
The French Quarter in New Orleans, a colorful and historic residential district.
Not to be missed: Guided tours of the swamps are available in Kraemer, Houma, and Henderson.
Further information: Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission, P.O. Box 52066, Lafayette, LA 70505; tel. 800-346-1958, www.lafayettetravel.com.
At 600,000 acres the Atchafalaya Basin is America’s largest river swamp — a place so big that when I-10 was built in the early 1970s to make the region more accessible, the challenges of extending a road across soggy land made this stretch of interstate one of the most costly ever. Lazing from New Orleans to Lafayette, this nearby drive leads visitors into that lush, liquid world of slightly exotic surprises: French accents, abundant wildlife, and flavorful food and music found nowhere else in America.
1. Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve
Crossing the Mississippi River at New Orleans, the Greater New Orleans Bridge soars over grassy embankments that, from above, look not much larger than speed bumps. In fact, these man-made levees, built to protect against flooding, are about 23 feet high — a hint of the water-logged land that lies ahead. Once across the bridge, follow Rte. 90 (the West Bank Expressway) west to Rte. 45, which leads south to the Barataria unit of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.
Set on 8,600 acres of coastal wetlands (a medley of swamps, freshwater marshes, and hardwood forests), the preserve is fertile breeding wildlife ground. On guided tours and float trips, rangers point out snoozing alligators, and some of the 200-odd species of migratory birds that breed, pass through, or winter here. Five hiking trails weave among bottomland hardwoods, natural levees, a swamp of tupelo gum and bald cypress trees, and a bayou once frequented by Jean Lafitte, the pirate turned patriot.
Leader of a large band of smugglers who prowled the waters of Barataria Bay in the early 1800s, Lafitte was branded a pirate by Louisiana’s American governor, who issued a $500 bounty for his arrest. A self-proclaimed privateer — he considered himself licensed to raid ships on the high seas — Lafitte is said to have doubled his offer to anyone who kidnapped the governor. During the War of 1812, the British approached Lafitte for help in capturing New Orleans, but he tipped off the authorities and cast his lot — men, ammunition, rifles, and military advice — with General Andrew Jackson to help him win the Battle of New Orleans. Lafitte later moved his operation to Texas, leaving behind a rich legacy of treasure tales.
The drive returns to Rte. 90 and heads southwest. Just beyond Des Allemands, veer off onto Rte. 3199 for a short distance, then turn north on Rte. 307, where sugarcane fields give way to wetlands as you follow the road to Kraemer, a base for alligator processing and swamp tours. As you approach Kraemer, you’ll glimpse some of the region’s most typical vegetation: duckweed (one of the world’s smallest flowering plants), lavender-flowered water hyacinths, and bald cypress trees draped with Spanish moss.
Be on the lookout as well for great blue herons. When hunting, this beautiful bird stands motionless with its eyes focused below the water’s surface. Suddenly its coiled neck springs forward, and with the aid of its sharp beak, the bird snatches its unsuspecting prey.