Bayou Byways

Print a map of this route At 600,000 acres the Atchafalaya Basin is America’s largest river swamp — a place

Jefferson Island's Rip Van Winkle Gardens
Jefferson Island’s Rip Van Winkle Gardens mimics the tranquil Zen gardens of Japan. The area is noted for its botanical treasures. treasures.

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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.

2. Kraemer
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.

3. Houma
Rte. 90 bypasses Houma; take the turn into the town on Rte. 182, crossing one of the 55 bridges that give this seafood center its nickname: the Venice of America. Lots of fishing boats line the waterways, so don’t be surprised if one of them sneaks up alongside as you stroll on one of Houma’s bayou-hugging streets, which in bygone days were used as towpaths for vessels.

Houma’s location at the confluence of seven bayous makes it a major base for swamp tours. If you are willing to tolerate the high humidity, the best time to explore the area’s countless waterside wonders is from April through September, when alligators — the premier natural attraction in these parts — are most likely to be spotted. Measuring up to 14 feet in length, these fearsome reptiles patrol the waters like submarines. When winter arrives, the cold weather sends the alligators into hibernation, but it replaces one eerie presence with another: fog steals across the bayou, rising from the warm water like steam from an oversize kettle.

4. Franklin
At Patterson the drive detours from Rte. 90 onto Rte. 182, where it mimics the bends of its watery companion, Bayou Teche. This 125-mile-long waterway — perhaps the longest of Louisiana’s thousands of bayous — was thought so strategic to commerce during the steamboat era that sugar barons built their palatial homes conveniently right alongside it.

As Rte. 182 nears Franklin, you are indeed in sugarcane country. In spring rows of newly planted crops fan out from the highway, each stalk yielding about one tablespoon of sugar.

In town roam beneath tunnels of live oaks, which shade some 400 historic buildings, or follow Irish Bend Road to Oaklawn Manor. Once the hub of a 12,036-acre sugar plantation, this restored 1837 Greek Revival structure is named for its surrounding groves of live oaks — among the largest in America. As you amble beneath them in their shade, examine their branches for signs of resurrection ferns. In dry weather these plants shrivel into nondescript brown curls, but rain transforms them into lush, lacy green fronds.

5. Shadows-on-the-Teche
Near Jeanerette several antebellum homes hide behind fans of magnolias and live oaks. But the real treat lies farther ahead in New Iberia, site of an exquisite 1834 plantation house called Shadows-on-the-Teche. Breaking with tradition, this coral-brick, white-columned mansion stands with its back to the bayou. Beginning in the 1920s the builder’s great-grandson, William Weeks Hall, used the estate to entertain celebrities, including the film director Elia Kazan, who described it as “the most beautiful house I’ve seen in the South.”

6. Avery Island
Saucy scenery lies south of New Iberia on Rte. 329 at Avery Island, a lush island of greenery in this region of swamplands. A toll road bisects plots of the peppers used to make Tabasco sauce — a mixture of vinegar, red pepper, and salt that was first bottled in 1868. The company offers tours through glass-walled corridors, which eliminate all but the faintest whiff of this sinus-clearing concoction, a staple of Cajun cuisine.

Secluded paths and gravel roads loop among the compound’s more-than-200-acre Jungle Gardens, which feature an egret rookery built on bamboo piers. Once prized for their showy feathers, egrets were hunted nearly to extinction. In 1892 the Tabasco company’s founder, E. A. McIlhenny, helped in their recovery by capturing and nurturing seven young birds, which in less than 25 years increased to 20,000 — the largest egret colony ever established in America.

7. Jefferson Island
After returning to Rte. 90, head southwest on Rte. 14 toward Jefferson Island, where an oak-lined boulevard leads, appropriately enough, to Live Oak Gardens — 25 acres of semitropical gardens bordering Lake Peigneur. More than 1,000 species of flowering plants can be seen here, and in nearby Rip Van Winkle Gardens. Nearby is a graceful Victorian mansion that was once the winter home of Joseph Jefferson, a celebrated American actor.

8. St. Martinville
After leaving Jefferson Island, the drive swings east on Rte. 675, then continues north on Rtes. 86 and 31 until it reaches St. Martinville. The town was established as a military post in 1714 and settled by French expatriates and Spanish soldiers. The Acadians — or Cajuns, as they came to be called when the word was contracted — eventually settled here after being driven out of Nova Scotia by the British in 1755, and have indelibly branded the area with their customs. During the French Revolution so many Royalist refugees came to St. Martinville that it was dubbed Le Petit Paris.

But it is literature, not history, that draws most visitors to St. Martinville, for this charming hamlet is the setting for Evangeline, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem about star-crossed lovers. The Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site, a 157-acre park just north of town, has a museum and visitor center that explain the history of the region’s French-speaking peoples, including the colorful Cajuns. Also on the grounds are a reconstruction of a 19th-century plantation and a house that, according to legend, once belonged to Louis Arceneaux, the real-life counterpart of Evangeline’s hero, Gabriel. Of all the town’s Evangeline-related sites, perhaps none is more popular than the Evangeline Oak. Found at the end of Port Street, this ancient moss-draped tree is said to be the place where Emmeline Labiche (whose story inspired Longfellow) met her long-lost fiancé. Nowadays the hoary oak is a shady spot for musicians who sometimes gather to play Cajun tunes beside the bayou.

9. Lake Fausse Pointe State Park
While you hum along with zydeco and Cajun songs on the radio, continue to Lake Fausse Pointe State Park, site of one of the region’s oldest bald cypress groves. To reach the park, take Rtes. 96 and 679 east, Rte. 3083 south, and turn off onto the Atchafalaya Levee Road.

This 6,000-acre recreation area sits on land that once periodically disappeared beneath Atchafalayan floodwaters; levees on the park’s eastern border now protect it from such flooding. Acting like a giant sponge, the 15-mile-wide by 70-mile-long Atchafalaya Basin absorbs much of the soil and water runoff of the Mississippi’s drainage system. Consequently, this habitat nurtures many creatures — bass, crappies, frogs, snakes, alligators, black bears, eagles, herons, and ibises, to name just a few.

10. Henderson
Swamp tours of the Atchafalaya Basin shove off from McGee’s Landing and Whiskey River Landing in Henderson. At first they journey into a bald cypress graveyard, where severed stumps are all that remain from a stand of 100-foot-tall trees that were logged in the 1930s. The tombstone stumps give this part of the swamp a lakelike appearance, but deeper in the basin, the waters are punctuated by willow, sweetgum, and bald cypress trees. Most tours float beneath the twin spans of I-10, which was built to link this watery realm with the rest of civilization.

11. Breaux Bridge
According to Cajun legend, when the Acadians left Nova Scotia, the local lobsters grew lonesome and swam after them, becoming so exhausted by the long journey that they shrank to the size of shrimp. But there’s nothing modest about the size of the crawfish in Breaux Bridge, located west of Henderson at the end of Rte. 347.

The town calls itself the Crawfish Capital of the World, and a festival held every May underscores the point. Cajun music, carnival rides, and a parade of floats play second fiddle to crawfish races and, of course, crawfish-eating contests. (The record stands at 33 pounds consumed in one hour.) As the drive nears its end, it heads north out of town on Rte. 31, then leads west on I-10 and south on Rte. 90 to Lafayette.

12. Lafayette
Located in the heart of Cajun country, Lafayette offers a dance card full of activities, ranging from the foot-shuffling that closes various downtown streets to traffic on Friday evenings during spring and fall to the Cajun-style two-stepping that is featured at dance halls every night.

In spring blossoming azaleas lure drivers along the 20-mile Azalea Trail, a well-marked tour that skirts lush private gardens and such landmarks as the Lafayette Museum (once the home of the city’s founder). Among the most notable attractions here are murals near Lafayette Centre portraying scenes from Cajun history, and a man-made swamp — complete with alligators — found on the campus of the University of Southwestern Louisiana. At Vermilionville and the Acadian Village — two historical theme parks that are located at different ends of town — the daily life experiences of early Acadian settlers is brought vividly to life by costumed interpreters. Length: About 210 miles, plus side trips.

When to go: Spring and fall.

Words to the wise: If you rent a pirogue (a canoe-like boat) for a private swamp tour, be careful; they tip over easily.

Nearby attraction:
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.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest