The snowy egret brought one of his legs down into the little stream, turned his head and surveyed the scene. In an instant, his wide, pure white feathers lifted him airborne into a graceful arch as he climbed upward, looped to the left and, just as suddenly as he had taken off, swooped back down to the verdant ground.
What makes the sight of this small white heron so remarkable is that he was not deep in the woods, but along busy Interstate 10, where his flight took him from the edge of the roadside, over the busy westbound traffic and down to the wide median.
This is Louisiana, where the egret is one of millions of birds that migrate through Louisiana every spring and fall, some 450 species that make southern Louisiana a birder’s paradise.
With rising fuel prices, more Americans will be taking summer vacations closer to home this year, and Louisiana offers an eco-cultural wonderland. A visit to what is perhaps the nation’s most exotic state, full of natural attractions and a European flair from its rich history of Native American, Spanish and French heritage, to its African traditions, allows travelers to go international without ever leaving the country.
This is one place where culture and ecology are elegantly intertwined. With the great Mississippi River Delta providing an expansive flyway for ducks, hummingbirds, robins and other migratory birds, various species are visible everywhere, even alongside busy interstate highways. This is the same land of legendary tales and folk traditions tied to the rich earth of the Delta and wetlands. The food, music, dance and customs are bountiful and accessible.
“Louisiana’s unique and diverse heritage makes it unlike any other place in the world,” said Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, head of the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. “Louisiana has a deeply rooted, authentic culture.”
As the “Sportsman’s Paradise,” Louisiana offers great hunting, fishing, boating and bird watching, with a system of trails where visitors can experience the natural and cultural attractions of Louisiana. There are alligator farms to visit, as well as the award-winning LSU Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge that recreates a farm village, complete with 18th and 19th century equipment. Swamp tours are available through Southeast Louisiana in which visitors can see the marshlands that look as they have for hundreds of years. A new African-American Heritage trail was recently launched along with a culinary trail that guides you on an epicurean journey unparalleled anywhere in the United States.
The major birding hot spot is in Cameron Parish in the Southwest corner of Louisiana, the start of the America’s WETLAND Birding Trail, a network of 12 distinct birding loops that run through 22 parishes (counties) and link 115 wildlife viewing areas. More than 30 resource centers, each with state-of-the-art interactive kiosks and brochures, guide visitors in their exploration.
Cameron is a paradise for birds because of the varying habitat: prairie, gallery woods, hardwood swamps, freshwater and saltwater marshes, cheniers (oak woods on old ridges of the Gulf of Mexico beach) and the open gulf waters. Lacassine, located within the parish, supports one of the largest concentrations of wintering waterfowl in the National Wildlife Refuge System. The Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Cameron is home to more than 200 species of birds. There is a 1.5-mile “Wetland Walkway” through the marsh so visitors get up-close views of birds and wildlife. “It’s a national treasure,” said Chuck Morse, assistant secretary for the Louisiana Office of Tourism.
Birders can also travel along U.S. Highway 90 in southeast Louisiana and spot Bald Eagles, Brown Pelicans (who have made such a comeback after nearly disappearing due to DDT that they were recently removed from the EPA’s Endangered Species list), many different versions of woodpeckers, including the downy woodpecker, as well as the Cooper’s Hawk, Blue Herons, blue jays, Rosette Spoonbills, and the tufted titmouse.
Louisiana’s distinct, native cuisine is the basis for a trail system that explores the unique cultural blend found in Louisiana food, combining the spices used by Native Americans, the French sauces, the Spanish use of rice, flavor from African-Americans and the fishing and trapping of the Cajuns – French Canadians driven out of Nova Scotia 300 years ago who settled along the Louisiana bayous.
Remnants of their French-speaking ways are still evident in Acadiana, the Lafayette-centered South Louisiana area where warm, open and giving hospitality is a cultural hallmark. Louisianans eat out more than most, and with thousands of excellent restaurants, every meal can be a cultural experience.
The state tourism office, in conjunction with the McIllhenny Company, which produces Tabasco pepper sauce, and the Louisiana Travel Promotion Association, is launching “Louisiana Culinary Trails,” that will mark spots throughout the state that alert visitors to points of interest related to Louisiana food. “Research shows that our world-renowned Cajun and Creole cuisine is a huge draw for tourists,” Morse said. Gourmet magazine, the International Tourism Association and the Travel Industry Association of America named Louisiana as a top-15 destination for food-related travel.
Driving Interstate 10 between Lafayette and Louisiana’s Capital City, Baton Rouge, visitors cross the Atchafalaya Basin, the nation’s largest river swamp that is also designated a National Heritage Area. “It is an ecological gem,” Morse said. A visitor’s center tells the story of the Acadians’ migration to Louisiana and how they flourished by trapping, fishing and harvesting shrimp, oysters and crawfish. “Their lives depended on the bounty of the swamp,” Morse said.
Amid all this, sit some of America’s greatest historic houses, the plantation homes that line the Mississippi River, monuments to the great River Road culture when the river, along with its tributaries, was the major interstate route connecting the central United States, from the Alleghany Mountain chain to the Rockies. Among the best tours is the Laura Plantation and Oak Alley Plantation Tour. The tour was called “The Best History Tour in the U.S.” by Lonely Planet, while Laura Plantation was recently recognized as Louisiana’s “Travel Attraction of the Year” by the tourism industry.
In Northwest Louisiana lies Natchitoches, the oldest settlement outside New Orleans in the Louisiana Purchase territories. It is the home of the distinct Creole culture, the mix of African, Spanish and French people with their own traditions and cuisine. Natchitoches Meat Pies are well known and loved through the state, and the film “Steel Magnolias” still brings visitors to the picturesque town, the riverfront of which resembles the French Quarter of New Orleans.
Driving north to Shreveport, where Elvis got his professional boost, there are efforts to revive the “Louisiana Hayride” radio program where he first mesmerized audiences. The city is also host to the American Rose Center, headquarters of the hybrid rose organization and site of spectacular gardens. In Monroe, a Guttenberg Bible is the star of the Bidenharn Bible Study Center. The Northeast Louisiana Delta Heritage Museum in Monroe provides an education of the cultural contributions to the region by African-Americans. Louisiana’s African-American Trail also includes the Tangipahoa African American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans’ Archive in Hammond.
Throughout the state, music fills the air, and not just by night: there’s nothing at all like Saturday morning at Fred’s in Mamou, where Cajun fiddlers and zydeco music artists play for two-stepping audiences from all over the region.
New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, which still dominates in its native city. New Orleans is unlike any other city in the United States, the most European of American cities, sometimes called the northernmost Caribbean city. It’s where individuality flourishes, where eccentricity is not only tolerated but celebrated, where Mardi Gras grew so many traditions that volumes have been written about them.
Preservation Jazz Hall in the heart of the quarter showcases some of the city’s best practioners of this uniquely New Orleans art form, as do the jazz clubs of Frenchman Street in the Faubourg-Marigny, just downriver and steps from the Quarter. The Presbytere on the much-photographed Jackson Square showcases the city’s Mardi Gras traditions, another major cultural contribution of the city. Steps away, the Louisiana State Museum’s 1850 house shows life in the city in the mid-19th century.
Another unique New Orleans cultural phenomenon is the Mardi Gras Indians, a celebration by African-Americans honoring Native Americans.
“The Mardi Gras Indians preserve a tradition that has been carried on exclusively in the New Orleans African American community for more than a century,” said Cherice Harrison-Nelson, a New Orleans public school teacher active in the tradition. She’s a third generation Mardi Gras Indian, the daughter of the late Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame, Donald Harrison Sr., and curator of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame.
“Culture is in my blood. It’s my passion,” Harrison-Nelson said. “After all, I am from Louisiana, where even the sidewalks just exude culture – art, music, food and unique Mardi Gras traditions that you cannot find anywhere else in the world.’
The cultural offerings of Louisiana are vast, whether you are a birder, a culture enthusiast, an architectural fan, a history buff or a preservationist.
“There are so many great cultural experiences: African-American history, ecological wonders, music, culinary arts,” Morse said. “And it’s all real. It is authentic and something a tourist can experience firsthand. It is not manufactured. It isn’t ‘Made in China.’ It’s real.”
Websites for more information:
Birding and other tourism information:
Bird festivals: www.northlakenature.org
Creole culture: lafolkroots.org
Atchafalaya: www.bayoutourism.com, www.kayakguide.com
African-American museums: www.nldaahm.com
Alligator park: www.alligatorpark.net/index.html