A Staycation guide for Louisianians

Louisiana residents just happen to live in a state targeted by folks in the other 49 as a top vacation destination. A desire to experience the great food, culture and outdoor activities Louisiana offers leads people from Maine to Minnesota to pack their bags and head for the Bayou State.

If your vacation budget this year doesn’t stretch to a cross-country trip – or if you just want to see what all the others are excited about – plan a “staycation” in Louisiana instead. Check out the ways you can relax, have fun and recharge your batteries right in your own backyard. Because you won’t spend a lot of time flying or driving to some distant destination, you’ll use less of your precious time off sitting around airports or behind the wheel of a car. That leaves more days for having a good time, and isn’t that what vacations are all about?

Whether your hometown is one of Louisiana’s exciting big cities or its many charming smaller towns, you’ll run out of vacation days long before you run out of things to do.


Northern Delights

Those who hail from North Louisiana can choose from myriad ways to vacation close to home. This part of the state bears the nickname Sportsman’s Paradise, a tribute to its rolling hills and many lakes, rivers and state parks. But you needn’t go far to enjoy more urban entertainment, including casinos, restaurants, theaters and shops.

If museum-hopping is your thing, opportunities abound. One standout is the Biedenharn Museum & Gardens in Monroe. Joseph Biedenharn, the first bottler of Coca-Cola, built the magnificent mansion in 1914. Today, guests can tour the historic home, furnished with antiques, as well as the beautiful gardens, a Bible museum and displays of Coke memorabilia.

Those interested in military history can take in the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum of Louisiana in Monroe or the Louisiana Military Museum in Ruston.

Smaller specialty museums are often fascinating. Two in North Louisiana are the Germantown Colony Museum near Minden and the Herbert S. Ford Memorial Museum in Homer. The former is the site of a utopian community founded by a group of Germans in the 1830s; the community lasted 40 years, and several of their buildings and a cemetery remain. The Ford Museum is a detailed look at North Louisiana history from pre-Columbian times to the present day and contains period rooms such as a general store, a medical office and a hotel room. The exhibits give visitors a real feel for life in days gone by.

In Ruston, home to the popular Louisiana Peach Festival, the 18-block Historic District lets visitors admire period architecture while they shop and dine.

If you crave outdoor relaxation, head for the region’s many golf courses and state parks. You can glimpse a variety of native wildlife at Olde Oaks, an Audubon Golf Trail course near Shreveport, while creeks add interest to the 300-acre Black Bear Golf Course in Delhi. Spend your vacation days in a cabin or camp site at Lake D’Arbonne State Park, where you can fish, swim, bike or go bird-watching. The fishing is also great at Poverty Point Reservoir State Park, near Delhi. If you like canoeing, try the 6,400-acre lake at Lake Claiborne State Park.

Another outdoor treat is the Gardens of the American Rose Center in Shreveport, where more than 20,000 roses perfume the air. The gardens are lovely in spring, summer and into fall; during the winter holidays, thousands of twinkling lights turn it into a wonderland, complete with train rides.

Vacationing with the kids? Don’t miss Shreveport’s Sci-Port – Louisiana’s Science Center, more than 90,000 square feet of interactive, educational fun for families. Kids can learn about science, math and outer space in hundreds of exhibits and catch a flick at the IMAX Dome Theatre. Chimp Haven, a national chimpanzee sanctuary, is located just 22 miles from Shreveport; on Chimp Discovery Days, visitors are admitted to see the chimps and their habitat.

Kids and water go together like peanut butter and jelly, and in addition to swimming in the region’s state parks, try Splash Kingdom Family Waterpark in Shreveport, featuring slides, a lazy river and a special area for the small fry.

Shopping, placing a wager or two and taking in a show are other popular vacation pastimes. Don’t miss the breathtaking Strand Theatre in Shreveport, built in 1925 and lovingly restored. It reopened in 1984 and provides an opulent backdrop for concerts, plays and touring Broadway shows. In the Shreveport-Bossier City entertainment districts, you can try your luck at several casinos and Harrah’s Louisiana Downs, a casino and race track. This summer will bring the grand opening of Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville Casino Resort.
Bossier City is noted for its giant riverfront mall, Louisiana Boardwalk, with more than 70 outlet stores along with an IMAX theater and restaurants. Or try Monroe’s Antique Alley, blocks and blocks of antiques shops.

Other fun side trips include visits to the tasting room at Landry Vineyards in the hills of West Monroe and Vieux Carré Gourmet, also in Monroe, which specializes in food with a New Orleans flavor.

Speaking of flavor, the cuisine in northern Louisiana has something for everyone. “Barbecue is big, and catfish is king,” says Louisiana food commentator Ian McNulty (see his column, p. 20). Restaurants run from white-tablecloth to neighborhood cafés, and you can also take advantage of summer’s sunny weather and pick up some regional favorites, including pecans, blueberries and those juicy Ruston peaches for a picnic in the park.

With a little advance planning, you can schedule your staycation to coincide with one or two of North Louisiana’s festivals. Popular gatherings include the Franklin Parish Catfish fest in Winnsboro, the Teddy Bear Festival in Tallulah, Ruston’s Louisiana Peach Festival and the Germantown Bluegrass Festival in Minden.

 

Capital Thrills, Plantation Adventures

Even if you’ve lived in the Baton Rouge area for some time, there are bound to be interesting places you’ve never visited. Maybe you’ve put off exploring the parts of the region you’re not familiar with or you’ve skipped your hometown’s highlights, thinking they would always be available. A staycation is the ideal time to see what’s happening in a section of Louisiana that combines big-city life with a glimpse into the lifestyles of the wealthy planters who called the area home in antebellum days.

The area’s nickname is “Plantation Country” for a reason: Nowhere else can you tour such a unique collection of mansions that tell the tale of a time when cotton was king and planters lived like royalty. Start with Nottoway, sometimes called “The White Castle of Louisiana,” with 64 rooms of grandeur. Other notable plantations include Destrehan, San Francisco, Oak Alley and The Myrtles (which calls itself Louisiana’s most haunted home). At Laura Plantation, six slave quarters show the reverse side of the coin; enslaved African Americans provided the labor to keep the plantations going, and the slave quarters show the poverty of their lives. Another don’t-miss destination is Oakley House at the Audubon State Historical Site. Oakley is where John James Audubon painted some of his famous bird pictures.

Today, many plantations have turned into bed-and-breakfast inns, and others have special holiday activities and lovely restaurants.

Baton Rouge is rich in interesting sites. Young people would especially like the LSU Rural Life Museum, a collection of 27 buildings filled with tools, furniture and other items from Louisiana’s 19th-century rural culture.

At the Louisiana Art & Science Museum, kids can have fun in the interactive science center or view a show at the planetarium. Parents will like the fine art on display. And at the Old Governor’s Mansion, built by Huey P. Long, get a look at Long’s pajamas, Gov. Jimmie Davis’ guitar and other artifacts. Other specialized museums include the Old Arsenal Museum, with its exhibits of military history, and the Shaw Center for the Arts, a downtown architectural gem with a contemporary art museum, restaurants and gallery spaces.

Because kids just want to have fun, spend an afternoon or two at Blue Bayou Water Park and its neighbor, Dixie Landin’, filled with thrilling rides for children of all ages. They might also enjoy seeing the U.S.S. Kidd Veterans Memorial & Museum. The destroyer, nicknamed “The Pirate of the Pacific,” was launched in 1943.  On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the Enchanted Mansion: A Doll Museum displays dolls of every description; money raised by the site is donated to benefit the handicapped.

The Baton Rouge area has plenty of places to shop and dine, including the Baton Rouge Mall of America, with its carousel; L’Auberge Casino & Hotel, with three restaurants and plenty of gaming action; and the Denham Springs Historic and Antique District, where dealers sell toys, art, Christmas items and silver. Stop by Cottonwood Books, filled with thousands of new, used and rare books, including those on Louisiana history, the Civil War and Southern literature.

Plantation Country is also home to such charming towns as New Roads and St. Francisville. In New Roads, enjoy fishing, boating and water-skiing on the False River, an oxbow lake. The town is also home to the Pointe Coupee Parish Museum and lots of antiques shops. St. Francisville, noted for its Main Street, is often called one of America’s most beautiful small towns. Don’t miss Afton Villa Gardens; although Afton Villa burned in 1963, its lovely gardens are filled with sweet olive, magnolias and camellias, as well as azaleas of all colors. In the town of Zachary, take in the Zachary Historic Village, with its blacksmith’s shop, and watch corn ground into grits.

If you time your staycation right, you can join the locals and celebrate at the Baton Rouge Greek Festival, the Jambalaya Festival in Gonzales or one of the many other area festivals.

Vacation is an ideal time to head for the great outdoors, and in Baton Rouge and Plantation Country, choices abound. At the Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area, northwest of St. Francisville, visitors can hunt, hike, bike, ride horses, bird-watch or take a walk on the 3-mile nature trail with camera in tow. The Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center in Baton Rouge is crisscrossed with gravel paths and boardwalks and is noted for its live animal encounters. Like golf? Try The Bluffs on Thompson Creek, just five minutes from St. Francisville. The course, built to an Arnold Palmer design, is noted for its creeks, ponds and breathtaking rolling bluffs. Or walk the Iberville Parish Birding Trail, where you can spot neo-tropical songbirds, migratory hummingbirds, wading birds and raptors.

Dining is a big part of every vacation, and there are lots of options in the Baton Rouge area, ranging from elegant meals to neighborhood cafés with Cajun and Creole specialties. In Baton Rouge, local favorites include Ruffino’s, with its classic Creole Italian dishes, and Juban’s, with its Creole menu. Many plantation homes also have restaurants, such as The Carriage House Restaurant at The Myrtles, which features “down home Southern favorites.” It’s also fun to pick up some fresh produce and prepared foods at one of the area’s many farmers markets and have a picnic.

Dining, shopping, hiking or taking in a bit of history – the Baton Rouge area is a complete vacation destination in one easy-to-navigate package.

 

Big Easy Fun

Few cities have the allure of New Orleans. Its charms are known all over the world, and its restaurants, hotels, museums and cultural activities are a magnet for tourists. Those in the know, however – especially those who live near the city – realize that the Greater New Orleans area holds lots of lesser-known delights just a short hop from the city itself. A staycation is the ideal time to explore one of Louisiana’s most exciting regions.

New Orleans has museums to suit just about every interest. Don’t-miss venues include the Ogden Museum of Southern Art; the Contemporary Arts Center; the Cabildo and Presbytère buildings in the French Quarter; and Mardi Gras World, where you can get a behind-the-scenes look at how the parade floats are built.

One of the most moving places to visit is the National World War II Museum, which tells the story of the Greatest Generation and the battles fought in Europe and in the Pacific, on land and sea and in the air. The recorded interviews with veterans are poignant; other exhibits show how life was on the home front.

The Historic New Orleans Collection on Royal Street in the Vieux Carré tells the story of the city’s past through exhibits and research materials.

Families will especially enjoy the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and Entergy IMAX Theatre and Audubon’s spectacular zoo. A fairly new venue, the Audubon Insectarium, gives an up-close look at the smaller critters we all live side by side with. The Louisiana Children’s Museum, just a brief walk from Canal Street, is packed with hands-on, educational activities children of all ages will enjoy.
Another treat for children is City Park, where kids can play in Storyland, feed the ducks and ride paddle boats. Woldenberg Park, which borders the docks on the Mississippi River, is another good place for children to run around. They can watch the ships on the river and ride the ferry across and back.

In the nearby town of Folsom is an unusual spot, the Global Wildlife Center. During a 90-minute safari tour, you can see giraffes, zebras, camels, elands and other animals. You can even feed them.
Of course, just wandering through the French Quarter, or Vieux Carré, is an ideal way to spend an afternoon or two. On Royal Street, you can take in the magnificent antiques stores, and later, you should get out and experience the nightlife on Bourbon Street.

Another fun staycation activity – one you may have always wanted to do but never had time for – is to board the streetcar at Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue and ride all the way up the Avenue, through the Garden District, known for its beautiful mansions and huge trees, and into the Uptown area. At the end of the line, get off and walk a short way to Camellia Grill, a favorite with college students and locals. After your meal, take the car back to town, enjoying the breeze and the sounds of the city.

Just a short trip from downtown is Longue Vue House and Gardens. The classic Revival mansion, built by Edith and Edgar Stern, is filled with original furnishings and surrounded by a wide variety of gardens. Longue Vue provides a look at a way of life few people ever experience.

New Orleans also has a full complement of cultural activities, including symphony concerts, ballets, operas and stage shows. In nearby Jefferson Parish, the Jefferson Performing Arts Society offers plays in several venues.

Generations ago, New Orleanians escaped the heat of the summer by crossing Lake Pontchartrain to visit what is now called the Northshore. The communities of Covington, Mandeville, Madisonville, Abita Springs and Hammond, among others, offer a plethora of activities including bicycling along the Tammany Trace; shopping in Historic Downtown Covington; grabbing a beer and a burger at the Abita Brew Pub; and feasting on fresh shrimp, crab and oysters. Covington has become famous for its Three Rivers Art Festival, which draws art-lovers from miles away. The Madisonville Wooden Boat Festival is another popular destination. Many New Orleans cultural groups, such as the symphony orchestra, offer shows on the Northshore, as well.

If vacation means getting outdoors to you, New Orleans has many fine golf courses, such as the TCP Louisiana Golf Course, a member of the state’s Audubon Golf Trail. At Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve’s Barataria Preserve in Marrero, you can canoe, follow nature trails and learn about the area’s unique topography.

Dining, in all its variations, is a big part of visiting the Greater New Orleans region. The city itself is famous for its elegant white-tablecloth restaurants, such as Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, Commander’s Palace and Brigtsen’s. But locals know neighborhood spots, such as Jacques-Imo’s on Oak Street, Venezia’s in Mid-City and Praline Connection on Frenchmen Street, offer delicious food and lively atmospheres.

Traditional treats include enjoying café au lait and beignets at Café du Monde, where you can sit and watch the world go by, or buying a muffuletta (an Italian stuffed sandwich) at Central Grocery downtown and then sitting on a bench by the Mississippi River to eat it.

 

Heart of Louisiana

Central Louisiana, which borders both Texas and Mississippi, combines Southern charm with aspects of the Old West. With its rolling hills and piney woods, the area offers many opportunities for outdoor relaxation. Its charming cities and towns, such as Natchitoches, Alexandria, Pineville, Leesville, Ferriday and Vidalia, are popular places to shop, dine and learn about the region’s history.

Visitor attractions in Central Louisiana are wide-ranging. Some provide a look at the area’s bygone days; at Frogmore Cotton Plantation & Gins, for example, you can tour both a working plantation of the early 1800s and a modern cotton plantation and gin. Particular attention is paid to the lives of the slaves who once provided the labor that made the plantation successful.

Just down the road from Frogmore in Ferriday is the Delta Music Museum, which spotlights the rock ’n’ roll and blues musicians from the Delta. Learn more about Mickey Gilley; Jerry Lee Lewis; and Louisiana’s “singing governor,” Jimmie Davis, remembered for his big hit, “You Are My Sunshine.”

Our state’s military past is remembered in the Louisiana Maneuvers & Military Museum in Pineville and the Fort Polk Military Museum. The Arna Bontemps African American Museum in Alexandria highlights the life of the Harlem Renaissance writer.

Melrose Plantation, about 15 miles south of Natchitoches, is unique in that it was built by and for free blacks. The famed primitive painter, Clementine Hunter, lived and worked at Melrose, and today it holds a major arts and craft festival. Kent Plantation House in Alexandria, built in 1796, is also an interesting destination. In addition to the main house, you can see slave cabins, a sugar mill, the milk house and the open-hearth kitchens.

Few states can match Louisiana’s colorful politics; learn the story at the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield. Gov. Huey P. Long Jr., Oscar K. “O.K.” Allen and Earl K. Long were born in Winnfield.

Other stops include the Alexandria Museum of Art, the Old Courthouse Museum in Natchitoches and the Museum of West Louisiana in Leesville. At the Tunica-Biloxi Regional Indian Center & Museum in Marksville, learn about the history of the Tunica and Biloxi Indian tribes. You can see ancient Indian burial mounds at the Marksville State Historical Site.

The lovely town of Natchitoches, the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase territory, is a history lesson in itself. Its 33-block downtown Historic Landmark District fronts the Cane River and contains places to shop and dine, as well as some bed-and-breakfast inns. At Christmastime, the town is brilliantly illuminated during its Festival of Lights and Christmas Festival. Be sure to check out the activities on tap at Northwestern State University.

If your staycation includes the family, you’ll find enough to do in Central Louisiana to keep the younger crowd busy. Alexandria’s T.R.E.E. House Children’s Museum and the town’s zoo are two such stops.

Youngsters will also enjoy the many outdoor activities in the region. Kisatchie National Forest, more than 600,000 acres, is Louisiana’s only national forest. It’s a great place to fish; hunt; hike; and go boating, swimming and camping. Toledo Bend Reservoir is one of the nation’s top fishing spots, and you can also picnic and camp there. At North Toledo Bend State Park, near Zwolle, amenities include swimming pools, a boat launch and cabins.

Hodges Gardens State Park in Florien is a serene getaway with formal rose gardens, colorful azaleas, nature trails, waterfalls, fountains and cabins. Here you may glimpse deer, otters, geese, ducks and other wildlife; canoeing and kayaking are also permitted.
If golf is on your list, the OakWing Golf Club is just minutes from the Alexandria/Pineville area. One of the state’s Audubon Golf Trail courses, OakWing is ornamented with lakes, bayous and tall trees.

All that outdoor exercise will make you hungry, and Central Louisiana can meet that need, too. Natchitoches is famous for its meat pies, and Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant is one of the local favorite places to get one. Try the crispy fish at Paradise Catfish Kitchen in Pineville or Tunk’s Cypress Inn in Boyce, noted for its alligator, crawfish and oyster dishes, as well as steaks.

There’s always something good to eat at the area’s festivals, too. The Louisiana Pecan Festival in Colfax pays homage to the tasty nut with pies and pralines, and the Cochon de Lait Festival in Mansura is the place to try suckling pig plus many other Cajun treats. If you like to wager a bit, you’ll enjoy the Paragon Casino Resort in Marksville, with its cinema, spa and restaurants.

 

Cajun Good Times

If you live in Louisiana’s Cajun Country, you already know how many fun things there are to do right in your own backyard. But if you’re like most of us, the pressure of work and caring for family means most of your free time is spent taking care of everyday business. Vacation time, then, is the perfect opportunity to experience for yourself all the riches that lie in your neck of the woods.

Cajun Country takes its name from the Acadians, French Catholics who fled Acadie (Nova Scotia) and eventually settled in South Louisiana. Their rich culture endures today and can be enjoyed in the region’s unique food, music and festivals.

People sometimes equate Cajun food with hot, spicy food. In reality, Cajun cuisine is delicious because it makes use of the fish, game and crops that are plentiful in the region. One of the favorite foods is boudin, a flavorful sausage sold in dozens of small grocery stores and even gas stations throughout the region.

Many of Cajun Country’s attractions center on the area’s history. In Lafayette, for example, both the Acadian Village and Vermilionville illustrate life in the past. Acadian Village is a folk life museum focused on 19th-century Cajun life, while Vermilionville shows how 18th-century Acadian settlers lived.

Evangeline Oak Park in St. Martinville is home to an ancient live oak named for the heroine of Longfellow’s famous poem. The park also contains an African American museum recounting the lives of slaves and free people of color.

In Lake Charles, take time to view the historic Charpentier District. Long ago, lumbermen used available pine in the area to build tall, angular homes. The area is now on the National Historic Registry.
Crowley, between Lafayette and Lake Charles, celebrates the area’s rice crop in many ways. The Historic Rice Theatre, an art deco beauty built in 1940, has been lovingly restored and features local music events. Crowley also boasts the J.D. Miller Music Recording Studio Museum, opened in 1946 and restored to its original state. The studio once recorded tunes by local Cajun, zydeco, blues, country and swamp pop artists.

If you are a Cajun music buff, be sure to visit Opelousas, the birthplace of zydeco king Clifton Chenier. The town draws people from all around to its Original Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival. Opelousas also has plenty of history; founded in 1720 by the French, it’s the state’s third-oldest city and served as the capital of Confederate Louisiana for a short time. The town’s historic district has many beautiful antebellum and Victorian homes, as well as historic churches and cemeteries. And like most Cajun towns, you’ll find lots of places to sample the region’s delicious boudin, crawfish étouffée and other delights.

Children will find much to do in Cajun Country. Both Lafayette and Lake Charles have children’s museums. In DeQuincy, let kids see the train cars at the DeQuincy Railroad Museum. Adjacent to the museum is a playground with rides.

A visit to beautiful Avery Island brings tours of the famous Tabasco factory. In the island’s Jungle Gardens, you can see exotic plants, as well as deer, alligator and snowy egrets, among other wildlife.

A real fixture in Cajun Country is Fred’s Lounge in the little town of Mamou. The lounge is open only on Saturdays from 7:30 a.m. to about 2 p.m., and you’ll find plenty of folks dancing as the lively Cajun music is broadcast for a radio program. In Eunice, visit the Liberty Theatre to enjoy a live radio show with zydeco music.

Cajun Country is sometimes called Louisiana’s festival capital. There are so many fests that you’re almost sure to find one coinciding with your vacation. Like omelets? At Abbeville’s Giant Omelette Celebration, cooks make a 5,000-egg omelet in a 12-foot skillet. The fest is said to harken back to a time when Napoleon ordered French villagers to bring out all their eggs to feed his soldiers.

Meanwhile, the Rayne Frog Festival holds frog-jumping and frog-racing contests – bring your own contender. The Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette includes music, food and arts and crafts; Crowley’s Rice Festival celebrates the harvesting of the rice crop; and the Contraband Days-Louisiana Pirate Festival in Lake Charles recalls the days of pirate Jean Lafitte.

Like so much of Louisiana, Cajun Country provides lots of outdoor entertainment. The swamps and wetlands of the vast Atchafalaya Basin, the nation’s largest river-swamp, is heaven for those who like to bicycle, camp, hunt, fish, play golf or spot birds. Calcasieu Lake near Lake Charles is well-known for its abundant fish, including trout, redfish and flounder.

Chicot State Park near Ville Platte is more than 6,000 acres of natural beauty. If you crave catching largemouth bass or bluegill, here’s your spot. Ditto for those who enjoy hiking, backpacking, cycling and camping. Cabins are available, too. The Louisiana State Arboretum, located within the park, is a stately beech forest with nature trails. Native plants along the trails are labeled so you can increase your knowledge of Louisiana plant life.

Check out the Creole Nature Trail, a state scenic route, which is composed of Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge, Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, Peveto Woods Bird & Butterfly Sanctuary and Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, from which you can view alligator and shorebirds. Or try the Lake Charles Boardwalk, which follows the lake and is popular with walkers, bikers and joggers.

For a different type of relaxation, spend a day or two at one of the area’s gambling venues. Bet on the horses at Delta Downs Racetrack Casino Hotel in Vinton, or try the slots and table games at the Isle of Capri Casino Hotel and L’Auberge Casino Resort, both in Lake Charles.

In short, there’s no need to feel down if your vacation budget this year doesn’t permit an expensive trek to a far-flung destination. You can satisfy just about any vacation-related yen you have not far from your own backyard.

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