Lake Charles, LA: Contrasts not Cliches
Nature, Cajun Culture and Gaming Await
by Janet Groene
A coyote skulked across the highway as we drove along the Creole Nature Trail. Just hours before, we were eating a flawless, seven-course French dinner.
Southwestern Louisiana and the City of Lake Charles offer contrasts but never cliches.
Located within Calcasieu (pronounced KAL-cah-soo) Parish, Lake Charles is just east of the Texas border along Interstate 10.
Here a glamorous, 26-story casino resort overlooks over a city of historic neighborhoods and high-tech industries.
Well-heeled gamblers stream in for the gaming while nature lovers from all over the world converge on the area’s many wildlife refuges. The region has a distinctive style all its own.
The French Connection
The area's modern-day history began in the mid-1700s, when it became a refuge for French Catholics -- called Acadians -- from Nova Scotia.
Expelled from their homeland in eastern Canada by English Protestants, they sought religious freedom and a safe place to maintain their culture, lifestyle and sense of community. And they wanted to do that within North America.
Ultimately, they fled to Louisiana, which was Catholic. It was also under French and Spanish rule.
Whites, Blacks and Native Americans lived side by side and as the cultures mingled, Acadian eventually evolved into Cajun.
Today, the region is home to Zydeco music, robust Mardi Gras celebrations, king cakes and boudin, which is a Cajun sausage made with rice.
Cajun spices (shown in the photo at right*) are a tasty souvenir to take home to friends.
First stop? Head for the Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau’s (www.visitlakecharles.org) Visitors Center. It's located along the Lakefront Promenade on the shores of Lake Charles.
Here you'll find abundant parking for both cars and RVs. The CVB's office is well-stocked with free maps, brochures and a coloring book for kids.
Also along this Lakefront Promenade, you might attend a festival event, take a horse-drawn carriage ride, launch a boat or sun on the beach. Kids will love the big playground.
The Nature of Things
Nature lovers often stay in the Lake Charles area while exploring the adjacent Cameron Parish home of the 180-mile Creole Nature Trail (www.creolenaturetrail.org).
It encompasses bayous, marshes and beaches. Along the way, you'll find points of interest, viewing boardwalks and overlooks (See photo at right.*)
Why not download an mP3 audio file that's a guide to the trail; you can select details on the entire trail or just a section of it.
With a driver’s license and credit card, you also may borrow a free, state-of-the-art GPS guide from the visitor's center; the palm-size GPS guide describes every waypoint.
Wherever you go in southwestern Louisiana, it's good advice to take binoculars and a bird book for the ride. Some of the visitor centers also have bird checklists.
The Southwest Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Complex (www.fws.gov/swlarefugecomplex) manages four federal wildlife refuges located in southwest Louisiana: Cameron Prairie, Sabine, LaCassine and Shell Keys.
You might walk the paved wetlands trail at Sabine or drive to LaCassine Pool to see a roseate spoonbill rookery.
Don't miss the Visitors Center at Cameron Prairie. It has boardwalks, sophisticated programs with animated figures and modern restrooms.
Just south of that center is Pintail Wildlife Drive. Birders will see flocks of migrating geese and ducks in fall and winter, as well as long-legged wading birds and shorebirds in spring and summer. Also, keep an eye open for alligators.
Cypress trees create a stunning landscape (as shown in the photo above*) at the 1,087-acre Sam Houston Jones State Park (www.crt.state.la.us/parks/ishjones.aspx), 107 Sutherland Rd., Lake Charles.
You can make a half-day or full-day trip here -- enjoying the picnic sites and nature trails. Outdoor lovers might overnight at the campground or book a cabin.
Niblett’s Bluff Park (www.niblettsbluffpark.com) is a scenic day park near Vinton, LA. It overlooks the Sabine River and is the former site of the Civil-War era Fort Nibletts. Re-enactments are held periodically.
Bringing your dog on the family's vacation? Calcasieu Parish Animal Control operates an off-leash public dog park at 5500-A Swift Plant Rd., Lake Charles. The park boasts three fenced areas.
Beach goers might head for the shores of Lake Charles or to the nearby Gulf of Mexico beaches.
A majestic, 400-year-old live oak tree still shades the back yard of the Imperial Calcasieu Museum (www.imperialcalcasieumuseum.org).
This small but excellent museum occupies the site where early settler Charles Sallier built his homestead; Sallier is the man for whom Lake Charles was named.
Permanent exhibits include a turn-of-the-century barber shop, an old-time pharmacy and Victorian rooms with clothed figures and period furnishings. (See photo at right*)
Also, take a peek into the meeting room, if it's open, to view rare Audubon prints!
Downtown Lake Charles is home to a historic courthouse, but the area is also gaining favor as a hang-out for those who enjoy funky coffee shops and down-home restaurants.
What's new? The Charlestown District -- consisting of the Charpentier Historic District (www.cityoflakecharles.com/department/division.php?) and the Downtown Development District -- is now home to Cottage Shops, a mid-town magnet for shoppers.
Original art works are sold sales tax-free, a boom for tourists and residents alike.
Within the Charpentier Historic District, visitors will "ooh" and "aah" at many private homes that are elegant Victorian mansions. The district is on the National Register of Historic Places.
One lazy day suggestion? It's lovely to take a walk, drive your car, or enjoy a carriage ride tour through this historic district.
The city's Margaret Place Historic District, also on the National Register, has a variety of architectural styles.
Outside Lake Charles, visitors might head for Sulphur, LA, to see historical and art exhibits within the Brimstone Museum (www.brimstonemuseum.org).
The museum is housed in a 1915-era railroad depot built by the Southern Pacific Railway.
Railroad buffs might also tour the Railroad Museum (www.dequincyrailroadmuseum.com), housed in a 1923-era train depot in DeQuincy.
This attraction displays a 1913 locomotive and other rail memorabilia. The annual Louisiana Railroad Days Festival is held on the grounds the second weekend in April.
Children of all ages love the Mardi Gras Museum (www.swlamardisgras.com) in the historic Central School Arts & Humanities Center, 809 Kirby St., Lake Charles.
Its collection of Mardi Gras costumes, both adult- and child-sized, is reportedly one of the nation's largest. (See photo at left.*)
Quirky highlights include animated mannequins that tell the Mardi Gras story and the "talking" chickens plotting to escape the gumbo pot.
At the Children’s Museum (www.swlakids.org), 327 Broad St., Lake Charles, tots can bounce around a padded play center.
Older children might slide down the brass pole in the “firehouse”, shop the “market”, cook in the “kitchen” and do hands-on science projects.
(At right, a mother and child visiting the Children's Museum learn how a levee works.).
Year-round, Adventure Cove, 3200 Power Centre Parkway, Lake Charles, is a kid's delight. This barrier-free playground has a splashy sprayground during the summer.
This playground is accessible, and Freedom Swings accommodate children in wheelchairs.
Sulphur's Spar Aquatica Recreation Center (www.sulphurparks.com/index) has a water park and Olympic-size swimming pool.
Casino resorts in the area include Delta Downs Racetrack Casino & Hotel (www.deltadowns.com), 2717 Delta Downs Drive in Vinton, about a 30-minute drive from Lake Charles.
Visitor draws are off-track betting, 1,600 slot and video machines and a separate high-limit area.
Isle of Capri Casino Hotel (www.isleofcapricasinos.com), 100 Westlake Avenue, Lake Charles, boasts 1,800 slot machines, myriad table games and a 28-table poker room.
A destination unto itself, L’Auberge Casino Resort (www.ldlcasino.com) 777 Avenue L'Auberge,
Lake Charles, features 24-hour, Las Vegas-style action.
Other L'Auberge diversions include a spa, lazy river, shops, a marina, and multiple restaurants.
The resort's Contraband Bayou Golf Course was designed by world-renowned golf architect Tom Fazio.
Southern Boudin Trail
More than two dozen boudin shops in Louisiana make up the region's tasty Southern Boudin Trail (www.southernboudintrail.com), with several locations close to Lake Charles.
In addition, the Southwestern Louisiana Boudin Trail (http://www.visitlakecharles.org/visitors/dining/southwest-louisiana-boudin-trail) lists top options in and around Lake Charles.
(In the photo above plates of boudin are delivered to a table at the B & O Kitchen and Grocery, 3011 E. Burton St. in Sulphur, LA.*)
Typically, when you order boudin, it's freshly taken from a steam pot or slow cooker.
Then the Cajun sausage is weighed, often wrapped in butcher paper and handed to you to eat on the spot.
(In the photo at left, Jeff Benoit is B&O's CEO while his grandmother runs the retain counter; Benoit's son also comes to the shop after school to learn the trade.*)
Many shops sell more than boudin. You'll also find specialty sausages, stuffed ponce (the Cajun version of Scottish haggis), venison sausage, cracklins, and each shop's own secret spice mixture.
Some shops including B & O also serve complete Cajun meals.
Eclectic Regional Events
Mardi Gras (www.swlamardigras.com) is a big deal in Southwestern Louisiana. Lake Charles' Mardi Gras, boasting 50 krewes, is Louisiana's second largest. Only New Orleans' celebration is bigger.
Dates vary according to the date of Easter.
Local Mardi Gras events typically include a lighted boat parade, children’s parade, a block party and a Zydeco Dance.
(A sweet "King Cake," a tradition at Mardi Gras time, is shown in the photo at left.*)
In late April and early May, a 12-day Contraband Days Pirate Festival (www.contrabanddays.com) remembers the notorious Jean Lafitte and his band of buccaneers.
The story goes that Lafitte and his pirates fled ships on the coast and hid along the waterways of Lake Charles. Legend says their treasure trove of silver and gold is buried somewhere within Lafitte's favorite hideaway, Contraband Bayou.
Whether fact or fiction, it makes for a fun reason for a festival!
In April, the Rabbit Festival (www.iowarabbitfestival.org) in nearby Iowa (pronounced EYE-oh-way) features Cajun music, a Miss Bunny contest and everything from rabbit gumbo to rabbit jambalaya.
In July, Lake Charles fields a Cajun French Music and Food Festival (www.cfmalakecharles.org/20801/index.htmland) as well as the Marshland Festival (www.marshlandfestival.com) another music and food extravaganza.
Always sold out is the adults-only Rouge et Blanc Food and Wine Festival (www.visitlakecharles.org/rouge), a one-day event downtown in October.
Festival goers have a choice of 200 different vintages from wineries across the globe. Local restaurants serve samples of their most famous dishes.
For More Information
Whether you're planning a family vacation, Mardi Gras celebration, gaming getaway, environmental pilgrimage or a romantic sojourn, Lake Charles and southwest Louisiana shine.
Want to plan your trip? Visit:
Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau’s at www.visitlakecharles.org
Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism at www.louisianatravel.com.
About the Author: Janet Groene is a professional freelance travel writer and a frequent contributor to SouthernTravelNews.com. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers.
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of Janet Groene, the Southwest Louisiana CVB or the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.