Photo: Art Meripol
Whether it's a boozy jazz brunch, a backyard crawfish boil, or a flurry of flying beads at Mardi Gras, it's well established that the good folks in Louisiana know how to celebrate. Christmas is no exception. Rowdy, rustic, and robustly seasoned, Cajun Country revels in the holidays with its own accordion-fueled beat. In addition to the region's iconic pleasures—fiery gumbo, zydeco music—December brings spirited festivals, historic churches cloaked in twinkly lights, and antebellum mansions decked in Victorian finery that offer new ways to appreciate the region's rich culture. Even Papa Noël, the fabled Cajun Santa, arrives in rustic style with a party in the woods.
When it comes to gumbo and crawfish consumption, I have been blessed. Over the years, countless food stories and cookbook projects, including two with Cajun chef Donald Link, have resulted in plenty of time along the back roads and bayous. But I'd never experienced the region at Christmas, so I set out to take in the sparkle (and sausage) of the season.
Day 1 | Bayous and Bivalves
New Orleans — Abbeville — Lafayette | 170 Miles
December is peak oyster season, so I set my sights on Vermilion Parish, a diverse coastal region dubbed "the most Cajun place on Earth" because nearly half of its residents claim Cajun ancestry. It only seemed right to begin at the epicenter, with a cold beer and a dozen briny oysters on the half shell. I'd asked friends where to go for the freshest seafood, and they all steered me toward Abbeville to Shucks!, a local institution where David Bertrand serves his family's fare in a casual, convivial setting. When a Cajun tells you to try his mother's recipe for crawfish étouffée ($12.50) and save room for bread pudding drizzled with warm white chocolate buttered rum sauce ($6.50), take his advice. As luck would have it, David is brimming with insight about his hometown. "Abbeville is a place where folks can let their guard down, drop all pretense, and enjoy an abundance of seafood and an atmosphere so thick with hospitality you can cut it with an oyster knife," he tells me between bites of saltine crackers crowned carefully with oysters and showered messily with hot sauce.
Afterward, I head 13 miles down the highway to New Iberia, where Rip Van Winkle Gardens offers 25 acres of lush, semitropical landscape (even in December) with manicured trails, strolling peacocks, and a peaceful dock perch over Lake Peigneur. I arrive just in time to take a tour (one of several offered each day) of the spectacular Jefferson House built by Joseph Jefferson, a comic actor from the 19th century who gained fame for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle. The gift shop is great for stocking stuffers, including Louisiana-inspired ornaments (because who doesn't need crawfish on their tree?). Then I hit the road for the 25-mile drive to Lafayette, a town that demonstrates a compelling mix of tradition and new energy, the latter the result of a younger generation that's moved back home and driven development downtown. There, I check in to Buchanan Lofts (rooms from $110), a renovated warehouse with exposed brick, retro-chic fixtures, and funky art in nine spacious lofts.
By now it's late and the damp breeze off the Vermilion River is chilly. My bed is calling, but I'm not about to close the day without gumbo. Locals suggest Café Vermilionville, an endearingly weathered restaurant in an 1818 inn. With a peppery broth, dark as an old penny, the turkey-and-andouille gumbo ($14) is a bowl of warm comfort on a cold evening. For dessert, a pushed cart laden with cakes, tarts, and pies rolls by. It seems too fancy for most of the year, but just right at Christmas.
Day 2 | Bow Ties & Boudin
Lafayette — St. Martinville — Acadian Village — Lafayette | 43 Miles
In Cajun Country, one great meal seems to beget another, so I awake eager for strong coffee and pan-seared rounds of spicy andouille sausage. Husband-and-wife team Justin and Margaret Girouard cut their restaurant chops in the New Orleans French Quarter before returning home to Lafayette to open The French Press in an old print shop with high ceilings, a grand bar, and cement walls beautifully weathered by 80 years. They serve homemade granola ($7.75) and toasted pecan pancakes ($6.50), but I can't resist the Cajun Benedict ($10.50)—toasted French bread topped with cayenne-spiked boudin and poached eggs drowned in fiery chicken-and-andouille gumbo.
The French Press's downtown neighborhood in Lafayette is wonderful for Christmas shopping. Next door to the restaurant at Genterie Supply Co. a casually hip mix of vintage football tees, sporty cardigans, straw fedoras, cologne-scented candles, and bar accessories can transform any dude into a proper Southern gent. After exploring the Genterie wares, I amble across the street, where Sans Souci Fine Crafts Gallery sells a well-curated mix of paintings, wood carvings, ceramics, and quilts created by Louisiana artists. For the ironic hipster on your list, Parish Ink stocks awesome T-shirts with edgy designs praising satsumas, pigs, and the Saints, among other Louisiana emblems. The green "Buy Leauxcal" T-shirts ($22) seem especially fitting for the holidays.
With some retail therapy under my belt, I am ready for a more sacred pilgrimage. I day-trip 16 miles down State 182 to St. Martinville, home of St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church. Erected in 1765, it's known as the mother church of the Acadians because this area welcomed the largest number of Acadian immigrants from Nova Scotia in 1785. This hushed, Gothic Revival grotto that smells of straw and paraffin invites quiet reflection among smooth marble statues of saints. On December 8, neighboring communities come together here for the St. Lucy Festival of Lights and Parade, which kicks off the lighting of the church and town square.
After my quiet reverie I am ready to kick it up with accordion music: Dusk is the perfect time to arrive at Noël Acadien au Village ($9/person), a quaint replica of a 19th century Cajun hamlet just south of Lafayette (about 20 miles from St. Martinville). Each evening in December, over a half million lights illuminate the reproduction of a village that's a bit like the Disney version of ye olde Louisiana. My favorite structures include the blacksmith shop, restored cypress cottages, and a paddleboat cloaked in colored bulbs. Local Cajun bands, hot pork jambalaya, and carnival rides round out the bon temps. I'm glad I'd limited myself to a day trip and could manage the 7-mile drive back to my bed in Lafayette.
Day 3 | The Cajun Coast: Plantations and Papa Noël
Lafayette — Franklin — Lutcher — New Orleans | 175 Miles
Fertile and wild, set in a sultry landscape that always strikes me as both beautiful and melancholy, the Cajun coast is best viewed from the Bayou Teche Scenic Byway. The two-lane road snakes past historic homes—built with "sugar money" from the area's most profitable crop, sugarcane—totally decked out for the season and moss-draped live oaks that stretch up from the banks. In the early 1900s, the coastal region was home to the booming cypress industry. I pick up the road just outside of Lafayette and drive about 45 miles to Franklin, down a boulevard framed with blinking icicle lights, to Grevemberg House Museum. (Open daily for tours.) Built in 1851, it's a stately example of Greek Revival architecture. Relics from the 1800s positioned throughout the house, such as antique toys, silver Civil War artifacts, and the home's original marble mantels, conjure up ghosts from Christmases past. Just down the road, past verdant fields of sugarcane, is Oaklawn Manor, the residence of Louisiana's 53rd governor, Mike Foster, and his wife, Alice. This month, the antebellum estate, built circa 1837, is decked with bulbs, gold garland, and a differently styled tree in each room. (Tours $15/person.)
Finally, it's time to seek out the man in red—Papa Noël. In Cajun Country, that means looking for a ribbon of smoke, a blazing bonfire that illuminates a trail through the dark, murky swamp to a party in the woods. Two of the best places to partake in this time-honored tradition are the Christmas Bonfire Party at Oak Alley Plantation on December 7 ($130/person for a five-hour fête with dinner, drinks, and dancing) and the Festival of the Bonfires at Lutcher Recreational Park December 13 through 15. The festivals kick off a crescendo of weekend gatherings that leads to the spectacular Christmas Eve illumination, when 120 bonfires create a trail of light along the Mississippi levee.
I never got a glimpse of the sleigh pulled by a team of alligators, as the legend goes, but I'm pretty sure I savored the season in just the right way.