American icons in Lafayette

A recent trip to Lafayette, Louisiana included gliding through a swamp at Cypress Island Nature Preserve, where cypress trees grew in the shallow water, large birds swooped overhead and an occasional alligator could be spotted. (Pamela O’Meara photos/Review)

At Martin Accordions, which is based in Lafayette, visitors can listen to Joel Martin perform the rousing Cajun and Zydeco music so popular in southern Louisiana.

Vermilionville Living History and Folk Life Park features an Acadian village, which includes a number of authentic 19th century Cajun homes.

Lafayette, Louisiana, is home to a number of American icons: Tabasco sauce, Martin accordions and the unique culture and nature of the gulf states. 

It was a city I visited during a recent vacation, a place that seemed a world away from home in the Twin Cities. 

The trip started by climbing into a small aluminum fishing boat that belonged to Cajun Country Swamp Tours for a trip through the Cypress Nature Preserve at Lake Martin in steamy south central Louisiana. 

During the two-hour ride, we glided between cypress growing out of the shallow water. Egrets, cormorants, roseate spoonbills and osprey swooped low across or nestled in treetops. The swamp, full of ancient mystery, had alligators lurking as we floated beneath the moss-covered trees.

Lake Martin is the nation’s largest nesting area of wading birds and is considered by the Audubon Society one of the top 10 birdwatching spots in the U.S. The lake also has plenty of nutria — beaver-like rodents — and snakebirds.

The trip with travel-writer friends was meant to teach us about the Lafayette area, which is known as the center of Cajun and Creole country. It’s been known for both cultures since the late 1700s when Canada’s Acadians — French colonists who settled in the Canadian colony of Acadia — were expelled, settling in Louisiana.

Building on that history, we visited the Vermilionville Living History and Folk Life Park, where we stepped back in time with a visit to an Acadian village. It featured a number of authentic but once-abandoned 19th century Cajun homes, recreation areas, a barn and a church. We watched reenactors demonstrate weaving, blacksmithing, musical instrument-making and more.


Making music

Lafayette is a big music city and home to Martin Accordions. During tours of the accordion shop, visitors can listen to Joel Martin, grandson of the company founder, perform the rousing, foot-tapping Cajun and Zydeco music so popular in the area. We also learned how the company makes its custom accordions, marked with its signature crawfish. 

Founder Clarence Martin Jr., who usually just goes by Junior, picked away on steel guitar while his daughter, Penneye Hoval, talked about the company and briefly demonstrated playing a washboard. Cajun and Zydeco bands are very popular in this part of the country and it’s hard not to be taken in by the music.

Though Cajun and Zydeco are closely related, Cajun is generally the music of white Cajuns, while Zydeco is the music of black Creoles.

Our Lafayette music tour also included a stop at Sola Violins, a small, full-service shop owned by Anya Burgess. She came to Lafayette through the Teach for America program and now makes her own fiddles. She explained that fiddles and violins — both common instruments in Cajun and Zydeco — differ only in the style of music performed and not as instruments.


150 years of Tabasco sauce

Moving from musical instruments, we visited nearby Avery Island, the home of Tabasco sauce, to mark Tabasco’s 150th birthday. 

The popular hot sauce, produced by the McIlhenny Company of Avery Island, is served in most restaurants and made exclusively from tabasco peppers, vinegar and salt.

According to the company, in 1868 Edmund Mcllhenny grew peppers and created the pepper sauce he named Tabasco to spice up the bland diet of the Civil War Reconstruction era. His descendants are still running the company to this day. We toured the Tabasco plant, sampling ice cream with Tabasco sauce and then enjoyed a delicious lunch of crawfish étouffée with red beans and sausage. 

Avery Island is one of several islands formed by domes of rock salt off the Louisiana coast. As early as 2500 B.C., Native Americans living there discovered how to extract salt with boiling water, trading it with tribes as far as Texas and Ohio. The island, which was once a sugar plantation, is also home to a bird sanctuary and full of exotic plants.

One of the best ways to experience southern Louisiana culture all in one place is by visiting Lafayette restaurants like Randol’s and the Blue Moon Saloon. Both eateries feature spicy Cajun food and infectious Cajun and Zydeco tunes — when we were there they drew a number of couples out to dance.

Lafayette was so unlike the Twin Cities that it seemed like we’d traveled further than we actually had — it’s an area of the U.S. like no other.


–Pamela O’Meara can be reached at or 651-748-7818.

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