Lafayette, Louisiana: Spicy Cajun Country

Bittersweet music that gets your toes atappin'. Tasty food that will not be denied. A joyous culture that springs from a brutal past. This and much more are waiting to be discovered in this Southern outpost, located between Houston and New Orleans, and are too often overlooked by travelers intent on getting somewhere else. Spending a day or two in the area provides the chance to absorb a bit of the surprise of this fascinating French-Canadian culture.

A good way to have maximum experience in minimum time is on an escorted tour with Blue Moon Tours. Highlights of the ever-changing three-hour Lafayette City Tour might include a visit to the Martin accordion factory, where Junior Martin makes finely-crafted diatonic "squeezeboxes" and sometimes gives impromptu demonstrations; to the architecturally interesting St. John Cathedral, with its cemetery featuring above-ground burial chambers and a sprawling 450-year-old Live Oak tree; to the hands-on Children's Museum of Acadiana; and maybe to a back porch Zydeco music jam.

Special-interest tours can also be arranged. Lodging at the company's inexpensive private hostel, The Blue Moon Guest House, lets you experience living in an Acadian home that is over 100 years old. The owners are native Louisianians who can also help with sightseeing questions.

To more deeply grasp the area's bittersweet history, you need to look beneath the contemporary American culture and the landscape filled with fast-food outlets and car dealerships. Natives say that on the surface they are Americans, but underneath they're different. Find out why at Jean Lafitte National Park Acadian Cultural Center. A film and cultural exhibits tell the painful Acadian history in an easy-to-understand manner.

While here, don't miss chowing down some of the famous local cuisine, which includes such delights as jambalaya, gumbo, catfish, crawfish, dirty rice, pecan pie, and bread pudding. Several restaurant-dance halls dish up fabulous food along with a rollicking atmosphere. Prejean's Restaurant is famous for its 14-foot stuffed alligator, casual atmosphere, and live music. It's a must. So is Mulate's, where if you look like you need a lesson friendly locals will cut right in on the dance floor and teach you how to do that Cajun two-step. Low-fat cooking hasn't caught on here. Dishes tend to be fat-heavy, but the locals don't seem to worry about their cholesterol. One fellow laughed as he told me that "around here we dance it off and wash the rest down with a Lipitor."

And no one should leave here without taking a swamp tour in a high-speed boat. The exquisitely beautiful Atchafalaya river swamp is North America's largest and is among the top ten wilderness areas in the country. Family-owned Atchafalaya Experience offers a sensitive approach to what they call "Louisiana's answer to the Grand Canyon." Tours start off hold-on-to-your-hat fast, then slow down to view some of the area's plentiful wildlife, including alligators in season. But don't get careless around those gators. A popular postcard here depicts a BIG smiling alligator with a dialogue balloon saying, "Send more tourists. The last ones were delicious."