Eighteen years ago, I moved from Virginia to Louisiana. That many years later, the happenings in this state still tickle me. There's an authenticity found here that often is lacking in other places. I constantly witness events that prompt me to giddily say, "This wouldn't be allowed in Virginia."
One good example is the Christmas Eve tradition of burning nearly a hundred bonfires atop the levee near the towns of Lutcher and Gramercy. As a spectator, you can walk from one flaming bonfire to the next, taking in the scene, rejoicing in the power of fire and dodging the rain of cinders. In Virginia, there would be a rule against this potentially dangerous experience. Here, just make sure your hair doesn't go up in flames and you're on your own.
Music and food are the driving forces behind our festivals. A festival does not have to be huge for me to consider it worth the road trip -- but it does have to offer something intriguing, even if it's just a pretty drive along the bayou with the guarantee of some good food and dance music at the end of the road. Or it should offer a spark of adventure -- as with the Oyster Food Festival in Lafitte that comes with a scavenger hunt and prizes. Or a chance to learn the history of some of our founding colonists at the Islenos Museum during the Los Islenos Fiesta in St. Bernard. Or the opportunity to sit on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain watching the sun set while listening to music at the Seafood Festival in Mandeville. Or the opportunity to watch the skill of nutria skinning during the Fur and Wildlife Festival in Cameron. All are dandy reasons to hop in the car.
The biggest of our New Orleans music festivals -- the French Quarter Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival -- offer an unparalleled variety of homegrown music running the gamut of genres: Cajun, rock, jazz, gospel, blues and much more -- on multiple stages. April's Festival International, of late a popular alternative destination to Jazz Fest for out-of-state visitors, offers a free weekend of international, French-influenced artists in downtown Lafayette. Cajun music festivals are aplenty all over the state and there are also a half-dozen bluegrass festivals that take place at various campgrounds. The big daddy of zydeco festivals, the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival, is the Saturday before Labor Day in Plaisance, in the middle of a former soybean field. And the one thing that will always get me on a road trip is the chance to hear some good swamp pop music. Tommy McClain, Warren Storm, GG Shin or Lil' Band O' Gold on the schedule always means great dancing.
Of course, our celebrations aren't limited to festivals. For a full two weeks, the state embraces a variety of Mardi Gras rituals. Parades roll across the state, and southwest Louisiana explodes in the amazing traditions surrounding the Cajun Courir de Mardi Gras. Everyone should really have the opportunity, at least once, to be in the middle of the Cajun prairie on a crisp morning, waiting for a band of costumed horseback riders as they chase chickens through the fields.
Of course, it's not all Cajun in Louisiana. A number of ethnic festivals offer a chance to experience the food and music of the many cultures that make up our state. The German Fest in Robert's Cove is particularly fun, as is the Italian Festival in Independence, three Vietnamese festivals in New Orleans, the Mensaje Festival in Metairie, Reggae festivals in New Orleans and Lafayette, and the Greek Festival in New Orleans. Add to these the Civil War reenactments, the plantation craft shows, parish fairs and Christmas boat parades, and there's barely one weekend that you can't find some kind of celebration taking place.
But that's not even the best part. After nearly a decade on the festival trail, I can say with heartfelt sincerity that all of these events are sweeter because of the hospitality of the great people in Louisiana.
- Bill DeTurk
- Julie Posner on the festival trail
- Julie Posner
- The big daddy of zydeco festivals takes place the Saturday before Labor Day in a former soybean field in Plaisance.