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Good times roll with the city’s mixture of cultures and pursuits.
Most visitors to Louisiana think of New Orleans as the all-encompassing destination to head to for a true experience of the state, especially when it comes to all things related to the grand fete in these parts—Mardi Gras.
But Lake Charles in the southwest might just have to be the other destination on your radar to enjoy family-friendly Mardi Gras festivities such as riding in parades, cutting loose at the Iowa Chicken Run, and tasting your way through Calcasieu Parish, of which Lake Charles is the seat.
Despite hurricanes Delta and Laura affecting the area within six weeks of each other in late 2020 during the height of the pandemic, residents and local authorities have worked together to ensure a quick recovery. You will absolutely see parts of the damaged areas as you travel around, but you will also see all the repairs and enhancements Lake Charles has made and has plans for over the next few months.
For a Lay of the Land
Get acclimatized to the different terrains here with a visit to the Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point, which immerses you in nature and Louisiana’s unique culture. The more than 180-mile Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, also known as Louisiana’s Outback, is one of only 57 designated so scenic byways in the country. And that’s just the start.
Through interactive displays, learn the best places to spot alligators and migrating songbirds, peek at wildlife found in bayous and marshes, smell mouthwatering aromas of Cajun/Creole cooking, and “play along” with a Cajun and zydeco band.
There’s no escaping the zydeco and Cajun music history you’ll hear everywhere you go, so just embrace it. Known for their efforts to preserve the music and dance genres are residents Brandon Ledet and Harold Guillory. If you see them playing at any venue, their music will have you dancing in no time.
If you are planning to head here for Mardi Gras next year, the Iowa Chicken Run is one local tradition to attend. The 43-year-old neighborhood Mardi Gras parade is held annually on Fat Tuesday in Iowa, Louisiana (where Mardi Gras is a legal state holiday) hosted by local farmers.
The parade is essentially a progressive gumbo ritual that the entire parish adores and participates in with much anticipation. The leader of the Chicken Run makes various stops at homes along the parade to collect specific ingredients for a chicken gumbo, such as rice, onions, etc. He initiates the ceremonious Chicken Run tradition in exchange for the ingredients, which is tossing a live chicken in the air for children to capture for money. A huge pot of gumbo is served at the end of the parade, and the Iowa community parties away. No animals or children are harmed in the process, from beginning to end.
For a Taste of Regional Treats
You can’t visit Lake Charles and not revel in its many famed regional culinary delights. From unique sausage and boudin creations at Insane Sausage to crawfish, gumbo and seafood-filled pistolettes at Seafood Palace, and gourmet coffee and beignets at Coffee:30, there is much to chomp through, so plan wisely. Other well-known dining spots in the area include Luna Bar & Grill where the eclectic atmosphere and Luna Tuna impress, and Bodega Wine Dive where cocktails and charcuterie complete an enticing menu.
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Craft brew enthusiasts can stop in at Crying Eagle Brewing Company featuring a 4,000-square-foot taproom, plenty of comfortable indoor seating, and a rotating line of beers you won’t be able to get anywhere else. For fine dining, turn to The Villa Harlequin, Lake Charles’ finest Italian cuisine restaurant combined with Louisiana flair.
Any of the plethora of restaurants housed at the area’s two casino resorts, Golden Nugget and L’Auberge, are also great dining venues. In fact, both casinos offer great accommodation options when visiting, with a variety of room and suite styles; pool and other amenities; golf, spa and more. At L’Auberge, Lake Charles native Chef Lyle Broussard is the executive chef and helms the kitchen at the newly opened Barstools Sportsbook.
Black-owned restaurants in the area include Mama Reta’s Creole Family Kitchen, which is famed for Mama Reta’s fried chicken and Creole recipes; Famous Foods, owned by Darby Guillory, known for cracklins and barbecue plates; and Leonard’s Food Quarters, with a reputation for its seafood and signature soul foods.
Annual festivals to plan your visit around include the This Is Home Fest in May, Gulf Coast Shrimp & Jazz Festival in June, and Cajun Music and Food Festival in July, which all bring together the community with good food and fine tunes.
Visit Lake Charles’ chief marketing officer Timothy Bush shares, “The thing I love about my job the most is that every day I get to share the stories of our community. I’m equally focused on looking at how we tell the diverse stories, as well, and a lot of those stories can be found in our food culture. This fall, we have a couple of events that really speak to that, such as Smoke & Barrel and ChuckFest. More of those stories can be explored by experiencing local food spots like Mama Reta’s and Leonard’s Food Quarters. These are just two examples, but when you take the time to explore Lake Charles, you can find so many more.”
For a Start on Travel Plans
Lake Charles throws a grand Juneteenth Freedom Festival and annual Louisiana Pirate Festival every year. You can dive into the history of the area with a visit to the Imperial Calcasieu Museum, the leading historical, cultural and fine arts museum serving the Southwest Louisiana region, where a tour of the Mardi Gras exhibits and costumes is a highlight.
1911 Historic City Hall Arts & Cultural Center serves as the City of Lake Charles’ public art gallery and cultural facility highlighting numerous traveling exhibitions. A driving tour of the Charpentier Historic District is also recommended to step back in time with one of the finest collections of Victorian architecture in the state.
Shalisa Roland, director of public relations at Visit Lake Charles, sums it up best in describing the area. “You can find outdoor fun, exceptional food and festivals year-round in southwest Louisiana. As a thriving and reviving destination, there is nothing more rewarding than witnessing community comradery in its events, history and local gems. There are no small jewels in Calcasieu Parish. Every facet of Lake Charles and its surrounding towns is celebrated and supported by locals and visitors. I’m anticipating more revitalized experiences as the year progresses.”