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Spotlight: Lake Charles

Party in town or cast a line in a storied body of water

In southwestern Louisiana, on the banks of Calcasieu River and about 30 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Charles is a medium-size city best known for its strong Cajun influences and numerous festivals. Lake Charles and its surrounding regions are also home to numerous parks, casinos and museums, making it an ideal stop for those looking for a mix of activities.

Spread out over a 40-block span of downtown Lake Charles, the Charpentier Historic District is a must-see for anyone who loves old architecture. The homes here mostly date from the late Victorian era, and visitors can take a self-guided walking or driving tour by contacting the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau or downloading the bureau’s Historic Tour app.

The Mardi Gras Museum is situated in an old school and features all kinds of colorful costumes and bedazzling masks from past Mardi Gras celebrations held in Lake Charles. It’s considered the world’s largest collection of Mardi Gras costumes and memorabilia, and there’s even a float on display. The Imperial Calcasieu Museum is full of historical artifacts from around the region and is a good place to learn more about Southern Louisiana history. Traveling art and history exhibits are sometimes held in the Historic City Hall. There’s also a Children’s Museum with lots of hands-on science exhibits and play areas.

Adults might want to note that there are two casinos within city limits: L’Aubrege Casino Resort and Golden Nugget. Delta Downs Racetrack Casino and Hotel is located in nearby Vinton, and the Isle of Capri Casino & Hotel is in Westlake. Coushatta Casino Resort in nearby Kinder is also an option.

The culinary scene here ranges from quaint bistros, such as the 121 Artisan Bistro, to more casual spots, such as Hollier’s Cajun Kitchen. Lake Charles is also a great spot to try out some boudin sausages, Cajun snack sausages sold in shops and restaurants throughout Southwest Louisiana—there’s even a “Boudin Trail” map available through the visitors bureau that lists some of the top places to try the snack sausages.

Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau

Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau

Festivals of Lake Charles

Mardi Gras has been feted in Lake Charles since 1882, when the Mardi Gras King Momus first docked in the city. The event lost some of its fervor by the middle of the 20th century, but it was rekindled in the late ’70s. Today, it attracts upwards of 150,000 people.

Another popular festivity, Contraband Days, is held over the first couple of weeks in May and attracts 200,000-plus visitors. The festival gets it name from Contraband Bayou, which was once home to lots of pirate activity. The festival launches every year with a reenactment of a pirate ship bombardment, complete with the raising of a Jolly Roger flag. The next 12 days see numerous festivities, from parades, rides, Cajun cook-offs, boat races, firework shows and special activities for children.

Held every year, the Arts & Crabs festival is a celebration of local cuisine, culture and art with—as the name suggests—a big focus on crabs. Guests can sample crabby specialties ranging from crabmeat beignets to crab gazpacho paired with craft brews from Louisiana’s favorite breweries.

The annual Black Heritage Festival features entertainment from gospel, Zydeco and blues bands as well as numerous food booths featuring traditional African American and Creole foods. There’s also a crafts fair and a kids’ section, and those who want to burn off extra calories can even try out “Zydeco Aerobics.”

The Downtown Crawfish Festival is another big hit and includes a parade, a carnival, a crawfish eating contest and live entertainment from Creole bands. The festival also includes a pageant, in which local girls and women of all ages compete to be crowned the Crawfish Festival Queen. The Iowa Rabbit Festival, in the nearby suburb of Iowa, also features a pageant, though in this case the contestants are of the furry, long-eared, hopping variety.

Lakeside Nature

There are plenty of natural sites in and around Lake Charles. The Creole nature trail stretches for miles through the region’s wetlands and dishes out stunning views of green vistas populated by birds and alligators. South of Lake Charles, the Sabine Wetlands Park Nature Walkway is a boardwalk that winds through several wetlands areas. Climb an observation deck to get a panoramic view.

Like many Louisiana cities, Lake Charles has some very old oak trees, including the Sallier Oak. Located behind the Imperial Calcasieu Museum, the tree is believed to be almost 400 years old. The Bord Du Lac Park next to the lake that gives the city its name is a beautiful spot to relax, while Drew Park has play structures for children. Prien Lake Park has spots to go canoeing, while Sam Houston Jones State Park off Highway 378 features lots of trails, swamplands and campsites. Golfers can tee-off at the sprawling Contraband Bayou Golf Club at L’Auberge Du Lac, at the Mallard Cove Golf Course, or at the Gray Plantation Golf Course.



Wild in Louisiana

Ready to go birdwatching? The Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, about 10 miles south of Lake Charles on State Highway 27, protects the habitat for migratory waterfowl and other birds. The refuge consists of a basin of wetlands located between the Gulf’s beach cheniers (oak ridges) and the coastal prairie, which is one of the most productive and fertile areas of North America.

The refuge encompasses 124,511 acres of fresh, intermediate and brackish marshes and is one of the largest estuarine-dependent marine species nurseries in southwest Louisiana. It has also been designated as an “Internationally Important Bird Area” because of the numerous wading, water and marsh birds that utilize it throughout the year. More than 280,000 people visit the refuge annually, and the exhibits in the refuge visitor center and the Wetland Walkway are considered two of the principal tourist attractions in southwest Louisiana. The refuge is an integral part of the Creole Nature Trail All American Road.

Cruising Lake Charles

Lake Charles can boast of having some of the most interesting sightseeing drives in the country. Set aside some time to cruise around the lake and take in the attractions.

Along the lakefront on Shell Beach Drive, visitors will find large antebellum family estates. One of these mansions was the home of famous country music star Lynn Anderson, who occupied it with her husband, Louisiana oilman Harold Stream III, while she lived in Lake Charles.

The stretch of Shell Beach that borders the lake is also lined with beautiful century-old oak trees. One estate in particular along Shell Beach is home to a famous 170-year-old oak tree known as the “Calcasieu Manor Tree.” This oak tree is registered with the Live Oak Society of the Louisiana Garden Club Federation. The “Calcasieu Manor” tree also has a caretaker, and seedlings are harvested from the tree and sent to the coastline to be used in conservation preservation. There are three more old established oak trees located in the front of the property that were planted as seedings from this 170-year-old tree!

A Pirate From the Past

There are also many tales of the famous pirate Jean Lafitte, who is said to have docked in Lake Charles in the early 1800s. One story involving Lafitte has to do with the oldest house in Lake Charles: the Sallier-Barbe House located on Shell Beach Drive. Charles Sallier and his wife, Catherine, were quite good friends with the pirate, but Sallier had become jealous of his wife and Lafitte. As legend tells it, one day Charles Sallier thought that Catherine was having an affair with the buccaneer. In his rage, the husband picked up his pistol and shot Catherine.

When Catherine fell to the ground, he thought he had killed her, so he fled, never to be heard from again. However, Catherine survived the shot because of a simple piece of jewelry. When the pistol was fired, the bullet lodged in the large brooch Catherine was wearing. This brooch is a family heirloom that the Barbe family still treasures.

For More Information

Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau
Louisiana Office of Tourism