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Spotlight: St. Martin Parish

Experience Pelican State cool in a small cluster of towns

Slung between the comparatively big and boisterous cities of Lafayette to the west and Baton Rouge to the east, St. Martin Parish in southern Louisiana ties together a collection of classic small towns. Down-to-earth charm, zero crowds and vast tracts of gorgeous, wild landscapes make setting up camp here a richly rewarding reprieve for anyone seeking a bit of rest and relaxation.

Understanding the lay of the land in St. Martin Parish can be tricky for first-time visitors, since this is the only parish in the state to have non-contiguous regions. But this is more of a blessing than a cartographer’s curse. The parish’s unique layout means it sports three very distinct terrains—the Atchafalaya Basin, prairie plain and lush bayou—giving it a degree of variety not seen elsewhere in the state.

Regardless of where you decide to set up camp, take the time to explore the parish’s collection of incredible small towns, especially St. Martinville (“Home of Evangeline”), Breaux Bridge (“Crawfish Capital of the World”) and Henderson (“Gateway to the Atchafalaya Basin”).

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Evangeline’s Legacy

In St. Martinville the literary legend of Evangeline (the eponymous character from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1847 poem) still echoes loudly, perhaps no more so than at Evangeline Oak Park. Established near the turn of the century, the park and its famous oak tree have stood in honor of Longfellow’s poem for more than a century. The legend fits in nicely with the surprising history of St. Martinville, which in the early 1800s was referred to as “Petit Paris,” due to its rich performance arts scene.

Acadian ancestry is strongest here, as a quick visit to the Museum of the Acadian Memorial reveals. Dedicated to telling the story of the region’s early Acadians who traveled from maritime Eastern Canada after being exiled by the British in the middle of the 18th century, the museum is a must for anyone with even a hint of southern Louisiana ancestry. While here, check out the local architecture. Attractions like the oustanding Soulier House, with its ornate railings and eye-catching round cupola, epitomize the architectural style of the region.

The African-American Museum in St. Martinville is another must-visit, especially for students of history. The museum’s deeply moving exhibits shed light on the rise and fall of the slave trade, as well as the hardships faced by people of color in the decades following the end of the Civil War. The museum’s crown jewel is a 26-foot-high mural by Dennis Paul Williams, which depicts the historical accomplishments of some of St. Martinville’s free people of color.

Over in Breaux Bridge, ready yourself for the mouthwatering smells of crawfish cook-offs and crawfish BBQs. From its roots as a simple suspension bridge crossing over the Bayou Teche to its self-anointed status as the “crawfish capital of the world,” the community of Breaux Bridge is exactly as down-to-earth as it sounds. Its Historic Downtown District is dotted with heritage buildings, and guided walking tours can be arranged with a stop at the Breaux Bridge Visitors Center.

Breaux Bridge also plays host to the Crawfish Festival, which is a statewide favorite. The event spans three days every May, featuring a mix of live music, Cajun cuisine, dance contests, a carnival midway, a parade and—of course—a crawfish-eating contest.



Backcountry Travel

Those looking to journey out into the great outdoors for a day of hiking or a variety of backcountry adventure tours, fishing trips or hunting charters will want to make their way to the small town of Henderson. This humble outpost didn’t even appear anywhere in official print until the 1930s and has its roots in the old village of nearby Atchafalaya. Today, the vibrant community serves as the gateway to Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge.

The Atchafalaya Basin is the largest river basin in North America, full of meandering rivers, cypress forests and a vast range of wildlife. Alligators are a common sight, but only if you’re keeping your eyes carefully peeled. The gators here are generally shy and avoid contact with humans. The refuge is also listed on the Atchafalaya loop of the American Wetland Birding Trail, making this a popular destination for bird watchers keen on adding lots of new entries to their log books.

A handful of the species native to the refuge are endangered, and hunting restrictions apply, so be sure to consult with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries before heading out on the trail of some of the larger game. The safest route is to sign up on a chartered hunting tour led by a local outfitter or backcountry guide.

For first-time visitors to the region, the bayou can seem like another planet, and that’s just part of its charm. It doesn’t take long for the down-to-earth vibe, lively Louisiana spirit and incredibly flavorful Cajun cooking to win you over for good.

For More Information

St. Martin Parish Tourist Commission
Louisiana Office of Tourism