I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “southern hospitality” before, it’s a romanticized notion personified in movies and television shows, where chivalry flourishes and visitors are made to feel welcome. While on a recent trip to Lake Charles, Louisiana for a travel conference, I discovered the essence of southern hospitality is not a cliché, but the very embodiment of its residents. The charming southwestern Louisiana town of Lake Charles has a strong Cajun culture and has a lot to offer its visitors; from performing arts, festivals, lush golf courses, glitzy casinos, historic districts, posh resorts, wildlife excursions to authentic Cajun and Creole cuisine.
Louisiana was one of only four states to which I had not yet traveled, so I was thankful the folks at TMShowcase selected Lake Charles for their annual travel conference which allowed me to knock yet another state off my list. The conference was held at the extraordinary L’auberge Casino Resort, which is a retreat that captivates guests, many of whom may never want to leave due to the abundance of activities and luxuriousness of the property. Some of the journalists, myself included, were upgraded to a suite, which I have to say was one of the nicest rooms I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying in—and, as a perpetual traveler, that’s saying a lot! Beyond the amazing bed and other typical features you’d expect in a luxurious suite, this room had a few things I’d never experienced before, such a remote control that takes care of just about everything…from dimming the lights, adjusting the thermostat, to controlling a T.V. embedded in one of the bathroom vanity mirrors. Speaking of the bathroom…it was fit for royalty, with its focal point being a huge claw foot bathtub that fills from the ceiling. Yes, the ceiling. A gushing stream of water falls some ten feet into the middle of the tub. To one side of the bathtub is a large marble shower; to the other, a frosted glass enclosure with high-end loo and bidet.
While the accommodations are spectacular, so too is the entire property at L’auberge: The casino floor, nicely manicured golf course, spa, shopping, to the lazy river swimming pool and on-site restaurants. A spot I enjoyed one evening with a colleague was the beach along a tributary at the back of the resort. I also visited the Barbier, an upscale barbershop where I experienced my first old fashioned shave. One evening several of the journalists and I were treated to a meal at Ember Grille and Wine Bar, the resort’s fine-dining restaurant. Rather than ordering off the menu, the chef brought out samples of his signature dishes for us to try, which included items like Tuna Tartare, Foie Gras, Crab Cakes, Kobe beef Carpaccio, and Ember Prime, a 40oz Rib Eye carved right at the table. Following that was a host of decadent desserts. It was a sensational meal and without a doubt one of the best I had during my trip to Louisiana.
I arrived in Lake Charles a few days prior to the conference and was able to check out some of the local flair and activities. As a road tripper, I was particularly interested in the Creole Nature Trail, which is one of the oldest scenic byways in the country. The All-American road winds through more than 180 miles of bayous, marshlands and shores along the Gulf of Mexico. It’s an amazing blend of scenery and a wonderful view of Louisiana’s fertile prairies, lush marshes and abundant wildlife.
Along the Creole Nature Trail is a place called Airboats & Alligators where you can take an airboat ride through the marshland and visit an alligator farm. This experience was both interesting and educational…not to mention fun to zip through a marsh atop an airboat. Talking with the owner, I learned that just weeks after Katrina hit New Orleans, Hurricane Rita devastated parts of Lake Charles, including the area where Airboats & Alligators is located. Rita took away the house and the business, including $6 million in Alligator inventory. It has taken many years of recovery, but they are finally getting back to normal. It was quite inspiring to listen to the passion and persistence they had to rebuild the home and their business. Alligator farming is an interesting business and can be quite lucrative if done properly. A top tier alligator can fetch up to $1600—and, once harvested, nothing goes to waste…the skin/hide is used for shoes, belts, wallets, etc., the meat is consumed, and the teeth are often used for jewelry and tourist trinkets.
The next stop of the day was really special…it was a relaxing eco-tour boat ride with the folks at Grosse Savanne, which was lead by our amazingly well-informed guide, Bobby Jorden. Situated on 50,000 acres of private land, Grosse Savanne Eco-tours has unlimited access to a multitude of various ecotypes, including both fresh and salt water marshes, cypress swamps, native coastal prairies, pine forest plantations, and agricultural lands. Our tour was through the cypress swamp, which provided amazing bird watching and other wildlife opportunities, including an abundance of alligators.
The next day I visited Rutherford Beach, which is located along the Gulf of Mexico and is a great place to find unique seashells. While strolling the beach I witnessed a pod of dolphins swimming not fifty feet from shore…it was quite a sight. I also drove the three-mile Pintail Wildlife loop, which is wetlands known as Prairie National Wildlife Refuge. This area has been manipulated by the US Fish & Wildlife Service to provide feeding/nesting habitat for wintering waterfowl, allowing visitors to view a variety of wildlife & birds close-up and year round.
Later that day, a number of my fellow travel journalists and I went to Bayou Rum for a distillery tour. This fairly new rum distiller is producing handcrafted spirits on-site the Louisiana way, using a traditional copper pot (which is like a work of art…and, it cost as much too) using 100% natural Louisiana cane sugar and molasses. Not only was the tour informative, and the facility beautiful, but we also enjoyed a rum tasting. It had been a while since I had actually consumed rum, and I have to say, it was quite tasty! The following week I was in New Orleans and actually had a cocktail made using Bayou Rum, so it seems the word is getting out.
If you’re into historic architecture, you won’t want to miss the Charpentier Historic District, which features a number of Victorian mansions and other sites, some of which are palatial estates along the banks of Lake Charles.
After a few days of exploring Lake Charles, it was time for the conference to start. By day we spent most of our time in one of the conference halls at L’auberge, and by night, we were taken to various venues around town for dinner, drinks and entertainment. The first night we went to a place called The Brick House, a really cool and historic venue where they had a Zydeco band playing some lively music that blended the accordion, washboard, spoons and an electric guitar.
Another evening we went to the convention center, where again, we feasted on local cuisine and enjoyed live local music. The venue is situated across the street from the banks of Lake Charles, so the view was quite stunning. Just before sunset I escaped the festivities for a spell and strolled along the nicely developed boardwalk that follows the lake. It was a sensational sunset with a silhouetted sailboat skimming the smooth surface of the lake.
The folks of southwestern Louisiana seem to be quite proud of their Boudin and other Cajun and Créole creations; I on the other hand, found it to be my least favorite part. Call me a culinary snob if you will, but I prefer more refined and less fried foods. Personally, I gravitated toward the fresh seafood dishes in Lake Charles, which, given their proximity to the Gulf, were quite plentiful. The shrimp and crab for example were out of this world. If more traditional Cajun fare is your thing, you’ll find no shortage of that either.
On my final evening in Lake Charles, I got tickets to an outdoor concert that was held at L’auberge by the pool. The massive stage with sophisticated light and sound system hosted the 80s cover band, The Molly Ringwalds. From Devo to Duran Duran, the band played all the 80s favorites…we (those of us old enough to know all the songs) danced like it was 1999. I had to laugh at one point…when these three young women looked our way as one of my fellow travel journalist and I were rocking out and singling along to a song of which we knew all of the lyrics…it was evident by their stares, the young women had never heard the song before!
It was quite warm and muggy, and after rocking out for a bit, we all decided to head to our respective rooms to don our swimsuits and head back down to conclude the concert by floating down and around the lazy river…it was a fantastic end to our wonderful time in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
I found the real stars of Lake Charles to be its people…so very friendly, hospitable, old school politeness, with an air of southern hospitality and charm. If you’ve ever been to Lake Charles, please post a comment below and let my readers and me know what you like best. Click the following link to see more of my photos of Lake Charles.