Lake Charles, LA
Isolated from much of the rest of Louisiana by geography, Lake Charles boasts a rich and distinctive culture. For years the great Atchafalaya Swamp to the east cut this Cajun city off from major population centers like Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Thick pine and cypress forests to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south completed the job. Lake Charles carved out its destiny alone, at least until the 20th century. Now this small city of 72,000 residents stakes its economy on petrochemical refineries and the hospitality industry.
One of the coolest things to do in the Lake Charles area is to drive the 180-mile Creole Nature Trail. Winding through largely uninhabited marshes and prairies, and sometimes skirting the Gulf of Mexico, this trail takes motorists into a truly exotic world of alligators and waterfowl. Tourists who want to make the most of their cruise can download a free app from iTunes or Google Play to guide them along the route. In 2002 the Federal Highway Administration awarded the All-American Road designation, its highest, to this National Scenic Byway.
The Charpentier Historic District offers tourists another great sightseeing opportunity in Lake Charles. The city’s lumber boom in the late 19th century triggered a surge in home construction. Since Lake Charles had no architects at the time, home builders relied on their own sense of style. The name charpentier is French for “carpenter” and describes these homespun designers. Travelers interested in viewing the eclectic but delightful architectural blend in this historic district may obtain free self-guided tour maps from the old city hall, which is now a destination itself.
In fact, touring the Historic City Hall Arts and Cultural Center is one of the more relaxing things to do in Lake Charles. The most prominent feature of this 1911 Spanish Baroque structure is its campanile, or Italian bell tower, sometimes mistakenly called a clock tower. A Spanish tile roof and Renaissance arched windows set off this stunning building, which appears on the National Register of Historic Places. Gallery space on the center’s three floors showcases top-notch art. Past traveling exhibits have featured works by Pablo Picasso and Ansel Adams.
Sightseeing in Lake Charles is just one of its charms. The city stages its share of fairs and festivals every year. Although this Cajun corner of the state claims the second-biggest Mardi Gras celebration after New Orleans, the premier event is the two-week-long Contraband Days-Louisiana Pirate Festival. Whimsical activities—such as spitting competitions—supplement pirate-themed performances by musicians and trained parrots. The festival even commemorates the area’s more colorful heritage with a wink to legendary pirate Jean Lafitte when modern-day pirates force the mayor to walk the plank.
Anglers visiting Lake Charles are anxious to try their luck in the “Sportsman’s Paradise,” as Louisiana license plates proclaim. The best bet for negotiating the lakes and bayous is the pirogue, a flat-bottomed boat that tourists can rent. Redfish and speckled trout are among the more common catches.