Travel USA: Get your self into a super state

It's the home of Cajun, crawfish, bayous and music to dance all night to - take a look at real life in beautiful Louisiana
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The Independent Culture
After you cross into Louisiana on I-10, heading west towards New Orleans, the first service area has a large wooden shape of the Pelican State in the parking lot. The State Welcome Center has kindly provided its visitors with a photo opportunity. Erect a giant cut-out of Louisiana and they will come. And they do, and click away. "Excuse me sir, will you take our picture?" Before I could say anything the camera was in my hand and the family was posing on either side of the structure. "Can we take yours now?" For a brief moment I was almost compelled to say yes, because they seemed so dismayed at my reluctance to join in this act of collective photographic worship.

I'm glad I declined politely and decided to fill up on free maps and leaflets instead inside the information centre. It was here in the dark, air conditioned kiosk that I discovered how to tune in to Cajun radio stations. A lone blue leaflet by the water cooler offered me the frequencies and, back in the car, once we were well inside the state border, a slow spoken French was coming out of the speakers, followed by the irresistible rhythm of Cajun music.

After hundreds of miles of soft rock, oldies and Christian country, this sounded like salvation. I had escaped from marketing-formula America, and felt compelled to follow the beat into an altogether more heady and spirited world on the ether - a land of promise.

I was heading for the Cajun bayous, the home of the descendants of the Acadians who were thrown out of Nova Scotia by the British in the 18th century after refusing to renounce their Catholic faith. To get there, you need to get past the state capital, Baton Rouge, and then go up around Lafayette in the southwest corner of Louisiana. In fact, so keen was I to reach this area that I gave New Orleans a miss. With the promise of discovery, and the allure of music, I took the northern route across Lake Ponchartrain, leaving the Crescent City to its tourists.

A town called Opelousas was the first stop in Acadia. It was midday as I pulled into the main square. I took lunch at The Palace Cafe, trying out crawfish gumbo for the first time. I could have had boudin - blood sausage - or fried catfish, but I did what I had learnt to do in troubling situations like this: have a quick glance round to see what everyone else is having and order that. Crawfish, it turned out, was dish of the day.

Over the meal I discovered from the leaflet rack next to my table that one could visit the Jim Bowie Museum - he of the famous Bowie knife - and that I was at the birthplace of Clifton Chenier, the zydeco accordion player .

The gift store up the street sold a range of Cajun and zydeco music. The owner was an accomplished fiddle player and told me, after a few probing questions like "Is this good?", about the different kinds of music hereabouts. "We all spoke French when I was a boy," he said, in his distinctive Cajun accent. "We were made to speak English at school, but we didn't want to."

He spoke about how zydeco is mostly black Louisiana music, and gave me some recommendations as to where to go to hear good live music. "You're in luck," he said. "You can go to Mulate's tonight to see Steve Riley. He's one of the best of this generation of performers." Before I left we bought one of his own Cajun recordings and drove back towards Lafayette with his nasal French calling out over the rented Buick's sound system.

I went out for the evening, as suggested, to the famous Mulate's restaurant in Breaux Bridge. Here, the place is geared up for live entertainment, and they come from afar, as the notes pinned to one of the walls testify. There was an overcrowded bulletin board on the way out to the toilets that had notes scribbled by passing luminaries of the popular music firmament. Pale Polaroids of half recognised famous people were thumb-tacked into the cork board that served as the restaurant's Hall of Fame. There were no A-list celebrities the night I was there.

I hadn't even started my spicy chicken when the band lured a few diners on to the dance floor. Before long I was up there with them. The dance steps are simple enough, and can be mastered, after a fashion, by even the terpsichorean challenged. But no one minds. I managed a waltz, crossed with some head-nodding pogo-ing more suited to a sweaty Student Union bar of the late Seventies. The locals seemed to admire my freestyle approach. They smiled kindly at me, anyway. We had, of course, come to hear Steve Riley and his Mamou Playboys, except Steve wasn't there. He was in England, of all places. Derby, to be precise, which, I'm reliably informed, is a hotbed of Cajun fanaticism.

But it's so much more satisfying to be at the source of the real thing. And, what's more, Lafayette is a good place to find cheap accommodation. I took a room in a clean, good value chain motel, with an outdoor pool right next to the freeway. You could base yourself in Lafayette, with its quiet, old-fashioned downtown that you half expect a youthful Steve McQueen to cruise into in his white pick-up, wearing a cowboy hat. But it's more fun to go cruising in your rental car, and find small hotels or bed and breakfasts in small ante bellum towns deep in one-time Confederate America.

Louisiana, and particularly Acadia, had taken me into an area that feels, looks, tastes and certainly sounds different from anywhere else I had ever visited in the USA. Forget, for a moment, what you've ever heard about the politics within states like Louisiana. Pass over that Civil War posturing, and tourist Southern pride thing. Leave your prejudices behind and slip on your dancing shoes.

Getting there: the main gateway for US Cajun country is New Orleans. There are no longer direct flights from the UK, but cheap fares on a variety of airlines are available from discount agents. For travel in November, for example, Trailfinders (0171-973 5400) quotes a fare of pounds 333 on Delta, via Atlanta, while Bridge the World's transatlantic department (0171-916 0990) is offering pounds 346 return on Continental/Virgin Atlantic, via Newark