Heritage Week ends, of course, with a party. We get there just as Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys are setting up. And Gino Delafose is coming later -- both acts are headliners at Wolf Trap and jazz festivals all over the country, but here they're just beloved local boys at a neighborhood picnic. "Cookin', dancin' and visitin', that's what the Acadian people love," Winky says as we walk between the big pots of étouffée and a fellow grinding dried sassafras leaves into filé powder. In the dance tent, the boyish Riley works the accordion for a handful of sweaty waltzers. All over the grounds, folks have set up coolers and chairs (the folding lawn chair being the official furniture of the Cajun nation).
We stay too late to catch the famous Saturday-night show back at the Liberty Theater in Eunice. And we linger over dinner at Cafe Des Amis in Breaux Bridge too long to catch any of the other dozen or so live acts and VFW dances going on in the area. I feel as if we're falling short. But Winky and Chicken have invited us for an extended family gathering the next day, and we still have a score of other tips and invites to sort through and, well, not doing everything is a survival skill around here. So we point the rental car toward Eunice. With two girls asleep in the back seat, my wife and I drive silently through a prairie sunset in KBON country. We flip the radio on and listen to a world go by, strangers no more.
DJ and KBON founder Paul Marx fills the airwaves with the sounds and news of Cajun Country in south- central Louisiana.
"And one final announcement before we go," DJ Todd Ortego says at the end of KBON's Thursday-night "Swamp and Roll" show. "If you know David Thibodeaux and his fiancee. Dana, they want you to come to their wedding this Saturday. They said they didn't have time to get out all the invitations. So if you know Big David and Dana, come on out.
"It's gonna be a good party."
Steve Hendrix will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com
Details: Cajun Country
GETTING THERE: Eunice, La., the heart of Cajun prairie country, is an hour's drive north of Lafayette. Flights from Washington to Lafayette start at $230 round trip; fares from BWI to New Orleans, about three hours from Eunice, begin as low as $167.
WHERE TO STAY: In Eunice, the Seale Guesthouse (125 Seale Lane, 337-457- 3753, www.angelfire.com/la2/guesthouse) will charm if you have a taste for eclectic antiques and don't mind hospitality that's more fun than precise. We paid about $80 a night, including breakfast. Potier's Prairie Cajun Inn (110 W. Park Ave., 337-457-0440, www.potiers.net) is in downtown Eunice, near KBON and the Liberty Theater. Rooms are $75 a night, including a breakfast basket. Nearby Opelousas, 20 miles away, has half a dozen chain and local motels.
WHERE TO EAT: The area is peppered with modest places serving outrageously good Cajun food, from the boiled crawfish at D.I.'s Restaurant (Highway 97, Basile) to the excellent gumbo at the Pig Stand in tiny Ville Platte (318 E. Main St.) to the boudin (Cajun sausage) and the cracklin (pork rinds) sold at gas stations and roadside stands everywhere. For a gourmet take on Cajun, try Catahoula's in Grand Coteau (234 Martin Luther King Dr.) for creative seafood in a restored general store.
WHAT TO DO: Each Saturday night, the Liberty Center for the Performing Arts (200 W. Park Ave., 337-457-7389, www.eunice-la.com/libertyschedule.html) in Eunice holds a Rendez-Vous des Cajuns, a weekly radio show broadcast from a restored 1924 theater. Tickets are $5. But there is live Cajun music to be had just about every night of the year at numberless clubs, restaurants and joints in surrounding towns.
Additionally, Eunice is home to the Cajun Music Hall of Fame (240 S. C.C. Duson St., 337-457-6534; free) and the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center (250 W. Park Ave., 337-457-8490; free). And KBON's downtown studios (109 S. Second St., 337-546-0007, www.kbon.com) is uncommonly welcoming to guests. But forget itineraries; the joy of visiting Cajun country is being swept up in the local whirl. Be flexible, and the locals will provide more options than you can fulfill.
If you really want to immerse yourself, Louisiana Folk Roots holds twice-yearly, weeklong Cajun camps that end with a big party. At the Dewey Balfa Cajun and Creole Heritage Week, learn Cajun and Creole music, dance, language, cuisine and culture with some grand masters of Acadiana. The next one is Nov. 2 -8 at Chico State Park, near Ville Platte. Fees begin at $570 for non-Louisianians, not including accommodations. Info: 337-234-8360, www.lafolkroots.org.
INFORMATION: Eunice Chamber of Commerce, 337-457-2565, www.eunice-la.com. St. Landry Parish Tourist Commission, 877-948-8004, www.cajuntravel.com/coteau.html.
-- Steve Hendrix