Savoring Acadiana: New Iberia

Editor’s Note: This is part of an occasional series by travel enthusiasts Doug Woolfolk and Dave Hanchey

Most small Louisiana towns have their own unique history, showcasing antebellum homes, famous restaurants, historic tours, ethnic music, museums … and, of course, interesting residents. New Iberia is certainly no exception.

So we jacked up the music a few notches and headed west on I-10 toward the intriguing little town in the heart of Cajun country on Bayou Teche. We wanted to bite into its history and find what made it an “interesting tourist destination.”

Founded way back in 1779, New Iberia is the only still-existing Louisiana town built by the Spanish during the colonial era. Because of its strategic positioning on the Teche and its location near St. Martinville, it soon became an important point in the transport of merchandise from New Orleans to the vast western territory. In 1819, the creation of the Attakapas Steamboat Co. brought even more merchandise, travelers and greater prosperity.

Unfortunately, as with most small Louisiana towns, disaster lay ahead.

New Iberia experienced a yellow fever plague in 1839 that cost virtually every family at least one victim. Four years of Civil War and Union occupation in the early 1860s brought death, destruction and years of total economic stagnation. In 1899, a devastating fire destroyed buildings in nearly half of the town’s commercial district.

But then, in 1917, oil was discovered at Little Bayou Field near New Iberia. Today, more than 90 years later, that field is still in production. It soon was followed by offshore drilling, improved technology and the development of the Port of Iberia. That port’s 70-plus industries produce well over $200 million in annual retail sales.

Today’s New Iberia displays interesting remnants of this yo-yo ride through Louisiana’s unique past. Plus, there are many other impressive Louisiana showcase destinations nearby: Avery Island, Cypremort Point State Park, Lake Martin Bird Sanctuary, Rip Van Winkle Gardens and more.

It’s a great day trip!

Click here for a photo gallery of the locations below.

Shadows-on-the-Teche

If there were nothing else in New Iberia, this unique brick mansion with its exceptional gardens, towering oaks, splendid bayou site and Classical Revival style would be well worth the trip. Its collection of the Weeks Family Papers has more than 17,000 receipts, invoices and legal, business and personal letters expressing the joys, sorrows, sicknesses, fears, prosperity and poverty of plantation life.

317 E. Main St., (337) 369-6446, shadowsontheteche.wordpress.com.

Bayou Teche Museum

On Main Street a block from Shadows-on-the-Teche, the museum tells the vivid story of the city, its culture, its people and the industry along Bayou Teche. Permanent collections of area memorabilia and artifacts bring the town’s story to life.

The museum also features a hands-on area for children plus regional artifacts and memorabilia that are part of state-of-the-art interactive exhibits. The museum is open Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

131 E. Main St., (337) 606-5977,? bayoutechemuseum.org.

Konriko Rice Mill and ?Company Store

On the National Register of Historic Places, Konriko (Conrad) Rice Mill was built in 1914. It is the oldest rice mill in America and a very rare surviving example of operational belt-driven power technology in a factory. Start your tour in the old company store for a historically correct presentation of turn-of-the-century Cajun culture.

307 Ann St., (800) 551-3245, conradricemill.com.

Bon Creole ?Lunch Counter

To really experience a town, you need to eat with the locals. In New Iberia, that means the gumbo, po-boys and plate lunches at Bon Creole Lunch Counter. Opened 13 years ago by LSU-trained biologist Randy Montegut, this bustling eatery is as authentically casual as it gets, with the food served wrapped in paper rather than on plates. Daily lunch specials and gumbo are prepared daily from scratch, and fried seafood spills from the stuffed po-boys. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, you can ask for choupic caviar. Sure, that freshwater fish is a prehistoric-looking beast, but its black eggs are a delicacy with a nutty saltiness, Montegut explains. He has built a nice little side business wholesaling caviar to fish markets from California to New York. When it’s in stock, a 4-ounce tin can be had for about $25.

1409 E. St. Peter St., (337) 367-6181

Lake Martin ?Bird Sanctuary

The sanctuary attracts some 60% of all U.S. bird species throughout the year, particularly in early spring and summer. Huge numbers of great and snowy egrets, roseate spoonbills, little blue herons and other species build their nests around Lake Martin. In 1989 more than 12,000 pairs of white ibises nested there.

The sanctuary is north of New Iberia, a brief detour from the drive to Baton Rouge. There are several Web sites with good information and great photographs. Google “Lake Martin Bird Sanctuary.”

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