Louisiana’s Other City: Why Lake Charles Should Be On Your List

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Lake City, Louisiana has an enticing mix of nature, culture, and its own Mardi Gras krewes. (Photo: Catch Carri)

By Carri Wilbanks/ Catch Carri

It’s not just Lucinda Williams who knows that Lake Charles is a special place. This little city in the southern part of the state is where Louisiana shows off its best side: fascinating history, beautiful landscapes, vibrant Cajun culture, a ton of activities, and plenty of nature (including gators). Nicknamed the “Festival Capital of Louisiana,” the city throws more than 75 parties a year — including a slightly more family-friendly Mardi Gras than the New Orleans version. if you avoid the humidity of Louisiana’s summer, you’ll find plenty of reasons to put Lake Charles on your must-visit list. Here are my favorites.

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge

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(Photo: Catch Carri)

Grab the binoculars and get ready to spot plenty of wings at the Cameron Prairie Wildlife Refuge. There are more than 200 species of birds that pass through these 20,000 acres (of which nearly 15,000 are accessible only by boat). Explore salt marshes and coastal prairie where you are likely to catch a glimpse of white-faced ibis, herons, and others.

Related: 10 Best Secret U.S. Road Trips

Bayou Rum Distillery

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(Photo: Catch Carri)

Louisiana Spirits—America’s largest private rum distillery—produces rum the Louisiana way. Using a traditional copper pot, Bayou Rum is handcrafted onsite with 100 percent natural, unrefined local cane sugar and molasses. Tour the distillery and visit the tasting room for a sample.

Pat’s of Henderson

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(Photo: Catch Carri)

“Like I was sayin’, shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it…” The character Bubba, from the movie Forrest Gump, sure did know his shrimp dishes — and so do the fine folks at Pat’s of Henderson. The award-winning seafood and steak restaurant specializes in Louisiana Cajun cuisine. Don’t miss an opportunity to try one of their famous gumbos or catfish courtbouillon.

Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu

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(Photo: Catch Carri)

If you can’t make it to the Lake Charles 2016 Mardi Gras, the next best thing is to visit the Mardi Gras Museum. Inside find the world’s largest collection of Mardi Gras costumes, overseen by animated mannequins that recount the story of the legendary festival. By taking a look at the extravagant costumes you will realize that Mardi Gras is much more than a party, it’s a community event complete with tight-knit krewes that have been together for generations.

Related: In pictures: Mardi Gras and other Carnival celebrations around the world

Airboats, Alligators, and Eco Tours

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(Photo: Catch Carri)

Take off on a guided tour through Louisiana’s marshland aboard an airboat with alligator expert Ben Welch — who has been in the business for more than 20 years. When nesting season begins in June, he will point out alligator eggs hidden in plain sight. He’ll also show you turtles sunning on floating branches and muskrats swimming toward shore. After the tour, hop on a tractor and spy alligators up-close in a swamp behind Ben’s home as he lures them out of water with a special trick.

For a more serene experience with nature, get on the water with Gross Savanne Eco-Tours. You’ll float among cypress swamps and pine forest plantations on a guided boat through the marsh. Insider tip: Take a trip at sunrise to watch the sun start to crawl over the horizon.

Related: I Took My Son on a Civil Rights Tour of the South

Pintail Wildlife Drive

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(Photo: Catch Carri)

Pintail Wildlife Drive is a three-mile loop located in Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge that attracts bird enthusiasts from across the nation, as more than 400 species can be spotted. Stretch your legs along the half-mile-long boardwalk, which runs over the fresh-water marsh lined with viewing spots, interpretive panels and numerous photo ops.

Bord Du Lac Park

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(Photo: Catch Carri)

Stroll along the Lakefront Promenade and take in views of the lake, boats in the marina, the Lake Charles Civic Center, and the Louisiana Landing Fountain featuring a one-of-a-kind bronze geese sculpture. Grab some ice cream or snacks from nearby food trucks while the kids play on the PPG Sprayground and Splash Pad.

Creole Nature Trail

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(Photo: Catch Carri)

Grab your safari hat and head into Louisiana’s outback along the 180-mile Creole Nature Trail All-American Road. You can download the free driving tour app, or you can borrow a handheld GPS Ranger unit (also free) from Visit Lake Charles. Explore wetlands, wildlife refuges, and marshes teeming with creatures that you’ll only find in the South, and when you tire out you can stop at any of the restaurants, accommodations, camping spots, and restrooms available along the trail.

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