HOUMA, La. -- "Are you sure we're in the right place?" I asked my husband as we drove past the shuttered storefronts and deserted sidewalks of this Terrebonne Parish seat. We were at the tail end of a Gulf Coast road trip and had just arrived here looking for some Cajun culture.
In Houma (pronounced Home-a), people still converse in a French incomprehensible to most Frenchmen. Cajun dance halls are full. Oysters are plucked from local waters and dumped directly onto your plate. Or so I'd heard.
But through the drizzling dusk, I saw only automotive parts stores and empty lots. Beyond the distant cane fields, the bare shipyard scaffolds rose skyward like postapocalyptic jungle gyms. There were supposedly pretty parks and great seafood restaurants here, but the only local color I saw was a mural painted on the wall of the shoebox-size Regional Military Museum. The gun-wielding soldier appeared to have been designed by an eighth-grader.
Then we turned right onto Bayou Black Drive, and suddenly, there before us were gorgeous mansions, sweeping lawns and moss-bearded oaks. This is the hurdle outsiders must clear, and the reason places like Houma aren't overrun by tourists: Centuries-old culture and modern-day grit often abut each other, and when you take the highway in, you're likely to see the latter first.
We pulled up to the Grand Bayou Noir B&B, and a gray-haired man in a flannel shirt and glasses came out to meet us. He introduced himself as Tim, the local judge who happens to run a B&B on the side, and told us that we'd been upgraded to a suite, since we were his only guests.
On the second floor, accessible by an outdoor balcony, our room was as stately as the mansion itself: sumptuous with a four-poster bed and shelves filled with local history. Tim led us back downstairs and opened an outdoor cooler for our inspection. "It's on the house," he said of the soda, wine and beer. "But if it's all gone tomorrow, I'll know who's responsible."
Louisiana is divided into three sections: north, south and New Orleans. Most outsiders tend to head straight to the last. But it's worth heading farther south, to the independent-minded Cajun country known as Acadia. And Houma (about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans) is a prototypical destination, located in the Atchafalaya Basin, with a refreshing mix of working-class community and enough beauty and entertainment to satisfy a traveler.
Tim told us that we'd get more than our fill of seafood at a restaurant called 1921. ("Go for the boiled, forget the fried!") On our way, we saw more signs of life, like the restored Southdown Plantation House, which offered evening candlelight tours, and the Boxer and the Barrel indie-rock bar and art gallery. If we owned Harleys, we could have visited Big Mike's BBQ Smokehouse for bike night.
We kept going to 1921 Seafood, which was packed with families. We squeezed in at the oyster bar, opposite a hulking man named Shrek. Talk about fresh: Shrek was dumping out bags of oysters, still covered in silt, and jimmying them open with a shucking knife. They were the bulldogs of bivalves, plump as my hand.
Houma residents are chatty, and the man beside me, a riverboat builder named Danny, showed us how to slurp the oyster without filling our mouths with dirt. Eating them felt cold and salty-sweet, like drinking the ocean.
Danny was working his way through two pounds of blood-red crawfish and handed me a few. They resembled giant insects, the kind of thing you'd want to chase with a broom. But here, you were supposed to squeeze the tail with your fingers and then suck the innards from the head. As I did so, Shrek laughed at my inelegance.
After dinner, it was time to dance. Houma is home to bayou music, from Cajun to its cousins, swamp pop (Cajun-infused rock) and zydeco (Cajun-infused R&B). There are many venues that offer live music and dancing. The A-Bear's Cafe and Bayou Delight Restaurant, on the same road as our B&B, offer weekend entertainment. The Bayou Terrebonne Waterlife Museum and Terrebonne Folklife Culture Center downtown have weeknight bands. In March, there's also the Louisiana Swamp Stomp Music Festival.
Tim had directed us to the Jolly Inn for our dose of Cajun culture. It was directly across the street from 1921, and we knew that we were in the right place by the grinning alligator painted on the ramshackle building. The dance hall resembled a camp cafeteria: long tables and wooden rafters strung with dream-catchers. Couples in their 70s as well as kids who hadn't yet reached double digits danced to the fiddle, accordion, bass and triangle stylings of the Cajun house band, Couche-Couche.
This multigenerational atmosphere is a throwback to prewar Cajun dances, called "fais do-do" (pronounced fay dough-dough), a French derivation of "go to sleep." Women, not trusting their husbands to be left alone, would take their young children to the dance-hall cry room and tell them to "fais do-do."
As at dinner, our arrival raised an immediate welcoming committee. A man with a ZZ Top beard introduced himself as Alli Gator and had us sign "honorary Cajun" certificates. Then Mr. Gator marched onstage, interrupted Couche-Couche, and announced that some Northerners were in town. This prompted an old man dressed in swamp camouflage and thick, bright-red suspenders to come say hello. His name was Alan, and he boasted of having recently shot a 10-foot gator in his yard. Then he asked me to dance.
I learned the Cajun jig and a series of moves, including "the sweetheart" and "the window." Each involved turning in place and moving clockwise around the dance floor. The music was jaunty and quick, and soon my head was spinning. The final song came around 10 p.m., but even as people buttoned up their coats, they continued dancing. Alan's skinny grandson bounced so crazily that he seemed ready to shoot through the roof.
Back at the B&B, we discussed the next day's activities. The History Channel's "Swamp People" is filmed in Houma, and our vessel options for a marsh tour included pontoon boat, airboat and even airplane. The Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge is only five miles south of town, with plenty of eco-friendly options for observing herons, turtles and gators.
In the morning, we ate a home-cooked breakfast at Tim's dining room table. As we dug into apple pancakes drenched in cane syrup and shrimp omelets and bacon, the judge told us that he moonlighted as a wedding caterer and added, "You've got to be out by 11 because I'm cooking gumbo for a reception this afternoon." Well, OK then.
Sadly, it was now pouring rain. "We could do the airplane swamp tour," I suggested, but my husband didn't want to take a tiny plane in this weather -- especially since a potential crash meant swimming in gator-infested waters.
Instead, we explored the bayou in our car. We headed down Bayou Black Drive, with the slow-moving tributary sliding past on the right. To the left, the large mansions gave way to smaller homes and then to trailers. Eventually, we entered the endless cane fields. I turned on the Cajun station. Then I closed my eyes and practiced some of the previous night's dance moves in my head.