Rollin’ on the River
The Vermilion River – the historic lifeblood of Cajun country, which extends 70 miles as it traverses through the heart of Acadiana – is a geological rarity, dripping in history. Unlike many rivers, the Vermilion is unusual because it is a tidal river and has a very slow-moving drift. You can enjoy this Acadiana gem—also referred to as Bayou Vermilion by many locals—via boat and canoe/kayak launches year-round.
One of the best ways to experience the river, as it meanders through the epic center of Lafayette, is by boarding a traditional bateau (boat) named Cocodrie (French for alligator) at the Bayou Vermilion District (BVD) in Lafayette. The fascinating journey descends upriver toward Bayou Tortue and, along the way, the boat captain explains the geology and ecology of the river. “When I give my tours, we talk about the history of the river, how it was formed and how it is different from a typical river," says Captain Jay Steiner. "And we cover the wildlife and different people who used it from the native Americans, European settlers, Acadians to the modern use of the Vermilion." (Wildlife tip: Formed between the Cypress and Tupelo trees are huge ten-foot-wide spider webs belonging to large banana spiders; a sight to behold.)
The BVD, along with the Jean Lafitte Acadian Cultural Center, offers 30, 45 and 90-minute tours. You can also opt for a multi-experience, which includes a lunch buffet at Vermilionville’s award-winning restaurant La Cuisine De Maman, and a self-guided tour of the Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park. (Tip: Reservations for boat tours are recommended two weeks in advance and tours are available to walk-in guests on a first-come, first-serve basis. Tours may be postponed because of inclement weather and water levels in the Bayou Vermilion.)
If you prefer dipping a paddle into the water, the BVD offers canoe/paddle trips. The water’s current is not strong, and that makes this waterway very popular with paddlers. (Tip: Don’t know how to paddle? You can sign up for paddle lessons at the BVD.)
While at the Bayou Vermilion District landing, you can tempt your tastebuds at the aforementioned La Cuisine De Maman. This cozy restaurant is a local favorite that serves authentic, homemade Acadiana Cajun and Creole specialties, and is one of the best-kept secrets in town. Chicken and sausage gumbo, stuffed catfish, red beans and rice, and fried chicken are just a few of the dishes served daily. (Tip: Don’t leave without trying the melt-in-your-mouth bread pudding or the homemade dessert of the day.)
Need ‘river view’ dining options? There are a handful of restaurants up and down the Vermilion River that offer both award-winning cuisine and fabulous views of the bayou.
In the heart of Lafayette, at the Camelia Bridge and on the banks of the Vermilion, is Ruffino’s on the River, which offers seafood, steaks, Italian specialties and much more, all served with local and seasonal ingredients. You can enjoy dinner inside or outside on the patio overlooking the river.
While you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, a pair of Ruffino’s most popular appetizers are the succulent braised pork cheeks and the tuna appetizers, the latter of which includes soy caviar and is served on a Himalayan salt block. Among the popular entrees are the 8 oz. filet mignon (cut in-house) and the Cedar Plank redfish. For dessert, the white chocolate bread pudding or white chocolate brownie with homemade vanilla ice cream are certain winners.
For one of the most natural restaurant settings along the river bank head further down the Vermilion to a local favorite, the RiverFront Restaurant in Abbeville. There’s outdoor seating, including Adirondack chairs for lounging and sipping your favorite libation. (Popular Spirits: The summer mule, sazerac, pear martini, white sangria, wine, and local beers on tap or in the bottle.)
You can also enjoy a tasty lunch or dinner outside while watching the lazy river roll by. (Fun Fact: Because of the seemingly-untouched natural shoreline, the outdoor setting is a favorite spot for picture-taking.) The RiverFront also boasts a screened-in patio for dining, which also offers a great view of the river; or you can opt for indoor seating. While most arrive here on four wheels, some locals travel by boat and use the neighboring landing to dock their vessels.
RiverFront serves both traditional Louisiana favorites and innovative dishes using tuna, alligator, filet mignon, and fresh caught Gulf fish. (Recommended Menu Tip: Order the crab dip appetizer with lump crab meat and the seafood stack entrée (fried eggplant medallions topped with crab cakes, crawfish etouffee and fried shrimp. If you have room, finish off your meal with the house-made warm bread pudding topped with praline sauce or the Italian cream cake.)
After all this river touring and eating, you will be ready for a good night’s rest. One of the best full-service high-rise hotels on the Vermilion river is the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Lafayette. The likes of Garth Brooks, Kurt Russel, and President George Bush have made this their homes away from home.
Of the Doubletree’s 327 rooms, 162 face the Vermilion River, and the hotel boasts an extensive deck and walkway alongside the Vermilion, which borders the hotel pool overlooking the river. (Room tip: While rooms facing the river offer great views, the Presidential Suite; which has a king-sized bed, two double beds and a large living room for gatherings; is the best river view ‘room’ in the house.) (Tip: Spend the extra 30 bucks for the Executive Level Experience, which includes all the drinks, snacks, hot and cold appetizers you can eat, and a full-buffet breakfast. Breakfast hostess Dianne will go out of her way to make sure you are satisfied, as will Caroline who works at the executive lounge at night; both are locals with true Cajun hospitality that can’t be beat.)
Perhaps one of the most distinctive characteristics of this hotel is the layout along the river, which offers guests a tranquil river scene, and there are lounge chairs and tables with umbrellas. Topping that off, Doubletree General Manager James Thackston says, “We decided we wanted to be even closer to the river, so we extended the deck 20 more feet. This is great space for wedding receptions, crawfish boils and for those who just want a quiet space to relax.” (Fascinating Historical Fact: The land on which the DoubleTree sits extending towards the Lafayette’s Pinhook Bridge next to the hotel, was the site of a crucial trading route and crossing of the Vermilion River. ative Americans, followed by the French Creoles in the 1740s and 1750s, thrived and settled along this river bank primarily because of the high ground, which extended beyond the waterway into today’s Bendel Gardens neighborhood in Lafayette.)
Want to wet your whistle? Order your favorite drink at the SoLA Lobby Bar in a ‘to-go cup’ and relax outside in this one-of-a-kind setting. Jeff, a favorite bartender for both the locals and guests, creates a great jalapeno martini and Cajun Bloody Mary. This lobby bar is also hot with locals who want to grab a drink and a bite to eat after work.
The hotel’s SoLA restaurant has one of the best chicken and sausage gumbos in town, concocted by Chef Bill Schwanz, a longtime Acadiana chef. Chef Bill’s mac and cheese and the shrimp and grits are also among SoLA’s most popular dishes. (Tip: For dessert, be sure to try the DoubleTree Cookie Sunday. And speaking of the name ‘Bill’ and food, be sure to find Bill Staat, who floats around the hotel managing food and beverage and hospitality. Bill will make sure you have everything you need during your stay.)
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