Just off urban doorsteps, Lafitte is a dive into wild Louisiana

If it’s true that nature abhors a vacuum, then it doesn’t seem to have much use for straight lines either, at least not in the alluvial sprawl of southeast Louisiana.

This became increasingly clear the more I explored the area centered on the town of Jean Lafitte, where the natural patterns all seem entangled and entwined, sinuous and flowing.

Anything looking too symmetrical or linear is a reliable sign of intervention, and that goes for roads and trails as well as the long, straight lines cut for canals. It’s this interplay of the natural and engineered that makes a visit to Lafitte so quick and easy and, at the same time, so utterly transporting.

A fishing village and popular jumping-off point for charter fishing, Lafitte also offers easy-access entry into the rambunctious wildness of Louisiana that sits just outside the hem of the city. Day-trippers can take this on either in the form of a high-octane outing with a tour company or a peaceful, at-your-own-pace interlude in vast parks — or, as I did recently, a combination of both.

The town of Jean Lafitte is technically distinct from the adjacent villages of Lafitte and Barataria. But most people simply call the area Lafitte. For visitors, it all effectively functions as one destination centered along Bayou Barataria, which is about 20 miles from downtown New Orleans. Cross the bayou on a high, swooping bridge and the road continues for another 10 miles to a cluster of boat launches and docks at the end of the line.

There’s not much of a town center to explore here, but there is good regional cooking (see sidebar), a few funky bars, and all over, the signs of a very old, very small, hard-working community.

Look down a side street and you may see a tiny shipyard filling the short span between main road and bayou, or a narrow strip of whitewashed tombs interspersed between raised homes, with the rigging and nets of docked fishing boats as the backdrop. Dry land seems like a precious commodity here, and it’s put through its paces.

Lafitte is part of a long tradition in Louisiana of seafaring towns that sit far from the actual coast, locations that seem quixotic from the perspective of highways and cars but make a lot more sense from the water. Channels and routes branch off in every direction, making the town itself function like the center of a maritime rotary.

The town’s namesake, the famous 19th-century pirate who became a hero in the Battle of New Orleans, used this maze of bayous and bays as a base of operations. Romantic notions of his pirating past manifest themselves today from Jolly Roger flags flown from the decks of fishing camps to exhibits in a pair of museums.

The dual mission of the Jean Lafitte Visitor Center and Pirate Museum (799 Jean Lafitte Blvd. Lafitte, (504) 689-2299) is spelled out in its name, though frustratingly for a local daytripper it is only open on weekdays. I had better luck on a weekend visit by going a few miles down the road to Lafitte’s Barataria Museum and Maritime Trace (4917 City Park Dr., Lafitte, (504) 689-7009), which is well-hidden in a wing of the town’s multi-purpose center. The $12 admission initially seemed steep, but the production value was high and the small museum offers an intimate portrait of a unique community.

A 25-minute film gives a personalized account of Lafitte’s history and its travails in the face of recent disasters, while a mix of theme park animatronics and local archival and folklife materials fill an exhibit hall. An alligator wearing jeans and shrimp boots tells jokes in a Cajun accent, personal stories of lives spent fishing and trapping fill video screens and cannon balls and hunks of vessels believed to be part of Lafitte’s fleet add some heft to the pirate tales.

Still, for me the real highlight of this stop was a free attraction just outside. The Jean Lafitte Nature Study Park, a raised boardwalk looping through a mile of swamp and wetlands.

The surroundings quickly became immersive, with a live soundtrack of wildlife rising in volume and the layered vistas of gray cypress trunks and a kaleidoscopic spectrum of green growing deeper with each step. This is where I spotted my first real alligator of the trip, floating as still as a log just over the boardwalk rail. It was tiny, it’s head no bigger than my hand, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last sighting of the day.

Airboats and boardwalks

I had booked a noon trip with Airboat Adventures (5145 Fleming Park Rd., Lafitte, (888) 467-9267; airboatadventures.com), the largest of several tour operators in the area (find a list of more at townofjeanlafitte.com/visitors).

This company was in the news earlier this summer after a video shot by a tour passenger showed an airboat driver swimming with alligators caused an online stir. It also attracted the attention of authorities, since the video shows the driver feeding them, which is prohibited in Jefferson Parish.

The driver on my outing didn’t feed the alligators (I identified myself from the start of the trip as a journalist), though the creatures we saw seemed very well conditioned to ask for a snack anyway. Once we arrived in certain coves and stopped the airboat, up they swam, nudging their snouts against the hull in a manner any dog owner would recognize as petitioning.

From the boat, we could look eye-to-eye at these beasts — each were perhaps six or seven feet long — and admire their movements as they swished around in their element. The proximity was thrilling, no doubt about it, though what I always enjoy most about any airboat outing is its combination of deep swamp access and joy-ride horsepower.

We took time to linger in lush, watery grottos of bulltongue and to enjoy the deep seclusion airboat access affords. But we also shot down those long canals, veering from side to side occasionally to send sheets of water into the air. It was an injection of adrenaline into a languorously hot day. It was a blast — and it was as loud as one too.

While the airboat experience is as much about the gearhead appeal of the craft as the natural splendor of the surroundings, there was no such distraction at the companion piece to this marsh outing, a hike through Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (6588 Barataria Blvd., Marrero, (504) 689-3690; nps.gov/jela).

There are different parts of the preserve. One, named the Palmetto Trail, is a mile-long boardwalk zigzagging through the geometric wonderland of its namesake palm, each angling their fan patterns in silent competition for light. This leads to the Bayou Coquille Trail and Marsh Overlook Trail, which together offer the most diverse terrain and the surest shot at spotting wildlife.

These interconnected trails continue along paved paths, boardwalks and a few foot bridges, which give good access without interfering too much with the areas they traverse. Little decks jut out here and there to get you off the trail for a deeper view into the habitat.

The surroundings tick and creak with living sounds, egrets leap from perch to air and the dark and ridge-marked tops of alligators rise above green-matted water that moves just barely faster than the lurking reptiles themselves. The gators in the preserve were not as animated as the ones that came swimming up to us along the airboat route. But they were certainly plentiful and it was a wonder to gaze at them from a slim boardwalk just a few feet away.

These are one-way trails, so you see the same areas coming and going. But don’t think of the return trip as a rerun.

The hiking route takes in a remarkable range of landscapes, from hardwood forest to swamp to marsh as it slopes imperceptibly downward. It’s fascinating to see these areas shift while walking to the trail’s end and then reverse the progression on the way back.

At one spot, the Kenta Canal — another of the long, straight, man-made channels crisscrossing the area — frames a view of the New Orleans skyline. It was a disconcerting reminder of my proximity to home. After a day in the swamp, I didn’t feel like I was in the same epoch, never mind in the same area code.

Big fun, great food, on the bayou

It may feel small and secluded, but the Lafitte area has a surprisingly diverse range of restaurants when it’s time to get off the water and get down to eating. Boutte’s (5134 Jean Lafitte Blvd., 504-689-3889) no longer has its open-air deck, unfortunately, but this bayou-side restaurant is still a good spot for Cajun staples and fried seafood. Nearby, Jan’s Cajun Restaurant (4831 Jean Lafitte Blvd, Lafitte, 504-689-2748) has similar fare plus a few tricks up its sleeve. On a tip from an airboat driver, I ordered “Matthew’s special” ($10), an off-the-menu offering of chicken breast cut into nuggets and fried, then covered with American cheese and a debris-style gravy.

Hearty German food seems a little out of place in the middle of a Louisiana fishing town, but schnitzel, red cabbage and other family recipes have been a long-time fixture at Voleo’s Seafood Restaurant (5134 Nunez, Lafitte, 504-689-2482), alongside pizza and Creole-Italian dishes and some more contemporary seafood specials.

A little closer to New Orleans, Restaurant des Familles (7163 Barataria Blvd, Crown Point, 504-689-7834; desfamilles.com) replaces the down-home setting of these other restaurants with fine-dining touches, but there’s still a resiliently casual feel. There’s a wine list, for instance, though you can also get a frozen cocktail or just a cold longneck from the cypress-trimmed bar. Under a lodge-like cathedral ceiling, tables face a panoramic view of the bayou and when the wildlife is on the move this can make a meal here feel like dinner theater. No sooner had my grilled redfish Marcel ($30) with crabmeat and shrimp arrived then outside a very long alligator cruised down the middle of the bayou. People around the room broke out cameras, and I half expected them to break into applause as well.

Just next-door, the Bayou Barn (7145 Barataria Blvd, Marrero, 504-689-2663; bayoubarn.com) is normally a private event venue. But periodically it opens to the public for afternoon fais do-do events with food and drinks, live Cajun music and dancing under the ceiling fans in the open-sided, tin-roof barn. The next is scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 10, from noon to 5 p.m. (music begins at 1 p.m.).

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.