First-class and five-star; that’s how my in-laws travel. And, since we usually vacation with them, it’s what our family has been accustomed to. This year we decided to break with tradition and try planning our own fall trip. Only immediate family members were invited, and it didn’t require fancy new wardrobes. We were looking for down-to-earth fun! I knew if we chose the right destination, the rest of the details would fall into place. Enter: Lake Charles.
Situated in Southwest Louisiana, Lake Charles is a world away from the hustle and bustle of Boston, where we live with our four children. The hospitable fall climate was also a welcome reprieve. In fact, one of the reasons we chose this region is because it’s a stop on a well-known migration route for countless birds. My wife is a wannabe bird-watcher. Still, since her urban-centric parents have directed most of our vacations, she has yet to explore her potential pastime. Fortunately, our kids inherited her fascination for all things wildlife, so they were stoked that our first official to-do was a scenic drive along the Creole Nature Trail All-American Drive.
Eyes on the prize
Conveniently located just off I-10, Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point is where we started our excursion along the Creole Nature Trail. This free attraction can best be described as a one-stop interpretive shop for learning about the state’s history, culture, and, of course, its natural resources. While five-year-old Hannah rubbed on a washboard on the music stage, my wife commented that even her uninhibited version of Louisiana’s lively zydeco-style music was more appropriate for our brood than the classical tunes her parents favored.
It was hard to get our kids away from the highly interactive exhibits, but finally, they were ready to get on the road and see some wildlife. “Dad, there’s an app for that!” said our nine-year-old, Sam, when I mentioned how nice it would be to have a naturalist tour guide. With a little help, we soon had the free Creole Nature Trail app on our smartphones and were listening to a narrator explain which birds, reptiles, and mammals we should be looking for. The app also provided more background information on this scenic byway running through “Louisiana’s Outback.”
Along the trail, there were plenty of places to pull off and venture into the wet and wild terrain. We also picked up our first Lake Charles souvenirs along the trail. Many of the shops will ship fresh seafood so that it’s waiting for you when you return home. New fans of Cajun cuisine, we picked up all the fixings for our own boil, which we planned to host for the next family gathering back home. Our 10-year-old, Sean, even offered to teach his grandparents how to peel crawfish by hand. Earlier that day, he was captivated by the crawfish boil display at Adventure Point, and he watched a video to learn how to eat these little crustaceans like the locals.
Somehow, in less than 24 hours, Lake Charles was helping us redefine high-quality family time—without damaging our wallets. This laidback Southern lifestyle was just right by us.
The next day, after checking out of the very charming Aunt Ruby’s—our first official foray into the bed and breakfast scene—we donned our angler attire under the care of Captain Steven Bono. Bono owns and operates Bayou Charter Service, a Lake Charles inland salt-fishing institution for more than 25 years.
Although none of us reeled in a redfish “monster,” we did score some bites, and overall our fishing excursion was pleasantly exhausting. Still, our kids managed to find the energy to fight over who would get the top bunks in the Captain’s private camp, where we rented rooms for the night.
To further immerse ourselves in the camp experience, we cooked our catch of the day on the outside grill. We ended the night stargazing—while double-fisting s’mores.
“Mom, Dad, look—I won!” shouted 12-year-old Sarah the next morning. She had just emerged victorious after a serious staring contest with a seven-foot-long alligator. While it’s possible to view the Lake Charles-area alligators in Rockefeller Refuge along the Creole Nature Trail or on the 3-mile Pintail Wildlife Drive, we opted for the highly recommended Airboats & Alligators tour. Every minute on the hour-long ride was either entertaining (hilarious and informative guide), exhilarating (airboats can easily go faster than 100 mph), or both.
Our family getaway to Lake Charles didn’t involve any formal six-course dinners or exotic high-end spa treatments. Still, somehow, my wife and I managed to return home to the city in an unprecedented state of satisfaction and relaxation. Equally important, the kids had hands-on bona fide fun. Saltwater fishing, bunk beds, gooey s’mores, alligators, and airboats—how can you go wrong with that winning combination?