As winter drags on into the end of February, in Lafayette, Louisiana, the icy chill starts to disappear, and the city readies for some warmth. As temperatures rise, a profusion of color signals the start of a time-honored tradition in the city. Since the 1930s, The Historic Azalea Trail has attracted visitors who come to admire the mind-boggling blooms that line 25 miles of Lafayette’s urban core. The red, pink, white, purple, and salmon hues of the azaleas enhance historic properties, landmarks, and stately homes. It’s a sign that spring has sprung in the city, and the celebration of color and community begins.
The azalea is a flowering shrub that hails from East Asia. In Chinese, it is called “Xiang shu," which translates to "thinking of home bush." Two centuries ago, it was brought to the Gulf Coast and named azalea. Azalea means "dry" because azaleas love dry soil. Lafayette's predominant variety is the Southern Indica Formosa, which bursts forth in vibrant fuchsia and lavender year after year. It was christened the “General Lafayette” in the 1950s as the city flower in honor of Marquis de Lafayette, the city’s founder. While you can view many types of azaleas during the season, including bushes around 50 years old, here are some tips to ensure you don’t miss any of the flower power and incredible offerings this spring.
1. Know When To Go
The official bloom season runs from the last week of February through March. If you go before, you may not see the colors at their peak. For more information, check The Azalea Trail website.
2. Start At The Visitor’s Center
The best way to see all the stunning blooms is to start at the Visitor’s Center located at 1400 NW Evangeline Thruway. Pick up a map and casually drive through the city. You can also ride a bike as the trail is flat for most of the route. The map takes you on a fascinating tour through historic districts, downtown, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Oil Center, and neighborhood garden districts. The tour will take around an hour, but you will make stops, take pictures, shop, grab lunch, and generally have a wonderful time. The map allows for on and off meandering.
3. Celebrate The 200th Birthday Of The Cathedral Of St. John
In 1821, Jean Mouton donated 5.4 arpents to build a chapel for the residents of Vermilionville. It was the first parish in Lafayette Parish. Over time the chapel expanded. It was re-built due to the destruction caused by the Civil War and a devastating storm. With the construction of a new church in 1916, The Cathedral of St. John stood the test of time. It was bestowed with the title of Cathedral in 1918 and still stands today. The 500-year-old Live Oak tree on the grounds is also an essential part of Lafayette's history.
4. Meet An Alligator At Cypress Lake
While it is not one of the specific stops along the Azalea Trail, Cypress Lake is on the way and worth a short detour. It is a 2-acre natural wetland in the heart of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus. It is a habitat for alligators, birds, and students, who lovingly refer to it as "The Swamp."
5. Take An Art Break
The Hilliard Art Museum at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette has a permanent collection of 18th- through 21st-century European, Asian, and American artworks. Plus, it offers 11,000 square feet of gallery space that features changing exhibitions of regional, national, and international art. Outdoors, there are street murals to enjoy along the trail throughout downtown. To find street art check out Downtown Lafayette’s website. Local artisan work is for sale at Sans Souci Fine Crafts Gallery.
6. Photo Opportunities Abound
You may want to stop and shoot photos of the breathtaking floral displays. A few suggested places are The Visitor’s Center, Girard Park, Mouton Gardens, and downtown along Jefferson Street. As a bonus, when you enjoy the trail, you will observe Camellias, Japanese and Southern Magnolias, Live Oaks, Cypress, Pines, and native plants along the way. You may also feel inclined to snap a few shots at the many historic properties around the trail. To learn more about the historic properties along the way, visit the Preserving Lafayette website. Here you can find walking tours for specific historic districts.
7. Take A Lunch Break
When hunger strikes, you have to head to Olde Tyme Grocery. They make New Orleans Style Poor Boys that are legendary. Voted “#1 Budget Dining in The Nation” on Tripadvisor Traveler’s Choice Awards, this no-frills dining experience is a must in Lafayette. It’s a take-out or patio dining establishment whose busiest season begins after Ash Wednesday during Lent. On Fridays, the seafood Poor Boys fly off the shelves, including the crawfish, shrimp, oyster, and catfish varieties. If you aren't a seafood lover, they have ham, turkey, roast beef, swiss, or two meat combos and burgers. They are open late during the week but closed on Sunday. Do not miss out.
8. Shop Around Downtown
There is excellent shopping and dining downtown once you have had a chance to visit all the must-see sights on the azalea trail or if you want to take a break while admiring the blooms. Lafayette is known as a foodie city with great places to enjoy all kinds of cuisine. In the center of town is Moncus Park. On Saturdays, you will find a farmers market with fresh produce, food vendors, artisan crafts, and baked goods. After Moncus Park is complete, it will add 100 acres of new green space to the city, enhancing its natural beauty.
9. Ride A Trolley
On Saturday, March 13, there's a free trolley that will take guests (on a first-come basis) on a full-route of the 25-mile azalea trail with historical narration tour guides. The first ride begins at 2 p.m., and the second starts at 3:30, which concludes at 5 p.m.
10. Take An Azalea Home
After witnessing all the beauty and splendor of the azaleas in Lafayette, you might want to spruce up your own yard at home. All Seasons Home, Gardens & Landscaping on Johnston Street partners with the Azalea Trail and is the "Go-To Place" to purchase azaleas.
Lafayette is now an "Official City of Azaleas" designated by the Azalea Society of America and will host the annual convention next spring from March 10 to 13, 2022, during Mardi Gras Week. The city has some of the best and most authentic Cajun and Creole cuisine, culture, music, art, and shopping in Louisiana. Between the flowers and the food, no wonder it's known as the "Happiest City in America.”