Good Times in Bayou Country: Houma’s family-friendly Mardi Gras, food, shopping, and attractions
New Orleans always makes the travel headlines for its bacchanalian Mardi Gras celebration, when nearly one million revelers soak up the riotous charms of the city. But there is one community in the heart of Terrebonne Parish that takes the partying to high levels, yet maintains a family-friendly atmosphere. Not everyone knows that the town of Houma, located about 45 minutes southwest of the Big Easy, has the second largest Mardi Gras in the state. There are numerous balls and extravagant parades with brightly colored floats, high-stepping marching bands, costumed performers, and throngs of children catching toys, stuffed animals, and beads. Parents don’t have to worry about crime along the parade routes or having to shield their little ones from seeing bawdy revelers in risqué costumes. Celebration is in the air and the feeling is good.
While growing up in Vermilion Parish, we often took trips to Houma to visit my godparents, Alice and John Gordon. “Uncle John” purchased the Houma Courier in 1937 and ran the paper for many years; he inspired me to later become a journalist. Houma was a sleepy little town back then, and I remember running freely through the neighborhoods with our cousins, Kathleen and Pat, near Bayou Black.
Now filled with numerous galleries, restaurants, shops, and attractions, Houma has experienced tremendous growth over the past 20 years. I travel to Houma from New Orleans along Highway 90, where cypress trees are covered by curtains of Spanish moss in the wetlands wilderness. After passing through the small towns of Boutee and Paradis in St. Charles Parish, and slowing down in Lafourche Parish, where a string of seafood restaurants and honky-tonks dot the countryside, I continue past the thicket of hardwood forest along the waterway. The sky emerges around Houma, where I get an old, familiar feeling. The first thing I always want to do in this boudin-blessed region is go in search of good food.
I always take a short diversion towards Thibodaux on my way to Houma and stop in at Bourgeois Meat Market to stock up on their spicy boudin for my cooler. Then I steer back to the road towards Houma. Aside from stopping in for a delightful, organic lunch at Donna Malbrough’s highly popular and exquisite Café Dominique on Main Street (try the goat cheese stuffed shrimp or the sesame-crusted seared tuna and the salads), I look forward to a dinner experience at Cristiano’s Ristorante, Lounge, and Wine Boutique located at 724 High Street (985-223-1130), which is a must when visiting Houma.
The romantic dining room and charming courtyard with twinkling lights offer the perfect setting for Chef Lindsay Mason’s delicious char-grilled oysters with roasted red bell pepper garlic butter. Other fine appetizers include fried duck strips with honey-buttermilk sauce and fried green tomatoes with lump crabmeat. The homemade pastas are divine: try the luscious black truffle raviolini with jumbo lump crabmeat and fontina cream and the classic lasagna. Recommended entrées include the osso buco that melts in the mouth, and the ultra-fresh pecan-crusted black drum with dried cherry risotto. Cristiano’s does off-site catering, and both the restaurant and courtyard are available for private parties.
Born in Paris, proprietor Massimo Cristiano Raffignone grew up in the Liguria region in northwest Italy, hence the northern Italian cuisine and Mediterranean influences at Cristiano’s. I was surprised to learn that Raffignone also owns one of my favorite restaurants in Uptown New Orleans, the French-inspired Martinique Bistro (5908 Magazine Street).
I was delighted to also recently learn that another Houma business, Victoria’s Indigo Boutique (1437 St. Charles Street; 985-655-3535), has opened a second location next to Martinique Bistro on Magazine Street. The 29-year-old owner, Victoria Giglio, carries an amazing variety of contemporary clothing. The shop is adorable and has a good vibe. Giglio features lines such as ABS by Allen Schwartz, Hale Bob, and Yoana Baraschi, who now has showrooms representing her collection in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, and London.
“Yoana Baraschi makes beautiful tops, coats, and dresses. We also carry a lot of Rebecca Beeson’s casual tops that you can layer with jeans,” says Giglio. Beeson’s namesake collection embodies a sexy wardrobe for women seeking on-trend, versatile fashion. “My newest jean line is DL1961. They’re a four-way stretch jean. I also carry a lot of accessories and jewelry including an amazing collection of Goddy designs, and I am about to start selling shoes in the New Orleans location,” Giglio says enthusiastically. Both of her stores in Houma and New Orleans are chic and well worth a look.
Another fine boutique worth visiting, also owned by a young Houma entrepreneur, is Material Girl, located at 5265 Highway 311 (985-917-0134). Kate Burns opened the original location of Material Girl in the heart of Baton Rouge’s Tiger Town while she was a junior in college. Now with one location in Houma, the hip boutique features many collections including Naven, French Connection, Wildfox Tees, and Lauren Moshi. The extensive selection of jeans includes lines such as J. Brand, Citizens of Humanity, AG, and Hudson. Material Girl offers jewelry and accessories galore, including stunning Rebecca Minkoff handbags and Melinda Maria Jewelry. Home interior items are also offered, including Low Country Lux candles and Lafco candles. A great gift is the Valentine Hammered Heart jewelry from Gorjana. The swimwear is just arriving; check out the beautiful swimsuits from Vix and L Space Swim. Houma features many fine shops, and one of my favorites to browse through is Le Marché Antiques and Interiors (1437 St. Charles, Suite 127; 985-655-9160); there is another location in Lafayette (606 Silverstone Road; 337-981-9998). Le Marché is a direct importer of authentic French antique furniture and accessories hand-selected from throughout France. This is the perfect place for those who are enamored with all things French for the home. The elegant shop features fine 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century French country antiques and accessories. There is an exquisite collection of French Faience and confit jars from the Provence region. Be sure to check out the fabulous handcrafted antique French buffets, commodes, and armoires. There are designer fragrance candles and luxurious gifts.
Some say that lighting is everything when it comes to interiors. There is no finer place to shop for lighting than Valley Supply Company of Houma (1000 Barataria Avenue; 985-872-1431). The well-trained, experienced staff always has good recommendations, and they are knowledgeable about lighting trends and techniques. You can stop by the showroom for a free lighting consultation from Valley Supply’s lighting specialists. There is an extensive selection of everything from crystal and designer lighting, to outdoor lighting, ceiling fans, specialty lighting, mirrors, floor lamps, and accessories such as dimmers, in addition to trac and recessed lighting. Another perk: you will discover that the prices beat out the competitors.
A great shop worth visiting in Houma is Outside and In, which has just about everything you can imagine, from outdoor items and accessories to luggage, jewelry, and tableware. The 7,000-square-foot showroom (500 Corporate Drive, Suite R; 985-876-7809) offers a large variety of outdoor furniture, home décor, and wind chimes to personalized jewelry, aluminum pieces, and bath and body products along with fragrance candle lines. Outside and In is an exclusive furniture dealer for Summer Classics, Hanamint, Telescope, and Breezesta. There is also an online store and a bridal registry.
“Our most successful item is the Big Green Egg,” says owner Jennifer Martin. “It is a smoker, a grill, and an oven that comes in five different sizes, and we carry all the accessories for it. In November, we have Date Night. The guys are all outside with my husband cooking on the Big Green Eggs while the ladies are inside shopping for jewelry, bags, and other items. We are the only ones in Louisiana to carry Lori Bonn jewelry, and we are very successful with their Love Letter necklaces made from a high-grade sterling silver.”
“We also carry a huge line of Vera Bradley, including the stylish handbags, luggage, and accessories,” Martin continues. “We cater to both the guys and the girls. It’s almost like two stores in one. We do complimentary gift wrap, and we have a Mardi Gras section including wine glasses, décor, and specialty gifts to cater to those involved in Carnival celebrations.”
As it turns out, Martin was the Queen of Hyacinthians in 2006. The 375-plus-member krewe has 16 double-decker throwing floats that roll during Carnival. “My husband rides in Endymion in New Orleans, and those are massive crowds. I prefer riding on floats in Houma because you can find your friends in the crowds and it’s easier to reach the children with throws,” Martin points out. “Here, it is more family style. People with children are barbecuing in their front yards or they rent spaces. You don’t get lost in the crowds during Houma’s Mardi Gras.”
Aside from Mardi Gras, Houma has numerous attractions and is known for its live Cajun music on weekends. Visit the Jolly Inn dancehall (1507 Barrow Street; 985-872-6114), which features live Cajun and zydeco music and dancing for the entire family on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons.
More than 65 percent of Terrebonne Parish consists of wetlands and open waters, which is why Houma is called the heart of America’s wetlands. There are swamp and wetland tours by boat or air. In fact, the first Louisiana swamp tour was started in Houma, the iconic Alligator Annie Miller’s Marsh and Swamp Tours, which is now guided by Annie’s son and bears the name Annie Miller’s Son’s Marsh and Swamp Tours.
Be sure to check out the Chauvin Sculpture Garden featuring the work of folk artist Kenny Hill while in the area. It is located along the banks of Bayou Petit Caillou (5337 Bayouside Drive in Chauvin near Houma). A 45-foot lighthouse made of 7,000 bricks that is decorated with colorful sculptures guides visitors to this treasure trove of modern American folk art. The garden is open daily from dawn to dusk (985-594-2546).
Aside from excellent restaurants, great shopping, and a family-friendly Mardi Gras, Houma also offers affordable accommodations. For further information, contact the friendly staff at the Houma Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, 985-868-2732 or call toll free, 800-688-2732; or visit houmatravel.com. ✦