- By Kristin Finan American-Statesman Staff
Packed roulette tables. Famous touring acts. Buffets for miles.
Sound like Vegas? Try Louisiana.
In recent years, Lake Charles — located in Southwest Louisiana about four and a half hours from Austin — has earned a reputation as a gambler’s paradise thanks to the wealth of casino-resorts in the area, including L’Auberge, Isle of Capri, Delta Downs and Coushatta. When Tilman Fertitta’s Golden Nugget sauntered into town like a showgirl in stilettos in late 2014, it sealed the deal — Lake Charles was the place to go for Sin City-like fun only miles from the Texas border.
During a recent trip to Lake Charles, I was excited to experience the city’s pulsing casino scene as well as take in some quieter but no less entertaining spots that really showcased the rich culture, personality and beauty of the area.
Whether you time your trip to coincide with Mardi Gras at the end of this month or schedule out a spring or summer getaway, Lake Charles is an ideal spot to spend a weekend not too far from home.
The eagle has landed
A few weeks ago, Lake Charles’ Crying Eagle Brewing Company got a call from the band Foreigner saying, essentially: I want to know what beer is. I want you to show me.
The band was heading to Lake Charles for a sold-out show on Jan. 27, and two of its members, Michael Bluestein and Bruce Watson, both craft beer aficionados, were interested in coming by to learn more about the brewing process.
“It was very surprising to have people of celebrity be as excited to be part of this process as we were to have them here,” said Stephen Tyson, general manager of Crying Eagle, adding that the brewery will soon release a new Hop Blooded IPA in honor of the friendship. “You expect them to sprinkle some stuff around and be here for a photo op, but everything we asked them to do they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, absolutely!’ They were loving it.”
Crying Eagle is a rough translation of the Atakapa Indian word “Calcasieu” (pronounced KAL-ka-shoo), which is also the name of the parish where Lake Charles is located. The brewery, the brainchild of president Eric Avery, opened in July with a mission of bringing something to the Lake Charles community that they’d never seen before. But despite their recent celebrity following, opening a craft brewery in a market where only 2 percent of beer sales are craft has provided some challenges.
“So much of our mission is education,” Tyson said. “We are in a Michelob Ultra-dominated market. It definitely influences what we do and the styles we choose.”
The brewery currently has three beers — the Chuck, Ready to Mingle and Calcasieu Common — available in stores in parts of Louisiana as well as about a dozen on tap in-house. They hope to be available in some capacity in Texas by the end of the year.
Brewmaster Bill Mungai moved to Lake Charles from Pittsburgh more than a decade ago and was solely a homebrewer for several years. Even after he married his wife and moved in with her, he kept his two-bedroom apartment for brewing. Eventually they added a room onto their house for that purpose.
“I moved down here and didn’t have any friends or know anybody, so I started making beer,” said Mungai, adding that it was always his dream to open a brewery. “Then I made a lot of friends. When you have good, free alcohol, people start turning up.”
The brewery itself is sleek and modern yet inviting, with a sprawling outdoor light-strung patio and textured walls that incorporate wooden pallets.
”The pallets really came about because we were looking for a way to add texture to walls that were huge and blank,” Tyson said. “I did a lot of looking on Pinterest, to be honest with you. I had a great Pinterest experience, to the point where I keep it on my phone and look at stuff sometimes. There’s a lot of smart people on there.”
Mungai added that the brewery hopes to become a destination for beer lovers from around the country in the coming years.
“Every time we travel we plan around what breweries and what beer bars we want to go to,” Mungai said. “We wanted to have a destination kind of place to come and check out. We have a great outdoor beer garden space, we’re dog-friendly and kid-friendly. We’re trying to encourage the community and anyone visiting to come by and spend an afternoon.”
Info: The taproom is open from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, with live music on Fridays and Saturdays. 1165 E. McNeese St. in Lake Charles. 337-990-4871, cryingeagle.com.
Place your bets
Having previously visited many of businessman Tilman Fertitta’s establishments, including the Golden Nugget Las Vegas, I was curious to see how the Lake Charles outpost of the popular casino-resort would fare.
When I arrived on a recent Wednesday to a packed parking lot, I could see things were going well. Fertitta is the owner of both the Golden Nugget Casinos and Landry’s restaurants, and the property is home to many well-known eateries, including Grotto, Cadillac Mexican Kitchen, Lillie’s Asian Cuisine, Landry’s Seafood House and Chart House. I opted for the upscale Vic & Anthony’s, where supple Alaskan king crab legs served with a side of drawn butter in the inviting dining room kicked off a fun and busy evening.
The casino-resort features an 18-hole championship golf course, a private beach and marina, a casino with 77 table games and 1,600 slot machines, a sprawling pool and 740 hotel rooms. Construction is currently underway on a new hotel tower that will add 300 more rooms to the property by the end of the year.
One of the big draws to the resort and others in the area are big-name acts like Foreigner that come through on weekends. The upcoming lineup at the Golden Nugget includes many ’70s and ’80s heavy-hitters, including Joan Jett (Feb. 18), Eddie Money (March 10), Ann Wilson of Heart (March 18), Lynyrd Skynyrd (April 8), REO Speedwagon (April 29) and Huey Lewis and the News (May 28). Jason Derulo, ZZ Top and Kathy Griffin will also visit this spring.
The Golden Nugget is located next door to another casino, L’Auberge, and shuttle service is offered between the two.
Info: 2550 Golden Nugget Blvd. in Lake Charles. 337-508-7777, goldennugget.com/lakecharles.
Back to nature
If you need a break from gaming and feel ready to see a different side of Lake Charles, check out some spots along the Creole Nature Trail, a 180-mile corridor with lakes, wildlife refuges, beaches, parks and museums all along the way. Keep an eye out for alligators as you drive.
And don’t miss Creole Trail Adventure Point, a free attraction that introduces visitors to Louisiana customs and traditions. You can learn about wildlife found in bayous and marshes, rock out with a Cajun and Zydeco band, find the best places to spot certain birds and even get a whiff of some popular Cajun and Creole dishes.
Info: 2740 Ruth St. in Sulphur. 337-502-4358, visitlakecharles.org/creole-nature-trail/attractions/adventure-point.
All about the boudin
Need further proof that you’re in Cajun Country? Stop by nearly any grocery store or gas station and you’re likely to find food favorites such as hush puppies, shrimp and boudin, a sausage and rice hybrid the local tourism board has dubbed “Southwest Louisiana’s favorite finger food.”
Boudin is so popular in the Lake Charles area that the board has created the Southwest Boudin Trail, which directs you toward all of the best links in the area, many of which are clustered near Interstate 10.
Info: Various locations around Southwest Louisiana. visitlakecharles.org/restaurants/swla-boudin-trail.
Ready to Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras will be celebrated in Lake Charles Feb. 24-28, but if you can’t make it then, get a taste of the festivities any time at the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu.
Here, you’ll find a giant display of Mardi Gras costumes as well as learn the history of king cake, find out about Mardi Gras traditions in Southwest Louisiana and even get to climb aboard a float.
Info: Open 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. 809 Kirby St. in Lake Charles. 337-430-0043, visitlakecharles.org/listings/mardi-gras-museum-of-imperial-calcasieu/148245.