On a visit to Natchitoches, tourgoers visited the house made famous by the film "Steel Magnolias" and learned that it dates back to the early 19th century, when it was designed by Italian architects and built using bricks imported from France. Photos courtesy Preserve Louisiana.

Pass a good time: Preserve Louisiana tours celebrate the state’s culture

Paul and BJ Arceneaux have hit the road three times to explore the region surrounding their hometown of Baton Rouge. Together with other adventurous travelers, the couple has visited the Natchitoches house from the movie Steel Magnolias and explored the historic downtown streets of Natchez. But perhaps the most exciting moment for the Arceneauxs happened when Paul discovered a mosaic of his family’s crest at the Acadian Memorial and Museum in St. Martinville.

“Each trip has highlighted the cultural elements of the area,” says BJ. “We have met the most interesting characters from each community. They have all been amusing and educational experiences.”

Tour participants enjoyed a behind-the-scenes tour of the Tabasco factory at Avery Island.

At the end of this month, the Arceneauxs will travel off the beaten path once again, as the latest of these excursions put on by Preserve Louisiana takes them and a host of other curious participants to the area that the organization dubs the “Zydeco Cajun Prairie.” Set for May 31 through June 2, this tour will touch on the highlights of Acadia Parish, from the restored Grand Opera House of the South in Crowley and the German Heritage Museum in Roberts Cove to the frog murals in Rayne.

Preserve Louisiana, formerly the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, was founded in November 1963 with the purpose of promoting interest in the state’s heritage, and the cultural tour program is an offshoot of that vision. “Preserve Louisiana is offering tours to celebrate our mission of preserving our cultural and architectural stories,” says Fairleigh Cook Jackson, the organization’s executive director. “Each tour celebrates diverse and unique people and places from around the state—leaving guests with even more love for Louisiana.”

Tour host Peggy Sweeney-McDonald is currently making final preparations for the Zydeco Cajun Prairie Tour. “This next trip has sold faster than any other trip,” Sweeney-McDonald says. “I guess everyone wants to explore the towns of Crowley, Rayne, Church Point and Richard and the German community of Roberts Cove! The people there are so warm and welcoming. It is going to be amazing. Plus the food and the music.”

Preserve Louisiana tour host Peggy Sweeney-McDonald (third from left) with cookbook author Stanley Dry, pastry chef Tuesday Sunshine and Cajun folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet before the group presented the Meanwhile, Back at Café Du Monde… show at the Antique Rose Ville 19th-century cottage in New Iberia.

Sweeney-McDonald is the creator and author of the food monologue show and best-selling coffee table/cookbook Meanwhile, Back at Café Du Monde… Life Stories About Food, which featured Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Shreveport foodies. As with previous Preserve Louisiana tours, participants will be treated to a performance of Meanwhile, Back at Café Du Monde… while on the trip. “Bringing the show to a new town with more wonderful food stories makes the beignet get bigger and sweeter,” Sweeney-McDonald says.

Gayle Lawyer, who lived in Baton Rouge for two years before recently making the move to the West Coast, says the Preserve tour to Natchitoches is among the many things she is already missing about the Bayou State. “Of the many outstanding elements of the tour, at the top of the list must be the people,” says Lawyer, who also recalls that the mint julep she sipped on the porch of the house from Steel Magnolias was one of the best she has ever had. “I was aware of the artist Clementine Hunter previously, but the visit to Melrose Plantation put her and her art into context for a much fuller appreciation.”

Paul Arceneaux spotted his family’s crest at the Acadian Memorial and Museum in St. Martinville.

LSU professor emeritus John E. Chandler surprised his wife Louise with the Natchitoches tour for her birthday and says the couple enjoyed touring the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and Fort Jean Baptiste. “We also appreciated Oakland Plantation, which is a National Historic Landmark, and Melrose Plantation, where we tasted some of the best chicken and sausage gumbo, meat pies, salad, and pecan pie. We learned a lot of history on this tour and met such nice people that we have already made plans to go on the next tour.”

For Sweeney-McDonald, combining her foodie performance project with scenes straight out of Louisiana history have made the tour program one she relishes hosting. “It has been a great partnership and makes the tours special as everyone gets to really know the culture of the area and the people when hearing these stories of family, friendship, and life all around food,” she says. “The best thing about the tours for me is discovering these amazing areas with the history, culture, food and most of all the people.”