If you have time (say, 3 days), you should strongly consider a sojourn into the countryside outlying New Orleans. It makes for an interesting cultural and visual contrast to the big city. You can head upriver, following the River Road along the banks of the Mississippi, or travel 150 miles west of New Orleans to the heart of the prairie Cajun Country.

The River Road can be done as a day trip, or you could keep rambling north to visit the plantation homes in the St. Francisville area and stay overnight. Cajun Country requires a one- or two-night stay, more if you can. A GPS will be your friend for either jaunt.

Plantations Along the Great River Road

If your image of plantation homes comes strictly from Tara in Gone With the Wind, you can see something reasonably close to that Hollywood creation by touring these parts. You’ll also see far humbler but realistic plantation homes, and get an idea of plantation life as it was—for better and worse.

The Early Planters -- Creole plantation houses are low-slung, simple affairs; the showier American style is closer to Hollywood’s antebellum grandeur (they got grander after 1850, which most of these predate). They’re smaller than you might expect, even cramped compared with the lavish mansions of the Gatsby-era oil barons and today’s nouveau riche. If your fantasies would be dashed without pillars and porticos, stick to Destrehan, San Francisco, Oak Alley, and Madewood.

The early planters of Louisiana were rugged frontier people. As they spread out along the Mississippi from New Orleans, they cleared vast swamplands to create unhindered waterways for transporting indigo and other crops. Rough flatboats moving produce to market could be capsized by rapids, sandbars, and floating debris, or captured by river pirates. If they made it to New Orleans, these farming men (and a few extraordinary women) collected their pay and went on wild drinking, gambling, and brawling sprees—earning them a reputation as barbarians among the French Quarter Creoles.

By the 1800s, Louisiana planters (and their slaves) had introduced large-scale farming and brought more acreage under cultivation. King cotton, rice, and sugarcane were popularized around this time, bringing huge monetary returns. But natural dangers, a hurricane, or a swift change in the course of the capricious Mississippi could wipe out entire plantations and fortunes.

The Riverboats -- After 1812, the planters turned to speedier and ostensibly safer new steamboats to transport their crops. When the first steamboat (the New Orleans, built in Pittsburgh) chugged downriver belching sooty smoke, it was so dirty and potentially explosive that it was dubbed a “floating volcano.”

As vast improvements were made, the steamboats became more than a means to move goods to market. Families and slaves could now travel in lavish staterooms amid ornate “grand salons” in these floating pleasure palaces. Some set up dual residences, spending the social season and winters in elegant New Orleans townhouses. They fashioned more elegant lifestyles back in their upriver homes as well, where they shipped fine furnishings and luxury goods.

On the darker side, the boats were the realm of riverboat gamblers and confidence, or “con,” men. Huge fortunes and no doubt a few deeds to plantations were lost to (and perhaps won back from) these silver-tongued professional gamers and crooks.

Building the Plantation Houses -- During this prosperous period from the 1820s until the beginning of the Civil War, most of the impressive plantation homes were built, as were grand New Orleans townhouses.

Generally located near the riverfront, the plantation home was the focal point of a self-sustaining community. Most of these residences were modest, but some had wide, oak-lined avenues leading from the entrance to a wharf. On either side of the avenue would frequently be garçonnières (small guesthouses, sometimes used by adolescent sons and their friends). The kitchen was separated from the house because of fire danger. Close by was the overseer’s office. Some plantations had pigeon houses or dovecotes—and all had the inevitable slave quarters lining the lane to the crops or across the fields and out of sight. The first houses were simple “raised cottages,” with long, sloping roofs, cement-covered brick walls on the ground floor, and wood-and-brick (brick between posts) construction in the living quarters on the second floor. Influenced by West Indian styles, these colonial structures suited the sultry Louisiana climate and swampy building sites, and made use of native materials.

In the 1820s, they began to add Greek Revival and Georgian influences—creating a style dubbed Louisiana Classic. Large, rounded columns and wide galleries surrounded the main body of the house, and the roof was dormered. Inside, rooms flanked an expansive central hall. They had few imported details like fireplace mantels, and were constructed of native materials, like cypress and bricks of cement-sealed river clay.

Grand & Grander -- By the 1850s, homes grew in tandem with prosperity and became more grandiose. Many embraced the styles of extravagant Victorian architecture, northern Italian villas, or Gothic lines (notably the fantastic San Francisco plantation, sometimes called “steamboat Gothic”). Planters and their families brought back ornate furnishings and skilled artisans from their European travels. Glittering crystal chandeliers and faux marbre (false marble) mantels appeared.

Social lives, families, and egos also grew. The Madewood house on Bayou Lafourche was built explicitly to outshine Woodlawn, the beautiful home of the builder’s brother (not open to the public, unfortunately).

But the enormous wealth stemmed from an economy based on human servitude. The injustice and cruelty of slavery became the seeds of its own demise. After the Civil War, large-scale farming became impossible without that labor base. During Reconstruction, lands were confiscated and turned over to people who proved unable to run them; many were subdivided. Increasing international competition began to erode the cotton and sugar markets. The culture represented by the plantation houses you’ll see emerged and died in a span of less than 100 years.

The Plantation Houses Today -- Where scores of grand homes once dotted the riverfront, few remain. Several that survived the Civil War fell victim to fires, floods, or industrial development. Others, too costly to be maintained, were left to the ravages of dampness and decay. But a few have been saved, preserved, and upgraded with electricity and plumbing. Most are private residences, but some are open to visitors, the admission fees supplementing upkeep.

Tours of plantations are hit-or-miss—much depends on your guide. We’ve listed our favorite choices here. After you visit several, you’ll begin to hear many of the same facts about plantation life, sometimes as infill for missing or boring history. It can also be easy to romanticize the era, while giving short shrift to the fact that these plantations would not exist were it not for unthinkably savage, yet unimaginably real, human cruelty.

Planning Your Trip

All the plantation homes we're talking about are within easy driving distance of New Orleans. How many you can tour in a day will depend on your endurance (in the car and on your feet) and time allotment. If returning late, the small highways can be a little intimidating after dark. Don’t expect broad river views along the Great River Road (the roadway’s name on both sides of the Mississippi); it’s obscured by tall levees. You’ll see sugarcane fields and plenty of evidence of Louisiana’s petrochemical industry. But spontaneous detours through little, centuries-old towns might result in finding a choice resale shop or good road food.

If you have minimal time, Laura, the Whitney, and Oak Alley are 15 minutes apart, and each offers a different perspective on plantation life and the tourism industry. Try to visit two. Laura is classic understated Creole and has a low-key but superb presentation. Tara-esque Oak Alley represents the showy Americans and is slicker and glitzier (one could even do an Oak Alley drive-by). The Whitney's tour is told from the perspective of the enslaved. All are approximately an hour from New Orleans. Alternately, a day is well-spent on the magnificent grounds of Houmas House.

If you’re in town on Christmas Eve, consider driving along the River Road to see the huge bonfires residents build on the levees to light the way for the Christ child and Papa Noël (who rides in a sleigh drawn by—what else?—eight alligators!).

Organized Tours

Seeing plantation houses via a bus tour is a comfortable, planning-free option and you get some bonus narration along the route. Almost every New Orleans tour company operates a tour to one or two plantations; most offer pickup at hotels or a central French Quarter locale. Costs include transportation and admission, and the offerings are always subject to change.

The reliable 5- to 7-hour tours (including travel time) given by mainstay Gray Line (www.graylineneworleans.com; tel. 800/233-2628 or 504/569-1401) offer a choice of two of three plantations: Laura, Oak Alley, or Whitney Plantation. Daily tours depart Gray Line’s Toulouse Street station (near Jax Brewery in the French Quarter). Times vary, so call ahead (adults $88 children 6–12 $60). They also offer a combo Destrehan Plantation and swamp tour ($89 and $48).

Legendary Tours (www.legendarytoursnola.com; tel. 504/471-1499) visits the Whitney and Oak Alley for $85 (Whitney only $65). For smaller groups, we like Tours by Isabelle (www.toursbyisabelle.com; tel. 877/665-8687 or 504/398-0365). Isabelle Cossart takes groups of 6 to 13 people in a comfortable van on a half-day expedition to Oak Alley and Laura (Whitney and others by arrangement) or Houmas House and St. Joseph plantation ($115).

Plantations Between New Orleans & Baton Rouge

Plantations are strung along the Mississippi, running north from New Orleans. Tours of these homes range from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours; most people do one or two in a day (and may drive past others). Depending on your choices, you may have to cross the Mississippi River by bridge a few times. The winding river makes distances deceiving; give yourself more time than you think you’ll need. The plantations discussed here are roughly 1 hour from New Orleans (the most accessible for visitors to the city) and about 15 minutes apart.

River Road Pit Stop

Restaurants are in short supply along the River Road. Houmas House and a cafe at Oak Alley are the best of the mostly so-so eateries at the plantations. Instead, stop at down-home B&C Seafood, just east of Laura Plantation. Join the locals digging into steaming trays of boiled seafood and Cajun standards (2155 Hwy. 18, Vacherie; http://bncrestaurant.com; tel. 225/265-8356; all items $7–$25; Mon–Sat 11am–4:30pm). 

St. Francisville & Surrounding Plantations

St. Francisville doesn’t look like much on approach, but by the time you get to the town center, you are utterly charmed. This is not Cajun Country—this area has American plantations only and no French history, but if you’re interested in plantations from an architectural, historical, or cultural perspective, you can do well by planting yourself here for an overnighter. It’s 30 miles northwest of Baton Rouge and 2 hours by car from New Orleans. Contact the St. Francisville tourism information office for details (www.stfrancisville.us; tel. 800/789-4221 or 225/635-4224; Mon–Sun 9am–5pm).

Recommended places to stay include the Barrow House Inn, at 9779 Royal St. (www.topteninn.com; tel. 225/635-4791; $115–$160), with beautifully restored antiques-laden rooms; Butler Greenwood Plantation B&B, at 8345 U.S. 61 (www.butlergreenwood.com; tel. 225/635-6312; doubles $150–$250), with modest but sweet guest cottages, some with Jacuzzis or fireplaces, set on oak-laden plantation grounds; and Shade Tree, 9704 Royal St. (www.shadetreeinn.com; tel. 225/635-6116; $165–$215), a peaceful, romantic aerie with a slight hippie bent. Area attractions include:

Magnolia Mound -- This late-1700s, single-story plantation home was built as a small settler’s house and vastly enlarged later. Costumed guides take you through the slave cabins and authentically furnished house, one of the oldest wooden structures in the state (2161 Nicholson Dr., Baton Rouge; www.friendsofmagnoliamound.org; tel. 225/343-4955; $10 adults, $8 seniors and students 18–22, $4 children 5–17, free for children 4 and under; Mon–Sat 10am–4pm, Sun 1–4pm; tours begin on the hour with last tour at 3pm).

Oakley Plantation at Audubon State Historic Site -- John James Audubon received room and board in exchange for giving art lessons to the young resident of this 1801 plantation home. After class, he painted 32 of his “Birds of America” series (those lessons helped finance the books' publication). A tour of the just-restored, 17-room colonial is worthwhile, and leave time to walk through the gardens and nature trails, part of a 100-acre wildlife sanctuary (11788 Hwy. 965, St. Francisville; www.crt.state.la.us/louisiana-state-parks/historic-sites; tel. 225/635-3739; $10 adults, $8 seniors, $5 students 6–17, free for children 5 and under; Wed–Sun 9am–5pm).

Rosedown Plantation -- Rosedown is by far the most impressive and historic of the more far-flung plantations, starting with its wide avenue of ancient oaks and dramatic gardens (12501 Hwy. 10, at La. 10 and U.S. 61, St. Francisville; www.lastateparks.com; tel. 888/376-1867 or 225/635-3332; house tour and historic gardens $12 adults, $10 seniors, $6 students 6–17, free for children 5 and under; daily 9am–5pm; tours begin at 10am).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.