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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. This chapter starts off by following the River Road along the banks of the Mississippi, and the plantation homes that line it, heading upriver from New Orleans. The second part takes you 150 miles west of New Orleans to the heart of the prairie Cajun Country.

The River Road trip 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. The Cajun Country trip 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 were modest, but some had wide, oak-lined avenues leading from its 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 shown on the map 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

The plantations below are listed in the order in which they appear on the map, running north along the Mississippi 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). 

Destrehan Plantation -- Its proximity (just 30 min. from New Orleans), in-character docents (better than it sounds), and role in Interview with the Vampire have made Destrehan Manor a popular plantation jaunt. It’s the oldest intact plantation home in the lower Mississippi Valley open to the public. Built in 1787 by a free person of color for a wealthy Frenchman, it was modified from its “dated” French colonial style to Greek Revival in the 1830s. Its warmly colored, graceful lines are aesthetically pleasing, and some original furnishings remain. One room has been left un-renovated, to show the humble rawness beneath the usual public grandeur. Unlike most plantation homes, Destrehan has ramps and an elevator.

13034 River Rd., La. 48, Destrehan. www.destrehanplantation.org tel. 877/453-2095 or 985/764-9315. Admission $20 adults, $16 military, $15 seniors, $7 children 7–16, free for children 6 and under. Daily 9am–4pm. Closed New Year’s Day, Mardi Gras, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Dec 24–25.

San Francisco -- This brightly colored “steamboat Gothic” mansion was completed in 1856 by Edmond B. Marmillion, who died before he could occupy the home. He willed it to his two sons, one of whom married in 1855 while on a grand tour of Europe. The new wife undertook elaborate redecorations, leaving the son sans fruscin, or “without a cent.” Thus its first name, St. Frusquin…later changed to San Francisco.

The fanciful three-story house, which underwent a $1.3 million freshening in 2014, has wide galleries resembling a ship’s double decks, and twin stairs leading to a broad main portal. Inside, there is beautiful carved woodwork, cypress ceilings, and walls gloriously painted with flowers, birds, nymphs, and cherubs.

2646 Hwy. 44, Garyville. www.sanfranciscoplantation.org. tel. 888/509-1756 or 985/535-2341. Admission $20 adults, $19 AAA members, $16 military with ID, $10 children 6–17, free for children 5 and under. Daily 9:30am–4pm, Closed New Year’s Day, Mardi Gras, Easter, Thanksgiving Day, and Dec 24–25.

Whitney Plantation -- Slavery, the plantation-tour elephant in the room, may get meager mention or a thorough telling. Here at the first museum of its kind in the U.S., history comes from the perspective of the enslaved. Visitors receive a name tag with a slave’s biography, immediately personalizing the experience, and begin the 90-minute, guided walking tour with a short film shown in a church. They share the pews with life-size sculptures of slave children, which are beautiful, spiritual, and heartrending. The tour moves to expansive gardens of somber monuments etched with personal testimonials and 107,000 names; a separate “Field of Angels” remembers child slaves (40 perished on this very land). These contemplative spaces lay the emotional foundation as the tour moves to sparse cabin homes; the historic kitchen; endless fields; murky creeks that gave cover during escape attempts; the blacksmith cabin where men toiled over the instruments of their own confinement.

Among the most affecting is the three-cell jail, a crude, iron cage positioned with cruel irony such that, now twice confined, the prisoner’s barred view is of the gleaming “big house” (where appropriately scant tour time is spent). Elsewhere, 60 ceramic heads on spikes pay noble, resonant tribute to slaves decapitated during an 1811 uprising. Not everything is original (much was razed), but it’s all harshly authentic, haunting, and vital.

5099 Hwy. 18, Wallace. www.whitneyplantation.com. tel. 225/265-3300. Admission $22 adults; $17 seniors, students, active military; $10 kids 6–12; free for children 12 and under. Wed–Mon 9:30am–4:30pm. Tours hourly. Closed Jan 1, Mardi Gras Day, July 4, Thanksgiving Day, Dec 25. Bulk of tour is outdoors, rain or shine; paths are wheelchair-accessible, but parts are a bit rough. Second floor of house not wheelchair-accessible. Tours sell out and there is no self-guided option. Book in advance.

Laura: A Creole Plantation -- If you see only one plantation, make it Laura, simple on the outside but utterly absorbing within. It has no hoop-skirted guides, offering instead a thorough view of daily life on an 18th- and 19th-century sugar plantation, a cultural history of Louisiana’s Creole population, and a mesmerizing, in-depth examination of one Creole family. Much is known about this house and its residents thanks to extensive records (more than 5,000 documents researched in France), including the detailed memoirs of its namesake, proto-feminist head-of-household Laura Locoul. Many of the original artifacts on display—from cookware to jewelry—were saved by employees in a devastating 2004 fire, after which the main house and a slave cabin were accurately restored to the 1805 period. Tours are offered in French daily. Fun fact #1: The beloved B’rer Rabbit stories were first collected here by a folklorist in the 1870s. Fun fact #2: Fats Domino’s parents lived on this plantation.

2247 Hwy. 18, Vacherie. www.lauraplantation.com. tel. 888/799-7690 or 225/265-7690. Admission $25 adults; $23 military and AAA members; $15 teens 13–17; $10 children 6–12; free for children 5 and under. Tours run every 40 min. Daily 10am–4pm; last tour begins at 4pm. Tours also offered in French daily; special-interest tours on Creole architecture, folklore, gardens or Creole women available with advance notice. Closed New Year’s Day, Mardi Gras, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Dec 25.

Oak Alley Plantation -- This is precisely what comes to mind when most people think “plantation.” A splendid white house, its porch lined with giant columns, approached by a magnificent quarter-mile drive lined with stately oak trees (the 1839 house has 28 fluted Doric columns to match the 28 trees)—yep, it’s all here. Consequently, this Hollywood honey is the most famous plantation house in Louisiana. It’s also the slickest operation, with hoop-skirted guides and golf carts traversing the blacktopped property.

Oak Alley lay disintegrating until 1914; new owners and restorers were responsible for its National Historic Landmark designation. The tour provides fewer details about the families who lived here than about general plantation life. New in 2013, a row of re-created slave quarters was added; they need a few years (or centuries) to feel authentic but thei well-researched displays do a good job of illuminating slave life and the means by which this plantation survived. Our favorite feature (besides the truly impressive row of mighty oaks) may just be the scholarly “Confederate soldier” in the rustic tent out back, who converses with visitors in full character as he polishes his boots or goes about other business of being a soldier (he’s not always here, call ahead to check). A sit-down restaurant and casual cafe are on-site, and you can also stay in one of five pretty, century-old Creole cottages, now bed-and-breakfast rooms.

3645 La. 18, Vacherie. www.oakalleyplantation.com. tel. 800/442-5539 or 225/265-2151. Admission $22 adults; $8 students 13–18; $5 children 6–12; free for children 5 and under. Discounts for 65 and over, AAA members, and active military. Grounds open daily at 9am; tours begin every half-hour at 9:30am; Mon–Fri last tour at 4pm; Sat–Sun tours till 5pm. Restaurant hours 8:30am–3pm; casual cafe 9am–5pm. Closed New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Dec 25.

Houmas House Plantation & Gardens -- Houmas is actually two houses joined together under one roof: the original, 1775 four-room structure and the larger, Greek Revival–style house, completed in 1828 after 17 years of construction. The former sugar plantation has been restored several times since then, including by the current owner, who invested millions in turning it into a fabulous showcase inside and out, a popular event venue, and his home. It’s filled with stunning art and antiques and surrounded by elegant formal gardens. He also installed a lovely cafe, a pleasant bar, and a fine-dining restaurant amid these splendid environs, so one can make a day of it (or 2 days, if you stay in the fetching cottages, oufitted with antiques and modern amenities). Note that the upscale restaurant is “event” dining, requiring reservations and proper dress (and a thick wallet).

40136 La. 942, Burnside. www.houmashouse.com. tel. 888/323-8314 or 225/473-9830. Admission (including guided tour) $24 adults; $15 children 13–18; $10 children 6–12; free for children 5 and under; gardens and grounds only $10. Daily 9am–7pm. Closed Dec 25 and New Year’s Day. Take I–10 from New Orleans or Baton Rouge; exit on La. 44 to Burnside; turn right on La. 942.

Nottoway Plantation -- Nottoway is everything you want in a dazzling Old South mansion. Dating from 1858, it’s the largest existing plantation house in the South, a mammoth structure with 64 rooms (covering 53,000 sq. ft.) and pillars to rival the White House’s. Saved from Civil War destruction by a Northern gunboat officer who had once been a guest here, Nottaway has still-handsome interiors featuring marvelous curlicue plasterwork, hand-carved Corinthian columns of cypress wood in the ballroom, beautiful archways, and original crystal chandeliers. You can also stay here, in rooms with period furnishings and luxurious bathrooms ($174–$320 per night including breakfast and tour; check website for online deals).

31025 La. 1, White Castle. www.nottoway.com. tel. 866/527-6884 or 225/545-2730. Admission $20 adults; $6 children 6–12; free for children 5 and under. Daily 9am–4pm; tours begin on the hour. Closed Dec 25. From New Orleans, follow I-10 west to La. 22 exit, then turn left on La. 70 across Sunshine Bridge; exit onto La. 1 and drive 14 miles north through Donaldsonville. From Baton Rouge, take I-10 west to Plaquemine exit and then La. 1 south for 18 miles.

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.