Stately Homes of the Old South: Plantation Country
|Oak Alley Plantation has been featured in films, including Gone with the Wind and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (Rolf Müller)|
The customs, architecture, and traditions of the Old South come to life in the myriad homes along the banks of the Mississippi, in Louisiana's Plantation Country. Antebellum-dressed guides recount tales of Confederate spies, yellow fever, love stories, and Civil War tragedies, and give an intimate glimpse of plantations that grew rich on indigo, cotton, rice, tobacco, and sugarcane. The 100-mile serpentine segment of the Great River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is home to numerous plantations, mostly in rural towns that haven't changed much in the past century.
Make sure to visit two of the area's gems: Oak Alley and Laura, in the small town of Vacherie. Few homes are more often photographed than Oak Alley, whose imposing facade is bracketed by a magnificent quarter-mile-long "allée" of 28 centuries-old, moss-draped live oak trees. Oak Alley mansion is a handsome structure built in 1839 and surrounded by some 25 acres dotted with crape myrtle trees, azaleas, and flower gardens.
Just down the River Road from Oak Alley is Laura, a Creole plantation, whose multicolored and rather modest facade distinguishes it from the white-columned Greek Revival mansions built by the Anglo American planters. Despite suffering a significant fire in 2004, it offers perhaps the most authentic and intriguing examination of life on a 19th-century Louisiana plantation. Based on the extensive memoirs left by the four generations of Creole women who presided over the plantation, the tours focus more on the family who occupied it than the house itself, and reveal an honest, sometimes disturbing, always illuminating look into the inner workings of the plantation. Of Laura's 11 buildings, the slave cabins are particularly interesting as the setting for the West African folktales of Br'er Rabbit, on which Joel Chandler Harris's famous Tales of Uncle Remus were later based.
It's worth a slight detour to Napoleonville (20 miles south of the River Road) to stay at the lovely Madewood Plantation. The 21-room Greek Revival beauty, built in 1846, can be visited by tour, but the treat here is to unpack your bag and stay the night. The rooms are lavishly decorated, and the rates include an elegant candlelit dinner at a long oak dining table, coffee and brandy afterward in the drawing room, and a full plantation breakfast the next morning. You'll feel like a personal guest at one of Madewood's sparkling house parties, recapturing another moment in time.
Where: Vacherie is about 50 miles west of New Orleans.
Visitor info: Tel 225-562-2266; www.stjamesla.com.
Oak Alley: Vacherie. Tel 800-44-ALLEY or 225-265-2151; www.oakalleyplantation.com.
Laura: Vacherie. Tel 225-265-7690; www.lauraplantation.com.
Madewood: Napoleonville. Tel 800-375-7151 or 504-369-7151; www.madewood.com. Cost: rooms from $259, includes dinner.
Best times: late Mar for the Springs Arts and Crafts Festival at Oak Alley; 3rd weekend in Oct for the Br'er Rabbit Folk Festival at Laura Plantation; Dec for the Christmas Bonfire parties when towns along the river construct massive bonfires.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication