If you are planning a trip to New Orleans, include setting aside at least a half day to tour a couple of the plantations that this area of Louisiana is known for. They can be found along both sides of the Mississippi River about 45 to 60 minutes from New Orleans.
We started our morning with Oak Alley Plantation, a restored antebellum mansion located near Vacherie, LA. With the property opening to the public at 10:00am, we arrived a few minutes early so that we could pay our admission and go enjoy a leisurely breakfast in their cafe. For guests staying on the property in one of the cottages, the restaurant opens at 8:30am.
This particular mansion was built in 1839 although the 28 oak trees for which the property is known, were planted in the early 1700's. Along the walkway of the back side of the house, the oaks were planted sometime after the house was built, probably around 1850.
Like other plantations in the area, Oak Alley was a sugar plantation. The mansion was built by Jacques Roman, a Creole farmer, for his wife who came from an affluent New Orleans' family. She was apparently quite the party girl and socialite, hosting many events bringing friends and family out to the country.
The house is completely furnished with antiques of the era, although not many were original to this home. This was probably the most impressive aspect of this particular plantation home.
Oak Alley is open seven days a week, with a $15/person admission fee. (Look for $1.50 off coupons in local tourist publications and on the New Orleans CVB web site.) More information may be found on their web site:
From here, you will drive past St. Joseph's Plantation. It was a smaller property and didn't seem that interesting. so we drove on by on our way to the "Top Louisiana Travel Attraction" . . . Laura Plantation.
Laura Plantation is more about the history of life on the Mississippi on a sugar plantation. Much of the history of the era has been preserved and the hour plus tour tells the story to visitors from around the world. Much of the focus here is on the lives of the slaves and their existence in Louisiana.
Because we wanted to make sure to get over to the San Francisco Plantation, we did not stop to take this tour. Laura Plantation is less than 15 minutes from Oak Alley and is often packaged together with Oak Alley by tour operators due to the close proximity and the significant difference between the two.
Laura Plantation is also open seven days a week and charges a $15 admission fee. They have a web site where more information may be found at www.lauraplantation.com.
From this point, we crossed the Mississippi River to the east bank and went out to the farthest point east in "plantation country" to see and tour the San Francisco Plantation. Described as "Steamboat Gothic" this plantation home was also built in the mid 1800's (1856 to be exact) and served as the main home on the sugar plantation. Unfortunately the man of the house died shortly after the home was finished. Several years later, his German wife returned to Munich and is said to have never spoken about her life in Louisiana again. Apparently, she did not care much for the climate or plantation life.
The mansion today has been completed restored by Marathon Oil, the company who owns all of the adjacent land surrounding the plantation grounds. The restoration was necessary after the floods of 1927 nearly destroyed this wonderful and unique mansion. One of the other results from the Great Flood of 1927 was the construction of the levee at the front of the home along with the road which largely took the entire front yard of the property.
Many of the items in this plantation home are reproductions of the period. Additionally, much of the interior has had to be restored, including the lovely hand-painted ceilings that are in five of the 14 or 16 rooms included in the guided tour. The detail to accuracy is very precise. Of the hanging chandeliers, only one of the originals remained but it served as the guide for the recreation of the others throughout.
Unlike some of the other plantations of the period, this one was built with the service areas in the lower (ground) level and the living quarters and the part of the house that received guests were on the second floor. At the front of the home, there is a very unique feature allowing the large doors to be removed from two rooms (the men's sitting area and the ladies' sitting area). With these doors removed, the entire front of the house became a large ballroom for entertaining.
Photos of what the mansion and grounds looked like before 1927 may be found on their web site: www.sanfranciscoplantation.org. Tours are offered daily and are $15/person.
The last plantation that we stopped by during our drive was Houmas House, also known as "The Sugar Palace" . . . the self proclaimed "Crown Jewel of Louisiana's River Road." This particular plantation home has an interesting history in that it started out as a very modest two story brick house that was built in the 1770's. Later the property changed hands (actually several times) and each time the new owner added on changing the entire look of the home.
Today the plantation and gardens are well maintained and available to visitors year-round. On this particular day, we arrived rather late and decided to take a pass given the 95 degree temps in Southern Louisiana. They do provide all guests a 15 minute video that tells the history of Houmas House and her people dating back to the Native Americans for whom the house is named (Houmas).
Tours are available for $20 per person. There is a cafe on the premises for lunch and the fine dining restaurant is open for dinner most nights (closed Monday and Tuesday). NOTE: Reservations are required. More information on Houmas House may be found at: www.houmashouse.com.