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River Road in Louisiana boasts scenic, sprawling plantations comment (0)

October 11, 2007

By Linda Holloway

Along the 70-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., there is a passage known around the world as Great Mississippi River Road. The name may be simple, but the treasures dotting this road are grand.

Among the twists and turns of the river, there are mansions and cottages inviting tourists to walk through the doors of history and peer into another century. Visitors speak in a noticeable whisper, preserving tranquility in a place where time has almost stood still. Here, you will find guides dressed in period clothing telling the story of the sugar cane, not cotton, that brought wealth to the area.

On each visit, I eagerly race up the steps of the houses to soak up the ambiance of the interiors, but it is still in the surrounding landscapes, where Spanish moss hanging from live oak trees sways in the breeze, that I spend most of my time.

Bed and breakfasts
Because of the hot, humid summers in Louisiana, winter is the perfect season for tourists to visit Plantation Country. You can choose to board a paddleboat or tour bus from New Orleans, or you can set out along River Road from below New Orleans on your own adventure.

To optimize your time at each of the plantations, you should probably plan no more than three house tours in one day. Instead of chain hotels on River Road, you will find bed-and-breakfast accommodations, as well as restaurants and gift shops located in historic structures.

‘Sweet’ plantation country
America’s demand for sugar in the early 1800s made many landowners along River Road millionaires, affording them the luxury of building opulent plantation houses. Today you can tour plantations such as San Francisco, which boasts five hand-painted ceilings, faux marbling and faux wood graining throughout the house. You will also find antique furniture by master craftsman John Henry Belter. Call 1-888-322-1756 or visit www.sanfranciscoplantation.org.

Destrehan Plantation, built in 1787, is also on tour. Destrehan is known as the oldest documented plantation house in the lower Mississippi River Valley. Call 1-877-453-2095 or visit www.destrehanplantation.org.
St. Joseph Plantation, built around 1830, is the newest addition to the plantation tours along River Road. Family members and friends recently restored the 12,000-square-foot house where Henry Hobson Richardson, one of the nation’s premier architects of the 19th century, was born in 1838. Call 225-265-4078 or visit www.stjosephplantation.com.

Located one hour from New Orleans, you will find Laura and Oak Alley plantations. Oak Alley Plantation with its breathtaking one-quarter mile alley of 300-year-old live oak trees is believed to be the most photographed plantation in the South. The house was built for Jacques Roman, a wealthy Creole sugar planter, in 1839. It is believed that a settler who built a small house on the current site planted the double row of oaks sometime in the early 1700s. The 28 live oak trees in two well-spaced rows reach from the house to the Mississippi River. The mansion is a classic example of Greek Revival architecture with its 28 columns.

The Civil War devastated the family fortune, and the last Roman to occupy Oak Alley was Henri, who sold the property in 1866 for $32,800. Upon visiting Oak Alley, you will find a hand-carved rosewood cradle in the master bedroom where Henri Roman slept. Today the estate is a National Historic Landmark maintained by a nonprofit trust, but it is still a working plantation with 1,100 acres still intact. There are also bed-and-breakfast cottages on the property and a Cajun/Creole restaurant housed in a 19th-century Creole cottage. Call 1-800-44-ALLEY or visit www.oakalleyplantation.com.

Next you will want to visit Laura Plantation, located near Oak Alley. Thomas Jefferson awarded Guillaume Duparc, who fought in the Revolutionary War, land grants during the Louisiana Purchase in 1804. The house was built in 1805 and is considered a raised Creole-style home. Duparc died in 1808 before the first crop was sold.

Here, you can learn about the real-life triumphs and struggles of the owners, women, slaves and children based upon 5,000 pages of French documents and Laura Locoul Gore’s “Memories of the Old Plantation Home.” The plantation includes 11 historic buildings and the slave quarters where the African folktales of Br’er Rabbit were recorded. Call 1-888-799-7690 or visit  www.lauraplantation.com.

Nineteen miles from Baton Rouge, in White Castle, is the site of the largest remaining plantation home in the South. John H. Randolph finished the home for his wife and 11 children. The home became known as Nottoway in 1859. The Greek Revival and Italianate mansion boasts 53,000 square feet. The grandeur is still evident today in the antique furniture in the gentleman’s study and music room.

My favorite room is the White Ballroom, with the stark-white walls accented by the elaborate plaster friezework. I deliberately went to the back of the tour line and lingered long enough to stand in the center of the ballroom and imagine the sound of swishing skirts as they brushed by the Corinthian interior columns. Today the room is often used for weddings, and the home is a bed and breakfast as well. Call 1-866-LASOUTH or visit www.nottoway.com.

Houmas House Plantation and Gardens is once again living up to its reputation as the the “crown jewel of Louisiana’s River Road.” Kevin Kelly purchased the plantation in 2003, and an extensive restoration returned its condition to reflect the period of the great sugar empire of the 1800s.

The plantation once produced 20 million pounds of sugar annually, and the original four rooms in the rear are among the oldest existing structures in the area. The tour guide will tell you that Irish-born John Burnside saved Houmas House from Union occupation during the Civil War by declaring British immunity.

Our guide, Judy Whitney-Davis, sat down at the piano in the parlor and played a haunting version of “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” The 1963 movie by the same name, starring Bette Davis, was filmed at Houmas House. Visitors can tour the bedroom occupied by the actress during filming.

‘Hard place to leave’
The home boasts a magnificent three-story spiral staircase. You will find antiques such as a music box from the 1870s that plays 10 songs, a rare 1847 LaTourrette map of Louisiana and 1827 Limoge Houmas china. Outside, the grounds are now alive with plants, ponds, fountains and statues. Take time to enjoy the courtyards, a scenic bridge and pathways that invite guests to explore the grounds. There are also two restaurants on the property. Visitors can enjoy dinner in one of the four original rooms that date to the 1770s. Call 225-473-9380 or visit www.houmashouse.com.

Over the years, I have documented the history of structures along River Road with pen and paper — mostly from underneath the canopy of live oak trees. Larry, my husband and photographer, has recorded hundreds of images with his camera. We both agree that Plantation Country is one of the hardest places to leave. There is just something about this place that always draws us back.

For River Road plantations’ phone numbers, Web sites and maps, visit www.cr.nps.gov/nr/travel/louisiana/riverroad.htm or www.plantationparade.com.
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