Dixie Trips

Venturing out from the Crescent City, these side trips are steeped in history, romance and folklore

By: George Abry

NEW ORLEANS For centuries, military planners and explorers have admired New Orleans’ strategic position at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

After all these years, it’s not a bad spot from which to launch a day trip either.

Sugar-cane vistas and cypress swamplands, grand antebellum plantation homes and sleepy rural towns loaded with Southern charm and homespun cooking are a world away from the Bourbon Street hubbub, but as readily accessible as the steering wheel of a rental car.

Here’s a sample of three rewarding day-trip destinations within two hours of the Big Easy.

Follow the River

Just as no trip to San Francisco is complete without a drive through Wine Country, no trip to New Orleans is complete without a drive along Louisiana’s Great River Road. This country road winds upriver past endless sugar-cane fields, through the heart of plantation country.

About 35 miles west of New Orleans, clients will reach the small town of Vacherie, and two magnificent plantations: Laura Plantation and Oak Alley. At first, visitors might find Laura Plantation’s architecture and colorful facade at odds with the typical staid, white-columned image of Southern plantations. Built in 1805, Laura is a fine example of a colorful West Indies-style Creole plantation. Its front gallery faces the green levee of the Mississippi River, while its rear gallery overlooks the cane fields and a dozen outbuildings that include carriage houses, barns, two cottages and a half-dozen slave cabins.

Legend has it that the Senegalese folk tales of “Br’er Rabbit” were first told in the Western Hemisphere by Africans living in Laura Plantation’s slave quarters.

Unlike idyllic winery stops, plantation tours are enlightening, but sobering. At the Civil War’s onset, Louisiana had more than 140,000 slaves working in the hot sun on 1,600 plantations.

Visitors can choose from one of seven specialty themes, which include tours focusing on Creole women, children, slaves and architecture. 225-265-7690; www.laura plantation.com.

Just up the road from Laura is one of the most photographed images in Louisiana: A tunnel of 28 oak trees (believed to be 300 years old) framing the white Doric columns of Oak Alley Plantation.

The legendary alley of oaks predates the 1839 Greek Revival mansion by some 150 years.

The view from the second floor gallery, which overlooks the Mississippi River, is worth the trip itself.

If clients are not up to driving back to New Orleans, they can spend the night at Oak Alley.

The Oak Alley Plantation Restaurant on the premises serves breakfast and lunch. Generous, dependable entrees include New Orleans staples such as red beans and rice, shrimp Creole and fried seafood platters.

800-442-7690; www.oak alleyplantation.com.

Small-Town Charm

If the below-sea-level topography of New Orleans starts to get wearisome, then point the car northwest a couple of hours and enter a paradise of rolling hills that counter the swamps, bayous and farm fields of southeastern Louisiana.

About 30 miles north of the state capital of Baton Rouge, St. Francisville is a history buff’s dream town.

Your clients will find plenty to do among the town’s estimated 140 19th century structures, many of them arts and antiques galleries, as well as top-notch eateries and bed-and-breakfast inns.

Rare-book mavens should check out St. Francisville Antiques. It’s full of first editions at reasonable prices.

West Feliciana Historical Society, 11757 Ferdinand St., St. Francisville, La., 225-635-6330.

The Oakley House at Audubon State Historic Site is one of the top attractions on any visit to St. Francisville. Built in 1806, this West Indian-style home is where the naturalist John James Audubon lived in 1821, and painted nearly 80 birds for his “Birds of America” collection.

Oakley House, 11788 LA965, St. Francisville, La., 888-677-2838.

Sea Breezes

The Mississippi Gulf Coast’s lengthy stretch of beachfront has lured New Orleanians for nearly 200 years.

In the early 1800s, wealthy city folks built vacation homes here. Today, a scenic drive along the Gulf Coast is probably the most serene experience within an hour of New Orleans.

Many fabulous antebellum mansions remain along the coast, as well as the casinos and resort hotels that continue to spring up.

Through it all, Bay St. Louis has remained a tranquil town on the bay. Its old-town district is loaded with art galleries and good food.

Between April and December, don’t miss Bay St. Louis’ “Second Saturday” art walk, held 5 to 8 p.m. on the second Saturday of the month from April to December.

Shops and galleries stay open during the celebrations, which include featured artists, food and live music.

Good Eats in Bay St. Louise, LA.

" Bay City Grille, 136 Blaize Ave., 228-466-0590.

" Trapani’s Eatery, 116 N. Beach Blvd., 228-467-8570.

" Dock of the Bay, 119 Beach Blvd, 228-467-9940.

Information on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast region, including lodgings, restaurants, attractions, activities and weather: www.gulfcoast.org.