Plantation Alley

A slice of the Old South along River Road

By: George Abry

Louisiana’s River Road is one of the most scenic byways in the United States, a lush landscape dominated by mossy oaks, sprawling sugar cane fields, crumbling frame cottages, small towns and Byzantine petrochemical refineries. Every so often an antebellum mansion rises like a multi-level wedding cake near the banks of the Mississippi River.

It is here, along River Road, where clients can experience some of the finest remaining plantation architecture in the country. Any visitor to the general area should make the trip. Few thoroughfares in America are as steeped in history and culture. Besides, Louisiana plantation country is easy to get to, impossible to get lost on and less than an hour from the French Quarter.

Louisiana’s plantation houses are priceless American heirlooms, not just because they’re endangered, but for their stories. These gorgeous white-pillared mansions are haunted by the historical myth of the Old South.

Many plantation tours make an effort to highlight the daily life of slaves. Still others romanticize about white columns, hoop skirts, mint juleps and steamboats. Regardless, they can all be worthwhile.

Some plantation sites are open to the public as house museums or bed and breakfast accommodations or both. Others can only be viewed from the road. Here is a partial list of newly opened and long-standing plantation sites that are open to the general public:

St. Joseph Plantation, which opened for visitors in October of 2004, is a raised Creole plantation house built by a French planter in 1820. Long rows of sugar cane are still cultivated on the property; the house’s first floor is a sugar cane museum. Tokens issued to freed slaves to buy goods at the plantation store are on display.

Evergreen Plantation has been open to the public since August of 2004. Built in 1832, Evergreen is one of only eight major Greek Revival-style plantation houses remaining on River Road. A double row of intact wooden slave cabins aligns a road shrouded by moss-draped oaks. Swamp tours and plantation tours are offered.

An electrical fire last August decimated Laura Plantation’s trademark red roof, inflicting severe damage to the interior and exterior of the 1805 raised French Creole plantation house. Despite the damage, Laura’s spirit is undiminished and tours have proceeded uninterrupted. Laura Plantation set the gold standard several years ago with its interpretation of slave life. Its no-holds-barred approach to the discussion has influenced the way plantations have interpreted what remains a thorny issue.

Oak Alley Plantation, built in 1837, is known the world over for its virtual tunnel of live oaks that predates the house by about one hundred years. Oak Alley is a luxurious plantation with antebellum rental cottages, featuring central air and heat, microwaves and coffee makers. A gourmet restaurant serves up shrimp and okra gumbo, chicken and sausage jambalaya, and crawfish etouffee, among other Southern delights.

Contact the city of New Orleans for a listing of tour operators, accommodations and restaurants.