Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tuesday Travels: River Road Plantations

For those of you who don’t already know, I was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. Of course, I can’t believe there’s anyone who isn’t already aware of my Southern roots – after all, I can’t seem to shut up about it. Just ask my husband, my family, my friends, my colleagues... they’ve all listened to me blather about the charms of the Big Easy at one time or another.

In fact, despite the city’s longtime issues (like crime, poverty, educational shortcomings, and the potential for hurricane damage), I love it so much that, when asked by the Moon.com staff (my occasional employers) to write about my favorite U.S. city, I leaped at the opportunity and wrote about, you guessed it, New Orleans. If you’re curious about that particular post, visit today’s entry for “The Moon Water Cooler” at Moon.com.

Although my guest travel post does praise New Orleans for its unique cuisine, rich musical culture, colorful history, and literary influence, I wasn’t able (due to space constraints) to express my profound fascination with the rest of southern Louisiana. For it’s not just the French Quarter, the Garden District, Audubon Zoo, and City Park that entice me back every spring and fall. Other places offer their own allure as well – places like my dad’s favorite fishing spots in the waters southeast of Louisiana (where his beloved old fishing camp once stood, prior to Hurricane Katrina) or the former sugar plantations alongside the Mississippi River – especially the Laura Plantation and the Destrehan Plantation.

My mother first took me to the Laura Plantation when I was a teenager. Besides the fact that I shared a first name with one of the Creole family's descendants (and the woman for whom the plantation was eventually renamed in 1874), I remember being entranced by the style of the main house – a vivid ochre structure with red, green, gray, and mauve accents. I was also tickled to learn that the Laura Plantation was where the tales of Br’er Rabbit were introduced to America.

Years after my first visit, I was horrified to learn that a terrible fire had destroyed eighty percent of the “Big House” in August of 2004 – but following twenty-eight months of intense restoration, the house was happily returned to its pre-fire glory in December of 2006. Although I haven't seen it in a while, the Laura Plantation still intrigues me - and I long to return.

Roughly twenty miles closer to New Orleans, the Destrehan Plantation is a bit more traditional in appearance – but equally fun to visit. Established in 1787, Destrehan presents year-round historic demonstrations – from open-hearth cooking to indigo dyeing to candle making. Of course, the best time to visit the Destrehan Plantation is during one of its annual festivals – usually in mid-May and mid-November.

The last time I attended this family-friendly event was in May of 2006. Together, my husband, my father, my stepmother, and I drove along River Road to Destrehan (which lies between New Orleans and Baton Rouge along the Mississippi River) and headed onto the lovely (if crowded) grounds. For several pleasant hours, we ate regional cuisine (like gumbo and jambalaya), watched historic demonstrations, listened to live music, perused a variety of crafts, artwork, and antiques, and toured the house itself.

The food, of course, was delicious – normally, I’d say it’s my favorite part of any festival. But I really enjoyed browsing through the clever creations on display – from local, regional, and national artists. My favorite artist, though, was the one who had fashioned all manner of whimsical sculptures from pieces of junk. Truly, a real-life demonstration of how one person’s trash can become another’s treasure.

The house tour was a unique experience, too. Not only were the tour guides in full period costume, but the basement (where the tour began with an orientation video) was perpetually cool, like an underground cave – the perfect place to escape the heat of southern Louisiana for a little while.

Trust me, if you ever find yourself just north of New Orleans, take some time to visit at least one of the remaining plantations along River Road. It’s indeed a step back into another era, when beautiful architecture and genteel traditions collided with cruel slave practices that still haunt the moss-covered oak trees today... and even some of the lamp-lit mansions in the French Quarter.

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