Explore New Orleans Plantation Country along the Great River Road
Nowhere is the diverse history, cuisine, ecosystem, and culture of the southern Louisiana region more evident than in New Orleans Plantation Country. Explore the corridor along the Great River Road following the Mississippi River. There, discover wild bayous, vast plantation gardens, luxurious mansions, stories of folklore and slavery, and innumerable culinary delights.
But, as we also discovered, plantations are only part of the experience along the Mississippi’s Great River Road. Louisiana’s River Parishes area is also famous for its ecosystem, agriculture, history and cuisine, plus the multinational influences that served to turn plantation country into a culinary melting pot. Think swamps and swamp tours, lakes and waterfront dining, the mighty Mississippi’s banks to walk, and delicious Creole and Cajun food like andouille, jambalaya and gumbo.
Discover the plantations of New Orleans Plantation Country
In touring the plantations, it is important to remember that for all but one of the historic plantations along and near the Mississippi’s Great River Road, the stories you will hear primarily revolve around the “big house” or mansion. To what degree the script weaves in the lives and stories of slaves who suffered and died to keep the rich residents of the mansions comfortable depends on the plantation. Notably, only one plantation completely flips the script, ignoring the mansion, and focusing its story entirely on the lives of the slaves who once lived there – Whitney Plantation.
Houmas House and Gardens
The Houmas House Plantation was at one time the largest producer of sugar cane in the country and as such, a very grand estate. The mansion has been restored to its antebellum era glory. Giant moss-covered oaks shade paths that wind through lush gardens and past spectacular water features – the landscaping covers 38 acres. Visitors come here for the tranquil grounds, magnificent architecture, rare and period artwork and artifacts, and delicious food (the restaurants on site are award-winning). If you want to hear about slavery, though, this is not the place to visit.
Tours are offered regularly, and our tour guide, dressed in period costume, told stories of the sugar barons and their families who once called this place home as we wandered through the mansion’s luxuriously decorated rooms. The Houmas House and Gardens also offer lodging, which I recommend (if it’s within your budget), since that allows you the after-hours chance to wander the grounds, listening to the fountains, and enjoying your own personal Garden of Eden.
You’ll also want to visit the new Great River Road Museum, which opened in August 2020. The museum specifically highlights life on the Mississippi, the commerce, the music and the folklore, and there are all sorts of exhibits about steamboats. We had a chance to tour the museum with Houmas owner Kevin Kelly while it was still under construction, and it was, like the rest of the property, quite impressive and detailed.
Located less than 30-minutes from the French Quarter in New Orleans, and less than 15-minutes from New Orleans international airport in Jefferson Parish, Destrehan is recognized as the oldest documented plantation along the lower Mississippi River Valley. Perhaps because of its ease of access from New Orleans, Destrehan can be one of the more crowded plantations to visit.
Our tour guide took us through the tidy main house, regaling us with stories of enslaved master craftsman, Charles Parquet, who was responsible for many of the unique architectural features of the mansion. We also heard about Marguerite, an enslaved domestic, whose job it was to manage the manor house. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the tour though, was being able to visit a climate-controlled room where documents signed by President Thomas Jefferson and President James Madison were on display (no photos allowed to avoid any document damage).
After our tour was over, we wandered around the pretty grounds shaded by massive oaks draped in Spanish Moss. We also visited the exhibit detailing the events that led up to the 1811 Slave Revolt.
Oak Alley Plantation
You’ve likely seen photos of Oak Alley Plantation in national magazines and nearly every website mentioning plantation country, including this one. The grand entrance, with 28 ancient oak trees lining either side of an 800-foot alley leading up to a magnificent Greek-revival style mansion, is what gave the plantation its name. And for most people, Oak Alley defines what they imagine a plantation should look like.
Oak Alley tours are still very much focused on the mansion, but our guide blended stories of the owners and the enslaved as we wandered through the various rooms on the first and second floor. Views from the second-floor balcony of the oak-lined alley are superb and a do-not-miss photo opportunity. But don’t miss wandering around the entire balcony to catch views of the property in all directions.
After your tour, spend an hour or so, as we did, ducking into and out of various reconstructed slave cottages where plaques and exhibits shared the stories of how slaves lived on the property. If you have the time, take a few moments to wander along the paved levee beside the Mississippi river, too.
I would also recommend spending the night here. It is central and a good base from which to visit other plantations. The cottages, albeit not luxurious, are very well appointed. And, like with Houmas House, being able to wander the Oak Alley Plantation grounds at night is so very peaceful.
At Laura Plantation you will enter into the world of Laura Lacoul Gore, a Creole woman who ran the property as a sugar plantation until the late 1800s, and the complicated family story. Our tour was a history lesson about the people who lived and worked the sugar cane fields in this plantation, and our guide was supremely well-trained, passionate and informative. Of note is that the original name of this plantation was “L’habitation Duparc,” with the emphasis on the original family name.
The six remaining slave quarters offered an interesting insight into life for a slave on this Creole plantation. Most interesting was hearing the story of folklorist Alcee Fortier who, in the 1870s, recorded West African tales from the slaves. Those stories would go on to become the famous children’s book, “Tales of Brer Rabbit.”
The Laura Plantation will catch your eye with its bright, multi-colored exterior. When the current owners purchased the plantation in 1993, it was white, but research showed what the colors had been, and it was returned to that state.
If you can only visit one plantation in Louisiana’s River Parishes – and your focus is more on history through the eyes of the slaves — let this be the one. The Whitney Plantation museum of slavery focuses entirely on the story of the slaves who worked here, lived here, and died here. There is no tour of a grand mansion – in fact there is no grand mansion. The former “big house” has not really been restored and you may go into it, or not.
The story of the slaves can only be told through their eyes and their words, as you experience here. The Whitney Plantation will open your eyes and move you. We have written about a visit there in depth, so please take a look at our story “Whitney Plantation museum of slavery in New Orleans tells real story” to learn more.
Head into the Louisiana swamps near the Mississippi River for a bit of adventure
Cajun Pride Swamp Tours operates its boat tours within its privately owned wildlife refuge. When you are in the swamp, it is hard to believe you are just 25 miles from New Orleans.
The tour captains are all Cajun, and many still call the bayous of South Louisiana their home. On our tour, Captain Tom shared stories of the early days in the Louisiana bayou and swamp exploration, spiced with more than a little bit of humor and local dialect. We also learned a bit of the unique history of the Cajun town of Frenier within the Manchac Swamp. As our flat-bottom boat quietly motored and drifted along slow-moving waterways, we saw plenty of wildlife, including alligators sunning themselves on fallen logs, raccoons scampering along the shore and, of course, turtles and birds.
Hungry? Your choice of fine dining, fresh seafood, or homestyle Cajun cooking
Houmas House is well regarded for its Latil’s Landing Restaurant, dating to the 1770s. By all accounts, it is one of the most luxurious dining experiences in Louisiana where guests are able to dine just as the sugar barons did in the 1800s. There is also The Turtle Bar for an obligatory mint julep, and the Carriage House for a more casual meal emphasizing traditional Louisiana dishes as well as enjoying Sunday brunch.
Located on the western shore of Lake Pontchartrain, Frenier’s Landing offers a menu full of fresh seafood (of course), grilled oysters (naturally) and a fantastic view of the lake. Since it’s only a short drive from Cajun Pride Swamp Tours, this is a perfect place to head for lunch before or after your tour. They have a nice selection of local beer on tap too, plus outdoor seating for kicking back on sunny days.
Spuddy’s Cajun Cooking Experience
Trust me when I tell you, there is nothing so fun as cooking alongside Spuddy in a Cajun kitchen. Well, ok, maybe eating with him is pretty cool, too. If you want to really understand Cajun cooking and learn the history of the German Coast and its connection with andouille, spend three hours with Spuddy cooking and eating. Spuddy’s Cajun Cooking Experience is hands-on, entertaining, educational, delicious! And you’ll never look at a store-bought andouille sausage the same way again.
Discover more things to do in Plantation Country
Experience the richness of jazz in New Orleans
In addition to plantations and bayous and swamp tours in Plantation Country, there is so much else to do in the New Orleans area. Experiencing the vibrant jazz scene is certainly a must. We’d recommend you spend a bit of time in the Jazz National Historical Park — be sure to read A Jazz National Historical Park? Yup. Free music anyone? Also, there is nothing like enjoying live music at an authentic club so be sure to read Bullet’s Sports Bar + Kermit Ruffins = Fun NOLA vibe, very local. And while you’re at it, read New Orleans Jazz Fest: jazz everywhere you look in Nola for some more insider music tips.