Houmas House: a luxurious plantation country estate
Houmas House estate is a New Orleans area attraction located in Louisiana’s River Parishes. Once one of the biggest and richest plantations in Louisiana’s plantation country, it’s now a destination for lovers of architecture, gardens and fine dining, as well as an entertainment venue.
It didn’t take long after entering the Houmas House estate grounds to feel as if I had been transported to a different era, living life as a privileged white landowner of a sugarcane plantation in the 1880s. Showcasing the opulence and prosperity of the land barons who lived there is property owner Kevin Kelly’s desire. And he has spared no expense in ensuring the plantation country scene is properly set for any visitor desiring that feeling.
Located on the historic River Road, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge in Louisiana’s River Parishes, the Houmas estate’s 38-acres of meticulously landscaped grounds would likely impress any master gardener or awe any gardening fiend. Meandering paths wind their way among tall oaks and past numerous water features, some filed with water lilies and lotus blossoms. Walkways pass flower beds filled with irises, orchids and elephant ears. Benches tucked alongside the pathways create a tranquil and picturesque backdrop to the centerpiece of the estate, the Greek Revival-style mansion. A “secret garden” with tiny gnomes and bridges is hidden in the front landscaping.
And an oft-photographed reflecting pond showcases the columns and grandeur of the mansion’s front entrance. It is quite easy to see why this plantation was once known as the Sugar Palace – and is a popular wedding venue today.
Wealthy landowners are the focus
Despite the fairytale nature one experiences throughout the grounds and in the buildings, there is no ducking the fact that what a visitor experiences at Houmas House is one of owning and running a sugar cane plantation, told entirely from the perspective of the wealthy owners. This is the polar opposite of Whitney Plantation which focuses its retelling of plantation life entirely on the lives and stories of the slaves – without whom not one plantation, including Houmas, would have existed or prospered.
Kelly, an architecture and history buff, is unapologetic about the fact that Houmas House is a showcase to the history and lives of the plantation’s owners and not the slaves. He is quick to say, as he told us during our visit in October 2019, that if you want the story of slaves, there are other estates that do it very well.
Despite enjoying the beauty at Houmas, it did not take very long for me to feel quite unsettled with the omission of slaves’ stories from the recounting of the plantation’s 250-year history.
Still, there is no denying that if what you seek is a Gone With the Wind-depiction of Southern history, with all its rich trappings and wealth, Houmas House is an absolutely amazing place to visit, if for no other reason than to enjoy the gardens and see a historically-impressive collection of Mississippi River and plantation-era artifacts Kelly has assembled. To do that, however, you will need to take a tour or stay a night.
Taking a tour of the house and gardens
Hour-long guided tours of the mansion and gardens are offered seven days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. 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 rooms. She explained the Greek Revival architecture, the amazing collection of historic artifacts in each room, and the purpose for wrap-around porches and many doors. Note: When all the doors and windows were open in the summer, a natural wind tunnel was created to help circulate cooling fresh breezes coming off the Mississippi River.
On the second floor, I had to smile upon hearing the story of the spat among actresses Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Olivia de Havilland that took place at Houmas House during the filming of the 1964 movie, ”Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” – one of a number of Hollywood films set here. We even saw the bed where Bette Davis slept – quite the bit of Tinseltown history if you’re into that sort of thing.
We saw a wall-sized 1848 Louisiana census map that belonged to a previous owner, apparently hidden in the attic for 140 years and discovered upon Kelly’s purchase of the property in 2003. There is even a solid silver statue of Abraham Lincoln cast by the sculptor of Mount Rushmore. And there are portraits of Kelly’s dogs who even got married in a special ceremony at Houmas (yes, really).
It was the three-story-high spiral staircase, however, that truly impressed me. Building it took two years and it was actually once a free-floating structure. The stairs are made of cypress wood, which was soaked in the Mississippi River until it was pliable, and then curved into the shape visitors see today.
At the end of our tour, Therese and I wandered off to enjoy the nearby fountains and koi pond with pink lilies and colorful flowers along the edge. It felt rather magical walking across a Monet bridge and following a winding path up to a Japanese Pavilion tucked above a waterfall that cascaded into the pond.
As the rosy glow of the evening sunset slipped into long shadows of twilight, I sat watching couples and families walking by on the path below as they headed off to dinner. Quiet voices and laughter filtered up past the sounds of the waterfall. This is indeed a very tranquil place.
Dining at Houmas House
We had considered dining at Latil’s Landing Restaurant, a member of Distinguished Restaurants in North America. I’d walked through Latil’s earlier, during our tour of the house. Its setting is indeed impressive, with richly set tables located in the rooms of the original French Chateau building upon which the plantation house was added. While I am quite sure we would have delighted in the prix fixe meal, we opted for a bit more casual fine dining at the Carriage House restaurant, located in another historic and still elegant building on the estate.
Of course, mint juleps started off the experience. I suppose we could have and should have enjoyed them in the adjacent Turtle Bar, but we were both very hungry. The menu, I was told, is updated seasonally to reflect the availability of locally grown produce. And what we ate was beyond delicious! The Shrimp Orleans with sweet peas, heirloom tomatoes, pasta and parmesan cheese and its delightful sauce was to die for.
Staying at the plantation country estate
If you can, I would recommend spending the night. The cottages are nestled among giant oaks and each has comfy beds, luxurious bathrooms, and a delightful porch. Decorated with sitting nooks and unique artwork, the cottages are decidedly modern in amenities including a large flat-screen TV, WiFi, and coffee and tea makers. Breakfast for two (at the Carriage House) and a guided tour of the mansion for two are included. Staying there offers the opportunity to wander the garden paths and grounds at night, after other visitors have left, and you are serenaded by the sounds of various fountains and the croaking frogs. I was completely entranced by the sight of the grand mansion reflected in the pond near its front entrance. You will be too, trust me.
Great River Road Museum
You’ll also want to visit the new Great River Road Museum, which opened in August 2020, well after our visit. The 30,000-square-foot museum specifically highlights 19th-century life along the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. A wheelchair-accessible bridge now spans River Road connecting the levee (and, conveniently, a place where tour boats can dock) and the Houmas House estate. There is also a cafe in the museum building that will feature live music and an amphitheater outside the doors for shows or fireworks.
Kelly gave us a tour during our October 2019 visit, while the museum was still under the final stages of construction. A giant 18-foot painting that was formerly displayed in the New Orleans Hilton hotel depicts the Mississippi River in New Orleans and greets visitors in the grand entrance. There is also a 35-star United States flag from 1863 that once flew over Fort Jackson downriver from New Orleans.
Currently, the museum is focused on life on the river, with displays that showcase steamboats, sugar production, festivals and celebrations and even wildlife found in the area. The museum, like anything Kelly puts his hands on, is exquisite in design and presentation.
Like the estate itself, the museum’s design and presentation is rich and luxurious, as you’d expect in a plantation country fairy tale.
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.