Oak Alley Plantation: A picturesque estate in plantation country
Oak Alley Plantation is an historic plantation country site that sits on the banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana along the Great River Road. It is owned and operated by the Oak Alley Foundation. The plantation is named for the 28 oak trees that form a magnificent alley up to the main entrance of the estate.
Walking up the shaded oak alley toward the front of the magnificent Greek-revival style mansion, I could almost picture Rhett Butler standing on the Oak Alley Plantation steps with a mint julep in hand.
Photographs of the famous entrance, with its 800-foot-long alley of 28 oak trees, each planted before 1837, create an image of what so many people imagine a luxurious plantation estate was like in the South. The mansion, with its white exterior meant to mimic marble, soaring columns and wrap-around balcony featuring wrought iron railings, represents the iconic image of a Louisiana plantation and all its glory.
The Oak Alley mansion certainly captured the imagination of Hollywood, too. Though it is at Houmas House where Bette Davis slept during the filming of “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte,” it’s worth noting that a number of the scenes from the 1964 classic movie, which showcased the exterior of the mansion, were shot at Oak Alley. More recently, “Interview with a Vampire,” starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, featured the mansion as Louis’ home.
As I stood there under the oaks at night, gazing back at the illuminated house, I found it very easy to understand how plantations became idealized as places of luxury, richness, opulence and comfort. And yet in the shadows of the massive oaks there lies a darker tale, one that Oak Alley, thankfully, does not shy away from.
Recognizing the lives of slaves
In 2011, the Oak Alley Foundation began to assemble a slavery database to document, as best as is possible, the lives of the 220 men, women and children who were enslaved on the plantation between 1836 and the Civil War.
In addition, along the path from the parking area leading up to the Big House, Oak Alley Plantation has constructed six replica slave cabins, roughly where the original slave community lived. Though not part of the official tour, I encourage you to plan an hour or so into your visit to be able to walk through each of the cabins on a self-guided tour.
Displays inside and outside the slave cabins and the sick house (where slaves were treated for various ailments and injuries) offer insight into the lives of the enslaved on this plantation. And it isn’t pretty. Four of the cabins have been built to show a specific type of dwelling so you can see how a house slave lived and a field slave lived, as well as what the sick house was like and how a Black laborer lived after emancipation. The other two cabins feature exhibit space to help visitors understand more fully daily life as a slave, covering topics such as work and religion, or how slaves were dressed and how they were punished.
The lives of the enslaved stands in very sharp contrast to the rich lives of the owners who lived in the mansion, one that I learned about during our guided tour.
Taking a guided tour of Oak Alley Plantation
Our tour of the plantation country mansion blended stories of the owners and the enslaved as we wandered through the various rooms on the first and second floor.
We learned about the lives of owners Jacques Roman and his wife, Celina, who built Oak Alley. At the same time, our guide would weave in stories about what the house slave would be doing when Celina entertained or how the slaves would go about taking care of the house and the children.
But it was in the Artifact Room, completed in 2018 by Oak Alley, that I came face to face with the raw human side of the plantation, and stark evidence of the real disparity between the lives of the slaves and the lives of the privileged plantation owners.
Upon entering the room, one’s eyes are naturally drawn to the various monogrammed silver and other artifacts displayed in illuminated cases around the walls. But in short order, my eyes fell upon the glass pedestal box in the center of the room. Inside the box are two items, very different in nature and meaning. One is an engraved metal wedding plate that was used to create wedding invitations for Henri Roman, the son of Jacques and Celina. The other is a slave’s metal shackle with a rattle, used to announce the presence of a slave to all within earshot. Plantation owners and their family could marry; slaves could not. It is a sobering gut-check to the typical tales of gorgeous opulence that a plantation mansion portrays.
During the tour you will also hear about Andrew and Josephine Stewart, who purchased the run-down Oak Alley in 1925. They completed extensive restorations, converting the plantation into a cattle ranch and then reintroduced sugar cane to the fields in the 1960s. Josephine died on Oct. 3, 1972 at 7:30 a.m., leaving the plantation to the Oak Alley Foundation, preserving its history forever. Look at the clocks in the mansion – they are all stopped at 7:30 a.m. in her honor.
Of course, every tour of Oak Alley takes visitors out onto the second-floor balcony where the views of the oak-lined alley are superb and a must-take photo opportunity (in fact, the only place you’re are allowed to take photos while on a tour. Photos inside and FROM the inside are prohibited – we had special permission). But don’t miss wandering around the entire balcony to catch views of the property in all directions.
Dining at Oak Alley
Dining is a bit more limited than, say, at Houmas House, even for overnight guests. We did have a quick bite at the Oak Alley Restaurant, which is open from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for breakfast and lunch. The food is basic, but very good – think fried catfish, red beans and rice with smoked sausage, fried green tomato BLT, salads, sandwiches, and a dash of kid-friendly food, too.
We did not try the evening option, which is offered to overnight guests, but it looks to be very good. Knowing that the nearest restaurant is at least a 20-minute drive from Oak Alley, the chef will prepare a dinner (you have to order it the day before) and have it delivered to your cottage. All you have to do from there is reheat it and enjoy – and the cottages have very nice, fully equipped kitchens.
Staying in the plantation at Oak Alley
I would absolutely recommend spending the night here if you have the opportunity. It is very central and a good base from which to visit other plantations (even if dining options are a bit limited), and the cottages are very well appointed.
We stayed in Cottage 9 which featured a king-size bed and an adjacent sitting room with an electric fireplace. Naturally, there is good Wi-Fi and, since this is plantation country, a lovely screened front porch for sipping mint juleps without annoying bugs – too bad we only had time to spend one (short) night!!!
One of the greatest advantages of staying overnight? Guests have free rein to wander the grounds at night, which I can attest, is so very peaceful. Plus, for a night at least, you can pretend you are reliving an unwritten chapter in the plantation’s rich history.