Plantation country byways a study in folkways

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Theres nothing better than a road trip. Im not talking about hurtling 80 mph down the interstate dodging tractor trailers but a leisurely sightseeing trip on less-traveled roads, with plenty of time to savor the sights and the freedom to turn left at the corner just because you feel like it. 

Im just back from a good one -- a six-day meander through the swamps, bayous, river towns and vast expanses of sugarcane and cotton fields of rural Louisiana. 

My husband and I had spent a few days in New Orleans absorbing as much as we could stand of fine gourmet food, great jazz, terrific walking tours, amazing street performers and fantastic people-watching before climbing into our little, red rental car one sunny morning and heading north.  

Our major goal was to visit some of the great plantation houses that line both sides of the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge.

Built before the Civil War by rich sugarcane and cotton traders and planters, most of these opulent mansions were destroyed by Union troops or left to disintegrate after the war. 

But some survived, and many of these have been restored and are open to visitors, some even for overnight visits.

Our first stop was the small hamlet of Vacherie, about an hour out of the Big Easy, where we toured Laura Plantation -- a simple; raised; yellow, red, and green Colonial farmhouse with its original slave cabins and overseers cottage -- for a look at life on a sugar plantation in 1804.

In contrast, Oak Alley Plantation, built in 1839 in the same town, is a large and opulent Greek Revival mansion that overlooks the river and is known for its double row of majestic oak trees. 

The most-visited plantation in the state, this one offers overnight accommodations, a restaurant and a cafe, among other amenities. 

Then it was on to Baton Rouge, the state capital, for the night. We drove upriver -- past oil refineries; docked tankers; small communities of dilapidated, little houses attempting to look neat; and miles of farmland -- stopping in the town of Donaldsonville for lunch. 

Laura Plantation is a simple, Colonial farmhouse whose original slave cabins and overseer's cottage are still standing. It's a good place to visit to get a look at life on a sugar plantation circa 1800. Photo by Joan R. HeilmanIn downtown Baton Rouge, we visited the Kidd, a venerable World War II destroyer, (225) 342-1942, and the LSU Rural Life Museum, (225) 765-2437, before going for dinner at Boutins Restaurant.

Boutins is famous in these parts. We ate our fill of fried catfish, jambalaya and hush puppies, topped off by big wedges of pecan pie, then hopped around the dance floor as best we could to Cajun music blasted out by four grungy but talented fellows playing the fiddle, the guitar, the drums and a washboard.

Next was St. Francisville, once a thriving river port on a high bluff, reached by little byways and a ferry across the river. We took a walking tour in the downtown to see a collection of 19th-century houses and visited Oakley Plantation. 

Built in West Indian style with jalousied porches, Oakley Plantation was made famous by James Audubon, who created some of his bird paintings here. 

Rosedown, another Greek Revival beauty surrounded by grand oaks and lush gardens, offers a good guided tour. 

Leaving plantation country, we drove west on the smallest roads we could locate on our map of Louisiana.

Wheeling slowly through the French-flavored towns of Lafayette, Breaux Bridge and St. Martinville, we drove through the largest and steamiest river swamp in the country, stopping for a swamp tour, a walk through a bird sanctuary, a cruise on the bayou and a lunch of boiled crawfish and seafood etouffee before pulling up for the night in New Iberia.

Next morning, it was back to New Orleans via the village of Napoleonville where we visited yet another plantation house.

This time it was Madewood, a marvelous antebellum mansion where we stayed overnight, made friends with the six other guests over cocktails in the drawing room and ate a four-course dinner together in the big, formal dining room. A plantation breakfast in the morning sent us on our way.

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