It's hard to escape the lure of tours when visiting New Orleans. I've sampled most: ghosts and vampires (fun for true believers), the Garden District (essential history and fabulous mansions), cemeteries (you dare not miss the cemeteries!), Mardi Gras World (all the floats and a lot less crowded), swamp tour (a nice break, especially in spring when the gators come out). Then there's the plantation tour, which is often passed up as not worth the trouble.
But that would be a mistake. To begin with, a drive along the Great River Road that connects New Orleans to Baton Rouge gives an essential grasp of the geography. (Oh, that's the Mississippi!) If you're truly ambitious and have the time, you can rent a car and explore the dozen or so great plantations at your leisure. More likely you'll opt for an organized tour. I picked a five-hour package offered by Cajun Encounters that focused on two very different destinations.
Our first stop, after an hour's bus ride, was the Laura Plantation. Among its claims to fame, this is where Senegalese slaves first told the tales of Br'er Rabbit, made famous in the "Uncle Remus" tales. More renowned here, and the reason to visit, is Laura Locoul, an ancestor of the estate's 1805 founder who documented her dysfunctional family and its many feuds in a voluminous and fascinating diary. That diary (available at the gift shop), along with many other documents, provides rare insight into the workings of a great sugar cane plantation (most along the Mississippi here grew cane, not cotton) and the lives of slaves. Our bus group was shepherded through the raised main house, grounds and slave cabins (used by workers until the 1980s) by a very knowledgeable and saucy guide.
Fifteen minutes away lies Oak Alley, the most famous of all the antebellum houses in Louisiana, which has been featured in countless films ("Interview With the Vampire," "Primary Colors") and TV series. It's named for the magnificent 300-year-old oaks that form a canopy above the grand entranceway to this prime example of Greek Revival architecture; the tour could not have been further in both style and presentation from our previous stop. Whereas our Laura guide was almost apologetic about the plantation's abject history, Oak Alley's gushing, hoop-skirted ladies led us reverentially past the museumlike bedrooms and grand dining room with its lavish silver and ingenious "air-conditioning" fan pulled by a rope (and a "little boy in the corner"). The tour climaxed with a privileged view from the front balcony where the oaks, confided our guide, never failed to stir her soul. True enough, the landscape was stunning, though no mention was made of the thousands of slaves who made this grand mansion such a profitable enterprise.
For a whitewashed glimpse of their lives, you can visit the reconstructed slave cabins that line a graveled road out back, which in turn leads to a large gift shop, cafe and restaurant. There are also 19th century cottages for overnight stays if you want more time to soak up the atmosphere.