The grandes dames wait patiently for visitors to come calling. Nestled close to the river, they drape their shoulders in Spanish moss. Their numbers have fallen, yet many linger―the plantations from New Orleans to Baton Rouge.
As time has etched its marks through Louisiana, so have many glorious plantations been lost -- through war, fire, and neglect. But many of the grandes dames still smooth their skirts by the levees of the Mississippi River, and the old girls just love company.
Houmas Indians originally laid claim to the land where the initial four-room house was built by Maurice Conway and Alexandre Latil in the late 1700s. A Greek Revival mansion was added in 1840.
A beautiful maze of boxwoods in the back leads to a gift shop where you'll see a poster for the movie Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Houmas House was the setting for the film, starring Bette Davis and Joseph Cotten.
"At one time, 350 Houmas Indian families lived here," says Peggy, your costumed interpreter. "This four-room, Spanish Colonial structure was the center of an indigo plantation. Then the family moved on to sugarcane."
Peggy points out the typical bousillage walls, made of cypress, Spanish moss, and mud. Inside the addition, a lovely freestanding spiral staircase rises on cypress steps. French needlepoint tapestry adorns the hallways, and the parlor has a Dijon glow, with its mustard yellow Empire furniture.
Houmas House: toll free 1-888-323-8314. Admission: $10 adults, $6 children 13-17, $3 children 6-12. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Guided tours given every half hour.
The oldest documented plantation house in the lower Mississippi Valley, Destrehan, was built in 1787. But perhaps its latest claim to fame is being included in the movie Interview With a Vampire, which was partially filmed on its grounds.
As the bell rings, you're escorted into the dim confines of the ground-floor storage room, where you'll see a 10-minute video describing Destrehan's construction.
After touring the downstairs, you're taken upstairs to see the bousillage walls on one of the columns. Then you go into the upstairs parlors used in scenes of Interview With a Vampire.
"This was the golden age," says the interpreter. "White gold was sugarcane's nickname. It made lots of money." As you exit, you can almost imagine life in that era.
Destrehan: (985) 764-9315. Admission: $10 adults, $5 ages 12-18, $3 ages 6-11. Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily.
Laura was built in 1805 and is one of the oldest Creole plantations left on River Road. The house drapes herself in the colors of yellow, mauve, gray, green, and red. Manager Norman Marmillion says, "Until the 1920s, you could tell if a house was Creole. Brightly colored paint meant Creoles lived there."
Laura Locoul, after whom the plantation was named, left a journal for her daughters, so a great deal is known about the family itself and the estate.
Twelve buildings sit on Laura's 14 acres, including slave quarters, where stories of Br'er Rabbit were first recounted in America.
Even though Laura left the plantation for good at age 29 to live in St. Louis, she never rid her heart of the home. She recorded her memories for her daughters, and in turn for all the visitors who come calling on River Road.
Laura: (225) 265-7690. Admission: $10 adults, $4 children 6-17. Hours: 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. Tours every half hour.
A raised cottage surrounded by a white picket fence is but the tip of Tezcuco Plantation. Built in 1855 of cypress and brick, the home is surrounded by formal gardens, brick paths, a chapel, blacksmith shop, commissary museum, and a small village of bed-and-breakfast cottages. Giant oaks form a canopy over the front yard, which leads to River Road.
A costumed interpreter named Alvis swishes her long taffeta gown aside and rings the outside dinner bell, a sign that a tour is about to begin.
"Welcome to Tezcuco," she begins. "This is a 4,500-square-foot raised cottage. There are no closets or hallways. It was a wedding present from Benjamin Tureaud to his bride."
The name, Tezcuco, means "resting place." "The owner," says Alvis, "had gone to Mexico to fight, and later rested at Lake Tezcuco, Mexico."
She continues to describe the original inhabitants of the house. "The average height of a French woman then was 4'9". A tall man would reach 5'5"," she says, thus explaining the low doorknobs and low-to-the-ground chairs.
After the tour, Alvis gives directions to the Civil War museum, the chapel, and the restaurant. To the rear of the house are a life-size dollhouse and commissary.
Tezcuco: (225) 562-3929. Admission: $9 adults, $8 seniors. Open daily. Restaurant: Open for lunch Monday-Saturday. Accommodations: Rooms in the main house start at $125 and the cottages start at $65. Included are wine upon arrival, full breakfast either in the main house or brought to you each morning on a silver tray, and a complimentary tour.
San Francisco Plantation
With its yellow and blue exterior, San Francisco Plantation House is an exclamation point of color. The house was built in 1856 by French Creole Edmond Bozonier Marmillion. It's name comes from the French slang sans fruscins, which means "without a penny in my pocket." Its cost was high, even for the times.
To begin the tour, you enter the cool wine cellar. The brick floor is original, as are the wine racks and the bars on the windows to keep out wine thieves.
Upstairs awaits a riot of rooms and color. "There are 17 rooms in the house," your resident interpreter says. "The center room was the central passageway. There were no hallways."
You see family photos on the wall in the children's parlor. In the children's bedroom, take note of one of the house's five spectacular painted ceilings.
San Francisco Plantation House: (985) 535-2341 or toll free 1-888-322-1756. Admission: $10 adults, $5 students 13-17, $3 children 6-12. Hours: 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tours every 20 minutes.
Because it is thought to be the largest plantation house in the south, Nottoway is nicknamed The White Castle. As you pull into the long drive, the expanse dwarfs the river levee.
Built by Mr. and Mrs. John Hampton Randolph (their portrait overlooks the entry) in 1859, the house has 64 rooms, 200 windows, and 165 doors. They needed the space for their 11 children.
The interpreter explains the original bars on the lower windows. "It wasn't to prevent burglary," she says. "It was to keep out the sheep and cows."
Notice the attention to detail, from iron gallery railings on the front to the coal-burning fireplaces. The water system for Nottoway was in the attic, with huge cisterns providing water for the house.
Nottoway: (225) 545-2730. Admission: $10. Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Restaurant: Randolph Hall is open for lunch and dinner daily. Accommodations: Include 13 rooms, each with private bath and entrance. Room rates begin at $135-250 per night, double occupancy, and include a carafe of sherry; fresh flowers; morning wake-up call of sweet potato biscuits, orange juice, and coffee; full plantation breakfast; and a complimentary tour.
Built in 1787, Ormond Plantation calls itself the oldest French West Indies-style Creole plantation on the river. The main house was home to Mr. and Mrs. Pierre d'Trepagnier, who first grew indigo, then switched -- as so many did -- to lucrative sugarcane.
After being in the hands of a few other prominent Louisiana families, the plantation fell into disrepair. But beginning in 1943, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Brown, owners of a dairy in New Orleans, began a major restoration. The work continues today, and Ormond is now open for tours, dining, and bed-and-breakfast accommodations. Its 16 acres may be strolled at leisure. A gift shop holds a terrific selection of Louisiana books.
Ormond: (985) 764-8544. Admission: $5. Hours: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. daily. Accommodations: Three rooms in the main house are available for bed-and-breakfast. Room rates are $125 per night and include chilled wine with a fruit-and-cheese tray, a wake-up call, and breakfast.
It's every bit as spectacular as you could ever imagine. Twenty-eight trees make a perfect lane leading to the river. The trees existed before the house, as far back as the early 1700s.
In 1829, Jacques Telesphore Roman, a Creole sugar planter, built the present house (with its 28 columns) for his wife.
Twelve-and-a-half-foot ceilings rise above the lovely furniture. Doors sport faux-bois cypress, painted to look like mahogany. "The floor in the hallway had to be replaced," says the guide, "because the young boys liked to gallop their horses through the hall from the front door to the back door."
Family portraits of former owners line the walls, but the most stunning view is from the upstairs front gallery. It's a grand view of the alley of ancient oaks as they march toward the river.
"We have baby oaks in back," the guide says. "They're only 150 years old." Take a long look over the land. Don't you wish you could call Oak Alley home?
Oak Alley: (225) 265-2151 or 1-800-442-5539. Admission: $10 adults, $7 ages 13-18, $3 ages 6-12. Hours: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. March-October, 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. November-February. Restaurant: Open for breakfast (served in a Creole cottage) and lunch daily. Accommodations: Turn-of-the-century Creole cottages start at $105 and include a full country breakfast.
Dining on River Road
Aside from the restaurants listed with several of the plantation homes, two excellent dining experiences await hungry River Road pilgrims. The Cabin Restaurant in Burnside (intersection of States 44 and 22) offers fine Cajun food, including gumbo ($3.95), red beans and rice ($4.25), and a large selection of po'boy sandwiches ($4.25-$6.75). Finish off with a big helping of bread pudding ($1.50); (225) 473-3007. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday and lunch Monday. Located in Donaldsonville is Lafitte's Landing Restaurant at Bittersweet Plantation, where dinner is gorgeous and delicious.
Unfortunately the original restaurant suffered considerable damage in a fire this past fall, but will reopen in a new location on Valentine's Day. Chef John D. Folse's menu will feature the same superb food, and you can't go wrong if you choose their signature lamb dish, veal, or fresh fish topped with seafood sauce; (225) 473-1232. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday and lunch Sunday.
Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.