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.