Some time ago I decided that we couldn’t leave the South without seeing at least one plantation, and what better phase of the trip to see plantations than New Orleans? There are quite a few to choose from: Destrehan, Laura, Nottoway, San Francisco… And then I saw pictures of Oak Alley, and I knew that was a place that I had to see.
We couldn’t have been luckier with the weather, as the sun shone down on us as we walked to Canal Street to pick up our reserved rental car, which was a much more painless process than I expected. Then we hit the road following GPS instructions from my phone. I swear I’m not a paid spokesperson for a phone company, but seriously, an international data plan is the best investment you can make for your holidays abroad. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had to use maps to find my way around and the Internet to check opening times.
Riding in a car above the swamps of Louisiana, listening to jazz on the radio, was quite an experience, and it didn’t overstay its welcome -it takes little more than an hour to drive from New Orleans to Vacherie (!), where Oak Alley is.
Okay, Oak Alley… Where do I start! Well, my first impression was: it looks exactly like in the pictures. This isn’t one of those times where the place has been romanticised and all the pictures are from the one good angle and it never lives up to reality. This time, it’s all really that gorgeous, from all angles and even on the inside.
The ticket includes free access to the grounds of the plantations (the eponymous oak alley included) and a guided tour of the interior of the mansion. After the disastrous experience of Dolmabahce in Istanbul last year I was wary of being forced into an organised tour instead of getting to roam the mansion freely, but the tour turned out to be immensely enjoyable. It was given by a very lively guide in period costume and an unapologetic Southern accent, and the stories and facts she told were very interesting (by contrast, the Dolmabahce guide only recited years and numbers). She told us that the house belonged to a French creole family until the Civil War, when the Southern economy plummeted, and then exchanged hands several times until finally being bought by a couple who lived in it for many decades before opening it to the public.
Shockingly, the trees were planted where they stand a solid hundred years before the actual plantation was built (which makes them 300 years old). It was a sugar plantation, as were most in Southern Louisiana, apparently because the climate is way too humid for cotton. The interior of the house is impeccably preserved in the 19th century style, and the high point of the tour was getting to the veranda, where the guide, with a well-timed flourish, flung open the doors to reveal a stunning view of the beautiful oaks outside.
We spent a few hours at Oak Alley in total, just walking around the place, taking in the view, admiring all the giant, gnarled and ancient trees, observing the slaves’ cabins… The place was in fact quite busy with people, 90% American as is usual by now, but it felt quiet and peaceful all the same. Seeing all the trees with Spanish moss hanging from their branches felt like the quintessential Southern experience as I’d come to expect it, and it was magical.
After a quick lunch at the café, we calculated that we had time to see one more plantation, and going back to the list from the beginning I settled on Houmas House, half an hour further away from Oak Alley.
After the success of our morning, it felt like nothing could live up to it, but that wasn’t the case at all: Houmas House is as beautiful and as impressive as Oak Alley, in a completely different way. For starters, the gardens are a spectacle: they have amazing, huge trees draped in Spanish moss like old ladies wearing lace shawls, but also beautiful multicoloured flowerbeds, all sorts of ponds and waterfalls, and Greek- and Chinese-style sculptures everywhere. It’s a mixture of Eastern and Western gardening, modern and traditional, and on paper it reads like it shouldn’t work, but it does.
The house is also visited in a tour, and again I was okay with that, as it was really comprehensive. What shocked me about both tours is that they’re very laid back about the property: they let people take pictures of everything, very few things are behind ropes or doors, and the guides encourage you to walk around and take a closer look at things, and often take things off shelves to show them.
This sugar plantation was bought by an eccentric millionaire called Burnside, an Irishman who allegedly came to the US as a stowaway when he was 12 and amassed a fortune on his own. Although there were once thousands of plantations in Louisiana (both guides reminded us that at one point before the Civil War a third of all millionaires in the US lived on the brinks of the Mississippi), now only fourty remain. We were told that Burnside managed to save his plantations from being seized or destroyed by claiming he was a British subject -a lie- and thus had immunity. It worked!
Unlike the popular Oak Alley, we were only six people at the 4:30PM tour at Houmas House, so we had the gardens practically to ourselves. We walked all around, dodging the occasional bride, while the shadows grew longer, finding new corners and nooks with different plants or ponds.
The key to how different these two plantations are is, I think, that while Oak Alley is managed by a foundation, Houmas House still has a personal owner, a man who in fact still lives on the premises (in rooms that are part of the tour, by the way -his desk was right there in one of the historical offices!). Where Oak Alley is stately and elegant, Houmas House is colourful and original.
On the way back, we drove down one of those endless roads above the water that we saw from the plane when we got here, and there was a plane flying above us, seeing us the way we saw it just a few days ago. By this time the radio was playing country, in preparation for the future.
It was a fantastic day, everything we had hoped for and then some, and it was a beautiful finish to the New Orleans leg of our trip. My only regret was that we didn’t get to listen to any live jazz on our last day, but as I was writing the very beginning of this entry a marching band paraded right next to our house! It was just long enough for us to open the windows and see the musicians walk around the corner, but it was a goodbye of sorts from the city.
Tomorrow: road trip to Memphis, Tennessee!