Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, if you don’t have a stomach strong enough to bear miles of industrial blight, hop onto the I-10 freeway, but if your senses can handle the constant juxtaposition of refined domestic design alongside unsightly industrial complexes, with a few trailer parks, upscale vacation homes, and photogenic aboveground cemeteries thrown in for good measure, the Great River Road is full of treats, and this 100-mile traverse of Plantation Alley may well be a highlight of your trip. To 19th-century passengers aboard the packet steamboats traveling the lower Mississippi, the great mansions adorning the river bends between Baton Rouge and New Orleans must have made an impressive sight. The houses are no less grand today, but, sadly, their surroundings have been degraded by the presence of enormous petrochemical refineries. These have, by and large, replaced the antebellum sugarcane fields as the region’s economic engine, but in late summer when the cane is 10 feet tall and the smell of molasses fills the air, you can almost pretend nothing has changed.
Giving directions along Plantation Alley is complicated by the winding Mississippi, with its bridges and ferry boats, by the numerous roads and highways, and by the fact that the region is equally easy to explore from Baton Rouge or New Orleans, but it’s as a good place as any to get lost and found again, so take your time and enjoy the ride. Nottoway, Houmas House, Oak Alley, and Laura are four of the most popular and memorable plantation estates, but there are many along the way, in varying stages of restoration and decay.
Heading from the north to the south, as the river flows, the first of these riverside manors is Nottoway (225/545-2730, daily, $20, $119 and up), among the largest plantation homes in the South. Built in the 1850s, it was also one of the last “big houses” to be built. On the western shore of the Mississippi, along Hwy-1 about two miles north of the town of White Castle, Nottoway is a bright white Greek Revival structure enclosing over an acre of floor space, so you’ll be glad you don’t have to pay the air-conditioning bills or do the dusting. If you like the look of it all, you can stay for lunch in the grand dining room or overnight in one of many lushly appointed rooms.
The most familiar (and easiest to reach) of Louisiana’s plantation homes, Houmas House (40136 Hwy-942, 225/473-9380, daily, $24), stands on the east bank of the Mississippi amid 38 acres of manicured grounds. Another of Louisiana’s grandes dames, Houmas House is a dignified complex of buildings constructed over many generations, mainly between the 1780s and 1840s. The main building is composed of white columns and rich red-ocher walls supporting a central belvedere (like a cupola) from which the antebellum owners could survey their domain. Today, the endless seas of sugarcane have been replaced in part by the monstrous sprawl of the neighboring DuPont plant. Once the seat of a massive 475,000-acre sugarcane plantation, Houmas House may well look strangely familiar: The stately home was used as the setting for Robert Aldrich’s 1964 Gothic Southern horror film, Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte, starring Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten, and Bruce Dern. B&B rooms and a restaurant are also available.
Located on Hwy-942 near the hamlet of Darrow, Houmas House is just five miles southwest of the I-10 freeway via Hwy-22 or Hwy-44, and it is about five miles north of the Sunshine Bridge (Hwy-70) over the Mississippi.
Traveling along the GRR, moldering concrete mausoleums, houses with loud colors and louvered French doors, and insouciant pedestrians along the levee (not to mention the dangerously large potholes) may arrest your attention briefly, but Oak Alley (3645 Hwy-18/Great River Rd., 225/265-2151, daily, $22) will probably stop you in your tracks. This place is to antebellum plantations what Bora Bora is to islands, or the Golden Gate is to bridges: Even if you’ve managed to avoid seeing Oak Alley on tourist brochures, or in the movies Interview with a Vampire or Primary Colors, it will look familiar—or rather, it will look exactly like it ought to. Plus, no cooling tower or gas flare mars the immediate horizon. For the full effect of the grand quarter-mile-long allée of arching live oaks, which were planted in the 1700s, nearly a century before the current house was built in the late 1830s, drive past the entrance a short ways. Besides the obligatory tour, there’s lodging and a restaurant in buildings on the grounds surrounding the main house.
Oak Alley stands on the west bank of the river, about four miles west of Vacherie. The house is about 15 miles south of the Sunshine Bridge and 8 miles west of the Veterans Memorial Bridge (Hwy-3213).
As a colorful antidote to the grand whitewashed privilege on display at Oak Alley, set aside some time for a tour of nearby Laura Plantation (2247 Hwy-18, 225/265-7690, daily, $20) as well. Smaller, but seeming more in touch with the realities of sugarcane plantation life, Laura presents itself as a Creole plantation and plays up the myriad of ethnicities and cultures that came together in Louisiana. Laura is three miles downriver from Oak Alley.
Continuing south from Vacherie, scattered housing begins to invade the sugarcane, and traffic starts to pick up as the GRR (Hwy-18) works its serpentine way past a pair of ferry landings, a nuclear power plant, and a huge chemical plant with a photogenic cemetery felicitously occupying its front yard. By the time the GRR is within sight of the stylish, rusty-red I-310 bridge, the tentacles of New Orleans’s bustle are definitely apparent. Hop on the interstate eastbound, and inside of 25 miles you can be hunting for parking in New Orleans’s Vieux Carré, or searching for a Sazerac to celebrate the journey.