Saturday, March 30, 2013

Walk Through History at an Old New Orleans Plantation


The last time I was in good ol' "NOLA" (the affectionate abbreviation for New Orleans, Louisiana) was in March of 2008 when I visited for a teacher's conference with some work colleagues.  I fell in love with the city during my stay, and admired many facets that make New Orleans so unique - the sweeping architecture, the Creole culture, the energy and exuberance of the French Quarter, and even the magical infusion of voodoo and history.

New Orleans, Bourbon Street, Louisiana
Come to New Orleans for a taste of the voodoo scene - highly commercialized, though!

And did I mention the food?  New Orleans cuisine is worth the visit alone.  Ghar-uhn-teeed (pronounced Cajun style)!

Last week I found myself wandering the streets of NOLA once more, thanks to another opportunity to visit the city and attend a technology-based teacher's conference (the SITE conference).  The event was great, and I now know how to make my own app - watch for my best-selling app to appear in the iTunes store one day soon! (I wish!)

After our first day of 'conferencing', my two travel companions and I had booked a tour to visit some of Louisiana's historical plantations.  I had booked us with the "Old River Road Plantation Adventure" tour company.  It offered three different tour packages at decent rates, showcasing the Laura Plantation, St. Joseph's Plantation, Evergreen Plantation, and Oak Alley Plantation.  At the time of booking, the website informed me that Laura Plantation was closed on Mondays (the day we wanted to tour), and that the Evergreen Plantation was closed due to a movie being filmed there.  With limited options, I chose the tour that featured St. Joseph's Plantation and Oak Alley Plantation.  The tour cost $70.00 per participant, and offered hotel pick-up.
Oak Alley Plantation, New Orleans, Louisiana, slave plantations
Oak Alley Plantation - one of the big highlights of any plantation tour.

We hopped on the shuttle that was to take us first to St. Joseph's Plantation. Our guide was very knowledgeable and acquainted us with some great facts that I hadn't known before.  Since I am a history nerd (learning about the history of a place is one of my favorite things about traveling), I want to share with you at least one of my favorite tidbits:
  • Louisiana was originally a French colony.  This fact I knew already.  What I hadn't known was how it got its name.  At the time that the colony was first being established, King Louis XIV (the Sun King) was 'ruler' of France.  However, Louis was only a small child when he ascended to the throne, and his mother, Ann of Austria, led the nation as his adviser.  Therefore, they were both technically rulers.  The founders of the colony of Louisiana wanted to name it after Louis, but that was too blunt and lacked a feeling of grandeur.  The Colony of LOUIS just sounded too plain.  So they blended the name of the joint rulers and called it "Louis et Ann", which is pronounced LOO-EE-AY-ANN.  When the Spanish came into Louisiana and took over, they kept the name but changed the pronunciation to fit the Spanish language, making the colony "Louis-y-Anna", pronounced LOO-ISS-EE-ANNA. Hence, the name we use today, Louisiana, was born.
There were many other fabulous stories told during our ride out to the plantations, but I highly encourage you to visit and hear them for yourselves!  If you want to know more and can't just fly out to New Orleans, feel free to comment below or email me.

Our bus drove for about an hour outside of the city of New Orleans, and pulled up in front of the Laura Plantation.  85% of the bus disembarked to tour the Creole plantation in all of its glory.  I was a bit indignant - according to the website, the Laura Plantation had been unavailable for Monday tours. If I had known that we could go, I would have booked it!  Oh well.  It wasn't a big deal.  We watched the large group stroll into the grounds of Laura, and then the bus driver took our tiny group of five to the St. Joseph's Plantation.

Laura Plantation buildings, New Orleans, Louisiana, Creole Plantation
A cabin from the Laura Plantation - pretty flowers!

St. Joseph's is literally a six-minute drive down the road from the Laura Plantation, and Oak Alley is another two minutes down that same road.  All of the commercial plantation tours seem to be in the same area.  There are many plantations that are still operating today, but those are closed to the public and are more spread out.  All the plantations in the New Orleans area are in the sugar cane industry - cotton is not grown in this area at all, so don't expect to see any!

sugar cane fields, sugar cane seedling, New Orleans, Louisiana
Sugar cane - looks just like clumps of grass!

As we drove into the St. Joseph's Plantation, our driver pointed out another grand looking mansion - the Felicite Plantation.  I got very excited as this plantation is where one of my favorite movies, "The Skeleton Key", was filmed.

New Orleans plantations, Skeleton Key plantation, Skeleton Key mansion
The Felicite Plantation - a Hollywood favorite!

St. Joseph's Plantation is owned and operated by a family group, the Waguespack and Simon families, who have owned it for hundreds of years.  It was a family home until about 10 years ago, in fact. At that point, the family decided to get into the plantation tour business, so they renovated and opened up the building and grounds to the public.  Our tour guide was a descendant of the last true plantation owners, and grew up inside the house.

St Joseph from behind, New Orleans plantations, Louisiana, slave plantation
The St. Joseph's Plantation as seen from the backyard

It was a nice tour, but nothing that I would highly recommend.  It was obvious our tour guide loved the home, and every object and room was near and dear to her heart. However, the tour was lengthy, over-personalized, and dry.  The only really spicy stories came to us in the 'Mourning Room', where Jean, our guide, told us of her grandmother's death (she burned to death in the backyard after setting herself aflame by mistake on a windy day), and the death of her great-uncle.  He and some neighbors had fled to a local church during a tornado, and when the roof of the church collapsed, Jean's great-uncle covered the bodies of his children with his own.  They all survived the tornado and the roof collapse, but Jean's great-uncle was axed in the head by his rescuing fire-fighters, and was killed instantly.  The children survived.

St Joseph's plantation, New Orleans plantation, Louisiana history
Items from St. Joseph's: a mourning gown, a mustache cup (kept the mustache dry when drinking tea), one of the several antique clocks, children's beds

After the tour, we ducked out into the grounds of the plantation and explored the old slave houses that dotted the fields. Compared to the wide-open, large, and lavish plantation home, these houses were tiny little duplexes that were designed to squish in eight to ten people within the living quarters.  It was truly eye-opening.

oak tree with slave cabins, St Joseph's slave cabins, New Orleans plantations, Louisiana
The slave cabins at St. Joseph's Plantation

St Joseph's slave cabins, New Orleans plantations, Louisiana history
Interior of a slave cabin at St. Joseph's Plantation

Our next stop was the majestic Oak Alley, built in 1839 as a 'honeymoon palace'.  Where St. Joseph's was simple and quaint, run by a family and operated with love, Oak Alley was a tourist attraction at its finest.  Oak Alley had a gift shop, restaurant, places to stay overnight, and a massive parking lot.  The plantation mansion and grounds were impeccably kept.  It was all impressive and grand - but very tourist-oriented.  (And I don't say that negatively, because I freely admit I am the biggest tourist of all sometimes.)  It was just so very different from St. Joseph's.

There were no morbid stories, such as the ones offered by Jean about her family tragedies, but the tour guide was engaging and funny.  He told us about the "courting candle" and the "ladies tea" in the parlor, which elicited several laughs, and interacted with the audience quite a bit.  

Oak Alley history, New Orleans plantations, Louisiana history
Top Left: While men drank sugar cane spirits, women had to drink 'fruit tea' - fruit soaked a jar of spirits. Much more lady-like! Bottom Left: The master suite, with the only original piece of furniture - the cradle.  Right: The courting candle. The candle was set to high or low, depending on how much the family liked you. When the candle burned to the first coil, the date was over!

My favorite part of Oak Alley was its name-sake: the beautiful and imposing oak lined alley leading up to the plantation mansion's front doors.  It was picturesque and postcard perfect.

Oak Alley plantation, New Orleans plantations, Louisiana history
The Oak Alley walkway

My least favorite part of Oak Alley was the Mint Julep drink.  Considered a Louisiana classic, it is made of three parts bourbon, one part mint syrup, and one sprig of mint.  It is disgusting.  I hated it, as you can tell by my face.

Mint Julep drink, bourbon drink, mint drink, Oak Alley plantation, New Orleans drink
Oak Alley's Mint Julep drink - a famous and traditional Louisiana beverage


I hated that stupid Mint Julep!

I highly recommend a trip out to see Louisiana's plantation country.  Pick and choose according to your tastes - St. Joseph's Plantation if you want to see a family-run plantation, probably looking much as it did 100 years ago, or the Laura Plantation for a Creole plantation experience, or the Oak Alley Plantation for a movie-quality experience.  Or just go see them all!



Explore the plantations with me!

4 comments:

  1. Try the blackberry Julep next time! YUUUUUMMMMM!

    Thanks for visiting with us!

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    1. That's the one I WANTED to try, but we decided to go traditional. Your ladies at the counter did warn me in advance that the Mint Julep was strong... Oh well. You all run a fantastic organization! Oak Alley is beautiful! I hope to be back!

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  2. Next time, I think I will visit more than one plantation! Sounds like there is quite a bit of variety! I did the self tour to plantation country a couple weeks ago - staying the night at Nottoway Plantation. It was pretty awesome to spend the night and do a tour of the mansion in the morning! Loved it. Shared some of Nottoway on my blog - http://traveldestinationbucketlist.com/2013/03/22/stepping-into-old-world-charm-at-the-nottoway-plantation/

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    1. Yes, there seems to be tons of different styles and levels of maintenance at each plantation. We didn't tour the Laura Plantation, but it was extremely different from both Oak Alley AND St. Joseph's. I did not get to see Nottoway - staying overnight sounds like a great experience! I will check out your post for sure! :)

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