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Visitors to New Orleans generally want to see two things: the French Quarter and a plantation. Unfortunately, there are no plantations in the city itself, but there are plenty open to visitors who are willing to venture outside the city.
My wife had never been to New Orleans, so when we went there for a cousins reunion, she was able to check these two items off her to-do list. The first was easy because our hotel was located in the heart of the district. For the second, I turned for help to Bonnie Warner, a local journalist and sometimes publicist who has lived in the city for decades and knows just about everyone and everything.
My wife and I first met Warner over breakfast at Brennan’s Restaurant, a traditional New Orleans morning eatery. After we feasted on turtle soup, oysters Benedict and a crabmeat omelet, we drove for 55 minutes to the Houmas House plantation, one of nine between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
What makes Houmas House unique is that it is privately owned by a local entrepreneur, Kevin Kelly, who actually lives in the house. Kelly restored the home to its former glory and stocked the 23-room mansion with original furnishings, period antiques, objets d’ art and an extensive collection of paintings, especially those of Louisiana and other Southern artists.
He also added wonderful gardens and a restaurant/banquet hall and turned one of the property’s garconniere, or bachelor’s quarters, into a small bar where visitors could cool off from the long walks with a fine mint julep.
The setting is most remarkable — across the levee where the Mississippi River makes one of its 180-degree loops before heading southeast once again. Looking one way from the levee reveals the Mississippi spread out in picturesque glory; the picture the other way is of a corridor of ancient oak trees at Houmas House.
Houmas House boasts a long, grand history, and Kelly realized people wouldn’t be able to comprehend it all on the house tour, so he created a short film on the history of the property that encapsulates centuries and helps explain the plantation’s reason for being.
The house is named after the tribe of Americans Indians who originally lived in the area. As settlers moved into what is now Louisiana, the smallish tribe moved farther west. The first house on the property (now the rear wing) was built in the 1770s. Grandeur was attained in the 1820s, when Wade Hamilton, the largest sugar producer and slave-holder in Louisiana, bought the property and built the present house, making it one of the first columned mansions on the Mississippi River.
The peak of elegance came with the next owner, John Burnside, who purchased the house in 1858 as part of his vast sugar-cane plantation acquisitions. Burnside eventually became the largest sugar planter in America, boasting more than 300,000 acres and earning the title of “the Sugar Prince of Louisiana.”
Today Houmas House is called the Sugar Palace: Crown Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road.
Only 38 acres remain, and they are managed by a staff of about 50 instead of the 8,000 slaves who once toiled there.
“Plantations are our palaces and chateaus,” Kelly said, clearly proud of Houmas House, an ongoing project that keeps getting grander.
Kelly first invested in New Orleans warehouses and then renovated an old flophouse in the French Quarter into a lovely home. One day when he was driving in the Louisiana countryside with a friend, he saw a plantation being renovated for a new owner. He was so shocked that it was in private hands that he exclaimed. “What! You can buy these things?”
When Houmas House came on the market, he did, indeed, buy it.
The plantation is a popular wedding venue, and some couples who don’t get married there come to have their pictures taken. Also, in a region of epicurean delights, Houmas House has garnered a reputation as one of the area’s up-and-coming fine restaurants. Kelly brought in a young chef, Jeremy Langlois, who has put together a menu of Cajun specialties all done to his own vision.
It was here that I began to regret my breakfast at Brennan’s because when I sat down for lunch, I realized I still wasn’t hungry. The menu began with crab-cake appetizers and interesting soups, but all I ordered was a salad. I even had to pass on the bread pudding dessert.
There are many other things to do outside the city of New Orleans, too. One of them is the less-grandiose bayou or swamp tour. I took one in the Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve, where flat-bottom boats float down old canals that have been dredged through the bayou. The day I was there alligators were everywhere along the journey, sometimes following very close behind us. I had wondered if we would see any, and I wasn’t disappointed.
WHEN YOU GO
I stayed at the Bourbon Orleans (www.bourbonorleans.com) in the heart of the French Quarter and at the Hotel New Orleans, near the Warehouse District and Convention Center (www.hotelneworleansconventioncenter.com).
Almost anywhere you eat in New Orleans serves good Cajun dishes. Brennan’s Restaurant is most well-known for its unique breakfast offerings: www.brennansneworleans.com.
If you only have time for one plantation, Houmas House is the one to visit: www.houmashouse.com.
There are many swamp tours. I used Gray Line Tours in New Orleans: www.graylineneworleans.com.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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