Where do you even start with a road trip through Texas and Louisiana like ours?
15 days, 2 US states, 3 cities, 800 miles of driving + 1 internal flight, a serious amount of Texan Bar-B-Que, a swamp tour on a Louisiana bayou with gators and raccoons, music pouring from doorways, a small red car christened Bonnie (just because we could), 7 hotels (definitely a record for us, we usually like to make a single central base), a goat called Max, lasso lessons, 80s TV shows and as much Iced Tea as we could get away with.
People keep asking why we chose Texas and Louisiana for a road trip, and it’s mostly down to fascination and the amazing live music scene in both Austin and New Orleans. There are big festivals in Austin, but not knowing the bands we decided that a trip outside the chaos of tourists flocking there would be the most fun – intentionally out of hurricane season – so we booked our direct return flights to Austin and began planning.
Leaving behind the zooming traffic of the motorway, we turned from the busy I-110 to a gently curving US Highway 61 shouldered by dark trees and the occasional Mom and Pop business. The late afternoon sun broke over the horizon and our SatNav announced that were almost at our destination, the Butler and Greenwood Plantation.
Having followed the Mississippi River upstate from New Orleans slightly past the historic town of St. Francisville, we steered Bonnie along the curving driveway arcaded with Spanish Moss draped Live Oak trees, parting to reveal the kind of house that only seems to appear on movies. A deep wraparound porch hugged the timber frame and the late afternoon sunshine dappled the lawn.
We were greeted by two of the real owners (a tabby and a grey cat respectively) before the porch screen opened and our friendly host for the evening peeped out. Welcoming our gratefulselves to sink into her verandah sofa, Anne Butler gave us a map of the St. Francisville area alongside a few recommendations before telling us a short history of her beautiful family home passed through the generations, before arriving at the current iteration of B&B cabins in the grounds.
Behind the main historic antebellum plantation home, arranged around the pond and pool, the old kitchen (separate from the
main house due to the dangers of cooking over a real fireplace) and several cabins (some 1 bedroom, a few 2 bedroom) have been transformed into unique cottages complete with private double Jacuzzi, perfect for the hikers who summer in the Louisana and road-tripping tourists.
Visiting on the shoulder season, we could have had our pick of unique accommodation – the two bedroom 1796 Old Kitchen, complete with fireplace and porch swing…
…or the the Treehouse with a touch of hunting lodge luxe…
…but in the end we chose the simple beauty of the six-sided gazebo.
Overlooking the pond, our cabin featured nine-foot-tall antique stained glass church windows which set my heart a-flutter, a four-poster bed which was ridiculously comfortable and the double Jacuzzi which we sank into with relief. (In fact, I almost fell asleep in the tub, that’s how relaxed we became.)
The best aspect of our whole stay though? Being prodded awake at sunrise by Mr Kiwi who (thanks to jet-lag) had discovered the golden sun glowing through our windows. Breathtaking.
As the light gradually filled our room, we threw back the covers, popped our croissants into the oven, flipped the switch on a pot of coffee and poured a glass of orange juice for breakfast on our porch overlooking the still pond.
Sadly packing up our belongings, we took one last stroll around the gardens and grounds, simply content to absorb the moment.
Oh how I wish we would have had more time to explore. In the fifty acres of landscaped ground Anne told us how the plantings are timed to almost always have something scented draping the air,Cast-iron urns and benches date from the 1850s plus there is a large wildlife and bird population – herons on the pond, white-tailed deer, fox, bobcats, and chipmunks.
Sadly we didn’t have the time for any hiking (bar the urban kind in a maroon Nissan) but we did manage to potter down to the charming Main Street of St. Francisville, unmarred by kitschy tourist “improvements” that run right down onto the banks of the
With heavy hearts we watched New Orleans disappear from the
rear view mirror (well, ok, I kept an eye on the road with glances every so
often Dad) and we began our roadtrip in earnest. With a car full of snacks, a few
tunes on the radio and the satnav set to ‘wander’ we headed north along the ‘Ole Miss’ River.
After a few hedonistic (and rain-soaked) days in New Orleans soaking up the Jazz (not to mention beignet accompanied Hickory coffee) and gator spotting, we were ready to explore a little more history.
Whenever you decide on a a new destination to visit, there are always preconceived notions that float through your mind. Power suited business people striding through Manhattan, the striking, scretive peak of Mount Fuji, bowler hatted civil servants drinking pints in London, the cream hued stone of Paris and the golden minarets of the Middle East.
Just a short drive from New Orleans city we leave the Bayou waters behind and began to wind through the fertile plains of smaller towns like Valerie. Before too long road signs appeared for the wealth of Plantation homes that dotted the lush banks, built by families rich from indigo, corn, cotton and sugarcane. This was the romantic idea I had of Louisiana in my mind.
In 1682, Robert de La Salle claimed the area between the Great Lakes and
the Gulf Coast for France, hoping to stop the British from colonizing
land west of the Appalachian Mountains. In 1718, the city of New Orleans
was founded at the mouth of the Mississippi, giving the French control
of traffic on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
time and through a change of land ownerships (French, Spanish and back
to French) the state came under American rule, the unique mixture of
cultures (plus that of the Indian natives pushed further and further
from their ancestral homes) began to thrive on the back of West-African slave
labour. From simple farms to trading plantations fed with overseas
investment, previously simple Creole houses were given massive Greek
columns, curved stairs, semi-detached wings, and other architectural
elements popular at the time, reflecting the owner’s wealth.
Oak Alley Plantation, our first tourist stop, is named for the 800 feet (240 meters) long
canopied path created by a double row of southern live oak trees planted
in the early 18th century, long before the present house was built.
One of a chain of riverside manors, these Antebellum homes were the summertime abodes of
families who wintered in New Orleans (then often a day’s journey away by
horse and cart) though their indentured workers lived in huts year
round on the site.
In the 21st Century, we parked my little car and joined one of the guided tours around the beautifully kept interior rooms. The mansion has a square floor plan, organized around a
central hall that runs from the front to the rear on both floors and high ceilings that allow for plenty of cross-breezes on sticky summer evenings.
Led by guides dressed in period costumes, we learnt an astonishing range of facts, from the enormous ceiling mounted dining room Punkah or Shoe Fly Fan that a child slave used to fan the family and how silverware was laid tine downwards to display hallmarks. We also learned how the use of quarter candles (often just reeds dipped in tallow and
burned instead) that were intentionally short so visitors would have to
make their exit by the time the lights went out – was the (disputed) origin of the phrase the “short end of a stick”, said candles which were especially handy for Fathers to restrict beaus visiting their daughters.
The exterior features a
gorgeous free-standing colonnade of 28 Doric columns on all four sides that correspond to the 28 oak trees in the alley and a wrapround porch both at ground and first floor level that caught my breath with the majestic simplicity.
The interior rooms are painstakingly restored to a quintessentially 18th Century style. Our favourite tale? Because of the distances between cities visitors would often stay for weeks at a time, and a polite Southern way to tell them to get lost was to leave a whole pineapple on their breakfast tray the morning they should depart.
Oak Alley Plantation was properly #swoonworthy (as an aside, I feel as though I should trademark that hashtagged phrase.) Now kept by a trust, the property was designated a National Historic Landmark for its
architecture and landscaping, and for the agricultural innovation of
trees, performed here in 1846–47 by an enslaved gardener who had
particular skill creating a pecan that could be peeled by hand.
Once we had taken our fill of unbelievable photos, we headed along the road to the Creole inspired architecture of the Laura Plantation. Formerly known as Duparc Plantation, it is significant for its early 19th-century Créole-style raised
big house and several surviving outbuildings, including six slave
cabins. It is one of only 15 plantation complexes in Louisiana with this
many complete structures, and has been painstakingly restored after a fire gutted 80% of the building.
Laura Locoul Gore’s, the fourth mistress of the plantation, wrote a memoir Memories of the Old Plantation Home, providing much of the history and stories about life on Laura Plantatio, whilst Alcée Fortier was said to have collected Louisiana Creole versions of the West African Br’er Rabbit stories here in the 1870s.
Unfortunately most of my photos were on the other memory card that I lost in Texas, but I can’t ever forget the shock of hearing that direct descendants of the slave families were living here until 1977 or some of the abuse that indentured servants who effectively raised the children of the families were treated with.
“C’Mon Gators! COME AND EAT US” screams our captain as he lobs chunks of meat over the side of the boat.
Mr Kiwi and I swap uneasy looks with each other, both wondering if going on a swamp tour was such a brilliant idea after all. Miles from New Orleans we were floating on a glorified tin can, surrounded by rusting steel structures wrapped in mangroves and very little else as far as the eye could see.
We wait a just a little bit longer in apprehensive silence*. The
smooth surface ripples, two prehistoric eyes appear before an elongated
snout rises out of the murky waters. His** jagged back sways through
the water as he gets closer and closer to eating us, sorry, start
nibbling on the scraps of treats our captain threw in the water.
We all crowd over to the side of the boat, captivated by this primeval
creature who haunts the Louisiana Bayou. We learn (thanks to our
cackling captain) that the American alligator can grow up to 11.2 feet
(3.4 meters) long and
weigh nearly half a ton (1,000 lbs. or 454 kgs) but, due to the
time of year, we’ll only probably spot juvenile gators as the adults
retire with cooler weather to hibernate (or brummate to be technical) in
their riverbank burrows for the winter.
Much relieved, we try to forget the fact that they can swim up to 20 mph (32.18 km/h) – I looked it up – and simply marvel over the surprising grace he has, cutting through the calm swamp surface.
A congregation of smaller alligators live along the privately owned
Manchac swamp we are visiting, a wildlife refuge around 25 miles out of
New Orleans, where native flora and fauna live in an uneasy ecosystem
that dates back to the dinosaurs. And tourists gasp.
After taking up a little while of his busy gator schedule, we begin to drift along a different stretch of the bayou hoping to spot one of his mates or perhaps even catch a look at a larger, more territorial male that breaches the surface to take a much needed breath.
We float along peacefully through a few stretches, before the captain opens the full throttle to cane through long empty swathes of swamp. The adrenaline rush was incredible as the sheer speed of the vessel
knocks any kind of London-induced cobwebs from our brains and the
strength of the wind takes the breath from our lips. Mr Kiwi likened the rush to the experience of being on a motorbike, making smooth turns and decelerating rapidly.
Trying a few different areas where the vegetation beds are regular haunts for sunning lizards, we cut the speed and are guided through a small village. Sadly the effects of Hurricane Katrina can still be seen with broken houses folded in on themselves. Families are rebuilding their homes & lives on stilts, hoping that they can escape the next bout of extreme weather.
As we cruise further through, we spot native birds, the occasional turtle and a couple of family dogs that taunt the gators before the speed is cut further, and we glide into altogether more close area of bayou.
The interlacing tree branches create paths for gators to lay their eggs and nurture their hatchlings. We manage to peep at a few more baby alligators slipping around, but mostly enjoy the strange stillness of what feels like a very remote pocket of Louisiana. Switching off the motor, we just marvel at the tranquillity of the moment we’re in.
It also creates the ideal environment for cheeky raccoons to scamper along tree roots and wild pigs to rampage along the undergrowth. Our guide has lived in the areas since he was small and tells us of the amazing seasonal fresh food that the swamp and surrounding areas provides – catfish, shrimp, crabs, crawfish, alligator and all other kinds of deliciousness.
Laughing his butt off, our driver guffaws that “uhoh, we’ve run out of gas and won’t be returning to civilisation anytime soon.” We all chuckle and continue to snap our photos, quite safe in the knowledge that he’s stuck with us all for company and probably has scavenging skills that will keep us fed if we really had run out of gas – or that there’s another tour tomorrow morning that would rescue the townies.
Sadly all good things come to an end, and we begin to make our way back to civilisation and an evening of blues bars and oyster Po-boys. Our swamp tour was definitely one of the unique highlights of our short time in Louisiana, even though it’s a tourist classic.
I’m goin’ back some day, come what may, to blue bayou Where you sleep all day and the catfish play on blue bayou All those fishin’ boats with their sails afloat, if I could only see That familiar sunrise through sleepy eyes how happy I’d be
* OK, that’s a total use of writer’s license – actually the captain was telling us all about the ecological history of the bayou.
** We say he, but the boat captain says the only way to tell if a gator is a boy or a girl is to take them in your arms, flip them over and have a good gander. He’s only had one person in his career take him up his offer, and she was a fully trained vet. And crazy.
Please excuse the somewhat clickbait style post title, but I was at a bit of a loss how to describe our time in New Orleans, a city of Louisiana magic. The home of Jazz is heavy with music spilling from each corner, the buildings are redolent with French-style balcony railings perfect for people watching and Mardi Gras beads literally hang from the Jackson Square trees year round. Creole and cajun spices imbue meals with history, a melting pot of cultures mingle in amongst music notes that hover in the air and everyone we’ve ever known to visit talks about the city their eyes light up remembering the joie di vivre.
We wanted to love New Orleans. And we most certainly did. We adored our side trips (blatting on a boat through the Bayou to track down the coal-black eyes of alligators and a walk through the history of two quintessential Louisiana Plantations) but the city well and truly stole our wanderlusting hearts. With only 3 full days to spend in the city (2 full and 2 half to be utterly precise) we tried to fit in as much as we could, all the whilst dodging the rain drops that followed us over from Austin. After a 2-month drought.
(As a sidenote, this is city is where we watched the American presidential elections declare Trump to win, so it feels right to be posting about the magic of NOLA on such a historic weekend. There will always be hope in the amazing people of the US, no matter how his time in office goes. Look at how ‘Nawlins overcame and still is overcoming the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.)
Our favourite, absolutely must-do, have to revisit New Orleans spots were…
Taking a moment or six to fully appreciate the feeling of being on the banks of the Mississippi River (especially if you can’t spell it) before striding a very quick walk through the hilarious chaos on Bourbon Street
where tourists shot cheap, nasty liquors. (I think this might mean
we’re old and I don’t care.)
Finding ourselves aboard a sunset cruise on a real paddlesteamer, complete with jiving lounge band. Rollin, rolling on the river.
We discovered a little bar with a proper Dixieland vibe where saxes slid above double basses plucked with funk, toes tapped to the beat of washboards, trumpets danced and singers sang their hearts so blue. After a while we would then walk around another corner, and a brass quartet would smooth out the bars of a pop song before we mooched into a bar where the honky tonk beats were punctuated by lazy ceiling fans.
We luxuriated in the parade of live Jazz bars on Frenchman Street. We walked out of the pouring rain into the gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous velvet voice of Sarah McCoy a longtime regular of The Spotted Cat Music Club.
We had to try Cafe de Monde beignets heaped with powdered sugar and their Chickory laced cafe au lait (honestly, I preferred the coffee to the doughnuts but you can’t win ’em all) and then get lost outside of the French Quarter – there is so much more to this city.
(Just refrain from taking beignets into local stores though, the powdered sugar confections are clearly pesky menaces!)
Singing the Redbone’s Witch Queen of New Orleans at least 7 times.
I’m gonna tell you a story, strange as it now seems
of zombie voodoo gris gris and the witch-queen of New Orleans.
She lived in world of magic, possessed by the devils skew
from a shack near the swamp lands made of mudpie brick.
Marie stirred her witches brew…
Finally visiting a Guy Fieri approved Diner’s Drive-In’s and Dives establishment such as the delectable local Old Coffee Pot, and eating Oyster Po’Boys as big as our faces.
Trying a helping of gumbo along with a healthy service of Andoullie sausage and (we did both at the Old Coffee Pot.) This lovely local spot deserves two whole visits.
Not, er, falling for the tourist-hustling antics of “hey man, I like your shoes…” and end up at least a dollar lighter.
People watching from a French Quarter balcony, iced tea in hand, as they get tourist-hustled with “hey man, I like your shoes…” and they end up at least a dollar lighter.
Instagram stalking your friend a week after she visited (totally by coincidence) – nb: absolutely optional
Popping into the Royal House Oyster Bar for a sundowner and their ridiculously good Bananas Foster Cheesecake. I still dream about this bar – and we walked in totally by accident rather than design, well the first time anyway.
Visiting one of the famous cemeteries to pay respect to a host of historical figures final resting places including Marie Laveau’s infamous tomb (we found a brilliant walking tour) including Nicolas Cage’s future white pyramid tomb and the clever, if creepy tactics used to strategically re-use the limited cemetery space of New Orleans.
Uncovering the real difference between Voodoo and Hoodoo.
Discovering the friendliness of New Orleans locals. From our sweet-as-apple-pie concierge who upgraded us and recommended us to visit his hometown on our way up to Dallas, all the way to the girl who rearranged our tours to suit the weather a little bit better.
Staying fashionable at all times*, even in the pouring rain (note how I accessorised the temporary rain mac to match the handbag tucked underneath my elbow.) #realtravel *technically not a place, but it’s my blog and I’ll write what I want 😉
Learning how allegedly the name Jazz derives from Jass, the jasmine perfume of prostitutes that frequented the rowdy African American music bars (or a Chicago Baseball team ball term depending on who you ask.)
Eating blackened ham, sunny-side up eggs and warm buttery biscuits for breakfast at Mothers Restaurant, infamous for their ham. Even when we were there, longshoremen fresh off the river in their wellies (gumboots) and plenty of
locals rub elbows in line with visitors, veterans, politicians and
Riding the antique tramlines that criss-cross the city and nibbling a bag of caramel encrusted pecan nuts.
Spotting the Mardi Gras beads. Everywhere.
Learning the fascinating historical links that Jackson Square has had over the years – including from the 1920s through the 1980s as a gathering place of painters of widely varying talents. Oh, and the association with to quote our guide, a “rather dodgy” seventh President of the US, Andrew Jackson.
Our only regret was missing a visit to Mardi Gras World – the workshop/museum which gives a close-up look at some of the flamboyant floats and costumes used during New Orleans’ famous party. To book your own hotel stay (we paid for this in full) feel free to use the booking.com affiliate link here for your own magical adventure.
(Oh, and a bonus thing not to do – don’t accidentally drive on the tramlines – it was a rather stressful beginning to our roadtrip…)