Sightseeing in Southern Louisiana: Plantations, Bayous, Barrier Islands, and New Orleans

We arrived in Louisiana 6 days before our build was scheduled in order to do some typical tourist stuff. I’d never been in bayou country or seen the city of New Orleans so I was eager to visit a plantation, take a swamp boat tour, and experience some Cajun and Creole culture. We were fortunate to do all that and more.

We started with a visit to Laura Plantation, a huge Creole sugarcane plantation along the Mississippi. There are dozens of plantations that can be toured in Louisiana but what intrigued me was the narrative focus of the tour at Laura: the stories of the family and the slaves as told through the memoirs of one of the last members of the family. As drama-filled as these stories are however, our tour guide Camille really brought them to life, richly interweaving Creole culture and history with what is known of the family and the slaves who lived there. I was enjoying listening to Camille and so didn’t take any decent pictures of the outside of the plantation house but stepped back from the tour for a moment upon reaching the slave quarters to take a few photos; seeing the small buildings – each of which housed two families – in which hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children lived was incredibly striking.

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Searching for another plantation Tom had visited years ago brought us inadvertently to Shadows-on-the-Teche, a Greek Revival town home of the Weeks family, who ran a 3,000 acre sugar plantation on what is now named Weeks Island. Located in New Iberia along the Bayou Teche, this smaller home features classical architecture and a standard Louisiana colonial floorplan favored by the Anglo-Americans; a striking contrast to the colorful, decorative houses of the French-descended Creole people. Our tour guide Molly provided us with a rich historical context in relating the fortunes of the Weeks family, giving us an alternative view of the elites in 19th century Louisiana.

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Near St. Martinville we visited the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site which includes a Creole cottage and a reproduction of an 18th century Acadian farm; sadly the outbuildings and the farm were shuttered for the winter but the brief tour of the cottage was interesting. In town nearby we stopped to see the Evangeline Oak which commemorates Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem Evangeline, a fictionalized account of the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia. The live oak tree supposedly marks the spot where the maiden (re-)named Evangeline was reunited with her lover.

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Next up was a day spent exploring the French Quarter in New Orleans. On the way we drove through the garden district around St. Charles Avenue, an area famous for the elaborate mansions built by the Creole plantation owners of the Mississippi, but our main objective was to explore the French quarter by foot so we spent less than an hour spectating. We parked near the river on the south side of the quarter and made our way to Jackson Square and from there we spent the afternoon just wandering back and forth, crisscrossing the streets of the French Quarter. I tool a lot of pictures, Tom had some jumbalaya, we both had a beer, and Abby did a lot of smelling. We stayed until sunset pointing out the wrought iron railings and manicured courtyards and then walked back to the car.

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We also spent an afternoon down in Grand Isle, a town located at the terminus of Louisiana Highway 1 on the barrier island of the same name. I’ve spent a good amount of time along the Atlantic Coast and am accustomed to seeing beach houses perched on stilts, but seeing schools, libraries, and churches elevated 10 to 20 feet was something different. After we drove through the small town we ended up taking a leisurely walk along the coast watching Abby run around – and the birds scatter accordingly.

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My favorite activity however was the swamp tour we took with Captain Tony and his company, Atchafalaya Basin Backwater Adventure Tour. We met up with Captain Tony at his house and launched across the street in Bayou Black. In addition to living along Bayou Black his whole life, Captain Tony is a retired master navigator and so had extensive knowledge of the waterways in addition to the flora and fauna. While I think many people go on swamp tours in hopes of seeing alligators, Tom and I were much more interested in the ecosystem and the culture of the people who live along the banks of the bayous. Among the many things he pointed out: the 2 types of cypress trees, saw palmetto, the willow trees that the Native Americans harvested the bark of for asprin, the (introduced and invasive) gardenia, apple snails, and wild bay leaf and camphor – both of which he picked and crushed in his hand for us to smell. He also told us of the prevalence of the introduced nutria rat from South America, the types of local freshwater of brackish fish, and black bears. Yes, they have black bears in the swamp. Go figure.

We motored about for over 2 hours, enthralled with Captain Tony’s explanations of the geological origins of the bayous, their control through levees, and how the management of both the Mississippi River and the Louisiana bayous prevents silt from being deposited and thus land being formed. This latter issue is actively causing the compaction and simultaneous sinking of existing soil which exacerbates flooding. We also crossed over buried pipelines running from the Gulf and saw Cypress trees split open by lightning. The breadth of his knowledge was amazing. But if I had to pick my favorite part of the ride it would be the side trip to what was once the holding pond of a sawmill that was constructed on created land in the earliest years of the 20th century. The mill corporation built the company town here of Donner, which housed hundreds of workers and their families and had a school, church, store, and more. In total, thousands of people lived here in the following 4 decades, milling the virgin cypress forest and raising families in the isolated community. Today only the remains of the drying kiln are left, the rest of the town having been flooded after the company liquidated in 1938.

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