When you come to explore New Orleans, you shouldn’t leave without visiting at least one of the sugarcane plantations along the Mississippi river. Plantations and their history belong to New Orleans must-see attractions as much as the French Quarter, Café du Monde, swamps and Mardi Gras. The Oak Alley Sugarcane Plantation picked our interest for its magnificent landscape and a large antebellum mansion.
Within one driving hour westwards from New Orleans along the Great River Road (LA- 18), you can reach several plantations. Each one of them offering a unique glimpse into Louisiana’s past. Today, these charming places offer a pleasant way to spend a day. You’ll also dive deep into the dark history of slavery that once powered the wealth and grandeur of the south.
Oak Alley Sugarcane Plantation
The view of the ‘Big House’ behind the 28 massive oak trees that form a magnificent alley, is a very picturesque one. No wonder it has appeared in several films, Interview with the Vampire being one of them. The 25-minute guided tour of the antebellum mansion uncovers 180 years of its history. You’ll gain insight into the luxurious life of the Roman family who built it in 1830’s up until the Stewarts who were the last owners in 1970’s, as well as the misery of those who served and laboured for them.
The richly furnished Big House, built in the Greek Revival style, features spacious entry hall with the living room and the dining room on the main floor. The upper floor has several bedrooms and offers a splendid view from the wrap-around porch supported by Doric columns.
As you exit the mansion, try the Bourbon Mint Julep sold at the stand by the entrance door.
Hidden behind the formal garden and under the canopy of more oak trees, the six reconstructed slave cabins stand in two rows. Inside them, the original artifacts, furniture and slavery exhibits document the poor life of enslaved men, women and children. You’ll get the picture of their life seeing the shabby cabins and basic furniture. The sight of the heavy shackles and chains they were punished with will squeeze your heart. The rags they wore as clothes and the tools they used for work. Their image will make you feel endlessly grateful for your own life situation.
Other exhibits on the property are the blacksmith shop, the Civil War tent and the sugarcane theater where you can learn about the cultivation and processing of the ‘white gold’ as the sugarcane was once called. Before you leave, stop by for a refreshment at the Plantation Café.
If you go to the Oak Alley Sugarcane Plantation
Plan 2-3 hours for the whole visit. Photographing is not allowed in the Big House. The upper floor is not accessible to wheelchairs and strollers. The Oak Alley Sugarcane Plantation is open for visitors every day between 9 am and 5 pm, but is closed on New Years Day, Mardi Gras Tuesday, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. You don’t need to order tickets online or make a reservation as the tours of the Big House run every 10 minutes on a first come first serve basis.
The best way to get there is by car but if you don’t drive, there are several tour companies that offer plantation tours directly from New Orleans. Don’t take a taxi or Uber as the driver would have to wait for you until you finish the plantation visit.
The entrance tickets for the Oak Alley Sugarcane Plantation are $25 for adults (19+), $10 for youth (13 – 18) and $7 for children (6 – 12). Tax is added on top. Children under 5 go in for free. They offer discount to seniors 65+, military, students and teachers and the holders of AAA or CAA cards. Before you come, you might want to check official tourism publications for a discount coupon.
If you would like to immerse yourself even more into the plantation experience, you can stay overnight in one of the 9 cottages located directly on the premises. Prices start from $175/night/cottage, taxes extra.
Other sugarcane plantations on the route
As you drive towards New Orleans from the Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, there are several other sugarcane plantations worth visiting. All plantations have the same thing in common: sugarcane and slavery. But they offer their own unique stories and a special way of presenting them. I recommend you pick one or two plantations that interest you the most, explore them in detail and then stop by the others for a short visit. The Oak Alley Plantation picked my interest for its magnificent landscape and a large mansion. It’s also the furthest from New Orleans. We started there and hopped from one plantation to another on our way to Nola (= New Orleans).
Not far from the Oak Alley Plantation is another popular and well-known plantation called Laura Plantation. The entrance is through the Gift shop where the admission desk is located as well. This plantation features a smaller mansion and premises covered with tropical vegetation and several different structures. The special thing about this plantation is the fact that it was run by 4 generations of Creole women. The guided tour that lasts for approx. 70-80 minutes walks you through the 200 years of Creole history and the Duparc-Locoul family. You’ll explore the 1805 mansion with raised basement and galleries, three gardens, sugar plantation homestead, original slave cabin, overseers’ house and other buildings. The tour is based on the stories from the diary of Laura Locoul Gore.
Further down the Great River Road, the Whitney Plantation offers an extensive educational display in the entrance building where you find the gift shop and the ticket office. Even if you don’t have enough time to visit the whole place, I recommend you stop by and explore the display. If you are from Europe where we learn about slavery in America just marginally, the display at this plantation is very eye-opening and informative. There are two rooms filled with information boards covering every aspect of slavery, plantation life, the Civil War and history up to the present days. The walls are covered with maps, documents, statistics, photographs and original artifacts. Whitney Plantation focuses on slavery and remembering those who laboured on this sugarcane farm. The 90-minute guided walking tour takes you through the Big House, church, authentic slave cabins, kitchen and outbuildings.
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Visible from the road, the beautiful Greek Revival mansion sits in a formal garden and has two majestic, semi-circular staircases winding up to the second floor from the front. This plantation has been featured in movies such as Django Unchained and Free State of Jones. It is the most intact plantation in the area and has been listed as a U.S. National Historic Landmark. With its 37 buildings included in the register of historic places it is the most complete plantation complex of the South. Interesting fact: it is still operational, it still grows sugarcane.
The tour takes approx. 90 minutes and they suggest you book a tour in advance.
The closest to the city is the Destrehan Plantation. Hidden among modern buildings, industrial facilities and sitting almost under a huge bridge (Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge), it doesn’t look like it belongs here. But the river bank looked quite different when this oldest documented plantation of the area was in full throttle. The plantation was established in 1787. It belonged to one of the most important statesmen of Louisiana, Jean Noel Destrehan. He was also a successful sugar baron. The property features picturesque grounds with amazing old live oaks covered with hanging veils of Spanish moss.
The tour of the Big House takes around 45 minutes after which you can explore the other exhibits and participate in period craft demonstrations such as indigo dyeing, weaving or candle making.
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This list of plantations is far from complete. There are other noteworthy plantations between Baton Rouge and New Orleans such as Houmas, Nottoway or San Francisco Plantation. We chose those listed above because they are close to each other on one side of the river. Furthermore, your can reach them within one hour from the city. Plantations are family-friendly so don’t hesitate to make visiting these landmarks a family trip.
Have you visited a plantation before? Which one? How did you like it? Please let us know in the comments below. We enjoyed the whole day of plantation hopping. As Europeans, we learnt a lot about the local way of life and slavery. It was a déjà vu. It reminded us of the bondage our ancestors also had to suffer in the dark times of European history.
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