There's so much to do in New Orleans that a tourist might be forgiven for overlooking attractions just outside the city. But whether you're here for a festival or a convention, or just to party on Bourbon Street, consider adding a tour of a historic plantation or a swamp teeming with alligators to your itinerary.
Several of these attractions are well within an hour's drive on New Orleans. Jean Lafitte Swamp Tours, Laura Plantation and Oak Alley Plantation, among many others, are served by tour companies that offer pick-up and drop-off at French Quarter hotels. No need to rent a car, and you can do the tour in a half-day if you're squeezing it in between meetings, concerts or the eating and drinking that ordinarily takes up much of a tourist's time in New Orleans.
The swamp tours, south and downriver from New Orleans in the waterways and bayous that lead to the Gulf of Mexico, come in two varieties: fast and fun airboats that zip through the water, or relaxing scenic cruises on flat-bottomed barges.
My cruise with Jean Lafitte Swamp Tours traveled on a barge through manmade canals to Bayou Aux Carpes. The waterways are lined with green walls of willows, tupelo gum trees, and the knobby-kneed, moss-draped cypresses.
We passed a handmade wooden sign that read, "You are now entering gator country," and saw at least a half-dozen gators in the water. Passengers also got to handle a baby alligator onboard, for which the company has a special permit. Other wildlife in the area includes turtles, herons, egrets, cormorants and deer.
Separately I booked a trip to see Laura Plantation, one of a half-dozen plantations on the Great River Road along the Mississippi River. The Laura tour starts in the Big House, completed in 1805, which does not appear as grand as other plantation homes you may have seen.
"When people think of plantations, they think of Tara," from "Gone With the Wind," said Norman Marmillion, who manages the property. "But this was Creole architecture, with influences from Europe, the French-African slaves and the native Indians. And even though they did business here, they didn't want the house to impress anybody. They didn't want you to see that they had any money."
The house is raised off the ground, facing the water, with a broad roofed porch to take in the river breeze and provide shade. In the Creole tradition, it is multi-colored, with ochre exterior walls, a red roof, and trim in gray, green and mauve.
Laura Locoul Gore was born there in 1861 and was one of four generations of women who ran the plantation for 87 years. "In the Creole tradition, the business had to be given to the smartest child, rather than the English tradition of giving it to your eldest son," explained Marmillion.
Some plantation tours provide little information about the slaves who lived and worked there, but Laura's tour and a few others make a point of including slave history. A company called Old River Road Plantation Adventure offers tours called "Shadow of the Slave Master" and "Path of the Slave Revolt," and the tour of Laura includes a look inside wooden cabins where the slaves lived. Four of the original 65 slave cabins are still standing, and descendants of the slaves lived there until 1977, said Marmillion.
Some of the stories told on the Laura tour come from Laura's extraordinary handwritten memoir, which surfaced some years after her death in St. Louis in 1963 at age 102. She recalled realizing as a little girl that the slaves had been branded like cattle, and she describes how her mother once asked her father to stop the sale of a child so he would not be separated from his own mother. An annotated version of the book with photos, "Memories of the Old Plantation Home," is sold at the gift shop.
Even though the Civil War ended when Laura was very young, "she saw firsthand how the slaves had been treated and at an early age, she said, 'I'm not doing this. I'm leaving,'" Marmillion said. She sold the plantation in 1891.
Sugar cane is still grown at Laura on 1,500 acres along the Mississippi River. Visit at harvest time between Columbus Day and Christmas and you can chew on a freshly chopped stalk.
My van back to New Orleans stopped at Oak Alley, another well-known plantation along Great River Road. The driver announced a layover to wait for other passengers with enough time for lunch at the Oak Alley Restaurant. The Oak Alley mansion is quite grand, surrounded by imposing white classical columns, like some ancient Greek monument. But the restaurant is an unpretentious, affordable cafe with outstanding food.
I had the crawfish etouffee, served over fried eggplant, but the menu includes other traditional Louisiana fare like po-boy sandwiches, jambalaya and gumbo. I also had time for a stroll beneath the canopy of giant live oak trees, several hundred years old, that frame the front and back paths to the mansion. In English, the word "alley" evokes a small, dark space off a main street, but here the term "allee" refers to a grand tree-lined boulevard.
Oak Alley also offers overnight stays, as does Madewood Plantation, a bed-and-breakfast on Bayou Lafourche.
Other plantations include Destrehan, Houmas House, San Francisco, Evergreen, St. Joseph and Nottaway; check with the site or your hotel concierge on tour van options from New Orleans.
"There are a dozen or so plantations within a two-hour drive of New Orleans," said Mary Beth Romig, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. "You could really spend the day visiting if you planned it well."