Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Southern Comfort - Part One

As we've grown older real vacations have been fewer and farther between. That’s going to change as I slip into full retirement, hopefully soon. Over a month ago an incredible opportunity dropped into my lap for a four-star, four-day stay in New Orleans. It’s been over ten years since we have been there and we jumped at the chance to go again. I just love that city. This is the kind of place where mature adults who don't golf or care to hear Jimmy Buffet music at the pool go to for a spring break good time.

With four days to explore we did our best to cover as much territory as possible. The plan was to balance the best of two worlds by taking a few short day excursions into swampy and rustic Cajun country as well as experiencing the best the city of New Orleans had to offer.

My cheap-ass airfare deal placed us on the tarmac of the Louis Armstrong International Airport six hours prior to our hotel check-in time. Southwest Airlines provided us with the usual, affordable and flawless flight out of Midway/Chicago that delivered us to the gate ten minutes early. So what to do with the spare time, get drunk at a Bourbon St. bar? A massage at the hotel spa? Nope, we headed west along the Mississippi River in our groovy, black Chevy Impala Hertz rent-a-car with a full tank of fuel.

She wanted to see some historic plantations and I wanted to head off into Cajun swampland. This was a nice compromise. We begin a scenic drive with the south bank of the big river and tall reinforcement levee to our right most of the way. I absorbed as much scenery as possible for an attentive driver on route. Tiny crossroad towns, small pockets of poverty along with chemical plants coexisted with sugar cane fields. It was a twisty narrow sliver of a two-laner with ruts and ditches where road shoulders should have been. Oncoming traffic alternated between Bigfoot-style pickup trucks and chemical tanker semi’s going twice my speed in the opposite direction. There were other plantation tours on the way but most were more recent structures in very poor shape.

The land surrounding the Mississippi River west of New Orleans through Louisiana and up into the state of Mississippi was divided into narrow frontage land parcels in the 1700’s. The average plots were deep, covering 1200 acres on average but the feature that drew investors and wealthy settlers was easy access to river transportation and commerce.

Our destination on day one was Oak Alley, a Plantation west of the small town junction of Vacherie in St. James Parrish about 50 miles west of New Orleans. This plantation is a tourist destination due to it’s location and also being one of very few established pre-civil war plantations still standing and in good shape.

We were not disappointed. The price of admission gets you access to the grounds and a tour of the house. I was suspicious at first because I am not one to snoop around in other folk’s homes but most women relish the opportunity (convince me I am wrong, I dare you). The weather was outstanding with low humidity, temps in the upper 60’s under bright blue partly cloudy skies.

Once on the plantation the first photo I snapped was of this little lizard on the edge of a sign at the entrance. Not a bad start.

Approaching the home on a brick sidewalk flanked by a grove of living 300 year old oak trees in full spring bloom was as breathtaking as the aroma was intoxicating.

Nearing the home, locals dressed in period outfits smacked of tourist-y schmaltz but WTF. A lady in a hoop skirt informed us that a group tour was just beginning. Lucky me, I hate waiting in line. Her undeniable Cajun accent added a nice touch. No photos were permitted in the home but it was faithfully restored right on down to the fabric fan over the dining room table attached to an overhead pulley and rope that a young slave child sitting in a corner would pull on to activate a breeze while the French Creole owner and guests would dine. The long table seated 20 or so.

The notion of slavery suddenly hit me as it never has before. Human beings were bought and sold for cheap labor. It is a pox on our nation's past that we continue to suffer from collectively to this day and possibly forever. One sign listed the slaves who once toiled on this sugar cane plantation and the price that was paid to purchase them.

The sign identified individuals along with families both male and female. The list described their origin along with their value. One who held the title of mason was worth $1500, the most valued, It seemed. They were divided into both house and field slave categories. It made my skin crawl knowing I was standing on the same soil. Click to enlarge, see for yourself.

During the tour little was mentioned about the quality of life for slaves and concentrated on the lavish lifestyle of the French Creole plantation owners. Not much of the scripted information spoke to the treatment of slaves by these specific owners but even if these were kind and benevolent plantation owners being a slave had to be a life of nothing but sh!t.

There was an outbuilding that was said to be the kitchen but the structure was not original. In the late 1700’s a kitchen was not part of the main building due to fire hazard. In the structure that day was a gentleman who was very knowledgeable in civil war history. He was a re-enactor type wearing a confederate uniform, weapons and was made available for questions and conversation. I asked him what happened at this plantation during the war. His answer was that all plantation owners either kept a low profile or evacuated since strategic control of the river was a priority for both sides in a fierce fight. Most plantations of the day were burned, making Oak Alley rare to be standing today. It was a valuable landmark used for riverboat navigation by both sides due the grove of oak trees visible from the river.

It was well worth the time. To me, learning something new, absorbing historic and current local culture along with the ability to come and go wherever and whenever I please is my formula for a great getaway. That’s why I avoid cruise ships and Caribbean resorts.

SIDEBAR: On the way to the plantation that day we stopped at a Louisiana-rustic restaurant and market east of the small town junction of Vacherie. Simple curiosity and a mention in one travel guide claimed it was a local treasure so we were looking for it. The travel guide made note of their deep-fried boudin sausage balls and how they made great car-snacks. That alone tipped it in for me. With a name like deep-fried bodin-balls they HAD to be good. They were delicious and would have been perfect if not for being cold in the center. But we lived.

This was the beginning of what would be a very enriching trip.

To be continued….


Dan from Madison said...

Wonderful photos. My wife and I eloped to NO 15 years ago and used to go back every year to celebrate our anniversary. One year we deviated from NO and stayed at a b and b in Lafayette and made the drive from the airport to Lafayette and back. It is like another world, as you are describing so vividly.

We also toured the Tabasco plant, that was cool, among other tourist traps. We saw something like you have pictured above with the trees lining the entrance, but not to that extent - wow!

Dan from Madison said...

New label too, good one! Better than "random".

Carl from Chicago said...

Great photos and I am jealous that you are out of the crappy midwest weather