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Driving the Back Roads of Louisiana

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By Stuart Wasserman

If you're headed to New Orleans and have a little extra time on your hands, you might want to drive some of the back roads of Louisiana — down avenues of social and architectural history and ending in a grand party outdoor romp that goes on for back-to-back weekends each spring.

Just follow the Mississippi from New Orleans toward Baton Rouge on the Old River Road, and you'll come across Donaldsonville, a town as old as New Orleans and drawn up by the same French city planner.

The fast way to Donaldsonville is up Interstate 10 to exit 182, also known as Highway 22. En route you'll notice several big plantation homes that dot the landscape.

The Nottoway at 25,000 square feet, may be the largest of all existing plantations in the South. It reopened after extensive renovations just a year ago in January 2009. The original owner, a Mr. Randolph, purchased 1,650 acres of land in 1842 for $30,000 and raised cotton with the help of 20 slaves. The house, which resembles the White House, was designed by an Indian architect, and the plans were torn up afterward so that the building could never be duplicated.

Down the road is the Houmas House, which at one time had land holdings of 300,000 acres and produced 20 million pounds of sugar a year. All of these plantations are close to or on the Mississippi River, which made it easy to transport the sugar and cotton.

Neither of these plantation houses is remaining idle. Kevin Kelly, the high-energy entrepreneur who purchased the Houmas House in 2003, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on embellishing the gardens that surround the property. Kelly wants people to come to the plantation, take the house history tour and then stay on enjoying the garden acreage.

"Bring paint brushes and an easel," he told me over lunch at one of the two restaurants on the premises. The curry pumpkin bisque and bread pudding were real treats.

Kelly recently added a teahouse and a water feature to the gardens and on occasion has invited the symphony from Baton Rouge to play on the grounds for the public. He considers himself a preservationist — he wants to preserve history through art and architecture though he did rile some purists when he painted the exterior of the Houmas House yellow instead of the traditional white.

"Go ahead, sit down in the chairs and feel free to touch things," says guide Judy Whitney Davis, who plays music on the sitting room piano.

The Nottoway just added a small but modern museum that tells the detailed Randolph family history and the history of the plantation. The Nottoway offers several overnight accommodations in the mansion, which is set in a pastoral landscape.

Donaldsonville itself was founded in 1806. I stayed at the Victorian on the Avenue, a comfortable B&B that is just a few blocks from several good restaurants and a small museum that focuses on black history called the River Road African-American Museum.

I found a comfortable restaurant run by a former owner of Café des Amis in Breaux Bridge, Cynthia Schneider. The Grapevine offers a similar good-feeling restaurant — warm and friendly with wholesome and spicy tasting dishes and good beer and wine selection.

Next I was off to absorb some Cajun culture that often involves a lot of beer and dance. Mardi Gras is a fine time to be in Lafayette. All the hot local danceable bands are in town, and you can catch them at Grants Dance Hall or the Blue Moon, both downtown Lafayette clubs, or the Whiskey River built on a levee overlooking the Atchafalaya Basin about 10 miles from Lafayette.

Two great festivals occur back to back in the spring, the Festival International de Louisiane, a music festival that draws musicians primarily from the French-speaking world, including Canada, Africa and the Caribbean.

This festival is spread across the downtown area of Lafayette and several streets are closed to all traffic. The festival offers three stages for music and dance. It takes place the last weekend in April and is free of charge.

The Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge is a little more country, spread over a county park with three stages of live music, cooking contests, crawfish-eating contests and dance areas filled with people from northern states who come down to dance to the upbeat zydeco and Cajun music with their Cajun cousins.

The established restaurants in the area like Mulates or Randols are great spots to dine.

"Mulates is the kind of place where grandmothers dance with their grandsons," a friend told me. There is something to that saying that the people of Cajun Country have a real joie de vivre.

A must-do in Breaux Bridge is the zydeco breakfast at the Café des Amis, located in the oldest section of town. About 10 years ago Dickie Breaux hired a zydeco band to play music during brunch to impress some visiting French dignitaries who were attending the Festival International. It was such a hit that live zydeco music is offered every Saturday morning 8:30 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. Lots of dancers crowd the floors.

In Cajun country some friends and I took the old Highway 31 from Breaux Bridge through St. Martinville and overnighted in a town called New Iberia before taking Highway 182 south the next day toward New Orleans. We were looking for steaks, and the hostess of the LeRosier Country Inn where we had booked our rooms told us there was no better place in the parish than Mr. Lester's on the grounds of the Chitimacha Indian Casino. She was right.

Lafayette offers a colorful Mardi Gras experience. On Fat Tuesday there is a day of family parades winding through downtown. I saw some in the late morning, caught lots of beads and then headed about 20 miles out-of-town to Eunice to watch a traditional country parade of young people coming back from the Courier du Mardi Gras, a day spent in the countryside where the younger folk amble down country roads knocking on neighbors' doors to say their pot for dinner is empty and asking if they have anything to give. Soon the young folk are chasing a chicken that if they can catch they can keep for a community gumbo later that day. This chicken chase is repeated many times throughout the day along with a little bit of alcohol consumption.

The afternoon is often capped off by a free two-hour Steve Riley concert in a park with hundreds of dancers kicking up their heels in front of the stage.

IF YOU GO

Nottoway Plantation: www.nottoway.com

The Houmas House: www.houmashouse.com

New Iberia, LeRosier Country Inn: www.lerosier.com. Recently renovated rooms with deep tubs.

Donaldsonville, Victorian on the Avenue: www.the-victorian-on-the-avenue.com

In Lafayette, the Carriage House in Riverplace offers sleek rooms, a great fitness center and swimming pool: www.thecarriagehousesuites.com.

Stuart Wasserman is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2010 CREATORS.COM.




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