Louisiana: Step back to a bygone age

By Paul Rush

Rhett Butler and Scarlett come to life for Paul Rush as he visits the deep South.
Visitors to the Oak Alley Plantation walk through the dappled shade of the avenue to the main house at Vacherie, in Louisiana. Photo / Paul Rush
Visitors to the Oak Alley Plantation walk through the dappled shade of the avenue to the main house at Vacherie, in Louisiana. Photo / Paul Rush

The Old River Road winds its way along the banks of the Mississippi from New Orleans all the way to Baton Rouge. Highway 18 is protected by a high earth levee, which keeps Old Man River out of sight but not out of mind.

At every turn in the road a picture-perfect scene from a bygone age comes into view. Stately mansions rest in silent splendour, their classical Greek columns, elaborate wrought-iron balustrades and high dormer windows just visible through the leafy margins.

These grand plantation mansions date from the 1840s, when sugar was king, slave labour was cheap and bold entrepreneurs made great fortunes.

That brief antebellum era was known in Louisiana as the Golden Age. The opulent southern lifestyles of that privileged era have gone with the wind, but the legacy of more than 20 fine mansions remains. Some are open to the public.

As the road makes an abrupt turn round a big bend in the river, I see a spectacular sight.

A great house surrounded by Doric columns stands in park-like grounds. A long driveway leading to the house is straddled by ancient oak trees whose branches interlock to form a continuous canopy. It's the most impressive sight I've seen on my scenic drive.

Parking the car, I walk along the 600m avenue linking the mansion to the road, counting 28 oaks in two perfectly parallel rows. At the front door a tall, distinguished man steps forward with an outstretched hand. He is dressed in the sombre grey uniform of a Confederate Army colonel complete with a sword at the hip.

"Welcome to Oak Alley, we are at your service," he says in a stentorian voice but with a friendly tone.

A buxom woman dressed as a "southern belle" also welcomes me in the grandiose style of southern hospitality. She has dark hair, a pure white blouse with puffed sleeves and her hooped skirt polishes the wooden floor as she moves gracefully through the house.

The lady has a pronounced southern drawl, and I have to concentrate hard to follow her commentary on the four families that have occupied the mansion. Three hundred years ago an unknown French settler built a small house on the site and planted two rows of oak trees leading to the river. In 1839 a wealthy Creole (native-born person of French ancestry) sugar planter, J.T Roman, built the present mansion for his bride.

As family fortunes declined with the demise of the sugar industry, the house fell into disrepair. The last resident owners were the Stewart family who undertook the first major renovation of a Great River Road mansion in 1925.

The building passed to the Oak Alley Foundation in the 1990s and was redecorated in the original style.

Standing on the balcony, I can easily imagine this place as the setting for the fabled fictional romance between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara. The expansive grounds are ablaze with blossoming azaleas and magnolias. The manicured lawns are alive with strutting peacocks and darting squirrels.

I wonder how it would feel to lead such a privileged life with 100 workers in the plantation and servants attending to your every need. There would be ample time and money to plan grand balls, feasts and fetes. I try to suspend reality and mentally transport myself back to that era. But once the crossover is made, I realise how brief and limiting this old lifestyle was.

The plantation owners had constraints of distance, being largely confined to their oasis of luxury. They faced tuberculosis, infant mortality, hurricanes from the Gulf and flooding from the Mississippi River. Perhaps our 21st century is more of a golden age with world-wide travel, instant communications and labour saving devices.

Nevertheless it's a joy to have had a fleeting vision of this romantic era in the deep South.

In the cosy Oak Alley restaurant I relax with a tasty lunch on the veranda and enjoy the house specialty of mint julep. This long drink consists of bourbon whiskey, crushed ice, sugar and sprigs of mint. It's decadent enough for me to momentarily segue back into that antebellum period and daydream that I'm lying under an old oak tree up the lazy river.

It's a beautiful vision of a bygone age.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Los Angeles, from where US domestic airlines fly direct to New Orleans.

Visiting the past: Oak Alley Plantation is located at No 3645 Highway 18 at Vacherie, Louisiana. Plantation tours are conducted daily on the hour and half hour from 9.30am.

Further information: See DiscoverAmerica.com for more on visiting Louisiana.

- NZ Herald

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