The USA maybe off-limits for now, but when brighter skies return, a visit to Louisiana's state capital, Baton Rouge, will reward you handsomely.
As much as it's overshadowed by the lustre of New Orleans, it's a compact and charismatic city, thickly draped in live oak and magnolia trees. If you're wondering where the name derives from, it translates as "red stick.'
When the French adventurer, D'Iberville, sailed up the Mississippi in 1699, his team spotted a cypress pole staked on a hill, stained red with blood, and adorned with fish bones and animal heads. It was a boundary marker between Native American tribes, and its warning was clear: Cross this line, and you will die. D'Iberville duly named the place Baton Rouge.
One of Baton Rouge's gems is its beautiful riverfront promenade. I strolled atop the Mississippi River levee, admiring the passing boats and exploring the moored USS Kidd, a WWII Fletcher class destroyer, restored to her 1945 appearance. Right across the road, on a natural bluff lording over the river, I fell in love with the city's emblematic landmark: the Old State Capitol. When this turreted Gothic Revival castle was completed in 1852 by James Dakin, some locals declared it a masterpiece - others a monstrosity. Mark Twain famously denounced it as a "little sham castle."
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Ravaged by fire during the Civil War when union soldiers seized it, it was rebuilt by William A. Feret, who added the knock-out stained glass dome, comprising over 2000 panes of glass. By the 1980s, the building was literally decaying. Concerned citizens rallied to save the landmark and a painstaking restoration has returned it to its stately grandeur. There are so many artistic flourishes to sweep you up. Don't miss the 12 minute video, The Ghost of the Castle, which ingeniously illustrates the history of the building with all sorts of special effects.
From there I headed down colourful Third Street to to Louisiana's current State Capitol, a magnificent 34-story art deco-style structure standing proud as the nation's tallest capitol building. It superseded the old statehouse in 1932, and is testament to the personal influence of legendary Governor Huey P. Long that funding for such a massive building was approved during the Great Depression. I learnt a lot about Huey Long, whose strong-arm tactics frequently ran afoul of legislators. Long's autocratic ways finally caught up with him - he was assassinated in 1935. The spot where he was shot (near the rear elevators) is marked with a plaque.
Right across the road, I popped into Capitol Park Museum, a magnificent showcase of Louisiana history, nature and culture. From steamboats to shrimp boats, there's head-turners galore within the creative collection of exhibits. I also stopped by Magnolia Mound Plantation, a French Creole home built in 1791 – one of the oldest standing homes in Baton Rouge. If you walk the home's original cypress floors and examine its interior, you'll notice French influences in everything from the imported toilet wallpaper to the en-suite floor plan. Feeling peckish, I made my way to White Star Market, a trendy, gourmet food hall with local restaurant vendors and chefs.
Opened just last year, it's the ideal place to savour local signatures. I grazed on Louisiana oysters from Jolie Pearl and Chef Micah Martello's crawfish poutine. Indigenous to Louisiana, crawfish a tiny freshwater shellfish resembling a miniature lobster – and very tasty! While you're in Baton Rouge, breakfast wouldn't be breakfast without beignets. Acadian settlers imbued Louisiana with these pastry treats and I particularly like the beignet fingers. Coffee Call in College Drive is where I devoured these bundles of sugary goodness. They're light, airy pillowy pastries, made fresh as you wait. Beignets are made with a yeasted, sweetened dough that are cut into squares, fried, and liberally doused in powdered sugar. For more tips on making the most of your Baton Rouge visit, head to www.visitbatonrouge.com
Where to stay? If you fancy a splash of glamour, L'auberge Baton Rouge is a resort-style casino hotel, just south of the city centre, perched on the banks of the mighty Miss. Accommodations are plush with modern decor and local artwork and ultra-trendy touches like the TVs in the bathroom mirrors. I booked through Hotels.com who operate an excellent loyalty programme. Book and stay 10 nights at more than 500,000 eligible properties and you'll get 1 reward night to redeem at another. Just sign up with a valid email address to start collecting. Secret Prices are also available to Hotels.com app users, Hotels.com Rewards members. www.hotels.com
Air New Zealand flies direct to Houston, an ideal gateway into the American South. In addition to its other direct flights to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Honolulu and Chicago, Air New Zealand's audacious new route will see the airline fly ultra-long haul from Auckland to New York non-stop. The inaugural service to Newark Liberty departs on October 29 and the service will operate three times a week, year-round. The exciting new route, the airline's sixth US destination, will be serviced by Air New Zealand's 787-9 Dreamliners, in a premium-focused configuration. For best fares and seats to suit for all USA routes, head to www.airnewzealand.co.nz
Plotting a great adventure to the land of Stars and Stripes when covid-19 is behind us? Brand USA's website is chock-full of trip inspiration to help you plan a magical holiday. www.visittheusa.com.au