New Orleans has been made world famous for hosting its notorious Mardi Gras festival where booze flows with revelry, glitzy parades march down the street and elaborate Balls offer up a perfect slice of Southern decadence.
Those who can’t make it for the Mardi Gras experience can get a taste of Louisiana’s bacchanal year round on Bourbon Street. Located in the city’s oldest neighbourhood, the French Quarter, Bourbon Street extends 13 blocks from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue. It comes alive at dusk, filled with hoards of tourists who drink boozy beverages as they stroll up and down the street (yes drinking in public is “a thing” here). By midnight it’s a block party where cross eyed bachelorette’s stumble in and out of quick eats restaurants, thumping bars and strip clubs.
When planning my first trip to New Orleans I was curious to tap into the city’s infamous nightlife but also wanted to ensure I had the opportunity to juxtapose an ecstatic urban energy with the slower paced experience one finds when roaming rural. So after spending several days eating and drinking myself silly in NOLA, Mike and I zoomed onto the highway in search for a quiet calm.
Our first stop was a visit to the heart of Louisiana swampland which sits just 25 miles outside of the city. On a two hour tour with Cajun Pride guests are greeted by a friendly Captain who offers a detailed commentary while steering the boat through Manchac Swap, a privately owned wildlife refuge. Guests come face to face with eerie alligator, slithering snakes, curious racoons and tiny crawfish. Recently made famous on the History Channel’s “Swamp People,” a visit to the Louisiana Wetlands offers visitors a not-to-be-missed look into a unique Cajun way of life.
The highlight of our rural road trip would be our final days spent relaxing at Houmas House Plantation and Gardens, a beautiful Louisiana Mansion filled with period antiques and surrounded by 38 lush acres of gardens, ponds and majestic live oak alley. For those looking to fully immerse themselves in Louisiana’s plantation past, Houmas House offers the most luxurious overnight experience via its onsite Inn. Upon arrival we settled into a cozy cottage featuring comfy king bed, marble bathroom and a front porch with white rocking chair. A gentle breeze from the Mississippi River forces a smile.
Mike and I sauntered over to the mansion and enjoyed a tour of its interior led by a guide dressed as an 18th century sugar baroness. She spent the next hour walking our group through the mansion’s collection of jaw dropping rooms, all the while chit chatting in an animated Southern twang. The 23 room mansion now contains a vast collection of antique furnishings by Mallard, McCraken and Lee, as well as an extensive art collection including works from European and American notables, and Louisiana artists such as Woodward, Walker, Stevens and Blanchard.
Highlights include an 1865 French regulator clock by Bussage, a French mantle clock made in Paris and reputed to have been acquired by Napoleon from the estate of Marie Antoinette, family portraits, Andrew Jackson’s traveling Liquors Box and original French Limoges China made specifically for Houmas House in the 1830’s.
Through the vision and determination of Kevin Kelly, who fulfilled a lifelong dream by acquiring the property in 2003, the mansion today reflects the best parts of each period in its rich history. The first owners were the indigenous Houmas Indians, who were given a land grant to occupy the fertile plain between the Mississippi and Lake Maurepas to the north. The Houmas sold the land to Maurice Conway and Alexander Latil in the mid 1700’s. The original French Provincial house that Latil erected on the property is situated directly behind the Mansion, adjoined by a carriageway to the grand home described during its antebellum heyday as “The Sugar Palace.”
By the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the plantation was established and producing sugar. Construction of the mansion was completed in 1828 and at the same time production in the fields increased with land holdings that grew to 300,000 acres. Irishman John Burnside bought the plantation in 1857 for $1 million and increased production of sugar until Houmas House was the largest producer in America. The plantation flourished under Burnside’s ownership, but it was under a successor, Col William Porcher Miles that it grew to its apex in the late 1800’s when it was producing a monumental 20 million pounds of sugar each year!
While a tour of Houmas House is full of fun facts I can’t help but gush over my favourite which comes from the year 1963 when Bette Davis (that diva!) filmed Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte here. Fans of the classic film can visit the room in which Ms. Davis slept as well as peak into a glass case where memories from the Sweet Charlotte are put on for show. The mansion of course also has a spooky haunted history where ghosts are said to roam at night. Unbelievably the owner, quirky and eccentric Kevin Kelly lives inside the mansion today. You could not even double dare me to do such a thing, the creaky floors alone would have me up all night dreading the poltergeist!
After the tour we strolled over to tiny Turtle Bar where we sipped on a Pimm’s Cup and Vodka Martini before being introduced to our host, Kevin Kelly. As you might imagine, Mr. Kelly is quite the character, dedicating his every moment to creating a vision for the the properties future.
After a quick chit chat we moved our party from the bar to Latil’s Landing Restaurant, located in the French House which was originally built in 1770. The 230 year old petite dining rooms (we were seated in the library) offer guests an ambiance infused by a museum quality collection of art and artifacts while indulging in Chef Jeremy Langlois’ award winning culinary creations.
We were in for a treat that evening as Chef Langlois had just recently fed James Beard House. We were fortunate to enjoy a recreation of his Louisiana inspired epic feast. The room grew dark and candlelight flickered across the table as Kevin enthusiastically told endless stories about Houmas House. My memories of the evening are filled with wide smiles, endless glasses of wine and a decadent ode to Louisiana culinary traditions: sweet brined pork belly, jumbo lump crab, crawfish, crispy duck confit and chocolate jamboree.
After dinner I skipped through the gardens on my way back to the cottage, being sure to take in the perfume of fresh spring flowers which wafted from the surrounding gardens. The stars twinkled above while a water fountain trickled into a shimmering pond below. On your next visit to New Orleans, go beyond Bourbon Street and explore the magic and whimsy that can only be found in rural Louisiana.