Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, if you don’t have a stomach strong enough to bear miles of industrial blight, hop onto the I-10 freeway, but if your senses can handle the constant juxtaposition of refined domestic design alongside unsightly industrial complexes, with a few trailer parks, upscale vacation homes, and photogenic aboveground cemeteries thrown in for good measure, the Great River Road is full of treats, and this 100-mile traverse of Plantation Alley may well be a highlight of your trip. To 19th-century passengers aboard the packet steamboats traveling the lower Mississippi, the great mansions adorning the river bends between Baton Rouge and New Orleans must have made an impressive sight. The houses are no less grand today, but, sadly, their surroundings have been degraded by the presence of enormous petrochemical refineries. These have, by and large, replaced the antebellum sugarcane fields as the region’s economic engine, but in late summer when the cane is 10 feet tall and the smell of molasses fills the air, you can almost pretend nothing has changed.
Giving directions along Plantation Alley is complicated by the winding Mississippi, with its bridges and ferry boats, by the numerous roads and highways, and by the fact that the region is equally easy to explore from Baton Rouge or New Orleans, but it’s as a good place as any to get lost and found again, so take your time and enjoy the ride. Nottoway, Houmas House, Oak Alley, and Laura are four of the most popular and memorable plantation estates, but there are many along the way, in varying stages of restoration and decay.