A lovely Louisiana plantation: Houmas House a gem outside New Orleans
NEW ORLEANS - It's an hour outside this bustling city. And a world away.
A visit to Houmas House, one of a slew of Southern plantations in Louisiana, is an impressive - and a bit disturbing - way to spend an afternoon. It's only about an hour from the French Quarter to the front door of Houmas House, north and west of New Orleans near the Mississippi River.
The mansion, which dates back to 1828, was once the centre of a 300,000 acre plantation, and there's a ton of interesting history. A lot of the top stories belong to Irishman John Burnside, who bought the property for a million bucks in 1857 and turned it into the largest sugar producer in the country.
During the latter stages of the Civil War, it's said that he waved the Union Jack in front of advancing Union soldiers and claimed he was a British citizen and, therefore, immune to invasion. Apparently the northern troops bought the story as Houmas House wasn't looted.
A great story about Burnside revolves around his penchant for gambling. A man who is said to often consume three mint juleps prior to breakfast, It's said that Burnside once made a bet with the owner of a neighbouring plantation, saying he could take the neighbour in a horse race.
Burnside then proceeded to buy a high-priced race horse, which he kept hid inside the games room of his mansion and trotted out for workouts only at night so nobody would catch on. Sure enough, on race day he cleaned up and won his neighbour's plantation in the bet.
There's some very cool stuff inside, including a clock that we were told once belonged to Marie Antoinette and, later, Napoleon Bonaparte.
The house closed and was in disrepair until 1940 when a doctor bought it. It was renovated and a lot of fine features removed. The movie Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was filmed here in 1963, although not without incident. Star Bette Davis constantly, it's said, feuded with co-star Joan Crawford; so much so that Crawford was sent packing and Olivia DeHavilland, a star of Gone With the Wind of course, was brought in.
Local businessman Kevin Kelly bought the property 10 years ago and fixed it up in fine fashion. Today there are stunning gardens and a beautiful exterior and fully restored rooms with old-time furniture, a cool, circular staircase, displays of local life and maps. Not so much, of course, any mention of the horrors of slavery. The tour guide will tell you Burnside apparently set his slaves free before the Civil War, reasoning the South had no chance of winning the war and that he'd protect his property by paying his workers a wage (of some kind) and giving them a place to live (of some variety) nearby.
Those issues aside, and that's a big thing to put aside, it's a stunning place to visit. If you do go, go with an appetite. The restaurant on site, Latil's, was named one of the top 20 places in the U.S. a few years ago by Esquire magazine. If you go on a Sunday you'll find it closed, but the more casual Burnside Cafe on site features several items from the Latil's menu on Sundays.
We tried the incredible curried pumpkin bisque with corn and crayfish - rich and delicious - and also a wonderful papaya stuffed lobster on a bed of Creole tomato risotto. The duck was just average but the salad that came with it was nice and the crawfish salad with a cane syrup vinaigrette was out of this world good.
It's $20 for an adult to take a one-hour tour.
TOMORROW: On to Panama City Beach, Florida.
JAUNT.CA DEAL OF THE DAY
Owing to technical difficulties (mostly getting up at 4:30 a.m. to drive from New Orleans to Panama City, Florida for an afternoon tour), the Jaunt.Ca will be delayed. Check this space tomorrow for my daily deal from Jaunt...