Southern comfort

A trip to the southern most part of the sleepy American state of Louisiana will warm any traveller’s heart writes Kaye Holland

Want your fair share of winter sun but lying by a pool just doesn’t cut it? Look to Louisiana. Most visitors to the southern US state rush to New Orleans where the cocktails are cool, the music is hot and unexpected pleasures lurk around every corner. It would be easy to spend a week in New Awlins (as locals pronounce it) but equally it would be a real shame not to press on deeper into the region.

You’ll need to rent a car (mandatory for exploring further afield) but it’s worth it to see the contrast between the Big Easy and the surrounding area, which is utterly different in character.

Leaving Nola - a city so invigorating that sleep is a mere afterthought - you’ll find a world of postcard fantasy plantations, bayous and steamy swamps, along with gastronomy, history and culture in spades.

Chances are the Instagram friendly antebellum plantations will be your first port of call. Back in the mid-1800s, the highest concentration of millionaires in America could be found along the 120 mile winding corridor along the Mississippi River. The rest of the south may have been cultivating cotton but Louisiana’s wealth came from massive sugar cane plantations - prior to the American Civil War, the state was producing as much as half of all sugar (which was referred to as ‘white gold’) consumed in America.

That history is preserved today through the plethora of privately owned plantation homes that dot the east and west banks of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and serve as living history museums.

The elaborate homes have helped catapult Louisiana’s ‘plantation country’ onto the world stage having been featured in enough movies and tv shows (take a bow True Detective, Django Unchained, The Butler, Primary Colours and 12 Years A Slave) in recent years, to have their own star on Hollywood’s walk of fame.

Each home offers something different than its corridor counterparts but if you’re time poor, I’d look to Laura: a Creole Plantation. It’s a handsome housealright but that’s not the real reason to visit. You go for the award winning 70 minute tour - hailed by travel bible Lonely Planet as the ‘Best History Tour in the United States’ - which sees charismatic guides (I can vouch for Joseph) share the compelling, real-life accounts of seven generations of owners, women, slaves and children who once called this Creole sugarcane farm their home. The plantations’ most famous former resident is Laura Locoul Gore - after whom the plantation is named - and on whose book, Memories of an Old Plantation Home & A Creole Family Album, the tour is based. Her 1936 eye witness account of life on a Creole Louisiana sugarcane farm makes for a riveting read detailing, as it does, the daily life and major events of the inhabitants (both free and enslaved) of the plantation that she and her female fore bearers ran. If you’re looking for a souvenir of your visit, you can pick up a copy of the book in the well stocked gift shop.

Within easy driving distance of Laura Plantation lies Oak Alley Plantation. Dubbed the 'Grande Dame of the Great River Road',  Oak Alley is arguably the antebellum home of your imagination - a canopy of 28 glorious live oaks form an impressive avenue that leads you to this classic Greek-revival style manor that’s remnant of a world gone by. Once you’ve toured the big house and seem the sobering, slave  exhibit - a new, permanent exhibition that explores the lives of those who lived here in bondage - there’s not an awful lot to do at Oak Alley but, after a crazy couple of days in Nola where all night parties anchor the calendar, that’s the attraction of the place. Oak Alley’s charms - its peacefulness and the plantation characters you meet daily - are subtler.

For that real Gone With the Wind moment,  consider staying overnight in a cottage which makes for an out of this world hideaway. This is where you go to forget and be forgotten, to rest and retreat from work. There’s no night life whatsoever - the onsite restaurant closes every evening at 5pm so you’ll need to order meals to be dropped off in your cottage (tip: Brad Pitt once stayed in number three). However if you’re after privacy an Oak Alley cottage, much like a postman, definitely delivers and provides a much needed sanctuary after the happy madness of Nola.

I spent a languid evening sipping a Mint julep in my own shaded garden against a backdrop of sugar canes billowing in the breeze before  floating in a bath so wide and deep, I didn't want to get out.

My stay in the Doctor’s cottage gave me a wonderful night’s sleep and I awoke feeling ready for anything - which was just as well because the next day was even more eye widening. It was time to bid goodbye to antebellum life and embark on a basin tour in Cajun country.

If you want a bit of bite to your southern Louisiana sojourn, one of the best things you can do is to sign up for a swamp tour with McGee’s Landing. Traversing through the swamp - where American alligators linger under moss-draped cypress trees - isn’t for the faint hearted but travel tends to bring out my "I will try anything because I might never get the chance again" side.

Personally speaking my swamp tour with McGee’s Landing owner, David Allemond, was an unexpected highlight of my trip. The beauty of the bayou is dizzying: this is a place that has a purpose beyond petrol and air conditioned shopping malls. The Atchafalaya River Basin is attractive for what it doesn’t offer: distractions, pollution, pressure… Coming from London where I’ve trained myself to block out the daily din of city life, there’s definitely something special about swamp land. Uninhibited by all the familiar baggage I found myself free to relax, unwind and learn a little about America’s largest and most complex river swamp ecosystem. And when my eyes fastened on George - the Atchafalaya Basin’s resident 14 foot ‘gator - dappled by the late afternoon sun, I realised that my deadlines and to do lists could wait. There was nothing in life more important than that moment.

David seemed to understand and appreciate my epiphany. “My favourite thing thing about this place,” he told me, over the hum of the airboat's engine “is that you can go out there, replenish your soul and come back feeling as though you have been enriched.” Little wonder then that my travelling companion Jeff - a cheery Louisiana native - says that McGee’s Landing is where he heads when he’s having one of those ‘pull your hair out’ weeks and wants to escape to a simpler place to calm the mind.

My final destination was Lafayette - aka the heartbeat of Acadiana. The town’s commercialism was unexpected - coming as it did after a spell of swamps and sugar cane plantations - but Lafayette hasn’t yet grown to the point where it has lost all its charm. Happily the town isn’t packed with visitors so you never feel as though you’re trudging a well worn path.

One of America’s most underrated town’s, Lafayette has a strong sense of character. It’s brimming with one off boutiques like Parish Ink - a shop set up by siblings Bram and Jillian Johnson selling t-shirts and other apparel sporting Louisiana slogans - and independent cafes (check out The Lab) and restaurants.

Speaking of which after a long day of travelling, searching out the perfect spot for dinner and drinks was my priority. I found it at Saint Street Inn - a gem of a dining venue.  Food such as Mushroom and collard green stuffed eggplant was locally sourced (with a side of smug) and so fab that I was tempted to eat here every day. However it’s essential not to miss Lafayette’s other remarkable restaurants (Lafayette is regularly voted one of the tastiest towns in the south). I’d run out of room if I was to include all the unforgettable meals I had but a meal at The French Press (you’ll need to book though as everyone is trying to get a table here) on East Vermillion Street is a must. Housed in a former printing press in the heart of downtown Lafayette, the restaurant is open for dinner on on a Friday or Saturday night but it’s the breakfast menu - Cajun Benedict (boudin replaces ham, while hollandaise is substituted for gumbo), Sweet baby breesus (three buttermilk biscuit sliders with bacon, fried boudin balls and Steen’s cane syrup) and Cheddar grits - that will set your pulse racing.

Meanwhile just around the corner on Jefferson Street, Pamplona is an upscale tapas bar and restaurant that will prepare a parade of your Spanish favourites.

Layette isn’t all about food, it’s also a hotspot of music - where festivals fill up the calendar including the annual Zydecco festival and Black Pot Festival. Make no mistake: locals love their music and can be found crowding into hip bars such as the Blue Moon Saloon listening to bands into the wee small hours, even on a school night. I stayed at The Juliet Hotel which proved the perfect base for exploring Lafayette’s nightlife and culinary scene. The hotel has a fitness centre if you want to work off some of the incredible food and drink you’ve consumed, but that felt a little too much like hard work for me...

Especially when extraordinary sights such as Avery Island - home of the World-famous TABASCO® Sauce (Louisianians have a thing for heat when they eat) - and Jefferson Island (home to the gorgeous Rip Van Winkle gardens) are within easy day tripping distance. As is Vermilionville - a living history attraction that vividly portrays the life of those who settled in rural south Louisiana between 1765 and 1890.

There’s certainly a lot to see in and around Lafayette - and with some of the friendliest people you could wish to meet. You’ll receive a warm welcome that you don’t get in more popular destinations, from locals who may well sprinkle a smattering of Louisiana French into the conversation. For Lafayette is home to the largestportion of the state's Cajun and Francophone population who settled here having been exiled from L’Acadie (now Nova Scotia) by the British for refusing to pledge allegiance to the English king back in 1755, and locals are keen to keep the language alive.

Spend even the smallest amount of time in southern Louisiana and you’ll quickly discover all this and more - there’s an adventure around every corner. I left looking better and feeling whole again. This is the south as it should be: the perfect place to end a year’s travelling.

For more information and inspiration on Louisiana, please visit www.louisianatravel.com