Moss-curtained cypress trees and reptile-populated swamps against which rise the creaking neoclassical columns of a crumbling oak mansion: an image of the Deep South that’s familiar from the novels of Tennessee Williams and Anne Rice, plus a host of films featuring, variously, Civil War intrigue, hillbilly hoedowns and even voodoo vampires (see below). But where to come to best experience this fabled landscape?
Most tour operators point travellers to Plantation Alley, a stretch of Mississippi-flanked road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge; the site of 30 Antebellum mansions backed by sugar cane fields. To 19th-century steamboat passengers, these riverfront plantations must have been an imposing, nay terrifying, sight (depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon Line your politics lie). Standout sights include Oak Alley Plantation — a National Historic Landmark mansion with two rows of towering, Spanish moss-shrouded oaks leading to the Mississippi. This aside, this area is now largely blighted by heavy industry and trailer park poverty.
Instead, make for the Cane River National Heritage Area, in and around the Louisiana city of Natchitoches. Deep inside Creole Country, this 70-mile web of old highways linked by truss bridges, connects country stores and 10 plantation houses with riverfront Creole communities whose ancestors hailed from French settlers and African slaves. Natchitoches, the setting for the movie Steel Magnolias, is choked with historic churches, cotton mercantile buildings and mansion museums. But to get deep into bayou country, exchange wheels for paddles. Half an hour north west of New Orleans, the Manchac Wetlands takes in hundreds of acres of cypress trees and marshes, punctuated by the floating ghost-town remains of once-thriving logging communities. For the ultimate swamp experience, take to the bayou after dark on a guided kayak or canoe trip, and spot glinting gator eyes between the gnarly boughs of overhanging cypresses. louisianatravel.com
The Deep South on screen
A Streetcar Named Desire: This famous 1951 Tennessee Williams book adaptation ramps up the melodrama using New Orleans’ Gothic streetscapes.
Deliverance: The menacing 1972 flick best known for the phrase ‘squeal like a pig’ and a pair of duelling banjos was filmed on the Chattooga River.
Down by Law: The 1986 comedy-noir prison-escape drama sets gritty New Orleans and its swampy backwaters against a whiskey-soaked Tom Waits soundtrack.
True Blood: The vampire-kitsch TV series that channels Anne Rice novels for the post-Buffy generation. The exterior of Bill Compton’s house was first shot at the Roseneath Plantation, near Shreveport, Louisiana.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)