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Louisiana Travel Tips

LOUISIANA TOURIST INFORMATION: (800) 334-8626

BATON ROUGE

Louisiana State Capitol (225) 342-7317
This 34-story Art Deco State Capitol is the tallest in the US. It was built at the insistence of the controversial governor at the time, Huey P. Long, who was involved in every detail of its design and construction. The story is that Long had visited the nation's first high-rise Capitol in Nebraska and was enthralled with its Art Deco design, functional office space and the symbolism of the powerful tower reaching skyward. Today his imitative Capitol sits on a beautifully landscaped park filled with flowers and flowering magnolia trees and rises from this park complex to overlook the Mississippi River on the other side. At the 22nd floor the rectangular building breaks into an octagon with the four corners graced by four allegorical winged figures: Law, Science, Philosophy, and Art. The 48 steps to the front door are carved with the names of each state, ranked in chronological order of statehood. (Alaska and Hawaii were added later, sharing the top step with Arizona.) Inside the building is pure, unabashed glamour. In the center of Memorial Hall is a large bronze relief map of state's products and industries according to each parish (Louisiana refers to its counties as "parishes," a remnant from the state's Catholic roots). Beyond the bronze map are three bronze elevator doors featuring carved portraits of all the Louisiana governors from statehood to the time the Capitol was completed. Here, one can see the touch of Governor Long's participation in the design. Legend has it that if the portraits had been arranged in a logical pattern, his portrait would have ended up on the lower right corner of the door. To offset that embarrassing placement, Long had the portraits arranged in an illogical pattern so that his countenance would grace the upper right corner. Flanking the elevator doors are fabulous 1954 French Porcelain lamps, a gift from France to Louisiana worth $15,000 apiece at that time. The coffered ceiling in the House Chambers is Celotex, a material made from bagasse, a byproduct of sugar production. Bagasse is what remains of the sugarcane once its juice has been extracted. Governor Long was assassinated in the hallway outside the former Governor's Office. A photo exhibit accompanied by newspaper displays mark the spot where the assassination took place. Today Long is buried in the Capitol Park. His grave is marked by a statue of him facing his beloved Capitol.

Check it out . . .This is one of the rare State Capitols that still allows visitors on the Observation Deck. Visitors can take the old elevator to the 27th floor, to the "Shop at the Top" gift store pass through one of four sets of glass doors that lead to the four cardinal viewing points. The South doors open to a view of Capitol Gardens and the statue of Huey Long. The North doors show a view of the city, particularly the state's chemical companies. The Eastern viewpoint is of the Rose Gardens and the 1835 Arsenal (now a museum). And finally, the Western portal opens to the Mighty Mississippi River as it flows resolutely toward the Gulf.

Old State Capitol & Center for Political History (225) 342-7317
Built in the popular Gothic Revival style of the mid-1800s as a symbol of Christianity and as an alternative to the earlier democratic Greek Revival style, the 1850 Old State Capital has Medieval castle features, such as twin crenelated, octagonal towers that rise above the banks of the Mississippi River. (One almost expects to see a drawbridge at the entrance.) Mark Twain called this Capitol a "sham castle" and laid the blame for such architecture at the feet of Sir Walter Scott who had "run the people mad" with his "medieval romances." Surprisingly Governor Huey Long, a rather flamboyant fellow, shared Twain's disdain for the flamboyant building, which is why he campaigned for the newer Art Deco structure described above. Notwithstanding these architectural critics, the building today is awesome. A stark, striking white, it stands majestically on the riverbank like a huge ivory Rook chess piece. Inside is a grand cast iron circular staircase that ascends to the stained glass cathedral dome above it. The rich lustrous wood, pitched stained glass windows and elegant light fixtures make this former statehouse feel more like a cathedral than a legistlative building. It's marvelously somber. Today the old Capitol is a museum of political and governmental history. Rooms overflow with thrilling interactive exhibits. For example, stand at an old podium and face a huge photo of the legislature in session, and then push a button to see a video and follow the teleprompter of famous speeches from any number of 20th century Louisiana governors, including Huey Long and his even more infamous brother, Earl Long. Every room has photos, artifacts, and interactive audio and video exhibits that make political history palpably real. A strange, circular room the size of a closet, displays the assassin's gun that killed Huey Long and tells the official story, as well as the revisionist's theories, of his death.

Check it out . . .On the grounds we found, to our delight, another "Merci Train" boxcar. Recently restored, it's been on display here since it arrived in 1948, however, the gifts remain with the families of the private individuals who accepted them 52 year ago. (For more information on the Merci Train story, see the Arizona Travel Tips.)

Old Governor's Mansion (225) 387-2464
As with the Capitol, the existing Governor's Mansion was unacceptable for Huey Long when he became governor. When he asked the legislature for a funds to build a new Governor's Mansion, he was denied and told, "so long as there's a house standing, you can't build another." Legend has it that the governor released a team of prison workers to come in and dismantle the home -- in one night. The next day he appealed to the legislature that he had no home. With funding in his hands he approached an architect, showed him the back of a twenty-dollar bill engraved with the image of the White House and said, "That's what I want." And that's what he got -- including an oval office. However, some minor variations exist. For example, to offset the Depression era, every room is painted in brilliant, happy colors: bright Yellow, Bubble Gum Pink, After-Dinner-Mint Green, Peach and Lilac -- including the bathroom tiles. Today the Old Governor's Mansion serves as a museum to 20th century Louisiana governors, with each governor getting either a room or a display case dedicated to him. Of course, Huey Long's memory dominates the home.

Louisiana Rural Life Museum & Windrush Gardens, (225) 765-2437
This 450-acre outdoor folk museum recreates rural life in 19th century Louisiana. The indoor museum is housed in a barn featuring furniture, farm equipment, fishing, hunting and textile exhibits. Outdoors is a community that seems frozen in time: a pioneer home, an Acadian home, a general store, slave quarters, Overseer's house, a church, cemetery and a sugar house. Just beyond the museum are the Windrush Gardens donated by the Burden family, Ione Burden and Steele Burden. The gardens are a maze of greenery that eventually leads to an huge pond, goat island, fountains and grassy hills. Exquisite.

River Road Plantation Driving Tour, (504) 869-9752 Baton Rouge to New Orleans
Driving south from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, one may take the Interstate or take a variety of scenic roads that pass antebelleum plantation homes, some of which are privately owned, some open for tours, and some converted to restaurants and hotels. We chose Route 1 which gave us a good sample of plantation life, beginning with the white, palatial Nottoway Plantation, a 3-story 64-room blend of Greek Revival and Italianiate design that is all-white, including an all-white ballroom. From there we went to the Oak Alley Plantation, a more modest Greek Revival building with the distinguishing feature of 28 evenly spaced live oak trees that line the long driveway in a canopy of evergreen. Lastly, we visited the Laura Plantation which shows the simpler style of the Creole sugar planter. What's unique about the Laura Plantation is its blend of Spanish, French and Southern characteristics, giving it a strange, European villa feel to it. Another distinguishing feature is the row of well-preserved slave cabins that were in use by tenant farmers until 1977.

NEW ORLEANS
What can one say about New Orleans that hasn't already been said? It's a city of rich, multicultural history, exotic dining and entertainment and full of romance -- from the French Quarter, to the riverfront, to its grand city parks. You just can't beat the sights, sounds and smells of "The Big Easy." Here's just a sample:

French Quarter
Probably the most visited part of the city is the French Quarter. It begins on the riverfront at Jackson Square, anchored by 1794 St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest and most photographed church in the country. Next to the church is the Cabildo, a 1799 Spanish government building. Next to the Cabildo is the 1793 Presbytere, now housing the Mardi Gras Museum, which is a two-story building that covers everything you'd ever want to know about Mardi Gras . . . floats, parade histories, glamorous balls, including the outlandish invitations, gowns, crowns and jewels worn by the long list of Mardi Gras kings and queens. The museum shows videos, plays music, exhibits memorabelia, and even allows visitors to try on a few costumes upstairs). They do their best to make you feel as though you're actually at the Mardi Gras, even going so far as to house the restrooms behind a Port-A-Toilet facade.

Flanking Jackson Square are the Pontalba Buildings, built in 1849 by the Baroness de Pontalba, whose hope was to bring more business into the declining Old French Quarter. At the other end of Jackson Square, opposite the cathedral are horse and carriages queued up to take visitors through the old town in an old-fashioned custom. Some of the drivers play up the part in their attire as well as sprucing their horses with flowers and bells, while others simply wear jeans, T-shirts and ballcaps and leave there horses unadorned, embarrassed by their nakedness. Across the street from this queue of horse and carriages is the famous Cafe du Monde, a patio cafe that has been serving French beignets and rich Louisiana coffee for over 135 years. (A French beignet is a square, holeless donut covered in powdered sugar.) The smell of the fried dough and dark roasted coffee fills the area, as does the wonderful music of street musicians. Cafe du Monde leads the way to the open-air French Market where shoppers can find gourmet food, produce and rare local gifts and crafts. From here, walk three blocks, past unusual shops and homes trimmed in wrought iron lace, until you reach. Bourbon Street, home to historic bars and restaurants that capture the heart and spirit of cajun and creole music and food.

Old Cemeteries
A distinctively "non-American" American city, New Orleans, is also unique in that it lies eight feel below sea level, which in the days before levees and civil engineering, presented a problem for burying the dead. Coffins buried in these sub-sea-level cemeteries had the impolite habit of resurfacing during rainy seasons. To solve this "grave dilemma," the Creoles entombed their dead in aboveground structures resembling small houses and public buildings creating a miniature village of tombs dubbed "City of the Dead." Some of the entranceways to these tombs have staircases and porches with potted plants. This, combined with miniature wrought iron fences and gates, paved streets and curbs, make the "City of the Dead" look quite livable. The St. Louis Cemetery #3, just outside the French Quarter is the city's oldest. Built in 1788 it features simple tombs that resemble English cottages and give it the appearance of an old English village. The "newer" Metairie Cemetery, on the other side of town entombs the more wealthy and distinguished New Orleans families. It was built in 1873 on the site of an antebellem racetrack and features more ornate crypts with columns and grand staircases that make this particular "City of the Dead" seem like a miniature Roman Forum.

Swamp Tours
New Orleans offers a plethora of various Swamp Tours ranging in price from the cheapest of $20 per person to as much as $90 per person. Read the brochures carefully and call in advance to inquire of the number of passengers allowed on each boat (the fewer, the better). Also inquire about the itinerary of the boat tour and what a passenger might expect to see. Some boats are small enough to get into the narrow bayous and inlets that have the more interesting wildlife, while other multi-passenger crafts avoid these darker, more interesting areas. Then again, there are the airboats, which limit passengers to just six per boat, and are small enough to go into the more interesting areas, but are so loud, they frighten the wildlife. Choose carefully and ask a lot of questions before you book passage on a Swamp Tour to make sure you're comfortable with both the type of craft you'll be on and the person who'll be piloting the boat and acting as your guide. If the person handling your phone call is defensive, and abrupt with your questons hang up. That's a big tip off they're are a rip-off. The really good tour boat operators are happy to answer questions, for that is what distinguishes them from the lazy boat operators, of which, unfortunately there are many.

OUR CAMPSITE FOR THE WEEK

Mardi Gras Campground, New Orleans (504) 243-0085
Basically this RV Park looks like a parking lot, all tar and cement, but the facilities are clean, and the hosts are relaxed and easygoing. For example, when we arrived they told us to drive around and pick out the site we wanted and then come back and pay up after we were settled. "Take your time," they said with a gracious smile. They also allowed us to park the truck right next to our RV, giving us the use of two full sites for the price of one. The campground is on the city bus line, which makes going into town more convenient, since there is virtually no place to park in the French Quarter. And, they have a modem hookup in the office. And the price is extremely reasonable, only $16.99 per night. Pretty good deal for the Big Easy.

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