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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

NEW ORLEANS Part II: Mint Juleps and Alligtors

If you want a touch of the romantic south, visit the plantation homes near New Orleans. A number of companies offer these tours, conducting small multilingual groups by mini-bus with interesting and well-informed gu ides. The tours include several plantation homes and a Bayou boat trip, with a plantation lunch included.
Author's note: Since the hurrican I don't know if any of these grand old mansions were destroyed. It's heartbreaking to think they might have been!

While sipping on a mint julep under the oaks of Oak Alley, you cannot help but find yurself transported into the world of Scarlet O'Hara and Rhett Butler. As you look out on the green lawns and gracious Greek Revival architectures of the manor, you are offered a clear view of the past.

Oak Alley Plantation was built in 1839 and is best known for its alley of twenty-eight evenly spaced Louisiana live oak trees, believed to be 300 years old, that gave the plantation its name. The mansion is furnished exactly as it was when the last owner, a venerable old lady in her 90's died in the lavender bedroom upstairs. Each room has a unique story which is related by the guides who are dressed in period costume. You can imagine the little slave boy pulling on the 'shoe-fly' fan while his master dined in the elegant dining room, or hear the servants whistle as they carried the trays of food along "Whistler's Walk" from the kitchen to the big house, their whistles assuring the mistress that their mouths weren't full of sampled food. The slaves' quarters no longer exist because they were mainly flimsy wooden shacks that did not withstand time.

In the south of Louisiana, only a dozen or so plantation houses still stand, all on the west side of the Mississippi River, because the Civil War ended before they could be burned down as ordered by the Yankees. The oldest is the Destrehan Plantation, built in 1787.

From the levees and estates of the Mississippi, journey to the dense, mysterious channels of the bayou, aboard a boat navigated by a handsome young Cajun guide. The boat glides down the narrow channels where egret, blue heron and water fowl nest among the red swamp maples. Grey-green tufts of Spanish moss hang from the cypress trees. Snapping turles sun themselves on the mud banks. These turtles, which grow to an immense size, can snap off a stick with their jaws. Poisonous snakes such as the copper head and water-moccasin lurk in the moss and the root systems of the trees making it a dangerous occupation for the Cajun folk who pick the Spanish moss for sale to florists.

In spring and summer, water hyacinths cover the murky surface of these foreboding waterways concealing the deadly alligators which the guide and his father hunt.

"We bait these big hooks with meat," he explains. "Then the hook is hung over a branch by a rope. When the bait is pulled down into the water you know there's a 'gator on it. We bring the boat alongside and shoot. It's dangerous and tricky. You have to hit the 'gator in just the right spot behind the eyes so as not to damage the skin. Some of these critters are up to seven feet in length and if they strike with their tail they can break a man's arm. Once a 'gator's jaws clamp down on its prey you can't pry them open."

He displays photos of the monstrous creatures he has hunted, and explains that the 'gators hibernate, buried in the mud, from October to March and surface once the water temperature is warm. Strict laws prohibit alligator poaching and offenders risk a find of $5,000 or a jail term of up to 15 years with no parole. Because of alligator farms, licensed hunters such as our guide, have suffered a loss of income from the valuable hides which are mainly sold to France for shoes and purses.

"Don't be caught taking any souvenir allegator artifacts out of Louisiana unless they have an official dated blue tag," he warns. "Or you will be penalized."

Most of the cypress forests in the swamps are owned by logging companies, but the Cajuns have lived in settlements here since they were offered land back in the 1800's. The name "Cajun" is derived from "Acadian". The Acadians once settled in eastern Canada, before the British evicted them because they wouldn't pledge allegiance to the Queen. In these tiny enclaves in Louisianna's bayou country, the descendants of these French pioneers live isolated lives, and speak a Cajun-French patois.

To be continued: Part III MARDIS GRAS, New Orlean's grandest celebration.

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