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The River Road and plantation country

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The fastest roads out from New Orleans toward the west are speedy I-10 and US-61; you can also drive along the River Road, which hugs both banks of the Mississippi all the way to Baton Rouge, seventy miles upriver. It’s not a particularly eventful drive, winding through flat, fertile farmland, but a series of bridges and ferries allows you to crisscross the water, stopping off and touring several restored antebellum plantation homes along the way.

Before the Civil War, these spectacular mansions were the focal points of the vast estates from where wealthy planters – or rather, their slaves – loaded cotton, sugar or indigo onto steamboats berthed virtually at their front doors. The superb Laura plantation excepted, tours, generally led by costumed guides, can skimp on details about the estates as a whole, and in particular their often vast slave populations. The cumulative effect can be overwhelming, so it’s best to pick just one plantation or two.

Though you’d never guess it from the tourist brochures, hulking chemical plants dominate the River Road landscape. There are rural stretches where wide sugar-cane fields are interrupted only by moss-covered shacks – the prettiest views are around the small town of Convent, on the east bank of the – but you’ll more often find yourself driving through straggling communities of boarded-up buildings.

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