When a city lives by the motto of ‘let the good times roll,’ it makes it impossible not to include it as the launch pad for an adventure.
The USA is a great destination for travel. Roads are wide and parking is easy, as you might expect from the country that invented the Drive Thru.
Discovering the delights of New Orleans
Forewarned by a local, I waited until I’d had my fill of the old French Quarter in New Orleans before I decided to get behind the wheel.
Think of wrought-iron balconies, tiny art galleries snuggled between voodoo tools and the unforgettable sugar-dusted beignets served at the iconic Café du Monde.
Even the leaf-lined neighbourhoods of Treme – with its longstanding African-American heritage – were discoverable on foot. The Warehouse District with its hipster reinvention and the Central Business District, complete with titanic war museums, were wonderful attractions worthy of exploration before hitting the open road.
Leading the way through the swamps of Louisiana
To see more of the state, it was time to fire up the satnav and roll down the car windows. In Louisiana, like so much of the US, there’s open road aplenty.
Not all roads run across alligator-filled swamps, though. Prettier than they sound, these lush, green waterways of southern Louisiana are surprisingly calm.
It took a swamp tour for me to fully appreciate the cool air, wild racoons, and fragrant scent of marshmallow while everyone was on the hunt for ‘gators.
Not that we had to wait long before we saw one ourselves. There are over two million of them in Louisiana, leading to yellow diamond warning signs on the roads. Never walk too close to open water in these parts, no matter how pretty you think it looks.
The land around the swamps forms the heart of Cajun country, a Francophone community built by Acadian refugees fleeing 18th century Canada.
The road trip hots up on Avery Island
In Lafayette, just over a 2 hour drive from New Orleans, I enjoyed both Cajun food and music. Soon, I was back on the road, day tripping to another historic institution that’s become a household name – Tabasco.
Located next to an impossibly beautiful set of gardens, and less than an hour’s drive from Lafayette, lies the Tabasco Factory on Avery Island. This place will tell you all you need to know about the world’s most famous hot sauce!
Movie stars, sports memorabilia and an A-Z in advertising, the Tabasco site features it all. Chilli kitsch aside, it really was a fascinating place to visit.
The brand’s story is inspiring in itself. The dream of a young man striving to make his fortune in post-Civil War America, the company was founded by Edmund McIlhenny in 1868. He turned limitations into success through recycled Cologne bottles and broken green wax seals.
Following the Mississippi’s uncomfortable past
In contrast to the inspiring story of McIlhenny and Tabasco, are the tales found along the Mississippi River in Plantation Country.
Here lies the typical view people have of the South: wide avenues, ante-bellum grandeur, mint julep, sugar – and slavery.
There are many beautiful spots to take in as you follow the river and discover the region’s rich and unsettling past. Oak Alley Plantation is the most famous, featuring on Lonely Planet covers and Beyoncé’s Déjà vu music video. This opulent mansion contains many stories of past tribulations, and the ugly trade that made this evident wealth possible.
The Whitney Plantation Museum covers plantation life from the point of view of the people working with their lives at risk: the enslaved.
Turning the typical presentation of such a mansion on its head, it’s a deeply moving and uncomfortable date with reality – one that sadly remains relevant to this day.
The state of Louisiana offers such a diverse range of road trips stops, historic sites, and cultural attractions it makes for a truly unique road trip in the USA. For me, it was time to follow Old Man River back towards the delta and return in my car to the hedonistic hotspot of New Orleans.