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A Staycation guide for Louisianians

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Capital Thrills, Plantation Adventures

Even if you’ve lived in the Baton Rouge area for some time, there are bound to be interesting places you’ve never visited. Maybe you’ve put off exploring the parts of the region you’re not familiar with or you’ve skipped your hometown’s highlights, thinking they would always be available. A staycation is the ideal time to see what’s happening in a section of Louisiana that combines big-city life with a glimpse into the lifestyles of the wealthy planters who called the area home in antebellum days.

The area’s nickname is “Plantation Country” for a reason: Nowhere else can you tour such a unique collection of mansions that tell the tale of a time when cotton was king and planters lived like royalty. Start with Nottoway, sometimes called “The White Castle of Louisiana,” with 64 rooms of grandeur. Other notable plantations include Destrehan, San Francisco, Oak Alley and The Myrtles (which calls itself Louisiana’s most haunted home). At Laura Plantation, six slave quarters show the reverse side of the coin; enslaved African Americans provided the labor to keep the plantations going, and the slave quarters show the poverty of their lives. Another don’t-miss destination is Oakley House at the Audubon State Historical Site. Oakley is where John James Audubon painted some of his famous bird pictures.

Today, many plantations have turned into bed-and-breakfast inns, and others have special holiday activities and lovely restaurants.

Baton Rouge is rich in interesting sites. Young people would especially like the LSU Rural Life Museum, a collection of 27 buildings filled with tools, furniture and other items from Louisiana’s 19th-century rural culture.

At the Louisiana Art & Science Museum, kids can have fun in the interactive science center or view a show at the planetarium. Parents will like the fine art on display. And at the Old Governor’s Mansion, built by Huey P. Long, get a look at Long’s pajamas, Gov. Jimmie Davis’ guitar and other artifacts. Other specialized museums include the Old Arsenal Museum, with its exhibits of military history, and the Shaw Center for the Arts, a downtown architectural gem with a contemporary art museum, restaurants and gallery spaces.

Because kids just want to have fun, spend an afternoon or two at Blue Bayou Water Park and its neighbor, Dixie Landin’, filled with thrilling rides for children of all ages. They might also enjoy seeing the U.S.S. Kidd Veterans Memorial & Museum. The destroyer, nicknamed “The Pirate of the Pacific,” was launched in 1943.  On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the Enchanted Mansion: A Doll Museum displays dolls of every description; money raised by the site is donated to benefit the handicapped.

The Baton Rouge area has plenty of places to shop and dine, including the Baton Rouge Mall of America, with its carousel; L’Auberge Casino & Hotel, with three restaurants and plenty of gaming action; and the Denham Springs Historic and Antique District, where dealers sell toys, art, Christmas items and silver. Stop by Cottonwood Books, filled with thousands of new, used and rare books, including those on Louisiana history, the Civil War and Southern literature.

Plantation Country is also home to such charming towns as New Roads and St. Francisville. In New Roads, enjoy fishing, boating and water-skiing on the False River, an oxbow lake. The town is also home to the Pointe Coupee Parish Museum and lots of antiques shops. St. Francisville, noted for its Main Street, is often called one of America’s most beautiful small towns. Don’t miss Afton Villa Gardens; although Afton Villa burned in 1963, its lovely gardens are filled with sweet olive, magnolias and camellias, as well as azaleas of all colors. In the town of Zachary, take in the Zachary Historic Village, with its blacksmith’s shop, and watch corn ground into grits.

If you time your staycation right, you can join the locals and celebrate at the Baton Rouge Greek Festival, the Jambalaya Festival in Gonzales or one of the many other area festivals.

Vacation is an ideal time to head for the great outdoors, and in Baton Rouge and Plantation Country, choices abound. At the Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area, northwest of St. Francisville, visitors can hunt, hike, bike, ride horses, bird-watch or take a walk on the 3-mile nature trail with camera in tow. The Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center in Baton Rouge is crisscrossed with gravel paths and boardwalks and is noted for its live animal encounters. Like golf? Try The Bluffs on Thompson Creek, just five minutes from St. Francisville. The course, built to an Arnold Palmer design, is noted for its creeks, ponds and breathtaking rolling bluffs. Or walk the Iberville Parish Birding Trail, where you can spot neo-tropical songbirds, migratory hummingbirds, wading birds and raptors.

Dining is a big part of every vacation, and there are lots of options in the Baton Rouge area, ranging from elegant meals to neighborhood cafés with Cajun and Creole specialties. In Baton Rouge, local favorites include Ruffino’s, with its classic Creole Italian dishes, and Juban’s, with its Creole menu. Many plantation homes also have restaurants, such as The Carriage House Restaurant at The Myrtles, which features “down home Southern favorites.” It’s also fun to pick up some fresh produce and prepared foods at one of the area’s many farmers markets and have a picnic.

Dining, shopping, hiking or taking in a bit of history – the Baton Rouge area is a complete vacation destination in one easy-to-navigate package.

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