(image is courtesy of the Discovery Channel)
Spring break is rapidly approaching — do you have travel plans? If not, don’t despair. Luckily, we live in a region with tons of cool stuff to do — some of which (a) you may not have done, yet, and (b) actually involve stimulating your gray matter! With a rich, colorful heritage such as ours, it’s no wonder that there are interesting historic sites to visit within an hour or two of New Orleans and the Northshore. Fun, educational, and affordable — what’s not to love?
Destination #1: JEAN LAFITTE/BARATARIA BAY
Attractions: Jean Lafitte Historic Park & Preserve, Barataria Museum, Swamp Tours
Famous pirate/privateer Jean Lafitte left his mark all over this region, from New Orleans to Chalmette to Barataria Bay, the last of which is where he and his brother are said to have centered their smuggling and piracy empire, until the American navy invaded his swamps and captured most of his fleet. He earned a pardon for himself and his men by helping to defeat the British in the Battle of New Orleans, then moved his criminal empire to Texas, but the swamps south of New Orleans still bear his name in the small town of Lafitte and the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve.
Excellent for outdoor exploration, this park covers 23,000 acres of Louisiana wetlands with dirt trails and a boardwalk that allows visitors to surround themselves with nature and imagine what life was like for those rapscallions of yesteryear. The visitors’ center contains dioramas, exhibits, and hands-on displays, plus kids can earn a badge with the Junior Ranger program. Contact information: (504) 689-3690, extension 10 or www.nps.gov/jela/index.htm
Located in the little nearby historic fishing village of Jean Lafitte, the Barataria Museum features a multimedia theatre presentation, state-of-the-art animatronic figures, and a nature study trail that takes visitors on a journey through the life of pirate Jean Lafitte, the stories and folk traditions of wetland dwellers, and the realities of coastal erosion and both natural and manmade disasters. Contact information: (504) 689-7888 or www.townofjeanlafitte.com/home/whats-new
Jean Lafitte Swamp & Airboat Tours offers two distinct options for a trip through Southern Louisiana’s swamplands in the protected Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve’s Barataria Preserve — low and slow, or fast and loud! The Cajun-style swamp tour quietly meanders through the bayous for a glimpse into the past, while the airboats are equipped with 450 horsepower engines for a high-octane thrill ride. Either way, you’ll get to see the ancient swamps that once housed those famous pirates, complete with alligators, snakes and other native creatures of the wetlands. Contact information: (504) 689-4186 or www.jeanlafitteswamptour.com
Destination #2: JACKSON/ST. FRANCISVILLE
Attractions: Port Hudson State Historic Site, The Myrtles Plantation
After New Orleans fell into Union hands during the Civil War, about 30,000 Union troops faced off against about 7,000 Confederates at Port Hudson for control of the Mississippi River, resulting in some of the bloodiest and most severe fighting in the entire war. The Confederates eventually surrendered, but only after this siege became the longest in American military history. Today, Port Hudson State Historic Site includes a huge battlefield, a museum, a cemetery, observation towers, an elevated boardwalk, a six-mile hiking trail, and a picnic area with pavilions. Contact information: (225) 654-3775 or www.nps.gov/nr/travel/louisiana/por.htm
Due to its colorful history, The Myrtles Plantation is known as one of the most haunted houses in the U.S. General David Bradford, a.k.a. “Whiskey Dave” for his part in the Whiskey Rebellion, broke ground on the property in 1796, then fled the country to avoid arrest and imprisonment. In the following years, and a succession of owners, it accrued lots of salacious stories about being built on an Indian burial ground, a slave poisoning several family members, and a smattering of other murders, all lending credence to the many reports of ghost sightings on the property.
Spirit activity aside, the house, which is surrounded by centuries-old live oak trees, also features a 125-foot veranda, exquisite ironwork, hand-painted stained glass, and tons of other architectural details and general opulence, as well as an on-site Carriage House Restaurant, serving American, Cajun and Creole cuisine. Guided historic and mystery tours, as well as a self-guided tour of the grounds, are offered daily. Contact information: (225) 635-6277 or myrtlesplantation.com
Destination #3: GULFPORT, MS
Attractions: Fort Massachusetts/Ship Island, Beauvoir
If you and your family are into Civil War military history, Fort Massachusetts is located on Ship Island, a tranquil, unspoiled island that’s only accessible by ferry or private boat from Gulfport. Built in the 1860s, but never actually completed, this fort ever fired a single shot, but is said to have served as a prison for a New Orleans woman who insulted a Union soldier, plus “153 Confederate prisoners of war and 260 Union soldiers who died here due largely to poor sanitation, crowded conditions and a yellow fever epidemic.” Creepy, right? Scheduled tours of Fort Massachusetts are offered in the spring, summer, and fall. Contact information: (228) 230-4100 or www.nps.gov/guis/learn/historyculture/fort-massachusetts.htm
The only antebellum national landmark between New Orleans and Mobile, this beautiful waterfront estate called Beauvoir (which means “beautiful view” in French) housed ex-Confederate President Jefferson Davis during his retirement, while he wrote his memoirs. It’s now his official library, and together with its museum, not only gives guests a glimpse back in time, but also allows for a hands-on experience. They show educational movies, provide tours of the preserved mansion, and feature both permanent and rotating artifacts and exhibits. Contact information: (228) 388-4400 or www.visitbeauvoir.org