A tour in the South of the US would not be complete without visiting a Southern Plantation. Some plantations are well-know because of appearances in movies and on televisions, others are totally unknown. Size, purpose and architecture vary greatly. A few plantations are described here but there are many more.
Boone Hall Plantation, Mount Pleasant, Charleston, South Carolina
The Boone Hall Plantation is a little outside Charleston (18 km) and is one of the largest plantations on the list. The plantation appeared prominently on the TV show “North against South”. Of all the plantations we saw, this one had the largest crowd of visitors.
Many signs point to the plantation, from Charleston, Boone Hall is easy to find. The cashier is right in front of the Oak Alley. After buying a ticket, visitors proceed right through the Oak Alley in their cars. The street is an unpaved dirt road (a paved road would destroy the atmosphere) but the road is even, stable and dry. Driving on it works well, even larger vehicles like RVs could drive there without any problems. Traffic was heavy on the Oak Alley, the parking lot follows right after the Oak Alley.
Main attraction is the mansion with its regular tours. There are many chairs in front of the mansion, also canopies that offer shade if you need to wait and the sun is too strong. The plantation dates back till 1681; anyways the mansion is a replica from the 1930s. Originally, Boone Hall was a cotton plantation. Nowadays, farming focuses on strawberries and tomatoes.
The mansion tour mostly has stories about the original farm owners (in this case a Boone family), when the plantation was sold, what these new owners did about the plantation and how the plantation finally became accessible to public. Because of the many visitors, the tour is a bit of a run through all the rooms, tour guides figuratively push their groups to the next room. Once you leave a room, the next group walks right in. You get to see many different rooms of the plantation. Photography inside the mansion is not allowed. That is why I cannot show you any pics. Just in case you want to know how it looks inside the mansion: exactly like in “North against South”. It feels like being on the movie set.
In front of the mansion, there are several smaller red-brick buildings, where some of the slaves lived. It was an exception to build these cabins in front of the mansion; usually they were hidden behind the mansion. There is also a tour through these cabins; anyways it’s much less visited than the mansion tour. I would definitely recommend to do the slave cabin tour. The slaves’ history needs to be told and heard, it’s definitely as interesting as the mansion itself. A common problem here is that there is no written record about their history. Reconstructing their history and life story was only possible for a few single people, for example, the story of a female cook who spent her entire life at Boone Hall.
The third part of the plantation is its huge garden that can be seen on a walking tour. It has the typical face of a southern garden: many old trees, Spanish Moss everywhere and swamp areas nearby. You should definitely take that walking tour in order to feel the atmosphere of the plantation properly.
On plantations website it says they also have a bus tour through the entire land of the plantation, almost 300 hectares of land. When we were there, the busses were not. That is why we could not do that tour but we did everything else. The café was closed as well.
Boone Hall Plantation
1235 Long Point Road
Mt. Pleasant, SC 29464
(Located 8 miles from Downtown Charleston, SC)
Main Office Phone – 843-884-4371
Oak Alley Plantation, Vacherie, Louisiana
The Oak Alley Plantation is in a little town called Vacherie, 60 km from New Orleans. (see New Orleans). The Plantation dates back to the early 19th century, its famous Oak Alley is considerably older. Its oaks are from the early 18th century and were probably the reason why the plantation itself was built at exactly that spot. In its early years, the plantation was a sugar cane farm. Two female residents have mainly influenced the plantation and its appearance. Celina, wife of the first owner Jacques Roman was actually the reason why he built the farm in the first place: he needed to make a nice home for his New-Orleans-born fiancée. Jacques died at a young age and Celina took over: she managed the plantation the following years. In the next generations, the family fell into financial problems and had to sell the plantation. The plantation started to decay. In 1925, Andrew Steward bought the house for his wife Josephine. She was the one who put the plantation back in good shape. Josephine had the house fixed and modernized and brought the farm back to its original purpose: making sugar cane. She stayed until her death and gave the farm to a foundation. Thanks to that, the farm is now open to public.
A guided tour in the mansion is very different from the one in Boone Hall. Photography is allowed, as long as no flash is used. All tour guides wear original, traditional clothing and show both floors to their visitors. We did get a lot of information what was done to fight the heat in the building. Small architectural secrets are supposed to help create a bit of ventilation in the rooms.
Big highlight of the tour is the huge balcony on the second floor: the balcony is located right at the center of the Oak Alley and offers a spectacular view. In this plantation, the Oak Alley is behind the mansion, not in front of it. Looking from that balcony to the oak alley is absolutely stunning; it’s worth visiting the plantation only for this. But even her, the tour guides are in a rush and the group has to hurry. We barely had enough time to take pics from the balcony. You can only walk along the oak alley, driving is not possible, there is no street and no other way to reach the alley, only a walking path. The alley is a ¾ mile long (1.2 km). Walking until its very end is worth it, even though very few visitors do that. This is a very nice spot to take pictures; you should definitely take time to do that. The plantation ends at the very end of that alley, a public street is right behind. You can go there to see the oak alley and take pics without having to buy an day pass for the plantation. Anyways, you only see the alley. From this spot the mansion is far in the background and barely visible.
In the opposite direction (from the mansion) there is a restaurant. Right next to it an exhibit and rebuild of the slaves’ homes tells their story. Again, it’s difficult to trace their stories back, only a few written records are available. A gardener who developed a new way to plant pecan nuts is mentioned in particular. At the end of the so called slave-alley are several overnight cottages. Cottages sounds like a simple, basic place to stay. Anyway, these cottages are the complete opposite. If you have always wanted to spend the night at a Southern plantation, this is an opportunity to do so.
A couple of smaller attractions can be found on the plantation as well: a theater that tells the story of planting sugar cane, an exhibit about how blacksmith work was done in the past and a smaller garden that Josephine, the last owner, started.
The Oak Alley Plantation appeared in several movies, the most important one is “Interview with a Vampire”. Also Beyoncé’s video “Déjà Vu” was shot here.
Vacherie has more plantations right next to Oak Alley: Laura Plantation, St. Joseph Plantation and San Francisco Plantation.
Belle Meade Plantation, Nashville, Tennessee
The Belle Meade Plantation is 10 km outside of Nashville. The farm was built by the Harding family in the early 19th century. From the beginning, the plantation operated on several levels: blacksmith work, lumber mill but also cattle breeding and making gin. Over the years, horse breeding became more and more important. Even after the civil war, the family tried to keep the farm running, but after a while this was no longer profitable. The plantation had two owner families: a Harding family and a Jackson family. There is quite some information available about the slaves of the plantation. Some of them had gone through a kind of apprenticeship and were professionals in their jobs: as blacksmith, as a jockey or in horse breeding. They were highly qualified and could even continue to work in these jobs after the Civil War. This is not supposed to euphemize slavery, it’s only a story that shows how different these plantation were and how they did business in different fields of work.
This plantation does not have an oak alley. Its mansion and the guided tour is the main attraction. A cottage, a replica of a slave home was reconstructed. There are some more, smaller buildings: a horse stable, a stable of carriages, a garden and a vinery. The tour includes a free wine tasting at the end. We had lunch at the plantation’s restaurant, the food was surprisingly good, prices were reasonable.
There was a little play at the lawn in front of the mansion: some guys, dressed as soldiers were busy working on old cannons. In the end, they indeed fired a cannonball. Our tour had already started; we were inside the mansion and only heard the detonation.
The plantation also sells several special culinary tours.
Compared to the two larger plantations Boone Hall and Oak Alley, Belle Meade is a bit smaller but in no ways boring. This plantation has an entirely different story and history than the other two.
Wormsloe Plantation, Savannah, Georgia
The Wormsloe Plantation is a 20 minutes-drive outside Savannah. The plantation is basically no longer a plantation. All the buildings are destroyed, only their ruins are left. The Wormsloe Plantation is very old, from the early 18h century. The building from these days does not exist anymore. A newer building from the 19th century is privately owned and cannot be visited.
But there is a beautiful old oak alley and several smaller walking paths in the forest and along a swamp. Basically, you take a nice walk in the area. At the entrance, there is an exhibit about the history of the plantation and its owner families.
Some ruins and traces from the early settlement of the US are still there. Over the years and centuries, several forms of agriculture were done here (fruits, vegetables, grain, etc.). It is remarkable that the Wormsloe Plantation has been owned by the same family since the 1730s. The area is a bit older and wilder than all the other plantations, mainly for two reasons. The old buildings are no longer there, only its ruins, and the plantation is in the middle of a forest and a swamp that borders the forest. The panorama her is nice and offers a nice view.
The plantation charges only 10 Dollars, less the half of what the others charge. Anyways, you need to be aware of the fact that you only see gardens, a forest, ruins and the oak alley. On the plus side: the plantation is not as crowded as the other ones.
Melrose Site, Natchez, Mississippi
Of all the plantations, this is the least known. It is in Natchez, Mississippi, at little town 120 km south of Vicksburg. You can go to Natchez on the way from Memphis to New Orleans or from Vicksburg to Baton Rouge. Natchez is anyways worth a stop. You can also do this little unknown plantation with its very few visitors.
The Melrose Plantation is smaller than the other ones on this list. You reach it by driving through a park. Originally, the plantation was built a little bit outside of Natchez, but now it is in the middle of the suburbs. Several signs lead to the plantation; it’s easy to find the park (reachable via highway 61 and Melrose Avenue). The plantation is from the mid 19th century.
The original owner family McMurran sold the farm as an entire unit: including furniture and dishes. Even during subsequent sales, the plantation’s interior remained the same. Because Natchez was not hit hard by the destruction of the Civil War, many original items survived and can still be seen today.
The plantation consists of a mansion and several smaller houses in the garden. The guided tour shows the entire house, also the second floor and the view from the balcony. The tour was not crowded at all, we were the only ones. The tour guide was called only for us. This was our first private tour, the only farm where we were not pushed from one room to the other in a larger group. Stables, carriages and all the small buildings are not part of the tour but can only be seen in a self-guided tour.
The garden is quite nice too and can be seen in a walking tour. The typical southern Spanish moss is everywhere; we also saw several air roots or trees that grow close to the water.
Important: Do Not Only Visit the Mansion
All plantations usually offer tours in the slave homes or replica of the slave houses. The history of their slaves is told as thoroughly as possible. Boone Hall had tours in the mansion every 15 minutes; about 20 – 30 people were guided through the house. Only about 10 people did the slave alley tour, even though the tour takes place much less frequently. That is such a pity! You should definitely listen to that part as well. Also do the walking tour in all the gardens and oak alleys, these are important parts of the plantation and define their image. You get to see many plants that do not exist in Germany. In Oak Alley Plantation, the oak alley is more than one km long. You should really walk until its very end, the view worth it.
Which plantation is the best, which should I visit?
All plantations are interesting and have their own history. The two larger plantations Oak Alley and Boone Hall are absolutely stunning, spectacular and a real highlight. Many people have found that out, both plantations have many visitors, in the main season they are probably too crowded. All tour guides are nice and provide loads of information. They talk about history and the plantations and their owner families. That is very interesting. But, you feel a bit pushed, sometimes it feels like they are trying to get rid of the group as soon as possible because the next one is already waiting. For example, tour guides leave their story unfinished because the next group is already close and it is time to leave the room. It is a rigid system that guides you from one room to the next one. One more negative thing: these plantations are expensive. They charge more than 20 bucks usually. But that is an individual decision if you want to pay these 20 plus dollars or not. In Vacherie we decided to not do the other two plantations because of that. I think it’s best to compromise here. You cannot see all plantation but a few are worth paying all that money.
All oak alleys are a highlight, in particular Oak Alley Plantation because you get to see the oak alley from the second floor. The oak alley in Wormsloe is beautiful as well, even though a mansion is missing. I think, if you have seen the Oak Alley Plantation (or another plantation with an oak alley) you can omit Wormsloe. Except you are very interested to see leftovers of the very early settlement, than you should do Wormsloe.
Some plantations do not show all their rooms or don’t let the tour groups go to the first floor. They have various reasons: sometimes it is because of safety issues, sometimes because the owner family still uses the plantation as a holiday home. That’s a pity, but nothing to do about that.
Photography rules are different everywhere: Boone Hall does not allow any photography inside the house, Oak Alley allows photography but without flash.
The two smaller plantations Wormsloe and Melrose place have a huge plus: very few people are there and you have more silence and less chaos and hectic there. The larger plantations are more impressive, but I would still recommend doing at least one smaller one. Plus, these small plantations cost much less.
Whoever plans to stay overnight in a plantation, you can do that in Belle Meade or Oak Alley.
It is difficult to recommend something in general. I suggest doing at least more than one plantation. An oak alley should be part of one of the plantations. The best thing is to plan accordingly to the rest of your tour. If I ever come back to New Orleans, I want to see some of the other plantations in Vacherie.