It’s 350 miles from Houston to New Orleans, but in terms of culture, it’s a million miles away. Once the invisible border between Texas and Louisiana is crossed, the accent isn’t the only thing that changes: steak becomes gumbo and country music becomes zydeco.
I’ve made this trip along I-10 twice before, but I’ve never really taken time to enjoy the journey. It was always about getting to New Orleans as fast as I could. This trip would be different. Best friend extraordinaire, Karlin, and I would take our time.
Karlin and I set out for Lake Charles, Louisiana on a Thursday afternoon. There we spent the night with a friend. Sadly, we didn’t have much time in Lake Charles; I would have loved to try my luck at the black jack tables of L’auberge du lac and see the beautiful, historical homes surrounding the lake. We did have time to have dinner at Steamboat Bill’s. This USA Today-acclaimed restaurant didn’t disappoint. There are two locations, but we went to the one just off I-10. After a full day of work and nearly three hours in the car, a casual place like Steamboat Bill’s was the ticket, as was the awesome fried shrimp and fries.
Friday morning Karlin and I got on the road early in search food. We found it an hour later in Lafayette. Too bad the Blue Dog Café in Lafayette doesn’t open for breakfast; I would have killed for some of their crawfish etouffee. Another 45 minutes west on I-10 we arrived in Grosse Tete and at the Highway 77 exit. This was the route we would take to Nottoway Plantation near White Castle. Twenty miles of windy, two-lane roads, countless LSU flags, and gorgeous countryside brought us to Highway 1. Nine miles further and we arrived to Nottoway, the largest existing Southern Antebellum mansion and all-around kick-ass place.
I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Nottoway is 53,000 square feet, 64 rooms, and three stories standing guard beside the Mississippi River. John Hampden Randolph and his wife, Emily, built the mansion. It was completed in 1859 and home to the couple and their eleven children.
The dual staircases are not just beautiful; they served a purpose. At the time the mansion was built, it was considered risqué for a young woman to show her ankles. In fact, Mr. Randolph had a mirror at the front door for his daughters to check their ankle visibility prior to leaving the house. When the girls walked down the stairs, they would raise their dresses to keep from tripping, thus showing the ankles. Because of this, ladies and gentlemen were prohibited from descending on the same staircase; women on one side and men on the other.
Mr. and Mrs. Randolph both came from wealthy families; John’s father was a federal judge and Emily’s father was a successful farmer. John and Emily began their lives together as cotton farmers, but they believed there was more money to be made in sugar cane. They were right, and this home is proof.
The home originally “included a massive entrance hall, the grand white ballroom, a formal dining room, a gentlemen’s study, another dining room, music room, numerous bed chambers, master bedroom, wicker room, bowling alley, library, Hall of their Ancestors, front parlor, sitting rooms, breakfast room, wine room, dairy, laundry and servant rooms, and boys’ wing. The kitchen was located in a separate building adjacent to the house so that a fire in the kitchen would not destroy the main home.”
In the gentlemen’s study, a painting of John Randolph is hung above one of the twelve hand-carved Italian marble fireplaces. This was the gathering room for men to relax with a cigar and whiskey and discuss things like war and farming. In the far right corner of the above photo, there are photos of the three Randolph sons along with various letters written by the family.
The White Ballroom was by far my favorite room. This was the location of five of the Rudolph girls’ weddings as well as countless parties. In designing the room, Mr. Randolph was quoted as saying, “I wish this room to be a pure white in order to offset the beauty of my ladies.” The plaster work and two fireplaces are exquisite, but the large painting above the left fireplace is fantastic. The artist used a technique known as “dotting the irises” that gives visitors the feeling of being followed by the eyes of the woman in the painting.
Many of the bedrooms in the mansion are on the third floor, including the master. These rooms are for rent, and all feature their own private bathrooms, which is unusual for this period of home. When this mansion was built, homeowners were charged taxes by the room and closets were considered rooms. Mr. Randolph was so wealthy, that it didn’t matter. He had massive walk-in closets built despite the extra tax cost. These closets were later converted to bathrooms during a renovation.
Not only is the master en suite, it also has a small bedroom attached. Notice the metal pan on the bed; it was filled with coals and used to warm the bed. Also, the columns at the foot of the bed were specially made hollow to hide jewelry.
Ascending the grand stairway, visitors are welcomed with a seating area known as the Ancestral Hall. This area was often used to visit and have coffee, and if lucky, tea. Tea was very expensive; Mrs. Randolph kept it under lock and carried the one and only key with her. The Ancestral Hall also has the most used windows in the mansion. Notice the handles at the bottom of the window. These large windows were raised and used as doorways to the third story balcony where the Mississippi River and the passing riverboats could be seen. The raised windows also allowed a wonderful breeze to blow through the mansion.
Since we had a private tour, Karlin and I were able to ask a million questions. We spent time visiting on the third story porch, learning more of the plantation’s history and about how the resort came to be. Sir Paul Ramsay, an Australian businessman, currently owns the property. He, however, was not the owner during the 1980s renovation. Sir Ramsay bought Nottoway from Baton Rouge resident, Arlin Dease, after being a guest at the plantation.
Mr. Dease bought the mansion from a lady named Odessa Owen with the promise he would allow her to continue living at Nottoway until her death. Sir Ramsay adhered to the same agreement. Since Ms. Owen was already elderly when she sold Nottoway, the gentlemen probably didn’t think she would live much longer. However, she lived at Nottoway an additional fifteen years until her death.
After the mansion tour, we visited the museum. There we saw artifacts from the Randoph family and the Civil War. We also watched a short film recounting the history of the Notttoway Plantation. Famished, we went to the restaurant located on the mansion’s first floor. The floor-to-ceiling windows of the restaurant showcase the plantation grounds, plus the food happens to be excellent. I mulled over the menu, and decided on the shrimp and grits.
Oh my goodness. Those shrimp and grits just might be the best dish I have ever eaten. That’s not an exaggeration. It was spicy and buttery, two of my favorite flavors. Simply excellent.
It’s a shame we were just passing through; I would have loved to spend the night in one of Nottoway’s suites and explore the grounds more. But alas, there was another plantation and New Orleans waiting. We bid adieu and left with full bellies, a sense of nostalgia, and a slight southern Louisianan drawl.
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