Like other cities rich in culture, New Orleans is an easy space to stay within. I am consistently stunned by the things to do that I haven’t yet done, as well as the things to do that I didn’t even know about. And what I didn’t know — and maybe couldn’t have known until I tried them — was that short day trips out of New Orleans are another one of the city’s best attractions. And the best part? You can come back at the end of the day to enjoy a NOLA night.
Drink (For Free!) at Abita Brewery
On a recent Thursday afternoon, I drove along a semi-rural road looking for a sacred place. There were signs telling me where to go on this pilgrimage, so I was able to turn off the Google Maps directions. Forget those hippy bumper stickers: in this case, the journey is not the destination. That’s no knock on the drive. Coming over the lake to the Northshore, though it was less than an hour in the car, felt like it was taking me somewhere much farther away (in a good way). Before I knew it, I was making a right turn and it was before me. My destination? One of the oldest craft breweries in the U.S., Abita Brewing Company.
It was a hot afternoon, and on entering the Abita Tasting Room there was sweet relief in the cool surroundings and what I first laid eyes upon: a 24-foot polished mahogany bar. As soon as I walked through the door, the staff greeted me and quickly gave me (and my drinking buddy) the rundown. The tour lasts about an hour and consists of a walk through the brewery, where an expert guide leads you through the process of making beer at the largest craft brewery in the southeast.
But, before you get walking through the science of Abita, they save the best for first: the beer tasting.
You’ll have the opportunity to try all the Abita flagship brews, the current select, and the current seasonal brew. Lining up to help ourselves to the taps, my friend and I mingled with beer lovers from around both the country and the world. After watching a couple of short informational videos about Abita and the culture the company strives for—including a massive emphasis on sustainability and the finest ingredients—it’s time to see how its done.
One of the most pleasant elements of the Abita experience is the people. You’re surrounded by other fans of Abita, and the staff couldn’t be more friendly and helpful. And if you want to bring a big group to the brewery tour, Kathy Tujague, the contact person for the Brewery Tour, is both accommodating and enthusiastic about visitors.
Get Up Close with the Gators at a Jean Lafitte Swamp Tour
Let me start at the end. I’m stepping off the boat, chatting with Captain Kendall, asking him when I can come back to once again speed through the swamp. So, here’s the first lesson about the Jean Lafitte Swamp Tour; you’re going to get to know the captain. The captain will greet you when you come upon the boat, and he’ll provide you with insight to life on, in, and around the swamp. And it’s a fascinating life.
Y’all should really meet Captain Kendall.
More than any other of the other options for day trips, it’s difficult to describe the physical experience of the airboat. In one word, it’s smooth. As we glided through the swamp, it felt like there was only the most necessary contact with the waters below. And there’s green: green everywhere, liquid and solid, all around; the sky stretches out, and New Orleans seems as if it’s on another planet. But, in fact, you’re only 25 minutes away from the city, and if you look from the right direction you can see the top of some of the NOLA’s tallest buildings. That’s really one of the only traces of the urban out on the swamp, where the accents and stories reveal a different side of southern Louisiana.
And, of course, there’s the fauna, i.e. the gators. I have an affinity for alligators and, as you’d well expect, so does Captain Kendall. His experiences with gators, big and small, are a little more face-to-face than what most of us might have had.
Buzzing through the swamp, we stopped periodically to view a scenic spot or for Captain Kendall to talk about his experiences driving the boat and growing up in close proximity to this expanse of water. At one point we came across a deer stand— yes, locals hunt deer out in the bayou— that had toppled over in some heavy rains. Captain Kendall talked about his hunting experiences, a conversation that revealed just how connected locals here are to the waterways.
Channel Your Inner Movie Star at Oak Alley Plantation
Located on 25 acres on the west bank of the Mississippi, Oak Alley Plantation has been lauded for its great beauty and the preservation efforts given to maintain it. Oak Alley’s moniker is the “Grande Dame of the River Road” and she’s served as the backdrop for films from Interview with a Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles to Django Unchained.
It’s not difficult to see why filmmakers have turned to this mansion and its stunning grounds to try and convey a slice of the antebellum south. (If you’ve seen the film adaptation of Anne Rice’s famous first vampire book, Oak Alley stands in for the plantation owned by the recently undead Louis, played by Brad Pitt.) But the grand spectacle of Oak Alley is not just restricted to Hollywood film; Beyonce, a rumored New Orleans homeowner, shot her video for her 2006 hit “Déjà Vu” there.
As with being out in the swamp, it’s easy to imagine that you are farther away from New Orleans when walking the grounds of Oak Alley. In reality, the plantation is in St. James Parish, only an hour’s drive from the city’s Garden District. Oak Alley owes its name to a double row of oak trees that run between the house and the river for about 800 feet.
Along with the Greek Revival architecture of the main house, where the colonnade’s 28 columns are matched by 28 corresponding oak trees, the plantation features a graveyard for the Stewart family (the last owners to occupy the house), a formal garden, and blacksmith shop.
A professionally guided tour of the plantation’s big house provides information about the long and complex history of Oak Alley. And, for Civil War buffs, there is an encampment, typically staffed by a historical interpreter, who is happy to talk and answer questions about the war’s effect on southern Louisiana and life on the plantation.
Importantly, there is also a permanent exhibition, “Slavery at Oak Alley,” where the life details of the plantation’s enslaved people are put to the forefront. Moreover, there are newly planted pecan trees commemorating Antoinette, an enslaved gardener responsible for grafting the first paper shell pecan.
Oak Alley is a place where the past rubs up against the present, and it’s a pretty unforgettable experience.
Drive Super Cars at NOLA Motorsports Park
Pardon the cliché, but this is a definite change of pace from Oak Alley. Only a 20-minute drive from downtown New Orleans, NOLA Motorsports Park offers the option of automobiles, karting, and motorcycles. There are open track days for cars and bikes, and in regards to karting you can just arrive and drive. There’s also their newest offering, Xtreme Xperience, where you can drive super cars from Lamborghini, Ferrari, and more.
A facility that can cater to both large and small groups, NOLA Motorsports also offers high-performance driving schools, driver education courses, a variety of spectator events, and much more. My preference is the karting — 30 acres of track area with 7 acres lighted — and the three circuits with more than 80 configurations. This is a space to indulge your competitive side at the largest karting track in the United States.
Explore Black History at Historic Riverlands
About a 45-minute drive outside the city is Reserve, La., in the heart of plantation country. And while the majority of sightseeing in this area spotlights antebellum history, the Historic Riverlands church provides a glimpse at what life was like for African Americans following the Civil War. This meticulously kept museum was recently named tot he Louisiana African American Heritage Trail; the site was originally a church built for African American parishioners built in 1937 (on that note, St. Augustine Church in New Orleans is another must-see). While there, you will explore the property in the same way it would’ve been during that era: segregated. Water fountains, restrooms, dining rooms, and the like are all separate to give visitors a true sense of the era — and of how far we’ve come.