Savor the bayou folkways of 19th-century writer Kate Chopin and 20th-century folk artist Clementine Hunter.
In late afternoon, live oaks and magnolias cast shadows along the Cane River Lake and its shores just south of Natchitoches (NAK-a-tish) in north-central Louisiana. This is deep Creole country, with a culture that derives from early inhabitants who were gens de couleur libres (free people of color); their ancestors hailed from French settlers and African slaves. The various landmarks here constitute the Cane River National Heritage Area, also known as Cane River Road. Families by the name of Métoyer and Roque still inhabit Isle Brevelle—a large tract of land between the Cane River area and Bayou Brevelle—which has been a Creole community since the 1700s. More than 18 historic Creole structures mark the winding byways on this small island. Many are raised cottages made with bousillage fill (mud, Spanish moss, straw), some sporting Caribbean and French colonial-style architecture, with wraparound galleries and hipped roofs. Rural Cloutierville was once home to 19th-century author Kate Chopin, who wrote about Louisiana's Creole world in such works as The Awakening and A Night in Acadie. On winter evenings, the light just so, the water shimmers through moss-draped evergreens in this forgotten land, reflecting images of antebellum plantations, antiquated cotton gins and country stores, and 150-year-old homes and churches.
The route, known as the Cane River Road, is a 70-mile (113-kilometer) loop through north-central Louisiana's Creole Country, starting and ending in Natchitoches and interlacing several state highways: 494, 119, 484, 493, and 1. The labyrinth of tiny highways is linked by truss bridges and riverfront communities that connect 10 historic plantations—and cradle a unique culture. The route is a haunting shape-shifter, splintering into paths toward small crossroad communities and offbeat sights. You could wander here for days, stopping at all the sites, or make the loop in one long day, simply driving and looking. Even locals never tire of the scenery. "That little bend in the river, across the bridge from Melrose and down past St. Augustine Church," says Natchitoches Times editor Carolyn Roy, "is just so picturesque. The water is calm and serene, and, I think, reflects the nature of the Creole people."
Start in Natchitoches
Established by the French in 1714 and the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, Natchitoches today encompasses a National Landmark Historic District featuring some 100 historical structures, including three forts, mercantile buildings, and house museums. The setting for the 1989 movie Steel Magnolias, this town was named a "Distinctive Destination" by the National Trust of Historic Preservation in 2005 and is known as the B&B capital of Louisiana. Attractions here include the Fort Jesup Historic Site, established in the early 1800s by Lieutenant Colonel Zachary Taylor, who went on to become the 12th president of the United States; Alligator Park, five acres (two hectares) of habitat for this magnificent American reptile; and the colonial Fort St. Jean Baptiste.
Oaklawn, Cherokee, and Beaufort Plantations
Take Route 1 south from Natchitoches then 494 east toward Natchez. Within a few minutes you should reach the first of three privately owned (not open to the public), scenic plantation homes: Oaklawn, a 19th-century white-columned residence visible at the end of one of the longest oak allées in the state. A little farther along sits Cherokee Plantation, named for the Cherokee roses planted out front. Its simple, low-slung profile is typical of early French plantation homes, as are its three barns. Next on the route: Beaufort, owned at one time by Narcisse Prud'homme II, master of more than 100 slaves.
Across Highway 494 from Beaufort sits the 1821 Oakland Plantation, featuring a rare bottle garden (a formal garden outlined with bottles) and 17 outbuildings, including dovecotes and a carpenter shop. Established by Jean Pierre Emmanuel Prud'homme, a second-generation native of French descent, Oakland was purchased by the National Park Service in 1998 and is open daily for tours. It also houses the headquarters of the Cane River Creole National Historical Park.
Continuing south along 494 you'll reach the intersection with Highway 119 and the site of Melrose Plantation, built by Marie Thérèse Coincoin, a freed slave who received several land grants and created a pioneering operation. Eventually she and her sons, fathered by French merchant Claude Thomas Pierre Métoyer and bearing his surname, amassed enough land and slaves to become one of the richest families of color in the country. Folk artist Clementine Hunter—who would become one of the most collected "primitive" artists in the U.S.—worked as a field hand and cook here. Her murals cover the interior of Melrose's African House, the only surviving colonial Congo-style building in the country.
St. Augustine Catholic Church
Believed to be the first Catholic church in the U.S. founded, financed, and built by free people of color, St. Augustine rises just south of Melrose on Highway 119. The original church building dates to 1803; the current church was erected in 1919. Each October, St. Augustine hosts a fair that features Creole heritage and includes local foods, crafts, and tours.
End at Magnolia Plantation
Proceed south on Highway 119 to this plantation encompassing 18 acres (seven hectares). One of the area's largest plantation homes—with a baronial 27 rooms—Magnolia boasts a private chapel, in which mass is still held. The main house (closed to the public) and agricultural fields are still owned by descendants of the original owners, and tracts of the land are still cultivated. Preserved outbuildings, which are administered by the National Park Service, include a plantation store, a onetime slave hospital, and a cotton-gin barn.
This drive is best enjoyed from late September through May; summers are hot and humid. For more information on the area and its sites: Natchitoches Convention and Visitors Bureau (tel. 800 259 1714; www.Natchitoches.com); Cane River National Heritage Area headquarters (tel. 1 318 356 5555; www.nps.gov/crha); Cane River National Heritage Area Commission (www.caneriverheritage.org).
—Text by Shermakaye Bass, adapted from National Geographic Traveler