Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Wanderlust Wednesday: Cajun Encounters -- Swamp and Plantation Tours of Louisiana

What: Cajun Encounters Tours -- Combination Tour
Where: New Orleans, LA
When: May 2013

There were two things that I wanted to do in New Orleans no matter what: see some plantations and go on a swamp tour. I poked around the internet, trying to figure out what tour group we should go through, and found quite a selection of options with varying reviews. Still, I settled on Cajun Encounters as it offered a dual trip for a swamp tour and a plantation tour. It looks a little pricey but please don't get scared away from the cost: it's well worth it.

Jackson Square

Booking: If there was anything that I disliked about the trip, it would be the booking process. My friend made the booking arrangements and it seemed much more confusing than necessary. We had reservations for the trip, but didn't pay on the spot; this could be good if you had transportation issues but it left us with a little less security that we were guaranteed a seat (which ended up being something not worth worrying about). The women that my friend dealt with for booking were giving differing instructions over the phone and made our pick up location a thirty minute walk away from our hotel, while we later found out the company had pick-ups much closer to where we stayed. While waiting for our pick up the first morning, there was confusion of when the bus would arrive and those we called weren't helpful.


The General Tour Idea: You are picked up by a van that displays Cajun Encounters on the side (if you're meandering around New Orleans you may spot these vans here and there) it’s air-conditioned and rather comfy. This is fantastic, as my friend and I went to New Orleans without any mode of transportation.

I suffer from having long legs that usually are squished into seats on buses, trains, and planes, but I certainly had enough legroom in their vans. The bus driver takes you to your destination, and both there and back he tells stories of the area, or points out different sites to give insight into how much you're actually seeing. Once at your destination, you're handed off to either plantation tour guides or swamp tour guides and your driver is there to pick you up when you're finished and is even accommodating enough to drop you off wherever you need to be, even if it's not at your original pick up location.


The Plantation Tour: This was the longest trip of the two. We had quite a hike up the Mississippi River but it was great to get away from the city. We saw some of the countryside that makes up Louisiana, something we wouldn't have experienced had we not gone on the tour. The first stop was the Laura Plantation -- a beautiful home with a rich history. The house still has slave quarters, which was fascinating for me. After having learned so much of American history, but growing up in New York where America's history with plantations that were run by slaves were not quite as prominent, I had never seen such areas of living. It put it into perspective and I felt I had a better understanding.

Laura Plantation
Part of the remaining slave quarters.
Much of the plantation is still the original building and wood. The owner of the plantation gave us a tour and he was so filled with knowledge, I felt that nothing was left out. You could see he was passionate about the plantation and preserving its history.

After a quick lunch break, we drove down the road to Oak Alley Plantation. This is more famous, as the alley of oaks is often captured in movies or imagery of the south. Personally, I was most excited because this was the location used for the film Interview with the Vampire as Louis' home.

Oak Alley Plantation
The grounds are huge but, unfortunately, we weren't given much time to investigate. We were shuffled off to a tour of the household which was quick from point to point and we were given very little time to really linger in each room, then the tour was done and we were given very few precious minutes to see the rest of the area, use the bathroom, or grab more food before we were expected back on the bus. My friend and I rushed down the oak alley so we could get proper photos of the long walk with the oak trees hanging overhead (as seen in the above photo) but had no time to do anything else. I feel Cajun Encounters could work to make the plantation tour a lengthier experience -- if only by a half hour! -- so that guests can visit Oak Alley longer, but comparing our experience at Laura Plantation to Oak Alley, it seems a lot of the fault falls onto Oak Alley. It's quite the business and that's clear in how orderly everything is. I hope I can go back one day to both plantations and schedule my own tours so that I may have more time to visit the locations. But really, Cajun Encounters is wonderful by providing this opportunity and I feel I had a fasntastic, memorable experience.


The Swamp Tour: The van trip to the swamp was incredibly informative as we passed the different wards of New Orleans and our driver pointed out the very wide area that was under water after Hurricane Katrina. It was kind of mind-blowing. You remember the news coverage of it all and how devastating it was, but to see the area and judge the distance that was under water in real life is quite overwhelming. Some buildings were still a mess and others still had the watermarks.

Cajun Encounters boat and a little gator swimming over!
As we left the city and crossed Lake Pontchartrain, towards New Orleans East, we began to see bayous, which our guide pointed out. I would have thought it a creek but lucky for us the tour guide was informed (as I am sure they all are). He dropped us off at the Cajun Encounters swamp tour location and we joined the line to get our tickets. They had bathrooms on site, which look like a close cousin to a port-a-potty but they're actually quite clean and air-conditioned. There's pre-packaged food as well, plus snacks, but if you want something bigger you'll have to wait or pack your own. There are a couple of picnic tables outside that you can sit down and eat at. However, if you think you are going to eat prior to your tour, you might not have enough time so plan accordingly.

Tourists are given a rubber bracelet that's of a specific color and you're split into groups through that. My friend and I joined up with others in our group before we met our tour guide, Bishop.

An alligator waiting for a marshmallow treat!
This guy was exactly how I imagined someone from a swampy area to be. Funny, full of jokes, and with that Southern twang, I felt like I had truly come to the swamp. Bishop had us laughing but also informed us to no end. If we had a question, he answered it, and he tried his best to give us the best tour possible.

In the shallow swamp waters.
After loading the boat we headed out onto the water and I have to say: I was greatly surprised that there weren't any bugs. Typically I am like a juicy hamburger in the eyes of mosquitos and I thought I was surely going to be chewed alive at a swamp. Maybe it was the time of year (late May) or maybe it's a misconception on my part, but I wasn't bothered by bugs at all. In fact, I was more so bothered by bugs in New Orleans proper than at the swamp.

A baby swamp pig named Breakfast.
Bishop introduced us to various wildlife in the swamp, explained the type of trees we saw (that certainly do not exist around Washington, DC), and pointed out locations that were hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina.

It was fascinating, funny, and informative, and when my friend and I both got on the bus to head back to the Crescent City we agreed: not only was it money well spent but we would take another tour through this company again.

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