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Skip the Beads, Hold the Bourbon

Outside the town can be found the remains of what was once Laurel Valley Plantation, a big sugar operation. According to Paul Leslie, a professor at nearby Nicholls State University and a leader of local efforts to preserve Laurel Valley, it is the largest 19th-century sugar operation still in existence in the United States.

The plantation was built by J.W. Tucker, who came to Thibodaux in 1832, married a local girl and started his business, which grew dramatically during this lifetime. When he died in 1852, he owned 5,200 acres and 135 slaves, and produced more than 1 million pounds of sugar a year, according to Leslie.

A trombone player performs at Donna's jazz club
A trombone player performs at Donna's jazz club
A trombone player performs at Donna's jazz club in New Orleans. (Chris Graythen - Getty Images For The Washington Post)

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The nonprofit that is preserving the place has a little store on Highway 308 about two miles east of Thibodaux. It's only open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays and noon to 3 p.m. on weekends, but if you arrive when it's open, someone will direct you to the most interesting local sight, the 60-odd, well-preserved cabins once inhabited by Tucker's slaves. We arrived after closing time but found the cabins with the help of a local; they're down the side road just beyond the store.

If you've seen the movie "Ray," about the life of Ray Charles, you've already seen these cabins, which were spiffed up and used in the film to portray the community of Georgia sharecroppers' cabins where Charles grew up. They've been used in other movies, too. But visited in person, they are empty and eerie. The preservation group has protected them with wire fencing, but from the dirt road it's easy to imagine children running from house to house, women hanging laundry, men slipping into the neat outhouses behind each chimneyed cabin. Slavery has never felt quite so real to me as it did the afternoon we walked along this dirt road.

These little shacks aren't exactly as they were for the slaves; they were used to house plantation workers long after the Civil War, and by the beginning of the 20th century most of those were European immigrants, according to Leslie. During World War II they were used to house, briefly, displaced East Europeans. The corrugated tin roofs date from that time. But Leslie says his research indicates that the frames of the old cabins, their chimneys and other features are original.

Beyond the cabins, a little farther down the dirt road, is the formidable brick structure that housed the plantation's sugar mill. It is falling down now but still impressive. Records show that 366,000 bricks were laid in 1844, all of them made on the plantation.

You can combine a visit to Laurel Valley with a stop at one of the more touristy restored plantations, such as Oak Alley Plantation on the edge of the Mississippi, on Highway 18 near Vacherie. Here you can see magnificent rows of old oaks and a fine planter's mansion and furnishings, but the slave quarters -- the homes of the people whose unpaid labor made the owner's grand life possible -- have not survived.

Of course, it was slave labor that made 18th- and 19th-century New Orleans wealthy and created the heritage we can enjoy today. Reducing the slaves to a brief narrative on a sign -- Oak Alley plantation's choice -- reinforced for us the poignancy of those shacks outside Thibodaux. New Orleans could use a good museum of its own African American history.

Details: New Orleans

GETTING THERE: Many carriers serve New Orleans from Washington, including US Airways (nonstops from Reagan National and Dulles International airports), Southwest (from BWI, with plane changes), AirTran (through Atlanta), United (nonstop from Dulles) and American (from National, Dulles and BWI, with stops). Flights start at $188 from BWI (on American), $223 from National (nonstop on US Airways) and $230 from Dulles (Northwest, with one stop).

We took the train and found it comfortable and fun. Amtrak's Crescent leaves Union Station daily at 7:10 p.m. and arrives the next day at 7:50 p.m., for $339 round trip. If you pay for a roomette ($704 round trip), you get free meals -- two suppers, breakfast and lunch -- in a real dining car. You wake up outside Atlanta and spend the day crossing poor sections of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, an interesting trip.

WHERE TO STAY: New Orleans is rich in hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and more. Le Pavillon (833 Poydras St., 800-535-9095, www.lepavillon.com) was built in 1907, and grandly restored in recent years. Its over-the-top decor suggests a high-end Parisian bordello of the 1920s. The big rooms are amusingly overstuffed and very comfortable. The location is great, and the hotel runs specials that make it cheap. A double room currently starts at $259 on the weekend, but the rate can go as low as $99, as it did during our stay over the Christmas holidays.

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