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Southern Icons: Plantations

Courtesy Berkeley Plantation

Berkeley Plantation
Charles City, Virginia
Berkeley Plantation has history dating back four centuries: It was the site of the first official Thanksgiving in 1619; Benjamin Harrison, signer of the Declaration of Independence and President William Henry Harrison were born there; and in 1862, Berkeley was the first place where perhaps the most recognized military bugle call in history, “Taps,” was played.

“The Georgian mansion, built on a hilltop overlooking the James River with bricks fired on the property, was constructed in 1726,” said Tammy Radcliff, plantation manager. “Today, it’s still the original brick, floors, woodwork, window frames and more.”

Groups, first greeted with an informative film, enjoy a tour with guides in colonial garb, who point out details such as a date stone and woodworking created by a few of its famous residents.

“The home is furnished in all period furniture, and the basement is a museum of artifacts. Groups also enjoy the five terraces of gardens and monuments that lead to the river,” said Radcliff.

Those gardens were dug by hand before the Revolutionary War, and flowers bloom from spring through fall. Visitors see hundred-year-old trees, sheep grazing in the distance and abundant wildlife on the 1,000-acre plantation.

“While we are conveniently close to Williamsburg, we are a rural community,” said Radcliff. “Groups typically love to have lunch in one of our two, nearby taverns that have an authentic, 1800s atmosphere — the Charles City Tavern and Cull’s Courthouse Grille.”

Houmas House Plantation
Darrow, Louisiana
This plantation name is derived from the first owners of the plantation, the Houmas Indians. In the early 1800s, the property became a thriving sugar plantation, and although the original French Provincial house still stands, the mansion, dubbed the Crown Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road with its columned Greek revival exterior, was completed in 1828.

Today, visitors tour the home of owner and resident Kevin Kelly, who fulfilled a lifelong dream by acquiring the plantation in the spring of 2003 and undoing changes that had occurred throughout the past 100 years, bringing the property back to its historical glory.

“Groups are treated to the antebellum architecture, museum-quality art and time in our 38-acre gardens that are planned to be beautiful any time of the year,” said Kelly.

The home reflects the influence of Mediterranean villas owned by wealthy Europeans during the antebellum era, and interior features and finishes have been restored to their original form. The Bette Davis film “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte” was filmed there in 1963, and the tour includes the room in which Davis stayed while filming the movie.

Houmas House is also home to a wine cellar and three distinct restaurants: Latil’s Landing, set in the 230-year-old original French House, which features service on French Limoge china; Café Burnside, a casual eatery where diners can indulge in an oyster po’boy; and Le Petite Houmas Restaurant, where Sunday brunch has a Southern twist.

Belle Meade Plantation
Nashville, Tennessee
The 1853 Greek revival mansion that greets visitors is a stunning welcome but this grand structure is just a part of the allure at Belle Meade.

“Belle Meade has a rich history of raising, breeding and grooming championship race horses,” said Mark James, group sales manager. “After John Harding purchased the property in 1807, the farm became the most successful breeding farm and distributor in Tennessee. This farm also had a sawmill, gristmill, dairy, creamery and more. Groups are privy to see a very diverse plantation.”

On a guided tour of the mansion, visitors might think they are actual guests. “There are no velvet ropes and no glass walls,” said James. “We want you to feel at home.”

New at Belle Meade is the culinary tour, a treat especially for those with a taste for Southern food classics. In the restored kitchen, groups participate in sampling and preparing favorites like sweet potato biscuits, pecan jelly and blackberry lemonade. At the plantation’s winery, the beverages feature local fruit.

Lunches served at the 1800s carriage house include more local favorites, from chicken with a bourbon glaze to rosemary biscuits and traditional blackberry cobbler.

James said the plantation’s two gift shops are retail havens.

“Even folks from Nashville come here just to shop,” he said. “Linens, Tennessee-made pottery, jewelry, chocolates and, of course, pecan jelly are just a few of the choices.”