Short Drives from New Orleans
New Orleans may be “America’s Most Interesting City,” so it’s easy to become complacent with all there is to do and see. But the region surrounding our city offers historic and cultural destinations, many of which may be accessed with only a tank of gas. Here are five unique cities offering fall festivals and fun foods, peaceful respites and parties, culture and comedy. And all are just a short drive away.
It’s a three-hour drive through Baton Rouge to reach historic Natchez, perched high above the Mississippi River. While many visitors enjoy stays at the numerous antebellum homes untouched by Union forces during the Civil War, for those who prefer peace and quiet there’s Brandon Hall Plantation situated right on the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Built in 1856 by Gerard Brandon III, son of the first native-born governor of Mississippi, Brandon Hall is now a luxurious bed and breakfast run by John Kaiser Harriss and his wife, Ashley, both with ties to New Orleans. The main house with its massive hallway, exquisite crown molding and period antiques offer five guestrooms, and two modern cottages near the back patio and fountain. The acreage includes a pond surrounded by woods with hiking trails, an 1833 children’s cemetery and the Trace at the end of the driveway.
Natchez native Kaiser Harris attended Tulane business school where he met Ashley, whose family migrated to New Orleans from Florida. They moved to Houston while Kaiser worked in the oil and gas industry, but when they desired a change, they found a plantation house for sale.
“It was a nice way to move back, home to Natchez for me and for Ashley to be closer to family,” Kaiser Harris said.
What’s unique about Brandon Hall Plantation is the location. The bed and breakfast is one accommodation, if not the only one, located right on the Natchez Trace, part of the U.S. National Parks Service.
“If you didn’t know we were here you’d have driven past,” he explained. “We can’t put a sign on the road because of the federal restrictions. It’s a blessing and a curse.”
The natural beauty remains the blessing. But even being a remote location, downtown Natchez is only 15 minutes away.
“It’s so peaceful and quiet out here,” Harris said. “Even if the house is full, it’s so quiet.”
Over in Natchez, however, things are hopping this time of year. The Natchez Balloon Festival soars over the river October 18-20 with live music and the competitive balloon race. The inaugural Y’all Means All Natchez Festival to raise funds for community mental health takes place the weekend of October 25-26, organized by John Grady Burns, a floral expert who owns the boutique Nest downtown. The festival features a Friday night wine and cheese reception at Choctaw Hall, a performance by country artist Ty Herndon and drag queen appearance by Nina West at Saturday’s “Battle of the Belles.”
Like Harris, Burns returned home after years in Atlanta.
“It’s a very special town,” he said of Natchez. “There’s always something to do if that’s what you want. But it’s also nice to sit and relax.”
Start the morning with a cup of Joe from Steampunk Coffee Roasters. For a romantic meal, try Pearl Street Pasta. Just leave your cares behind. The restaurant has been named the “Best Place to Ruin your Diet” by Mississippi Magazine. For something more casual, with a ghost or two, King’s Tavern serves up fabulous flatbreads and drinks produced with products from neighboring Charboneau Distillery.
Bay St. Louis and Ocean Springs
The Mississippi Coast offers a quick escape from New Orleans — an hour or so drive — with the quaint towns of Bay St. Louis and Ocean Springs bookending the small stretch of land bordering the Gulf of Mexico. Both appeal to artists and art lovers, with fall art-related festivals, boutiques and galleries and museums dedicated to artists who once called the Coast home.
In downtown Ocean Springs, there are 140 things to experience within walking distance, according to Cynthia Dobbs Sutton, executive director of the Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce. In addition, the town’s a haven for regional artists, she said, with approximately 300 artists in the Ocean Springs Art Association.
“Everything is one-of-a-kind, locally owned,” Sutton said of the town’s artwork for sale.
Ocean Springs was once home to eclectic artist Walter Anderson, who now has a museum dedicated to his work, along with Shearwater Pottery, his family’s ceramic art studio that’s still in existence. Walter’s brother, Peter Anderson, headed Shearwater as a master potter and every November, Ocean Springs celebrates with the Peter Anderson Arts & Crafts Festival, the largest arts festival in Mississippi and the Gulf Coast. This year’s event, November 2-3, features artists and artisans, musicians and food vendors from around the country.
The fastest way to reach the Coast is at Bay St. Louis, a town that intrigued a Batesville, Mississippi, school teacher who taught herself to paint while caring for her mother. Once settled in Bay St. Louis, Alice Moseley’s artistic talent took off and visitors can view more than 50 original pieces of her folk art at the Alice Moseley Folk Art & Antique Museum located inside the 1876 train station.
Places to stay on the Coast run the gamut. The Roost and The Inn at Ocean Springs provide both elegance and convenience, allowing guests to walk nearly everywhere, including the town’s beachfront. Casual comfort is what owner Nikki Moon strives for at Bay Town Inn in Bay St. Louis, where rooms include stocked kitchens, sitting areas and rocking chairs on the porch.
Kait Sukiennik always cooks up a sweet and a savory biscuit daily (and we always order both) at Greenhouse on Porter in Ocean Springs, and visitors may enjoy the actual greenhouse in back, complete with house cat. Enjoy a unique lunch entrée at Starfish Café, a non-profit teaching kitchen in Bay St. Louis where diners pay what they will.
As the days drift toward All Hallows Eve and the veil between life and death grows thin, thoughts turn to St. Francisville, home to one of the country’s most haunted houses. The Myrtles Plantation offers ghost tours year-round but more in October when it’s not unusual for 1,200 ghost-seekers to visit on a Saturday, said general manager Morgan Moss.
“We have a heavier volume on the property in October and we do the tours more frequently,” he said.
The oldest building dates to 1794, with the main plantation house and its massive veranda built in 1796. Many owners have called the Myrtles home, and some long deceased are believed to remain on site. The most famous ghost haunting the home is Chloe, a plantation slave who allegedly poisoned members of the family and was murdered when caught. Visitors, however, have reported 10 different spirits on the plantation grounds, Moss said.
In addition to the ghost and historic tours, visitors may enjoy staying in the plantation’s 18 rooms, six in the main house, six garden rooms next to the patio and six individual cottages surrounding a romantic pond with gazebo. New to The Myrtles this year is Restaurant 1796, with its exposed kitchen, elaborate hearth and full-service bar. A family-style breakfast for guests is served in the restaurant’s Bayou Room.
St. Francisville contains numerous antebellum homes and plantations, so there are several other historic bed and breakfasts to choose from, most featuring elegant guest rooms, home tours and full Southern breakfasts. For something hawking back to the past but not quite as far as the Civil War, try the 3V Tourist Courts at Magnolia, a row of 1938 renovated “Bonnie and Clyde” style cabins complete with alcove for a car. The longstanding Magnolia Café exists right outside your door so stop for a meal where locals eat. For a coffee break, live music or a scoop of gelato, Birdman Coffee & Books is only a few extra steps away.
For something completely unique, go to jail. The Angola Prison Rodeo and Craft Show happens every Sunday in October, the longest running prison rodeo in the nation. Inmates compete and ride horses at 2 p.m., plus sell their arts and crafts beginning at 9 a.m. Gardeners may prefer something more genteel, enjoying the Southern Garden Symposium October 18 and 19 at Afton Villa Gardens and Hemingbough. The event features workshops and lectures but also an evening gala and a Saturday afternoon tea. At the end of October, dozens of artists and craftspeople brings their wares to town October 26-27 for the Yellow Leaf Arts Festival. In addition, visitors will discover live music, children’s activities and farmers selling local produce.
Grab a craft cocktail like the Smoky Magnolia at The Myrtles’ Restaurant 1796, then enjoy farm to table fare cooked on the establishment’s 10-foot wood-fired hearth. The fire’s ambiance — amid hopefully cool fall weather — makes a perfect nightcap after a rousing ghost tour of the plantation.
Thirty years ago, one of the country’s most beloved plays was transformed for the silver screen and premiered as a film starring some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Playwright Robert Harling hailed from Natchitoches and set “Steel Magnolias” within his hometown, a story of a young mother fighting diabetes and the strong women she calls friends. The film, based on Harling’s sister Susan Harling Robinson, remained loyal to the play and used Natchitoches for almost all of its locations.
This year, Louisiana’s oldest town celebrates the 30th anniversary of “Steel Magnolias” with a “Blush and Bashful” Weekend November 7-10. Events include an Armadillo Cake Contest (the pastry was the groom’s cake in the movie’s wedding scene), an Easter Egg Hunt in Beau Jardin (resembling the scene in the film), a movie panel discussion, displays at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and a showing of the film at Parkway Cinema, where the movie premiered in 1989. There will also be a guided tour of the town’s film sites, including the Harling family house and the beauty shop that inspired the story and setting for the play and movie. Sunday’s brunch at the Prudhomme-Rouqier House will be catered by Lasyone’s, known for Natchitoches meat pies. Visit Natchitoches.com/SteelMagnolias for tickets and more information.
Visitors may also stay the night at the Steel Magnolia House bed and breakfast, the house used in the film where the main characters lived. Located in the heart of Natchitoches, the B&B offers guest rooms with character names such as the Shelby, Ouiser and Clairee.
The home’s history dates to the early 1800s and is believed to have been used as a Civil War hospital, as well as moving slaves along the Underground Railroad. Most people come for the film’s connection, however. Actresses Sally Field, Julia Roberts and Tom Skerritt were part of the film’s family that lived in the home and Dolly Parton, Shirley McLaine, Daryl Hannah and Olympia Dukakis enjoyed the property at the film’s wedding reception scene.
The Steel Magnolia House will also be part of the 65th Annual Fall Pilgrimage/Tour of Homes October 11-13 in Natchitoches. The tour includes the American Cemetery Mourning Tour on Friday, October 11, the site of the emotional climatic scene in the film. On Saturday, October 12, tour organizers will recreate Shelby’s wedding reception at the Steel Magnolia House with live music and an armadillo cake. On Sunday, visitors may tour Saint Augustine Church, where the wedding scene was filmed, and Cherokee Plantation, where cast and crew partied after filming was completed. Locals who worked or starred in the film will be on hand to offer their personal reminiscences.
For those who can’t make the anniversary weekend or Pilgrimage, the Steel Magnolia House offers tours every weekend, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays.
Nothing says Natchitoches more than Lasyone’s Meat Pie restaurant, which has been serving up traditional pies and other Southern and Creole dishes for decades. We adore the meat pies but the hand-held crawfish pies are equally delicious. A drive down Cane River to visit the unique Creole heritage and plantations makes for a perfect Sunday outing, with the Cane River Commissary a great stopping off point. Start with the Shell Beach Sampler — mini meat pies, artichoke wontons and cheddar bites.