Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for February, 2003

Headed northbound for Philadelphia, I landed in Staunton, Virginia (pronounced “Stanton”, which locals will readily correct), where I fell into a zone I would call Right Inn, Wrong Room.

The Belle Grae Inn is a circa 1873 restored Victorian Italianate mansion, which sits on a large block with two other buildings from the same time period. All offer lodging with varied amenities.

In my usual spontaneous travel fashion, I called at the last minute. The sun was setting quickly and I reached the innkeeper without any problem. As typical for midweek, there were plenty of vacancies and they offered a corporate rate. Their own restaurant was closed that night, but dining options were available nearby.

The main inn is situated in the middle of a large block, surrounded by gardens. Downstairs is an elegant restaurant. Rooms are up a beautiful flight of stairs. One of the separate buildings, Jefferson House, is to the side and back of the property. The other, The Townhouse, is in the front corner of the lot. It was in this building that I was given a room.

I have no complaints about this inn, other than ending up in the particular room that I did. And I blame myself for that, having arrived just before the office closed. I usually make a point of staying in main buildings. But I had requested a phone (not one of the amenities of the rooms in the main inn), the corporate rate was very reasonable and I felt a little guilty for dropping in with only a thirty minute warning, so I just went with The Townhouse.

With twenty-twenty hindsight, I would realize this building was very close to the street and I’d been given the front room. The only other guests – out to dinner at the time I checked in – were housed, it turned out, in the room directly above me. By the time they returned from dinner and began shuffling around, the office was long closed and I was already settled in.

I don’t blame this on the inn. After all, I had asked about a phone line. And because I checked in at the last minute, I didn’t do what I would usually do – ask to see other rooms and grab a quiet back corner. I survived, in spite of street traffic, creaky floors from the 1800’s and a very heavy-footed guest above – midnight, 1:30, 3:30, etc. – you get the idea.

I have to say the room itself was wonderful – spacious, immaculate, beautifully decorated with antiques, huge bathroom, great amenities and luxurious linens. A gas fireplace and sitting area made it even more appealing.

I was able to see many of the rooms in the main inn building the following morning, all wonderful and very quiet. Knowing this, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this place to others. Just make a point of requesting the main building, or at least an upstairs room if you require a phone and need accommodations in one of the more business-oriented buildings.

Another plus here for breakfast-lovers was the mouth-watering ham and cheese souffle, home fries, fresh fruit, juice, coffee, miniature carrot muffins and poppy-seed bread (dusted with powdered sugar) served for breakfast, fireside, in the dining room. The table was elegantly set and a newspaper waited beside the place setting. I can only imagine what dinner here would be like, based on the breakfast. Heavenly.

I left puzzled over how I would write this up. I only have myself to blame for not making sure I followed my own rules – no downstairs rooms, no street noise. This inn has all the ingredients for a perfect B&B experience. I just got the wrong room. The immaculate accommodations, beautiful decor and excellent food still won me over.

One of the two innkeepers had recommended The Depot Grille for dinner, since the restaurant at The Belle Grae Inn wasn’t open that night. Not surprisingly, this was a restored railroad station, with train cars in front. Casual dining and close to the inn. I had an excellent cream of mushroom soup and a tossed green salad. Pecan pie a la mode tempted me, but I held back, having scarfed up most of a basket of bread.

I did a little exploring in Staunton itself, before leaving. The downtown area offers many historic buildings, including a magnificent clock tower, and many quaint shops.

After an hour or so of browsing, I found my way back to I-81. I made one fascinating stop at Paper Treasures in New Market, Virginia (10,000 square feet of books, magazines, rare volumes, etc.) and then continued north.

Photo Gallery: View Here

If You Go:

Belle Grae Inn
515 West Frederick St.
Staunton, Virginia 24401
(888) 541-5151

Paper Treasures
9595 Congress St.
New Market, Virginia 22844
(540) 740-3135

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

It’s not news to anyone who follows my meanderings that I change course unexpectedly. Just as I hadn’t planned to go through Asheville, I also had no plans to go into the No. Carolina mountains, especially with threats of snow. It made sense to catch the Interstate and zoom east, then north into Virginia.

Why then, about fifty miles east of Asheville, did I suddenly take an offramp and head north? I have no idea. This is just what I do sometimes.

The best I can put it together in retrospect, I ended up on Rte. 18, then Rte. 321, arriving late afternoon in the mountain hamlet of Blowing Rock. This is a town I’ve long wanted to visit, maybe because of its unusual name or maybe because of cabins in that area that I’ve had bookmarked for awhile. In any case, this is where I landed, amidst snow banks and chilled air, with the sun minutes from dropping below the horizon.

I didn’t have to look hard for lodging. It was midweek, off-season and, aside from those establishments which were closed altogether, there were plenty of vacancies. In this case, The Green Park Inn found me before I even entered the town. This Victorian structure, which dates back to 1882, was waiting on the right side of the road. I stopped in, looked at a few rooms and chose one on the top (third) floor.

Now, I have to say right off that it’s not easy coming from The Grove Park Inn and trying not to compare the two. But I tried to look at it objectively and it was really fine.

My room was decorated in a Victorian theme and had all the desired amenities. Cleanliness is probably my biggest issue in general with accommodations. This place was fine, though I think the off-season lack of customers had a slight effect. (Cleaning crews are not going to go into rooms daily without customers). I had free local Internet access through nearby Boone, which was a nice surprise. And being on the top floor (corner room) of a historic building was pretty cool, since the winds kicked up quite a howling that night.

Though practically deserted when I was there, The Green Park Inn held a feeling of history, with many pictures displayed of times gone by. This hotel was the site of many lavish galas in the late 1800’s and early to mid 1900’s. Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt and J.D. Rockefeller are just a few of the guests who brought entourages with them to enjoy the mountain air. Breakfast was served in the former ballroom, where many of these events took place. Business meetings and banquets are still held there. I see from my notes that Annie Oakley was also a guest here, as was Elizabeth Dole, more recently – last year.

I drove around the Main St. section of the town, but didn’t get a chance to explore any shops. This may have been timing (arriving late afternoon, leaving the following morning) or due to off-season hours. I also didn’t get out to the namesake “Blowing Rock” itself, a cliff that hangs 4,000 feet above sea level and 3,000 feet above Johns River Gorge, located slightly out of town.

I was told the legend behind this rock by several different locals and each one offered a different story. But the brochure I picked up (you know how I collect those…) says that a Chickasaw chieftan brought his daughter to The Blowing Rock to protect her from the white man’s admiration. One day, while daydreaming on the rock, she shot an arrow playfully at a young Cherokee brave below, which started a flirtation and courtship. At some point a reddening of the sky brought the two of them to the rock. He felt this was a sign that he needed to return to his tribe. She pleaded with him to stay and, torn by conflict, he jumped from the rock.

Grief-stricken, she remained on the rock, praying daily to the Great Spirit for her lover’s return until, one evening, a gust of wind blew him back onto the rock. Since then (so the legend goes) the wind has blown up from below. This became the explanation for The Blowing Rock’s mysterious wind, noted in a Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not cartoon which calls this “the only place in the world where snow falls upside down”.

Well, I never saw The Blowing Rock, but I did see The Woodland’s Barbeque & Pickin’ Parlor, where I had a BBQ plate of chopped pork, baked beans, hush puppies, cole slaw and jalapeno cornbread. You know, the low-cal special. The place was almost empty, but I still caught the tail end of a banjo/guitar duo, which was fun. I packed up most of the meal into a to-go box and saved it for the next day.

The next morning I knew I had to make some tracks, though I still had one more day before I needed to reach Philadelphia (based on weather reports and personal schedule). Though several people informed me the Blue Ridge Parkway was open, it was closed three miles down the road. I did the three miles anyway, though, looking for photo opportunities. I backtracked from the barricade on the parkway and passed through Boone, where I browsed a few shops, including the Mast General Store, founded in 1883 (barrels of candy, old-fashioned items).

And then I headed for Virginia, via Rtes. 221 and 16 – a breathtakingly beautiful drive.

Read Full Post »

At twilight I came into Asheville, NC, landing in a massive rock structure that I can only refer to as heaven. I hadn’t intended to go through Asheville, but it was an easy stretch from Rabun Gap, Georgia. A flip through my AAA guide book pointed me toward a 1913 historic hotel, The Grove Park Inn. A quick phone call informed me of an amazing discount – 99. for a room that would normally be over 200. during peak season. I headed over to check it out. One step inside the lobby won me over instantly.

The great room was expansive, with high ceilings and solid oak Arts & Crafts-era furnishings. A long row of rocking chairs stretched before a huge stone fireplace, where guests lounged comfortably in front of the warm flames. A waitress served drinks from a bar to the right. The front desk greeted me with warm and efficient hospitality and I was soon on my way to a room on the third floor of the main, historic section.

The elevator ride up to the room is worth a note in itself. Built inside the interior of the chimney, this elevator (and a second, located at the opposite end of the lobby in another fireplace) can be found listed in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Stairs are also available, but not nearly as fun as the ride offered by the hotel’s elevator operator, who also offers history tidbits.

Grove Park Inn was the dream of Edwin W. Grove, the owner and founder of Grove’s Pharmacy and Paris Medical Company of St. Louis, Missouri. He amassed his fortune by selling turn-of-the-century medical treatments, including Grove’s Tasteless Oil Tonic. Following his doctor’s advice, Grove started spending summers in Asheville in the last 1800’s and came to love the area. Over time he became involved with the development of the city and on July 9, 1912, started construction of the resort hotel. It opened the following year to rave reviews. In 1955 Charles and Elaine Sammons purchased the inn and continued expanding the inn toward its current glory.

F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed at The Grove Park Inn while his wife, Zelda, underwent treatment in a mental hospital in Baltimore in 1935, as well as during 1936, when he moved her to Asheville’s Highland Hospital. He occupied rooms 441 and 443, which are included in a tour given during the yearly Salute to F. Scott Fitzgerald weekend (this year’s dates: Sept. 19-21). The guest registers list numerous other celebrity names, including Will Rogers, Thomas Edison, Bela Bartok, George Gershwin, Baryshnikov, Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR and seven additional presidents.

My room was wonderful. The ceilings were high and the sheets were luxuriously soft. Every amenity a guest could hope for was there: leather chairs, stereo system, small refrigerator, microwave oven, two phone lines, data ports, cable television, and in-room coffee maker (not always common in luxury hotels). The bedspread and shams were of elegant fabric and glasses (not disposible cups, which I have found, amazingly, in some high end lodgings) were provided in both the room and spacious bath. Additional details included plentiful electrical outlets. (Anyone who has ever desperately searched a hotel room and moved multiple pieces of furniture in search of a plug for laptop knows the value of this).

I had dinner in the Blue Ridge Dining Room, one of several choices within the hotel. It offered a view of the Asheville skyline, linen tableclothes, tiffany lamps and the peaceful ambiance of classical music and candlelight. A vase with fresh red and pink carnations graced my table. I chose a pasta dish with yellow squash, red and green peppers, pesto and pine nuts, which was accompanied by a small green salad with a delicious sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. A basket held cheese/chive bread, as well as a flatbread with white and cayenne pepper. I found the flatbread especially good.

Arriving late, and staying only one night, I didn’t have a chance to take advantage of all that The Grove Park Inn has to offer, but the facilities available are every bit as fabulous and varied as the rooms. An 18-hole golf course, designed in 1924 by Donald Ross, and a state-of-the-art sports complex with indoor swimming pool, fitness classes and circuit-training equipment are two of the on-site offerings for guests. Tennis and racquetball are also offered. Built into the hillside below the hotel itself, The Spa at The Grove Park Resort gives 40,000 square feet of new meaning to the term luxury. (Note: Some services require additional fees).

I did make a point of stopping in at The Spa before leaving, in order to snoop around a bit and especially to admire the breathtaking architecture, much of it out of natural stone. This facility ranks among the most luxurious in the world and is designed around a theme of fire, water, rock and sky. The aesthetic appeal is as intoxicating as the menu of services offered, which don’t end with standard massages and facials, but offer such tempting treatments as a Heaven Scent Aromatherapy Massage, Carolina Mud Pie Masque, Buttermilk and Honey Bath, and the Walk in the Clouds Pedicure.

I grabbed lunch at the cafe. My orzo and tomato soup was excellent, accompanied by a half sandwich with ham, swiss cheese, tomato, red onions and dijon-chive mustard on sunflower wheat berry bread. Again I had a chance to munch on the homemade flatbread I’d enjoyed at dinner. Though I couldn’t enter the main area of the spa itself – day passes are $50. for hotel guests and $75. for non-hotel guests – I observed spa guests arriving in the cafe between treatments, clad in thick white robes. I readily admit I watched with envy.

I finally dragged myself out and got back on the road, but only after fighting the urge to check back in.

**Additional notes on The Grove Park Inn:

This place was fabulous. There’s one on each trip that really stands out and this is absolutely it, for several reasons. For one thing, this place has everything. Not only services that require fees (golf, spa treatments, etc.) but many bonuses inherent in the set-up they have. Sitting in front of the fireplace in a rocking chair, journal in lap.

Extremely reasonably priced food in the Spa Cafe – a great chef who enjoys experimenting with homemade soups and other recipes – we talked for awhile. The luxury of the architecture itself. Something very soothing and grounding about the stones. Many, many lobby and small sitting areas, all beautifully furnished with Arts and Crafts pieces. Hidden nooks for reading all over.

Of course, an immaculate room, beautifully furnished, with GREAT attention to detail and amenities is always nice. And rarely found. I’ve become (sadly) a terrible critic about this and I can truly say that absolutely nothing is overlooked here.

The biggest joy about The Grove Park Inn is the hospitality. From the front desk to the elevator operator to the waitress in the dining room to the guy stocking the fire to the chef in the cafe to the front desk at The Spa – well, you get the idea. High praise is to be given to the management of this resort for whatever they’re doing, as the morale is high among staff and this carries over to guests. As it should. Zero snootiness. Perfect hospitality. The best I’ve seen in years of travel. No preference to high-rollers, at least as far as I could see (since I can’t imagine any better treatment than what I received). As someone coming in on a discount rate, grabbing an inexpensive cup of soup in the cafe and limiting my recreation to reading and writing in front of the fire, I was given the same courtesies as others who might have stayed in pricier suites and stocked up on spa packages.

They do get you on the phone charges here. A buck for 15 minutes (local), then it kicks in high. So you need to sign off, then sign back on. I only used the phone as needed, especially with that big fireplace and all the cozy rockers in the lobby.

This place was perfect. Perfect. Perfect. Some day I want to go back and enjoy the spa, even just with a spa pass for a day, to lounge around in the pools and saunas. Having stepped inside that building, I’m telling you the world disappears in there.

Not to mention everything else Asheville has to offer – The Biltmore, etc. I didn’t get a chance to see any of that. (Both time limitations and the $38. ticket price for the estate.) Another time.

Information:

The Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa
290 Macon Ave.
Asheville, NC 28804
(800) 438-5800

Read Full Post »

I’m looking at my state-by-state folders that I keep on these cross-country trips and am amazed to find thick batches of information on Alabama and Georgia. Surprised because I really saw nothing whatsoever in those states. But I’m a Visitor Center addict and if I cross any state line I load up on free brochures. I always save them, to use for future trips. (Don’t ask if I ever remember to bring them along.) I also never know when I might stop within a state for an impromptu exploration, so it helps to have them on hand. At least these are my excuses for loading up on pamphlets and maps.

Alabama and Georgia were sort of a blur this time. I was trying to outrun the weather reports and I had a clean window for highway time, so I blasted across this portion of the south, landing just below the Georgia/No. Carolina border. Unfortunately, I got off the road late, without much light, and didn’t have any time to explore the mountains of Northern Georgia, an area I’d wanted to visit for a long time. Still, I’ve been working on a writing project that involves old gristmills and, by chance, landed at a perfect accommodation.

Sylvan Falls Mill is an authentic, working gristmill, which has been in operation since 1840. Located in Rabun Gap, Georgia, it is run as a Bed and Breakfast by Linda and Mike Johnson, who offer four charming rooms, full breakfast, excellent hospitality and a fascinating close-up look at the inner-workings of a mill. As if that’s not enough, a private waterfall on the property and a pastoral view of cows, fields and an old red barn across the street make this quaint lodging a great rural getaway for those who are city-weary.

I stumbled in as the only guest on that particular evening, getting the coveted Waterfall Room, up a flight of stairs at the back of the house. Through a bay window across from the bed I could see the water tumble down across granite boulders. With the window open (and even with it closed) I could listen to the sound of the cascading waterfall as I drifted off to sleep. With a pitched ceiling, lace curtains, stacks of books and a candle beside the bed, this room had the feel of a secret attic hideaway.

A woodstove in a common room provided warmth and I was able to hook up my laptop to a phone jack that provides Internet for one of the downstairs rooms, since it was empty that night. With online access, a warm fire, great hosts and the sound of the waterfall outside, I was a happy camper.

I’d entered snow territory by this time – not enough to make driving impossible, but enough that chilly winds and slippery ground greeted me in the morning. Still, I ventured outside to visit the cows across the street and to breathe in some of the crisp mountain air.

Linda served an exquisite breakfast of fresh fruit crepes (one apple, one banana, with coconut and chocolate) along with raisin scones, orange juice and coffee. The china was Limoges and the food was delicious. In spite of the cold, I braved (at my request) the outdoor porch for this meal. Enclosed with plastic for the winter and heated by a gas fireplace, it was warm enough and let me enjoy views of the waterfall as well as the 27 foot waterwheel of the mill, one of the largest in the country. Stained glass turtles and whales, bird feeders and wind chimes added to the rustic feel of the porch-turned-room.

After this feast, Mike gave me a tour of the mill itself (not used commercially), where I got to see all the “mechanisms and technical stuff” up close. It was clear that he loves doing this, from the excitement and humor he wove into his presentation. It was fascinating.

Mike and Linda both have backgrounds in the hospitality business from working in larger hotels in Key West, Florida. They’re thrilled to now live in a small mountain town and be able to offer this unique lodging experience to their guests. They’ll happily accommodate special dietary needs – Atkins, vegetarian, wheat allergies, etc. They have rooms that allow pets and the check-out time is not until noon. One unique (and only spread through word of mouth) feature is that they are bike-enthusiasts and have the plates needed for guests who arrive on bikes.

Another night, another inn. This one I can easily recommend. Their website is located at www.sylvanfallsmill.com.

Linda sent me on my way with a care package of extra raisin scones. I nibbled on them constantly as I made my way north, bound for (I would find out) Asheville, North Carolina.

Read Full Post »

I must have looked pretty funny, parked on the side of the road where the Vicksburg exit from the Trace dropped me off. At least I would have, had anyone been around. But on that deserted intersection, I clicked on the overhead light in the car and rattled through the pages of my brochures from the Visitor Center, AAA guide books and miscellaneous pages I had printed out before the trip. After a few phone calls (gotta love the cellular age), I landed a just-cancelled room that would end up being one of my favorites of this entire trip.

The Cedar Grove Mansion Inn was originally built as a wedding present from John Alexander Klein to his bride, Elizabeth Bartley Day (General Sherman’s cousin), in 1840 and completed eighteen years later. AAA gives it a 4 diamond rating and it didn’t take long for me to see why. This impressive antebellum spread includes not only the 50-room main house, but 5 acres of gardens, gazebos, a carriage house, pool, tennis court and even a collection of classic cars. It spans a full city block, overlooking the Mississippi River.

The cancellation the inn had was a fairly large group, so I had the opportunity to look at many of the rooms. Like a spoiled princess, I wandered from one to another, trying to decide between Perfect and Even More Perfect. There are no bad rooms here. They’re all decorated with gorgeous antiques, extremely spacious and are outfitted with modern amenities.

For the most part, I try to seek out unusual budget accommodations on these trips and pack plenty of plain motel rooms in-between those. But every now and then I find something that’s worth a little splurge. After looking around, I decided this was definitely in that category. It had history, class and luxurious ambiance and was dripping with Southern hospitality.

I took, as I often do, the smallest room. With a discount for being a AAA member, I slid in for a mere ninety dollars to a room that might easily cost triple in some other cities. The Garden Room was next to the pool and the only other poolside room was vacant for the night, so I essentially had the whole cottage building, originally the home of Mr. Klein and his wife while the mansion was being completed, all to myself.

Outside the door was a patio that spanned the length of the building, with tables and chairs looking out over the main mansion and grounds. Inside, though, was where I wanted to stay, from the moment I saw the lavish furnishings and sitting area with fireplace. The private bath was large enough to have been a guest room itself. I might have been happy to throw a pillow in the claw-foot tub and settle in right there, had the half-canopy antique bed not looked so inviting.

Now, it’s not for the sake of torturing readers that I describe food, but sometimes a good meal just deserves to get credit. This is the case with the feast I was served when, after settling into my room, I landed at a candlelit table in Andre’s. This gourmet restaurant resides in the main building, amidst brick walls, green trellises, gold-framed mirrors and a high, pitched ceiling. This gave it a sort of magical garden feeling, with sultry light and plenty of ambiance. As I slid in for dinner, the Piano Bar was playing “Unforgetable” and a large window at the end of the room showcased a flowing fountain outside.

I decided to go for it and ordered a ribeye steak, preceded by a green salad with a vinaigrette dressing that was so good I couldn’t resist sneaking more by dipping into it with the warm foccacia-type bread. Between courses, chilled raspberry sorbet was served. The steak itself was tender, spicy and accompanied by garlic mashed potatoes and a mouth-watering vegetable medley. The portions were generous or I might have fallen for the homemade southern pecan pie a la mode. As it was, I simply lingered at the table, enjoying the soft glow of the candlelight and soothing melodies that continued to flow from the Piano Bar.

James Rouche, the chef responsible for this feast, took over culinary duties not long ago, after the restaurant’s namesake chef sadly and unexpectedly passed away. He emerged from the kitchen after a bit and sat down to chat. He told me he learned much of his cooking skill on the road, riding a motorcycle between Washington, D.C. and Corpus Christi. He worked at Emeril’s in New Orleans, among other places. It was great to be able to directly thank him for the meal I’d been served.

I spent the rest of the evening back in the room. Local Internet access gave me the best of both worlds. I was able to combine 19th century luxury with 21st century technology. All this in front of a warm fire. I slept really, really well.

A full southern breakfast is included at Cedar Grove. Even before breakfast hours, a buffet of complimentary fresh baked muffins and orange juice is set out, which I think is a great service, especially for guests who are early risers. This fits with other extras that are offered here, such as afternoon tea and cookies (which I missed by arriving late) and turndown service with chocolates and (if I recall, since I don’t drink) evening sherry. I’m such a recluse that I asked them to skip the turndown service, but the front desk clerk, an energetic and helpful college student named Angel, gave me a stash pf seven individually wrapped chocolates. I saved these and rationed them out over the next week.

As if all this isn’t enough service, a free tour of the mansion is given after breakfast. This was fascinating, as well as educational, much due to the knowledge and friendly delivery of the guide, who had none of the annoying monotone that often comes from those who repeat identical information over and over. Besides, the architecture was fabulous and the history intriguing. Many original pieces of furniture remain, along with portraits of Mr. Klein and his wife, antique musical instruments and signs of Civil War history around every corner. There’s even a Union cannonball still embedded in one parlor wall – not something you see every day.

So I give this place a raving review. I didn’t see a single room that I wouldn’t love to stay in. The prices are extremely reasonable for what you get, including larger suites such as my favorite, The Library Suite, which is two stories, with a gorgeous red-draped living area with chess set upstairs and plush bedroom, bath and private patio down a spiral staircase. Another popular favorite is The Grant Room, which includes General Grant’s king canopy bed.

I didn’t see much of Vicksburg itself, through I drove around a little after reluctantly (very reluctantly) checking out of Cedar Grove Mansion Inn. There’s lots to see in this area, especially for Civil War buffs. But I needed to get some distance covered, so I found my way to Interstate 20 and headed east.

Read Full Post »

It didn’t seem to be long after leaving St. Francisville, Louisiana, that I crossed the Mississippi state line. The roads were almost empty, a combination of off-season travel and heavy rain.

My destination was Natchez, on the banks of the Mississippi. By traveling only sixty miles on this particular day, I’d be set to start off the following day on the Natchez Trace, when the rain was due to subside. Having lingered in St. Francisville before heading out, I knew I’d also have more daylight hours by waiting.

Now, my timing on these trips seems to be often remarkable in terms of catching cool little stores and local people at just the right time. But I missed out this time on one, which caused me to turn abruptly off the road just before getting into Natchez. Mammy’s Cupboard seemed to appear out of nowhere, nestled along the right side of the northbound route. Trees surrounded it on all sides and there wasn’t a person in sight. I knew from the empty parking lot that I wasn’t going to be able to get inside.

Still, I knew a photo opportunity when I saw one, even with the gray skies and persistent drizzle. I pulled my car up alongside the intriguing building and proceeded to shoot whatever pictures I could from the vehicle. Camera covered, I stepped outside and took a peek through the front windows. A few small tables stood in the tiny, dark room, chairs around them. It was difficult to see, but I didn’t figure it could hold more than a dozen customers, maybe twenty at the most. I checked the sign on the door. I’d missed seeing it open by two hours. Considering Mammy’s Cupboard is only open a total of fifteen hours per week, this was a close call. Disappointed, but still excited about the discovery, I took a few more pictures and finally ducked out of the rain and back into the car.

So, that was that. (But wouldn’t you just love to see the inside? Gotta keep this on the list to see again. What? Another excuse to return to St. Francisville? Yeah, great idea.

There wasn’t much daylight left by the time I reached the historic district of Natchez and searched out local lodging. I lucked out again here, finding that the 1927 Natchez Eola Hotel had an incredible winter discount going on. I was given a choice of a couple rooms, both with private balconies. I opted for one that looked over the inner courtyard, rather than a riverview choice. It was a smaller room, but seemed quieter and was nicely furnished with a combination of antiques and reproductions. Coffee pot in room, nice bath products, hair dryer – all the desired amenities were there.

I set out on foot to explore what I could before night fell completely. The streets were almost deserted. I headed down toward the river, just three blocks away. As I stopped to take a picture of a gazebo, the sound of calliope music started up, coming from the river. I walked to the edge of the bluff and looked down over the river in time to see a steamboat passing by, big wheels proudly splashing water behind it. It continued north just a bit, then turned and headed back down the river, growing smaller to my viewpoint as it passed under the Mississippi River Bridge and continued south. I’d find out later that this isn’t a daily occurance and that it was quite remarkable that I just happened to approach the bluff as it came by, considering I was only in town for the night.

Natchez is an area packed with history, much of it fairly heart-wrenching to confront. The Forks of the Road market location at the junction of D’Evereux Dr., Liberty Rd. and St. Catherine St. marks the scene of slave trade during the 1800’s. According to the National Park Service brochure, more than 200,000 enslaved people were brought to Mississippi from the tobacco and rice fields in the Atlantic states, most forced to walk in chains or coffles along stage roads or old indian trails. Saying good-bye to family and friends was only one of the difficulties these people endured. The journey was long and painful, often filled with illness and horrible living conditions.

Surrounding Natchez are some of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture to be found anywhere. The Natchez Spring Pilgrimage 2003 booklet pictures thiry-one antebellum plantations, all on the National Register and several designated National Historic Landmarks. Many of these are open for tours year round. Bed and breakfast accommodations are also plentiful, though often at a substantial price.

I ended up dining at two different eating establishments for dinner, but mostly because indoor cigarette smoke sent me flying from the cutely named Biscuits and Blues before I could really give it a chance. I did have a salad there before leaving and wasn’t overly impressed. This turned out to be a blessing, though. I found my way to a colorful local spot I’d noticed on my way back up from the bluff called The Pig Out Inn. Yes, pigs again. Anyway, this was good old BBQ style service like my favorite Rudy’s out west, and for two dollars I got a plateful of mouth-watering tender meat, bread, sauce and all the southern atmosphere I could soak up. A mural on the wall listed things to be grateful for in the south. Clever signs were nailed to the counters and doorways. It was a great meal and another reminder that sometimes the most down-to-earth places serve up the best meals.

I slept well at the Natchez Eola Hotel, stopped at the Visitor Center on my way out – a huge, marvelous information hub that I hadn’t been able to find on my way in the day before – and hit the road about noon. Or, I should say, hit The Trace.

Read Full Post »

It seems every cross-country trip I make, I end up finding one particular town, usually by accident, that just wins me over. This time that town was St. Francisville, Louisiana.

I came into this hamlet, which hovers on a bluff above the Mississippi River, by complete chance. I’d taken some back roads north out of Breaux Bridge, then east out of…well, I don’t even know where – some gas station/café/convenience store on a four-way-stop corner, surrounded by farms and fields. Here I was given home-spun directions: go a ways down this road, pass the bridge, turn left, keep going past the red farmhouse until the road comes to a “T”, turn left again, go about ten miles, up a hill, down a hill, and then you’ll come to the river. And sure enough, I did, in the town of New Roads.

Now, I meant to stop and explore at this point, but somehow missed the center of town and ended up in line for a ferry.

Well, why not? It wasn’t dark yet, I needed to continue east anyway, which is where the ferry was headed. So I waited in the short line and drove right on, probably seeming like I knew what I was doing. There were a couple employees aboard, though no one ever came around to collect a fee. Maybe this was a free direction, with payment always taken the other way? (We do this in San Francisco, so that was my guess).

Anyway, it was in this manner that I found myself in St. Francisville, which just somehow struck me as a very cool place to look around. I would find out after some nosing around that St. Francisville was originally a burial ground for the Spanish Capuchin monks across the river, who chose the high bluffs, safe from floodwaters, for their graveyard and named it after their patron, St. Francis.

A different town, now essentially vanished, existed below the bluffs. Bayou Sara was a busy town during the mid-1800’s, at one time having the fame of being the largest port between New Orleans and Natchez. Between fires, floods, The Civil War and other factors, this town basically disappeared, while St. Francisville grew and flourished.

I found this information at the West Feliciana Historical Society, a visitor center not far from the ferry landing. I picked up some brochures for my ever-growing collection, talked to the helpful woman at the front desk and looked around at displays of local culture and history. I then went out to explore the town.

I started off in meager adherence to a printed walking tour of historic buildings, but lost track of that when I stumbled upon Grandmother’s Buttons, a gift shop and antique button museum housed in the town’s old bank building. Not only was the architecture of the building wonderful, but the selection of merchandise diverse and the museum itself, located in the old bank vault, fascinating. I guess it seems logical that buttons would vary in shape and size over the years, but lined up on the walls in displays really showed off the variety. I was torn between the museum display and browsing the shop areas and finally came upon a case of original jewelry pieces, made with bits and pieces of old buttons and findings. It turns out they have a factory upstairs and produce these themselves. Some of these creations can be seen on their website.

From there I headed over to a cluster of buildings in the center of town, just past the town’s one and only stop sign. Here, toward the back of the parking lot, I found Birdman Coffee and Books. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the catch that drew me into the town to linger.

Birdman has been open for a little over a year it turns out, and is run by Lynn Wood and her husband. They make a mean vanilla latte and the best homemade nutmeg tea cakes I’ve ever tasted. I was instantly addicted, as well as drawn in by Lynn’s warm, welcoming demeanor. They carry new and used books and showcase paintings by Lynn, pottery by her husband and exquisite carved birds by her father. I was especially taken by a painting of a wonderfully plush yellow chair surrounded by soothing blues, a creation of Lynn’s and used for her logo.

In summer months they serve homemade ice cream, a special contribution by Lynn’s husband. Since I happened upon this cozy establishment during winter months, it wasn’t available to taste, but I was told the fresh peach version was delicious. They’ll be making it again in the spring.

I lingered a long time at Birdman Coffee and Books, even walking next door with Lynn to take a look at The Backwoods Gallery and meet the owner. From there we wandered over to the office of the area’s local monthly magazine for a chat with the editor, ending up back at Birdman again. It was just one of those places that felt magically like “home”, so I decided to spend the night.

No, not at Birdman, though I would have gladly done so. With Lynn’s help, I found a very cool place just down the road.

Now, I’m not the first person to stumble into this town and not want to leave. The wide selection of inns and bed and breakfast establishments is proof of that. I was tempted by some 1920-30’s era cottages on the same property as Birdman, which look very plain and funky on the outside, but are absolutely wonderful inside. But they don’t have phones (plus they may be changing to monthly rentals, so I can’t be sure of being able to recommend them as overnight lodging) so Lynn suggested I might try the St. Francisville Inn, across the street and about a half a block down.

It was an excellent suggestion. Housed in an 1880 Victorian Gothic house known as the Wolf-Schlesinger House and furnished with period antiques, they offered phones in extremely spacious rooms and even clued me in that there was local access through Baton Rouge.

I checked in, checked email and then checked out the Magnolia Café, back across the street in (of course) the same complex as Birdman. Continuing my tradition of eating my way across the country, I relaxed into a small, corner booth and inhaled a Stir-Fry Chicken sandwich, served on a “Po-Boy” roll and smothered in veggies, pepper cheese and honey-mustard. It was delicious.

The Magnolia Café (which turns out to be owned by Lynn’s sister) is a very fun place, straight out of a movie, right down to the black and white linoleum tiles. The walls are painted a brick/watermelon color (ceiling fans painted to match) and display a variety of metal art and stained glass. One sturdy vase held an arrangement of huge, green tropical leaves. I see from my notes that at least one beehive hairdo passed by my table.

Breakfast at the inn was just as delicious as dinner had been, a full buffet of hot dishes, fresh fruit, delicious, crunchy fried potatoes and assorted muffins, served in the main house. (My room was in a quiet upstairs location in a back building). A giant pig chef statue was a centerpiece. I thought it was adorable, but I do seem to have a thing about pigs, don’t I?

After endless sunny days while crossing other states, I did wake up here to pouring rain. It was the first weather challenge I’d faced since leaving Los Angeles. It was very, VERY tempting to stay an extra night, but I managed to drag myself out..

There are a gazillion reasons to return to this town, from the many plantations in the area to the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge to the Audubon State Historic Site. John James Audubon loved this area, painting 80 of his folios here. In his memory, the 32nd Annual Audubon Pilgrimage will be held March 21-23 of this year.

Of course, a visit to Birdman for another latte and a few more of Lynn’s tea cakes is enough to lure me back. I think it’s safe to say you’ll see me here again.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »