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Archive for the ‘Mississippi’ Category

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.

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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.

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