Natchitoches, Louisiana

by Bob Hoelscher 1. March 2013 02:38

One of the most interesting cities I encountered during my December tour of the South was Natchitoches (pronounced NACK-a-tish), located in western Louisiana.  Guiding my two-day visit here was Markita Hamilton, communications director for the Natchitoches Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, whose family has lived here for generations. 

This charming community, the first permanent European settlement in what we now know as the Louisiana Purchase, was founded in 1714 by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis to facilitate trade with the Spanish in Mexico. Needless to say, big plans are currently being developed for the city’s Tricentennial Celebration in 2014. 

Furthermore, in addition to exploring the area’s wealth of historic sites and homes (including Cane River Creole National Historical Park) during the daytime, the 86th Annual Christmas Festival of Lights provided me with the opportunity for some additional evening photography.

Situated along the banks of the Cane River, Natchitoches’ National Historic Landmark District includes 33 blocks of magnificent historic homes. I was fortunate to dine here on local specialties at both Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen and the Merci Beaucoup Restaurant.  In fact, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has included Natchitoches in its list of the “Top 10 Most Romantic Downtowns” in the country. Surprisingly enough, however, the strikingly modern new home of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, currently nearing completion at the north end of the downtown area and promising another “plus” for potential visitors, is architecturally somewhat incongruent with its surroundings.

Markita also took me out to splendid Melrose Plantation, which dates back to 1796. In addition to the plantation’s well-preserved historic structures, Melrose is the home of numerous fascinating paintings and murals created by renowned folk artist Clementine Hunter, who painted here while employed as a domestic servant. Coupling its history with the region’s vibrant Creole culture, Natchitoches’ is highly recommended as a true “off the beaten track” treasure. Groups planning to patronize the nearby Shreveport-Bossier City casinos are advised to add at least a day trip here in order to create a more fully satisfying, diversified travel experience for their members, while a more extended stay is virtually self-recommending for those more historically and culturally inclined.

Lunch time at Lasyone's Meat Pie Kitchen

Prudhomme-Roquier House

Christmas Festival of Lights on the Cane River

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Three charming Southern towns

Brownsville, Texas

by Bob Hoelscher 1. March 2013 02:33

Brownsville, situated at the southern tip of Texas, is right across the Rio Grande and U.S. border from the city of Matamoros, Mexico. It is a historic area with a pleasing mix of Anglo and Hispanic cultures. 

After Texas fought for its independence from Mexico in 1836, and the annexation of Texas by the U.S. in 1845, General Zachary Taylor established an army base (later Fort Brown) here in early 1846 to help establish claim to the disputed territory.  The Battle of Palo Alto marked the initial major conflict between opposing forces in the Mexican-American War, a U.S. victory which eventually led to Brownsville and the surrounding countryside being confirmed as American territory.   

Today the battlefield is preserved by the National Park Service as a national historic site, which I visited after my exploration of the city itself.  My tour guide was the genial and extremely knowledgeable Felix Espinosa, administrative manager of the Brownsville Convention & Visitors Bureau, who appeared to know just about everyone in this city of over 175,000! 

Felix led me on a whirlwind adventure including virtually every significant attraction that Brownsville has to offer, all in just a few short hours. We began on foot with the Heritage Trail Tour and downtown historic district, including the authentic Mexican Market, the Heritage Complex and Stillman House Museum, the Old City Hall and Market Square, Immaculate Conception Cathedral, plus numerous other historic buildings. Next we wandered through the historic brick buildings of Fort Brown, now occupied by the University of Texas at Brownsville.

Our tour continued with visits to the Historic Brownsville Museum Depot, the Old Brownsville City Cemetery, Dean Porter Park and finally, the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art.  Whew!  I though that I was an expert at seeing a lot within a short period of time, but I can’t hold a candle to Felix! I’d suggest that when you are planning your group’s visit here, you allow a couple of full days to include everything. And there is indeed much of interest to see and experience! That will also allow you an opportunity to include meals at a variety of fine Southwestern, Tex-Mex and Mexican eateries. The unspoiled beaches, visitor attractions and resort hotels of South Padre Island are a scant 25 miles away, so you may likely want to diversify your trip to this most visitor-friendly area with an extended stay.

Stillman House Museum, Brownsville Historical Society

Immaculate Conception Cathedral

Gladys Porter Zoo

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Three charming Southern towns

Biloxi, Mississippi

by Bob Hoelscher 1. March 2013 02:26

My recent tour of the South had three smaller towns stand out, including Biloxi, Mississippi.

Virtually everyone is aware of the massive destruction which Hurricanes Camille and, more recently, Katrina wreaked upon the Biloxi resort community when they tore through the community in 1969 and 2005, respectively. However, I am happy to report that both Biloxi and its residents have proven time and again to be strong-willed and highly resilient, and, after the expenditure of much money and effort, the city is yet again ready for memorable vacations.  Yes, many of the lovely antebellum mansions which previously lined Beach Boulevard are now gone, but other historic structures like Mary Mahoney’s Old French House Restaurant, nearby boutiques further north on Magnolia Street, and the 1847 Magnolia Hotel are still alive and well. 

Beauvoir, the 1852 estate of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, has undergone a major restoration, and the adjacent Jefferson Davis Presidential Library and Museum is nearing completion. Biloxi also now boasts the finest municipal visitors’ center I have ever encountered.  And, needless to say, there are nine bustling casinos and thousands of quality rooms awaiting travelers.

The area’s premier natural attraction also continues to attract countless visitors with its beauty and cleanliness. Biloxi is the gateway to Gulf Islands National Seashore for boating excursions to Southern Mississippi’s five barrier islands, Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, and the splendid Davis Bayou Area just east of town.  Hopefully it will be many, many years before another hurricane bears down upon the area, but the time is definitely now to include Biloxi in your travel plans.

Biloxi Lighthouse and Visitors' Center

Beauvoir - Jefferson Davis Home

Magnificent beaches, Beau Rivage Casino Resort

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Three charming Southern towns

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