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Best of the South

AAA Southern Traveler readers weigh in on the best places to visit, eat, shop and more.
By Editorial Staff

Blue skies and sunshine draw visitors to the white sand beaches of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast midway between New Orleans and Mobile. New hotels and condos glory in their excess, while family-owned motels, restaurants and shops still welcome vacationers to the shore. If the sounds of waves lapping the beach coupled with diverse entertainment and attractions sound good to you, follow us to the coast for a late summer vacation.

This story started last spring as editors kicked around an idea for the late summer issue. It can be tough to engage readers during July and August as many of you may be vacationing or have already taken the summer trip. What could we offer you while you sip sweet tea in the air conditioning?
We decided to throw a “best of” story out there and see how readers would respond. After tabulating well over 1,300 ballots, it’s safe to say you blew us away.

Nominees were named and the top three in 20 categories were tabulated in March. The finalists were listed in the May/June issue. We gained some insight, not only about this wonderfully rich and diverse region but also how to improve the voting system for next year. We thank all who took the time to let us know what makes the South a great part of our country.

As you read the story and find out what cities, towns, shops, restaurants and people have been selected as the best, you’ll probably applaud some of the picks and be disappointed by others. Be assured that you’ll get your chance to have your say again next year as we devise some new categories and bring back a few favorites. We also encourage you to experience some of these places for yourself, whether it’s for the first time or a return visit to enjoy the best the South has to offer.


Best large city for a weekend getaway: New Orleans

Any frequent visitor to the Crescent City will tell you New Orleans isn’t anything like the rest of the South. There is simply no mistaking its peculiarity among other Southern cities, with its robust Afro-Caribbean flavor perfectly blended with European style and panache.

It’s because New Orleans feels so different–is so different–that our readers selected the Big Easy as their favorite weekend getaway city. From its famed celebrations like Mardi Gras and the Jazz and Heritage Festival to sporting events (horse racing, NFL World Champion Saints, NBA Hornets, AAA baseball Zephyrs) to great attractions such as The National World War II Museum, New Orleans keeps drawing people back for more.

The city is perhaps best known for its world-class cuisine found at any number of AAA four Diamond restaurants and even some not-so-well-known corner cafes and bistros. Great art galleries and shopping venues also help to make New Orleans a destination unlike anywhere else. Information: New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 672-6124, www.neworleanscvb.com

Second place: Baton Rouge, La., (800) LA-ROUGE (527-6843), www.visitbatonrouge.com
Third place: Shreveport, La., (888) 45-VISIT (458-4748), www.shreveport-bossier.org


Best small city for a weekend getaway: Lafayette

The gateway to Louisiana Cajun country mixes the warmth of a grandma’s welcome with urbane offerings, a great combination for a quick vacation.

“In my opinion, it is the ‘crown jewel’ of Louisiana,” said Gretchen Stewart, who has lived in Lafayette for about 25 years.

History and culture that’s been flavored by France, Spain and the Caribbean are honored here. Learn more at the Acadian Memorial in nearby St. Martinville. Two events in July and August remember the tragic 18th-century exile of Acadians from Nova Scotia.

Speaking of flavors, some of the best food in Louisiana can be found in and around Lafayette. Through Aug. 15, EatLafayette is a dining event that offers discounts and special menus at select restaurants so guests can understand what makes Acadiana culture so appetizing. Get your fill of shrimp Aug. 19–22 at the annual Delcambre Shrimp Festival. Information: Lafayette Convention and Visitors Center, (800) 346-1958, www.lafayettetravel.com

Second place: Natchez, Miss., (800) 647-6724 or www.visitnatchez.org
Third place: Natchitoches, La., (800) 259-1714 or www.historicnatchitoches.com


Best B&B: Aaah! T’freres

Since 1993, this bed and breakfast in Lafayette, La., has offered guests its brand of Cajun hospitality and amazing “ooh la la” breakfasts. Owners Pat and Maugie Pastor bring 35 of years restaurant business experience to the table, so guests can expect to be wowed. There are eight themed breakfasts, each with an international flair, but every one starts with a salad and finishes with a divine dessert. In between, guests may enjoy cheese-stuffed crepes topped with homemade strawberry and blueberry syrup or Bananas Foster, eggs, homemade biscuits, ham and grilled tomatoes.

“We call it the ‘skip a lunch’ breakfast,” Maugie Pastor says.

In the evening, guests enjoy her T’Julep (spiked tea) and crab canapés.

There are eight rooms available for overnight stays, including two in the garconniere in back of the main home. Built for the young men of the house, this was the place for all-night dances and card games. The main house dates to the 1880s and has a splendid front porch that’s a popular gathering spot. The house reportedly also has a spirit, that of a young woman named Amelie, who will turn lights on and off or rattle kitchen pots. The ghost story was featured on the Travel Channel, and the Pastors were given a video clip, which is made available to curious guests.

“It saves me a lot of words,” Pastor says.

T’Freres, which is French for little brother, is located at 1905 Verot School Road in Lafayette. Information: (337) 984-9347

Second place: Monmouth Plantation (AAA four Diamond hotel), Natchez, Miss., (601) 442-5852
Third place: Dunleith Historic Inn, Natchez, Miss., (800) 433-2445

Jul/Aug 2010 Issue


 
Best large hotel: Hotel Monteleone

Luxury and history combine for a memorable stay at this venerable French Quarter hotel. Recipient of AAA’s Four Diamond Award, Hotel Monteleone offers guests 600 newly renovated rooms and suites. Enjoy a cocktail at the Carousel Bar, a favorite of celebrities and writers, including Eudora Welty, who wrote part of her short story, “The Purple Hat,” here. The recent short film based on her story debuted at the hotel this spring.

Reserve a room then wave to adoring fans (real or imagined) as you walk into the opulent lobby, because here, all guests receive the star treatment. The hotel is at 214 Royal St. Information: (504) 523-3341

Second place: Windsor Court (AAA four Diamond hotel), New Orleans, (504) 523-6000
Third place: The Roosevelt, New Orleans, (504) 648-1200

Monteleone

Hotel Monteleone’s opulent Eudora Welty suite illustrates Southern sophistication. Hotel Monteleone photo


 
Best small hotel: The Juliet

With 20 rooms, an outdoor pool and hot tub, free wireless and fitness center, The Juliet Hotel in Lafayette is an elegant property for business or leisure travelers. Guests also enjoy a free continental breakfast and a location close to popular attractions, such as Vermilionville, a Cajun/Creole heritage and folk life park.

The Juliet is an Ascend Collection hotel, the Choice Hotel boutique brand. The hotel is at 800 Jefferson St. Information: (337) 261-2225

Second place: Natchez Eola Hotel, Natchez, Miss., (601) 445-6000
Third place: The Alluvian Hotel, Greenwood, Miss., (662) 453-2114
 

 
Best summer family destination: Destin, Fla.

Families seem to be naturally drawn to beaches when it’s time to plan the summer vacation, and our readers loved our two finalists, but Destin in northwestern Florida came out as the favored family getaway. Its 24 miles of white sand beaches and emerald water have drawn vacationers to these shores for generations.

Plenty of beach activities are offered, as are adventures on local rivers. Small history and heritage museums give background to the area, and dozens of great restaurants offering fresh seafood are here to enjoy. Accommodations are varied and range from camping to seaside cottages. Destin–like many gulf coast destinations–monitors any possible impact the recent oil rig disaster may have on its beaches, and at press time issued statements through its Web site that everything is open to welcome tourists to the beach. Information: www.destin-fwb.com, (850) 423-4894 option 8

Second place: Alabama Gulf Coast, www.gulfshores.com, (800) 745-7263
Third place: Louisiana Cajun Country, www.lafayettetravel.com, (800) 346-1958
Family on beach

 

Best golf course: Augusta National

Since 1934, this has been home to The Masters® tournament. The club was founded in 1931 by golf legend Bobby Jones and businessman Clifford Roberts on the site of a former indigo plantation. Jones copied each hole from one of his favorites worldwide to create the course of his dreams.

Membership to this exclusive golf club is by invitation only, and the only time non-members can visit the course is during The Masters® and then one must have a practice round ticket or series badge.

However, the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.augustaga.org) lists nine additional courses in Georgia’s second-oldest city available for play.

Second place: Wetlands Golf Course, Lafayette, La., (337) 291-7151, www.wetlandsgc.com
Third place: Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort, Destin, Fla., (850) 267-8000, www.sandestin.com

Best state park: Lake Fausse Pointe

Whether visitors enjoy Lake Fausse Pointe State Park in St. Martinville, La., for a day or a week, almost everything is here to make that stay enjoyable. Accommodations include cabins and 55 campsites. Rent boats, canoes or kayaks to get out on the lake. There’s a seven-mile canoe trail and three nature trails within the park to put you close to the outdoors. Information: www.crt.state.la.us/parks, (337) 229-4764

Second place: Percy Quin State Park, McComb, Miss., (601) 684-3938, www.stateparks.com/percy_quin.html
Third place: DeGray Lake Resort State Park, Bismarck, Ark., (501) 865-2811, www.degray.com

 

 
Best heritage attraction: National WWII Museum

From the beaches of Normandy to the sands of Iwo Jima, The National World War II Museum, 945 Magazine St., in New Orleans’ Warehouse District preserves the history of the war that changed the world. With a focus on America’s experience in the conflict, exhibitions tell the stories of the amphibious landings that made victory possible. Among the artifacts is a Higgins landing craft, which is one of more than 20,000 such boats that were built in New Orleans and used in all the amphibious landings of World War II.

“The National World War II Museum has a huge responsibility to pass the stories of the Greatest Generation on to the next generation,” said businessman Phil Satre, Chairman of the museum’s Board of Trustees.

In the midst of a $300 million expansion, the museum has already unveiled a new 4-D theater, canteen and restaurant. Future additions will include four exhibit pavilions that will examine artifact restoration, campaigns of the war, liberation of Jews and POWS, and the U.S. branches of the military that were involved in the war. Information: (877) 813-3329, www.nationalww2museum.org

Second place: Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, Miss., (601) 636-0583 or www.nps.gov/vick
Third place: Frogmore Plantation, Frogmore, La., (318) 757-2453

museum

Dedicated 10 yeas ago as The National D-Day Museum, The National World War II Museum celebrates the American spirit. The National World War II Museum photo


 
Best local Chef: John Folse

Chef John Folse grew up in a family of great cooks in Cajun Country, so it was only natural that he’d pick up a ladle and paring knife. He opened Lafitte’s Landing Restaurant in Donaldsonville, La., in 1978, and soon began earning accolades. But Folse quickly discovered he wasn’t content just to cook. He has turned his passion for food into a worldwide enterprise with a dairy, bakery, food manufacturing plant, television shows, cookbooks, radio programs and the White Oak Plantation catering facility in Baton Rouge. When fire destroyed his restaurant in 1998, he opened a new version of it the following year and it remained a popular dining spot for a decade before it closed about a year ago.

Today, that building houses marketing offices for his food manufacturing division.

Despite all of the endeavors which have taken him around the globe, Folse holds tightly to his roots in Louisiana’s Plantation Country, which continue to influence his Cajun cooking style and his direction in the food industry. “As a Cajun first and a chef second, it’s important to remember that culture is the cuisine of a people,” he said. “I have come to realize that no cuisine can develop or expand where there isn’t a strong foundation of regional culture and ingredients.”

Many of his Cajun meals, ingredients, sauces and other food products are sold online and in grocery stores across the country. Information: www.jfolse.com

Second place: John Besh, New Orleans, La.
Third place: Patrick Mould, Lafayette, La.
Chef Folse

 
Best local musicians: The Mamou Playboys

More than 20 years ago, Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys came on the scene with their brand of Cajun French music. Today, the band performs around the world and frequently appears in their home state of Louisiana. The current CD, “Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys Live” garnered their third Grammy nomination.

Catch them Aug. 14 in Breaux Bridge, La., at La Poussière, a traditional Cajun dance hall. Later in the month, the band heads for Europe. Information: www.mamouplayboys.com

Second place: Kermit Ruffins, New Orleans
Third place: Hardrick Rivers, Natchitoches, La.
 

 
Best local shopkeeper: Jennifer Casanova

Jennifer Casanova, manager of Lagniappe Antiques in Breaux Bridge, La., says visitors to the 17,000-square-foot marketplace must have a sense of humor to get the most out of the experience.

“If you don’t, we’ll give you one,” she says, laughing.

Her ability to please customers and the vision to make Lagniappe Antiques a tourist destination in this small southern Louisiana town eight miles east of Lafayette have made Casanova the clear favorite in the best shopkeeper category.

The store has 50 dealers who offer a variety of antiques (books, furniture, home décor) and art created by Louisiana artists from the state’s Craft Guild. In addition, there are Zydeco dance lessons offered on Saturdays, summer programs for children, and starting this fall, cooking demonstrations will be available at the new Buck & Johnny’s Pizzeria, the on-site restaurant serving gourmet sandwiches, soups and more. Once a Chevrolet dealership that had been vacant for 30 years, the property at 124 W. Bridge St., was bought and renovated by David Buck. Casanova was hired to design the space and manage the shop, which truly has become a destination in Louisiana’s Cajun country since its opening in October 2009. Information: (337) 507-2036, www.breauxbridgeantiques.com

Second place: Darby Short, Darby’s, Natchez, Miss., (601) 446-9737, www.darbysfudge.com
Third place: John Rinehart, Fusion Squared, Eureka Springs, Ark., (479) 253-4999, www.eurekafusion.com
J Cassanova

 

Best Food Festival: New Orleans Jazz & Heritage

People may say they make the annual pilgrimage to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in April because of the great lineup of musicians, but what really brings them back every year is the great food.

The variety is astounding and offers a glimpse into the truly diverse communities that make up New Orleans. Dishes include: alligator pie, crabmeat stuffed shrimp, jambalaya, Caribbean fish, Jamaican chicken, and Vietnamese egg rolls. Information: www.nojazzfest.com

Second place: Lafayette’s Festivals Acadiens et Créoles (Oct. 8–10, 2010), www.festivalsacadiens.com, (800) 346-1958
Third place: The New Orleans Wine and Food Festival (held in May), www.nowfe.com

Best Southern steakhouse: Ruth's Chris

When you think of classic Southern fare, steak isn’t necessarily the first food that comes to mind. But one of the most beloved steakhouses in the country, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, had its humble beginnings in the heart of Louisiana before spreading across the country and around the world.

Ruth Fertel mortgaged her house to buy Chris Steak House in 1965 at Broad and Ursuline streets in New Orleans. When a kitchen fire destroyed the restaurant and she moved a few blocks away on Broad Street, she called the restaurant Ruth’s Chris because her original contract precluded her from using the name Chris Steak House in a different location.

Now celebrating its 45th anniversary, the restaurant chain has more than 100 locations around the country that are known for fine dining, upscale atmosphere and superior service. Information: www.ruthschris.com

Second place: Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, New Orleans, La., (504) 522-2467, www.dickiebrennanssteakhouse.com
Third place: Mr. John’s Steakhouse, New Orleans, La., (504) 679-7697, www.mrjohnssteakhouse.com

Best barbecue restaurant: Voodoo BBQ

When you place an order for barbecue at the VooDoo BBQ and Grill in Louisiana, you might be surprised to discover what’s missing when the plate arrives: sauce. You won’t find any of the brisket, pulled pork, chicken or ribs doused in barbecue sauce. Instead, the meats are dry rubbed with local spices and slow smoked at low temperatures. But if you can’t live without your barbecue dripping in sauce, there are several choices, including Mojo, a tangy Southwest style sauce and Crystal Mango, a Creole/Caribbean style sauce with a touch of heat from infused peppers and spices.

VooDoo BBQ opened its first location in the heart of New Orleans in 2002 on Mardi Gras day, and it’s been a party ever since with 10 more locations opening across Louisiana since then. VooDoo BBQ has restaurants in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, St. Rose, Harahan, Mandeville, Hammond, Zachary, Houma and Denham Springs. Information: www.voodoobbqandgrill.com

Second place: The original Shed Barbecue and Blues Joint, Ocean Springs, Miss., (228) 875-9590, www.theshedbbq.com
Third place: Pig Out Inn, Natchez, Miss. (601-442-8050)

 

 

Best ethnic restaurant: Prejean's

Seeing trees with spanish moss and a 14-foot alligator in the middle of the dining room might be the first sign that Prejean’s Restaurant isn’t your average everyday restaurant. And then when you taste the food, average would probably be the last word you’d use to describe it.

Located in Lafayette, La., in the heart of Acadiana, the restaurant holds dozens of medals from culinary competitions. This is Cajun food at its best with such dishes as crawfish and alligator sausage cheesecake, crispy Cajun duckling, blackened catfish étouffée and a selection of hearty gumbos. Traditional Cajun bands entertain nightly, and the region’s rich Cajun French heritage is on display in the antiques that grace the walls and rafters. The restaurant is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner and recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. Prejean’s is located just off Interstate 49 on Gloria Switch Road in Lafayette. Information: (337) 896-3247, www.prejeans.com

Second place: The Court of Two Sisters, New Orleans, La., (504) 522-7261 or www.courtoftwosisters.com
Third place: Salute Italian Restaurant, Gulfport, Miss., (228) 864-2500 or www.saluteitalian.com

shrimp skillet

Blackened Shrimp Skillet Creole is one of many Cajun dishes served at Prejean’s. Prejean’s Restaurant photo

Prejean’s recipe for:
Eggplant with shrimp casserole
2 eggplants (peel, cut and soak in water for 30 minutes then cook until done)
2 medium onions, chopped
1/2 c. celery, chopped
1 medium bell pepper, chopped
1/4 c. minced parsley
4 pods garlic, chopped
1 c. bread, soaked in milk or water then squeezed
2 tsp. basil
1 tsp. sage
dash of Tabasco sauce
1 tsp. rosemary
2 eggs
1 tsp. lemon juice
dash of red pepper to taste
1/2 c. Romano cheese, grated
2 strips bacon, fried and crumbled
2 pounds shrimp (cleaned and deveined) sauted in bacon drippings for 3 minutes

Process:
Mix all ingredients together, reserving half the cheese to sprinkle on top. Place in buttered casserole–adding remaining cheese– and bake 350 degrees for 45 minutes.


 

Best place for quirky souvenirs: Bourbon Street

Steeped in history and architectural beauty, the French Quarter has a bawdy reputation, yet a variety of different experiences can be found.

At the heart of the French Quarter is Bourbon Street, which extends 13 blocks from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue. Along the way you’ll find art shops and galleries for serious collectors, quirky shops for New Orleans souvenirs and T-shirts, jewelry stores and more. If you dare, you can even venture into Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo where you can purchase voodoo doll kits, books, Brazilian masks, Catholic saint statues, incense, candles and spells. Information: (800) 672-6124 or www.neworleanscvb.com

Second place: Old South Trading Post, Natchez, Miss., http://oldsouthtradingpost.com/newsite,(866) 440-5354
Third place: Georgia’s Gift Shop, Natchitoches, La., (318) 352-5833, www.georgiasgiftshop.com

Best craft gallery: Sans Souci

Sans Souci means “no worries,” and shoppers can have a carefree experience in this Lafayette, La., treasure trove. You’re sure to find a memorable gift or piece for your home here as the gallery is home to the Louisiana Crafts Guild and features the work of the state’s finest artisans.

The intimate gallery is adjacent to Parc Sans Souci and is housed in one of Lafayette's oldest buildings that has seen uses as a pecan buyer's store, an overnight inn, a post office and a bookstore. The space was restored in 2001 to house the works of guild members. A great time to visit the gallery is the second Saturday of each month during Lafayette’s Art Walk. The gallery is located at 219 E. Vermilion St. Information: (337) 266-7999, www.louisianacrafts.org

Second place: Mississippi Craft Center, Ridgeland, Miss., (601) 856-7546
Third place: R.S. Barnwell Memorial Art & Garden Center store, Shreveport, La., (318) 673-7703

Best antique and shopping districts: Magazine /Royal streets

Where do our readers think is the best place to shop not only for antiques, but just for the sheer pleasure of shopping? By overwhelming margins, they suggest going to New Orleans along Royal Street in the French Quarter and Magazine Street uptown.

Taking top honors as the best antique district, Magazine/Royal streets were the undisputed champions. The quality of the antiques offered here is unquestionable, but the ambiance surrounding the district serves only to enhance the shopping experience, which probably explains why our readers also chose Magazine/Royal streets as their favorite shopping district.

What is special about this shopping district is that the experience between the two streets is different. The shopping experience on Royal Street feels a bit more formal and regal. Royal Street may be in the Quarter, but it is psychologically far removed from the debauchery that can be found on Bourbon Street. This is the genteel side of New Orleans. Magazine Street is the hipster sister, offering a funkier view of the city with ethnically diverse shops and bistros. Combined, they make for a fun-filled day of shopping, whether looking for something old or something new. Information: (504) 342-4435, www.magazinestreet.com, www.neworleansonline.com/neworleans/fq/royalstreet.html

Second place (antiques): Natchez, Miss., (800) 647-6724 or www.visitnatchez.org
Third place (antiques): Denham Springs, La., (225) 567-7899, or www.visitlivingstonparish.com
Second place (shopping district): Tanger Outlet Center in Foley, Ala., 2601 S. McKenzie St., (251) 943-9303, www.tangeroutlet.com
Third place (shopping district): Louisiana Boardwalk in Bossier City, 540 Boardwalk Boulevard, (318) 752-1455, www.louisianaboardwalk.com.

What our readers are saying about:
New Orleans
“I recently visited for the first time since Katrina. I found the city has made a remarkable recovery. It was so clean and everyone was so helpful and gracious. The food was outstanding and nearby (were) interesting things to do and see. I would certainly recommend a visit there.” Josephine Bryan, Jackson, Miss.

What our readers are saying about:
Regional restaurants
“Pig Out Inn in Natchez is the most underrated pulled pork sandwich joints from Tennessee to Texas to North Carolina. Good smoked turkey, too.” Ronda Ashley, Brookhaven, Miss.

What our readers are saying about:
Regional chefs
“I’m so happy to see Chef John Besh nominated as one of the best local chefs. The man is a marvel! His restaurants are top-notch, the food is fabulous and he’s a real asset to the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana. It is refreshing to see someone so fired up about the importance of fresh and local ingredients and doing something about it. On top of that, he’s approachable and personable.” Nicole Landreneau, Destrahan, La.


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