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Sounds of Summer

The El Camino Real cuts through a portion of northwest Louisiana to
connect historical cities and diverse cultures.
By Deborah Reinhardt

Cross the Cane River Lake via the Church Street bridge into Natchitoches’ historical district and you leap into another time period. Front Street (state Highway 6 Business Route) in Natchitoches is part of the storied El Camino Real, the King’s Highway, and following this ancient road from the state’s oldest city will lead to small northwestern Louisiana towns that burst with French, Spanish and Native American traditions.

street

Above: Natchitoches visitors who explore the charming shops and restaurants along Front Street are walking on a portion of the storied El Camino Real. Louisiana Office of Tourism photo

In Title: An interpreter at Fort St. Jean Baptiste helps to bring history to life. The site will host a holiday event Dec. 11. Office of State Parks Fort St. Jean Baptiste SHS photo

Below: Anglers can fish for large-mouth bass, catfish and crappie year-round on Toledo Bend Lake. Tournaments usually run February–October. Louisiana Office of Tourism photo

fishing

History of the road

The roots of the El Camino Real go back more than 1,000 years when buffalo herds created trails as they moved south from the Great Plains into Louisiana and Texas for the winter. The Adai Indians traveled through forests following the trails beaten down by the buffalo. Eventually, these trails established a sophisticated Adai trade route from Texas to Louisiana. Spanish explorers traveled these trails in the early 16th century, almost 100 years before the first English colony was established.

But the El Camino Real was developed in the early 18th century by French explorer Louis Juchereau St. Denis, who established a northwest Louisiana outpost in 1714. This settlement would become Natchitoches, which is the easternmost point of the El Camino Real.

Treasure around every corner

From the horse-drawn carriages to ornate wrought iron balconies overlooking Cane River Lake, Front Street, part of the 33-block National Historic Landmark District in Natchitoches, begs to be explored. Stop at the visitors’ center, 781 Front St., for maps and guides. There’s a variety of charming restaurants and shops along the street. Excellent Louisiana fare is available at The Landing, 540 Front St. Daily specials, marked on a chalkboard outside the entrance, beckon to hungry travelers.

Spend time inside Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile, the state’s oldest general store. The 1910 cash register is still used for every sale. Get a sample of gourmet dips and sauces or take a cooking class at Cane River Kitchenware. Both establishments are on Front Street.

Rich in French, Spanish and American frontier cultures, the Cane River National Heritage Area encompasses a national park, several national and state historical sites and 24 buildings. A good start to an El Camino Real adventure would be a visit to Fort St. Jean Baptiste (155 Rue Jefferson), which dates to 1716. St. Denis commanded this important outpost and trade center from 1722–1744.

Today, a full-scale replica built in 1979 includes a trading warehouse, a powder magazine, a church, slave quarters, the commandant’s house, barracks, a guardhouse, bastions and assorted huts. On Dec. 11, visit the fort for Féte de Hiver and celebrate an 18th-century Christmas. Historians, re-enactors and period merchants will be at the event, which starts at 2 p.m. Admission is $4.

Native American and Spanish stories

Follow Highway 6 approximately 15 miles west of Natchitoches to Robeline and the home of the Adai Indian Nation. Inside their cultural museum, visitors can see artifacts, historical dwellings and exhibits. Dancing demonstrations and stories are regularly offered, and special events are peppered throughout the year. A good gift shop and warm welcome from site interpreters make this a worthy stop on the road.

One mile northeast of Robeline is Los Adaes State Historic Site, a rich archaeological treasure that includes the remains of a Spanish fort built in the 1700s. Los Adaes on state Highway 485 was an example of unique cooperation between French, Spanish and Native Americans, and once was the capital of Spanish Texas. Today, the site is open by appointment only.

Travel Highway 6 about 12 miles west of Robeline to historic Fort Jesup, now a state historic site. One kitchen remains from the fort that was built in 1822 and was once commanded by Lt. Col. Zachary Taylor. During the 1800s, the fort’s military enforced the law to maintain order in “the Neutral Ground” between Spanish west Texas and federal east Texas. At press time, Fort Jesup is open by appointment only. However, a representative for the site said tentative plans call for the fort to open five days a week by the end of the year.

Travelers now are in Sabine Parish, perhaps best known for the popular Toledo Bend Lake. One of several small lake communities, Zwolle (zwa’ – lee) has a varied cultural background from Native American, African American, French and Spanish influences. A Choctaw Apache Indian Pow-wow is hosted here each May, and the Zwolle Tamale Fiesta takes place in October. The tamales are handmade from recipes that are generations old. This delicious dish, a staple in homes, also is available at local restaurants and should be sampled when visiting the area.

Ten miles south of Many, the parish’s largest town, is tiny Florien, site of the Sabine Free State Festival, scheduled this year for Nov. 5–7. This event remembers western Louisiana’s frontier history and part of the Neutral Ground between Spanish and federal lands. A Western shoot-out is staged. Games, crafts, music and a treasure hunt are part of the fun.

Outdoor beauty

While the history and tamales are exceptional in Sabine Parish, most people come for the outstanding outdoor recreation on and around the 186,000-acre man-made Toledo Bend Lake, the South’s largest. Fishing is the most popular pastime here, but winter has its recreational opportunities. Watch for bald eagles in the stately pines along the lake. South Toledo Bend State Park offers Eagle Walks. Golf courses, hiking, biking and horseback riding trails are other recreational options and provide the chance to take in the view of a seemingly endless shoreline.

Where to stay, eat

Sabine Parish has several cabin or small motel options, some located along the water’s edge. Whether or not you play golf, treat yourself to Cypress Bend Resort on the lake in Many. Comfortable, well-appointed rooms, a heated indoor-outdoor pool and spa are in addition to the challenging 18-hole course. A new Nature Trail opened this summer for mountain bikers and hikers offering the adventurous five loops that range from one to six miles in length. And because the resort is on the lake, there’s always a chance to drop a line in the water.

The Cypress Dining Room, under the watchful eye of Chef Tim Henderson, offers fine cuisine in a room with a commanding view of the grounds.

In Natchitoches, dining and lodging options are plentiful. Enjoy a Creole dinner at Merci Beaucoup on Church Street. As Sabine Parish is noted for tamales, Natchitoches has the meat pie, and diners watching their dimes can’t go wrong with breakfast or lunch Monday through Saturday at Lasyone’s on Second Street. A meat pie breakfast (pie, two eggs and hash browns) for under $7 will keep hunger at bay until dinnertime.

While there are a number of motels in town, Natchitoches is noted for outstanding bed-and-breakfast inns, including the Steel Magnolia House, known for the onsite filming of the 1989 movie, “Steel Magnolias.” This beautiful B&B sits along the beautiful Cane River (320 Jefferson St.) and dates to the 1830s.

Explore the El Camino Real in northwestern Louisiana–without spending a king’s ransom–and discover rich history, noteworthy Southern hospitality and amazing regional fare.

Deborah Reinhardt is managing editor of AAA Southern Traveler.

Nov/Dec 2010 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

The El Camino Real, which was designated a National Historic Trail in 2004, crosses into eastern Texas via state Highway 21 and passes missions, forts and Caddo Indian mounds on to San Antonio. Click on http://www.nps.gov/elte for more information.

Natchitoches celebrates the holidays with its annual Festival of Lights, this year Nov. 20–Jan. 6. Not all shops and restaurants are open on Sunday, so call ahead for hours.

For event or visitor information, contact the Natchitoches Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 259-1714 or www.natchitoches.net.

Sabine Parish visitor information is available through the Toledo Bend Country/Sabine Parish Tourist Commission, (800) 358-7802 or www.tole dobendlakecountry.com.

To visit northwestern Louisiana, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. View a list of offices to serve you .

Order free information about Louisiana through the Reader Service Card, found online at http://southern.ai-dsg.com.


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