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Votes are in

Identifying the best places to eat, visit and play in the South is no easy task. With so much diversity in a region that’s well known for its hospitality, every finalist in our second Best of the South readers’ poll is worthy of note and a tip of our hat.

One thousand of our readers replied using ballots in the magazine, as well as an online voting form, and the results are ready to share. Read how editors’ favorites stack up against your picks for the region’s best. That was a new component to the poll.

But no matter where your summer travels take you, remember to bring this issue of AAA Southern Traveler along so you can enjoy the best the South has to offer.

New Orleans
BEST LARGE CITY FOR WEEKEND

The Big Easy, for the second year, is our readers’ favorite big city. New Orleans has retained her charm and is luring visitors back to pre-Hurricane Katrina levels.

More than 8 million people visited New Orleans last year, strolling the French Quarter and Garden District, packing the internationally acclaimed restaurants, visiting the National World War II Museum and getting down to red hot music at the many festivals and jazz halls.

There’s little wonder why New Orleans continues to be a huge favorite among AAA Southern Traveler readers. It offers all the amenities of a big city, yet retains the comfort and hospitality you can only find in a small town. With 16 AAA Four Diamond hotels and six AAA Four Diamond restaurants, New Orleans definitely knows how to dress to impress.

From Vegas-style gaming to world-class sports and entertainment, to shopping and museums, this city has it all. But what really makes this city so great is that New Orleanians love their city and that they’re more than happy to share that love with visitors and show them how to pass a good time in The Big Easy.

For more information, call (800) 672-6124 or visit http://neworleanscvb.com

Second place: Little Rock, (800) 844-4781, www.littlerock.com

Third place: Atlanta, (800) 285-2682, www.atlanta.net/ACVB/index.html

Jul/Aug 2011 Issue


 

Natchez
BEST SMALL CITY FOR A WEEKEND

In a word, Natchez is the South. Nestled in the southwest corner of Mississippi and hugging the banks of the Mississippi River, Natchez embodies the stately architecture, easy charm and genuine hospitality that you’d associate with small Southern towns.

Among the attractions that make the town so compelling are its collection of elegant antebellum homes. Indeed, the town’s unceasing dedication to historic preservation has yielded more than 1,200 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places and six National Historic Landmarks. The popular Spring Pilgrimage affords visitors a chance to appreciate the historical mansions in their full splendor, decorated with spring blooms and attended by hoop-skirted belles.

During a weekend getaway, visitors can choose to stay in some of the historical homes that welcome guests to get a taste of antebellum life. But there are modern pursuits as well, including trendy shops, museums and restaurants that serve the best Southern food this side of the 19th century.

For more information about Natchez, call (800) 647-6724 or visit www.visitnatchez.org

Second place: Eureka Springs, Ark., (479) 253-7333, http://eurekasprings.org

Third place: Lafayette, La., (800) 346-1958, www.lafayettetravel.com

ship

Natchez-Under-The-Hill. Mississippi Tourism photo


 

The Peabody
BEST LARGE HOTEL

The red towers rise above Little Rock’s downtown River Market District as a beacon to leisure and business travelers searching for high-quality accommodations. Gracious guestrooms (396) and 20 luxury suites combine with fine Italian dining at the Capriccio Grill® to create a memorable stay at this AAA Four Diamond hotel.

Order a drink from the Lobby Bar and witness the charming tradition of the Peabody Ducks marching from the elevator to the grand lobby fountain.

For more information, call (501) 906-4000;

Second place: Hotel Monteleone (AAA Four Diamonds), New Orleans, La.; (504) 523-3341

Third place: Hilton Lafayette (AAA Three Diamonds), Lafayette, La.; (337) 235-6111

 

 

Northwest Florida
BEST FAMILY BEACH

Actually, there are several beaches between Pensacola and Panama City in northwest Florida. Sugar-white sand and emerald-green Gulf of Mexico waters provide a great beach escape. And just as no two seashells are alike, visitors will find the communities along Florida’s northwest gulf coast to be equally diverse.

The Pensacola area, with attractions like the National Museum of Naval Aviation, calls to history buffs.

The Emerald Coast communities of Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island blend a nice selection of family activities.

Grayton Beach is a prototypical beach burg where you can kick back and just relax, while the party’s on at Panama City Beach. With 27 miles of sugary sand beach, there are boundless activities here for families. Do as little or as much as you want. For the Type A family, you will not get bored.

For more information, click on www.VisitFlorida.com

Second place: Alabama Gulf Coast, www.gulfshores.com, (800) 745-7263

Third place: Mississippi Gulf Coast, www.gulfcoast.org, (888) 467-4853

beach

Emerald Coast CVB photo


 

New Orleans
BEST GUYS' WEEKEND

With its varied sporting venues and storied watering holes, it’s little wonder why New Orleans is the best guys’ weekend getaway.

There’s a sport for just about every fan, anchored by the “boys in black and gold,” the NFL World Champion New Orleans Saints, and the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets. Arena Football, Triple-A baseball and soccer also are here.

Golfing is another huge draw for the guys. Live horseracing can be enjoyed Thanksgiving weekend to the end of March at the Fair Grounds Race Course, the third-oldest continuously operating thoroughbred racetrack in the United States. And Vegas-style casino fun is at Harrah’s Casino at the foot of the French Quarter.

Second place: Houston, Texas, (800) 446-8786, www.visithoustontexas.com

Third place: Hot Springs, Ark., (800) 772-2489, www.hotsprings.org

New Orleans

Gentlemen and ladies prefer the French Quarter’s nightlife. New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau photo


 

New Orleans
BEST GIRLS' GETAWAY

With so much shopping, entertainment, dining and cultural pursuits, your girls won’t ask, “what do you want to do” but “what do we do next” during a weekend in New Orleans, La. The majority of our readers agree that Magazine and Royal streets will call to fashionistas, while cooking schools, the historic French Market and world-class restaurants beckon to foodies.

Tour the town on one of the renowned streetcars or see Bourbon Street in a horse-drawn carriage. Be pampered at a downtown hotel.

When the sun goes down, it’s your call for ladies night out: Bourbon Street, gaming, theater and music venues are all here for your enjoyment.

Second place: Savannah, Ga., http://savannahvisit.com, (877) 728-2662

Third place: Little Rock, Ark., www.littlerock.com, (800) 844-4781

 

 

The Columns
BEST SMALL HOTEL

Originally constructed in 1883 as a private residence in New Orleans’ Garden District right on St. Charles Avenue, The Columns is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The 19-room hotel is equipped with the latest in modern amenities while never compromising on elegant charm.

The Columns’ Sunday jazz brunch in Albertine’s Team Room is a favorite among locals and visitors, and has long been a New Orleans tradition. Mimosas and other favorite beverages are also enjoyed on the porch as streetcars glide past in the distance.

Perhaps most prized by the locals is the Victorian Lounge. It oozes Southern hospitality, with antique fireplaces, an exquisite mahogany bar and 15-foot ceilings. The original German stained glass chandelier hangs in what was once the formal dining room.

For a romantic getaway, it’s tough to beat The Columns.

For more information, call (800) 445-9308.

Second place: The 1886 Crescent Hotel, Eureka Springs, Ark., (877) 342-9766

Third place: Fairview Inn, Jackson, Miss., (888) 948-1908

 

 

Blue Ridge Parkway
BEST SCENIC DRIVE

Perhaps the most telling sign that the Blue Ridge Parkway is a scenic route that visitors should take their time to enjoy is its speed limit, which is 45 mph and even lower in some places. Designed for leisurely motoring, this Southeastern parkway offers outstanding scenery and recreational opportunities all along its 469 miles. Administered by the National Park Service, the route runs along the crest of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and connects Shenandoah National Park near Waynesboro, Va. (Milepost 0) with Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee, N.C. (Milepost 469), which also extends into Tennessee.

A product of the New Deal’s efforts to provide jobs to the unemployed during the Great Depression, the parkway celebrated its 75th anniversary last year. Carved through mountains, valleys and four U.S. National Forests, the route offers numerous scenic overlooks with stunning views of endless vistas. Indeed, part of a Blue Ridge Parkway experience is getting into the communities of the region. For more information, contact (828) 298-0398, www.nps.gov/blri or www.blueridgeparkway.org.

Second place: Natchez Trace, (800) 305-7417, www.nps.gov/natr/index.htm

Third place: Scenic Arkansas Highway 7

viaduct

The Linn Love Viaduct hugs the face of Grandfather Mountain along the Parkway. North Carolina Division of Tourism photo


 

Arkansas River Trail
BEST BIKE TRAIL

Hugging both sides of the Arkansas River and linking Little Rock and North Little Rock, the 17-mile Arkansas River Trail draws hundreds of users every day because of its scenic landscapes and the popular parks and attractions touched by the route.

Some the trail’s most stunning views can be found on the Big Dam Bridge, so named because the massive 4,226-foot-long pedestrian bridge was built atop the Murray Lock and Dam.

As good as the trail is now, it will only improve as it expands. An old railroad bridge at the eastern end of the trail near the Clinton Presidential Center is being converted into a pedestrian bridge this year. Yet another bridge is opening near Two Rivers Park on the western end of the trail this summer.

Second place: Tammany Trace, New Orleans’ Northshore, www.tammanytrace.org

Third place: Longleaf Trace, between Hattiesburg and Prentiss, Miss., www.longleaftrace.org

 

 

McGee’s
BEST SWAMP TOUR

The largest swamp in the United States, the Atchafalaya River Basin, is as mysterious as it is beautiful. For many, it’s an entirely different world, and McGee’s Atchafalaya Basin Swamp Tours aims to introduce them to this wild and primitive swath of southern Louisiana.

Based in Henderson not far from Breaux Bridge, McGee’s has guided tours deep into the basin for more than a decade. As the boats navigate around the moss-draped bald cypress that thrive in the swamp waters, passengers typically see egrets, American alligators and a variety of other wildlife. Three tours are offered daily aboard covered pontoon boats.

For more information, call (337) 228-2384 or visit www.mcgeeslanding.com.

Second place: Louisiana Tour Company, (888) 307-9267, http://louisianaswamp.com

Third place: Annie Miller’s Son’s, (800) 341-5441, www.annie-miller.com

alligator

McGee’s Swamp Tours photo


 

Florida
BEST VACATION STATE

Bathed in sun, the state welcomes more than 80 million visitors each year for dozens of reasons, most notably its 825 miles of sandy shores. Perhaps that’s why a large majority of readers (64 percent) selected Florida as the best state to visit for a vacation (other than their home states).

But beyond the beach, there are plenty of activities to keep every member of the family happy. And the cities across the state–from trendy Miami to laid-back Key West to dozens of beach communities–offer splendid home bases from which to explore.

In Florida, you can do everything or nothing at all. And being generally less than a day’s drive from nearly everywhere in the South, you can be doing nothing at all pretty quickly. Just don’t forget the sunscreen. Information: www.VisitFlorida.com

Second place: Georgia, (800) 847-4842, www.exploregeorgia.org

Third place: Texas, (800) 888-8839, www.traveltex.com

 

 

Children’s Museum of Memphis
BEST CHILDREN'S MUSEUM

Think of Memphis and Beale Street or Graceland pops into your head. But this Southern gem just across the Arkansas border has plenty of things to keep a family happy this summer. The Children’s Museum of Memphis is one of those family attractions not to be missed.

Since June 1990, families have enjoyed the museum, housed in Memphis’ old National Guard Armory on Central Avenue. It takes a big place to pack in all this fun. Exhibits about art, science, health, safety and more entertain while educating kids.

Special exhibits–such as the recent Wonderful Wizard of Oz–and hands-on programs round out the many activities here. Upon arriving and noticing the giant alphabet blocks at the entrance, you know there’s unlimited good times inside. Through July 31, enjoy extended daily hours from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

For more information, visit http://cmom.com or call (901) 458-2678.

Second place: Louisiana Children’s Museum, www.lcm.org, (504) 523-1357

Third place: Arkansas Museum of Discovery, http://museumofdiscovery.org/

Museum

Children’s Museum of Memphis photo


 

New Orleans Museum of Art
BEST ART MUSEUM

Celebrating its centennial this year, the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park is home to 46 galleries featuring more than 40,000 objects encompassing 4,000 years of world art. The collection is noted for its extraordinary strengths in French and American art, photography, glass, and African and Japanese works.

NOMA, as the museum is referred to by the locals, has developed a unique Arts of the Americas collection, surveying the cultural heritage of North, Central and South America from the pre-Columbian period through the Spanish Colonial era. An entire floor is dedicated to Asian, African, Oceanic, Pre-Columbian and American Indian art.

The Greek Revival building also houses a treasury of work by French artists, and of particular interest is a group of works by the French Impressionist Edgar Degas who visited relatives in New Orleans in 1871 and 1872 and painted just 20 blocks from the Museum. NOMA’s collection of works by masters of the School of Paris includes paintings and sculptures by Raoul Dufy, Joan Miró, Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso. Other displays include sculpture, photography and decorative arts.

The adjacent five-acre Besthoff Sculpture Garden showcases work by several of the 20th century’s master sculptors situated on a beautifully landscaped site amongst meandering footpaths and pedestrian bridges.

For more information, call (504) 658-4100 or visit www.noma.org.

Second place: Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, (601) 960-1515, www.msmuseumart.org

Third place: Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans, (504) 539-9600, www.ogdenmuseum.org

museum

©Carl Purcell/New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau photo


 

The Myrtles
BEST GHOST STORY

Unexplained occurrences have made a believer out of Teresa David, general manager at The Myrtles Plantation, a historic home (1796) and B&B in St. Francisville, La.

When she started as general manager, David told owner Teeta Moss she was a skeptic.
“I was very adamant in saying I didn’t believe in all of this,” David said, adding Moss just smiled sweetly at her.

Yes, David–a lifelong parish resident–has seen and experienced some odd things. But the plantation’s most publicized spirit is that of Chloe, a slave who was hung from a tree on site. David said there also are some children and a lady dressed in white.

Learn more about the ghost stories during mystery tours at The Myrtles each Friday and Saturday evening. Reservations are highly recommended and the cost is $10 per person. Historical tours are offered daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Truly curious (and brave) souls can stay overnight at one of the 11 B&B rooms. There have been reports that guests can feel a sensation of being tucked into bed, being held down in bed or having their feet tickled.

“We have a lovely crew we draw here,” David said. “It isn’t uncommon for guests to stay up all night. They are free to come and go as they please, but we ask they be respectful of the guests who are trying to sleep.”

Some overnight guests have left early because they are so disturbed by the goings on at The Myrtles. David said three people recently left to check into the nearby hotel. They came back for their things the next morning.

“The owner (of the hotel) has said to me, ‘Y’all give us a lot of business.’ ”

Information: (225) 635-6277, www.myrtlesplantation.com

Second place: The legend of Marie Laveau, New Orleans’ voodoo queen, www.hauntedneworleanstours.com/cemeteries/stlouis1/

Third place: The Crescent Hotel, Eureka Springs, Ark., http://crescent-hotel.com, (877) 342-9766

House

The Myrtles Plantation photo


 

Commander’s Palace
BEST FINE DINING

In a city known internationally for its cuisine, you know you have to be at the top of your game to be recognized as the best fine dining experience in the South, and Commander’s Palace in New Orleans is just that restaurant.

An 1880 city landmark nestled in a quiet neighborhood deep in the beautiful Garden District, the Victorian mansion is the place for haute Creole cuisine. The menu offers American and Creole preparations of seafood, veal and filet mignon, as well as such decadent desserts as bread pudding soufflé. The concept of a jazz brunch was born here, and the Saturday and Sunday brunches at Commander’s Palace are truly fun-filled affairs, ideal for the whole family.

Commander’s launched the careers of Chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse and established cooking trends that are today common in many New Orleans restaurants. That commitment to create the most interesting dishes continues today and is best evidenced nightly with the “Chef’s Playground” menu, which offers the serious diner a bold and daring exploration of groundbreaking cuisine.

Information: (504) 899-8221, www.commanderspalace.com, AAA Four Diamonds

Second place: Purple Parrot, Hattiesburg, Miss., (601) 264-0656, http://www.purpleparrotcafe.net/, AAA Four Diamonds

Third place: Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel, Little Rock, Ark., 501-374-7474, www.capitalhotel.com/Ashleyswebsite/index.html, AAA Four Diamonds

Commander's

Commander’s Palace photo


 

Jazz & Heritage
BEST ARTS AND CRAFTS FEST

Decisions, decisions. Visitors at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival–the Grand Poobah of Southern spring fests–are hard-pressed to make them. Do we grab a kicking bowl of jambalaya or line up to hear Robert Plant?

With all the hubbub (and rightly so) around the festival’s music and food, don’t forget this event is a great show of amazing arts and crafts.

It’s a lot to take in, but take heart: you have until next April to plan a trip for the festival, which will be April 27–May 6.

Information: www.nojazzfest.com

Second place: Festivals Acadiens et Créoles (Oct. 14–16) in Lafayette, La., http://lafayettetravel.com

Third place: War Eagle Craft Fair (Oct. 13–16) in northwest Arkansas, www.wareaglefair.com

 

 

Editors & readers pick their favorites

BEST CASINO

Mississippi seems to be the South’s gaming destination. Readers liked the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Miss. The editorial nod went to the Gold Strike in Tunica, Miss.

Gold Strike

Mississippi Tourism photo

BEST RESTORED HOTEL

Readers and the editors agree: The Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans is the South’s best restored hotel. A $145 million restoration has given grandeur back to this landmark.

 

MOST ROMANTIC B&B

Mississippi also seems to be the South’s bed-and-breakfast capital. Two of the three finalists were in Natchez, and readers selected Monmouth Plantation as the South’s most romantic inn. We agree that this AAA Four Diamond hotel, a favored wedding destination, drips romance, offering guests luxurious rooms and 26 coiffed acres to view while sipping a signature mint julep.

plantation

MS Tourism photo

BEST HISTORICAL TOWN

Readers favor Natchez in Mississippi, but our editors chose Hot Springs in Arkansas in this category. A national park since 1832, Hot Springs’ natural thermal springs have appealed to people for hundreds of years.

Hot Springs

Arkansas Parks & Tourism photo


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