To say that something is the best of its kind means it “excels all others,” according to the dictionary. That is true for the winners of the Best of the South annual reader poll.
For the fourth year, our readers shared their picks for the South’s best places to visit, stay, dine, and have fun. We bet anyone visiting the South who follows these recommendations will have a memorable experience. After all, an experienced traveler knows he or she asks the locals to get the scoop on the best a city has to offer.
So it is with our thanks to the experts–our readers–that we can share the tabulated results from the Best of the South poll. Make time this year to revisit a favorite place that’s listed. Perhaps our poll inspires you to visit these cities, restaurants, hotels, or festivals for the first time. If that’s the case, we have one thing to say.
Welcome to the Best of the South.
Best Large City for a Weekend Getaway: New Orleans, La.
For the fourth consecutive year, readers name New Orleans as the best big city for a weekend of fun. Let’s see: plenty of fabulous hotels, restaurants, and entertainment options? Check. Festivals offered pretty much year-round? Check. Convenient transportation? Check. We see your point.
The city knows how to grab life by the horns, and an upcoming event literally is an example of that spirit. Visit the French Quarter July 13 and see a re-enactment of the Enciérro: The Running of the Bulls. Remembering the bull run in Pamplona, Spain, the “bulls” running through New Orleans’ streets are from the Big Easy Rollergirls, the city’s roller derby team. A one-mile dash is new this year and precedes the Encierro. A wine dinner on July 11 and festival kick off at the Sugar Mill on July 12 lead up to the run. It’s all part of the annual San Fermin in Nueva Orleans (SFNO) festival.
And no, you haven’t had too much sangria; those really are the Rolling Elvii (Elvis look-alikes on Segways) bringing up the rear. Only in New Orleans.
Visitor information at www.neworleanscvb.com or (800) 672-6124. For San Fermin Festival details, click on www.nolabulls.com.
Best Small City for a Weekend Getaway: GULF SHORES, ALA.
This vibrant beach community picks up its first best small city designation from our readers. Always fun in the summer, Gulf Shores is a fantastic getaway after Labor Day. Historical sites, shopping, a national scenic byway (Coastal Connection), and plenty of events–such as the National Shrimp Festival in October–attract visitors to the gulf year-round.
For Gulf Shores visitor information, click on www.gulfshores.com or call (800) 745-SAND (7263)
Best Large Hotel: Hotel Monteleone
Just as they did in 2012, readers chose the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans (AAA Four Diamonds) as the South’s best large hotel. Earlier this year, the hotel was named as one of the nation’s best by U.S. News and World Report.
We think one of the “musts” when visiting New Orleans is sipping a cocktail at the hotel’s famed Carousel Bar & Lounge. Part of the city’s nightlife since 1949, the bar revolves. Hop on one of the 25 seats and order one of its signature drinks, such as William Faulkner’s Bourbon Manhattan. A luxury night’s sleep waits in one of the 600 rooms or suites.
Hotel Monteleone, (504) 523-3341, www.hotelmonteleone.com
Best Small Hotel: Eola Hotel
A gem of a hotel is on Pearl Street in Natchez. For the second consecutive year, readers picked the Eola as the best small hotel in the South. Built in 1927, this AAA Two Diamond property has 131 rooms. Wind down over a long lunch at Juleps Restaurant that overlooks the courtyard. Guests can walk to most of the city’s attractions, restaurants, and nightlife. When you return, soak in your room’s whirlpool tub. Aahhhh…now, this is a vacation.
Eola Hotel, (601) 445-6000, www.natchezeola.com
Best beach for weekend escape: Alabama Gulf Coast
Challenge: the South in summer, with 90-plus temperatures and humidity to match. Solution: a day near the water.
Our readers prefer a weekend escape to Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Gulf Shores/Orange Beach not only offers miles of sparkling Gulf water paired with sugary sand beaches (you had us at sugary sand), but there’s a variety of condos, cottages, and hotel or motel rooms in which to lodge. Throw in great restaurants that specialize in local seafood, festivals, historical attractions, fishing, shopping, birding, and–okay–you’re going to need more than a weekend.
A retired freighter, the LuLu, was sunk about 17 miles south of Orange Beach following an appropriate send-off party over Memorial Day weekend. The new underwater attraction is expected to attract diving enthusiasts to Orange Beach.
Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, (800) 745-7263, www.gulfshores.com
A lazy day on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism photo
There are times when our schedules or finances do not allow for a week’s vacation or a weekend getaway, yet our life batteries may need recharging. A day away from the routine is in order, and that’s when a day tour comes into play.
We asked readers for their favorite day tours from our three urban centers: Jackson, Miss.; Little Rock, Ark.; and New Orleans. Here’s what they had to say.
Best Day Tour from Jackson: Natchez
After eight hours in Natchez, you’re sure to feel energized. Maybe it’s the dozens of antique stores beckoning with treasures to be discovered, or the historical downtown viewed from a horse-drawn carriage. Visit Dunleith, a late 18th-century, 40-acre estate and take a tour (complimentary for guests or restaurant patrons). Savor crab cakes and bread pudding at lunch in Dunleith’s Castle Restaurant, which is located in the original carriage house that dates to the 1790s. Pass through downtown and take home some Darby’s homemade fudge, that is, if it makes it through the car ride.
Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.visitnatchez.org, (800) 647-6724
|Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs, Ark. Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photo
Best Day Tour from Little Rock: Hot Springs
This small city tucked in the Ouachita Mountains has all the makings for a wonderful day’s escape, and for the second consecutive year, readers say it’s their favorite Arkansas day tour. Explore the bathhouses, restaurants, and shops that are downtown. Walk the beautiful trails at Garavan Woodland Gardens, located on a 200-acre Lake Hamilton peninsula. Take the kids (or grandkids) to Magic Springs water and theme park. Go boating or fishing on one of three area lakes: Hamilton, Catherine, or Ouachita.
Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.hotsprings.org, (800) 772-2489.
Best Day Tour from New Orleans: Great River Road
The favorite from 2012, readers again named the plantations along Louisiana’s Great River Road as the best day tour by more than a 2-to-1 margin. Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the road is steeped in history, beauty, and romance. Plantations offer tours, as well as dining and overnight accommodations. Fiddle-dee-dee, you can almost see Scarlet O’Hara driving up in a carriage at Oak Alley plantation in Vacherie, La. While Gone with the Wind wasn’t filmed along the road, other movies, including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, were. Festivals throughout the year help attract people to the area, and the plantations glow against holiday bonfires, creating a very special time to visit.
New Orleans Plantation Country, (866) 204-7782, www.neworleansplantationcountry.com
Best Romantic City: Savannah, Ga.
Stroll through one of the city’s squares, hand-in-hand with your sweetie. Take a carriage ride. Wander through the City Market. Spend the night in a B&B after a Low Country dinner. Fountains, statues, ornate ironwork, and moss-draped oaks are the focal points of Savannah’s downtown, which is filled with architectural gems. It’s a great destination for a wedding, anniversary, or to simply be together for a long weekend.
Visit Savannah, www.visitsavannah.com, (877) 728-2662
Best music city: New Orleans
The South marches to its own beat, and when it’s time to hear live music, more than 80 percent of readers who voted say New Orleans is the place to be. From hearing jazz at Preservation Hall to clubs along Frenchmen Street to annual festivals–like the ESSENCE Music Festival coming up the weekend of July 5, the city’s musical hum is never still.
New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.neworleanscvb.com, (800) 672-6124
Best SEC Stadium: Tiger Stadium,
| LSU Sports Information photo
Louisiana State University,
A comment on one of the mail-in ballots sums this one up: “Duh!”
LSU fans, as usual, were pretty loud on this question, as almost 90 percent of the votes came in favor of Tiger Stadium. The first home game of the 2013-14 season will be Sept. 7. For fans, there’s no better place to watch a college football game. For opponents, however, the venue–which accommodates more than 92,000 raucous Tiger fans–has been nicknamed “Death Valley.”
LSU Tigers Athletics, www.lsusports.net.
Best Nature Trail/Natural Area:
| Louisiana Office of Tourism photo
Creole Nature Trail
You’ll need binoculars, a hat, and sunscreen to explore the 180-mile trail in southwest Louisiana. Noted for fishing, birding, and other wetland wildlife, this trail has something to offer everyone, from serious outdoorsmen to a family seeking a pleasant afternoon hike. A plentiful selection of festivals celebrates the natural beauty and bounty along the trail, while refuges and sanctuaries help to protect this amazing resource.
www.creolenaturetrail.org, www.visitlakecharles.org or (800) 456-SWLA (7952)
| For travelers who seek the urban experience, a weekend in a new city can be a bit challenging, as well as exciting. With limited time, how do you know what to see? That’s why we wanted to highlight the best attractions in four metropolitan areas for this question. Ready? Let’s go.
Best attraction in Dallas: Galleria
More than 100 stores, plus restaurants, and an indoor ice rink, Galleria Dallas is one of those “musts” when visiting the Big D. Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors, and Tiffany are a few of the designers present here. It’s big enough to blow away a first-time visitor, but savvy fashionistas visit the Guest Reception Center on Level 1 near Center Court for maps, discount books (if you’ve traveled more than 50 miles), and other helpful information to make the most of your time here.
Galleria Dallas, (972) 702-7100, www.galleriadallas.com
Best attraction in Jackson: Mississippi Museum of Art
The Mississippi Art Association, forerunner of the Mississippi Museum of Art (MMA), was founded in 1911. The museum’s previous location at the Mississippi Arts Center had been its home since the 1970s. In June 2007, the museum opened in the former Mississippi Arts Pavilion. The Art Garden was added to the location in September 2011. Current exhibits include “Old Masters to Monet: Three Centuries of French Painting from Wadsworth Atheneum,” which can be seen through Sept. 8.
MMA, (601) 960-1515, www.msmuseumart.org
Best attraction in New Orleans: French Quarter
The city’s pulse beats in the Quarter. Historical homes, museums, the French Market, Jackson Square–not to mention wonderful hotels, restaurants, and bars–are so plentiful, one would need a few days just for this part of New Orleans. A walking tour is a great way to experience the French Quarter. Grab a beignet and café au lait at the Café Du Monde and start exploring.
French Quarter Visitor Center, (504) 589-2636, ext. 1, www.nps.gov/jela/french-quarter-site.htm
|Giraffes at the Little Rock Zoo. Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photo
Best attraction in Little Rock: Little Rock Zoo
From its humble beginnings in 1926 with just two animals (an abandoned timber wolf and a circus-trained bear), the zoo has grown to include more than 725 species. A unique antique carousel is restored and stands as the centerpiece to the visitors’ center. Don’t miss the Zoo Brew (Sept. 19).
Little Rock Zoo, (501) 666-2406,
Best Casino: L’auberge
We asked readers to weigh everything–games, entertainment, food, and location–to name the best casino in the South. Pinnacle Entertainment’s L’Auberge casino, with locations in Baton Rouge and Lake Charles, was chosen.
L’Auberge Casino Resort (AAA Three Diamond hotel) in Lake Charles was the original. With a spa, golf course, pool and lazy rivers, and boutiques, there’s more than gaming at L’Auberge to enjoy. And don’t forget headline entertainment, poolside concerts, and several restaurants.
Last August, L’Auberge Casino & Hotel in Baton Rouge opened. Check out the 12-story hotel that includes a rooftop pool overlooking the Mississippi River. Four dining venues, concerts, and an outdoor festival space (The Lawn) also are offered.
Best seafood festival: Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival
For almost 80 years, folks along the Cajun Coast of Louisiana have enjoyed a little lagniappe at this festival held over Labor Day weekend that honors the folks working in the fishing and oil industries. It’s five days of music, arts and crafts, a boat parade and Blessing of the Fleet–plus other events–and tons of shrimp, cooked just about every way imaginable. Other Cajun specialties also are served up.
This year’s dates are Aug. 30–Sept. 2. The festival is held in Morgan City, La.
Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival, www.shrimp-petrofest.org
Best outdoor dining spot: The Court of Two Sisters
The turtle soup is enough reason to visit, but the jazz brunch that’s offered every day has been a part of this New Orleans restaurant named for sisters Emma and Bertha Camors, who once had a shop at 613 Rue Royale. In fact, the French Quarter restaurant took third place in last year’s best brunch category in our poll. And while the three dining rooms indeed are lovely, why wouldn’t you want to savor a Creole meal in the courtyard? More than 78 percent of readers who voted agree.
The Court of Two Sisters, (504) 522-7261, www.courtoftwosisters.com
Best golf trail: Louisiana’s Audubon Golf Trail
There’s great golf to be discovered, and golfers just have to follow Louisiana’s Audubon Golf Trail to find a great place to play. The trail, which reaches all areas of the state, features 12 courses by renowned designers, including Hal Sutton, David Toms, and Pete Dye.
Audubon Golf Trail, http://audubongolf.com
Black Bear Golf Course in Delhi, La., is part of the Audubon Golf Trail Louisiana Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism photo