Stately homes and gardens, plus a host of events, call spring travelers to Natchez for annual Pilgrimage.
Natchez, Miss., perches daintily on a high bluff above the Mississippi River. The fertile lowlands spreading to the horizons below once belonged to wealthy plantation owners who built the magnificent homes for which Natchez is famous.
Unlike most of the South, where grand homes were destroyed during the Civil War, Natchez was spared that fate. According to local legend, the credit for that turn of fortune belongs to the ladies of society at the time. To keep spirits up during the war, they hosted occasional balls, soirees, and socials, to which they wisely invited Union generals. Others say the city was spared because of a large number of Union sympathizers who lived there, and because its location wasn’t vital to the Federals’ cause. However it happened, Natchez today has more intact antebellum mansions than any other town in the country.
In order to accommodate more than 600,000 visitors who come every year, many of these historical homes are now operated as bed-and-breakfast inns. Many others, however, are private residences, often occupied by descendants of the original owners. The annual Spring Pilgrimage, which this year will take place between March 7 and April 7, is a rare opportunity to be invited into some of these private antebellum homes.
Historical homes and events
During the event, which began in 1932, 24 of these private homes will be open to the public. Family members dressed in 19th-century finery will escort you, pointing out architectural details, sharing anecdotes or diaries, and displaying family heirlooms. Tour packages are available ranging from a single-house tour for $15 to a three-house tour that includes lunch and a carriage ride for $80 per person.
Although Natchez boasts more than 1,000 structures on the National Register of Historic Places, its gardens are equally acclaimed. Depending on the timing of your visit, you may find the streets lined with lacy white and pink dogwoods and resplendent azaleas, or tulips, irises, magnolias, and camellias. You may find arbors draped with massive wisteria vines and the scent of night-blooming jasmine floating on the evening breeze. Spring is undeniably spectacular in the South.
One of the oldest homes on tour this year is Linden, where construction began in 1790. The home’s owner, Mrs. Jeannette Feltus, says the elegant Federal-style doorway was copied for the set of Tara in the 1939 movie Gone with the Wind. If you find yourself with a cool drink on one of Linden’s wide galleries looking out at the expanse of shaded lawn, you’ll find it easy enough to imagine yourself as a character in that classic Southern film.
On Friday and Saturday evenings during Spring Pilgrimage, about 300 of Natchez’ citizens of all ages are seen in performances known as “Historic Tableaux.” Through dance, music, and dramatic readings, the history of the region comes alive at the City Auditorium. This year, the pageant has been rewritten to include every culture and story of the city’s history. But a perennial favorite is the maypole dance, where the youngest performers, however well rehearsed, are sometimes unpredictable and always delightful.
If you’d like to include a slightly different perspective, you might time your visit to include the Annual Natchez Powwow, taking place on March 28 and 29. It will include traditional Native American dancing, drumming, foods, and crafts and is held at an ancient, sacred site, the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians.
Other concerts and theatrical performances–including “Southern Road to Freedom” performed by the Holy Family Gospel Choir–will be offered throughout Spring Pilgrimage. The concert presents the struggle and victory of African-Americans in Natchez from the Colonial era to present day.
Varied dining options
Discovering where to have your next meal in Natchez also can be a creative adventure, with regional cuisine choices from fine dining to family casual. The Castle Restaurant and Pub (AAA Three Diamonds) is housed in what was once the carriage house and stables of the magnificent Dunleith Historic Inn. The fortress-like exterior may look a bit foreboding, but the menu is delightful and the ambiance unique.
Another locally recommended favorite is Cotton Alley Café (AAA Two Diamonds) on Main Street. While there’s the usual gumbo, jambalaya, and catfish, you’ll also find pork belly and Tasso.
At Biscuits & Blues (AAA One Diamond), the stated raison d’être is “…the preservation of Hot Biscuits & Cool Blues.” Here you’ll find crawfish nachos, an assortment of po’ boys, and lots of things served with jalapeno cheese grits. Call ahead to check, but these tasty treats are often accompanied by live music.
Another casual restaurant, the Magnolia Grill (AAA Two Diamonds) is in the once infamous district known as Under-the-Hill. In the steamboat era, you would likely not have taken your children here, as it was the rough-and-tumble province of gamblers, shady ladies, and assorted ne’er-do-wells. Today, however, it is decidedly family friendly.
Try to be seated on the restaurant’s glass-enclosed deck so you can watch the parade of barges and boats on the Mississippi River. Choose your entrée from the extensive list. Do your best, though, to save room to at least share a slice of Edna Earl’s Buttermilk Coconut Pie. Then plan to do some walking.
The perfect place to do that is Historic Downtown Natchez. Although the district is famous for its antique shops, there also are bookstores, art galleries, clothing, and gift shops to suit any preference.
While you’re on your feet, do not miss the Stratton Chapel Gallery, housed in the First Presbyterian Church, across from City Hall. This beautifully restored collection of 500 rare photographs, taken between the Civil War and World War I, offers an unparalleled window into another time.
Want to really stretch your legs and earn that next piece of chocolate pecan pie? Pop into the Natchez Visitor Center on Canal Street and pick up a map for a self-guided walking trail. You can read and learn as you walk from downtown to the bluff top for one of the best views of the Mississippi River you’ll ever see.
Spend an overnight
When you’ve eaten, shopped, walked, and learned all you can for one day, you’ll find bounteous choices for lodging. During Spring Pilgrimage, however, with an estimated 30,000 visitors in town, you’d be wise to make reservations in advance. With nearly 50 historical inns and B&Bs, you’ll likely find one that is perfect.
You might consider the Riverside B&B on Clifton Avenue (AAA Three Diamonds) with its grand view of the Mississippi from atop the bluff. The home’s peachy-pink and green exterior laced with white gingerbread and the perfectly groomed garden beds are lovely.
Take a look at the Rising Sun B&B on North Pearl Street, with its “cozy and homey” atmosphere and exotic art collection.
In a town that preserves its heritage and relives its past, as does Natchez, you might expect a little exclusivity, but in fact, the opposite is true. Southern hospitality is an art form in Natchez and, for townsfolk, it is a point of pride when guests from around the world tell them, “This feels like home.”
Gayle Harper, a contributor from Springfield, Mo., is the author of Roadtrip with a Raindrop: 90 Days Along the Mississippi River.
March/April 2015 Issue
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