In the South, the present never completely breaks clear from the past. And nowhere in this magnolia-scented region is this axiom as evident as it is in a Louisiana town called Natchitoches.
Those with a taste for the offbeat and the removed should not pass up the opportunity to visit Natchitoches, roughly 60 miles south of Shreveport. This is a bucolic Louisiana town of creaky bridges that allow a modest flow of traffic. And where 18th century houses serve as B&Bs or have been transformed into shops. Great restaurants housed in historic waterfront buildings have the inevitable wrought-iron balconies of the region gracing their facade and great oaks draped in Spanish moss serve as backdrop to horse-drawn carriages on narrow streets.
The town is older than New Orleans and it boasts of being a tourist destination since 1714, the year when the town was founded by French trappers and explorers.
It is such an iconic Southern town, Hollywood inevitably came calling, using the town as the setting for the movie “Steel Magnolias” in 1988 and for the fetching “Man in the Moon” a few years later. In the ‘50s, John Wayne came to film something called “Horse Soldiers.”
According to Latisha McDaniel, media and public relations representative for Natchitoches Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, very few visitors leave without a wistful impression of the town. “There are guided, horse-drawn carriage tours of the town’s historic district that has been designated a national historic landmark,” she says. “In addition, Natchitoches is Louisiana’s B&B capital, with more than 35 inns that range from the rustic to elegant townhouses, most within walking distance of the historic district.”
Natchitoches is a bit removed from the well-trod tourist path. Subsequently, travel agents interested in booking tours of the area must rely on highly specialized tour operators like Heritage Tours, a Dallas-based company.
Byron Cain, owner and president of Heritage Tours, says, “Our niche is two-fold. On one side, we deal with specific destinations—mostly ranging from New Mexico to South Carolina—with comprehensive historical tours of Scotland, Nova Scotia-Prince Edward Island and Luxembourg. On the other side, we specialize on niche destinations like Natchitoches—a highly historical and appealing truly American place. In the spring, the entire area is abloom with flowers. During Christmas, the houses along the Cane River are decorated with lights, making it one of the most beautiful places in Louisiana.”
Heritage’s Natchitoches tour is a 3-day jaunt through the area where visitors can glimpse a corner of America unlike any other.
According to Cain, Heritage Tours’ prices vary widely, depending entirely on their clients’ wishes. “We work with travel agents and with group leaders who, in turn, work within the budget given to them by their clients. Once we have a road map of the tour, the rest is up to us. We arrange for accommodations, meals, plantation sightseeing and for guided tours of the magnificent gardens in the city. We touch on all the historical sites and interesting places in the area.”
The town has many old and quaint lodgings, but the town’s premier accommodations are at the independently owned Church Street Inn in the heart of the city. This 20-room elegant and picturesque inn has been renovated to reflect the town’s historic past. Room rates vary from $99 to $165 pp dbl, and every room highlights its own personality, with carved mahogany furniture that mirrors the long history and rich culture of Natchitoches.
What makes a visit to the town worthwhile is a tour of the magnificent antebellum plantations scattered along the Cane River for approximately 30 miles along what’s known as Louisiana’s Cotton Road, a tapestry of cotton and soybean fields crisscrossed by streams and lined with giant oaks.
These are awesome and majestic places with names like Oaklawn, Cherokee, Beau Fort and Melrose, where one half-expects to see Vivien Leigh come scurrying down an oak-lined path.