Take a Road Trip
Take a road trip through Louisiana and visitors will find the most charming small towns scattered throughout the Bayou State. Nestled among bayous, fields of sugar cane and cotton, and filled with historic properties, these small towns provide for outstanding getaway destinations. Whether for a weekend, a festival or a prolonged relaxing vacation, these five charming towns are sure to delight.
The oldest town in Louisiana continues to be one of the hottest for small-town tourism. Founded in 1714 by the French near a Natchitoches Native American settlement and close to the Spanish capital of Texas, this town has a wealth of culture and history.
Much of its charm lies on Front Street, a cobblestone-lined thoroughfare stretching a few blocks along Cane River, an abandoned section of the Red River that’s actually a lake. Quaint shops, the Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile, the oldest general store in the state, and a host of restaurants attract visitors annually to this area of town. If visitors want to get on Cane River, there are paddling opportunities and the Cane River Queen River Boat.
But the National Historic Landmark District encompasses 33 blocks so there’s much to see and do throughout town, including the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site and the American Cemetery, made famous in the film “Steel Magnolias.” A stay at the romantic Samuel Guy House Bed and Breakfast puts visitors right next to the historic cemetery — and many of the “Steel Magnolias” sites. For a tour of it all, the Cane River Carriage Company has horse-drawn rides.
There are plenty of places to dine in Natchitoches but Kelli M. West, marketing and communications director at the Natchitoches Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, recommends Mariner’s Restaurant on nearby Sibley Lake. Ben and Keri Fidelak purchased the landmark establishment last year and revamped the property, offering seafood dishes, specialty drinks on the outside dock and s’mores toasting on the fire pits.
“It has the best sunset view in Natchitoches,” West said.
Upcoming festivals include the parish fair, Meat Pie Festival in September, the October Folk Art Festival at Melrose Plantation and, of course, the enormous festivities at Christmas.
A stay at the romantic Samuel Guy House Bed and Breakfast puts visitors next to Natchitoches’ historic cemetery and many of the “Steel Magnolias” sites.
Stroll through the historic district of St. Francisville, among its historic buildings sporting boutique shopping and dining, or alongside homes dating back to the Civil War, and you’ll swear you’ve entered another century.
Check into the renovated St. Francisville Inn, located in the heart of town and serving up fine dining and craft cocktails in a Victorian landmark. Or travel back to 1938 at the 3V Tourist Courts, original motor court cabins but with all the niceties of modern life. Next door, the popular Magnolia Café serves up regional favorites such as catfish, poor boys and fried alligator bites.
Some shops combine history into their products. Grandmother’s Buttons turns antique buttons and other unique items such as vintage glass into heirloom jewelry pieces, all within an historic bank building. Conundrum Books sells stories, as well as gift items, in a converted car garage.
Surrounding St. Francisville lies more fascinating history, outdoors adventures and unusual attractions. There are six plantation homes open to the public with guided tours, including
the Audubon State Historic Site/Oakley Plantation where naturalist and artist John James Audubon began his famous “The Birds of America” series. There’s also the haunted Myrtles Plantation, offering both accommodations and dining and the annual Halloween Experience every weekend in October.
Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge contains a rare bald cypress tree with the title of the largest tree in North America east of the California redwoods. Clark Creek trail sports rare waterfalls and hills for hikers. And for something really different, head up to Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary for its annual rodeo held every Sunday in October.
New this year is the inaugural John James Audubon International Symposium Sept. 17-18 at the Audubon State Historic Site/Oakley Plantation. And don’t miss the annual Christmas in the Country celebration the first full weekend in December, with its small-town parade, tour of homes and a Jane Austen Christmas at Oakley Plantation.
Located in the heart of St. Francisville, The St. Francisville Inn is a renovated Victorian landmark soliciting raves for its fine dining and craft cocktails.
Sunset Grand Coteau
Patrice Melnick moved to Grand Coteau while on sabbatical from Xavier University in 2001. The English professor was searching for a quiet, yet affordable place to write.
“I appreciated the people I had met there, found them kind and welcoming,” she said.
So, when Hurricane Katrina roared through New Orleans in 2005, Melnick thought of Grand Coteau as not only a place to relocate to, but to also start a new life. She opened Casa Azul, a shop offering gift items from around the world, in the heart of the historic town.
Her shop has since closed, but Melnick has grown long roots in her new home, operating Casita Azul Bed and Breakfast and founding the Festival of Words literary festival, held each November.
“I love Grand Coteau because it is rural, green and a lovely place for walks beneath the live oaks and pine trees,” she said. “But it is only 20 minutes from the culture of Lafayette with great music venues, restaurants, and festivals. I also enjoy the rich history of the people who have roots in Africa, Canada, France and many European countries.”
Grand Coteau is small, with only a few blocks of shops and restaurants, but it exudes a great deal of charm. Its quaint stretch of businesses face the Jesuit Spirituality Center, where many come for reflection and restoration. Its small streets fill up with visitors at popular festivals such as the Sweet Dough Pie Festival, the Holy Ghost Creole Festival and Grand Noel with its carriage rides, carolers and life-sized nativity scene held the Saturday following Thanksgiving.
In 18th-century Germany, during a time of societal restructuring, a group of separatists from the Lutheran Church began the Harmony Society. The German government persecuted these nonconformists so many immigrated to America to form utopian settlements. One of these was outside Minden, Louisiana.
Bernhard Müller, the self-proclaimed “Count de Leon,” believed that the land 32 miles east of Shreveport would be ideal for the Second Coming of Christ, one of the religious ideals of the Harmony Society. Müller contracted yellow fever en route and never saw the establishment of the Claiborne Parish town in 1835, but the town flourished.
“It was one of the most successful of the Harmony Society,” said Jonhnnye Kennon, administrative assistant at Webster Parish Convention & Visitors Commission.
At the same time, another German, Charles Veeder, built an inn on Bayou Dorcheat and created a town he called Minden, after his home in Germany.
Today, visitors to Minden can view the Germantown Colony Museum, which contains remnants of that early utopian society which disbanded in 1871, and the Dorcheat Historical Museum, which highlights the history of Minden and Webster Parish.
The town itself contains a historical residential district of 71 properties dating back to the 1850s. Downtown Minden offers delightful brick-lined streets, antique shops, boutiques and places to dine along Main Street. For a real trip back in time, enjoy a night or two at the historic Huffman House bed and breakfast, a 5,100-square-foot Queen Anne Revival home built in 1918 within the Minden Historic District.
Now that gathering restrictions have eased, the annual fall festivals are scheduled to return and if so, this year promises to be chock full of fun, Kennon said. Main to Main Trade Days covering 50 miles of yard sales from Sibley to Springhill takes place the first Friday and Saturday in November. Minden is one of the many towns on the Louisiana Holiday Trail of Lights with a Christmas parade and other holiday events.
“We have a lot of fun starting in the fall,” Kennon said.
This historic 5100-square-foot Queen Anne Revival home built in 1918 now serves as a bed and breakfast within the Minden Historic District.
Years ago, when New Orleans residents grew tired of city life, they traversed the Causeway — then a one-lane bridge — to visit the “country.” Long noted for its fresh air, pine trees and Lake Pontchartrain views, Mandeville was the ideal getaway town.
The Northshore has grown exponentially but Mandeville retains its small-town charm, with numerous historic homes, restaurants serving fabulous fresh seafood, lakeside parks and unbridled opportunities to enjoy outdoors activities.
“There are tons of bed and breakfasts,” said Christina Cooper, vice president of communications, marketing and public relations for the St. Tammany Parish Tourist and Convention Commission. She listed Guesthouse on Girod, the Blue Heron, About Trace and de la Bleau as just a few.
Shopping runs the gamut on Girod Street from boutiques to antiques and restaurants are equally plentiful, Cooper explained. There’s breakfast at LaLou or Liz’s Where Y’at Diner, lunch at Girod Street Market and Deli, sweets at The Candy Bank and lakeside dining at The Lakehouse or the new Pat’s Rest Awhile, to name a few. Enjoy a java break at The Book & The Bean coffee shop with locally roasted Flamjeaux coffee or a cool brew at Old Rail Brewing Company.
The Tammany Trace bike path runs through Mandeville so visitors can enjoy a ride about town, head to Fontainebleau State Park for a host of activities at the 2,800-acre park along Lake Pontchartrain or bike the long stretch to the Covington trailhead. Paddlers can enjoy the lake or nearby bayous.