CHEAPEST PLACES ON EARTH
Antebellum charm and present-day bargains
You'd never suspect it from the awesome abundance of grand antebellum mansions, but beguiling, history-rich Natchez, perched atop one of the Mississippi River's highest bluffs, is a veritable budget-travel haven, packed with cheapies and freebies. It's an unfortunate fact that Mississippi consistently ranks as one of the poorest states in the Union, but this also translates into major bargains in meals, lodging, and entertainment. Clean single rooms for $20 in spanking-new motels with pool and other first-rate amenities? Atmospheric doubles for $85 in historic B&Bs? Three-course dinners and a drink for $6? Once one of America's wealthiest towns, this tourist treasure trove is now one of the cheapest. Named for a local Indian tribe, Natchez (pop. 20,000) was founded in 1716, the oldest permanent settlement in the lower Mississippi River Valley. It took this crude village about a century to polish itself into the rich, gracious consort of King Cotton. Most people are surprised to learn that this bastion of everything Southern voted against secession. So did neighboring Vicksburg, but the similarities ended there. When the Union armies arrived, Natchez gave balls and soirees while rebellious and more strategically located Vicksburg was bombarded and besieged into submission. Southerners remain divided over the question of whether Natchez was traitorous or shrewd, but the legacy is indisputable. Thanks to flirting instead of fighting, she boasts over 500 antebellum structures.
Isolation as well as poverty molded and shaped the Bluff City. When King Cotton was dethroned, the world simply stopped calling. The local aristocracy was, as the old saying goes, "too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash," and nothing was touched as this bruised Southern magnolia slipped into a genteel time bubble. The town might have dozed into oblivion if some enterprising garden-club ladies hadn't unearthed something unique to jazz up their Depression economy: history. In 1932 they prepared to publicly show their gardens, but bad weather forced them to open their homes instead. The "Natchez Pilgrimage" was therefore born by default and gave tourists a tantalizing glimpse of the Old South - for the price of a ticket, of course. Today there are spring and fall Pilgrimages, and 620,000 visitors make an annual deposit of $110 million into local coffers.
Grand manses and ancient Indians
Most of the 15 "town houses" and "villas" open to the public would be considered grand mansions elsewhere. Very few were actually plantations, but there are plenty evoking the romance of Gone with the Wind - and all of them, needless to say, are the fruits of slavery, built with the riches from horrible human toil. Each "charms" in its own way, but the budget-conscious visitor needs guidance, as all tours cost $6. For the most antebellum bang for your buck, try Monmouth (1818), Rosalie (1820), Dunleith (1856), and grandiose Stanton Hall (1857), occupying an entire city block. A special favorite is Longwood (1860), an enormous, unfinished octagonal folly that boggles the mind with its sheer ambition. For those who prefer the eighteenth century, there's the House on Ellicott's Hill (1798) and the Governor Holmes House (1794), one of a cluster of colonial gems in the downtown Spanish Quarter. Buy tickets at the house of your choice or through Natchez Pilgrimage Tours (Canal and State sts.; 601/446-6631 or 800/647-6742). Ticket minimums apply during Pilgrimage, when all touring must be arranged through Natchez Pilgrimage Tours. All tours last about half an hour.
For a look at plantation life, visit Melrose (1 Melrose-Montebello Pkwy.; 601/442-7047), part of the Natchez National Historical Park. Built in the 1840s, it includes numerous outbuildings, cisterns, a slavery exhibit, formal gardens, and, of course, the Big House, where the TV miniseries North & South was filmed. Admission is $6.
Older still is the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians (400 Jefferson Davis Blvd.; 601/446-6502), whose highly sophisticated civilization peaked in the 1500s. Their chief was called the Great Sun and, like the Aztecs, they wore gaudy plumage, had a caste system, and occasionally practiced human sacrifice. In 1729, they avenged severe mistreatment from the French by killing some 250 settlers at Fort Rosalie, the site of modern Natchez. The French retaliated by eradicating the tribe. Today the village's ceremonial mounds have been restored and a typical dwelling and granary recreated. A visitor center, museum, and nature trail are all free.
Blues, floozies, & Miss Scarlett
A good place to get oriented is the new Visitor's Reception Center at the intersection of Highway 84 and Canal Street (800/647-6724, 601/446-6345). Although jarringly sterile in a town glorying in historic architecture, it offers interactive exhibits, historic displays, plenty of brochures, a gift shop, a bookstore, and a knowledgeable staff. The fine 20-minute documentary - the type that's free in most visitor centers - is $2.