Natchez, Mississippi

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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.

A compact grid roughly seven by eight blocks, downtown Natchez is a breeze to explore on foot, with a few gentle rises interrupting an otherwise flat terrain. Start at Bluff Park, an inviting riverside green dotted with historical markers and benches overlooking the Mississippi. Pick up your complimentary copy of On the River, a monthly paper with an excellent walking tour and map centerfold. You'll soon get an architectural history lesson with superb examples of colonial, Greek Revival, Victorian, Second Empire, federal, and more. The tour brings you back to the park where you can rest your feet, maybe enjoy a river breeze, and digest all you've seen. There are carriage rides of the historic district that cover about two-and-a-half miles and take 30-35 minutes. They're fun and informative, but you'll have to consult your budget about the tab: $9 for adults and $4 for children. The carriages line up at the corner of Canal and State streets.

Nestled against the bluffs below the city is Natchez-Under-the-Hill. In its early nineteenth-century heyday it was the most notorious spot on the river: three bawdy blocks of saloons, gambling houses, and bordellos. Shifts in the fiercely capricious river have erased all but Silver Street, whose shops, bars, and restaurants barely hint at the sin that was. Gambling has returned aboard the Lady Luck Casino, and the Mississippi, Delta, and American Queens call here on a regular basis.

A superb way to get a handle on local lore is the exhibit of 1850s - 1940s photographs in Stratton Chapel Gallery (405 State St.; 601/442-4741). Rescued and restored by Dr. Thomas Gandy, the pictures put a telling face on Natchez lost; the suggested donation is $3. For Natchez's contribution to the world of decorative arts, visit the Historic Natchez Collection Showroom (Canal Street Depot; 601/442-2500), free of charge. Scheduled to open soon is the Natchez Association for the Preservation of Afro-American Culture, at the corner of Main and Wall streets. The "African-American Heritage" brochure (available at the visitor center) is a superb free guide to important black historic sites and events in Natchez.

The French Huguenots introduced muscadine wine to the South almost 300 years ago, a tradition that is maintained at the family-owned Old South Winery (65 S. Concord Ave.; 601/445-9924). The vineyards produce 12 table wines that are as fine as the names are fun, including "Miss Scarlett's" light rose, a delicately sweet "Southern Belle" white, and a dry white named (for some reason) "Carlos." Tastings and winery tours are free.

In recent years Natchez has made a concerted effort to become more than a repository of historic architecture. The three annual Pilgrimages remain the big shebangs, but there's plenty more worth exploring. The city has a mini-Mardi Gras parade in late winter, and a March powwow at the Grand Village of the Natchez draws Native Americans from all over the region (admission is $1 per person). The Natchez Blues Festival (admission $5 per day) is held in May in Memorial Park and draws bigger entertainers every year. June is the Steamboat Jubilee and Floozie Contest Under-the-Hill which includes a leg of the race between the Mississippi Queen and Delta Queen, and the Natchez Bicycle Classic. Neither charges admission.

Natchez's biggest, busiest single weekend is in October with the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race, a colorful spectacle indeed with dozens of hot-air balloons soaring above this antebellum town. The three-day event costs about $5 each day for admission into Rosalie Bicentennial Gardens, where you can enjoy live music, regional food, the balloon "glow" when pilots turn on the gas jets at night, and a fireworks extravaganza over the river. In December, professionals reenact Civil War battles at Jefferson College (601/442-2901), just six miles east in Washington. The college is an official state historical site, with restored buildings dating to 1817 and a fine nature trail along St. Catherine's Creek. Admission is free but donations are accepted.

Dixie dinin' & drinkin'

Your wallet will love mealtime around here, with $5 lunch buffets and dinners for $7 (including beverage) available all over town (part of the city's "cheapest on earth" condition). And as poor as Mississippi may be in some areas, it's definitely rich in catfish; this state produces more of it than any other - meaning that the lowly, bewhiskered critter is also fresh and cheap. It has been reaching new levels of culinary respectability as adventurous chefs sauce and saute, but most locals prefer it fried. There's also plentiful Southern and New Orleans cooking whether you're hungry for grits, fried chicken, barbecue, gumbo, or fried oyster po-boys. If you're counting calories, Natchez is not your kinda town.

A top dining value is Wharf Master's House (57 Silver St., Under-the-Hill; 601/445-6025), where rope railings line an outdoor dining deck with great views of the river, the twin bridges to Louisiana, and, if your timing is right, the sunset. Just $9.95 gives you a choice of fried, grilled, or blackened catfish served with hush puppies, fries, or candied yams and salad or coleslaw. Half a hickory-smoked barbecued chicken served with baked beans and potato salad is $9.95. There's an even better view aboard the Lady Luck Casino, which has all-you-can-eat buffets (lunch $6.95 and dinner Sunday through Wednesday $8.95) on the second deck overlooking both the river and Under-the-Hill. The food is all right - if limited - but you may luck out and get prime rib. The only drawback is gaming noise from the adjacent casino and the incessant telephone paging. Expect to be gently rocked if a big barge swings by.

Arguably the best fried chicken is at the Carriage House Restaurant (401 High St.; 601/445-5151), tucked beneath live oaks behind majestic Stanton Hall. For $6.95 you get two pieces plus rice and gravy, veggie, and dessert or salad. The $6.95 daily specials include entree, rice or potatoes, veggie, salad, and beverage. Be careful - it's real easy to fill up on those delectable little buttered biscuits that keep flying to your table. There are fine sandwiches and good breakfasts at The Fare Cafe (109 N. Pearl St.; 601/442-5299), a cozy two-story eatery where Pat and Sissie make sure everything is fresh. Try the "Jimmy Carter" breakfast special: two eggs, choice of meat, cheese grits, and toast for $4.95, and wash it down with a 75[cents] cup of coffee. Cheddar burgers with potato salad or chips are $4.25, and the $4.95 giant lunch salads (chef, chicken, tuna, or taco) are a meal by themselves.

If barbecue is your pleasure, hit the trough at the Pig Out Inn (116 S. Canal St.; 601/442-8050), where the motto is "Swine dining at its finest." This onetime auto showroom has walls adorned with nostalgic Dixie memorabilia and a mural listing "What I Love About the South." Dinner plates of chopped pork (or beef) for $7.95 include two side orders of coleslaw, potato salad, baked beans, black bean and corn salad, or corn on the cob. The barbecue sandwich with two side orders and a drink is only $6. Find more spice at Fat Mama's Tamales (500 S. Canal St.; 601/442-4548), popular with both drinkers and diners. Who can resist a log cabin offering fire-and-ice pickles, "Knock You Naked" margaritas, and Snickers-bar pie? A guaranteed crowd pleaser is "Gringo" pie, $5 for three tamales topped with chili, cheese, onions, and jalapenos. "Natchez" nachos for $4.50 are filling and fun. There's indoor and patio dining, or you can, as they say, "haul it home."

There's heat of a different kind at Biscuits & Blues (315 Main St.; 601/446-9922), which is "dedicated to the preservation of hot biscuits and cool blues." Try a po-boy (a New Orleans-style hero sandwich) with Cajun sausage ($5.95); smoked chicken, roast beef, or grilled catfish ($6.95); or shrimp or oysters ($7.95). You can also get half a smoked, rubbed chicken with garlic mashed potatoes and baked beans for $8.95. Call ahead to see if there are live blues performances on the weekend.

Snoozin' Southern-style

Natchez has a handful of high-end lodgings with rates grazing the $80 to $90 range, but the hotel competition here is considerable, and the bulk of the local rooms, in an abundance of middle-priced chains and lower-end local motels, are far below that. True, the pastel decor in many of these properties is hopelessly unimaginative, but at these prices, who cares? The upper end of the spectrum is the Natchez Days Inn (109 Hwy. 61 South; 800/524-4892, 601/445-8291) which resembles a Greek Revival plantation home. There's a swimming pool, book/gift shop, and 120 rooms with a plush annex about to open. Singles start at $46, doubles at $51, including a deluxe continental breakfast. The Huddle House restaurant next door is open 24 hours and serves reasonably priced down-home fare (601/445-0405).

The brand-new Best Western (45 Sergeant Prentiss Dr.; 601/442-1691) is set well back from highway noise and offers a pool, cable TV with three HBO channels, and rooms with microwaves and refrigerators available upon request. Rooms with double beds start at $50 during the week, $69 on weekends, including continental breakfast (some king-size beds also available at these rates). The Natchez Inn (218 John R. Junkin Dr.; 601/442-0221) has 36 rooms, all with cable TV, and a swimming pool. The rooms are basic but so are the rates: $30 for a single and $35 double.

The Scottish Inn (40 Sergeant Prentiss Dr.; 601/442-9141) and Relax Inn (40 Sergeant Prentiss Dr.; 601/446-9272) are back-to-back budget motels sharing owners and a swimming pool. The Scottish Inn's 48 cable-equipped rooms have been freshly repainted, and singles start at $27.95, doubles at $35. Singles at the Relax Inn begin at $25.95, doubles at $35 with two beds or $31 for a king-size bed. Rooms in both are tidy and simply decorated, but the staffs, while friendly, are not overly professional. Across the river in Vidalia, Louisiana, check out the Budget Inn (700 Carter St.; 318/336-4261), your best bet for doubles at $31/night or $160 weekly (singles begin at $28). It's strictly no-frills, folks, but Robin's (318/336-7387) friendly restaurant next door will cheer you up.

In a separate category is the Lady Luck Hotel (645 Canal St.; 800/722-5825, 601/445-0605) with clean, attractive rooms as low as $19.95 - depending upon availability - from Sunday through Thursday; otherwise the standard per diem is $59-$69 weekdays and $79-$89 weekends. This is a real bargain, as the hotel offers many first-rate amenities including remote-control cable TV in rooms, a pool and Jacuzzi, lounge and restaurant, gift shop, and room service. Naturally, the management hopes you'll spend some time on the nearby Lady Luck Casino, but that choice is entirely yours.

By the way, if you're in the mood to splurge a bit, Natchez's romantic B&Bs are a reasonably priced godsend. Rooms in historic homes going for $120-$220 per double elsewhere can be had here for as little as $85. There are over 30 to choose from, all charming, each unique (you can get a list from the local CVB).

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