Savannah, Georgia was my home for several years. Since then, I have never been to a southern city with the same sort of gentility or grace. However, I recently found it in Natchitoches, a town so enriched with southern charm the Spanish Moss-covered oaks seem like Louisiana Belles with arms outstretched to greet you. It’s Southern comfort straight up.
Just 275 miles to Shreveport and then south on I-49 for 80 miles, you turn onto avenues of stately columned homes, one of which is a bed and breakfast and site of the 1989 movie Steel Magnolias.
The downtown is perched above the Cane River, like a ribbon wrapping a lovely gift. It’s wide with an east-side levee banking a long row of beautiful homes and the west embankment bordering a ¾-mile boardwalk lined with boutiques and bistros where you stroll instead of walk. If you tire of shopping or sipping, just cross Front Street and find a bench overlooking the river.
On the south side of the Front Street river walk is The Landing, a tavern with classic Cajun comfort food from shrimp and grits to boudin eggrolls. Midway are two adjacent brasseries Papa’s Bar & Grill and Mama’s Oyster House with one serving wings, tacos, burgers and nachos and the other serving, you guessed it, oysters and seafood.
Natchitoches is a college town, home of the Demons of Northwestern State University. Therefore, many of the dining and drinking establishments are geared for college kids, like The Landing, Papa’s and Mama’s. They tend to be a tad noisy and rollicking, but they are safe, fun and worth the experience. And, even if the food is not five-star, it is down on the bayou tasty.
At the northern end of the strand is the Cane River Bar and Grill. It has a spacious patio overlooking the river where they often have live entertainment on Friday or Saturday nights.
Although they have an extensive Louisiana-style menu, the fried meat pies are special because the crust is lightly fried, and the beef/sausage or crawfish centers are juicy and savory. A cup of gumbo, a few fried meat pies and a beverage of choice on the patio with a view of the Cane as a backdrop is a good way to spend some take a load off your feet, Bless Your Heart moments.
You will see a lot of girl-trip groups along the riverside walkways because there are more than 30 specialty shops in the Historic District ranging from kitchenware and hardware, to art, décor and clothing stores. My wife, Becky, and I went in mid-November and one of her goals was to find some unique Christmas presents for friends and family. The first shop entered, Merci Beaucoup, Becky immediately found three distinctive gifts.
Merci Beaucoup is typical of the type of shopping you will experience in Natchitoches. The proprietor, a charming Southern gentile woman, engaged in a conversation as if we were long and dear friends. Everywhere seemed the same. There’s a calmness and comfort to how folks in the community meet you and treat you. I think a lot has to do with the feeling of contentment they have with being exactly who they are.
We stayed at the Church Street Inn. It is a block away from the Cane River, easy walking distance to any part of the historic district. Our room was spacious, comfortable and nicely appointed. Our stay included a happy hour of complimentary wine, champagne or other beverages and hors d’oeuvres which we enjoyed sitting on a lovely patio. In the morning we enjoyed a courtesy breakfast of many choices including eggs, sausages, biscuits and gravy. There was free and gated parking in an area where spaces along the streets are scarce from dawn to dusk.
During the famed Christmas Festival of Trees celebration, the Church Street Inn rooms are booked year-after-year by the same returning visitors. And there is a reason. Not only is the hotel lovely, but so is every person working there with whom we came in contact. They exude a welcoming touch with warmth and a passion to treat you with responsiveness and respect.
There is something going on year-round including art, folk and craft festivals, a jazz and R&B, music weekend, celebration of Zydeco and much more. As I stated, Becky and I were in Natchitoches in mid-November and the lights along the Cane River had already been erected.
It was absolutely beautiful.
In 2017, Natchitoches completed a $4 million riverfront restoration. It includes a stage, amphitheater seating, staircases leading down to the river, restrooms, and a brick promenade running along Cane River Lake. At Christmas it features a huge, lighted Christmas tree and festive decorations. There are expectations that 500,000 people visit Natchitoches during the Christmas holiday season.
Whether it is a girls’ trip, a relaxation getaway or a romantic weekend, Natchitoches is special.
It is the Old South, charming, tasteful, welcoming. You will immediately sense there is no need to hurry, even though it beckons Becky and me to hurry back.