Some will tell you that the real Louisiana lies south of I-10, the equivalent of the state’s own Mason-Dixon Line, and the highway that stretches from Slidell all the way past Lake Charles. But Natchitoches (Nack-a-Tish), which sits well north of the great divide, is the oldest permanent settlement in Louisiana, predating even the Big Easy.
Day 1: Checking In
From Shreveport, it’s about an hour’s drive south on Interstate 49, past gas stations selling meat pies to the red-brick Northwestern State University. Just past the university is Natchitoches’ 33-block National Historic Landmark District. The town is wall-to-wall with bed-and-breakfasts and inns. My first choice is the Tante Huppe Inn Bed & Breakfast, a four-room establishment built in 1830. A few blocks away is the award-winning Queen Anne Bed & Breakfast. Built in 1905, the pretty yellow Victorian has five rooms, decked out with four-poster king beds and Jacuzzi tubs.
The innkeeper points me in the direction of Front Street, the town’s brick-paved thoroughfare with wrought iron balconies overlooking the Cane River Lake. Today, on the grassy banks of the river, I see families and couples sprawled on blankets for the annual jazz and R&B festival.
With Alicia Keys in the background, I check out the street’s wares: Nestled among souvenir shops and local restaurants are art galleries and hidden gems, such as the Book Merchant, a well-edited store, carrying classic fiction, local folklore and an interesting assortment of used books ranging from steamy novels to Civil War histories.
Restaurants around these parts tend to be more about good home cookin’ than fine dining. I book a table at Mariner’s Restaurant, a nautical-themed restaurant overlooking Sibley Lake. The menu is extensive, with everything from fried alligator to Chateaubriand for two, but I stick to seafood, opting for the Louisiana oysters on the half-shell (very fresh) and blackened tilapia (excellent). As the sun sets over the lake, I savor a glass of wine.
Day 2: Getting Acquainted
Many of the city’s oldest houses are private homes, open to the public only during certain times of the year. Still, the historic district’s Greek Revivals, Queen Anne Victorians, French Colonials, Creole cottages, and Italianate architecture are the city’s main draw and worth spending the better part of a day checking out. With a walking tour map of the National Historic Landmark District from the Information Center, the area is easily explored on foot – which is my plan, right after I tuck into a two-course breakfast of fresh fruit and Eggs Benedict.
Again, I make my way toward Front Street. There’s the Prudhomme Rouquier House, originally built around the turn of the 18 thcentury, but later remodeled as a Greek Revival. The "Steel Magnolias" house , where the movie was filmed, is now the Steel Magnolia House Bed & Breakfast, and the Steamboat house is so called because it was allegedly made from two old steamboats.The Tauzin-Well house, which lies across the Cane River Lake, is the oldest structure in Natchitoches, constructed in 1776 of cypress timbers and bousillage, a mixture of Spanish moss, animal hair and mud.
And now that I’ve burned off my breakfast, it’s time to have my first meat pie. Natchitoches is the home of the fried pastry shell stuffed with seasoned ground meat, typically a blend of beef and pork. And Lasyone's Meat Pie Restaurant is the place to go for this area treat. I also order the corn fritters, massive balls of spicy, fried cornmeal batter, crispy onion rings, and a crawfish pie — a new addition to the menu and my personal favorite.
Full of fried food, I walk over to the Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site to take in a bit of history. When Louis Jucherau de St. Denis founded Natchitoches in 1714, his first task was to build a fort to protect the borders of the French colonial empire, whose westernmost edge abutted the eastern reaches of New Spain. Back then, Natchitoches was very much the frontier. The fort that stands today is a replica, but feels like the real thing and there are knowledgeable, cheery guides in authentic colonial garb to show you around.
Later that night, I refuel at Mama’s Oyster House, famous for its catfish, served fried or blackened and topped off with shrimp etouffée. It’s a kitschy place, with moose heads and neon-beer signs, but the food delivers: I opt for the oyster po’ boy and am surprised to find oysters as fresh as any I’ve had in New Orleans.
Day 3: Leaving Town
There are several plantations nearby, including the Cane River Creole National Historical Park at Oakland Plantation, but the Melrose Plantation is the most famous and my first stop of the day.
While Melrose’s Big House, an early Louisiana-style plantation house, built in 1833 and later expanded upon, is impressive, what makes Melrose so interesting – and so different from other area plantations – is its unique history and strong matriarchs. Dating back to 1796, Melrose was owned by Marie Therese Coin-Coin, a freed slave who was granted the land by her former owner – also thought to be the father of many of her children. A century later, the plantation became a haven for writers and artists. Among them was the celebrated African American folk artist, Clementine Hunter, whose murals and paintings can be seen throughout the plantation.
Instead of heading north on I-49, I decide to take the long way back home to Shreveport, on the Longleaf Trail Scenic Byway, which runs 17 miles through the Kisatchie National Forest, past rugged mesas and sandstone outcrops, over the Kisatchie Bayou. And out here in the wilderness, I can almost get a sense of what it must have been like when the French settlers first arrived.