YOU COULD drive from Nashville Centennial Park to the French Quarter in New Orleans in under eight hours, but what a shame that would be. Instead, take the slower, more scenic route. Follow the Natchez Trace Parkway and US Route 61 to be transported through a landscape of hardwood and pine forests and through coffee-colored rivers, with a number of entertaining detours along the way. Chief among them: the Mississippi towns of Tupelo, Oxford and Natchez – the latter better described as “Tiger King” meets “Gone with the Wind”. From there, head to Louisiana for a po’boy sandwich in Baton Rouge before an early arrival in New Orleans to partake in his eternal party.
Day 1: Nashville to Oxford, Miss
The Two-Lane Trace begins in the suburbs of Nashville, near the Loveless Cafe. Take a bag of cookies (bacon or ham, two if you’re hungry) (lovelesscafe.com). The pace is leisurely with a 50 mph speed limit in most areas, but watch out for wild turkeys, deer, and cyclists. Halt your drive with short stops at sites such as the Jackson Waterfall (near Milepost 404) above the River Duck. In Florence, Ala., Tom’s Wall (near Milepost 338) is a stacked stone maze-like monument commemorating the journey of a Yuchi Indian in the 1830s after his forced relocation during the Trail of Tears. His great-great-grandson Tom Hendrix built the memorial before his death in 2017. In Tupelo, Mississippi, you’ll find Elvis Presley’s two-piece birthplace preserved as an “experience” (entry from 9 $), but more endearing is the Ace hardware store (411 Main Street). This is where Elvis’ mother Gladys bought him his first guitar for $ 7.75 in 1946. It’s packed with shelves of merchandise and an intimate commemoration of this historic purchase – plus you can buy a six-string guitar. Two blocks down, CafÃ© 212 makes a delicious grilled cheese with white cheddar peppers (cafe212tupelo.com).
From Tupelo, the bustling city of Oxford, home to the University of Mississippi, is worth about 50 minutes. Night at the Chancellor’s house. Opened in 2017, the 38-room hotel is beautifully furnished and a short walk from the city’s bustling courthouse plaza. (from $ 103 per night, chancellorshouse.com). Before dinner, stretch your legs at Rowan Oak, the Greek Revival mansion that was the home of author William Faulkner. Covid-19 has closed its museum, but the 4-acre land, with its fragrant red cedars and the Bailey Woods Trail, remains open to visitors until dusk. Dine al fresco on BourÃ©’s second-floor balcony overlooking the square (citygroceryonline.com/boure). Then, stroll to Square Books, known for its collection of Southern writers (squarebooks.com).
Day 2: from Oxford to Natchez
After chicken and waffles at Oxford’s popular Big Bad Breakfast (bigbadbreakfast.com), drive east towards Pontotoc then south towards Troy to join the trail. A stop near Milepost 221 gives a glimpse of the Old Trace, a forest trench sunk deep into the earth by countless feet. For lunch, check out Saltine, an oyster bar in a former elementary school on the outskirts of Jackson (jackson.saltinerestaurant.com). As it approaches its Natchez terminus, the Trace becomes more and more wild. Swirls of Spanish moss, hanging vines and the nearby ruins of Windsor, a huge mansion burnt down in 1890, evoke a lost world. The surviving columns of Windsor with their ornate and dilapidated capitals resembling a Palmyra plantation.
Emerald Mound (near Milepost 10) is just as plangent. The Native Americans fashioned the 35-foot-high earthwork as a ceremonial site between 1200 and 1730. It remains a tribute to an ancient culture. Natchez itself is perhaps America’s hippest city. Overlook the excess of kitsch of chintz and Scarlett O’Hara and visit her pre-Civil War mansions (Stanton Hall or the towers are good bets) while soaking up the sultry vibe and quirks of Natchez – a deceased man is said to have driven through town in a mink coat with a German coachbuilder in tow. For food, the newly opened Little Easy is already seeing queues for its brunch, brisket and cocktails (open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) (thelittleeasynatchez.com). Hungry later? Try the Pig Out Inn for pulled pork or barbecue (pigoutinnbbq.com). For affordable accommodation, settle into the 16-room downtown Franklin Street guesthouse, home to antique shops and fine delicacies. It is a pillared mansion with two hoop skirts exposed behind glass (from around $ 99 a night, airbnb.com).
End your day at Natchez Cemetery (closes at dusk) to see the legendary “Turning Angel”. An urban myth holds that the sculpture – commemorating five women killed in a 1908 explosion – swivels to watch cars passing late at night. Lots of socializing but little distance to Natchez Under-the-Hill, a bunch of bars under the cliffs and a fine echo of the old river town where musicians like Jerry Lee Lewis played and partied.
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Day 3: Natchez to New Orleans
Before heading to New Orleans, stroll the boardwalk at Natchez’s Bluff Park overlooking the Mississippi. Head south to Baton Rouge on Route 61, the famous “road to the blues”. (Most of the musical history is further north in the Mississippi Delta.) The scenery rolls around fast: the 90-minute drive should get you to Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana, for lunch. Visit the Tony’s Seafood Market grocery store (tonyseafood.com) for takeout oyster po’boys and ginger cake, then eat them in the landscaped grounds of the Louisiana State Capitol. Designed by populist Governor Huey Long, the 1932 building is a 34-story art deco skyscraper, the country’s tallest state house, and a monument to Kingfish’s Kong-sized ego. The bullet holes from Long’s 1935 assassination remain right next to the ornate lobby.
The 81-mile zipper to New Orleans via Interstate 10 drops you off Uptown in time to drop your bags off at Chloe, a chic new boutique hotel in a mansion overlooking St. Charles Avenue (from $ 329 per night, thechloenola.com) and take the streetcar to Canal Street. There you can take a self-guided tour of the Sazerac house, dedicated to the city’s signature cocktail, with samples (sazerachouse.com). Or, starting this summer, head to the Museum of Southern Jewish Experience, which chronicles the area’s Jewish immigrant community. (msje.org). Come at dusk, dine at N7, a French bistro with a Japanese accent (N7nola.com). Named for an itinerary from Paris to the French Riviera, it’s a fitting end to your own long journey.
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