Louisiana's Hidden Jewel

St. Francisville combines the best of the New South with the flavor of the Old.
Derick Belden

Whether it's for listening to great music, relishing a restful weekend, or exploring the deep-fried history of Louisiana, this sleepy town is worth getting to know. St. Francisville lies just 30 miles north of Baton Rouge but seems far from the hustle and bustle of Louisiana's capital city.

St. Francisville is a crossroads you'd miss if you were moving too fast. In fact, you can easily overlook it on an even slower first pass because it doesn't have the traditional town square. It's said to be the second oldest town in Louisiana. (Natchitoches claims itself the first.) Situated among the first bumps of the Appalachian Mountains and high on a bluff above the Mississippi River, St. Francisville began as a cemetery for a nearby monastery in the 1770s. Through the years, the culture of the town has been flavored as the Spanish and English came and went, cotton planters went boom and bust, and the ever-present and unpredictable Mississippi River ebbed and flowed. The result is a vibrant hodgepodge of people, food, architecture, and activities that you won't find in any other like-size town.

Where To Go and What To Do
St. Francisville is in the heart of plantation country, so you'd be remiss if you didn't visit a few of them. Because the state historic sites are open from 9 to 5 daily and many shops don't open until later, it's a good idea to start at one of the two must-see historic homes, Rosedown or Oakley, and go from there. There are a total of seven homes to tour in the area, but these two have been restored the best and feature the most to see on the grounds.

Rosedown dates back to 1834 and was originally the heart of a nearly 3,500-acre plantation. Make time to take the guided tour; it offers the best glimpse of what life at Rosedown was like. Be sure to walk the grounds. The gardens bloom this time of year with glorious displays of massive azaleas underneath 10-foot camellia bushes. The more ordered flower and parterre gardens are a must stop, as well as the much photographed live oak allée. You may not have 28 acres to cultivate at home, but the many ideas at Rosedown can offer great inspiration for your own garden.

Oakley Plantation anchors the Audubon State Historic Site. That's because John James Audubon tutored the owner's daughter for a short time around 1821. The house is older and much simpler than Rosedown, but inside you can see several rooms that look as if Audubon has just stepped out for a minute. This was his first introduction to the area, but its lush forests and wildlife ultimately led him to paint 80 of his Birds of America paintings in and around St. Francisville, 32 of them at Oakley alone. The ones you'll see today at Oakley are first edition prints.

Once you've experienced the history of the town, St. Francisville offers a variety of choices on what to do next. If the weather is nice, wander the town on foot. St. Francisville is not big, so you can walk it in an afternoon. Start by having lunch at the Magnolia Café; then pop into the Mosaic Garden next door for quirky garden gifts and ornaments. When you get to Ferdinand Street, turn left, and peruse the shops that line both sides. Be sure not to miss Miller's on Main, where you can meet potter Michael Miller. You'll soon come upon Grace Episcopal Church. The site dates to 1827, but the current brick church was built in 1858. Spring is a good time to see what's blooming in the live oak-canopied cemetery.

 

 

Continue to the intersection of Ferdinand and Royal, and turn left on Royal. This is mostly a residential street, so you'll see a great collection of private homes. One of the few shops on Royal is Grandmother's Buttons. Whether or not you're into antiques, it's fun to see the jewelry created from vintage buttons. While you're there, take a peek at the Button Museum.

With your walking tour complete, hop in the car and drive down to the Bayou Sara Market at 11427 Ferdinand Street. Opened last November, it's home to nearly 6,000 square feet of antiques, jewelry, accessories, and gifts. You'll need the car to tote all the bargains you find back to the hotel.

The more adventuresome can hike, bike, ride horses, or bird-watch in the hills and woods around St. Francisville. Rather than start in town, go just 20 minutes northwest and visit Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area. Here you can mountain bike the trails or stop by Cross Creek Stables for horses to take you down a section of the Old Tunica Trace. The byway has been used for so long that the roadbed is worn 10 feet below the surrounding hillside in some places.

On the way back from Tunica Hills, stop at the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge. Open to the public for a little more than two years, it's great for bird watching, hiking, and seeing "the big tree," a bald cypress that's 83 feet tall and estimated to be 800 years old. Cat Island is open every day, but the river sometimes limits automobile access. Be sure to check at the refuge office before going.

Where To Sleep and Eat
One thing that makes St. Francisville a delightful trip is the wealth of affordable bed-and-breakfasts and unique inns. You can stay in anything from an authentic antebellum house to a rustic cabin in the woods.

Shadetree Inn, perched on a hill at the corner of Ferdinand and Royal, is a great spot for a romantic weekend. The three suites are spacious with private porches and kitchenettes; two even have whirlpool tubs. Proprietor K. W. Kennon asks for drink preferences ahead of time, so the room will be perfect upon your arrival.

For the hip at heart, try the newly renovated 3-V Tourist Court. Rumored to be the oldest motor lodge still operating in the South, the 3-V is tucked behind the Magnolia Café. Innkeeper Kevin Ford did most of the outstanding renovation himself. He has created an eclectic atmosphere with easy access to a coffeehouse, music at the Magnolia Café, and downtown St. Francisville.

If being out in the country is your style, try the Green Springs Inn. You can stay in either the main house or one of the six themed cottages. Owner Madeline Nevill will make your stay memorable. Make sure you save room for her homemade country breakfast.

As for where to eat, you've got several good choices. There's the Magnolia Café with po'boys, burgers, salads, and sandwiches. The restaurant features national touring bands weekly. To see a schedule of acts and a menu, visit their Web site at www.themagnoliacafe.com. For a fine-dining experience, don't miss The OxBow Carriage House Restaurant at The Myrtles Plantation. This is the place in town, with a great wine list and everything from Angus beef steaks to crawfish étouffée. Be sure to sample the Peach and Pecan Bread Pudding served with Jamaican rum sauce ($4.95) for dessert. The menu changes daily, so you'll have new choices every time you visit. Another good eatery is Roadside Bar-B-Que. Sure, they serve the prerequisite pork, but they also have catfish and shrimp. It's a great place to call ahead for takeout if you want to picnic in the Tunica Hills.

Save the best for last. On the way out of town, visit Afton Villa Gardens. This is the site of a 19th-century home that burnt to the ground in 1963. The current owners have restored the spot and created a sunken garden in the basement of the old house. It is well worth a quick trip during your splendid spring visit to St. Francisville.

Insider Advice for St. Francisville

  • Keep in mind that operating hours are not always posted or observed, so check with businesses, especially the restaurants, before visiting. It will make planning your itinerary easier.
  • Three days in St. Francisville is enough time to see the town at a relaxed pace. More ambitious travelers can get a good feel for the place in an overnight stay with a day to tour the sites.

 

 

 

For More Information
Rosedown Plantation:
(225) 635-3332, 1-888-376-1867, or www.lastateparks.com. Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Admission: $10 adults, $8seniors, $4 ages 6-17.
Oakley Plantation: (225) 635-3739, 1-888-677-2838, or www.lastateparks.com. Park hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. House hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. Admission: $2 adults, free seniors and ages 12 and under.
Cross Creek Stables: (225) 655-4233.
Cat Island: (225) 635-4753.
Shadetree Inn: (225) 635-6116 or www.shadetreeinn.com. Rates: $95-$195.
3-V Tourist Court: (225) 268-4210. Rates: $65-$75.
Green Springs Inn: (225) 635-4232, 1-800-457-4978, or www.greenspringsinn.com. Rates: $110-$175.
Magnolia Café: (225) 635-6528 or www.themagnoliacafe.com.
The OxBow Carriage House Restaurant at The Myrtles Plantation: (225) 635-6276 or www.theoxbowcarriagehouse.com.
Roadside Bar-B-Que: (225) 635-9696.
Afton Villa Gardens: (225) 635-6773. Hours: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily March 1-July 1 and October 1-December 1. Admission: $5 adults, free ages 12 and under.

This article is from the April 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.