Natchitoches, Louisiana: A Small Town with a Deep Soul
A small town that holds tight to the homegrown and opens its arms wide to outsiders.
It's tempting to call Natchitoches, Louisiana, a sleepier version of New Orleans: A wallflower that's content to hum in the wings while the Big Easy, just four hours southeast, puts on a show.
That's what I think, at least, when I first pull into town on a mild November morning. With its ironwork-trimmed facades and French and Spanish architectural influences at every turn, it seems an easy comparison to make.
I park my car on brick-paved Front Street and wander down to the riverfront, where a wide promenade makes for a smooth stroll past kayak rental docks and the Roque House, a well-preserved example of 19th-century Creole style. When the shops open, I mosey back up to Front Street, the main downtown drag. On the south end, I peruse handmade soaps at Bathhouse Soapery & Caldarium. And on the north, I take a look around Louisiana's oldest general store, Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile, where it's hard to tell what's for sale and what's for looks and if there's really any difference.
Lunchtime rolls around, and I settle in at Lasyone's Meat Pie Restaurant a street over for a taste of the Creole specialty. A flock of waitresses check on me frequently, asking how I'm enjoying my crawfish pie (it's deep-fried and delicious) and refilling my souvenir cup of Coke so often that I start to think they're worried about me, dining alone.
I was wrong, it turns out, about the wallflower part. When early afternoon arrives, the town's 33-block historic district is thrumming with people, who pop in and out of restaurants and art galleries and antiques shops. Hardly a shrinking violet.
I wander down Front Street until it turns into Jefferson, where I pause every block to snap photos of charming homes I'd love to peek inside, if only I knew their owners.
Just before nightfall, I find myself back at the riverfront. This time, I plop down on the amphitheater and listen to a local soul band play a bluesy set. It's crowded with revelers, who wait, balancing funnel cakes on their laps, for the season's debut of Natchitoches's famed Christmas lights. Together, all of us count down to the big reveal, and when the light displays set the river twinkling, I cheer and clap alongside everyone else—my usual Grinchiness about pre-Thanksgiving celebrations of Christmas forgotten. Perhaps it's this unexpected burst of holiday spirit, or the hot chocolate tucked snug between my hands, but there's something warm and familiar about Natchitoches. It's a small town with a deep soul, one that holds tight to the homegrown and opens its arms wide to outsiders. It's a little less showy than New Orleans, perhaps, but nobody, least of all me, seems to mind.
Where to Stay:
Natchitoches is known as the Bed-and-Breakfast Capital of Louisiana, so cozy stays are a dime a dozen. Steel Magnolias fans will get a kick out of the Steel Magnolia House Bed & Breakfast (so named because it served as part of the movie set),while history buffs will love the restored 19th-century Greek Revival-style Samuel Guy House. If you're traveling with children or want to stay right in the middle of the action, the newly renovated Château St. Denis Hotel on Second Street makes a convenient homebase.
Visit Melrose Plantation, where you can tour the studio of Clementine Hunter, a self-taught folk artist and the first African-American to have a solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art. On your way back into town from Melrose, make a pit-stop at Cane River Commissary in nearby Natchez, Louisiana for the food, fellowship, and zydeco.