The springtime sun is as yellow as a daffodil floating in a sea of blue. From high above, it reaches down to warm a vast expanse of smoky-black earth that smells like river. The cotton is flourishing ― clear-to-the-horizon fields of it are broken by groves of pecan trees, whispering to each other in a rustle of leaves. And though you can't see Old Man hidden behind the levee, you can feel his presence--the twisting, turning, mighty, muddy presence of the Mississippi River.
This is The Delta, a back road traveler's paradise. The pace is relaxed and easy. The people have never met a stranger. And some of the best food, music, and local art you could ask for are tucked away in its nooks and crannies.
The Delta is home to blues music and renowned potters and painters; to B.B. King's annual homecoming and Morgan Freeman's blues club; to fried tamales, catfish farms, juke joints, and Koolickles (pickles soaked in Kool-Aid--someday we'll get brave and try one).
Roughly bordered by the Mississippi River to the west and the Yazoo River to the east, The Delta is an alluvial plain formed by rich silt carried downriver and poured out like an offering of agricultural gold during the big floods that came all too often before the giant levees.
"If you grew up in The Delta, the last thing your mama said before you went out the door was, 'Y'all stay away from that river,' " says Kevin Magee, district engineer for the Mississippi Department of Transportation who worked on the new bridge spanning the Mississippi at Greenville. "You have to have a healthy respect for it."
Heart of The Delta
While it may be true that The Delta "begins in the lobby of The Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg," as author David Cohn famously wrote, the real heart of it lies in a cluster of small towns north of Vicksburg and south of Tunica.
A first-time explorer's best bet is to follow the triangle formed by U.S. 82 to the south, U.S. 61 (the Blues Highway) to the west, and U.S. 49 to the east. Within this triangle, you can drive from any major town to another in less than two hours, so you can enjoy a big slice of The Delta in a few days.
Just reading the map is fun. Tucked around such larger towns as Indianola, Greenville, and Cleveland, are tiny spots with names such as Itta Bena, Alligator, Sunflower, and Merigold.
Of all the Delta towns, Greenwood has the most concentrated tourist attractions, thanks largely to locally based Viking Range Corporation. At the corner of Howard and Church Streets is Viking's beautiful hotel, The Alluvian. It seamlessly blends sleek sophistication with historic charm and small-town hospitality. Breakfast is a treat--literally--served complimentary in a cozy dining room with a terrace view of historic downtown.
Just off the lobby of The Alluvian is the elegant Giardina's. They have a limited number of ultra-romantic, curtained booths, where you can enjoy great steak, seafood, and pasta served by the kind of waitstaff that makes you want to stay all night.
The Alluvian is well worth its uptown price tag, not only for the accommodations but also for convenience. It shares Howard Street with many of Greenwood's best shops and restaurants, including The Mississippi Gift Company, Russell's Antiques & Fine Jewelry, Mockingbird Bakery, Blue Parrot Cafe, Veronica's Custom Bakery, TurnRow Book Co., and the Viking Cooking School and Retail Store, to name a few.
Blues to the North
You won't find anything like The Alluvian in the northern Delta, but blues fans have an interesting option in Clarksdale. The seven loft-style Delta Cotton Company Apartments are located directly over Morgan Freeman's Ground Zero Blues Club. Once the show's over, you can walk upstairs and hit the hay. (Hotel amenities aren't provided, so pack your blow dryer and cell phone charger.)
If you pass through Cleveland on your way, make the pilgrimage to Dockery Plantation on State 8 between Cleveland and Ruleville. The old gin, long deserted, and a few other tin-roofed buildings are still there. It's not so much what you can see as what you can feel, standing on the ground where musicians came to learn the blues from guitarist Charley Patton.
Meet 'n' Greet
No matter where you lay your head in The Delta, you'll quickly see that it's not so much the towns as the people who define it. Forget text messaging. Deltans love conversation, and they gather for it in places as varied as Fratesi's store east of Leland and McCartys Pottery and Gallery Restaurant in Merigold.
People come from all over The Delta to visit Greenville's McCormick Book Inn, with its terrific collection of what they like to call "Deltalogy." Half the draw is owner Hugh McCormick, who not only recommends great books but also knows everything about everybody in The Delta. He also has a wicked sense of humor. "You know, Leland is the sticks," he tells us with a wry grin, as a Leland customer pays for her books.
Pass the Tamales
Of all the places that Deltans gather, their favorite spots involve great food. These are the people who raised tamales and catfish to an art form. They actually have figured out how to fry a Snickers bar. Their restaurants also have rich ethnic influences because the economy of The Delta created such a melting pot of cultures.
Mention The Bourbon Mall in the lobby of The Alluvian, and someone will invariably ask, "Are you taking the limo?" This restaurant and juke joint has its own limo service that picks up customers (for a fee) from anywhere in The Delta. Owners Mark and Leigh Anne Azlin bought an old general store near Leland and expanded it into this tin-roofed hot spot. Here, the Azlins serve mouthwatering steaks, shrimp, and fried tamales to everybody from blues fans to farmers to Ole Miss frat boys. If you're not the jukin' kind, just come early for dinner.
Another Delta favorite is Doe's Eat Place in Greenville. It began as Big Doe Signa's juke joint in the 1940s and evolved into a landmark dinner spot. The old neighborhood might not seem inviting, but park your car and go inside anyway.
Even if the steaks weren't as big as hubcaps, even if the waitresses didn't call you "honey" and "baby," you should experience this little old house of a restaurant just to meet Aunt Florence. She'll find you a table, ask about your family while her nephews cook your supper, and maybe even slice you some fresh tomatoes if she happens to have any.
When you leave Aunt Florence, you're going to miss her. And when you leave The Delta, you'll be counting the days until you can come back. It's a genuine piece of the South that will pull you back again and again--back to the sweeping fields and the welcoming spirit, back to the blues and the taste of great food, back to this land that the great river made.
"Delta Journal" is from the March 2008 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.