When fickle March segues into the cruel days of April, and you just have to have some spring, I can think of nothing better than a car trip to the Deep South, preferably via the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Hop on at Nashville for the 444-mile, two-lane leisurely drive through wildflowers, Cypress Swamp, blooming trees, Jackson Falls, wildlife and more than 10,000 years of North American history, and end in the springtime beauty of Natchez, Miss. Perhaps a stopover in Vicksburg at the historic Cedar Grove Mansion Inn and Restaurant will get you in the mood for the antebellum wonderland of Natchez.
These grand homes that dot the townscape, built in the early 1800s, were products of plantation wealth. Settled by the French, English and Spanish (many millionaires and outlaws), they were a cosmopolitan, discriminating people who created a plethora of gorgeous homes and gardens, soon to be known as the Newport of the South. Used and abused by Union troops during the Civil War, many of these mansions became hospitals or forts, leaving the privileged, social mindset of the gentry equally devastated. The Great Depression further corroded the properties, leaving owners in denial and houses in shambles.
In 1931, a brave, pragmatic group of women formed the Garden Club of Natchez, opening up their homes for tours with all the proceeds going to the preservation of the historic houses. Eighty years later, Natchez Pilgrimage Tours (natchezpilgrimage.com) will plan your entire visit, assisting in providing tickets for the 5-week, 25-mansion tours (many of which are private homes) and numerous events including musical and theater productions, Gospel singing and historic presentations. Scarlett O’Hara, in all her 18-inch-waisted, hoop-skirted finery would feel right at home visiting:
*Monmouth: Built in 1818, once the home of General John A. Quitman, who became a U.S. senator and governor of Mississippi. It is a luxury hotel and recipient of countless awards, and guests will experience a time of genteel Southern living with attention given to the smallest detail. Elegantly appointed cottages, suites and rooms, each with its own charm and views of the rolling, manicured grounds, are sure to delight. Awaken to a full Southern breakfast served each morning in the Garden Room and a full dining experience at night.
*Longwood: Under construction at the beginning of the war, it was never completed. A strange, octagonal house set in a ghostly forest of moss-draped trees.
*Elmscourt: Built in 1818 and known for its elegant, lacy iron work, brought in from Belgium.
*Melrose: One of the best-preserved of all antebellum mansions.
*Stanton Hall: Built in 1851 with no expense spared on its elaborate chandeliers, mantels and mirrors, which were brought in from France and Spain. Boasting a 72-foot ballroom, it became the headquarters of the Pilgrimage Garden Club.
Pride of Southern heritage and love for the land is everywhere. Gerald O’Hara, owner of Tara and Scarlett’s papa in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, said it best, “Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.”
As you head for your car for the drive back north, you just may catch a glimpse of Scarlett, flashing her green eyes underneath her twirling lacy parasol, sashaying along a tulip path, saying, “Well, fiddle-dee-dee…of course it is.” LN