A 16-Hour Overnight in Natchez, Mississippi

The Mississippi River town of Natchez has been a waypoint for centuries. Like so many voyagers before me, I didn’t have much time to spend there. There were 16 hours to spare, enough for a whirlwind tour of a slow-moving town on a rainy Saturday night in late July. I started at the Natchez Visitor Center, overlooking the river and a kudzu-covered hillside. Things got much more interesting from there.

Shortly before 5 p.m., the center was still open, with brochures and, most critically, a model of the town, about seven feet square a side, complete with points of interest that lit up when buttons on the diorama were pressed. Interactive orientation!

At the center, I booked a last-minute hotel with my smart phone and the Hotels.com app. I got a discounted rate on the Natchez Grand Hotel. While I waited 10 minutes for the reservation to ping from my phone to Hotels.com and back to the hotel, I admired the river from an observation deck. I tweeted a photo!

Hotel check-in was easy, and the wifi was speedy enough to start uploading photos and videos. Tony Perrottet’s clever insights aside, travel writing is often about the quality of your wifi!

Media uploading, I walked to the river bluff, taking photos of the killer sunset. Red at night; sailor’s delight!

Next, Biscuits & Blues on the recommendation of Barkeep Bryan, the most affable hotel bartender in Mississippi. For dinner: crawfish and mushroom beignet, fried oyster and spinach salad, biscuits with marmalade and butter, Abita beer out of New Orleans. Excellent!

Walk down the hill to Isle of Capri, downtown’s riverboat casino. It was smoky and the security guard who checked my ID at the door said, “Good luck tonight.” I did not wager a cent, even though there were penny slots!

Stopped in the Under the Hill Saloon, a biker bar where a fight was narrowly averted as soon as I walked in. (Lucky I wasn’t involved.) The bar, which surprisingly has a website, reminds visitors that “Once thieves, cutthroats, ladies-of-the-night and riverboat gamblers lurked in the shadows and trod the dusty streets.” There is a three-room guest house upstairs!

A rock and roll band stepped up to jam, as some younger non-bikers sat down next to me. They were slugging back beers, warming up for a night at Bowie’s, which one described as having “much better scenery than this place.” He was talking about single women!

I walked past Bowie’s, which was charging a $5 cover for no reason in particular but for it being a Saturday night. I decided to go home, where guests were still slamming back Barkeep Bryan’s shots!

Breakfast at the hotel: grits, sausage, eggs, biscuits, juice, coffee. The grits!

Hit the Natchez Trace Parkway for a 263-mile drive to Tupelo. ETA, including rest stops: 8 long hours!

The Flood’s Been Over: Exploring the New New Orleans

Driving to the best breakfast spot in New Orleans, a somewhat dingy beignet shop in suburban Metairie called Morning Call, where cops and bounty hunters converse at the corner table, I turned on the local radio. The set picked up AM 690, and a program called Inside New Orleans. The host, Eric Asher, started talking about Tales of the Cocktail, an annual drinking convention for bartenders and liquor brands that’s quickly becoming one of the city’s banner festivals.

He loves the event, he tells his guest “Mr. Cocktail,” because it brings people to the city to see it’s not still underwater. Turns out, there are still people, six years after Katrina and the levee failure, who think New Orleans is flooded. On the contrary! The city is building, with an ever-expanding museum, local entrepreneurs starting businesses and, yes, an absolutely unparalleled drinking scene.

Traveling the American Road – New Orleans Rising

The most notable development for tourists since the storm in 2005–besides of course the clean up–is The National WWII Museum, a stunning collection of buildings housing artifacts large and small, cataloging the history of the war. Set on the western edge of the Central Business District, the latest addition is a 4-D movie, complete with lighting effects and rumble seats, that tells the story of the war’s multiple theaters.

Tom Hanks narrates the 45-minute production that doesn’t shy away from the difficult history of the period. Similarly, the museum galleries are brutally honest about the horrors of total war, from photos of the dead and dying, archival footage from concentration camps or frank discussion of the civilian casualties at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sober displays of the weapons of the war used at the infantryman level–grenades, flamethrowers, squad machine guns–frame them as viciously effective tools of death, not the glamorous props from war movies.

The museum also recognizes the sacrifices of those who endured the war, through exhibits and an honest recounting of history on the home front, from rationing to racist propaganda posters.

A newly opened Restoration Pavilion displays PT-305, a patrol boat originally crafted in New Orleans at Higgins Industries, currently being rebuilt for the permanent collection. Future additions to the museum will house even more artifacts, including two B-17s recently donated by Boeing.

The city’s recovery is visible elsewhere, including on Magazine Street, now a must-visit shopping destination west of the French Quarter. I stopped at Dirty Coast, a t-shirt boutique that spins out New Orleans-insider themed shirts, with designs that creative director Blake Haney describes as “Levels deep.” The screens look cool, sure, but to insiders, the jokes and puns run levels deeper, like on the Acadiana Self-reliance T. Haney, a New Orleans native, describes the design, which celebrates the region’s power, access to the sea and culture, as the national flag of the city–if it ever got organized enough to secede from the Union.

Haney has also launched a local news site, Humid Beings, that follows stories that wouldn’t be out of place on HBO’s Treme. (When locals watch, Haney says, there’s little surprise in the magically realist story lines since “We live this every day.”) He’s also plugged in to local music–rappers Ballzack and Odoms are favorites–and the still-nascent co-working scene, with Icehouse in Mid-City and Launchpad near Lafayette Square pioneering the way. Co-housing is starting to develop too.

Of course, New Orleans is still a drinking town, particularly when Tales of the Cocktail descends on its bars. In a nod to the event’s influence, the Times-Picayune insert, Lagniappe, published its 2011 Bar Guide on July 22, at the height of “Tales.” Most notable is the list of 11 new bars, spanning the city and filling niches still untapped. Descriptions range from “pulses with Top 40 hits” to “comfort food, rock ‘n’ roll and whiskey” to “only spot in town where you can enjoy a cocktail and a gourmet snack in a luxury movie house.” Unparalleled drinking scene indeed.

Searching for an Airboat Captain, Finding Adventure

Captain Geoff gives airboat tours of Mobile Bay, leaving from the Original Oyster House on the causeway that goes east out of town, past the retired USS Alabama. On the tours, airboaters often see alligators, birds, leaping fish and the natural beauty of the marshy flats. That is, if you can track down the mysterious captain.

Traveling the American Road – Airboating in Mobile

Most arrangements on this road trip have so far been made by smartphone, cross-referencing websites and Twitter profiles, mapping locations, making calls and sending text messages. But no matter how many times I called Geoff’s listed number, I couldn’t get through to him. In search of more information, I walked over to the local tourism office.

Two Southern gentlemen staffed the desk, and no sooner had I said “Airboat tour” than they gave a knowing “Ahhhhh.” Tourists frequently have trouble tracking down the skipper, they said, who spends a good bit of time hanging out at the Bluegill, a bar and restaurant near the Oyster House. (Promising news, I thought, a captain who carouses at local dives!) The consensus between the two: Geoff probably wasn’t answering his phone because he didn’t feel like giving tours.

Undeterred, I hopped in the car and drove out to the Oyster House. I asked the host, who hadn’t seen Geoff lately. Same with the bartender. Just before I got to Bluegill, my phone rang: It was Brittney, who works with Geoff and would like to know when I’d like to go on an airboat tour? Tomorrow, please!

In the morning, it was back to the dock, where, to my great disappointment, there were half a dozen other airboat tourists ready to go. “Are you Captain Geoff?” I asked the man in charge, wearing boots and a Boonie hat pinned up at the sides. It was, and he pointed me to my boat as I wondered how these other people made their reservations. Why didn’t I bump into them on the hunt for captain Geoff? Did they spend the previous day in Mobile on a quest that would end, anticlimactically, exactly the way it was meant to?

I didn’t have a chance to ask: The airboat ride was way too much fun.

A Whirlwind Tour of Walt Disney World

I am not, as far as I can tell, in Walt Disney World’s target demographic. I’m not four. I’m not a family man. I’m not Brazilian. I’m not even a fan of animated movies. But to drive through Central Florida after seeing a shuttle launch and pass up the parks? To miss out on a quintessentially American summertime diversion? To skip a chance to meet the one and only Mickey Mouse? I’m not nuts.

Traveling the American Road – A Whirlwind Tour of Disney

My plan was a whirlwind tour of all four of Disney’s parks, trying my best to try what attractions had been added since my last visit, in 2007. Then, I was in town for the opening of Expedition Everest, a ride that challenged my poor tolerance for roller coasters and impressed me with its ability to make visitors feel like they were hiking the Himalayas, even in the heat of Central Florida.

This time, the big draw was the Wild Africa Trek, a new behind-the-scenes tour of the Animal Kingdom that takes visitors behind the fences, out to Disney’s “savanna” and ends with a killer lunch on an African safari-inspired wildlife watching pavilion far from the crowds. To amp up the excitement, trekkers cross a crocodile enclosure on rope bridges, distressed to look rickety even if they were reinforced by steel cables. Anyone who’s seen “Temple of Doom,” though, can’t get past their primal fear of a rope bridge collapse.

I survived, obviously, to see Epcot and its world pavilions. There’s something hilarious about visiting “France,” “Ireland,” “Italy” and “Mexico” when you’re a travel writer. In every one of the miniature countries, I was studying the architecture, comparing it to my memories, figuring out what it is we remember about the places we visit – and wondering why we forget the things we forget. Is that really what the Eiffel Tower looks like, I asked myself, cocking my head, as I couldn’t clearly remember the original’s shape.

At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, I tested the limits of my stomach with a ride on the Star Tours simulator, a 3-D ride set in the Star Wars universe, in which C-3PO is an accidental tour guide and passengers fly through the galaxy. A visit to the American Idol Experience impressed not just for its slick production values – from where I was sitting, it could’ve been the real TV show – but also for the talent of the contestants on stage.

I ended my tour at the Magic Kingdom, the park that to me, a person visiting without my kids, seemed the least interesting. But the polish here was the most fine, the smiles on singers the most gleaming, the lawn edging the most precise, the background music the most bubbly. The good news, thanks perhaps to some friends inside Disney: I did manage to meet Mickey. I even put on a set of ears.

Exploring the Double-Edged History of Montgomery, Alabama

In Montgomery, during the Freedom Rides, I heard Martin Luther King say that while Brown v. Board of Education had been the legal turning point in the movement, the Montgomery bus boycott and the sit-ins were the psychological turning point.

So writes Calvin Trillin in a recent New Yorker, reflecting on the civil rights struggle in the deep south, which he covered for Time magazine “from the fall of 1960 to the fall of 1961.” He’s writing, then, on a sort of fiftieth anniversary for the movement, which of course spanned nearly two decades, making any hard and fast anniversary difficult to declare.

Another anniversary looms large in Montgomery this year, that of the outbreak of the Civil War, 150 years ago this past April. The stage was set for a Confederate victory at Fort Sumter, South Carolina when the Montgomery Convention met, in February, in what was the Alabama capitol building’s senate chamber, to organize the new secessionist government.

For both anniversaries, this summer was a fascinating time to drive through Montgomery.


As Trillin continued in his piece, describing an event commemorating the Freedom Rides held in Jackson, Mississippi this May:

One of [Governor Haley] Barbour’s speeches was at the unveiling of a plaque that marked the old Greyhound station (now restored as an architect’s office) as a stop on what the state is calling the Mississippi Freedom Trail. … Civil-rights-history buffs can soon be guided to, among thirty or so other places, the university where Clyde Kennard applied for admission in the fifties, only to be framed and thrown into jail. They can see where Medgar Evers was shot, in 1963, and where another N.A.A.C.P. leader, Vernon Dahmer, was killed in 1966, when the Klan firebombed his house.

The names Evers and Dahmer are engraved, as are many others, on the Civil Rights Memorial outside the Southern Poverty Law Center in downtown Montgomery. Designed by Maya Lin and inspired by King’s paraphrasing of a biblical passage–“Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”–it’s a somber fountain in black granite, honoring those murdered in the years following Brown v. Board of Education. A group of school kids walked up at the same time as me, touching the names on the slab, remembering the dead. Inside the center, a melted clock hangs on the wall next to the security checkpoint, explaining the need for a magnetometer and X-ray machine: The clock was damaged in a fire sparked by Klansmen at the SPLC in 1983.

The center is on the same street as the First White House of the Confederacy, the modest but stately mansion of Jefferson Davis, the southern states’ first president. It now sits on Washington Avenue, across from the capitol building, though it was originally located at the intersection of today’s Bibb and Lee streets. Administered by a White House Association, it’s filled with some of the Davis family’s effects, period furniture and supremely knowledgable docents, selected by the Association to educate the public on the republican nature of the C.S.A. and its Civil War-era history.

Less than a mile away, the Rosa Parks Museum memorializes the life and momentous contribution of Montgomery’s most famous seamstress. Owned by Troy University, the building is on the historic site of the Empire Theatre, where Parks refused to give up her seat on December 1, 1955. (The bus on which she made her stand by refusing to stand is now in Dearborn, Michigan.) The Montgomery Bus Boycott began immediately after, with the support of King, who at the time was preaching at a church on Dexter Avenue. Visitors to Montgomery can tour the landmark, now embellished in name as the “King Memorial Baptist Church.” It’s where King, with the help of Parks and many others, planned the bus boycotts that helped secure desegregation of public transportation nationwide.

The city, as Mississippi has done with its Freedom Trail, embraces the Civil Rights struggle as a tourist draw, putting together an easy-to-follow itinerary and audio tour of its most notable historical sites. Montgomery also looks further into the past: Visitors can also follow a Confederate Trail itinerary, complete with a stop at the First White House. Following both routes gives visitors a fascinating double-edged look at the complicated history of Alabama.