Written by Donna Dawson
Ok, we have all heard about New Orleans…and its signature speciality Beignets but what about Alexandria/Pineville, Natchitoches and Shreveport? I was to discover there were more delights in store for me and if you have a few days to make this journey yourself…you will be delighted with what you discover.
I had the opportunity to visit these areas on a press/media tour and never having been to Louisiana, was very excited about it.
I arrived at the Alexandria airport. Now over the years I cannot begin to tell you how many airports I have passed through, but this little airport was a gem. Brand new and it felt like coming into a big home…soft comfortable seating, artwork .. that wonderful southern hospitality feeling that can only be explained by the experience itself. Then we left for the hotel, which was about two minutes away. The Parc England Boutique Hotel (www.parcenglandhotel.com). This hotel sits on the site of the former England Air Force Base. Two minutes later I was in my room. The next morning I went to the lobby for coffee and again felt like I was in someone’s home. Soft furniture, the smell of coffee and you could even sit outside and enjoy the coolness of the air before it got hot in very nice comfortable seating in the shade. What a way to relax – coffee and birds singing…then if you were hungry they offer a very nice buffet breakfast.
The Bistro on the Bayou Restaurant iis owned by the same people who own the hotel and is located in the old officers club. What a posh place to eat lunch or dinner! The service, the food, the ambience – truly first class. Here we tasted Blackened Louisiana Oysters Bienville and New Orleans style bbq shrimp and Louisiana crabmeat and pesto … you get the idea. We also got to chat with the Director of the Alexandria Zoo – another place that is worth visiting. You could tell by the passion of his speaking that he really is proud of his zoo and the accomplishments that have gone on there. They have some great programs for children to educate them on why getting face to face with wildlife is so important for both people and wildlife. This quote is from their literature “in the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught” Baba Dioum, African Ecologist
Once fully stuffed to the gills, we headed to Natchitoches – here I had practiced how to pronounce this word that I thought I knew, but no, I was so wrong…it really is just ‘nack a tosh’ - who would have thought!!
I was amazed at the fields of cotton and corn and the pecan orchards…they went on forever it seemed. Pecan trees can get over 100 feet tall! Prized not only for its sweet nuts but for its hardwood.
In all of Louisiana, no other place as unique as the Cane River Country exists! Natchitoches offers many historic sites around the parish. You will find the most sites on the National Register of Places west of the Mississippi River and the only two bi-centennial farms west of the Mississippi are located in Natchitoches Parish. Sites include the area in and around the Cane River National Heritage Area. This heritage area, established by Congress in 1994, is a largely rural, agricultural landscape known for both its historic Creole-style plantations and structures and its unique people and culture. There are four plantations open for tours including Magnolia Plantation, Oakland Plantation, Melrose Plantation and the Kate Chopin Home in Cloutierville.
We then stopped at Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site and had a tour through the visitor center before seeing the fort.
It’s a great place to take the family and learn some fascinating history and have fun!
From here we went to Cane River Kitchenware where I picked up some file for gumbo. Do you know the difference between Creole and Cajun? Well, I guess you will just have to come here and find out! Louisiana may be known for its pecan and sweet potato pies, but here in Natchitoches, it’s the meat pie that takes the cake! They reminded me of the pasties in England. Some say these were brought over from Nova Scotia in the 1700’s while others say it came to be as a result of an easy to prepare meal for the workers to carry with them.
From here we walked down the street of Natchitoches to Antoon’s Riverfront Restaurant (www.antoonrestaurant.com) for dinner. This overlooks the Cane River Lake. Chef Todd also had his hand in the menu here so we knew it would be great…gumbos galore and here I learned a secret about when to add the Filé to the gumbo. I had walked along here earlier and it is a beautiful city. The Visitor’s Center is right next to the restaurant and in a perfect location for visitors to see it. Just down the hill from here, there is a wonderful old home called the Roque House, built in 1796 and made with bousillage – a mixture of Spanish moss, deer hair and mud.
The main street is totally being redone so there was a lot of construction going on, but it will all be done by the time their Christmas Festival happens the first weekend in December. This city was founded in 1714 and is the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase. The city is filled with these incredible historic homes and has a wonderful carriage tour available so you can get to know some of the special features of this 33 block downtown district more closely.
I cannot stress how wonderful it was to be here…it was like time stood still and you didn’t have to rush any more, you could take your time and enjoy life.Overnight at the Hampton Inn…
This was the last time I would see the group I was with as tomorrow morning, Tara and I were leaving Natchitoches and heading to Shreveport for a little garden viewing. As it was such a short trip they planned for me to see the 2008 Sunflower Trail Festival in Gilliam first. It took about two hours to get there but the scenery was incredible along the way, beginning with the Dixie Craft Market in the old Dixie Gin Mill.
There are many places of interest along this road so be prepared to stop for lots of pictures. Sunflowers along the way to Gilliam, then a market festival in Gilliam. Wonderful goodies, including these sunflower glasses all hand painted. I also managed to get some pictures of cotton flowers and the cotton once dried along with some incredible country wall painting and wildflowers…oh, what a beautiful area this was…places like this I could just get lost in.
But alas, time was not on our side and we still had the Barnwell Garden and Art Center to visit in downtown Shreveport and they were expecting us. Just so happens that the air conditioning was causing them major problems so the most time you could spend in the glass house was about 3 seconds before you could not take the heat anymore..it was a shame but the what was worse is that they were getting set up for a wedding reception that evening…thankfully it was fixed in time for that.
The Executive Director, Freda Powel is so passionate about this center, preserving it, expanding it to include so much more. The newest things are a herb garden just outside and next to the glasshouse. It’s a pretty little park area and they encourage people to rub their hands through the herbs to experience what they smell like. The Barnwell also has a wonderful giftshop for some really incredible and unique one of a kind items. All of the items are from artisans across the state and is one of only three Louisiana Crafts Guild Galleries.
Then it was off to the R. W. Norton Art Gallery (www.rwnaf.org) – I wanted to see the exhibit that was on…Blossom: The Art of Flowers. This gallery is full of beautiful works of art and so worth a visit and the special exhibit featured 61 pieces chosen from a juried competition that included over 1700 entries. The gallery offers First Saturday of the month tours – each a different theme as well as group tours by appointment year round and even tours for children.
Our next stop was for lunch at the Bella Fresca (www.bellafresca.com) and was it yummy.
Then it was off to the Gardens of the American Rose Center. Founded in 1892, the American Rose Society is an educational, nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to the cultivation and enjoyment of roses. The American Rose Society is a national organization with over 15,000 members dedicated to the enjoyment, enhancement and promotion of America's Floral Emblem. The Society has its headquarters located on the grounds of the beautiful American Rose Center near Shreveport, Louisiana. The Center is home to a lovely Garden of over 20,000 rose bushes comprising nearly 400 varieties of modern and old roses.
Shreveport has the prettiest river walk and you can see Bossier just on the other side of the Red River. Walking along here you will find a mixture of options including traditional retail, outlet/value-oriented retail, live performance theaters, restaurants, hotels, and other recreational outdoor entertainment.
Overnight at the Best Western Chateau Suites in Shreveport – now I want to tell you something about this hotel. It was fantastic! A little known secret too is once you are a guest, you can go to the bar and get a drink for free. The buffet breakfast is really nice too!