Remnants of Natchitoches French Creole and Spanish roots are evident in its historical cotton plantations, and 19th-century landmark buildings.
Natchitoches – A Road Trip To Louisiana’s Hidden Gem
Natchitoches (pronounced nack-a-tish), settled in 1714 it is the oldest settlement in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. This charming French Creole town embraces their heritage with red-brick cobblestone streets, spacious balconies wrapped in filigree-style wrought iron railings, and expansive cotton and tobacco plantations. Designated as being one of the United States most distinctive destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Natchitoches has been celebrating a town-wide holiday festival since 1926.
A Southern Christmas Wonderland
Natchitoches Christmas Festival of Lights has evolved over the years from a one day event into a six-week long holiday extravaganza with over 100 lighted displays and 300,000 colorful sparkling lights throughout the town.
Visitors from around the world journey to Natchitoches every year for Christmas festivities. Holiday cheer seekers gather on the beloved Rue Beauport Riverfront boardwalk; they are treated to live entertainment and music as hundreds of fireworks light up the night sky every Saturday during the holiday season. I had the pleasure of watching the fireworks one evening, and it was stunning seeing the colorful bursts of reds, blues, and greens in the sky followed by golden crackling sparks. Families and couples lined the riverfront area with camp chairs and blankets to watch the display. Looking at the gathered crowds, watching children play as adults chatted, I felt like I should have been in a Norman Rockwell painting. It was the perfect kickoff for the holiday season and one that I would highly recommend.
The Rue Beauport Riverfront has recently undergone a $4 million restoration which includes a new festival stage, amphitheater seating, handicap ramps, restrooms, winding staircases, and a brick promenade designed to encourage leisurely strolls along the Cane riverfront. It is a fabulous location to enjoy the numerous festivals and activities that go on throughout the year.
Road Trip – What To See
If you are looking for locations to add to a road trip across America, National Geographic, Frommer’s, and Country Roads Magazine all say that Natchitoches would be a quaint, picturesque stop with an exciting glimpse into American history. There are several places of interest such as plantations, the French outpost Fort St. Jean Baptiste, the 18th-century American Cemetery, and the Steel Magnolia House where the filming of the 1989 Hollywood movie Steel Magnolias took place.
Founded in 1795 by Marie Therese Coincoin, a freedwoman of color and matriarch of the tobacco plantation. She later became one of the leading influences of Isle Brevelle, a community of gens de coleur libres – free people of color who thrived as business and plantation owners. It is interesting to learn about people who persevered to the extent that they “broke the mold” so to speak as to what was to expected of them during their time frame in history.
A stunning example of Creole architecture, Oakland Plantation is a perfectly preserved time capsule. Emmanuel Prud’homme began construction on the main house, at the time called Bermuda Plantation, in 1818. A tour of this plantation will take you on a trip through time. Each succeeding generation added personal touches to the plantation so as you walk through each of the rooms, you feel as if you are moving through time itself, starting in the 1800’s and moving to the late 1960’s.
Long before sustainability was a movement, it was a way of life at Oakland Plantation. It was a self-contained community producing everything it needed for daily life right there on the plantation grounds – including a general store, post office, and a doctors clinic. One building I thought was somewhat unusual was the pigeonnier. The building was roughly 8’x8’ with 10’ a ceiling. Apparently, in the 1800’s pigeon was a delicacy served on special occasions and not a nuisance to keep out of eaves and off park benches.
Fort St. Jean Baptiste, built in the early 1700’s by Louis Fuchereau de St. Denis, was an outpost with a dual purpose. It was intended to prevent the Spanish forces from advancing from what is now Texas further east to the Red River. The second objective was to cultivate and promote trade between the Natchitoches Indians, the French, and later the Spanish. Today this historic site offers a small glimpse into the difficulties and prosperity of early settlement and an extensive colonial trade network.
Located on Front St. in the upper floors of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, the Northwest Louisiana History Museum is a must see when you visit Natchitoches. The modern styled building seems oddly out of place among 18th-century French Creole architecture and red brick streets. Once you learn that the tall earth-tone shutters are honoring the Creole plantations and the curved lines of the walls and interior staircase represent the meandering flow and curve of Cane River, it does not seem so out of place.
The museum tells the diversity of Natchitoches from its earliest days of the Caddo Indians to the 20th-century highlighting internationally renowned folk artist Clementine Hunter. As I strolled through the museum, I learned about village life of the Caddo Indians. I also learn how a once enslaved group of Africans redefined their lives to create a prosperous subculture. I saw how this melting pot of cultures blended and created a distinct and resilient community. The five-dollar admittance fee for adults is a small price to pay for a 300-year journey into the unique cultural past of Natchitoches’ writers, entrepreneurs, artists, and human rights leaders.
Road Trip – Where to Dine
Mama’s oyster house on Front street if you are looking for a sports dive with charm and Louisiana flavor. A variety of sports memorabilia from the area decorate the walls of the dark-wood interior making it feel like a neighborhood hang-out.
Sundays are meant for relaxing, family time, and sleeping in, and Natchitoches embodies this belief whole heartily. If you want breakfast or coffee away from your hotel or B&B before 10 a.m. the only place you will find it is at the casually run Breakfast Nook on Church street. Understandably, because this is the only place open, the wait times can be a little long.
If you are looking for something other than fried catfish, crawdad po’boy sandwiches, or oysters then check out Hana Japanese Sushi Bar & Grill on Front Street. The ambiance in this turn of the century building with a central courtyard and converted carriage house is relaxed and friendly. Hana has a diverse menu of sushi, sashimi, salad, and tempura meals.
Road Trip – Shopping
Nestled between a row of stores along Natchitoches Historic Front Street is the Bathhouse Soapery. A southern specialty store with lavish shaving cream cakes, beard and mustache conditioners, and rich body creams for both men and women. Their specialty is the extensive selection of handmade soap in well over 20 fragrances ranging from tobacco and rum to hot southern mess to rosewater pistachio.
Kaffie-Frederick Dept store established in 1863 is the oldest business in Natchitoches. Founded by Jewish Prussian immigrants escaping religious persecution in Europe during the American Civil War the store is now run by the third-generation of Fredericks. Today the store still occupies the same building it did back in 1893 with the original pulley freight elevator and hand-crank cash register; both are still in use today. Kaffie-Frederick is definitely worth a stop on your list.
For coffee lovers, Cane river Kitchen store is a dream offering over 20 different flavors of coffee beans that they will grind for you. Cane River also offers cooking classes from local chefs that teach a broad range cooking skills from beginner to gourmet. Each month is a different cuisine theme and reservations must be made in advance because seating is limited.
Natchitoches was one of those hidden gems, a wonderfully pleasant surprise, and quite possibly, the best kept secret in Louisiana. I am looking forward to my next visit.