Ancient oaks line streets with stately, postcard homes, recalling the days of cotton planters settling on a bluff high above the muddy Mississippi River. Steeped in history, Natchez, Miss., is never more breathtaking than in the spring when the azaleas bloom in manicured gardens surrounding some of the most magnificent antebellum houses in America. This year, 28 architecturally significant mansions are open for tours as Natchez celebrates its 75th annual spring pilgrimage.
Natchez offers a glimpse of the old south where time seemingly stands still. Antebellum homes open their doors to reveal splendid antiques and intriguing stories of the past. The mansions are eloquent reminders of the opulent life here when there were more millionaires per capita in Natchez than any other city prior to the Civil War. Named after the Natchez Indians, the town escaped destruction during the Civil War. It’s the oldest civilized settlement on the Mississippi River and boasts more pre-1860 houses and buildings than any other city its size in the country.
Several of the quintessential southern mansions have been turned into bed and breakfasts. When planning a visit, reserve a room as far ahead as possible. When we visited Natchez, we were heading home on a trip from Dallas. Since we waited until the last minute, we were disappointed to find the showplace mansions filled. We took the last room at perhaps the most unpretentious B & B in Natchez, The Burn.
Nestled among towering oaks high above the street, The Burn looks appealing up the long, winding drive past the rolling lawn. On a sultry afternoon, there were only a few people enjoying the gardens. While the bedrooms are adequately furnished, the main rooms of the house are in the process of being refurnished.
Built in the early 1800s, The Burn served as a hospital during the Civil War. A Greek Revival structure, the inn has one room available in the main house and four others in the outbuilding. We stayed in the “Laura” room on the second floor in the outbuilding. It was spacious with a king sized bed with a carved wood headboard.
In the afternoons, the proprietors offer wine to complement the atmosphere. Take a glass along as you walk through the gardens and perhaps find a quiet spot to absorb the scenery. Afternoons heat up quickly along the Mississippi, so we were anxious to get back inside.
We explored the town before going to dinner. Downtown Natchez contains an appealing array of shops. On Franklin Street, Antique Row is especially interesting. Plan your trip better than we did as we arrived at five in the afternoon on Saturday. To my dismay and my husband’s delight, the shops were closing and are not open on Sundays.
Our innkeeper recommended The Castle restaurant at Dunleith. When I saw this elegant bed and breakfast, I knew I wanted to return to stay at this inn. With its magnificent façade, Dunleith epitomizes antebellum architecture surrounded by 26 towering columns supporting double galleries.
The Castle Restaurant was originally the 1790s Gothic carriage house at Dunleith before being renovated. Paintings and prints of horses accent the walls. Tables are covered with white cloths centered with a hurricane shade holding a flickering candle. Tapestry covered chairs complement the elegant look.
My husband and I couldn’t resist the seafood “Castle-let” on the menu. This scrumptious dish is rich with shrimp, scallops and crabmeat served over risotto topped with hollandaise sauce. It’s accompanied with roasted fresh asparagus. Seduced by the setting, we threw calorie caution aside and shared a sublime crème brulee.
At The Burn, breakfast is served in the main house at round tables with floor length white cloths centered with pink and yellow blooms. A huge antique sideboard displays the morning juice selections. Breakfast includes an egg casserole, grits, bacon, sausage, biscuits and fresh fruit.
Another inn we toured, Monmouth is a gorgeous bed and breakfast high on my list of places to stay. Breakfast is included at the luxury inn and in the evening a five-course dinner is offered in the lavishly decorated dining room.
Some interesting things to do in addition to touring homes include visiting the Stratton Chapel Gallery to view a hundred years of Natchez history depicted in photos, touring the Old South Winery and taking a horse-drawn carriage ride.
On the way home, we traveled part of the way on the Natchez Trace. Originally an Indian trail, the Trace was an important path for Spanish explorers, British troops and early settlers. This historic highway is a peaceful ride carved through a dense forest with scenic venues. Historic sites along the way are reminders of the wealth of history in this area, wistfully calling you back to relive memories from another time and place.