A Road Trip through the South: Part 3
Mary Welch | December 10, 2015
We’ve gone from Atlanta to Memphis, then from Memphis to New Orleans, and now we’re in the Big Easy itself. There are few cities in the United States where history surrounds and embraces you in a warm hug, but New Orleans is one. Whether it’s the Garden District, the French Quarter, Mid-City/Tremé, Westbank, or Gentilly, the city exudes style, history, art, energy and a revitalization spirit that is wrapped in music and food (and humidity).
We started our stay at the Hilton Hotel on St. Charles Avenue, a Historic Hotel of America and recently renovated boutique that opened its doors in 1927 as the Grand Lodge of the Louisiana Masonic Temple. From an ornate marble grand foyer to the Grand Chapel, the Hilton offers the perfect combination of old-world style with modern conveniences. Plus it’s only a few blocks from the legendary French Quarter and less than a mile from Jackson Square, home to the Cabildo and St. Louis Cathedral (pictured at top).
New Orleans offers great walking tours. Take the Garden District tour to learn about some of the city’s most picturesque antebellum mansions and pristine gardens, as well as do a little star snooping and see the homes of Sandra Bullock, Archie Manning, Anne Rice and John Goodman, among others.
You’ll also be fascinated by two cemetery tours. St. Louis Cemetery No.1, near the French Quarter, dates back to the 1700s, and the above-the-ground tombs are unique, personal, ornate and frankly, a bit freaky and creepy. People still leave gifts at the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau’s grave.
Lafayette Cemetery, located directly across from the Commander’s Place in the Garden District, opened in 1833 and is featured in a number of television shows and movies, with perhaps its most famous being where a drug-tripping Peter Fonda talks to a crypt in “Easy Rider.”
It seems that just about next to every beautiful house or business with hand-made wrought iron is a restaurant. New Orleans’ cuisine is a mix of Cajun, Creole, French, soul, and Caribbean with lots of seafood. Many memorable drinks and food got their start in the Crescent City including the Grasshopper, Oysters Rockefeller, Bananas Foster, po' boys, the muffaletta, and the Hurricane.
There are two ways to approach dining in New Orleans, and either way you win. The first way is to visit the “standards”—that is to say, the famous eateries, such as the Commander’s Palace, Palace Cafe, Antoine’s, Brennan’s, Acme Oyster House, Emeril’s, K-Paul, B Galatoire’s, Tujague’s, and Broussard’s.
The other way is simply to walk into a restaurant and discover it. Chances are it’ll be awesome! I did that with the Gumbo Shop and returned twice for its alligator sausage. Among the local favorites are the Dooky Chase, Camellia Grill, Central Grocery Store, Domilise’s, and Hansen’s Sno-Bliz. (Fun fact: Hansen’s founder invented the ice shaving machine, and his wife created her own flavored syrups. Their granddaughter runs the business today.)
If you have to choose one place to go, I recommend the National WWII Museum. The exhibits truly show the horrific breadth of the war, from a recruit reporting for duty to the war’s end, with a unique personalized twist.
The visit starts with an interactive train ride similar to the one a young volunteer took to report; there, you are introduced to a young soldier and get his dog tags. Later you check in with your “soldier” and learn his fate and listen to his memories. While perhaps it should have been obvious, when I did the final “check-in” with my soldier, I held my breath hoping he survived. He did, of course—otherwise he couldn’t have recorded his memories — but by that point I was so wrapped up in his experience that it suspended my logic.
After you exhaust yourself in New Orleans, head to another one of my favorite cities: Mobile, Alabama. This smaller version of New Orleans comes complete with beautiful homes with wrought iron fences located around squares with fountains and live oak trees. The first Mardi Gras was even in Mobile.
Here, a stay at the Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel & Spa—another Historic Hotel of America, built in 1908—is a must. Southern charm and history ooze from this genteel hotel, and one of the greatest architectural features in the whispering arch. If you stand at the base of one of the arches and whisper, someone at the other end—35 feet away—can hear you clearly. To find a similar feature, you must go to the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. or St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
While there are many sites and restaurants to visit, I recommend Wintzell’s Oyster House, a landmark on Dauphin Street that was founded in 1938 and serves its oysters “fried, stewed or nude.” The Battleship Alabama is also an interesting trip, as is going over to the artsy town of Fair Hope and staying a night at the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort & Spa in Point Clear, which overlooks Mobile Bay.
Once you leave Mobile bound for Atlanta, no trip would be complete without a stop in Montgomery and Selma. Montgomery was the original capital of the Confederate States of America and the site of several major civil rights events including the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Selma to Montgomery marches. In 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a district court judge’s decision that ruled Montgomery’s bus racial segregation unconstitutional, which ended the bus boycott. As a result, Montgomery and other Southern cities desegregated its public transportation.
Must-see stops are the First White House of the Confederacy where Jefferson Davis lived during the early stages of the Civil War, and Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson Park, where a large Creek Nation mound and other treasures from early America are displayed.
But the true reason to visit is the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail where the key points during the historic marches are highlighted and participants’ stories are told. The story of Selma to Montgomery started when several non-violent protests took place around the area, and civil rights protestor Jimmy Lee Jackson was killed. His death led to a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, led by John Lewis, Hosea Williams, Albert Turner and Bob Mants.
More than 600 people crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River and were met on the other side by Alabama State Troopers. The ensuing violence came to be known as Bloody Sunday, and published images of these events brought the evils of segregation to mainstream America’s attention. This national attention led to the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Two weeks later more than 3,000 walked over the same bridge, and on March 24, 1965, more than 25,000 marched in Montgomery in a “Stars for Freedom” rally, which included Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Tony Bennett, Leonard Bernstein, Dick Gregory, and Lena Horne. The next day, Dr. King delivered his famous “How Long, Not Long” Speech at the Alabama State Capitol Building
On an open road in Alabama.
The South’s history will be forever linked to segregation and race, while it is also a region where music, food, literature, nature, and faith penetrate everyday life in an equally real and profound manner. That’s the true value of a road trip: to see for yourself the complexity of history.