THERE are few travel experiences as iconic as an American road trip – and the south, incorporating Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia, offers a route of particular cultural, historical and musical distinction. A new campaign, Rhythms of the South, pulls together many of the region's highlights – including the cities of Atlanta, New Orleans and Nashville – into a tourist-friendly package that offers authentic southern culture and charm aplenty.
'We also visited the Honey Island swamp for a tour featuring alligators, wild boars, raccoons and turtles – all within touching distance'
Our two-week tour of the area began in Atlanta. A modern, clean, green city, Atlanta still reaps the benefits of the 1996 Summer Games. Within its Centennial Olympic Park, we visited the recently opened National Center for Civil & Human Rights, which brings the country’s struggle throughout the 20th Century to life through powerful interactive exhibits. The park is also the starting point for the Peachtree Trolley Tour], which is a handy way to gain perspective on an expansive – and hilly – city.
Atlanta is a hotbed of culinary delights, with cheap real estate making it the perfect place for ambitious chefs to establish their name. We enjoyed Empire State South, which serves up authentic southern dishes featuring pickles, okra, deviled ham and snapper, among other tasty ingredients. South City Kitchen, also in Midtown, impressed too with its signature chicken and waffles, a staple in the region.
In the evenings, East Atlanta’s Flat Shoals Avenue offers plenty of small, friendly bars and venues, while Edgewood Avenue is slowly turning in to a nightlife destination. Joystick Gamebar (filled with retro arcades and Dolly Parton pinball) and Sister Louisa's Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium (featuring church organ karaoke and table tennis) are two of the latter neighbourhood’s highlights.
Next up was New Orleans and, while Bourbon Street is its most famous night-time spot, we found the nearby Frenchmen Street more appealing. The Three Muses, a bustling little tapas bar, is a hangout, while the The Spotted Cat music club is always busy - but with most Frenchmen Street venues offering authentic live bands every night with no cover charge, it’s the perfect area to explore.
New Orleans is a compact, flat city, allowing for that rare treat in the US: the chance to explore on foot – or, better still, by bike. We used comfortable two-wheelers from A Bicycle Named Desire, which offers rentals plus tours through sister business and neighbour, Confederacy of Cruisers. Taking in many of New Orleans’ neighbourhoods, this leisurely tour gives an invaluable overview of the city, both past and present, thanks to our entertaining guide Cassady’s extensive knowledge.
For visitors, New Orleans’ main focal point is its oldest neighbourhood, the French Quarter, which is made up of distinctive late 18th Century two- and three-storey buildings, boasting balconies or galleries overlooking the streets. The Quarter’s Louisiana State Museum includes The Presbytère, an exhibition space that recently hosted Living With Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond, a detailed account of the 2005 hurricane that laid waste to the city and surrounding area. New Orleans is still counting the cost, with some neighbourhoods very much in recovery mode.
Cochon's wood-fired oysters
Other must-visits include Café du Monde, which for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, supplies tourists with tasty chicory coffee and a sugar rush in the form of French-style beignets. Po-boys are another local treat, with the meat- or seafood-heavy submarine sandwich best sampled at Johnny’s Po-Boys, for a traditional example, or Killer Poboys, for a sandwich with a twist. For finer dining, you’ll be hard pressed to beat Sylvain, a dimly lit bistro offering up excellent wagyu beef belly and confit duck leg. Although Cochon, an informal cajun restaurant in the Central Business District, produced perhaps the best meal we had in the south – their wood-fired oysters in chilli garlic butter being a real highlight.
We sampled a few of the city’s more traditional experiences too: the jazz brunch at The Court of Two Sisters offered a hugely satisfying start to one day, while a cruise and meal on board Steamboat Natchez – New Orleans’ only steamboat – was a romantic setting for the sunset of another. We also visited the Honey Island swamp for Cajun Encounters’ tour, featuring alligators, wild boars, raccoons and turtles – all within touching distance.
Exiting New Orleans, we cut through swamps and passed Lake Pontchartrain, a huge estuary that borders the city. On the drive north, we stopped off at Houmas House, one of dozens of examples of former plantation houses in the region. Dating back to the 1790s, this plantation controlled 150,000 acres of sugarcane in its heyday - and the house has been restored to that period with antiques acquired by its present owners. The house and its beautiful gardens are the focus of the hourly tour, so we were disappointed when less salubrious aspects like the plantation’s ownership of slaves were barely touched upon.
Heading further north, we passed Baton Rouge and Natchez, and finally reached Vicksburg, a small, picturesque city situated on the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. Our destination was Anchuca Mansion, a Greek Revival house dating back to 1830 that offers comfortable accommodation in both the main house and its adjoining carriage house – plus a hearty southern breakfast of waffles, bacon and grits.
We continued up the Mississippi to Indianola’s B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, which provides a worthwhile introduction to the blues via the city’s most famous exponent. Further up Route 61, Clarksdale – where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil – is home to several blues venues, plus the Delta Blues Museum.
Our next stop was Memphis – another city rich in musical history – but one that has been in decline since the 1960s. We found city centre streets to be almost empty and entire blocks that lay abandoned. That’s not to say the place isn’t without merit. It is a city of 650,000 people, similar in size to Sheffield or Bristol, after all. Its National Civil Rights Museum, built around the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, was the most informative we visited during our two-week stay – an emotive eye-opener for a subject so poorly covered in the UK.
Memphis is famous for its barbecue and fried chicken, so we sought out Central BBQ, a wonderful warehouse-sized mecca for all things grilled, which also boasts an extensive local craft beer selection. Gus’ Fried Chicken, which operates a few restaurants including a downtown outlet close to both Central BBQ and the Civil Rights Museum, served us some of the best chicken of our southern tour - crisp and golden-brown outside, and moist on the inside.
Memphis’ famous drag of live music bars, Beale Street, is worth a look – but, covering barely two blocks, it pales in comparison to New Orleans and Nashville’s equivalents. We found the bandstand in Handy Park one of the best spots – grab a drink from the adjoining Twelve Bar and relax on a park bench while blues bands rock out.
During the day, both Sun Studio and Stax Museum are treats for music nerds and casual listeners alike – the former featuring Elvis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, and the latter highlighting soul and R&B artists including Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and Wilson Pickett.
Of course, a visit to Memphis isn’t complete without a stop off at Graceland, home to the King. We spent several enjoyable hours touring Elvis’ out-of-town mansion - surprisingly modest on the outside, outrageously plush inside – plus a collection of his cars, and his personal jet, the Lisa Marie.
From there, we ventured onwards to our final destination: Nashville. Our base for the stay, Loews Vanderbilt, is part of a family of luxury hotels throughout North America – including in Atlanta and New Orleans. The chain has put together a handy Rhythms of the South package for those wishing to explore the three cities while taking advantage of the hotels’ extensive hospitality.
Loews Vanderbilt is home to the excellent Mason’s ‘southern brasserie’, where young, talented chef Brandon Frohne turns out some of the best ‘southern provisions’ in the area, particularly its espresso-rubbed beef tenderloin, served with creamed corn, grilled shiitake and strawberry ramp relish. The Mason Bar, meanwhile, served up the best old-fashioned I’ve ever tasted.
Nashville being the home of country music, a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum was a must – although we enjoyed the recently opened Johnny Cash Museum more. Giving a thorough and personal account of the Man in Black’s life and music, it felt easier to digest than the encyclopaedic Hall of Fame.
As the days turned into evenings, music inevitably makes its way from the museums and in to the city’s many live music venues. Our favourites were Robert’s Western World and Layla’s Bluegrass Inn – both on Broadway – which had talented country bands playing for tips each evening.
Of course, no visit to this region is complete without a night at the Grand Ole Opry, the ‘show that made country music famous’. Founded in 1925, this concert series has become one of the longest-running radio broadcasts in history – placing country legends alongside rising stars for its weekly broadcast. It proved to be an apt ending to our spectacular two-week road trip.
Chris and his girlfriend Carole flew direct from Manchester to Atlanta with Virgin Atlantic (operated by Delta), returning from Nashville.
They stayed at Loews hotels in Atlanta, New Orleans and Nashville, Anchuca Mansion in Vicksburg, and the Sheraton Downtown in Memphis.
For more information about the Rhythms of the South, including suggested itineraries, visit rhythmsofthesouth.com.
Thanks to Victoria Lightfoot at Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, Vicki Bristol at New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, Ashley Gatian at Vicksburg Convention & Visitors Bureau, Jonathan Lyons at Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau and Katherine Roberts at Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp for their invaluable assistance.
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