Cruise Port Report: Historic Mansions in Natchez, MS

Editor's Note: Part 1 of this series on Natchez touring for river cruisers ran on Monday, August 19. Here's Part 2...

If river cruisers going ashore in Natchez, MS, desire to tour antebellum homes and mansions, they certainly have a robust collection from which to choose. Most are listed on the National Register of Historic Sites.

Why does the city have so many antebellum structures that thankfully survived the Civil War? It's simple. Natchez surrendered to the Union Army in 1862, thus avoiding the intense level of tragic destruction that befell some other U.S. southern cities. 

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Today, visitors can view the city's historic core, much the way locals did back in the antebellum era. In addition, these lovely mansions (among them, Rosalie, which is shown below) have been restored to their former glory. 

Antebellum Style

Built in the late 1850s, Magnolia Hall has been lovingly restored under the auspices of the Natchez Garden Club.

It was the residence of Thomas Henderson, a Natchez native, wealthy cotton broker and merchant. Plaster magnolia blossoms are incorporated into the design of the parlor ceiling centerpieces.

Personally, we enjoyed visiting (both this year and in the past) the lovely Stanton Hall, located on High Street and owned and operated by the Pilgrimage Garden Club.

With Corinthian columns, delicate cast-iron railings and a driveway that curves up to the front of the magnificent mansion, the first view that travelers have is seemingly out of a postcard.

We’d suggest visiting before or just after lunch. Why? Stanton Hall’s Carriage House Restaurant serves up such yummy fare as fried chicken, southern comfort foods including grits, fried soft shell crab and many creative dishes with a local twist, under the direction of Chef Bingo Starr of New Orleans.

Definitely sample the buttery silver-dollar-sized biscuits; they’re instantly addictive.

Just a bit farther out are several other stunning mansions, either accessible by taxi or a tour that includes them. These include magnificent Monmouth and Dunleith, both elegant historic inns with extensive, well-landscaped grounds and on-site restaurants.

We’ve stayed at Monmouth in the past and loved the experience, including dinner at the estate's 1818 Restaurant

During our trip this year, we stayed in Dunleith's lovely upscale accommodations. The mansion itself is stunning. Built in Greek Revival-style, Dunleith's architectural design includes 26 massive columns of brick and stucco as well as grand wrap-around porches. See the photo below.

Dunleith Historic Inn Natchez MS Photo by Susan J. Young Editorial Use Only

Our Dunleith accommodations were upscale, comfortable and very well-appointed with modern amenities, free Wi-Fi, a gas fireplace, sitting area, luxurious bathroom, comfortable bedding and more. We loved the two white rocking chairs outside our ground level accommodations.

Staff were exceptionally friendly and helpful -- particularly when I had a luggage issue and needed assistance. 

Another highlight for staying at (or just visiting) Dunleith is a chance to view and dine within the original 1790’s carriage house and stables. Today, it's the Castle Restaurant & Pub. Guests staying overnight at Dunleith receive complimentary breakfast here; it's just a short stroll from the main house.

The Castle Restaurant served up the best dining of any of our (mostly wonderful) dining experiences undertaken throughout our three-day Natchez visit.

This restaurant is open to the public for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s just as popular with locals as with visitors, which says a lot about the quality. It also also has a superb wine selection and has received Wine Spectator’s "Award of Excellence" multiple times.

You'll also find many more antebellum homes and magnificent mansions within Natchez, including Auburn, Concord Quarters, The Burn, Landsdowne, Choctaw Hall, Hawthorne, Linden, Magnolia Hall, Oak Hill, Melrose and more.

The good news is that even if river cruisers have visited Natchez once or even twice, there's always another enticing historic home to tour. 

Shopping & Dining Delights

Downtown, Natchez has a small antique district with five antique stops listed on the MississippiAntiqueTrail.com website.

Franklin Street Antique Mall (the large white building on the right shown in the photo below) offers 7,000 square feet of eclectic shopping. It displays and sells antique furniture, rugs, collectibles, glassware, estate jewelry, coins, china, crystal and much more.

Also now open within that antique mall is the Natchez General Store, a good place to buy Amish cheeses, smoked bacon, noodles, popcorn, candy, jams, pickles and other goodies.

Another antique store is Lower Lodge Antiques, specializing in high quality antiques, fine furniture, and objects d'art, as well as early European and Chinese porcelains.  

Beyond antiques, the downtown area – easily accessible for cruisers who take AQSC’s shuttle, as there are several on-off stops – also has mom-and-pop stores and eclectic boutiques selling clothing, local crafts, gifts and jewelry.

We popped into The Towers Collection on Franklin Street. Yes, the same Ginger and James Hyland, who own The Towers, a historic mansion Travel Agent covered in Part One of this series, also own and operate this store.

So, here cruisers will find one-of-a-kind gifts, clothing, antique jewelry and “something special” as a potential gift for a holiday or birthday. 

While downtown, we’d pop in for breakfast or lunch at a popular local spot, Natchez Coffee Company. We'll personally vouch for the bacon croissants. But you’ll also find healthier stuff here too, plus savory coffees and lattes.

One recent daily lunch special was a BBQ brisket sandwich with grilled onions on ciabatta bread and a side of potato salad. Cruisers could also order bread pudding with a topping of white chocolate or caramel drizzle, or turtle cheesecake.

While walking around Natchez, be sure to check out the Natchez Trails, city streets and walkways dotted with interpretive panels.

A favorite local hot spot with dining inside and outside on the patio is Fat Mama's Tamales. Expect a festive Latin aura and order the specialty – great tamales. But you can also get boudin, a Cajun-style sausage and fire-and-ice pickles.

Vintages & Brews

Speaking of tamales, the Old South Winery at Mama’s Tamales on the other end of town, is run by the Galbreath family. The wines are created from Muscadines with the vineyard right outside the winery's back door.

Cruisers can take a 20-minute tour, and then the staff will pour a small sample of each of the products they create from their home-grown grapes. The local favorite? That’s a rose that for Old South fans is aptly labeled “Miss Scarlet.”

Depending on the ship’s schedule, brew fans might check out the Natchez Brewery, a popular spot for sampling local brews and tours; it's open mainly on weekends, but check its Facebook page for the latest schedule. 

Natchez’s Charboneau Distillery sells the first legally distilled rum in Mississippi and offers tours. King’s Tavern restaurant is owned by the same family and has a phenomenal cocktail menu along with flatbread pizzas. 

Natchez Atop the Bluffs

Natchez’s core historic district and most homes and mansions fortunately don't have the seasonal flooding threat in the way some other Mississippi River destinations do. That's because much of the city is perched atop Mississippi River bluffs.

In 1713, Fort Rosalie, a French-era historic fort, was established on this perch. Nothing of the fort remains, but the U.S. National Park Service maintains the Fort Rosalie site, which includes a riverside path, parkland and picnic tables.

It’s a easy, relaxing spot for a stroll with stellar views of the mighty Mississippi and Natchez’s Mississippi River Bridge.

While walking along this historic trail, travelers will see walkers, hikers, families with strollers and locals who are just out to take in the river views.

Another touring option in this area is to visit Rosalie, a mansion close to the bluffs.

Nearby above the hill on the bluff’s brow was the bustling terminus of the railroad. Today, behind tracks overgrown with grass, an architectural gem from Natchez railroad heyday-- the 19th century Railroad Baggage Depot is visible; it’s now a Mississippi Landmark.

Natchez Under the Hill

But while the city, visitor’s center and historic areas are mostly atop the bluffs and well above the river, Natchez Under the Hill is not.

In fact, this is where today’s river boats tie up for guests to disembark for a day ashore.

Calling here are American Queen Steamboat Company's paddle-wheel style American Queen with Victorian-style interior décor and American Duchess, which has a paddle-wheel-look outside, but modern, boutique-hotel style décor inside. Check out our review on American Duchess from our spring visit.  

In addition, American Cruise Lines calls at Natchez with America, Queen of the Mississippi and the new American Song (for 2018 voyages) or American Harmony (starting in 2019). In total American Cruise Lines has nine Mississippi River itineraries.  

Whatever vessel clients arrive on, it’s a fairly steep walk up the hill to Natchez. American Cruise Lines offers its guests golf cart shuttle service up the hill, plus the line's shore trip coaches board guests at Natchez Under the Hill.  

Similarly, AQSC which operates complimentary on-off motorcoach shuttle service for its guests -- with specific stops in the downtown area -- also boards guests as they come off the riverboat. Its premium motorcoach tours also depart from this riverside area.

Stepping ashore, cruisers will alight on land that in past centuries was heavily trafficked by steamboat passengers, fur traders and cotton barons. Cruisers can only imagine hefty bales of cotton and furs being loaded onboard a steamboat or keelboat for a long journey to trading centers throughout mid-America or to New Orleans and beyond.

Back in the day, Natchez was a "rest stop" of sorts as the Mississippi River was a major "highway" of the era. In the 1800s, Natchez Under the Hill was a rowdy -- sometimes seedy -- spot with bars, gambling establishments and brothels. Enslaved people were “sold” at the landing.

One 1820s-era traveler described it as “the most licentious spot on the Mississippi River." Fortunately, today it’s changed and is more family friendly. 

Cruisers and locals alike patronize this area. One lovely shop is Silver Street Gallery & Gifts, which offers one-of-a-kind gifts, home decor, several Mississippi-made items from jewelry to cookies and even beautiful creation from southern artists.

At Under the Hill Saloon, cruisers can sip on a good brew or spirit – with free WiFi – and good river views.

Depending on season, you may see red poppies, a symbol of Natchez, growing along the river banks. Alternatively, we visited in spring and encountered these lovely red roses in the photo below.

Our group dined at Magnolia Grill, a local place (shown in the photo above) that's popular with residents and tourists alike. Specialties include fresh catfish,Gulf of Mexico seafood, prime steaks, savory burgers and sandwiches.

Dining with several others? Definitely order the fried pickles for an appetizer.   

Magnolia Grill's entrees range from Magnolia Jambalaya (smoked chicken, tasso and sausage with rice, a spicy Cajun favorite) to Catfish Briars (three fresh catfish filets topped with shrimp, sautéed mushrooms and green onions, baked with breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese) and Grilled Beef Medallions (filet mignon medallions, chargrilled and topped with jumbo lump crabmeat, mushrooms and parmesan cheese).

Beyond Natchez

Red, double-decker Natchez Hop-on, Hop-off motorcoaches, as well as AQSC's on-off motorcoach shuttle and tours operated by American Cruise Lines are a great way to see the city. Taxis also can transport river cruisers to other attractions within the city that aren't on a shuttle or coach route. 

Private tours can take guests even farther out. One option is historic Port Gibson and the nearby Windsor Ruins. Windsor was a magnificent mansion that survived the Civil War but mysteriously burned to the ground during a post-war party. Today, only its humongous columns remain, an eerie site.  

Some cruisers instead may desire to head across the bridge from Natchez into Louisiana. One excellent experience? It's Frogmore Plantation, an authentic 1,800-acre working cotton plantation that's about 40 minutes by car from Natchez. 

Both AQSC and American Cruise Lines offers tours beyond Natchez and, specifically, one that visits Frogmore. Cruisers will tour the cotton plantation, learn about plantation life. 

What’s neat? Depending on time of year, cruisers will have the opportunity to actually pick cotton directly from the field, participate in a live gospel performance and witness the progress in cotton technology from Eli Whitney’s original gin to the plantation’s modern 900 bales-per-day computerized cotton production. 

If you're seeking something a bit different, consider the offerings of Miss Lou Tours, owned by Jimmy (Jim Bob) Algood of the Redneck Adventures Television Show

We headed out one day with the affable Algood on a tour of eco-spots in neighboring Louisiana and visited the Delta Music Museum & Arcade in Ferriday, LA. It's a hidden treasure in the region with exhibits about 16 famous rock-and-roll and blues musicians from the Mississippi River delta country.

Entering the museum, one immediately spots a sculpture of three cousins from Ferriday at a piano -- designed to represent singers Mickey Gilley and Jerry Lee Lewis, plus evangelist Jimmy Lee Swaggart.

Other honorees are blues trombonist Leon "Pee Wee" Whittaker, a native of Newellton in northern Tensas Parish, and many more. There are also exhibits on two well-known former Ferriday personalities not affiliated with the music industry: former CBS and ABC commentator Howard K. Smith (1914–2002) and Ann Boyar Warner (1908–1990), second wife of Warner Brothers studio mogul Jack Warner.

Miss Lou Tours also offers redneck retreats, history tours, and hunting, fishing and eco-tours. .

When sailing to Natchez, or staying there on a land journey, the biggest dilemma cruisers may have is what to see and do, because the choices are both prolific and enticing. It's a good reason for a repeat visit by land or river cruise at a later date. 

For more information, contact Visit Natchez at www.visitnatchez.org.

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Cruise Port Report: Natchez, MS