I was beckoned into the bosom of the Old South by former New Jerseyans Donald McGlynn and Douglas Mauro, who renovated a federal-style Natchez, Miss., house for their retirement home and later made it an inn furnished with elegant period antiques.
The partners are part of a wave of retirees who have embraced Natchez, along with a steady stream of tourists yearning to experience history, antiques, architecture and Southern hospitality.
Natchez boasts 668 antebellum homes — more than Charleston, Va., and Savannah, Ga., combined. The city was preserved through the grace of hosting the Union Army and then being left to languish. One of its most beautiful homes, Rosalie, served as Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters when the general lived among family members.
“The rest of the South never forgave Natchez,” McGlynn sighed.
During the Great Depression, members of the 1930s Garden Club came up with a moneymaking scheme, organizing the country’s first house tour, said Mimi Miller, executive director of the Historic Natchez Foundation. The ladies thought people might be willing to pay something to look inside their homes.
“There were great, unexpected numbers in 1932,” said Miller.
“Gone with the Wind” premiered in 1939, and the rest is history.
“The houses saved this town. It kept its integrity,” Mauro said.
To get an overall sense of the city, I took a walking tour, starting at the Trails Pavilion at the corner of Broadway and Franklin Street, along a combination of streets and walkways with interpretive historical panels through downtown and to the bluff overlooking the river.
Down below, I found the original wharf district — what locals call Under-the-Hill. Spurned by refined, 19th century residents who feared running into flatboat riffraff, the area now offers dinner at The Camp or Magnolia Grill, cocktails at the Under-the-Hill Saloon and gambling at Magnolia Bluffs Casino.
During Spring and Fall Pilgrimages, 25 neoclassical and Greek revival style private homes are opened to the public. Several impressive mansions, including Auburn, Linden, Longwood, Magnolia Hall, Melrose, Rosalie and Stanton Hall also welcome visitors year-round.
“Brits are infatuated by the blues and love the hospitality of the South,” McGlynn said. They fly into Memphis for Graceland and then follow the “Blues Highway,” U.S. 61, to Natchez.
Peggy Pierrepont, a former New Yorker, has been charmed by the “extraordinarily beautiful town and surrounding areas ... and the kindness of the people.”
She enjoys several local restaurants that feature plentiful, locally grown food, particularly King’s Tavern, owned by Regina and Doug Charboneau.
Regina Charboneau, chef de cuisine of the American Queen Steamboat, began her culinary career in San Francisco, but returned home to Natchez in 2000. The couple turned King’s Tavern, built in 1789, into a contemporary restaurant excelling in wood-fired flat breads and homemade desserts. Ricky Woolfolk, the tavern’s mixologist, is famous for his craft cocktails.
“Watching Ricky make a drink is like watching a ballet,” Pierrepont declared.
While looking to the future, residents are forever reminiscing about Natchez’s past.
Located on gently rolling hillsides north of town, the Natchez City Cemetery illustrates the area’s rich cultural tapestry.
Townspeople honor their ancestors in a November ritual, Angels on the Bluff. Local actors portray historic figures interred in the cemetery with “romantic, tragic and mysterious” tales.
To get a feel for the early settlement, I followed the Natchez Trace, a wooded roadway used by Native Americans, frontiersmen and boatmen. The arduous and dangerous trade route that connected Natchez with Nashville, Tenn., is now a lovely, winding National Parkway favored by cyclists.
Along the Old Trace, I discovered Emerald Mound, a mystical, eight-acre, ceremonial site constructed by Native Americans about 1400 A.D.
Nearby stands Windsor Ruins, a 1861 Greek Revival mansion that burned to the ground. Its 23 haunting columns have appeared in several movies, including “Raintree County,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, and were immortalized by photographer Clarence John Laughlin in his preservationist book, “Ghosts Along the Mississippi.”
Locals let their hair down every October during the Phatwater Kayak Challenge, when athletes from all over the world converge to paddle downstream, 42 miles from Port Gibson to Under-the-Hill.
The charming city of Natchez is not just a historic museum, but a lively cultural center with entertainment, fine restaurants, outdoor beauty and, of course, gracious Southern Hospitality — well worth the trip.