Trail of lights

Posted on 06 Dec 2013 at 6:00am

From ‘Steel Magnolias’ to ‘Duck Dynasty,’ small-town Louisiana celebrates the holidays with charm

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ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

Texas likes to brag about its size, but truth is, Louisiana has it beat in terms of history. It’s not unusual to find homes in the Sportsman’s Paradise that predate the siege of the Alamo; the state’s oldest city, Natchitoches, is even celebrating its tricentennial in 2014.

You might think this part of the state — or the nation — is more Duck Dynasty than RuPaul’s Drag Race, and you’d be right. But for antiquing and exploring Southern history, Northwest and Central Louisiana, with its gay-friendly bed-and-breakfasts, is a charming weekend jaunt. And there’s no better time to get away than the holidays. Now in its eighth year, the Trail of Lights is a circuit of Louisiana burgs — Shreveport-Bossier, Minden, Monroe-West Monroe, Alexandria-Pineville and Natchitoches — that highlight the genteel appeal along this historic triangle. Give yourself two or three nights, and you can cover a lot of ground.

Friday: Shreveport-Bossier City

For most Dallasites, S-BC is a popular destination for a few days’ gambling, but there’s more to enjoy there than just the casinos. If you head out from Dallas on a Friday afternoon along I-20 (about a three-hour drive), you can encircle the entire route over a long weekend, starting the tour at the Louisiana Boardwalk, where the city recently inaugurated its Trail of Lights with a 20-foot tree and even a little fake snow. (You can even head over to the newest casino, Margaritaville, which opened in June, or enjoy shopping at the outlet stores just in time for your Christmas list.)

Friday night/Saturday morning: Natchitoches

Leave early enough, and you’ll have time to drive the hour east along I-49 to this impossible-to-pronounce (“nack-a-tdish”) colonial town to settle in for the night.

Natchitoches is flush with B&Bs, many of the best and oldest within walking distance of each other. But let’s face it: the best place for a gay guy to stay is at the Steel Magnolia House, where

M’Lynn helped Shelby prepare for her wedding of blush and bashful. (Say it with me: “Pink is ma signature color.”)  Long a B&B, the building was recently sold, and the new owner will not just continue to operate it as such, but is adding home tours to the menu in case it’s booked and you can’t sleep there. We love that more’n our luggage.

Front Street is its main waterside drag, dotted with bars and businesses and views of the light set-pieces along the lake. (They’ve been doing the holiday lighting ceremony for 87 years; the whole town turns out.) Along the strip, poke your head into Kaffie-Frederick — the oldest general store in America (its celebrating 150 years of continuous operation … the last 121 in the same location). You can get everything from classic toys (marbles! pick-up sticks!) to a faucet to elegant tree decorations.

For comparison’s sake, turn the corner, and you’ll see the newest resident along Front: The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, which opened in July. The exterior is immediately identifiable as not what you’d expect; the architecture is controversial, but intriguing, and worth a look inside especially.

Saturday night/Sunday morning: Alexandria-Pineville

After browsing Natchitoches’ downtown, continue southeast on I-49 about an hour toward the Alexandria-Pineville area, and you’ll encounter more historic homes (most converted to museums) than you can imagine. About halfway there is Creole Country, and its gem, Melrose Plantation. Run for years by a pioneering freedman of color (who, nevertheless, owned slaves), it’s dominated by a huge live oak and the legacy of primitive artist Clementine Hunter, whose depictions of plantation life are famous the world over.

travel-03Keep going, and grab a bit of lunch at Atwood’s Bakery, which serves not only gelati, cookies and pastries but hearty lunches like shrimp and grits, and steak and eggs. From there, drive a few miles to poke into Kent Planation to see the oldest free-standing structure in Central Louisiana — it was built in 1800. The grounds, which once covered hundreds of acres, are now concentrated around a courtyard of period buildings including slave quarters, a barn and a sugar cane kitchen.  Also nearby is Epps House, the home owned by the notorious slave-owner now best known as the brutal owner of Solomon Northup, portrayed in 12 Years a Slave.

For dinner, hit downtown Alexandria, where the Diamond Grill (in a former jewelry store) serves up elegant cuisine, like turtle soup, ribeye Oscar and Aubergine ravioli, plus excellent cocktails. After dinner, despite the darkness, the Alexandria Zoo — one of the most impressive small zoos (just 20 acres) in the region — is a great idea. Boasting white tigers and a new “Land of the Jaguar” South American exhibit (it opened about two months ago), this small but lovely zoo delights guests at night with animal-themed lights displays.

You’ll be tired, but it’s time to enjoy one of the true highlights of the area: a stay at Loyd Hall Plantation in nearby Meeker. A 650-acre plantation when it was founded in the early 1800s, this manor home has two huge suites in the main house and five more cabins, all with beautiful appointments like china tea cups and rich linens. Miss Beulah Davis oversees the property, and will happily give you a tour and tell you about the ghosts, which will make after-life converts out of diehard skeptics.

Sunday: Monroe-West Monroe

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HOME SWEET HOME | Biedenharn House in Monroe boasts lovely grounds, above; stunning B&B Loyd Hall Plantation near Alexandria offers gorgeous appointments, top. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

After gorging on the breakfast spread at Loyd Hall and wandering the grounds, take Route 165 north about two hours to Monroe-West Monroe, another lazy town dense with charm. This is the area where Duck Dynasty is filmed (and where its stars live), and discussion about the redneck hit is inescapable (and kitschy fun even if you don’t watch it).

Check out the Biedenharn Museum to learn about the man who first bottled Coca-Cola, thereby revolutionizing pop culture. It’s a fun little tour, especially for fans of the iconographic beverage and its associated paraphernalia.

The neighboring Biedenharn house — now a garden and museum, known as the prettiest home in Monroe — has the Old Southern gentility of a city like Savannah (it even abuts a park called Forsyth). The home is lovely, and even houses a Bible museum that’s actually very interesting. Nearby Chennault Aviation Museum is surprisingly interesting, tributing the Commerce, Texas-born aviation pioneer Claire Chennault, as well as the origins of Delta Air Lines; you can even see a real moon rock.

For lunch, Big Momma’s Fine Foods serves soul food with classic fried chicken and a hot water cornbread that’s as awesomely addictive as a dessert. Afterward, head over to West Monroe’s Antique Alley for more of the Trail of Lights. This five-block stretch contains numerous collectible and curio shops (my favorite, Southern Style Antiques, has great prices and a humorous take on Duck Dynasty with a window that rivals Barneys). The Spice & Tea Exchange creates and sells all manner of curries, flavored sugars, artisan salts and more.

At one end of the alley is Hamilton House Inn, a recently renovated town-home B&B with four rooms, one designed by the owners son; it’s gay-friendly and reasonably priced.

Sunday: Minden

After a stint in Monroe, drive west along I-20 to Minden. If the town looks familiar, it might be because this collection of Queen

Anne-style homes — founded in 1836 — has had 23 movies filmed here since 2005.  Broadway is a divided thoroughfare lit with colorful set-pieces. The trail continues along Main Street, where the local arts center features creative project by local artists and artisans.

A few blocks down, and you’re at Second Hand Rose Antiques, curated by west Louisiana’s most entertaining living collectible, Miss Milly Rose, who may greet you with a song, stories about locals and Hollywood celebs or even her attention-grabbing Boston terriers. Walk next door for karaoke and damn good Mexican food at Habacu’s, with its huge burrito (free if you can finish it — trust me, you can’t) and lush, oversized margaritas.

Sunday night: Back in Shreveport

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LIGHT IT UP | Shreveport-Bossier City recently lit its Christmas tree at the Louisiana Boardwalk to kick off its Trail of Lights, left; while Natchitoches’ Steel Magnolia House is a gay Mecca. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas)

Minden is only a half-hour from Shreveport, and you’ll want to settle in the Shreve for the night with a stay at 2439 Fairfield, a gay-friendly bed-and-breakfast in the historic Fairfield District of the town. Build in 1905, for the past 26 years the house has been owned and operated by Jimmy Harris, a former Dallasite with a flair for Laura Ashley-ish decor. Each room has its own balcony and water-jet bathtub, and the “breakfast” part is an elaborate spread that ends with fried pies (the lemon and the coconut cream are decadently good).

Monday morning after breakfast, say goodbye to Mr. Jimmy, and wander the adorable homes in the area or drive over to Tony’s

Liquors for his famous frozen eggnog daiquiris. Then head back to Dallas to sort through your trove of antiques, photographs and memories.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 6, 2013.

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