Rest your weary head by the Ol' Miss
America's Deep South - home of the Blues, juke joints and Scarlett O'Hara - has embraced British-style bed and breakfasts. Matthew Brace spends a quiet night where once Civil War raged
Sunday 06 December 1998
Many visitors from the UK and from within the US are choosing them over chain hotels and motels with their clonal designs that make a bedroom in Manhattan indistinguishable from one in Monterey, California, once the curtains are drawn.
The South has embraced the B&B idea heartily (Mississippi alone has 130) and has some of the country's finest. From the flatlands and river bluffs of the Mississippi Delta to the ranch lands and hill country of Austin, Texas, visitors can stay in beautifully preserved properties that date back to the Civil War. That's old for America.
Memphis makes the best entry point for a southern B&B tour especially now that KLM flies here direct from Amsterdam. South, beyond the glistening lights of the city and across the Tennessee line into the steamy state of Mississippi lies the Delta, a flat, sun-blasted pan of land between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. Here among the cotton fields and watermelon patches the Blues was born. Poor blacks, sons of slaves, would gather in beer-stained shacks or juke joints to play the "Devil's Music". One modern-day proponent is Johnnie Billington, a veteran Blues guitarist who lives near Clarksdale and gives music lessons to schoolchildren. "The slaves - my ancestors - were not allowed to talk to one another while they were working in the fields so they would sing instead. The white bosses did not realise they were hollerin' messages to each other. Out of that came the Blues," he told me over drinks at the Crossroads bar in Clarksdale.
Since then it has influenced just about every other kind of modern music. There are hundreds of references to the Blues all over the region. Driving the long, straight, dirt roads, kicking up dust, you will see signs on the outskirts of towns telling you of a Blues legend who was born there or went to the local high school, or maybe just stopped once at the grocery store.
A map of the state of Mississippi on the wall of the Crossroads is cluttered with famous names: Robert Johnson, BB King, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley. The amount of talent from this one state is remarkable. "Yep, they sure can breed 'em good down here," said Johnnie Billington.
So prolific is the talent that the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale has a job containing all the memorabilia. The walls are lined with black and white prints of performers stirring up the juke joint crowds while showcases around the room hold original song-sheets and other archive material. Each September in Greenville, Mississippians celebrate their musical heritage with a day-long festival.
Across the river from Clarksdale and the casinos that have transformed Mississippi's Tunica County from the poorest in the nation to one with an annual turnover of $1bn (pounds 615m) stands the historic town of Helena, Arkansas, and The Edwardian Inn guesthouse. The centrepiece of this B&B is a wide, creaking staircase down which you expect Scarlett O'Hara to glide at any moment. Upstairs are cosy rooms and suites ($50-69) named after Civil War Confederate generals (Helena was home to no fewer than seven), and on the porch guests can relax on after-dinner rocking chairs.
A consortium of three women recently completed a painstaking renovation of this 1904 colonial revival house near the banks of Ol' Miss, breathing life into its magnificent oak beams. The Edwardian Inn is listed on the National Register of Historic Places but is not prominent in guides.
Guests are left to do their own thing which means you can sneak in a second helping of scrambled egg souffle at breakfast without being frowned at. There is a snug with tartan-draped, sleep-inducing chairs and a pot of coffee always on the go.
Back on the Mississippi side of the river you can pick up the Great River Road, which has travelled down the banks of the great river from its source near the Canadian border in Minnesota. From here it winds south across the Delta to Greenville and on to two of the most important Civil War towns. You hit Vicksburg first, a long, thin town strung out along its bluff overlooking the river.
"Vicksburg is the key," said President Abraham Lincoln. "The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket." On 4 July 1863 Lincoln was handed that key as Vicksburg surrendered after a valiant defence and a month's siege which brought the population to its knees. Major-General Ulysses S Grant's victory over the Confederate forces was the turning point in the war and gave the Union control over the all-important Father of the Waters (Mississippi) from the north to the Gulf of Mexico. There are still Confederate die- hards who refuse to celebrate Independence Day because it falls on the same day Vicksburg was taken by the Yankees.
Shortly after the Civil War swept through here the town rebuilt itself. One of the buildings that went up was The Corners ($105) in 1872. It was built as a wedding gift to a favourite daughter but today is a relaxing B&B. There are lush flower gardens that drip with humidity, elegant high- ceiling rooms, broad verandahs and views over the Mississippi. One of the best rooms is in a former stable where the owners, Bettye and Cliff Whitney, have paid an incredible amount of attention to period detail.
Downstream, Natchez is a treasure chest of old houses. It surrendered much earlier in the war and so escaped the bombardment that flattened Vicksburg. There are scores of well-preserved ante-bellum buildings; a number are open to the public. Natchez is also a contender for the B&B capital of America. The sumptuous Monmouth Plantation ($120-$225) is one of a collection of plantation house B&Bs but this is at the very top of the scale. It feels more like a palace. It was built in 1818 and was home to John Anthony Quitman, a military general and hero of the Mexican war, and a former US congressman. Guests sleep in splendour in vast four-poster beds surrounded by velvet curtains, antique furniture and gilded fittings. Even the toilet paper feels like silk. Not all B&Bs are like Monmouth but you can allow yourself one night of unashamed luxury.
South and west of Natchez lies spooky, swampy Louisiana where plantation home B&Bs are ten to the dozen. The Great River Road passes three of the best - the recently restored Rosedown in St Francisville, Oak Alley in Vacherie, and Nottaway in White Castle.
If your southern trip takes you further west, another essential stop on the B&B tour is Austin, Texas, where you can check out the elegant and reasonable Southard House ($59-169) and the charming Summit House ($49-99) which welcomes all but is especially popular with gay and lesbian visitors. It serves a mouthwatering breakfast of scrambled egg and homemade sausages.
The B&B culture is gathering pace in the South as more and more visitors flock to these oases after a long, sultry day on the road. Some of them are offering rooms cheaper than the flea-ridden, carpet-stained motels on the Interstate. The only puzzling thing is why America's tourism maestros have not spotted this potential before.
THE deep south
American Travel (tel: 0171-722 0202) offers return flights with Delta to Memphis for pounds 245 plus pounds 45 post-Christmas. Trailfinders (tel: 0171-937 5400) offers return flights with Continental to Memphis for pounds 288, including tax, for the same time period.
There are numerous car rental offices at airports. To rent a car you will need to show your passport, driving licence and a credit card.
Where to stay
Edwardian Inn (tel: 001 870 338 9155); Corners (tel: 001 601 636 7421); Monmouth Plantation (tel: 001 601 442 5852); Southard House (tel: 001 512 474 4731); Summit House (tel: 001 512 445 5304).
For state offices of tourism, call Mississippi (tel: 001 601 359 3297), Arkansas (tel: 001 501 682 7777), Louisiana (tel: 001 504 342 8100), and Texas (tel: 001 512 462 9191).
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