One-Tank Trip: Natchitoches, LA steeped in history
Oct. 30, 2017 at 7:55 a.m.
Updated Oct. 30, 2017 at 7:55 a.m.
My family lived in Louisiana for several years when I was in elementary school. My parents, who are avid travelers, took my brother and me on many a road trip back then – including one to Natchitoches in 1978. Fast forward 39 years…
An hour south of Shreveport, the trip from Longview to Natchitoches is exactly two hours. Nearly the entire journey is on interstate highways lined with tall pine trees that are just beautiful. Once you exit the interstate for Natchitoches, you enter a different world.
Northwestern State University greets you as you drive into town. A campus dotted with gorgeous red brick buildings, the school was established in 1884 overlooking the port town of Natchitoches. With more than 10,000 students and a campus of nearly 1,000 acres, the university’s presence does not go unnoticed. I visited Natchitoches during football season and nearly every storefront downtown was adorned with painted windows cheering on the NSU Demons.
Natchitoches is steeped in history. Founded in 1714, it’s the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase. Entering downtown instantly takes you back in time – think old New Orleans, except super clean. The walk along Front Street, facing the river, is lined with historic storefronts complete with gas lanterns. It is just lovely.
The movie “Steel Magnolias,” starring Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and Shirley MacLaine, was filmed in Natchitoches and is based on the book by Robert Harling, who still resides in Natchitotches.
When I arrived in Natchitoches I had no clue that the town is positively famous for a particular genre of cuisine – the meat pie! The meat pie is an official state food of Louisiana, and is similar to an empanada for us Texas folk. The “classic” meat pie is a folded pie crust filled with ground beef, ground pork, onion, peppers and garlic.
The most famous purveyor of the meat pie is Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen. Founder James Lasyone was a local butcher for 25 years before he began perfecting his meat pie recipe in the 1950s; in 1967 he opened his Meat Pie Kitchen and was propelled to meat pie fame when the editors of “House Beautiful” magazine sampled his fare in the early 1970s.
It seemed to me that meat pies were served most everywhere, including Hana Japanese Sushi Bar and Grill, which is located at the site of Truvy’s No. 2 from Steel Magnolias (as well as a few doors down from the Natchitoches Convention and Visitors Bureau).
The French Market Express sells another famous-in-Natchitoches food – the Louisiana Yam Cake. The establishment is part gas station and convenience store, part eatery that locals and visitors alike rave about. Proprietor Linda Henderson tweaked her grandmother’s original recipe for the cake she sells today. Delicious!
If you’d like a taste of NWU campus life, stop in at Magee’s Patio Café, which overlooks the university. The restaurant provides both indoor and outdoor seating and serves such fare as burgers, fries and milkshakes. My salted caramel shake was to die for!
If you love the movie “Steel Magnolias” as much as I do, you can take yourself on a self-guided tour to visit many of the sites from the movie – St. Augustine Catholic Church where Shelby was married, Steel Magnolia House where the Eatentons lived and the riverfront building behind Roque House, where the Easter egg hunt was filmed. Although there are no organized tours, the ladies at the Natchitoches Convention and Visitors Bureau can recommend guides for private tours, or they can provide a map of the filming locations. Most are clustered in the historic downtown area.
The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Museum and the Northwest Louisiana History Museum are both housed in an impressive downtown building designed by Trahan Architects of New Orleans. I am told the building has no square corners, though I did not have time to check each one out! One of the coolest exhibits is L.W. “Knot” Farrington’s Ford Thunderbird, that he affectionately named “Hell’s Angel” after his wife. Farrington drove the hotrod to the world speed record of 241.78 miles per hour at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in 1963.
The Northwest Louisiana History Museum brings the history of the region to life. The museum also houses an impressive collection of Clementine Hunter paintings portraying life on Melrose Plantation less than 20 miles away.
A must see event this time of year is the 91st Annual Christmas Festival. This year’s event takes place Dec. 2 and includes music, entertainment, arts and crafts, food vendors, the parade and a fireworks show choreographed to Christmas music over Cane River Lake downtown. The Christmas festivities stretch beyond the one-day festival, with live music most Saturdays and a trail of lights nightly from Nov. 18 through Jan. 6. And, continuing the “Steel Magnolias” thread, a special “Steel Magnolias Christmas” tour is included in the Christmas festivities on Dec. 9 and 16.
The historic downtown district is home to many unique shops housed in quaint buildings. It’s the perfect setting for an afternoon stroll and browse with plenty of restaurants scattered throughout to provide refreshment.
Kaffie-Frederick Hardware Store opened for business in 1863 and is the oldest continuously operated hardware store in Louisiana. It has been in its current building since the 1890s and they have used the same cash register since 1910! The store carries such brands as Yeti and Radio Flyer wagons for children and everything in between.
A friend told me about Merci Beaucoup Gift Shop, a store that specializes in home interiors and florals. This lovely store offers beauty at every turn, including stunning faux magnolia stems and an extensive collection of Vietri.
Natchitoches is home to 23 bed and breakfasts that offer unique, historic accommodations. I personally love staying in bed and breakfast accommodations, and one of the prettiest ones I saw on my visit was the Judge Porter House. I recommend visiting www.natchitoches.com, which provides a complete listing of bed and breakfasts so you can find something that meets your needs.
If a hotel is more your style, try the Chateau Saint Denis just a block from Cane River Lake downtown. All rooms feature French Creole themed art and premium bed linens in this 87-room hotel.
- 622 Second St.
- Mon-Sat 7a-3p
- Closed Sunday
- 720 Front St.
- Daily 12n-10p
- 536 University Parkway
- Daily 10a-9p
Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen
Hana Japanese Sushi Bar and Grill
Magee’s Patio Café
- 780 Front St., Suite 100
- Mon-Sat 9a-5p
- Closed Sunday
- Northwest Louisiana
- History Museum
- 800 Front St.
- Tue-Sat 10a-4:30p Sun 1p-5p
- Closed Monday
- Admission $5 adults; $4 seniors, active military and students; 12 and under free
- 3533 LA 119
- Melrose, LA
- Tue-Sun 10a-5p
- Closed Monday
- Guided Tour Admission: $10 Adults, $5 Students
- Self Guided Admission: $5 Adults, $3 Students
Natchitoches Convention and Visitors Bureau
Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame
91st Annual Natchitoches Christmas
- 758 Front St.
- Mon-Sat 8a-5p
- Closed Sunday
- 107 Church St.
- Mon-Sat 10a-5p
- Closed Sunday
Kaffie-Frederick Hardware Store
Merci Beaucop Gift Shop
- 751 Second St.
Bed and Breakfast Listings
Chateau Saint Denis