Thursday, May 21, 2009

Road Trip Advice -- Part 4 Memphis to New Orleans!

Great River Road Trip

Dear Jamie

I'm coming over to the USA in early July for a friend's wedding in Richmond, KY. Several of us will then be driving south. We're hoping to do the following:

Sunday afternoon: Leave Richmond for Nashville (three hours' drive)
Monday night: Leave Nashville for Memphis
Wednesday: Memphis to New Orleans via (part of) The Great River Road
Saturday: New Orleans to Atlanta

We'll be driving all of those links. Any suggestions for things to see and do along the way? Do you think the trip is feasible? We are flying out of Atlanta on the Saturday night and we'll need to be there at 7pm at the latest to be in time to check in. I know you're not a traffic advisor, but do you think the suggested driving time of seven hours from New Orleans to Atlanta is likely to be about right?

Thank you in advance. If you're able to answer our questions on your blog we'd be really grateful.

Thanks again,



Dear B --

Thanks for checking out Road Trip USA, and I hope you like the book.

Your trip sounds great -- just in time for the 4th of July! (maybe ?)

First off -- yes, 7 hours seems about right, but Atlanta area traffic is awful, about the worst in the USA, so err on the early side, if you can.

Now, on to the road trip:

Richmond and Nashville are both very interesting places, but if it's alright I'll focus on the parts I know best -- the Great River Road, from Memphis to New Orleans. This is truly one of the great American road trips, and I'm pleased to see you're giving yourself enough time to enjoy it. I suspect you'll want at least one night in New Orleans -- which leaves Wednesday & Thursday for the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

With Elvis, Stax Records and Sun records, not to mention the Civil Rights Museum, Memphis is fascinating and great fun. However early you manage to set off after a night of Beale Street blues and BBQ, you'll be in the Delta within an hour's drive down legendary Highway 61 -- Memphis, though it's in Tennessee, is really the capital of that part of Mississippi. In the past 15 years or so the upper Delta has been under assault from huge casinos, which now line up along the Mississippi in and around Tunica. I'm not a gambler, and don't see the attraction of slot machines, but there is a great breakfast here (the Blue and White, right on Highway 61 at the south end of Tunica), and once you get past Tunica, the fun begins.

First stop: Clarksdale is Ground Zero for Delta Blues fans -- and would be a funky, intriguing place even if it didn't have attractions like the Delta Blues Museum (in the old train depot, naturally enough). Count on spending at least a couple of hours here --

Next stop: for a look at an idyllic all-American small town, head a little way east from Highway 61 to Oxford MS, home of Ole Miss university and also to the late great (nobel Prize winning!) writer William Faulkner. At least a couple of hours here -- maybe an overnight, if you've lingered getting out of Memphis.

And to get a sense of deeper past of this region, on your way south try to stop by and take a walk up Winterville Mound -- it's not huge or impressive, but walking through the lush forests and climbing kudzu vines gives a sense of Delta fertility, and you may well sense the ghosts of enigmatic "Moundbuilder" Native Americans who lived here way before Columbus and Co "discovered" America.

Another main stop: Vicksburg. Civil War history, many grand antebellum mansions, and good food and true Southern hospitality at Walnut Hills restaurant

Thursday/Friday, depending on your progress: explore the moody battlefield around Vicksburg, then hit the road -- ideally following the Natchez Trace Parkway to Port Gibson, perhaps my favorite little town along the way. Beyond here are two numinous landmarks of the old south: the ruins of Windsor, and a Emerald Mound (another ancient archaeological site)

Natchez is the next main stop -- a great place for history or architecture buffs -- and if it suits your taste, this is the place to stay overnight in a historic Bed-and-breakfast inn housed in one of Natchez's many antebellum mansions. Natchez is also home to Mammy's Cupboard, a photogenic piece of roadside Americana -- a small cafe tucked away in the skirts of a 30-foot-tall woman. Right on Highway 61 -- you can't miss it.

Next: into Louisiana (if you have time, detour to St Francisville; if not, burn on down the road to Baton Rogue.) Baton Rogue is not as pretty a place as Natchez or Port Gibson, but it's a bustling, energetic city, and also makes a good base for exploring the "Cajun Country" areas across the river.

Beyond here is Plantation Alley, a series of historic mansions along the Mississippi River and the meandering Great River Road -- or if you're pressed for time, you can race into Big Easy via the high-speed Highway 61 freeway.

One last thing: have you looked into flying from New Orleans to Atlanta? I believe you can get flights (check AirTran) for less than $100, and you'll arrive home (in the UK? you didn't say where you are coming from... ) in much better shape than if you take a transatlantic flight after an anxious and exhausting 7-plus-hour drive.


So, there are some ideas -- the great thing about this part of the country is that so much variety is packed into such a small region -- the entire Memphis-New Orleans drive is less than 500 miles, so you could spend anywhere from 7 hours to 7 days (or more...) getting from one to the other.

Let me know what you think -- and Happy Trails!

all best,

Jamie Jensen

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