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Explore the Mississippi Great River Road

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

Mississippi’s Great River Road:  The River, the Road, the Rhythms.

Treasure hunting this summer won’t require a secret map, because one priceless American treasure has been identified and marked:  Mississippi’s Great River Road has just been designated a National Scenic Byway (NSB) after meeting high standards in six categories—scenic, natural, historic, cultural, archeological and recreational quality.  In other words, this 333-mile gem of a road, hugging the Mississippi River from Woodville to Walls, Miss., manages to pack in a uniquely and delightfully American experience across every vista and around every bend.

 

The River:

Carved out by the liquefying glaciers of the melting Ice Age, the Mississippi River has coursed through and even helped create important American history, to most profound effect here where the River makes its final crescendo to the Gulf of Mexico.  Native Americans built great civilizations here, and later the River’s alluvial silt deposits created fertile cotton lands rivaled only by the Nile Valley.  Cotton production powered American prosperity in the 19th century, albeit at great human cost.  However, out of immense pain came an inestimable gain: the blues, that essential and quintessentially American music genre.

Today, the lower Mississippi offers breathtaking vistas, but more than that, the River and its watershed are a teeming source of life, from dark cypress swamps to dense hardwood forests to ecologically precious emerald marshes.  This natural abundance makes for superb fishing and hunting, whether along the Mississippi or in any of the plentifully-stocked lakes and hunting areas, which range from the 700-acre Clark Creek Nature Area and 60,000-acre Delta National Forest to hunting camps and private preserves.  Bass, catfish, deer, turkey, bobwhite quail, boar and even exotics populate this sportsman’s paradise.   Birders and other wildlife watchers will be equally gratified, as will outdoor enthusiasts looking for great hiking, biking and equestrian trails and campsites.

“This region once had the nation’s highest concentration of millionaires,” notes Bill Seratt, president of the community coalition for Mississippi’s Great River Road.  “Today, the treasures of the Great River Road are here for everyone to enjoy, in spectacular outdoor beauty, in vibrant history and culture and, of course, great music.  What we have here is a rich, potentially life-changing experience available to all Americans at an amazingly modest cost.”

 

The Road:

As visitors and vacationers seek out Mississippi’s Great River Road, they’ll be pleased to see gas prices hovering at welcoming prices.   And they may be shocked to discover that there are certain establishments where they can both gas up and fuel up with some of the best food they’ve ever eaten.  That’s how it is here:  Hemingway called Paris was a moveable feast, but literary lights like Tennessee Williams, Shelby Foote and Walker Percy once called this region home, and the “oral tradition” of Mississippi’s Great River Road includes fabulous food and hospitality anywhere and everywhere.

A native of this region, legendary New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne tasted his first heavenly meal in the aroma-rich kitchen of his mother’s boardinghouse, and today while boardinghouses are gone, the marvelous meals are still here, from heavenly hot tamales in country stores and gas stations to haute cuisine in upscale eateries to the delicious down home served up with a warm smile around every corner.  Good company and great food are specialties of the house here.

The taste for historic adventure will find equal satisfaction in Civil War battlefields such as the 1800-acre Vicksburg National Military Park; in the preserved villages and burial sites of Native peoples in Natchez and Greenville; in charming and historic downtowns; in riverboat cruises and real working plantations and in a wealth of historic homes and churches that open their doors for a captivating glimpse of the past.  Museums covering a range of subjects, from music to history to contract bridge, are as entertaining as they are informative.

The Rhythms:

Some say W.C. Handy “discovered” the blues as he waited on a Delta train. Others believe the blues were born right here at Dockery Plantation.  In any case, Handy, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Memphis Minnie and Sam Cooke all lived and played in this region, and today the blues—real, authentic blues—are woven into the culture.  Enjoy them at Ground Zero, the blues club co-owned by actor and Mississippi native Morgan Freeman, or at dozens of other great clubs, or at any of the region’s numerous annual blues festivals.  And to go deeper into the subject, explore the more than 31 Mississippi Blues Trail markers located throughout the length of the byway.

There are other high notes on Mississippi’s Great River Road:  the delightful din of winning slots and hot dice at the region’s many exciting casinos and gaming establishments; Tunica is now acknowledged as the South’s Casino Capital.

“One of the advantages of a vacation on Mississippi Great River Road is the sheer breadth of attractions and activities,” Seratt points out.  “We truly do have something for everyone.  And with ample accommodations, ranging from inviting b&bs, to hotels in every price range, to RV and even primitive campsites, visitors are able to find the perfect travel rhythm—not to mention harmonies—for a thoroughly enjoyable trip.”

 

The Towns Along the Way:

Woodville:  Visitors enjoy a great start at the NSB-constructed Woodville Hospitality Center, designed to complement the historic surroundings of a town first settled by Jesuits in the 1600s, where historic structures still include Rosemont, built by Jefferson Davis’ parents, and the authentically rustic Pond Store.   There are also more than 700 acres of recreational fun to be had at the Clark Creek Natural Area.

Natchez:  With its 500 grand homes, churches and buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Natchez is living history at its finest, ready to be explored by car, foot or horse-drawn carriage.  The working Frogmore Plantation and the preserved Grand Village of the Natchez Indians are enjoyable stops that broaden understanding.  Pilgrimage is a once-a-year extravaganza, but fine dining and unbeatable hospitality are everyday affairs here.

Jefferson County:  It’s easy to get swept away by the mansions of Jefferson County.  Rosswood Plantation Bed & Breakfast surrounds you with “Gone with the Wind” elegance from floors to 14-foot ceilings.  At Springfield, one of the first colonnaded mansions in the Mississippi Valley, Andrew Jackson and Rachel Donelson Robards were so swept away they tied the knot before her divorce to her first husband was final.  That set tongues wagging, but today at the Old Country Store in Lorman, it’s taste buds that are titillated, by the sensational ribs and fried chicken.  “Mr. D.,” the charming chef and proprietor, serves them up for a song, and often with a song.  Romance at first sight, love at first bite.

Port Gibson:  U.S. Grant captured this city but supposedly declared it “too beautiful to burn,” leaving its historic beauty for you to enjoy today. The home that did burn, at the turn of the century, left the magnificent Ruins of Windsor with such haunting allure even Hollywood has filmed it. Stop at the preserved battle sites at the edge of town and tour the 400-acre Grand Gulf Military Park for engrossing pieces of history.  Historic cemeteries such as Wintergreen, overhung with ancient oaks and shrouded with Spanish moss, are also inviting spots for exploration, and contemplation.

Vicksburg:  The Battle and 47-day Siege of Vicksburg changed the course of history, but today this gracious, mural-clad city offers up a course in the art of fine living with a vibrant assemblage of galleries, restaurants, clubs and casinos.  And at the sprawling 1800-acre Vicksburg National Military Park visitors can go deep, exploring the 1300 monuments, cannons, fort and even an ironclad gunboat.  A moving and memorable stop.

Onward:  Teddy Roosevelt went home empty handed from his bear hunt here, but a toy maker seized on the idea, and the teddy bear was born.  Today, outside the quaintly historic Onward Country Store, a marker tells the bear story, where inside mock bear prints lead to a counter where necessities are sold alongside hearty fare like burgers and steaks and the regional favorite, hot tamales.

Rolling Fork:  Charming carved bears decorate the city that celebrates Teddy Roosevelt’s famous bear hunt with the annual Great Bear Affair.  The blues are also celebrated here, with the preserved birthplace of Muddy Waters.  The grand mansion Mont Helena sits amid endless cotton fields, while the more than 60,000-acre Delta National Forest offers endless hours of outdoor fun.

Greenville:  History runs deep and high here—as deep as the historic 1927 flood and as high as the Native American Winterville mounds (up to 55 feet!)—just two of the subjects of the city’s five historic museums.  The literary history goes deep here where Shelby Foote and Walker Percy once lived.  But as dedicated as “Queen City” is to history, this hospitable, bluesy city is just as serious about offering a great time, dining, juking, gaming, or hunting game and fishing.

Cleveland:  Home to Delta State University and the Bologna Fine Arts Performing Center, Cleveland melds classic and modern with high style shopping and dining.  Blues history also casts its spell here, at Po Monkey’s, one of the state’s last cornfield juke joints, and at the Dockery Plantation, still a working operation, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Clarksdale:  The greatest of the blues greats came out of Clarksdale, and today actor and Mississippi native Morgan Freeman co-owns and operates the Ground Zero Blues Club, part of Blues Alley, a blues mecca that includes the jam-packed Blues Museum.  Dining here is diverse and delicious; the Hopson Plantation B&B offers an authentic taste of days gone by in its ingenious and meticulous re-creation.

Tunica:  Inside Tunica RiverPark, an expansive River Museum immerses visitors in history and lore; outside, nature trails and exhibits wind through the Park’s 168 verdant acres, up to a dramatic River observation deck.  Take a spin on a paddle wheeler or a turn at the casino wheel; the visitor’s center in an 1895 train depot and the historic Tate House are also must-sees.

DeSoto County:  This is a county that contains multitudes, with a roster of recreation that includes 72 holes of championship golf and more than 57,000 acres of sailing, fishing, hunting and more at Arkabutla Lake.  Tour a working farm, or hop on a “Hawg” and cycle down scenic back roads.  Historic downtowns are chock-a-block with great shopping, and you won’t want to miss a stop at the nation’s largest bonsai nursery, or the studio galleries of the area’s talented potters.  Take a step into the past at the DeSoto County Historical Museum, or take in the nation’s largest collection of memorabilia and books related to the game of contract bridge.   With more than 250 restaurants to savor, you’ll probably want to take your time in DeSoto—you’ll want latitude to enjoy the multitudes.

“Each of our historic communities has such unique character,” Seratt notes, “that there’s always something new—or should I say wonderfully old and new— just up ahead.  That’s just one of the reasons we’re such favorite destination for travelers of all ages.”

For more information about attractions, accommodations, dining and more, see Mississippi’s Great River Road on the web at  www.msgreatriverroad.com

 

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