850 miles of driving, most of it with music ringing in my ears or blasting out of the radio, I drove from Atlanta, via Nashville and Memphis to New Orleans. An amazing combination of sights and sounds, starting in Atlanta where I stayed in a delightful boutique hotel called Stonehurst Place in midtown. A delicious breakfast set me up for 3 days of exploration. I am a massive Gone with the Wind fan, so had to go and visit Margaret Mitchell’s home with Atlanta Movie Tours (who also offer the Walking Dead and the Hunger Games, all filmed here), I didn’t bother with the World of Coca-Cola but did go to the Center for Civil and Human Rights as well as Buckhead – a cornucopia of high-end designers. If you are a jazz fan, you might want to coincide your visit with the May Jazz Festival or one of the 30 other festivals that take place every year.
Picking up my car, I hit the road stopping first at Chattanooga, trying desperately not to let the song get under my skin, I took the Incline Railway, well named as it scales the heights of Lookout Mountain before reach Ruby Falls and Rock City. From there it was on to Nashville. I was totally unprepared for such an assault on all my senses. Music seems to emanate from every corner. Although most people think of Nashville and country music in one breath, you also hear pop, rock, gospel, classical – you name it and you can probably hear it. The Grand Ole Opry is a “must-visit” as is the Country Music Hall of Fame and the RCA Studio B where stars like Elvis and Dolly Parton recorded many of the best hits. Since my visit the National Museum of African American Music has also opened. But it is not all about the music, dubbed “The Coolest, Tastiest City in the South” by Bon Appetit, Nashville’s creative spirit has infiltrated into its kitchens, turning them into chefs’ studios (often with live music). From Southern fare to contemporary cuisine, Nashville’s award-winning culinary scene is worth a visit all on its own. The city’s famed Nashville Hot Chicken and hearty “meat and threes” are its most notable culinary creations, but Music City has made itself known for a wide range of flavours and innovations. I had a delicious and imaginative dinner at 1 Kitchen.
It was time to leave Nashville and head for the next highlight. Memphis did not disappoint. Of course, my first stop had to be neon-lit Beale Street where greats like W.C. Handy and B.B. King performed and helped perpetuate the music style known as Memphis Blues. I had a brilliant BBQ supper at the Irish pub Silky O’Sullivan’s known as much for its food as its beer loving goats. The next day was spent entirely at Graceland: Elvis Presley’s home offered an eclectic mix of cars, planes, clothes and instruments. I would recommend the interactive audio/visual guide as well as one of the themed dinners. Back in town, we went to the Sun Studio where Elvis recorded his first song and known in the industry as the birthplace of Rock ‘n’ roll. Still a working studio, you can see, hear (and try) instruments from such legends as B.B. King, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison amongst countless others old and new.
What I wish I had done, was to take the American Queen ship downriver from Nashville to New Orleans as I think this would have been an amazing way to travel as so many did in the old days but instead I drove to Vicksburg, a key city during the Civil War where I toured the National Military Park as well as some of the glorious historic homes and the Old Court House Museum. From there I followed the Mississippi to Natchez known for its antebellum houses. I loved the unfinished Longwood House and the Monmouth Historic Inn and Gardens but there were so many more and the one night I had given myself was really not enough.
My last stop was meant to be the cherry on the top. And it did not disappoint. But, to get to New Orleans, I drove along the River Road, home to so many of the remarkable plantation homes. Nottoway is one of the best known and I rather regretted not spending a night here. I also popped into the haunted Myrtle Plantation and the very thought-provoking Magnolia Plantation where you can see the slave quarters and learn about their conditions. Quite tired after a long day, I checked into the historic and very comfortable Monteleone Hotel in the French Quarter but needed some comfort food, so I tucked into some oysters and a huge plate of jambalaya at Mr. B’s which was the best pick-me-up I could have thought of. This American Creole/Cajun dish is just packed with so many flavours made with rice, chicken, prawns, chorizo and veg – I love it. The other classic Louisiana dish is gumbo which often uses the same ingredients but is more like a soup or stew which I had the next day at the renowned Olde Nola on Bourbon Street. Now firmly back on the music trail, the party street, Bourbon, (named for the French Royal family not the amber liquid) is at the heart of the French Quarter and you can expect to hear not only the jazz that made it name but also blues, zydeco and the current hits. Perhaps more genuine New Orleans these days can be found in Frenchman Street where you might visit Snug Harbor or the Blue Nile for excellent jazz. NB: You must be over 21 to get into most of the clubs.