Daycations and Destinations
by Bill Perkins
When I was invited to write an article on places to visit near the Bluffs‘ footprint, so many destinations came to mind. Living in Brookhaven, Mississippi, is much like living in Natchez. Both are in close proximity to so many interesting towns, including New Orleans and Baton Rouge with so much constantly happening, such as festivals, concerts, sports, and other events. There is never a shortage of things to do. Simply probe the net for endless choices beyond the events you may already be aware of. You will quickly be torn among the many options.
I annually struggle between whether to enjoy the French Quarter Festival (by far one of my favorites) in New Orleans or the Sunflower River Blues Fest in Clarksdale, Mississippi. They invariably clash on the calendar. I have crammed them both into a week, dashing to the French Quarter for a couple of days then off to the Delta for the big day Saturday. Music lovers understand.
For brevity, I have narrowed this account to an excursion south to the North Shore of Lake Ponchatrain and north to Oxford with a glimpse of the Delta thrown in the mix. We begin on the patio as our gathering point here in Ole Brook about 10:00 a.m. with coffee, tea, Mimosas, or Bloody Marys served before we embark for our adventure at the North Shore. This will be a “daycation,” so everyone can relax and enjoy.
Our first stop is for a delicious lunch at Abita Brewery Pub in the charming village of Abita Springs, Louisiana. This was the location of the original brewery, but it outgrew the space within a year of opening. The luncheon menu offers diverse selections from Cajun to burgers to soups and salads; and, of course, all of their brews are available. The service is excellent and efficient, so we had time for a walkabout and even a look-see in one of the most unusual “museums” before our next stop, nearby Abita Brewery for its first tour at 1:00 p.m. The locale actually includes two museums, UCM: Mystery Abita House (something quite different) and Abita Springs Trailhead Museum (more normal and historically informative). Take note: Monday is a dead day for Abita Brewery Pub and the museums, so that is not the day to make this visit complete.
I have toured so many breweries from the original Heineken in Amsterdam, to Guinness in Dublin, to those of monks in Belgium, to the Swan in Perth, Australia, and many more; but the Abita is one of the most impressive. It is as state of the art technically as any anywhere. The closest would be the clone of it in Germany. Since I am a lifetime brew lover and home brewer since 1988, the facility was especially interesting to me. When I taste a brew, I can visualize the grains, hops, and yeast. The tour is very informative with the knowledgeable guide explaining the entire process in concise detail before we reach the Tasting Room. Here each visitor may use tokens, which come with the tour, for sampling the many brews in a very pleasant, relaxing social setting. The tasting area has a French Quarter flare to its architecture to further enhance the experience.
We head next to Saia’s, which is fifteen minutes away in old Mandeville. This unimposing enterprise has a killer selection of wines, spirits, and brews along with a highly regarded butcher counter and a deli. For decades, it has been our one-stop shop when hanging with friends in Mandeville. For quality, selection, and price combined, it is hard to beat. Since there is another option in town now, you have choices when headed to Mandeville; however, I’ll stick with Saia’s in order to keep with tradition. The owners pride themselves on being the most competitive of the area, which means this part of the USA.
When I have asked at the Wine & Food Fest in New Orleans if a wine I like is available at Saia’s, a quick response is usually, “Do you know them? I need some sway to get ours on their shelves.” We load our ice chests with sides of filets cut, trimmed and packed per patron’s instructions, and head to Shore Drive, past the park of palms and live oaks with hanging moss, for that serene view of sailboats on the lake. Some may walk the park along the lake; others may indulge in Happy Hours at the Barley Oak or other wining-dining venues with a view. Some prefer Rip’s. Maybe the Lakeside Cafe is your favorite. We love a sunset across the horizon of the massive lake. Sometimes, we make one last stop in Mandeville, visiting friends there to taste one of the “vinos” just purchased that may not be on the list back home in Mississippi. That, with some nice cheese and a fresh crusty baguette from the nearby bakery, completes the south Louisiana moment.
These are just some of so many choices available in the area. In addition to Saia’s, there is Aquistapace’s in Covington, Louisiana, only a few minutes to the west of Abita Springs. It is also renowned for its wide spectrum of offerings and low prices. Aquistapace’s has now opened a second location in Mandeville. I choose heading south to Saia’s since I find the allure of the lake a few more blocks through old Mandeville is just too compelling. The North Shore has more of everything for dining and shopping. There is plenty of New Orleans on the other side of the lake these days.
And now, we stop for dinner at The Boston in Amite to break up the return journey. The Boston is a favorite dining possibility about half way home. The fare here will please the most discerning diner for steak and seafood, plus stir fried that could be in Hong Kong, and the freshest sushi outside of Tokyo. Okay, that may be a bit of a stretch; but you get the drift. After all the years it has been open, if it is meal time, there can be a short wait to be seated. It remains ever popular, even on Mondays, for good reasons.
Should hunger set in sooner and a juicy steak is what you desire, take a pit stop in downtown Hammond, Louisiana, at The Steak House. Perhaps you prefer something more traditional like Jacmel’s, which really delivers on that lazy Louisiana charm of an old home surrounded by live oaks that have been there since before there was a state of Mississippi. Once again, there are too many eateries to list. A thriving town with a university of 16,000-plus students, it offers many options for dining, shopping, or stopping by the ten-plex cinema to catch a film that might never be shown at home. All of this and you could be home by ten, hence, a twelve-hour daycation. Sleep will come soon.
Weekend excursions to Oxford, Mississippi, are perfect even if you aren’t a Rebel (or Black Bear or whatever). Oxford is a magnet for me with its live music seven nights a week and places to dine still on the bucket list. By many accounts, Oxford ranks in the top ten places in the USA to retire or just to live. Such an easy and relaxing town, it draws visitors from around the globe. Central to life in Oxford is The Square. Every town should have one, but then Oxford’s wouldn’t be so special. It is surrounded by a wide variety of shops, cafes, and music venues.
While in Oxford, I must pay homage to William Faulkner by wandering the grounds of his home, Rowan Oak. Sitting beneath the tall cedars there was my favorite place to soak up knowledge while I was a student at the university. The school has been touted as the most beautiful in the country. As much as I see this in print, that is a hard call to make with all the glorious schools from New England to California, but maybe. Oxford and the school are known for their festivals, too, from the Double Decker to the Shakespeare festivals. Check the calendar.
And there is the Delta. Whether taking in a blues festival or just taking it easy, the Delta is a special place and unlike any other. With its notoriously flat terrain, Delta roads can be straight as an arrow between towns. Music and cuisine are the attraction for me; plus, having relatives and friends across this great expanse of agriculture sweetens the experience. That network certainly helps in learning the lay of the land, who’s who, and what’s what. Each Delta town deserves a full story; but I will stick to Clarksdale, Mississippi. Events such as the Sunflower River Blues Festival are so much easier than the mega festivals like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest with over a half million folks. Festival-going is simple and kicked back in the Delta. Park and walk a few minutes with your folding chair, and enjoy the festival without the sea of humanity of the big ones in the cities.
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