Monday, October 21, 2013

Visit St. Francisville—new guidebook for tourists
By Anne Butler
Tunica Hills - photo by Darrell Chitty
Throughout much of the 20th century, tourists flocked to the St. Francisville area’s unspoiled pastoral landscapes and splendid plantation homes for guided tours through the romanticized glories of the antebellum period, with some historic homes open to the public on a daily basis and other private homes open only during the spring Audubon Pilgrimage. But times have changed, and so have the demographics of tourism. Some visitors are younger, the older ones are more active, and they all want to be more engaged, more involved, more informed.
While many visitors continue to enjoy the plantation homes, where history is now presented in a more realistic version and hands-on demonstrations make it come alive, others are looking for more active pursuits. The St. Francisville area is uniquely suited to satisfy their wildest desires, from bicycle races through the steep hilly terrain to warrior dashes across firepits and mudholes, from waterfall hikes to birding in the same woodlands that inspired the artist Audubon in the 1820s.
Greenwood Plantation
Greenwood Plantation - by Anne Butler
The area is especially popular with bicyclists. Quiet country lanes overhung with moss-draped live oaks beckon recreational bikers, but for the competitive bike racer there are several more challenging options. The nationally famous Rouge Roubaix, a classic 100-mile road race considered one of the top 12 hardest races in the world,  draws experienced bikers to the treacherous Old Tunica Road’s sunken roadbeds and rugged hills on a demanding course that crosses some of the roughest terrain in West Feliciana Parish and Wilkinson County, MS. Even in the middle of town there are bike races that go round and round and up and down the hills of St. Francisville proper past historic homes with galleries dripping with gingerbread trim, galleries and shops in vintage structures, the still-used parish courthouse and the banks of the Mississippi River.
And then there’s the infamous 8-mile wooded mountain bike trail called The Beast that crisscrosses the creeks and hollows of the 200-acre West Feliciana Parish Sports Park, where the challenging Warrior Dash is also set; the world’s largest obstacle course, the annual dash takes place in numerous locations across the country and world with thousands of participants slipping and sliding through grueling 5-K Mud Runs, the individual participants often raising funds for St. Jude’s Hospital and other worthy causes.
Hiking in the Tunica Hills, Cat Island and just across the Mississippi state line in the Clark Creek Natural Area with its scenic waterfalls is especially popular in the fall and winter, while the Nature Conservancy’s Mary Ann Brown Preserve and the shorter trails at the Audubon State Historic Site are child-friendly and not as demanding. Birders find the wilderness areas full of both resident and migratory birdlife, and Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge, with its rare cyclical flooding from Mississippi River overflow and its old-growth cypress trees, provides a prime observation area for migratory waterfowl. The Tunica Hills and Cat Island woodlands and swamps are filled with whitetail deer and smaller game animals, so the areas attract hunters during season.
Rosedown Plantation
Rosedown Plantation - by D. Chitty
With the shift in tourism interest from sedentary study of historic sites to more active and more involved activities, the St. Francisville tourist guide has been redesigned to reflect the new emphasis on recreational areas. Just released, it features fine color images of not just the historic plantations but also the unique landscapes that draw visitors to the area. The guide book is available at the West Feliciana Historical Society’s museum and visitor information center on Ferdinand St. in St. Francisville as well as other local outlets, and it will be introduced at the Yellow Leaf Arts Festival the last weekend in October.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and
Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination.  A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours daily: the Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, the Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations most weekends to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Sunday and Monday).
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224; online visit, or (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities, including the Farmers Market on Thursday mornings).