In Natchitoches, Louisiana, the Christmas festivities extend from the weekend before Thanksgiving until Jan. 6, so there is plenty of time to plan a visit to the town and still be home for your own family gatherings.
Pronounced “nack-a-tish” and located in the northwest quadrant of the state, the town is a 6-1/2-hour drive from Birmingham or a 45-minute drive from the Alexandria airport. If you visit, you will quickly understand how Natchitoches embraces its nickname as the City of Lights.
Some 300,000 lights adorn downtown and 120 displays are set along Cane River Lake — both good enough reasons to check out Natchitoches. But when you add the incredible food, special shops, gorgeous bed-and-breakfast inns and other attractions, spending a few days in Natchitoches becomes irresistible.
Cane River Lake, which runs through the middle of town, looks like a river but functions as a 33-mile-long lake because it is dammed up at both ends. The Riverfront Park, stage and amphitheater on Front Street serve as the main gathering spot for musical entertainment, bouncy houses for the children, the Santa House and weekly firework shows. The colored lights reflected in the water enhance the scene and underscore the celebration’s name of “Festival of Lights.”
Chain hotels are available on University Highway and Highway 1 Bypass, plus two boutique hotels, Church Street Inn and Chateau St. Denis, are in the downtown area.
However, Natchitoches is proud of its designation as Louisiana’s B&B capital, and I would strongly recommend you choose one from their list of 30. Several are in the historic district and date back to the 1800s.
Start by checking out Violet Hill, Samuel Guy House or Steel Magnolia House. All three B&Bs are lovely, and their holiday decorations make them even more beautiful. If you travel with children, several of the B&Bs offer separate cottages suitable for families, and at the Riverbend B&B, it is possible to rent the entire house.
Boutiques, candy stores, antique shops and the Natchitoches Art Guild and Gallery offer a tempting array of merchandise, making them suitable places for finding that perfect gift for loved ones, but the most interesting store must be Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile.
Kaffie-Frederick dates to 1863 and is Louisiana’s oldest general store. Downstairs you can find every houseware item imaginable and vintage toys. Upstairs you will see a Christmas décor and gift shop full of beautiful items.
Tres Bien Antiques on St. Denis Street has a selection of prints by artist Denise Deville, including one that represents all the most famous scenes from the movie “Steel Magnolias,” which was filmed entirely in Natchitoches. The screenplay, a true story, was written by Natchitoches native Robert Harling after his sister, Susan, died of complications from diabetes. Those who are fans of the movie will want to stop by the visitors center to pick up a brochure describing the locations of filming locations around the city.
If you come to Louisiana hoping to find gumbo, red beans and rice, bread pudding and other Cajun and Creole offerings, you will certainly find them, but two dishes that are unique to Natchitoches are meat pies and yam cake. Louisiana Yam Cake is only made and sold in one place, a gas station, of all places. French Market Express bakes this outstanding dessert chocked with yams, coconut and pecans in large and small sizes, plus individual loaves, and two-bite muffins.
Meat pies are on several menus around town, but the ones I liked best were at Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant. Do yourself a favor and sample the crawfish version.
For smoked meats, outstanding potato salad and pecan pie, head to Grayson’s Bar-B-Q a few miles away in Clarence. The owners and staff have been serving area residents for more than 50 years, and the aroma when you step out of your car will instantly cause you to start salivating. The smoked ham is exceptional.
At Merci Beaucoup, I loved the Cajun Potato, which consists of a baked potato topped with crawfish etouffee and a jumbo fried shrimp. At Cane River Commissary, I tried the Creole Sampler which was very good.
For a touch of elegance, I would recommend Mariner’s Restaurant overlooking Sibley Lake. The restaurant property was purchased and completely redecorated during the pandemic and serves creative, chef-driven specialties in a refined atmosphere.
A range of attractions
If you are not a shopper and wonder how you might spend a few days in Natchitoches, don’t worry. There are some remarkably interesting options. Cane River Queen paddlewheel boat offers hourlong cruises up and down Cane River Lake.
Dark Woods Adventure Park opens for its annual Christmas in the Park walk-through light display with 200,000 lights of its own. The fresh mini-doughnuts, signature hot chocolate and inviting firepits lure visitors of all ages.
History buffs will want to check out Magnolia, Oakland and Melrose Plantations where many original buildings are still standing or the Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site, a replica fort providing insights into the lives of early settlers. At Melrose, you will become familiar with the artwork of Clementine Hunter who once worked as a cook for the plantation owners. For more modern history, head to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum.
Hunting and fishing are popular during the designated seasons, in case you can’t make it for Christmas. But, if possible, plan a visit when the City of Lights is awash with colored lights and all dressed up for the holidays.