IT IS AN ODD PARADOX of modern travel that wherever one goes, the actual stay is so often the same from one destination to the next. Such is the triumph of modern branding that all Holiday Inns, for example, are more or less identical. Yet travel, at its heart, is an experience of some other place. Why settle for the familiar when it comes to lodging?
Enter the bed-and-breakfast. A huge step up from the discount motel, yet with more intimacy and character than even a brand-name resort, the B&B hails from an older, finer tradition: the roadside inn, a structure usually very much rooted in its location. In that vein, the B&B is about tossing out the cookie cutter and enjoying something inextricably tied to a specific place. It’s no coincidence that such lodgings are usually to be found in historic homes. Choosing to stay in a bed-and-breakfast is to truly embrace the spirit of travel, to accumulate an experience of a destination that simply cannot be replicated in any detail anywhere else, even down to where you choose to rest your head at night.
Yet, while there are countless inns all across the country, it’s hard to argue that anyone can do the B&B quite like it’s done in the South. Call me biased if you must, but an outstanding B&B is about hospitality, and the South has no short supply. It’s just a fact, y’all.
With that in mind, here are a few ideas on outstanding bed-and-breakfasts in the region, accommodations so fine they’re worth building a vacation around. Together they offer something for all tastes, whether you seek an energetic nightlife, an immersion in history, proximity to the links or the remote solitude required to see the glory of a star-filled nighttime sky. Each B&B defines place in its own ineffable way, from opulent grandeur to rustic authenticity. Enjoy your stay.
Oak Alley Plantation
To say there are few properties like Oak Alley left in the world today is both true and misleading. There were never many properties like Oak Alley. As the name implies, twin rows of stately, 300-year-old oak trees march up from the banks of the mighty Mississippi River to the magnificent 1830 Greek Revival “Big House,” once the hub of a thriving sugarcane plantation. The storybook view is so captivating that it’s one of the most photographed places in the country. But the mansion, which local royalty called home for 150 years and is now open for visitors, isn’t the only attraction. The 25-acre grounds also contain exhibits and a theater detailing the workings of the sugarcane industry (recommended viewing before touring the mansion), a re-created Civil War commander’s tent, a blacksmith’s shop and, not hiding from its own ugly history, a reconstructed slave quarters with extensive and often brutal exhibits detailing the countless tales of human tragedy that enabled the surrounding opulence to exist. On-site dining includes a restaurant featuring Cajun and creole cuisine. Accommodations are available in a series of century-old cottages on the property, each of which is slightly different (though they’ve all been updated to include modern amenities). While the grounds themselves offer a day’s worth of adventure, Oak Alley is almost at the midpoint of the 100-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Visit the former, and stand in awe of the massive stained-glass dome at the Old State Capitol. Hit up the latter for any number of amazing eats, including brunching on Eggs Benecio at Coulis on Prytania Street. (oakalleyplantation.com)
La Villa Vista Bed and Breakfast
It’s all right there in the name. Perched on a hillside high above Austin’s Lake Travis, La Villa Vista offers the elegance and romance of an Italian villa with views for days. Each of the B&B’s five suites offers something special: the Old World ambiance of the Milan suite, the sheer luxury of the Penthouse, the hand-painted detailing of the Serengeti suite, the funky, younger feel of the inn’s highest point, the Himalaya suite. But all of them offer sweeping views of the surrounding area through oversized windows, and most suites include a private balcony (including a massive 23-foot balcony off the Tuscany suite). These amenities allow visitors to take in the heart-stopping sunsets over the lake to the west. While stays at the Mediterranean-style manse include breakfast, rooms also share access to communal spaces in a kitchen, library, entertainment area, hot tub and “negative edge” pool that also overlooks the lake. Why anyone would want to leave this gorgeous Hill Country property is a fair question, but for those who do get out, lakeside dining establishments like The Oasis are within walking distance, and downtown Austin—home to one of the most vibrant cultural and nightlife scenes in the entire country—is a scant 20-minute drive away. (lavillavista.com)
St. Francis Inn
St. Augustine, Florida
Most historic properties have a story, but few have a story quite like the St. Francis Inn. Then again, as the oldest inn in the oldest city in America, this establishment has had many years to write its tale. Built by a soldier on a lot granted to him directly by the king of Spain in 1791, the building’s architecture reflects a more dangerous time: Sheer walls rise almost directly from the street so that it would be defensible in case of attack, by royal decree. A gated courtyard offers access to the entry at the rear. Converted from a home into a lodging establishment in 1845, records from guests staying at the time of the Civil War sing the inn’s praises as one of the city’s finest. Not a lot of places can boast that. Today’s guests can choose from 11 single rooms, four suites and two options separated from the main inn: a private getaway over the garden or the former cookhouse/slave quarters that’s been converted into a two-bedroom cottage with its own kitchen. Breakfast comes by way of a buffet featuring two entrees each morning, and the inn’s additional free amenities include desserts laid out each evening, a communal evening social hour and a temperature-controlled pool open year-round. The inn also has a licensed massage therapist on staff who can be booked for in-room massages for an additional fee. While it may be tempting to just linger amid banana trees and tropical flowers by the courtyard pond, which is fed by an artesian well, there is plenty to do in St. Augustine, a city whose history stretches back more than 230 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Begin the exploration at the city’s Oldest House, a museum that includes a rotating art exhibit and ornamental gardens, a mere block away. (stfrancisinn.com)
1890 Williams House Inn
Hot Springs, Arkansas
In a town steeped in history, why not embrace that history in your choice of a place to stay—particularly when it’s closer to home? The 1890 Williams House Inn claims the distinction of being the first bed-and-breakfast established in the state, thus making history not only as a grand Victorian residence for a wealthy 19th-century physician, but also as a modern business. With its elegant, sweeping porch and three-story stone turret, the National Register-listed Williams House is iconic in its craftsmanship, detailing which is not lost on its interiors, including exquisite woodwork and stained glass throughout. Overnight options include six rooms and suites in the main house, many of which feature oversized, jetted tubs. Four more rooms and suites have been carved out of the former carriage house for a very different (but no less elegant) aesthetic of exposed brick and wood accented by copper. While full breakfast is offered, the inn is known for specialty breads and muffins that exemplify a “dessert first” philosophy. (Tropical fruit kringle or strawberry chocolate-chip bread, anyone?) For nearby attractions, few places in Arkansas can boast the variety of Hot Springs. Only blocks from the Williams House is the historic Bathhouse Row and the spas built on the thermal waters from which the city gets its name, while nearby lakes feature a different kind of aquatic recreation. Nature trails provide plenty of hiking opportunities. And, of course, Hot Springs is home to Oaklawn Racing & Gaming, which includes slots, video poker, blackjack, craps and roulette and, from January to April, live horse racing. (1890williamshouse.com)
The Farmhouse Inn at Hundred Acre Farm
For true serenity, it’s hard to be beat the remote Farmhouse Inn. Located on the Hundred Acre Farm, 6 miles outside of town, the landscape blankets visitors in nature, slowly comforting the mind and body, with fireflies hovering over a rolling meadow and the vast night sky above as your only companions. If it sounds like a movie, or maybe some people’s idea of heaven, perhaps it is. The property offers private rooms, each with a different theme, along with a two-bedroom cottage and a five-bedroom farmhouse—a total of 12 bedrooms that hold up to 34 guests. All around are the sights and sounds of farm life: a chicken coop, cow pastures, a horse stable. The farm includes two ponds and an adjoining lake and river for fishing or canoeing, and trails for hiking. Stays include a farm-to-table breakfast that is not to be missed, with free-range eggs and organic, sustainably grown, pesticide-free produce (asparagus, cucumbers, cabbage, zucchini, etc.) all raised on-site, as well as meats, cheeses, honey and other offerings from neighboring, like-minded farmers. While the draw of Farmhouse Inn is its country setting rich in nature (the bird-watching, in particular, is renowned), nearby Madison offers shopping and dining with historic charm, and the expansive attractions of metropolitan Atlanta are only an hour’s drive away. (thefarmhouseinn.com )
Rosemary Inn and Lookaway Hall
North Augusta, South Carolina
With elegant rooms offering an abundance of luxury and the best views in town, this pair of historic homes originally built by the founding family of North Augusta on either side of Carolina Avenue now serve as welcoming B&Bs for anyone seeking a relaxing stay along the lazy Savannah River. Though evocative of antebellum opulence, both properties date from the turn of the 20th century and are infused with Gilded Age splendor (but not lacking in Old South charm—one is named for lyrics in “Dixie,” after all). Rosemary offers six gorgeous rooms (including four suites), while the larger Lookaway has 10 guestrooms, all outfitted with modern amenities but immaculately appointed with engrossing oil paintings and period antiques. Stays include a full gourmet hot breakfast, and the vast verandas (and, in Lookaway’s case, a private garden) offer ample opportunity for simply sitting and enjoying a cool glass of homemade lemonade. Of course, getting out is an option, too, and these twin locales offer quick access to the local community. Bring your walking shoes, and allot at least two hours for the Riverfront Antique Mall. But don’t forget that Augusta, Georgia, with its food, shopping and cultural institutions like the Augusta Museum of History, is just across the river. For the truly well connected, the Augusta National Golf Club is in the vicinity. However, don’t expect a guided tour of Amen Corner—much less the chance to play a round. It’s a private club and only open to nonmembers during the Master’s tournament—tickets to which are famously hard to come by. (rosemaryinnbb.com; lookawayinn.com)
Shack Up Inn
“The Ritz we ain’t,” boasts the website of the Shack Up Inn, and they mean it. Even on the page for booking, the proprietors offer the reminder: If shacks aren’t your thing, don’t bother. But if rustic authenticity has any draw for you, particularly in the wellspring of the blues, then don’t hesitate to consider a stay. Established on the former Hopson Plantation just southeast of Clarksdale in the heart of the Delta, the Shack Up Inn and associated Cotton Gin Inn are truly unique in their accommodations. Nearly two dozen renovated shacks of former sharecroppers and tenant farmers (with updates including private bathrooms, heat and air and even wireless internet) and a handful of renovated grain silos dot the landscape around the plantation’s original cotton gin, the bins of which have likewise been converted into a 10-room inn. In the middle of it all is the Juke Joint Chapel Bar with its selection of domestic, import and locally brewed beer and frequent live acts. For those into exploring history, the grounds themselves are fascinating, but the draw for this lonely fixture on the great, flat expanse of historic U.S. Highway 49 is the music. With nearby Clarksdale offering the Delta Blues Museum and numerous outlets for other live shows, you won’t have to travel far. That is, if you can’t hear the blues resonating from the Mississippi cypress walls and tin roofs literally all around you at this one-of-a-kind, off-the-beaten-path destination. (shackupinn.com)