Because of its location in the far southwestern corner of Tennessee, Memphis doesn't have the wealth of convenient day-trip options that Nashville has. For example, you could head west into Arkansas if you're interested in seeing Bill Clinton's presidential library in Little Rock, or drive north if the flat expanse of rural Missouri's boot heel holds any appeal (probably not). Look east, and you're at least a 3-hour drive to Nashville. Due to the distances involved, all of these options are perhaps better suited to overnight trips than simple daylong escapes. But here's the good news: Head south from downtown Memphis, and you're only a few miles from the Mississippi Delta -- the mother lode for blues-loving pilgrims who travel here from all over the world.
An unmistakable vibe pervades the languid Mississippi Delta town of Clarksdale, about an hour's drive south of Memphis, Tennessee. It's by turns eerie and endearing, a flat landscape where fertile fields, endless railroad tracks, and run-down shacks are giving way to pockets of progress -- an upscale restaurant, a strip mall full of dollar stores and fast-food drive-throughs, a museum celebrating the blues music that took root here in the early 20th century and changed the course of popular music.
Clarksdale also happens to be Tennessee Williams country. The cherished American playwright, author of such masterworks as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, grew up here. Young Tom, who later adopted the name "Tennessee," lived in the parsonage of St. George's Episcopal Church, where his grandfather was pastor. Self-guided walking tours of the historic neighborhood are available.
If you don't plan to return to Memphis the same day, this is a good place to begin a driving tour of legendary Highway 61 (U.S. 61), the two-lane road that took blues legends such as Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and B. B. King north from the impoverished cotton plantations of the south to the cities of Memphis and Chicago to the north. The long drive south will take you through the proverbial dusty Delta towns, and cities such as Greenville, Vicksburg, and finally, where Mississippi meets Louisiana in the southwest part of the state, historic Natchez.
By Car -- The major route into Clarksdale is Highway 61 from Memphis to the north.
Contact the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce, 1540 Desoto Ave., Clarksdale, MS 39614 (tel. 800/626-3764 or 662/627-7337; www.clarksdaletourism.com).
What to See & Do
As you ease into town, your first stop should be at The Crossroads, at the intersection of highways 49 and 61. The site is legendary as the place where bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the guitar prowess that has made him one of the most revered musicians of the past century. A guitar statue marks the spot.
From here, your next stop should be the Delta Blues Museum, 1 Blues Alley (tel. 662/627-6820; www.deltabluesmuseum.org). Housed in a renovated train depot built in 1918, it includes a treasure-trove of old blues memorabilia, including the log cabin where Muddy Waters grew up, on a cotton plantation not far from here. There are displays, musical instruments, and costumes of some of the Mississippi-born greats, such as Albert King, James Cotton, and Son House. Admission is $7 adults, $5 children 6 to 12; it is open daily except Sunday. Bessie Smith fans can do a drive-by tour of the Riverside Hotel, 615 Sunflower Ave. (tel. 662/624-9163), the former blacks-only hospital where the great blues singer died after a car crash in 1937. Blues legends Sonny Boy Williamson II, Ike Turner, Robert Nighthawk, and even politician Robert F. Kennedy once stayed here. Today it still operates as a motel, but most visitors see it only from their windshields.
While downtown, don't miss Cathead Delta Blues & Folk Art, 252 Delta Ave. (tel. 662/624-5992; www.cathead.biz). The store sells new blues CDs, DVDs, and books as well as eye-catching -- and affordable -- folk and outsider art. The hepcat-cool hot spot also serves as a clearinghouse for what's going on around town. Check Cathead's chalkboard that tells of weekly music events and updates. The store also occasionally has book signings and special events. You'll likely find the owner chatting up tourists who've made the pilgrimage here for some serious blues sightseeing.
Where to Stay & Dine
There's a pitiful lack of decent hotels in Clarksdale. Your best bet is to grab one of the inexpensive to moderately priced chain properties along State Street. Clean and modern with comfortable rooms and discounted rates is the Executive Inn, 710 S. State St. (tel. 662/627-9292).
In the lodging category of too-creepy for anyone but the most die-hard blues fan, there's the one-of-a-kind Shack Up Inn, 001 Commissary Circle (tel. 662/624-8329; www.shackupinn.com), on old Highway 49 south of Clarksdale. Billed as Mississippi's oldest B&B (and that stands for Bed and Beer), the property is on the site of a weedy rural cotton gin littered with rusting antique farming implements, old road signs, and crumbling sharecropper shacks that have been modernized enough to accommodate easy-to-please travelers in search of a good time and a place to crash -- and great music at the on-premises Commissary club. In 2004, the inn opened up 10 new "gin bins," private rooms within the gin warehouse that's now a makeshift "inn." Rates, which range from $65 to $95 per room, include a Moon Pie on your pillow. Sweet dreams . . .
Hands-down the best restaurant in town is Madidi Fine Dining, 164 Delta Ave. (tel. 662/627-7770; www.madidires.com), the upscale eatery and bar opened in 2001 by actor Morgan Freeman, who grew up in the area and is still seen around town from time to time. (He is also a partner in Ground Zero Blues Club, reminiscent of an old juke-joint, in downtown.) Other popular venues are Abe's Bar-B-Que, 616 State St. (tel. 662/624-9947); and Sarah's Kitchen, 203 Sunflower Ave. (tel. 662/627-3239), which serves Southern cooking 3 days a week -- lunch and dinner Thursdays through Saturdays only.
Home to the University of Mississippi, "Ole Miss," Oxford is a quaint small town where daily life revolves around its 150-year-old Court Square. A popular weekend destination for out-of-towners and visiting alumni, Oxford offers an enticing array of great art galleries, bookstores, restaurants, and historic homes. Although its proximity to Memphis (about 70 miles away) makes it a doable day-trip, Oxford's offbeat charms might entice you to stay a day or two.
By Car -- The major route into Oxford is I-55 from both the north (Memphis) and south (Jackson). It's about a 90-minute drive.
Contact the Oxford Convention & Visitors Bureau, 107 Courthouse Sq., Ste. 1, Oxford, MS 38655 (tel. 800/758-9177 or 662/234-4680; www.touroxfordms.com).
Exploring the Area
Oxford's favorite son is Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner, whose residence from 1930 until his death in 1963 was his beloved home, Rowan Oak, Old Taylor Road (tel. 662/234-3284). A tour of the grounds, with its graceful magnolias and old farm buildings, is a trip back in time. Inside, literary enthusiasts can still marvel at the author's old manual typewriter, and read his handwritten outline for A Fable, which is scrawled on the wall of his study. It's closed Mondays and major holidays. Admission is free on Wednesdays but costs $5 other days.
The most popular pastime in Oxford is simply strolling The Square, where travelers might spot former local residents such as John Grisham. Square Books, 160 Courthouse Sq. (tel. 662/236-2262; www.squarebooks.com), in business since 1870, is regarded as one of the best independent bookstores in the country. Down the street is its bargain-priced annex, Off Square Books, 129 Courthouse Sq. (tel. 662/236-2828). Thousands of discounted and remaindered books cram shelves and bins. It's also the site of Square Books' author signings and readings, as well as Thacker Mountain Radio, Oxford's original music and literature radio show. Best-selling authors such as Robert Olen Butler, Elmore Leonard, and Ray Blount, Jr., have read their works on the live show. Musical guests have run the gamut from Elvis Costello and Marty Stuart to the Del McCoury band and the North Mississippi Allstars. The show is recorded live on Thursdays from 6 to 7pm.
Next door, Southside Gallery, 150 Courthouse Sq. (tel. 662/234-9090), is an always-interesting place that showcases everything from photography, painting, and sculpture to outsider art by the likes of Howard Finster.
Where to Stay & Dine
Because of its proximity to Memphis, Oxford is a popular day-trip destination for many travelers. Perhaps as a result, there are only a handful of hotels and motels, most of them chains on the outskirts of town that cater to the parents of college kids and other travelers to the university.
Among the cleanest and most modern choices are the Comfort Inn, 1808 Jackson Ave. S. (tel. 662/234-6000), which has a small outdoor pool ($225); the larger Days Inn, 1101 Frontage Rd. (tel. 662/234-9500; $70); and Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites, 112 Heritage Rd. (tel. 800/465-4329 or 662/236-2500; $75-$85).
Call ahead and book early if you want to reserve a room at one of the city's bed-and-breakfast properties, which are often booked during weekends when Ole Miss has home football games or other major events. You won't see it advertised much because the place is always full, but try to book a stay at Puddin' Place, 1008 University Ave. (tel. 662/234-1250), a spotless, cheerfully decorated 1892 house that has two large suites with private bathrooms. The owner is in the process of adding a private cottage in the tree-shaded back yard. Gourmet breakfasts are included in the room rates, which usually run $145 for a double (during Ole Miss football season it's $350 for the 2-night minimum weekend stay, and the hotel sells out these weekends months in advance).
For guests who don't mind rather simple furnishings and a lack of pizzazz, try the 512 Inn, 512 Van Buren Ave. (tel. 662/234-8043). The white-columned, redbrick structure has a welcoming front porch packed with potted plants and flowers. There are six guest rooms, all with private bathroom but no phone. Rates run $105 to $175 for a double; continental breakfast is available weekdays, and a full breakfast is served on weekends.
City Grocery, 152 Courthouse Sq. (tel. 662/232-8080; www.bigbadbreakfast.com), is one of the best restaurants in Mississippi. New Orleans-born chef John Currence finesses spicy cheese grits topped with plump shrimp, mushrooms, and smoked bacon, while offering an array of tempting gourmet salads, soups, and Cajun delicacies. Main courses cost $20 to $32. Reservations are recommended.
Bottletree Bakery, 923 Van Buren Ave. (tel. 662/236-5000), is a must if you crave caffeine and the aroma of warm muffins being pulled from the oven. The cheery nook serves pastries and freshly baked breads as well as fine coffees, sandwiches, and salads.
Oxford's favorite dive bar is Proud Larry's, 211 S. Lamar Blvd. (tel. 662/236-0050), where live music and drink specials augment a simple menu of burgers, pasta, salads, and hand-tossed pizzas.
Southern Foodways Alliance: It's Gravy -- Even if you're not a foodie, you've got to love an organization whose newsletter is called Gravy. That's the fun and informative missive of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.
Led by noted food writer and author John T. Edge (Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History; Cornbread Nation: The Best of Southern Food Writing; and Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover's Companion to the South), the non-profit SFA is based on the Ole Miss campus in Oxford. However, its reach extends across several states, from Louisiana and Alabama to the Carolina Low Country and the Appalachians. With about 800 members, the SFA celebrates and documents Southern cooking traditions through its publications, oral history projects, and events such as the Potlikker Film Festival.
An annual symposium includes an array of lectures, discussions, and social outings focused on such topics as turnip greens, vine-ripened tomatoes, hoecakes, cornbread, and fried chicken. Chefs, farmers, barbecue champs, academics, and people who simply love to eat and to learn about food are participants in this eclectic group. At its 2009 event, guest speakers included humorist Roy Blount, Jr., as well as New Orleans's Nick Spitzer, host of National Public Radio's American Routes.
Only about 10 years old, the SFA also bestows lifetime achievement awards to people who uphold high culinary and cultural standards. The awards are named for Craig Claiborne, New York Times food editor, who was raised in the small Mississippi Delta town of Sunflower, not far from Oxford.
To get helpful travel advice on where to go and what to eat, go online to download the SFA's "Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail," "Southern BBQ Trail," "Southern Boudin Trail," and "Southern Gumbo Trail." You can also sign up for field trips and special events, in 2010 and beyond, by contacting the SFA (tel. 662/915-5993; www.southernfoodways.org).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.