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Allison Entrekin

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Allison Entrekin is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in all things travel. In her role with Atlanta Magazine Custom Media, she is the editor of the Georgia Travel Guide and executive editor with Southbound. She has a bachelor's degree from the University of Florida and a master's degree from the University of Georgia.

Resort Spotlight: Sea Island in Georgia’s Golden Isles

The Cloister main entrance

Photo courtesy of Sea Island

For the last quarter century, Brannen Veal has been a staff member at Sea Island, a Forbes Five-Star resort in Georgia’s Golden Isles. Hired as a golf pro in 1996, the Macon native worked his way up to the head pro job before becoming director of golf in 2005. His four children grew up playing on Sea Island, and if he has his way, it’s where he’ll stay until retirement. “I’m not alone in that sentiment,” he says.

Indeed, ninety Sea Island employees have worked at the resort twenty-five years or more, a distinction indicated by the “Quarter Century Club” logo on their nametags. It’s this kind of continuity—along with decades-old resort traditions like family bingo (where players dress in their Sunday best) and seafood suppers on nearby Rainbow Island (no one skips the hush puppies)—that has held Sea Island together amid a string of dizzying changes.

The Cloister lobby

Photo courtesy of Sea Island

Most of those were changes no one saw coming. From its founding in 1928 by auto magnate Howard Coffin until the early aughts, Sea Island and its Addison Mizner–designed inn, The Cloister, remained blissfully consistent. Descendants of the original owners oversaw all expansions and improvements. Families from across the South returned year after year to ride horses along five miles of private beach, fish the Black Banks River, and golf the championship courses. A visit to Sea Island even became something of a tradition among U.S. presidents, with seven of them—from Calvin Coolidge to George W. Bush—visiting the grounds.

But in 2003, fourth-generation owner Bill Jones III razed the aging Cloister. In its place a grander Spanish-Colonial compound arose. This new Cloister comprised 265 guestrooms, a 65,000-square-foot spa, and a sprawling Beach Club and pool complex. The idea was to turn Sea Island from a regional escape into an international destination, and indeed, the resort played host to the G8 Summit in 2004. But no sooner had the paint dried on the resort’s three-year, $350 million transformation than the Great Recession began, leaving many of The Cloister’s $700-a-night guestrooms empty. In 2010, Sea Island filed for bankruptcy, and a partnership of equity firms purchased it in a fire sale. Many wondered what would become of the beloved resort.

Beach Club

Photo courtesy of Sea Island

Employees like Brannen Veal held on—and with him, many of the guests who had gathered at The Cloister for decades. (Even former President Bill Clinton showed his support with a visit in 2012.) During those transitional years, Sea Island managed to retain its unbroken Forbes Five-Star rating, and by 2016, it was again under family ownership, this time the Anschutz family, who also owns The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs.

Rooms at The Cloister are full again, and ironically, most guests are not international visitors but Southern families who are able to drive to Sea Island during this pandemic-rattled era. They still fish the river (the resort books roughly 2,500 charter fishing trips a year), golf the championship courses (Sea Island residents Davis and Mark Love recently redesigned the classic Plantation Course, to much acclaim), and ride horses along the beach (an amenity offered by only a handful of U.S. resorts). Each time they return, familiar faces greet them at the door, shake up a favorite cocktail, and help them with their golf game—and, somehow, that makes Sea Island feel mercifully unchanged.

100 Cloister Drive, Sea Island, Georgia • (855) 572-4975 • seaisland.com

 

While You’re There

Hawk Walk
Meet Mikey. The two-and-a-half-year-old Harris’s Hawk lives on Rainbow Island, Sea Island’s natural paradise on the shores of the Black Banks River. During your Hawk Walk, you and a falconer will stroll the island as Mikey flies freely nearby. When the falconer says it’s time, put on a glove, grab a little food, and raise your fist high; Mikey will come swooping down and alight on your outstretched arm. It’s rousing raptor fun.

 

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Southbound.

3 authentic plate lunch recipes from the heart of Cajun Country

Excerpted from Allison Entrekin’s “The Lunch Ladies of Lafayette.”

Born in Acadiana (Louisiana’s historically French region) in the sixties, a plate lunch is a working person’s meal. Portions are large so as to keep hunger at bay until nightfall. It typically consists of a meat and several sides, including at least one smothered item. It always includes rice and gravy.

Lafayette is known as the capital of Acadiana, as well as a “plate lunch paradise.” The city is home to some forty-six restaurants serving plate lunches—almost one per square mile.

Here are family recipes from three of the women who own the restaurants featured in the piece. Read the full story here.

Brown gravy on a plate lunch from Laura’s II

Photo by Heather McClelland

Brown Gravy
Recipe courtesy of Madonna Broussard, Laura’s II, Lafayette, LA

Ingredients
2 tablespoons dark roux
½ cup trinity (onions, celery, and bell pepper, chopped)
3 pints and 1 cup water, divided
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon red pepper
3 tablespoons cornstarch

Directions
Combine roux and trinity in a saucepan and saute until trinity is tender. Add 3 pints water, salt, and red pepper. Let boil on medium heat for 20 minutes. Liquid should be rich brown in color. In a mixing bowl, combine cornstarch and 1 cup water, then add to gravy to thicken. Pour over your white rice of choice and enjoy.

Smothered sausage and potatoes

Photo by Heather McClelland


Smothered Sausage and Potatoes
Courtesy of Lori Johnson Walls, Johnson’s Boucaniere, Lafayette, LA 

Ingredients
1 pound Johnson’s smoked sausage (or your favorite brand), cut into pieces
1 medium onion, diced
½ medium bell pepper, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups chicken broth
1 ½ pound red potatoes, peeled and cut into fairly large pieces
Cajun seasoning to taste
2 green onions, diced

Directions
Brown sausage in a Dutch oven. Once browned, add onion, bell pepper, and garlic. Allow the vegetables to cook and brown on medium heat, which will take approximately 15 minutes. Add broth, potatoes, and Cajun seasoning. (It might be necessary to add more broth or water to partially cover the potato mixture.) Cover and allow to cook for approximately 1 to 1 ½ hours on medium heat. Stir every 20 minutes and add water if the mixture gets too dry. Cook until the potatoes are soft and break up into the gravy. Finish with diced green onions and enjoy. You may serve it as is, or have it the Cajun way served over rice.


Crawfish Etouffee
Recipe courtesy of Lilly Mae Norbert, Norbert’s

Ingredients
1 stick butter
1 cup onion, chopped
1 cup bell pepper, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 can cream of mushroom soup
2 pounds crawfish tails

Directions
Saute onion, bell pepper, celery, and garlic in butter. Season to taste. Add mushroom soup and cook for 10 minutes. Add crawfish and cook 10 to 15 minutes more. Serve over rice.

This article is from the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Southbound.

The Lunch Ladies of Lafayette: 3 women dishing up a true taste of Cajun Country

Their primary job is to serve the most central of daily meals: lunch.

They are early risers, okra choppers, roux stirrers, crowd herders. They are keepers of their family’s long-held recipes. They bear up under pressure. They are survivors.

These women do what they do to make a living. But in the process, they’ve made something greater: a food culture that has caught the nation’s attention. “The plate lunch is high art,” The Splendid Table’s Francis Lam wrote for the Southern Foodways Alliance, which conducted a large-scale oral history project on the culinary phenomenon.

Born in Acadiana (Louisiana’s historically French region) in the sixties, a plate lunch is a working person’s meal. Portions are large so as to keep hunger at bay until nightfall. It typically consists of a meat and several sides, including at least one smothered item. It always includes rice and gravy.

Lafayette is known as the capital of Acadiana, as well as a “plate lunch paradise.” The city is home to some forty-six restaurants serving plate lunches—almost one per square mile.

That’s more than any other city, according to Rien Fertel, an oral historian with the Southern Foodways Alliance’s “Lunch Houses of Acadiana” project. Rice is readily available and cheap in Lafayette, Fertel notes, so cooks can make giant portions of rice-based dishes (such as crawfish etouffee) and easily sell them for a profit. “Many of the city’s plate-lunch houses are run by Black women,” he says. “For many years, these restaurants were one of the few sustainable economic opportunities available to them. And they remain the best Creole food you can have in Lafayette.”

Here, we share the voices of three women dishing up edible culture, one heaping lunch plate at a time.

Madonna Broussard of Laura’s II

Photo by Heather McClelland

The Legacy Keeper
Madonna Broussard

On a brisk Sunday in February 2018, a post-church crowd gathered outside Laura’s II in downtown Lafayette. Congregants from the predominantly Black Progressive Baptist Church arrived at the restaurant first, followed by those from the nondenominational, mostly white, Family Life Christian Church. Inside, owner Madonna Broussard quickly whisked her roux. Its color wasn’t yet amber enough to make a gravy that would stick to her rice. And until it stuck to her rice, she wouldn’t open her restaurant to serve it.

The phone rang. Broussard’s thirty-one-year-old daughter, Lacey, answered. “Mom!” she called. “Someone who works with Anthony Bourdain is on the phone!”

And with that call, Madonna began a lunch service she’ll never forget, one in which travel documentarian Bourdain showed up with ten minutes’ notice to film what would become one of the final episodes of his CNN show, Parts Unknown. “We’d never had a celebrity customer before,” Madonna says. “We had no time to prepare.”

Bourdain didn’t mind. In fact, as he stood with Madonna outside the restaurant and surveyed the diverse crowd, he whistled. “Has your restaurant always been like this?” he asked. Yes, she replied. Even when her grandmother, Laura Broussard, opened the original Laura’s out of her wood-frame house in 1968, it served Blacks and whites, doctors and students alike. Bourdain took a drag from his cigarette. “Don’t ever let that change,” he told her.

She hasn’t. She feels the weight of owning Lafayette’s longest-running plate-lunch restaurant, and she’s determined to honor her grandmother’s two mottoes: Treat every customer with respect, and pile their plates high. “To her, giving you an abundance of food, that was love,” Madonna says.

When Madonna was a child, she helped Laura serve those plates while chickens clucked around the backyard and zydeco music crooned from the jukebox. She remembers the smells of smoke billowing from the smokehouse out back and bread baking at the Evangeline Maid factory three blocks away.

After Laura retired, Madonna’s mother, Dorothy Mae, took over. Though Madonna was just a teenager then, she recognized that the restaurant’s future would one day be in her hands. But all that changed when she became pregnant with Lacey as a high-school senior; nothing seemed certain anymore. She took a job sewing undergarments at a nearby factory to support herself and Lacey. The hours were long, but the pay was good. The faster she moved her needle, the more she made.

Madonna Broussard and her daughter, Lacey

Photo by Heather McClelland

Ten years later, Dorothy Mae’s health declined and she could no longer run the restaurant. Madonna faced a choice: Take over or let Laura’s close. “I knew what to do,” Madonna says. “I had to keep the family ship afloat.”

She renamed the restaurant Laura’s II and moved it to its current location. She then began what she calls a “trial-and-error” process of making gravy Laura’s way. “I had to build up my confidence—and learn how to make it without getting a third-degree burn!” She put her own touches on the menu, adding macaroni and cheese and serving the popular baked turkey wings daily. To her relief, regular customers remained regulars and a younger generation began trickling in, thanks in part to Lacey’s savvy social media posts. “I guess that’s what millennials respond to,” Madonna says, adding that Lacey might open her own Laura’s location one day: “That’s her dream.”

Since Bourdain’s passing, Laura’s II has become a pilgrimage site for his fans, who ask to sit in the booth he once occupied and eat the turkey wings he said he was “all over like a heat-seeking missile.” Madonna is happy to oblige. She’ll always remember that February day fondly, and the promise she made to the roving celebrity chef. “No matter what’s going on in the outside world, in here, I make sure we don’t change.”

Laura’s II

Best known for:
Stuffed baked turkey wings
Gravy (get Madonna Broussard’s recipe, passed down from her grandmother, here)

Don’t miss:
Smothered seafood okra. Even if you’re not an okra person, you have to try this cheesy casserole made from fresh, local okra Laura cans herself each spring.

Madonna’s favorite place to…
Enjoy a Lafayette festival

“There’s always a festival in Lafayette. I’ve been a part of the Plate Lunchapalooza, and I love the Downtown Sno-Ball Festival and the Acadiana Po-Boy Festival. I really enjoy Downtown Alive, which is held Friday evenings in the spring and fall and is geared toward arts and music. You can eat good Cajun food, listen to live bands for free, and buy crafts. When I get off work, I come out with my lawn chair to Parc International and listen to really good zydeco bands. Downtown Alive is a really nice, down-home event.”

 

Lori Johnson Walls of Johnson’s Boucaniere

Photo by Heather McClelland

The Sausage Maker’s Daughter
Lori Johnson Walls

Lori Johnson Walls knows how the sausage is made. As a child, she saw her uncle Joe carry whole hog carcasses into her family’s market in Eunice, Louisiana (an hour northwest of Lafayette), and carefully take them apart. She watched the pork go into the grinder shaped like a loaf and come out looking like spaghetti. She breathed in the scent as those “noodles” were cooked with her mother’s rice and seasoned with bell peppers, onions, and celery. She listened to the pops and snaps as Joe stuffed the boudin (rice sausage) into casings. When her uncle wasn’t looking, she and her cousin dared each other to touch the pig’s vacant eye sockets.

Lori usually took the dare first. She wasn’t squeamish; still isn’t. Every morning at dawn, she rolls out of bed and walks across her property in downtown Lafayette to the boucaniere (Louisiana French for smokehouse) and restaurant she and her husband, Greg, have owned since 2008. Two hours later, her ninety-two-year-old father, Wallace, descends the stairs from his apartment above the smokehouse. Then Greg (who awakens at 3 a.m. to start the smokers before returning to bed) arrives mid-morning, his sleeves rolled up. Together, they make and sell sausage so good, Johnson’s Boucaniere regularly takes first-place honors in the town’s fiercely competitive Boudin Cookoff. It’s also the centerpiece of popular lunch items like sausage and smothered potatoes.

“It’s what I’m most proud of—carrying on my family’s sausage and boudin traditions and getting it right,” Lori says. “I don’t want to tarnish their reputations.”

Wallace Johnson and Lori Johnson Walls

Photo by Heather McClelland

Indeed, from 1937 until its close in 2005, Johnson’s Grocery in Eunice was best known as the birthplace of Acadiana boudin. Her grandfather built the wood-frame store, and his five children—including her father—eventually ran it. When Lori was five, Wallace taught her how to peel the extra skin off onions so they would display better. That became her after-school job until she was old enough to bag groceries. At thirteen, she experienced a rite of passage: Wallace brought her to the empty store on a Sunday and taught her how to work the register. “I thought I was so big,” Lori says.

Every day of her childhood, Lori smelled like smoke. The store emitted a steady cloud of it, and the scent never really washed out of her clothes and hair. The plumes were always thickest on Saturdays, when her dad staked a sign in front of the store that read “Hot Boudin To-Day.” Lines for links of the famous Johnson sausages wrapped around the building (her family referred to it as the “Rue de Boudin”). By 10 a.m., all 2,000 pounds they had prepared were gone. Her dad brought the sign back inside. It would be a week before more boudin was ready.

Some of the children who waited in the Rue de Boudin during those early days now make the drive from Eunice to Lafayette, where they gasp at the sight of Wallace taking hand-written lunch orders from behind the counter. “They’ll say in French, ‘Oh, Mr. Johnson, they told me you were here!’” Lori says. “And he’ll smile and slide them a lunch plate with a boudin link.”

They always remark that it tastes the same as it did when they were children, Lori says.

Outside her store, a sign staked in a patch of grass reads “Hot Boudin To-Day.” Lori knows how the sausage is made, and to honor her family, she’s going to keep making it.

Johnson’s Boucaniere

Best known for:
Boudin
Chicken and sausage gumbo
Sausage and smothered potatoes (get Lori Johnson Walls’s recipe, passed down from her mother, here)

Don’t miss:
Breakfast. Order the homemade sausage biscuit and a strong cup of joe from Lafayette-based Reve Coffee Roasters.

Lori’s favorite place to…
See live music

“I love Hideaway on Lee in downtown Lafayette. The overall atmosphere is very laid-back and welcoming, very comfortable. I might be biased, but I think the best band to see there is the Southerniers. My husband, Greg, is the drummer. I also like seeing a show at Vermilionville, a local living-history museum. On Sunday afternoons, they usually have zydeco or Cajun musicians play at the performance center. It’s fun for me because it’s not so late at night! I like to go at two in the afternoon and have a good time.”

 

Lilly Mae Norbert of Norbert Restaurant

Photo by Heather McClelland

The Tireless Cook
Lilly Mae Norbert

Lilly Mae Norbert knows nothing of a so-called work-life balance. If she was asked to place any given hour of her day on that proverbial scale, she wouldn’t know on which side it belonged.

She is seventy-five years old and lives with her seventy-eight-year-old husband, John, in a modest home in the Lafayette suburb of Broussard. Five steps from their front door stands the 1,000-square-foot restaurant they’ve owned since 1971.

She rises every morning at six, fixes them an oatmeal breakfast, and puts on her red apron. At seven, she and John walk across the yard and unlock the door to their restaurant. They don’t discuss the day’s plan. It is always the same. John begins by breaking apart whole chickens, pigs, rabbits. He’s been a butcher since the fifties, and his mammoth hands could palm a weighted basketball without a single vein taking notice. Lilly Mae pulls her pots off the shelf to simmer the sauces her daddy raised her on: barbecue for the chicken, roux for the beef stew, gravy for the smothered pork.

Her daddy. He was a kind, strong man who brought her up on Bealls Plantation, a sugarcane farm in Broussard where his own daddy worked. Lilly Mae was the eighth of ten children, living in a place where planting and playing happened in the same dusty fields. “We didn’t have no cars, so going to the sugar mill was our enjoyment,” she says.

When she was seventeen, Lilly Mae’s father died. She went to live with an older sister, who happened to be friends with a man named John. “I was a pretty healthy boy—not good looking, but healthy,” John recalls. He says he was immediately taken with Lilly Mae’s quiet strength, and he wondered if she’d ever be interested in a butcher with no formal education. She was too young for him at the time, “but I always had her in my mind,” he says. A few years later, he convinced her to give him a chance. This year, they’ll celebrate fifty-three years of marriage.

Lilly Mae and John Norbert

Photo by Heather McClelland

Theirs has always been a union of partnership. John’s dream was to open a little store where he could sell cracklins (fried pork fat and skin) and boudin. Lilly Mae thought a little larger. After working for a savory pie business in downtown Broussard for four years, she purchased it and turned it into Norbert Restaurant. John could sell his specialty meats, she could sell her daddy’s dishes, and together they’d sell plate lunches—something no other Broussard restaurant offered at the time. “That idea was really big,” Lilly Mae says.

By the eighties, they had moved from their downtown restaurant into their current location just southeast of town, on the side of Highway 90. They were averaging 500 lunches a day and hired four employees to keep up with the demand. They raised two daughters in the restaurant, hanging their photos on the walls and clearing tables for them to do homework after school.

The oldest of those daughters is now a dietitian in Houston. The youngest is a manager at nearby historic attraction Vermilionville. Without their mouths to feed and college tuitions to cover, Lilly Mae and John have slowed down a bit. (“We feel like we don’t have to hustle so much,” Lilly Mae says.) They are once again the restaurant’s only employees. They sell 100 lunches a day, and they’re fine with that. They close their restaurant at three in the afternoon, walk five steps back to their home, take their vitamins, and relax in their easy chairs.

Lilly Mae says she might retire, but she doesn’t know when. She might move, but she doesn’t know where. Her youngest daughter is thinking about taking the restaurant’s reins, and if she does, she’ll need her mother’s training. Is that work, Lilly Mae wonders—cooking in a kitchen with your daughter, surrounded by pictures of her childhood? Is it living to leave the life you’ve known for fifty years behind? Lilly Mae isn’t sure, but today it doesn’t matter. Today she knows the plan, and it’s time to start simmering the sauces.

Norbert Restaurant, 337-837-6704

Best known for:
Smothered rabbit
Crawfish etouffee (get Lilly Mae Norbert’s recipe, passed down from her father, here)

Don’t miss:
The desserts. Lilly Mae Norbert makes everything from banana pudding to pecan pie to bread pudding from scratch.

Lilly Mae’s favorite place to…
Enjoy the outdoors
St. Julien is a beautiful park. We go in the summertime, especially in the evenings, for picnics. People are always out walking their dogs, riding their bikes, playing softball, skating. We used to bring our daughters to the big playground when they were children. It’s a special place to us.”

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Southbound.

5 things I learned at Discovery Cove

Recently, after a particularly gloomy day of virtual school, my 11-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son were in tears. “I’m so sick of screens!” she said. “I’m sick of everything,” he said.

It was all I needed to hear. I knew it was time for a serious change of scenery. Palm trees, sand…maybe even dolphins. So, along with my husband, we packed our bags and headed to Orlando’s Discovery Cove, a beachy theme park I’d heard about for years but had never gotten around to visiting (more on that in point five below). According to Discovery Cove’s website, every guest would have the opportunity to swim with dolphins, snorkel with stingrays, and float along lazy rivers. Lots of sun, zero screens. What else did I need to know?

As it turns out, plenty. During our trip to Discovery Cove, I learned five things worth sharing—especially if you’ve never been:

Meeting flamingos

Photo courtesy of Discovery Cove

1. Flamingos are underrated. Dolphins tend to get all the hype, but the flamingos at Discovery Cove steal the show. During the park’s Flamingo Mingle (a new add-on experience), we met a dozen or so of the giant pink birds as they strutted through the park. A group of flamingos is called a flamboyance, and flamboyant they were—popping open their wings like giant pink umbrellas, honking at each other, and hustling past us like they were late to a party. We followed them to the water, where we were instructed to kneel and hold bowls of slushy flamingo food. Suddenly, the flamboyance was upon us. They sucked up the food with their spiny tongues (which filter nutrients from the water), but they also sucked our hair, our arms, our bathing suits. They were loud, unapologetic, and entirely unbothered by our squeals and laughs. The experience was definitely worth the extra $60 a person.

SeaVenture experience

Photo courtesy of Discovery Cove

2. A 10-year-old can scuba dive (sort of) without certification. While my husband and son snorkeled, my daughter and I tried SeaVenture ($59 a person). During a short orientation, we learned we were going to don air-supplied scuba helmets and descend 12 feet down a ladder to the bottom of a massive cold-water pool filled with sea creatures. As if mimicking what was to come, the color slowly descended from my daughter’s face. “Do you want to do this?” I whispered in that embarrassingly loud mom way. “Yes,” she hissed back. “Sort of.” I went first, putting on the helmet and pausing several times as I climbed down the ladder to clear my ears when they felt clogged. It was awkward walking on the tank floor, but I could breathe just fine. The two minutes I spent waiting for my daughter at the bottom felt like two hours. I honestly didn’t know if she would do it. But then I saw her feet step below the water’s surface, followed by her torso and then her helmet-clad head. When she reached the bottom, her eyes were as big as I’d ever seen them, and her smile spanned the width of the helmet. We followed a guide along the floor, who wrote the names of the animals that passed us on a waterproof chalkboard. An angelfish, a zebra shark, a cownose ray. At one point, our guide threw chum around us, and a zillion fish rushed to our corner of the tank in a rainbow-colored blur. Days later, my daughter still calls the experience one of the most magical of her life.

Swimming with dolphins

Photo courtesy of Discovery Cove

3. Dolphins won’t let you fail. Our dolphin swim experience began by meeting our Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, Thelma. Born at SeaWorld, she is the 29-year-old matriarch of her pod, a mother of four, and a straight-up boss. As we stood with her in waist-deep water, she charmed us with the requisite tricks (waving, whistling, leaping high into the air), and she even gave each of us kisses on the cheek. But then came the part we’d been waiting for: swimming through the water with her. This was also the part I was most unsure of: What if we didn’t hold on correctly? What if we were too light or too heavy? What if we fell off? But here’s the thing about Thelma, and the thing about every dolphin at Discovery Cove: They are pros. They will not let you fail. As I hung onto her mighty torso, Thelma expertly zoomed me through the water while I let out one of those open-mouthed laughs that makes your stomach hurt. It was the moment I’d needed since last spring and just didn’t know it. Thelma, I owe you.

4. Productivity is overrated. One of my favorite things about Discovery Cove is that while it offers plenty of adventure, it also gives its guests permission to chill. We took advantage of our private cabana (a worthwhile $199), relaxing on its hammock and lounge chairs and sipping complimentary beverages from the mini fridge (Cokes for the kids, beer for my husband and me). Cabana or not, did I mention that every visitor gets unlimited food and drinks? It’s like being on a cruise, minus the seasickness. Beverage in hand, it’s lovely to float along the lazy river, passing trees filled with tropical birds and even a small island inhabited by marmoset monkeys. Zoom meetings, deadlines, and virtual school all fade from memory. It’s idleness at its most glorious.

Writer Allison Entrekin and her family at Discovery Cove

Photo courtesy of Discovery Cove

5. There’s more to Orlando than Disney. I was born and raised in Central Florida, and I’m a huge Disney fan. But sometimes I forget that Orlando has far more attractions than Disney or even Universal. There are smaller, amazing parks like Discovery Cove (which is owned by SeaWorld), where the parking lots and crowds are manageable, the staff learns your name, and there are virtually no lines. (Oh, and it’s sparkling clean—which is extra important when you’re walking around barefoot in a bathing suit.) In between long days at theme parks, Discovery Cove is the perfect palate cleanser. It can even constitute a vacation in its own right.

Wondering where to stay?
For a worthy alternative to a Disney-area hotel, check out Reunion Resort. Choose from accommodations ranging from hotel suite to a private villa, and spend at least one of your vacation days enjoying the five-acre waterpark, mini-golf course, and championship golf (with courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Tom Watson).

Hotel Spotlight: Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans

Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Bar

Photo courtesy of Hotel Monteleone

Truman Capote was not born inside New Orleans’s Hotel Monteleone. But when he drank there with friends, which was often, he liked to claim he was. It wasn’t so much a lie as an ebullient spin on the truth: His mother spent her pregnancy as a guest of the grand French Quarter hotel, and the staff arranged her transportation to a nearby hospital when she went into labor with her son. Today, the hotel’s Capote Suite reflects the trademark pomp of the Southern Gothic author—crystal chandeliers, a traditional parlor, and ornately draped windows overlooking the corner of Iberville and Royal streets.

Capote isn’t the only famous writer with ties to Hotel Monteleone. Tennessee Williams frequently met Capote at the hotel’s Carousel Bar for cocktails (more on the bar later); in Williams’s play The Rose Tattoo, the property makes a cameo as a modern hotspot. Today, a suite named in the playwright’s honor comes complete with its own wet bar and an elegant six-person dining table. Ernest Hemingway mentioned the Carousel Bar in his short war story “The Night Before Battle,” so it’s only appropriate that the hotel’s Hemingway Suite is located in an area of the building that once housed Union troops. And Eudora Welty featured the bar in her short story “The Purple Hat”; her namesake room offers wide-angle views of the Mississippi River.

With its many connections to prominent authors, Hotel Monteleone is one of only three hotels in the United States designated as a Literary Landmark by the Friends of the Library Association. But long before it received the honor in 1999, it was a landmark in its own right. Located a block off Bourbon Street, it was founded in the mid–nineteenth century as a sixty-four-room hotel and purchased in 1886 by a wealthy Sicilian cobbler, Antonio Monteleone. Though it has seen significant changes over the years, including the addition of more than 500 rooms and a heated rooftop pool and bar, it remains family-owned. Today, a fifth generation of Monteleones manages the bustling hotel.

This includes the Carousel Bar, undoubtedly one of the most famous drinking establishments in a city jammed with them. Open since 1949, it is beloved for the twenty-five-seat “carousel” encircling the bar, which completes its leisurely revolution every fifteen minutes. For those lucky enough to nab a seat (there’s plenty of overflow in the adjoining lounge), the must-order drink is the Vieux Carre, a smooth whiskey cocktail invented here.

Rooms at the hotel are plush and floral, featuring high ceilings, crown molding, and marble and granite bathrooms. There are a number of accommodation types, including six varieties of suites—most notably those literary suites paying homage to scribes who have fallen in love with the hotel over the years. Through their words, both written and spoken, they gave this New Orleans hotel the gift of immortality. Even when those words weren’t entirely true.

214 Royal Street, New Orleans, Louisiana • 504-523-3341 • hotelmonteleone.com

While You’re There

Power-Lunch Like a Local
If you’re in New Orleans on a Friday, make plans—and save your pennies—for the popular lunch at Galatoire’s, one of the French Quarter’s oldest and most venerated Creole restaurants. While tables on the main floor usually require reservations, this meal offers the weekly exception. In-the-know types show up in the wee hours of the morning and pay a professional “line sitter” to hold their spot until the doors open at 11:30 a.m. (The going rate for this service is $20 per person in the reservation.) Come lunchtime, diners return in their Big Easy finery (most men wear jackets; collared shirts are required) and head inside for a lunch that can last until dinner. Plan to order stiff drinks, let your server choose your meal, and spot plenty of local politicians milling from table to table. By the time you’re on your second or third cocktail, someone will bang a spoon on a glass to announce their friend is celebrating a birthday. Or a wedding. Or a divorce. In any case, the whole room will shake their white-linen napkins and cheer until a three-piece band enters the dining area to play a tune. It’s raucous, unrepentant, and delicious fun. Just like New Orleans.

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Southbound.

Highlands, North Carolina’s Main Street is a gathering place for locals and a sweet escape for visitors

Situated on a mountain plateau in western North Carolina, some 4,000 feet above sea level, the four-stoplight town of Highlands is no secluded hamlet. Dubbed the Aspen of the East, it attracts 200,000 visitors a year. They come for its mild weather, labyrinth of hiking trails, and manicured golf courses. They also come for its Main Street. Straight out of a postcard, its four wide blocks are lined with canopied restaurants and boutiques, dog bowls filled with water, and charming inns—including one of only two Relais & Châteaux properties in North Carolina. In the fall, restaurants host sold-out dinners during the town’s signature food and wine festival; come winter, shops compete in holiday window-display contests. Still, this is not a place built for tourists in search of a small-town feel; it’s made for the people who actually live here. The thoroughfare is home to Highlands’s only hardware store, a barber shop, a post office, and four churches. It is both a gathering place for locals and a sweet escape for visitors—a Main Street in every sense of the word.

Highlands Wine Shoppe
This charming shop, housed in Main Street’s first residence (built in 1883), carries more than 650 wines, from $800 cabs to $10 Rieslings. Take your bottle home, or pop the cork and enjoy it with an antipasto plate on the sprawling front lawn.

C. Orrico

Photo by Kathie Orrico

C. Orrico
This upscale women’s boutique was started by the three Orrico sisters: Kathie, Casey, and Colleen. Decorated with straw baskets and nautical pillows, the bright shop sells Lilly Pulitzer face masks, Sail to Sable dresses, and Trina Turk tunics.

Old Edwards Inn & Spa

Photo courtesy of Old Edwards Hospitality

Old Edwards Inn & Spa
One of only two Relais & Châteaux inns in North Carolina, this Old World–style property is known for elegant accommodations and top-notch service. Request a suite in the historic main inn with a terrace overlooking Main Street for prime people watching.

Four65 pizza

Photo courtesy of Four65

Four65
Open since May, this sleek gourmet pizza joint features an open kitchen showcasing its giant wood-fired brick ovens. Order the Kentucky Fig cocktail (made with bourbon, fig-flavored vodka, lemon, blueberry, and ginger ale) and the crowd-pleasing brussels-and-bacon pizza.

Highlands Mountain Paws

Photo courtesy of Highlands Mountain Paws

Highlands Mountain Paws
Between the creaky wooden floors and the menagerie of dogs milling about, this popular pet boutique is as cozy as they come. Browse for a range of gifts for cats and dogs, from cheeky Pets Rock artwork to all-natural treats made in nearby Waynesville.

A dress from S’More Kids Klothes

Photo courtesy of Rylee + Cru

S’more Kids Klothes
Small and tidy, with cork floors covered by colorful rugs, this new shop for babies and children carries everything from wooden toys to holiday outfits. As cheerful eighties music plays over the speakers, shop for Joules lunch boxes and color-changing Holly & Beau raincoats.

Bardo 49
Local designers Jay and Lisa Calloway transformed a former pharmacy into a Southwest-inspired furniture store, complete with leather chairs and copper firepits spilling onto the sidewalk. Shop for cowhide bags and feather wreaths, a reclaimed metalwork table, and even turquoise jewelry.

SweeTreats Ice Cream & Deli
This retro shop custom-blends vanilla and chocolate ice cream with candies, fruits, nuts, and sauces, drawing after-dinner crowds since its opening in the eighties. The adjoining deli is beloved for the Highlands Hill sandwich, made with turkey, bacon, Havarti, mayo, and slices of fresh avocado.

Wolfgang’s Restaurant & Wine Bistro

Photo courtesy of Wolfgang's Restaurant & Wine Bistro

Wolfgang’s Restaurant & Wine Bistro
Chef Wolfgang Green has drawn from his German heritage and New Orleans influences (he was once a chef for the famed Brennan family) to create a German-Creole menu with items such as veal medallions served with sauteed crawfish and potato. Now in its twenty-sixth season, this white-tablecloth restaurant is a Highlands institution.

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Southbound.

Resort Spotlight: The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida

The Breakers

Photo courtesy of The Breakers Palm Beach

Some AAA Five Diamond resorts are playgrounds for A-listers like Sir Elton John, Cameron Diaz, and Sofia Vergara. Others have a history of welcoming American royalty like the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Astors. But few resorts can make both claims. And fewer still have been owned by the same family since their founding.

Henry Morrison Flagler established what came to be known as the Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida, in 1896, at the height of the Gilded Age. The railroad tycoon needed overflow rooms for the Royal Poinciana, his grand hotel nearby, so he enlarged his winter home by the mighty Atlantic and constructed a 1,000-foot pier from which guests could sail to Key West, Nassau, and Havana. Before long, visitors—among them Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst—began requesting rooms “down by the breakers” instead of a few miles inland at the Royal Poinciana. And thus, the Breakers was born.

Main lobby

Photo courtesy of The Breakers Palm Beach

Over the next quarter century, Flagler extended his Florida East Coast Railway so it reached the Breakers’s front doors, bringing a boom to both the resort and the local economy. But massive fires twice burned the property to the ground. The resort’s current incarnation, completed in 1926 after the second fire, was designed to look like Rome’s storied Villa Medici. (It also resembles Flagler’s 1888 Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, now part of Flagler College.) Venetian chandeliers illuminate the 200-foot-long marble lobby, and the ceilings were hand-painted by seventy-five Italian artists with scenes from their country’s renaissance. It’s little wonder that on its grand reopening weekend, the Palm Beach Post-Times deemed the occasion “a milestone in the architectural perfection of American hotels.”

Despite the accolades, the Breakers never rested on its laurels—and perhaps that’s the reason it remains one of the country’s most celebrated resorts. Its owners, Flagler’s heirs, infuse it with a minimum of $30 million in capital improvements each year. More than 500 spacious guest rooms are decorated in shades of blue and white, and many have ocean views. There are four pools, ten restaurants, an indoor-outdoor fitness facility, and a Forbes Five-Star spa. Once home to Florida’s first golf course, a nine-hole stretch of manicured greens designed in 1897, the resort now features the championship eighteen-hole Ocean Course, a favorite of celebrities like Alex Rodriguez. There’s even a Lilly Pulitzer boutique on-site because, well, this is Palm Beach.

Atlantic guest room

Photo courtesy of The Breakers Palm Beach

The famous still flock to the Breakers, just as they have for the last 125 years. But the biggest name attached to the resort remains that of Henry Flagler, the father of Florida hospitality and a man whose accidental oceanside resort continues to prosper under his family’s supervision. One of Flagler’s most enduring accomplishments in a resume jammed with them, the resort remains a place where visitors come to relax in style “down by the breakers.”

One South County Road, Palm Beach, Florida • 877-789-2596 • thebreakers.com

While You’re There: Take a walking tour of Worth Avenue

Since the 1920s, this four-block street from Lake Worth to the Atlantic Ocean has owned its reputation as one of the most glamorous shopping destinations in the world. Beginning in December, take a seventy-five-minute historic walking tour of the Mediterranean Revival-style district. Stop at the site of Lilly Pulitzer’s original juice stand, where she debuted her now-iconic patterned shift dress. Pop your head into Ta-boo restaurant, once a favorite haunt of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. And check out the avenue’s only residence, that of Worth Avenue’s eccentric founder, Addison Mizner. Tours are $10 a person, and reservations are not required.

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Southbound.

Ask the Expert: An Asheville beer aficionado shares her favorite spots to toast the town

Asheville Rooftop Bar Tours

Photo by Kaye Bentley

Our Expert
Asheville’s Anne Fitten Glenn is the author of two books—Asheville Beer: An Intoxicating History of Mountain Brewing and Western North Carolina Beer: A Mountain Brew History. She hosts the Imbibe Asheville weekly radio show and podcast.

 

What’s your perfect beer day?
I would start by kayaking on the French Broad River downtown with a six-pack of Asheville Brewing Company’s Perfect Day IPA. Then I’d go to South Slope, our unofficial brewery district with eleven breweries. Lunch there would be at Buxton Hall Barbecue, where I’d order the pulled-pork platter and Hi-Wire Brewing’s Bed of Nails Brown Ale. Buxton Hall used to be a roller-skating rink, and it has these lovely industrial windows and an open kitchen.

Buxton Hall Barbecue

Photo courtesy of Buxton Hall Barbecue

After lunch, I’d walk next door to Catawba Brewing and order whatever’s new and seasonal. From there, it’s a two-minute stroll to Dirty Jack’s for their roasty, English-style porter. Both Catawba and Dirty Jack’s are old-fashioned warehouses, so for something a little hipper, I’d head north to Dssolvr, one of Asheville’s newest breweries. It’s in a historic downtown building, and the interior walls were designed by local graffiti artists. I love their light, low-ABV Thank You for Existing Kölsch-style ale.

For dinner, I’d go to Burial Beer’s Forestry Camp near Biltmore Village. It’s in an old Civilian Conservation Corps building from the thirties that sat empty for decades. The Surf Wax IPA goes down easy, and they have amazing, local charcuterie made in-house.

Burial Beer

Photo courtesy of Burial Beer

For a nightcap, there’s a small brewery next to the Moog Factory called Archetype Brewing. They have a female brewer, Erin Jordan, who is super cool. Their Cowboy Poet lager is the perfect way to end the evening because it’s light, fizzy, and has low ABV (alcohol by volume). I’d sit at a picnic table and listen to live music until it was time to walk home; I live nearby.

Asheville Rooftop Bar Tours

Photo by Kaye Bentley

Any worthwhile beer tours?
Brew-Ed is an educational walking tour of downtown Asheville with beer tastings. The guy who runs it, Cliff Mori, really knows his stuff. There’s another one called Asheville Rooftop Bar Tours. We have numerous rooftop bars, some of which are not easy to find, with these incredible views of the mountains. It’s fun to go to all the different rooftops and sip local beers at sunset.

Dirty Jack’s

Photo courtesy of Dirty Jack's

If your group has people who aren’t beer fans (gasp!), what’s the best watering hole that will accommodate everyone?
Ooh, let me tell you about a super-cool place down by the river called Plēb Urban Winery. They make wine in-house with grapes they source from within a 200-mile radius. They also have local beer on tap. It’s in a huge industrial warehouse in the River Arts District.

Hi-Wire Brewing

Photo by Javier Bolea

When people come to Asheville to check out its beer scene, what are common mistakes they often make?
Don’t wait in a line to get into a brewery. There are so many options all around you, turn around and walk somewhere else and have a great beer. We have tons of options; that’s what makes the brewing scene special here.

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Southbound.

Ben and Erin Napier, stars of HGTV’s Home Town, on their love for Laurel, Mississippi—and each other

Before 2017, Laurel, Mississippi, was rarely, if ever, on the minds of people who didn’t live there. It certainly didn’t attract travelers from around the world. But thanks to Ben and Erin Napier, stars of HGTV’s Home Town, it is now a popular destination, a town where people go to remind themselves that even the humblest of locales has something special to offer. All it takes are the eyes to see its potential.

Ben and Erin Napier

Photo by Brooke Davis

Ben and Erin Napier do not concern themselves with how things are. They are
interested in how things could be. In 2008, when the Ole Miss graduates moved into a downtown loft in Erin’s hometown of Laurel, Mississippi, the community of 18,000 appeared to be going nowhere. Situated seventy-five miles southeast of Jackson in the state’s Pine Belt region, it had scores of boarded-up buildings, a single restaurant downtown, and virtually no foot traffic.

Ben and Erin would take evening strolls along the deserted streets and dream. “We wanted to be able to walk to a date night,” Ben, thirty-seven, recalls. “We wanted it to feel like Oxford. We really wished there was a bakery downtown where we could get up in the morning on a Saturday and walk and pick up breakfast. That was the end-all-be-all dream, actually.”

Today, Laurel has thirty revitalized historic buildings, five downtown restaurants (plus a food truck), and pedestrians aplenty. It even has a bakery beloved for its sticky buns and banana bread. “We probably gained fifteen pounds the month they opened,” Erin, thirty-five, says.

They have only themselves to blame. Since the Napiers’s home-improvement show, Home Town, debuted on HGTV in 2017, it has become one of the network’s most popular programs, luring 30 million viewers last season. Each one-hour episode follows the couple as they transform Laurel’s aging abodes into stylish showplaces, typically within a tight timeframe and on an even tighter budget. Home Town spotlights Erin’s artistic vision and Ben’s woodworking skills, plus their innate ability to spy the glint of diamond long hidden in the rough.

Thanks to the show’s success, the town in which it is set has become a place of pilgrimage for fans. Millennials have begun snapping Instagram photos in front of downtown murals. Fans from as far away as New Zealand have shown up to walk its streets. Seventeen new Airbnb properties have opened since Home Town premiered—a few of them homes once featured on the show. “We probably have 100 percent more tourism than we had five years ago,” says Judi Holifield, executive director of Laurel Main Street, an economic development and preservation organization.

All of it thrills the Napiers. “This is all a God thing,” Erin says. “We never planned any of this.”

When Erin first spotted Ben their freshman year at Jones County Junior College (both transferred to the University of Mississippi in their third year), she was a shy art student from nearby Laurel, and he was the gregarious son of a traveling preacher. “He was the most popular person on campus,” she says. “But he was kind to every person he encountered. He would sit at the table with whoever was eating alone at the student union. I remember watching him from a distance and wishing I could be his friend.” But she was intimidated, not least by his size: He stood six-foot-six to her five-foot-five.

Ben, on the other hand, was intrigued. “Erin was very different from the typical girls I had dated most of my life,” he says. “She had a pixie-style haircut, and she just carried herself differently.” He tried talking to her a few times, but she always blew him off—or so he thought.

“I’d get so nervous that I’d act really cold and indifferent,” Erin says. “It was really just self-preservation. I didn’t want to blurt out, ‘I think you’re the best person I’ve ever seen and I’m in love with you.’”

She was forced to speak to Ben when the campus yearbook told her to interview him for a series on the college’s most interesting people. Pen and paper in hand, she found herself asking him his favorite books, movies, pastimes. He, in turn, asked her on a date. Within one week, he had met her parents and told her he loved her. This was it, and they both knew it.

From that day on, the two were inseparable, walking hand in hand through the quad and holing up at bookstores to read novels they couldn’t afford to buy. After graduation, they were married. And that’s when they moved to the loft in Laurel.

“I was from out of town, but I’ve always been obsessed with little downtowns because I lived in a lot of them growing up,” Ben says. “I was definitely obsessed with Laurel.”

He and Erin began their careers: she as a designer for a technology company, he as a youth minister. In his spare time, Ben volunteered with Laurel Main Street, eventually becoming its president. The economic-development organization believed its town had something to offer tourists zipping by on I-59—a reason to exit, to explore. Problem was, most people had never heard of Laurel or what made it special.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Laurel was a thriving timber town with a streetcar system and a city park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect behind New York City’s Central Park. Many of its grandest abodes from that era still stand; in fact, the town is home to Mississippi’s largest collection of residential architecture from the early 1900s. It also lays claim to the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, the first art museum in the state. “If you pay attention and look closely, you see all these things, and it becomes this really amazing place to visit,” Ben says. “It’s more than just another small town.”

The Napiers on their wedding day

Photo by Patrick Little

In 2011, Ben and Erin purchased a 1925 Craftsman cottage in the historic district. They had long admired it on their evening walks, falling in love with its deep front porch and cozy feel. But it needed some serious updates, including an entirely new kitchen. Despite their lack of professional training, Erin began to sketch ideas for each room, while Ben tried his hand at cabinetry. Each day, Erin would blog about their progress.

That blog, Make Something Good Today, and the clever ideas the couple shared on it (turning porch columns into a dining table, converting factory pulleys into light fixtures), caught the attention of HGTV’s director of development in 2014. It wasn’t long before a film crew flew in to shoot a sizzle reel of Laurel. Impressed by what they saw, the network invited the Napiers to travel to New York for a series of meetings. They warned the couple not to get their hopes up—there was a two percent chance their project would be greenlighted. But in 2017, Home Town made it onto HGTV’s lineup.

News about the show zipped around town. “There was a lot of excitement and anticipation,” says Amanda Roll, tourism director for Laurel’s county chamber. When the premiere episode aired, the Napiers invited the whole town to set up lawn chairs and watch an outdoor screening of it. A loud whoop sounded when the opening credits rolled.

Erin recalls feeling “weird” seeing herself on TV for the first time—then convincing her inner shy girl to shrug the whole thing off. “It felt like, if we were a part of it, it couldn’t be a bigger deal than the local news. You know what I mean?” Erin says. “Once you see yourself connected with it, it allows you to normalize a thing that is really not normal.”

Also not normal were the ratings: Home Town’s first episode was the second-highest-rated series premiere in HGTV history. Suddenly, the Napiers had a powerful platform, and they were ready to use it. “Our ultimate goal,” Ben says, “is to show that small towns in America are more than what meets the eye. We want people to understand that they still matter.”

Downtown Laurel

Courtesy of Visit Mississippi

The foundation of Home Town’s success is Erin and Ben’s relationship. The two just like each other. When Ben says he can make a buffet out of old porch windows, Erin believes him. When she turns rolling pins into wall art, he tells her she’s brilliant. Though Erin stands on an apple box when she’s filmed next to Ben, she must still crane her neck to look up at him while he speaks. As she does so, still grinning like that smitten freshman, he keeps his arm slung around her shoulders. “We just respect each other and enjoy each other’s company,” Ben says.

In 2018, the couple welcomed a daughter, Helen. Suddenly, their ideal work-life balance—filming a TV show together that showcased their individual talents—got a lot more complicated. A typical workday can last from sunup to sundown, with the Napiers racing between three or four job sites all over town—not to mention checking in on Laurel Mercantile and Scotsman General Store, two downtown shops they opened after signing on to the show.

They say they have good and not-good-at-all days, but they’re doing their best to make it work. They get up extra early (read: 5 a.m.) so they’re ready to spend time with Helen when she awakes. They employ a nanny—someone who once babysat Erin—and call on their parents when they need help. They also say no. A lot. “Work is never more important than Helen,” Erin says.

Neither is pleasing their fans. “The worst part of fame is finding ways to keep Helen protected from it,” Ben says. “When we go out as a family, making sure people don’t try to take her photo is tricky. We’re very grateful people love the show and are excited to see us, but we also have to remember Helen didn’t sign up for this.”

Amanda Roll says the chamber receives calls every day asking where the Napiers live. “They ask innocently; these aren’t people who would normally trespass,” she says. “They just feel like they know Ben and Erin. So there’s an unspoken rule in our community: Don’t tell where the show’s homes are, including theirs.”

The Napiers are grateful, but they understand there’s only so much that can be done. The irony of exposing the world to Laurel is that Laurel is now exposed to the world. “We know we can’t give Helen the childhood we had because of our careers and how our lives have changed,” Ben says. “But regardless, we want to provide her with a loving set of parents who are present and protect her.”

Ben and Erin

Photo by Brooke Davis

There are still a few things the Napiers dream about for Laurel. More downtown parking spaces, for one thing. Fewer tornadoes (they’ve filed a request with God on that one). And an independent bookshop. “If anyone is interested in moving to a small town and opening a bookstore, we’ll be your first patrons,” Ben says. (They might also be the first celebrities to hold a book signing there, as both have new home-design manuscripts in the works.)

Each day, when the two climb the stairs to their offices in the second-story loft they once called home, they marvel at how much Laurel has changed. “Even just the amount of foot traffic we pass, it’s incredible,” Ben says. “Downtown Laurel is bustling.”

Still, the Napiers say they hope their hometown never “arrives.” “I don’t want to live somewhere that’s perfect, and I wouldn’t want to visit somewhere that was,”
Ben says. “When there’s no grit or grime, you don’t notice the things that shine.”

 

St. Augustine

Photo from Shutterstock

Ben & Erin’s favorite vacation spot: St. Augustine, Florida

“Erin and I both fell in love with St. Augustine before we met each other,” Ben says. “We go every chance we get. It’s like a home away from home for us.” Erin, whose father received his doctorate through a long-distance program based in St. Augustine, says she’s traveled there regularly since she was ten. “It’s the oldest city in America, and it’s the easiest way to go to Europe without going to Europe,” she says. “It’s just magical. I love that city. Ben went in college before we met. I couldn’t believe he had been there—it’s just not as common for people from south Mississippi to go there.”

Ben & Erin’s Favorite Laurel Spots

Burks’ Barber Shop
Located inside Guild & Gentry, a dapper downtown men’s clothier, this old-fashioned barber shop is the fulfillment of a dream for Ben’s college buddy, Jeremy Williams, who lost his corporate job a few years ago. When Jeremy told Ben he was considering barber school, Ben saw the passion in his eyes. “I told him to do it—he’d always have at least one customer. He’s actually had so many people come in, he had to set up an online appointment system. People were getting upset having to wait in line behind a dozen other people. He’s just good at what he does.”

Laurel Mercantile

Courtesy of laurelmercantile.com

Laurel Mercantile
Many of Erin’s favorite things, from cake stands to floral prints to casserole dishes, can be found at this shop, often compared to HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines’s Magnolia Market. Every last item is made in the United States. “You can feel the love and the care that goes into making every product that’s in our store, and also choosing it and curating it,” Erin says. “It’s not fluff; it’s not filler. It’s really good, heirloom-quality things.”

Lauren Rogers Museum of Art
Open since 1923, this is the state’s oldest art museum, named for the original owner of the grand Georgian Revival abode in which it is housed. It features a vast collection of American Indian baskets as well as works by Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. “People come from all over the world to see the collections,” Erin says. “That’s something I grew up knowing about my town: I’m from a place that’s about making things, and it’s about art and culture.”

Scotsman General Store
This old-fashioned shop, whose name nods to Ben’s Scottish heritage, is a place for glass-bottle sodas, candy cigarettes, and Ben’s signature flannel shirts. Visitors may also sit by the fireplace and watch Ben and his team build furniture for the show in the adjoining woodshop. “It’s a dream,” Ben says. “We get really creative and build one-of-a-kind pieces. The woodshop is my favorite place to be when I’m not with my girls.”

Sweet Somethings Bakery

Courtesy of Sweet Somethings Bakery

Sweet Somethings Bakery
Situated in a 1923 downtown building, this nostalgic bakery fed Ben a little too well for a while. “I built them some furniture, and when it came time for payment, I struck up a deal,” Ben says. “I said, ‘How about if I just have an unlimited tab?’ They jumped at the opportunity. They owed me several thousand dollars’ worth of furniture, and they figured I would never eat that much in flour and sugar—which I sort of took as a challenge.” Alas, he couldn’t rise to the challenge forever—he’s a national TV host, after all—so he now limits his intake of the bakery’s secret-recipe chocolate chip cookies. He says it isn’t easy for him: “They’re the best cookies in the world.”

Pearl’s Diner

Courtesy of Rodney Ashford/Pearl's Diner

Downtown Restaurants
“Southerners don’t need to be told to travel hungry,” Ben says. According to him, no matter where you eat downtown, you’re not going to have a bad meal. “PDI—Phillips Drive-In—is the oldest restaurant in town, and they make the best burger in Laurel,” he says. “Pearl’s Diner was featured on the show, and the food is phenomenal. I’m not going to lie to you, though: It’s really hard to get in there and eat because it’s so popular. But if you can’t, right down the street is Cafe LaFleur. Don’t come to Laurel expecting to have one particular experience, and if you can’t have that, you’re not going to be happy. If you look around, there is a lot going on in this little town.” 

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Southbound.

Older than the U.S., this historic road in Pensacola shows no signs of slowing down

Slicing through downtown Pensacola all the way to the bay, Palafox Street is known as the city’s core cultural artery. It’s a distinction the street has enjoyed for the past two-and-a-half centuries, during which it has been subject to—and shaped by—British, Spanish, and American rule. In 1764, the Brits laid it out as a central vertical line on the city’s grid, naming it George Street after King George III and lining one of its blocks with a grassy public square. When the Spanish seized power in 1781, they renamed the street after General Jose de Palafox y Melzi and called the square Ferdinand VII. The United States acquired Florida in 1819 and left the names alone, even as Pensacola became the territory’s new capital. Andrew Jackson was named Florida’s first governor and gave his inauguration speech in Plaza Ferdinand. (A bust of the soon-to-be president still sits in the square.) Today, the varied architecture along Palafox—Georgian Revival, Spanish Baroque, Neoclassical Revival—offers evidence of its long and layered backstory. So do storefront awnings supported by nineteenth-century wrought-iron columns and oversized restaurant windows that recall the days before air conditioning. But despite these historical flourishes, Palafox remains a place locals and visitors traverse every day—to shop, dine, go to a show, even hop on a boat for a scuba trip. The street has a past that’s impossible to ignore, but its present is every bit as compelling.

Jackson’s Steakhouse
Named for Andrew Jackson and situated in the bones of a nineteenth-century mercantile, Jackson’s is the grande dame of Pensacola’s fine-dining scene. Request a table by the window facing Plaza Ferdinand and order bacon-wrapped oysters, prime steaks, and locally caught snapper. The wine list is award-winning, and the cocktails are some of the best—and strongest—in town.

Pensacola Museum of Art
Housed in a historic jail, this University of West Florida museum showcases works from the likes of Picasso, Warhol, Chagall, and Matisse inside former cells. This spring, check out the area’s best new talent at an exhibit by UWF’s graduating art students.

Gray Boutique
Owner and Pensacola native Katy Nagel curates all the clothing, scarves, and jewelry in this sophisticated shop. Browse for denim and leopard-print bangles while sipping a glass of bubbly. Your dog is welcome to join you while you shop.

World of Beer
Yes, this brew emporium with more than 500 varieties is part of a fifty-three-location chain—but its founders, Scott Zepp and Matt LaFon, grew up in Pensacola and moved back after hitting it big. This location is their baby. Grab a seat on the dog-friendly patio, order a chilled glass of Pensacola Bay Riptide Amber, and enjoy the Florida sunshine.

Saenger Theater
Opened as a vaudeville theater in 1925, this Spanish Baroque playhouse hosts performances nearly every day, from concerts by the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra to Cats. In the summer, it also screens classic movies selected by local vote.

Old Hickory Whiskey Bar
Female-owned and -operated, this clubby hangout offers more than 600 whiskey varieties (and a full cocktail menu, too). Its name is a nod to Andrew Jackson’s nickname; he once lived across the street. Sit back in a leather chair and ogle the floor-to-ceiling whiskey-bottle “library” before selecting your pour.

Scuba Shack Pensacola
Situated on the bay, Pensacola’s oldest dive shop sells the latest scuba equipment and takes adventurers to world-class sites on the fifty-foot boat parked right off its dock. It also offers equipment rentals and air fills.

Innerlight Surf & Skate
Since 1969, this local mainstay has been Pensacola’s go-to surf shop. Browse the aisles for O’Neill bathing suits, Reef sandals, Chris Christenson surfboards, and Blue Angels merchandise (the Navy’s legendary flight demonstration squad is based in Pensacola).

Bubba’s Sweet Spot
Owned by Pensacola native and famed pro golfer Bubba Watson, this gourmet candy store sells saltwater taffy, swirl lollipops, ice cream, and branded mint “golf balls.” Watson lives nearby and has a serious sweet tooth—don’t be surprised if you bump into him by one of the candy jars.

This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Southbound.

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