by Anne Butler
When school’s out and the daycamps and vacation bible schools have run their course and the air is rent with anguished groans of boredom, harried parents need look no farther than St. Francisville for a kid-friendly staycation that won’t break the bank. This is a small town where flags fly from the lampposts every holiday and there’s a lemonade stand o n every downtown corner, not to mention a popular snowball dispensary, and children are decidedly welcome.
For the small fry, there are well-equipped safe playgrounds at the West Feliciana Sports Park and also at the West Feliciana Parish Library, where they just might happen upon a story hour or other children’s activity.
For more active ones, a whole lot of energy can be worked off hiking. Clark Creek Natural Area, in the Tunica Hills, is a challenging hike through hills and hollows and creekbeds to a series of rare waterfalls, and there are also hiking paths through the Tunica Wildlife Management Area with deep shady ravines and high bluffs, lots of wildlife and photo ops. The sports park has lots of walks, both easy and hard, most notably the woodland trail called The Beast. The Mary Ann Brown Preserve has over 100 acres with interpretive trails, picnic areas and restrooms, while Audubon State Historic Site has a pond, picnic pavilion, great barn to explore, and easy child-friendly walking paths through the woodlands stalked by John James Audubon in 1821 as he studied the birds and tutored the daughter of Oakley Plantation. For younger children, nothing beats the maze of manicured paths through the 27 acres of formal gardens surrounding the grand Greek Revival house at Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site, now a National Historic Landmark.
Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge, encompassing thousands of wooded acres along the Mississippi River, has several hiking trails, one of 1 ½ miles to the National Champion Bald Cypress, 85 feet tall and thought to be over 1,000 years old. The cyclical flooding of the Mississippi, which sometimes inundates this refuge with 20 feet of water, makes this a unique habitat that attracts migratory waterfowl along the Mississippi Flyway, but sometimes renders this area accessible mostly by boat.
Biking in the area is popular, the terrain making it a destination for bicycle racing due to its challenging nature. The Sports Park has a dirt-bike trail, but there are also safe country roads and in-town streets where youngsters can let off a little steam on two wheels. The Conundrum, right in the heart of St. Francisville, has rental bikes, and visitors can make a day of it by combining bike rental with a kayak trip on Bayou Sara’s calm waters, for fishing or just lollygagging amidst the unspoiled scenery.
For more sedentary pursuits, The Conundrum has a great selection of children’s books and puzzles, and youngsters find it entertaining to stroll the brick sidewalks of St. Francisville’s downtown area to visit shops that have special children’s sections: Hillcrest and Sage Hill have enormous inventories that include numerous fun items for all ages, while Mia Sophia Florist and The Shanty Too have excellent selections of children’s clothing, including Feltman Brothers for infants.
Rainy days can still be entertaining with several fascinating museums in the area. The downtown West Feliciana Historical Society museum and tourist information center has exhibits plus children’s books in the gift shop, while the visitor center at Audubon State Historic Site has artifacts from the 19th century sure to interest any child, some touchable and all imparting an understanding of life as it was for children in the dark ages before cell phones and tablets and video games. Both state historic sites often stage special children’s activities, school programs and historic re-enactments.
Restaurants like Birdman, St. Francisville Inn and Audubon Café make eating out for breakfast seem like grand occasions with their specialty waffles and pancakes and crepes, and the dancefloor at everybody’s favorite casual eating spot, Magnolia Café, is alive with little dancers getting down to the music after dinner on Friday nights. Across the street at Al Aqaba, they can not only enjoy the unique culinary creations of the Jordanian chef-owner, but might have the hilariously fun opportunity to learn belly dancing as well.
For golfers, The Bluffs resort has an incredible Arnold Palmer-designed course atop high bluffs overlooking Thompson Creek. There are tennis courts at the parish sports park, ball fields for all ages and skills, rodeo arena, fishing pond, and a great setting for festivals and fundraisers featuring live music and other entertainments.
Festivals throughout St. Francisville are especially child-friendly. Christmas in the Country is a three-day family-fun event featuring great downtown shopping, parade, photos with Santa, strolling choirs, vendors and all sorts of entertainments. In downtown Parker Park, each October brings the Yellow Leaf Festival, with dozens of artists and craftsmen demonstrating and selling their wares, along with downhome food and music. In this the land of Audubon, nothing is more appropriate than a bird-oriented festival, so there’s the late-summer Hummingbird Festival where children can hold the tiny birds as they are banded, studied and then released. Polos and Pearls puts some sizzle into late evening downtown shopping in August, with trolley rides, music, refreshments and plenty of bargains. June marks The Day The War Stopped, Civil War re-enactment in tribute to the universality of Masonic brotherhood that allowed a deceased Union gunboat commander and Mason from New York to be buried in the local Episcopal Church cemetery with Union and Confederate Masons participating during a brief ceasefire. Springtime in St. Francisville is a glorious riot of azaleas blossoms and colorful costumes recreated from the 1820s for the Audubon Pilgrimage, featuring not only historic home and garden tours, but lots of children’s activities...dancing the Maypole, dramatic presentations of Audubon as he struggled to tutor plantation children, and a Rural Homestead with lively old-time crafts and skills. And what could be more exciting that the Angola Prison Rodeo, each Sunday in October and one weekend in April, pitting state pen inmates against professional rodeo stock in some hair-raising events along with music, tons of food and hobby-craft sales; even the museum at the prison gates enthralls kids, with the chance to go behind bars or see Old Sparky the electric chair. The Fourth of July weekend features lots of fireworks at the sports park; music, food, fun, fireworks and even snow in a new festival called The Big Chill in the Ville on July 2nd, followed by the customary fireworks and hotdogs sponsored by the town and the American Legion on the 4th. Other festivals celebrate gardening, literature, veterans and more.
Most Bed & Breakfasts and motels in the St. Francisville area welcome children as guests; some even allow pets. One even has an in-house ice cream parlor and lakeside beach. Those with swimming pools are particularly popular in the hot summertime, and the ones in the countryside provide an opportunity for city dwellers to experience what country children get to enjoy all the time: chasing fireflies or gazing at the multitude of stars visible on dark rural nights but often obliterated by urban lights.
Information on all these child-friendly activities and events may be obtained through the local websites or by telephoning the tourist center at 225-635-4224.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and
Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: the Cottage Plantation, Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Monday and Tuesday).
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).