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Think Small in the South

Small Southern towns have big appeal for group travelers.

The South is full of quaint destinations with historic and walkable downtowns, outdoor recreation opportunities, historic sites and museums, and a nice selection of locally owned shops, restaurants, breweries and distilleries. Plan to visit some of these places next time your group travels to the South.

Houma, Louisiana

About 46 miles from New Orleans, Houma, in Terrebonne Parish, is best known for hosting one of the largest Mardi Gras celebrations in Louisiana, with more than a dozen parades full of colorful floats, marching bands and great throws. The town is in the middle of bayou country, with moss-draped cypress trees, swamps and waterways.

Annie Miller’s Swamp Tour takes groups into the marshes and swamps around Houma, getting them close views of bayou alligators and other wildlife. Just south of Houma, groups can tour the Chauvin Sculpture Garden, a folk art destination filled with more than 100 life-size concrete and brick religious-themed sculptures created by artist Kenny Hill.

Houma’s storied Bayou Terrebonne Distillery was founded by Lily Lirette, the town’s first Mardi Gras Queen and a moonshiner during Prohibition. Her great-grandsons continue the legacy today, offering tastings and an in-depth tour of the whiskey-making process. Groups can visit several plantations in the area, including Ardoyne Plantation, a Victorian Gothic sugarcane plantation that is still owned by the family that built it. Outdoor lovers can take a guided cultural tour, meeting alligator hunters, fur trappers and net-makers, or charter a fishing boat in the Gulf of Mexico.

Bentonville, Arkansas

Bentonville, Arkansas, is considered the Disneyland of mountain biking. Riders come from all over the world to tackle its more than 40 miles of beautiful mountain biking trails that connect to a 150-mile regional trail network. Bentonville is also known for its world-class attractions, among them the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which includes the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Bachman Wilson House. The home was brought to Arkansas from its original New Jersey location and is a major draw for groups. The art museum itself is like no other, nestled in a natural ravine as to incorporate the natural world in its exhibits. Groups can visit a Chihuly exhibit, one of Robert Indiana’s Love sculptures and other steel abstracts in the middle of the Ozark woods.

The Momentary is a contemporary art space for visual, performing and culinary art experiences that was built in a decommissioned cheese factory in downtown Bentonville. Groups will enjoy wandering through its indoor art galleries and outdoor art installations, as well as watching performances and grabbing a bite to eat. General admission is free.

The Scott Family Amazeum is a science, technology and engineering museum with interactive exhibits and hands-on activities that are fun for all ages. And groups can learn about the founding of Walmart, which is headquartered in Bentonville, at the Walmart Museum.

Parkersburg, West Virginia

Parkersburg, West Virginia, overlooks the Ohio River and has a rich history dating back to the late 1700s. Visiting groups should begin their tours at the Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park and Museum, which is on a small island in the Ohio River. Visitors get to the island via an old-fashioned stern-wheel riverboat. Once there, they can take a docent-led tour of the reconstructed mansion, which tells the story of America’s westward expansion along the Ohio River and the home’s association with Aaron Burr; walk the grounds; or take a horse-drawn carriage ride.

The Julia Ann Square Historic District preserves 126 homes built between 1850 and 1910 and is the largest historic district of its kind in West Virginia. Groups can grab a walking tour guide of the area’s historic homes at the visitors center.

Henderson Hall is a well-preserved historic home. Completed in 1859, the mansion was the home of the Henderson family, who counted the Founding Fathers as acquaintances and played a role in thwarting Burr’s treasonous exploits. Visitors to the home can see the original land grant, signed by Gov. Patrick Henry of Virginia in 1785, hanging on the wall. 

Parkersburg is gaining a reputation as a regional mountain-biking destination, with 225 miles of challenging single-track trails within a 50-mile radius of town.

Leesburg, Virginia

Leesburg is in Loudoun County, Virginia, which is home to Washington Dulles International Airport and only 25 miles from Washington. The destination not only has beautiful brick-lined streets, breweries, boutique shops and restaurants, it is also the gateway to Virginia’s wine country.

Founded in 1758, Leesburg was named for a signer of the Declaration of Independence and was the home of former Gen. George C. Marshall, who served as secretary of state and secretary of defense under Harry Truman. Groups can tour his home, Dodona Manor, which sits on 3.8 acres of gardens on the eastern end of Leesburg’s historic district, and learn about how he drafted the Marshall Plan, which laid out how the U.S. would help Europe recover after World War II. 

Downtown Leesburg is an arts and cultural district with live music, public art installations and a Robert Indiana Love sculpture that was created from recycled bicycle parts.

Leesburg’s lifestyle district, Village at Leesburg, has a bowling alley, a movie theater and The Conche, a chocolate-themed restaurant that offers group chocolate and cocktail mixology classes. 

Morven Park, with the iconic Davis Mansion and Winmill Carriage Museum, and the Oatlands Historic House and Gardens are also must-sees. Wine lovers will enjoy a visit to Zephaniah Farm Vineyard and Casanel Vineyards and Winery.

Covington, Kentucky

Covington, Kentucky, is right across the river from Cincinnati and considers itself the edge of the South. Not only is the town a great jumping-off point to see everything Cincinnati has to offer, but it offers a wide variety of culinary experiences and street art and enough stops on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to please even the most dedicated connoisseur. 

There are 10 bourbon trail stops in the area, including restaurants, bars and the Second Sights Spirits’ Distillery and Lounge, which offers tours that share how the distillery crafts its Oak Eye Kentucky Bourbon, rums and other unique spirits. Every tour includes samples. Groups wanting to enjoy the scenery along the Ohio River can take a dinner or scenic tour on BB Riverboats.

Mainstrasse Village is a 19th-century German neighborhood that is home to unique shops, galleries, restaurants, the 100-foot-tall Carroll Chimes Bell Tower and the Goose Girl Fountain. Groups can sample bourbon at Bourbon Haus 1841, enjoy a farm-to-table dinner at Bouquet Restaurant and visit Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar, which features more than 600 whiskeys and 450 bourbons. Food tours and historic walking tours are available. 

The riverfront offers beautiful views of the Roebling Bridge, which connects Covington to Cincinnati. Groups can take the Riverfront Floodwall Mural Tour, which highlights the 18 large murals along the flood wall of the Roebling Bridge.

Oxford, Mississippi

Oxford, Mississippi, is probably best known as the home of Ole Miss, the main campus of the University of Mississippi. Because of its university roots, Oxford has a diverse population and a deep sense of history and tradition.

The city is also well known for its distinctive double-decker buses, historic vehicles imported from England. Groups can board the buses for tours of Oxford and Ole Miss.

Oxford’s historic downtown square is full of locally owned businesses; Neilson’s Department Store, the oldest department store in the South; and Square Books, an independent bookstore that has been in the square for 40 years and is a destination in its own right. In recent years, the store opened three additional bookstores in Oxford focused on rare books, lifestyle books and children’s books. 

The popularity of these bookstores would have pleased Oxford’s most famous resident, Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner. Group visitors will want to tour Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, which is owned and operated by Ole Miss. Everything in the home is as it was when he lived there. A mile-long path through the woods connects the home to the university museum, which is free to visit.

The football program at Ole Miss brings in 50,000 fans for every home game and offers the Holy Grail of tailgating. The Double Decker Arts Festival in April is a huge draw, with free concerts and 150 art and food vendors.