A road trip across America’s south was the honeymoon adventure my husband Zak and I had been looking for. Stopping at New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville, we were immersed in the origins of jazz, blues and country music, with late nights spent exploring streets that pulsed with the thrum of live bands, tasting Creole, Cajun and Appalachian flavours along the way that showcase the rich mix of cultures that characterise each state. After spending 10 days driving across Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, our spirits were full of song, we had stories for days and enough powdered sugar in our veins to fuel a marathon or two. Here is our itinerary for the ultimate journey…

Days one to four: New Orleans

The early-morning chorus of accordion-like bellows from passing trains, music still playing in bars from the night before and gaggles of geese honking somewhere far away roused us at six am. In search of breakfast, we wandered through the French Quarter to reach the open-air Café du Monde on the banks of the Mississippi River, where a queue was already forming up the street for its freshly made pillowy beignets.

One afternoon, we ventured over to the north shore to explore the Honey Island Swamp by boat, spotting the glimmer of alligator eyes among the foliage and racoons clambering up the trees hung with Spanish moss. On another, we joined a city food tour, sampling alligator and seafood gumbo at the Red Fish Grill, and a delicious muffuletta sandwich with chicken and andouille sausage jambalaya at Napoleon House (where the French plotted to bring Napoleon over from captivity in Corsica). We also stopped at the beautiful hidden courtyard at Dickie Brennan’s Tableau (the bar adjoined to the hotel where Tennessee Williams wrote Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) for potent French 75s and Sazeracs.

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At night, the French Quarter came alive, with something surprising inside each dive: along Bourbon Street we passed a crowd doing the cha-cha slide in perfect synchronicity, next door to which two men were engaged in an intense game of chess. A show at Preservation Hall, just off Royal Street, was the hottest ticket in town. New Orleans legends such as Emma Barrett have performed at this 40-seat venue, where today New Orleans’ finest musicians play a mix of marching tunes and jazz standards.

Where to stay? The Windsor Court, the hotel of choice for Beyoncé, Oprah and Billy Joel. It has a $12-million art collection, Diptyque products in the bathrooms and hosts a special ‘tea and tarot’ afternoon each week.

windsor court hotel

Courtesy of Windsor Court

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Where to dine? For brunch, the Ruby Slipper Café provides all the very best southern fixings, such as biscuits, gravy and grits with sweet ice-tea. Come dinnertime, the Criollo at Hotel Monteleone is a delicious fine-dining option.

Bring home… frosted pecans and astonishingly moreish bacon brittle from the family-run Leah’s Pralines sweet shop on St Louis Street.

Road trip tip: make your next stop the city of Natchez, Mississippi, and book in a private class with the acclaimed chef Regina Charboneau at her cooking school. She is famous across the US for her buttery biscuits, and has served up dishes for stars such as Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen.

Days five to seven: Memphis

Our Elvis Presley pilgrimage began on the way into Memphis, when we made a detour to the singer’s home city of Tupelo, parking up at Johnnie’s, his favourite burger joint. Intrigued to try their famous doughburgers – an unlikely delicacy created during the Great Depression where flour is mixed into the patty to bulk out the meat – we both ordered one and the singer’s preferred RC cola in tribute. They were surprisingly fluffy, perfectly flavoured with mustard and pickles – and so moreish we shared another. As part of a tour with the Elvis Birthplace Museum, we also visited the modest 400-square-foot house in which he was born (and where his identical twin brother Jessie was tragically stillborn), and also took a moment to sit in the church he attended as a child.

a bridge over a river

Courtesy Emily Finch

The Hernando de Soto Bridge in Memphis

a living room with a large stained glass window

Courtesy Brooke Theis

The living-room at Graceland

It was an hour and a half before we reached the neon glow of downtown Memphis, driving past buzzy Beale Street – the home of the blues, where artists such as BB King used to play – and Sun Studio, a place that tops the bucket lists of 1950s-music fans. This was where the DJ Sam Phillips helped launch the careers of some of the world’s most legendary musicians: Elvis made his first hit ‘That’s Alright Mama’ here at the age of 19; Johnny Cash recorded ‘Cry, Cry, Cry’; and Jerry Lee Lewis ‘Great Balls of Fire’.

The city has had an overwhelming impact on modern music-making; to its south is Stax Records, which produced some of the most emblematic soul songs of 1960s and 1970s, including ‘I’ll Take You There’ by the Staple Singers and Otis Redding’s ‘The Dock of the Bay’. Just 10 minutes from the centre is Graceland, Elvis’ beloved home. The house is exactly as he left it, a time capsule of his eccentric Seventies extravagance, with outlandish interiors that include a shag-pile-clad jungle-room with an indoor waterfall.

Where to stay? The Peabody Hotel, a Memphis institution, whose five resident Mallard ducks march daily through the grand lobby.

the peabody hotel

The Peabody/Trey Clark

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Where to dine? Book in at Amelia Gene for an unbeatable cheesecake; for hearty Italian dishes, try Catherine and Mary’s.

Bring home… memorabilia from Sun Studios and Graceland.

Road trip tip: forgo the interstate roads and take the beautiful Natchez Trace Parkway, which runs for 444 miles from Louisiana to Tennessee through a picturesque national park.

Days eight to ten: Nashville

While New Orleans and Memphis are clearly strong contenders, Tennessee’s capital clinches the title of ‘Music City’. Although it’s known as the heartland of country, Nashville is home to many genres – bluegrass, jazz, gospel, rock ’n’ roll… The best place to immerse yourself is in one of the intimate venues where songwriters debut their newest melodies, such as the Bluebird or the Listening Room Café.

Just a short hop from the honky-tonks of Broadway is the Country Music Hall of Fame, where I almost lost my guitarist husband among its extensive collection of memorabilia (especially exciting was Les Paul’s Log – the first-ever modern electric guitar dating from 1939). From there, you can also jump on a bus to visit another historic studio – RCA Studio B – where Dolly Parton recorded both ‘I Will Always Love You’ and ‘Jolene’.

a band performing on stage

Courtesy Brooke Theis

Steve Earle performing at the Grand Ole Opry in March 2024

Of course, a trip to Nashville is incomplete without a visit to the historic live-radio hall, the Grand Ole Opry. We ended our final evening with a backstage tour, mingling with the musicians in the green-room as they waited to go on and watching the triple Grammy Award-winner Steve Earle perform from the side of the stage.

Where to stay? The Hermitage Hotel – Tennessee’s first five-star hotel, which has hosted everyone from Patsy Cline to Amelia Earhart since opening in 1910. Designed in the Beaux Arts style, it is impressively grand, with polished marble, ornate plasterwork and an intricate stained-glass ceiling in the lobby.

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Where to dine? Audrey, the flagship of the acclaimed chef Sean Brock. Dishes are inspired by his Appalachian roots and the comforting recipes cooked by his grandmother (the restaurant’s namesake), such as chicken and dumplings, and warm sesame and citrus cake.

Bring home… denim from the Nashville label Imogene + Willie in the 12 South neighbourhood. While you’re in the area, pick up some pastries at the Butter Milk Ranch (a dulce de leche cookie is a must) to enjoy on the flight home.

A 10-night ‘Explore the American South’ trip with Abercrombie & Kent, from £5,685 a person, based on two people sharing, including flights with British Airways, car hire, guided excursions and B&B accommodation.

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