Cane River ? long ago a lake ? now ribbons through a county north of Alexandria, home to the oldest town in Louisiana, Natchitoches (easier on the eyes than on the tongue). Graced by genteel historic homes, this lovely city, once perched at the Red River's edge, was isolated from the watery stretch linking several important Louisiana destinations when a flood changed the river's course and left Natchitoches high and relatively dry. Thanks to engineering efforts, a river ( Cane River Lake) once again runs through the it.
Find a number of sights dating to early area development open for exploring, from the restored old French fort, Fort St. Jean Baptiste, to antebellum architecture. Stop for a look at the Roque House, insulated with a mixture of Spanish moss and bits of animal hide, before enjoying a few hours of souvenir shopping along atmospheric streets. Even if you miss the bright lights of Natchitoches' Christmas Festival, you can at least enjoy a tour of spots seen in the movie Steel Magnolias.
Within easy driving distance find the sprawling grounds of Melrose Plantation, owned and run by a freed slave in the late 18th-century, and Magnolia Plantation, a working estate still. Literary buffs won't want to miss paying a visit to the Bayou Folk Museum south of Natchitoches, once the home of writer Kate Chopin and family (best known for her surprisingly seminal work, The Awakening).
Natchitoches is an hour's drive from Alexandria and 110 miles from Monroe.