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Southern Comfort

Grand mansions, clear lakes, and the world's best cheeseburger make Holly Springs, Mississippi, a worthy journey.


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Holly Springs is close enough to Memphis that you can get there before the kids start to ask when you're going to get there. It's only about 45 minutes away, but it's a different world and a great escape.

I like to take Nonconnah Parkway east to Highway 72 and then work my way south on back roads that trace their way through lush green hills and the Coldwater River valley.

If it's your first trip to Holly Springs, then it's a must that you cruise around and look at the town's most famous attractions: the many beautiful grand homes from the antebellum South. The grandest of all is Walter Place, with its fabulous gardens and cottages. It's open for tours most of the time, though you might want to call in advance. Other impressive homes, including my favorite, Gray Gables, can be seen just by driving around. (Don't miss Salem Street.) Check in with the Holly Springs Tourism Board on East Gholson if you want to get the full Monte on tours.

It's a fact that history can make you hungry, which means only one thing if you're visiting Holly Springs -- cheeseburgers at Phillips Grocery. It's on Van Dorn Street, which is easy to find, though you can miss the grocery if you don't know that Van Dorn goes straight when you think it veers right. But, hey, it's a small town. Ask a local if you get lost. Everybody knows where Phillips Grocery is.

If Holly Springs' grand homes represent one version of the Old South -- that of the landed gentry -- Phillips Grocery gives you another side: Call it the South of the common man. The old ramshackle two-story building is set smack against the tracks, just across the street from the massive, faded, red-brick Mississippi Central train station. The station is spectacularly decrepit, like Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? -- way past its prime but still awesome to see. (Robert Altman filmed Cookie's Fortune here.) An old Ford Galaxie rests on four flat tires in the street out front, weeds growing from its wheel wells. A historic plaque tells the history of Van Dorn's raid during the Civil War. From the looks of this place, it could have happened last week.


But enough history. It's time to eat. On the grocery's wooden porch are faded wooden benches and weathered school desks. Inside a scattering of tables with plastic tablecloths and mismatched chairs fills the room. The walls are covered with old posters, calendars, news clippings, photos, and assorted unclassifiable junk. Shelves are lined with ancient pop bottles and other detritus from the store's days as a real grocery. Ceiling fans slowly stir the air, which is scented with the heavenly aroma of frying hamburger.

You can look at the blackboard menu, if you so desire, but my advice is to ignore everything else and order a cheeseburger. The burger takes a little while to cook (which gives you time to wander around the train station area). When it arrives, it is thick and gnarly, crispy on the edges, juicy and tender inside -- truly, the cheeseburger of the gods. Go out on the porch, sit down, and savor your bounty with a Co' Cola.

After you've eaten, there are a couple of great outdoor options to consider. If you're a fisherman or you just like paddling around a beautiful lake, you'll want to head seven miles south on Highway 7 to Wall Doxey State Park. The water here (like that of many lakes in the area) is spring-fed, cold, and clear. There are even walleyes stocked in the lake, though I've yet to catch one. But you can rent a boat and mess about, weaving through giant cypress trees garnished with Spanish moss. The birdlife is remarkable, and you'll see lots of aquatic creatures swimming in the crystal water. You can even camp overnight. The lodge is a stone, 1930s classic, well worth a visit.

Another option is Lake Chewalla, six miles east of Holly Springs on a winding kudzu-lined road. It's part of Holly Springs National Forest and it's beautiful, but I've never seen anyone but locals there. The main attraction, aside from the fishing, is a small beach near a section of the lake where spring waters percolate out of the bottom. You wade into the lake and you hit spots where the water gets cold in a hurry -- a blessed relief on a hot summer day. The beach could use a little more sand, and on weekends it's a blue-collar Riviera, but during the week, it can be a quiet retreat -- and a great swimming hole.

But like everything else around Holly Springs, it's mainly just another excuse to drive to Phillips Grocery and have a cheeseburger.

Holly Springs info: Doxey info: Lake info:

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