Quiet Time in Tunica 

Casinos aren't the only game in this town.

Almost as soon as I put my hand on the doorknob, the man inside the shop was asking where we were from and what we were doing.

"We're just wandering around," we told him.

He smiled. "Well, it certainly is a nice, quiet town to wander around."

It's a sunny summer morning in downtown Tunica, and nice and quiet may be something of an understatement.

Let me put it this way: In the casinos of Tunica, everything is loud. The whirring, chirping slot machines are loud, the high-rollers are loud, even the clothes are loud. But historic Tunica Main Street is quiet -- very quiet.

A night trip to Tunica means greasy poker chips, an all-you-can-eat-buffet, and seducing Lady Luck, but a day trip to Tunica means antique stores, riverboats, and relaxing.

About a half hour's drive south from Memphis on Highway 61, Tunica appears in bits and pieces through the cotton fields. Signs point fortune-seekers to the sparkly casinos. Everything else looks huge and new: the Paul Battle Jr. Arena and Exposition Center, the Tunica Museum (which features a hilarious definition of cotton and an odd stuffed bear wearing overalls), and the middle school.

But as you continue south, things start looking a little dustier. We start our day in the center of historic downtown Tunica, Rivergate Park, an old railroad easement converted to a beautiful park. Snuggled between Main Street and Edwards Avenue, the park includes pretty gazebos and a small outdoor amphitheater.

Main Street's slogan is "Experience the Charm," and the place is nothing if not charming. Small white signs dot the street corners. Inviting wooden chairs and benches line the storefronts. In one shop, we are promptly offered a freshly brewed cup of Mississippi Mud coffee.

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In the antique stores, we find assorted jewelry, furniture, old tools, butter molds, a Victrola, and corroded irons. Other stores are more gift-oriented, with sweet-smelling candles, slippers, aprons the wearer actually looks cute in, fine china, and coffee beans for the Mississippi Mud coffee.

But perhaps one of the most charming things is that the tourist destinations sit alongside the Chamber of Commerce, banks, an optometrist's office, insurance agents, and a dry cleaners.

(While downtown, you can also visit the Veteran's Memorial Park and the Tate Log House Museum, Tunica's oldest existing structure.)

For lunch, we head over to the historic Café Marie. The building was constructed around 1920 and functioned as a hotel/boarding house for those traveling on the nearby railroad. Before its current incarnation, the building served (if you believe the rumors) as a police station, a grocery store, a self-serve laundry, a pharmacy, and a brothel.

Today, the café is upscale Southern with vegetable platters, grilled catfish, and fried green tomatoes. The restaurant is tranquil. In the background, there is soft music and the tinkle of iced tea glasses. We no sooner sit down at a table than a basket of hot rolls and a bowl of tomato and cucumber salad appears before us.

The rest of the Southern fare was good, but it was the tomato and cucumber salad that had us asking for seconds (which we got almost immediately). The dressing was a sweet basil vinaigrette that was both light and tangy.

After lunch, we head for the RiverPark, which officially opened in 2004. Located near Fitzgeralds Casino, the RiverPark Museum is fronted by what looks like an enormous sail and is surrounded by 165 acres of wildlife refuge.

Visitors can walk through almost two miles of wetlands forest on the EcoTrail ("Be aware of snakes, poison ivy, and biting insects," the museum warns) or take a ride on the Tunica Queen or an airboat cruise. But the anchor is the museum, a $24 million showboat that tells seemingly every piece of the Mississippi River story.

The museum ($5 for adults; $4 for children and seniors) opens with an eight-minute film and then flows into the map room with information on the river's geology and the history of its channels. From there, visitors see large aquariums (with indigenous fish, alligators, and the scariest 100-plus-pound snapping turtle I've ever seen -- yikes!), a diorama including stuffed ducks, bears, and swamp rabbits, and a film about the "Mound Builders," the early Native Americans in the area.

One of the museum's simplest -- but most striking -- artifacts is a 900-year-old canoe. Made from a felled tree, the 20-foot canoe was created by Native Americans who set the inside of the tree on fire and scraped out the charred remains. Perhaps most amazing, it was found by a fisherman who realized it wasn't just an old log floating in the water.

Other parts of the museum take on Hernando DeSoto and his conquistadors, colonial settlements and the Louisiana Purchase, the rise and fall of steamboats, as well as cotton, levees, and the blues.

The most interesting parts of the museum were the simulators. In one, inventor James Eads takes visitors to the bottom of the Mississippi in his diving bell to look for salvageable shipwrecks. In another, people can try their hand at piloting a Coast Guard rescue boat or a tugboat to avert a river disaster.

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But perhaps the best part of the museum comes at the end. After learning about the river's history, its currents, and its influence, visitors can view the Big Muddy itself from the museum's impressive observation deck. Or they can go downstairs to the museum's "front porch," pull up a rocking chair, and just relax to the quiet sound of the river.

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