Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Big Easy

We spent about 24 hours in the city of New Orleans. Knowing that there is enough to do and see for a week in this city, we knew we could only see a few of the highlights. We did learn a few things for the next time we visit.
First of all - January is winter; downtime, quiet time. Mardis Gras parades begin the first weekend in February so shops were preparing, but the streets seemed to be fairly quiet. In fact, many tours are on a winter schedule - 1 tour or trip per day. New Orleans is a great walking city. We stayed at a Holiday Inn Express on Carondolet Street - about 2 blocks from Bourbon Street and 7 blocks from the Riverfront area.
When we arrived on Monday afternoon, we walked to the riverfront area, past Harrods (cha-ching), and back up to Bourbon Street. We sauntered up and down the street, but it was really quiet - just hot dog vendors and a few other tourists. Dinner was at a place called "Desire" - I had BBQ shrimp, Lowell had a dish of jambalaya - and of course mine was much spicier! Lowell's Cajun Mary, however, had a little kick, so he was happy.
After dinner, the street was a little more active - still not crowded or in a big party mood. We listened to lots of music - good jazz, some blues, even some rock and county. Every bar seems to try to play it's music louder than the one across the street. We did not hear any Zydeco though - and that's what I was hoping for - it's such a different sound. There were plenty of policemen on the street too, so it felt pretty safe. They have a big camera called Skywatch, at one end of the street as well. It's raised up about 1 story on a lift kind on contraption. So, it was a pretty quiet evening, but we did get to see and hear the famous street.
Tuesday morning brought bright sunshine and the promise of 70 degrees - We took the streetcar from our hotel west through the Garden District and past Tulane University, Loyola and Sacre Couer. Sacred Heart Academy opened in 1727 and is the oldest girl's school in the United States. I've included some of the homes is that area in the slide show - it was a beautiful area, and the homes are pretty spectacular. Since we went early in the day, we shared the street car with folks on their way to work or school.
Next on the agenda was a stroll through the French District to Jefferson Square and St. Louis Cathedral. The square is a monument to Jefferson Davis. The Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France is the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States. Of course the cathedral is beautiful, so I wanted to take some pictures. Naturally, today was the day that they were changing light bulbs on the altar - so there's a big orange ladder on the altar, just my luck. The streets around the square are for pedestrians only, lots of artists and palm readers were set up in the area. After sampling the pralines and buying a cookbook, we walked over to the Mississippi riverfront area. It has a great walkway along the river that leads into (ta-da) a shopping center! We stopped for gumbo and po-boy sandwiches, yummy lunch.
After lunch we hustled back to the hotel, checked out and headed to St. Louis Cemetery #1. There are a number of cemeteries right in downtown New Orleans. Next time we'd like to do a cemetery tour. St. Louis Cemetery #1 is the oldest and most famous of the 3 catholic cemeteries operated by the Archdiocese. It was opened in 1789, replacing the city's older St. Peter Cemetery (no longer in existence) as the main burial ground when the city was redesigned after a fire in 1788. The cemetery spans just one square block, but is the resting place of over 100,000 dead. It contains a variety of tombs in various states of repair and disrepair. It is still being used - we saw tombs marked in 2004 and 2005. In the early days of the city, the immigrants could not afford private burial plots, so they joined a "mutual benefit society" (i.e. a group of French or Italian immigrants). They had a large crypt designed and built, often in Europe, and they could all be buried there. The 3 St. Louis cemeteries have lots of these crypts. One that we saw was for the Italian Mutual Benefit Society. It is a large round structure with 24 vaults. There are currently 2300 people entombed in that single structure!
Usually you hear that the tombs are above ground because of the low water table, but we read that it's more likely because they were designed after European cemeteries. All of these were flooded in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina went through New Orleans, but reportedly there wasn't much damage.
The balconies and ironwork in the city were fascinating - right now lots of folks are decorating their balconies for Mardi Gras. That would really be a great time to visit the city.
So - that was our extremely quick tour of The Big Easy. We'd like to return again, when it's warmer and a little more exciting. We'd do a cemetery tour and probably a riverboat tour in the area as well. We are now in Texas and on the road to Houston. I'm doing this blog from the car!! This technology never ceases to amaze me! Larry and Sue are flying in there tonight, we are looking forward to seeing them and to heading down to Harlingen to stay with Mom and Dad.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Swamps & Marshes & Bayous, oh my.....

We did the Honey Island Swamp Tour on Monday in Slidell, Lousiana. It was actually pretty interesting. The first thing our guide Charlie told us was that the alligators were in hibernation! Of course, we didn't know that, but he said that because it was a warm day, we might see a couple of young ones who were fooled into thinking it was time to wake up. This particular tour company advertises itself as being an eco-tour, and Charlie was very knowledgeable, he grew up on the river about 5 miles from the tour company. So, the first thing he pointed out was that we'd be in a swamp (flooded forest), a marsh (flooded grassland), a bayou (slow flowing waterway), a stream (a little faster flow) and a river! The West Pearl River in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area. There are 5 rivers running through the WMA - the West Pearl, Middle West Pearl, the Middle Pearl, the Middle East Pearl and the East Pearl. Pretty creative, huh? The first thing we noticed were the fish shacks on the river. These shacks - and they really are shacks! - are used by locals to store fishing equipment, etc. Some of them though are used as places to stay. We stopped and talked to a fellow named Daryll (HONEST!). He was sittin' on his porch watching the river flow by - and had a cooler full of wild pig that he was "curing". They soak it in ice water for a couple of days until the meat turns almost white - then they cook it. Yum?? There were also some very nice houses on the river. When Katrina came through the area had a pretty severe storm surge - the houses closest to the place where we got into the river had a couple of feet of water in the basements. Further down river they had 5 or 6 feet. Most of the shacks on the river were destroyed in Kartrina and severely damaged again last Fall in Gustav and Ike. Charlie explained that since these places are vulnerable to flooding and un-insurable, no one puts much of value into them - that was pretty obvious!
We saw lots of turtles and shorebirds - egrets and herons mostly. Yellow bellied turtles and red-eared turtles are the most common kind in the swamps and bayous. When we got back into the deepest part of the cypress swamp we saw a big fat nutria sleeping on a tree. Nutrias are large, semi-aquatic rodents which were imported from South America into Louisiana for fur and meat farming. The idea of eating the meat or wearing the fur never did catch on., you'll probably understand why when you look at the pictures. They were somehow released into the wild and have gotten so out of control that there is a $5/tail bounty!!
As we cruised through the swamp we saw 3 small alligators - about 3 feet long. Two of them left without any photo ops. The last one stayed by the boat for 20 minutes or so. But he had a piece of straw or branch sitting across his nose so he looked pretty goofy! Charlie also had a small alligator that he brought out in a cooler. The little guy was rescued by someone and donated to the tour operation so they use him for show and tell. He's about 7 months old. At least I finally got to see a wild gator! I even touched the baby gator. The other interesting little fact we learned about the cypress swamps was that the cypress trees send shoots up, called cypress knees, in order to get air for the trees so they don't die during flooding. The knees are pretty unusual looking.

So, that was our swamp adventure - from there, we drove into New Orleans and checked into our hotel about 3 blocks from the French Quarter & Bourbon Street. I have plenty of pictures and stories - I'll get them posted tomorrow. Tonight we stopped in Lafayette, LA and tomorrow we head to Houston. Tomorrow night Larry and Sue fly into Houston from Seattle - can't wait to see them and share some more adventures!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Panama City Beach was a nice little spot - not busy at all at this time of the year. We were able to talk a long walk on the beach yesterday morning. We found a few seashells - nothing very exciting though. After lunch we drove to Pensacola and went to the National Museum for Naval Aviation. It's a neat air museum - with lots of airplanes and an IMAX theater. We watched a movie about the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. In the evening we drove a little farther to Moss Point, Mississippi. We've been driving on the highway that borders the Gulf of Mexico, rather than using the interstate. Lots more to see this way! It has been amazing to see all of the destruction from Hurricane Katrina. Along the coast there are countless foundations from homes that have been cleared away. You would see 3 or 4 steps from the sidewalk to a gate and wrought iron fence - with nothing but a foundation and maybe a couple of step inside. It's just amazing. I imagine we'll see more of the same when we get into New Orleans as well.
Today we left Moss Point and headed to Slidell, Louisiana. On the way we stopped at the Gulf Islands National Seashore - a really pretty little park on the Gulf, but it was overcast and difficult to see very far out into the Gulf. We stopped at the Mississippi Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park, and then tried to get into the Stennis Space Center - a NASA operation - but it's closed on Sunday, Monday & Tuesday. We did book our Honey Island Swamp Tour for tomorrow... www.HoneyIslandSwamp.com We'll see how that goes!

Then we head down to New Orleans! We're looking forward to seeing that city.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Adventures in Florida

We're on our way out of Florida now. Tonight we are in Panama City Beach. We have put up with really chilly temperatures the past 4 days or so. I'm glad I had my North Face fleece with me! It's been between 23 and 28 degree the past 3 mornings!!!
When we left Fort Myers, we stopped at the Edison Ford Winter Estates - where Thomas Edison and Henry Ford spent the winter months & entertained friends like Harvey Firestone. It's a wonderful area - the houses and gardens are beautiful. We took the coast highway up to Homosassa & crossed a couple of spectacular bridges. We stayed with our friends Ruth and Dick in the small rural town of Beverly Hills.
We visited a the Homosassa Wildlife Park in Homosassa yesterday. It's small, but a neat little park. Lot's of native Florida critters - flamingos, cranes, owls, alligators, pelicans and the star of the show - the manatees! They are really, really large sea critters that don't do much of anything besides float around in the rivers and eat. Their closest relative is the elephant. They look like giant potatos that someone threw in the water. The ones at the park weighed between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds ...
Today we drove the Sunshine Coast Highway from Crystal River to Panama City Beach. It was a pretty drive - and the sun was out so it warmed up all day. Along the way we stopped and took a mile long hike in the Lower Suwannee River Wildlife Refuge. Yes, it's the famous Suwanee River from the song. We walked to the river and then took The drive took us over a half dozen big bridges - beautiful scenery. We stopped in Port St. Joe to watch the sunset - which was beautiful again!!!
I love the names down here - Apalachicola, Chassahowitzka Bay, Caloosahatchee River, Choctawhatchee Bay. We didn't hear many southern accents when we were in Ft. Myers - of course it seems like no one there is from Florida. As we got further north, the accents became more noticeable and now I really, really have to listen to get everything! My first clue was when I was on the phone with the car dealer to arrange an oil change for the Denali - the guy told me they were "raht nixt to MAC Donalds"..

Monday, January 19, 2009

Fort Myers Beach, Florida

We've spent about 5 days here in south Florida. Our friends have a place on Estero Island - just south of the city of Fort Myers.
We've done lots of walking on the beach - it's a couple of miles long here and great for walking! We met this little Florida version of a snowman yesterday. We've driven down to Naples - a very upscale area - and through the city of Fort Myers. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford both worked out of Fort Myers, we'll probably stop there on our way out of town Wednesday. We've met wonderful folks from all over the country - Washington, Iowa, New York, Pennsylvania, and of course other Minnesotans. We haven't seen any dolphins yet, but Carol tells me they cruise by the beach here. We'll keep looking! They've had a bit of a cool spell here - just our luck! But we're not complaining.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Day Two

It was 30 degrees when we got up this morning, we were feeling pretty smug! But, listening to the radio as we left Illinois, all of the weather heads were talking about the extreme cold that would be “gripping’ the area this afternoon and tonight. Windchills approaching -10!!!! They were announcing that the Illinois Dept of Human Services offices would serve as Warming Stations during business hours for anyone who cannot afford to turn their heat up or who does not have appropriate heat in their home. Those folks were also invited to log on to “Keep Illinois Warm.org” for additional information. (Somehow, if you can’t afford to turn the heat up, I can’t imagine you’d have internet access!) Anyway, they’re in a tizz with the cold weather too! It’s all in your perspective I guess eh?

We got into Nashville about 9:30 - and got our first 32 degree reading in the car. The Nashville skyline is in the picture here. We also drove through Chattanooga and Atlanta. The Chattanooga area is very pretty, we stopped at Nick-A-Jack Lake on the Tennessee River.

Atlanta is HUGE, but the traffic moved quickly at 3:30 PM so we breezed through.

Tomorrow we have about 300 miles from here Valdosta, GA to Fort Myers, FL. It'll be a quick day compared to the last two.

My blogging will slow down once we get to Ft Myers - too much to do there! Take care all - stay warm!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Road Trip - Day One

We've finally begun our winter trip. We left at 6:30 this morning, it was -14 at our house.

We traveled 675 miles in about 11 hours. One stop at McDonald's for breakfast and one stop for gas & "facilities". We arrived here in the hoppin' town of Marion, Illinois just after 5:30. I took a few pictures out the car window. We saw the sunrise in Menomonie, WI and it was beautiful. That Wisconsin corridor along I 94 is really very pretty, lots of rolling wooded hills. When we turn south at Madison, we lost the hills and most of the trees -- big ol' farms from Madison down to Effingham. Then we got back into more trees and some lakes and rivers, and saw a nice sunset just before we got into Marion.
Critter watch: Just after sunrise we saw a flock of wild turkeys half in the field and half roosting in the trees. There was a buffalo farm just outside of Baldwin/Woodville. We also saw several grouse in a tree beside the highway and many, many hawks cruising the roadsides and sitting in the trees looking for lunch. Just after we got into Illinois we saw what we both thought was a coyote in the field!
Apparently there isn't much pedestrian traffic here in Marion. We went for a walk after we got here (had to stretch these old retired legs!). There are no crosswalks or sidewalks and the lights were short! We may not be in the prime neighborhood :-)

Tomorrow our drive time will be about the same - from here to Nashville, Chattanooga, Atlanta and then stop in Valdosta, Georgia.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Why Minnesotans leave/stay for the winter!

Talk about ambivalent! We've had snow and rain and cold in the past week, and it's getting colder tonight (-8), can't wait to leave, but we just spent 5 days enjoying Minnesota's beautiful winter!
We spent the past several days visiting our friends on Mille Lacs Lake. The guys spent a few hours each afternoon ice fishing and caught enough walleyes for a great dinner - and a few funny stories. This sunrise was this morning. Mille Lacs is an amazing lake but in the winter it looks pretty desolate.
We've added a couple of used snowmobiles to our toybox -- as long as we live in Minnesota, we need to do whatever we can to enjoy all of it's seasons. We rode mostly on the lake this weekend - there are no trees to run into out there. (Thanks John for the instructions - it's been many, many years since we rode Mom and Dad's SkiDoos!)
Lowell and John fished fairly close to home. They used a portable fish house, they pulled it out with the snowmobiles each afternoon and in at the end of the day.
One of the interesting features on Mille Lacs in the winter are the ice heaves. All around the shore there are berms of ice chunks that forms as the ice is freezing and the wind blows. Crossing these areas is a little tricky, but the cracks scare me more! We didn't see any big cracks where we were riding, but there were some slushy areas. Using snowmobiles or 4 wheelers seems to be the best way to get around, although some people and resorts plow roads out to the ice house villages.
So we've enjoyed winter and are now planning our escape! The "retired road" heads south next week.....