Saturday, January 30, 2016

Florida's Forgotten Coast

The brochures I grabbed last Sunday at the Welcome Center rest stop on Interstate 10 near the Alabama/Florida border labeled the coast along Florida's panhandle "The Forgotten Coast." Does this stretch of the Gulf of Mexico deserve that title?

Certainly its oceanfront communities aren't as well known as Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Tampa, but saying that they're forgotten implies that the towns along this coast were at one point noteworthy.

Tim and I decided to form our own opinions. Saying goodbye to Interstate 10 at Pensacola, we dropped down to Highway 98 and turned east. We passed through Destin and Panama City as well as the smaller towns of Mexico Beach and the unpronounceable--to me, anyway!--Apalachicola.  (Point C)

We had reservations for a campsite in Carrabelle, Florida. (Point D)  A friend had told us Highway 98 was the scenic way to get there and he was right. The Gulf was visible for most of the way. 

Upon our arrival, we were pleased to find that the Carrabelle Beach Resort lived up to its name. Almost 2 miles of fine, white sand was located right across the highway from the campground, ideal for beach combing.  

Apalachiacola Maritime Museum

Trip Advisor listed several points of interest in Apalachicola as well as St. George Island and Carrabelle.  So Monday we backtracked 22 miles to the unpronounceable town to see the Maritime Museum and the Orman House.

The Orman House Historic State Park

Next to New Orleans and Mobile, Apalachicola at the mouth of the Apalachicola River was once the third busiest port on the Gulf. Thomas Orman made a fortune by shipping cotton south from Columbus, Georgia to ships bound for the northern states and England. If the Union blockade during the Civil War had not changed all that, perhaps this town's name would trip off my tongue--"Apple-latch-ee-cola."  Instead, Apalachicola is today a sleepy fishing village whose people harvest shrimp, crawfish and sponges from the Gulf.

St. George Island State Park

The state ranger at the Orman House told us we ought to visit St. George Island. Its sand dunes were used by the War Department to train soldiers bound for the Pacific Theater during World War II.  It's also where amphibious troops prepared for D-Day's landing on the beaches of Normandy.  

Photo displayed at Camp Gordon Johnston World War II Museum

Tuesday we drove across the Bryant G. Patton Bridge, the third longest bridge in Florida, to reach St. George Island. 

St. George Island Bridge

Measuring 4.11 miles, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over the bay at Tampa edges St. George Island Bridge's 4.1 miles out of second place by a whisker. Of course, the Overseas Highway to Key West across a 113-mile chain of coral and limestone islands connected by 42 bridges, one of them 7 miles long, tops them both. 

The hiking trails through the piney woods of the park begged our attention before we turned to the beach.  We were told that the terrain of woods and sand dunes mimics northern France, making St. George Island the perfect location for D-Day training. 

Breaking through the woods, we found the dunes very impressive. It's hard to see the scale of them in my photos, but trust me, they are tall and massive. 

Tuesday's visit to the sand dunes of St. George Island whetted our interest for visiting Carrabelle's World War II Museum where artifacts tell the story of Camp Gordon Johnston. Seeing the size of Carrabelle today, one would never know that between 24,000 and 30,000 soldiers rotated through this training camp. Barracks were simply tents with sand floors. Nothing remains of the camp but the artifacts at the museum, a testament to how vital Carrabelle was to winning the war. 

Now the town's claim to fame is the city's police station--a telephone booth labeled the World's Smallest Police Station.  The phone booth was installed in 1963 to keep policemen out of the rain. “They used to have a phone on the wall across the street,” said Police Chief Jesse Smith, during an interview with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in 1991. “But every time it rained, the man who answered it would get wet.”  The police station alone makes Carrabelle memorable for me. 

Calling the Florida Panhandle the Forgotten Coast is accurate, but its past doesn't merit that label.  We found its history to be incredibly worthy of notice. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler!

Was it contemptible to laissez les bon temps rouler--let the good times roll!--while our son Richard was covered by 26" of snow in Washington, DC?  Maybe it wasn't contemptible, but it was definitely shabby for us to crow about the sunshine and shirt-sleeve weather we found in New Orleans while he was snowbound.

We arrived in The Crescent City, so named for the bend of the Mississippi River as it flows through the city, last Wednesday and immediately headed to the heart of the French Quarter--Jackson Square--named for the hero of The Battle on New Orleans, Andrew Jackson. 

That's him on his horse in front of Saint Louis Cathedral. 

In need of sustenance, we crossed the street to Cafe du Monde for beignets (French doughnuts smothered with powdered sugar) and a cup of cafe au lait. 

Established here on the banks of the Mississippi River in early 1860s, this cafe is open 24-hours a day all year long to cater to the beignet-loving crowd which now includes the two of us.

Thus fortified, we walked across the square, stopping to listen to a street musician, before exploring the interior of Saint Louis Cathedral. 

The cathedral is flanked by the Presbyt√®re, and the Cabildo, two identical buildings of the Louisiana State Museum. 

There we learned of Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, Sieur de Bienville who is called the Father of Louisiana for his efforts to bring French colonists to settle the territory. 

Despite his repeated falls from favor with the king of France, he was appointed governor of Louisiana four times between 1701-1743. 

The War of 1812 produced another hero when Andrew Jackson and his outnumbered troops unexpectedly emerged as the victors of The Battle of New Orleans. 

Pirate Jean Lafitte who supplied Jackson's soldiers with goods and ammunition has been the stuff of legends and Hollywood movies. All these heroes plus much more history made our visit to the Cabildo well worth the museum's inexpensive entrance fee. 

For a museum that is definitely out of the ordinary, visit Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World. Our tour guide emparted much of the history and lore of Mardi Gras as he led us past artists at work on the floats that will be unveiled on Fat Tuesday, February 9th, 2016. 

Could any trip to New Orleans be complete without a taste of Cajun food?  Of course not!  So we signed up for a course at the New Orleans School of Cooking. 

Our instructor Harriett taught us to make gumbo, jambalaya, bread pudding and pralines all while keeping us laughing at her anecdotes and New Orleans trivia. 

We ate it up--sights, sounds and savory foods!  Sorry, Richard!

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Big Easy

The Big Easy, as New Orleans is sometimes called, is not so easy on one's wallet!

Adding another night to our original 3-night stay in this city was the first hit to the budget.

Then, we picked a RV campground within walking distance of the French Quarter. With only 3 days to spend sightseeing, we wanted to maximize our stay.  

Finally, despite our resolution to eat meals at home, we were seduced into eating dinners out with friends Tim met through an online RV forum.  But I don't begrudge that money.  That expense was more than compensated by the new friends we made, the delicious food we consumed and the lively music we enjoyed. 

The food and the music at Mulate's were terrific!

So, how did we tour the Big Easy without completely blowing our budget?  We found these inexpensive attractions. 

Park Rangers!  Before this visit, I'd never linked New Orleans with the National Park Service.  Yet, NPS has two parks, Jean Lafitte Visitor Center and the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, both in the French Quarter.  Rangers at either location give excellent walking tours and, best of all, these tours are free. 

The park ranger at the Jean Lafitte National Park & Preserve center on the Decatur Street gave us a 9:30 a.m. walking tour that highlighted the different immigrants and Indians who have called New Orleans home.  Then at 11:00 a.m. we hustled over to the French Market just a half-mile away for a walking tour to places of significance in the history of jazz.

I also used a walking tour listed on the Frommers web site to comb through the streets of the French Quarter for the quintessential French Quarter balcony to photograph.  The filigree wrought-iron balconies that give New Orleans its distinctive appearance are almost everywhere one looks.  Ultimately, I realized it's personal preference that defines what is the perfect balustrade.  But with Frommer's help, I learned about the architecture and history of the French Quarter along the way. 

Jazz musicians, card sharps and magicians can be found on almost any street corner.  Free entertainment, but tips are appreciated. 

A walk along the riverfront through Woldenberg Park gave an up-close look at the mighty Mississippi with all its bustling activity, natural splendor and historical significance.    

Although New Orleans is a long way from Mark Twain's Hannibal, Missouri, it's easy to see why this river has such a place in American literature.

For a round-trip fare of $2.50, we caught the St. Charles streetcar at the corner of Canal and St. Charles for a trip through the Garden District.  This neighborhood has wonderfully well-preserved Victorian and Greek Renaissance mansions built between 1832 and 1900.   As additional bonuses, our trip took us past Audubon Park and the campuses of Loyola and Tulane universities.

Mardi Gras isn't just a Tuesday!  It's a season!  Carnival begins on January 6th, the Twelfth Night or Feast of Epiphany.  There are a number of parades hosted by krewes throughout the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, which occurs on February 9th this year.  Carnival krewes are fraternal organizations whose members are assessed any amount from nominal to outrageous in order to fund their parades or balls. 

On Saturday, Jan. 23rd, we found a spot at the corner of Frenchmen and Esplanade to watch the Krewe du Vieux's parade.  The Krewe du Vieux is known for its raucous, art-inspired spirit.  Ha!  I certainly found it raunchy!  But it was inspired with a merry spirit (or should I say "spirits" as most of the parade's participants and spectators were imbibing one kind of spirit or another).  The parade snaked through the streets of the French Quarter until, with the press of the crowd, it was practically single file.  How the mules pulling the floats were able to continue on the route is a mystery to me.  It must have also been challenging for the parade's jazz musicians to keep the swing of the music going in such close quarters, too.  Since we couldn't be here on Mardi Gras, this was the next best thing. 

One more attraction we enjoyed for the price of two Hurricanes (a tropical drink made with rum) was the Carousel Piano Bar in the Monteleone Hotel.  The 25-seat circular bar turns on 2,000 large steel rollers, powered by a 1/4 horsepower motor.  The bar rotates at a rate of one revolution every 15 minutes.  It was pretty amazing!  We enjoyed the pianist's music, too!

So, it is possible to have a good time in the Big Easy without breaking the bank!  And the memories made during it all?  Well, those are priceless!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Git Along, Little Doggies!

After a month on the farm in Kansas (and a hiatus from journaling on this blog), we decided to git along, only instead of driving north as the cowboys did in the glory days of cattle drives, we headed south.  First stop:  Dallas-Fort Worth. Air leaks in the RV's system needed some attention at the Prevost Service Center in Fort Worth.

Friends had told us that no trip to Fort Worth would be complete without a visit to the Fort Worth Stockyards.  

Stockyards?  That name for me doesn't conjure up the image of a popular tourist spot. Instead what I think of is the overpowering smell of a herd of bovines confined to a small pen. Pee-ew!  But we had nothing else to do while we waited for the repairs to be completed so to the stockyards we went.  

On a gray and cloudy day, we joined other visitors to this 98-acres of saloons, restaurants, western wear clothing stores, cattle pens and stables all listed on the National Register of Historic Places.   

Ranchers from the mid-1800s through the 1950s brought their stock here to bargain for the best price at the Fort Worth Livestock Exchange. 

Instead of attending a livestock auction, we concentrated on 

Bull riding!

Yes, that is Tim on a real, live longhorn!

Cattle drives!

Shootouts between the good guys 

and the bad 

And a visit to Billy Bob's, billed as the largest honky tonk in Texas. 

Inside this 100,000 square foot venue is an arena where bull riding on real--not mechanical--specimens takes place every Friday and Saturday nights. 

That would be quite a spectacle!

But our time in Fort Worth is drawing to an end.  Git along, little doggies!  We are heading south to where it's warm.