A Travellerspoint blog

New Orleans

I didn’t plan it this way, but I’m in New Orleans for Mardi Gras week. It means the hostels are booked, so I can’t stay long. I decide to take a culinary tour so I can sample the wide variety of regional foods in the short time I have. It really was an excellent tour. We got so many samples it ended up substituting for a meal. We started at Antoine’s for seafood gumbo done right with a roux made with butter (most restaurants use oil). We had Muffuletta sandwich slices and a rich turtle soup (it tastes like beef by the way). And we tasted a tangy spicy Shrimp Remoulade at Arnaud's where our tour guide tells us the dish originated. We end the tour at Café Du Monde where we walk around the alley to watch the cooks make the beignets. And that’s where the tour ends, but since we’re here everyone goes straight into the Café and orders Café au lait and beignets. They are fresh and crispy and the only problem is I should have gotten the larger coffee because it’s just not enough and it is so good.

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It’s bitterly cold and raining on and off, but I’m shocked and so disappointed when I find out the Mardi Gras parades are cancelled for the night. How can they do this?! I hadn’t planned on staying late tomorrow because I know I’ll need to get far enough away from town to find an empty hotel. So this means I might miss the Mardi Gras parades.

The next morning I walk around the French Quarter. It’s raining and I’m freezing, but there are parts of these streets that have so much beauty and history that I have to brave the weather. I wander up to Bourbon Street just to see what it’s like, but I detour pretty quickly - let’s just leave it at that. But for the most part, the French Quarter is a wonderful place to wander around and enjoy yourself. There are some colorful homes and wonderful shops to pop into and it is just not possible to find a bad restaurant in the Quarter.

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It’s about three hours before the parade and I’m really worried about finding a hotel, but I decide to drive down to the Garden District and wait for the parade. I’m so glad I did. Just to see what a real Mardi Gras parade is like. I didn’t realize that there are close to 50 parades throughout the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday. Each one is unique and put on by a different Krewe. The Krewes can be a little creepy. They wear masks during the parades that makes them look like colorful KKK members. Most of them are groups of powerful old rich white men who meet together throughout the year and throw huge private balls before the parades. They really go all out on their costumes for the balls and parades.

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It was freezing, but I really enjoyed the parade. They alternated floats with marching bands. The bands from the Louisiana High Schools were awesome. The drum sections were so bass it reverberated your core when they walked by. And the bands were huge with cheerleaders and flag throwers and baton twirlers - they were really fun to watch.

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I know I wasn’t there on Fat Tuesday, but it’s nice to know that you can enjoy Mardi Gras and not feel like you’re surrounded by drunk frat boys. You can always find the crazy party if you want to, but you can also avoid it. And who knew Mardi Gras could be a fun family event?

Posted by Velora 17:30 Comments (0)

Florida's Gulf Coast

I can’t remember when or how, but somehow I’ve known of Weeki Wachee ever since I was a little girl. It's a wonderful place where women dress in mermaid costumes and plunge into the water to swim about gracefully. And I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to finally see them perform. I was surprised to find out they’d been taken over by the State Park Service. It makes a little sense when I discover that the pool of water the mermaids perform in is actually a large natural spring, but it still seems strange. Regardless, the mermaid performance is pretty neat. I only wish it was longer and even more kitschy. And I still wish that I could be one myself.

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A few days later I’m at St. George Island. The beach there is advertised as being voted the best beach in Florida, and I’m thinking ’Yeah right. Who says?’ But it’s true. The sand is the whitest I’ve ever seen. And the waves crash on the shore and spread out in beautifully overlapping foam laced sheets. Little shorebirds shuffle around. Even though it’s too cold to stay for long, it’s great for a quick stroll.

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I can’t pass up the opportunity to camp in a primitive site for $5, even though it’s a 2 ½ mile hike to the site and I don’t have a proper backpack to lug my stuff in. But I gather up my tent and sleeping bag and head on out. It’s a really great location, right on the bayside, isolated. Exploring my surroundings I head out on a sand spit and frighten a group of pelicans away. It’s all very Robinson Crusoe.

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But in the morning I wake up to rain. I wait for a couple hours, reading, in the hopes that it will let up. But it doesn’t. So I prepare myself and hike back the 2 ½ miles in the rain. Everything gets soaked. But you know, it wasn’t so bad and I know it’s something I’m always going to remember. I think I’ll be primitive camping as often as I can, long after this trip. It's such a better camping experience to be more isolated in nature rather than staying in the glorified parking lots campsites have become. If it wasn’t raining, I would have spent the whole day wondering around the seashore.

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Posted by Velora 20:00 Comments (2)

Sarasota, Florida

As you might expect, Florida is overrun with retirees. And there is a thick and bourgeoning population along the Southeastern coast. For the most part this takes me through never-ending strip malls and high-rise retirement condos along the coast. And it isn’t until I get to Sarasota that I find something worth stopping for: the Ringling Museum. At first I worry that it’s just something thrown together to capitalize on the Ringling name and the public’s fascination with the circus and that it will be small and unimpressive and a waste of money. But I found it to be completely the opposite.

It was John Ringling’s mission to attract visitors to Sarasota where the Ringling Brothers Circus had its winter headquarters. He erected a colorful and elaborate mansion there at the water's edge and named it Ca d‘Zan. It glows warmly even in winter as though it were made of fresh gingerbread. The windowpanes are alternating colored glass of green and pink and yellow. Inside the high ceilings and ornate furniture create a more traditional, yet terribly over-the-top home. Despite the cold winds and dark clouds outside the windows, everything is warm and inviting inside.

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The Ringlings collected an impressive display of art and antiquities with the intention of one day opening an art museum on the grounds of their home estate. Although some of the paintings and sculptures have animal or gypsy themes that mark them as works chosen by a circus magnate, the majority of the pieces show that the Ringlings had a varied and classic taste in art (or maybe they just bought the most expensive stuff they could get their hands on).

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The final part of the museum is the circus history buildings. The museum includes artifacts that only the Ringlings would have the right to keep, like their personal train car and calliope wagons.

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Also many performers have donated items such as their costumes - encrusted with enough sequins and beads to make Liberace proud. A large section of the building is devoted to a miniature scale model circus complete with spec, menagerie, big top, performer dressing tents and the "hotel" tent where everyone was fed. It’s all been made by one man who devoted 50 years of his life to creating this intricate model that spans over a huge space where people shuffle past in awe and wonder.

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Just a short drive inland from the museum is a unique kind of neighborhood. The only way I can describe it is an "Amish suburb". And maybe my perception of the Amish as a purely rural and pastoral people is wrong, but it sure is strange to see an old Amish woman dressed traditionally but riding down the street in a low-rider three-wheeled bicycle. The reason for my coming here is a little Amish restaurant called Yoder's. The food I ordered was plain and ordinary, but the restaurant is justifiably famous for its baked goods, especially the pie. I try a slice of butterscotch cream pie. The crust is sweet and crumbly but still crisp and the filling is fresh and made with real cream. I wish they had some kind of pie tasting program where I could try a bite of each of their pies. I'm sure everything would be delicious.

Posted by Velora 08:07 Comments (1)

The Everglades

I think I expected something more like a jungle or swamps surrounded by trees, but the Everglades looked more like the Serengeti than I ever would have guessed. It’s so incredibly flat and seemingly barren that the overlook in the center of the park rises about five feet off the ground for a “view.” But the barrenness is kind of haunting and beautiful, especially with a vast sunset stretching on the horizon.

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And just like in Africa the wildlife all converge around the watering holes. One of the best places to experience what the Everglades has to offer is the Anhinga Trail. It’s a boardwalk set up around a pond teeming with alligators. If you didn’t value your fingers you could reach down and touch them they‘re so close. And they aren’t the comatose alligators you see at the zoo - these guys would open their eyes when you walked a little closer and shift their sunbathing positions. It was a little frightening.

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The park service offers lots of interesting free programs (I think in an effort to trick you into believing there are tons of things to do in the park - but upon closer inspection the programs include “coffee with ranger” and watching an episode of the PBS series on National Parks). The program I decide to do is a nighttime walk of the Anhinga trail. We’re told to bring flashlights but when we get there we’re told to not use them so that our eyes will adjust to the dark. The moon is full enough so I don’t run into the people in front of me, but shuffling around in the dark in an area swarming with alligators is a little unnerving. The guides flash their high-beam flashlights at sounds in the dark and spot out some alligators on the move. They glide through the water, on the hunt for something to eat.

The guides are mostly talking about what this place is like in the daytime or during different seasons. They stop on the trail and talk in the dark. And it gives mosquitoes time to find me and converge. I thought they wouldn’t be out so late at night. But it gets so bad I have to leave early and rush back to the safety of my car. The mosquito ambush continues on the way into my tent. I leave the flap open for the minimum amount of time for me to slip inside, but about ten of the buggers have snuck in. And I see them hovering outside swatting against the mesh, trying to get in. I would say the Everglades is something you have to experience, but I would just recommend leaving before sundown.

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Posted by Velora 19:36 Comments (0)

Florida Keys

I had a vision of the Keys as something like Hawaii but smaller and with rowdier parties. But for the most part, it was completely different than what I expected. First off, beaches are hard to come by. Instead the water’s edge is typically thick mangrove roots or long sea grasses washed up and piled in mounds. The ocean itself is as expected, with shallow turquoise waters glowing offshore. I end up driving the whole length of the Keys in one day. Mostly because it was pouring down rain. But also, there was more open space than I expected. A beautiful drive, but not a ton of stuff to do along the way - at least for a budget traveler.

But all that changes abruptly when you enter Key West, where the streets are packed full of restaurants and trinket shops and other stuff to do. I might have been prejudiced against Key West. I didn’t expect to like it. I figured it would be one big touristy party and that’s not exactly what I like. It didn’t help matters that a gigantic cruise ship was docked and the hordes of vacationers had spilled out onto the narrow streets. In my stubbornness I forgo the Hemmingway House and tour the Audubon House instead. It’s the same price, but you don’t get a tour guide telling you amusing stories about Hemmingway. Instead you’re left to wander alone. And there aren't any six-toed cats sleeping lazily about. And the thing that really infuriates me is that the house has nothing to do with James Audubon. Apparently, the only connection is that Audubon was staying at a house across the street and liked the garden of the “Audubon House” and borrowed some of their plants for his paintings. That’s it. He didn’t live there for even a day.

I walk along Duval street, eat lunch, meander around, things like that. But I’m sorry to say the appeal of the city is lost on me. It feels too packed. I can’t see the ocean. And when I wonder over to the dock the cruise ship blocks the view and vendors swoop in thinking I’m from the cruise and try to sell me stuff.

So I get out of there as fast as I can and drive back to my campsite. I had been resigned to forking over exorbitant sums for a hotel because the campsites were booked, but I drove into Long Key State Park around 10 am and got a “primitive” site for $8.13 a night! How can you possibly beat that? It was a pretty cool set up: right near the shore on a boardwalk platform with a covered deck.

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It made me feel like I was trekking through the jungle studying botany or entomology. The only real downside (and it was a pretty big one) was that at dusk swarms of tiny biting gnats converged and feasted on any exposed flesh they could find. The little buggers were tenacious.

But with the money I saved I decided to rent a kayak the next day. I went to Curry Hammock State Park and circled around small Deer Key and followed an inlet under a tunnel of mangrove branches the park service had cut out so tourists could paddle around in a big circle. It was high tide so I had to lay back in the kayak to avoid being bonked in the head. It was a nice little adventure. Then I spent the day reading and sunbathing. I had the beach all to myself.

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The next day I decide to treat myself again for my cleverness in finding the cheapest campground around. I go on a glass-bottom boat tour of John Pennekamp Reef State Park. The boat ride out to the reef takes awhile, so it’s fun to step outside once they pick up speed. Once we get there they let the boat idle while the guide points out all the different kinds of fish and coral we are seeing. We saw barracuda, a nurse shark, a huge centuries old brain coral, sting rays and swarms of all sorts of colorful fish.

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On the way back I’m at the bow again letting the wind whip through my hair. For a split second I see something white dive underneath the keel - it’s the underside of a sea turtle trying to get out of our way. Seeing something amazing like that helps me realize that the real beauty of the Keys is in the ocean and mangrove inlets and that's how it should be experienced.

Posted by Velora 17:46 Comments (0)

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