Monday, March 18, 2013

Dancing between the snowflakes!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Ottawa, ON – That’s right – we’re home! And it’s great to be here. Everything was in order when we got in, so we proceeded to amend that by carting in a ton of junk from the RV and depositing it all over the front hall. We have lots of time now to sort through it and get settled again.

We can’t believe our luck in arriving when we did. Val checked the weather forecast on the TV in the hotel room this morning and said there was a snowstorm headed for Toronto from parts west, so we wasted little time getting packed up and on our way. We didn’t even stop for breakfast till we were past the city limits. (I munched on an apple to keep me going till then.)

All the traffic was headed in to the city, so we didn’t have to contend with much congestion as we set out. Clear skies graced our journey all the way home, and we made good time. Once we brought in most of the stuff that needed to come out of the RV, Val checked out the local weather and discovered that the late-winter storm is headed this way, with up to 20 cm of snow coming tonight! Whew! It’s almost as though Old Man Winter chased us all the way!

We had a fantastic trip, once again, and enjoyed sharing it with all of you who have read about it over the last eight weeks. To close off, here are a couple of little anecdotes that didn’t make it into the daily blog.

THE BLOB. After giving Val a haircut, I was putting away the clipper, scissors and other tools into the corrugated cardboard shoebox that holds them all. I noticed on the end of the box some kind of black substance that had eaten away part of the cardboard, but couldn’t figure out what the cause could be. A day or two later, Val brushed away what he thought was a crumb from his T-shirt, and a whole hunk of material came away with it! Then I found a hole in the leg of my jeans. So far, no explanation, but we’re hoping there will be no more attacks from The Blob.

THE PARKING LOT. We knew parking was expensive near the French Quarter in New Orleans. Having parked the car, we were walking to the kiosk for our tour of the city and noticed another parking lot right next to it, so we stopped at the ticket dispenser beside the lift bar, trying to find out what the fee was for this lot. A waiter at the sidewalk café next to the parking lot was watching us, and finally called out “You have to have a car to get in!”

MISTAKEN IDENTITY. When we stopped to admire the camels by the road in Kentucky, a guy in a truck was driving by and must have noticed our out-of-state plates. He leaned out the window as he passed and hollered out, with a wonderful Kentucky twang, “them ain’t no Kentucky race-horses!”.

CANADIAN, EH? – A Michigan tourist who discovered where we were from eagerly asked us if we knew how our country got its name. I said I had a feeling he was going to tell us and he said, “The prime minister had a bag with letters of the alphabet in it and pulled out a C, an N and a D. He said, ‘C, eh? N, eh? D, eh?’”

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Being green

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Toronto, ON – Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Here’s a shot, taken in our hotel room mirror, of Val and me with our special “Ireland” t-shirts, which I picked up a couple of days ago to help us celebrate the day. I also wore the shamrock scarf I got as a souvenir in New Orleans. Enthusiasm is my middle name!

We were planning to meet Ben, Mark and his Katie at Ben’s apartment for brunch, so there was time this morning for me to get to church. As luck would have it, St. Andrew’s was just on the other side of the 401 cloverleaf from our hotel, a mere five-minute drive. It was lovely singing the hymn “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” in honour of the Irish saint.

Toronto’s multi-ethnic character was well reflected both in the congregation at church, and in the people at Tim Hortons where we went for breakfast this morning. It was great to see so much diversity everywhere.

Ben and his cat Sage greeted us – the former very warmly and the latter disdainfully – when we got to his apartment. It was great to see him again, and to sit down and catch up on all his doings. Mark and Katie arrived a little while later, looking a bit tired. The night before was their housewarming party for their new apartment and they had about 40 guests till who knows when, so we felt especially honoured that they came at all!

As we munched on slices of pizza, we showed them a few of our travel pictures on the laptop, but mostly we just listened to their latest news and enjoyed their company. It’s great to see all of them following their dreams and working to make them happen, even when the going gets tough from time to time.

The afternoon flew. On the way back to the 401 we found a car wash, and got rid of all the dried-on gunk that the car had collected when linked to the RV through yesterday’s slush bath! It was a considerable improvement, especially as we had smeared the muddy windows with Tim Hortons paper napkins after breakfast this morning in an attempt to gain some visibility, with mediocre results!

Now back in our hotel room, we are preparing for the last leg of our long journey. We are really looking forward to being home again! One more sleep!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Weather or not

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Toronto, ON – A soft blanket of white snow covered all the cars in the parking lot when we looked out our hotel room window this morning. It caused a bit of concern as we considered our trek from Windsor to Toronto on Highway 401, but the weather reports were not too dire.

After our free breakfast, we humped all our stuff out to the RV. In addition to our bags, we had to bring indoors anything that could freeze, so we had four or five shopping bags with stuff like canned food, shampoo bottles and spray cans. We kind of looked like the Beverly Hillbillies with our lumpy bags!

We were on the highway before nine, so that was a good start. It was still snowing lightly, but the surface of the road was clear for the most part. Only once did we get slimed by a tractor-trailer whizzing past, dripping plumes of grey slush that the wind deposited with a slap on our windshield!

The drive was OK, with our satellite radio playing golden oldies, and relatively few vehicles around on a Saturday morning to share the road with. We stopped for lunch at the ON Route pavilion near Woodstock, and continued past snowy farmland and a few small towns before getting into the more heavily populated areas. The snow stopped and started again several times, but the highway continued to be nice and clear.

Then we were into the multi-laned madness of the Toronto 401 corridor, with its express and collector lanes, high-rise buildings and frequent exit ramps. However, the GPS navigated us through all that, and found our hotel all right.

We discovered that, in addition to paying for our lodging for the night, we have to pay to park our vehicles and for our breakfast in the morning. The host at the front desk managed to waive the second parking fee (we separated the RV from the car and require two spots), so that was somewhat of a consolation. But we’ve been spoiled with our free waffles, eggs, sausage, muffins, toast, fruit, yogurt, cereal and other morning goodies at the two previous hotels! Welcome to Toronto!

The skies have cleared and the sun has come out, so it should be a nice day tomorrow to celebrate St Patrick’s Day and see our Toronto boys before the last leg of our journey. Fingers crossed.

Friday, March 15, 2013

R-r-roll up the r-r-rim!

Friday, March 15, 2013
Windsor, ON – “Welcome home!” was the friendly greeting from the border services officer as we pulled past the wicket and entered Canada once again. Even though there were no familiar faces or even sights to see, since we’ve never crossed into Canada at this border point, somehow it felt kind of nice to be ‘home’ again in our own country.

Mother Nature was kind again today by giving us overcast skies and zero precipitation as we pulled out of Lima and headed north. It was still cold, but that’s to be expected in this part of the world this time of year.

The first part of our trek today was through wide expanses of farmland, where rows of dry stubble from last year’s crops awaited the tilling and sowing of new seeds as the soil softens and temperatures rise. Bare trees stood in clumps around the farm buildings, and overhead were flocks of geese, migrating to their summer territories.

Before long we were into more urban landscapes as we approached Toledo, perched right on the state line with Michigan. There was evidence of the auto industry for which the city is known, with assembly plants and smokestacks. Toledo is located along shipping routes between Chicago and New York, and next to the Erie Canal, so that accounts for some of its importance, as well as the glass industry that flourishes there.

We stopped at the Michigan welcome center to pick up another map when we crossed the state line. Displays in the center showcased the state’s wine country, winter sports, ethnic communities and even a teddy bear factory that sponsored one display.

Detroit came next, with a vast array of suburbs followed by heavy industrial sections with low grey buildings and chimneys spewing white smoke into the sky. Henry Ford built the first car here, and the auto industry played a huge role in the city’s development, but the population has declined by half from 60 years ago, leaving a lot of depressed areas. The population of Detroit is 82 per cent African-American according to recent statistics.

Our little motorhome and car were dwarfed by the armies of semi-trucks zooming past on Interstate 75 toward the Ambassador Bridge that would take us into Canada. I’m sure hundreds of them must make the crossing in one direction or the other every day. After negotiating the various turns and lineups, we crossed high up over the wide Detroit River and then down into Canada. That’s where we met the friendly border crossing agent, answered a couple of questions, and then moved into the city of Windsor.

Our hotel is right along the route from the bridge that will lead us to Highway 401 tomorrow. And across the street is a Tim Hortons where we had our lunch and r-r-r-rolled up the r-r-rim to win on Val’s coffee cup. Except we didn’t win anything today! Our prize this time is being ‘home’ once again after a terrific holiday. Only a few more sleeps before we’re in Ottawa.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Country roads, city streets

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Lima, OH – We’ve added another state to our total as we work toward visiting all 50 US states. At this point we have only a handful more to see; I think we’re now up to 41. And it is so interesting to see what variety there is in terms of geography, character, history, topography – you name it.

Rolling hills and fenced paddocks carpeted with the blue grass of Kentucky gave way to long stretches of urban landscape as we entered Ohio, passing through Cincinnati and then Dayton on our northward route. We were blessed with lovely clear skies and sunshine, although the temperature was quite cold.

The car was covered in frost this morning when we got up, before sunrise, to prepare for our departure. It was slightly different today because, in addition to our normal battening down of the hatches, we wanted to winterize the RV to protect the plumbing from freezing as we enter the cold north again.

We actually pushed the envelope a bit by staying in the RV as long as we did – the low last night was in the 20s Farenheit; not really camping weather! But we had our tank heaters running, the furnace blowing, and we ran the taps dry before we went to bed last night, so the icy grip of winter was kept at bay.

Four large jugs of pink RV anti-freeze went into the plumbing system as Val worked the siphon and I ran the cold and hot taps of the sinks, shower and toilet till the pink stuff flowed out. We drained the grey, black and fresh water tanks and dumped more pink down the drains to finish the job. I think Val was relieved to know the systems were protected again, now that we’re back in the land of deep freezes.

We’re now in a comfortable hotel room in Lima. The town was established in 1831 and named after Lima, Peru where quinine bark originated to treat the “swamp fever” or malaria that plagued local residents. The town was a centre for oil, locomotives, tanks and school buses over its history, and boasts a population of just under 40,000.

Even if we only perch in a hotel by the Interstate and move on the next morning, it’s fun to learn a bit about the places we glimpse on our homeward journey.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Might and mane

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Georgetown, KY – A sudden lurch of the RV woke me up this morning, and I lifted the blind to see SNOW billowing about in a gust of strong wind and blanketing the car and the ground around us! Fortunately we had taken precautions so nothing froze, and we were toasty warm all night under our down duvet.

Going outside was another matter altogether. A freezing, bitter wind whipped at us, and we put on just about every layer we had. Despite these relatively minor challenges, we headed out to visit the Kentucky Horse Park on the outskirts of Lexington. The park is some 1300 acres, with paddocks, a dressage complex, huge barns, a couple of museums, a visitor center and restaurant and more, all dedicated to the horse!

In addition to videos, displays and statues of horses, there are real animals of many breeds to look at, plus carriages, farm implements, saddlery, trophies and other associated items and activities. After a short film about the history of horses in America, we took the trolley ride around the grounds. Two enormous black draft horses pulled the open-air trolley as their great hooves clopped on the asphalt and we huddled together in the icy wind.

We stopped inside the Mounted Police barn and chatted with Lisa, the police officer in charge of the small detachment that serves the park, while she tended to Jake, a large white horse, in his stall. It turns out Lisa knows a couple of RCMP horse people we know – small world.

On we went to visit the Hall of Champions, and some of the horse world’s greats. We saw Da Hoss, Funny Cide, Cigar and Go for Gin, four thoroughbreds responsible for raking in millions of dollars in winnings at various races. A guide told us their stories as their handler brought each one out of its stall for us to admire.

By this time we were thoroughly chilled, so we headed for the restaurant to warm up with a hearty hot meal!

The International Museum of the Horse was our next stop, with three floors of wonderful displays describing horse anatomy, the history from pre-historic times, the interaction of man and horse, the uses to which horses have been put over the years, various breeds of horses (including a whole floor dedicated to the Arabian horse) and famous horses, riders and handlers.

We took a short break to go out and see the presentation on Horses of the World Up Close and Personal, where a staff member described the park’s facilities (there’s room for over a thousand horses at one time!) and events in the park, as well as some of the special breeds, such as a huge grey Shire horse that eyed us from his stall while we listened.

After completing the international museum, we went over to the American Saddlebred Museum, which focuses on American horse breeds. Some of them participate in showy events where they prance smartly with long wispy tails and an exaggerated curl to their front legs. At this museum, they had a couple of giant rocking horses people are allowed to ride; it was fun!

To finish the day we took a spin into Lexington to see the home of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of President Abraham Lincoln. The visitor season doesn’t start until tomorrow – but we saw the outside anyway.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Camels and porcupines

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Georgetown, KY – Sometimes a wrong turn can lead to unusual adventures. That about sums it up for today!

We had a short travel day, so we went in first to Corbin to visit the site of the original Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, started by Colonel Harland Sanders. We timed it for lunch hour to fully appreciate the venue.

The Sanders Café has the large pressure cooker that the colonel used to reduce the cooking time of chicken from 30 minutes to nine – the first example of fast food. His astute business practices, including open kitchens, have been copied by many others. He also refrained from patenting his secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices, preferring to keep it a trade secret, because patents have an end date and secrets don’t. The security around his recipe, as described on Wikipedia, is impressive.

With our chicken lunches tucked under our belts, we aimed for Lexington and the RV park just north of town. The countryside was picturesque, with rolling hills, farms and rock cuts along the way. And, although it remained fairly overcast, there was no rain!

As we approached the turnoff for the RV park, our GPS was telling us to take exit 129, while the directions in our park directory said exit 136. As navigator, I figured the directory’s version would be the best way, so that’s what we decided to follow.

We took the turns indicated and found ourselves on a narrow, two-lane country road that meandered up, down, left and right past little farms, abandoned shacks, cow pastures and hills. Our confidence diminished by the minute, and then, with no warning, we spotted the next turn too late to slow down and make it. We had no choice but to carry on, going some distance before we could make a U-turn.

Once again on the right path, the winding road continued with no encouraging signs. Actually there was a rather nerve-wracking sign – indicating an underpass ahead, 10 feet, six inches high. Our height is 11 feet! At this point, Val pulled over in front of a house. Fortunately people were home and reassured us that there was a nice RV park along this way, and that lots of big trucks went through the underpass all the time. Val had rounded up our vehicle’s height, so we were probably OK. So on we went.

The underpass was a single lane tunnel under a railway with running water seeping across the roadbed. We inched through, nervously, and to our relief heard no scraping sounds! Whew!

After meandering a few more miles down the road, we saw, in a fenced field, three large hairy camels! I could hardly believe my eyes. We pulled on to the shoulder for a closer look, and met Jeff coming out of his property with his little girl. Jeff owns 14 camels and sells the babies for his daughters’ college fund. He used to keep zebras and wallabies, but now raises huge African porcupines along with the camels on his large property. He was very friendly, taking us up to see the porcupines in their pens, and telling us all about his menagerie!

He also reassured us we were on the right road for the RV park. When we finally got there and registered, our host told us the directions were going to be corrected in the next edition of the RV park catalogue. But think what we would have missed if we’d just followed the GPS!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Celebrity central

Monday, March 11, 2013

Corbin, KY – Today we crossed Tennessee for the second time. We did so in 2011 on our way to Arizona, from east to west, and this time from south to north. Both times we have experienced a deluge of rain of epic proportions for the entire day! (See “All Day Carwash” in the February 2011 blog.) Kind of makes you wonder!

After fewer than 20 miles in Alabama, and just before entering Tennessee, we crossed a corner of Georgia in our southwest-northeast trajectory, so today was another four-state journey. The Georgia portion was about 20 miles as well, and then we were in Tennessee, where we stopped at the visitor center. I snapped this picture of Val with one of the locals.

When we reached the outskirts of Chattanooga, I thought it might have been interesting to stop at the choo-choo site we passed as we traversed the city, but the driving rain discouraged us big time. Twists and turns in the highway, plus rough pavement and potholes, plus heavy traffic which included a lot of semi trucks that spewed out plumes of wet mist, plus sloshing rain that our wipers barely swept away when running full tilt, gave us little chance to even take in the glimpses of the famous city as we passed through.

People who aren’t well-versed in American geography might be confused to read Cleveland and Dayton on a map of Tennessee. And tongue-tied when they see Murfreesboro, and amused at Soddy-Daisy! While Nashville and Memphis are probably its most well-known cities, some people recognize Knoxville, which we passed through this time as well.

The southern end of the Appalachian mountain range was evident in the rolling hills on either side of Interstate 75 as we entered Kentucky, although they call them the Smoky Mountains at this end. Fortunately the condition of the highway improved when we left Tennessee, and the rain lightened somewhat. We picked up some more literature and maps of Kentucky at its welcome center when we crossed the state line. There is a lot to see!

Corbin’s biggest claim to fame is the very first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, started by Colonel Harland Sanders in 1930. He had learned to cook for his family at age 12 when his father died and his mother had to go out and work, and after a variety of jobs, he bought a service station in this town. To attract more customers, he cooked his chicken dinners and served them at his own dining table in his house attached to the gas station.

By chance, a food critic named Duncan Hines (sound familiar?) tasted the meal and included Harland’s restaurant in a list of interesting places to eat in America. The rest, as they say, is history! The governor of Kentucky bestowed the honorary rank of colonel to Harland for his many contributions to the community, and Sanders adopted the white suit and black string tie for his distinctive appearance. He even dyed his goatee white to match his white hair and complete the look.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sock it to me!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fort Payne, AL – We crossed another state today, still on a diagonal route on Interstate 59 from southwest to northeast. Once again, we had lovely weather, reaching a balmy 22 degrees at its warmest. Signs of spring are everywhere, with blossoming trees and scores of robins. At the rest stop where we had our lunch, there were fragrant hyacinths and jaunty daffodils blooming in the flowerbeds!

Alabama’s nickname is “the heart of Dixie”, and we passed through towns with well-known names, such as Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. Each place we pass through has a depth of history, from the times of the aboriginal peoples through the Civil War and on into more recent times. In these parts, those times include the difficult years of racial discrimination and unrest that captured so many headlines in the 1960s.

There was no sign of those events in the peaceful towns we passed, where many tall white steeples stood out on the skyline, and where church parking lots were filled with the cars of Sunday worshippers. Not everyone was in church, however – the highway had a lot of cars and semi trucks that whizzed past us as we stuck to our steady 62 miles per hour. The condition of the roadbed was not the greatest; there were a lot of rough patches, and Val had gusts of wind to contend with as well, but he handled it beautifully as usual.

It was fun reading the names of towns we passed – trying to figure out how the locals would pronounce them. Names like Boligee, Eutaw and Attalla. We only had a couple of occasions to interact with the locals – at the filling station where we fueled up and again with the host of this RV park – but I could have listened to their lovely southern twang for ages. I suppose we sounded as odd to them as they did to us.

Fort Payne is 20 miles west of the Alabama-Georgia state line, and it originated in the 1830s with a fort for the internment of Cherokee Indians (as they are known here) during their forced migration to Oklahoma from the eastern states – a sad chapter of US history called the Trail of Tears. The town boomed for a time in the 1880s when coal and iron deposits were discovered, but they proved to be smaller than originally anticipated.

The town’s biggest claim to fame began in the early 1900s when a hosiery factory set up business here, and before long Fort Payne was producing more than half the socks made in the United States! When Chinese socks flooded the market, the town leaders began to diversify local industry to stabilize its economy. Judging from the contented look of the place and its many shopping malls, their plan appears to have worked.

The well-known country music band Alabama, from the 1960s, called Fort Payne its headquarters, and it still has a strong fan base here. We like this spot for its peaceful RV park, which we’ll call home for the next few hours before we move on.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Four eyes but cannot see

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Toomsuba, MS – When we were kids we used to ask the riddle “what has four eyes but cannot see?”, and the answer was “Mississippi”! That’s where we have spent most of today, after we cleared the outskirts of New Orleans and crossed the miles-long bridge over Lake Pontchartrain.

Once again we passed neighbourhoods that had been hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina. On a nice street of modest, trim houses, there would be one with boarded-up windows, a caved-in roof, or siding still bent back from the vicious winds. Most people had repaired and rebuilt, but some have yet to fix the damage.

Shortly after we crossed the state line, we stopped at the Mississippi welcome center, where a charming lady named Temisia offered us free coffee and enthused about the many places of interest in her home state. We didn’t have the heart to tell her we were just passing through, but we saw quite a few things we’d like to come back and check out on another trip.

For example, Leland, on the west side of the state, is known as the hometown of Kermit the Frog. Creator Jim Henson was born there and there’s a museum dedicated to him and his Muppets. Vicksburg, also on the west side, is a historic town where thousands of Civil War soldiers, both Confederate and Union, are buried. Star is the hometown of country music great Faith Hill. Meridian, located just a few miles from this KOA campground, is where the “father of country music” Jimmie Rodgers came from.

As we traced a diagonal line from southwest to northeast across the state, we noticed the tropical jungles of the south disappeared, replaced by forests of tall pine trees. It was delightful seeing the forest trees starting to bloom. Some saplings were sprouting small yellow flowers, and we spotted a number of fruit trees dressed in blossoms of white or pink. On some stretches of highway we could have been driving through Ontario. Except there still wasn’t a single flake of snow!

The other thing we didn’t encounter was rain. When we checked in at the KOA, the host told us it has poured for days, so we considered ourselves lucky with this perfectly beautiful day. I was also glad, since we were assigned one of the farthest sites from the main building, that I didn’t have to lug my hamper full of laundry to the washing machines in the rain.

While I got caught up on laundry, Val prepared the barbeque for a home-cooked supper that was delicious and simple. While we’ve enjoyed tasting the exotic Louisiana cuisine for the past few days, it’s nice to return to plain food that hasn’t been deep-fried in fat!

We are surrounded by woods, and we spotted a couple of bright scarlet cardinals nearby, as well as robins looking for worms. As the sun descended to the horizon, a chorus of spring peepers somewhere nearby started up to serenade us.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Alligator tastes like chicken

Friday, March 8, 2013

New Orleans, LA – Tonight our supper came out of Styrofoam boxes from several recent restaurant visits. We’ve been trying to sample as much of the local cuisine as possible – gumbo, jambalaya, po’boys, Andouille, grits, boiled crawfish – and then there are the desserts, such as pecan pie, hot bread pudding and key lime pie! A tough job but somebody has to do it!

For the second time, our direction today was westward, away from the big city, to visit two more plantations in the area. Oak Alley is a five minute drive from the Laura Plantation that we saw yesterday, but looks completely different. It’s the plantation everyone thinks of – the grand white pillared mansion and the straight road leading up to it, flanked on either side by huge live oak trees that form a canopy overhead. You can just picture guests riding up in their carriages for a grand ball, hosted by Scarlett O’Hara’s family, although Gone with the Wind was not filmed here. Dozens of movies, TV shows and commercials have been filmed on the grounds.

Val and I sampled mint juleps, served on the ground floor verandah, before going in for our tour. Val’s was the real deal, complete with bourbon, while I had mine minus the booze. Very refreshing! Our guide, dressed in a fancy hoop-skirted dress, showed us through the restored rooms, complete with period furniture, paintings and personal items that might have been used in the old days.

One of the other plantation buildings was repurposed as a restaurant, where we went for lunch. Since this was likely our last chance, we ordered alligator bites for an appetizer. The deep-fried crunchy nuggets really did resemble chicken, if slightly rubbery! Don’t think we’ll order it again, but we tried it!

After a stroll through the lovely gardens and down that oak-lined alley, we headed on to the San Francisco Plantation on the north side of the Mississippi, somewhat closer to New Orleans. The effect of this location was tempered somewhat by the presence of a lot of industrial buildings with chutes and cranes connected to ocean-going ships on the river. We couldn’t see the ships because of the high levees; these would have been much lower in earlier years.

Not only that, but once we got to the plantation grounds, we encountered a huge collection of tented concession stands all over the lawns in preparation for a big arts and crafts fair on the weekend. The ticket lady told us they were expecting thousands of people at this annual event, so we were glad we came when we did. We actually had a personal tour – probably no one else thought the building was accessible today with all the hustle and bustle outside it.

The homestead was the most opulent one we’d seen, with frescoed ceilings and beautiful draperies in the ornately decorated rooms. The structure had two towers on either side that were cisterns for rain, gathered from the roof and piped into the house. There was even refrigeration from ice imported from the north that was stored in earthenware jars buried in the ground. It was interesting to hear the family stories that were so closely linked to these remarkable homes.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Plantation life

Thursday, March 7, 2013

New Orleans, LA – This morning we played the waiting game for a few hours. We had asked to extend our stay at the KOA here because there was more we wanted to see, and the management said yes, but it would mean changing sites. So we had to wait until checkout time for the party in our new spot to leave, as well as batten everything down for the move 10 sites down the way. We also took the car out to get it washed, which it sorely needed, and picked up a few groceries on the way back. So we put our time to good use!

With all that accomplished, we had a bite of lunch and then headed out for a visit to one of the plantations in the area. This one was about 40 miles west of New Orleans, and on the other side of the Mississippi River, but it was a lovely day and the drive didn’t take long.

The Laura Plantation belonged to a Creole family that raised sugar cane on the banks of the Mississippi starting in 1805. The succession of ownership of the plantation went through the women of the family, and Laura’s detailed memoirs, discovered in the national archives in France, have provided a full account of the family business, the life of the enslaved people who kept it going, and events and customs of the time.

The grounds are lovely, with ancient live oaks shading the big house, and flower and vegetable gardens adding colour beside it. The house itself is a restoration because it was partially destroyed by fire only a few years ago, but when it was done, they reverted back to its original appearance based on early watercolour paintings. Creole homes were always brightly painted and in its last iteration prior to the fire, it had been painted white, so the new old house is now yellow with red and blue trim.

Elmore, our guide, explained the architecture of the house, which followed the construction method of the Senegal slaves who built it – pillars of brick extending eight feet into the ground and the same height above ground, on which the house rested, to allow it to withstand seasonal flooding from the river. The rooms opened into one another without hallways, each with a set of French doors to the outside to allow breezes to flow through in the hot weather.

Up to 180 slaves lived on the plantation in wooden houses with only one or two rooms. Several of these houses were still standing. The slaves worked the fields from age 13 onward, while the younger ones helped in the kitchens. Elmore said one job of the youngest slaves was to ring the large bell that woke everyone in the morning; sometimes it rang at 3 am.

In the 1870s a professor of romance languages from New Orleans collected folklore stories from the slaves at the plantation, which became known as the Br’er Rabbit tales. I remember the stories of Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby from my childhood, and this is where they came from!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Fun on the bayou

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

New Orleans, LA – For the first time since Georgia, I donned my winter jacket this morning when we arrived at Cajun Pride Swamp Tours. It was sunny but the brisk wind was too much for my light jacket.

School kids in a high state of excitement were scampering all over the picnic area next to the waterway. Fortunately, we were ushered on to the adults-only swamp boat, with Captain Tom at the helm. The long, shallow boat moved very slowly along the water so we could get up and move about when someone caught sight of something interesting.

Cypress trees, live oaks, palmetto shrubs and dead stumps lined the shores of the bayou, some dripping with grey wisps of Spanish moss and others overgrown with dead vines. The maple keys had emerged, bright red, on bare branches, and small white flowers were blossoming on the blackberry bushes – some of the first signs that spring was on the way, according to Capt. Tom.

Great white egrets waded in the shallows, as well as blue herons that took to flight when we got too close. Before long, we sighted our first alligator, a little guy only three feet long nestled in the bright greenery at the water’s edge where the sun could warm his body.

Tom’s lifelong contact with the flora and fauna of the swamps was evident in the multitude of facts and stories he related about our surroundings. He told us how alligators are hunted (only for a month in the fall), how best to bag one (shoot him in the eye or ear so the hide is not damaged) and how much a good hide can garner on the market (several hundred dollars for a nice spotted one). He also said not to believe everything they show on the TV program Swamp People!

A baby racoon crept out of the bushes to check us out, and snatched up, in his little claws, the marshmallows Tom tossed his way. There are also white-tailed deer and wild boars in the bush, he said, but they weren’t visible today. We did see several turtles, and a diamond-back swamp snake sunning itself on a log.

The biggest alligator we spotted was about six feet long, resting on the muddy bank and still as a statue. Tom showed us the grooves in the riverbank mud where they slide in and out of the water – an easy indicator for visitors on the lookout for wildlife.

We saw signs of human presence in the swamp as well – a rudimentary graveyard, fenced around with rotting wood and an archway with “1915” marked across the top. Tom said the remains of hurricane victims were buried there when people finally found their bodies in the devastated bush.

A tiny shack from a similar era stood on another riverbank not far from the cemetery, with a tin roof and outhouse complete with a half-moon on the door. Tom said it had been flattened by the recent Hurricane Ivan, but he and other staff members put it back together to preserve a part of swamp history. I was much happier being a visitor to this fascinating environment than a full-time resident!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A city of resilience and revelry

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

New Orleans, LA – Sylvester was the name of our guide and bus driver for the combination city and Hurricane Katrina tour that we took this morning. He spoke with a wonderful lilt and in terms that demonstrated a love for his city, despite her excesses and trials.

We covered a lot of territory and learned so much more about the geography, history and character of this unique community. Passing houses still heavily scarred by the two hurricanes of 2005 that lashed into the region within a month of each other, we realized the extent of the devastation caused, not so much by the vicious winds, but by an inundation of staggering proportions that followed them. Neighbourhoods were plunged under 12 feet of water that remained for three long weeks, and left homes filled with mud, mildew and mold, if they weren’t flattened completely to begin with.

Sylvester explained the far-reaching consequences of the disaster, such as the sharp downturn for business owners whose customers disappeared for months, and the reduced tax revenues that ensued. People had to decide whether to refurbish or simply walk away and start over somewhere else. Thousands did leave, but the majority remained and rebuilt.

Our tour continued with a visit to the city of the dead, one of several cemeteries built in the Spanish style – large stone boxes above ground where entire families are interred over the years. Some were topped with angels or crosses, and ancient ones mingled with newer structures along paved streets were cars can actually drive through.

More upbeat sites included a drive through the huge city park with playing fields, band shells, a storybook playground and majestic live oak trees that date back to the Civil War. We also saw the garden district where we passed scores of huge antebellum mansions, each different from the other, with columns, gingerbread trim, sweeping staircases and gracious verandahs.

Flowering shrubs and palm trees decorated the gardens and the wide boulevards down the centre of the avenue. It was jaw-dropping to see such an endless array of showpiece homes!

Back at our starting point again, we set off for some hot café au lait and beignets, a light pastry heavily dusted with powdered sugar. Our next stop was the Louisiana State Museum, with a multi-media display about Katrina on the ground floor and a homage to Mardi Gras upstairs, complete with elaborate costumes and floats, plus explanations of the origins of all the revelry that surrounds those celebrations. There is a whole vocabulary and culture we never knew about!

It was a marathon day, as we had decided to taste some of the jazz scene after dark, so we went for supper at the Gumbo Shop, a well-known French Quarter eatery, and strolled along Bourbon Street as night began to fall and the bars started filling up. After lining up for an hour to get into Preservation Hall, an ancient hole-in-the-wall jazz venue, we were treated to traditional New Orleans style music with trumpet, sax, clarinet, double bass, piano and drums that made the rafters ring.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Drunken Catfish Ramblers

Monday, March 4, 2013

New Orleans, LA – This is one big city! It took us about half an hour to drive in to the French Quarter from our camp ground, and we went through suburbs, industrial sections, past skyscrapers and finally into the quaint streets of the old town, with narrow buildings crowded next to one another, decorated with wrought iron balconies where flower pots dripped ivy over the edges, and strings of beads, left over from Mardi Gras excesses, still dangled from the railings.

After checking in at the visitor centre, we found a spot to park our little car, and set off on foot toward the river’s edge, where we were told we could book a tour or two. Getting an overview of a new city is our usual pattern, but when we got to the kiosk, we found out the three-hour tour was about to leave and we needed to eat lunch first!

So, being our flexible selves, we opted for the paddlewheel cruise along the Mississippi River, leaving just a few minutes later, but where we could find a meal as well. The Natchez was painted white with red trim and featured two black smokestacks and a huge red paddlewheel at its stern. It had three deck levels with plenty of seating to view the scenery on either shore, and throughout the cruise there was a running commentary about what we were seeing.

In the dining room, we were served a classic New Orleans meal of fried catfish, shrimp creole, okra and tomatoes, red beans and rice, cole slaw, bread and, for dessert, warm bread pudding. After we helped ourselves to iced tea we looked around to see where to pay for the meal, and the server told us it was included with our cruise ticket! What a pleasant – and tasty – surprise!

Before we came here, I always thought New Orleans was perched on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico, but in fact it is 100 miles from the gulf on a great curved section of the Mississippi. That curve has prompted the nickname “the Crescent City” to a place that also gets called NOLA (New Orleans LouisianA), N’Awlins and The Big Easy!

Once we got back ashore, we started off on foot toward the St. Louis Cathedral, set off by a large fenced park. On the outside of the fence were hawkers offering tours, artists who had hung brightly coloured paintings for sale on the fence, and a string of horse-drawn carriages looking for customers, but it was lovely and peaceful on the inside where there were benches to sit on and stretches of green grass. The cathedral was beautiful inside, with colourful stained glass windows and frescoes on the ceiling.

More streets of the French Quarter beckoned to us, as we made our way toward our car. We stopped twice to listen to groups of musicians who sat down in the middle of the street to blast out some lively honky-tonk tunes – with banjos and tubas and one trombonist who produced a “wah-wah” sound with the rubber cup from a toilet plunger! It was impossible not to tap a foot or wiggle a hip in time with the music! People put contributions into a guitar case where one group’s name was posted: The Drunken Catfish Ramblers. I especially liked the one with a bushy red goatee, playing the washboard.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Three days, four states

Friday to Sunday, March 1-3, 2013

New Orleans, LA – Here we are in the Big Easy! We’ve only driven in to our KOA camp ground, west of the city, so we haven’t really seen anything outside the approaches, but that will change as of tomorrow.

To backtrack a bit, on Friday we left our friends Scott and Mary Jane and drove west for 45 minutes to Navarre, where we stopped for lunch and a visit with Darrell and Sharon from Nova Scotia. Darrell was a former boss of mine and we visited them south of Tucson when we took our Arizona trip two years ago. It was great catching up on their news, but we weren’t able to stay for long, as we wanted to avoid rush hour traffic on our way to the Big Lagoon State Park, at the farthest western reaches of Florida.

“The real Florida” is what the state parks system calls places like Big Lagoon. It is surprisingly natural and rural, being so close to the city of Pensacola. Our site was entirely surrounded by bog, and, to our delight, a mockingbird serenaded us from a neighbouring tree with its amazing vocabulary of bird songs!

We had had a pretty cold night without the furnace; even our poufy duvet failed to keep us completely warm. Our hot breakfast beverages were very comforting the next morning!

The National Naval Aviation Museum was only a short drive from the park and had been recommended to us, so we spent the next morning exploring it. Scores of airplanes of many vintages were displayed on the ground and suspended overhead, and visitors could imagine what it was like to fly them in several motion-based flight simulators. There was another display that took you to a flight briefing on an aircraft carrier and then to a mock-up of a windswept flight deck where we could watch planes taking off and landing. We also watched an IMAX movie about the Blue Angels, who practice their aerobatics on the grounds here starting a week or so from now.

This morning we headed for New Orleans, following the gulf shoreline along Highway 98 and then turning north to join Interstate 10. In three hours or so of driving, we left Florida and crossed a stretch of Alabama, then Mississippi and into Louisiana. We saw quite a bit of farmland, with horses and cows, and roadside stands selling boiled peanuts, an apparently popular food in these parts!

When we drove past the shipyards of Mobile, Alabama, we caught sight of the crippled cruise ship that had been towed in a couple of weeks ago after it lost power in the Carribean for several days. Guess the cleanup was still underway.

On our way in to New Orleans, we saw what appeared to be lingering damage from Hurricane Katrina, which took place in August of 2005. After reading more about that devastating hurricane, it was understandable that some of the highways were still in rough shape in places, considering the extent of damage that occurred. Our KOA host told us our site has the only tree in our section of the campground that wasn’t blown down by the storm.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

A pelican’s paradise

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Destin, FL – Exploring a place with Scott and Mary Jane is a treat, because they have an eye for the unique and interesting, and love to share their enthusiasm with their friends. This is the third time they’ve spent time in Destin, so they’ve scouted out a lot of neat places, and we saw some of them today.

We kept the gulf on our right the whole way out, as we headed eastward on Scenic Highway 98 and then Highway 30A. This route took us through a chain of beachside communities, each with distinctive characters and interesting things to see. We passed at least three state parks, some of which offer camping for RVers, as well as nature trails accessible by rented bicycle or waterways by kayak.

Along with lots of natural beauty, we also saw a wide range of manmade sights, equally appealing to the eye. While many beachside condos toward the western end are in highrise buildings, at the eastern end where we were today, they are in townhouses on a smaller scale. Stately palm trees line the streets, lawns are manicured and green and other landscaping is set off from the grass with skirts of bleached shells.

We stopped at a small bakery our friends had found with a specialty of buttery, fragrant cinnamon buns – and even found four of them in the day-old bin, which were still light and delicious, plus at half price. Outside the bakery were rows of pastel-coloured bicycles for rent, and next door to it was a health food store with shelves loaded with interesting soaps, herbal medicines and giant oatmeal-raisin cookies.

Still licking cinnamon from our fingers, we parked the car and headed for another beautiful stretch of beach to test our new waterproof sandals and drink in the fresh breeze, foaming surf and comical plovers scampering over the dunes. We kept a brisk walking pace to stay warm, as it was not a hot day, although the sun was shining brightly for a change.

One of the communities we passed through, Seaside, had been used as the set for the movie The Truman Show, where Jim Carey lived an ideal life in a perfect town called Seahaven. Its manicured streets and bright, trim houses still look as utopian as ever!

A cluster of high-end boutiques and restaurants in Sandestin, another town in the chain, stood next to Choctawatchee Bay, where a boardwalk pier invited us out by a marina filled with expensive-looking yachts, and a pair of pelicans sailed overhead and dive-bombed into the water after a fish dinner, over and over again! We passed several people who had been fishing and were taking home some substantial-looking catches to cook up for supper, so the pelicans were in the right neighbourhood.

By this time, we were ready for supper too, so we retraced our steps back to the condo and enjoyed another pleasant evening of good food and good conversation.

[Note to faithful readers: we will be without wi-fi connections for the next two nights, as we’re booked in at a state park in Pensacola, so it will be a couple of days before we can post the next blogs.]

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The soaker and the sandal

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Destin, FL – The scent of cinnamon and maple syrup greeted our nostrils this morning when we woke up. We had picked up a decadent loaf of sugar-glazed cinnamon bread at the bakery yesterday and noticed on the menu in the café part of the shop “cinnamon bread French toast”, so Scott suggested we try it at home.

Fabulous idea. Thick slabs of heavily-spiced sweet bread soaked in egg batter and fried to a golden brown were the perfect start to the day! And the sun was actually shining outside, flashing silver on the curling waves we could see from the condo patio doors.

To cancel out some of those early-morning calories, we set out for a stroll along the beach – a miles-long expanse of beautiful white sand. The waves were still quite large, as the strong winds we’d experienced the last couple of days hadn’t quite died down totally, and great tongues of white foam slid up near our feet as we walked.

One such wave caught Val by surprise, soaking his running shoes and socks. I stayed a few yards further from the surf, so my feet were spared. We must have covered a couple of miles, watching plovers and sanderlings running along the sand and gulls flying overhead. Val and Scott stopped to chat with a fisherman to find out what he was using for bait (shrimp) and if he was having any luck (not yet). We even saw three brave souls in wet suits out in the waves, surfing!

Mary Jane observed Val’s squishy wet feet and told us about her waterproof sandals, with sturdy rubber treads and arch supports, and how useful they were for the beach, rainy days and boating. We decided they’d be great for us to use with our kayaks, so after we set Val’s shoes out in the sun to dry and had some lunch, the four of us went to one of the many shopping malls in the area to find some.

One huge store we visited, dedicated to “fishers, hunters and other liars” according to the marquee, was full of every kind of fishing rod, reel, hook, line and sinker you could imagine, and was decorated with sharks, swordfish, deer and other creatures, as well as a large Plexiglas tank with great silvery fish gliding around inside. They had the brand of sandals we were looking for, but Mary Jane said we could probably find a better price at the outlet mall next door.

She was right! And our timing was perfect; the saleswoman said they were just opening a new shipment of the sandals, and found three pairs in the right sizes for me, Val and Scott. They were immediately comfortable on our feet, and we’re planning to test them on the beach tomorrow.

We got back to the condo in time to watch a spectacular sunset, orange and pink and gold reflected on the wet sand. Beautiful! As was the delicious dinner we then sat down to enjoy, enhanced by a great yacking session on all manner of interesting topics. A lovely day from start to finish.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

It was a dark and stormy night

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Destin, FL – Tonight we are sleeping in a bedroom that has more square footage than our entire RV! We are the fortunate houseguests of our good friends Scott and Mary-Jane, whom we met two years ago at a campground in Sedona, Arizona. We’ve had many good times together since then, and we were delighted when they invited us to stay with them at their rented condo on our way through the panhandle (or, as Floridians call it, The Forgotten Coast).

The warmth, peace and comfort we are enjoying this evening contrasts sharply with the one that preceded it. All night long last night, fierce winds pummeled the RV and heavy rain lashed against the roof with such force we had to raise our voices to hear each other (oh, there were the earplugs too).

After managing an hour or two of sleep, we were wakened four or five times by the weather band on the satellite radio, starting with a long beep and then the announcement that a severe thunderstorm, or flash floods, or dangerously high waves had been located in the following counties (then naming all 96 of them) and people were advised to seek shelter, drive carefully or find a safe harbour immediately. The message was then repeated in its entirety, followed by three loud buzz sounds. Usually one or the other of us got to the power button to shut it off before those buzz sounds, but this involved heaving out of bed and navigating the entire length of the RV to get to the radio – not conducive to resuming sleep very rapidly.

Then, at five a.m., another beeping sound and flashing light woke us up. This time, it was the refrigerator, indicating that the power had been cut! Val gave up and got out of bed for good, but I tried to linger a bit longer without much success. Not long after, the wind died down, the rain stopped, and a watery sun peeked through the clouds! And the power came on again! What a relief!

Evidence of the storm was everywhere on the highway once we pulled out of the park. State prisoners were gathering debris of broken branches and dried palm leaves from roadsides in Apalachicola as we drove through there once again. When we caught sight of the gulf waters, the wind was lacing the waves with foam, and the water looked as dark as chocolate milk.

We followed Highway 98 all the way along the coast, and when we got to Panama City we saw a sign about the road being under water. Shortly afterward, there was a barrier across the road, and beyond it a small lake where road should have been, but no indication of a detour we could take to get around it. We had to lurch onto the soft, wet shoulder and turn around and figure out a different way to continue our journey!

A trip we thought would take two hours ended up taking three, and our arrival was even further delayed because we crossed into a new time zone and lost another hour. But our hosts graciously fed us lunch once we finally arrived, and we had a great time catching up and exploring the Destin area.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Rainfall capital of the U.S.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Carrabelle, FL – Drenching rain has been drumming on the roof of the RV all afternoon. There was enough of a break this morning to pop over to the main building for a shower and to get in the car for our outing, but we wore our slickers and rainproof shoes, and with good reason.

We are right on the gulf coast of Florida’s panhandle, and as we headed toward Apalachicola, about 20 miles west of Carrabelle, we could see the whitecaps on the water to our left. The road took us through sections of forest with tall pine trees on either side of the road, but many of them were mere silhouettes in the mist and fog of the morning.

Bear warning signs were posted along the road, and our host Dennis confirmed their presence yesterday with a photo he had snapped of a mother bear and two cubs not long ago, after he scared them into a tree near the dumpster. The dumpster’s crumpled lid also bore evidence to bear interest! However, any wildlife in the vicinity today was probably huddled in the underbrush, looking for a way to stay dry.

We enjoyed seeing some of the old Victorian homes when we drove through the historic section of Apalachicola, and the small-town main street with little shops lining the sidewalks. I was delighted to find a Piggly Wiggly grocery store (being a pig enthusiast), where we stopped to pick up a few items. If their shopping bags had had the pudgy pig’s face printed on them, I would have bought that too!

Our cashier gave us directions to a good place for lunch, called Papa Joe’s Oyster Grill. By the time we arrived, it was raining more heavily, so we were glad to get inside. Our table was in a verandah part of the restaurant, with windows all around, so we could watch the rain and, not long after we sat down, great bolts of lightning. I looked toward the end of the verandah and noticed a finger of water flowing gently across the floor. When I mentioned it to the server, she said the roof would start leaking as well if it kept up!

Moments later, the head server came out to the verandah and asked everyone to please move inside, because they had received word that there were waterspouts and tornadoes in the area. We all picked up our plates and herded into the main building, finding seats where we could. The server was speaking calmly, but we could tell she was quite concerned. She told us she had seen the damage a tornado could produce. I was just glad our seats were next to a solid wall. We stayed inside for another 20 minutes, till the warning was lifted, and then sloshed our way through the pond-sized puddles to the car.

Once we got back to the RV (which, to our relief, was still in place and in one piece), we settled in for the rest of the day. I browsed the internet to see more about the storm and discovered, on a list of extreme weather for the day across the US, the highest rainfall, 4.09 inches, was recorded today in Apalachicola, Florida! I would say that report is quite accurate. I also read that there were two-inch hailstones near the Suwannee River that we had crossed two days ago on our way here. I guess we have been dancing between the raindrops….sort of!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

On the gulf’s lapping shores

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Carabelle, FL – Great cracks of thunder echoed through the RV a couple of hours ago, as a storm swept across the Ho Hum RV Park, where we are spending the next two nights. Out the kitchen window, I can see the waters of the Gulf of Mexico – or more specifically, of Apalachee Bay – and before the rain hit, Val and I had a nice stroll along the beach.

I think it was high tide, because there wasn’t a very wide swath of sand on which to walk. We saw a lot of seaweed and almost no shells at all, as well as a few blobs of black tar, probably the remains of the BP oil spill of 2010. The blobs were about the size of a walnut, so Mother Nature did a pretty good cleanup job, considering the millions of gallons that spewed into these waters over many days.

Our route along Highway 98 from Perry where we left this morning took us through a lot of jungle-like bush. The vegetation is so thick, it would take a machete to hack through it, but fortunately we didn’t have to do that! Tall trees were reflected in the standing water that covered much of the ground, and long grey wisps of Spanish moss hung from the branches, which were also tufted with green fronds of fern. Great loops of dried vines festooned from one tree to another in a messy tangle, and, nearer to the ground were short palmetto shrubs.

I looked into the underbrush to see if I could glimpse any alligators lurking in the water, but saw none. At one point, though, I spotted a wild turkey taking flight from the roadside, and before I could say “oh look – a wild turkey!”, the creature flew across the path of the RV and thumped against the windshield! We were both quite startled. Fortunately, it didn’t damage the windshield. Unfortunately, we were pretty sure that was its last flight. I guess the jungle scavengers had turkey for lunch today.

We pulled into the RV park shortly before two o’clock, and Dennis, the man at the park office, greeted us by saying “ho hum!” I have no idea how they picked that name, but it gave us a laugh. The weather held off long enough for us to get settled and take our little stroll, though we got spattered a little toward the end of it. Once we were all cosy again inside, the skies opened, the lightning flashed, the thunder crashed….and Val went for a nap. Earplugs are a marvellous invention!

Tonight is Oscar night, and our site has a cable TV connection, so all we’ll need is to zap some popcorn in the microwave and our evening’s entertainment will be set. I’ve put on my sparkliest earrings, but I forgot to pack an evening gown, so it will be a less formal event this year, though every bit as entertaining. We’ve seen quite a few of the nominated movies, so we should have a good time.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A city in the middle

Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013

Perry, FL –Florida’s capital city is just an hour from here, so with prospects of more cloud and rain today, we decided to drive to Tallahassee and have a look. Our route into the city took us up the long Apalachee Parkway, a four-lane avenue rising gently up a hill where, at the top, the old legislative building holds a commanding position, with the new building towering behind it.

The GPS led us to the visitor centre nearby, where we were hoping to get some advice on what to see and perhaps join a tour. No such luck; the offices aren’t open on weekends! So we parked the car and walked over to the old capital building where tourists can explore displays of Florida’s political history on a self-guided tour.

As we wandered from room to room, we learned about the early years when crews built a new railroad and others drained the swamps to claim some land for development. We learned that Tallahassee was a good half-way point between St. Augustine in the east and Pensacola in the west, so it was made the capital city. We saw artifacts from the Civil War and the war with the Seminole Indians, photos from the days of the Ku Klux Klan and segregation, and even a voting machine from the year 2000 when Florida’s votes held the fate of Bush or Gore in the balance till a proper count could be made.

We peeked into the old governor’s office with its roll-top desk, and the large rooms at either end for the state’s senate and house of representatives. The furnishings reminded me of old courtroom dramas like To Kill a Mockingbird where sweaty people fan themselves in the summer heat as they await a verdict.

Kelly, at the reception desk, recommended a restaurant for lunch called Harry’s, specializing in New Orleans cuisine. Val enjoyed jambalaya while I decided to try Kelly’s favourite, shrimp-n-grits. It was kind of spicy for me, but very flavourful! Our server told us the plates were a smaller version of what’s served at dinner, but neither of us could finish our “small” lunch serving!

After lunch, we went to see the Museum of Florida History. Admission was free (as was the parking, since it was Saturday), and the displays were very well done, bringing visitors past a pre-historic armadillo that turns its head as you go by, and on through the early years before the arrival of Europeans. There was an Indian grass hut, silver and gold dubloons from Spanish explorers, Civil War army tents, a citrus processing plant, a steamwheeler, pictures of Rosy-the-riveter factory women from the Second World War – a display with appeal for all ages.

At the end of the historic section there was a collection of paintings of Florida by a wide range of artists, depicting swamps, colonial times, birds, flowers and scenes of everyday life in all manner of painting styles. We saw several we would have liked to take home with us. Instead, we will enjoy a colourful Florida coffee mug we spotted at the legislature gift shop.

Tallahassee has a number of scenic routes where old trees form canopies overhead. If we had had more time, we might have checked them out, but we were glad to have seen what we did. Not only that, but the rain held off till we were on the road for home.

Friday, February 22, 2013

On the beach, on the road

Thursday and Friday, Feb. 21-22, 2013

Perry, FL – That’s right, Perry! We’re not in Dunedin any more; we left this morning after a wonderful month of relaxing, family time and touring. It seems longer than a month, yet over in no time. I guess that’s what happens when you’re having fun.

For our last day in Dunedin, we took John and Fawn to visit Caladesi Island, just off the coast and quite near the RV park. We drove over the causeway to Honeymoon Island State Park, where we had visited last year.

The neighbouring Caladesi Island was our destination this time, accessible only by ferry. The ride was breezy and short, and soon we were gliding through a channel lined with mangrove trees to a small dock. Armed with our picnic lunches, we followed the boardwalk (noting the warning signs about diamondback rattlesnakes common to the area) out to the beach and rented an umbrella and some beach chairs for the day.

Our assignment was to fill our grocery bags with nice shells for Fawn’s garden. She has a small hibiscus plant set in a ringed bed that she is gradually filling with bleached shells, and before our outing the bed was about one-third covered. On the beach, there were millions of tiny shells and fragments of shells deposited by the waves, and somewhat fewer more sizable shells that we were aiming for. It was lovely strolling along the sand in the breeze, listening to the lapping waves and screeching gulls, and pouncing on nice-looking shells when they came into view.

It was fun sitting under the umbrella to have our picnic, too, watching toddlers building sand castles with their mums and dads and seagulls gathering nearby to snatch up any crumbs we might toss their way. We didn’t offer them any, but one aggressive creature flew right over a little boy at the next umbrella when he waved his sandwich over his head. John recalled a previous beach picnic when a gull succeeded in grabbing his food right out of his hand! Needless to say, he wasn’t taking any chances this time.

Our outing and the supper we shared at John and Fawn’s trailer was a pleasant way to spend our last day in Dunedin, and this morning we battened down the hatches and pulled out at around 9:30, heading north. Although our route paralleled the gulf coast the whole way, we didn’t see the water at all. Aside from a few small towns, we were mostly traveling through bush on either side of the highway once we cleared the commercial areas north of Dunedin.

It took no time to get settled at our site in the KOA here in Perry, and that was a good thing, because almost as soon as we finished, dark thunderclouds gathered overhead, lightning flashed, and the rain began in earnest. But we are snug as bugs in rugs.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Culinary and other talents

Tuesday and Wednesday, Feb. 19-20, 2013

Dunedin, FL – It has been an intense couple of days, but the pressure is now off! Nothing dire, so fear not; tonight was the Carefree’s Got Talent Show (Carefree runs this RV park) and I was part of one of the acts! The show is an annual event here, encouraging residents of Carefree parks across the US to share their talents for some handsome prizes ($250 cash for the winner at each park and then, at the national finals, a first prize of $5,000).

Nancy, one of the longtime residents of the park, found out that I like to sing some weeks ago, and suggested we put a little something together for the show. She wrote a poem about peace that was inspired by the movie “Lincoln”, and worked up a number that included it plus a couple of patriotic songs. We chatted about it now and then, but didn’t really get serious about it till a few days ago.

When we both agreed to make a go of it, we kicked into high gear, borrowing a keyboard so I could learn the music, and meeting early in the morning to figure out how our entry would unfold. I guess we worked well under pressure, because we were first runners up at the show, which consisted of six separate numbers!

The show was preceded by a community pork roast dinner, which Nancy and I tried to enjoy as it slid past the butterflies in our stomachs. I’ve had “God Bless America” and “Let there be Peace on Earth” ringing in my brain constantly for the last 48 hours (didn’t want to flub the words!), so it was quite a relief to find we were second on the program and could enjoy the rest of the show once we were done. I don’t remember much of our actual performance, but judging from our fan club (spouses, relatives and friends) I guess we did OK!

We enjoyed talents of another type last night, when John and Fawn took us (and Algarve the pooch!) again to the guys’ cousin Linda’s place for another of her feasts! This time she made gnocchi, meat sauce and meatballs, preceded by a delicious tray of Italian cheeses and grapes and followed by homemade apple pie. Her wonderful cooking, acquired at her mother’s side, was such a treat. So was the conversation, again full of old family stories.

We arrived early enough to include a field trip to Mazzaro, the Italian food store where Linda got all the fixings for the meal. It’s a hugely popular spot, with sections of fresh vegetables, cheeses of all kinds, a huge selection of wines, olive oils, teas, pastas, gelatos, olives, spices and sweets. The eclectic décor included plaster religious statues, pictures of Italy, baskets and kitchen tools and even a row of Vespa motorbikes displayed above the cash. There’s also a café where you can taste some of the delicacies, and they hold wine tastings a couple of times a week. It was a feast for the senses – and then we got to taste some of the varied fare at Linda’s. A good time was had by all!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Food, fairs and fun

Sunday and Monday, Feb 17-18, 2013

Dunedin, FL – This morning at the weekly coffee meeting in the clubhouse, the band (made up of amateur musicians from the RV park) marked Presidents’ Day with patriotic anthems and military music. And they started, very tactfully, with O Canada for all the snowbirds of the group before playing the Star Spangled Banner and a medley of other rousing tunes!

There were still jackets, hoodies and even gloves in view at that early hour of the day, but the sun was shining and it warmed up nicely later on, though not enough for one to crave a dip in the pool. For me, however, this is perfect; I wilt when it gets into the 80s!

Fresh breezes were also blowing through the craft fair we visited in downtown Dunedin yesterday afternoon, resulting in a delightful tinkle of glass and metal in the booth where they were selling wind chimes. Jewelry, scarves, quirky lawn sculptures, handmade soaps, crushable hats, wall plaques with saucy slogans (“The only problem with the younger generation is that we’re not in it any more”) and other crafts were on display in tents all the way down Main Street, which was closed to traffic for the day. We glimpsed a Michael Jackson wannabe, in black garb and wearing a single sequined glove, going through his dance moves for an appreciative crowd as we drove past in search of a parking space. 

The scent of kettle corn – popcorn prepared in a huge steel kettle over a flame, and stirred to the point of explosion – wafted under our noses, and the coaxing rhythm of bongo drums quickened our steps as we strolled through the fair. We managed to resist funnel cakes and great slabs of homemade fudge, and even walked easily past the ice cream parlour because it was too chilly to think about frozen treats!

We rounded out our Sunday outing with a drive through some of the more upscale neighbourhoods, where we admired beautiful landscaping with palm fronds, bright pink tropical plants and lush banana palms. Some of the homes would sell for more than a million dollars, and many had water frontage where sleek boats were moored for warmer days.

What else has been going on?Well, on Friday night we heard sirens screamingon the main drag and moments later glimpsed a fire truck heading in to the park with all its lights flashing.At this morning’s meeting we learned that one of the park residents had been cleaning leaves off the roof of his RV (after 10 pm!?) and the ladder gave way. He crushed both his ankles and will be wheelchair bound for the next two months.That will make it pretty hard for him to get in and out of his RV. Just goes to show you, no one knows what’s around the next corner!So enjoy every single day!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Florida has bite

Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Feb. 14-16, 2013

Dunedin, FL – The RV is rocking gently tonight as gusts of wind whip its sides every now and then. I can imagine that the seas on the gulf not far from us here must be churning with whitecaps.  Our weather band radio crackled into action a few minutes ago, not to caution residents and seafarers about the wind, but to provide a frost warning!  Yes, the mercury is supposed to bottom out in the 20s Farenheit overnight, and gardeners are encouraged to cover tender plants.

We had sunshine and blue skies with a few clouds today, but with the steady breeze, lots of folks were decked out in fleeces and hoodies.  Other creatures were decked out at Dunedin RV Resort, because today was the pet parade!  We saw some of the contestants on their way to the event, little dogs dressed in silly clothes trotting past our site.  Algarve, John and Fawn’s Portuguese waterdog, would have been a handsome addition to the competition with his white bib and curly black fur, (we thought) but he and the yappy small fry don’t get along all that well, we’re told, so it might have been a bit tense.

Valentine’s Day, on Thursday, brought a drizzling rain that came down steadily all day.  We treated John and Fawn to lunch, since it was their 31st anniversary, and then after a restful afternoon, prepared for the Valentine dance at the clubhouse.  It was a lovely event, with live music by a couple who catered perfectly to an audience of a certain age, with songs from the 50s and 60s!  The moment that gave me the biggest laugh was when a couple of people well into their sixties laid down on the dance floor for the song “Rollin’ on the River”, and rolled back and forth with every refrain of “rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river”!  

Another highlight was when Val found the heart sticker on the bottom of his chair, which meant he had won the centrepiece at our table – one of the begonia plants I had decorated the day before!  We passed it over to John and Fawn to plant on their site.

Friday was a get-things-done day, with a trip to the grocery store and the purchase of a new mouse for our laptop.  The old one gave up the ghost, which happens with these bits of technology eventually.  The new one is even better, so we’re not complaining.

Today we made the reservations for the RV parks we’ll be staying at next weekend when we finally leave Dunedin.  It’s hard to believe our month here is almost over.  More adventures are in store, however, both this coming week and after that!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Homes and hearts

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, February 11-13, 2013

Dunedin, FL – The high humidity that enwrapped us through the day today culminated in a drenching downpour and thunderstorm at suppertime that has left everything washed clean and refreshed. People brag about sunny Florida all the time, but there were comments today from park residents that a good rain would be most welcome!

Being in the air-conditioned clubhouse for a couple of hours this afternoon was no burden, as Fawn and I joined a team of crafty ladies to prepare the decorations for the Valentine’s Day dance tomorrow night. It was almost like kindergarten again, as we traced and cut out hearts in different sizes, swirled glue on them and dusted them with glitter. There were also coat hangers to shape into hearts and entwine with tinsel heart garlands, and small potted begonias to wrap with tissue and ribbon for table centrepieces. While some of the women stuck large hearts onto the walls, a group of men came by for guitar practice and serenaded us with Johnny Cash songs!

Meanwhile, John and Val had gone off to admire BMW cars at a nearby dealership. Val said when a salesperson asked if she could help, he replied, “Not unless you have a spare $30,000 to give me!” Looking at the latest models kept them entertained – one can always dream, right? – and then they beat the crowds at the florist to bring Fawn and me some early Valentine roses! So romantic!

Monday's activities included the weekly morning meeting and evening Bingo game.  No big wins for me this time, but it is fun to look around at all the smiling faces as park residents enjoy getting together for a good time.

We had a pleasant outing yesterday as the four of us piled into the Honda FIT and drove to Bushnell, a small town near Ocala where our Ottawa friends Carl and Roselyn have a site at an RV park. They purchased a double-wide trailer there last year, and have fixed it up beautifully, with a large patio to one side where we sat under a shady gazebo and caught up on one another’s news. We were joined by Dave and Jackie, mutual friends also from Ottawa who are staying at the same park this winter. The four of them are enjoying park activities as well as golf games nearby on a regular basis.

Roselyn prepared a couple of lovely quiches, ham and chicken, along with a fresh salad, rolls and homemade fruitcake and cookies for dessert. Yum. We whiled away a few hours, solving the problems of the world and reminiscing on good times, till it was time to head back to Dunedin – about a 90-minute drive.

By the time we got back it was supper hour, so we headed for Perkins for hot buttermilk pancakes, syrup and bacon to celebrate Shrove Tuesday in style! Our server tried to persuade us that dessert could easily go with such a meal, but we had had more than enough of a sugar rush on the first course, so we declined. That didn’t stop us from pausing at the front counter to devour the key lime, chocolate silk and lemon meringue pies in the glass case with our eyes. Quite appropriate behaviour for Fat Tuesday.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Masterpieces, mazes and movies

Saturday and Sunday, February 9-10, 2013

Dunedin, FL – A lobster telephone? Landscapes that turn into faces? Our eyes and perceptions were challenged and entertained yesterday when we went to the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg and viewed the eccentric and skilled artwork of this renowned Spanish artist. Anyone who has seen photographs of Dali, with his spiky waxed moustache and large, bulging eyes, could tell that, in addition to his great talent, he possessed a sprightly streak of playfulness.

John and Val’s cousin Linda came along with the four of us to visit the museum, and we were glad to have a docent to guide us through the galleries of paintings. With a small flashlight, she pointed out interesting elements of some of the more fanciful works, and recurring images, such as melting clock faces, a rose, a crutch, and the face or figure of Dali’s wife, Gala.

The collection came from A. Reynolds Morse, an Ohio businessman and his wife, Eleanor, who developed an interest in Dali’s work in the early 1940s, and eventually built a museum for it in Cleveland. When it grew too large for that venue, they decided to move it to St. Petersburg, and it found its current home in 2011 – an unusual piece of architecture with bulging glass windows overlooking the bay filled with yachts and sailboats, yet built with thick, concrete walls to withstand any hurricanes that might blow in.

After our fascinating and educational tour, we explored the museum grounds, which included a Wish Tree where people could tie the paper bracelets received on paying admission to the museum, along with a wish, and a circular maze that led visitors to a stately cypress tree at its centre – and out again! There was even a park bench with a melted clock draped over it, and one end of the bench that oozed over a crutch! It was a very interesting afternoon, which came to a pleasant conclusion at Linda’s place with another delicious supper before we headed home.

Our entertainment this afternoon was another visit to the cinema, this time to see Zero Dark Thirty, the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and his demise. It was very well done, with some pretty suspenseful moments, and we could certainly see why it has been nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture, best actress and best original screenplay.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Creatures of the deep

Tuesday to Friday, Feb 6-9, 2013

Dunedin, FL – Swirling fins, razor-sharp teeth, brilliant colours, bulging eyeballs, spineless blobs – these were just some of the amazing and varied sights we enjoyed today at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. Sea creatures large and small floated past our eyes in the well-appointed tanks, and we even saw birds of the Florida wetlands in the section describing the wildlife of this region.

The drive to get to the aquarium took us about 40 minutes, and our route took us over the Courtney Campbell Causeway which we had driven across on our way here from Orlando. We were much closer to the shoreline as we traveled eastward and to my surprise I spotted the fins of several dolphins in the water quite close to shore! There are cruises around the bay offered by the aquarium, but we got our dolphin sighting for free before we even got there.

Fawn’s sharp eyes provided another bonus; she rode by on her bike this morning to give us a coupon for the admission fee that saved us over $20, since January and February are seniors’ appreciation months! Not only that, but we were treated to a free pastry and coffee or tea on our arrival, which helped us tour the facility and miss the lunch-hour crush in the cafeteria. It was great fun looking at sharks, rays, barracudas, seahorses, sea stars, eels and jellyfish – especially from benches set out in front of a huge expanse of glass that we could look through in comfort at some length. It was also fun watching the reactions of visiting children when they spotted some especially unusual specimens.

We’ve had a good week, with outings to various shopping malls and restaurants, and pleasant get-togethers with John and Fawn and other guests in the park. On Tuesday the four of us went out to Carrabbas, an Italian restaurant chain we discovered last year, for a delicious meal of minestrone soup, lasagna, ravioli and cannelloni, as well as hot crusty bread and ice cream with caramel sauce and pecans for dessert.

Fawn and I signed up for craft class this week, where we made cancer bracelets. We had kits with stretchy monofilament on which we strung Swarovski crystal beads in colours to represent the different types of cancer – teal for gynecological cancer, black for melanoma, and so on – with spacers of frosty or clear beads. We first went around the table to hear how cancer had affected our lives or those of friends, and it was amazing to hear how many people have battled the disease, including some of those present. The toughest part of the craft was putting on the final bead and crimping it with a special tool; more than once we were groveling on the floor for beads when the crimping job failed to pass muster!

Overnight last night we had some wind and rainy weather, which twice got us out of bed to turn off the Weather Band warning system on our satellite radio! We really didn’t need to know about four-foot swells on the gulf and the need to find a safe harbour when we were snug in our bed! Finally, we figured out the Mute button and got a restful sleep at last.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Parties and prizes!

Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Feb. 2-4, 2013

Dunedin, FL – I won at Bingo tonight! I won $60! So there’s a shopping spree in my future, I guess! What an exciting feeling, shouting “Bingo!” before anyone else and netting a nice sum. It makes up for all the “oh, well”s I sighed last Monday for sure.

The social scene at Dunedin RV Resort has been a-buzzing lately, with a Tiki keg party from noon to three around the pool on Saturday to start with, complete with hot dogs, hamburgers and live music. Quite a few people gathered for the event, bringing their lawn chairs and, in many cases, their sweaters. It was a funny day, weatherwise; in the sun it was beautifully warm, but as soon as you got into the shade it felt quite chilly. So a lot of people were shifting from one to the other as the afternoon progressed.

Sunday, being Super Bowl Sunday, meant more celebrating; this time it was a pizza party on John and Fawn’s street for which Fawn was one of the organizers. Fawn and I were out together Sunday morning (more on that later), so we hit a couple of stores to pick up snacks at bargain prices while we were out. We had also helped find some joke prizes the day before to add to the fun.

There were 42 people in all who came, bringing desserts, relish trays and other contributions. All the picnic tables from people’s sites were lined up on the side of the street, which they closed off at both ends, and Fawn’s co-organizer Tom and John cruised in to the cheering crowd with their carload of pizzas to start the festivities. A good time was had by all, and there was no shortage of good food for everyone.

The prize for the male contestant who threw a Nerf football the furthest was a set of tiny golf clubs for tabletop play, and, for the female winner, an Old Maid card game. The unisex prize, for the person who successfully lobbed the football into a laundry basket, was a squishy ball with rubbery hairs and a blinking light inside. And the winner – after elimination rounds – was Fawn! Yay! She got the best prize of all!

When everything was tidied away and people had dispersed to go and watch the game, Fawn and I took Algarve for his evening walk and looked back over a very full day. We had gone out, the two of us, to the community “Kirk” up the street that morning to hear a speaker named Don Piper. He had been killed in a car crash in 1989, and then, 90 minutes later as a pastor friend prayed over his dead body, came back to life again. I had read his book “90 Minutes in Heaven” a couple of years ago and was glad of an opportunity to see him and hear his story first hand. The huge turnout indicated that quite a few others wanted to do the same, and his excellent presentation was well worth hearing. So was the magnificent organ that provided the musical elements of the service.

We are looking forward to some warmer temperatures as the week unfolds; we’ve been waking up to 55 degrees or so the last few mornings. Not that we’re complaining! Haven’t seen a snowflake in weeks now!