Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Heading for the Great Smoky Mountains and fall color -- Cheaha State Park and the Buckhorn Inn, Gatlinburg

both of which -- mountains and fall color -- are noticeably absent in southeastern Louisiana. We headed out Monday evening around 5:00 for Pearl River, Louisiana just to shave a few hours off of our drive the next day. I wanted to go another 30 miles or so, but there is literally nothing between Picayune and Hattiesburg, which was a bit too far at 3 1/2 hours. Picayune is the site of the Stennis Space Center, so the local hotels are close to twice as much as those in Pearl River. Bored yet?

We stayed at a Microtel for the first time, because it comes up as the number mid-priced motel. Why is beyond me. It really puts the "micro" in hotel. I suspect that the rating is based on the suites and/or the breakfast (which is superb), as our room was, indeed, micro. It was just wide enough for the queen bed (no kings on offer) and the two "end tables" (shelves attached to the wall). The "desk" was really just a counter with a single straight-back chair. The closet was about 2.5 feet wide. The room reminded me of a mid-priced stateroom on a cruise ship; very efficiently designed to use every inch of space. The bathroom was almost as big as the bedroom; toiletries were minimal (shampoo/conditioner combo, bar soap). However, everything was spotless; the carpet is one of the few hotel carpets I've felt comfortable walking on barefoot. The room came with a mini-fridge (no freezer) and microwave, and the window seat built over the air conditioner/heating unit was an unexpected bonus -- although we had to use it to pile our luggage on, as there was only one suitcase rack and no floor space. The bed was very comfortable, with excellent linens. The room was perfectly adequate for one person who isn't going to spend any time in it, but a sure recipe for divorce for two people for more than one night.

The next morning I discovered that I had forgotten to pack any underwear -- no bras, no panties, other than what I had worn the day before. Just the first of several things I thought about packing and then forgot as I was distracted by someone asking me for help. I had one brief thought of going back home -- it was only about 1 1/2 hours, after all -- before common sense asserted itself and I check online for  the nearest Kohl's, which was in Hattiesburg, near WalMart. So, after the complimentary breakfast in the lobby -- neither one of us could resist the lure of biscuits with sausage gravy -- we hit the road north. Yes, I was wearing day-old underwear, but I took a shower!!

The detour to WalMart -- we never did find Kohl's; Hattiesburg has an aversion to street signs; it's anyone's guess which unmarked road was "Rockabye Lane" -- added a good hour to our trip, but at least we got gas at Sam's, so we arrived at Cheaha State Park around 4:00. The drive up the mountain felt longer than it actually was, because, of course, we had no idea how much farther we had to go and Alabama seems to have been infected with Mississippi's road-sign aversion. There is no indication on the freeway that there is even such a place as Cheaha State Park, and no acknowledgement after leaving the freeway, either. The first direction sign to the park appears at the final turn. Several turns were made out of blind faith -- but we were ultimately rewarded by arriving at the gates of the park, where we checked in and were directed to our cabin -- Cabin number 1. A slow drive up a one-way road (with one wrong turn), and there we were at our CCC built stone cabin, down a flight of CCC built flagstone steps.

Mount Cheaha Cabin video

Who needs to go on a hike after climbing these several times a day? 

The quintessential cabin in the woods
We had read about the park in our AAA magazine, and decided to take a short side trip on our way to the Great Smoky Mountains, as we were going to have to stop en route in any case. We booked about 6 months in advance, and were able to reserve a bluff cabin. The cabins were built in the 1930s by the CCC from local granite, and were updated inside in the 90s. They are situated on a bluff looking westward over the forest and valley for glorious views all day and night.

Inside, our one-room cabin included an extremely comfortable double bed, two padded chairs, a padded bench at the foot of the bed, and two nightstands with drawers, all in a rustic style. A breakfast bar divides the kitchenette from the bedroom, which is closer to an apartment kitchen, with a full-size fridge, Jenn-air range (with oven), microwave, coffee maker, and toaster. Our only complaint is that there is no lid to the toilet and the towels were in constant danger of a dunking in the tiny bathroom!

Fireplace and foot board of bed

A bit prosaic, but important!
These pictures don’t convey the charm and hominess of the cabin, in large part because the sense of space extended to encompass the area immediately outside of the cabin, which included an stone fireplace, a patio table and chairs, and a rustic wooden chair with a tree stump footstool for just sitting and looking at the view. A trail head leads down from the parking lot to a ledge overlook with another spectacular view.

Dinner at the hotel restaurant was adequate, if hardly exciting, but the architects more than compensated for it by making the western wall entirely windows. No food could compete with the view of the mountain sunset, in any case.

Almost hit a deer on the way back to the cabin. I looked to the right to see the deer that Mike was pointing out to me, and only just managed to stop the car before hitting the one that was crossing in front of us. Another was on the left side of the road, about to pass. They are clearly have no fear of cars, and probably not of humans, either.

We had picked up a couple of bundles of wood at the store, and Mike built a lovely crackling fire in the fire pit – after borrowing matches from our neighbors in Cabin 2. I was not the only one to forget things! We were also scrambling to find paper to use as kindling; old directions and hotel reservation letters were recycled to serve the cause.

Both of us were awakened during the night by the sound of something scrabbling on the roof. Mike insists that it was tree branches; I say that it was a varmint. Much later, when we got up, Mike looked out the window and called me to to see a black cat sitting on a rock six feet or so from the cabin, just staring at the window. As soon as he opened the door, the cat was off up the hillside. An omen? A ranger's cat? The spirit of our little foster cat, Phantom, who disappeared while we were away?

Breakfast in the cabin, a walk along the boardwalk, a visit to the observation tower, and we were away on the second leg of our journey, all too soon. So many trails we did not have the time to hike, so many sunsets we did not have the time to enjoy. If it were a couple of hours closer to Baton Rouge, it would become a regular week-end getaway.

Another complicated route over county roads to reach the freeway, but once on it, an uneventful trip to Gatlinburg, where we again had to follow a series of directions that did not exactly match the reality of the road, but we managed to arrive at the Buckhorn Inn with only one minor detour. A secluded complex of cottages, inn, and houses in the hills above Gatlinburg, a bit more off the beaten track than we had anticipated.

We were quite disappointed to be told that we had been upgraded to Cottage 7, as we had been looking forward to the unique Tower Room – but truth be told, having seen the so-called tower, we were not as disappointed as we might have been. It really only rises about 20 feet above the parking lot; the private balcony is barely above ground level, and it faces the parking lot. The photos on the Inn's site are all take from the downhill side of the Inn, exaggerating the perspective of the Tower.

Any lingering disappointment vanished on opening the door to cottage 7 and seeing the full living room with gas fireplace and kitchenette with mini-fridge, stove top (no oven), microwave, coffee maker, and the usual dishes and utensils, to say nothing of the king-size bed and a bathroom with a jacuzzi tub. It was decorated in a slightly "twee" manner with lots of little birds tucked around in twig nests, etc., which, at the same time, dispelled any sterile hotel room atmosphere.

We had opted not to pay $35 each for a four-course "gourmet dinner." I don’t know whether we are becoming jaded or fussy diners or we’re just terribly, terribly cosmopolitan, but the so-called “gourmet” food at the Inn did not impress us as anything more than average. The dinner which we passed up was essentially Chicken Cordon Bleu (using prosciutto and Boursin -- I personally wouldn't tell anyone that I was using Boursin if I wanted to impress them; I love it myself, but I recognize it for what it is), spinach pasta soup, green salad and apple cobbler (or pie, I forget now). Beverages not included.

Besides which, reviews had suggested that dressing for dinner was expected,  and after a 7-hour drive, all I wanted to do was take off my shoes, put my feet up, and enjoy a nice glass of wine and nibble/munch on the cheeses and crackers, cookies and fruit, that we had brought with us.

A nice soak in the jacuzzi guaranteed a wonderful night's sleep. Breakfast was good; unusually for a B&B, we ordered off of a menu --  Mike had the "country eggs benedict," which used cornbread rather than an English muffin, I had scrambled eggs with bacon; both came with fried potatoes, fresh fruit, juice of your choice, coffee (of course), biscuits and a coffee cake. Far more than we could possibly have eaten, so we left the biscuits.

After breakfast, we strolled around the mile-long nature walk on the grounds; expecting it to be paved, we did not take our sticks, and could have used them. We were the only two out and about, even though it was something like 9:00, except for the two mute swans who inhabit the pond. The male swan puffed out his chest and his wings, intimidating us with his size (;->) and protecting his mate. Had we been so inclined, we could have visited the arts and crafts studio/gallery/shop that borders the property. Others were within walking distance.

The e-mail confirmation we received mentioned that a 10% gratuity to be added to the bill and it was repeated in the literature in the cottage; it was "voluntary" in that you could refuse to pay it, but it was added to the bill in advance of check out. I shall now go off on a rant about tipping in the U.S. -- it is no longer a recognition of excellent or superior service; it is an excuse for employers to pay a token salary and then expect their customers to foot the bill for their labor costs. Why not just increase the bill by 10% and pay your employees a living wage? Then we customers really could recognize outstanding service by leaving an additional, truly voluntary, remuneration.

The irony is that I would have gladly left more than the 10% because of the upgrade, but I resented being told how much to leave, and since she had the bill ready when we checked-out, I paid what was shown as owing. We took a quick look at the few items for sale in the "gift shop," but most were of the "twee" variety, and the sweatshirts were 50% polyester -- but priced like 100% cotton.

Back in the car and off for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a very short drive to the south on well-marked roads (just follow the signs).

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Here and there in Louisiana and environs in 2011

Partly due to the downturn in the economy, but more to our pragmatic decision to explore our "neighborhood," we've been taking shorter road trips the past couple of years.

Working in reverse chronological order, we closed 2011 with an anniversary trip to New Orleans, courtesy of a Living Social voucher for half off a garrett room at the Degas House B&B, which sounded like a cozy, intimate place to celebrate. When we arrived, Julie offered to upgrade us to the Estelle Room (aka the Bridal Suite) for a small fee, and after seeing the room, there was no question. We would have been quite happy in the garret room, but we were ecstatic in Estelle. It really is more of a suite, with a king-sized four poster, a daybed in an alcove and exclusive use of the front balcony -- oh, and a decanter of port in the room as well. Julie also offered us each a complementary glass of wine, which we sipped while rocking on the balcony and enjoying the view of this grand old neighborhood. The house was made even more elegant with the holiday decorations, including a massive tree illuminated with thousands of lights in the front parlor. Breakfast was served in a well-appointed room just off of the kitchen -- probably the original butler's pantry. We had planned on the tour, but Mike had a cold, so we decided to head straight home and do the tour the next time. 

Breakfast was good, but not exceptional (the Judge Porter House really raised the bar! See below). Coffee, tea, and fixings were on a sideboard and orange juice was on the table. We were offered waffles, sausage and eggs. Mike asked for everything. I asked for waffles and sausage. We both got half of a waffle and one small patty of sausage; he, of course, got eggs. I mistakenly assumed that "waffles" meant more than one waffle or that I would at least get a whole one. We were not asked if we wanted seconds, and I didn't want to wait while another waffle was cooked. I filled up on a store-bought pastry from the sideboard; it was fresh, at least. Fruit was a wedge of watermelon and a few grapes. We both ordered bloody Marys. They were typical New Orleans-style drinks, extremely spicy, with a pickled okra and pickle juice. I took one sip, and passed it on to Mike, who drank them both right up. 

Going along with the theme of Degas, we made a reservation at the Cafe Degas, a moderate stroll up Esplanade from the Degas House. The onion soup is reason enough to visit the Cafe, and more than made up for that abomination at the Brick House Grill in Hot Springs (below). It is rich and dark, with carmelized onions and bits of bacon, topped with beautifully browned swiss cheese. The escargot, which Mike ordered, were acceptable, but they had been removed from their shells and cooked in an escargot dish, which makes me wonder if they were frozen. However, the yellow fin tuna in the Salade Nicoise had been crusted with so much pepper and salt that it was nearly inedible. I didn't send it back because I did not want to wait for another entree to be prepared, but I had to mix it with the other ingredients in order to eat it. There is nothing on the menu to indicate that the tuna would be prepared in this way, and I seriously wonder why anyone would do that to ahi tuna. The dressing was perfectly balanced, and the other ingredients cooked perfectly.

Mike ordered the parmesan crusted veal medallion, but what he got was clearly a veal cutlet, which was overcooked and dry. It looked like a sort of French version of veal parmesan. The caper burre blanc was also well-balanced and the vegetables were just crisp-tender.

I ordered the creme brulee, but it was burned black. I had to lift the sugar off and just eat the creme, which was smooth, creamy, and nicely chilled, but I have had better. Mike ordered the chocolate mousse and refused to let me have even one bite of it.

The "environs" included a road trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas for Fall Break in October. We decided to take the "scenic route," both for the scenery and to avoid the traffic on the freeways. Once was enough. We came back via the freeway, and realized that, in this neck of the woods, the freeway is nearly as scenic as the "scenic route," with more services. There are long, long stretches on the old state highways that have literally nothing other than cotton fields. No gas stations -- no food -- no rest stops. 

Hot Springs includes the Hot Springs National Park, so that's another one off our list. The Promenade divides the Park from the town, so that you are literally in the Park on one side and in the town on the other. The town itself is charm personified. The Fordyce Bathhouse Visitor's Center, which, like all of the historic bathhouses, is on the main street of the town, has been beautifully and lovingly restored by the National Park Service. The self-guided tour was extremely informative, and since we were allowed to move through at our own pace, we were free to tailor it to our interests. I had no idea there were so many variations on a simple bath! Hot mineral bath, steam bath, stiz bath, cold needle shower -- all in one visit. Mike and I particularly enjoyed imagining the Edwardian ladies and gentlemen congregating in the lounges upstairs after having "taken the waters" earlier.

We opted for a more modern spa experience at the Quapaw Baths and Spa. The building is a beautifully restored historic bathhouse with a nice cafe inside. We selected the Couples private thermal bath with added foaming therapy. We got our own private room with a two-person Jacuzzi (yes, they use that brand). The water was the perfect temperature and the arnica foamed beautifully and smelled wonderful. We were, however, somewhat cramped, as we are both taller than average. Also, the $45 price tag for just 20 minutes is steep enough that we probably won't do it again. We'd recommend either forking over the additional cash for a full spa experience or sticking with the the $18 unlimited ticket. You'd have to wear swimming suits and share the pools, but you can stay as long as you like, and even be able to buy drinks and food at the cafe to enjoy pool-side.

Next time, we'll probably brave the Buckstaff for the traditional bathhouse experience, although this modern woman has a hard time with the idea of paying someone to scrub her back.

We stayed at the quirky and homey B Inn. It's definitely not the Park or the Arlington, but it doesn't try to be. The B Inn is exactly as it describes itself on its website. We reserved the Literature Suite, and our only surprise was at the amount of room we got for the price we paid and the number and variety of books. It's clearly two adjoining rooms now rented as one -- one of them a suite and one a single room. We had a kitchen with full-sized appliances, an adjoining living room, a dining room that was the original bedroom, a bathroom, and a bedroom in what was an adjoining room. Everything was clean and most everything worked. The furniture is a melange of styles and quality collected from a variety of sources. We found it charming and interesting and homey. As Mike said, "It's like staying at your grandma's or great auntie's." It really is walking distance to everywhere in Hot Springs, which meant that I got a relaxing vacation, as well, once we arrived.

We found the Gangster Museum of America interesting and informative, if overpriced. The owners have amassed a decent collection of original photos, news stories and other archival documents, as well as video taped interviews with the few surviving gangsters and lawmen or some of their descendants. The only negative thing I can say is that, because it is a guided tour, you are not given nearly enough time to read through the material. Some of the videos are a bit repetitive, as well.

The only disappointment was in the quality of the restaurants. We had taken some frozen meals with us, as well as food for sandwiches, etc., both to economize and so that we could just relax in the evenings, so we only ate out twice, and cannot recommend either place. We ate lunch at Rolando's because of the menu. While the food is certainly acceptable, it is not memorable or exciting. The pickled red onion and cucumber relish was the highlight of the meal. The taquito appetizer was really a quesadilla made with a corn tortilla rather than white flour. We had to hunt for the chorizo. My pollo bohemiano was a chicken breast that had been pounded flat, breaded and fried, then covered with a mild sauce that tasted primarily of lime. It was served over white rice that had not been seasoned with anything and with a side of black beans with a sprinkling of white cheese (not sure what kind) and sour cream. The rum cake was quite nice, but when will restaurants stop reheating desserts in the microwave?

At that, it was far superior to our other lunch outing, the Brick House Grill. I should have known better than to order the onion soup, although if I hadn't, we'd never have believed it. I was served a bowl of canned beef broth, with a few bits of sauteed onion and half a dozen soggy croutons floating in it and a slice of processed Swiss cheese on top. The club sandwich wasn't too bad, but the turkey and ham were both processed. Mike's catfish was supposed to come with his choice of fries or cole slaw, but he wasn't given a choice. The catfish was definitely the breaded frozen kind, and looked dry. The fries, on the other hand, were limp and soggy. We also ordered the bourbon pecan pie. Someone forgot the bourbon. Our waitress didn't stop by once to ask if we needed anything, and at one point, seemed to forget we were there. We waited a good 10 minutes after she brought the check for her to come back for it, then finally paid at the front register. They do have local art on the walls, and the burgers did look good.

As part of our goal to visit all of the National Parks before we drove up to Natchitoches (pronounced "Nack-a-tish")  to the Cane River Creole National Park over Spring Break in April. The park includes both Magnolia and Oakland Plantations, but the Magnolia plantation house is not open to the public, so we chose to visit Oakland. The house itself is unique among the plantation homes in Louisiana (at least) in that it was not restored back to its 19th century look, so visitors can see the remodeling which was done by the family during the different periods since then and get a sense of the entire history of the house. The kitchen, for instance, is a trip back to the 1950s, with an overlay of the 1970s; the bathrooms were also "modernized" in the 1930s and 40s. Other areas of the house were not "updated" by the owners, so you get a picture of how the family lived, generation after generation, surrounded by its own history, as well as modern conveniences. The tour guide was a volunteer docent and could have been more informed. She repeated two myths -- the "closet tax" and the "stair tax" -- which have no basis whatsoever in fact; it made me doubt everything she said. I expected more of the National Park Service. I'd say do your own research before going, if you want to be certain of your facts.

Oakland Plantation, by the way, was used as a location in the John Wayne film, "The Horse Soldiers."

While there, we stayed at the Judge Porter House Bed and Breakfast. If it weren't a four hour drive, we'd have gone back just to stay there. There is a reason this is one of the top-rated B&Bs in Natchitoches, which boasts many excellent establishments. The food is absolutely amazing! Yes, the house is beautifully restored; the furnishings and decor are high-quality; the beds are comfortable, but what sets this apart from other B&Bs we've stayed at is the food. It is all prepared fresh on the premises as you are eating, and served to each individual -- no buffets here. It is the "full multi-course gourmet breakfast" promised on their website. I am embarrassed to admit that I've forgotten the name of the host/chef, but he was delightful. Very friendly, welcoming, informative, and professional. And the two-person jacuzzi tub really does accommodate two comfortably. 

We liked the Pioneer Pub for its "biker bar-lite" atmosphere, but were underwhelmed by the Landing Restaurant. The food at the Pioneer pub is good-quality bar food -- burgers, sandwiches, po' boys, etc. The atmosphere is quirky and fun, the prices are great, but the service is godawful. Slow, inattentive, bordering on rude. Never having been there before, we waited to be seated. Several of the staff simply stared at us or walked around us; we finally stopped one and asked. We were told to "Sit anywhere." Then we wondered if the table we'd picked was available because the server hadn't shown up for work. We did eventually get drinks, but had to almost trip her to get her to take our food order. I wouldn't say don't go there, but don't go hungry. 

The Landing was one of the few places in town that was open on the Sunday morning when we arrived, so we had the Sunday brunch buffet. It was adequate, but overpriced for what it is. The food was kept warm on steam tables, so it hardly warranted the $20/per person price. Service was slow and spotty. As others have noted, the decor isn't up to their hype, either. We opted not to eat dinner there. I would guess that they get by on the tourist trade. 

Back from Buhluhxi

I just discovered that I neglected to Publish this -- back in 2012!

Mike and I have ventured out of Baton Rouge in the past year, but have been too slothful to write about it (blame the Scrabble app on Kindle Fire), so rather than letting our latest trip get cold, I'll post about it now and try to catch up on the intervening trips later.

Being on a restricted travel budget this year (who isn't?), we've made the best of it by exploring locations a bit closer to home. Our latest was a trip to Biloxi, Mississippi over the Mardi Gras holiday. We've seen the ads for the Beau Rivage Casino and Biloxi's white sand beaches, and had located it on the map, but it wasn't until we were actually read to go that we discovered it's only a 2-hour drive, barely farther away than New Orleans. All this time, we could have been popping over for a quick spin on the slots, if only we'd known!

Because it was such a short, leisurely trip, we stopped at the rest area just across the border near the NASA Stennis Space Center (how often do you get to stop at a NASA rest area?), and discovered that the Infinity Science Center will soon be opening. A return trip in on the calendar. Only an hour away -- and I get the senior discount!

We opted to take the I-90 scenic route, because we had the time, but I doubt we'll do it again. Much of it is scenic, yes, but much of it is stoplights and strip malls. Soon, we arrived at the Balmoral Inn, just off I-90 within walking distance of the beach and the mall. As you know by now, we make a point of staying in historic properties and are particularly fond of restored properties from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. In that regard, the Balmoral Inn did not disappoint. We were also looking to save a few dollars by eating a few meals in. We were given room 5, the one with the parrot murals, which I found wonderfully kitschy. The two-room apartments are large for the price, and fully furnished. It was great to come back after a day out and sink down into a comfortable couch to relax, but not so great that Sunday night when we discovered that the television in the living room did not pick up PBS and we were in danger of missing the final installment of "Downton Abbey!" Thankfully, the cable was working properly in the bedroom, so we witnessed Lady Mary's confession, although on the very small screen. (By the way, her anguished cry, "I shall be your Tess" inspired me to finally read "Tess of the D'Urbervilles.")

The bathroom retains its original flooring and tiled walls, which we loved. The king size bed was very comfortable and we slept very well. The closet area in the bedroom is the largest I've ever encountered. The kitchenette included a large pantry and the cutest little countertop disherwasher -- where have you been all my life! However, I should have known not to trust a man when he says that the kitchen is "fully stocked." Stove and refrigerator in working order -- yes. Plates, cups, glasses, bowls, flatware -- yes. Decent knives -- no. Cooking utensils -- no. Pots and saucepans -- yes. Baking sheet or baking pan -- no. No towels, dishcloths, or sponges. No paper towels or napkins. Detergent packs for the dishwasher -- yes. No dishwashing liquid for the pans that won't fit in the dishwasher. No salt or pepper. First thing I did on returning home was to put together a "necessities" kit for the next time we stay in a self-catering unit.

The bad -- the carpets desperately need to be changed; the pillows and towels need to be replaced.The Inn caters to long-term guests (they have weekly and even monthly rates) and many of them are regulars. I imagine they bring their own pillows and towels and kitchen necessities. There is a washer and dryer on site, so it would be simple enough to wash your own.

Monday we drove into Biloxi and parked at the Hard Rock Casino. Mike had done some research and was set on doing the Biloxi Shrimping Trip. I was not as excited by the idea, but decided to go along for the ride (literally). We were both disappointed. As a harbor tour, it was very nice, if a bit Katrina-heavy. As a "shrimping trip," it borders on false advertising. We were crowded onto the upper deck of the boat, along with a tour bus of seniors from the upper Midwest, and a dozen or so other independent tourists like ourselves. The "shrimping" consisted of a very small catch brought up a few minutes out and dumped into a box, where it was sorted and described. About a dozen people crowded around and, since not one of them moved away the entire trip, the rest of us had to sit and watch the scenery, which is somewhat bland. Neither of the crew said anything about moving aside so that others could see -- if they are going to act like children, then treat them like children -- despite the fact that we all paid the same rate.

The real excitement came when I felt my phone vibrating, picked it up to see the call coming from our home phone, answered, and listened to Lois telling me that our furnace was running and would not stop. She had come in to feed the cats, discovered that it was 95 degrees, tried to shut it off at the thermostat with no luck, called Mike over and he was no more successful, and was now looking for the circuit breakers to shut it off there. I told him where it was, and he shut it down. My heart sank as I tried to guess what it might cost us to repair the furnace, but I was so glad that we have such great neighbors.

As we approached the dock, the captain of the boat announced that there was a historical/cemetery tour just leaving, for those who were interested. We decided that we might as well. Again, it was a disappointment. The driver was certainly animated and pleasant enough, but her tour seemed to consist mainly of showing us the various Katrina high-water marks around Biloxi. The "cemetery tour" was a drive through the main road. She stopped to point out the high-water mark, but neglected to point out that it was right in front of Frank Ohr's grave. We both saw some wonderful architecture through the van windows, but she did not mention any of it. We've read about a different tour, which I think we'll try the next time, because Biloxi does have more history than just Katrina.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Remembering the Alamo for the first time

A visit -- should I say pilgrimage? -- to the Alamo is de riguer at least the first time in San Antonio. It would be like going to Rome and not visiting the Vatican. Almost exactly like.
I'd read enough about it to be prepared for it being so very small -- it's really just the chapel of what was at one time a larger mission complex -- but I was not expecting the quasi-religious atmosphere. It is called "The Shrine;" men are required to remove their hats; not photography, no videos, no cell phones, and keep your voice down so as not to disturb the other worshippers.
I don't know whether it is always the case, or these were left over from the Fiesta last week, but it was filled with floral tributes, from modest bouquets to large wreaths. Other than the building itself, there's not much to see. A few display cases with a handful of artifact, Davy Crockett's beaded buckskin vest, some original documents. And plaques. Lots and lots of plaques.
Mike asked what I thought of it, and I demured answering until we had left the grounds. The grounds are worth a look. They will be very familiar to anyone acquainted with the California missions.
So, what did I think? I thought it was appalling. A romanticization -- an idealization -- a sanctification, an attempt at rationalization and justification of what was nothing more than a rebellion against a lawful sovereign power. Ferber was right, of course; they stole Texas from Mexico. It was not an act of independence against an aggressor, or an invading foreign power, or an oppressor  -- the Texans WERE the aggressors and the invading foreigners, and the oppressors of the native peoples. Mexicans who were on the wrong side of the border found themselves suddenly foreigners in their own land, subject to discrimination and inequality and oppression -- and they still are.
It's a glorification of war over diplomacy and of

Popular Culture in San Antonio

Here we are, in San Antonio for the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association national conference. More about that on my personal blog, "Life in the Middle." We drove from Baton Rouge on Tuesday. All I have to say is that 8 hours is too long and Houston is too big. It goes on and on and on. The less said about Darlene's guidance to the Saint Anthony, the better. Let's just say I still have moments of sheer panic and amazement that I didn't kill us both. How can you "stay right" and go to the south, when you're headed west?
Love our hotel, the Saint Anthony Riverwalk, built about 1900, now owned by Wyndham, and astounded that we got it for $75.00 a night. Bless you, hotels.com.
John Wayne stayed here while filming "The Alamo" -- ask for the John Wayne Suite, if you're in the money. The sweeping staircase in the main lobby, with wrought (or cast -- I admit that I can't tell the difference) iron banister, leads up to a luxurious lounge, right out of some elegant movie of the '40s. Past reception is "Peacock Alley," the truly spectacular lounge with crystal chandeliers, high ceilings, plaster moulding -- certainly not your average budget hotel. After deliberation, we opted for the covered valet parking over the cheaper self-parking lot outside. I might have left the Mazda there -- in fact, I might have left the Mazda in one of the $8.00 lots down the street, but it's worth the extra to avoid all of that sun damage to the new car -- to say nothing of bird poop and possible vandalism.
 We were a bit nervous on arrival, because of some of the negative reviews, and took a deep breath before opening the door to our room. We were very pleasantly surprised. The room is a decent size, with room for the king-sized four-poster bed, a small desk, and two side tables. The bathroom is at least as big as the one at home, and the walk-in closet is as big as the one in our spare room. The bed has an oversized mattress, with high-quality linens. Short women have complained about having difficulty climbing into bed, and they should offer a step stool; getting into bed should not be an Olympic sport.
It's true that there are only two shallow drawers in the t.v. armoire, but there is a shelf the length of the closet, as well as hooks and plenty of hangers. Besides, it's a hotel -- not an apartment. You can set up the luggage rack in the closet and live out of it, if you have that many clothes. The bathroom could use another shelf or some kind counter space, but we're managing. We're only here for 4 days.
On the other hand, the plumbing does need some attention. The cold water in the sink drips; there's no plug, not even a cheap rubber one, or other cover for the drain. I cover it with a washcloth so that I don't drop anything down it. It was obvious that the bathroom had been cleaned, since there was dried, crusted scouring powder in both the sink and the tub. I wasn't sure what it was at first, and quickly tried to rinse it down before Mike saw it and decided to complain. Someone needs to teach the housekeepers to rinse after cleaning, but at least it was cleaned. Not sure whether we'll leave a tip.
Mike wanted a room at the front with a view; I'm happier with the interior room to the back. They are darker and quieter, and we aren't here to sit in our hotel room and stare out the window.  I rather forcefully reminded him of "the incident" in Salt Lake, where he demanded that they change our room for one in the front with a view, then couldn't sleep due to the lights and noise from the street, so that we changed back the next day. I refuse to go through that again, particularly since that room had a bathroom that was so small you had to sit on the toilet to use the sink. The only reason to change a room is because there is something wrong with the room itself. 
 We were both exhausted and wound-up, so we headed down to the hotel bar for happy hour. We were the only two in the place, which is confusing, as the drinks were good, the prices were low, and the bar tender  very friendly. According to him, the place is much lively on the weekends, which makes sense; we wouldn't be there on a Tuesday night if we weren't away from home. He recommended a restaurant on the River Walk so, a margarita on the rocks later, we decided to head over in that direction and get the lay of the land.
The River Walk wasn't quite as crowded as some of the reviews claimed, although I can well believe that it was during the Fiesta. It is just like Disneyland! We could have been down in the restaurant at Pirate's of the Caribbean. The river is only about 3 feet deep in this area, lined with stones and bordered by the walk itself, with its shops and professional landscaping, so, frankly, it looks like the product of designers rather than nature. All of the restaurants have tables on both sides of the Walk, but, at that hour (about 7:00), they were all taken, as well as the patio tables. A bigger disappointment was the number of chain restaurants; as I told Mike, we did not travel 500 miles to eat at Joe's Crab Shack.
Tired, hot, and crabby (maybe we should have reconsidered Joe's), we found the restaurant recommended by the bar tender. One look and we knew it was not for us. Acenar HotMex/CoolBar was clearly too, too hip for us. At that point, not wanting to endanger our marriage by traipsing around any longer, we returned to the hotel restaurant. At least we would be close to our room when we'd finished.
Once again, we practically had the place to ourselves. There was one other couple, who finished shortly after we were seated, and a single woman having dessert, some kind of rich, chocolately cake thing with ice cream. I was tempted to skip straight to dessert, but ordered the Saint Anthony salad and pecan-crusted Chilean sea bass instead. I had to see why Gordon Ramsay is so fond of it. Mike ordered the caesar salad and shrimp linguine.
The salad was acceptable, but, as they tend to be, overpriced for what it was. The pickled onions were an interesting note, but they had not balanced the dressing to account for them, so the entire dish was too acidic. The fish came on a bed of linguine tossed with wilted spinach; a bit too oily for my taste, but a presentation I'll remember for home. It makes a nice changed from mashed potatoes.
I'll be honest -- I don't understand the fad for sea bass. It's a mild, flaky white fish. The texture is a -- smooth, rather like catfish or eel. Not as meaty as halibut or swordfish, and certainly not as strongly flavored. I suppose that's it -- it can take a lot of sauces and won't fight the flavors. The pecan crust was crunchy, but something about it -- I kept smelling chlorine as I was eating. Maybe the champagne mustard?
Mike asked the waiter if John Wayne had eaten in the restaurant, and according to him, he had steak and eggs there every morning for breakfast, at the table where the single woman had been eating. Just try to prove that he didn't, but Mike was thrilled to think he was that close to the Duke.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Big Bend and Environs, Day 10 : Lafayette and home!

Breakfast in the dining car, seated with a 20-something couple who clearly resented being stuck with a couple of old people. Next train trip -- all meals in our roomette.
As we got closer to home, and the routine anxieties of everyday life came creeping back, I realized that we had not seen a newspaper or listened to any news on the radio or television for 10 days. For all we knew, LSU had been shuttered, Baton Rouge had washed away in a torrential downpour, Congress had staged a coup . . .
Mike kept checking for cell service, and called Lois as soon as he could. The cats, of course, were fine. Buddy had brought a live jay into the house and she had all kinds of adventures getting it back out. Trip to cat owners -- the best cat sitters are farm girls; they aren't afraid of much of anything. She told me that there were blood spots and bird poop all over my bathroom, but no real damage.

Catch birds? I've been asleep the whole time.
Miller had given her a few moments panic by hiding behind the compost one day, as he does, and not coming when called. She thought he'd jumped the fence, but there's no way that big cat is going too far from the food.
What? What?

I also began to imagine what could possibly go wrong when we went to pick up the car (would they have a record of our pre-payment? Would the car even still be there?), but all of my fears were totally unfounded. In point of fact, it was a holiday, so the parking was free and there wasn't even an attendant on duty.  I do wonder how much I overpaid, but at $2.50 a day, I'm not going to nitpick.
We used Darlene to get out of Lafayette without getting lost once, then turned her off and managed the rest of the drive without her assistance. Got home, unloaded the car, petted the kitties, then a quick trip to Sam's for a slice of pizza for lunch and a roasted chicken for dinner. It doesn't take long to return to business as usual.

Big Bend and Environs, Days 8 & 9 : Marfa (again) and Alpine (again)

Wednesday, December 29 -- Very sad to leave Captain Shepard's, but eager to get home to our kitties. Wonderful breakfast at the Marathon Coffee shop -- which was finally open! I do wonder how half of these places stay in business. The Oasis cafe looked like it was closed for the season. -- The breakfast enchilada was a welcome variation on the omnipresent breakfast burrito.
Driving in to Alpine gave us a completely different view -- figuratively and literally. There is much more to the community than is evident from the train. The first thing we noticed was Sul Ross Sate University up on the mountainside to the north. It reminded me very much of Weber State; built about the same period, and in a very similar setting. We were to learn that it began in 1917 as a Normal School, then became a Teacher's College in 1923, that it has about 1800 students, and 3 branch campuses. If they are hiring, buying Capt. Shepard's might not be so impossible after all. 
We decided that since as were in no hurry, we would do as the signs suggested, and visit the  Museum of the Big Bend. We followed the signs up around to the back of the campus to the Museum, housed in a picturesque stone building courtesy of the WPA that has been recently renovated.
The museum is more or less what one expects. It has multiple videos, re-creations, displays, etc. that attempt to present the geological and human history of the area. Interesting, if somewhat overwhelming, exhibit on early maps of Texas.
Even with that stop, we still had hours to kill before we could check in to our very own Airstream, so we stopped at the Apache Trading Post on the way out of Alpine and watched a video on the Marfa Mystery lights. I picked up some very nice gold and red jasper earrings made by as local artist, and an authentic Navajo wedding jar.
On a whim, we stopped at the Marfa Dairy Queen for lunch. After waiting for an inordinate amount of time, I was given the worst burger I have ever had. I swear it had been microwaved -- hot, limp lettuce, hot pickles, hot, soggy bun, and the beef had that boiled taste and texture. The microwave seems to be the cooking method of choice in these parts. Every dessert we've ordered has come to the microwave, and I'd lay money that our mashed potatoes and corn had been passed through it at the Famous Burro. I use it enough myself at home to know! Jett's Grill, the Gage Restaurant, and Starlight Theatre were the exceptions. I guess that the average person is so used to using it at home that it doesn't strike them as inappropriate to use it in a restaurant.
Finally time to head to El Cosmico. Bit of a letdown. Trailers not restored so much as made habitable. A distressed wooden table of the yard sale variety and two mismatched captain's chairs, a bit worse for wear, replaced the original -- what? probably a table with padded benches -- an electric cook top set into a hot pink stand in place of a stove; no oven, not even a (gasp!) microwave, the sofa is now a vinyl padded bench with no back cushions, and the bed was a futon on the floor. No rod in the closet. A small shrine had been set up on a counter, with an Indian-style print and candles. It's really all meant for the neo-hippie Marfa arts crowd, not us aging boomers with a nostalgia for our childhood.
Still, it was a Vagabond -- it did have the original wood paneling, sink and cupboards in the kitchen, and bathroom -- and the most privacy we had the entire trip.

We walked up to the town center and found that the gift shop next to the Paisano was closed, so I couldn't buy that bracelet I had seen a week ago, but the courthouse was open. We climbed up several staircases of diminishing sizes into the cupola. I kept a sharp eye out for any hidden nuns.

Then a stop at the Get Go for dinner fixings and breakfast provisions. Yet another establishment that does not live up to its press. Lots of bottled, canned, packaged "gourmet," and "natural," products and "specialty" personal care items, but very little food. No bread. Almost nothing that was fresh. Racks of gourmet teas, but no milk or eggs or juice. I finally found a couple of cans of a sparkling juice drink, and a pint of cream. Looks like we'll be finishing off the packaged oatmeal and cocoa that we brought with us, but we still have nothing for dinner.
Mike dragged me to the Marfa Mystery Lights viewing area a good hour before desk. Cold wind blowing. Cloudy skies. Spectacular panorama that loses interest after 15 minutes. Walked around and read the historical markers. Then, nothing much to do except wait. Others arrived more timely. Finally started seeing lights -- car lights on the highway from Presidio. Both of us astounded at people's gullibility and determination to see what they want to see. When you see a string of lights that begin one at a time at the crest of the hill, then follow each other in a straight line down the same path to the bottom, more or less evenly spaced, it's a fair bet that they are car lights -- particularly when there's a highway just over there.
Mike, of course, was more disappointed than I, since he's a true believer in the supernatural, but even I had half-hoped to see something mysterious and intriguing. I can't say that there are not mystery lights there. All I can say is that the only lights we saw were car headlights.
We then drove around for more than an hour trying to find a place for dinner. Everything was either closed -- including the burrito joint at the gas station -- or much too expensive -- we weren't about to pay Maiya's prices. Padre's turned out to be a bar that serves food. We would have stayed, but the band was just tuning up and we just wanted a quiet dinner. Ultimately discovered a Subway, bought sandwiches, and ate them in the trailer. Not so bad, but very frustrating -- pizza place closed for the season, Tacos del Norte closed for the season, Carmen's not open for dinner, other places either not open for dinner or not open on Wednesday. Once again I was left to wonder how people stay in business then they are closed during the tourist season. Perhaps they cater to the students as Sul Ross?
Thursday, December 30 -- Mike opted to brave the outdoor shower rather than try to squeeze into the tiny trailer tub. The water was warm, but the temperature was about 30, so I made do with the indoor facilities. I wonder if people were shorter in 1953?
Breakfast was a struggle with the 20 lb cast iron kettle. It might have been easier if the sprout were not broken, so that I had to lift it up to almost 90 degrees to pour out the hot water. I managed, however, to make the coffee and oatmeal. It was nice to eat out of real dishes rather than disposables.
Nothing to keep us in Marfa, so we got to Alpine hours early -- and realized that we could have had dinner at any number of restaurants there. Filled the tank and left the car at the train station while we re-visited the Holland Hotel. On our honeymoon trip from Los Angeles, the train had stopped at Alpine for an hour or more. We spotted the Holland, and walked over to check it out. The dining room was filled with locals enjoying Christmas dinner. We were enchanted with its quaint charm and quirky rooms, and planned to stay there when we came back to Big Bend. Sadly, when we were going to make reservations, we discovered that it had been "renovated" and all of the rooms standardized. The new lobby certainly is impressive, although I seriously doubt that the coffee bar is a "restoration," and I'm sure that the general public will be quite taken with the new look.
Tried to call Amtrak to check on the train schedule, but no cell phone service (we are getting rid of Virgin as soon as we get home!). Mike suggested that we ask the woman in Ivey's Emporium if she would call for us (she called the car rental company for us a week ago). Lovely woman  who just handed us the phone. And yes, they are that Ivey, the Terlingua Ivey's. Her daughter came in and we had a lengthy conversation about the Holiday Hotel, Starlight Theatre, the Holland Hotel, Sul Ross -- and Baton Rouge. Turns out she went to Nichols State and her son is planning to attend McNeese (or is it the other way around?). She also recommended the Alpine Guest Lofts, which they also own, the next time we are in the area. I picked up another pair of earrings made by a local artisan, and a little gift for our neighbor who was cat sitting.
Since it was only about 11:30, Mike insisted on an early lunch, "just in case we can't eat on the train." I agreed primarily to kill time. Another surprisingly good meal, this time at the Bread & Breakfast Bakery Cafe. I chose the carrot soup (which needed a little something -- tarragon? ginger? dill?) and half a turkey sandwich on freshly baked cheddar-jalapeno bread. Mike had a chicken fajita wrap which included a full complement of vegetables.
The train arrived more or less on time and departed quickly. Our roomette was not ready -- the previous occupants disembarked at Alpine -- so we were sent to the dining car for lunch! I did the sensible thing and ordered the spinach salad -- without chicken -- and treated myself to a raspberry sorbet. My husband, on the other hand, chowed down on the Angus burger and key lime cake. I shall say no more.
The trip home was not quite as excellent as the one out -- the crew were all tired, having been on the train since Los Angeles, supplies were running low, and we just wanted to get home -- but no major complaints. I finished the copy of "Giant" that I had bought at the Marfa Book Company the day we arrived. Interesting differences between the book and movie; more or less distorted the themes of the book and made them more palatable to the film's audience.
Dinner in our room again, and in bed sometime after San Antonio.