Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Big EZ’s first trip to the Big Easy

April 17-19, 2014
Bayou Segnette State Park
Westwego, Louisiana

Last year when we traveled through Louisiana for the first time, we blew right past all the exits to New Orleans and headed right to the heart of Cajun country to stay at Betty’s RV Park in Abbeville. It turned out to be a great decision for us as our time at Betty’s still ranks as one of the top highlights of our life on the road. This year, however, we said “yes” to New Orleans and planned a five night stay at Bayou Segnette State Park, a campground that came highly recommended by several bloggers we follow. The best part about the park is its peaceful contrast to the party scene atmosphere of the French Quarter.

We did have a rather big challenge when we arrived; our site was not level and because it was Easter weekend the whole park was booked and they were not able to give us a different site. After about six attempts parking at different angles, we finally decided we would need to use blocks under the tires or jacks to balance out the coach.

I happened to find a  2 x 8 in the fire pit across from us that worked perfectly to prop up the two tires on the driver’s side of the coach. Vic will not ever settle for the jacks being down with any tires lifted off the ground, so we were lucky the board took care of our challenge.

Now on to our exploration of this storied place. It is a little overwhelming to figure out what to see and do on a first visit here. I started with Trip Advisor, then read several blogs to get an idea of how we were going to spend our time. The obvious choices were to wander Bourbon Street at night, have beignets at Café du Monde, and tour the Garden District. We both also wanted to see the progress that has been made in rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward, the hardest hit area from Katrina. I read about the controversy of having tour buses stop there to take photos of the devastation, so we decided to do our own car tour, taking discreet photos only when it felt appropriate.

Hard to believe Katrina hit nine years ago already. The Ninth Ward still shows plenty of scars from the event, but there were hopeful signs of restored life as well. Perhaps the most hopeful was the rebuilt levees which lined the banks of the river.

Probably the saddest thing we saw were FEMA trailers that looked like they were still lived in. The starkest aspect of this area is the widespread poverty.

fema trailers

The economic downturn of 2008 must have been a double blow to an area that was just beginning to be inhabitable again. We have friends who came here with Habitat for Humanity to help rebuild homes. They described this area as similar to the third world poverty they have seen in Haiti and Guatemala. It still hasn’t come too far beyond that state (although it looks like this home does have satellite TV!).

ninth ward house2

It’s surprising that the French Quarter, the heart of New Orleans, is fewer than five miles away from the Lower Ninth Ward. There are few signs still remaining of the storm’s destruction here, but the restoration of this area was a big priority in terms of tourism. After driving through the Ninth Ward, we drove around the Treme District. The Treme, New Orleans oldest African-American neighborhood, did not match our image of it from the HBO series. Most of what we saw were old neighborhoods and the more well-known landmarks of the Louis Armstrong Park and Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. I thought there would be street musicians and interesting shops here but we didn’t see anything like that. We did see the New Orleans African-American of Art, Culture, and History in the Treme but we did not take the time to tour this venue. Probably a mistake in terms of learning more about this historic neighborhood.

Before we knew it, we ended up in the French Quarter. Yikes—pretty crazy to drive a car here and banish the thought of driving in this area in a motorhome—driving in on I-10 was nerve-wracking enough. There is a relatively expensive RV park, French Quarter RV Resort, that has great reviews in terms of location, but I would not like to negotiate a motorhome anywhere near this part of town, We were much happier staying away from the traffic and potential crime.

An area I read about that intrigued me is the Marigny District—just next to the French Quarter— is less touristy and more Bohemian. We parked next to Washington Square Park here (for $1.50 hour) and wandered along Frenchman Street where we came across the Spotted Cat Music Club, supposedly a good place for local music, and Coop’s Place, a popular dive bar with a reputation for good food, drinks, and music.

Mostly, we were scouting opportunities for coming back at night. One great find in the Marigny was Maison, a bar that was advertising a Fais Do Do to be held Saturday afternoon. More on that later.

By now we were growing hungry and didn’t want to just eat anywhere. My choice was the outdoor garden of Café Amelie, described as a romantic courtyard.

cafe amelie internet image

Sadly, we arrived about 2:30 and they had already stopped taking names for afternoon seating. With a yearning for something French, we found a small creperie nearby that was perfect for a late afternoon lunch.

Our final exploration of the day took us through the French Market, a charming area with lots of little shops as well as a flea market atmosphere. It was fun to look at the voodoo paraphernalia, Mardi-Gras themed accessories, and plethora of Cajun food offerings.

By now we had walked several miles of the city including a good portion of Bourbon Street. Like my friend, Suzi (of Beluga’s Adventures) says, the city is “a bit shabby in daylight though, as lots of the French Quarter is. . . . It’s a city that almost requires the suspension of disbelief. Just go with it”—which seems especially true of Bourbon Street.  Having said that, this young woman’s hat seems quite traditional in terms of an Easter bonnet--course it wasn't nighttime yet.

Our big adventure for day two did not begin until later in the afternoon on Saturday as we planned to first go to the Fais Do Do at Maison, eat seafood at the Acme Oyster House, and explore the nighttime highlights of Bourbon Street. We were happy to learn that a fais do do means Cajun dance party.

When we arrived at Maison, great Zydeco music was blasting into the street and dancers were spilling out to the sidewalk in front. Fortunately, they also had a dance floor in the back where there was plenty of room. I had my first Sazerac here, a famous New Orleans drink made of rye, Peychauds bitters, and Herbsaint or Absinthe. It tastes like a manhattan minus the sweet vermouth.  Vic’s main focus was getting on that dance floor.

We got right back into the rhythm of Cajun dancing even though it had been a year since we danced this style of two-step and waltz. How fun! This place was a great find. Not only was there no cover charge, but when the Zydeco band took a break, a Cajun band hopped right on the back stage and filled in for a half hour with more terrific music.


Next it was off to the Oyster House which was about a mile and a half walk with a good portion of it down Bourbon Street, giving us a chance to get a flavor of party central as it was around 7 p.m. and the streets were starting to fill up with revelers.

Now I get the requirement for "a suspension of disbelief" when you walk down Bourbon Street at night. 

Acme had a 45-minute wait that required standing in a long line. Not worth it. We opted to go to Felix’s Oyster House just across the street and had the best charbroiled oysters we have ever eaten. The shrimp gumbo was also delicious, so we were quite happy with our alternative choice.

We spent the rest of the evening wandering down the entire length of Bourbon Street and passing through Jackson Square where several street entertainers and artists lined the sidewalks.

Jackson Square reminded us of Mallory Square in Key West and Bourbon Street reminded us of Fremont Street in Vegas. Sadly to us, much of the music on Bourbon Street was geared for younger crowds with hip hop and techno music blaring out of the bars. We read about a similar response from Heyduke’s post on New Orleans and found it to be true—not much jazz or blues music luring us in. One night of Bourbon Street was more than enough for us. We definitely preferred our little discovery of the Marigny and the music at Maison.

Our next challenge was how to spend Easter Sunday in New Orleans.  A jazz brunch, champagne, and an Easter parade were all on the docket. Stay tuned for part deux.

easter deco in cg2

Friday, April 18, 2014

Our time at Topsail Hill Preserve sails by

April 11-16, 2013
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
Santa Rosa Beach, Florida

topsail beach umbrellas

This is our third stay in this park, a record for us. Advertised as the “crown jewel of the Florida State Park system,” it is not easy to get reservations here. We, however, lucked out all three years with at least a four night stay that we scored a month or two before our stay. This year we started out with only three days, but persistence in checking on Reserve America paid off and we were able to add two more nights on the same sight! 

What makes this park special to us is its location on one of the best white sand beaches on this stretch of the Panhandle known as the Emerald Coast. The campsites do not have views of the water but it is less than a mile bike ride (or tram ride) to a pristine beach. Topsail is also unique in having full hook-ups including cable, paved sites and patios, a swimming pool, and groomed landscaping. The park used to be a private RV resort which explains the extra amenities.

Another big plus for this area is its proximity to what locals call the 30A, a a twenty-eight mile scenic highway that is home to the charming waterfront towns of Santa Rosa Beach, Grayton Beach, Watercolor, Seaside (The Truman Show filming location), and Rosemary Beach. The best part of 30A, which we just discovered this year, is the Timpoochee Trail, a separate bike path that parallels eighteen miles of the highway.

Our first day here, the temperatures were in the low 80s with a gentle breeze. As soon as we set up, we headed for an afternoon at the beach. A big delight for me was discovering the water temps were warm enough for swimming (about 73 degrees). The pure white sandy bottom here and the rolling surf close to shore make this beach one of my favorites for playing in the waves.

This is also a very popular beach for surf fishing. The fishermen use sand fleas for bait and mainly seem to be fishing for pompano, but we saw one guy pull in a 30” black drum, a sizeable catch.

We ended the day with the treat of going out to dinner at nearby Stinky’s Fish Camp, a restaurant I wanted to try the last two years we came here. It did not disappoint. They must be doing well, even with a name like Stinky’s, as they built a new annex and now only use the original Fish Camp building for a gift shop and kitchen. We had something that we saw others eating that wasn’t even on the menu: an oyster log. Thirty six baked oysters of all kinds. I thought it would be too much for us, but truth be told, I think I could have eaten the whole assortment of oysters myself!

On day two, we were excited to take a bike ride along the 30A. It’s always amazing how much more you see on a bike than in a car. Of course, we took several opportunities to explore some side streets that looked interesting along the way. Our intention was to ride to a Starbucks in Grayton Beach that we had visited before, about ten miles away. To our surprise, the Starbucks is now Bad Ass Kona Coffee. I don’t think these beach towns are big supporters of chains, that may explain the switch. I prefer local coffee spots over Starbucks (shhh, don’t tell Pam and John, our Starbuck loving friends), but Vic likes the consistency of knowing his non-fat no-water Chai latte will always taste the same when he goes to a Starbucks. I, on the other hand, am always hoping for a more European style cappuccino like the ones we had overlooking Lake Como in Italy.

Back to our bike ride. I did not take my camera so you will have to use your imaginations. This is the route we took on the bike trail. The only challenge was a pretty strong head wind on the way there and a surprising number of hills, but the ride back with a tail wind was a breeze. It would be fun to plan a whole day and ride all the way into Seaside from Topsail.

30a bike route

With cloudy skies and much cooler temperatures the next day, we chose to drive the 30A stretch stopping to wander around the streets lined with shops in Watercolor and Seaside. There seems to be an abundance of colorful art and seashore themed gifts in the shops, eye candy for sure. I was also bedazzled by the freshwater pearls and braided leather jewelry, an unique combination with some hefty price tags. No purchases for us this time. (The bonus of living in a small space.)

watercolor sign

By sunset that evening, a major storm was brewing. Time to batten down the hatches, retract the awnings, and get out the Bach’s Rescue Remedy to quell Jetta’s nervous reaction to thunder. The TV had severe thunderstorm warnings flashing at the bottom of the screen for our county but the radar looked like we might just get lucky and be on the edge of the red zone. Not so. By midnight, the motorhome was surrounded by flashes of lightening and big cracks of thunder. I felt claustrophobic in the back in bed, so Jetta and I waited out the worst of the storm together on the couch (while Vic literally hid under the covers with pillows over his head). Fortunately, strong wind wasn’t a part of the storm, but there sure was a downpour. By morning, many sites were surrounded by water. We were lucky to be in an area with good drainage. The storm was still rattling on a bit in the morning, so we sat tight until blue skies broke through in the afternoon.

By then I had a little cabin fever, so we took a ride to see the Destin Harbor Boardwalk. Temps had dropped into the 40s overnight and daytime temps were still only in the 50s, so the boardwalk was relatively deserted but we enjoyed a brisk walk there anyway. This area is definitely geared for tourists but we enjoyed checking it out. We were most surprised at the huge number of charter boats along the boardwalk. I am sure it would be fun here for families on a summer night with a variety of rides. fireworks, and live music.

Our last day here the skies completely cleared but the temperatures were only in the high 60s. Regardless, we needed at least one more day at the beach so we bundled up a bit and enjoyed a good long walk along the shore. I had hopes of swimming, but didn’t want to experience the chill of getting out of the water wet. Saying goodbye to the beach was a little tough as we will have to wait until June in southern California before we have beach time again.

Five days sailed by and next thing I knew it was time to pack up. We sure are getting spoiled with our endless vacation lifestyle as we have five days in New Orleans to look forward to next! The Big EZ will finally get to see its namesake. Rollin’ on. . . .