Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas in New Orleans - December 2011

My husband and I combined some Christmas shopping and vacation with a weekend trip to New Orleans.  We took advantage of the Papa Noël deals available this time of year and stayed at The Roosevelt Hotel on Baronne Street near the French Quarter. 

The Roosevelt is a beautiful old hotel that was decorated to the max for Christmas.  There even were people visiting the lobby taking family Christmas pictures with professional photographers.

Our king suite was the nicest hotel room I have ever stayed in.  The bedroom and sitting room were beautifully decorated with two baths and three televisions.  There was a rooftop swimming pool and hot tub with a great view of the city and for us the rising full moon.  There are several restaurants in the hotel, and we tried to go to the John Besh restaurant, Domenica, but we were unable to get a reservation.

Of course New Orleans has many other wonderful restaurants to choose from.  We ate at the Red Fish Grill nearby on Bourbon Street that never disappoints us.  This time we did not order one of their wonderful redfish entrees.  The BBQ shrimp and grits and the grilled pork rib eye were delicious!  We also tried out Bourbon House, which is across the street from the Red Fish Grill.  The food was good and the service excellent, but I prefer the Red Fish Grill instead for the better food and ambiance.

While Christmas shopping on Magazine Street we tried out The Rum House, a Caribbean restaurant, for lunch at the insistence of my daughter.  It was fun and delicious.  We people-watched at a window table, and in better weather would have loved to sit outside on Magazine Street.  Though we typically stick to Cajun fare when in NOLA, I’m glad we tried something new.  There were several interesting shops nearby including Storyville, a tee shirt shop known for its inventive designs.  My daughter was shocked when she found out we didn’t try out Sucré, a pastry and chocolate shop down the block—we will have to try it next time.

We made a rather fast visit to the WWII Museum—it’s hard to fit everything into one weekend!  The museum is divided up into four sections: The Pacific Theater, The Normandy Invasion, The European Theater, and The Home Front.  There is a wealth of information that could be perused for hours.  I really appreciated the Home Front Section that showed how everyone—even little kids—helped with the war effort.  I would recommend re-watching the movie “Saving Private Ryan” before visiting the WWII Museum.

As standard for our trips to New Orleans, we made our rounds at our favorite French Quarter shops.  You shouldn’t miss Vintage 329, a shop with autographed memorabilia from rock-n-roll bands to sports celebrities to presidents.  We also make a point to visit the Rodrigue Studio and the Gallery Rinard on Royal Street.  We always enjoy going to the French Market, the surrounding shops, and watching the street performers that are so classically New Orleans.

We ended our weekend trip with breakfast at Mother’s on Poydras Street.  On previous trips to New Orleans, I noticed a long line of people waiting to get in this rather plain looking restaurant.  Now I know why there was often a long line.  The food was great!

We did a little shopping and had a lot of fun.  It was definitely worth a weekend in December to visit New Orleans during their Papa Noël promotions.

Christmas 2013

 This Christmas season we added a visit to New Orleans' Celebration in the Park at City Park while in New Orleans during December.  Walking through the huge lighted  oak trees listening to Christmas music was the perfect holiday evening.  I can see why this would become a family tradition for people who live in the area.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Avery Island and Jefferson Island in South Louisiana

My traveling friends and I spent a day visiting Avery Island and Jefferson Island, which are a few miles west of New Iberia.  These “islands” turned out to be full of surprises for us.

We began our day’s adventures at Avery Island.  Avery Island is a salt dome that rises above the surrounding marshland.  It is home of Jungle Gardens and the Tabasco Sauce Factory.  Jungle Gardens is full of plants that you would expect in South Louisiana such as beautiful huge oak trees covered in Spanish moss, azaleas and camellias.  But there are also exotic plants imported from around the world that make this a truly unique place to visit.  We saw alligators swimming in the marsh and egrets in Bird City, where bamboo structures have been built to give the 20,000 egrets nesting areas in the spring.   The gardens are amazing anytime of the year, but camellias bloom from November to March, and azaleas bloom from late February to the end of April.  The egrets nest from March to July.  Mosquitoes are out in full-force from March to October, so bring your bug spray.

While driving through all of the huge oak trees and marsh, we suddenly came upon a Chinese garden complete with an 800 year old Buddha statue.  This was such an unexpected discovery in a Louisiana setting.  Later we found more Chinese gardens when we visited Jefferson Island nearby.

The Tabasco Sauce Factory is nearby.  We visited the Tabasco Country Store and doing so was definitely worth the time.  There were lots of Tabasco related items for sale such as unique t-shirts, dishes, toys, and Tabasco products themselves.  Because it was time for lunch, we did not tour the factory, but we wished we had after later talking to a friend that had taken the tour. 

Next we found our way to nearby Jefferson Island.  One of us found an interesting sounding restaurant called Café Jefferson from a web search.  It turned out to be worth the trip by itself!  The setting was beautiful.  The restaurant had outdoor patio seating and a glass porch with a view of Lake Peigneur in one direction and the beginning of Rip Van Winkle Gardens in the other. The food was delicious, especially the seafood bisque.  Be sure to save room for dessert!  It was hard to choose between the chocolate cake and the lemon meringue pie. 

After lunch we bought tickets to tour the gardens and the Joseph Jefferson Home.  The tour began with a very interesting film of the history of the island and Lake Peigneur.  Under the island and lake are salt mines that were flooded when Texaco was drilling for oil in 1980.  Not only did it flood the salt mines, but the lake and 65 acres of surrounding woodlands disappeared like water draining from a bathtub!  We walked through the Rip Van Winkle Gardens to the Jefferson Home on the top of the hill.  There we discovered that the gardens were named after the character that Joseph Jefferson famously portrayed in the 1870s.  Joseph Jefferson used this house as his winter home.  The mansion was full of beautiful furniture, paintings, clothing, and household items that helped our tour guide give us a real understanding of the history of the house and people that lived there.  We also saw cute cottages that people can rent and a gorgeous area for weddings.

We had planned to do more in New Iberia but it was time to head back home.  The next time we go there, we plan to tour the Shadows on–the-Teche plantation home that is on Main Street in New Iberia.  I think March would be the best month to come because the azaleas and camellias would be in full bloom and the temperature would be pleasant.  It was a little too hot in August!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Vacationing in the Smoky Mountains

The Smoky Mountains have always been an important part of my life.  My family went on picnics there when I was a child, I worked as a waitress in restaurants in nearby Gatlinburg in summers during college, I met my husband there, I went on my honeymoon there, and we have since spent much vacation time in the area.  Now that I live in a different state my ears perk up when people mention that they went to the Smoky Mountains for a vacation.  Of course I eagerly ask what they did while they were there and much to my dismay they usually talk about Dollywood, water parks, go-carts, putt-putt, and shopping.  Most people never even went to the mountains!  Granted, nearby Pigeon Forge is a kid’s paradise of a fun (and expensive) vacation but the whole family is missing out on the wonderful, unique (and inexpensive) experience of the Smoky Mountains.


Driving through the park is great but you can’t experience the mountains unless you get out of the car.  Hiking is the best way to see things you have never seen before, but please don’t start groaning.  There is no law that says you have to hike to the end of the trail.  My two favorite trails are the Chimney Tops and Alum Cave Bluffs.  Both trails are beautiful and maybe a little challenging for small children or folks with bad knees.  But hiking the short distance from the parking lot to the trailhead is easy and very rewarding.  This area has bridges that cross beautiful mountain streams.  It is surrounded by blooming rhododendrons and mountain laurel in spring and summer and colorful trees in autumn.
Trail to Alums Cave Bluffs

A visit to the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Ranger Station is a worthwhile 30 minutes of your vacation.  Besides being able to get lots of information about the mountains, there is an excellent nature exhibit of plants and animals that live in the area.  There is a really nice gift shop with unique items to help you remember your visit to the mountains.  My favorite part, though, is the film they show, which chronicles the mountains through the seasons.  My family has begun to groan when I mention going to the Ranger Station
because they know we can’t leave until we’ve seen it.

There are two very flat walking trails that take you by mountain streams.  One is just outside Gatlinburg (not far from KFC).  The other is the first trail after the Sugarlands Visitor Center on the right and it is even handicap assessable with a paved walkway (good for baby strollers too).

Chimney Tops Picnic Area
Be sure to plan time for a picnic!  There are picnic tables by the mountains streams at the Chimney Tops picnic area just about five miles from the Visitor Center.  There is a deli in the Old Dads store just before you leave Gatlinburg for the mountains or a KFC nearby makes a quick and easy picnic too.  There are grills in the picnic area if you want to cook.  The best thing about your picnic are the giant rocks in the mountain stream to climb on.

The next best thing to hiking on a trail is the Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail.  This road begins at the end of what used to be called Airport Road in downtown Gatlinburg, but is now labeled as Historic Nature Trail Road.  You can stop along this road at the trailheads for hiking trails that lead to waterfalls (Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls) or you can just enjoy the mountains from your car on a one way single lane road on which you can almost touch nature.

Some of our most memorable times were totally unplanned. Wildlife would just appear at the most unexpected time.  Once we had finished up a hike that ended at the Ranger’s Station.  We were sitting on a bench when two deer came prancing out into the field and started fighting with their hooves in the air.  Then they stopped, walked out to the road, and I swear they looked both ways before crossing the road!  We have many bear stories to remember.  The best involve mother bears and their cubs which we watched from a distance. Baby bears are really good at climbing trees!


Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have just about anything you can imagine for family fun.

Dollywood in Pigeon Forge is very popular.  I have never been, and don’t plan too, but I have heard others say nice things about it (especially the Christmas decorations and show).

The Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is the best aquarium I have ever visited.  My favorite part is the moving sidewalk through a tunnel of “ocean”.  This year they have added a penguin exhibit called The Penguin Playhouse that is nice. 

The Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort at the end of Ski Mountain Road has so much more than skiing.  It has a very nice indoor ice skating rink, a bear exhibit, chairlifts, alpine slide and more for year round fun.  You can ride the Aerial Tramway from downtown Gatlinburg to the Ski Resort or drive up Ski Mountain Road in your car.

Shopping is endless.  There is everything from outlet malls to gift and souvenir shops.  You won’t want to miss the Arts and Crafts Community on Glades Road just outside Gatlinburg.  On this 8 mile road there are little clusters of arts and crafts shops of handcrafted items.

Ziplines are the latest super fun way to enjoy the Smoky Mountains.  I am trying to work up the courage to try one!

There are many hotels and motels in the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge area.  But if you want to really enjoy the mountains in a not-to-be-forgotten way, choose one of the many chalets or cabins offered by several reality companies in the area.  We have always stayed in chalets off of Ski Mountain Road rented by Chalet Village Properties.  In fact, we estimate that we have stayed with them over 30 times beginning with our honeymoon.  They have all sizes and types of chalets at various prices.  They have an excellent web site that tells you and shows you exactly what your chalet will be like.  We always know what to expect before we get there and are never disappointed.  My favorites are the chalets that hang off the mountain with a spectacular view of Mt. LeConte.  Of course it is mandatory that the chalet have an outside hot tub which is best on cool nights (or even when there is snow!)

View of Mt. LeConte from a Chalet

WHERE TO EAT (Not enough days to eat at all my favorites!)

The Peddler in Gatlinburg has call-ahead seating that is really a help because they are busy.  You should ask for and wait for table with a window view of the mountain stream.  You begin your meal with a wonderful salad bar (smoked oysters!) and then choose your steak as it is carved at your table.  There is parking in front of restaurant which is rare in Gatlinburg.

The Park Grill in Gatlinburg is a beautiful restaurant.  It has a wonderful salad bar and I always choose the trout.  There is parking in front and behind restaurant.

The Donut Friar is in Village shopping area of Gatlinburg.  Fresh donuts and coffee can be enjoyed outside in the courtyard.  Be sure to try the Bavarian Cream donuts.  There is a parking area in the school parking lot behind the Village Shops when school is not in session.  What a great way to make money for a school!

Pancake Pantry is on the Parkway in Gatlinburg.  It has a great variety of excellent pancakes.  There is usually a long waiting line outside, even in the cold in the winter. It is good if you like fancy pancakes, but not worth a 2 hour wait.

Flapjacks has several locations in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.  My husband recommends the Walker’s Cabin Skillet, which is basically all breakfasts foods stacked and presented in an omelet pan.

The Cheese Cupboard and Hofbrauhaus Restaurant is in the Village shopping area of Gatlinburg. We always order the World Famous Ruben Sandwiches!!  You can eat in or take out for a picnic.  I suggest doing both (but on different days).

Bullfish is in Pigeon Forge.  There is lots of variety and excellent beer bread.  The shrimp and grits are great!

Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant is in Pigeon Forge.  It has excellent homestyle food and each meal begins with apple fritters.  There is a cute shopping area next to restaurant that has everything you can imagine that involves apples.  It is a great place to go for holiday meals because the food comes out family style.  We had Christmas dinner there once.


There is not a bad season in the Smoky Mountains! 

Spring is beautiful with wild flowers and budding trees.  Spring happens later in the mountains because of cooler temperatures.  We once woke up to snow in April.

Summer continues to have beautiful wildflowers and rhododendron blooming.  The temperature is several degrees cooler in the mountains than in town.  Sitting by a mountain stream is better than air condition.  There is a parade at midnight on July 4.

The colors of the Fall trees are breathtaking.  The trick is to be there at the peak color time which is usually around the end of October.  Because of school holidays my family usually couldn’t get there until the week before Thanksgiving.  Some trees would still have leaves.  Just remember that University of Tennessee home football weekends are very busy.

Winter is fun in the mountains also.  It is best to drive something with 4-wheel drive.  November and December is all about Christmas.  Everything in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge is covered in beautiful lights.  The Ski Resort “makes” snow as soon as it is cold enough.  January through March is sometimes a little slow in town but the ski lodge is busy.  When there is snow on the road they close the road that goes in to the park.

The Smoky Mountains is definitely my favorite vacation spot, and has been my entire life.  There is something for people of all ages and physical abilities.  College kids will love the hiking and nightlife.  Families will enjoy that it doesn’t have to be a stressful vacation, and that everyone can spend time together doing a variety of activities.  Retirees can still find new and fun things to do even if this isn’t their first (or thirtieth) trip.  I encourage you to go!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Retirement Trip to San Francisco

My daughters set up this blog for me so that I can share my travels with family and friends.  And what a fantastic trip to start this new chapter of my life!  Three friends and I left on June 28, 2011 for a five day trip to San Francisco.  It was five days of beautiful sights and non-stop conversations.

The weather tried to put a damper on our first day of the trip.  It rained all day.  The beautiful San Francisco Bay was gray and dreary.  So our first stop after checking into the Holiday Inn Express in the Fisherman's Wharf was to purchase umbrellas. 

Then we headed off to find some lunch.  We picked the best place to have our first meal.  Boudin Sourdough Bakery had great food, a really nice gift shop, and even a tour of the bakery.  We tried out the chowder and bisque in a sourdough bread bowl which was delicious. 

Boudin Sourdough Bakery

We wandered around Fisherman's Wharf for a while in the rain and decided to try out one of the electric trolley cars thinking it would be better to look around town out of the rain.  Turned out this trolley car (The F line) quickly left the Fisherman's Wharf area and headed into the city.  We had no idea where we were so we stayed on the trolley until they made us get off and return on a different trolley.  We got to see a little of all parts of the city which was fine for a rainy day, but I was a little concerned where we would end up. Not really wise to get on public transportation without a clue where it is going!

An hour and a half later we were able to get off at Pier 39 with great relief.  It was still raining but we just opened up the umbrellas and did a little shopping and shared a  huge strawberry crepe at the Crepe Cafe. 

We next took a taxi to Ghirardelli Square which is at the opposite end of Fisherman's Wharf to shop and sample some candy (delicious!)  We made plans to come back another day to have hot fudge sundaes at the ice cream shop of Ghirardelli's because it was just that good. 

Then back to the hotel. We should have been tired because we had been up since before 4:00 a.m. to catch the plane.  But we were still pretty wound up as we got out the Ipad to help us make plans for the next day.

The weather was better on the second day.  Still cloudy but no rain.  Hooray!

Powell-Market Cable Car
We were the first people on the Powell-Market Cable Car and we took that to be a good sign for the rest of the day. The sights were amazing and we had a very entertaining driver.  The hilly streets make you feel like you are on a slow roller coaster. 

We got off at the end of the line at the Nordstrom Mall.  The eight floors of escalators with a huge skylight at the top was a beautiful entrance to a mall.  We didn't shop much since we were ready to see more of San Francisco.

After about a 30 minutes wait we got on the Powell-Hyde Cable Car to take us back to the Bay.  This was the best ride for scenery of the city.  The Cable car was really crowded now and people were standing and holding on to the sides of the car.  Other cable cars and buses seem to be just inches away as they passed us by.  The steep hills definitely help to make San Francisco unique. The sun was out now so we got our first view of the beautiful blue San Francisco bay.  It was an amazing sight after seeing it the previous day so gray and dreary.  Nonetheless it was still too foggy at the Golden Gate Bridge to see it.

We looked at some huge old boats on the Hyde Street Pier and shopped in some gift shops.  At every entrance to a shop there would be racks of jackets and sweatshirts.  This seemed so odd since it was summer, but it was definitely cool enough for jackets with the temperature in the high 50's and low 60's.  I loved the chill, but my friends lived in the sweatshirts they bought.

Golden Gate Bridge
After lunch at Alioto's which had a great view of the bay and delicious creole scallops, we took the Blue and Gold Ferry for an hour tour of the bay.  The skyline view of San Francisco from the ferry was so impressive because it is on all those hills. The fog had somewhat lifted and we finally got to see the Golden Gate Bridge!  The ferry took us under the bridge and really up close to Alcatraz.  The Golden
Gate Bridge is beautiful but
Alcatraz is kind of creepy
looking.  On our way back
we saw our first sea lions
that had made a home at Pier 39.

Sea Lions at Pier 39

Coit Tower
After our ferry ride we took a taxi to Telegraph Hill to visit Coit Tower. Later we found out there is a city bus that makes regular stops to Telegraph Hill so we rode the bus back.  Coit Tower was a wonderful overlook of the city and bay. We did go to the top but the view were pretty terrific from the ground level, especially in the back.  The first floor of the Coit Tower was covered in murals of the history of San Francisco.


We ended the day with the ice cream sundaes at Ghirardelli Square that we had promised
ourselves the day
before.  They were
definitely worth the
trip back!


Golden Gate Bridge
On the third day of our trip we rented a car and headed out for Monterey and Carmel.  We planned to take Highway 1 South along the coast but because of a lot of road construction going on we ended up going north across the Golden Gate Bridge.  This turned out to be a good mistake because the day was clear and sunny and we finally got to see all of the bridge.  We pulled off at the first exit after the bridge and got some great pictures.  We then got back on the bridge and headed south.
The trip along the coast on Highway 1 was very scenic with views of the Pacific Ocean and lighthouses.  There were also huge fields of strawberries, artichokes and other crops we couldn’t identify.

We stopped at Monterey to shop and have lunch.  But the best part of the trip came next.  We drove the 17 Mile Drive along the coast to Carmel.  The road had the Pacific Ocean complete with great waves, huge rocks, and some sea lions on one side and beautiful wildflowers, golf courses, and multi-million dollar homes on the other side.  There were many pull-offs for stopping for super pictures.

View of Sea Lions on the 17 Mile Drive

Blue Dog Gallery

Carmel had lots of really nice, expensive shops:  jewelry stories, art galleries, antique shops, and cafes.  There was even a Blue Dog gallery that made us Louisiana folks feel at home! 

We drove back to San Francisco on Highway 101 which was faster but a lot more traffic.  There were more giant farm areas of artichokes and also cherry trees.  This trip was a lot to accomplish in one day.

Day 4

We got an early start on our trip to Muir Woods.  We rode back over the Golden Gate Bridge on another beautiful clear morning.  The road to Muir Woods was not long but it was steep and curvy.  Because we had come early we were able to get a close parking space.  Later when we left, the parking lots were full and cars were parked on the side of the road for at least a mile. We spent about 2 hours wandering around Muir Woods enjoying the huge beautiful redwood trees.

It was such a peaceful place with a stream running along the trail with lots of benches for sitting and enjoying the setting.  The main trail was easy for anyone to handle.  There was a more difficult trail, but it was closed.

The town of Sausalito was our next stop.  Sausalito is on the bay directly across from San Francisco.  The view is beautiful and the shops are really nice (not as expensive as in Carmel or as touristy as at the Fisherman’s Wharf).  We ate lunch outside at Poggio Restaurant which had unusual foods on its menu, but we played is safe with some great paninis.

It was getting close to time to turn in the rental car so we headed back San Francisco.  My bad knees needed a break, but the other members of our group went to Lombard Street and walked down that crooked street.  They came back with some beautiful pictures and said it was worth the walk.

We spent our last evening in San Francisco at Pier 39.  It was a lot more enjoyable without the rain of our first day.  I ordered a small sourdough bread bowl of chowder at the Boudins at Pier 39 which was okay but not nearly as good as Boudins at Fisherman’s Wharf. Then it was back to the hotel to pack
up for our trip home the next morning.

What a fun trip!  Where should we go next?