Niceville and New Orleans

Niceville2

About half an hour West of Miramar Beach, Florida is the city of Niceville.  Before we’d left on our vacation, my dear friend had told me about this place, and we’d prognosticated all kinds of lovely scenarios for Niceville.  I had imagined a place something like the fictional Stepford or Smallville, and was fully prepared to see cute little cookie-cutter houses in muted pastel colours standing neatly in rows.

If these are your ideas of Niceville, expunge them immediately.  Niceville is a city, not a town.  Like all cities, it is ranging and diverse.  There are some beautiful areas, houses on the bay, green leafy suburbs.  And there are also less salubrious areas, where you try not to meet anyone’s eye, you drive straight through, and you reflect on how much like a set on Zombieland it is.

We stopped only long enough to take a quick photo of me in front of the town sign.  It wasn’t until we got home and I was going through the photos that I even noticed the intriguing by-line: Home of the Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival.

I like to imagine that Niceville has an annual festival of 80s hair, people dressed in black tight-fitting jeans and checked shirts, looking all business-at-the-front and raging-party-at-the-back.  I know it’s actually an annual seafood and arts festival, but I still like to imagine Billy Ray Cyrus look-alike contestants wandering the streets in semi-organised gangs.

Straight after taking the photo, we hopped back in the car and headed for New Orleans.

Cafe du Monde

New Orleans (or Nawhlins if you’re trying to fit in) is a sexy city with stinky armpits.  Its French accented sultriness lures you in, but you can’t avoid the manky debauchery of Bourbon Street.  You quickly realise that Bourbon Street is a circus, performance art put on by the tourists for the tourists, a place where the mores of society are suspended.  This is not the place the nearby residents seek refuge.  If you want those, go just a few streets parallel or perpendicular to Bourbon St and you’ll find delightful little hole-in-the-wall pubs, tucked away on quieter streets, harbouring shell-shocked locals, sheltering from the manic onslaught of out-of-town visitors.

Our stop over in New Orleans included the obligatory breakfast at Cafe du Monde for coffee and beignets.  It was, as always, crowded, with a line of people waiting for tables to be free.  This, despite the thunder storm and the torrential showers.  But it’s worth waiting for a free table to experience the wonderful warm sugary delight of a beignet in the morning.  They come in threes on saucers, and are covered in an avalanche of powdered sugar.  The coffee’s hot and strong, and the hot chocolates are good.  On a morning when the heavens decided to open to monsoon-like rains, those little squares of doughy sweetness were the source of much joy.Beignets

This time we also ventured into the French Market.  We didn’t have a chance to see it last time we were in NOLA (that’s New Orleans, Louisiana for those not in the know), so it was a delight to explore it this time around.

French Market EntranceThe French Market is further along Decatur Street, northeast from Cafe du Monde.  To get there, you walk past Cafe du Monde and the string of touristy shops along the street.  These are pirates’ treasure caves brimming with all the kitschy glitz intrinsic to their ilk.  Their siren song lured me in to the murky depths and I was sunk.  I did exercise phenomenal restraint, however, limiting my purchase to just one silver tray embossed with a fleur-de-lis, eschewing the many gilt-edged, lurid coloured tea sets that called to me.French Market interior

Past the rag-tag stores selling African carvings, Rastafarian bags, and assorted delights, lies the Arc de French Market, beckoning tantalisingly.  Inside the arch lies a covered market, stalls stretching in rows, vendors clamouring for space.  The place assaults every sense and can be overwhelming.  Here, the Steampunk sculptor with his top hat and waxed moustache appraises the folk art of the woman who paints on bark.  There, the Oyster shuckers hock their wares, tempting passers by to sit at the bar and have their oysters shucked (what noise annoys an oyster? A noisy noise annoys an oyster).  The smell of the sea assaults your nostrils as you pass.  The noises of people, revving coffee machines, and shifting goods combine seductively with the competing smells of cooking food, human beings, old jewellery, musty Mardi Gras masks, and moth-balled clothes to emulate a migraine hell.

Heart CafeThe food joints just inside the entrance offer an eclectic collection of Louisiana cuisine.  Everything from gator bites, to fresh shucked oysters at an oyster bar, to gumbo, to crab cake po’ boys and more.  Like hungry hobbits preparing for second breakfast, we scoured them all for the one that would be exactly right for us, finally deciding on the crab cake variety on offer at the Heart Cafe.  Voted “Best in City”, they really do have wonderful crab cakes, but it’s the service that’s really what will bring me back.  The beautiful lady who runs the place makes you feel like you are the most important person in the entire world.  She’s old fashioned, down to earth, and boy! can she cook.

The food’s fabulous, the service is excellent, and the ambience is pure Nawhlins.  We sat at tables near the cafe (which has bar seating), in front of a French Market advertising wall that optimistically proclaims history made fresh daily.

After eating our fill of delicious crab cakes, we waddled back to the car and set off for home.

About an hour and a half into our drive, we hit Baton Rouge (which we went through on our way to Florida).  It was our last opportunity to stop at an Acme Oyster House for grilled oysters, and we couldn’t possibly leave Louisiana without stoppinAcme Oystersg in.  So in we oinked for lunch.  One dozen grilled oysters each (yes, EACH) later, we waddled out again and set off for home once more.

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Farewell Florida

It’s our last morning in Florida.  In a few short hours, we’ll be on the road once again, heading back to Texas via New Orleans.  Only one stop on the way back.

Miramar Beach has been a delight.  It always takes me a few days to get settled in a new place (not a great one for change), but this has been an easy place to get used to.  White sandy beaches, and clear blue-green sea that remind me so much of home.  Dolphins delighting in their smorgasbord breakfast of flipping flapping fish.  Schools of nipping, darting fish, their shiny scales flashing their fools’ gold temptation, gathering like groupies as you stand in the calm, warm shallows.

I’ve been so immersed in being here, in throwing myself into my writing, that I’ve taken very few photos to truly convey how delightful it is.  Next time… next time…

We’re all going on a Summer holiday…

Flo Rida (the rapper) = Florida (the state).  Yeah, I’m slow at these things.  It wasn’t till the kids started saying it that the connection actually occurred to me.

Anyway, we’re doing a road trip from Texas to Florida.  On the way here, we stopped in Baton Rouge, LA and in Biloxi, MI.

We visited New Orleans on a previous occasion and loved it, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Baton Rouge.  It’s New Orleans’ more sophisticated, genteel, quieter sister.  Still radiating that unique Southern charm made sexy with a French accent, but cleaner, less hectic and with fewer tourists.  I think I’m falling a little bit in love with Louisiana.  But it may take some time to really understand her quaint, and well, befuddling accent.  That’s ok.  I can smile dotingly, besotted by her, without having to fully understand what she says.

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Just outside of Baton Rouge sit a number of old plantation houses.  Some have been turned into resorts, others remain private residences and others still have been beautifully preserved and maintained in perpetuity.  The best of these is the Oak Alley Plantation.

It was run into the ground by the original owners Jaques and Celina Roman, but fortunately, was rescued in the 1920s by the Stewart family.  It is a brilliant example of what careful curation can produce, an important historical record of slavery and plantation life.  The guides dress in period costume (and if you get a particularly good one, like we did, you’ll get a very humorous and informative tour).

I could easily wax lyrical about this destination, but honestly, I was too busy fulfilling my Gone with the Wind fantasies (yes yes, I know it wasn’t set in Louisiana, and it wasn’t filmed at this plantation.  Don’t comment with complaints or corrections please).

I happily dragged my less-than-wildly-enchanted family through the grounds for over an hour, soaking up every inch of the place.  Aside from the Scarlet O’Hara fantasies (and yes, I know I’m the wrong skin colour), it is also a terrific historical record of the time.  The slaves quarters have been carefully replicated, and many of the artefacts found on the grounds have been preserved and displayed with detailed explanations.

You can indulge in Mint Juleps or Virgin Mint Juleps on the porch.  The Mint Juleps have a kick like a mule, with two parts bourbon that should be no surprise, but they’re wonderfully refreshing on a hot day.

You can also have a meal (and the meals are big) at the restaurant on the grounds (or the cafe if you’d rather just have some sandwiches).  If you’re super organised or travelling in an RV, you can have a picnic at one of the picnic tables in the shade.

There is, of course the ubiquitous gift shop, replete with tacky tourist attractions, and a few real gems (have a look at the antique nut crackers).

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Biloxi, on the other hand, is all business.  A town made most famous for its army base, it doesn’t really have much else to recommend it.

Spring Break — Part II

After a desperately long hiatus, I’m finally getting around to the second half of this post.  Apologies.

In the meantime, other travel has occurred of course and apparently little writing!

So in an attempt to catch up on both my travel and my writing, I’m keeping this post short and filled with images of New Mexico.

General impressions of New Mexico:

  • Scruffy tree-bushes that look like skinny legged, dreadlocked teenagers lounging around the desert plains (Xanthorrhoea or grass trees in Western Australia have a chequered naming history).
  • Big blue skies with the occasional fluffy white cloud to remind you that it is real
  • Light that paints everything in the most vivid colours
  • The stark and surprising contrast in landscape from desert plains to snow-capped mountains.

It is a place that Georgia O’Keefe found inspiration. It is the muse of artists and photographers. A place of solitude and reflection, with the option to indulge in company. It is cosmopolitan, and reclusive. It is a place I could easily settle in.

Spring Break Part I — El Paso or the tale of two cities

This year, we did a road trip to New Mexico for Spring Break.  As everyone (no really, everyone) kept telling us, Texas is big and it takes metaphorically FOR.EV.ER to get out of the state.  Well, we’re from Western Australia.  It’s more than 3.5 times the size of Texas, so we know a thing or two about driving long distances without crossing a border.  It really wasn’t as bad as all the naysayers will tell you.

It took us roughly 12 hours (with frequent stops) to get from Houston to El Paso.  Right on the border of both Mexico and New Mexico, it’s a deeply troubling place that I’m glad I saw, but hope devoutly not to visit again.  El Paso itself is an interesting town.  The areas that are closest to the border of Mexico are blatantly the poorest areas, and most Mexican in their appearance.  The buildings are, in the main, mud rendered (similar to the adobe style), white washed, single storey affairs, with colourful decorations or ristra strings of dried chillies hung cheerily around.  The streets were empty when we drove through, but I’ve since read that they’re terribly dangerous.  That was not our experience.  In fact, apart from the eery discomfort of driving through neighbourhoods where there was not a soul to be seen, we never felt under threat.

The palpably sad part of being in El Paso, is the realisation that apart from a fence and the Rio Grande, Juarez City in Mexico is a stone’s throw away.  The difference in the standard of living is obvious from the outset.  Juarez is clearly not a poor city.  But by comparison to the glaring, neon lights of the commercial enterprises in El Paso, it is dingy.  I couldn’t help but think of the folk in Juarez, waking every day, looking out of their windows and being confronted with the galling abundance that lies so close across the border.  The immense sadness of that thought defined my experience of El Paso — and I’m sorry to the good folk of El Paso for that.  I’m sure that’s not the abiding thought in their heads as they go about their daily lives.

Nevertheless, El Paso has some interesting history and some ruggedly beautiful structures.  The bridges that span the border between the two countries are vividly decorated with artwork.  They are markers of the many and daily crossings, tribute to the folks who work on both sides and in the middle.  The churches and missions dotted around El Paso, are equally a testament of the cultural ties between the US and Mexico.  We were fortunate enough to visit the Socorro Mission. You know those western movies that were the fodder of a 70s childhood?  Remember the classic image of the church where the downtrodden Mexican workers took shelter? That’s what the Socorro Mission looks like.  Its simplicity belies its beauty.  As my father-in-law said, it looks like it’s part of a movie set, and you really do expect the gun-toting, cigar-smoking, white-hat-wearing cowboy hero to come riding in on his white horse at any minute.

Socorro Mission Church

Socorro Mission Church

 

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Mardi Gras in Galveston, oh Galveston…

Beads and boas

Garish colours and shiny are de rigueur

This is the second year we’ve gone to the Mardi Gras in Galveston. Last year, we were fresh-faced, newly minted ex-pats, excited by everything and everyone, on a perpetual holiday. We made it to what we thought would be the most kid-friendly event – the Children’s Parade. It was the last parade, on the last day, and was immense fun, but I wonder in retrospect whether that was precisely because we were still shiny and new.

Since I had resolved to embrace life more in 2014, we aimed for an earlier parade this year. In usual form, leaving the house involved several false starts, two un-lockings and re-enterings to retrieve more weather-wise clothing, and at least 3 arguments before we all made it into the car. Life with teenage/pre-teen boys seems to involve a lot of battles over the mundane. Now, we live about an hour and a half from Galveston, so making it to the first parade which set off at 12 noon, would have involved leaving the house by 10.30. Given that we didn’t make out of the house till 11, getting to the parade on time was out of the question. So off to brunch we went, then settled into the car for the boring drive there.

Once we got there, it didn’t take too much searching to find a free parking space (it’s worth looking, or you could end up paying anything between $10 and $20 for parking). Then off we went to pay our way in, find a spot, and grab ourselves some lurid, shiny plastic necklaces. Yes, that’s the treasure that Mardi Gras goers seek. Cheap plastic necklaces that you could buy in bags of 100 for $5, but that you would break limbs for (yours or someone else’s, it’s all fair game) during Mardi Gras.

Beady Diva

Bedecked with beads

Even before the parade begins, and beads are thrown from passing floats, there are beads being flung, and collected from the tops of buildings. Everyone gets in on the act – the most sedate of grandmothers to the shyest toddler.

Those who have come to gawk, in turn become the main attraction, as they promenade down the fenced off streets. And there is certainly much to gawk at during Mardi Gras. Last year’s Children’s Parade hadn’t adequately prepared me for the visual feast of this year.

And then the parade began. It’s a fun procession of local schools and businesses. The marching bands ham it up, the cheerleaders writhe and wriggle, the floats amble by with beads and beer, people cheer and chant. The marines march through, the crowd grows sedate, remembering those lost perhaps, everyone claps, then there’s a honk and a whistle as the cast from South Pacific swan past.

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It’s fun, salacious, and definitely not for the prudish or very young, as one tut-tutting grandmother next to me made clear. Go with an open mind, a playful spirit, and arms ready to catch a plethora of beads.

Covered in beads (and a giant squid hat)

Covered in beads (and a giant squid hat)

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San Antonio and a Rediscovery

Commerce Street, San Antonio

Commerce Street, San Antonio

I recently had the opportunity to drive to San Antonio (following my oldest son’s school Swim Team to the State Championships). I’d been to San Antonio previously. We’d taken my (now octogenarian) mother to see the Alamo when she’d visited us in Houston. And even though we’d squeezed it all into a day trip, the place had still left an impression of quirkiness and fun.

This time, I travelled on my own (my son travelled with his team) and I was nervous. It’s been a very long time indeed since I’ve travelled anywhere on my own, and the world is experienced differently on your own than with the buffer of a family. The three and a half hour drive wasn’t nearly as taxing as I had worried it would be, and whiling away the time listening to BBC World broadcasts on my radio made it all the more bearable.

Bandito Marionettes

Bandito Marionettes

Arriving at my hotel late in the afternoon, it felt decidedly odd to be carrying only one overnight bag (I was only staying overnight after all). Clutching my meagre possessions with me, I wandered into the foyer, nervous and slightly excited at the prospect of having a whole room to myself. The concierge smiled welcomingly, checked me in and handed me my key card. A little thrill of anticipation jittered through me as I found my room and opened up my bag. A whole room to myself. With two beds. You don’t understand. For the first time in a very long time, I would be going to sleep and waking up without having to think of a single other living creature. No wondering if children are asleep, no worrying about waking up a husband, no making sure the dogs have been taken out, no having to wake to someone else’s timetable or consider someone else’s sleep schedule. I was a little overwhelmed, if I’m honest.

Cowboy Hats

Cowboy Hats

I was also on my own. While the Swim Team were there around the same time that I was, they were heading off to a pool to do some training. My presence was clearly not required. So, at a loose end and a little uncertain of what to do with myself, I pottered about. Fortuitously, my husband texted me just as I was losing my courage and planning on an afternoon reading in my room, with the rather magnificent suggestion of finding the Mexican Market at Market Square. He’d taken his parents there (a trip our boys and I hadn’t joined him on) and thought I’d enjoy it too. So, fortified by his suggestion and determined not to retreat into my shell and see nothing of the place, I googled the markets, found an address and set off to see what I could see.

Wrestling Masks (think Nacho Libre)

Wrestling Masks (think Nacho Libre)

12 minutes drive from my hotel and there I was in this delightful slice of South America. The smells, the sounds, the touristy traps, all calling to me. Cowboy hats and marionettes, wrestling masks and cafés, all competing for my attention. And there, in the middle of it all, unobtrusive exterior opening to a wonderland of sights, sounds and smells, lay the Mi Tierra Café and Bakery. This oasis of mariachis, cakes, margaritas and the nicest slow cooked goat meat I’ve ever had, sprang unexpected in the middle of the CBD.

Mariachi at Mi Tierra

Mariachi at Mi Tierra

The sedate exterior belies the wonder of the inside. A festival of colour and sound encased in a very classy building. The foyer of the building is what is euphemistically called the bakery. In truth, it’s a series of display cabinets filled with glorious Mexican sweat meats in eye-popping colours. And the queues are long. People shuffle in, take a numbered ticket from the ticket machine and sidle along trying desperately to decide which of the marvellous cakes to choose.

On the right of the foyer is the cafe. Don’t let the name fool you, this is an enormous restaurant, with room upon  garishly decorated room of tightly packed tables. Each space has a theme, and it would seem, its very own mariachi band.

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The under-the-sea room of the restaurant/cafe

On the left, behind the Mexican Elvis impersonator who does a good job of being a statue and scaring the living daylights out of patrons who pose for photos next to him by moving at the last minute, is the bar. This is the one area of the establishment that isn’t decorated as if it’s a giant piñata. It’s classy and subtle, with framed mariachi outfits on the wall the only nod to the over-the-top Mexican festivals of the other areas.

It was a treasure trove of discovery, not least a rediscovery of the kind of traveller I used to be. I was truly delighted to find that I remain the curious, questioning, interested traveller I have always been, striking up conversations with local merchants about their wares, their origins and the state of the economy. Or communicating with signs when no common language existed, a bharatanatyam of bargaining over a sombrero. I became myself again.

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