Day One: Charlotte, Vermont to Natural Bridge, Virginia
We embarked on our journey to New Orleans on a Friday in late February, an unusual time for us to take a road trip since we usually travel in summer but we had decided that if we were going to visit the deep south that it would need to be in winter.
Our first day was mainly a driving day as we left the northeast actively watching the thermometer climb as we headed toward the mid-atlantic. We were thrilled to see the temperature nearing sixty degrees as we pulled off the road for dinner in Staunton, Virginia at Kline's Barbecue. Oddly enough we intended to go to Arby's for dinner but found a much more impressive barbecue joint next-door that even had malts! Yum.
We headed a bit further down the interstate to find a nice campsite in Natural Bridge, Virginia and set up the car for sleeping in the dark. The air seemed mild by comparison to Vermont but we had much warmer weather in store as we headed south.
Day Two: Natural Bridge, Virginia to Cloudland Canyon State Park, Georgia
On our second day of travel we continued south on our inland route and decided that we needed another taste of southern barbecue. We pulled into Knoxville, Tennessee and after passing a depressing stretch of pawn shops and payday loan stores we eventually found our way to Buddy's BBQ. Upon entering, we were immediately offered the special of the day which was all-you-can eat ribs for $10.99. Judging by the clientele, we may have been the only ones not coming for the special. Our pulled-pork lunch plates left us holding our sides as we got back in the car but the meal was delicious!
We continued southwest through Chattanooga, Tennessee where we neglected to find the Chattanooga Choo Choo despite following an interstate sign leading to the destination. We filled our tank and continued on.
In the afternoon, we needed to stretch our legs which was fortuitous since we had arrived at Cloudland Canyon State Park in Georgia. We snagged a campsite for the evening and followed the hiking trails into the narrowly carved canyon. The series of steps were exactly what we needed after spending two days in the car and the waterfalls were beautiful. The temperature was now in the seventies but the humidity was quite high as we huffed and puffed going up the stairs (it is also possible that we were just out of shape...). We had a small dinner at the campsite since we were still full from the massive lunch that we consumed. We found this would become a trend throughout the trip.
Day Three: Cloudland Canyon State Park, Georgia to New Orleans, Louisiana
Despite rain overnight we decided to drive to the park's main overlook of the canyon before leaving. It was a beautiful sight even with the overcast skies looking into the depths of the canyon and into the distance. It reminded us of Letchworth State Park in New York.
We drove to Birmingham, Alabama intending to visit the Civil Rights Institute but found locked doors upon arrival. Being now in the deep south it appeared that anything other than a church was closed until afternoon...oh well. We trudged on and made a plan "B" for our memorable experience in Alabama - and yes it was about eating!
Our next stop was at Dreamland Barbecue in Tuscaloosa. The slow cooked chicken was mouthwateringly delicious and Lisa had a smokehouse quesadilla that was filled with tasty "wickle pickles" and "Alabama twang sauce." Yum again - we left totally full and swore off eating barbecue for the next few days. (We had actually made that pledge the previous day as well but clearly couldn't hold to it).
We continued south through Mississippi and finally arrived to sunny skies and eighty degree weather in New Orleans, Louisiana. We met my parents in the French Quarter and unpacked our car at the timeshare before dropping it at the valet parking garage, which felt like giving it away.
We spent the evening getting our bearings of the French Quarter and being pelted with noise from Bourbon Street. We elected not to go out to dinner since we were still so full from the Alabama barbecue.
Day Four: New Orleans, Louisiana
Our first full day in New Orleans was spent exploring the Garden District, famous for its buildings and the site of the Mardi Gras parade. Luckily we missed the rowdy parade by two weeks, but the trees certainly showed the evidence with copious amounts of beads hanging from the branches.
To get from our room to the Garden District, we hopped on one of the rickety trolley cars to head southwest where we first explored an above ground cemetery. With a high water table, the dead in New Orleans must be buried above ground making a kind of outdoor mausoleum. It makes for an eerie walk to see so many names on fairly small marble boxes.
We then walked around the neighborhoods admiring the stately houses as we strolled. We eventually found lunch at Tracey's and got the red beans and rice special which was a delicious and massive portion of the local specialty. My mom immediately had buyer's remorse when her salad came after seeing our plates.
Continuing to wander, we walked all the way to the Audubon Park on the Mississippi River. The zoo was closed, but we got some good views of the muddy Mississippi before catching the trolley back to the French Quarter.
In the evening we headed to Frenchmen Street, the current hotbed for jazz in New Orleans where we heard (but didn't eat) "Chicken and Waffles" at the Maison. My parents caught up with us in time to catch another great band at the Spotted Cat before heading to bed relatively early. We were still not adjusted to central time.
Day Five: New Orleans, Louisiana
We arose early the next day to walk the streets just after sunrise which appears to be well before this city wakes up. The quiet streets are in stark contrast to Bourbon Street after dark which is a cacophony of sound and smells.
After everyone was up, we headed to Cafe du Monde to try beignets - a type of French doughnut. They were delicious greasy treats but covered with so much powdered sugar that we were puffing it onto ourselves and each other as we tried to eat. I noticed one store front near the cafe that had a sign on the door saying "no beignets, everything else is fine." It made sense.
We meandered down to the former U.S. Mint which is now a split museum of Mint activity and Jazz Memorabilia as the home of the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. We saw Louis Armstrong's first cornet as well as Dr. John's spinet and Fats Domino's baby grand pianos. We were also tipped off to a free concert at the other location up the road and were treated to an hour of Richard Scott's stride piano styles. It was fantastic show and the price couldn't be beat!
Lunch was at Bamboula's on Frenchmen Street where we consumed po-boys while we listened to live jazz from the stage. Unfortunately the guitarist broke a string and had to take a long break to run down the road get a new one.
The afternoon was spent at Jean LaFitte National Historic Park which seemed to be a site that celebrated cajun and creole culture in Louisiana as well as some information on the pirate himself. There were many satellite locations around Louisiana as well, but those will have to wait for another trip.
We got some free snacks at the Mahogany Jazz Bar courtesy of our lodging where we munched on berries and cheese before heading to Preservation Hall for the evening. We snagged the floor seats in the very front row where we may have been in the spit valve splash zone. We didn't care though - the band was so great that we all listened to the show with smiles on our faces the whole time! It was truly a memorable performance and such an intimate setting to see it.
We were excited to see more music so we headed to Fritzel's on Bourbon Street where we were able to hear Richard Scott playing with his band. Although our view was blocked by the backside of the double bass, we enjoyed the New Orleans jazz stylings that we heard from the clarinet-led ensemble.
By the end of the day, we where whupped! We headed to bed.
Day Six: New Orleans, Louisiana
We seemed to now have a tradition of taking an early morning walk, because that is exactly how we started our sixth day of the trip. We explored the northern side of Canal Street and found some oranges and smoothies to start our day. After gathering my parents, we walked to Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square - the site of historic slave gatherings in the early nineteenth century.
Our real destination was the boat landing to ride the Natchez on the Mississippi River. My parents decided to partake of the buffet lunch whereas we decided to save our appetites for dinner on Frenchmen Street. The boat gave us a feel for the Port of New Orleans which is heavily industrialized. It certainly made us appreciate the riverwalk in the French Quarter! It was interesting to see the engine room of the steamboat in action as it pushed the paddlewheel along.
After returning to shore, we headed back to the Old Mint to hear another New Orleans pianist named Jesse McBride. He played in a much more modern style sometimes moving between tunes in a stream-of-consiousness style. He shared some interesting insights into the current New Orleans music scene as well.
We snagged some oranges and pralines at the French market for a snack and took some time to rest at the Quarter House before heading back to Frenchman Street for supper. Lisa and I ate at the Maison while we listened to a little big band perform jazz standards. My parents caught up as we were finishing (they were still full from lunch) and we went to the Spotted Cat where we heard a group performing more traditional New Orleans jazz. We had been so busy that our eyelids began to dip at 8:00 and we headed back to the Quarter House for an early night of sleep.
Day Seven: New Orleans, Louisiana
On our last full day in New Orleans we awoke for our earliest morning walk yet, where we learned that there are trucks that drive through the French Quarter soaping off the streets in the morning. It was not surprising after what we had seen on Bourbon street throughout the trip. We grabbed some smoothies as we walked along the river and after everyone had awoken, we headed to Croissant d'Or for French pastries for breakfast. We all got snacks to go too!
We spent the remainder of the morning at the Aquarium where we watched an IMAX movie about sardine migrations off of the coast of Africa. After typing that I realize how boring it sounds, but it was quite an interesting film. The aquarium was great, we saw many kinds of fish (obviously...), sharks, penguins, stingrays and sea otters. One of the highlights was the Amazonian rainforest room which contained many tropical birds as well as piranhas!
We timed our departure so that we could hoof it to the U.S. Mint to see another free concert, but it turned out to be canceled, so we listened to some street music in the French Quarter instead, including the "Second Hand Street Band" performing at the Tequila House.
For supper, we met up at the Acme Oyster house to eat New Orleans classics like gumbo and étouffée. We spent the evening at the Maison on Frenchmen Street where we listened to the Sweet Substitute Jazz Band while wolfing down cheesecake. It was a great way to spend our last evening in New Orleans. Tomorrow would be our next travel day!
Day Eight: New Orleans Louisiana to Pensacola, Florida
It was our last morning in New Orleans and we still had the taste of the previous day's trip to the patisserie in our mouths, so we headed back to Croissant d'Or to get some croissants for the road. It may be worth another trip to New Orleans someday just to get more of the treats from this place!
We showered and packed our clothes and were pleasantly surprised to see that the car still had all four hubcaps after spending the week in the city. We bid a fond farewell to my parents and headed east. Unfortunately, we got a call about an hour later that their flight had been cancelled...
Our first stop of the day was at the Davis Bayou at the Gulf Islands National Seashore. After touring the visitor center we had a nice picnic, which included our morning croissants overlooking the brackish water of the Mississippi Sound. We had a nice hike through the woods and enjoyed watching the baby alligators and turtles lounging in a pond. We watched an adult alligator for a while but he didn't do much other than float...
The leg-stretching break was nice but our destination for the day was Pensacola, Florida to visit our friends Dan and Gaye who had just emigrated from New Hampshire. It looked like they had completely thawed as well. They gave us a great tour of the city and we had a nice dinner at the Irish Pub where we enjoyed catching up with old friends. They seem to have picked a great location for "pre-retirement" as they call it.
Day Nine: Pensacola, Florida
When we awoke, we were treated to Dan's buttermilk biscuits for breakfast; he has been working on perfecting the recipe and we were happy to be guinea pigs. After eating our fill, we went for a walk around the neighborhood and then piled in the car to visit the Farmer's Market and Pensacola Beach. It was a very nice beach with many of the touristy restaurants and shops that you might expect for Florida. At the same time, it wasn't overly crowded with high rise building like you would also expect for Florida. It seems to have achieved a nice balance of residential, commercial and protected beachfront as part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. We dunked our feet in the Gulf of Mexico and started to question why we were planning on heading north the following morning.
We stopped at Joe Patti's Seafood on our way back where we were floored with the amount of delicious looking fresh fish for sale. We were overwhelmed but Gaye ordered some triggerfish like an old pro and we brought our bounty back to the homestead.
Dinner was an absolute feast! We munched on triggerfish as an appetizer while Dan made deep dish pizzas with plenty of spice. We spent the evening catching up and trying to sing barbershop tags somewhat successfully before heading to bed early since we were planning on doing a long drive the next day...although it was pretty tempting to stay in Pensacola for the rest of our lives.
Days Ten and Eleven: Pensacola, Florida to Charlotte, Vermont
Our last two days of the trip were certainly marathon driving days. Our first day was a drive from Pensacola to Natural Bridge, Virginia where we actually stayed on the same site that we occupied on the way down. It was a campground with good showers and we know from previous trips that that can be a rare thing. We were happy to arrive mostly so that we could rest our eyes from the driving.
The next morning, we made the rest of the drive to Charlotte, which was interrupted by a stop at Dunkin' Donuts to use a gift card and another stop at Cracker Barrel where Lisa fulfilled her hankerin' for fried chicken that she had been holding onto throughout the south. We arrived home to find a mouthy cat...
It was a fantastic trip and a great way to spend our February break. I'm not sure if we will head quite as far south as Louisiana in future February road-trips but we will certainly be heading south again at that point in the year.
As a note of accomplishment: as of this trip Lisa has now been to all forty-eight of the lower-contiguous United States. Go Rodedode!