My Travel Philosophy

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” – Saint Augustine

Monday, August 20, 2012

Great Weekend in Seattle

We're headed out on a cruise to Alaska and, since none of us have ever been to Seattle (I was for business but didn't see anything), we thought a weekend here was in order.  I'm so glad we did!  I had been to Seattle on business but, frankly, couldn't remember anything of note.  As it turns out, Seattle is really a great city to visit.

Susie and I flew in separately on Saturday.  [Sidebar story:  not sure what I was thinking when I booked my flight but I flew from Milwaukee to Phoenix to Seattle.  Basically took me the whole day.]  I had booked the hotel online with no real knowledge of the layout of the city.  I wanted something reasonably close to the action so we could walk around, but I also didn't want to pay the 'downtown' prices.  Additionally, Tracy and Shirley would be driving and I didn't know how comfortable he would be with downtown traffic.  Segue to some background....

Space Needle
Tracy and Shirley Eytcheson are Mom's backdoor neighbors, and they actually booked the trip to Alaska first and asked Mom if she wanted to go.  Of course she did!  Susie and I both wanted to go along and we were able to book a cabin for the three of us just a couple of doors down from Tracy and Shirley on the ship.  They had planned to drive out and back, and Mom drove out with them for the front end of the trip.  (She'll fly home with Susie and I as it will have been 2 weeks away from home at that point.)  Anyway, they had their vehicle upon arriving in Seattle so that was the cause of my concern about staying in downtown traffic.

Part of the World Fair grounds
So, we ended up at a TraveLodge near the Space Needle.  The hotel itself wasn't great (kind of dated), but not bad and the location was really good.  We had our very own homeless person who hung out all the time.  Interestingly, they never shoo'd her away and, apparently, she would actually check in once in a while.  Not sure how that worked.  Anyway, she never bothered anyone but was quite the sight!  She had mounds and mounds of long hair; so much that it didn't even look real.

Guy on a bicycle
Susie and I arrived on Saturday, the 19th of August and, after checking in, went out to do some exploring down near the water front.  First thing on Sunday morning, we headed over to the Space Needle to check out that area, which turns out to be an entire complex comprising not only the Space Needle but museums and shops and eating places.  There is an entire complex that dates back to the World's Fair of 1962, which is when and why the Space Needle was built.  There are machines to play with and gadgets; it reminds me a bit of the type of gadgetry at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago.  On the other side of the complex, though, there is the tram that runs into downtown (also built for the World's Fair), a new and very modern museum, and Starbucks.

King Tut
Egyptian jewelry
I didn't realize that the traveling King Tut exhibit was at the Pacific Science Center -- one of it's last stops before leaving the U.S.  It had been in Chicago but I had never gotten to it so we decided to see it.  There were movies to sit through and, then, a huge traveling exhibit of the things taken from King Tut's tomb, as well as other Egyptian antiquities.  Some of the jewelry was particularly impressive -- especially some of the earrings!  I mean:  look at the size of the post that has to go through your ear!  Everything was made of gold and jade and precious stones.  It's kind of mind-boggling to imagine how much stuff has never been recovered from any of the tombs or burial sites and how much is still buried in the desert that may never be found.

Later in the day on Sunday, Mom, Tracy, and Shirley arrived after their week-long expedition that took them into Canada and through National Parks and past a forest fire and almost nose-to-nose with a bear.  Sounds like they had a really great trip!

Lots of pigs in town -- not sure why
After they got settled, we headed back over to the Space Needle area so they could enjoy the beautiful gardens -- including the glass works of the Chihuly Gardens -- and the musicians playing and general feel of a fun Sunday afternoon.  We jumped on the monorail and took it into downtown and, from there, we walked down to the waterfront.  The Fish Market was hopping and full of huge baskets and arrangements of gorgeous fresh flowers, plus the fresh produce and fish being sold from the various stalls.  The street in front of the market was especially lovely with flowers trailing from the balconies much like the French Market area of New Orleans.  And they have a real thing for pigs in Seattle!  We saw them everywhere -- much like the cows you see all over Chicago.

Mom is begging on the street
In front of the pot shop
As we were meandering the area near the Market, we spotted a guy holding a sign asking for money for Weed.  Mom gave him money so she could borrow his sign for a photograph!  Then, down the street, we spotted a shop selling hookahs and other drug paraphernalia so we had to stop and get another photograph.  [Sidebar:  the next day was Mom's birthday and Tracy had run over to Walgreen's and printed the two photos and framed them up for Mom's birthday present!].

After some wandering, we took the monorail back to the Space Needle area and looked around a bit more.  The flower gardens were all in bloom, the sun was out, and it was a really gorgeous Sunday afternoon.  We have big plans for Monday with all-day sightseeing and a dinner at the top of the Space Needle, so we made it a pretty early evening.

Up in the big ferris wheel
The Sound is in the background
Monday could not have been a more beautiful day!  We took the car this time and headed back down to the waterfront area.  There is a brand new attraction at the waterfront:  a giant ferris wheel.  It has pods for the passengers to sit in and moves more quickly than some others I've been on (e.g. Navy Pier in Chicago), but we really wanted to see the view.  It was absolutely gorgeous!  The Sound area, Mount Ranier off in the distance, the boats -- all of it was really beautiful.

Shirley was a little nervous at first because she's not a big fan of heights.  But the pod is completely enclosed and the view is so gorgeous that you stop worrying about the ride and get pretty caught up in what you're seeing.  I was trying to get a picture of Mom and Susie with the next pod of the ferris wheel and the Sound in the background, but Mom kept moving to get out of my way.  I finally got her to sit still so I could get a good shot of the two of them.

I'd like to have this sculpture
Detail from the sculpture
Detail from the sculpture
As I had mentioned, there were sculptures and artists along the pier area, but this particular sculpture just stood out for me.  I would dearly love to have a smaller version of it planted right on our beach up at the lake.  The detail is amazing:  every time I looked at it I would spot something new.

Great lunch spot
From the pier area, we decided to check out the Underground Seattle attraction that everyone talked about.  Once we got to the area, though, we decided to give it a pass.  It really didn't seem like something that would be all that interesting and would require a lot of walking.  Instead, we looked around the general area and found a fun place for lunch and margaritas!  They have an interesting and really convenient thing in Seattle, the buses are free (within a zonal boundary) until 4 p.m. every day.  So, even though we were pretty far from our hotel, we were able to catch one of these buses and ride to within a couple of blocks of our hotel after our sightseeing.  (Tracy and Shirley were staying in a different hotel on Monday night where they could leave their car for the duration of the cruise.  After our sightseeing, they were heading to their hotel to get checked in and get ready for our evening dinner).

The Space Needle at night
Mount Ranier from the top of the Space Needle
That evening, we went over to the Space Needle area a bit early because our dinner reservations included a free trip to the observatory where we could get beautiful views of the city, the Sound, Mount Ranier, and even further.  Once again, the evening was lovely and we enjoyed the view for quite a while before sitting down to a really fabulous (and quite pricey) dinner.  The restaurant at the top of the Space Needle revolves so we were able to enjoy a 360-degree view of the entire area and watch the sun set over the Sound.  When we left, it was dark so it was a perfect opportunity to get pictures of the Space Needle all lit up.

Time to head back to the hotel for a good night's rest and some packing.  Heading off to the cruise ship tomorrow morning for our journey to Alaska!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Quick Trip to Florida

Beautiful flowering dogwood
Took a quick trip to Florida to see Mom and had a great time! I watched the temperature climb and the flora emerge as I drove South and, on the drive home, got to see the absolutely beautiful pink flowering dogwood trees in Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee that were in darkness on the drive down.  On my way down, I went via Indianapolis and ended up staying overnight in Horse Cave, Kentucky -- I mean, how can you not want to stay at a place called Horse Cave?  Turns out that it is very near Mammoth Caves and just south of Fort Knox.  I really had no idea of the things that were all right there together and I'm thinking that it would make a great weekend trip in the summer.

Wisteria grows over everything in Georgia
Had some relaxing times with Mom, Dean, and Carol.  Mom had fallen while touring a battleship in Charleston and was limping quite a bit.  But we were still able to visit Fred's (absolutely excellent place to eat) and Mom's favorite:  Golden Corral.  On Friday, Aunt Jan and Dale came over, along with Dean, Bill, and Kim (Carol was at work) and we had a cook-out.  The boys were able to do some swimming and relax a little after two very long days of driving.

Mistletoe growing live
Wisteria up close
On Saturday (March 17), they headed to Disney for two days and I took off for home hitting some rain along the way and seeing those beautiful flowering dogwood trees and gorgeous purple wisteria.   In Tennessee, I pulled over to take some pictures and I picked up a nice big rock for my garden.  Now I have one from South Dakota and one from Tennessee.

Tried to find a motel on Saturday night but I was in an area of Indiana where they had had tornadoes so the locals were using the motels.  Finally, I just pulled over and slept in my car in the parking lot of a motel for a while.  It got kind of chilly toward morning, but it worked out ok.  (Later, I remembered that I had a blanket and a travel pillow in the back of the car.)

I'll be heading back in early April to spend a couple of days at Disney with Steve and his family, and to drive with Mom back to Rice Lake.  The weather has been so amazingly good in Wisconsin that everything is well in bloom here so it might actually be kind of refreshing for Mom and Sandy to leave Florida where it is consistently in the high 80s now.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Tired of Vegas?!

I think I'm over Las Vegas.  It's sad, really, because it has always been one of our favorite places to visit.  Maybe it's just the fact that we're here Super Bowl weekend and the place has gotten packed the past two days, or maybe it's all of the changes taking place.  It just seems more sleazy or something.  There are the guys slapping the cards for hookers, of course, but also tables and stands and kiosks everywhere hawking something.  Have they always been there and I didn't notice, or are there more of them because it's Super Bowl weekend, or has Vegas been going downhill and the recession has forced this 'make money in any way possible' mentality?  Maybe it's just this corner of the Strip where we always stay -- I think maybe downtown might be a better choice next time.

Anyway, Jeff finished at noon today so we were able to walk around a bit down toward the MGM end of the strip and spotted some new electronic craps games that look like they could be fun.  We didn't try them, but I think we will at a later time.  Eventually, we ended up at Ellis Island and played a lot of blackjack.  I was doing really well -- and then I wasn't.  But Jeff ended up doing pretty well and we had a lot of fun anyway.

The weather has been pretty chilly for our trip this time, and we're headed home to snow and cold.  Guess we'll need to think of another vacation soon!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Movie Day at The Orleans

Today I decided to go to the movie theatre at the Orleans and had to take a cab.  I was there much too early, so I played some Blackjack first, then I was able to get into the movie for $7 because it was the first showing of the day.  I saw 'The Woman in Black', which was really good (and a new release -- not on the Oscar list) but, after hitting the bathroom following the film, I realized that 'The Iron Lady' was just starting so I slipped into that one -- saving myself $8.  I know it was a sneaky thing to do, but I had already spent $17 on popcorn and soda which was outrageous!

Anyway, I enjoyed both films and the $13 I won at Blackjack, but the $30 in cab fares (to and from) certainly made it a pricey day.  When I got back, Jeff and Travis were in the bar so I joined them for drinks; then I was running Jeff's stuff up to the room when I found a gambling ticket on the floor that someone had obviously dropped.  I was pretty surprised when I turned it over and saw that it was $19.70.  Overall, then, I didn't do too badly on the day!

Room swapping

When we got here two days ago, I had left the boys to have fun after dinner with the intention of going back to my hotel room and watching a movie.  The Academy Awards are coming up at the end of the month and I've seen almost none of the nominated movies.  Unfortunately, the 'menu' command on our TV didn't work so I called the front desk (around 6:30) to complain.  I called a couple more times before finally telling them at 9:00 that I was going to bed so they shouldn't come.  Of course, shortly after Jeff got back around 10ish, the service guy knocked on the door.  We sent him away.  [Note:  the front desk manager left a message on our phone that he was sorry for the trouble and put a $30 meal/bar credit on our room.]
View of Caesar's Palace through the building wrap

Then, yesterday, after visiting Paris and Bellagio, I went back to the hotel to give it another go.  I had to call repeatedly but, finally, the maintenance man came around noon and started working on it.  It appeared to be a problem with the cable company as a result of recent remodeling in the hotel.  I left to go to the convenience store and get some drinks and, when I returned, he was back in the room working on it again.  A couple of hours later, he was back and finally told me that there was a backlog of 150 service calls in his department.

Same view at night
Ok, this was getting pretty ridiculous so I called downstairs again and got a nice person who decided to move us to a different room.  They sent a bellman up with the keys to help me move and we ended up on the other side of the same tower where I would have had a nice view of Bellagio and the fountains.  Before unpacking anything, though, I tried the TV again and found that it was the same problem so I called back downstairs and a manager moved us to a higher floor in one of the newly remodeled 'Fab (for fabulous)' rooms with a view out the front of the hotel.  This room would have cost an additional $10 per night if we had taken the upgrade offered when we checked in.  I'm not too sure I think it's all that fabulous though, really.  The carpet is gone (replaced with a pergo-like floor) so that's kind of nice and there's a flat-screen TV, which is nice.  However, there is no couch or chair -- just a chaise/bench-like thing that isn't particularly comfortable.

Anyway, the menu on the TV worked and I looked through the movie choices -- and decided that I didn't want to pay $14.99 for a movie!  So, we got an upgraded room and a $30 meal/bar credit due to my carping -- but I did waste a lot of time sitting in the room waiting (while drinking my mimosas).

I was able to get a lovely picture of the sun coming up and shining on the mountains out past Caesar's Palace.  Because of a huge Donny & Marie graphic that hangs down on the front of the hotel and in front of the windows, it's a bit like trying to take pictures through a screen but it still came out fairly well for a cell phone.  The night time one is just as the sun is setting and the screen on the window is a bit more visible.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Year of the Dragon at Bellagio

Year of the Dragon at Bellagio
Display at Bellagio is always incredible
As always when visiting Las Vegas, I like to hit my favorite spots so I started the morning by going to JJs Boulangerie at Paris for breakfast but...the first of many changes.  It is no longer the lovely little bakery and eatery -- now it's pizza and a few baked goods.  Very disappointing!  So I had a crepe, which was very good but not what I had intended.  Then, I headed over to Bellagio to view the conservatory and here, at least, I was not disappointed.  It is clearly the Year of the Dragon in the Chinese calendar and the decorations are celebrating the new year.
Other than being rather more crowded than I would have expected, it was really lovely to be back inside Bellagio.  The conservatory did not disappoint; full of beautiful flowers and wonderful decorations that moved and smoke coming from the dragons.  Water sprayed across the walkways, and it was nice and sunny so the lighting inside was really lovely.

Note:  I'm always surprised at the $100 minimum blackjack tables being right on the aisle!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

First Day in Vegas

Sometimes I'm too smart when planning these trips.  Jeff will be in class the next three days, so I thought we should get here early so we could enjoy some time together.  Our hotel room wasn't ready yet, but we were able to check our bags and headed out to have some fun.  Not surprisingly, we ended up at Toby's place playing video poker at the bar.

I used to think that the best margaritas in town were at Margaritaville, but the ones I've had at Toby's bar have always been really good.  Now, they have a new twist:  you can pay $10 for a margarita in a plastic cup (not a red Solo cup, sadly), or you can pay $19 for one in a quart canning jar.  That has to be the 'no brainer' of the century.  So we sat at the bar and enjoyed some drinks and video poker for a while.  The videos used to be almost all Toby, but now his are only occasionally shown.  The upside of that:  free shots when "I Love This Bar" comes on in the bar since it's the signature song.  The bartender grabs a bottle of vodka, pineapple juice, and 7-up and walks around on top of the bar pouring it into everyone's mouth.  Great fun!

Eventually, we were able to get into our room (overlooking the back courtyard where there is considerable construction going on) and, then, met Jeff's work mate Travis for dinner at Margaritaville.  Good food, but the margarita wasn't as good as the one I had earlier.  Then, I went back to the room to read so the boys could go out on the town.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Back to the Cold

We had a really wonderful time on our cruise and met some great people!  After clearing US waters (and losing our cell phones for a whole week), we started feeling some balmy air and seeing lots of sunshine.  As usual, we tried to get a whole summer's worth of sunshine in right away and had to be careful not to get burned.  [As it turned out, our last day at sea was cool and breezy so I ended up getting burned because I didn't put on lotion like I should have.]

Some of the highlights of our trip:

Salsa, Salsa, and Margaritas
Ours is the larger ship on the left.
Cozumel - we went on an excursion called Salsa, Salsa, & Margaritas.  We went to a resort (allowing us a great look at the area as we drove) where tables were already set up and ready for us to learn how to make 2 different types of margaritas and 7 different salsas (including pico de gallo and guacamole).  The margaritas were already being poured when we walked in, and continued to flow all afternoon.  After making and eating salsa all afternoon and drinking at least a dozen margaritas, our next step was learning to salsa dance.  We were both extremely graceful and quick studies, and I think we're going to consider "So You Think You Can Dance."  We didn't have much time for anything else, but I was able to grab a jacket at one of the shops at the port.  Note:  there was another Royal Caribbean ship in port next to us, and it was fun to be so close to the other ship and to see the size of them side-by-side.

Grand Cayman - Wow!  I haven't seen such beautiful beaches since Jamaica.  Because the port is fairly shallow, we had to be "tendered" in to shore.  This port must see a lot of activity as there are permanent tenders that are used and they're really big:  300 people on each one.  That's considerably larger than the ones that we're used to using.  There were 5 ships in this port while we were there.  Our excursion was later in the morning, so we could get a nice breakfast first and let the crush of people wanting to get ashore go ahead of us.  We, then, had to catch a bus that took us to the boat that took us to the sandbar where we were able to pet stingrays and enjoy the waters off Grand Cayman.  While we had a good time and I'm glad we went, I wouldn't do it again.  It literally took all day for this excursion that was supposed to last 2 1/2 hours.  Tendering into shore, the bus ride that took 30 minutes each way, the boat ride that took 1 1/2 hours each way, and then about 40 minutes in the water.  [Note:  the bus ride from the port to the boat was awesome!  Our bus was running late because we were waiting for some people so, to catch up, the driver drove like an Indy driver laying on the horn the whole time.  We were darting in and out of traffic and swerving around corners.  Then, on the last part of the drive, we saw iguanas everywhere:  big ones, small ones, green ones.  And chickens running all over the place.  It was awesome.]

Swimming with the Rays at Grand Cayman
The water around Grand Cayman is the most lovely shade of aqua, going out to the darker blue of the Caribbean.  It appears that there is a natural breakwater, which is where the sandbar is located where the stingrays gather.  The rays are really gentle and their bellies are very soft.  Our guides would pick them up and run them across your shoulder and back like a massage.  Some people gave them a little smooch, but I opted to just be good friends instead.

Very up close and personal
For some reason, I thought the rays would be really small, but it turned out that some of them were pretty good sized.  I tried to have my camera in the water with me as it was pretty shallow (in some places, it was knee-deep), but the waves were incredible.  After almost getting knocked over a couple of times and having the camera splashed, I decided to take it back on board.  However, I got a pretty good close-up of this guy before I left.

Lovely sand bar and warm water
From the upper deck of the boat, I could take some pretty good pictures of the swimming rays, and of the guide working with the rays standing within the group from the boat (including Jeff).

Again, I wouldn't want to do it again but it was a fun experience to do once -- and the water wasn't as salty as I expected it to be either.

Onboard the ship - there were a lot of fun experiences on the ship: some fun comedians and entertainers, really nice pool area and great food every single day, lovely couple at our dinner table (originally from Russia, now living in Ohio), but the one that was particular fun and discovered with only two nights left in the cruise was the entertainer in the Pig & Whistle.  The Pig & Whistle was the English pub and every evening was a entertainment called Adult Day Care at Night.  It was a mixture of karaoke and jokes with a whole lot of naughty song lyrics and just plain fun.  We had planned to turn in early our last night, but got really good seats in the pub so we stayed 'til the end.
Lots of people trying to pet the Rays

The departure experience has vastly improved!  We were able to stay in our stateroom until 8:00, at which time we went for breakfast in the Windjammer and, then, sat out on the pool deck until about 9:30.  Our departure time was scheduled for 9:50 and we had to simply make our way to the assigned waiting lounge on the ship where we waited for less than 10 minutes before being allowed to leave.  We found our luggage immediately, got through expedited customs (a really wonderful process in New Orleans), picked up the iron, and we were escorted by a friendly porter out of the long line waiting for cabs around to where he could get us one quickly.  With so much time saved, I had the cab run to Southern Candymakers so I could get some pralines before leaving town!  Our longest wait was at the airport because everything else had gone so smoothly we arrived way early for our flight.

Can't say that I liked coming back to the cold and snow, but having Stacy, Jack, and Anna pick us up at the airport was fun and.....we're only going to be here until Wednesday when we fly off to Vegas!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Heading to the Carib

After a fun day and evening in New Orleans, we enjoyed a  breakfast of beignets at Cafe du Monde before heading over to the cruise ship terminal around 10:30ish.  It turns out to be directly behind the cafe court eating area at The Riverwalk so, if you stayed at the Hilton, you could almost walk to the terminal.

The process was incredibly easy -- we gave our bags to a porter and walked right in.  I had the paperwork ready so we were processed almost immediately.  Then, there was a short wait until we could actually board, but we were on the ship within 45 minutes of arriving at the terminal.  Really, really easy.  The cabins were not going to be ready until 1:00, so we went to the Windjammer buffet and had a really good lunch sitting at a table against a full wall of windows so we could watch the traffic on the river and watch the city.  Easily the most entertaining port we've ever visited.

Central Atrium loaded with shops & bars
Our cabin
We took a little walk around and found that the central atrium area is quite different on this ship:  it looks like you're walking along a block in a city shopping area. There was a sports bar, and an English pub, and an ice cream shop, plus various shops.  This area ended up being a primary spot each evening for entertainment as well as the ubiquitous sales that go on to clear out merchandise.  One of the wonderful surprises for me was the fact that they have Strongbow on board the ship!  The bar in Milwaukee after Stacy's book party and now this ship; I'm really pleased to see Strongbow being available in more and more places.  Another interesting thing about this "arcade" area is the fact that there are cabins with windows that look down onto the area.  You'd think that it would get pretty noisy but, in talking with some people who have a cabin in that area, it turns out that the windows are double insulated and they don't have any problems at all!

We have a balcony cabin on this cruise
Finally, at 1:00, we could go to our state room and loved it!  I had booked a balcony room because I thought it would be nice to be able to relax and enjoy the view without having to fight for chairs.  It sure makes the room appear larger!  The bed was already set up and our first bag arrived fairly quickly so we could begin unpacking.  Either we have poor memories, or the space is becoming larger in these rooms with a lot more drawers and cabinets.  It was really easy to store all of the suitcases under the bed, too.

A couple of notes:  in New Orleans, we stopped at a store and bought a bottle of rum and 4 little bottles of pre-mixed margaritas.  We know you're not supposed to take alcohol on board, but we figured the worst that could happen would be that it would be confiscated.  Turns out, I did a really good job of hiding it in the luggage and all of it made it through.  However, when our one suitcase never arrived we were told that we had a contraband iron that wasn't allowed on the ship.  Due to fire hazard, irons are no longer allowed to be brought on board.  After dinner, we went below and they were extremely nice about it:  just put a tag on it with our name and told us we could pick it up when we returned.  [Since it was in the suitcase with the margaritas, I didn't mind a bit!]  Sidebar:  after the cruise, it was indeed incredibly easy to recover the iron after we got our luggage and had gone through customs.

Dinner was wonderful, as always, and we were really surprised to note how long it actually took to leave New Orleans and arrive in the Gulf.  Our ship departed at 4 p.m. and, when we went to bed around midnight, we were just leaving the mouth of the Mississippi and negotiating all of the little islands and land masses prior to actually entering the Gulf.  It was awesome to stand on the balcony and watch the shoreline go by -- for a while.  It became so incredibly foggy that the ship had to continually blow the horn, and oncoming vessels did the same.  Until we were side-by-side, we often couldn't see the other ships at all.  Jeff and I both loved it!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Back in New Orleans

St. Louis's Cathedral at Jackson Square
It was sooooo cold in Milwaukee this morning when we went to the airport (thank you Steve for driving us so we didn't have to mess with parking).  Two flights (connection in Memphis) later, though, and we were in lovely New Orleans where the temps were in and around the 70s all day.  We took a walk through the French Quarter and I was able to capture this photo of St. Louis's Cathedral in Jackson Square.  Look at the cute horse carriages waiting to take tourists on a ride through the Quarter. Jeff had a shrimp po'boy and I had a muffaletta (both of them are types of sandwiches you get in this area) for lunch, and we spent the next couple of hours walking it off along the Mississippi and along the streets.  Then, we somehow ended up at Harrah's casino where we both got free t-shirts for signing up for the player's card (actually, mine was free but Jeff's ended up costing him $25.  Guess we know who the real player is!)

Tonight we're going to dinner at Luke, a restaurant owned by John Besh.  During one of the past "Next Iron Chef" competitions (which I watched on TV a while back as a rerun), John Besh was one of the finalists -- and one of the chefs that I really liked.  He eventually lost to Michael Symon (who I also really like), but I was curious about him when I heard he was from New Orleans so I decided to try one of his restaurants while we're here.  I'm looking forward to giving it a try, after which I imagine we'll stroll down Bourbon Street before turning in fairly early.  Tomorrow morning, we're going to go have beignets for breakfast before heading over to the cruise ship terminal to board the ship.  We're both really excited about the departure because we'll be going down the Mississippi for quite a ways before hitting the Gulf, and it should be really fun to watch the shoreline.  The prediction is for rain tomorrow (at least, scattered showers) so I hope it doesn't spoil our ability to hang out on deck and watch everything go by.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Settling in Florida

This has been a fun trip and I can't believe it's been a whole week already!  We traveled through 9 states (3 new ones for Mom) and experienced temperatures on the low end of 14 degrees to highs in the 70s today.  After getting some sleep last night, Mom did a little unpacking today and we got to spend some time with Carol before she headed off to work.

Dean, Mom, Me, Dale, Aunt Jan at P.J.'s Oyster House
We went to Tampa to see Aunt Jan and Dale, and all of us took a drive over to Clearwater -- a truly beautiful area that I hadn't seen in ages.  Stopped for lunch at PJs Oyster House near St. Pete's Beach where I got to have fresh stone crab -- it's in season right now.  Dale had alligator and Mom had catfish so I feel like we truly represented both the south and Florida specifically.  [Side bar:  PJ (for whom the restaurant is named) is actually a green parrot that resides in the restaurant.]
The famous P.J. from P.J.'s Oyster House

Dean, Mom and I took a nice walk around the neighborhood this evening to review the landscaping and lawn decorations (and to give the dog a walk).  Then, following some of Aunt Jan's delicious taco soup, we settled for the evening.  I'll need to pack pretty soon as we're headed off to the airport at 7 tomorrow morning where I'll catch my flight back to Milwaukee, and I'll have 2 days at home to pack and prepare for the next trip:  our cruise.

It's the Destination...Finally!

Above ground tombs in New Orleans cemetery
New Orleans cemetery
It really must be Holiday in Europe as there was a whole group of young people (from some Scandinavian country) at breakfast on Saturday morning.  We did a little research and headed into New Orleans.  Nice thing about New Orleans:  it's a town that thrives at night so the streets were reasonably cleared in the morning and we were able to get into downtown and drive around the French Quarter with no difficulty.  Because we wanted to hit Southern Candymakers and it didn't open until 10 a.m., sightseeing seemed like a good idea.  After going around the French Quarter and admiring all of the wrought iron and architecture, we headed out to the Garden District to admire the big, beautiful homes.  Lafayette Cemetery is located across from Commander's Palace (former house of ill-repute, now a world-class restaurant), and easy to park and visit.  So we took a short stroll into the cemetery to look at the "city of the dead".  It was a gorgeous morning and there were others in there taking pictures, as well.
One of the beautiful homes in the Garden District

The homes in the Garden District are as beautiful and stately as ever and we both really wanted to knock on a door and ask for a tour, but better sense prevailed so we just admired them from the outside.  All along the streetcar line, the cars were running and the lines (as well as the trees lining St. Charles Avenue) on both sides were dripping with Mardi Gras beads.  We stopped at a McDonald's in the area to grab a soda and Mom got some beads of her own!

Cedar Key, Florida
Heading out of town (after getting our candy, of course) we headed out of town along Lake Pontchartrain and along the Gulf coast on our way to the panhandle of Florida.  The drive entailed going along causeways and over bridges that provided really beautiful views of the area.  We had originally planned to go to Apalachicola, driving along the north shore of the Gulf the whole way.  However, in taking another look at the plan, it made more sense to head farther along our route and save the 3 hours that detour would have taken.  As a result, we got as far as Perry, FL -- a very long drive.  We checked into an EconoLodge along with the Harley group and slept as well as the horrible beds would allow -- heading out first thing Sunday morning.

We went to Cedar Key and were surprised by a couple of things:  the water level is extremely low (not sure how the fishing boats even go in and out), and the pier is now enclosed with steep pipe railings.  There are other, small changes:  the Captain's Table has a new name, and Cedar Key Canvas has moved out of downtown into a larger building as you come into town.  Otherwise, it looked much the same.
Eagle's nest on pole

We were amazed by the number of large birds flying -- I thought they were hawks, but then decided that they were golden eagles.  They're everywhere!  [Note:  when we got to the rental unit, Dean pointed out a next on top of a telephone pole with an eagle in the nest and a smaller one farther along the line.]

Mistletoe in tree
Back to the trip, I love the look of the live mistletoe growing up in the tree tops where you can see it before the trees get their leaves.  I was enjoying seeing the clumps and would really like to be able to grab some of it, but it's generally too high in the tree.  Also, the beautiful Spanish Moss is silver and literally dripping out of the trees. 
Spanish moss in a Live Oak tree
By late afternoon, we finally arrived in Lakeland at the rental.  Dean had already opened everything up and aired it out, and the refrigerator was already full of food!  The computer had to be fired up to get the wireless working and, apparently, the phone also runs off the computer line.  The only thing that wouldn't work was the TV -- the cable must have been off.  We were so tired we just headed to bed.  This morning, the cable is working fine so maybe it had been temporarily suspended.

Visiting with Dean and Carol this morning (Monday) before Carol heads off to work; later Dean, Mom, and I are headed over to Clearwater to visit Aunt Jan

Friday, January 13, 2012

It's the Journey...(Day 3)

Mom and 'the King'
Literally struggled to get out of bed this morning:  the Days Inn-Graceland has the worst beds ever!  The mattresses have double groove running length-wise -- the imprint of hundreds of people who have gone before and broke down the support.  Mom said she had to climb up the side of the hole she was in.  It was nice and quiet, though.

Traveling with a dog is definitely a challenge as you try to visit metropolitan areas.  The hotel claimed to be dog friendly, but it charged an additional amount to have the dog and there was absolutely no where to walk her.  Kept all of that in mind as we traveled today toward New Orleans!
First, though, our day started with free breakfast.  The lobby and breakfast room are all-Elvis all the time, including full size statues and photos.  When we walked into the breakfast room, there were 3 couples in the room -- all from the U.K.  One of the guys was fairly good-sized and clearly an Elvis fan.  He had the hair and the sideburns.  Wish I could have gotten his photo, but I didn't want to offend him by asking and he left before I could sneak a picture with my phone.  Other people filtered in (one couple from Scandanavia), but it's definitely the off-season.

I've been to Graceland before (this was my third visit) and I'm always struck by the size and location.  You're just driving along down Elvis Presley Boulevard past gas stations, gift shops, fast food restaurants, motels, etc. and you end up driving right by Graceland if you don't know it's there (reminds me of The Alamo in that regard).  Fortunately, I've been there and knew when to slow down and point it out to Mom as we slowly drove by last night.  It's a pretty house and nowhere what would be considered a mansion. 

During this off-season, the ticket office opened at 9:30 this morning with the mansion opening at 10:00, which is later than I had hoped given the amount of driving that we had to do today, but it gave us a chance to watch 'Viva Las Vegas' on the Elvis channel in our room after breakfast!
The music room appears through the glass doors
Famous gate at Graceland
The first time I went through Graceland was several years ago when Jeff was working in Memphis.  It was a lovely day and we spent almost all day going through the mansion and out-buildings, plus the visitor's center, car museum, and the airplanes.  Since then, changes have been made (one more room open now inside the mansion but you still can't go upstairs) and both airplanes are now open to the public).  What hasn't changed is the fact that Graceland is not at all what you'd expect for someone of Elvis' stature.  There's a low stone fence in front (with the famous music notes gate) instead of high, electric- or razor-wire fencing and the "mansion" itself is no more than a large house.  I've been in houses of friends that were as large or larger.

Mom waiting for Elvis to start the dinner party!
The tour is self-guided using an audio recording, which allows you to move at your own pace since you can pause it at any time and even back it up to catch interesting tidbits.  The dining room is full of silver plate, both on the table and in multiple cabinets throughout the room, and is adjacent to the kitchen where the famous fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches were made.

The main level includes the foyer, living room, music room, dining room, kitchen, his parents' bedroom, and the 'Jungle Room' (an addition put onto the back of the house).  For the most part, the decor is nice (although clearly 70s).  [Sidebar note:  the worst time in the world to have died and be immortalized had to be the 70s!]  The basement, though, is another story.  The TV room includes 3 TVs, stereo system, and bar -- all classic 70s (meaning: tacky).  Then, there's the pool room for which there really are no words!  350 yards of fabric covering the walls, ceiling, and furniture.  Very claustrophobic!

Billiard room with the fabric ceiling
There are always a lot of memorials at the gravesite, but 2012 is the 35th anniversary of Elvis' death AND his birthday was just a few days ago (January 8).  As a result, the area was overflowing with flowers, pictures, and other tributes.  Many of them have been clustered around the graves of Elvis, his parents, and grandmother while others have been arranged along the pathway back to the driveway and the bus back to the Visitor's Center.

We were out of Memphis by noon with the entire length of Mississippi in front of us!  The day turned out sunny and managed to get up to 49 today, and the speed limit is 70 in these southern states so we made good progress.  Stopped at Sonic because, since the ones in Appleton closed, I've really missed my cherry limeades! 

Gravesites of Elvis & his family
As we approached the New Orleans area, we were traveling on causeways along Lake Pontchartrain just as the sun was going down and turning the sky a beautiful red.  The reflection on the water with the sunken tree stumps and houses on stilts in silhouette was really pretty and enforced the fact that we're in swamp country!  We stopped short of New Orleans (in Metarie) so we'd have a little open space for the dog.  The hotel is sooo pet friendly that the place is practically over-run with dogs -- including a really cute basset hound next door.

Hoping for better beds tonight (not looking great at this point, but I'm optimistic) and a good night's sleep.  Going to head into New Orleans in the morning with plans to visit one of the cemeteries with all of those above-ground crypts, a quick run through the French Quarter, some beignets at Cafe du Monde, and a visit to Southern Candymakers to pick up the very best pralines in the entire south!  Then, we're off along the Gold Coast to view all of the beautiful vacation homes on the Gulf as we head to Apalachicola [no real reason for Apalachicola other than the fact that I like the name and it's about the right distance for the day's drive].