May 23 (Day 23) St. Martinville-Lafayette-Breaux Bridge-New Iberia
We woke up to a traditional southern breakfast of beignets (square donut-like pastries with powdered sugar) and thick café au laits made with sweetened condensed milk. It is really difficult to keep a diet down here and this problem would last through New Orleans. The Old Castillo Hotel, formerly a girls' high school, was a bit thread bare, but put us comfortably on par with the area. The only person sharing the hotel with us was a scholarly-looking fellow who turned out to be a modern-day sleuth for PBS' new show "History Detective."
For you poetry fanatics (we are not) the "most photographed tree in America" was just outside our window here
. If you have read "Evangeline", the fateful lovers of the poem met under this tree. From our crawfish and red beans meal last night, we could tell we were in Cajun Country. The Acadians (shortened to Cajuns) had fled religious persecution in Nova Scotia and settled in the Bayou, lending their own unique French culture to this area. Street signs here were bilingual in French and English. Bayou Teche, a languid, lugubrious river ran past the hotel and everything in this county moved as sluggishly as the Bayou Teche. We took the girls to Vermillionville, just outside of Lafayette, which recreated a 19th Century Acadian village. It was very well done, with actual restored structures and Cajuns performing tasks of the period, spinning cotton and weaving, blacksmithing and the like. The girls enjoyed a little Cajun music with an accordion player in an old school house. From there, we basically toured the "The Old Spanish Trail" via paved and unpaved side roads up through Breaux Bridge while the girls napped. It is simple, beautiful countryside, broken by small hamlets and huge spreads of sugar cane fields. We arrived that evening in New Iberia. This city closed at 5 PM on a Friday night of Memorial Day weekend. The streets were rolled up. We hunted for somewhere to eat for an hour, almost gave up to fast food and then found the only restaurant in town and had a decent meal before retiring.
May 24 (Day 24) New Iberia-Avery Island-Morgan City-Houma-Napoleonville
Another day of touring the Bayou, with some twists and turns
. Our final destination today will be "Madewood" an actual historical Sugar Plantation in Napoleonville. Between New Iberia and Napoleonville we pass through more quaint towns. However, there is one anomaly which stands out time and again, which we have not seen anywhere else on our tour to date: the proximity of people in abject poverty to those in new, sparkling monster homes. We noticed a clear socio-economic pattern radiating outward from plantations, to smaller antebellum-style homes, modern mega-houses, tract homes, and then trailer homes. This same pattern repeated itself time after time as we traveled down the bayou. We will be driving along and literally next door to a trailer home with a trash pile burning in the front yard will be a one or two year old, 5,000 square foot home. It is a very unusual and unsettling juxtaposition for us. We make a short sidetrip to one of our meccas, the McIlhenny Tabasco Plant in Averey Island (not truly an island, but a massive salt dome that rises from the surrounding swamp land). On our way out to the island, we see our first confederate flag being proudly hung in a trailer home window (hmmmmm). We enjoyed our tour of the plant, even though it was one big commercial (no surprise, right?) Jocey shrieked "SPICY" at the first whiff inside the plant, although she brightened up when they handed her a tiny souvenir bottle. We stocked up in the gift shop to be walking Tabasco billboards from head to toe. From there we went on a futile search for a place called Wildlife Gardens in Houma (Ho-Ma)
. This is one of these places in the swamp where you can supposedly pet a Gator and so on. As we followed the signs which kept saying "2 Miles to The Gardens" the road kept getting sketchier and the trailer homes went from shabby to downright scary. For the first time, we said "even if we found this place, we would not leave our car" so we bailed on "The Gardens" and also bailed on the Swamp Tours we were going to try in the area. We drove on to Napoleonville and Madewood Plantation. Staying at a plantation for an overnight made us a bit uneasy, you understand. This was, in the antebellum days, a 3,000 acre sugar plantation with 300 slaves. As we arrived, we were greeted by "T-boy", an 82-year old white tour guide who had lived and worked on the plantation for his whole life (we had to take his word...) We had a tour of the mansion, carriage house and so on. What was spooky was when he pointed back to the last surviving "slave quarters" of 30 originally on the property. That is what brought it home to us. We had a babysitter for the girls that evening and had a five course southern dinner in the dining room with guests from France, Luxembourg, L.A, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Kansas City. It was a beautiful house, we saw a piece of history, but we were happy to be just spending an overnight as it felt a little awkward there, like a living museum.
May 25 (Day 25) Napoleonville-New Orleans
We drove to New Orleans from Madewood that morning, a short 90 minute drive. This was the first time any of us had been to the Big Easy. Chris had avoided it religiously on business, and so it is one of the few major US cities he had missed with Merrill. We would be spending the next 3 days here and recharging at the Ritz on the edge of the Vieux Carre (French Quarter). We arrived late afternoon, and took the girls to one of the most famous restaurants in the French Quarter, called Gumbo House
. It had been there forever, and we had heard rave reviews. So out we went, the neophytes, into the streets of The Quarter, on Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend. First thing we learned, this city is very stroller unfriendly. The Quarter is a historical district and is built on a swamp, so things sink, buckle, curbs jump and handicap ramps are non existent. We almost destroyed our stroller trying to negotiate the streets. So we finally made it to Gumbo house, weaving through the drunken throngs on Bourbon Street, to feast on delicious Chicken Andouille Gumbo, Red Beans and Rice and REAL local beers. We beat a hasty retreat to the hotel and had learned enough that the next two days would improve and we would come to enjoy this city.
May 26-27 (Days 26-27) New Orleans
Over the course of our next two days in New Orleans, we hopped on the St. Charles Street cable cars and journeyed west to the Garden District, a wooded, serene section of the city with beautiful antebellum homes and a famous cemetery. We visited the contemporary art museum and the D-Day Museum (some heavy censoring for Jocey and Izzy at both). We hit the Aquarium of the Americas, which rated average among aquariums we have seen. We took a horse and buggy tour through the Quarter; the girls loved it and we sipped on Hurricanes from Jean Lafittes Blacksmith Shop ( a famous bar in the quarter) as the horse trotted us effortlessly through territory which abused our stroller the prior day
. Following the horse ride, we stopped at Patout's for dinner with the girls, dark storm clouds transformed The Quarter with a different electric energy as the wind whipped. Still, it did not rain (we have not seen one drop since we left Santa Barbara). The girls flirted with the band, which dedicated a Louis Armstrong song, "What a Wonderful World" to them and Isabelle danced with papa. In return, the girls gave their crayon drawings to the band members. We returned to the hotel, where Kirsten wanted to try a Mint Julep and we found out it tasted less like mint and more like Bourbon, ugh! Chris visited the Harrah's casino at the end of Canal Street, won some house money, gave it back (as usual) and we called it a night. All in all, a great deal of fun, but Nawlins' took some getting used to.
May 28 (Day 28) New Orleans-Jackson, Mississippi
There was one last gastronomic adventure we had to undertake before we left the Big Easy. We set out early for Café du Monde, for THE BEST beignets and café au lait in the world (this is all they list on the menu). We easily found a table at 8:30 AM, as most of the drunks were still three sheets to the wind at their hotels. The beignets came to our table BURIED under powdered sugar, literally. Jocey and Izzy's eyes grew wide at the prospect of their breakfasts. They attacked with reckless abandon on a beignet binge, and were powdered from head to toe with sugar. As they bounced out of Café du Monde on their beignet high, we hoped the sugar crash would not be too brutal. We checked out of the Ritz and Kirsten asked that we go to a Whole Foods in the Garden District. As we had not been in one since we left Mill Valley, Kirsten broke into a huge smile as if seeing an old love. The only more euphoric development for her would be if she saw a Peet's coffee shop in the Deep South. We now headed north towards Jackson, Mississippi to join the Natchez Trace.
LOUISIANA HIGHLIGHTS: superdome, the gumbo shop, ornamental ironwork, voodoo, scary confederate flags, beignets, café au lait, inaccessible sidewalks, def jam rappers at the ritz, riverboat, plantations, spanish trail, bayou, spanish moss, beads, mint juleps, egrets, daquiris-to-go, aquarium, alligators, live jazz, acadian culture, cotton, cemeteries, oak trees, evangeline, jambalaya, powdered sugar, louisiana purchase bicentennial