Sunday, 24 June 2012

Last Days in America

We continued on to Boston in Maine where we had three days to explore this historic town. We had a brief introduction to the town by our guide/driver and were ‘set free’ at Quincy Market for lunch and a browse through the lovely shops and market stalls there. Later we had a local guide who walked us through the oldest parts of the town and gave us more of the history of the town. Dinner with all the group at a great Italian Restaurant was great fun as by now we had all got to know each other quite well so there was much banter and laughter.

After breakfast we walked to the nearby “USS Constitution” which is a 18th century restored warship (still owned by the US Navy). Full security was needed to board her and as Peter had photo identity (his Aussie driving licence), he was allowed to enter. However I didn’t (passport was back at the hotel), so as a prospective terrorist I was not allowed to board and had to be content with browsing in the Museum. Later we followed the Freedom Trail and walked up to Bunker Hill, site of the Battle of Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War. By chance we were there on the anniversary and re-enactors were preparing to stage a commemoration ceremony. We spent some time talking to several of them and enjoyed their talks about the battle.  One re-enactor was surprised to learn that the Revolutionary War resulted in Australia being settled several years later. Well, the English had to dispose of their convicts somewhere else when America removed the welcome sign.  Later we boarded a ‘hop on/hop off’ trolley bus which was a great way to see more of the city with very well informed drivers giving a commentary. We stopped – well, we had to, didn’t we? – at Cheers Pub, the exterior of which was used in the popular TV series quite a few years ago. As you can imagine there was a plethora of Cheers souvenirs.   Lunch was again at Quincy Market with a little time for shopping, too. We found a luggage shop and bought another suitcase to cope with all we had acquired on this trip.

We had our farewell dinner this evening at the oldest restaurant in continuous service in the United States – the Union Oyster House which had begun in 1826 although the building is considerably older having been built in 1742. Seafood, especially lobster, is extremely popular in Maine and of course, it was on the menu at the Union Oyster House.

With two of our group leaving early to return to New York, the remaining 5 of us are off to Cape Cod for a day trip. I’d come down with a dreadful head cold, so spent much of the trip lying across the wide rear seat and in this way slept on and off for a good part of the way. I came to occasionally at necessary stops and a quick look at the beautiful scenery but in the end slept most of the morning and through lunch time which Peter tells me was at ‘The Tug Boat’ where the group was served a beautiful seafood casserole. Ah well. He very kindly brought me out a buttered bread roll for when I awoke. Wasn’t he kind?

In the afternoon (when I was feeling alive again) we continued down to the end of the Cape and spent an hour or two at lovely Province Town. There is an extremely tall pillar as a memorial to the early settlers and an absolutely wonderful little museum with relicts of the early sea-captains and explorers who made the Cape their home. Arrived back in Boston latish and set to with the packing up of our entire luggage.

Breakfast at 8pm for the five of us, plus our guide – the last time! Two were staying on in Boston for a few days, and one was flying home from Boston. We boarded, for the final time, the Black Maria for the five hour drive to New York. At New York said a fond farewell to Bob our driver/guide and then we found ourselves back at the Holiday Inn for a our last night. Out to Georgio’s Grill for our own farewell dinner then back for a quiet night in re-arranging the packing.

We had a free morning in New York as our flight home didn’t leave until 5pm, so we booked tickets online for the 9/11 Memorial site. We had only seen the re-building site from afar during our earlier day in New York at the beginning of the tour, so we lined up with all the many different nationalities at 9.30am, went through security and were then led into the fenced area where the twin towers were destroyed in that horrific terrorist attack 11 years ago. The footprints of those towers are now reflective pools surrounded by bronze panels into which are cut all the names of those who perished. The pools are more like deep square wells, with water cascading down all sides of the square like waterfalls but to my mind seeming to represent all the tears shed for the almost 3,000 souls lost. The water then cascaded down into the depths of the earth towards the many floors which were under the towers. Surrounding the pools are open grassed areas with paving and many plantings of new trees including one tree which had only just survived the disaster but had been carefully removed then nurtured back into good health and eventually returned to the site. There will eventually be a semi-circle of five buildings ‘sheltering’ the pools; two of these are already well advanced. The site is beautiful and the many visitors were quiet and respectful, our minds filled with the terrible images we had seen on television of the horror.

Back at the hotel, we boarded the airport shuttle at 12 noon and slowly made our way through the heavy New York traffic to JFK terminal for the flight to Los Angeles, then to board the massive Qantas Airbus A380 for the 16 hour trip home. Peter was lucky enough to be seated with no seat in front of him so could stretch out his 6’ 1” frame (there was a covered hatch to the floor below) and I had an empty seat beside me. Not often have we managed to be so comfortable on such a long flight.

Impressions of America
The food portions were huge – and often fried. There was an enormous range of fast food outlets but no-where did they make a decent cup of tea, sadly. We did enjoy the free glass of iced water always placed before us even before we picked up the menu. Bacon was always streaky bacon and fried to a crisp. Grits were interesting! Biscuits (like our scones) were mostly covered with ‘gravy’ but was usually a white sauce flavoured with bacon or mushrooms. Po-boys are down-south ‘sandwiches’ prepared like Subway subs. Lamb does not feature often on menus and, speaking of menus, we were surprised to find that ‘Entrée’ means the main course. However, that said, we did dine very well throughout the trip.

We loved our American experience – the patriotism was not a surprise, but the warmth and many kindnesses we were shown was humbling. People were genuinely astonished, to our amusement, at the distance we had travelled. We began the trip aboard the wonderful steamboat - The American Queen, with seven days on the Mississippi River. Absolutely loved the quirkiness and, of course, the jazz music in New Orleans. We were awe-inspired at the genius of Thomas Jefferson and his Monticello plantation. Thoroughly enjoyed the experience of watching the Atlanta Braves play baseball at Turner Field in Atlanta and all the hoo-ha that goes with it.  We loved the musical “Once” in New York. Thought the archaeological dig at Jamestown was fascinating.  Enjoyed the day in Amish Country and talking to some of the people there. The north east countryside was magnificent – we particularly liked the mountains and trees in Vermont and Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, and would love to see those areas again in Fall (autumn). It would be magnificent.

Would we visit again? Absolutely!

Until our next trip, dear friends, au revoir!

Monday, 18 June 2012

Down at Heel Buffalo to Beautiful Stowe

Wet, grey, cool and a long drive to Buffalo where it was still grey and dreary. Buffalo is a very big city, but its glory days are long past, I think. That said, I think I had my best meal there at the Chocolate & Martini Bar – Pecan crusted chicken breast with citrus salsa, fresh corn and sweet potato chips.  Tomorrow to Niagara Falls.

Another grey day to begin but in the short drive to Niagara Falls, the weather cleared up sufficiently so that the white mist rising from the falls did not merge into the misty rain and low cloud. There certainly were a lot of nationalities queuing for the “Maid of the Mist” boat ride to the base of the falls. Blue plastic ponchos were handed out to everyone – mine reached to the ground, but Peter’s barely made it to his knees. Once the boat was loaded up, it motored up towards the falls. Plenty of photo opportunities but once we were directly in front of that huge rushing waterfall, it was impossible to take photos with the amount of water spraying onto everything. The trip only took about 15 minutes then we were back at the dock disembarking. It certainly was an experience not to be missed, but I think the Victoria Falls and the Iguassu Falls are more impressive.

Back on our mini coach for the long drive to Vermont, arriving at the Trapp Family Lodge at Stowe about 10.30pm. Waking in the morning we could see the beautiful trees and mountains all around. Vermont is a stunningly beautiful part of America and we can only imagine what it would be like in autumn.

After a very nice breakfast, we drove into Stowe village for an hour or so browsing the lovely shops there before moving on to Ben & Jerry's Icecream factory. It is a very popular excursion for both adults and children learning how this company began and viewing the automated room where the icecream is made. Everyone got a free sample at the end of the tour – in our case it was a ‘new’ flavour  which was icecream with pineapple. Our group did not think it had a future! They have a huge range of flavours but some do not ‘make the grade’ and are discontinued and so the company has set up a small ‘cemetery’ to commemorate these. Only in America! Another stop was at The Cold Hollow Cider Mill where the make beautiful apple cider. Stowe village is very pretty with interesting and different shops – and plenty of quality souvenirs as well.

Back at the Lodge and on our way to lunch, we found an elderly lady who had fallen down in a quiet part of the garden and could not get up. Peter and I helped her up and guided her along to where her tour group were waiting with a very impatient American tour guide. “Hurry up – you were supposed to be here at 2 o’clock”, she was not at all sympathetic to the poor lady.  So uncaring and downright rude!
Later I went off to the Fitness Centre for an hour’s massage – bliss. Peter stayed in our room with the computer and was visited by a dog – an Australian Shepherd (must have recognised the Aussie accent!). The people in the next room had their 4 dogs there for the next day’s Dog Trials being held at the Trapp Family property. As a result later on we had an enjoyable and friendly chat with them on the adjoining balcony.  In the evening, our group had drinks together before heading into town for a lovely evening meal together at O’Grady’s Pub.

Sadly, we left this lovely mountain top lodge in the morning and drove through beautiful Vermont (so green!) to Portland by the sea. We stopped in at York, Maine by Nubble Lighthouse for fish and chips sitting outside in the sunshine and then continued the drive along the coast to Portland passing through Kennebunk Port. This old seaport was just lovely and is very popular in summer for vacations.

We only had a short stay in Portland but took a ferry boat ride around the many islands off the coast. Many people live on these islands and commute by the ferry. It also brings and offloads ordered goods for the island people. It was lovely cruising back to the Portland ferry terminal as the sun went down on another beautiful day.  

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Monticello (again!) to Lancaster and the Amish Community

Today was the day of our return visit to Monticello near Charlottesville. We had visited Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home just over a week ago on our way north to New York. This time we were with our tour group, so whilst the others lined up for the house tour, we went off to take the ‘Slavery’ talk and the walk along Mulberry Walk where the slaves had their cabins. Again we had a very interesting and knowledgeable guide who gave us excellent information on the life and times of the slaves on the Monticello Plantation. Not all slaves were equal – there were those who worked in the house, those who were the craftsmen/women (nailmakers, carpenters, weavers, etc), and finally those that worked in the fields.

Lunch was at historic Michie Tavern which is an old inn built ca1784 quite near to Monticello. About 105 miles further on along the Skyline Drive part of the Shenandoah National Park. It was along a ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the scenery is quite stunning. Our lodge was three and a half thousand feet above sea level, and is very popular during Spring, Summer and Autumn. Despite the number of people there, it was extremely quiet and peaceful and the surrounding thick, dense woodlands with numerous walking trails, were full of animals small and large. We watched a stunning sunset over the mountains and later that night in the bar listened to a singer/guitarist sing some of the many songs written about this area of Virginia. Near the lodge we saw deer, chipmunks and, despite our rooms being on a first storey, a raccoon invaded our next door neighbour’s room during the night! There were plenty of walking tracks around and the well known Appalachian Trail goes through this area. We were sorry we only had one night here, but next morning we packed up again and were off on the next day’s adventure.

Methodist church at Harper's Ferry
Today we drove further along the Skyline Drive to the Luray Caverns, and extremely large and extensive series of astonishing caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites of amazing size and shapes. Back in the coach and we were off to Harper’s Ferry, a lovely little town, but very famous because of John Brown’s raid of 1859 which many believe started the Civil War. After lunch we travelled on to Gettysburg and at the Visitors’ Centre we collected a professional Civil War guide who was excellent – one of the best local guides we’ve had, who drove around with us and explained those three horrific days in July 1863 so well that even I understood it. The weather is hot here - about 32C, and the thought of the heavy woollen uniforms that the soldiers wore at the same time (well only a few weeks difference) in 1863 makes it easy to understand that a lot of the soldiers succumbed during their march TO Gettysburg. Afterwards we went to the Gettysburg Cyclorama and finished up in the Museum shop (of course) where we browsed (and bought) for so long, we were last to leave at closing time.

After another one and a half hour’s drive we arrived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where we had a two night stay (hooray) – a sleep-in in the morning and a chance to get some washing done. The hotel is the Cork Factory Hotel and is beautifully renovated to five star standard but with the huge wooden beams and brick walls exposed as feature items. Our top floor room was lovely - however we had a night-time visit from a bat!  Only for 10 minutes then he disappeared. I'm not sure the receptionist believed us next morning. 
A leisurely breakfast, then we set off with our bag of dirty washing to the nearby coin laundry, to find that they also offer a ‘wash, fluff and fold’ service and would charge only $10 in total. Considering the amount of shirts, trousers and underwear we had in our bag, it was a bargain we thought, and save us an hour or so waiting around watching the washing machine and then the dryer. Three hours later we picked up a bag of fresh, folded washing – perfect!
The afternoon was spent in Amish Country after we had collected a local guide to show us around. Lois was an older lady of the Mennonite faith from which those of Amish faith broke away in 1693. We were told a little of the history and beliefs of the Amish but mostly about their lifestyle and how they manage to live such a simple (but hardworking) life in 21st century America. We visited a variety of businesses – a bakery, craft shop, quilting and craft shop, a farm and a rug-weaving and broom making business. At a furniture shop, we saw a wide range of beautifully made wooden furniture which was all solid wood – definitely no veneered chipboard used. The prices were amazing cheap also and there was one beautifully crafted rocker I would have loved to have had (if only I’d had a bigger suitcase!). Wherever we drove in the area the nearby fields were being worked with horse-drawn farm equipment. Crops were being harvested and hay being made. Many of the farm tasks were being carried out by young people (it is vacation time here in America) and children as young as 12 are taught the ethics of hard work and seem happy and pleased at the responsibilities given to them. The Amish mode of transport – the horse and buggy were often on the roads as we explored the area. It is a beautiful part of America – the farms and businesses are all beautifully neat and tidy – a tribute to their hard working ethics.

For dinner today, we visited a delightful Amish couple and ate dinner prepared by them. It was lovely to sit down and talk over dinner in a family situation and the food – much of it grown on the property – was absolutely delicious. Despite not having electricity in the house, huge meals were often prepared for various groups of people – but it was made a little easier with a kitchen mixer which was a cordless Markita drill with a large mixer beater in place of a drill. Clever! The couple were in their late sixties, had 7 children and 37 grandchildren and ALL were going camping together the following weekend!

We left them just on dusk to return to our hotel, and we noticed no light fittings inside. They rely on a single LP gas light for lighting at night. No electricity is used, but fridges, freezers and any necessary mechanical items are run either by gas, wind, solar or water power.
A great day out – we thoroughly enjoyed learning about these hardworking people of faith who live so differently from the rest of us.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

New York to Williamsburg

We were up early for our first group breakfast together, then into our black maria (Mercedes small coach) which really was quite comfortable apart from lack of leg room. Oh well – can’t have everything.
Before leaving NY, we drove up alongside Central Park until we came to Strawberry Fields – the memorial park created after the shooting of John Lennon. Like most of Central Park, it is particularly beautiful with mature shady trees, shrubs and grassy areas. The Dakota building where John and Yoko lived (and where she still does) is directly across the road and the entrance has security guards standing outside. It is in an extremely nice, peaceful neighbourhood and hard to believe such an event occurred.
We then settled down for the long drive south to Philadelphia where our walking tour included the Liberty Bell, and the old parts of the city. We also visited a Quaker ‘church’ and we were made very welcome by the guide there and told some of Quaker history. Lunch was at an indoor market (vaguely similar to Melbourne’s Vic Market). It was an amazing place and an astonishing array of different foods and local produce and products. Peter had the regional speciality – Philly cheese steak sandwich. The thin slice of steak was placed on the hotplate and then quickly chopped up into tiny pieces as it cooked.

Next we had a long 4 hour drive to Washington where, in the early evening, we visited the Lincoln Monument and shared the experience with thousands of young teenagers from various groups! All of them, it seemed, getting a lecture on Lincoln and American history.
We had a late dinner at a restaurant/bar near our hotel, and fell into bed very tired.

We left hotel at 8 for our visit to Arlington Cemetery – and amazingly large, extremely well kept cemetery where American servicemen and women are entitled to be buried, along with the cream of American politicians – the large, impressive grave of Pres. Kennedy, his wife and two young children is extremely popular, but the nearby graves of his brothers Edward and Robert are amongst the most simple. There are several memorials to astronauts lost in space disasters. Also one for Glenn Miller whose plane was lost over the English Channel during World War Two. It was interesting to know that Civil War graves – from both sides – are in Arlington also.

Our guide next took us to the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue (the Prez was not home) – and he pointed out the various parts of the house including the West Wing. (The TV series of the same name had been one of my favourites).

Next to Union Station’s enormous food hall for lunch. We went to Johnny Rockets for a burger and milk shake (what else??) – it has a very 1960s décor with booths to sit in (a la ‘Happy Times’). After lunch we saw Capitol building, then were dropped off at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Air and Space. For two and a half hours we enjoyed the exhibits of early flight to the most recent of space discoveries. It was just wonderful.

Again another early rising (do hope there’s not too many of these!) with breakfast at 6 and in the mini-bus by 7. We bagged the back seat this time and so were able to stretch out a bit for the two plus hours it took to drive to Jamestown. We had been looking forward to seeing the archaeological dig at this site of the first English settlement in 1607. We found that there are actually TWO Jamestown attractions. One is the Jamestown Settlement which was a recreated imagining of what Jamestown had been. The other was the actual site of Jamestown only a mile or so apart where a dig is ongoing and this is what we had been looking forward to. Our guide kindly took us to the dig and 3 of our group stayed for several hours whilst the other 4 went to the Jamestown Settlement.

It was an absolutely gorgeous day and we spent a very happy and interesting few hours at the dig and one of the archaeologists even gave us a very good and detailed account of the settlement for about 45 minutes. There is an excellent archaearium (museum) with an amazing display of artefacts. We felt we really could have stayed another hour or two.
We rejoined the group, had lunch, and set off again arriving at Yorktown a short distance later. The Yorktown Victory Center is a museum of the American Revolution (1781) with many displays, artefacts, army encampment and 1700s farm. Again several hours were spent walking around and then after another short trip we arrived at Williamsburg. There is a walking precinct through the centre of the old town and a very footsore pair of Becketts decided enough was enough today and wanted nothing more than a good rest at our hotel.  So we missed the centre of town but saw enough of this very pretty area and the delightful old houses as we drove through.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

New York, New York

We arrived at Pennsylvania Station, New York on Friday afternoon and shortly after checked into the, Holiday Inn Hotel in Midtown. First impressions are of people, people and more people. Such a busy, crowded city. Nice to be able to unpack, do a little laundry and rest up as we are here for 5 nights.

On Saturday morning after breakfast we walked – up 57th Street, then to the southern edge of beautiful Central Park, and then on to the most lovely of department stores – Bloomingdales. The store is well aware that women love shopping, so for waiting males, they make provision with a quiet area with comfortable seats and wide screen television and magazines. While browsing alone, I was enticed to have some pampering with a facial make-up. The lovely young Latino girl was not daunted with the haggard old face she was presented with and went to work with her Estee Lauder cosmetics to do her best. Must say it all felt quite wonderful, although all the Lauder cosmetics in the world could not really ‘make a silk purse’. I must say that cosmetics here are considerably cheaper than in Australia. Revlon lipsticks can be purchased for $8.
After buying a nice top and some Bloomingdale souvenirs, I found Peter again and we walked out to find a nice café for lunch. Later walking back past Central Park, we took a carriage ride through the park – it certainly is very lovely with many shady trees, small lakes and walkways. It is an extremely popular place for people both young and old and families, too, to visit in the hot weather. There are areas set aside for sports, children’s play areas, a carousel and in summer there is a carnival situated where the icerink is sited in winter.
That evening, we had tickets to see the Broadway musical “Once” and as we were dressed up, we went by cab to the theatre. I have never seen so many theatres in one area in my life – not even in London. Our only problem was that the area around Times Square was so crowded with people and cars, that we ended up exiting the cab and walking about half a block to the theatre. The show was just wonderful with the actors all playing a variety of instruments as the story progressed. Beautiful music and great acting made exciting theatre and the cast received a well deserved standing ovation at the end. The show has many Tony nominations, and I do hope that they win next Sunday night.
On Sunday we met up with friends we had made on our Trans-Siberian trip in 2010. Angelo and Martha live in New York and came into town to meet us at our hotel, and took us on a walking tour of some areas we hadn’t seen before. We continued on our way and found a restaurant where we sat, ate and talked for several hours. It was so nice to see our friends again as we had all had such a great time together in Russia.

Next day, despite the cold wind and rain, we took a boat trip all around Manhattan Island. The city seen from a distance is quite stunning. The older sky-scrapers built with either beige coloured stone, or grey concrete contrast markedly with the newer buildings of steel and glass. The grey of the sky and of the river made these glass buildings appear to shine like silver in the afternoon light.  
The USS Intrepid was on display near by and with it also was a submarine. A Concord plane, too was on display. Such a beautiful plane and a shame it no longer flies. A space shuttle has also just been brought to the same area, but won’t be ready for viewing until next month.

As I needed a new battery for my camera, we found an amazing store B&H photographics, which sells everything imaginable for cameras, as well as other electronic items. I got my two new batteries, but Peter also walked out with a new camera – one that has GPS capabilities. Costs were considerably cheaper than at home and this store gave great service and was so automated, it was astonishing to just watch the various transactions.
After a walk through Grand Central Station (beautifully restored), we returned to our hotel to find our Bunnik tour group waiting – only seven of us on this trip! Six of us walked out to have dinner together and to get to know each other a little. There are two South Australians and five Victorians. All seem lovely people and we’re looking forward to a great tour together.

Tuesday was our first tour together and Bob our driver/guide took us to more New York places including the fascinating Ellis Island Immigration Centre and the site of the Twin Towers – certainly a sobering experience with much sadness still being felt there. Peter and some of the others went to the top of the Empire State Building and enjoyed the views. Those of you who know me will not be surprised that I chickened out!
The day finished with all of us tired and with sore feet – at the revolving tower restaurant of the Marriott hotel in Times Square. Tomorrow we leave New York.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Charlottesville, Virginia

Our journey north from Atlanta was again by the Crescent train but the long overnight journey gave us little sleep in the reclining coachseats.  We finally arrived, bleary-eyed, in Charlottesville, Virginia around 7am. We had a short cab ride to 200 South Street Inn and thankfully, Liz checked us in and we found our room ready and waiting for us.  Breakfast first (a continental one with added fruit and a delicious variety of slices of cake - the blueberry and lemon loaf was to die for!) then we fell into bed for a few hours' sleep - bliss!

Up around lunchtime and eager to see more of this very pretty area, we headed a short block to the historic mall in cental Charlottesville. This is a very lovely treed mall with great shops and I was even able to find a Spectacle shop where my specs (dropped and bent out of shape on The American Queen) were fixed - and very kindly, too, at no charge. Also noticed an amazing shop "The Needle Lady" with a huge range of knitting yarns and tapestry, and noted this for a return visit by myself the next day. Later that day we took a free trolley bus ride all around Charlottesville. This is a more affluent area than those down south, but still there were the occasional beggers on the streets. Dinner that evening was at Positively 4th Street Restaurant and the meal was just delicious. Luckily I had my new brolly (bought in Vicksburg) with me as it absolutely poured with rain - the first rain we have had on this trip.

Next morning we were picked up for our visit to Monticello, the plantation home of Thomas Jefferson. This extremely beautiful area is high up with stunning views all around. Thomas Jefferson, one time President and author of the Declaration of Independence, was an incredibly gifted man with wide spread interests. He loved inventing and the grand house he had built is full of his innovative ideas. However for all his high positions in life, his inventions and his working plantation, he died in debt. His descendants had to sell up everything he had owned.

Our last day in Charlottesville was taken up with more sight-seeing of the town, and also the important task of getting some necessary washing done. We had sundaes at The Nook, a 1950s style cafe, and later we just walked next door to the B&B to the South Street Brewery for dinner - barbecue pork ribs for Peter and chicken caeser salad for me washed down with cider and what Peter decided was the best local beer he had had all the trip - Satan's Pony!

I must say that the three B&Bs we have had (New Orleans, Atlanta and Charlottesville) have all been excellent even though extremely different. New Orleans was comfortable and quirky with the bed so high, I had to ask for a footstool! Atlanta was beautifully gracious and the Charlottesville accommodation was very comfortable with friendly and helpful staff. These B&Bs are good value and more friendly, I think, than hotel accommodation.

That evening, we packed up ready for leaving - again by train - the next morning. Very comfortable seats and with internet free on board. New York only six hours away!

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Atlanta, Georgia

After a long 12 hour Amtrak train journey, we arrived in Atlanta, Georgia in the early evening. This is a huge modern city (it was burnt to the ground during the Civil War so there's not a lot of historic buildings). Much new building occurred for the Olympic Games held here in 1996, but the city is vast and not too easy to get around without a car. Public transport is not wonderful so we relied on taxi-cabs which, thankfully, were not too expensive (compared to Australian fares). Our B&B was in the Inman Park area and is the Sugar Magnolia B&B. It is just the most gorgeous house (a 'Queen Anne' style but called a Grand Dame here in Atlanta). Our hostess is Mz Josie, the elderly mother/mother-in-law of the absent owners. She is a true southern lady and so kind and thoughtful. There are quite a few of these 'Grand Dame' homes built at the turn of the century (early 1900s) by wealthy businessmen and most seem to be in the many leafy suburbs. This one had once been divided up into apartments until beautifully restored about 20 years ago. Trees and parks abound in the suburbs - both the wealthy and the poorer areas, and this makes the residential areas beautiful and cool in the summer heat.

Sallying forth to see the sights, we took an electric car tour of the city and suburbs. Thankfully it was a Sunday and not too much traffic on the roads as we whizzed around from one interesting site to the next. Later we walked to Atlanta Underground which is a whole series of shops and businesses underneath about 5 city blocks. That evening we walked from our B&B to Sauce, a great little bar and restaurant only a block away. We got chatting to the waiter - and again our Aussie accents attracted attention. After a series of delicious taster courses plus wine, beer, dessert and coffee, we were surprised at the low cost ($47) and worked out that we had not been charged for dessert, several courses, etc. Upon pointing this out, we were told that we had been given a discount (an extremely generous one), for travelling so far!

On Sunday evening, we went to our first ever baseball game to watch the Atlanta Braves play the Washington Nationals beginning at 8pm. It was a massive turn out because of Memorial Day weekend and people arrived early and set up barbeques and picnics in the carpark (called 'tail-gaters'). Others, like us, wandered around looking at the fast food outlets, the souvenir spots, the areas for the kids to practise their batting, etc. As first timers, we were directed to 'Guest Relations' and were welcomed with Atlanta Braves caps, and a certificate. Our seats which we'd booked only the previous day on the internet, turned out to be quite good seats and we had good views of the game. Such a lot of entertainment during the game with 'The Star Spangled Banner' to begin, later a minute's silence for servicemen past and present, then 'America the Brave', various short competitions for spectators, and finally the whole of the stadium stood, swayed and sang 'Take me out to the Ball Game'. Sadly the Atlanta Braves lost the game, but it was quite an experience for us and we just loved the whole exurberant atmosphere.

Monday was Memorial Day, and our planned excursion was to have been the Cyclorama (a civil war depiction similar, we believe, to the Mesdag Panorama in The Hague, Holland). Unfortunately it was closed and so we spent several hours at the nearby Atlanta Zoo. We were most impressed as it is so well set out within shady parklike surroundings, the animals are wonderful, and the food stops had quality, healthy food choices.

Our train didn't leave until 8.05pm, so our hostess at the B&B kindly suggested we relax for the rest of the very hot afternoon in the sitting room. Later we caught a taxi to the station, checked in our suitcases and finally boarded the Crescent Train to Charlottesville, Virginia for an 11 hour journey. We had dinner in the Train Diner, then settled down to try and sleep - not too successfully - for the night-time journey.  

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Way Down Yonder in New Orleans ...

Our first day in New Orleans (N'awlins) began with a coach tour with others from The American Queen of the city and surrounds. We saw and learnt about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Although much re-building has been done (Brad Pitt's 'Make it Right Foundation' and Harry Connick jr's contribution through Habitat for Humanity are doing fantastic work in helping with rehousing the population that want to stay or return. (Many people who were just renting have moved away to other parts of the USA and have re-built their lives). We also learnt about the early settlement of the city and the people who founded it and what the terms creole and cajun mean.

One stop was at one of New Orleans' cemeteries. Because of the wetness of the soil, heavy rainfall and humidity, graves are above ground in mausoleums built of  stone or marble. Once built they stay in the one family for ever and hold generations. Actually only four are 'in residence' and when another space is needed, the older ones are dropped down into a basement! All this came about because decades ago when the dead where buried in the ground, after heavy rain they often rose up again!

After being dropped off at the Westin Hotel, we collected our cases and took a taxi to our B&B which is not too far from the French Quarter and only about 10 minutes walk from the first of the restaurants and jazz clubs. As a result in the evening we walked up to Frenchmen's Street and ate at Maison. Very loud live modern jazz is not our thing, so next we went to The Spotted Cat for some traditional style jazz. It is enormously popular, seats are very limited so most stood - or danced - to the great sounds. The singer was a young, heavily tattoo-ed woman called Meschiya Lake. A nearby couple (Texan) were so happy to meet Aussie visitors to N.O. that they bought us a CD of Meschiya's music. People here overwhelm us - they are delighted that people travel so far to visit!

On our second day, we took a carriage ride around the city - the carriage pulled by a mule. We heard some more history and some very interesting stories about the city over the years. The streets in the French Quarter are narrow with houses/businesses built in typical New Orleans style - French with Spanish influence reflecting the early settlement of the area. Everywhere music is being played all day and nearly all restaurants in the evening have a jazz band playing. We had an evening meal at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe with a table right beside the band and it was fantastic - both the meal and the music.

The food, too, was a delight - we tried grits (a bit like porridge), crawfish, po-boys (similar to Subways), pulled pork, pecan pie, bread pudding, key lime pie and beignets amongst other dishes. New drinks (to us) tried were a Hurricane for Peter and a Mint Julep for me - delicious!Walking, sitting in the park people-watching or riding around the city by public transport, New Orleans delighted us and we wished we had a longer stay.

Next stop - Atlanta - travelling by the Crescent train.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

We have just disembarked from The American Queen paddle steamboat. What a way to travel - floating gently down the massive Mississippi River, stopping everyday for excursions if we want to - and mostly we did. We left Memphis (probably the only ones who didn't grace Gracelands with a visit!) in the afternoon and soon began exploring all over the boat. Two sittings for formal dinner in the beautiful big dining room - we had second sitting at the same table with the same people beginning at 7.45pm, but for breakfast and lunch you get to sit anywhere. If you were hungry at anytime, the area at the front of the boat called "The Front Porch" served snacks 24 hours - this included self-serve drinks, soft-serve waffle icecreams, hotdogs, cookies and savoury filled croissants. This also had an outdoor area with rocking chairs lined up around the deck, so you could relax, read, eat and drink while watching the scenery glide by. The weather is hot so this place was quite popular and it was a good place, too, to meet and chat with other passengers.

Inside the boat, there was very efficient air-conditioning and the interior decor was quite something - especially in the Ladies Parlour and the Gentlemen's Room. On board was a Riverlorian who gave informal talks to small groups of people about the river itself. The Grand Saloon where all the shows were held is a miniature version - we are told - of the Ford Theatre. We had a one hour talk by 'Mark Twain' which was just wonderful. The evening shows of about an hour duration were superb with 4 very talented singer/dancers and a six piece band. We loved the couple who had a late night session playing piano and singing in the Engine Room Bar. The pianist/singer was Jackie Bankston and her range and styles of singing was fantastic. She was accompanied by Bob ? a great guitarist and banjo player. On our last night Jackie played and sang two of my requests - her versions of 'Cry me a River' and 'Fields of Gold' were better than those of Julie London and Sting.

First excursion stop on the day after we left Memphis was at Helena, Arkansas - a town sadly in decline, although we were assured renewal of the town was well under way. Some lovely old buildings but many in poor repair and deserted. Next day we were at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and while Peter happily went on a special Civil War tour (the Battle of Vicksburg was as important, if not more so, than the Battle of Gettysberg), I went on the 'hop on/hop off' coach tour of the town. Again some wonderful old buildings and some interesting shops, too.   Natchez was the third day stop and it has a very prosperous and beautiful look. In the afternoon, together with a new friend, Ruth (from Queensland), I took a premium (extra tour) to Chef Regina Charboneau's very grand old home to learn 'entertaining southern style' coming home with a CD of tips and recipes.

Another stop was at the smaller town of St Francisville, Louisiana, and our final stop was at Oak Alley plantation. Oak Alley takes its name from an avenue of massive 300 yo oaks leading up from the river to the house - so very impressive. It escaped being damaged in the Civil War and is today protected as a National Historic Landmark. The plantations grew sugar cane rather than cotton (too wet in this area). Five miles away we visited Laura Plantation, a typical grand Creole plantation which still has a few of the slave cabins. It was quite an education on life in the area in the plantation times, given by guides at both plantations.

Finally, after a farewell dinner, a wonderful Showboat Jubilee show, we spent our last night on The American Queen. At 8am we disembarked in New Orleans, sad to say goodbye but looking forward to the next stage of our trip.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

USA Trip - Beginning on the Mississippi River

We arrived – finally – in the USA. Three flights – the first from Melbourne to Sydney, then Sydney to Dallas, Texas which took fifteen and a half bottom-numbing hours and finally a short flight on to Memphis, Tennessee arriving at our hotel about 7 in the evening.  After stashing our cases, we headed down to the hotel’s restaurant for an evening meal before bed. First lesson we learnt was that ‘Entrée’ on American menus does not mean what it does in Australia or the UK.  Entrée means the main course. This is going to be a really interesting trip!

Next morning, after breakfast and, later, registering for our American Queen paddlesteamer cruise, we ventured out onto the streets of Memphis. With a complimentary pass for the trolley cars, this was something we had to try with hop-on/hop-off stops around the city centre. We had a stop at the Cotton Museum which was very well set up with audio and visual information about the early days of cotton growing and export from this area.
Mid-afternoon saw approximately 450 passengers boarding a coach for the short trip to the Mississippi River and the stunningly beautiful “American Queen” steamboat which is to be our home for the next week.  If you go to, you’ll find out more about this amazing vessel.

I think that 95% of the passengers are – not surprisingly – American with a few English and (I think) 8 Australian couples. We have only met a few of the Aussies, but the Americans are very friendly and most interested in Australia. We have tuned into their accent and I think we are even speaking more slowly and drawing out our vowels as well!

Stops have been to – Helena – a small town very much reduced in size and prosperity from its heyday due we are told to the loss about 50 years ago to several local industries folding. The next town – Vicksburg was a little better although it, too, was not in its prime. Seems many of the riverside towns from Memphis down towards New Orleans have suffered decline. There’s still some very large southern mansions well maintained and open to tourists (mainly in Natchez), and there’s some wealthy people living there also, however much is poor housing which we didn’t really expect to see.
This part of the Mississippi is very thickly wooded with cottonwood trees lining very close to the river. We’re told that further up towards Minnesota, there is much more industry and more population living alongside the river. Here in the delta area where it is inclined to flood, levies protect each small isolated town (or attempts to!)  

Friday, 4 May 2012

USA Trip

Not long to go now until our next overseas trip - this time to the east coast of the USA. First to Memphis to board the paddle steamer "The American Queen" for a week on the Mississippi, cruising down to New Orleans (with plenty of side excursions on the way). A few days in N.O. hopefully to listen to some great jazz, then by train in stages to New York with stops for a few days each in Atlanta and Charlottesville. In N.Y. we'll join up with an Australian group for a guided tour called "The American Story" - lots of visits to historic places. All up, about 6 weeks. I just can't wait. The laptop will be coming, too, so our thoughts and experiences will be recorded in the blog. Hope you enjoy it.