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.