Thursday, November 29, 2012

Count on Texas to Do It Up Big

Houston to San Antonio
November 27
We got to Houston just in time for what we imagine will be the first of many tasty Mexican meals.  We spent the morning visiting some of the city’s underappreciated unique attractions, then were on our way to San Antonio, about three hours away.

Here are our Houston highlights:

 Glenwood Cemetery:  Dick saw a photograph of a majestic oak tree at the Telfair Art Fair last month, and scrounged the internet to figure out where it was. We made a special trip to find it here.  (We also found the grave of Howard Hughes.)

 Catalina Coffee: You would never notice it if you weren’t looking for it, it is in a pretty undistinguished neighborhood across the street from the Goodwill Store, and the furniture inside looks like it was probably purchased at Goodwill, but this place is packed, and once our lattes arrive we understand why.  They are beautiful to look at, and the coffee is the best we can remember tasting anywhere. I hover around the espresso machine hoping to see how they make the delicate designs in the foam, and the Barrista, Max, is happy to provide a detailed demonstration of his technique (the secret is in the consistency of the foam--not too airy, so that it pours pliably, then there is the part about gently sort of painting with a thin stream of foam that I will have to practice a bit at home). 

More than Mount Rushmore: David Adickes has sculpted a huge collection of gigantic Presidents’ heads, and they are lying all over the place around his studio in Houston.  Some are behind a barb wire-topped fence, but Barack Obama and George Bush are right out where you can touch them if you want.  Bill Clinton is behind the fence looking over President Obama's shoulder--how symbolic is that? 

And, if 20 foot tall President heads aren’t enough to get excited about, at the back of the fenced in lot, the Beatles are sculpted over six times life size.

 “39,000 cans of beer on the wall, 39,000 cans of beer . . .”:  That’s right, this house is aluminum sided using beer cans.  It has a front gate made of beer can lids, a unique beer tab curtain/wind chime hanging from the eaves over the front porch, and many other whimsical design elements fashioned from beer cans.  John Milkovisch decided to decorate his home with beer cans after he retired in 1968, and he spent the next eighteen years creating this masterpiece, using cans from beer he and his neighbors consumed. He died in 1988, and the home is now owned and maintained by a folk art preservation foundation.

 There are lots of other offbeat and larger than life attractions scattered about Houston, but we must be on our way.
We are getting hungry around Columbus, Texas, and see a sign for Jerry Mikeska’s Famous BBQ, which doesn’t look like much on the outside, except that the parking lot is full of pick-up trucks.  Inside, WOW, the walls are covered with stuffed animal heads and big fish, and the smell is heavenly smoky.  The old guy behind the counter is Jerry--we recognize him from the many pictures of him with celebrities like Miss Texas Teen USA and politicians, including Rick Perry.  He takes a pile of bills from the register, kisses it, and heads to the back room before making the rounds of all the tables to greet his friends and neighbors and ask us where we are from.  He’s been in business 66 years, and still comes to work every day, but he has cut back to just six hours a day--“It makes a difference to have the owner on the premises,” he says.  And, no, he did not shoot all the game on the walls, he bought them.

Once in San Antonio our first stop is the Greenhouse Gallery, where we spend a very long time looking at very good paintings, but not buying anything--yet.

 Then it is time to check in at O’Casey’s Bed and Breakfast in the beautiful Monte Vista Historic District, where we will actually stay for two nights, a welcome respite to our daily driving routine. 

 The Australian B&B owner, Madonna, recommends a couple restaurants within a short walking distance, and later shows up to order take-out at the Italian restaurant where we are dining.  She ends up joining us for dinner, and we end up learning about her eclectic life, with grown children scattered on three continents and a six month old baby here at the B&B, but not for long, since her family is moving to West Point in two weeks, where her military husband will work for two years until he retires, and she will live amidst snow for the first time.  Her energy is enviable, and by this time, our energy is about gone.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Every Day’s a Holiday in New Orleans

November 25-26
After spending less than 24 hours in the French Quarter of New Orleans we have confirmed that this is an alien land where we may visit, but we can never assimilate.

But our first stop was New Orleans City Park, 1300 extraordinary acres in the middle of the city, including the largest collection of mature (600-800 years old!) live oaks in the world, plus a sculpture garden, art museum, botanical garden, and a bunch of geocaches (we are only 26 away from reaching 1,000 finds!).  In the spirit of the season, the park hosts a family friendly Celebration in the Oaks every night.  Holiday lights and displays sparkle throughout Storyland, where there are more than 25 larger-than-life storybook vignette play spaces, and Santa Gator sits out front to welcome one and all to this winter wonderland.

 After this tame introduction to New Orleans, we made our way to the Hotel St. Marie, our home base in the heart of the French Quarter.  Our room had a wrought iron balcony overlooking this lovely courtyard.  We left the French doors open and enjoyed the sound of the fountain below.

All was very civilized and tranquil until we walked a couple blocks to Bourbon Street, where we seemed to be the only ones not carrying super-sized buckets of beer or yard long glasses filled with intensely colored alcoholic concoctions.  Scantily clad women beckoned from some doorways, excruciatingly loud music poured out of others.  It was a LOUD crowd.  It made our foray to Beale Street in Memphis a few months ago seem terribly tame.

We found a quiet place with white tablecloths and sort of French food for dinner, then tried to find somewhere to enjoy a coffee drink afterward.  Just when we were about to give up we stumbled upon the Beignet Café, a little open air restaurant in Musical Legends Park, which is basically an alley off Bourbon Street with a bunch of statues of jazz greats scattered about.  We got our decaf lattes and settled in to enjoy the really great music of the Steamboat Willie Jazz Band, who play where every night.  We had found our perfect escape from Bourbon Street. 

The next morning we woke to rain, which was fine with us, because from what we saw of the area last night, we figured it could use a little clean-up.  Let the rain rinse away all that vomit and urine and sticky spilled drinks.

Breakfast was beignets and café au lait at the Café du Monde, the original coffee stand at the French Market, in operation since 1862.  All they serve is beignets and coffee, and they do it 24/7.  The coffee has a very distinctive flavor, because it is mixed with chicory, a practice brought here by Alsatians who migrated here from Nova Scotia.   We enjoyed our coffee and beignets on the café’s large covered patio, while listening to a jazz duo on the sidewalk out front.
Check-out was at 11, so there was not much time to meander about snapping pictures after breakfast, which we regretted, because it seemed that interesting sights abounded on every block.

We didn’t have to mourn leaving behind New Orleans beignets though--our very own Huey’s on the River in Savannah makes beignets that are better (lighter, with more melt-in-your-mouthiness) than the Café du Monde’s.

All Their Christmases Are White

Southern Winter Wonderlands Day 3
Passing through Biloxi
We take the coastal route from Mobile to New Orleans today, and this lighthouse in the boulevard median in Biloxi beckons us to stop.  Here’s what we learn. 

The Lighthouse was constructed of cast iron in 1848, and has stood its ground against numerous storms that have buffeted the coast over the years.  It had many civilian keepers, including one woman who served as keeper for 53 years.  Katrina engulfed it, loosed bricks from its inner walls, and broke some of its windows, but it remained standing, while scores of other structures along this stretch of the gulf coast were reduced to rubble.  Now($400,000 in repairs later) the lighthouse has become a symbol of the resilience of the people of Mississippi, appearing on state license plates and promotional materials.

 The Visitor Center that stands behind the light is a semblance of a house built on this site by a prominent Biloxi family in 1849.  That house was damaged by an early 1900s hurricane and its renovated incarnation was smashed to smithereens by Katrina in 2005.  When it was rebuilt this time, it was elevated 22 feet above sea level on strong piers with the hope of keeping it intact through future storms.

The 26 mile long stretch of pristine white beach that guarantees residents a white Christmas is actually a man-made multi-million dollar phenomenon. It was begun in 1959 as a way to draw tourists to the Redneck Riviera, and as long as there are winds and waves, its maintenance will be a perpetual effort. 
A historic marker commemorates the “wade-ins” that occurred here in 1959, 1960, and 1963, protesting the segregation of the beach--when “white sands” had a double meaning.  It took a federal court ruling in 1968 to open this public beach to all citizens.

The contrast between the tranquil water and immaculate white sands of the beach on one side of the road and the devastation that Katrina wrought on the other side is jarring.  Most of the debris has been cleaned up, but there are many vacant lots with nothing left but a concrete driveway pad, a brick stairway to nowhere or pilings with nothing atop them.  And, there are a lot of brand new homes, built on pilings that seem to be extraordinarily tall to keep them safe from any flooding or storm surge short of a tsunami.  We say a little prayer that our little island never meets the fury of the ocean this way.


Monday, November 26, 2012

Night Light Delights

Southern Winter Wonderland Day 2
November 24
Anniston to Mobile, Alabama
Today’s highlight is night lights, but first let’s recap a few other treasured pleasures.

 The day begins with a leisurely breakfast in the Victorian Inn solarium.

 Our first roadside attraction of the journey is in Birmingham, where this one fifth scale bronze replica of the Statue of Liberty stands high atop a hill beside the Alabama Boy Scout Headquarters.  Like her sister statue in New York, she was cast in France.  She stands with her back to the Boy Scouts--appropriate in light of the organization’s position on respecting the rights of gay boys and men.
We spend hours today in very slow traffic that seems to clog all arteries leading to Tuscaloosa within a thirty mile radius.  Eventually, after noticing that most of the cars have big red As or flags on them, we figure out that there is a University of Alabama football game today.  Their cheer may be “Roll Tide,” but the cars on the way to the game are hardly rolling. After 2:30, we have the road to ourselves. 

 Today's second roadside attraction is Jim Bird's farm art, displayed on his ranch beside a two lane highway near Demopolis.  Using hay bales and farm apparatus debris, Jim has created a motley collection of sculptures--Snoopy flying an airplane, a scarecrow girl running from a charging driftwood bull, a flying saucer piloted by a martian, a big yellow smiley face, and a bunch of other things, many of them rusting or rotting away.  Towering over them all is his piece de resistance, a 32 foot tall tin man.  It is worth a slow drive by, but hardly worth a real stop. 
Actually, we don't find much at all along route 43 that is worth the extra time we took to drive it, rather than sticking to the interstates.

We pull into our hotel in Mobile at twilight, dump our excess baggage in the room and head down a long dark country road to Bellingrath Gardens, where over three million lights create stunning artistic displays and holiday tableaus lining nearly two miles of densely decorated paths meandering through 65 acres of formal gardens.  We are awestruck by the artistry.  We have never seen a holiday light display that comes close.  We almost forget that the temperature is only about 40 degrees.

 Halfway through the garden walk, we warm up in the Bellingrath home, which is decorated for the holidays and open for tours (but not allowed to be photographed).  

 Here is a little history of this fascinating place.  Walter Bellingrath made his fortune as a Coca Cola bottler in the early 1900s.  He was a workaholic whose doctor recommended that he take up a leisurely hobby, so in 1917 he bought a 65-acre plot of land with two fishing camp cabins on it to try some relaxing fishing.  His wife Bessie, an avid gardener, was running out of land to till around their city house, so she started gardening around the fish camp. After taking a grand tour of Europe, she hired a landscape architect to help her create formal gardens to rival the ones she saw around the palaces she had visited there.  After the gardens were complete and started to attract lots of visitors, the Bellingraths eventually decided they needed to spend more time out at the fish camp to entertain visitors and supervise garden operations, necessitating an upgrade to their accommodations out there.  They built their elegant 10,500 square foot house in 1935, and retained ten to twelve household staff, and forty garden staff to maintain the place. Now it is run by their charitable foundation, which supports the gardens and three colleges.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Our Southern Winter Wonderlands Adventure Begins

 November 23, 2012
Anniston, Alabama
We are on a pilgrimage to Bosque del Apache in New Mexico--a wildlife refuge where tens of thousands of cold-loving birds winter over, creating a nature photographers’ mecca.  We are taking eleven days to get there, building time to find joy in the journey.

Our first stop is in Anniston, Alabama, where we stay at the Victoria Inn, a grand discovery from our Search for Elvis Tour this past summer.  

We are the only guests in the dining room, so the restaurant owner/chef Alan Martin has time to step out from the kitchen to chat and provide cooking tips between courses. He grew up here, and first worked as a bus boy at this restaurant when he was in high school.  He studied engineering in college, but switched to culinary arts, worked as a chef in some fancy Birmingham restaurants, then got the opportunity to buy the Victoria Restaurant and be back home in Anniston. He jumped at the chance, and now he has the only upscale restaurant in town.

Apparently, the town folk only come here for special occasions.  We are the only ones dining here tonight, and there was only one other couple in the dining room the last time we were here.  We were kind of worried about the place surviving, but after Alan told us about some of his recent catering work, including a wedding dinner with a $3,600 caviar bar, we think he is probably doing okay.

His pan sautéed foie gras served with a roasted pear is the best we have had anywhere, except for maybe one restaurant in Paris, then he brings us out a steamy bowl of earthy rich golden chanterelle mushroom risotto to try just because he knows we will appreciate it after we rave over his foie gras.  Mushroom risotto is one of my specialties, but I readily admit his is better.  Now that he has told me his secrets (really good mushroom stock and a truffle oil finish, in addition to those golden chanterelles), I am game to imitate and innovate, based on his divine model.

Wonderful as our dinner is, we skip dessert, but only because we have a couple pieces of the apple pie Dick made for Thanksgiving waiting for us back in the room.  It is the perfect ending to a perfect meal.