Monday, August 7, 2017

Treme: The Musical Heart of New Orleans


There's no going to New Orleans and ignoring the music. Why would you want to? The city is a vibrant combination of color, life, and sounds. This is a place where, if you can pull together a band and $50 for a license, you can have a parade for any reason. Seriously! If I lived there, I'd be finding all sorts of reasons to party. Sunny day? Let's have a parade. Feeling blue? Time for a parade to lift the spirits!
Old Satchmo himself - Louis Armstrong

But while many people associate New Orleans with jazz, there is so much more variety to the musical history of the Big Easy. It is the very heart of American music.

One of the best ways to learn about the musical history of New Orleans is to take a walking tour. French Quarter Phantoms does a fabulous musical tour of the Treme neighborhood. (We weren't paid to say that - we took a number of their tours and enjoyed every one.) Our group set out with our trusty guide Justin and a boombox of tunes for a neighborhood discovery that ranged from the drumbeats of the Congo to Marilyn Manson (yes - there's a New Orleans connection).

Obviously I encourage you all to take the tour so I'm not going to give away everything, but I will share a few of the highlights to hopefully whet your appetite.


So let's start with a little history about the Treme neighborhood. This beautiful collection of streets with the brightly colored houses is adjacent to the French Quarter. It is also the oldest African American neighborhood in the United States, and as such, has a rich history that encompasses civil rights, the arts, social change, and of course music. It was the earliest place where free people of color were able to buy and own property. The streets may have been quiet the afternoon of our tour, but at weekends they are filled with local musicians and residents.

Congo Square
Our tour began in Louis Armstrong Park, more specifically in Congo Square. Here, under the rules of the Code Noir observed by the French colonists, slaves met each Sunday. Their dances, rhythms, and songs, transported thousands of miles, provided inspiration for generations of future musicians.

The park is full of sculptures commemorating New Orleans music, but they might not all be what you expect. For example, the French Opera House Sculpture. While you might not put opera and New Orleans together, a magnificent opera house stood in the French Quarter from 1859 to 1919, when it was destroyed by fire.

French Opera House Sculpture


Nearby, you can also see statues of Charles Buddy Bolden, Big Chief Tootie, and the park's namesake, Louis Armstrong.

As we learned from Justin, after the Civil War, many musicians found themselves back in New Orleans. They would take the military marches and add the drum rhythms handed down from Africa and the West Indies. Jazz was born. Although opinions differ as to exactly who started it and when. Some will say Buddy Bolden in 1895. Others will claim it developed later. In reality, there wasn't just one person on one day. Jazz formed from an amalgamation of styles, instruments, traditions, and creative souls.

Buddy Bolden
There is so much more I could write about this - about the Second Line, about how music continues to evolve to this day in New Orleans with groups such as the Rebirth Brass Band, about how trumpets continue to sound around the city in a seemingly never-ending stream of music festivals, and about how artists in so many other genres come to Treme in search of inspiration. And that doesn't even get to the local hip hop and metal scenes.

But as much as I could talk about it, the best way to experience it is to visit New Orleans. Take a guided tour through Louis Armstrong Park and Treme. Hear the stories. Hear the sounds. It may sound corny, but this city is ALIVE with rhythms and tunes, and all have a story to tell.

Passebon Cottage in Treme, built in 1843, is being renovated to be part of an expanded African-American Museum


In case you can't tell, I sort of fell in love with New Orleans, especially Treme!






Friday, August 4, 2017

Budget Friendly Vacationing in the Big Easy

Photo by Didier Moise

We finally did it! We made it to New Orleans for a vacation.

Ordinarily that might not sound like a big deal, but we had started to think we might be a jinx upon the place. We had first talked about visiting years ago... and then Katrina happened. A few years later, we raised the topic again... and cue another major hurricane. And so on. Until we figured it might just not be in our destiny.

But earlier this year, I was chatting to a bunch of people in Louisiana for several Group Travel Leader pieces I was writing. Maybe it was time to go for real.

Despite the naysayers, we picked a week in July and off we went. And we had a blast. It was not overly expensive either.


Over the next few posts, I'll be sharing some of our adventures in New Orleans and the surrounding area - walking tours, the food, the swamps, the food, the French Quarter... and did I mention the food? I am now obsessed with making every type of gumbo I an find a recipe for.

But to start off, I want to share a few tips that came in useful for us in keeping our vacation very budget friendly. I haven't been paid by anyone to say nice things, nor did we receive any freebies. These are simply a few of the ways we enjoyed our break without breaking the bank.

There's always a reason for a parade in New Orleans!

When you go.

So I mentioned the naysayers. That's because some people felt it incredibly necessary to tell us what a miserable time we would have in Louisiana in July. That we would be entering a unbearably hot and humid swamp of mosquitoes. 

It was actually pretty nice weather. In fact, the air temps were hotter in Lexington while we were gone than they were in NOLA. Sure the humidity bumped it up, but it was no different to if we'd stayed in Kentucky, and definitely cooler than our trip to Death Valley a few years ago! 

Ah but it's a different kind of heat. Different to the dry desert heat, but not to the humidity we'd been having in Kentucky. The weather was hot but pleasant and definitely not so uncomfortable that we could not enjoy our time outside. As for the mosquitoes - not a problem in the city. I got bitten a few times when we went out to the swampier areas, but repellent kept most of them away.

So why July? For starters, it was easier for my husband to get away from work. And when I had spoken to various travel bureau folks, they all agreed that July is one of the quieter months. Still pretty busy but fewer crowds than many tourist destinations in summer, and that also means cheaper hotel prices....


Gorgeous iron work in the French Quarter.

Where you stay.

Where you will want to stay depends largely on what type of vacation you are looking for. If you're going to New Orleans to party, no doubt you will want to stay in or close to the French Quarter. The same applies if you are flying and don't want to deal with a rental car. Sure you could get Lyfts  or Uber but that adds up. Chances are you want something within walking distance, or at least along a cable car route, and you will have plenty of options.

Since we drove down to Louisiana over the course of 2 days, it was easier for us to get around. And we're pretty basic travelers - give us a clean room and bathroom and we're good to go. Since my husband travels a lot for work we used some of his hotel points and stayed in a nice new TownePlace Suites in Harvey, about a 20 minute drive into the Quarter each day. But even though we used points, going in July meant we got a much better deal than if we'd traveled at other times of the year.

No we're not suggesting you stay here but do make time to visit St. Louis Cemetery #1


So does that mean ridiculous parking fees?

"You drove into the French Quarter! What about parking?"

That occurred to us once we got down there as well. Having been to Chicago, San Francisco, and New York and seeing the horrendous daily rates for parking in convenient locations, we were considering the cost benefits of getting a Lyft in each day. However, with a quick internet search we were able to find all-day parking in a secure lot for about $7. 

Per day!

We could reserve a spot, pay online and have parking from 10am to 10pm or later for the princely sum of $7 per day. And it was just a few blocks from Bourbon Street.

The company is Premium Parking. I'm not getting paid to say good things about them - we're just glad we found them and saved a bunch of money.

Local color in the French Quarter


What to do.

New Orleans has plenty for visitors to do even if, like us, you have no interest in drinking on Bourbon Street til the sun comes up. But we found huge discounts on the things we wanted to do.

Thanks to Groupon.

We made a list of things that interested us and then got to searching for deals. All told, over the course of the week, we did a fantastic food tour, an eco-tour of the bayou, plus four walking tours - for a total of 48% of what we'd have paid on the day! The tours were great - more on those in upcoming posts. We had fun, met plenty of interesting folks and learned a lot.

New Orleans has a rich and varied musical history.

What to eat.

New Orleans is a paradise for foodies, but it can be really easy to overlook some of the best places to eat. Thanks to our food tour on Monday, we had a list of places to explore for the rest of the week. He pointed out little places in the French Quarter that we would have easily passed by, not even realizing they were restaurants. Muffaletta, gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, gator, oysters... there's so much good food that I would say it's worth taking a food tour to learn a little more before you get started. Skip the tourist traps and find out where the locals eat.

Crawfish, mudbugs... whatever you call them, they're good eatin'!
This is just a start. Over the next few posts, I'll be sharing more details about tours, food, history and more, but hopefully it has given you a few ideas for enjoying the Big Easy on an easy budget.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Introducing British Food and Travel

If you're wondering why I haven't updated here for a while, there have been a variety of reasons, but the main one has been that I've been busy building a new site dedicated to my home country.

British Food and Travel recently launched. The site highlights the best of British food, coast, and countryside. Each week, expect to find at least one food-related post and one travel post.

One current series, posted every Friday, is spotlighting the National Parks of the British Isles. Later this year, I'll be running a series about the literary landscape of Britain, and charting the coastal path. I'll be walking some of the coastal path this fall so watch out for posts about that.

I'll also be featuring places to stay, things to do, and how to experience the very best of the great British outdoors.

So come on over and check us out at British Food and Travel. 

And don't worry - I'm not completely abandoning this page. I've got a bunch of Louisiana posts coming soon!


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Ups and Downs of LA

Griffith Park in LA. No idea who the guy is - he wandered in and posed as I took it!

LA.
I have been to LA twice in my life and it's one city that leaves me with very mixed feelings. For me, it is a stressful city to visit, and a large part of that stress is caused by the traffic. I have a rule that I do not drive in Los Angeles. Not gonna do it.
That leaves Nic to deal with those hassles while I navigate.

Our recent trip to LA had the added stress of involving family. My parents, my sister, her husband, and their kids flew to California, spent a week at Disney and Palm Springs, and then drove up to LA where we met them for the second week.

Now don't get me wrong. It was great to see them. In fact, with just 5 real days for doing stuff, it wasn't long enough. But a group of 8 people, ranging in age from 7 to 64, with vastly different likes and dislikes, not to mention two vehicles and GPS that became decidedly squiffy for the last few days... it adds up to a certain amount of stress.

Long Beach is a beautiful spot to spend a summer evening
Here I am going to share my favorite spots to spend some time in and around LA.

1. Long Beach.


Visit the Aquarium, dine, shop, and enjoy a stroll with some beautiful scenery. Gorgeous area.

2. Toi on Sunset. Great place to eat. We ate here the first time I visited LA and made sure to come back this time. Best of all, it had a great array of vegetarian options for my niece. (We were surprised what poor veggie options many restaurants had). Go for the vibe. Go for the food.

3.

Santa Monica. When the city gets me stressed, I need to be by the sea. Santa Monica pier had plenty of attractions for the kids, the beach was clean. We came back a few days later to meet a friend at one of the nearby restaurants in the 3rd St area. I love Santa Monica.

Incidentally, we also visited Venice Beach. Interesting for people watching and the sight of my 7 year old niece busting through the bodybuilders at Muscle Beach to play on their equipment was awesome. However, my other niece felt distinctly uncomfortable and the area doesn't have anything like the family friendly feel of Santa Monica.

Santa Monica Beach
4. Carousels. Santa Monica Pier, LA Zoo, Long Beach, Ventura County Fair... I lost track of the number of carousels my niece rode on. She loved them all.

5. Yes, I mentioned the Ventura County Fair. By the end of the week, I needed out of city space so we drove up to Oxnard for the fair. Tons of fun. Plenty of fresh air. Pig racing. Deep fried Oreos. And of course a drive back to LA via the...

6. Pacific Coast Highway. Perfect for breathtaking views of the ocean.

Stop off at the Reel Inn in Malibu to soak up the atmosphere while enjoying a beer and some seafood.

7. Go whale-watching. We took a two-hour trip with LA Waterfront. While we didn't see any whales, we did find ourselves in a large pod of dolphins. Again, the 7 year old had a (pardon the pun) whale of a time.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Art Viewing in Vegas

I've been meaning to put these photos up since our trip to Las Vegas last summer. Staying off-strip in the Fremont Street area allowed us to see and experience so much more than lots of people I've spoken to who spend all their time on the strip. Case in point: all of this fabulous street art. The old downtown area is chockablock with some of the most wonderful and creative murals. Take the time to go for a stroll and enjoy the free exhibits.











And finally... on that just has so much going on, I'm not sure where to begin. Rabbits, cabbages, a rifle, and a scantily clad woman around the corner to complete the scene. Whatever way you look at it, you've got to love the Vegas street art!


Friday, February 5, 2016

A Little Bit of Chocolate Heaven

So you walk around a few little side streets in Central London, and you come across a little, rather unassuming corner store. But when you step inside, you see this:


And one more thing... it's all chocolate.

Welcome to Choccywoccydoodah!

A magnificence of chocolate!
I had never heard of this place until a year or two ago when my sister ordered a birthday cake for my niece. She sent me the link to something so decadently chocolatey and elaborate, I nearly drooled over my keyboard.

It seems the business is based in Brighton, but they also have a small shop/cafe in London. I could tell you about them but honestly, I'll let the pictures speak for themselves. This isn't a simple piece of molded chocolate; this is pure art.

We stopped off at the London store while we were in town to see Les Mis. And since we had an hour or two before the show, what better place for lunch. We made our way upstairs to the cafe area, fortunately beating the crowd. Within half an hour there was a line up the stairs and a rope was in place to prevent more gathering.




Now let's make one thing clear, when I say lunch. This place is a mecca of chocolate. Do not, as one unsuspecting gent did, make the mistake of asking if there are salads or sandwiches served. Are they made of chocolate? Of course not.

The menu consists of various types of hot chocolate, all made with pure creamy ... you guessed it. There are also shakes, sundaes, dipping pots, and cake. Make no mistake - we were there for the cake!

Each of us enjoyed a mug of chocolatey goodness, piled high with cream and marshmallows. But then we had to choose our cake. So many triple-layered choices all laid out on the table. I went for an amaretto sponge with praline truffle filling; my sister chose the lemon champagne; my niece the triple chocolate, and my mum... by this point I was in a sweet-induced coma of happiness and so I don't remember what she ordered. Rum and raisin! She had rum and raisin chocolate cake!

All I can say is: the cake was beyond delicious. And it was a good thing we had a bit of a walk to the theatre, to burn off a few of those calories and to make sure we didn't fall into a delicious doze. I will say nothing more but leave you with pictures.




Just a few of the choices - can I have one of everything?



Monday, February 1, 2016

Reculver and Wantsum

Reculver against a winter sky

If you happen to find yourself visiting Kent and driving down the Thanet Way, you may find yourself glancing across to the sea and wondering about that old tower you see. The one that looks like the remains of something once much larger.

What you are seeing is the Reculver Towers, and they have been part of the Kent landscape since Roman times. Now maintained by English Heritage, Reculver Towers have a long history, dating back to the days when the Isle of Thanet was indeed an island.

Centuries ago, the land that is now occupied by Ramsgate, Margate, and Broadstairs, was separated from the English mainland by the Wantsum Channel.

The Romans built two forts to guard against Saxon raids: one at Reculver and one at the other end of the seaway in Richborough. Many years later, in the 7th century, the site became a monastery, part of St. Augustine's mission to bring Christianity to the British Isles.

The land seen here to the right beyond the ruins was once an ancient seaway.
Map showing the old Wantsum Channel

By the 12th century, the Wantsum Channel was starting to silt. Boat traffic lessened because of the difficulty in navigating what was becoming marshland. Also at this time, the towers were repurposed again, becoming a church for the people of Reculver.

Fast forward another 400 years, and what was left of the Wantsum was drained and turned into farmland. Ramsgate and Margate were now part of the mainland. All that remains of the waterway now is a narrow river. But the towers at Reculver still stand tall on the landscape, accompanied by headstones and graves from the 1700s, when it was still a parish church.

Reculver is open to visitors free of charge and is a popular Sunday afternoon walk destination.