Madisonville, Louisiana 1/22/16 – 1/29/16

From Alan –

Population = 1,106, latitude 30º 24’, longitude 90º9’, elevation 24 feet, average January low temperature = 40.7, Average July high temperature = 92, average sunny days = 218, annual snowfall = 0, annual rainfall = 58.7”

Madisonville is a quaint little town on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana.  It is an old town, established in 1800, before the area was even part of the USA.  A walking tour of the town passes by fine examples of classic Creole and Acadian style houses.  Whenever the sidewalk comes up against one of the massive live oaks, resplendent in little ferns and Spanish moss, the tree wins.  There are two rush hours here; school kids being released from school and commuters being released from work.  Otherwise, the pace is measured by the rhythms of daily life in a small town.

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Huge live oak.
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Acadian home (I think)
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Creole home (I think)

Something most Northerners do not realize is that Mardi Gras is part of a season, not just a one day party.  Everywhere in Louisiana, from 10 days after Christmas until the day before Ash Wednesday, it is Carnival season.  Every town, large and small, has it’s Krewes that throw parties and parades.  Our first Saturday night is the parade in New Orleans for the sexy, satirical, and raucous Crewe du Vieux.  All afternoon, the French Quarter has been filling with rowdy partiers, dressed for craziness, drinks in hand, wandering the streets and bursting out of the bars.  Finally, just after dark, the sirens wail as police clear the streets.  The parade is on!  The floats are obscene, political, funny, or all of the above.  Colorful, sexy, costumed marchers follow along, tossing beads, candy, and stickers to the fans.  Marching bands belt out the distinctive and infectious rhythms of New Orleans marching jazz.  It is wonderful chaos, loud and colorful.

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Krewe du Vieux float. Yes, it is what it looks like.
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Marching with the Krewe

On Thursday we cross the Causeway again, 24 miles of arrow straight bridge over Lake Ponchartrain, this time for a concert by Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas.  They are playing the Rock N Bowl.  It is more than a little challenging picking our way across the city to get there after a leisurely afternoon exploring the French Quarter.  Rush hour traffic is oozing out of the downtown, rattling over the pothole-ridden cheese grater streets.  Once we finally do find the place, it is a fine old joint!  The food is good, the beer is cheap, and Nathan and the guys have the whole place jumping.  Et toi!  Hate to leave so soon, but it is a long drive back across the Causeway.

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Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas shake up the Rock N Bowl.

No trip to Louisiana is complete without a deep dive into some amazing cuisine.  Willy Mae’s famous fried chicken, po boys with oysters, po boys with shrimp, roast beef po boys, dripping with gravy, BBQ shrimp and grits, enormous muffalettas, homemade boudin, jambalaya, gumbo, and on and on.  You have to try it all, to hell with calories.  I’ll diet in the next state.  And, of course, there are lots of beer breweries here, making some excellent beers.  A big Thank You to Erin and Brian at Covington Brewhouse for their hospitality and fine beer!

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Willy Mae’s chicken. Green beans and gravy over rice and mashed potatoes and gravy for sides.
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Roast beef debris po boy with gravy. A three napkin sandwich! Crawfish étouffée on the side.
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Shrimp with BBQ gravy over grits and biscuit. Roast beef and gravy over cheese grits and biscuit, topped with fried eggs.
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The taproom at the Covington Brewhouse. Not too hoppy, just right.

The best thing about Louisiana though, is the people.  Everywhere we went, the people were fun and funny and interesting and interested.  Our landlady in Madisonville was the absolute best!  She is a great mix of old timey Southern hospitality, modern fun and feisty career woman, and party animal.  We hit it off over a batch of Sazeracs and became new old friends right away.  We’ll see you again, Sarah, you and your great friends, next time we pass this way.  How often do we get the chance to be leprechaun grandparents?

Next up: Abita Springs

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Gautier, Mississippi 1/15 – 1/22

From Alan –

Population = 18,572 latitude 30º 23’, longitude 88º36’, elevation 7 feet, average January low temperature = 41.8, Average July high temperature = 90, average sunny days = 221, annual snowfall = 0, annual rainfall = 61.6”

From Panama City Beach, we roll North and West toward Mississippi.  The palms give way to tall, tall pines, bare except for a little poof of branches at the top, squatting in a tangle of winter bare jungle.  It is a long day on the road and not much is going on for scenics.  We stop at a Cracker Barrel for a little country kitsch and sweet tea.  Finally, we cross the border and stop in the tourist info center for maps and pamphlets.  The tourist info center here has done a great job of showing travelers where there are things to do and places to eat.  We were given a map of the Mississippi Gulf Coast from Bay St. Louis to Pascagoula that shows Highway 90 running along the beach.  There are numbers on the highway that show the hot spots, with the names of everything near those hot spots listed on the back of the map.   As we drove around, we found that the intersections also have those numbers on them.  Pick a place, get the number, drive to the intersection with that number, look around, and there it is.  Simple and effective.

Welcome to Mississippi
Welcome to Mississippi

What we love best about this area is the great food.  While we may occasionally enjoy the fancy-schmancy restaurants with table clothes and exorbitant prices, what we really love are the “joints”; no-frills little neighborhood places where the food is cheap, plentiful, and good.  The Shed is a cobbled together bunch of sheds that serves the best BBQ ever with sides like Granny made, only better!  Bozo’s is a seaside shack that serves the best fried shrimp I have ever eaten, piled deep in a paper box with hush puppies and fries!  The Cast Iron Cafe serves excellent chicken fried steak and – get this – chicken fried thick sliced bacon!  With thick white sausage gravy to dunk it in!!!  Sure, you can feel your arteries clap shut, but it is worth it.

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The Shed, best BBQ joint on the planet!
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Raw to go or cooked right here, Bozos is the best seafood.
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The Cast Iron Cafe. Chicken fried steak and bacon with sausage gravy. Sausage and biscuit benedict with home fries and sausage gravy.

And don’t forget the seafood.  Seafood restaurants are everywhere.  Oysters, raw or cooked.  Shrimp?  Remember in the movie where Forrest Gump’s buddy tells him every way they can be prepared?  They do that and more.  In the cafes or right off the boat.  Every kind of fish, fixed in every way.  And don’t forget the po boys.  Restaurants, bars, marinas, food stores, gas stations, everybody sells po boys.  Shrimp, oyster, crawfish, grouper, tilapia, sausage, chicken, or roast beef po boys, among others, with or without sauces or gravies, “dressed” or naked.

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Crawfish balls from Jacks by the Tracks
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Hucks Cove. Po boys, burgers, beer, slip rental, bait.

Since we have such a good map of the area, we are making more of an effort to do some sightseeing.  We walk long strands of white powder sand beaches, explore ancient cemeteries, marvel at the gigantic cranes in the shipyard, stroll through oceanside parks with wizened old oaks spreading massive mossy branches, draped in Spanish moss.  In Biloxi, we tour Jefferson Davis’s home and library, then do the walking tour of the historic city center.  There is kind of a tragic feeling to the city, I thought.  Parts are old and stately, parts are missing completely, wiped away by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  The city has beautiful old classic Victorian houses and shops, next to barren spots of ruin.  It breaks your heart, imagining what could have been, had nature been kinder.

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Huge and ancient oak with Spanish moss.
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Stately old Victorian house in Pascagoula.
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Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America.
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Katrina memorial. The red line is the high water mark.

Next:  Madisonville, Louisiana

Panama City Beach, Florida 1/8/16 – 1/15/16

From Alan –

Population = 13980, latitude 30º 10’, longitude 85º 48’, elevation 30 feet, average January low temperature = 39.8, Average July high temperature = 90, average sunny days = 239, annual snowfall = 0, annual rainfall = 64.5”

Now this is more like it!  Our last stop was pretty boring.  Other than golf, there was not much to do.  In Panama City Beach, it is all about entertaining the tourists and snowbirds.  Our resort has a pile of weekly entertainment magazines (with coupons) and a stack of maps of the city showing all the hotspots.  Restaurants of all ethnics and specialities abound, especially seafood and BBQ.  There are cruises to fish, scuba, snorkel, or dolphin watch.  There are malls everywhere with every chain store known to Americans.  There are piers you can stroll or, for a very modest fee, fish from.  There are airboat and helicopter rides.  Six golf courses.  And, of course, miles of sugar white sand beaches with lots of parking and access points.

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What to do in Panama City Beach

The city is divided into two halves, East and West.  The East End is the older section and holds the “downtown” businesses and offices, as well as the marinas.  Right along the East End beach though, there is an almost solid wall of huge high rise condos blocking out the sun.  On the West End, there is more open space.  There are rows of original single family homes between the scattered high rise condos.  Even here, there is lots of ocean access.  Every 4 or 5 houses, there is a public trail between the houses, leading down to the beach.

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East End Panama City Beach
WestEnd
West End Panama City Beach

Our arrival falls within a “shoulder” season for PCB.  After Christmas, the snowbird retirees start showing up for their couple of months in the sun.  Roaming the city, it seems to me that there is a higher than normal distribution of grey haired people.  Traffic dawdles, checkout lines move slowly, Fox News is on the TV in the bar and the geezers are bloviating about current events.  The temperatures are only in the 50s and 60s so the beach is lightly dotted with strolling people wearing windbreakers.

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Strollers on the beach on a cool January day.

From all reports though, senior season would probably suit me better than Spring Break season in March.  An estimated 100,000 alcohol and hormone fueled college kids descend on the city for the annual bacchanalia.  It must be a mixed blessing for the city: millions of dollars flowing in, thousands of drunk and disorderly kids raising hell with the city and beach.  Maybe if I was about 40 years younger, it would be heaven.  Today it would be more hell.  Sigh!!  Maybe you gain wisdom with age, but it was sure fun being foolish.

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Spring breakers on the beach.

For a city with so much to do, we did not do a lot.  We walked the beach a few times, strolled a pier, did some shopping at the malls, ate way too much BBQ.  One day we explored the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Odditorium.  Of course we sampled lots of Florida beers, but there are not many breweries on the Florida coast.  Mostly we relaxed and enjoyed watching the waves roll in.

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Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Some pets?

Marylu says she would consider living here, near the coast so she could visit the ocean when it gets hot.  Ninety degrees is not extremely horrible and there are sea breezes.  I checked though, and the summer dew point averages 78º here, compared to 68º in Minnesota.  I spent many summers wilting like last week’s lettuce, in the sauna that Minnesota can occasionally be.  I would dread doing that for months at a time, beach or not.  And what do us older folks do when the town is overrun with drunken college kids?  Hide out?  Vacation in Poinciana?  I don’t think so.

Next up: Louisiana

Poinciana, Florida 1/2/16 – 1/8/16

From Alan –

Population = 53,193 (part of Orlando – Kissimmee – Sanford metro area = 2,134,411), latitude 28º 9’ N, Longitude 81º 28’ W, elevation 60 feet, average January low temperature = 49.4, Average July high temperature = 91, average sunny days = 237, annual snowfall = 0, annual rainfall = 50.7”

Driving around town, I would describe Poinciana as a suburb of a suburb of a huge city.  Unfortunately, that also means that there is only one main highway that runs through the center of town.  That highway is in an almost constant state of clog with harried commuters and bellowing emergency vehicles vying for position.  At one of the shopping centers, we found it better to drive an extra mile to a stop light, rather than try to make a left turn onto the highway.  This affects people’s attitudes about driving too.  Whenever there is the slightest break in traffic, somebody is burning rubber to squeeze into it.

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Caught in traffic again.

On our first night here, we stopped at the Walmart for groceries.  This huge building is joined to a strip mall, located on the edge of a vast expanse of asphalt that has been cut up with roadways, more strip malls, and little islands containing grass and small trees whose leaves start right about eye level so a person can’t see where anything is.  Navigating into this mess after dark was bewildering and dealing with traffic was terrifying.  When I commented to a clerk how everybody in town appears to be out either shopping or drag racing, she agreed and told me that that is all there is to do here.  After a few days here, I have to agree.  There are a few shopping malls with a handful of fast food restaurants, and that is about it.

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Downtown Poinciana

A couple of days later, we decided to find a local brewery.  The closest is in Kissimmee, BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse.  Google maps says it is only about a half hour drive.  The beers are excellent and the happy hour eats are great.  After a little side trip to the Skechers shoe store for some comfy new shoes, we set off homeward.  The frontage road runs into the highway and we squeeze into a slow moving traffic jam.  For most of the next hour we are in a stop and go gridlock, watching each next light change a few times before we can get through it.  Closer to Poinciana, traffic gets a little faster but there is still a lot of it.  There are long stretches of roadway without traffic lights and I pity the poor people who live there who must risk life and limb to execute  a left turn.

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Happy hour at BJs
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Self portrait, with beer and pitchfork.

The best restaurant we found in Poinciana was the Grille at Stonegate, in the Solivita gated community.  Solivita is pretty amazing.  It is a country club for the 55+ year olds with two 18-hole golf courses, lots of open park land, walking trails, a softball diamond, lakes, and a quaint little downtown with shops, restaurants, a bank, a ballroom, a spa, and a billiard room.  We played golf there twice and found the course interesting, challenging, nicely kept, and laced with lush groves of palms and other tropical trees wearing droopy garlands of Spanish moss.  It is nice to play a golf course that is not completely edged with condos and houses.  We even met some of the resident alligators.

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Downtown Solivita
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One of the water hazards on the golf course.

Poinciana was a slow week for us.  Nothing much to do but read, write, play some golf, relax.  Next time we pass through Florida, we’ll try a different route.  Grabbing the last minute deals can land us nice resorts, but it can also land us in dull suburbs.

Next stop: more Florida, but with ocean

Marylu – Naples and Poinciana

I’ve forgotten to mention our mileage lately.  When we left Minnesota, it was 53410; on January 5, 2016, during our stay in Poinciana, Florida, it turned to 58178.

Getting waves of random thoughts lately – usually at night when I’m trying to settle into a good sleep.  I miss my bed…Happy we decided to bring our own pillows…Wish we could have stayed in Memphis and Nashville…Wonder what the buyer did to our house…Golf is going to be tough if I don’t get to sleep soon…Are we really going to live in Mexico for a month…Don’t forget to ask Jan about our 50th class reunionDid we put the nightlight in the bathroom…Where is the bathroom?

One advantage of staying a couple of weeks, as we did in Naples, it’s easier to find things including the bathroom in the middle of the night!

I loved the condo unit we rented.  It was fresh, light and had happy decor, to me that meant “joie de vivre” and a welcome-home feeling.

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Happy, Comfy Home

 

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Sign above the counter “Just Another Day in Paradise”

 

Relaxing on the Lanai
Relaxing on the Lanai

Our snowbird friends, Fred and Shari, planned a few activities to help us adjust to life in Florida.  Highlights of our two weeks included dinner at their place, dining out; dinner, bocce ball, and dominoes at “our” place with more Minnesota snowbirds,

Dominoes at Our Place

Dominoes with Snowbirds

Christmas Eve dinner at a Chinese restaurant with Alan (traditional for Alan),

Christmas Eve Dinner
Forgot to take a before picture!

visiting a brew pub (twice), swimming in the huge pool at our resort a couple of times, golf, bocce ball games, a carriage ride in downtown Naples to see the Christmas lights,

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Naples Decorates Palm Trees at Christmas

went to see Star Wars followed by lobster dinner for me, and fireworks at the beach.  Wow – we did do a lot in two weeks!  Oh, laundry, always laundry.

If we were able to (affordability) and going to pick four states in which to maintain homes, I would consider some parts of Florida for a likely location.  There are lots of things to do, the weather can be great, and we could see our snowbird friends from time to time.  Hmm, make that six or more states.

After spending a week in Poinciana, Florida, I’m sorry to say it would not make the cut.  Our “resort” was more like an apartment complex with a tennis court and an outdoor pool, both of which were visible from the major highway running along the front.  There wasn’t much to do other than play tennis (we’re not players) or golf (did play twice).  We stopped by the Community Center to check out activities; unfortunately, there were just two – dominoes and quilting.  We thought we might meet people by joining in a game of dominoes – surprise!  There were about 7 groups of men having a blast, laughing, shouting in Spanish, and slamming the dominoes on the tables while tossing insults at their opponents. We watched for awhile and decided we’d never figure out their rules; we’re only on lesson three of our Spanish CDs.

Highlights of our Poinciana Week

Onward to Panama City Beach, Florida, and white, drifting sand.  We’re not expecting to snorkel, swim or sunbath as the weather isn’t going to be great.  At least we won’t be shoveling white, drifting snow … we hope.

Naples, Florida 12/19/15 – 1/1/16

From Alan –

Naples, Florida: Population = 22,390 (metro area = 322,000), latitude 26º 8’ N, Longitude 81º 47’ W, elevation 14 feet, average January low temperature = 54.1, Average July high temperature = 91, average sunny days = 264, annual snowfall = 0, annual rainfall = 53.9”

According to Wikipedia, southern Florida has a tropical savanna climate.  This gives rise to many beautiful and exotic plants and animals.  In Naples, it is a manicured jungle of many varieties of palm, short and tall, as well as other strange and exotic plants and flowers of all descriptions.  Butterflies flutter around on their butterfly business, basking in the perpetual summer that is Florida.  Little lizards scurry quickly across the walls.  Strange, colorful birds from land and sea cruise the treetops.  The occasional alligator contemplates golfers passing by their water hazard.  We hear reports of bear sightings in communities next to wilderness areas.

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A little visitor.
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Spanish moss hanging from the pines.

Our “home” for these two weeks is in Falling Waters, a gated community situated in a long row of gated communities.  Ours features a huge swimming pool, tennis courts, and, my favorite feature, two screened-in, ceiling fanned, tabletop flat bocce ball courts.  SO much better than our old lumpy back yard.  They also have a nice clubhouse and a full list of events and get-togethers for the residents.  Some of the residents actually live here all year.

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The Falling Waters swimming pool.

There is no golf course here, but our good friends, Fred and Shari Bean, live in another gated community just across the street that does have one.  The golf course concierge bounced me twice when I first attempted to play there; once for cargo shorts, and again for blue jeans.  Apparently golf is a much more formal pursuit here than it is elsewhere.  Classy guy that I am, I found a Salvation Army the next day and invested in two pairs of non-jean shorts with just the required number of pockets.  Now I may join the gentility for a lovely game of golf, as long as I follow the other rules and tip the staff.

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Countryside Golf Course, somewhere on the front 9.

On a Tuesday night we joined the Beans for dinner downtown.  After Asheville’s narrow little roads and lack of parking, I marvel at the wide expanses of roadways here: curb, gutter, bike lane, shoulders, sidewalks, multiple turn lanes, reflectors outlining lanes, helpful signage!  There are a few confusing, multiple lane splits in the road into downtown, but the locals have no trouble zooming around the yokels with South Dakota plates.  In fact, for the little sports cars, it appears to be a game they play.

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A well-appointed street in Naples.

Downtown is heavily draped in decorative lighting.  The tall palm trees are wrapped; the storefronts outlined.  We deposit Gypsy in a huge parking lot, not too close to the Maseratis and Bentleys and Ferraris that lurk there, glaring at lesser vehicles with utter contempt, much like their owners.  Naples is one of the richest cities in the USA and downtown we see lots of money on the hoof, shopping the galleries and jewelry stores and dining at the latest trendy upscale eatery.  When one has multiple houses, one simply must have one in Naples for the winter.

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My NEXT car.

On New years Eve, the residents of Naples have a fun tradition.  Everyone gathers their “crew” and heads to the beach.  They form circles of beach chairs and have potluck dinner and drinks.  Just after sunset, hundreds of people fire up Chinese sky lanterns and fill the sky with little bits of fire, rising into the air.  OK, so they are a fire hazard and technically illegal on the beach, but they are still beautiful to watch.  About 7:30 the barge offshore lights up the mortars and the fireworks begin.

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New Year’s Eve on the beach
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Launching Chinese sky lanterns

Naples is a beautiful city, but not one I could ever settle in.  The summer weather is too just intolerable.  At a house party on Christmas day, I heard the same old justification for Florida. ”In the summer you jump from air conditioned home to car to shop, avoiding the heat.  In Minnesota you jump from heated home to car to shop, avoiding the cold.”  My response was that, when it’s cold, you can put on a jacket and you are fine.  When it’s hot, you can take off everything and you are still hot.  And you know what they say about humidity.  Florida has that by the buckets.

Next up: more Florida