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Posts Tagged ‘Mississippi River’


The “Egg Master” himself, Chuck, was in control of the kitchen at our bed and breakfast on our second morning. After a refreshing bowl of grapefruit he delivered a consummate omelette with sausages, rounded off (literally) with delicious homemade scones.

The weather, if a few degrees cooler than yesterday, was equally glorious. There was not a cloud in the sky, perfect for a day at the zoo. We were staying nearly an hour’s walk from its home in Forest Park, and, at that time of day, Uber prices were prohibitive, so we decided to take the car.

One of the best features of the zoo is that it is entirely free, based on a public subsidy from a cultural tax district. However, it is $15 to park close to the entrance, so we drove around for a few minutes until we found a suitable parking spot on the road.

On our arrival, we had a pleasant five minute chat about both our road trip so far and life back in the UK with a charming greeter named Bonnie. But it was other personnel that we were more interested in engaging with, and we finally prised ourselves away.

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Recently voted Best Zoo and America’s Top Free Attraction, St. Louis Zoo is recognised as one of the world’s leading zoos in animal management, research, conservation, and education.  After it was established in 1910, new exhibits, areas and buildings were added through the decades to improve care of the animals, the range of animals and habitats shown, as well as education and interpretation.

Around three million visitors a year now enjoy more than 16,000 animals in the Zoo’s care, many of them rare and endangered (the animals that is, not the visitors).

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The zoo is structured around seven discrete areas, namely River’s Edge, Discovery Corner, Lakeside Crossing, The Wild, Historic Hill, Red Rocks and the recently opened Grizzly Ridge. There are fourteen eating and dining options dotted around the park as well as eight places to shop.

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We were immediately struck by just how welcoming and contented the animals appeared. We were accustomed, for example, to watching polar bears pacing backwards and forwards in a seemingly agitated state, rather than sitting comfortably and “smiling” into visitors’ cameras.

Most of the residents, with the customary exception of the big cats who were sleeping and/or hiding, seemed only too happy to pose for photographs.

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A delightful feature, especially for the children, is the two foot narrow gauge Emerson Zooline Railroad with passenger trains pulled by locomotives that encircle the zoo, stopping at the more popular attractions.

I spent the whole day chasing it around the park, trying to get a decent picture. Finally, I managed to capture these shots!

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With Halloween less than a month away, there were many scary and ghoulish exhibits either already set up or in the process of being built throughout the park.

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There is a ongoing debate over which is the better zoo – St. Louis or San Diego. We had visited the California park in 2006, and the passing of time renders comparison difficult. I seem to recall that San Diego appeared bigger and busier, but, if pressed, I would argue that St. Louis was a pleasanter day out, especially as the animals had been so accommodating.

It was now time to hop in the car and drive downtown to take those photographs of the Gateway Arch while the weather was still beautiful.

I had already planned to take a photo of the Old Courthouse with the Arch as backdrop, but I hadn’t noticed the fountain and statue before, which, I think, made the image even more spectacular.

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It was too late to take a riverboat ride on the Mississippi.

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It was our last night, and we wanted to eat locally. There were a number of restaurants on South Grand Boulevard, around a twenty minute walk from our B & B. We set off with the intention of dining at a popular Italian restaurant, Gian-Tony’s, but we were not enamoured of its interior from outside.

After a fruitless ten minutes peering through other windows, we came across Rooster. A modern brunch spot of some repute, the menu was perhaps a little limited for a last night meal, but, after a lengthy wait, we did enjoy our salmon savoury crepe and   chicken and goat’s cheese salad respectively.

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On our way back to the B & B, we fell fortuitously into Riley’s Pub on Arsenal Street where the gin and tonics were not $12, not $10, not even $5 but $3!!! Needless to say, we had more than the planned one.

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Apart from our last night and Chuck’s next culinary masterpiece at breakfast, our St. Louis adventure was over – at least for now.

As with the previous cities, we had only scratched the surface of its appeal. Yes, we had climbed the Arch, roamed around the wonderful zoo and explored the City Museum. But we had not seen any of the other fine museums, taken a tour of the ballpark or the blues museum, or tackled the shops and restaurants of the Delmar Loop neighbourhood, regarded as one of the most vibrant streets in the country.

So we will certainly be back!

But first, there was a glass of port and Stephen Colbert to contend with.

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According to most online reviews, one of the biggest benefits of staying in our St. Louis accommodation was the size and quality of the breakfast. And our landlady, Magretta, advised us on our first evening, that, such was his talent, she referred to her mild-mannered Japanese husband, Chuck, the “Egg Master”.

But it was Magretta herself who was responsible for our important first meal of the day on our first morning. The elegant dining table was laid out immaculately with the best china as the first course of melon was delivered. This was followed by scrambled egg and bacon, presented in an unusual and attractive way, and topped off with unlimited supplies (if we could have eaten them) of aebleskivers (Danish pancake balls). We joked at the time that, for the first time on the trip, we would not be in need of lunch – and we were proved right!

Throughout the meal we were watched over by Spike the terrier, though he had been trained not to beg for food. Mind you, I am sure he would have pounced gleefully on anything accidentally dropped from the table.

Although there were two other rooms in the house, we were the only occupants for the first two of our three night stay. So we enjoyed the full attention of our hosts.

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We were already aware of the Gateway Arch, the reputation enjoyed by its world class zoo, and, of course, its key role in the history of the blues and rock ‘n’ roll (Chuck Berry was born there), but St Louis was probably, of all the cities we were visiting, the least familiar.

And it was a dull, drizzly morning when we climbed into our Uber car to head downtown. In view of the much improved forecast for later that afternoon, we decided to spend the morning exploring an indoor attraction, namely the City Museum, which had been recommended by Magretta.

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We didn’t know what to expect, so were astonished by this former International Shoe building, whose exhibits consisted principally of repurposed architectural and industrial objects.

Opened in 1997, the museum, described as “one of the great open spaces”, attracts three quarters of a million people per year, and it was not difficult to see why. Whilst we were unable to access the rooftop theme park due to the intermittent rain, there was plenty of interest and entertainment in the remaining four floors of this eclectic, quirky space.

We spent the first part of our tour underground in the “enchanted caves”, a maze of tunnels which was a child’s paradise, judging by the number that ran around squealing with delight and popping up unexpectedly from below or through walls as we walked around.

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Every corner turned, every staircase mounted, revealed something new and surprising.

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Amidst all the industrial exhibits, including bank vault doors and machinery used to make fuselages for small airplanes, there were many more frivolous pieces such as a circus school, the world’s largest pair of men’s underpants (seven feet high by seven feet wide) and the world’s largest pencil (76 feet).

I did say it was quirky, didn’t I?

Another was an approximately seven foot high statue of the mascot of the Big Boy hamburger chain – a chubby boy in red and white checkered overalls holding a double decker cheeseburger.

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True to the forecast, the day was taking a turn for the better as we left the museum and walked down Washington Street towards the waterfront. But it was time for a drink (not lunch – Magretta had seen to that), which we had in Tigin, a friendly Irish pub, before heading to the Gateway Arch for our ride to the top.

Clad in stainless steel and built in the form of a weighted catenary arch, it is the world’s tallest arch and the world’s tallest man made monument in the Western Hemisphere. It was built as testimony to the westward expansion of the United States and officially dedicated to the “American people”. Unsurprisingly , it has become an internationally recognised symbol of St. Louis, as well as a popular tourist destination.

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The Arch was designed by Finish-American architect Eero Saarinen in 1947 and built between 12th February 1963 and 28th October 1965 for $13 million ($77.5 million in today’s currency). It opened to the public on 10th June 1967. 

The first part of the tour, as so often in the United States, was a movie, Monument to the Dream, detailing the history of the Arch’s construction. We were astounded  to learn that there had not been a single fatality, not least as the film showed men, cigarettes poking out of the corners of their mouths, casually strolling along girders hundreds of feet in the air without the hint of a safety harness.

The tram ride to the top lasts four minutes, a more manageable journey than the 1,076 emergency stairs. Alighting at the top, passengers climb a slight gradient to reach the observation area with its sixteen narrow windows either side.

The views are exhilarating, especially those of the Mississippi River, Busch Stadium, home to the St Louis Cardinals baseball team and the beautifully restored federal courthouse.

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By this time, we had resolved to devote our second day in town, which was forecast to boast a clear blue sky, though cool, to a visit to St Louis Zoo, but allow us enough time to return to the Arch to take some more photographs, from ground level on this occasion.

Once down on terra firma, we spent a fascinating hour or more roaming among the exhibits of the outstanding Museum of Westward Expansion at the foot of the Arch.

Aside from the excellent information videos and displays, the recreations of a covered wagon and a full size buffalo particularly impressed me.

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Magretta’s ample breakfast was, by now, finally wearing off, so we began the search for a dinner spot. We found a modern Mexican restaurant, Gringo’s, a couple of doors up from the National Blues Museum, which had unfortunately closed for the day. Once again, the meal (mine was a satisfyingly chunky burrito) was excellent and the service hospitable without being effusive.

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We called an Uber to return to the house, where we found Magretta and Chuck diligently packaging items for their online crystal sales business. Spike and Haley were dutifully sat at their feet.

One of the many other nice touches about this accommodation was the communal room on the floor below us which contained reading material, snacks and decanters with port and sherry in them! It had already become Janet’s habit to take a glass of port back to our room to watch the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which had itself become part of our daily routine (when we not still out on the town of course).

We had throughly enjoyed our first day in St Louis.

And we were going to the zoo tomorrow –  how about you?

 

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After a restful night in our lovely suburban cottage, it was time to explore downtown Memphis (our other full day would be dedicated largely to Graceland).

And where else to start than legendary Sun Studio, the “birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll”?

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This was one of the moments on the trip that I had most been looking forward to. And it proved more moving than even I had expected.

Record producer, Sam Phillips, opened the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue on 3rd January 1950. But it was not until 18th July 1953 that an eighteen year old boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, named Elvis Aaron Presley, dropped in to record an acetate for his mother’s birthday, that the studio earned its place in rock ‘n roll history.

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Phillips was not immediately impressed until, in a ‘break” in auditioning, Elvis grabbed the microphone and launched into Big Boy Crudup’s That’s All Right that he realised this was a unique talent.

When our tour guide, Graham, played us those pieces, I confess that I was in tears. These were pivotal and emotional moments, not only in music history, but also in the chronicles of modern times.

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Janet, who alone among a group of about twenty guests, contrived to position herself on the exact spot where Elvis stood on that fateful day, took the opportunity to stand at the microphone – though, thankfully, she remained mute.

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The other heart-rending moment was listening to an original recording from the equally fabled “Million Dollar Quartet” jam session performed by Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis on 4th December 1956 – pure gold!

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Aside from the musical gems (there were many others), we were permitted to explore some of the priceless artefacts that adorned the walls, including recording equipment, posters  and original discs.

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The tour may only have lasted around 45 minutes but it was a breathtaking experience.

Leaving Sun Studio we walked down Monroe Avenue, stopping at regular intervals to enjoy the “Rock Walk” signs. In addition to the two shown below, others included Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf and Ike Turner.

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As we entered downtown we were able to investigate the compact and attractive Memphis Redbirds ballpark. It is a shame that such a major city as Memphis only has a Minor League team, but American sports are largely closed doors. I dare say, however,  that the team’s supporters will be no less fanatical than they are in New York, Boston or San Francisco.

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Another of the essential tourist experiences in Memphis is a visit to the Peabody Hotel, where twice a day at 11am and 5pm, a group of ducks are marched to and from their rooftop palace to the lobby fountain on the ground floor, where they spend the intervening hours.

It was after midday when we wandered through the lobby, so they were already blithely floating round their daytime home. We did not plan to return at the moment they returned to the “Royal Duck Palace”.

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After a tasty lunch of grilled cheese, chunky fries and wine at Automatic Slims, we began to explore the Beale Street area. Although we could hear live music emanating from some of the bars, it was much quieter in early afternoon than we would discover later in the evening.

Beale Street has been the beating heart of Memphis for over a century. The promise of musical stardom has lured musicians such as Gus Cannon, Furry Lewis and the wonderful Memphis Minnie from nearby Mississippi. Since the end of the Second World War, many – Elvis, BB King and Rufus Tomas included – became blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll recording stars.

But more of Beale Street later.

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Time for yet another music museum. This time, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum on 3rd Street (B.B. King Boulevard), described by the Performing Songwriter Magazine as arguably the “single best exhibition of American musical history in the country”.

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And a superb exhibition it is as it tells the important story of those “musical pioneers who overcame racial and socio-economic obstacles to create the music that changed the cultural complexion of the world”.

It begins with rural field hollers and sharecroppers of the thirties, through the explosion of Sun, Stax, and Hi Records, inside Memphis’ musical heyday in the seventies, to its global musical influence. A digital audio tour guide highlights a series of tableaux and includes over five hours of information, is packed with over 300 minutes of information and more than 100 songs.

You can wander around the museum at your own pace through seven galleries featuring three audio visual programmes, more than thirty instruments, forty costumes, and other musical treasures.

I was especially enamoured of the collection of juke boxes dotted around the museum, enabling you to select favourite songs from comprehensive lists for each era and style.

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Returning from the air conditioning of the museum into the heat of the street, an experience we endured with varying degrees of comfort over the whole trip, at least until now (and later Nashville), we strolled down to the riverfront alongside the Hernando Desoto Bridge that spanned the Mississippi.

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Unlike New Orleans, where we rode three lines of streetcars, we did not really have time to experience the Memphis version, though they are clearly an attractive and valuable addition to the city transportation system.

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There was some imaginative, locally themed street artwork around downtown too.

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As dusk fell, we went in search on Beale Street for live music and dinner. Our first port of call was the Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cafe and Honky Tonk where Jason James, with an excellent band, gave an energetic and authentic performance to a packed out crowd.

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After a couple of beers there, we wandered around, checking each bar in turn and visiting the gift shops. It was still relatively early in the evening but the street was filling up. The atmosphere was noisy and high-spirited, but we found it less threatening than Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The clear police presence at either end may have contributed to that of course.

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We selected the Rum Boogie Cafe, one of the most celebrated nightclubs in the city. Sybil Thomas, youngest daughter of Rufus and sister of Carla, delivered a high energy of soul and funk classics with her equally dynamic band while we had dinner.

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With the much anticipated trip to Graceland in the morning, we called an Uber at the bottom of Beale Street to take us back to the cottage in East Memphis.

 

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Continuing the theme of following recommendations from friends who had visited New Orleans before, we took breakfast on our final full day in town at the legendary Brennan’s restaurant on Royal Street. It had undergone a huge renovation in 2014 and been restored to its former 1940s glory.

And a delightful experience it was. Southern hospitality was taken to a new level as we were greeted and served by what was described as a “team” of servers, all of whom could not do enough for us. Moreover, they were dazzled by the details of our road trip.

Although you might not have guessed it from his appearance (a smart suit took the place of a tie-dye shirt), the Maitre D’ was a Deadhead and had seen many of the Dead and Company concerts on their recent summer tour. We agreed that whilst John Mayer was not Jerry Garcia, he was a great interpreter of the music and an amazing blues guitarist.

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The beautiful decor and attentive service were matched by the outstanding food (I had a delicious eggs benedict) and the best coffee we had drunk so far.

As we walked back towards Canal Street we stumbled across the Magnolia Praline Company premises, a vibrant and enticing emporium selling hot sauces and pralines. The murals that adorned the walls were as entertaining as the samples of their produce were mouthwatering.

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We were so enamoured of the hot sauce samples that I posted a photograph of a couple of bottles on Facebook. This led to an order from a restaurant owner in our hometown of Folkestone! Whilst I was only too pleased to buy the two bottles, I did wonder how many t-shirts I would not now be able to purchase because of the increase in weight of our baggage on our return home (only joking, Fiona!).

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But enough of food (for now at least).

The primary objective of the day was to ride the three main streetcar lines, both to experience this quaint and old-fashioned mode of travel (we love riding the cars in San Francisco), and to see other parts of the city at little cost and without wearing ourselves out.

We purchased our “Jazzy Passes” (what a great name) for the exorbitant (sic) cost of $3 each for the day and boarded the Canal Street car bound for City Park.

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Given that they tend to move in a sedate fashion, streetcars nowadays are viewed more as tourist attractions than a way of getting quickly from A to B. But they are redolent of a slower, more graceful age.

They also invariably provide the theatre for some of both the most humorous and unpleasant examples of human behaviour. Our streetcar was no exception as an elderly man contrived to fall through one of the seats, necessitating a visit from a clearly disgruntled driver who insisted, on putting it back together herself.

The fact that New Orleans is technically below sea level, and that deep digging is not permitted in some areas, people are usually buried above ground rather than below. A visit to the city would not, therefore, be complete without a visit to one of the extraordinary cemeteries found throughout.

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The Canal Street car brought us to the Cypress Grove cemetery which we wandered around for an hour. The images here are just a sample of the many stunning tombs, large and small, that inhabited the park. Unfortunately, the spectacular St Louis cemetery appeared to be closed.

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On our return to the city, we had an iced coffee in Starbuck’s in the Sheraton hotel lobby before searching for the nearest St Charles Streetcar which would transport us to the Garden District.

Unlike the Canal Street cars, which ran every couple of minutes, it was immediately apparent that this was a more infrequent service. It was twenty minutes before we were able to board, along with around thirty other people. Fortunately, we managed to get seats. With each succeeding stop, more passengers got on, rendering it a slow and uncomfortable journey to Washington Avenue when we squeezed ourselves through the hordes to get off.

We had had our fill of cemeteries for one day, so decided to walk back to our hotel (a punishing journey in the heat) rather than pay a visit to the famous Lafayette Cemetery that lay in front of us.

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The Garden District, which was developed in 1832 on the Livaudais Plantation, extends over much of the city and was founded by the settlers who built houses and commercial properties here.  Wealthy bankers, merchants and planters built grand mansions surrounding by luxuriant gardens.

As we strolled along this avenue of extravagance and opulence, I could not help feeling a pang of uneasiness that these gorgeous buildings had been in many cases created by slave labour. It would not be the first or last time that this response would, if only momentarily, overcome me on this trip.

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After packing we went out again at 7pm, intending to take the Riverfront Streetcar to the French Quarter. The drizzle that had characterised much of our stay in New Orleans had returned to annoy us again. At least we managed to get under cover for the twenty minute wait for our car.

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And then, as we approached Toulouse Street, only half way on our journey, the driver informed us that, due to some filming going up ahead, we would have to leave the streetcar.

We had planned to eat at the House of Blues on Bourbon Street, but en route we passed, or rather didn’t pass, BB King’s Blues Club, which had been another friend’s recommendation.

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We arrived shortly before the first band ended their set. We sat upstairs with a passable view of the stage as the second band entertained us with a mix of soul and funk. Catfish and shrimp, accompanied by two cocktails, was our final and tasty meal in New Orleans.

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Our first visit to the city was now effectively over. Whilst we had crammed as much was we could into our three days and four nights, there was still much to see and experience. Most great cities need at least a week even to begin to embrace their heart and soul.

We will be back!

But for now, the road beckoned!

 

 

 

 

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Day two of three in the Big Easy was going to involve a lot of water. Firstly, we had booked a four hour swamp and bayou sightseeing tour.  And in the evening, we had made a reservation on the three hour dinner jazz cruise on the Creole Queen paddlewheel steamboat, a staple on the Mississippi since 1983.

Although we were unlikely to get wet during either event, the weather gods had lived up to the previous evening’s predictions by unleashing torrential rain upon us as we embarked upon the ten minute walk from the hotel. With characteristic British stiff upper lip we had made a conscious (and doubtful) decision not to purchase an umbrella, relying on our waterproof jackets.

With near ninety degree temperatures dictating that the rest of our attire need not consist of more than t-shirts, shorts and sandals, it was inevitable that we would still get drenched, standing for nearly half an hour waiting for the feeder bus under the wholly inadequate cover afforded by the ticket booth.

The Cajun Pride launch point from where we were to take our boat was a thirty five minute ride away. By the time we pulled in alongside the lush Manchac Swamp in Laplace among the South Louisiana bayous for our 12.45am start, the rain had abated and was to stop altogether once we were on the water.

As we stepped onto our boat we were greeted by one of the locals with some timely advice.

Within minutes the senior residents of the swamp introduced themselves. These were American Alligators, whom it transpired, were particularly partial to marshmallows.

Or not.

I think it might just be a droll way to entertain the gullible tourists.

The moment our boat captain, Danny, rustled in his bag of marshmallows and hurled them overboard, the alligators tucked in.

“Captain Danny” proved the most knowledgable, amusing and skilled tour guide imaginable. His deadpan southern drawl only added to the appeal. And he never drew breath throughout the tour, except to answer questions.

 

The most fascinating story involved the legendary voodoo queen, Julia Brown, who would sit by the bayou frightening anyone who passed. On the day of her funeral in 1915, she could be heard wailing over and over again “One day, I’m gonna die, and I’m gonna take all of you with me”.

Shortly afterwards, a devastating hurricane wreaked havoc in the area, completely destroying three villages and killing hundreds of people. There were reminders of the event on the swamp.

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Whilst the alligators were the stars of the show, we saw other wildlife, notably a colony of raccoons, who wandered down to the bayou’s edge as we passed. Soft shelled turtles, egrets and squirrels also made periodic appearances.

But the highlight of the ride was the opportunity to handle Bruce, a baby alligator whom Danny plucked from a large cool box towards the end of the tour. Although Bruce was still young and remarkably well behaved, his gnashers were still sufficiently sharp to inflict damage on a human, hence the muzzle.

The tour was one of our most enjoyable, informative and entertaining. Even the sun eventually made an appearance.

But light rain had returned by the time we were required to check in on the Creole Queen at 6pm for our dinner jazz cruise, scheduled to commence an hour later. However, probably because of the inclement weather, we were welcomed on to the boat and into the elegant dining room early. We were already demolishing the first plate of our Creole buffet when the majority of diners were ushered in.

Jambalaya, gumbo, red beans and rice, seafood pasta, meats and cornbread all featured on the menu. I cannot report what the dessert might have been as we never got past the main course. On reflection, it was the least satisfying of the four evening meals we consumed in New Orleans, but that is not intended as a criticism. Whilst I can’t claim I lose my appetite at buffets, I do wish I was able to take more advantage of the unlimited food available and get full value for money.

The boat moved away from the dock promptly as dusk, unveiling fine views of the Mississippi riverfront.

As the dining room filled up, and we became surrounded on all sides, we retired to the upper deck with our wine to enjoy the local Dixieland jazz band in the balmy evening air. Every song you would associate with the city was played, and the drummer and lead singer was also an engaging raconteur.

As we approached the dock at the end of the cruise we went in search of our server as we hadn’t yet paid for our food and drink! Moreover, once we had tracked him down, he seemed unconcerned, even surprised that we had sought him out after everybody else was a-pushin’ and a-shovin’ to disembark.

It had been a long day surrounded by water – from above and below – but a satisfying taste of Louisiana history and culture. With another busy day planned for tomorrow, we returned to our hotel for a gin and tonic at the bar.

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We had three full days in New Orleans, one of which would be largely given over to organised sightseeing tours, so we had to make the most of the remaining time.

Having ticked Pat O’Brien’s off our “must indulge” list, it was time on our first morning to sample the revered breakfast dish of beignets, deep fried doughnuts sprayed with powdered sugar. This would not have been my first choice – eggs, bacon, sausage and toast will always lay claim to that title – but we acknowledged that it was incumbent upon any new visitor to the city to try them at least once.

Mindful of the long lines that accumulate outside Cafe du Monde in the morning, combined with fact that, following the previous night’s drinking, we had not risen early, we decided to tuck into them at the first opportunity, which turned out to be Cafe Beignet on Decatur Street. Ironically, by the time we had reached the flagship branch later, there was no line at all, though a healthy crowd were being entertained by a lively jazz band.

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At Jackson Square, former military drill field, “Place d’Armes”, we explored both the magnificent St Louis Cathedral and the statue of Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States and previously military leader responsible for defeating the British in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

One thing that struck me – though it really shouldn’t have – was the number of walking tours being delivered in the area, some well supported, others less so. There were several underway of the French Quarter, but this only scratched the surface as, amongst others, there were tours available to cover the New Orleans’s history, ghosts, voodoo, cemeteries, food and drink as well as for other parts of the city, for example the Garden District, home to the Lafayette Cemetery and dozens of monumental antebellum mansions.

There were several conspicuous reminders around the area that the city was celebrating its 300th anniversary.

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I called into the visitor centre and was greeted with that genuine, warm southern hospitality that we were already becoming accustomed to. Two delightful ladies of undoubted pensionable age directed me to the impressive, free official visitors guides to the city and state. As I turned to leave, they exclaimed in unison, “y’all have a nice day, now”.

After such a cheerful salutation, how could I not?

We wanted to make the most of the improvement in the weather (the sun had even made an occasional appearance), so decided against visiting any museums, much as we may have wanted to. These will have to wait for our return (for return we shall) on a later date.

And we were getting peckish again.

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One and a half beignets each was hardly going to fill us up, so we were, or rather I was, delighted shortly afterwards to spot the Central Grocery, home to the equally legendary muffuletta, a massive layered olive salad, meats and cheese sandwich drizzled with olive oil. We sat in the store and devoured one half of the half sized muffuletta (not cheap at $11.50) before moving on.

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We continued to stroll along Decatur Street until it met Esplanade Avenue, the boundary between the French Quarter and the Faubourg Marigny district. With light rain falling again, it was reassuring to discover the indoor French Market which ran alongside the riverfront.

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Given the number of jewellery, as well as craft, stalls available, it was only a matter of time before Janet purchased her first earrings of the trip.

Although there is no substitute to eating the fabulous food that New Orleans has to offer, just reading the menu boards, as at this stall in the French Market can be almost as satisfying – I repeat almost.


It certainly served to remind us that we still had half a muffuletta left, which we devoured in triangular shaped Latrobe Park after first having had cocktails at the Gazebo Cafe (we had fully sobered up by now), whilst being thoroughly entertained by another accomplished band playing a number of New Orleans classics.

Our intention all along today had been to saunter back along the riverfront, or “Moon Walk”, from the furthest reaches of the French Quarter, and we were not going to allow the steady drizzle to deter us. Our first glimpse of the Mississippi River, which is to feature so prominently on this trip, was framed by the Greater New Orleans Bridge.

The pretty red Riverfront streetcar pulled into Toulouse Station, evoking memories of those rattling, cranky vehicles in San Francisco that we had ridden so many times before (and sometimes seemed we had spent half our lives on). We planned to travel the three main lines here on our final day.

The riverfront amble also gave us the opportunity to compare the two paddlewheel steamboats that we had considered for our dinner jazz cruise on the next evening. As we approached, the Natchez, images of which, including a giant mural, we had already witnessed around the city was herding its latest group of passengers off the boat. It looked a little chaotic to be honest.

We had already booked the Creole Queen for the following evening, a decision that already looked vindicated. It appeared smaller and more intimate. The Mardi Gras character pictured below seemed to be promoting it too.

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A brief exploration of the Outlet Collection at Riverfront, including a coffee at another branch of Cafe du Monde, prefaced a return to the hotel, negotiating the noisy and substantial building works that were upgrading the area still further.

We returned to the French Quarter in the evening, enjoying another outstanding seafood meal at Oceana on Conti Street, a few yards from the intersection with Bourbon Street. Bypassing the growing drunkenness and debauchery infecting the whole area, we returned to the Red Fish Grill where we had eaten the previous night, for a nightcap in their quiet, civilised bar.

Tomorrow would be a different day with water having the starring role. We had booked a swamp and bayou sightseeing tour for the morning/afternoon and the aforementioned jazz dinner cruise in the evening.

And the weather forecast was for heavy rain and thunderstorms!

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The idea for this trip came thirteen years ago when I bought the book entitled The Blues Highway: A Travel and Music Book by Richard Knight.

But then, as we were on the point of booking the trip, Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans, the planned starting point for the trip. We resolved then that we would wait to do it when life in the city had returned to some semblance of normality.

In 2012, we did finally embark on a road trip, but in a very different part of the country – the National Parks of the South West, covering the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

Setting off from Las Vegas, our expedition took in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell, Monument Valley, Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon, followed by a sizeable detour through New Mexico, visiting Santa Fe, Albuquerque and iconic locations on Route 66 such as Winslow, Arizona (“Standin’ on a Corner”) and Gallup, New Mexico before returning to Vegas.

Numerous trips to San Francisco, Tahoe, Vegas as well as the North East (of the U.S, not England!) followed, as the Southern states, other than Florida, failed to seduce us sufficiently into venturing in their direction. Maybe their racist past (and present), Christian fundamentalism and gun culture all have had something to do with it. Moreover, the scene from Easy Rider where the main protagonists get short shrift in a southern diner still haunts me, and the song by Folkestone band, the Transients, entitled They Don’t Like Hippies in Baton Rouge, only serves to exacerbate the anxiety.

But now, with mid-term elections looming and the divisions in America widening, we have chosen this moment to plunge ourselves into the belly of Trumpsylvania, though a Californian friend’s recent assertion that we were essentially visiting “blue cities in red states” is a comforting and far from innacurate one.

So what is the attraction of this particular itinerary that has stubbornly refused to disappear from our vacation radar?

The Blues Highway, essentially Highway 61, runs, for the most part alongside the mighty Mississippi, from New Orleans  to Chicago and traces the migration of many African Americans from the Deep South to the Northern cities following the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Equally, it charts (sic) the development of the major music genres for which we are so much indebted to the United States for, principally the blues and gospel (Mississippi delta, Memphis, St Louis and Chicago), but also jazz (New Orleans), cajun and zydeco (Lafayette), country (Nashville) and soul (Memphis again, and not forgetting Elvis!).

After an initial overnight stay in Newark, New Jersey (flights from the UK being so much cheaper), we fly to the “Big Easy” for four nights before hitting the road with single overnight stays in Lafayette, Vicksburg and Clarksdale. A three night residence in Memphis follows before we head east to Nashville for four nights, arriving on the eve of my birthday.

From “Music City” we cross country back to the main road for three nights in St Louis, followed by a night in Peoria before arriving in the “Windy City” for another four nights, when we are hoping to be joined for a couple of nights by friends from San Francisco. Two nights in New York City conclude the trip before we catch our return flight from Newark.

The trip has the added bonus of introducing us to seven new states – Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Illinois with brief detours through Kentucky and Arkansas. The prospect of experiencing new cultures, historic tours and spectacular scenery is, of course, exciting, but it is the music that is the driving force of the trip. Clubs, bars, museums and street musicians will, therefore, be the major focus of the next three weeks.

And we must not forget the other star of the show – the road itself.

Little thrills the blood more than the thought of exploring this amazing country by car with the radio blaring out the music style that reflects the landscape you are travelling through at the time. I am sure it will reveal some entertaining adventures as this blog grows over the coming weeks.

So let’s get on with the show!

See y’all later!

 

 

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