Although I traveled to Cajun Country on the tail end of a road trip to Hot Springs and down the Delta Blues Highway, I think it would make the perfect weekend getaway if you find yourself in New Orleans. Breaux Bridge, where we stayed at the Bayou Cabins, is just two hours upriver from NOLA.
Breaux Bridge is not particularly interesting in and of itself, though the Bayou Cabins provided cheap, friendly accommodations and the town does have a good restaurant in Café Des Amis; however, it serves as an excellent jumping off point for exploring.
After arriving late on a Wednesday night, we spent most of Thursday exploring the area south of Lafayette—taking in a quilt exhibit at the tiny Gueydan museum, eating lunch at Dupuy’s Oyster Shop in Abbeville (on the recommendation of two elderly women at the aforementioned museum), visiting the Joseph Jefferson Mansion and Rip Van Winkle Gardens on Jefferson Island, and touring the Mcllhenny Tabasco Factory on Avery Island.
I never would have thought that an actor could get rich by adapting the Rip Van Winkle story for the stage, but that is apparently what Joseph Jefferson did in the 1850s and 60s. Eventually Jefferson used his money to build one of his many homes on a salt dome next to Lake Peigneur. Now known as Jefferson Island, you can tour the house (since no one else was there, we basically had a private tour) and stroll through the Rip Van Winkle Gardens, which feature live oaks, irises, magnolias, hibiscus, camellias, azaleas, and many, many peacocks.
Like Jefferson Island, Avery Island is a salt dome island and home to Tabasco hot sauce. The island is accessed by a $1 toll road that takes you to both the Mcllhenny Company Tabasco Factory & Country Store and the Jungle Gardens bird sanctuary, started by the son of the creator of Tabasco. We skipped the Jungle Gardens since we knew we would be taking our swamp tour later that day. The self-guided factory tour is interesting but bare bones (how much can you say about Tabasco?), but the country store is well stocked with samples of the many spin-off products they now carry. I ended up buying the Buffalo-style Tabasco since it tasted exactly like buffalo wings sauce, which I love. My sister tried a sip of Coke with Tabasco sauce, which I gather is not as foul as you might think. There was apparently also ice cream with hot sauce but we both missed it.
Our last stop of the day was Cajun Country Swamp Tours on Lake Martin where we took a two-hour sunset boat tour. We saw so much wildlife on this tour I was convinced we had spent far more than two hours on the water, but no. Our guide was extremely informative and clearly knew the lake like the back of his hand. In addition to numerous alligators, spiders, and all species of birds (anhingas, cormorants, egrets, herons, ibis, roseate spoonbills), we were privileged to see nesting baby barred owls. Even without the wildlife, wandering through the cypress and tupelo trees draped with Spanish moss is reason enough to take this tour.
After the bayou, we had planned to head into New Orleans for a fancy lunch before my sister’s flight, but we decided instead to make a detour to the Great River Road to see Oak Alley Plantation. Although crowded with tourists, this detour was certainly worth it as the setting is beautiful and our tour guide for the house was extremely informative. He explained many historical details and placed great emphasis on telling both sides of the story, that of the owners and that of the slaves. The slave quarters are located right next to the house and have their own self-guided exhibits. This was a welcome change after our more “nostalgic” tours in Natchez.
Finally, most of my brief time in New Orleans was spent hanging out with friends or wandering the Irish Channel and Garden District so I won’t go into details here (although we did manage to take in a delicious dinner at Purloo). However, if you know how much I love going to cemeteries in Paris, you won’t be surprised to learn that a highlight of my stay was seeing some of my friend’s restoration work in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1.
As I wrote in my post about Hot Springs, when I realized I needed to meet a friend from Dallas in New Orleans on Easter weekend (and then drive back together to Dallas), I immediately began to think about what road trips I might tack on to the journey. I ended up making a loop from Dallas through Arkansas to Memphis, then down the Mississippi River Valley to Cajun Country and finally New Orleans. My sister joined me for most of the trip, meeting me in Dallas and flying out of New Orleans.
While adding Hot Springs and Cajun Country was somewhat unusual, it turns out that the Memphis-Clarksdale-Vicksburg-Natchez-New Orleans route is pretty standard for travelers. The landscape is rather uninspiring, but we met many interesting locals along the way and there is lots to see and do. In fact, although I always feel I could have used more time, in this case I really could have used at least two more days (we arrived in Memphis on a Saturday afternoon and in New Orleans the following Friday) because both Memphis and Vicksburg/Natchez felt rushed.
The first part of our Mississippi River journey was focused on music, mostly the blues. We started in Memphis, Tennessee, then drove down the Delta Blues Highway (Route 61) to Helena, Arkansas; Clarksdale, Mississippi; and Dockery Farms, before heading out to Rosedale to follow the Great River Road (Route 1) to Vicksburg.
Because we were in Memphis for only one night, we splurged and stayed in the Peabody Hotel, home of the famous Peabody Ducks, who live upstairs on the roof and march into the lobby fountain every day at 11am and out again at 5pm. In addition to providing this entertaining spectacle, the Peabody is conveniently located right downtown near Beale Street. It’s a perfectly nice hotel, but pricey. Still, it saved a lot of time being able to walk to most things we wanted to see.
Since time was short, we bypassed both Sun Studios and the Stax Museum to focus on Beale Street and the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, which evolved out of a traveling Smithsonian exhibition and tells the broader story of Memphis music history, from gospel and blues to rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll, and soul. The path through the exhibits isn’t always intuitive, but in addition to the basic audio tour, there is an incredible amount of additional musical content to listen to as you go. I discovered many songs that I later added to my collection.
On our way south out of town, we made the de rigueur pilgrimage to Graceland. Graceland attracts about 600,000 visitors a year and you certainly feel them on the tour. Although we didn’t have to wait too long (and I was able to grab a delicious grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich at Rockabilly’s Burger Shop while waiting), you are really rushed through the house. Still, the décor is interesting—to say the least—and I’m glad I saw it.
Besides discovering the wonder of a grilled PB&B (seriously, that was tasty), we did pretty well food-wise in Memphis, eating dry-rubbed ribs at the famed Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous (good, but I prefer sauce myself) and sweet potato pancakes at the Arcade Restaurant, the “oldest restaurant in Memphis” and set of Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. Really this whole section of the city looks like a timeless movie set.
After Memphis, we headed down the Delta Blues Highway to Helena, Arkansas. This once-thriving mill town, thirty miles north of Clarksdale but on the other side of the Mississippi River, is home to the King Biscuit Time live radio show, which broadcasts out of the Delta Cultural Center. King Biscuit has been on the air since 1941 and is the longest-running daily blues show; Sonny Payne has been hosting it since 1951. There’s not much else in town, but if you find yourself in the area around 12:15pm, do stop in to watch the broadcast. Sonny is an absolute delight at eighty-nine years young. Luckily, our host at the beautiful Edwardian Inn had warned us that he is quite deaf, otherwise I think we would have been even further unprepared when he surprised us with an impromptu on-air chat (check us out around minutes 14 and 27 as we try to keep it together, communicate, and plug the sponsor despite Payne’s poor hearing and even poorer jokes).
As mentioned on the above radio show, in Clarksdale we stayed at the Shack Up Inn, a unique, laid-back place to soak up blues culture. Clarksdale is the hub of Delta blues and even on the slow days of the week it offers up incredible musical performances. The folks at the Shack Up will let you know where to go each night. The Monday we were there we took in the Iceman Blues Review and Watermelon Slim at the Bluesberry Café. We had actually come across Slim earlier in the day picking at his guitar on the street outside of Cat Head. At the Delta Blues Museum, housed in the former train depot, we encountered Josh “Razorblade” Stewart, a wizened old local featured in one of the exhibits, who told us story upon story about performing the blues, Morgan Freeman, and whatever else he could come up with. I gave him $10 for his troubles and a CD, which turned out to be rather good, much to my surprise.
While the music was great, it is still often all about the food, and we ate our third barbecue in five days at Abe’s BBQ at “The Crossroads” (the intersection of Hwy 61 and Hwy 49). I think these were my favorite ribs of the trip (for those keeping score, McClard’s in Hot Springs had the best slaw, Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous had the best beans). Unfortunately, the nearby Delta Donuts, which I had also read about beforehand, burned down not that long ago. If you need to walk off some barbecue, Clarkdale’s downtown is worth a meander. In addition to the museum, check out Cat Head (and talk to Roger if you’re interested in history), Hambone (a music space/gallery with art by Stan Street), and Miss Del’s General Store.
After a day spent mostly on the backroads of Mississippi, we arrived in Vicksburg very late in the afternoon. Located on a 300-foot-high bluff on the Mississippi River, this town is best known for being the last Confederate stronghold on the river, surrendering on July 4, 1863, after a siege lasting forty-seven days. Upon arrival, we headed straight to our main goal, the expansive Vicksburg National Military Park. Good thing we arrived when we did because we really had to hightail it to complete the battlefield drive in the hour or so remaining to us. This park hadn’t been very high on my sightseeing list, but I must admit it is quite impressive. The full drive around the park is sixteen miles and scattered over the former Civil War battlefield are 1330 monuments and markers, including trench markers for the Union and Confederate sides. It really helps one get a sense of how the battle played out. As we exited, it was clear that the park is also a popular after-hours spot for local runners and walkers.
Our final stop in Mississippi was Natchez, once home to more millionaires per capita than any city in the world (back in the 1840s when cotton was king). To get there, we took the Natchez Trace Parkway, which extends almost 450 miles from Natchez on the Mississippi River to just south of Nashville, Tennessee. The parkway follows the long-standing travel corridor established between the traditional homelands of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Natchez and designated by Thomas Jefferson as a national post road. While the Trace could easily serve as the base for its own road trip, we traveled on only the small portion between Vicksburg and Natchez. One reason I wanted to travel the Trace, in addition to its being a lovely drive, was to visit Emerald Mound, the second biggest ceremonial mound in the United States, after Cahokia (which I learned about in the U.S. history textbook I recently edited). It’s not very exciting (just a graded, flat-topped hill really), but I was happy to have a visual frame of reference for what these mounds actually look like in the wild. You could also stop and hike part of the original Trace at mile-marker 41.5 near Port Gibson.
Natchez is the oldest European settlement on the Mississippi River, predating New Orleans by two years. Today, it is best known for the Natchez Pilgrimage: the annual tour of the city’s antebellum mansions. I loved touring Rosalie Mansion, which served as Union headquarters after the city’s surrender (and so was able to keep most of its original furnishings intact), and Stanton Hall; however, the lack of acknowledgement of the role slavery played in building these fine homes was disappointing. For that reason, I’m happy we were also able to visit the William Johnson House, a National Park historic site. Admittedly, we originally chose this destination because it was free, but the house/museum was fascinating. Johnson, a free person of color who apprenticed as a barber after being freed by his presumed father, owned three barber shops in antebellum Natchez. As a businessman, he owned slaves, but through his diaries and the house exhibits, the park service provides more insight than the pilgrimage homes into the city’s less-glamorous past.
Speaking of things less than glamorous, our last stop in Natchez was the Under the Hill Saloon. A favorite of Mark Twain back in the day, this riverside watering hole possessed the perfect collection of eccentric locals (drinking in the middle of the day) to cap off our Mississippi tour. My favorite moment was when the drunken flirt next to me heartily recommended Greg Iles when I asked about local authors, but then had to ask the bartender whether he wrote fiction or non-fiction. [Side note: I ended up buying his The Quiet Game in a New Orleans bookstore and would put it in the category of very good airplane reading.]
But wait! The sun has not yet set on this Mississippi River tour, tune in tomorrow for some time down on the bayou…
“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.”
Mount Rainier National Park is about 90 miles south of Seattle, and, if you’ve ever been to that city, you know that Mount Rainier, the tallest peak in the Cascade Range, dominates the landscape. While I had seen it from afar on numerous trips, this was my first time in the park itself.
Mount Rainier is actually a massive volcano, technically still active. Yet, this simmering cauldron also receives record amounts of precipitation every year and is home to twenty-five major glaciers, the most permanent ice on a single peak in the continental United States. This mixture of fire and ice results in a short, but incredible, wildflower season.
Mount Rainier is fairly easy to work into a longer road trip as one can enter and exit from opposite sides of the park. Due to lodging availability,* I was not able to follow the road as logic might dictate, but I write below as if did, starting at the Nisqually Entrance in the southwest corner as most visitors do. The park fee for one vehicle is $15 per week, or free with a national parks annual pass.
Longmire is the first distinct settlement you reach (after seven miles) when arriving via the Nisqually Entrance. It is characterized by forests of Douglas firs, western red cedar, and western hemlock. This area, now a National Historic Landmark District, was “discovered” by John Longmire in 1883 and settled by the Longmire family in 1888–1889 as a mineral spring spa, ten years before the park was officially established.
The Trail of the Shadows is a 0.7-mile self-guided loop that explores the history of the Longmire Springs Resort and the plants and animals found in the region. It begins across the park road from the Longmire Museum and the National Park Inn. There are other trails, but they seemed less interesting to me than those in other areas of the park.
The National Park Inn is much smaller (only 25 rooms) and quieter than the Paradise Inn found higher up on the mountain. Like many national park lodges, there is no air conditioning, telephone, or television in your room, so be forewarned. Most rooms in this lodge have private bathrooms, although mine did not. Of course, I was only there for one night, so it didn’t really matter to me. If you are not making last-minute reservations, ask for room 12, 14, or 16, as they are the ones with this incredible view:
As you leave Longmire and travel east along the park road, there are a couple of good places to stop and take in the views. One is Ricksecker Point (seen at the top of this post), an offshoot loop from the main road that provides an excellent view of the mountain. The second is Narada Falls, a 168-foot waterfall in the Paradise River. In addition to the view from above, you can walk down to a viewing area at the base of the falls. Both of these detours are clearly marked and have ample parking.
Just past Narada Falls, at the base of the Nisqually Glacier, is Paradise, so-named (according to legend) by James Longmire’s daughter-in-law, who exclaimed that the gorgeous fields of subalpine wildflowers looked “just like paradise” to her. Having seen these meadows at the height of their summertime glory, I certainly believe it. There are over forty species of flowers that bloom here and I feel as if I saw all of them.
Unsurprisingly, this is the most popular area of the park, which means there are generally large crowds of people and a huge parking problem, which was extremely frustrating as a guest of the Paradise Inn, conveniently located right next to the park’s main visitor center, with an impressive lobby that itself draws in the tourists. Despite the traffic, especially as compared to the National Park Inn, I think I preferred staying at the Paradise, since the wildflowers really are beyond compare and there is great hiking to be had up and down the mountain. I highly recommend staying at least one night so you can sneak in an early hike while the animals are still out and you have the mountain mostly to yourself. My room had a private bathroom, but only a few of them do so be sure of what you are reserving.
The Nisqually Vista Trail, a 1.2 mile loop that I walked in the early evening after checking in, was a great introduction to the Paradise area. It provided a fabulous view of the Nisqually Glacier, which is 4 miles long and flows downhill 6-12 inches a day.
For a longer hike, you can tackle the Skyline Trail, a 5-mile loop that takes you up to Glacier Vista (via a trail that was still partially covered with snow when I visited) and Panorama Point and past Myrtle Falls on the return. Skyline intersects with many other smaller trails so there are many options in case you are not up to doing the entire route.
Beyond Paradise, the precipitous road follows Stevens Canyon, down to the southeast entrance of the park. Along the way, one passes Reflection, Bench, and Snow Lakes as well as the Box Canyon gorge. If you want to hike, I would suggest the lake area, otherwise this stretch was mostly a series of scenic overlooks and short walks.
Near the Stevens Canyon Entrance is the Grove of the Patriarchs, a 1.5-mile loop over a shaky bridge to an island housing an old-growth forest. While the trees are impressive, they don’t hold a candle to the redwood forests of California, so, if you’ve seen those, I wouldn’t go out of your way here.
At 6400 ft, Sunrise is the highest point on Mount Rainier accessible by car. Although there are some significant hikes here that make this area a popular stop, I saw it on my way out of the park and felt it was a bit of a letdown after Paradise. However, if you arrive late in the day at the Paradise Inn, I might suggest heading here first the next day to catch the morning light and winding your way back to Paradise afterwards, because the 1.5-mile Sunrise Nature Trail would serve as a good introduction to the region’s floral and fauna.
*Mount Rainier National Park has two in-park lodges: The National Park Inn is six miles from the Nisqually Entrance at an altitude of 2,700 feet, while the Paradise Inn is thirteen miles further along Highway 706 and much higher up and closer to the mountain at 5,400 feet. Since my plans were made at the last minute, I had to be persistent and call repeatedly to snag two nights via cancellations. (I was advised to call seven days ahead of my stay since that is when the cancellation policy takes effect. Although I started calling before that, sure enough, it was at the seven-day mark that I managed to finally snag my rooms.) Unfortunately, I was not able to book two nights at the same lodge. While annoying, my Libra nature derived some satisfaction from the fact I wasn’t made to choose between them.
I’ve already written about the Madonna Inn on a previous trip down the coast, but, since every room is different, each stay is like your very first time. This time, I had a brief fling with Wilhelm Tell. And there are photos!
The real reason that this room appealed to me was that it was the cheapest one to include a rock waterfall shower. The room may be snug, but the shower stall is enormous.
The bathroom continues the rock theme…
I loved the use of rich red and stone throughout the room and will definitely seek out more rooms with the rock waterfall the next time I stay.
Remember, when making reservations, click through to see all rates. I reserved this room for $100 off the “best available rate” that was showing for this room category. Also, feel free to put your preferred room theme in the comments section—both times I’ve stayed here, I got my first choice.
So stated my father on what I now refer to as the Road Trip to End All Road Trips, the trip I always give as an example when people comment on the mileage I cover on some of my trips today.
The Road Trip to End All Road Trips started and ended, as so many of them did, in Salt Lake City.* We headed north to Montana, through Glacier National Park and into Canada, taking in Calgary, Banff, and Lake Louise. We then headed west to Vancouver and Victoria (on Vancouver Island). Finally, we crossed Washington State, admiring the nighttime lights at the Grand Coulee Dam. It was about then that my father uttered the now immortal words to explain our odd route on the way back. “I’ve never been to Boise.”
So, yes, technically I’ve been to Boise before. Although true to my father’s inclinations to see everything and keep moving always, I’m not sure we stopped. Oh, did I mention? The above trip was only two weeks long—that’s a couple hundred miles a day at least.
In any case, on my most recent trip, I hadn’t planned on stopping in Boise either. However, due to the late arrival of my Southwest flight, I found myself contemplating driving through wildfires on a curvy mountain road at 1am, so I booked a room at The Modern. I had already read about their superb bar somewhere, so I must admit I wasn’t as disappointed with the turn of events as I might have been. I started with the official (although ever-changing) menu and had the Clover Club (gin, lemon, raspberries, egg white). While perfectly refreshing after my longer-than-intended trip, after chatting with the bartender, who claimed to make a mean Sazerac, I went rogue and had him make me a couple of rye-based drinks. He didn’t lie: Best. Sazerac. Ever. It was a great start to the long weekend. (Not to be confused with The Lost Weekend.)
Idaho is absolutely beautiful. Really, the whole state could be one big national park. I had seen bits and pieces on various road trips, most recently with my sister when returning to Salt Lake City from Yellowstone National Park last year, but this was the first trip where Idaho was my destination. Thank you very much to J&J for the invitation.
I wish I could have stayed longer.
First stop was a visit to McCall, on the shores of Payette Lake. In addition to enjoying the beautiful lake, I had the good fortune to arrive at the height of huckleberry season—not only did we pick our own in Ponderosa State Park, but we made managed to hit the Donnelly Huckleberry Festival and the tasty huckleberry pancake breakfast. Yum!
Just off the highway from Donnelly is the historic town of Roseberry, one of many towns I’ve discovered in the West whose fate was decided by where the railroad tracks were laid. Sadly, it was too early in the day for the General Store to be open, but kudos to those working to restore and preserve these buildings.
Next I was off to the Sawtooth Mountains. I’ve been dreaming of staying at the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch for a few years, but the budget just wouldn’t allow it. Plus, it didn’t really make sense for just one night. I didn’t do too badly though, as you can see by my dinnertime view from the porch of the Sawtooth Hotel in Stanley. My room also faced in this direction. The wildfires made the view a bit hazy, but I’ll take it.
Finally, on the way back to Boise on the perilously curvy Route 21, I stopped for a delicious lunch (including black raspberry pie) at Trudy’s Kitchen in historic Idaho City. The waitress was delightful and even gave me a free brochure to take a self-guided tour of Pioneer Cemetery. And I love a good cemetery. While not quite as interesting historically as the one in Jacksonville, Oregon, this one had some fabulous iron work.
Yes, unsurprisingly, I managed to see a lot in only four days. What can I say? I’m my father’s daughter.
But I’m not the only one who has inherited these tendencies. Further proof that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree? My sister on our trip to Yellowstone last year: “I want to go to Pocatello, where the potatoes grow.”
*Flights and rental cars being cheap, especially given that back then (I believe) Alamo was one of the only rental companies to offer unlimited mileage and their locations were limited.
Wherein I document my quest to visit all U.S. national parks and other travel adventures