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.
When I realized I needed to meet a friend from Dallas in New Orleans on Easter weekend, I naturally started to think of how I could extend the visit into a bigger road trip. Checking Hot Springs National Park off the list seemed like an obvious choice, especially since my original plans to visit the park almost five years ago were thwarted when snow in Dallas resulted in a canceled business trip.*
As the park ranger was quick to inform us, by one standard, Hot Springs is the oldest national park because it was set aside as a special reservation in 1832 by President Andrew Jackson (he of the $20 bill—for now). It became an official national park in 1921. At 5,550 acres, it is the smallest park in the system (which surprised me, as I would have guessed Congaree, but that park is almost five times the size of Hot Springs), followed by American Samoa and the Virgin Islands at approximately 10,000 and 15,000 acres respectively.
The heart of the park is Bathhouse Row on Central Avenue but it spills over into mountains on each side, the appropriately named West Mountain to the southwest, and Hot Springs Mountain and North Mountain to the northeast. The forty-seven mineral water springs flow down from Hot Springs Mountain and, since the mid-nineteenth century, have been diverted into public bathhouses and town fountains. The water is odorless and tasteless. (Side note: Unfortunately the weather was rather grey while we were there so I don’t have any great pictures of the town.)
The first European to visit the Hot Springs area was Hernando de Soto in 1541, but the heyday of the park was in the 1920s and 1930s, when the likes of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano came to “take the waters” and baseball players came for spring training. The casinos were shut down in the late 1960s and the town seems to have been struggling to find its footing ever since. We were there on a “race weekend” so it was fairly crowded; however, the pedicurist at the spa told me that their business only really picks up during Spring Break and in the summer. In any case, the town/park has a very out-of-time feel.
On Bathhouse Row, you can tour the beautiful Fordyce Bathhouse, which serves as the national park’s Visitor Center, enjoy local brews (including root beer!) made with mineral water at the Superior Bathhouse, and receive spa treatments or have a traditional bath experience at Buckstaff Bathhouse. There are also a number of cute boutiques along Central Avenue.
Dominating Central Avenue is the Arlington Hotel, which opened on New Year’s Eve in 1924. It is still the largest hotel in the state and some rooms even have mineral water piped directly into their bathtubs. Unfortunately, while you can’t beat the location of the Arlington (our room looked out over both the park and Bathhouse Row), its old world glamour has been allowed to get somewhat run down. However, it is conveniently located to both the Pancake Shop and the Colonial Pancake & Waffle House, both of which were excellent breakfast places. They do get quite crowded though so go as early as you can.
The other memorable food spot, McClard’s BBQ, was well out of the park area. I enjoyed the ribs, and the coleslaw was great, but I expected more from Bill Clinton’s favorite barbecue joint. Note: We didn’t have tamales, which is apparently a thing at barbecue places throughout the Mississippi Delta. Who knew?
As for things to do in the park (besides spa treatments), I highly recommend taking a ranger tour of the Fordyce. We had a fantastic guide—her great aunt had worked in the bathhouses and she was full of stories from interviews she had done with former workers. The story of these (mostly) black workers would make an interesting study all on its own, but combined with the intriguing guests, the history is truly fascinating. Even if you don’t have time for a tour, I would still recommend the building itself. All three floors are beautiful.
Above the bathhouses and the Arlington Hotel are Hot Springs Mountain and North Mountain. While you can drive up to the observation tower at the top, you can also roam over the mountains on a series of short trails climbing up from the Grand Promenade. We did the outer loop, consisting of climbing the Dead Chief Trail to the right (1.4 miles), which then joined the Gulpha Gorge Trail for a bit, eventually connecting to the Goat Rock Trail (1.1 miles). After climbing to the North Mountain Overlook (the view is worth the short climb), we returned via the Upper Dogwood Trail (1 mile). Except for the beginning, which was fairly steep, it was an easy ramble through the woods.
Outside of the national park proper, but still in Hot Springs, is Garvan Woodland Gardens. These gardens, donated by Verna Garvan to the University of Arkansas, cover over two hundred acres. We happened to hit right at the peak of the Tulip Extravaganza and I can tell you the name is no joke—apparently there were almost 150,000 tulips. There were also many daffodils still to be seen on the Three Sisters of Amity Daffodil Hill as well as beautiful Japanese magnolia and dogwood trees in the Garden of the Pine Wind. And, remarkable at any time of year, the fare at the on-site eatery—the Chipmunk Café—was quite tasty.
Finally, about thirty minutes from Hot Springs is Lake Ouachita State Park, located within Ouachita National Forest. Here we took the Caddo Bend Trail, a four-mile trail that loops around the Point 50 Overlook peninsula. This trail was nothing spectacular, but the lake is very pretty so it makes for a nice walk. It climbed a bit more than we anticipated, but didn’t take the close to the three hours that the trail marker indicated. All in all, the lake was a lovely surprise after being rather disappointed by our trip up “scenic” byway Highway 7.
Side trip alert: While the focus of our time in Arkansas was Hot Springs, I wish we had had time to see the northwest corner of the state, which looks to be absolutely beautiful. However, one stop we did make on our way to Memphis was Little Rock’s Central High School. As my most recent editorial project was a U.S. history textbook, I was eager to see this infamous civil rights location. The school is still functioning as a high school, but the nearby Visitor Center documents the trials and tribulations of the Little Rock Nine in their efforts to integrate the school in the late 1950s. Kudos to the National Park Service as this is one of the best museum displays I’ve seen—you can glean a brief (but comprehensive) overview of the 1957 events and the civil rights movement from the timeline panels, or linger and watch the numerous video clips containing news footage and personal interviews. Many of the multimedia stands are located in front of plate-glass windows providing a view of the gas station and school across the way. It really makes history come alive.
“If you just don’t say anything, you’re part of the problem and not part of the solution. If all the other teenagers had been like the Little Rock Nine, they could have changed the situation.”—Minnijean Brown Trickey
Entry to both Hot Springs National Park and the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site is free.
*Note: While Hot Springs is closer to both Little Rock (1 hour) and Memphis (3 hours), the drive from Dallas is quite reasonable (4.5 hours), if boring. But Dallas worked for me logistically and flights there were cheaper than other options.
As the driest, hottest, and lowest place in North America, Death Valley is certainly a land of extremes. At 3.4 million acres, it’s also the largest national park in the Lower 48, about the size of my home state of Connecticut.
What I couldn’t imagine before visiting is how beautiful it is, with a variety of things to see and do, even a castle.
Badwater Basin and Salt Flats above is one of the hottest spots in the valley (FYI: plan on drinking one gallon of water a day in the hotter months) and, according to The Tree of Life, a slice of heaven. However, as evidenced by their names, things in Death Valley are generally not seen as heaven on earth.
These menacing names belie the fun that can be had in the park. One of the most entertaining features, especially for kids, are the sand dunes. The easiest to get to are those just outside Stovepipe Wells.
The Mesquite Flat Dunes are about 150 feet high and a popular spot for running, jumping, surfing, and just plain mellowing out and watching the sunset.
Photographic opportunities abound throughout the park, especially at sunrise (yeah, that never happened) and sunset. You can see more images in my Death Valley Image Gallery.*
Death Valley is certainly worth a detour and is one of my favorite national parks thus far. I can’t wait to go back.
*7% of the credit for these photographs goes to @javachik, who graciously loaned me her camera for the weekend.
This month, for personal and professional reasons, The Boys* had to come out from New York to Santa Barbara, so I decided to fly down for the weekend. It was a bit pricey, but, not only would I get a chance to see two of my favorite people in the world, I would also be able to cross a few more missions off my list. Win-win.
I always intend to visit Santa Barbara when I drive down to L.A., but it suffers from being a bit too close to that city (and you just want to get there already, and not stop and play tourist). On the one occasion that I did pass through, I only had time for lunch at La Super-Rica Taqueria.** I drove by the Santa Barbara Mission; however, it was Memorial Day weekend and the annual festival of I Madonnari (Italian street painting) and therefore I realized instantly that it would be insane to try and find parking anywhere near there, so I headed back to 101 and up the coast.
What I didn’t realize was that there’s so much to see and do in Santa Barbara (beyond the Mission) that it merits more than a detour, and has earned its place as my first weekend getaway.
First on your list should be the Courthouse, one of the loveliest you’ll ever see. Located at 1100 Anacapa Street (on the corner of Anapamu Street—and, yes, there are many similar sounding and confusing street names in this city), this building is a marvel inside and out, with hand-painted ceilings, spiral staircases, Spanish tiles, carved doors, and gorgeous murals depicting early California history.
From the tower, you get a great view of the surrounding city, ocean, and mountains.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is one of the top ten regional museums in the country, and can serve as a nice respite from shopping on State Street. While we originally went to the museum to see the sand mandala created by the monks of the Sera Mahayana Buddhist Monastery in South India, the exhibition that really caught my eye was that of stop-motion photographer Ori Gersht, who had some incredible pieces inspired by one of my favorite artists, Henri Fantin-Latour.
What can I say? I have a weakness for flowers, even when they are exploding.
Speaking of flowers, worth a trip into the hills is the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden on Mission Canyon Road. The gardens, which cover 78 acres, feature indigenous plants of California, with a meadow section, redwood section, desert section, etc. We were lucky to catch a number of plants in bloom, especially cacti. Absolutely beautiful.
Another fascinating freak of nature, and I’m not talking about the dolphins down by Stearns Wharf (although, dolphins!), is the Moreton Bay Fig Tree at the intersection of Chapala Street and Highway 101. Planted in the 1870s and now a city landmark, it is ginormous.
Of course, as any viewer of Sideways can tell you, Santa Barbara County is also wine country. Just over the San Marcos Pass and through the Los Padres National Forest is the Santa Ynez Valley, home of killer pinot noirs and chardonnays. If you don’t have time to go vineyard hopping, on any trip down 101, I highly recommend a detour to the small town of Los Olivos and a visit to the Los Olivos Tasting Room & Wine Shop.
While in the neighborhood, be sure to stop in at the Disneyesque town of Solvang where almost all of the stores and hotels look like this:
Finally, a shout-out to the Bath Street Inn—a large, comfortable Victorian Bed & Breakfast close to the center of town. My room was actually larger than it seems in pictures and I had a lovely balcony to boot. In addition to afternoon tea and evening wine and cheese, they serve a delicious, filling breakfast, with homemade granola and such dishes as stuffed French toast and baked eggs (which were so good I raved about them and they printed out the recipe for me unasked). A great place.
Word to the wise: If you ever fly in to the Santa Barbara Airport, be aware that the relatively short taxi ride from the airport to downtown will set you back about $45, including tip. The shuttles you see parked right next to the taxis outside the airport will make the same trip for only $27-30.
* See future posts on Utah. One of The Boys took the profile pic on this page.
** La Super-Rica Taqueria at 622 North Milpas Street is reputed to be Julia Child’s “favorite taco stand”; however, a local who knew her swears she told him she had no idea where that rumor got started. Regardless, the roasted pasilla chile stuffed with cheese and the chorizo tacos were almost worth the ridiculous wait in line.
Wherein I document my quest to visit all U.S. national parks and other travel adventures