The Road Not Taken

Dog & dude on pier

Surf, sand and siestas, throw in a couple of Marguerites and I do think we’ve found paradise

Leaving the sultry perfection of Charleston and Savannah behind, we point Big Dodge south, to the land where French Canadians famously bake on sun-drenched beaches in sling shot swim trunks, a place where a mouse and a duck reign supreme in a fantasyland of castles and pirate ships in the shadow of sleek metal missiles aimed at the stars. Or at least that’s one possibility.

Cotton fields

The land of cotton continues on the Florida Panhandle

Florida is a magnet for Eastern Canadians wanting to de-ice their northern bodies. And what’s not to like (overweight men in those sling shot swim suits aside), white sugar beaches, cheap booze, Disneyworld for thrill seekers and the Kennedy Space Centre for real adventure seekers. Then there’s the Keys, the magical string of islands made famous by Hemingway and Buffet, where real men fish and waste away on their porches pounding back scotch and marguerites.

White sand beaches

A whole lotta beach for a few lucky condo owners

In the end, we decide against the 10-hour drive to southern Florida and point Big Dodge west towards New Orleans. But first we instruct GPS Gertrude to find the shortest route to the Florida panhandle, the narrow strip of land on the sunshine state’s northern flank that extends along the Gulf Coast to Alabama. She takes us to a tiny town called Destin, where real pirates once plied their trade.

Creatures on walkway

Who needs Disney-world when you got this in Destin

Apparently we’re aren’t the first to discover the charms of this beachside dot on the map an hour’s drive east of Pensacola, where the U.S. Navy now rules the pirate roost. With its luxury hotel and condo developments rising majestically from the white sand between palm trees and a plethora of seafood shacks, beach towel stores and surf shops, Destin brings to mind Hawaii. Folks from every northern and mid-west state have set up camp down here.

2 dogs on a beach

Condo buildings rise in the background as The Dog readies himself for an attack by the canine beach patrol

In this bastion of capitalism, developers buy up the foreshore and fence off beaches for the private use of the money class. Long stretches of the white sugary sand are fenced off. Wouldn’t want one of the plebes kicking sand on your Abercrombie & Fitch picnic basket. Fortunately, there’s plenty of white sand to go around.

Bubba Gump

Who says crass commercialism is dead in the south

We decide to chill out for a week at Navarre Beach and take our rightful place amongst the money class. Our campground has its own private beach, with swings and long fishing dock for watching those beautiful Gulf sunsets away from any bothersome locals. The site is close to an outlet shopping mall and a short bike ride away from several of the Dude’s beloved seafood shacks. Oldsters commute around the neighbourhood on their street legal golf carts. The temperature is mid-70s perfect and our two weeks on the panhandle passes in a sunny blur of blissful nothingness.

Church van

Late for church, Billy-Bob drops the van into overdrive and flips us the bird

The drive from Destin to New Orleans turns out to be a true meander. It involves crossing three states (Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana) through a violent tropical rainstorm that beats Big Dodge’s windshield wipers into submission and forces a white-knuckled Dude to turn on his four way flashers to avoid being rundown by an 18-wheeler. The perilous journey ends in sunshine after crossing the Pont Chartrain causeway, which the Guinness Book of Records calls the longest continuous bridge over water. PEI’s Confederation Bridge seems quaint in comparison.

signs

Dancing in the streets, on the walls, do watch out for that puddle friend

The approach to our Big Easy campground is shocking despite the reviews we’ve read online warning that it’s not in the best neighbourhood. Ten years after Katrina, the pothole-filled, heaving road to Pontchartrain Landing runs between the levy that was breached during the hurricane and a string of derelict warehouses and water-logged ditches.

Katrina art

Katrina ten years later, brought to life by this sculpted tree showing a battered home caught up in it’s trunk

Not to worry. The campground emerges from the debris next to a working marina. It has security patrols, a large store, an upstairs bar and restaurant with live music and is snugged up against a canal with pricey boats and new waterfront condos. The below-sea-level RV park, underwater after Katrina, is now a placid gated community of expensive Class A coaches and fifth wheels with four slides. A walk around the park reveals licence plates from most northern states and Canadian provinces, including several from far away British Columbia. Home away from home, a short shuttle ride from Bourbon Street. What’s not to like?

The shuttle to the French Quarter leaves twice a day, in morning for the geezers and late afternoon for the party animals. For six bucks the driver will drop you and pick you up again at a pre-arranged location after a day of sightseeing or a night of imbibing. Our driver, a self-described itinerant from Connecticut, cheerfully makes the trip multiple times daily, seven days a week. You meet a lot of people on the road who sign up for campground duties in exchange for free or reduced rates on staying. The mind-numbing dullness of driving the same route every day answering the same geezer’s questions is too horrible for the Dude to contemplate. He shall remain unemployed for the duration of the trip.

Superdome

The infamous Superdome we are told it will never be used again as a disaster centre for obvious reasons

We’ve all seen pics of the French quarter during Mardi Gras where inebriated visitors on balconies along Bourbon street throw cheap strands of coloured beads at anyone willing to flash a little somethin’ somethin’ at whoever yells the loudest. By day, the Quarter is a different animal. Beer and liquor trucks line the streets, replenishing stocks depleted by the previous nights’ festivities. The sidewalks are freshly wet, workers hosing off the detritus of spilled substances everywhere. Given the amount of liquor consumed it’s best not to think about what you are walking on.

Wedding day in the big easy

Freshly married in the Big Easy

Music is a Big Easy mainstay. Street players work hard and long for a buck, with random bands setting up on street corners, lead singers enticing the gathering crowds to drop bills into open guitar cases. Psychics set up shop alongside the musicians to work the overflow, with two folding chairs and a small table for a crystal ball or candlelit skull. This is the city of the evil eye. Shops overflow with voodoo paraphernalia, from tee-shirts embossed with multi-coloured death heads to the high-hatted, high-stepping devil figures who dance in shop windows.

Jazz group 2

You better have a big guitar case for the tips these guys get

Drinking in the street is strongly encouraged, as long as the libations are in a plastic ‘go cup’. Glass bottles, deemed a safety hazard, are verboten. The city is a dichotomy, leave the latticed balconies of the Quarter behind for the Garden District and you’ll discover a gentile, moneyed area where the actors Sandra Bullock and John Goodman keep mansions.

Toxic baby

No “Go Cup” for this concoction, drink at your own peril

Our Hop and Go tour guide dispenses a valuable tidbit for geezers on a budget. World renowned white table cloth restaurants, like the Commander’s Palace and Antoine’s, offer set menus for lunch at half the price of a dinner soiree. No shorts or t-shirts allowed, of course. Dinner jackets are required at night, with the establishment happy to provide one form their freshly dry-cleaned selection. It’s hard to restrain the vibrating Dude from hopping off the bus when he hears about The Commander’s famous 25 cent lunchtime martinis. Back at Pontchartrain Landing, he tossed and turned throughout the night in anticipation and in the morning dutifully dressed in wrinkled cargo pants and a collared golf short for the day’s revelry.

Commanders restaurant

Commanders Palace, let the martinis begin

Our lunch at Commander’s Palace, a short walk from the mansions of John and Sandra, is a rare foray into the lives of the other half. The historic restaurant, across the street from Lafayette Cemetery, the favourite above ground burial spot of Hollywood directors, is a study in slightly faded elegance. Multiple dining rooms on two levels are well-patronized even at noon on an uneventful weekday. Well-dressed patrons sip wine with their lunch, while immaculately turned out wait staff hover discreetly. Each table has three servers, one for cocktails, one for food and another for miscellaneous duties like determining whether guests prefer dark or light linen to drape across their hillbilly laps.

Service at Commanders

The girls are horrified when Buffy choose the dark linen for lunch

We both opt for the light linens, as one does on a sunny day.

The food is delicious, the martinis are insanely good with a full generous pour. Lunch comes in under 50 bucks, including a $1.50, six-drink bar bill, and we exit the restaurant with a light step and cross the street for an afternoon visit to Lafayette Cemetery.

The thing about a three-martini lunch, is that emerging post-lunch into daylight can disorient even well-seasoned veterans like the Dude, let alone lightweights like myself. Unaccustomed daytime drinking hits you hard, and fast. Getting down the stairs and out the door past the welcoming restaurant staff at the entrance did not prove a problem. We took our leave in a dignified fashion, crossing the street arm-in-arm, like any well-heeled happy couple filled with fine victuals might.

Disaster struck as we mounted the curb on the cemetery side, stepping carefully between boulevard shrubbery. Being the lightweight, in my light-headed condition, I failed to notice a small strand of wire strung along the curb to prevent mid-block interlopers from trampling the plants. I went down, pulling the Dude with me and we landed between shrubs with a thump on our ample (thankfully) asses.

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The cemetery view after a three martini lunch

I need not point out that in a moment like this one does not feel the physical pain of the fall but instead becomes enveloped with the acute shame of a mid-afternoon collapse in full view of the staff and guests leaving the staid Commander’s Palace. It can be said the Dude, perhaps being well-practiced in such episodes, took the collapse in good-natured stride and after a quick glance at the Palace entrance to discern our fall had gone unnoticed, regained his composure and helped me to my feet. Our subsequent giggling cemetery tour may have seemed inappropriate to other more somber visitors.

Beer on street

Beer cases lined up for the evenings festivities

The Commander is said to be reviewing its 25 cent martini policy.
But seriously folks, what better city to suffer an inebriated indignity than the Big Easy. Our Commander’s Palace lunch was a mere prelude to a night outing on Bourbon Street, during which the Dude paid a roaming cocktail waitress 30 dollars (U.S.) to jam six tubes of coloured water into his mouth and blow the contents down his throat. Being a Dame, I made due with one. To say the music blaring from one of a hundred or so establishments along the mile-long strip creates a party atmosphere is like saying the Super Bowl is a football game. Recognizing the limitations age has placed on our partying abilities, we retired to a restaurant in a quieter part of the Quarter, where we ate a fine Italian meal accompanied by the accomplished stylings of a veteran New Orleans piano lady who pointedly informed diners she would not play Billy Joel’s Piano Man.

Mardi Gras

What do Nefertiti and Elvis have in common? Why absolutely nothing but hey it’s Mardi Gras let the bead-throwing begin

Our stay included trips to the incredibly comprehensive World War II museum and nearby Mardi Gras World, where the giant floats are custom-created and stored in anticipation of the city’s biggest party. The cavernous warehouse, crammed to the roof with 10-foot high likenesses of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, pirates, creepy kings and queens, alligators and party animals of all descriptions, sits on the banks of the mighty Mississippi, where visitors can sit in a courtyard surrounded by their tacky souvenir purchases and watch the river flow.

See ya later

‘Gator

Next up for the party-happy Meanderers: Nashville, Tennessee, where the cowgirls swoon while the cowboys croon and smoking is allowed in bars.

Y’all Come Back Now…

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If he has his way Donald Trump will have these signs deported…however the pink flamingoes can stay

Years ago I watched a movie called Fried Green Tomatoes and thought yuck. Not being a fan of the round red fruit that masquerades as a vegetable, I couldn’t understand why anyone would eat a tomato that clearly needed a few more days basking in the sun. If it wasn’t bubbling in a pot with a whole bunch of Italian meatballs I couldn’t see the point.

I have been schooled.

I lost my fried green tomato virginity in Charleston, South Carolina, a city that is clearly auditioning for Gone with the Wind part II. With its antebellum mansions shaded by massive live oak trees draped with Spanish moss, it lived up to every expectation we had for the south.

Charleston mansion

This is Miss Susie’s summer home, mind the Spanish moss it may be pretty but it bites

Spanish moss, a strange cobwebby plant that looks left over from Halloween, is neither Spanish nor moss. It drapes from trees collecting chiggers, little biting bugs that are the insect world cousins of northern ticks.

Southern people are excruciatingly polite. The lady checking us in at the RV park said ‘yes ma’am’ so many times I thought she was having a seizure. The Dude hasn’t been called ‘darlin’ this often since he was in diapers. The only way to tell if a southern person is displeased is if they preface comments with a “bless your heart”, which we have been told is code for “piss off”.

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They may be polite but you best be wearing your gun where they can see it

Southern people like their grits, an unfortunately named creamy cornmeal concoction served with almost everything, breakfast included. If y’all like your food fried, come on down. Now let me see that steak. You know how to make a perfectly wonderful piece of meat better? Answer: drench it in batter and fry it up. (See fried green tomatoes’ epiphany above.)

No visit to the south is complete without a visit to a real plantation, one without the sanitized version of slavery that Washington’s Mount Vernon offers up. They may be polite down here but pickup trucks still sport confederate flags in the back window, unsettling reminders of the less than perfect relationship between races.

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Tour guides point out the washroom facilities at Magnolia Plantation

The Magnolia plantation house, built beside a swamp where black workers literally slaved growing rice, has a gothic vibe to it. Its long winding driveway weaves past algae-covered ponds that glow bright green in the shafts of sun filtering through a canopy of giant live oaks hung with the ubiquitous Spanish moss. Perfect camouflage for the alligators that lurk beneath the surface. Hot moist air brings a sweaty sheen to the faces of all who enter. Even in late autumn. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to work in the summer months when temperatures reach the high 90’s with energy-zapping humidity.

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It’s real purty but mind the ‘gators and ‘skeeters

The plantation tour has everything you’d expect–massive home with gift shop, check; expansive gardens with white bridges spanning ponds, check; a hedge maze for lazy Sunday wandering, check; boat launch and river access, check; slave cabins, check.

Plantation house

The plantation mansion, with its wrap around veranda all the better for sipping mint juleps and other gentrified pursuits

The open-car shuttle to the slave quarters puts the trappings of wealth on display in perspective. Slavery kept the ‘white gold’ economy rolling. Cotton and rice fueled the economic engine of the south. Picking and growing the crops was labor intensive but if you cut out the labor costs there was money to be made. Serious money. Enough to pay for elaborate town homes (read colonnaded multi-storied  mansions) in Charleston, where plantation owners  entertained their genteel friends and toasted their success with mint julips after attending Sunday services.

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A slave cabin, where just staying alive was the order of the day

Our guide, a black man and noted slavery historian, paints a picture of life for slaves on the plantation. The tiny shacks beside the swamp sat well away from the main house and gardens, out of view and out of mind for the southern ladies taking tea on the veranda. Slave families staked out their precious space, with up to a dozen people crowded into two rooms. Drinking water came from a communal pump outside, which did double duty as a place to wash off the sweat after back-breaking 12-hour days in the fields. Lining up for the outdoor bathroom became a legs-crossed time to socialize with the neighbors. Geckos, roaches, spiders and mosquitoes blew inside with the wind through cracks in the cabin walls.

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A picture of some of the former occupants of the cabins in a more modern era

But the slaves were not without hope. Toe the line, show the right amount of deference and the master might pick you to be a ‘house nigger.’ Working 12 hour days in the relative comfort of the mansion before returning to your shack increased your life expectancy. A ‘house nigger’ might catch the wandering eye of the master or a teenage son, whose Christian values and superior blood lines did not keep them from coupling with the help.

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Bring your swimsuit, the water’s fine

You would be forgiven for thinking the slaves gleefully burned the shacks the day after the Civil War ended. Not so. Most stayed on, working for slave wages. The shacks were occupied with minimal upgrades, which did not include running water, until the 1990s.

After our sobering, if infuriating, history lesson it’s time to venture into the swamp and annoy some gators. The plantation’s current owners, who do not have the benefit of slave labor to keep the old place up and running, have thoughtfully served up the plantation experience a la carte. One price for the house and garden tour, a little more to see the slave shacks, more again for the swamp and so on.

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On closer inspection it appears we have found a rare double-headed gator in the Magnolia Swamp

We splurged (who can pass up a good swamp) but forgot to get the code to unlock the gate leading to the wooden catwalks. After a steamy consultation back at the gift shop, we enter the mozzie breeding grounds on high alert, eyes scanning low-hanging branches for poisonous water moccasins and high grass for evil lurking alligators. The danger and mystique are somewhat mitigated when we encounter two giggling young women, cell-phone cameras in hand, who direct us to a large pond deep in the swamp where a solitary gator lays motionless, soaking up the sparse sunlight filtering through a heavy cloud cover atop a partially submerged log, looking as menacing as… well… a log. We did not have long to contemplate whether it might slither off the log in our direction before the clouds closed out the sun and unleashed a torrential downpour. It rained so hard that my partially opened purse filled with water, soaking my cellphone, which required a day submerged in rice to dry out (thank you google).

The Dude’s mood, already darkened by the money shelled out for what he considered an overly pricey a la carte plantation experience, is not improved by the dousing. He continues to mutter and mumble about modern day exploitation by the plantation’s moneyed class as rainwater runs in rivulets through his matted hair and onto his forehead, forming elongated droplets on the end of his nose.

Time to move on.

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Original stone roadways and stairs in the waterfront district of Savannah, wear heels at your peril girls, but bring your wallets, lots of tourist traps shopping opportunities abound

Some of you might remember Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a so-so movie starring Kevin Spacey in an early precursor of his evil southern gentleman persona, which he refined as Frank in the Netflix series House of Cards. The movie, with its quirky portrayal of Savannah society and picture postcard filming of the city’s many tree-lined squares, put the Georgia-peach-of-a-city high on the Meandering Maloneys travel bucket list.

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Forsyth square in Savannah, one of the twenty two to be found in the city

It did not disappoint. Savannah is painfully picturesque. Walking its streets is to pine for a more genteel time, when southern gentleman in vests and suicoats held out their hands to help ladies in long dresses into the horse-drawn carriages that would carry them to glittering chandeliered ballrooms worlds away from the slave shacks. The city is architecture porn for a picture taking tourist. Every street, every home adjacent to its 22 town squares is photogenic.

mercer house

Mercer House, site of “the incident”

Mercer house, featured in the movie which is based on a true story, is open for tours. Strangely, the sister of Jim Williams’, the gay accused and acquitted murderer of his rough trade rent boy, still lives there on the mansion’s second floor. Nothing like coming down for breakfast in your jammies to find a bunch of sweaty tourists in your living room.

Williams was a compulsive collector with eclectic taste that ranged from 16th century portraitures to the mounted animal heads and large sea turtles in the library. The dining room table is set with china recovered from a ship wreck in the 1700’s.  We are told he owned several other mansions and warehouses in the city crammed with art and his odd acquisitions.

Lone trumpet savannah

Enjoying the sights, and sounds, of Savannah

In a nod to the movie, pictures of Kevin Spacey posing with various Savannah denizens of social standing rest on desks and tables in the office where Williams shot his gay lover to death. Though acquitted by a jury of his southern peers, Williams answered to a higher court when he died of a heart attack shortly after the trial. Quaintly the cultured southern gentleman conducting our tour refers to the office as the room where ‘the incident’ took place.

I told you Southerners were polite.

Bird and bridge