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