Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Overview of Our 2015 US Roadtrip

Overview of Our 2015 US Roadtrip

First, the stats...

Dates:  March 20 to November 12  
Days Total: 198 ...reflects "pause" for return to Mexico to become Permanent Residents
Miles Total: 17,000+
# of States/Provinces: 4 Mexican States, 36 US States and 2 Canadian Provinces

Home Exchanges:  5
Rental Units:   6
Hotels (Rooms, Suites, B&B's): 30
Stays with Friends & Family: 11

Google Maps was our friend!

First we used "My Maps" to flag potential stops on one layer and what to do at the stops on another layer.  Bill used this to layout the trip taking into account the mileage involved and typical weather patterns. He realized that by going clockwise around the country we would likely have the best shot at good weather (not too hot, not too cold and not too rainy).  This worked out extremely well until we October when we had to delay out visit to Charleston SC due to flooding resulting from heavy rains and extremely high tides.

This is a snapshot of the map with all of our overnight stops.

We were also very pleased with how well Google does in and around major cities. Pat, as the mapper on the team, was especially pleased as there was no need to deal with tons of physical maps, plot the various routes with no real idea of traffic patterns, or having to struggle with figuring out how to adapt after missing a turn.  (Yes, we know GPS systems have been around for some years now, but we were impressed at how essential they have become and how easy they can be to use.)

Our only real challenge is that between cities we lost cell service more than we would like.  Pat dealt with this by setting up both of our iPhones with the full route in advance of the day's drive. Then if we managed to lose the routing on one while we were without service, she would switch to the other.


How did we plan the trip?
We knew that we wanted to be in Maine for our 50th reunion on August 1.  We had also roughed out the time to spend at each stop along the way. To do this we used a spreadsheet and each of us estimating the amount of time needed. Bill then adjusted this until the timing worked.  With this in hand we started researching overnight options using HomeExchange.com, HomeAway.com, VRBO.com and TripAdvisor.com.  For our travel in May through mid-September, we made sure to have all overnight stops booked in advance. We made a couple minor adjustments along the way, but basically all worked remarkably well.

What did we take?  
We left San Miguel with two 25 inch suitcases, one for each of us. We also carried a couple empty duffle bags knowing that after spending 6+ months touring (and shopping along the way) that we would need the duffles for our return flight to Mexico. We also had a couple boxes with gifts for our hosts and supplies (food, backup toiletries, insulated picnic bag, wine paraphernalia, an aeropress coffee maker etc).

We each picked out several sets of clothes for three types of weather: the cold of March, the warmer shoulder seasons (real spring and fall) and the hot, humid summer of the East Coast. We knew we would be buying pieces along the way so we didn't worry about getting tired of our limited wardrobe or not having something we might really want.  And for those wondering how we managed the laundry, we carried underwear for 10 days. Typically that got us to a home or rental with laundry facilities, although we had to seek out laundries twice along the way.

What did we buy?
We started by buying a small ice chest that fit perfectly behind the front seats of the car. WE also bought a couple plastic bins to hold things in the car and some plastic plates. Well we bought snacks for evenings (veggies & dip, chips, crackers & cheese, deli food), breakfast foods and the occasional materials for a full meal made "at home". And of course we bought wine, maintaining a traveling wine cellar in our car...because one never knows if there will be good wine available at every stop.

We also bought clothes (these are our souvenirs of travel), interesting items that happened to appeal to us and gifts for others.

What did we use for Cell Service?
We use a T-Mobile PrePaid service. We have been on this for years because we can easily put the service on hold while we are outside the US, it provides unlimited data, and generally works where we need it.  But as mentioned above, in some places, such as between cities in the West, coverage was sparse.

We also discovered that they have a US, Canada & Mexico plan. We shifted one phone to that for our visit to Canada.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Finally, Oklahoma, Texas and home

Wednesday we drove to Richardson TX on our way to Oklahoma. There were two reasons for our stop here. We needed a break in the long drive and we wanted to begin the process of selling our CRV by getting a quote from CarMax. Of all things, we got a great price at a Hyatt. Pat had researched restaurants and identified Russo's Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen & Pizza. Low and behold, it was across the street from our hotel...and the pizza was really good. 

Thursday we moved to Guthrie, once the capital of Oklahoma, to visit our friends Bill & Judy Zivko. We began our visit with a tour of Zivko Aeronautics, founded by Bill & Judy and creators of the Zivko Edge, the primary aircraft of the Red Bull World Champion Air Race . (They also have a range of government projects, most of which we were not cleared to know about.)  Later in the afternoon we went to Stables Cafe for a barbecue sandwich (Bill) and a salad (Pat) accompanied by beer (both of us). Before heading out to their house we stopped at a local wine store to help them select a few bottles for their cellar.
Zivko Edge Aircraft in flight
The next morning, Bill Z. went to work while Judy, Pat and Bill H. went to the Oklahoma Territorial Museum and and adjacent Carnegie Library.  Here we learned about the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush of “Unassigned Lands”, when land previously “awarded” to Native Americans but later deemed “unassigned” was opened up to the first settlers to claim and settle a 160 acre parcel. As we toured we learned about “Sooners” and “Boomers”. We also learned the legends (and maybe the truth) of how the capital of Oklahoma was “surreptitiously" moved from Guthrie to Oklahoma City in 1910.

Regions of origin of Native Americans moved to Oklahoma
We also toured one of the largest Masonic Temples (Temple of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry) in the country. Built in the 1920's, it has very impressive architecture and interior design (each hall is designed after revered places in Europe, no detail is overlooked.) You too can tour it (virtually but with little commentary) at 

Pompeiian Room
Assyrian Room
After our touring we did a little shopping. Then Bill Z joined us for a late lunch/early dinner at Romas (Italian).

The whole group headed to Oklahoma City on Saturday. The first stop was the memorial at the site of the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building. Very well done with rows of chairs representing the floors on which victims died (with large chairs for adults and small chairs for children. Bill and Judy felt the concussion in Guthrie, 32 miles away. 

Next we went to Bricktown where we took a canal boat tour and viewed some of the extensive life-size bronze statuary depicting the land rush. We stopped at the Bolero Spanish Grill and Tapas Bar for lunch. The Patatas Bravas, Bacon wrapped dates, fried artichokes, meatballs, and salad were excellent.

Sunday we went with Bill and Judy to their house on a lake in Northeast Oklahoma then to the Western Dressage Association of America horse show in Tulsa. Interesting experience watching the horses and riders perform. Before heading back to Guthrie we stopped at Kilkenny’s Irish Pub for Irish Ale, Stout, and Fish and Chips.

Gypsy Vanna Horse at the World Western Dressage Show in Tulsa
Monday we spent implementing our packing strategy, make everything fit into 7 bags (4 to check plus our carry-on). We travelled to Edmond a few miles south of Guthrie for dinner at Thai Delight.

Tuesday we returned to Dallas and after settling into our hotel we went to dinner a Pappadeaux, very fine seafood restaurant...a Salmon Plank for Pat and Seabass for Bill. On the way back we made a stop at Whole Foods for some breakfast food and a bottle of wine.
Salmon Plank
Foggy (Néboa) wine from Rias Bixas in Spain
Wednesday we visited Fort Worth to see the Water Gardens and do a little shopping. While looking for parking, we were detoured by a significant Veterans Day celebration. We explored Sundance Square and had lunch at Taverna, Spaghetti Carbonara and Risotto al Parmigiano con Salsa Tartufata preceded by an Artichoke antipasti, very satisfying as was the bottle of wine from Verona. 

Fort Worth TX Water Gardens
Roasted Artichoke and Cheese
An excellent Bornarda wine from Mendoza Argentina

Later we parted ways with our Honda CRV at CarMax (now with 41,000 miles on it) and had our first Uber experience getting back to our hotel.

With 17,000 miles, 4 Mexican states, 2 Canadian Provinces, and 35 US states plus the District of Columbia under our belts since our start on March 20, we are ready to go home. 

With the help of SW Air (great fare including 2 free checked bags each!), we headed for San Miguel in the morning. After stops in San Antonio and Mexico City we arrived home around ten PM.

Stay tuned for the next trip...

New Orleans: Food, Music, Food, Fun-times, Food, Plantations

After arriving in New Orleans and settling into our rental, a cute spacious apartment in the Tremé district, we went to dinner at Bayona in the nearby French Quarter. We started with a tasty Crispy Smoked Quail Salad with Pears & Bourbon Molasses dressing accompanied by Sweet Potato Brioche with Maple Butter. Our main courses were Veal Sweetbreads with Sherry Mustard Butter for Pat and Italian Sausage Stuffed Rabbit & Rabbit Leg Milanese with Pecorino Polenta for Bill. For dessert, we couldn't resist the Muscadine Jelly & Peanut Crust "Linzer Torte" with Candied Peanuts. Everything was delicious, well-prepared and reminded us that New Orleans is noted for it's amazing cuisine. We vowed to take advantage of that in the next few days.
Sweet Potato Brioche
Crispy Smoked Quail Salad with Pears & Bourbon Molasses 
Muscadine Jelly & Peanut Crust "Linzer Torte" with Candied Peanuts
After dinner we wandered through the French Quarter listening to music and admiring the Halloween displays. New Orleanians do love to celebrate Halloween! Houses were elaborately decorated already and a 25+ year resident told us to expect extravagant costumes as well. 
Houses prepared for Halloween

Before our walking tour of Faubourg Marigny we stopped at the Envie Cafe for lunch. As we were finishing our Prosciutto & Asparagus Panini and local English Brown Ale, Abita Turbodog, our guide and the rest of the tour group arrived.

The Faubourg Marigny district was home to the Creoles. Think of them as French speaking Catholics of mixed black, French, Spanish descent, and one of the most unique culture’s in America. See definitions below for more specifics.

Famous or infamous people who live in the Marigny include Bernard de Marigny (gambler, playboy, developer, politician and duelist) and Marie Laveau (the "voodoo queen” who wielded power base on her vast knowledge of personal affairs gathered by her spies, most notably via hair salon gossip.) Note: Voodoo came to the area from the Caribbean and is an integral part of the culture. 

We also learned about New Orleans architecture with house styles such as Creole Cottage and Shotgun House. Shotgun Houses had doors in the front and rear that aligned with the interior room doors allowing air to flow through (natural air conditioning) and for a shotgun to shoot straight through. 
Colorful Creole Cottages
The Marigny also had a significant influence on American music. Most notable, the mixing elements of African and European music into what became known as Jazz. The tour ended on Frenchmen Street, what appears to be the current heart of the New Orleans music scene.

Dinner at GW Fins began with a glass of Prosecco, it was Friday. The “bread course" was biscuits and whipped butter, yummy. Pat selected the Fried Soft Shell Crab with Toasted Cashews. Bill chose the Wasabi Crusted Wahoo. We shared Roasted Brussel Sprouts and a bottle of Viognier. Dessert was an irresistible and amazingly light White Chocolate & Caramel Bread Pudding with Dark Chocolate Chunks and Pecans (no fat or calories!!).

Biscuits and Whipped Butter
Soft Shelled Crab - lovely presentation
Bread Pudding
For lunch on Saturday (Halloween) we went to Mr B’s Bistro for a taste of gumbo, Bill had the chicken and sausage gumbo and Pat had seafood gumbo. Bill followed his with prawns and Pat had catfish. Dessert? Profiteroles and expresso. After lunch we strolled along Decatur St. shopping for gifts for our house keeper and house sitter.

Gumbo at Mr B's Bistro
Profiteroles with Amazing Chocolate
Sunday we attended a demonstration class at the New Orleans School of Cooking!!  Mike not only demonstrated how to make Gumbo, Jambalaya, Bread Pudding and Pralines, his narration provided a lot of historical notes. The key cooking lesson learned: use the best ingredients then very little salt, pepper or other spices are necessary to make a very tasty meal. Add spices to taste at the table. Bill says: "more chili please."

Spoons with varying stages of roux from uncooked (light) to done
Bread Pudding ready to eat
Monday we went on a Tour of the Garden District, a more upscale neighborhood to the west of the French Quarter. We visited Lafayette Cemetery #1, admired the architecture, and learned about some of the famous people who live or have lived in the area. After lunch at a small cafe we shopped along Magazine St.
Tombs at Lafayette Cemetary #1
Pat taking a photo of a memorial to Jefferson Davis
...in front of the house where he ended his years.
A short bus ride and lengthy walk took us to Mardi Gras World - home of one of several companies that create floats for the Krewes that sponsor parades as part of Mardi Gras. The tour of the Warehouse provides a behind-the-scenes view of Mardi Gras. This was an amazing place to visit. Through the video and tour we learned a lot about Mardi Gras with an emphasis on the massive planning efforts involved for each of the numerous parades. We also learned that each of the 50+ Krewes sponsor a parade with multiple floats. We learned about the process of creating new floats in the themes chosen by the various Krewes. Planning and construction of new floats starts within days of the previous parade. Characters used on the floats are constructed from a very dense foam that is carved into a rough shape and then given its final form via a layer of paper mache. Characters from prior years are reused and repurposed (with paper mache and paint) for the new year.

Tuesday we took a tour along River Road (the road along the levees of the Mississippi River) just north of New Orleans. There was a time when this road passed through hundreds of sugar plantations. There are only a few left. Not all plantations were big and beautiful. Most were simply practical facilities focused on sugar production. We started our visit at Oak Alley and learned that the plantation land and basic buildings were purchased by a wealthy gentleman who envisioned the Alley of Oak Trees as leading to a grand plantation there.  It is also one of the more commercial current-day plantations with guest houses and event facilities.

Next we visited a plantation now know as " Laura". It has 5 centuries of history and is one of the few still in painted in bright Creole colors. An interesting guided tour of the house and gardens tells a lot about the history of the plantation and people who lived there.

On the trip back we were given a summary of favorite restaurants in New Orleans. We decided to go back to GW Fins for dinner and were not disappointed, Pat had Cobia (a somewhat dense but flaky white fish) and Bill tried the Black Drum (a more meaty fish). Both were very tasty.


Gumbo: a thick soup of protein and vegetables that is served over or along side rice.

Jambalay: a rice dish that contains the protein and vegetables.

Cajun: descendants of French Canadians known as Acadians who typically live in the bayou areas of south central and south west Louisiana. They used to speak an archaic form of French but this has mostly been dropped as the school systems emphasized English and speaking "cajun" became a stigma.

Creole: Originally referred to someone born in Louisiana, hence there could be French Creoles, Spanish Creoles, Black Creoles... This term has evolved to refer to all people of very old Louisiana heritage of whatever background (French, Spanish, Black, Native American and/or African) including mixed backgrounds. 

Creole cuisine, reflecting the broad heritage of their mixed backgrounds, uses tomatoes. Proper Cajun food does not. That's how you tell a Cajun versus Creole gumbo or jambalaya. A vastly over-simplified way to describe the two cuisines is to deem Creole cuisine "city food" and Cajun cuisine "country food."

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Beaufort SC, Savannah GA, St Agustine and Destin FL

Sunday we moved to Beaufort (pronounced "bew fot" with beau as in beautiful). Several friends suggested we would find it beautiful indeed. One reason for the beauty is that Beaufort was occupied by the "Federals" (aka The North) during the war and was thus preserved from destruction.  

We arrived in time to have lunch at Paninis..where we enjoyed our rustic, oval shaped pizzas. While in Beaufort, we toured the areas first by car, then by foot and finally by horse & carriage.  
Lovely swings face the Beaufort waterfront
Viewed from our Beaufort walking tour

Dinner was at Saltus where we enjoyed a Wedge Salad and Caramelized Sea Scallops accompanied by a nice Pinot Grigio. This was followed by apple pie in a small crock and an interesting conversation with the couple next to us. They are from the area and had dated briefly in their early teens. And now, with grown families and being widowed in their 80's, they decided to get together again.

Apple Pie at Saltus
Monday we moved on to Savannah. We had an interesting encounter along the way, a Bald Eagle took flight from the side of the road as we approached. A unique and special experience.

Lunch at The Ordinary Pub consisted of Corned Cobb Salad (Blackened chicken, romaine lettuce, cobbed corn, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and corn tortilla strips) and a Pub Mac 'N' Cheese with applewood smoked bacon, sun-dried tomatoes. Next we toured the Davenport House. Built in the 1820's by Isaiah Davenport who moved to Savannah in 1807, it is one of Savannah’s best examples of Federalist architecture. It was saved from destruction in 1955 by the Historic Savannah Foundation. A couple items caught our eye...see following two photos.
It may look like a doll but it is a dress sample. Local ladies ordered
their clothes from Europe based on models like these.
A fly catcher. A sweet liquid in the base attracts flies through the hole in the bottom.
The flies try to escape by flying upwards but they cannot get out.
And in the garden we saw a cotton plant...the foliage and
bloom were both firsts for us!
“Dinner” was charcuterie and wine at In Vino Vertitas, a neighborhood wine bar near our hotel.

Next day we toured two more historic buildings. First was the Massie Heritage Center, formerly the Massie Common School House). Exhibits include an extensive collection of model ships, ann excellent exhibits on "Classic Architecture" (Styles used in Savannah) and Native American Culture. Upstairs is the Heritage Classroom complete with desks, teaching aids (arithmetic and alphabet) and a school bell. 

The Native American exhibit included a chart showing current theories of how the Americas became populated starting with a wave of migration along AtlanticCoast (24,000-18,000 years ago), a second wave along the Pacific Coast(20,000-15,000 years ago) and the Pacific Land Bridge (14,000 years ago). Recent theories reflect the discoveries of civilizations that predate the Pacific Land Bridge.

The other was the (Richardson) Owens Thomas House was completed in 1819. Lost by Richardson to a bank three years later.  It was purchased and operated as an elegant lodge, famous because Lafayette slept here in 1825. In 1830 it was purchased by the Owens family. The last member of the family bequeathed it to Savannah’s art museum, the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, in 1951.

Lunch was at Vic’s on the River. We began with Fried Green Tomatoes followed by Wild Georgia Shrimp & Smoked Cheddar Stone Ground Grits for Pat and Pan Seared North Carolina Rainbow Trout for Bill with a bottle of Pinot Grigio.

In the evening we walked through several of the 24 parks (22 remain today). Each park is the center of one of Savannah’s squares which were designed with a combination of homes and public buildings around them, giving all pleasant green spaces.

A downspout....reminiscent of those in San Miguel
On our last day in Savannah we went to a fort, a beach, gun emplacements, and a cemetery. First: Fort Pulaski, named for the Polish commander of the first US Cavalry. The fort played a major role in the use of forts of this style. Robert E Lee as a young architect helped design this fort. When later consulted he confirmed that cannons from embankments on nearby Tybee Island could not penetrate it's walls. But he underestimated the power and accuracy of recently developed rifled cannons. After a couple days the North penetrated the walls and came close to hitting the arsenal of gun powder (if successful, the fort would have been devastated.). The south surrendered the fort. Henceforth new forts designs evolved.
Fort Pulaski has a moat that is typically filled with water!
Gun Powder Storage. This is what the North planned to hit.
Tybee Island Beach is also know as "Savannah's Beach".  The beach is quite extensive and the sand is powdery fine. Not a place to be during a hurricane, see photo below.

We had lunch at Sting Ray’s Cafe where Pat had the fried Soft Shell Crabs (undoubtedly the last for this trip) and Bill had fried Grouper. Both excellent.

On our return to Savannah we stopped at the site of the gun emplacements that were used by the North to capture Fort Pulaski. The fort is barely visible today and there are no canons.
Fort Pulaski viewed from the area of the Gun emplacements on Tybee Island.
The Fort is only visible if you know to look for the large Pecan tree (at about 25% of the way in
from the left side). That is a Big Pecan tree and it is inside the fort.
Enroute back to Savannah, we stopped at the Bonaventure Cemetery to see why it has captured the imaginations of writers, photographers and filmmakers for more than 150 years. Hint: It is dripping Spanish moss and features gothic tombstones / statuary. It is most recently noted as the home of the "Bird Girl” statue featured on the cover of the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil”. (Actually the statue had been moved to the Telfair Museum to protect it.)  The Cemetery is also home to Johnny Mercer, who wrote the lyrics to over 1000 songs including Moon River, Jingle Bells, Winter Wonderland, and  Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah. After a stop at the Visitor Center we wandered the grounds to get a feel for the place and to capture a few photos.

At Bonaventure Cemetery.
On the way to Winter Haven and Bill’s Mom’s house we stopped briefly in St Augustine.
First we visited the serene grounds of the Chapel of Nuestra Señora de La Leche y Buen Parto (Chapel of Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery), the first Shrine to the Virgin Mary in the US. Nearby is the world’s tallest cross commemorating the first christian service in the Americas. 

Chapel of Nuestra Señora de La Leche y Buen Parto

We then wandered through the shops in the Old Town, stopped for an ice cream and visited the Fortress, Castillo de San Marcos. It is a masonry star-shaped fort constructed of coquina in the 1600’s. Coquina is a limestone like rock formed from ancient shells. Through the years the fort passed from the Spanish to the British, back to the Spanish and finally to the United States.

Castillo de San Marcos
Shrimp Boat viewed from the Castillo
Our stay in Winter Haven was extended due to computer repair issues.  Bill's computer needed to be returned to be fix a problem with the track pad. Then it had to be returned again because the local Apple Genius felt the screen needed work. Given the machine is soon to go off warranty, we decided it was best to get everything fully repaired.

We finally headed out to the Florida Panhandle, staying a couple nights in Destin. We had a lovely rental right on the water. But as soon as we got out of the car we both started coughing. Clearly some strange allergen was in the air. All was fine if we were inside in the AC or away from the shore.  Bill had read that there was a Red Tide issue in the area. Sure enough, that brings with it a virus that makes the water unsafe and causes throat irritation for a few people...and we are two of the lucky few. The good news, it did not impact the seafood restaurants and we had some excellent grouper, shrimp and Amber Jack (Amber Jack is a white flaky fish). 

The surf from our window
We also played a round of mini-golf, neither of us is talking about a great score.  Mind you some holes had 3 tiers with holes in the higher tier leading to the next lower tier. Even these were officially "par 3's"!
Bill playing 'The Mountain" course at "The Track"
Making the most of a dead tree at The Harborwalk
On our way to New Orleans, we stopped at the National Museum of Naval Aviation  in Pensacola FL. The museum has an extensive collection of aircraft from WWI and WWII and, if aircraft are a special interest, it is worth more than a day. 

One diorama depicted pilots at the front. And that is indeed a bottle of Veuve Cliqout...
Pilots tended to come from wealth and had their "needs"... 

Yep, that is Snoopy in his Sopwith Camel
Many lucky visitors get to see the Blue Angels practicing...but not us. Still a full scale display in the museum shows how amazingly close together they are while in flight. Pat was stunned.