Friday, June 29, 2012

Spelunking for Amatures!

An Adventure

Mammoth Cave Tour, KY

First and foremost, I think I just always wanted to write a blog where I could use the word Spelunking… now that I have achieved that goal, let me tell you about the other goal I reached on this beautiful adventure.

I hadn’t really given it all much thought till we pulled into the well manicured visitor center of Mammoth Cave National Park but once the reality of it hit me, that we might do more than just enjoy the picnic bench and gift shop; but actually go INTO a cave… let me say the anxiety and claustrophobia set in.  My friend Keith loves to check out caves, Heather not so much – but we headed to the map desk to figure out what Ranger-Led program might work best for us.  As part of the National Park system, I knew that the tour and facility would be top notch.  They had tours for the elementary (and out of shape) cavers to the pros and everything in between.  You could go for just over an hour or up to six and a half. 

Walking down into the mouh of the cave.
We chose the general Historic Tour: 2 miles, 2 hours, 440 stairs and over 300 feet deep.  It was about 95 degrees outside the cave so I was looking forward to the 54 degrees inside.  Bob, our tour guide explained the hazards…. Lots of steps, dark, tight places and not a lot of room for going back.  But we smacked down our $12 and headed down the lush green path to the mouth of the cave.  The cool air was a pleasant treat as we began our trek down through the opening in the sandstone entrance. 

This is one of the many bottomless caverns

Mammoth Caves has over 390 miles of surveyed passageways and more always being uncovered.  They think people have been going into these caves for over 4,000 years but folks did not really get into using the cave till about 300 years ago where mining for salts and crystals happened here.

Years ago, folks would use candles and smoke to
leave their mark on the celings of th caves.
Now, leaving your mark is highly prohibited.

We started in the Rotunda, a huge vast opening where remnants of mining operations of yesteryear still remain.  We walked along low lit pathways to smaller and smaller areas.  Bob stopped us at one point, asked us to turn off our phones and cameras.  Using just a lantern he talked about early folks who used this cave for shelter and mining – with no electricity running though it to light the way.   Then he turned off his lantern and we all gasped in the blackness, more than 100 feet below the surface.  He explained that this was how early cavers would have seen it when they put out their torches for the night.  Eyes open or closed, I could NOT tell the difference.  I had never seen such darkness.

We turned lights back on and meandered our way through water formed passages, some we had to turn sideways or bend over to get through.  My anxiety was there, but manageable unless folks were stopping in the small spots to take pictures – keep the line moving people!  We stopped at a rest area that was known to flood up to 30 feet deep when the weather was bad.  But we learned why Mammoth did not have the funky caved spikes (stalactites), because the sandstone acted as a sturdy roof and water rarely drips from above.

We eventually worked our way past bottomless caverns, over steel grate bridges and up the 155 stops of the Tower bring you back toward the Rotunda.  As we re-entered the wide, spacious cavern we started at I was excited to know that I have worked through my anxiety and fears.  I had not felt some accomplished in quite some time.
This is me in my VICTORY Pose, after all the skinny, low, dark and creepy
spots along the 2 mile trail.  A hug from my friends helped me feel
like I had accomplished a great victory!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Food Review

501 Donelson Pike, Nashville, TN

With a name like Bar-B-Cutie how could we not try this adorable franchise Bar-B-Q fast-food restaurant?  With its menu on the wall and counter ordering, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Appetizers and samplers, 20 side options, plates or platters the choices were plentiful.  You could also get stuffed potatoes, sandwiches and bulk platters to go.

I opted for the Hickory Smoked Bar-B-Q Platter, I found out after ordering is was 2oz larger than the plate size with larger side items.  There was way too much food,  would have gone with the plate size.  A generous portion of 17 hours slow cooked pork, moist and smoky and no fat to be found.   All of the sauces were found at our table (Hot, Mild or Sweet).  I tried a bit of all of them, but I think it would have been more flavorful to have it pre-sauced and soaked in.

This adorable display was found on a railing inside!

As for sides I went with baked potato with all the fixing and the house Mac n Cheese.  No way to screw up the potato but the Mac needed a bit more seasoning.  Loved the Texas style toast that came with the plate.

The dinner plate was well priced for the portion, $8.99.  One of my dinner mates tried the Bar-B-Q on Cornbread that was more like a cornbread pancake.  Okay, but not great.

Super cute 58 year old franchise, quick and well priced, but not my vision of authentic B-B-Q (but expect from a franchise.)  I would go back if they opened up in New England and the service was great!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Creole Nature Trail

Scenic Drive

One Hundred Miles through Louisiana’s Outback

Between Houston, TX and New Orleans, LA is an interesting drive along I-10.  The highway is set up on pillars to keep the road above the swamp land below.  It is like driving on a bridge for miles over grass, interesting to say the least.  But as you get into Sulphur, LA you find a turn off to the Louisiana Outback.

Heading south on LA-27 you travel along a very well maintained road that brings you through several Parish’s (Counties for us New England folk) and over the Intercoastal Waterway (a water way that goes from TX to NY).  The scenery along the way is lush with farm land and lined with waterways full of crab pots.  There are many pull-off areas where you can overlook the swap land and bird watch or scout for gators.  No, we were not lucky enough to see any!

As you begin the eastward part of the journey your trip is stopped while you wait to cross a waterway by ferry boat.  We only had to wait a few minutes for the ferry to come back to our side, unload its passengers and take us on.  Got to drive our rental van right to the front of the ferry alongside three other vehicles.  Then we crossed this deep waterway along with shrimp boats and freighters.  Driving straight off the ferry we were back on our drive toward the Gulf of Mexico. 

Homes on stilts painted in bright colors

Oil rigs off the coast

Many side streets brought you down to public beaches along the gulf.  We passed many houses of all sized and bright colors that were up on stilts.  You knew for sure that you were in a hurricane path.  We stopped for a visit at Rutherford Beach.  For a New Englander it was strange to look out over the hazy gulf and see over a dozen oil rigs off in the distance.  The water was warm and filled with shells (that I collected and will decorate a picture frame with.) and was a nice way to spend some time on a hot Louisiana afternoon.
Waterways all along the raodway

Then we were back on the road to finish the eastbound route then North back to I-10.  The views along the outback were beautiful and well worth the 100 mile drive off the straight shot to New Orleans.

I always enjoy taking a road less traveled and this one was less traveled for sure.  We did not see many cars along our three hour trek.  But birds and cows were in abundance along the way.  It was a well-worth it trip and a great chance to see a new body of water. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Natchez Trace Parkway

Scenic Byway

An American Treasure

Part of the charm of a road trip in America is getting off the highway and seeing the road less traveled.  And that is what we did this eighth day of vacation.  We left Horn Lake, MS and drove on Rt. 72 along the top of Mississippi and into Alabama.

We picked up the Natchez Trace Parkway in Buzzard Roost Spring, AL.  Mile post marker 320 on the trail.  The Trace begins in southern MS and goes all the way to Nashville TN.  It began as an Indian foot-trail and became a well traveled wilderness road by 1810.  In the 1820's it had as many as 20 stands (Inn's) along it as it was quickly becoming a main route to Nashville from the Mississippi River.

We pulled into Buzzard Roost Spring (Old Chickasaw territory) and turned into the information center.  We were amazed to find a park ranger there with lots of information as well as a box full of National Park map information (those boxes are often empty).  The ranger welcomed us to the Parkway and encouraged us to drive it all the way to Nashville as we were in no rush to get anywhere. 

The view from the Bakers Bluff

Off we went for the 120 mile drive along well maintained roads lined with lush green trees, farms and vistas that went on for miles.  We crossed into TN at mile post 341 and made our first detour at post 375.  A 2.5 mile drive on the Old Trace, a one way dirt road through the woods the way it would have been 100 years ago.  At 20 miles an hour, I am glad that the main drag is now paved, but it was beautiful.  We saw many downed trees in the woods and realized what a hard trek it would have been back in the day. 
We pasted turn offs for old Stands, Phosphate mines and tobacco farms but we did stop for the Jackson Falls (post 404).  A winding path down to some beautiful waterfalls. 

Bakers Bluff (post 405) was a favorite of us, the view was spectacular the weather was just great.  We drove another 40 or so miles through winding parkway over creeks and hollows till we got to the award winning double arch bridge.  The Park Ranger had mentioned how proud the park system was of this bridge and as you see it from below you can understand why.

The parkway was a wonderful and beautiful alternative to taking the interstate, and I only got to drive140 miles of this 444 mile treasure.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Big Easy

New Orleans, LA

Strolling through the Heart of the French Quarter

So much to see and only about 12 hours to do it, a challenge to say the least.  We stayed at a Quality Inn outside of the business district so we had to drive into the city and find some parking.  We drive in from I-10 on the North side of the French Quarter.  We decided to drive down Canal St., to the water front, around the market area - mostly to get a lay of the land.

Before parking for the day, we remember we wanted to see one of the unique cemeteries N.O.LA has to offer, so it was over to the Garden District to Layfette Cemetery.  Home to thousands of graves above ground, in tombs that house multiple people from a family over generations.  These works of art were fascinating to wander along.  All packed so close together, some damaged from time, others from hurricanes.

Over to the French Quarter where we started with a walk to Cafe Du Monde for world famous Benignes and Chicory coffee.  No, I still not a coffee drinker, but I did have a sip of Keiths.  The cafe was packed with locals and tourists alike.  A trumpet player belted out jazz to an attentive audience and the pastries, buried in powdered sugar melted in your mouth.  Servers with creole accents took care of the mobbed cafe.
Off to do some shopping in the Market District, I was on the hunt for a larger handbag and some unique souvenirs.  The market was filled with seafood, produce and tons of well priced knick knacks.  Silver jewelry, coffee mugs, mardi gras masks and "voo doo" type key chains.  I settled on a magnet, a new Coach-like bag and jewlery made by a local artisan, who was there to talk about his items.  Home made bath salts and a breezy summer dress also seemed to find their way into my bag.

We wandered past street artists (those guys painted in silver who pose like statues) and had to make a decision on the rest of our day... A storm was rolling in, we could see lightning over the Mississippi River.  We popped into the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch (burgers and salads) to wait it out, but it just would 't come in-land, till after we were done with lunch.  Time for a quick break in the Road-trip-mobile. We hunkered down in the minivan while most of the storm passed over us.

We braved the end of the rain to make it (more wet then we had planned) to Harrods Casino.  A beautiful, good sized money sucker who was not kind to any of us.  But we did get out of the storm long enough to walk over to a very quiet Riverwalk area where we so the Creole Queen paddle boat docked. 
As evening was approaching we walked back up Canal St. And entered famous Bourbon St.  An impressive 5 piece band was playing to a crowd right on the corner.  It was still early but the street was already a buzz with barkers in doorways enticing you to grab food, drinks or an adult show.  Folks were dining on upper balconies over looking the street while musical entertainers dotted the street.  It was fun to walk down the center of the road and watch the buzz of folks.  Minus the overpacked crowd of people, the walk down Bourbon St. was everything I had imagined and more.

We were worn out from all the walking, but most definitely a great day of sightseeing in a wonderful city.  So glad we made the trip.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Deep in the heart of TX

Road Trip Day 1-3

Lions, Alamos and Dinos... Oh My!

H-O-T... wow, for a girl who lives in a state where the weather can change at the drop of a hat, it is the heat that has kicked my butt down here.  When we left CT it was 75, we landed in a steamy 102 San Antonio, but that was not going to slow us down from seeing the sites and taking in all that South East Texas has to offer.  What was going to slow us down though was a snafu at the car rental place.  We (that would be Heather - a life long travel buddy of mine; and Keith - a first time with me, road tripper - but by dearest friends though)... So we, had to take about two hours to sort out a car rental problem.  But once we were done, our Town and Country with stowe and go seating was orginized and packed.  We put down all but one back seat, stowed into the floor.  We hit Target and loaded the car with a cooler full of water and a bin full of snacks!  Off we went.

So we spent our first HOT Texas evening enjoying what is called the Riverwalk.  A winding river path through the heart of San Antonio.  For $8.25 you can take a narrated shallow boat ride through the cannels and hear the history of the city including massive flooding and the '63 Worlds Fair.  The most predominate reminder of that fair is the massive Tower of the America's.  One of those awesome round buildings sitting on top of a needle that now rotates and you can view the city from.  Walking along the river past all the shops and restuaurnts was great.  Mariacci bands dotted the walk area.

Monday brought us another HOT sunny day that we started at a Zoo.  When they say things are bigger in TX, they are not kidding, black bears, komoto dragons, elephants - they were all HUGE.  One of the better zoos I have been too as there were a great variety of animals and lots of shady places to enjoy them.

Off to the most famous site in San Antonio.... the Alamo.  I have to admit, I didn't know much about when I got there but there was so much to learn.  It is a National Historical site and like Pearl Harbor, it is a National Shrine to those who died there.  A sacred place.  You can still walk through many areas of the forte and many of the limestone walls are still standing around the city.  But in true American fashion, we have turned the area into a tourist trap.  With in those limestone forte walls, you can find a Ripley's Believe it or Not, a Wax Museum, A 3-D movie adventure and more.  We did enjoy Ripley's and the Wax museum.  

Next to our hotel was a great fast food chain call Whataburger.  But not typical fast food.  Yes, you order at the counter, but your food only starts to cook when the order is placed, then they bring it out to you with a condiment tray and refill your sodas for you.  Fast food meets fast casual.

Tuesday took on us on the first real driving leg of our trip.  Keith took the wheel and started us to Houston.  Our first stop, "Buck-eeys".  This amazing truck stop that had signs for miles ahead drawing you in.  Once we got there we were not disappointed.  Local candies and gifts, a massive deli, blankets, hats, clothes, souvenirs you name it - they had it.  We picked up deli grinders for lunch.

Off to NASA.  That place is great - we at lunch in our van in the parking lot before going in to see wonders of man and our vision and ability to reach for the star.  Very cool.  The narrated tram tour was worth it and the air conditioned play-museum was fantastic.  Rockets, rocks, simulators and more make for a great way to spend the day.

NASA is on the outskirts of Houston so we headed back into the city late where we hit a massive rain storm, but it dropped the sticky heat down to 75, so it was great.  We hit the Houston Natural Science museum that had a brand new Peleo exhibit.  Set up more like a fine arts exhibit, but very cool.  Dinosaur skeletons were displayed in scenes together, with paintings on the wall behind acting out the scene.  Very cool.

A few long hot days, but a great taste of Texas for sure.  Today we leave for Louisiana.... what fun will we find?  Keep you posted!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Traveling by Train

Mode of Transportation

Six states in Six hours

For me part of the magic of a trip is the “getting there”.  I know that many people just want to get to vacation as soon as possible, but for me, getting there is part of the fun and the experience.  So when I had the opportunity to go to DC on Memorial Day weekend I had three options.  I could drive there (about 6 hours on paper + Holiday traffic = unknown hours of grumpy).  I could jump on a plane (about $250, 1 hour of waiting, 1 hour of flying and that bonus grope by TSA.)  Or I could take a train.  (About $170, scenic view and 6-7 hours of relaxation.)

I opted for the train this trip as I had never taken it NYC, the price was right, the timing worked well and heck… I just loved the idea of riding the rails.  So my friends and I parked in Windsor, CT (free for the three days we needed) boarded the Amtrak shuttle and headed off. 

Switching trains in New Haven is almost always quick and easy.  Get off track A, turn around to track B, wait ten minutes and you are off again.  The the train was packed for the holdiay weekend, we were able to get three seats together and we were in the back row of the caboose, so though it was a little more rocky, we didn’t have people walking by us ALL trip long.

The the day was grey, you could still
 see the glory of the Freedom Tower
rising into the sky.

The NY to DC leg of the Northeast Regional route is somewhat scenic, more interesting and industrial, but had some great things to see.  From NY’s Penn Stations we go into New Jersey, toward the rail to air shuttle that brings you to the airport.  You pass through lower Manhattan where you get to see a great view of the city skyline including the ongoing construction of the new Freedom Tower (now taller than the Empire State building).  You travel into Philadelphia which has a lot of graffiti along the train tracks, but it was more art than vandalism for sure.

This seascape is painted on a marketing
building in Willmington DE

As you passed through Delaware there was often water on either side of the train, going past marinas with full boat yards and water front homes then into Maryland, where you travel through great brick neighborhoods full of wonderful mom-n-pop businesses.  Our trip ended in Union Station, Washington DC, a very large and easy to navigate rail house that merged train lines and metro rails. 

Now, I have to say, the food on the train was surprisingly good.  I had heard that Amtrak was improving their food to help compete with air travel.  I had a wonderful chicken caesar salad and added the “cheese board” that I got (cheese, dried fruit and crackers).  It was great.  My friends said that the cheeseburgers were surprisingly as well.  Much better than expected, which is always nice.