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Cajun Circuit: Mississippi

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Mississippi route

If you ask most Americans, especially those from large cities, what they know about Mississippi you would probably hear a lot of unfortunate misconceptions about poverty, lack of education, and racism. As is so often true when traveling in places that carry that kind of baggage, none of those qualities were apparent to us during our two days in the state. What we saw was a great deal of natural beauty, harmonious living, and people who were as kind and friendly as anyone else we've encountered on our travels around the world.

Natchez is a small town in the southwestern corner of Mississippi that hugs the outside of a curve of the mighty Mississippi River. As we drove into town we were welcomed by a shack offering bags of cracklins, deep fried strips of pig skin. They seemed fairly expensive at six bucks for a small bag but it was a good chance to compare the Southern version of the delicacy with the Cuban variety we're accustomed to at home in Miami. They were crunchy and tasty, and much greasier than the kind you might find in a snack food bag. We started out thinking we would eat the whole bag and then put it in the glove compartment before it was halfway empty.

Our Airbnb in Natchez was a sprawling house with a seemingly endless selection of bedrooms. In the back was a brick patio and a garden with a whimsical array of lawn furniture and pottery. A large stack of firewood and a tapestry of wisteria consummated the rustic atmosphere.

Dinner was at a cavernous family restaurant on the highway outside of town. The absence of boiled crawfish on the menu confirmed that we had left Cajun country behind us. We still had oysters on the half shell, but by now we were a little tired of sacrificing brininess for size and texture.

Aside from being an attractive Southern town, Natchez doesn't have a lot of specific attractions. We parked close to the river and found that the town was perched on a steep embankment. There were some buildings on the Louisiana side of the river across from us but nothing at all on our side. We didn't get the feeling that we were looking at the longest and most historic river in North America.

On the periphery of Natchez is the site of Longwood, a 19th century mansion whose construction was halted abruptly by the outbreak of the Civil War. Its owner died several years later and the upper floors were never completed. The mansion is notable for its unusual octagonal shape and brick-red cupola, features of the Moorish Revival architectural style that was popular at the time. We'd only planned on looking at the building from the outside, but the current operators have craftily set up an admission booth at the beginning of the road that leads to the estate. Once we'd paid the hefty admission price, we decided we might as well take the tour which proved to be exceptionally dry. The kids barely lasted ten minutes and I was glad for the excuse to take them out into the fresh air. Mei Ling was determined to get her money's worth and pressed on to the unfinished main floor upstairs.

By this point we had gone more than twenty-four hours without boiled crawfish and we were starting to miss the little mudbugs. An online search indicated they could be found across the bridge from Natchez in the tiny Louisiana town of Vidalia. We ended up at a shack on the side of the highway that had about as little atmosphere as any place I've ever eaten at. The crawfish boil was especially salty and the bugs were much smaller than they had been in Cajun country. Getting through the dozens of small, hard shells cut my fingertips repeatedly and the brine worked its way into the wounds mercilessly. That five pound portion cured me of my cravings for crawfish for the rest of the trip. Behind the shack a new shipment was being unloaded in huge plastic net sacks and the kids got a close-up look at the operation.

The Vidalia side of the river was more satisfying experience than we'd had in Natchez. The kids were able to get right to the shoreline and dip their hands in the water as I explained the critical role the Mississippi played in the growth of our country. Just downstream were the gleaming steel trusses of the twin Natchez-Vidalia bridges.

On the way out of Natchez we stopped at the Old South Winery to try some muscadine wines. Muscadines are a thick-skinned variety of grape that grow across the southeastern United States, and can be bronze or dark purple when ripe. Both varieties can be used to make sweet wine. We tasted each variety and bought a couple of bottles of the Natchez Rouge, a full-bodied specimen with medium sweetness. Sadly, both bottles had disappeared from the trunk by the end of the trip. Had we accidentally offloaded them into an Airbnb and forgotten them? Or did I somehow confabulate the memory of putting them in the trunk in the first place? We'll never get to enjoy muscadine wine from Mississippi now, as the winery isn't permitted to ship to Florida.

En route to Jackson we passed up the highway in favor of the Natchez Trace Parkway. The route closely follows the historic Natchez Trace, which was originally forged by bison traveling north in search of salt licks. Native Americans expanded and marked the trail following which it came into use by European-American traders and migrants. The Parkway was more attractive than the highway thanks to the lack of vehicles and proximity of the trees but otherwise the section we traveled on was nondescript. We passed several of the well-known stopping points on the Parkway but everyone was sleeping by this point and none of the sights seemed compelling enough to disturb the peace.

The Airbnb in Jackson was another winner with multiple bedrooms and a pleasant character. One thing about traveling in rural America is that there's no shortage of great family-size Airbnb's. Dinner was an easy choice as Jackson had its very own brand new food hall, and we never pass up a food hall. Cultivation Food Hall still looked as though it had just opened and it was sparsely patronized on a Tuesday evening. The food selection was decent with an emphasis on Southern and Creole cooking, naturally enough. One highlight was the excellent beignets, which I've loved since I was a kid. I'd been looking forward to introducing the kids to beignets on this trip and as I expected they fought over them vigorously.

Once we were back at the Airbnb a significant problem presented itself. Spenser's cough had clearly progressed to a full blown asthma exacerbation. I'd listened to his breathing earlier and hadn't detected any wheezing, but now he was wheezing and showing signs of struggling to breathe. Even worse, he wasn't his usual rambunctious self at all and was ignoring the games his older siblings were playing. He gets these attacks so infrequently that we don't lug a nebulizer and medication with us when we travel, a decision that I was greatly regretting at that moment. I took off his shirt and watched the skin between and under his ribs pull in as he breathed. It was clear that he needed breathing treatments quickly. I was either going to have to go to the pharmacy and get a nebulizer and albuterol, or we'd have to take him to an emergency room. I weighed the options and eventually decided I couldn't feel confident he was going to be safe if we tried treating him at the house. He seemed to be getting sicker and weaker every minute. Fortunately we were just a few blocks from Batson Children's Hospital at the University of Mississippi and we made the responsible decision to take him there.

The lobby of the emergency room was fairly full and I started to worry we were in for a long wait before getting triaged, but they brought us back quickly and got Spenser's vitals. I was shocked to see his oxygen saturation was dipping as low as 88% and his heart rate was over 150. We had definitely made the right decision in coming to the hospital. They got him right back to a room and began nebulizer treatments. Seeing Spenser's poor vital signs had really freaked me out and I couldn't stay in the room while Mei Ling and the respiratory therapist worked on keeping him from pulling off his mask. The combination of stress and possibly the afternoon crawfish was playing tricks on my digestion and I kept taking walks outside to get fresh air and dry the sweat on my face. It's not the first time I've seen the ER as a family member instead of a physician, but if anything being a physician makes the experience worse. I couldn't believe I hadn't recognized how sick Spenser was and wondered what could have happened if I'd gone with my original impulse to take care of him in the house.

Eventually it became clear Spenser wasn't going to turn around quickly enough to come home that night. I went back to the Airbnb and got some bedding and supplies for Mei Ling, who was going to stay in Spenser's hospital room. I still had the other two kids to deal with the next morning and I needed to get some sleep. We were really lucky we had taken Mei Ling's mother with us on the trip. The only reason we'd done it was to be able to eat at decent restaurants in New Orleans, but tonight it meant that the mishap with Spenser hadn't affected the other two kids at all. Having them both at the hospital with us along with Spenser would have been a nightmare.

In the morning I checked in with Mei Ling and she reassured me that Spenser was breathing better and getting back to his old self, but it didn't seem like he'd be getting out before the afternoon. I took Ian and Cleo and Mei Ling's Mom back to the food hall but the food didn't seem as good as it had been the previous night. My stomach had settled down but I still didn't have much of an appetite. There wasn't any reason not to go ahead with the activities I'd planned for Jackson ahead of time so I drove everyone to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. This was a small but very kid-oriented science museum with some impressive skeletons of extinct mammals and entertaining interactive exhibits. Behind the museum were a number of nature trails of different lengths. We chose the shortest which was mainly along a boardwalk in the forest.

Half an hour northwest of Jackson is the Mississippi Petrified Forest. Petrified forest is probably a bit of a stretch for this small wooded area, given that the scattered fossilized tree trunks were either lying on the ground or half-buried. It didn't particularly matter as my kids were pretty foggy on the whole concept of petrification. They were more interested in following the sequence of numbers on the trail and puttering around in the gift shop.

Around the time we were ready to leave I got a call from Mei Ling that she and Spenser were ready to be picked up. It was great to see Spenser back to his old exuberant self and have the whole family reunited again. As we drove away from the hospital, I beseeched the travel gods to keep Spenser in good health for at least the three hours it was going to take us to get to New Orleans.

Posted by zzlangerhans 10:30 Archived in USA Tagged travel mississippi blog tony jackson natchez friedman natchez_trace Comments (0)

Cajun Circuit: Lafayette

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New Orleans may get all the press, but the heart of Cajun country is the smaller and lesser known city of Lafayette. The official name of Cajun country is Acadiana, and it extends across the southern part of Louisiana from the western edge of New Orleans to the Texas border. That's right, New Orleans isn't even part of Cajun country. The name Acadiana is derived from the region of Acadia in the Northern Atlantic coast which included the French colonies that eventually became Quebec. When the British conquered Acadia in the early 18th century, many natives migrated to the French colony of Louisiana which was eventually purchased by the United States. The area in which the Acadians settled became known as Acadiana, and the word Acadian was eventually corrupted to Cajun. Cajun is a genuine subculture of the United States, having their own language, music, and cuisine. Lafayette became the center of the Cajun community when the governor of Louisiana in the mid 18th century began actively settling Acadians in the area, granting them land among the bayous.

Our Airbnb in Lafayette was an unassuming but spacious house close to the center of town. There was a large backyard with banana trees and a beat up soccer ball that kept the kids entertained for an hour until it was time for dinner.

One might think at this point that we'd had our fill of crawfish for the day, and one might be wrong about that. The most popular boil in town was a hole in the wall in a strip mall, but their crawfish were huge and spicy. Mei Ling had figured out by this point that the right way to order the crustaceans was in five pound portions, and I eventually had to cut her off much in the same way I've dragged friends out of bars in my younger days.

After dinner we went to a couple of bars downtown in search of Zydeco music. This unique musical genre fuses accordion with traditional rhythm and blues instruments to create a sound that is emblematic of Acadiana. Unfortunately there was nothing going on Sunday night and we retired to the Airbnb empty-handed.

In the morning we walked to downtown for breakfast, passing several trees that were still festooned with beads from the Mardi Gras parades three weeks earlier. Thankfully we were able to get through breakfast without any crawfish making an appearance.

We drove half an hour south to Avery Island to visit the Tabasco factory. This was an odd choice because neither of us particularly cares for Tabasco sauce. I used to put it in soup when I was younger before I discovered more textured hot sauces like Sriracha, but now it just tastes like fiery vinegar to me. We were more interested in Jungle Gardens, the botanical garden adjacent to the factory that can be toured by car. Avery Island isn't an island in the typical sense of the word as it is only separated from the land around it by narrow bayous. Tabasco sauce has been manufactured on Avery Island since the mid-19th century.

The Tabasco factory itself wasn't very exciting but fortunately we weren't pressed for time and just let the kids figure out different ways to amuse themselves. The good thing about our kids is that it's almost impossible to get bored when they're around.

Jungle Gardens made the trip down to Avery Island worthwhile. A gravelly road took us along the bayous through stately trees decked in Spanish moss. At one point we parked the car and walked through a forest of palm trees and bamboo that seemed almost prehistoric.

On the way back to Lafayette we stopped in the town of New Iberia for more huge crawfish. Mei Ling's Bloody Mary came with a whole deep fried soft-shelled crab on top.

Tuesday morning we got started with a boat ride with Champagne's Cajun Swamp Tours outside of Breaux Bridge. For about an hour and a half we motored gently through the bayous, some of which were still enough to reflect the bald cypresses that surrounded us and others which were covered by an unbroken green carpet of algae. The highlight was the enormous alligators that were basking in the sun, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

After lunch in Breaux Bridge we got back on the road and soon arrived in Baton Rouge, the capital city of Louisiana. While Baton Rouge is far smaller than New Orleans, it boasts some beautiful buildings including the Old State Capitol building. This 19th century Gothic-Revival castle is now a museum of political history. We took a short drive around the city center and saw some charming residential neighborhoods with classical Southern mansions.

Once we left Baton Rouge, it was time to say good bye to Louisiana for a couple of days as we headed north to Mississippi, the second state of our trip.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:50 Archived in USA Tagged travel swamp blog tabasco bayou tony lafayette baton_rouge friedman acadiana avery_island Comments (0)

Cajun Circuit: New Orleans arrival and Houma

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I spend a lot of time writing about our road trips in Europe, but the truth is we have just as much fun traveling in our home country of the US. I've tended to ignore these shorter trips on my blog but recently decided I was going to try to write up every trip as soon as possible after coming home so I would remember the details. From the perspective of travel, the US is more like China than a European country. Because of its size the regions are more diverse but they're not all accessible from each other on a single trip. Also, much of the diversity is confined to the cities. 90% of the rural areas are actually quite similar culturally even if they have their own special attractions. That's why I groan every time a European tells me about a big plan to drive from the East Coast to the West Coast. They're buying themselves a whole lot of monotony between interesting stops.

The best way to see the US is to carve out regions that have their own individual culture as well as interesting cities and focus on them for a week or two. We've done that before in New England, Southern California, the Deep South, and Pacific Northwest. This time round we only had a week for the kids' spring break so we looked for a place close to Miami and settled on New Orleans and Cajun Country. That's a fairly small area so I decided to expand the itinerary to include southern Mississippi, which is a bastion of cotton belt culture.

We caught an early morning flight which got us to New Orleans at ten in the morning. We picked up our minivan and drove straight to the Louisiana Crawfish Festival in the eastern suburb of Chalmette. Peak crawfish season is March through May, and during that time there are crawfish festivals practically every weekend in Louisiana. Mei Ling and I both love crawfish, although I'm hard-pressed to explain why I prefer them to something more common such as shrimp. I think the attraction is largely in the process of extracting them from their shells which crack in a very satisfying way, followed by the salty umami of sucking the liver out of the head. The main thing that distinguishes one crawfish from another is the size and the quality of the boil. If you've had boiled crawfish before and you weren't impressed, odds are you were served the typical small specimens served in restaurants outside of Louisiana, or even frozen ones. Even in New Orleans the restaurants in the more touristy areas tend to serve the diminutive type. Traveling in rural bayou country proved to be an eye-opening experience in that regard.

The festival was set up in the enormous parking lot of the local civic center. At one end was a stage and just as we arrived they were holding a crawfish eating contest for a group of local beauty queens. Most of them ate like they didn't particularly care to win first place. Following that they moved over to a large square table for a crawfish race. The girls slapped their hands furiously on the square table, trying to get a crustacean to crawl over to them.

There were plenty of food stalls but only one with the star of the day, freshly boiled crawfish. We made short work of two heaping cartons, washed down with ice cold beer.

After lunch we took the kids over to the carnival rides and let them have some fun with the Ferris wheel and bumper cars. The festival had been the perfect way to kick off our road trip. It set a tone for good food and energetic fun that we planned to sustain for the whole week.

Instead of taking the direct route west to Lafayette via Interstate 10, we detoured southward through bayou country and the town of Houma. I wanted to get a little closer to the amazing Louisiana coastline, which looks like it was attacked by gigantic land-eating moths.

The other attraction in Houma was that it was home to some of the most renowned crawfish restaurants in Louisiana. We had just stuffed ourselves at the festival a couple of hours earlier, but we decided to make a stop at Cajun Critters anyway. It was a folksy restaurant with a lot of nautical decoration and politically incorrect placards in the restrooms.

Besides the obligatory crawfish, we ordered gumbo and oysters which turned out to be meaty and delicious. We were fortunate to be there during oyster season, which runs from Labor Day through the end of April. The Gulf of Mexico is home to many varieties of oyster and Louisiana boasts the largest remaining oyster reefs in the world, despite the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. The crawfish were larger and tastier than the ones we'd had at the festival. Somehow once we saw the food it was like we hadn't eaten at all that day.

We drove around the town of Houma, using Zillow to guide us to the neighborhoods at different economic levels. The best neighborhoods were immaculately maintained with beautiful houses that cost about a third of what they would in Miami. Our favorite was one that was festively decorated for Easter in a more blue collar area.

I tried to figure out a way to explore the myriad bayous and islets that form Louisiana's tattered coastline by car and couldn't come up with anything. There doesn't seem to be much for travelers down there aside from fishing trips and airboat tours. The few roads that extend all the way to the shore seem to pass mainly through unattractive industrial areas. Instead we decided to press on to Lafayette and check into our Airbnb before it got too late.

Posted by zzlangerhans 23:41 Archived in USA Tagged travel new_orleans blog louisiana tony oysters houma crawfish friedman Comments (0)

West Coast swing: San Diego II

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We kicked off our last full day in San Diego with another awesome breakfast, this time in the resort town of Coronado across the bay from San Diego. Whether Coronado is an island or not remains the subject of debate, since the town is connected to the city of Imperial Beach to the south by a long strip of sand called a tombolo. This technically makes Coronado a "tied island" but some locals refuse to consider it an island because one can drive there over land without a bridge. We arrived via the Coronado Bridge, which provides amazing views of the San Diego Marina and downtown.

More than half of Coronado is given over to a naval base. The remainder is a fairly sleepy resort town with pretty residential neighborhoods and lots of beaches. The main commercial area is Orange Avenue which has a lot of upscale boutiques and the occasional chain store. Our breakfast place was a crowded, old-fashioned diner style restaurant with a long counter and bright crimson vinyl upholstery. Each booth had a personalized jukebox, and once again the food was outstanding. Southern California seems to be one of those places, like Vermont and Napa Valley, that's just great for breakfast.

The only actual sight on Coronado Island is the historic Hotel del Coronado. This enormous 19th century wooden hotel was a frequent hangout for Hollywood celebrities in the 1920's and 30's. We had a lot more to see that day so we were satisfied with a close look at the exterior of the building.

One of our quirks when we travel is that we're more likely to visit an ethnic or specialty food store than a museum. Such was the case with our next destination in San Diego, Catalina Offshore Products. Mei Ling had put this wholesale seafood market on our schedule without even realizing that they are the origin of our regular shipments of California sea urchin. Catalina is considered one of California's premier online seafood retailers, and they also have a commanding physical presence in San Diego's industrial Morena neighborhood.

Aside from the seafood counters, there were a lot of interesting products on display including cuttlefish ink and a variety of fish eggs. The smell wasn't as bad as the kids seemed to think.

Although there weren't many retail customers in the store, one of the fishmongers was busy preparing sashimi samples at a small kitchen in the back of the store. We were curious about whether the Pacific fish opah could be eaten sashimi and he generously cut us a few delicious slices. Opah is almost unknown as a food fish in the US outside of Hawaii, but it's gradually making inroads thanks to the efforts of the fishmongers at Catalina and other California seafood promoters.

Just south of Catalina Offshore, Old Town San Diego is a miniature theme park that celebrates San Diego's colonial history and Mexican heritage. It is built on the site of the first Spanish settlement in California. There are a few historic homes and churches but most of the buildings are reconstructions. There's a large central square with majestic trees and picnic tables surrounded by small museums and stores selling local and Mexican goods and souvenirs. The kids got a kick out of dyeing candles at a crafts station we encountered. There's nothing like hot wax to keep kids entertained.

At one corner of the complex is an enclosed area designed to look like a Mexican hacienda, with an open central area for musical performances. In the periphery were a number of restaurants as well as stores selling Mexican art and ceramics. I was surprised by the high quality of the handmade ceramics on display after seeing all the souvenir shops around the square.

Overall we were happy with our visit to Old San Diego. It was touristy and just a little cheesy but also very pretty and pleasant to walk around in. We still had plenty of daylight for our next destination, La Jolla Cove. One of the great things about travel is the opportunity to see different animals in their natural habitats, and La Jolla Cove is one of the best and most accessible places to see seals and sea lions in the United States. Fortunately my interminable search for a parking spot in the commercial district of La Jolla Village coincided with the kids' naps, so they were fresh and ready to go once someone finally pulled out right in front of me. Just before the cove there's a beautiful, grassy park with great views over the Pacific.

I was expecting to see a lot of sea lions but I was still surprised at their abundance and how easy it was to approach them. There were a number of tourists on the rocks but there could have been far more, and no one was getting too close or bothering the animals. large_IMG_2335.JPGlarge_IMG_2337.JPG

I didn't want all three kids out on the rocks together so I brought them out one at a time to get close to the sea lions. Ian was the only one who seemed to mind the strong smell of animal waste. Fortunately there was a stiff breeze to keep the worst of it flowing away from us.

A little further east along the shoreline was a small beach and a few hardy souls were even swimming in the frigid ocean. Hundreds of cormorants were clustered along the rocks and cliffs behind the beach, as well as a few seagulls and pelicans.

The Friday evening market was in the inland suburb of La Mesa. The size and energy level were about midway between the two previous evening markets, and we concluded that Ocean Beach was the best of the bunch. That didn't stop the kids from breaking out some moves to a spirited bluegrass performance.

We sampled a few things at La Mesa, but we saved most of our room to eat at San Diego's outpost of the Korean supermarket chain Zion. There were three or four small restaurants in the supermarket's food court, and we had our second highly authentic Korean meal of the trip.

One very smart thing I did when I planned this trip was to schedule our return flight home from Los Angeles at 11 PM. That meant that we could take our time getting back to Los Angeles on Saturday and have a good dinner before going to the airport. It also meant the kids would be sleeping most of the flight and would get a jump on adjusting to the time change before school started Monday. We still had the Saturday morning market in Little Italy, which was gorgeous in the overcast morning. The streets were lined with colorful and sleek modern townhouses, with San Diego's attractive skyline providing the background to the south.

The market turned out to be the best of all the ones we had visited in Southern California. It was as big as the one in Santa Monica, but had a more local vibe and better crafts and artisanal food.

The highlight of the morning was a seafood stall which was stocked with enormous live purple sea urchins that they were splitting open and filling with ceviche. There's nothing more fulfilling for us when we travel than this kind of unique and exotic food experience.

We'd seen a little of San Diego's amazing Balboa Park two days earlier when we'd visited the zoo, but I didn't want to leave without a closer look. Aside from the sixteen museums, the park houses countless gardens and performance venues. We couldn't find a parking space when we arrived, so Cleo and I struck out on our own to explore the beautiful Alcazar Garden, which was like being transported to a palace courtyard in Granada or Seville.

Behind the Alcazar Garden is the majestic California Tower, constructed a hundred years ago for an exposition in a whimsical blend of architectural styles. The tower and the building it is attached to house the anthropologic Museum of Man.

We were able to find temporary parking long enough to explore the Palm Canyon together. A wooden walkway and staircase lead down to a narrow canyon with a distinct prehistoric vibe. Afterwards we walked as far as the Japanese Friendship Garden but decided we didn't have enough time to justify the price of admission.

Our last stop in San Diego was Liberty Public Market, where we put together our final food hall meal of our California road trip. After the exhausting zoo trip, we'd never summoned the motivation to go to SeaWorld but we didn't have any regrets. We'd found more than enough in San Diego in three days to entertain and amaze us. On our way back north towards Los Angeles, we eschewed the interstate for the coastal Highway 101. We slowly made our way through all the small seaside communities all the way back to Oceanside, detouring frequently into residential neighborhoods to admire the Southern California architectural styles.

We made it back to Los Angeles in time to spend an hour or so at the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I'd been warned it wasn't a good museum for kids but the descriptions I'd seen had made me very curious so we went for it. Naturally, the warnings were correct. The museum was a dark labyrinth of small rooms connected by narrow hallways and it was very crowded. The kids could barely understand any of the displays and honestly I couldn't figure out why most of the things I was seeing were worth exhibiting. The few things I found interesting I was unable to focus on because I was too busy keeping the kids from touching the stuff they weren't supposed to touch. So perhaps we'll go back when the kids are teenagers, or maybe not. Photographs were not permitted.

Our final task in California was to stuff ourselves before the flight back to Miami. We still hadn't seen Little Tokyo and I had a craving for authentic shabu shabu. Unfortunately, Little Tokyo was absolutely packed even at 6 PM and every restaurant we inquired at had a wait of over an hour. In the end, we drove back downtown to a Japanese restaurant we'd seen next to Grand Central Market which was practically empty and had excellent shabu shabu. Mission accomplished for dinner, but Little Tokyo would have to wait for the next visit. We carried onward to the airport, thoroughly exhausted and exhilarated after our whirlwind tour through Southern California.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:56 Archived in USA Comments (0)

West Coast swing: San Diego I

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The drive south from Los Angeles to San Diego is one of the more pleasant we've made on an interstate highway in the US. The highway was lined on either side with housing developments whose units were eerily identical, except that they were often constructed on terraced hillsides that created a strange similarity with the ancient towns of Sicily. I had to wonder if I was the only person who ever saw the resemblance. Unfortunately it never occurred to me to pull the car over and take a picture of these peculiar planned communities, but here's what I was reminded of.

The other remarkable sight from the highway were the mountain ranges, always a formidable presence somewhere in the background. Being used to the east coast where the terrain is generally flat anywhere near the seaboard, the mountains seemed quite incongruous yet beautiful.

We spent New Year's Eve with friends of Mei Ling in one of those cookie cutter developments inland from the town of Oceanside. Oceanside itself had little worth seeing, but since we were there anyway we made a brief stop at Mission San Luis Rey, a two hundred year old Spanish church that was originally established as one of twenty-one California missions that served to extended the power of the Spanish kingdom to the new frontier.

The only other place we visited around Oceanside was the Museum of Making Music, in the neighboring coastal community of Carlsbad. This was quite a fun museum oriented towards kids, and I think ours learned quite a lot about instruments from the interactive exhibits and from experimenting in the small studio.

We'd had amazing success with food halls in Los Angeles, so naturally when we arrived in San Diego we made a beeline for lunch at Liberty Public Market, one of San Diego's two food halls. The hall opened in 2016 in the Liberty Station commercial area, and contains about twenty small restaurants. There was a lot of energy and a great variety of food although not quite to the degree of the big Los Angeles food halls. We mixed it up with some Italian arancini, seafood, and Cajun.

Our Airbnb was another great choice, an apartment in an incongruous complex of Victorian houses downtown wedged between the Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy. The exterior was full of pleasant little touches like wicker furniture and a collection of succulents growing in creative pottery.

All the farmers markets from Wednesday through Friday were in the evenings, which worked out great with our schedule. On our first night we drove out to Ocean Beach, an eclectic residential neighborhood at the base of the Point Loma peninsula west of downtown. It was more like a night market than a farmers market, although there were a few produce stands. The emphasis was more on prepared foods and crafts, and there was a really good live band. The food stalls were very diverse and we had more than enough options to provide a satisfying dinner. It was probably the closest thing we'd encountered in the US to a Taiwan-style night market.

We still had a little energy left after the night market so we drove to Seaport Village, an outdoor shopping and dining complex by the San Diego Marina. There turned out not to be much going on at night, although a few interesting places were still open. The strangest was a store almost completely devoted to socks. How do they stay in business in San Diego where everyone wears sandals and flip-flops? We decided if we had time we'd return during daylight hours for the views of Coronado Island I'd read about.

The Gaslamp Quarter is San Diego's historic heart and soul. After decades of neglect, the neighborhood was revitalized in the 1980's and is now home to some of San Diego's best restaurants as well as numerous historic buildings and the eponymous lamps (which of course are electric).

The breakfast place I chose from TripAdvisor turned out to be outstanding, both in terms of food and decor. It was truly one of the most beautifully designed and ornate restaurants I can remember, down to the most minimal detail. Coupled with the magnificent buildings outside, it left a lasting impression of the Gaslight Quarter as having a very sophisticated design aesthetic.

A short walk from breakfast we encountered a splendid outdoor plaza called Horton Plaza Park, which had just completed a major renovation three years earlier. The design was magnificent with eight towering, angulated metal light supports arranged in a semi-circle around a sunken plaza with a pop-jet fountain in the center. Surrounding us was an interesting juxtaposition of modern skyscrapers and historic edifices. The plaza serves multiple purposes as a performance venue, relaxation spot, and unfortunately as a homeless hangout.

The San Diego Zoo is one of the largest and most famous zoos in the world, and shares top billing for local animal attractions with SeaWorld. I had figured we would have time for both and opted to do the zoo first, since it seemed easier to plan. After all, a zoo is a zoo, right? Of course, the logistics were a little more complicated than most zoos. For example, the parking lot alone was the size of some other zoos we've visited. Fortunately we found a ticket line that moved quickly but wow, those tickets were expensive. Two hundred bucks later we rolled through the turnstiles and began a very long journey that took us through maybe a quarter of the zoo. I'd recommend doing some research in advance if you're planning on visiting this zoo, because it is not possible to get small kids around the entire place in a day. Spenser got tired after about an hour and I loaded him on my back for a nap. This blog may be called Babies in Backpacks, but now that my youngest weighs over thirty pounds and I'm pushing fifty I might need to change up my brand. By the time Spenser had woken up an hour later, I was feeling a knife stabbing into each of my shoulder blades. I got a brief respite while we ate the sandwiches we had brought with us, and then it was time to load up Ian. The kids enjoyed some of the exhibits, but they're not really zoo lovers and at the end I was wishing we had chosen SeaWorld instead.

The highlights of the zoo were a very active troop of baboons in a large, natural-looking enclosure and the Skyfari aerial tram. By the time we stumbled on the tram and realized it would take us directly to the exit, we abandoned all thought of queuing up for the pandas. We'll catch them in Hunan one day. The Skyfari provided great views of the zoo, Balboa Park, and even downtown San Diego.


The Thursday afternoon farmers market was in North Park, another pleasant residential neighborhood northeast of the zoo. The market was a little bit of a letdown after the previous night's extravaganza at Ocean Beach. There was just a solitary musician instead of a rock band, and many of the booths were repeats from the previous night. However, I did get to try some food from Mozambique which was a first.

For dinner we went to the Little Italy Food Hall, on the short pedestrian street known as Piazza della Famiglia. The piazza was a beautiful sight with illuminated buildings and a colorful Christmas tree persisting from the previous month. The food hall itself was underwhelming and underpopulated, but we managed to put together enough of a dinner to carry us through to the next day.

Posted by zzlangerhans 09:39 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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