A Travellerspoint blog

Cajun Circuit: New Orleans part I


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The drive from Jackson to New Orleans was the most boring episode of the trip. We cruised the whole way down the interstate without making a single stop. I'd already canceled that night's dinner reservation, which was kind of a bummer. I'd eaten with my parents at Upperline the year it opened in 1984 and I was looking forward to having another meal there thirty-four years later, but it wasn't going to happen. Once we got to New Orleans we had to focus on getting Spenser's prescriptions filled, and we were still too rattled from his health scare to enjoy an upscale dinner anyway.

Things started looking up once we reached the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. The 24 mile-long structure is the longest continuous bridge over water in the world, and driving across it literally felt like driving over an ocean. For most of the length of the bridge there was no land whatsoever in sight except for the bridge itself. Towards the southern end of the causeway, the New Orleans skyline came into view and we had great views of the shoreline when the road rose upwards at the crossovers.

Our Airbnb in the downscale Gentilly neighborhood, well north of the French Quarter, was our only disappointment of the trip in terms of accommodation. It was a shotgun style house that was cramped and completely devoid of character both outside and in. We did save a lot of money staying there as Airbnb's were brutally expensive in New Orleans, but if I had to do it over again I probably would have spent a little more.
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Filling Spenser's prescriptions turned out to be quite a saga as well. Once I sorted through the papers they had given Mei Ling at discharge, I discovered that they had never given her the actual prescriptions although there was a list of the medicines in the discharge instructions. I took everything to CVS and although they didn't accept the discharge paperwork in lieu of the prescriptions, they did allow me to write new prescriptions even though I'm only licensed in Florida. They didn't have the steroid inhaler so they called it in to another CVS which I then had to drive to. That inhaler turned out to cost $200, which of course was an out of pocket expense since we have a high deductible. Once I got back home I discovered that the steroid dose actually had to be sucked out of the inhaler, which Spenser couldn't understand. He kept trying to blow into it. When I looked up the medicine online, I found the minimum age for it was six. Why would an experienced pediatrician at a children's hospital prescribe a brutally expensive medicine for a kid who was too young to use it? As a doctor, I knew the answer was that we make mistakes like this all the time. Some of us try and check ourselves and keep up to date on new developments in our fields, and some of us just embrace mediocrity. I resolved to keep this episode in mind any time I prescribed a medication that I wasn't intimately familiar with. The $200 inhaler turned out to be an expensive paperweight.

At least canceling our dinner reservation meant we could visit another food hall. New Orleans now has three of them, and the closest one to our Airbnb was the most historic. St. Roch Market has existed in the same location just north of the Marigny area since 1875. The most recent renovation came in 2014, a decade after it was gutted following damage from Hurricane Katrina. The St. Roch Market was also the inspiration behind a namesake food hall from the same developers in our home city of Miami.

We arrived more than a half hour before the 10 PM closing time, but the only patrons left were at the Mayhaw cocktail bar and most of the restaurants looked to be on the verge of shutting down. We were just in time to wangle a few dishes out of the open kiosks and had an eclectic dinner of ceviche, gyros, and grilled fish. Overall we were somewhat underwhelmed but we had to give St. Roch a pass since we'd arrived so late. Next time in New Orleans we'll have to go during peak dining hours.
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Friday morning we had breakfast at Auction House Market, in the Warehouse District. This food hall had a high-energy vibe largely due to the early lunchtime crowds. There were Asian and Latin options along with the ubiquitous Cajun and coastal offerings. In the center of the market was a huge marble bar underneath an expansive skylight. Hanging from the ceiling under the skylight was an array of glass shelves filled with beautiful green vines and house plants. It was an amazing look that we took careful note of for the new house we'll be moving into in May.
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Mardi Gras World on the banks of the Mississippi is the warehouse and workshop of Kern Studios, one of the pre-eminent designers and builders of Mardi Gras floats for almost a hundred years. The Kern family opened Mardi Gras World thirty-five years ago to allow visitors to observe the process of float construction year-round. It's expensive and touristy, but it's pretty much the only way to experience Mardi Gras in New Orleans outside of the week that the wild celebration takes place. There wasn't much going on in the way of construction when we were there, but the kids were impressed by the colorful and remarkably lifelike styrofoam figures. Much of the styrofoam carving is now completed by an enormous robot working off a computerized template. Behind the studio is a patio that overlooks the Mississippi and the Crescent City Connection bridge to the West Bank.
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We remembered New Orleans' residential charm from our last visit seven years previously so we took a drive around the Garden District, upriver from the French Quarter and the city center. Soon enough Mei Ling's sharp eye spotted a crawfish truck that was in a symbiotic relationship with a local beer joint. The boys were sleeping by this point and I felt I'd had enough crawfish for a year, so Mei Ling and Cleo had a girls' lunch while we stayed in the car.
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Once the boys woke up we joined them and got a closer look at the crawfish operation, which consisted of two guys engaged in a continuous cycle of unloading, uncrating, spicing, shaking, and boiling crustaceans. They seemed to be enjoying themselves but I didn't envy them their backbreaking job.
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The immediate vicinity seemed particularly inviting so we took a stroll around a couple of blocks, admiring the colorful paint schemes and wrought-iron balconies of the neighborhood mansions. By then it was already time to return to the Airbnb and drop Spenser off with his Grandma. It was time to experience one of New Orleans' ultimate pleasures, a gourmet restaurant.
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Choosing just two or three restaurants out of the myriad of options that New Orleans provides is a daunting task. There's simply no way to do justice to one of the most renowned culinary cities in the United States in such a short period of time. I had pored over various lists and reviews and eventually selected GW Fins and Restaurant Rebirth, along with the aforementioned Upperline. GW Fins has been a fixture in the French Quarter since 2001 and has earned a reputation as possibly New Orleans' top spot for fresh and innovative seafood dishes. The traffic was gnarly on a Friday night and we needed every minute of the extra time we'd allotted ourselves to arrive on time for our reservation.

Despite our eager anticipation, dinner was anticlimactic. We scratched our heads when we perused the entrees. The choices were an array of the most typical fish one might see on a menu at any seafood restaurant in the country. Tuna, halibut, swordfish, snapper. The preparation and sides seemed fairly mundane as well. We ordered the one unusual fish we saw, sheepshead, despite misgivings about a parmesan crust and ultimately found our misgivings to be justified. In the end the meal wasn't bad, but I'm pretty sure we hadn't been served anywhere near the best food New Orleans had to offer. The brightest light was the Chocolate Mousse Bombe we had for dessert.
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We hadn't planned on visiting Bourbon Street, but as we stepped out of the restaurant we found the weekend procession in full swing. Although Mardi Gras only lasts a couple of weeks each year, the game of tossing beads from balconies in return for the flashing of breasts persists to some degree year-round. The kids thankfully focused on the bead-tossing and were completely oblivious to the flashing. They caught a few small chains and couldn't understand why the men on the balconies wouldn't throw them the big beads. I tried to explain to Cleo that it would be a few years before she would be able to earn those. The kids had a blast walking up and down the street and interacting with various hawkers and street performers. Dressed up as they were for our dinner out, they added a little color to the Bourbon Street scene themselves.

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Posted by zzlangerhans 19:16 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Coastal Aquitaine


View Iberia and Southwest France 2018 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

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We didn't waste any time leaving Bordeaux because the market in Cap Ferret had the reputation for being one of the best in the region. What we hadn't counted on was the horrendous traffic on the D106 on Saturday morning. It seemed like everyone in Bordeaux was headed for the coast for the weekend, and once we reached the peninsula the highway turned into a parking lot. It took more than an hour to traverse the last twenty kilometers.

The market had a large outdoor area devoted to clothing and crafts with just one small building to house the meat and produce. The area was crowded with domestic and English tourists and didn't have a very authentic feel, although some of the artwork was fun and original. There wasn't anywhere to sit and eat inside the market so we found lunch at a seafood restaurant in town.
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Despite being directly across the mouth of Arcachon Bay from our next destination, we had to drive for another hour and a half around the bay to reach our next destination due to the lack of a car ferry. I knew the long drive to Dune du Pilat would be worth the trouble since I could still remember visiting the gigantic dune from my own early childhood. I'd been looking forward to surprising the kids with the enormous mountain of sand for the whole trip and I wasn't disappointed. As soon as we reached the end of the short trail through the woods and they looked up at the dune, their jaws dropped. It takes a lot to impress my kids but the Dune du Pilat definitely did the trick. Once we'd clambered to the top the views around us were breathtaking. Inland was a forest canopy that extended to the horizon, and from the other side we could see across the bay all the way to Cap Ferret where we'd spent the morning. It was a great reminder that the natural world has as much to offer the intrepid traveler as the urbanized one.
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We'd already seen a lot but the day's excitement was far from over. While the kids slept and shed sand in the back seat of the car, we drove south towards French Basque country where we were planning to experience the last day of the annual Fêtes de Bayonne. Although this five day event is the largest annual festival in France, it's barely known internationally. I only learned of it myself when doing my customary search for local events along our planned itinerary. Even though I reserved our accommodations months in advance, I was only able to find an Airbnb in the neighboring town of Boucau. We were lucky to get that as it was one of just two Airbnb's left in a ten kilometer radius around Bayonne.

The house in Boucau turned out to be a great spot with plenty of outdoor space and a damson plum tree whose branches were bowing with fruit. We gave the kids about an hour to stretch their legs in the yard and play with the swings and then girded ourselves for a long night of partying.
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We didn't know what to expect from the Fête but I've had enough experience with massive outdoor festivals to know that we weren't likely to be ushered into a prime parking spot ten yards from the entrance. On the other hand, we were nowhere near within walking distance and public transportation seemed highly unlikely. Ride share might get us there and then be impossible to find once it was time to go home. That meant we had to get as close as we could by car and hope there would be somewhere to park that wouldn't require an interminable trek by foot.

Pretty soon after leaving Boucau we started to see young people in the traditional white outfits with red scarves inspired by the more famous Fiesta de San San Fermín in Pamplona. At one point a crowd of kids about twelve to fourteen years old blocked the road. One came to the window and, after ascertaining our nationality, requested two Euros in halting English for the privilege of passing. In another context that might have annoyed me but the kids weren't old enough to be threatening so I just handed over the coin and was allowed to pass through. There was quite a lot of traffic once we got to the bridge over the Adour River and I briefly considered parking inside the roundabout but decided to press on. Both banks of the river were crowded with tents and once we got to the Bayonne side parked cars were lined up on each side of the road as well as in the middle. We drove around a little and eventually found a spot a little off the road that didn't seem any more illegal than where hundreds of other cars were parked.

We had about a ten minute walk to the town center where the first thing we found was a carnival with typical rides and fast food. Of course, there's no way to get kids through a carnival without allowing them to do some rides so we let them have a few runs on the giant slide. We didn't feel like eating the junk food so we managed to get them past the rest of the rides with the promise that we would come back after dinner.
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Downtown Bayonne's main drag, Rue Thiers, was crowded with outdoor restaurants. Despite the crowds we found an open table and were served briskly enough. The food was ordinary but the important thing was that we were fueled for the evening ahead.
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As we were finishing dinner the sun descended rapidly and revelers in white began to fill the streets. In the square in front of the Old Castle of Bayonne a band was playing and circles were starting to form for a traditional dance. Much as I would have liked to stay on the edges of the festivities, Cleo kept pulling me with her into the circles and I stumbled as best as I could through the dance. Despite us not being dressed for the occasion, the locals were very welcoming and forgiving of my inability to keep up with the steps.
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We drifted from the square back through the narrow streets of the old town to the edge of the river, where thousands of celebrants were congregated. This was the River Nive, a tributary of the Adour which splits the old town and is traversed by several brightly lighted bridges.
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At this point the crowds, while good-natured, were becoming thick and inebriated enough that we realized it was no longer a great idea to wander around with the kids. We got them back to the carnival as promised and let them all play for a while on the bungee trampoline before heading back to the car and the quiet of Boucau.
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In the morning the kids were clamoring to go back to the carnival. I briefly considered it but Mei Ling wanted to press on and ultimately I decided she was right. This gave us some time to kill before we had to be in San Sebastian and some quick research revealed that the covered market in Biarritz was open on Sunday. This was quite unusual in France and Spain, to the extent that I planned our itineraries to minimize the effect of Sundays on our market experiences. Interestingly enough, I'd looked into Biarritz before the trip and made a conscious decision to skip it. I got the impression it was a rather bland resort town that had seen its best days a century earlier. Nevertheless a market was a market and it was just fifteen minutes from Boucau.

Biarritz was a decent enough town with some attractive old buildings and plush mansions, but nothing that would have attracted us to the town outside of the market. At one point we were admonished for allowing the kids to ride some colorful plaster sheep outside a boutique. I couldn't imagine what else they were expecting when they put the sheep out there.
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As soon as we entered the market I was thankful that Mei Ling had talked me out of going back to the Fête that morning. It wasn't the largest covered market we had been to during the trip but it was packed with vendors displaying the freshest produce and countless gourmet delicacies. The cheese counters were especially amazing, with several varieties I'd never seen before. Behind the main market was a smaller building devoted entirely to seafood.
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The covered market was lined on both sides with crowded cafes and tapas restaurants. The circulation of people in and out of the restaurants and through the market infused the area with high energy. We selected a tapas place with a very appetizing seafood menu and had a delicious lunch.
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Biarritz had put a fantastic exclamation point on the nine day French segment of our road trip, but it was time to return to Spain for our journey along the northern coast to Galicia. We returned to the car and set a course for San Sebastian.

Posted by zzlangerhans 08:12 Archived in France Comments (0)

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