Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Texas Riviera - Galveston

Earlier this month we took some back roads from Somerset to sunny and MUGGY Galveston .  We arrived via the west end of the island.  Had a $2 toll bridge to cross before landing on the island itself.  Toll booth is a weird arrangement of a drawer that extends toward your car and you put money in a flat plastic container, the kind you carry your leftovers in to work.  In the car in front of us were some folks from Louisiana.  We sat there and watched as they tried to pay, but ran into trouble as their bills flew out of the drawer....the driver quickly jumped out to catch one of the bills next to the car.  At the same time his wife is running in front of the car to grab the other bill before it was gone.
We watched in amazement and laughed....until it was my turn to pay.
So, I thought I would try to put in my dollar and then add the quarters Fred was handing me to keep bill from flying away. Turns out that in addition to the breeze, the drawer is too far away. Well in my effort, one of the coins slipped from my fingers so now I am also out of the car trying to keep bill from blowing away and picking up coin on the ground.  It was a sight that only the toll booth guy was witnessing, no one behind us-whew.  It took quite a bit of this and that before the toll was paid.
I drove off laughing and Fred said "pitiful" while shaking his head in disbelief .  Ah, life on the road can be quite entertaining.

Anyway, we continue driving along the main road of Galveston Island, which is just a small two lane road until you get to the city of Galveston.  The sun was shining, it was warm, the speed is slow, so we open up the sunroof.  Big mistake, since about 20 mins later we are in town and I can barely deal with the humidity.  We close up the roof and turn on the ac, which quickly cooled the windshield making the hot moist air condense on the outside. In my mind the inside was fogging up, so never thought to turn on the wipers which would have solved the problem.  I just kept hoping to reach the hotel before I lost all visibility....
We pulled up to the Tremont House, which was our home for the next few days, to find that there is only Valet parking.  As we leave the car I say to Fred that I hope the poor guy can park the car without too much trouble with our foggy windshield.

The original Tremont House was built in 1839, burned, rebuilt, burned and rebuilt.  The Tremont House that we stayed in was built a block away from the original location, in what had been a former dry goods store. This is a good place to stay if you are taking a cruise out of Galveston, to Mexico, the Bahamas or the Caribbean.  The cruise ship dock is just two blocks away and can be seen from the back of the hotel.

Gingerbread Tremont House

The city of  Galveston is located on the Island of Galveston, which is just off the Texas coast in the Gulf of Mexico.  It is 27 miles long and 3 miles wide.  Galveston had been the richest city per capita in the nation during the late 1880s.  It was "the port" where goods arrived from around the world.  A wooden bridge with a train track connected it to the mainland at that time.  That railroad line has now been turned into a highway.
The big yearly event in Galveston is Dickens on the Strand.  It is a full weekend of parade, souvenir/craft booths, food and just general frivolity.  English flags are flown from houses and buildings, which we still saw upon our arrival right at the end of the event.  We were told that Charles Dickens great granddaughter arrives for the event every year.  Charles Dickens never came to Galveston and did not have any connection to the Island.  We were not sure how this all got started, but have learned by reading link below.  Sorry we missed this, but maybe next year.

Jean Lafitte once made his home here in the early 1800s, since it was a good island refuge for pirates.  When he was forced out by the Americans, he burned his house, set out to sea and was never heard of again.  Presumably lost at sea somewhere.
In 1900 a major storm (hurricane) devestated Galveston.  Except for a very few homes, the island was destroyed.  There were estimated 6,000 dead, far to many to bury, so the bodies were weighted down and then buried at sea.  Unfortunately, due to the tides the bodies washed ashore again.  Now any able bodied man was conscripted to gather and burn the bodies.  Many forced at gun point, since this was horrible work.  Once all the debris was cleared away, the island began building again.

Our hotel was located in the old historic east end of the island.  It was wonderful area for walking around and just checking out the many Victorian homes that had been built after the 1900 storm.  Many homes had been damaged by Hurricane Ike in 2008 and were still in restoration process.  Some have not been touched, lack of insurance, money or some folks just gave up due to the ever present threat of hurricanes in this area, probably many reasons.  We walked many of the streets just looking at all the beautiful homes and the lucious mediterranean type plants and trees.  So much "eye candy" in every direction.  What a joy!

One day we walked across the width of the island, from the harbor side to the gulf side, which turns out was 6 miles round trip.  A beautiful walk in warm sunshine. Thankfully all of the island is flat, with the only difficult part being the up and down the high sidewalks.  Once out of the business core, the sidewalks were still 2-3 steps high, but did not always include easy ups and downs.

We did visit two very grand homes that survived the 1900 storm and all others since, Moody House and the Bishops' Palace.  Both were originally built with steel substructure and 20" of  bricks thick.  Both homes had very large stately rooms on the main floor and large bedrooms above, with much wood work, grand inside stair cases, stained glass windows and full height windows to let in the sea breezes.  The Bishops' Palace was originally a family home built for the Greshem family and has 52 rooms.  It was later bought by the church as a residence for the Bishop of the Archdiocese of Galveston/Houston.,_Jr.

We did try to visit the Galveston Historic Museum, but it has still not opened since the 2008 hurricane.  All of this makes us realize how difficult and how long the process of restoring life can be after a major hurricane.  All the folks on the east coast have a long road ahead of them after Hurricane Sandy.

The Railroad Museum was open, so we spent a few hours there looking at the old trains and various memorablia.  They are still working at getting it in full operation.  Only one of the model train displays is up and running.  Cleaning of china and silverware from their  collections are still being done.  It was interesting though to see and walk through some of the old trains.  Fred even saw an original cattle car that he had built slat by slat as a kid.  There was a big smile on that face....!

I really loved Galveston and would visit again, even for longer if given the chance, but I would not live there.  I can not imagine what those folks go thru each fall as the threat of hurricanes looms.
Well, we think that is our last big trip for 2012.  We will probably just do some day trips in our area.  We need to get our plans organized for our trip back up to Seattle early in 2013 when our new grandson will be arriving.  We are looking forward to being able to visit with many of you again.  Till then....
Merry Christmas to all!  Happy New Year!

Michelle and Fred
Traveling the country so you don't have to.

Friday, November 16, 2012

from crawfish to kingfish

It's the week before Thanksgiving and nothing to off we go to Louisiana.  We are in Lafayette and just spending time seeing the sights and eating great food.  A cold front came in this week, so the weather has been low to mid 60s only during the day and down to 39 at night.  Quite a surprise!  This kind of weather usually happens in December/January normally.  Oh well, we are still enjoying our selves.

This area is know as Cajun or Acadian country.  French settlers who originally lived in Nova Scotia, Canada, were deported from that area by the English and sent adrift along the eastern seaboard.  Some of them ended up down here in the New Orleans area.  The Cajuns took pity on them and helped them to settle in and survive in this area.  When most of us think about Louisiana what usually comes to mind is New Orleans, Mardi Gras, Cajuns and  french speaking folks.  There is more to this state, I'm sure, but that is a big part of it.

Tuesday we spent the day going around Lafayette, which it turns out is a very small town. Not much really exciting here, but we did find a couple of things to interest us.  First stop was the Alexandre Mouton house, which was the "maison dimanche" Sunday house in Vermillionville, for the Mouton family.  The house was built in 1800s by Alexandre so that the family would have a place to stay when they came into town for Sunday mass.  Alexandre Mouton is credited with making Vermillionville, the name was later changed to Lafayette, into an important place to live and do business.  The house was eventually enlarged by various owners over the years.  Furnishings in the house are of the period, not of the original owners.
What was most interesting to us was to chat with the woman who gave us the tour.  She was astonished when we mentioned that our reason to come to Lafayette was because it was a sister city with Le Cannet France.  She and her family hosted two students from Le Cannet a few years ago.  What a small world.

We went to check out the Cathedral, which was land donated to the city by Mouton.  It was really interesting to see many French family names, including some names that are in my on genealogy.  I will now have to do some looking into this to see if there is any connection.

The rest of the afternoon was spent visiting Vermillion Ville, a Cajun/Creole Heritage and folklife park just on the outskirts of town.  This is a recreation of a village, with a few actual homes that have been moved to this location.  Interesting to view and talk with some volunteers working here, spinning wool, playing music.   A good way to spend a cool, but sunny afternoon.

along the Bayou Teche

The day ended with an incredible meal at Prejean's, which was a recommendation given to us by the hotel clerk.  We started out by sharing some appetizers - gumbo and crawfish enchiladas.  The enchiladas were incredible!!! Fred then crawfish etouffee, different at every place you order it, but always good.  I had catfish with some crawfish in a sauce on the side.  What a meal, one that we may repeat before we leave Lafayette.

Wednesday we spent most of the day on Avery Island, the home of the McIlhenny family, founders of Tabasco pepper sauce.  The factory tour was okay, but not very detailed.  The country story had a tasting area which included not only the various sauces, but also a Tabasco infused cola and Tabasco raspberry ice cream.  Not running out to buy any I can tell you that.

Once we were finished there, we went on to the "Jungle and Bird City", which is this wonderful area that you can drive thru and stop to watch herons in the water, see a Buddha and many varieties of plants, trees and bamboo.  No gators out today since it was not warm enough for them to be out sunning themselves.  They were buried in mud somewhere to keep warm.
This was a very quiet and peaceful place.  We spent over 1.5hrs just driving, stopping and walking some of the grounds.  There were very few people here, so really was like a retreat for ourselves.  Quite relaxing.,_Louisiana

After that we went into the town near by, New Iberia, to visit the KonRico rice mill.  The oldest known working rice mill in the US.  It's a quick little tour, but was interesting, though now this evening we are thinking of more questions that we wish we could ask about rice.

Before leaving the rice mill I asked for suggestions for dinner.  Got directions to a local place where we had an early dinner.  Again crawfish for both of us, this time fried in a light batter- yummy.  As you can see from the pictures below, you can't judge a book by its cover.  We have learned from our time in the south and in Texas, that good food can be found in what is anything but a "normal restaurant".

restaurant in New Iberia 

This area is a big sugar cane growing area.  There are fields now being harvested and there are fields with a new crop just planted.  This is a tropical type climate, so growing is happening now.

sugar cane field

sugar cane has been harvested and is now being moved down the road to get processed.  this is an area of small local processors

Thursday I had booked a swamp tour for us to do in the afternoon, but what to do till 1pm?  We had heard that Breaux Bridge was an interesting little town to visit.  Okay, so off we went to see whatever was there.  Not much and it only took about 40 minutes to do it.....well now what.  I had seen on the map something called the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site.

Okay, let's go there since it is just a bit further down the road from the swamp tour starting spot.  What a bonanza!  There were 2 sections to the site, one was a creole house, Maison Olivier, which we got to tour.  We learned that once a live oak is over 100 years old, it can be registered in the book of ancient oaks, once it has been given a name.  So, we are now driving around and looking at what are obviously old live oaks and wondering what there names are....Bill, Betty, Cathy........Below is a picture of Gabriel, which is at the back of Maison Olivier.

Gabriel is over 500 years old

Next was the Acadian part of the site, where we could have spent hours there with Phil who is a historian and had lots and lots of information/stories about Acadian life.  He spends his days here at the farm as though it were his and is growing tomatoes, strawberries ( yes now) and other small veggies.  In addition he takes care of a few cows and a goat. We did not have enough time and it is a definite go back sometime.
So, you ask, what about Longfellow-Evangeline.  Well its all about the love story of Evangeline and Gabriel, separated by the English in Nova Scotia and finding each other later in this area.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about it.  I have never read it, but it is considered quite famous down here....
After thanking Phil for the tour, we jumped into the car and rushed back up the road to join a small group of 4 others plus guide for the swamp tour.  One thing we have learned is that each swamp is different, so don't hesitate to take a tour of another swamp.  One thing we don't do is to take one of the high powered boats, with guides feeding the gators marshmallows- yes there are those kinds of tours.  Not our thing!

One day left to our time here, so we headed east to the state capital Baton Rouge.  Visited the old state capital building which is a beautiful building to visit.  The structure survived a fire during the Union occupation during the Civil War, but had to be totally redone inside many times since.  It has a great curved stairway leading up to a mosaic dome that is wonderful to see.  Great big wood doors, metal sculpted hinges, fireplaces in all the rooms and all with views of the mighty Mississippi river.  It is now used for weddings, receptions, banquets and the like.

Outside is the Louisiana gratitude train that came from France at the end of the war.

looking up at the rotunda

We left there to walk a few blocks to the Old Governors Mansion that was built by Huey "Kingfisher" Long.  A beautiful home that he and a young architect who had recently returned from touring chateaus in France designed to together. Quite a grand "palace" for Huey Long and his family.  As Huey Long said, "everyone a king and no one wears a crown".
The mansion was used by many others since him, but was finally replaced by a newer residence which included air conditioning, a must in the south.  The cost of adding it to the existing residence would have been equal to the cost of new construction, so new won.

Well that has been our week.  Our minds are tired from all the history and trivia that we have learned.  We both agree that it has been a good week and we are glad we came.  We have also satiated our crawfish need for awhile.
I am sitting here finishing this sipping my free glass of wine that the hotel offers and feeling like it is time to say goodnight.  I want to be sure to get this out while I have such good Internet options in the hotel.
Tomorrow we head back to Somerset and the Roulotte. Keep in touch.
Michelle and Fred
Traveling the country so you don't have to!