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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Southern Hospitality Part II: The Big Easy Way!

New Orleans instantly brings Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street to the minds of many. But my southern California family thought about exploring The Big Easy, in a different way.  First we stayed at one of the unique boutique hotels located in the heart of the French Quarter—The Mason Dupuy.  From there we boarded and immediately indulged in fine Creole dinning on a Mississippi River Cruise—The Natchez Steam Boat River Cruise. The next day, we ventured into the French Quarter for more fine Creole cuisine tasting and other indulging experiences. Finally, we finished our Big Easy trip in the alligator-infested swamps near Slydell, Louisiana!

Our trip first started from Southern California and was supposed to end in Florida. But we first had to get from San Antonio, Texas to New Orleans in about 8 1/5 hours (depending on how many times you stop by the roadside).  We drove past a few other great American cities like Houston, Beaumont and Baton Rouge to name a few, before getting to the Big Easy.  The road to New Orleans is a breathtaking one.  It is landscaped by marshes, lots of vegetation, bird life and alligator infested swamps!  At first I felt a bit hesitant about seeing or even interacting with the alligators—who are the real owners of the swamps. But upon admiring the scenery, I embraced its beauty and geographically important location in the history of the United States.

As we drove past Houston on the ten freeway towards New Orleans, we noticed a swampy area with a small bridge and stopped by to see if we could spot our first alligators.  We parked and walked through a small wooden bridge that would lead us to a view of the swamp.  At first we marveled at the murky waters, bromeliad, and moss covered cypress trees with a large Heron sanctuary full of nests.  We also listened to the cacophony of frogs and the buzzing of insects under the unforgiving warm and humid temperature of the Eastern most tip of the state of Texas.

Nonetheless, we were determined to see alligators, and sure enough it wasn’t long before we spotted a pair of eyes just above the water line--quietly looking at us.  It was then that behind the shield of the wooden railing, I began to take some pictures, recording the magic of the swamplands through the lens of the camera.  That was the first time we saw alligators in the wild--an absolute thrilling moment!

As we continued our road trip, we kept talking excitedly about our first encounter with the alligators and before we knew it we had arrived at New Orleans. A new world came to sight!  We could still see the remnants of hurricane Katrina but with a surprising touch of steady rebuilding and at times some fast growth of renovations of the historical buildings in the French Quarter.  At first, The Big Easy appears like no other with its buzzing nightlife, vibrant restaurants, world-renowned Jazz concert halls, and it’s famous party atmosphere.  But upon arriving at our hotel, I immediately felt the years of history and tradition apparent through the iconic walls of the French Quarter hotel-The Mason Dupuy.  The boutique hotel is in a class of its own. It offers a classical blend of history, mystery and sophistication along with the pleasant touch of the much talked about “southern hospitality.” Surely, there are many other choices, but the boutique hotel with its lush and tropical courtyard and balconies offered me a direct view of the quieter side of the French Quarter, igniting another great inspiration.

Jazz! New Orleans without jazz would be like the ocean without water.  I couldn’t wait to hear some of the fine musicians that are said to perform at the French Quarter.  From my hotel room I had choices to make:  I could sit and absorb the view from my balcony, go for a stroll and engulf into the New Orleans ambiance of the French Quarter in less than five minutes, head down stairs for a much needed splash in the hotel’s outdoor saltwater pool or simply relax listening to jazz at the casual Bistreaux!

Well, as the curious explorer that I tend to be, I ended up doing a bit of everything!  I spent some time sitting in the balcony reading pamphlets and traveling materials, and then stepped out into the cobblestone streets to explore the unique architecture and historical buildings of the French Quarter.  An artist's paradise if you have an eye for details and colors!  Strolling through those very old streets, I felt as if suddenly, I had landed somewhere else in the not so distant past. When done and tired from exploring, we returned to the hotel and immersed into the cool waters of the pool.  The weather in New Orleans was warm and humid!  But then again it was the start of summer and most of the United States, including New Orleans, was experiencing a record-breaking heat wave. The day ended at the hotel’s Bistreaux, where we spoiled our senses with great food and jazz music from the hotel’s resident jazz musician Paul Longstreth. Later, I would visit Preservation Hall for yet another enchanting evening of more jazz.

Up and ready to discover more of New Orleans, we boarded one of the Mississippi River day cruises: the Steamboat SS Natchez, which was built in 1975.  We were welcomed by a very hospitable staff and even shook hands with the captain! Once onboard, we indulged on a delicious Creole dinner, explored the port of New Orleans, wondered on the decks and eventually allowed for the current of the Mississippi River to take us into what would be another splendid sunset—all while listening to an amazing live jazz band. 
The call of the wild!  It’s either I seek nature or nature seeks me.  The next day, we were heading for more gators just a few miles outside New Orleans.  We booked a swamp tour with the great guidance of The Cajun Encounters.  Once there and as we waited for our tour, I enjoyed the landscape filled surroundings with a constant flow of dragonflies and a surprise sighting of wild pigs!

We were rounded up by our guide and escorted into our aluminum build swamp tour boat. At first, the boats made me a bit nervous as they appeared rather small and the tour guide shared a few funny jokes about gators enjoying tourists' flavored meals, LOL!  But the further we ventured into the swamps; all we could do was shoot with our cameras at the moss draped cypress trees, awe-inspiring wildlife such as a Great Blue Heron accurately spear fishing with its gracious beak, snakes hanging from tree branches and other birds roaming cautiously through the embellishing water lilies of the swamps. Then, came the moment we had all been waiting for and for a while I couldn’t tell who were the main attraction: the tourists or the alligators who came up close to our boat?  “Alligators love marshmallows!” Announced our tour guide as we giggled nervously.  Then, he began throwing a few in the water and like children, the alligators devoured them.  Until the big ten foot female alligator came up next to our boat towards the tour guide. He immediately took out a hot dog while petting her in exchange for more treats. Amazing, that’s all I could say!

As if that wasn’t enough of a fill of gators, we managed to head on down the road for a second fill of gators at this awesome Insta-gator Farm.  Unlike the swamp tours, the Instagator farm offers hands-on Eco-educational tours that explain the preservation of the species and its environment more in depth. Some of the tours even let you interact directly with alligators by holding them while their mouths are taped.  I learned so many things about alligators: from how they build their nest to even what frightens them!

There was so much more to see and do in New Orleans like:  the French Quarter haunting, its famous cemetery tours, Creole cuisine like Gumbo with delightful hot Beignets to complement the meal, beautiful neighborhoods, museums, art galleries, bars in nearly every corner—and of course, Mardi Gras in the Spring.  But the most valuable thing that will forever remain in my mind and heart is the highly spirited people we met while visiting New Orleans. The voices of New Orleans echo a strong history and whisper an unbeatable and unrelenting human spirit.

Until next time New Orleans…special thanks to the city of New Orleans, The Mason Dupuy, Cajun Encounters, Instagator Farms, and of course the gators who entertained us with such scaly hospitality! 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Southern Hospitality, San Antonio Style

Besides writing, I love traveling and exploring other worlds. This year, I wanted to do something different: perhaps with a bit of excitement, relaxation and some time to reflect on my next inspiration. This yearning led to a four thousand mile road trip to the southern states! My first destination ended up being San Antonio, Texas. My itinerary for San Antonio was a highly ambitious one: The River Walk, The Alamo, Museums, Sightseeing tours, a River Walk Cruise, Botanical Gardens, Zoos, Caverns, A Water Park, Market Square, Restaurants, Parks, the San Fernando Cathedral, Sea World, and not to mention the historical and cultural richness throughout the city.
Being a writer and a photography enthusiast, I love taking road trips whenever possible.  Therefore, without much hesitation, I ventured from beautiful Southern California on a family road trip at about 2:00 a.m. For some people, this long road trip through most of the U.S. southern states could be considered a punishment, but to me, it was the opposite. The solemnity of the desert and the mystery of its living things opened the gates of our imagination. I’ve always wanted to visit San Antonio, the second largest city in Texas. Its rich history and cultural diversity, the home style cooking, and of course its well-known River Walk all appealed to us.
As soon as we arrived, I immediately sensed a different charm to what I have experienced in other cities. As I began to explore downtown San Antonio, I could not help to see the resemblances between the lush waterways of the River Walk and it’s beautifully assembled architectural buildings to the waterways of Venice, Italy and the 1930’s style buildings of New York. I was also hungry, and the abundance of inviting restaurants with seating next to the river nearly became overwhelming. Nonetheless, I chose one of the Tex-Mex restaurants I thought had the greatest view by the river. We sat there like all the other tourists, slowly savoring a cold drink while at the same time enjoying a traditional San Antonio Tex-Mex meal.
I eventually found the courage to leave the confines of the restaurant to embark on a Rio Cruise that is another unique San Antonio must-do experience. As I listened to the tour guide highlighting the historical aspects of the River Walk and the architecture of the buildings that are complimented by lush and exotic flora, I became sidetracked by the thriving animal life within the beautiful greenery.

The River Walk is a vibrant place at night as well

With no time to spare, early the next morning, I visited the alluring Natural Bridge Caverns. They are considered to be one of the largest caverns open to the public in Texas. Its inhabitants include bats and other small creatures of the underground world along side its most valuable asset, the limestone formations. We went through a two-hour self-paced tour marveling at how wondrous our world is. The caverns were truly another of San Antonio’s must see attractions.
From there, we stopped by another particularly enticing place: The Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch. This is a rare and truly unique drive-in zoo that offers the longest running safari park in Texas with species from around the world. Upon entering the Zoo, you’re given a bag of food to feed the animals. It was beautiful to drive slowly, seeing the animals roam about as they would in their natural habitat. Then, at some point, my camera lenses detected a Llama preparing to spit into my window-but, not before I closed it!
By now, I was ready to attack my itineraries some more! The next morning, we engulfed ourselves into a 45-minute IMAX docudrama entitled “ALAMO-The price of Freedom,” at the San Antonio IMAX theatre Rivercenter. The docudrama relived the history of the unforgettable Texan and Tejano defenders fight for independence. It explained the Alamo and the immense sacrifices that were made. Watching the movie helped me gain a better understanding of the meaning of the Alamo and the many people that made the ultimate sacrifice in order for future generations to live on its land freely. This is a must do attraction!
Before you go to the Alamo, the Alamo-The Price of Freedom IMAX docudrama is a must see

Afterwards, my family and I headed back to downtown San Antonio, which beckoned us to explore some of its many other attractions, like the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum, that is located right across from the Alamo. As we visited the Wax Museum, we ended up having a few moments of fame with Oprah, President Obama and Jay Leno. But after getting spooked at the haunted house, we ended up paying a visit to the historical and breathtaking San Fernando Cathedral and the Main Plaza. The San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio is said to be the oldest cathedral sanctuary in the United States. The famous Alamo defender James Bowie was married and buried there, Santa Ana used it as an observation post and other legends such as William Travis and Davy Crockett are also buried there! The cathedral is a spiritual experience to the soul and to the eyes as it has been breathtakingly designed. Afterwards, we returned to the reprieve of the River Walk for another Texas-size cold Margarita and the calming waters of the river.
There is so much to see and do at San Antonio! There is enough for the young and older who desire from: nightclubs, bars, zoos, ranches, caverns, eateries, museums, to art galleries and more. However, what makes it all the more remarkable is its rich history and memorable southern hospitality. With that being said, I would like to express my sincere appreciation to the city of San Antonio for providing valuable tips and resources that made our experience at San Antonio—an unforgettable one.
Stay tuned for Episode II—New Orleans and the Swamps!