Thursday, May 26, 2011

Route 66!

“Well if you ever plan to motor west 
Just take my way that's the highway that's the best...

You'll see Amarillo and Gallup, New Mexico 
Flagstaff, Arizona don't forget Winona 
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino

Would you get hip to this kindly tip 
And go take that California trip? 
Get your kicks on Route 66”

Originally written by Bobby Troup in 1946, “Route 66” has been done by numerous artists from Nat King Cole to The Rolling Stones. It’s always struck me as a great road trip song, as  the mention of all those places inspires a bit of wanderlust. Plus, it gives voice to the sense of freedom you feel while traveling! While Ron didn’t follow Route 66 exactly, he did stop in several of the places in the song as he rode his Harley west! His route from New Orleans took him through Houston to Amarillo to Santa Fe and Flagstaff, then Kingman and Barstow, before heading to the California coast to head up to Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Livermore, and Tahoe. He’ll bike an hour or so, then stop and get off the bike to relax, stretch a bit, get water to stay hydrated and enjoy the view wherever he is, then continue on,  generally doing 5-6 hours of riding a day. He’s been very lucky with the weather; while it's been windy and gusty in spots, he’s not had to deal with any rain, managing to evade the few storms that brewed on the horizon along his route. So far, it’s been a fabulous trip! He’s stopped to visit his step-brother along the way, as well as our friends Sarita and Ralph in California. I’ll be meeting Ron in Vegas next week, when I fly in with my folks for my younger sister’s wedding. Fun family times ahead!  
Ron said Yosemite is the most beautiful place on earth,
with the most stunning vistas he's ever seen

Meanwhile, I’ve been getting a lot accomplished, trying to coordinate necessary boat work. The starboard chartplotter VEI monitor is now out, getting retested and repaired at the manufacturer, and the wind indicator module is undergoing similar testing as well. We're in the midst of getting a new manifold for the AC cooling system lines in place, as the old one was so incredibly rusted as to be falling apart. I’m so grateful that we stopped in at Kadey-Krogen to pick up our order of some replacement engine room lights, because they suggested we check it since other boats were having issues with them. I would never have found it myself -- in fact, I was totally ignorant that it was there! The manifold for all the AC lines was located behind an access panel inside a narrow cabinet down next to the wine cooler in the office. The manifold definitely needed replacement, and let me tell you, it was done none too soon!! Whew. More proof that maintenance and inspection done regularly will save your butt! 
Being on the hard myself (since the boat isn't moving from her slip anywhere soon) I put the time to good use and spent several days in a motorcycle safety course! I decided that I didn't want to be just a passenger anymore, and I wanted to feel comfortable actually running the bike, so a class was in order. (It's actually a requirement in Florida, needed to get your motorcycle  endorsement on your license.) There were six of us in the class, one older gentleman who was getting back into riding, and four young men who were already using scooters or sport bikes as their main modes of transportation, so not only was I the only woman in the class, I was also the only one who had absolutely no clue as to how to ride! Who ever said life is boring? I think there is always an adventure awaiting! 
The class wasn’t easy, as I had some problems with certain skills when handling the bike at slow speeds (completing double U-turns in a tight box were a trouble spot for me, as I repeatedly kept having to put a foot down now and again to keep my balance on the bike). The rider coach was very personable, very good at teaching the proper techniques for the safe handling of a bike, and very encouraging, which helped immensely when I was feeling frustrated. I even dropped the bike on one such practice run on the u-turns since I violated rule number one: don't look down! (Instead, look where you want to go, and you will go there!) Argh! Thankfully, nothing bruised but my ego in that mishap.
I would have loved to have had a bit more time to polish all the new skills I learned before the final evaluation test, but time was limited. SO...I had to focus and simply demonstrate my abilities as best I could! (Not everyone passes the course, so I was more than a bit worried!) And, of course the U-turn portion of the test was first up, immediately followed by an acceleration run to demonstrate a sharp swerve and avoidance of an obstacle. Argh! But, I just took a deep breath and tried to relax myself on the bike while I awaited my turn to start. (I mean, I can scuba with sharks, so...I can DO this!) Happily though, I did the u-turns perfectly during the exam -- who would have thought?! It was sweet too, because as I pulled to a stop after my run through the first part of the course, all the guys were cheering that I had done it! From then on, I knew I'd do well on the remaining portions of the test, and I did: I passed with flying colors! 
While I now have the minimum skills for safe riding under my belt, I realize they are just that, the minimum, so believe me, I will continue to practice!! Whether on land on Route 66 or at sea, the same rule applies: you can never be too careful out there!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Here, there, and home again

The Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France on Jackson Square
is the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States.
It was a good time in New Orleans! We loved it, although our few days there flew past in a flash. It's definitely a place we'd love to explore further! It was interesting though, after having spent so much time in the islands, how certain things stood out in New Orleans. There were the obvious differences of course, but there were also some interesting similarities. I guess living aboard and traveling at a much slower pace for the last seven months has made me more reflective, but it was almost frustrating to have such a limited amount of time here. What we really enjoy most about cruising is the lack of schedule, and having the time to truly explore places for as long as we'd like. Being on a time schedule in New Orleans felt rushed, and it also felt a bit odd to do such overtly touristy things as organized group tours!

Obviously, one of the differences was being in a big city again! All that pavement, all those cars ... all those people! (Which made for some fun people watching, to be sure!) But, it was almost overwhelming, so crowded and impersonal, with so many things geared towards tourism on a large scale. I have to admit, I prefer the smaller, more intimate scale of things that we've been accustomed to while aboard in the Caribbean. The crowds took some getting used to!

As for similarities, they abounded as well. As in any new  place, simply exploring the different parts of the city and learning about the history was thoroughly interesting. We had to chuckle though, since plantations were another parallel to the islands:from sugar plantations in St. Kitts and Nevis, to cotton plantations in the southern US. We'd seen enough plantations in the islands (again, on a much more intimate scale) so didn't feel the need to tour one here!

But we certainly didn't shy away from sampling any food! It's always fabulous to try regional specialties, just like in the islands! I'm always ready to sample new foods and different preparations -- just about any unique regional cuisine, be it goat or frog, octopus or soursop! So I was more than willing to try New Orleans' muffaletta and true crawfish etouffee. I didn't have the chance to sample boudin, a type of southern Louisiana sausage, but I did try every kind of andouille sausage I could find, as well as sampling bowls of gumbo in as many places as possible! New Orleans does share the Caribbean's love of hot spices, though, which makes perfect sense since such a large part of the population had West Indian, Haitian and African roots. Happily, New Orleans is a city of great restaurants, so we weren't disappointed with any meal. (Recommendations? Go to Felix's for fabulously fat oysters on the half shell; Herbsaint for their gourmet gumbo of the day and slow cooked lamb neck's; GW Fins for superb smoked sizzling oysters among their ever-changing very fresh fish selection.) Yum!

Chicken and andouille sausage gumbo!
As always, all good things must come to an end, and our time together ended all too soon! While Ron continued on his motorcycle journey westward, I returned to Jensen Beach to continue coordinating the work on Equinox. We're aiming to continue to explore the new and ever-tantalizing places beyond the horizon, but while we're getting Equinox back into top cruising shape, you can be sure we'll keep you posted on our land-based adventures as well!

Friday, May 13, 2011

More exploration of the French Quarter

"I've been around enough to know
That there's more than meets the eye
Everybody needs a little good luck charm
A little gris gris keeps you safe from harm
Rub yours on me, and I'll rub mine on you
Luckiest couple on the avenue

With a little love and luck
You will get by
With a little love and luck
We'll take the sky..."
                                                     ~Jimmy Buffett,  Love and Luck

Another day, another tour....much to Ron's dismay, actually. His shins are really bothering him from all the walking yesterday, although we're not sure whether it was due to the hard concrete pavement, his island selection of footwear (water sandals) or, more likely, simply the sheer mileage that we covered yesterday! I admit, I changed into running shoes at lunchtime, since my feet were starting to bother me then as well, since my sandals were threatening blisters. We covered a lot of ground! 

Entering a Creole courtyard
In any event, despite the foot fatigue, we still went on the morning walking tour of "Le Creole Monde", which provided an interesting glimpse into the life and times of the French quarter back in its early days. The tour focused on a memoir written by a Creole woman named Laura Lacoul, (1861-1963) who wrote about her French Creole family's way of life on their plantation and in the French Quarter, along with the history of its four earlier generations. It was an interesting peek into history, a true story of how Europeans, Free People of Color and slaves became part of one family dynasty. We got to see inside some of the residences owned by the Lacoul family, as well as inside a few other private courtyards in the French Quarter. Ever notice how desolate and shuttered the fronts of the French Quarter homes look from the streets? It's because the residents are all happily relaxing inside their beautiful courtyards, away from the noise and bustle of the city. The courtyards were amazingly serene, and it was neat to see such historic places still in full use.

A typical second-story gallery in the French Quarter
Spanish influence is evident with the fountain in this courtyard
We also got a bit of US history thrown in as well, as the tour included a stop at the New Orleans Pharmacy museum, where America's first licensed pharmacist practiced in the early 1800s. The tour focused on the role of the pharmacy in the 1800s and how ladies of the era would congregate there at the soda fountain for news and gossip while the men were at work or the bars. The old pharmacy building itself is interesting, but the archaic items inside even more so!
The old pharmacy shelves and display cases filled to the brim
with bottles and  medical supplies
Scales, mortar and pestles for measuring and mixing medicines
A special stamp (for $1!!) that enabled a pharmacist to "dispense
opium, coca leaves, etc." This from 1944.
Our final stop (so to speak) was at the St. Louis Cemetery No.1, the oldest and most famous cemetery of the city. Opened in 1789 just one block north of the French Quarter, it has been in continuous use since its founding. It's a bit more battered than the Lafayette cemetery in the Garden District, but much older. Its exposed brick, the cracked and chipped granite, the rain-stains on the plaques, the sheer number of vaults all crammed together all add up to an eerie atmosphere. Probably why this is where they filmed the cemetery scene in "Easy Rider"! Some vaults are nothing but rubble, others well kept, and families from all walks of life, French, Spanish, English, black, white, all side by side. There are vaults from some of the soldiers who died in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815,  to Marie Laveau, the "Voodoo Queen" of New Orleans who died in 1881. In fact, the vault for a former mayor of New Orleans, Ernest Morial, who died in 1986 is just a few steps away from hers. Time seems to truly blend together here.

Tombs and mausoleums of all kinds under threatening skies,
which made the atmosphere rather creepy!
People still come and leave offerings at Marie's tomb, marking it with the gris-gris XXX before doing a little ritual of respect and leaving tokens of tribute in order to ask for favors. Voodoo came with the slave trade in the 1800s, directly out of West Africa and its influence was widespread since many of its practitioners were also healers. Voodoo was seen as a way to protect yourself and your loved ones, and is still very much alive and well in New Orleans, a definite part of its character and soul, as much as jazz and gumbo! A little "love and luck", anyone?
Fruit, flowers, coins and a cake are some of the current
tributes of the day at Marie Laveau's tomb. Note all the xxx's
on the mausoleum walls.

Laissez le bons temps rouler!

Yes, let the good times roll!! Ron and I spent the morning walking through the Garden District, admiring the blocks of gorgeous homes tucked in among stately live-oak trees and lush adjoining gardens. Originally the site of larger plantations, during the 1800s land was sold off in smaller parcels to wealthy American newcomers who were eager to take advantage of the booming Mississippi river trade. The Creole residents of the already crowded French Quarter resented the newcomers; the French and the Spanish could live together, but they refused to live near the English or the Americans, so the "snubbed" Americans created their own residential district uptown. 
A gorgeous home in the Garden District
Distinctly different from the homes of the French Quarter, many of the Garden District mansions were built in the classic Greek Revival style, the more ornate Italianate style, and later, in the Queen Anne Victorian style of architecture. All reflect the opulence and wealth of the city during that era, with incredible details and elegant workmanship. With the heavily wooded streets providing shade, it's totally charming and an interesting place to walk and explore!
Street names are often embedded in the sidewalk in metal work
or ornate tile
Even the street names reflect the division between the two residential areas: none of the French Quarter street names cross Canal Street: Bourbon Street becomes Carondelet, Royal becomes St. Charles, Decatur becomes Magazine. In the American sector uptown, streets from this era still bear the names of the nine Greek muses in keeping with the fascination with things Greek. One of the main streets along the Garden District is Prytania, ("invincible queen of the dead") a fitting name, since the street which borders the famous Lafayette Cemetery No. 1! Above-ground tombs are common here due to the high-water table, and many of the vaults look like miniature houses, complete with fences! They gave rise to the term, "cities of the dead", and we could see why! Again, very fascinating to explore and experience!
Many of the New Orlean family vaults are above ground
Some are more ornate and house-like than others
You would think that after walking in the Garden District all morning and in the French Quarter all afternoon (with a lunch stop at Cafe Beignet for jazz and a muffaletta), that Ron and I would kick back, but instead...we continued our exploration of the French Quarter of the Big Easy by taking a tour! While we aren't normally "tour people", not being overly fond of big structured excursions, I did find a tour that we couldn't resist: "The Cocktail Tour"! What better introduction to the party atmosphere of the French Quarter than that?? 

The tour had a novel approach, teaching the history of the Quarter through its famous bars and their signature drinks, such as the Pimm's Cup, the Sazerac and the Fleur de Lis. Each tour apparently has its own flavor, so to speak, because not every guide takes you to the same bar at the same time. Our first stop was at Muriel's Bistro on Jackson Square for a  round at their Courtyard Bar, where I sampled the ubiquitous New Orleans Pimm's Cup and Ron the Muriel's signature Fleur de Lis (a champagne, Chambord and vodka concoction). A Pimm's Cup is a British cocktail, made with a shot of  Pimm's No 1, (a gin-based liqueur made from dry gin, fruit juices and spices) mixed with lemonade and Sprite, then topped with a cucumber slice. Thankfully, it wasn't that strong, but was quite light and refreshing!

From there it was onto the Court of Two Sisters for their signature Bayou Bash cocktail, a sort of sangria-like concoction made with with Southern Comfort, sweet and sour mix, fruit juice and red wine. (It rather sweet for my taste, so after a small sample, I abstained, as did Ron.) From was to the Hermes Bar at Antoine's for a Sazerac. Now, the Sazerac is New Orleans official cocktail, and its devotees are maniacal about them. It has a lengthy history, with several ingredient changes over the years, but basically it's a mix of Old Overholt rye whiskey, a tiny amount of absinthe (or Herbsaint, a New Orleans brand of anise liqueur) to coat the sides of the glass, then a bit of simple syrup, and a dash of Peychaud's Bitters (also made in New Orleans, as opposed to Angostura bitters). 

I admit, by this time, I wasn't up to adding any more liquor to the mix, so settled in with a basic vodka martini, and enjoyed nibbling on the Hermes' yummy Creole appetizers, Cajun popcorn and perusing all the fun Mardi Gras memorabilia on the walls!  We rounded up the evening at the Bombay Club, where of course their signature drink is a Bombay gin martini! By this time too, both Ron and I were exhausted from all our walking (and sampling!), so headed back to the hotel -- admittedly, an early night! Tomorrow? Laissez le bons temps rouler!  

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cultural Gumbo: New Orleans!

The heart and soul of the French Quarter,  Preservation Hall was founded
in 1961 to "honor and protect" New Orleans style jazz
New Orleans: what a mix! Obviously, we can't stop exploring new places just because we're back in port! After Mother's Day weekend together, Ron started off on a cross-country adventure traveling by motorcycle, astride his huge Harley Road Glide touring bike. Ally flew back to college and I flew to meet Ron when he reached New Orleans on Tuesday. (This after he spent Monday in Gulf Shores, AL at Lulu's at Homeport Marina--- a great beach bar restaurant and grill owned and operated by none other than Lucy Buffett, Jimmy's sister!) Ron's having a great time on the road, and we both are having a fabulous time in New Orleans! The last time Ron was  here was about 30 years ago, when he was working as a merchant marine on a supply boat in the Gulf of Mexico, and as for me, this was my first trip! What a fabulous, fascinating place!

I love history, and the history of New Orleans is amazing!! We spent our first day walking the graceful old streets, literally for miles, soaking in the beauty and charm of the place. The city dates well back into the late 17th century when the Mississippi River was first charted by the French explorer, LaSalle. During its diverse history, many flags flew over New Orleans, beginning with the French when in 1718, a gentleman by the name of Bienville founded the strategic port city. Life back then centered around the Place d'Arms (now Jackson Square) in the French Quarter and Vieux Carre (Old Square). French in spirit and soul, the city was given over to Spain in 1762 by Louis XV, and while Spanish rule lasted barely 38 years, Spain left an indelible imprint upon the city. During this time and well into the 19th century, New Orleans was the dominant port city in Caribbean trade, an active destination for island crops like rum, sugar cane, tobacco and fruit. Thousands of refugees arrived from the Caribbean  as well as Africa during the late 1790s due to the unrest of the Haitian revolution, both white and "gens de couleur libres" - free people of color. Creole society coalesced as islanders, West Africans, slaves, free people of color and indentured servants poured into the city along with a mix of French Aristocrats, merchants, farmers, soldiers, freed prisoners and nuns. The French once again took control of the city until Napoleon, who was strapped for cash and nearing the end of his reign, arranged the sale of the Louisiana territory (in French, "Vente de la Louisiane") to the United States in 1803. 

Thomas Jefferson agreed to the purchase since he felt uneasy about France and Spain having the power to block American trade in the vital city of New Orleans, but in reality, the purchase was for much more land than just Louisiana, some 828,800 acres. The huge Louisiana Purchase area encompassed some or all of 15 states and two Canadian provinces as well, effectively doubling the size of the United States and encouraging migration into the new territories.  After the sale the city grew rapidly yet again, with influxes of Americans, French, Creoles, Irish, German and Africans. Adding to the growing numbers was the large slave labor force needed to cultivate the huge sugar and cotton commodity crops of the large plantations outside the city. Americans inside the city itself were unwelcome in the Creole enclave of the French Quarter, so they settled across Canal Street in the areas known today as the Central Business District and the Garden District, bringing in their own styles of architecture and influence. 
French and Spanish used simple wrought-iron railings
Americans brought in the more intricate, but much heavier cast-iron railing
and thus the need for the cast-iron supports beneath the porches 
Most French Quarter Creole homes have quiet interior courtyards
away from the noise and bustle of the streets 
I could go on and on, for there are so many interesting facets to the city! In any event, New Orleans truly became a "melting pot", where centuries-old European traditions blended with Caribbean and African influences, then seasoned with ruggedly independent American attitudes. Street names are in French, Spanish and English, the architecture is a colorful melange of styles and workmanship, and the French, Haitian and African Creoles developed an exotic, spicy cuisine that is the stuff of legend! Truly cross-cultural and multilingual, this unique blend was instrumental in the development of jazz and zydeco, voodoo and unique celebrations. All magical!!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day!

"Father, daughter, 
down by the water
Shells sink, dreams float,
life's good on our boat..."
~Jimmy Buffett:  "Delany Talks to Statues"

Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude for a fabulous weekend! Ally came home to visit after five months away at college, and we all had a blast being together! We'd last seen her in Denver in late February, but we hadn't seen her since then, being aboard Equinox and cruising the islands. Now that we're back on land for a bit, it meant the world to have her fly to join us here in Florida for the weekend! Happy Mother's Day indeed!

Cruising is a blessing, in so many ways. One of the most beautiful -- and difficult -- blessings is awareness. Being aboard and cruising the seas is amazing, since you see the world with a true traveler's eye that few folks experience. But along with the wonders of exploring new islands and cultures, there are moments when you are isolated, alone and without easy contact...and that is when you experience the poignant realization of how precious family is. That awareness catches in my throat: for so long, Ron, Ally and I have had the sheer joy of being together aboard, of sharing space and time, stories and laughs, the fun of making memories through activities that everyone enjoyed, from diving and swimming to hiking and biking and fortunate we were to simply be together, aboard! From our slip in Baltimore where we walked to dinners with our dear pier neighbors from the marina to Bermuda where we anchored offshore near the homes of friends, we've been together, a family. 

But with Ally now eighteen and off to college, she's no longer the little girl in the starboard cabin: she is now off on her own, exploring the mountains and valleys of attending college in Colorado. As parents, we are learning how very hard it is to simultaneously miss her, yet wish her well in going out and exploring on her own! We're delighted in her successes in school thus far, interested in her course choices and impressed with her diligence in her studies, fascinated in seeing her mature and grow .... but miss the little imp, the "little bilge rat", that was underfoot for so long! Where did she go? Time apart makes one simple thing all the more delightful: being together again! 

And so, this Mother's Day weekend, have fun we did: from dining out for sushi to home-cooked meals of Ron's fabulous jumbo-lump backfin crab cakes, from swimming in the pool to chatting in the hot-tub, to fishing all day in Tingum, our center console, to having family movie nights at home, we had a blast!! Ally is clearly our "good-luck charm" when it comes to fishing, as we caught the most mahi (not to mention our largest ever) with her aboard. We laughed, trolled in the sunshine along the Florida coast, reveled at the wall-to-wall blue skies and blue water of the Gulf Stream, sang along with songs on the stereo, lost fish, caught fish and laughed all the while at our efforts to do all of the above! Fish on, and family together -- nothing better than that! Gratitude!
Trust me, this was a group effort!
It's almost taller than she is!
Notice that Ron is only holding the tail: Ally's holding most of its weight! :)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Stranger than fiction

"He's a stranger in a strange land,
Just a stranger in a strange land..."
                                                     - Leon Russell

Strangers, yep, that's us! Ron and I are now getting re-acclimated to being back on land, although I still confess to amazement over the plentiful choices at the grocery store, the sheer size and number of vehicles on the road, the abundance of stores and people! Plus, I am totally in love with the blazing speed of internet here, and I'm even remembering how to use my cell phone after months of non-use. Wow...easy access to communication of all types, how bizarre! It does feel strange!

At least there has been one constant though -- the weather! The winds have been a bit brisk lately, so we've used the breezy but beautiful weather to our advantage, enjoying some land-based activities. We've been bicycling up a storm on our road bikes -- what a difference they are from our little Dahon folding bikes that we have on the boat! (We do love our Dahons, but it is a joy to be out on our light and nimble road bikes -- on paved roads!) We've been on our bikes every morning, riding anywhere from 15-30 miles, along the shores of the beautiful Indian River. With herons, egrets, ibis, brown pelicans and sandhill cranes for company, we've had a good time rolling along the river in the early morning sunshine! Getting out and enjoying nature is something that doesn't change either, whether aboard or not!
One of our trusty Dahons, used to bring provisions back to the boat,
often on unpaved and rutted roads. A great thing to have aboard!
We're getting a lot of things accomplished with Equinox, too. We had Martek aboard just this morning, going over the list of electronic gremlins to fix from the finicky port autopilot to the temperamental wind indicator. Progress will be made, and it feels so good to get projects underway! Just a few days ago I had the interior of the boat detailed and cleaned intensively; Cami and her crew did their usual fabulous job, for which I am immensely grateful!! While I always do what I can to keep the interior clean when we're out cruising, it's a relentless battle against the salty air, sea dust and sand that find their way into every crevice. After seven months aboard in the Caribbean, a heavy-duty interior detailing was a must! It feels fabulous to have the boat so pristine once more! 

We've also indulged ourselves to satisfy a few cravings for food we lacked while aboard, going out to dinner for Japanese sushi, German sauerbraten, and re-visiting local favorites of Crunchy grouper, mahi-mahi reubens, and Cobb salads. All and every vegetable is on the menu as well! We certainly didn't starve while cruising, but specialty cuisine was appreciated in every port, and we're finding that home port is no exception! So...maybe things aren't so strange, after all!