Vacation Time: North to the Smokies and DC

Vacation Time: North to the Smokies and DC

Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia

Scrambling to get in a vacation before the first day of Kindergarten, we escaped the summer heat and pointed our car north, spending two weeks frolicking in the cold streams of North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains and the air conditioned museums of Washington, DC. If I captured a day-by-day journal of our travels, I’m afraid this blog would turn into a book, so instead I’ll share some of the highlights and memorable adventures.

Our Cabin

Alarka Creek Cabin 2

When the listing on our Alarka Creek Cabin said Bryson City as the location, I pictured a small cabin on a creek just on the outskirts of the town’s main street. However, when the directions arrived via email, we found ourselves driving deep into the woods 15 minutes from the nearest cell phone and Internet connections. I must admit, at first it took a little adjusting. But after a day or so of being completely unplugged, we began to relish in our daily duties of exploring the creek running through our backyard, collecting fireflies in the nearby field and passing away the evening playing board games. The giant black snake eating his dinner off our back porch was an added bonus for the kids as was the family of frogs living underneath the garden water hose.   

Waterfall at Deep Creek in Great Smoky Mountain NP

The Views
As we stood on the Blue Ridge Parkway gazing at the fog hovering between the blue-shaded rows of mountains before us, we remembered what draws us back year after year. Perhaps those who live in these parts are accustomed to the daily beauty of the Smoky Mountains, but to a family growing up on the Gulf Coast’s flat horizon, it’s a rare and awe-inspiring site. It’s a place that spurs the imagination, where a walk through an old homestead creates amazement at the hardiness of early settlers and quick moving fog prompts a five-year-old’s questions as to where the smoke machine is located. Throw in a few magical waterfalls at Deep Creek, hikes through Joyce Kilmer’s old growth forest and displays of mad kayaking skills at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and you have the prime setting for a place where dreams are brought to life.

Salamanders

One of the many salamanders we found


After last year’s disappointment at not discovering a single salamander, a staffer at our favorite nature center in Highlands, NC, let us in on the secret. These shyest of creatures are found “under” the rocks, not on top. So low and behold, our five-year-old led us on daily excursions into icy cold streams to lift every accessible rock present. We were rewarded with countless salamanders, some black, some blue with spots and some so fast their color was a blur. Our best searching spots were at the end of the path leading out from Mingus Mill, in the pool at the base of Indian Creek Falls at Deep Creek, at the Highlands Botanical Garden and on the moist, loop trail behind the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center.

The City

Great Falls as seen from Maryland


We don’t often take our kids to big cities, for obvious reasons starting with their tendency to wander off on a whim. Yet, after previously living in DC, we felt comfortable shuffling them around the metro to some of our favorite haunts. To ease them into the transition from wilderness to concrete, we started off at Great Falls, where the Potomac River drops 77 feet in less than a mile. The walk along the C&O Canal reminded us of our wish to bike the entire 184.5 miles and started the wheels spinning on how old the kids would need to be before we could embark on this trip.

U.S. Capitol

Next, we were off to visit our old friend Abe, who despite recovering from a recent vandalism attempt, still sat as impressive as ever. On the opposite end, we walked the Capitol steps on our way to the Botanic Gardens, one of our all-time favorite places. Of course, there was the dinosaur exhibit at the Natural History Museum (twice!), the Carousel ride on the National Mall and a tour at my husband’s previous employment – The Phillips Collection (one of the best art museums NOT on the Mall).

Unexpected Finds
No matter how well you explore an area, there are always unexpected surprises that pop up in every trip. This time we ventured off the highway to Virginia’s Grayson Highlands State Park, where wild ponies run free and a hike through the forest leads to a rock outcrop with outstanding views of the state’s two highest mountains.  On the road there, we nearly missed the state’s Marion Fish Hatchery and made a quick u-turn to stop by. It was our lucky day, as a bear had ripped the feeder off the wall the night before, so instead of buying a handful of fish food for a quarter, we were rewarded with a whole bucket of food to feed every fish in the hatchery. The kids squealed as the fish splashed and jumped at the food, and our oldest found a new best friend in the manager who gave us a personal tour of the facility.

Monticello’s Gardens

Our other surprise was in Charlottesville, Va., where we stopped off for another look at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Years ago when we visited here, you could drive straight to the house, park beside the bookstore/gift shop and snap a few photos without even buying a tour ticket. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage Site greets visitors with an expansive entrance, complete with a movie, children’s Discovery Room, cafe and gift shop. The home itself is hidden from view, accessed by a shuttle ride up the hill. Despite our surprise, we paid the $24/person fee and embarked on a journey through his home and extensive gardens. If you’ve never been, it’s still well worth the visit to learn about this fascinating president.

Walled garden at the University of Virginia

Below his mountain, on the campus of the University of Virginia, we picnicked on the main lawn and then set off to investigate the walled gardens of the Academical Village. It was a private, magical place, where individual gates led from one small manicured garden to the next. Here, in the middle of campus, tiny bunnies raced across the grass to hide in thick bushes, and we found ourselves not able to stop exploring until we had found each and every garden.

A Few Parting Photos
Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Visitor Center at Smoky Mountains NP
One of our scenic hiking trails
And one of the beautiful creeks in the Smokies
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
Can you spot the salamander?
A tranquil pool at Great Falls

Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum
Abraham Lincoln Memorial

Feeding ducks by the reflecting pool and Washington Monument

Feeding the fish at the Fish Hatchery

Enjoying the view at Grayson Highlands

Morgan City to Avery Island

Morgan City to Avery Island

Jungle Gardens at Avery Island

On one of the last cool weekends before summer, we jumped in the car to visit Avery Island, home to Tabasco as well as the beautiful oasis, Jungle Gardens. On previous trips, we always took I-10 from New Orleans to Breaux Bridge and then headed south. This time, however, we made our way along the southern route, traveling Highway 90 through Morgan City, Patterson and Franklin before reaching our destination.

Atchafalaya River as seen from Morgan City

The drive brought us through scenic vistas of classic Louisiana swamps. While the kids watched “Ice Age” in the back of the car, we immersed ourselves in the abundant cypress trees basking in the dark waters prolific in this part of the state. Our first destination was Morgan City, sporting a slogan “Right in the Middle of Everywhere” and famous for its annual Shrimp and Petroleum Festival (the name says it all). On a map, Morgan City makes up half of an island surrounded by countless lakes, rivers, bayous and various other bodies of water twisting and turning around the floating land.

Southwest Reef Lighthouse

We headed straight for the historic downtown toward Front Street and the towering floodwall protecting the city from the Atchafalaya River. The road led us to an opening in the floodwall, and we parked at the edge of the river beside a handful of people fishing. The kids were elated to finally stretch their legs and set off at a sprint along the dock. We raced behind, taking in the muddy river and the boats tied up at its side. Before long, we ascended the stairs to the floodwall and looked down at the city below. Traffic was light on this Saturday morning, yet shops appeared to be opening in the historic buildings.

The floodwall gave us a great view of the river, and the three bridges spanning across it–one for trains and the other two for cars. One of them, the Long-Allen Bridge, boasted a pier resting on one of the deepest foundations in the world (176 feet below low water stage) when it was built in 1933. Across the river, a bright red lighthouse stared back at us. Known as Southwest Reef, the lighthouse was built in 1858 and relocated in 1987 from the Atchafalaya Bay to a park in Berwick.

Wedell-Williams Aviation and Cypress Sawmill Museum

After our walk, we drove the streets admiring the buildings, churches and parks. It was a brief stay, though, as we had several other destinations for the day including the Louisiana State Museum in Patterson. The Wedell-Williams Aviation and Cypress Sawmill Museum showcases two very different occupations that were both integral to this small town.

On one side of the museum, brightly colored airplanes are scattered about both the floor and ceiling. In 1928, pilot Jimmie Wedell and oilman and timber baron Harry Williams joined forces to design aircrafts in Patterson that were faster than the competition. At the announcement of the movie, we all grabbed a seat and waited for the multiple screens to lower across the room. The kids were wide-eyed as planes raced from screen to screen and simulated wind blew in our faces. Wedell and Williams were daredevils of their time who used their fearless talents to revolutionize the aviation industry.

The fascinating crawfish home in front of the museum

Across the lobby, the cypress sawmill museum tells the industry’s story through pictures, giant logs and, if possible, even larger saws. Louisiana played a critical role in the country’s logging industry, and at one time, Patterson was home to the largest sawmill in the world. It was both amazing and eye-opening, and exactly the right size for the attention spans of our kiddos. We had just wrapped up our tour when they scooted out the front door to investigate the crawfish homes on the front lawn, oblivious to the jet mounted just above their heads.

Franklin’s Historic District

Down the road in Franklin, we took a whirlwind tour of the downtown, which boasts over 400 historic structures. I have to say I have never seen so many historic signs all standing in one place. We immensely enjoyed the scenic main street, filled with shops and picturesque light poles. Spanning out on either side were pristine white mansions, shrouded in a canopy of moss-covered live oaks. One block away, the much-talked-about Bayou Teche flows past the homes, adding to the laid back, Southern feel already emanating from the town.

Tabasco Factory at Avery Island

It was nearly 3 o’clock by the time we arrived at Avery Island, paying our dollar toll to cross the bridge to enter Tabasco territory. Home to the McIlhenny hot sauce empire, Avery Island sits on one of five salt domes found in this part of Louisiana. They say that the salt here is “as deep as Mount Everest is tall,” a mind boggling thought. The factory was closed the day we visited, but we were still able to tour the facility that strongly smelled of the spicy sauce. The kids were thrilled when the tour guide gave them samples of miniature Tabasco bottles, which have now taken a spot of fame in their own collections at home.

Snowy Egrets at Jungle Gardens

Aside from Tabasco, Avery Island is home to the wild and beautiful Jungle Gardens. A driving tour through the 170-acre gardens brought us past alligator-filled ponds, an 800-year-old Buddha and countless live oaks, azaleas, camellias and bamboo. Thankfully, the unseasonably cool weather kept the mosquitoes at bay so we could enjoy exploring every inch of the property. It was also the perfect time of year for the nesting snowy egrets, which came in droves to the elevated platforms known as “Bird City.”

Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge

All in all, it was probably one of our most successful adventures already, but we added one final stop to complete the tour. On the return drive, we veered off south of Centerville to enter the Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge, established in part to protect Louisiana’s black bear population. While we weren’t looking for bears, we were intrigued by the Garden City boardwalk trail, which we never would have found without this map. We parked by the levee and walked the short distance to an even shorter boardwalk through the swamp. The water underneath was eerily still, clogged with vegetation in this thriving forest; yet the trees overhead were alive with songbirds, each twilling a different tune and flitting about from branch to branch in a blur of colors. We paused a moment to admire them all before climbing back in the car for the return trip home. 

Live oaks at Avery Island’s Jungle Gardens





End of the Road: Jefferson Parish’s Town of Jean Lafitte

End of the Road: Jefferson Parish’s Town of Jean Lafitte

Irises in bloom at Lafitte’s Wetland Trace

We’ve been on a kick lately traveling to the end of all the roads in Louisiana–first in Plaquemines, then St. Bernard and now Jefferson via the Town of Jean Lafitte. It’s altogether quite a different drive than the other two, most notably because we didn’t seem to pass any refineries along the way–or at least any we could see.

Hope Haven

The adventure began when we exited the Westbank Expressway in Marrero and turned on to Barataria Boulevard. Almost immediately, we were met with some of the most striking architecture in Jefferson Parish. Built in the 1920s and 30s, Hope Haven’s Spanish Colonial Revival-style buildings stand out amid this otherwise typical suburban area. From my Internet searches, it appears the impressive buildings house a school and a case management and family support center run by Catholic Charities, but they are grand enough to rival the Spanish missions found in Texas and California.

The water-filled, historic Town of Jean Lafitte

Continuing south, we made a left on Leo Kerner Parkway and entered a long stretch of uninhabited highway. Both this route and Barataria Blvd. lead to Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, one of our favorite spots to explore the swamps and a place I’ve written a lot about in the past. This weekend, however, we had a new destination, passing by the park’s entrance and ascending the high bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway. As the road descends, a pirate ship rocking on the high seas announces you’ve entered the historic town of Jean Lafitte.

We followed scenic Jean Lafitte Boulevard along Bayou Barataria, noting that the majority of the elevated houses here seem to be permanent homes to the town’s residents rather than secondary fishing camps. Our first stop was the new Lafitte’s Barataria Museum and Wetland Trace, which celebrated its grand opening on Saturday. A large tent out front indicated the celebration, and the kids were shouting “balloons!” before we left the car. While they ransacked the kids’ table, gathering up stickers, coloring books, pirate bandanas and tattoos, Paul and I eyed the free tastings of alligator-stuffed mushrooms and crab cakes. In hopes of relaxing and enjoying the live Cajun music, we set up our folding chairs in front of Bruce Daigrepont and his band, yet the kids had sat long enough in the car and were not remotely interested in relaxation.

Lafitte’s Barataria Museum

So we herded them into the museum, where a half hour movie introduced us to the town’s history and that of its residents. Beautiful aerial shots showed the village surrounded by its lifeblood of water, swamp and marsh, and one resident drove the message home by saying he never knew there was solid land until he was taken to the French Quarter when he was 14. The town itself takes its name from the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte, who used the mysterious swamps to hide his smuggling operations. Today’s residents aren’t quite as scandalous, yet those we met were perhaps just as entertaining and lively.

The museum, although small, is packed with intriguing items from the area, from an entire display of the animals found here to a gun used by one of Lafitte’s pirates during the Battle of New Orleans. Although 2-year-old August buried his face when confronted with the talking alligator, the other children present got a kick out the reptile. Unfortunately, two among us didn’t have the patience for the oral history presentations, so we skipped that section to instead head out back to the Wetland Trace.

Alligator along the Wetland Trace

Nearly a mile long, this boardwalk trail through the swamp caught our 5-year-old’s attention like nothing else that day. We spent an hour and half stalking snakes and lizards, pointing out alligators to others passing by and trying to determine what and where all that clicking noise was (our best guesses were baby birds in the rookery or click beetles taunting us from the trees). Although the lines were too long for us to join the swamp tour leaving the docks off the back of the boardwalk, the entire mission was still a success as we saw five snakes of varying sizes and colors, countless water turtles and one very close alligator. Plus, now we have something more to go back for next time.

Boat ready for a new paint job

Back in the car, Charles begged to continue down the road as he wasn’t ready to go home yet, so we kept driving to see what else we could find. On our way to the museum, we had passed an old plantation, still standing but fighting a losing battle with the elements and weeds threatening to suck it back into the earth. Now, on our left, an old boat was lifted on barrels, preparing for an overhaul from its owner.

At the museum, we had learned that Lafitte is home to 11 cemeteries. Fleming Cemetery, notable for its white-washed tombs on top of an Indian mound, is privately owned and inaccessible to the public, yet can be seen from the water and is a highlight of area boat tours. Another, Lafitte Cemetery, is said to be the burial grounds of Pirate Jean Lafitte himself. This was our last photo op before the main road branched off into smaller outlets and essentially ended at a busy boat ramp bustling with fishermen. 

Legend says this is the burial grounds of Pirate Jean Lafitte

Tulane’s “Faces of the Maya”

Tulane’s “Faces of the Maya”

Tulane University’s “Faces of the Maya” Exhibit

On our evening walks around Uptown New Orleans, we’ve discovered one the best places to take rambunctious kids is Tulane University. We get a little bit of exercise walking there, and they get to jump out as soon as we reach the university and let loose. It’s the perfect place to hunt for cicadas and stick bugs, climb in the rock garden, play in the fountains and chase the stray cats that seem to thrive on campus.

Carved Stone Head

As part of our routine, we stop in the Anthropology building for a water and bathroom break and to peak in the main office at the fascinating decorated skeleton occupying the corner chair. During the recent hype over the end of the Maya calendar, a Times-Picayune article came out about a Maya exhibit in this very building we so often frequented. “Faces of the Maya: Profiles in Continuity and Resilience” was hidden two floors above us in Dinwiddie Hall’s Middle American Research Institute.

Normally only open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the museum was fairly inaccessible to us. However, on our latest walk across campus, we decided to ascend the steps to the third floor to maybe catch a glimpse of the exhibit through the window. Luckily, the Institute Director Marcello Canuto must have heard all the ruckus we were making outside his office, and upon discovering what we were up to, gladly opened the museum for us.

It was quite an amazing display depicting the Maya culture, from carved figurines and pottery examples to delicate jewelry and ballgame rubbings. The story of the Maya is intertwined with the artifacts, leading the viewer through the civilization’s earliest existence to today’s descendants who still live throughout southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.

Plaster Cast from Palenque God House

The kids were drawn to a plaster model of El Castillo, a scaled-down version of a Maya temple-pyramid with a series of steps perfectly sized for the butterfly that we had picked up on today’s outing. An accompanying description explained that when the sun hits the platform during the equinox, snakes appear to slither down the pyramid–a sight I can only imagine to be awe-inspiring.

Nearby, I was drawn to a plaster cast of an altar so intricately detailed I could have spent hours staring at it. Alas, as I looked up, the kids were already out the door and headed down the stairs. I briefly stopped one last time to admire a vibrant painting of three Maya men seemingly deep in discussion before darting out the door and shouting a quick “thanks” to Director Canuto.

Painting of the Maya

Harvest Days at the Rural Life Museum

Harvest Days at the Rural Life Museum

A blacksmith stokes his fire at Harvest Days

Saturday brought with it the first day of fall, and because you wouldn’t know it by the weather, we decided to celebrate by visiting the Harvest Days festival at Louisiana State University’s Rural Life Museum. For its 16th year running, the outdoor museum showcased a living history of 19th century rural Louisiana, and we spent the day walking through their fascinating lifestyle.

19th century violinist

The journey through time began inside the exhibit barn, where you can find anything and everything from antique farm equipment to an old hearse to a baby walker. The normally quiet, static museum was a bustle of activity, with visitors mingling with docents, a woman carrying her pet duck puppet and wood carvers whittling away at small figures. We stopped to visit with one woman rhythmically pedaling a spinning wheel, turning balls of wool into a long, fine thread. She explained how wool is easier to spin than cotton, which requires a faster turn of the wheel because it is a slicker material.

Mule and buggy rides

As you exited the back door, the village emerged, with sleeping tents set up throughout the property and small cooking fires smoldering in the day’s heat. Two mules pulled up in front of us, tugging behind them a buggy full of passengers, and 2-year-old August launched into a series of neighs. Our normally fearless children were actually timid around the animals, so we passed up the buggy tour and opted to walk instead.

“Homeowners” led us on guided tours through their 200-year-old houses, proudly pointing out the furniture and architecture of each. We watched the blacksmith stoke his fire until it was nice and hot, and the kids took turns pulling the rope on the steam engine to make the whistle blow. A harvest spread dominated the kitchen, where we encountered the delicious smells of pumpkins stuffed with baked apples and fried sweet potatoes.

Louisiana folk architecture at the museum

The boom of a cannon was a constant background noise, reminding us that a Civil War reenactment was taking place across the field. We headed in the opposite direction, though, away from the “scary” noise and over toward the corn maze. Along the way, we stopped to smell some cane syrup being boiled and took a turn at grinding corn off the stalk.

An opening in the back fence led to the labyrinth of corn, where our 4-year-old pointed the way ahead. I have to admit, we finally cheated and charged right through the corn to get to the other side. Our reward was a handful of water balloons meant to be launched at wooden targets, but instead popped on top of the kids’ heads. Soaked through, they were delighted by the afternoon of fun and begged to return again.

The daunting corn maze
Charming Madisonville

Charming Madisonville

The tiny town of Madisonville perched its stilted houses and businesses along the banks of the Tchefuncte River, which flows south and widens as it enters Lake Pontchartrain. Countless days of rain had prompted us to visit this historic maritime community, whose past has been interwoven with water since the earliest days of settlement around 1800.

Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum

We escaped the day’s remaining drizzle inside the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum, where a 3 p.m. arrival gave us an hour before closing to tour the exhibits. The kids were a whirlwind, as usual, absorbing every creature, boat and picture at lightning speed. My four-year-old had found three alligators, a squirrel and a bobcat before the rest of us even made it past the visitor’s desk.

A dimly lit wooden walkway set the scene for a ride on an early steamboat, and upon entering the boat, we emerged into a theater showing the history of the Tchefuncte River. From model boats and lighthouses to a replica Civil War submarine and river pilot boat, every inch of the museum was chock full of interesting artifacts and details about the state’s long and unique reliance on water.

Tchefuncte Lighthouse

Also under the Maritime Museum’s management is the elegant, black and white Tchefuncte Lighthouse. Although accessible only by boat, a bumpy drive to the end of the road placed us in perfect viewing distance. Originally built in 1837, the lighthouse was nearly a casualty of the Civil War but was rebuilt shortly after and still flashes its light today.

From the bottommost tip of the road, we traveled north to the opposite end of town, snapping photos of the tranquil river and historic courthouse (now a museum) and branch library. The riverfront restaurants were hopping with the exiting church crowd, and we picked up some quick seafood-to-go at Morton’s. 

Otis House at Fairview-Riverside State Park

Next up was Fairview-Riverside State Park, where we ate in a covered picnic pavilion while gazing at the lovely 19th century Otis House (open for tours Wednesday through Sunday). We walked the perimeter of the house toward the ponds and river behind it. The rain-soaked ground squelched beneath out feet as tiny frogs jumped ahead of our every step. Needless to say, the bug catcher was put to good use, and we had a fantastic time chasing the amphibians until a snake slithered across my path.

That was our cue to move on, and we drove past the campsites to the boardwalk swamp and river trails. Our arrival was greeted by those strangely large “Devil’s Horses” (palm-sized, black grasshoppers) sitting motionless in the grass, on the trees and along the boardwalk. A game ensued of my two-year-old spotting the critters, pointing one tiny finger at them and yelling his brother’s name until his older sibling made his rounds and fearlessly plopped them in the bug catcher.

As we left with our car full of critters, we stopped for a final glimpse of the setting sun casting a reddish glow on the cypress trees lining the water.

Sunset over the Tchefuncte River at Fairview-Riverside State Park