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

New Orleans: Paddlewheels, History and Beignets

New Orleans: Paddlewheels, History and Beignets

Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral

On a coveted three day holiday weekend, t-ball and birthday parties kept us tied to the city, so we used the extra day to explore our hometown. It’s so easy to settle into work and school routines during the week, and take off exploring the unique small towns and parishes on our days off. Yet, I also find that we often forget how interesting our own city of New Orleans is, so we donned our tourist hats and headed to the French Quarter.

Being a local has a few perks, such as knowing to park at the foot of Canal Street at the Shops at Canal Place. We spent five minutes buying the kids a muffin at Starbucks, and then immediately took our parking ticket to the Concierge to be validated (a nice savings in parking fees). Another perk was catching half-price tickets to the paddlewheeler Creole Queen on Travelzoo – all the motivation we needed to try out the river cruise.

Aboard the Creole Queen

We walked the short distance to the boat’s dock and secured our tickets for the daily excursion. The line to board was already wrapped around the side of the Riverwalk, and with one glance at the kids, we knew they were not going to wait. So we instead strolled along the river, watching the massive ships go to and from the busiest port complex in the world. We returned as the last of the passengers took their group photo and passed through security. The downside of waiting to the end was no more available seats on the ship’s deck, but seeing as our two- and five-year-old rarely sit for long, it wasn’t that big of a deal.

View of the city from the Creole Queen

We watched as they unwound the ropes holding the boat to the dock and started up the paddlewheel, slowly propelling us out into the middle of the river. Inside people were lining up for hot food and cold drinks, while we toured the boat, investigating the view from every floor and side. A narrator pointed out memorable locations, and the kids discovered hiding places under overhanging decks and built-in “slides” next to indoor stairways. We relished in the breeze counteracting the hot sun, and hid in the shadows when we needed a break. Before long, we passed the Bywater, the Industrial Canal and the Louisiana National Guard’s headquarters at Jackson Barracks on our way south to Chalmette Battlefield in St. Bernard Parish.

As many times as we’ve walked the grounds and toured the home at this National Historical Park, we

Musket firing demonstrations at Chalmette Battlefield

had never arrived via the river and never visited on a day when costumed living historians had set up camp on the property. We learned how young ladies looked “graceful” while playing games, explored a tent and common items carried by 1815 soldiers and watched musket firing demonstrations that had our youngest shouting “No!” at the volunteers. Meanwhile, our oldest, Charles, was anxiously listening for the one long and two short whistles that would signal our five minutes to reboard. As soon as they blew, he took off running toward the boat, warning us he would leave us behind if we didn’t make it back in time.

Cafe du Monde beignets

The kids were tired when we finally arrived back at port, so we popped them in the strollers and let them relax as we walked along the river down into the heart of the Quarter to Cafe du Monde. Once again, the line for outdoor seating was stretched far out beyond the famous cafe, but we strolled right past them and entered the air conditioned indoor area and grabbed one of several empty tables.  Here, we re-energized with cafe au lait, and the kids perked up with a great deal of powdered sugar on top of their beignets. You could sense the sugar settling into their system, sending jolts of energy through every inch of their tiny bodies. 

Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square

Rearing to go, we crossed the street to Jackson Square, greeting the mules lined up waiting to lead
buggy tours. While August “neighed” at them, Charles spotted a balloon man and scored them both balloon swords, which came in quite handy for the sword fight that ensued around the statue of Andrew Jackson. The Quarter was alive with music and street performers, brass bands and cheering crowds. A wedding party paused to snap photos outside St. Louis Cathedral before the bride took a deep breath and entered the church doors. We took it all in for a while, venturing around back of the Cathedral to investigate the artists there and savoring the vibrancy for which New Orleans is known.

Musicians on Royal Street

When the musicians paused, we took our cue and headed up Chartres to the Napoleon House for a dinner of shrimp remoulade and red beans and rice for the kids. Paul and I topped it off with a Pimms Cup, a light, summer drink, and reminisced about our own wedding reception held upstairs here more than 10 years ago. Built in 1797, the house was offered in 1821 as an escape to exiled Napoleon. Although the French leader never made it to Louisiana, the restaurant and bar today pay homage to him through paintings, statues and various decorations all depicting Napoleon and his life.

Napoleon House

Cane River Creole to Kisatchie National Forest

Oakland Plantation

From downtown Natchitoches, we took the winding Highway 494 out the east side of town into the rural countryside. Approximately 116,000 acres surrounding Natchitoches make up the Cane River National Heritage Area, which includes several state historic sites, national historic landmarks and the Cane River Creole National Historical Park. The latter is where we were headed, in search of learning more about the Creoles who once thrived in this area.

We had an ambitious day planned, stopping by both plantations included in the National Historical Park, Melrose Plantation in between and then Kisatchie National Forest on the back end of the trip. The route led us first to Oakland Plantation, where we rushed from the parking lot to the nearby pavilion, trying our best to escape the frigid morning air. We picked up a self-guided walking tour and followed the well-defined path toward the tractor shed and mule barn. Not only is the National Park property free to visit, but the scattered out buildings are all open wide for easy touring. We poked our heads inside one building after another, admiring the construction and discussing the old tools and remnants of the past.

Oakland Plantation Store

The path steered us toward the old store and post office, which today serves as the Visitor’s Center. Inside, the drafty store held many of the same items available for purchase from when the site was a working plantation. As we poked around, a ranger appeared offering a tour of the main house. Luckily, we were the only ones present at the time, so she adjusted the tour to accommodate the attention spans of a four and two year old. After swearing the kids in as honorary rangers, she showed us the rare and highly guarded bottle garden, where old glass bottles lined the plant beds. We then entered the house, viewing an interesting mix of antique furnishings and modern conveniences such as a TV and “new” kitchen. The ranger told us about the owners, African Americans and Cane River Creoles who once lived and worked here before their property became a testament to the past.

Oakland’s Bottle Garden

Honorary Ranger Charles

From Oakland, the road followed the river to Melrose Plantation, significant for the artist colony it once held and the cook turned self-taught artist known as Clementine Hunter. We paid to tour the grounds, and started on the far side of the main house by an abandoned cellar. The kids were overjoyed to find the remains of an armadillo inside, and four-year-old Charles busied himself snapping hundreds of photos with my husband’s iphone. Caught up in his excitement, he dropped the phone inside the doorless building, and Paul was forced to jump through an open window into the pit below to retrieve his phone.

Melrose Plantation
Africa House at Melrose Plantation

Adventure now over, we were able to hustle the kids around to the property’s other historic buildings, such as the Yucca House built between 1796 and 1814 and the highly unusual Africa House and its upstairs Clementine Hunter murals. Hunter’s own small cottage was nearby, another favorite of the children for the lizard that had taken refuge from the cold on her porch.

By now needing lunch, we didn’t stay long at Melrose but were glad we stopped to view this important piece of Louisiana history. The Cane River trail stays true to its past, depicting rural life in the Natchitoches area. Unfortunately for us, this also meant no restaurants in sight. So we scrounged around for the last of our snacks and carried on to Magnolia Plantation, the second of the two National Park properties.

Slave Cabin at Magnolia Plantation

The main house at Magnolia is still privately owned, but the store, a collection of slave houses and a gin barn are all open to the public. Stopping to briefly chat with the ranger inside the Visitor’s Center, he encouraged us to walk the lands and take a look inside the gin at the only wooden screw-type cotton press remaining in its original site. A stack of paper bags lay next to a sign encouraging visitors to gather pecans, so we gave each of the kids their assignment and let them loose. While they competed to see who could find more pecans, we walked around the eight brick slave cabins and viewed the exhibit inside the farthest one. A modified Catholic miraculous medal and several bottles were displayed, evidence of hoodoo rituals and a reminder to me of the Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures” show shot here.

Kisatchie National Forest

The ranger had directed us toward a gas station selling sandwiches, where we stopped to refuel both ourselves and the car before crossing I-49 to the Kisatchie Ranger District of Kisatchie National Forest. Home to the 17-mile Longleaf Scenic Byway, the Kisatchie District is touted as one of the most beautiful locations in the state, featuring a landscape of buttes and mesas rarely seen in Louisiana. Shortly into the drive, we stopped at the Longleaf Vista Recreation Area to stretch our legs on the mile and a half interpretive trail.

We were rewarded with a tranquil stream and expansive views of the surrounding wilderness on a surprisingly strenuous hike. Perhaps the difficulty came from carrying kids up and down countless stairs to the flat tops of buttes, but the scenery was well worth the effort. We had even heard rumors that fossils could be found in these hills, but luck was not on our side this time around and we returned only with the pictures and memories from the day’s events.

Hiking a Butte at Kisatchie

Sunset at Kisatchie National Forest
Fall at the Swamp

Fall at the Swamp

 

Fall at Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve

Although we’ve explored the trails at Jean Lafitte National Park’s Barataria Preserve dozens of times, every trip brings new discoveries. Sunday was the perfect day to visit, with mildly cool weather accented by rust-colored cypress trees and red maples (our version of fall colors).

Palmetto Trail

With one sleeping babe and one rearing to go, we headed first for the Palmetto Trail, where quiet, long stretches of boardwalk suited everyone’s needs. The dark waters were peeking through lush, wild vegetation, pooling in small ponds under the shade of giant leaves. August napped to the rhythmic beat of the stroller wheels on wooden boards, while Charles filled his bug catcher with dried leaves and sticks, preparing a habitat for whatever unsuspecting bug he was sure to find.

For the most part, the trail was ours alone to embrace, the silence only broken a handful of times by mostly visitors with foreign accents. Aside from a few “pokey caterpillars” and elusive, croaking frogs, this initial hike was serene and uneventful–a grade A for us adults, but making our 4-year-old a little antsy at the unthinkable prospect of going home with an empty bug catcher.

Reflections in Bayou Coquille

As we emerged from the giant palmettos and crossed the next parking lot, we once again entered the mysterious world of Louisiana’s swamps. Bayou Coquille was unusually clear of overgrowth and looked perfect for canoeing, and as the afternoon went on, the sky above the cypress trees became a fantastic blue.

We stopped several times to examine the spiders busily spinning their webs and looked forward to seeing the alligator we heard was lurking up ahead. As we stepped aside to allow some faster tourists to pass, Charles squealed with delight at spotting a giant, black lubber grasshopper waiting for him in the path. He impressed the passersby by fearlessly plucking the grasshopper from the ground and gently placing him in the prepared habitat.

Marsh Overlook

It was enough to make this “the greatest day ever,” one that only got better when we finally spotted the 10-foot alligator lurking in the Lower Kenta Canal. He was well-hidden in this hyacinth-clogged canal, which looked so little like water that the kids thought they could walk right out on it.

Our leisurely stroll ended at the expansive marsh overlook. After a few relaxing moments of taking in the views, we strapped the kids in their strollers and starting sprinting back towards the Visitor’s Center. We had half an hour to cover the two miles back before the parking lot gates were closed at 5 p.m. Thankfully, the ranger was still waiting for us when we came huffing and puffing back to our car.

Parting views from the park

 

Chance Encounter with River Road on the Way to Thibodaux

San Francisco Plantation

We recently took to the road and set off on a decent hour (give or take) drive to Thibodaux. I came prepared with snacks, drinks and a movie for the allotted time, and the trip would have been perfect except for one small flaw. The Hale Boggs Bridge crossing the Mississippi River was closed. How we missed this crucial piece of information was beyond me, but here we were, stuck with a last minute decision to go downriver to the Huey P. Long Bridge or upriver toward the Veterans Memorial Bridge.

Much to our children’s chagrin, we chose the scenic River Road route upriver to Gramercy. It brought back memories of the road trips we took when we younger, fresh out of college, sans children and with lots of time to wander freely. Unfortunately, children scoff at nostalgia. But we made the most of it and discovered parts of the state we’d never seen before, and as with all memories, I’m sure to only remember the good parts of the trip!

The detour began with a sudden stop at the stunning St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church. Although not open, the expansive grounds and beautiful church and school begged to be photographed–if only it wasn’t raining. For years, the “Little Red Church” was a welcome sight to steamboat captains traveling the Mississippi River to New Orleans, alerting them to the end of their journey.

Bonnet Carre Spillway

Only a bit farther up the road, we encountered the first of several plantations we would see on this trip. Ormond Plantation, built around 1790, is brilliantly restored and open for tours detailing its storied past.

River Road takes a sharp right turn at the Bonnet Carre Spillway, a location made famous by the floodgates opened here whenever the Mississippi River comes dangerously close to topping its levees. I’d seen it on TV and in pictures hundreds of times, but never in person. The photos don’t do justice to the vast complex, and it was a startling sight to see just traveling along the road.

As River Road enters the Spillway, you descend into miles of open fields, giving the impression you’ve been transported to the country roads of Kansas. One man, who was throwing a stick to his dog, looked so out of place I had to check in the rearview mirror to make sure he was really there. It’s gone before you can shake the eerie feeling, and the road continues on as if nothing had changed.

Scheeler’s photo of Ford’s auto factory

Although only separated by a levee from the Mississippi River, you would never know the swiftly flowing water was right next to you. It’s largely hidden from view, yet strangely connected to the land via large tubes crossing over the road. These link to the countless refineries and factories lining much of River Road, creating a foreign, but oddly interesting, landscape.

I remember traveling River Road at night and seeing the factories ablaze with lights–tiny towns functioning independently from others around them. There was an artist by the name of Charles Sheeler hired to photograph and paint similar factories and show off their inner beauty. Through his eyes, the maze of pipes became exquisite pieces of architecture. If you squint really hard and bury the innate feeling of driving “Cancer Alley,” you begin to see his perspective.

This is what I was contemplating when we came upon San Francisco Plantation, a lavishly ornate and boldly colorful mansion that inspired Francis Parkinson Keyes to write “Steamboat Gothic.” The house and grounds were amazingly pristine, yet out of place sandwiched beside another factory.

Godchaux-Reserve House

We saw other plantations and extremely old homes sitting neglected and slowly melting back into the dirt and trees on the side of the road. There’s no telling how many of these structures have been lost to time, and by the looks of it, many of the ones we recently saw won’t be around for much longer. Some though, like the Godchaux-Reserve House–marked by the locomotive standing on its property–has been taken on by the community in an effort to preserve its structure and importance in history.

So finally arriving in Gramercy, we’re treated to expansive views of the river as we crossed high above its waters. The remainder of our drive south to Thibodaux was fairly uneventful, spent munching on popcorn from the local convenience station while we drove through open fields and torrential rain. As we entered Thibodaux, the flooding stopped as if a faucet had been turned off.

Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux

We drove the town, getting the lay of the land and counting the churches along Canal Boulevard. A sign for the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park directed us along Bayou Lafourche to the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center. The kids sprinted through the exhibit area, showcasing the lives of the Cajuns, but then became engrossed in playing with the dozens of puppets and kid-sized palmetto hut in the kids’ “Gumbo Room.” Outside, a boardwalk overlooked scenic Bayou Lafourche.

Historic downtown Thibodaux is dominated by the Dansereau House Bed and Breakfast, the crown jewel of the city. The one-way streets through the city are lined with boutiques and restaurants, creating a vibrant yet intimate downtown.

We backtracked slightly out of town to eat at Boudreaux’s Restaurant, which came highly recommended by the Jean Lafitte park rangers. It was a good suggestion as we found plenty of tasty food to dine on, and the wait staff were very tolerable of two, umm, “active” children.

The route home took us along picturesque Highway 1, which parallels Bayou Lafourche, past Nicholls State College to Highway 90. We chose the quicker return route as the rain clouds rose high above us, threatening to let loose at any minute.

View of Bayou Lafourche

Early Summer Vacation: Great Smoky Mountains

Smoky Mountains

Occasionally our wanderings across Louisiana lead beyond the state’s border, taking us farther out into the rest of the country. Last week, we rooted our jackets out of the far reaches of the closet and kicked off the arrival of summer heat with a trip to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.

Balsam Mountain Inn

We’d been to this area a few times before, staying in cabins or a lodge along the Blue Ridge Parkway. This time, however, we landed a Groupon deal at Balsam Mountain Inn and spent five fantastic days there. The first overnight guests to the three-story inn arrived via railroad in 1908 and carried their trunks up the steep hill to the front porch steps.

More than 100 years later, the original 100 rooms have been converted into 50 rooms, each with private bathrooms, but the rustic charm still remained. Rows of rocking chairs graced the first and second story porches, providing a relaxing spot to sip wine and gaze out at the mountains. The inn offered neither TVs nor telephones, but a cozy library and armoires overflowing with puzzles and board games provided hours of entertainment. The kids loved the claw-foot tub and window seats in our third-floor suite, and I looked forward to waking up every morning to a phenomenal breakfast served in their bright and cheery dining room.

Our days were filled with short hikes, picnics beside mountain streams and, of course, bug-filled adventures. Every afternoon coffee cup was recycled as a bug catcher, and by the end of the week, 4-year-old Charles had lined our window seats with tadpoles, snails and butterflies. The cricket had become his best friend and was allowed to sit on his shoulder–walking back and forth across his back, while the salamanders were lucky enough to slither away.

Abandoned church in Cataloochee Valley

We explored the far reaches of the national park, driving up and over the mountains to enter the secluded Cataloochee Valley. Once home to a thriving community of 1,200 people, they all left in a mass exodus when the U.S. government began buying up land to form the national park. Today, their homes, churches and schoolhouse stand as quiet reminders of earlier times. Like others before us, we walked through the empty rooms, imagining the children’s laughter that once echoed in the halls. Our hike to one abandoned home led us across small footbridges, a splash through the river bed and down a trail frequented by wild turkeys.

Waterfall along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Another day’s adventures brought us to the waterfalls of Deep Creek, where countless locals and tourists were braving the excruciatingly freezing waters to glide down the river in inner tubes. We watched in amazement, comparing our attire of long jeans and long-sleeve shirts to their bathing suits, and shaking our heads, continued on to play beside the peaceful pool at the bottom of Indian Creek Falls.

Outside Brevard, we discovered the Cradle of Forestry–the birthplace of forest conservation in America, and afterwards the kids fed the hundreds of trout growing up in the Pisgah Forest Fish Hatchery down the road. Just beyond Cherokee, a visit to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill brought a fleeting longing for simpler days, followed by a new appreciation for the conveniences we have today.

On our final evening, we stood at the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway and watched the setting sun cast a brilliant glow over the famously hazy mountains. It was a trip to remember and one we’ll most likely take again to break up the long, hot days of a New Orleans’ summer.

Sunset over the Smoky Mountains