Thursday, May 29, 2014

Beating the Hype in Austin, TX

Can you imagine the world when ice cream was just starting to become popular? Picture life before you could order pie à la mode, before Ben met Jerry, before ice cream had its own trucks and melodies, before states legalized rainbow sprinkles. It was a simpler time. Jacques Twistee had finalized his life-changing invention, which was originally intended to be an edible glue.

Slowly, you would start to hear about this utterly delicious, milky, sugary, creamy confection. All your friends would ask, "Have you tried ice cream yet? It's the best thing since sliced bread (another new invention at the time)." Your butcher, Emmanuel, would say, "Have you tasted one of those ice cream sundaes? There's a banana now so it's probably pretty healthy." Maxwell the blacksmith would tell you, "That ice cream is perfection. You can have it in a cup or a sugary wafer that you can eat, too! " Joaquin, the town crier, would bellow, "I scream! You scream! We all scream for ice cream!" followed by hysterical high-pitched shrieks. 

Even though you hadn't even sampled ice cream yet, you already hated it. You were sick of hearing about how awesome it tasted and how refreshing it was on a sweltering summer afternoon. But then, like the principled American politician you are, you caved. You decided to give it a shot. One or two licks just to prove to yourself that it was unimpressive. And then you realized, ice cream lived up to its hype. 

Austin is pretty much exactly like ice cream in this regard (also, that it's really sticky). Spencer and I have heard so many wonderful reasons about why Austin is so cool, so hip and such a fun city. We figured there was no way that Austin could live up to the hype, but spoiler alert: It's one of our favorite spots yet. 

We started our visit to this eclectic city by shopping and eating along South Congress Avenue. Known as SoCo to people that feel cool abbreviating normal words, this street is lined with a range of businesses, from a country western wear emporium, to trendy boutiques, to tasty Mexican taquerias, to pizza parlors to quirky food trucks converted from trailers. 

If anything could be made for me, it's this cupcake Airstream trailer. 
All the stores on South Congress are colorful and intriguing -- begging you to come inside and buy delightful goods! 

This TOMS store sells shoes AND coffee! What more do you need?
We indulged in lots of tasty treats while we strolled around the area, but our favorite spot was brunch at South Congress Cafe, which is known for their delectable Bloody Marys. 

After all that walking and eating, we were hungry again. We popped over to the Whole Foods flagship store, which is unlike any grocery store (or Whole Foods) in the country. At more than 80,000 square feet, this Whole Foods is downright overwhelming. From its wine bar and barbecue restaurant, to its craft beer selection and custom chocolate displays, this isn't your average supermarket. 

A perfect cowboy Valentine. 
Before the night was over, we tried to experience another weird, quintessential Austin activity: Watching the Congress Avenue Bridge bats. Home to the world's largest urban bat colony, up to 1.5 million bats emerge from underneath the bridge to feast on insects during the summer. Spencer and I arrived early to stake out a prime spot to view their descent upon the city before dusk.

Unfortunately, the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry. The same must be true for bats, too. We waited, and waited, and saw a few bats fly away, but nothing like the mass exodus we were promised. Bats > tourists. 

For our next adventure, we opted for something less dependent on the season, the sunset and furry, little critters who like eluding visitors. We embarked on the Texas State Capitol, a National Historic Landmark and a beautiful example of 19th century architecture. 

It's pretty, right?
While the grounds and the outside of the Capitol are quite remarkable, the inside has some impressive features, too. 

Texas Senate chambers
Saving taxpayer money on new furniture, the walnut desks were originally purchased in 1888. However, bowing down to technology, the inkwells have been replaced with microphones. 

In case you forget where you are...
These brass chandeliers are also original to the building, spelling out TEXAS in the Lone Star design. 

You can find the Lone Star on all things Texas, including on these gorgeous studded chairs.

While Austin by day is certainly entertaining, Austin by night is twice as fun. Known as the "Live Music Capital of the World," Austin boasts a serious daily offering of live bands and musicians. Not just country, folk or bluegrass music, Austin has a flavor for everyone. Spencer and I ventured out to meet a friend to enjoy some local bands near Sixth Street, where your mood can designate which of the dozens of bars or clubs you hop to next. 

If you stay out too late and you crave some barbecue for your hangover, we would suggest a lengthy five-hour wait at Franklin Barbecue. Consistently rated one of the top barbecue restaurants in the country, Franklin is just as popular as it is delicious, perhaps even more so. So despite Rachel being a vegetarian, we felt like waiting for Franklin was some type of meat mecca that we shouldn't leave Austin without attempting once. 

The line was hundreds of people deep at 9:30 a.m.
If you go to Franklin, come prepared with a patient attitude and something to occupy your time. We purchased folding chairs at the local drugstore and brought our laptops so we could work. (Warning: Most people will be amazed that you have a job and aren't in college.) We were assured that we would get some type of meat, but it would depend on what was left. Be prepared to eat while you wait to eat more. We grabbed some delicious breakfast burritos at a nearby Mexican restaurant during our stay in the Franklin parking lot. After five long hours (you can't really bail after 3 hours because you're committed by that point), we finally reached the glorious counter. 

You'll have whatever's left.
Sitting down with your Franklin will make you feel like the most accomplished person ever. Move over, Malala Yousafzai. I'm ready for my Nobel Peace Prize in barbecue. 

Spencer had a few options available, since only some sides and the pulled pork were unavailable. He opted for the ribs and the brisket. 

According to Spencer, the brisket was "the best I ever had." Would we wait five hours again? Unlikely, but the meat lived up to the hype.

Oh, and don't worry about the vegetarian, I sampled some pies and earned that damn coozie. 

Even though we weren't able to see everything we imagined, Austin certainly beat the hype. We left the city with our bellies full, our ears happy and our bodies ready to tackle new adventures. We also left knowing that we would be back again. The writing's on the wall and the feeling is mutual, Austin. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Strolling Through History in San Antonio, TX

After a brief stop in Houston to see one of my best friends, catch an Astros game and visit the Holocaust museum (an extremely odd triad, I admit), Spencer and I continued on our tour de Texas to San Antonio. 

Since our visit was during the NBA playoffs, we were invading enemy territory. As much as I appreciate shoe-related mascots (alternate name options were the stilettos, the espadrilles and the clogs), as a die-hard Miami HEAT fan, I felt obliged to dislike the entire city and its people. Fortunately for San Antonio, we found a place that served "Super Tacos," and all was forgiven. A super taco is like a regular taco on steroids. Everything really is bigger in Texas. 

Not my most flattering shot, but the world must pay witness to the majesty of the Super Taco.
Not only does San Antonio have Super Tacos, it has a mission-turned-military fortress-turned-historical-monument known as the Alamo. An estimated gazillion tourists flock to this tiny chapel and its manicured grounds every day. 

Don't worry, size doesn't matter.
Built in the 1700s, the Alamo was used to aid the conversion of Native Americans to Christianity by the Spanish. But the Alamo is best known for its namesake battle, in which Texas colonists fought for their independence against Mexico during the Texas Revolution. The Mexican army's siege on the Alamo left all, or nearly all, of the Texian soldiers dead. However -- proof that you learn more from your failures than your success -- the Texians were reinvigorated by the horrible defeat. Following the Battle of San Jacinto, the Texians defeated the Mexicans and gained a new identity as the Republic of Texas. Although Texian independence lasted only 9 years before the United States annexed the republic in 1845.

In the amphitheater in front of the Alamo, we caught a performance by the United States Navy Band, singing upbeat American rock classics like Sytx. They politely ignored my requests for another American musical trailblazer, Lil Wayne.  

Aside from the Alamo, San Antonio might be best known for its river walk lined with restaurants, bars and shops. 

One of our meal highlights, aside from super tacos, was stopping for a pint and a bite at The Esquire Tavern. Not only does it have a beautiful patio location along the river, but it boasts being the oldest bar on the river walk, established in 1933. The tacos con papas and the jalapeño bean burger, along with a blonde ale from Branchline Brewing Company were a few of our favorites. 

After refueling, we continued on our journey to see the other missions scattered around San Antonio. 

Our next stop was Mission Espada, which was the first mission established in Texas in 1690. In 1731, the mission was moved to its present location near San Antonio.  

This chapel is closed to the public for restoration efforts. 
Our next destination along the mission trail was Mission San Juan, known for its fertile farmlands that led it to become a local supplier of agricultural produce. 

It's surprising to realize that most of the missions are still used for present-day church services. We actually interrupted a Sunday service here when we opened the doors to the chapel. Thankfully, Jesus forgives. 

A monk peeled off on this scooter screaming, "I've got the grace of God!" Just kidding. 
Our final stop was Mission San Jose, called the "Queen of the Missions" since it's the largest mission in Texas. At its height, about 350 people lived in the community. 

The facade on the church, the Rose Window, is notable as it's considered one of the finest examples of baroque architecture in North America. 

Our visit to San Antonio was a stroll through the evolution of Texas that also provided insight into its Spanish and Mexican occupation and the prominent missionary efforts to convert Native Americans to Christianity. To understand American perseverance is to understand the slogan, "Don't Mess with Texas." Also, don't forget about those damn delicious super tacos. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Whetting Our Appetite in New Orleans, LA

If you've never toured New Orleans, you probably haven't experienced the true pleasure of this decidedly European city in the South. From the food, which truly reflects the overall culture, to the people, to the glorious and sometimes tragic history, New Orleans is overflowing with experiences to be savored. 

It appears we had no concept on chowing down on deliciously unhealthy food -- food that at one extreme, is so unbelievably terrible for you that your cardiac arrest risk has increased tenfold, and on the other hand, is irresistible. As someone who prides herself on eating fresh, healthy and light (excluding desserts, obviously), the culinary delights in New Orleans can knock you into a food coma of bigger magnitude than a Days of Our Lives storyline. 

Most people conjure up images of Mardi Gras mayhem and Bourbon Street debauchery when they think of New Orleans. What you don't know is guzzling Hurricanes and downing daiquiris by the yard are the only ways you can keep fried beignet dough from clogging up your arteries. Body shots can save your life. (Note: I am not a doctor, but I have access to WebMD via an internet connection, watched one season of Grey's Anatomy, as well as possess a slightly ridiculous case of hypochondria.)

Being an epicurean haven, we made the most of New Orleans by eating and drinking our way through the city. Our first stop was the iconic Cafe Du Monde for beignets and café au lait.

Is Cafe du Monde utra-touristy and uber-crowded? Yes. But you don't survive 152 years if you don't have something delicious to offer (or really good WiFi). Plus, if you visit during happy hour on a weekday, you can snatch a seat rather easily. The people-watching is worth every powdery crumb that lingers on your dark clothing as if you were Tony Montana's bestie in Scarface. If you want a fresh beignet without the fuss and some speedy breakfast sandwiches, you can visit Cafe Beignet around the corner.

After all those calories, we were grateful for the free walking tour along the Mississippi River and through the French Quarter provided by the National Park Service

Jackson Square
The statue of Andrew Jackson, commemorating his victory in the Battle of New Orleans.
NOLA (Do you think people of New Orleans dislike the nickname as much as San Franciscans hate "San Fran" or "Frisco?") has such a rich, blended history. From its founding by the French in the 1700s, to 40 years of Spanish rule, to the 1803 Louisiana Purchase that established the city as a part of the United States, New Orleans has its own distinctive culture. This is the reason for the city's hedonistic attitude, colorful cuisine and undying spirit. Neither Spencer nor I had visited the city before Hurricane Katrina devastated it, but although the bitter traces of Katrina's ruin are not gone, the energy of New Orleans is alive. Behold: A wedding parade on a rainy day that compelled everyone on the streets to dance along. 

Not that we had to leave our RV park for entertainment. We witnessed our own jazz parade snaking through the park, too! 

Talk about front row parking!
The RV Park location was the best we've ever seen for a sizable city, so we took advantage of biking or walking everywhere in the French Quarter. Perfect for us, when you desperately need some exercise or when you want to responsibly enjoy the chaos on Bourbon Street. 

No BUIs for us.
Once you get sick of listening to the same Journey song over and over again, you can dart over to Frenchmen Street. With its eclectic live music scene, you can hear a variety of jazz, folk and rock music artists. I especially enjoyed the evening craft market, where vendors sell jewelry, art and other handmade goods. 

Once we grew tired of walking, we hopped aboard the St. Charles streetcar, which transported us uptown to the beautiful plantation-style mansions near Tulane University and Loyola University.

Don't you dare call it a trolley. 

I wouldn't mind foreclosing on this sucker. 
It's incredible to see how the other 99.5% lives -- meaning those who don't live full-time in a house on wheels. I'm terrified that Ellie will find out that most dogs have backyards. From these stunning homes, we took the streetcar to the National WWII Museum, which has a reputation for being one of the finest historical museums in the country. 

The museum certainly didn't disappoint. It held particular interest for Spencer since his grandfather is a WWII veteran who recently celebrated turning 89 years young. Happy birthday Dick! Judging from its exterior, you can see the museum is massive. It's possible to spend an entire weekend here, roaming from one exhibit to the next. We were astonished to see the propaganda launched by both the Allied and Axis powers. The museum clearly presents the war as being fought on two geographically separate fronts -- the European and Pacific theatres -- one of the unique aspects of WWII. 

Our hunger for war history wasn't satiated yet, so we stopped by the Chalmette Battlefield, where the last great battle of the War of 1812 was fought. 

The scene of action with the Chalmette plantation in the background.
One of the ramparts where soldiers blasted impending enemy forces
Although some considered this battle unnecessary, as the treaty ending the war was signed in late 1814, the war continued into 1815. The date of this battle, January 5, was often celebrated by Americans similarly to today's Fourth of July merriment for this great victory over the British. 

The Chalmette Monument honoring the troops
Nearby the battlefield, you can pay tribute to veterans of several wars at the Chalmette National Cemetery.

Although the cemetery is primarily a resting place for Union soldiers killed during the Civil War, there are veterans from the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Vietnam War and even four men from the War of 1812. 

I could think of far worse places to spend the rest of your days. 
Whatever your pleasure, be it food or drink, music or dancing, history or culture, New Orleans is sure to satisfy your cravings. After a few days away, you'll be left hungry again. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Coasting through Gulfport and Biloxi, MS

With the chaos of buying our motorhome and getting back on the road, we almost forgot about that pesky four-letter word: work. The majority of folks living the full-time RV lifestyle are retired, so sometimes when you're sipping a bellini with your neighbors on lawn chairs, exchanging stories about your (nonexistent) grandchildren, you remember "Crap. It's Tuesday." And you forgot to put cover sheets on those damn TPS reports

In fact, work is bringing us back to San Francisco to manage a few things that we can't do from the road -- not TPS reports -- those are all digitized now. Instead of driving along the East Coast this summer as we planned, we're traveling through the south and heading west toward California. You can't be mad at work though, because she gives us the opportunity to participate in this crazy RV adventure. Even though she's insanely Type-A, she just wants us to be responsible, law-abiding, voting members of society who eat a healthy balance of fruits and vegetables each day. Without her, we would become vagabonds and degenerates, and also, poor. Picture us as Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in his pre-golden ticket days. Although through the greatness of gambling and sugar, he was able to inherit a chocolate factory, so maybe quitting wouldn't be so terrible...

After Googling the likelihood of winning a contest that would leave me the sole owner of a chocolate factory, I think I have better odds of buying the Clippers one day, so I'm sticking with the day job.

Despite having to hustle back to San Francisco faster than we normally travel, we wanted to make a stop along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. We stopped in Gulfport and Biloxi, two neighboring cities that were badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The beaches along the coast have the same soft, white, sugary sand that the Gulf beaches have in Florida. The best part? They were practically empty on a sunny weekend. 
Empty beaches are a good thing for us, but a bad thing for Mississippi tourism. We also saw plenty of vacant lots for sale, but locals told us that the high cost of insurance post-Katrina prevents people from buying and building. 

Gambling in the Gulf is also a big draw for the tourists who still flock here. From small gambling halls to mega-casinos that look as if they were plucked out of Las Vegas, there is no shortage of places for people to push their luck. (The odds were not in my favor. Thanks for nothing, Elizabeth Banks.)

We also found ourselves visiting Beauvoir, an estate that served as a home to Confederate President Jefferson Davis following the Civil War. It also houses his presidential library and museum. 
Jefferson Davis's Presidential Library and museum
Beauvoir, established in 1852
After touring this estate, I've come to the realization that Spencer and I spend a lot of time visiting old dead people's houses. We've ooh-ed and ah-ed at mansions like the Biltmore estate in Asheville, North Carolina and imagined cowboy life at the historic Grant-Kohrs Ranch in rural Montana, and everything in between. For people who don't even live in a house, I'm wondering if we have some sort of "sticks and bricks" envy. I should probably talk to someone about that. 

Although I doubt many Americans today are envious of Jefferson Davis and his role in defending slavery in the Civil War, his house is something to be admired. Davis, seeking a quiet retreat to write his memoirs after the war, inherited Beauvoir following the death of a widowed friend in 1879. (Note to self: Find more widowed friends.) Running along the beach, it's no surprise "beauvoir" literally translates to "beautiful view" in French. 
The Gulf waters in front of the estate
 The interior of the house is no less impressive, especially considering it was built as a summer retreat. 
The entryway of the house
Though not large by today's standards, Beauvoir has features that reflected the wealth of its owners. For instance, no wallpaper was used in the house; all the details on the walls and ceiling were hand-painted. 
The living room leading into the sitting area
The floor-to-ceiling windows in the rooms were opulent. At the time, a property owner was taxed based on the number of windows and rooms in his house. The high taxes actually cost the widow of Beauvoir's original owner to sell the house at public auction. Talk about embarrassing. 
The bedroom for one of Jefferson Davis's daughters
Beauvoir was significantly damaged by Hurrican Katrina. 

The sturdy foundation, which was built several feet off the ground as a way to cool the house in the 1800s, actually helped keep water and wind damage to a minimum. Restoration efforts to the property are still ongoing. 

The overhaul to Beauvoir is a testament to the spirit of the South. Mississippi's past, both bright and bleak at times, is full of historical significance to our country. Oh, and did I mention the gambling? Check out the Gulf Coast and don't forget to put $50 on black at the Beau Rivage. If you win, be sure to capture the moment like this:
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