Monday, December 21, 2009

Southward-Ho: Day 13 (Return to Chicago)

Last day on the road. Pictures look grey and cold reflecting the look of winter in the heartland.

Crossing the Mighty Mississippi into Illinois, we left Missouri now seen only in the rear-view mirror. A cold wind began to blow a fine icy mist across the road. We drove on through mile after mile of empty farmland sleeping under a light dusting of snow.

Here and there were pastures sprinkled with horses - their eyes closed, facing away from the wind.

A lone grain elevator stands in a vast plain, beside railway tracks, while Honest Abe presides over a cluster of cherry pickers.

In a few hours, we return full circle to Chicago.

Were we really in warm, sunny Florida just a few days ago?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Southward-Ho: Day 12 (Memphis to Champaign)

Watch out for low flying rolls! Passing through Sikeston, MO near the intersection of interstate routes 55 and 57, we encountered the original Lambert's Cafe, where the tradition of throwing hot rolls to diners fresh from the oven, has been practiced since 1976.
To find our table, we passed by dozens of satisfied diners and the smiling lady pounding out Christmas songs on an old upright piano. We poured over the menu that included frogs legs, chicken fried steaks, homemade meatloaf and more.

It was cold outside so we ordered coffee. When they arrived the mugs were large enough to bathe a small child.

Each table had a giant size roll of brown paper towels, and a large plastic weave basket filled with small packets of whipped spread.

After the enormous plates of fried catfish, sweet potato, baked beans, chicken salad, and sliced apples arrived, we were visited by a succession of servers carrying large steel bowls, ladling out oversized spoonfuls of black-eyed peas, fried potatoes and vegetables. And the food tasted better than the tempting aroma.

Eating all we could manage, we trudged out into the winter chill through the gift shop. Visit their website at

Friday, December 18, 2009

Southward-Ho: Day 11 (New Orleans to Memphis)

Pralines (Praw-lenes), a Creole confection since the French settled Louisiana. Oh the crunchy, sweet melt-in-your-mouth delectable confection available on every street corner shop in The Big Easy.
Each cook has their own secret recipe, and here's one posted in the local newspaper "The Times-Picayune". Bon apetit!
"Microwave Buttermilk Pralines"
3/4 Cup buttermilk
2 Cups Pecans
2 C Sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
Vanilla to taste
1 teaspoon baking soda
Stir all ingredients in a microwave-safe glass dish, except for soda. Cook on high for 12 minutes, stirring well every 4 minutes. Add soda, cook on high for 1 minute. Beat by hand for several minutes until glossy. Spoon onto wax paper placed over newspaper. If pralines don't harden, put back in bowl and beat some more.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Southward-Ho: Day 10 (Marianna to New Orleans)

To this Yankee, Christmas trees, holly and mistletoe seem to be in a natural setting solely where drifts of snow cover empty fields, brown lawns and leafless trees. So it's something of a delightful surprise to find them beautifully arranged inside a welcome center in the deep South.

On Route 10, westbound visitors who stop at the Mississippi information center step into a shimmering holiday wonderland.

Feel a chill in the air? Step into the parlor and stand beside the hearth whose mantle is covered with antique dolls.

In the next room, a long table features a miniature village set into drifts of cotton snow.
A beautiful sight ... walkin' in a Southern wonderland !

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Southward-Ho: Day 9 (Orlando to Marianna - almost Pensacola)

Lost in Florida. On and on through the swamps, trailer parks and rolling horse country.

The turnpike was under road repair, and closed to traffic for a good stretch of the road between Orlando and Ocala, in the central part of the state.

No detour signs were posted, so the unwary visitor had little idea of where they were, or how far the detour would extend. Even the GPS seemed baffled.

Shortly before dusk we saw a glimmer of hope (and the Mr. Auto Insurance display). What should have been a 6 hour drive from Orlando to Pensacola, stretched into 9 hours on the road. By Marianna, in the panhandle, we surrendered to the rain, darkness and road-weariness.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Southward-Ho: Day 8 (Venice to Orlando)

A few feet into the soft silvery sand of Venice beach, the sandals are quickly shed. It's still a few short weeks before the snowbirds from the rust belt (and Canada) arrive, so it feels like a private beach. Visitors can count the number of fellow beachcombers on one hand.
There's a bikini-clad 20-something girl stretched out on a faded striped beach towel catching some early morning rays.

Standing knee deep in sun-warmed Gulf waves, a lone fellow culls for shells.
The only sounds are the waves, native birds and the soft crunch of steps on the footbridge.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Southward-Ho: Day 7 (Venice to Naples and back)

Thomas A. Edison, holder of 1,093 patents, first came to Ft. Myers, FL in 1885. He spent the next 46 years working on a number of his inventions earning him the title of "Man of the Millenium".

Visitors can walk through his winter retreat and workshop at the Edison Botanic Research Laboratory, located in a quiet residential area of this city. Here you'll see the cot where he took catnaps, a drafting table, scales for measuring, original equipment and apparatus. It feels as though the inventor has just stepped out in the midst of an experiment.

Built in 1927, Edison and a staff of 4 (clerk, chemist, machinist and a glassblower) worked in the lab to develop of source of natural rubber from native plants. It was during WWI that Edison and his partners Ford and Firestone became concerned about the supply of imported rubber.
Next to the workshop is a museum containing many of his original inventions, his home and gardens. Docents are available, or you can wander through on a self-guided tour.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Southward-Ho: Day 6 (Venice)

Trying new places to dine is one of the pleasures of traveling, and one of the best experiences can be found at the Crow's Nest in Venice, FL.

Stone crabs right from the bay, fresh seasonal fruits or Alaskan salmon are just a sampling of the menu, but the real attraction is its location at the edge of the sugar-sand beach.

From the 2nd floor dining room, visitors can watch the small craft sail the intercoastal waterways, see the birds perching on piers or wait for a gorgeous Gulf sunset.

Temperature is in the mid-70's in central Florida. Sitting here in shirtsleeves and sandals and I'm not even thinking of the 30-degree, freezing rain weather in Chicago. Well, yeah ... I am ... and that makes this place even more enjoyable.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Southward-Ho: Day 5 (Tarpon Springs)

The village of Tarpon Springs is the center of Greek culture since the early 20th century. Across the street from the restaurants, sponge shops and bakeries of Dodecanese boulevard, lie the sponge docks. You can walk right up to the boats laden with their catch, and peer into the windows.

At the market sample retsina - the heady bouquet of pine resin jumps up your nose even before you taste the golden wine. Rodites is softer on the tongue.

Halki Market sells olives in bulk at the back of the little grocery with its shelves filled with an array of olive oils and spices.

Next to and adjoining the Hellas Restaurant is the bakery of the name. Shelves are packed with a tempting variety of homemade Greek specialties.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Southward-Ho: Day 4 (Valdosta to Largo)

What says "summertime" better than bug splats on the windshield? Driving down US 75 to Clearwater, FL we came across this motorcycle hitching a ride on the back of a motorhome.

A few miles later, this mock jet was posed to take off on the side of the road.

Maybe feeling a little guilty enjoying the sunny, warm 60-degree weather, while the folks back home are freezing in 7-degree F. cold

The corn nuggets at Sonny's BBQ were marvelous.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Southward-Ho: Day 3 (Chattanooga to Valdosta)

Chattanooga, TN to Valdosta, GA should take only 6 hours or so by direct route. We opted to see more of backroads Georgia through pecan groves, small towns, cotton fields and the gorgeous Georgia pines. Took longer, but worth the detour.

Need a deer processed into venison steaks or sausage? You can find a place to have it done in rural Georgia.
And, for some inexplicable reason, you'll see a red car perched atop scaffolding - its trunk loaded with boxes decked out in Christmas wrapping.

A few miles later we saw a Tyson truck loaded with chickens, heading into town. Yes, that Tyson

It's sunny and in the 60's, and we're headed further South.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Southward-Ho: Day 2 (Effingham to Chattanooga)

On and on through miles of leafless trees and stubbled cornfields. 6 hours drive from Effingham, IL to Chattanooga, TN through sheets of rain that might have been snow if it were just a few degrees colder. Watching the temperature gauge climb 32 ... 34 ... 36 degrees as the miles go by. Slogging past trailer parks, KOA campbrounds, a watertower for the City of Metropolis, IL - the self proclaimed "Hometown of Superman," decorated with his logo.

A yellow truck towing a trailer loaded with dead bucks. Wondering if he's a hunter, or that's roadkill.

Arrived in Chattanooga by nightfall and discovered the delightful Mt. Vernon restaurant. This city is also home to the National Military Park, Rock City, Ruby Falls, the Lake Winnepesaukah amusement park and the famous Chattanooga Choo Choo.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Southward-Ho, escaping the Snow: Day 1 (Chicago to Effingham)

The late autumn sky shrouded Chicago like damp quilt batting. Its skyscrapers blurred in a light fog. A layer of snow had already dusted the browning lawns. Then news came of a mega snow storm blowing in from the west. That’s all it took to send us packing. Within a few hours, we were on the road heading south.

The last of the late crops were being harvested from the nearly scoured cornfields.

Five hours from the city to downstate Effingham, driving through small towns, newer suburbs, endless flat acres of farmland.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Houmas House, Darrow, Louisiana

Festivals, weddings and history live at Houmas House in Darrow, Louisiana. Bette Davis slept in an upstairs bedroom while filming “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte”. Jeff won the Quickfire Challenge during a 2009 taping of “Top Chef”, and a number of TV ads have been made on the lush grounds of this, the largest American sugar plantation of the 19th century.

Phylicia, a tour guide dressed in authentic period costume, rings the garden bell signaling the start of the 23-room Sugar Palace tour. Grab your camera - this is one museum where visitors can linger and take as many pictures as they want.

The three-story Greek Revival mansion is filled with artwork and antiques, each with its own history.

Wander through the foyer with its hand painted murals reflecting a sugar cane motif. Is that Marie Antoinette’s mantle clock in the sitting room? In the game room just off the library, entire fortunes were won or lost on a single game of billiards.

At the foot of a freestanding, three-story helix staircase, a silver fruit server holds an array of apples and pineapples – symbols of opulence and welcome. But, did you know that placing a pineapple at the foot of a houseguest’s bed was a polite way of letting them know it was time to go home?

Centuries old oaks (some over 450 years) dot the grounds, along with the main house and a garconiere (bachelor’s quarters).

Chef Jeremy Langlois serves a delicious lunch at Latil’s Landing Restaurant near the original kitchen, built in the 1770’s.

Located on Louisiana’s River Road at 40136 Highway 942D Darrow, LA, Houmas House is open for tours Mon & Tues 9 – 5, Wed – Sun 9 – 7 (except for Christmas and New Year’s Day). Admission is $20 mansion and gardens tour,
$10 gardens and grounds only.

Visitors aren’t just tourists, they are welcome guests. Stay all day at the plantation, strolling through 38 acres of gardens and ponds, and an extensive gift shop.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Mt. Takasaki National Park, Oita City, Kyushu, Japan

This mountaintop monkey preserve is home to over 1,700 Macaques. Not a zoo, there are no cages or restraining bars. Creatures run freely in their own natural habitat, and visitors can wander through the grounds just inches from the little fellows, clustered in twos and threes.

Every day, just before 2:30 pm, the groundskeeper uncoils a green hose, and begins to spray down the dusty yard. That’s the signal for the monkeys to climb down from their perches and scamper to the center of the yard.

Suddenly the park explodes in a frenzy of fur, chatter, and the thunder of little feet. A simple 2-wheeled metal cart is dragged across the court, spilling potatoes out of its hinged back.

In its wake, Macaques shove and snatch, shriek and claw. Competition is fierce. The oldest and strongest grab handfuls of potatoes, while juveniles and females fight for the smaller bits. Babies, who suckle for over a year, cling to their mothers’ backs, lest they get trampled in the fray.

Suddenly, its over. One blink and you would have missed it. Before the sprayed pavement dries, monkeys begin to disappear into the forest, treasured spuds in hand

Not found in many guidebooks, Mt. Takasaki National Park lies in the northeastern part of the island of Kyushu, Japan. The park is open from 8:30 am – 5:00 pm. Feeding time is at 2:30 pm. Admission is 500 yen (about $5 US) for adults and 250 yen for children. Tel (097-534-6111). To reach the park, cross the walking bridge that connects the island to the town and then board the monorail to the feeding area.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Vermilion Ville, Lafayette, Louisiana

It takes 5 balls of homespun cotton yarn to make a single woven shirt. Armadillo tastes like pork. Older boys would climb a narrow outside staircase to reach attic sleeping quarters in a garconniere.

Visitors can learn this and more at the outdoor museum of Cajun and Creole heritage on the Bayou Vermilion, 2-1/2 hours drive west of New Orleans.

In the village visitors experience Acadiana culture dating from the 1760s. Spend the day wandering through the 18 historic buildings made of colombage (half-timber) and bousillage (mud and Spanish moss) in a park like setting. Once inside, meet costumed craftsmen and musicians.

There’s Daphne - quilter, basket weaver and storyteller. She sits by the open window welcoming guests, giving a glimpse of Cajun life and crafts.

In the next house, her mother Geraldine talks about her childhood memories growing up in bayou country. Seeing hogs butchered as a little girl, or bread wrapped in a flour sack, hanging from a nail in a roof beam to keep it out-of-reach of pests and small fry. She can tell you what a raccoon or armadillo tastes like. Geraldine has traveled the world as an ambassador of Cajun culture, demonstrating doll making and other crafts.

Hungry? Stop in or make a reservation at the Creole restaurant, La Cuisine de Maman (866-99-BAYOU). After lunch you can enjoy a nature walk, or a bateau ride on the Bayou Vermilion.

The French spoken in Louisiana is very old. Acadian refugees brought it to the region from Nova Scotia in the mid-1700’s. Add a sprinkling of words borrowed from Native Americans and Africans, and voila - the Cajun dialect. At various times in the early 20th century, speaking French was forbidden by Louisiana law, and you’ll see the words “I will not speak French in school” written on the blackboard inside the one room schoolhouse.

Today the Cajuns remain bilingual and the culture is thriving. On weekends there’s zydeco music and dancing in Le Jour de Fete.

Vermilion Ville is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am until 3 pm. Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for students (children under 5 are free) Visit their website at It’s written in English and French.

Ca c’est bon!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Frogmore Plantation, Ferriday, Louisiana

What do a pair of jeans; a dollar bill and a can of Crisco have in common? The answer can be found at the Frogmore Plantation in Louisiana.

This is a working farm, dating from the early 1800’s. Visitors can see first hand the evolution of a cotton plantation through the eyes of the Natchez planter and the slaves who worked the fields. A docent walks you through the 18 restored buildings, including furnished slave quarters, a steam gin and outbuildings. At each stop, she discusses plantation life and customs, its culture and secrets.

The plantation is an inter-active living museum. In the field, you feel connected to history picking your first handful of cotton. It’s surprising to learn how easily the fiber can be plucked from the boll. In a world of processed and packaged goods, it’s amazing to find that right out of a boll the wad of cotton feels – well – just like cotton. While it’s easy to pull fibers from the brown ripened boll, the seeds are buried deep inside. After several minutes of peeling and shredding a single handful of lint from the seed, the dramatic impact of the mechanized gin takes on a whole new meaning.

Even though machines in England first spun cotton in 1730, this 7,000-year-old industry really took off with the invention of the cotton gin (engine) some 63 years later. It could separate seeds from the lint 10 times faster than by hand.

But cotton fabric is only part of the story. Nothing goes to waste. Seeds are crushed and separated into 3 products. Oil is used in shortening, cooking oil and salad dressing. Meal and hulls feed livestock, poultry, fish and fertilizer. Stalks and plant leaves are plowed under to enrich the soil. Each planted acre yields about 1-1/3 bales of cotton. A single 500 # bale of cotton makes 215 jeans, 313,600-dollar bills and buckets of Crisco.

If you visit the ante-bellum treasures of Natchez, Mississippi where the planters built their fabulous mansions, be sure to cross the river into Louisiana. Frogmore is about a half-hour’s drive due west. Visit the actual fields in … the land of cotton, (where) old times there are not forgotten.

Frogmore is open year round although the hours vary by season. Admission starts at $5 for students, up to $12 for adults to take the complete tour of the historic and modern facilities.