When planning a “road trip” I prefer an itinerary which allows my wife, Karin, and I to explore beyond the local tourist attractions. We normally avoid group adventures, tours or excursions but it is not because we don’t like traveling with other people, it is just it has never appealed to us! However, our recent trip to New Orleans with a Welsh couple required a different approach.
The idea for this particular road trip started more than two years ago when our snowbird friends from Wales talked about traveling outside the State of Florida. For over 20 years, this couple never ventured north of Central Florida. When I suggested a road trip to New Orleans they were immediately ready to pack their bags, but our schedules conflicted, so it wasn’t until recently that we made our journey to the Big Easy…New Orleans!
I asked if they had any particular ideas as to what sights they want to visit or activities they might be interested in doing while in New Orleans. Outside of what they had read, they knew very little about the area and suggested since both Karin and I had been to New Orleans on numerous occasions they would leave the schedule to us. To start, we limited the trip to six days: two days to drive to New Orleans, two days in New Orleans, and a two-day return trip to Clermont, Florida.
The “road trip” began on an early Sunday morning as we drove west to the Gulf of Mexico and then meandered through the scenic and historic Florida Panhandle, ending our first day at the Pensacola Naval Air Station lodging facility, home of the Navy’s Blue Angels. Staying at a military facility is a benefit of my 35 years of military service. For us, it was a clean and comfortable facility and a place to unwind after a long day covering nearly 475 miles.
After a decent night’s rest and a complimentary breakfast at the Navy Lodge, our journey continued. We stayed close to the Gulf and headed west to Gulf Shores, Alabama. We stopped and had a delicious lunch at Sassy Bass Amazin’ Grill on our way to Fort Morgan where we caught the Mobile Bay Ferry to Dauphin Island.
Though we could have driven straight through to New Orleans on our second day I decided to stop in Biloxi, Mississippi, home to Keesler AFB. Biloxi is only 90 miles from New Orleans. I was stationed at Keesler twice and was familiar with the area. I love the southern Mississippi hospitality and thought this would be a great opportunity to spend another inexpensive night at a military facility. Unfortunately, there were no rooms available at Keesler so we checked-in at a Country Inn & Suites hotel in Ocean Springs, just outside Biloxi on Interstate 10.
After catching up on a few emails and taking a short catnap, I realized it was “five o’clock somewhere”…so time for a local brew and a bite to eat! The manager at the hotel suggested a place just a short distance away but after walking into the restaurant and checking the menu we all agreed it was too expensive!
I was born and raised in the food business, my parents owned a family restaurant, and I learned as a young lad you don’t eat atmosphere, you pay for it! It doesn’t mean I would not savor a char-crusted Angus New York Strip steak at a five-star, fine dine restaurant. But, some of the best grub I’ve devoured was served in restaurants and saloons that by today’s standards would be closed by the local health department. Still thirsty and getting hungry I got desperate and asked Siri on my cell iPhone for help!
Siri’s recommendation was the Castaways Bar & Grill, a few blocks away. A few minutes later we arrived and from the outside, the Castaways Bar & Grill looked like my kind of “hole-in-the-wall” place. As we walked through the front door I wasn’t disappointed with the atmosphere, but the restaurant reeked of cigarette smoke. Obviously, Mississippi laws regarding smoking in eating establishments are different than Florida laws and though the smell was nauseating no one objected, so we stayed!
As an alternative to Keesler, I choose the Country Inn & Suites. Complimentary breakfast is very common at moderately priced hotels but theirs is one of our favorites because of the large selection of hot and cold items with their breakfast buffet.
Certainly two days is not enough time to experience the entire city of saints and sinners but we wanted to share the historic aspects of New Orleans rather than spend time stool hopping on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. While working on the itinerary, I never thought to consider a city bus tour until I received an email from Groupon with an offer for a three hour Southern Style Tour. There are other bus tour companies in New Orleans but what sold me on Southern Style Tours was their promise to “provide guests with accurate historical information to foster an authentic understanding of New Orleans.” And $75 for four tickets seemed like a great Groupon deal!
The enclosed, air-conditioned minibus along with our driver/tour guide, Darin Boué, arrived right on schedule at the New Orleans Welcome Center on Basin Street. We made a couple of additional stops at area hotels to pick up other inquisitive tourists and our excursion began at our starting point, the French Quarter.
We traveled past the elegant mansions along Esplanade Avenue heading towards beautiful City Park. Viewed the Besthoff Sculpture Garden and drove through the Ninth Ward, a neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and saw the childhood home of Super Bowl 50, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. Our journey continued through the Warehouse District, Faubourg Treme, one of the oldest African-American neighborhoods in the country and concluded dead center in a cemetery.
Great beginning for our Welsh friends but I was amazed at what I didn’t know about New Orleans! I experienced more during this three-hour tour than I learned in a lifetime of reading American history books or experienced in previous visits. However, the most impressive highlight of the tour was my observation of how New Orleans is recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Ten years after the levy breach, empty and deserted homes and buildings remain but the determination of those who returned and rebuilt shows the character of New Orleans!
The culture, history and cuisine are the real foundation to New Orleans’ mystic ambiance and during our first day, we experienced a sampling of what makes New Orleans special. My original plans for this tour was to capitalize on my military retirement status and stay in military lodging, including the billeting facility at the New Orleans NAS. (Thought we could catch a filming of an episode of NCIS New Orleans.)
But like Keesler, there were no rooms available at the NAS. Having notice of this situation about a month in advance, I contacted a friend who is a manager at the Ritz Carlton in Miami. He was able to arrange a “family & friends” package at the AC Hotel Marriott New Orleans in the French Quarter. The rate was great at this beautiful European hotel and the accommodations were First Class. After dinner we walked out of the restaurant onto the road where New Orleans’ nightlife begins and ends, Bourbon Street!
Bourbon Street at night is an experience! Everyone knows about the restaurants, bars, street entertainers and musicians, but as we strolled along this famous street it was already littered with homeless people passed out in the entryways of businesses and panhandlers who claimed their spot on the street and begged for money. Unfortunately the latter paints a picture of despair for the community. Certainly not unique to cities the size of New Orleans but the French Quarter and particularly Bourbon Street hasn’t changed since my first visit almost 50 years ago. New Orleans is a beautiful city and the French Quarter has its own uniqueness, but as a visitor it is still disappointing and sad to witness these human beings in need of help on one of New Orleans most popular streets.
I booked a cruise (again though Groupon) on the historic Creole Queen Paddlewheel boat. This cruise focused on the critical Battle of New Orleans and was narrated by a descendant of one of the founding families in New Orleans, Christopher Tidmore. He took us on a journey through the history of the city as we paddled down the Mississippi to the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Chalmette Battlefield. Tidmore explained the founding of the city by the LeMoyne brothers, the expansion of the city into the “French Quarters,” the Louisiana Purchase, and the Battle of New Orleans. This cruise was another opportunity to expose our Welsh friends, along with my wife and myself, to more New Orleans history. Worth the two and a half hours!
After the cruise, it was lunch time but our friends wanted to go shopping so Karin and I decided to try something different. A few months before this trip there was a story on the Food Channel about a New Orleans restaurant that has served Presidents, world dignitaries and is very popular with sports figures and the Hollywood elite. We obviously don’t run in those circles but were inquisitive as to why this restaurant is so popular.
We grabbed a taxi and headed to Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. Located in one of the oldest African American neighborhoods in the country, the restaurant opened in 1941. Founded by Emily and Dooky Chase, Sr., today Leah Chase, daughter-in-law of the founders, continues the premier restaurant serving authentic Creole cuisine.
Karin and I were totally awed with their lunch buffet and even had the opportunity to talk to Leah Chase. If there was one highlight that stood out on this journey, it was lunch at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. We were disappointed our traveling partners did not join us but they were supporting the New Orleans economy like most tourists, buying souvenirs.
Intermittent light rain did not discourage us from strolling from the restaurant through Treme to the French Market in the French Quarter. Good exercise and some light conversation with the local residents added flavor to our afternoon experience. We missed our friends at the French Market so walked back to the AC Hotel through Jackson Square with a brief visit to the beautiful Catholic Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis, King of France.
The second and last night in New Orleans found us back on Bourbon Street. Our friends had eaten earlier and we were still stuffed from our buffet luncheon at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. We asked the valet attendant at our hotel for a recommendation to a relaxing but trendy bar and he suggested the Hotel Monteleone Carousel Bar. We walked a couple blocks over to the hotel and the bar was packed so we moved on, ending up at the Royal House, a quaint oyster bar restaurant. We sat at the bar and chit-chatted for a couple hours, then headed back to our hotel.
That walk back to the AC Marriott Hotel was again a depressing reminder of American’s blight with the homeless and addicted! Looking into the faces of these individuals I knew each has a story of their journey through life. Unfortunately their “road trip” stalled in New Orleans, many on Bourbon Street. I love New Orleans, but to observe this during our two day stay was the “low point” of our trip!
Day five began with an early morning fog. We debated whether to spend the morning in New Orleans or start our journey back home. The fog was pretty heavy and the weather wasn’t conducive to spending a half a day shopping. The vote was 1-0; we were leaving!
I love traveling, but I’m a firm believer the best part of a road trip is heading home! There is nothing better than the safety of my home and the comfort of my bed. But the lingering question is: do I decide to drive 600 miles straight home or break it up and make a stop? Twenty years ago I would not hesitate, I would be sleeping in my own bed that night! But this was not about a race to get home, it was intended to be a pleasant road trip with friends.
The weather wasn’t cooperating and I had already booked a couple rooms at Eglin AFB, Florida so no need to change the itinerary! We stopped at Eglin, but our next stop for sure was the nearest Cracker Barrel for breakfast.
Driving eastbound on I-10 through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida is one boring road! From New Orleans to Biloxi to Mobile to Tallahassee there is nothing but trees and swamps and a few billboards for scenery! Fog and rain created and even more dismal drive, but we put the 275 miles behind us and arrived at Eglin AFB, Florida by mid-afternoon.
Mentioned earlier, one of the benefits of military retirement is being able to stay at a military facility, based on availability. When my wife and I travel and military billeting facilities are available we have never been disappointed with any location that has not met our personal standards of providing a clean and comfortable room. Many base lodging facilities are new or remodeled and some are outdated as we discovered at the Eglin AFB Inn, but the rooms were clean, the beds were comfortable and the rate was much less than the hotels in the area.
Another benefit of staying on a military base was the camaraderie we found at the NCO Club. It was a place to have a cold brew at the bar, tell old war stories to new found friends and relax in the dining room with your spouse. If we were there the right night, we might have even played BINGO! Times have changed and today most clubs are consolidated (for enlisted, NCO & officer personnel) with very few offering dinner options, especially during the week. Some are only open on the weekends! Eglin AFB was no exception!
So where do four tired, thirsty, and hungry travelers go? Thankfully, the billeting front office clerk was quite helpful with a few suggestions outside the base perimeters. One she highly recommended was Props Craft Brewery in Fort Walton and it turned out to be a great setting to host our “last supper” on our journey. A pint of pumpkin beer (7%) and one Flying Coffin IPA (5%) along with their special of the evening…a Cuban sandwich (split with my wife) and I was done for the night. We loved Props Craft brews!
A heavy rain storm kept disturbing us during the evening and understandably no one had a decent night’s sleep! We couldn’t even get a cup of coffee! The billeting office experienced a loss of electricity during the storm, which damaged the coffee machine. The only remedy was to stop at the nearest Cracker Barrel. Still roughly six hours from Clermont, I wasn’t looking forward to the remaining 180 miles drive on I-10. The scenery hadn’t changed, still only evergreens and swamps. Bypassing Tallahassee on I-10, we saw plenty of Florida State Troopers! It is easy to understand why drivers get mesmerized by the same unchanging scenery.
We left 1-10 at Lake City and headed south on I-75. Approximately 100 miles to go! There wasn’t much conversation as everyone was anxious to get home. One was sleeping, one reading, and one staring out the window.
Looking back, there were some minor bumps but it was an opportunity to take a road trip with friends who had never been to New Orleans. Karin and I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about New Orleans history.
I know people who visit the United States often see our country differently than those who live here. Yes, we have plenty of social problems and our political system is far from perfect, but aside from all our flaws that are often highlighted in the media or wrongly portrayed in a Hollywood movie, we live in a very beautiful and diverse country and that is what made this “road trip” to New Orleans special!
MSgt Fred J. Rosenthal, USAF (Ret.)
15722 Green Cove Blvd
Clermont, FL 34714
Reprint from July–August 2016 • Volume 46, No. 4