Texas Strong

Here’s a tip – grab a cuppa, this is gonna be a long one.  It’s been almost two weeks since hurricane Harvey hit the great state of Texas and I still keep bursting in to tears every time I look at my Facebook feed, or try and write this damn blog post – so, please, be gentle with me.  I’m a sensitive and fragile soul right now.

Unless you witnessed it first hand? I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you there was a time in my life that I didn’t love Houston as I do now, because, to look at me, you’d see me sharing about forty thousand Houston/Texas/Flood related posts on my Facebook page every day.  You’d hear me whining, daily, weekly – sometimes by the minute, about how much I miss my home, my people, my life there.

Home.

Yes, while I’m Irish and lived here in N. Ireland for most of my life, my heart just isn’t here.  I won’t apologise for it, and I’m growing *really* tired of defending it.

‘Ireland is your home’.

No.  Houston is my home, Texas is my home.  It always will be.  And now that I mention it? After my month-long trip to the states last month, I’ve had so many people say to me, ‘wow, Houston really IS your home, isn’t it?’, yes, it is.

But I haven’t always liked it, in actual fact, I all-but hated the place when I first moved there.

In September 2008, I hopped a plane to H-town for my first trip.  A two-week visit with Colin for business.  There’d been whispers of a transfer, but at this stage it was still two-week business trips every now and then across the Atlantic.  So, off I went excited at the prospect of two weeks in Houston.

We arrived on the first company-approved flight in to the city after Hurricane Ike.  Having never experienced a hurricane before, I was clueless, but it wasn’t long before we saw the devastation around us.  Glass and dead birds littered the streets, Target and Walmart had no water, milk or toilet paper, roads were flooded, we went in to Ihop for food and were presented with a printed piece of paper, informing us that due to the hurricane and the inability to get supplies in to the city, they were serving a restricted menu ‘this is the stuff we can serve you based on the supplies and staff we have available’ type deal.  I remember sitting in the restaurant wondering why in the name of all that is Holy, would I even consider moving to somewhere that could be so cripplingly devastated by a bit of wind and rain.

(I can feel the eye-rolls and abuse from my Texas peeps already happening here)

We’d missed the storm and were just in town for the aftermath, the inherent definition of ‘blow-ins’ as we say here in Ireland.

I didn’t understand.

I didn’t understand that Hurricane Ike was a tropical cyclone – the costliest tropical cyclone on record in Texas.  The third-costliest of ANY Atlantic hurricane to date (coming in behind Sandy and Katrina) and taking at least 195 lives.

I didn’t understand that winds reached up to 145mph.

I didn’t understand the term Category 4 Hurricane.

I didn’t understand how quickly this place floods, or the devastation flooding can do – to people, to lives, to infrastructure.

I just didn’t understand.

That is, until 2009.  Another two-week trip to Houston.  Col was moving out ahead of me, and I was over on break from uni for two weeks to do some house hunting, furniture and car shopping, and we got caught in one of the worst storms I’ve seen.  We were heading up I45N towards Gallery furniture, the weather got so bad, we had to pull off the main road and in to a car park at a paint store, where we sat in our car for over six hours – with no water, no food, no phone signal (we pretty much spent our time in the car sleeping, and watching cars attempt to wade their way out of the parking lots and through the over-the-car-bonnet-deep water on the feeder road, to get back up on to the main road).  It was also at this point that I first discovered the Houston spirit, the Southern Hospitality and the pulling together that Texas is somewhat renowned for.

I needed to pee.

In Ireland, most toilets are for customers only, in the US, many major shops have toilets in store, I held it as long as I could and waited for a lull in the absolute chucking-it-down rain before I darted in, ready to beg and plead to use the toilet.  When I walked in, the staff had laid out tea, coffee, lemonade and snacks on a table.  They’d pulled out every chair they could find and sat it round the table and a handful of people, like Col and I who had been stranded in the carpark, were taking refuge of the storm, having a drink, using the facilities and just having a chat to a group of strangers in the same position as they were.

It wasn’t a hurricane, it may not even have been a tropical storm, I can’t remember, but I watched devastation, confusion and was living the impact, first hand, of severe flooding in the greater Houston area.  At this point, I once again questioned my sanity, and wondered why I’d want to move somewhere that had such poor drainage and was seemingly prone to this type of weather.  But once I saw the positivity of the people and how quickly the city rebounded from, what at home would have been a rather devastating flood, I was given hope.

And so, in June of 2009, a couple months after Col made the move, I hopped a plane to join him.  From the second I landed in Newark Intl airport, I was miserable.  I was put on a tourist visa without us knowing, I’d spent ‘too much’ time in the states prior to my visa being issued and I was quizzed for a while as to why I needed to be in the states and then told in no uncertain terms that I had to change my departure date from the US, by 24 hours.  Yep.  We had to pay to change my flight home for Winter Graduation at Uni, by 24 hours, because they said so.  I had just left my friends, family and the comfort of home to become an expat in the states, filled with excitement, and I was greeted by, ‘you need to leave by this date, or else and if you leave in the meantime, you can’t come back’.  I was heartbroken.

Once here? Having no kids to meet parents at school drop offs and events, having no dogs to meet fellow dog owners at the dog park and no car to drive myself anywhere, I spent most of my time at home, alone, staring at four walls.  I’ve said it many times over the years, that the more you sit staring at four walls, the more you find wrong with them.  I was depressed, miserable and Col didn’t know what he was coming home to most days – he even sat in the driveway a couple evenings when he got home from work, just to have a few minutes quiet, in case he got home to my fury-filled, tear-streaked self.  I don’t blame him – I was a bit psycho, right enough.

Six months.

That’s how long it took me to acclimate to H-town.  I came ‘home’ to Ireland for Christmas in 2009 and found myself missing Home.  It was a weird sensation, one I hadn’t expected.  And, when I returned in January 2010, everything just suddenly fell in to place.  I found my groove, came in to my own, started to lay down roots and blossom.

Something an old friend, Cindy, (who is sadly no longer with us), used to say resonates with me til this day, ‘Bloom where you are planted Las,’ she’d say to me.  And so, I did.  And Houston has been home ever since.

As the old adage goes, ‘I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as quickly as I could’, that’s me.  And when it came time to leave? I cried the entire flight to the UK, and beyond.  I didn’t want to move, to Ireland, to India, to anywhere.  Ok – maybe I wanted a new house within Houston, but beyond that, I didn’t want to move.

So you can perhaps imagine how difficult and traumatic it was to open Facebook (I almost said, ‘to turn on the news and see’ – but we all know, most people now get their news from their Facebook feed 😉 LOL!) and see that my home of seven and a half years, was about to be ravaged by a Category 4 Hurricane.  Harvey.  Even the name makes me mad to type, I find myself thumping the letters out on the keyboard in rage.

Harvey. 

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last week?  You’ll have read about the sheer devastation across the gulf-coast region of Texas, from Victoria to Houston, Rockport to Beaumont, Port Arthur to Conroe, to Corpus Christi.

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last week? You’ll have seen many homes and businesses levelled, many more partially, or completely submerged in flood water.  You’ll have seen footage of people and animals, on top of houses and cars awaiting rescue.  You’ll have seen the footage of the buildings in ruin, of cars stranded, of people flocking to shelters by the hundreds.

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last week, you’ll have seen my Facebook feed, saturated with stories shared, statistics on the storm, hero stories, cries for help – rescues, donations and volunteering.

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last week, you’ll have seen ugly tears of joy shed for the first glimpse of sun in the state post-storm.

Photo Cred: Becky Rivero

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last week, you’ll have seen crisis, tragedy, and disaster.  But, aside from the stress, worry, some weird form of ‘survivors guilt’ at not being there and suffering through it with friends, side-by-side, what you’ll have ALSO seen? Is the best that humanity has to offer, you’ll have seen kindness, compassion, selflessness.  You’ll have seen community spirit that rivals none other, you’ll have seen incredible fundraising efforts and people rallying around Texas like I’ve never seen.

You’ll have seen, hope.

Ok, let’s throw some stats in here – so you can gain some perspective on precisely how messed up this freakin’ storm was.  53 counties affected by Harvey, over 11.5 million people, that’s 46% of the population of Texas.

By August 29th, there were 86 TRILLION litres of water dumped on the Gulf Coast – with a predicted 95 trillion being the final count – Katrina? Yeah, she brought 30 Trillion with her.  That’s an estimated 56 inches of rain in 4 days.  In short? Harvey is a dick.

There have been around 50 confirmed deaths – including a Houston PD officer, there are also a number of people still missing.

Photo credit: The Marvelous Michael

More than 48,700 homes were affected by Harvey throughout the state, including over 1,000 that were completely destroyed and more than 17,000 that sustained major damage; approximately 32,000 sustained minor damage.  Nearly 700 businesses were damaged and over 300,000 people were left without electricity.  Preliminary estimates of economic losses range from $10 billion to $160 billion, with a large portion of losses sustained by uninsured homeowners

Several tornadoes were spawned in the area, one of which damaged or destroyed the roofs of dozens of homes in Sienna Plantation – Sienna Plantation is a subdivision a couple miles away from my old house in Missouri City.  If we were still on Edgewood drive (and we didn’t evacuate before the storm hit) – our home of seven and a half years? We’d have been under mandatory evacuation, days after the hurricane hit.  And would likely have been stranded and unable to adhere to the mandatory evac because that area doesn’t take heavy flooding well at all.

Photo Credit: Micah Morrison

In short? Lots of rain, lots of flooding, lots of damage.  Catastrophic.  Horrible.  Life changing.  Life destroying.  Deadly.  Some folks lost everything.  BUT.  (And this is a BIG but.  And this is an emotional but.  And this is a but that I’ve been procrastinating over writing about, because it’s a but that’s had me in hysterical, ugly tears for a week or so now.) there has been light.

Light? I hear you ask? Yes, there has been light.

There has been hope and have been heroes. 

Picture from the wonderful Chizzy.

There has been overwhelming selfless, benevolent, humanitarian, noble, generous, open-handed, self-sacrificing people who have done nothing short of AMAZING things for the disaster relief effort in the Lone Star State.  From pizza place workers paddling kayaks through flood waters to deliver free pizzas, to high school sports teams volunteering in grocery stores to help with bag packing, shelf stacking and helping people carry their stuff to people’s cars, to bakers stranded in a Mexican bakery baking food with almost every supply they had on hand, through the night to give to victims, you name it – Texas has it.  The outpour of support from across the country for Texas, has been incredible – there’s even been a contingent of vessels come across from Louisiana to help rescue people from their homes – it’s amazing.

Aaaand here’s where we get choked up and feel-y, cause I’m about to tell you about some of them.

JJ Watt

“The Worst times, bring out the best in people”

Where can you donate? youcaring.com/JJWatt

Firstly? Lemme tell you about my boy JJ – some of you are probably like ‘huh? Who? That dude from the HEB ads’, yes, the guy what plays for the Houston Texans?  He’s a Texas treasure (which is ironic since he’s a Wisconsin boy) and he’s an all-out freakin’ hero!

He started an online fundraiser, almost as soon as the hurricane hit, his goal? $200,000, and he got the ball rolling with a whopping $100k donation from his own pocket.  His goal was smashed in a matter of hours – in fact, we all blinked and he’d hit a million, he upped the goal by one million at a time, until he got to six million and decided that he’d rely on the ‘everything’s bigger in Texas’ adage, and aim for ten million.  He’s currently just sitting shy of $28m dollars, collected over less than two weeks, not months, weeks.  Donations have poured in from celebrities and civilians alike, with big names like Walmart, Ellen Degeneres and Drake throwing their support behind superstar JJ, as well as some of his sporting peeps like the NRG arena, The Green Bay Packers, and Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk.

Not only that? But, back in his home state of Wisconsin? His mum steered the ship for his charitable foundation as they called out for donations from his home town, and state, to send down to needy Texans who’d lost everything.  They broke everything down (which was a stroke of organisational genius), various collection points located in different places, each collection point had a list of items they needed the masses to donate (and ONLY from the list).  For example, one collection point requested peanut butter, crackers, fruit cups etc., while another requested cleaning supplies – and, before you knew it? They were asking for more semi-trucks to be donated to the cause, because they had so much STUFF and not enough trucks to transport it.  As of today, Sunday, 9 semi-trucks are Houston-bound packed to the rafters with supplies.

What people love most about JJ’s fundraising campaign? Is that he promises that this money will go directly to helping the people who are affected (no red tape, no administration fees) and that he will ensure it’ll go to more than just the greater Houston metro area – he’s going to make sure small towns like Orange, Rockport, Corpus Christi and Port Aransas are taken care of too.

Mattress Mack

“Houstonians have a safe, dry place to take shelter at Gallery Furniture so if they can get here they are welcome, we hope to give them some comfort in this incredibly difficult time.”

Owner of local furniture store chain, Gallery Furniture (GF) and fondly referred to as Mattress Mack, Jim McIngvale, opened the doors of his stores for use as refugee shelters – for both humans and their fur-babies.  He also opened up his mattress showroom to members of the Texas Army National Guard, so that they could get some well-deserved rest between missions.  The stores were stocked with food, water and mattresses. Each store could accommodate a few hundred people comfortably and Jim was on-hand to help people out, if and when they needed it.

When some of the storm’s victims couldn’t make it across flooded streets, Mack sent out his delivery trucks and drivers to collect people and bring them to safety.  ‘We put out a Facebook feed that we were going to rescue people, because there was so much need,’ he says.  ‘The city and the local authorities did a great job, they just couldn’t get to all the 911 calls’.

Since the hurricane? He’s been offering three square meals a day, seven days a week, combined with boxes of water and cleaning supplies to the victims – I’m starting to think there’s no end to this mans kindness!

If you go to GF on a regular weekend to look at furniture? You’ll often find Pizza and lemonade, fruit, cookies and some exotic animals – to make the entire process of buying furniture a lot more fun for the entire family.  We enjoyed many’s a day there just having a look.

Every single piece of news footage, or interview by Mattress Mack has left me sobbing.  The guy, while he claims not to be a hero (he saves that term for those emergency responders and the employees who worked in his stores) he truly is.  He’s a blessing to the city of Houston and I’m hoping to be relocated back to Houston at some point, so I can furnish my house with furniture from his stores – as it stands? I’m sat on my GF bed and mattress, my clothes are in my GF chests of drawers and Col and Lewis are sat on my GF sofa – right here in Ireland.

Watch this (and grab a tissue!) https://www.cbsnews.com/news/houston-businessman-jim-mcingvale-opens-furniture-stores-to-evacuees/

HEB

For those of you who don’t know, HEB is a Texas grocery store chain, I had one across the street from my house in Missouri City and I’ll always remember them for great quality deli meat, good music and very friendly staff – oh, and those Texas shaped crackers they do.

You may or may not have seen the memes doing the rounds on Facebook ‘I’ll see your Red Cross and raise you a Texas Grocery store’, and things that never let Texas down, type memes, but why?

I’ll tell you why!

A convoy of HEB trucks laden with supplies, made their way out to Victoria, TX to bring them much needed relief.  Carrying food, water, and generators, over they headed 100 miles southeast, navigating the aftermath of what was a Cat 4 hurricane to help those who were all but destroyed by it.  They brought tools, expertise, an ATM, a mobile pharmacy with pharmacy staff to hand out prescriptions – and over 100 HEB employees made their own way to Victoria to volunteer.  The convoy included mobile kitchens – one of their mobile kitchens can serve up to 6,200 meals per hour.  Two units cooked 2,000 plates each for every meal.

Now that the worst of the storm has passed and people are starting to get more mobile as the floodwaters recede, they can start rebuilding and recovering.  HEB’s heroism knows no bounds as they are offering bread products for 10c each – loaves of $3/$4 bread, for 10c.  My friend Mike told me that in his local HEB, all of their own brand products were on excellent sales, some were even buy 1 get 2 free – with signs around the store encouraging you to take the extras to your friends and family who needed it who couldn’t get to the store.  My friend Cathlyne said that the HEB on Buffalo Speedway was giving bread away.  Literally giving stuff away for free.

Add to that? Today they just gave a whopping five million dollar donation to JJ Watt’s fundraising efforts – What generosity from this Texan chain!

Sugar Land Skeeters

The Skeeters came to Sugar Land during our tenure in Missouri City – I loved going to Skeeters games.  Especially the all you can eat family nights (most of our guests loved these games too, especially my 12-corn-dog-eating brother).  It’s an excellent family night at the ballpark, they’ve got a lot of stuff geared towards kids, families, parking is cheap, food is good and the tickets are cheap, too.  If you haven’t been, you should go.  Especially post-Harvey.

Since the hurricane? They’ve been amazing! They opened their doors to flood victims in the early stage of evacuations, to use the ball park as a shelter from the storm.  They took in both people, and their pets.

They’ve kicked off a generous fundraiser, their aim is to raise $50,000 – $25,000 from fans and $25,000 matched by the team.  They’re selling their $15 tickets for $5 each, but are encouraging people to donate over and above the ticket cost, because they are donating the overage to disaster relief efforts in the area.

They’ve also opened up to the First responders, letting them attend games for free and are putting together a blood drive at constellation field.

The Cajun Navy

Donate here: https://www.paypal.me/cajunnavyrelief

Prior to this disaster, I’d never heard of this group, an informal organization of volunteers with boats from Louisiana, deployed to Texas to assist in high-water rescues.  These heroes have been out in force rescuing people from rooftops and pulling people to safety, helping them to escape rising flood waters and impassable roads.

“The Cajun Navy was formed during the Hurricane Katrina relief in New Orleans in 2005. It’s comprised of volunteers from Louisiana who have their own boats. These boats are not like the highly secured, fancy Coast Guard boats. By and large, the Cajun Navy boats are fishing boats, hunting boats and kayaks – usually camouflaged for duck hunting – and small but mighty. In times of flooding disasters, any boat helps. Often, these smaller boats are just what is needed to navigate in shallow waters around flooded homes and deliver residents to higher ground.”

The group sent 20 boats on a 300-mile trip to Houston on the back of trucks.  These guys are just regular people like you and I, who packed up their boats and travelled 300 miles to Houston to help other people like you and I, whose lives had been turned upside down.  They paid for their own food, their own gas and upkeep, and just did their thing rescuing stranded victims.

I also feel that I need to throw an honorable mention to our local gas-station chain, Bucees – they let emergency personnel in to their stores to stay over and rest – they could also eat and drink, on the house.

Photo credit: Sandra Showalter

And while all these big names came to the aid of our city and state? I think the *most* impressive and commendable heroes?  Are the unnamed ones.  The non-famous ones.  The ‘Joe soap’ types around the corner, who just dusted off their boots and got stuck in helping their neighbours.  The volunteers, who, after the storm, called round to their friends’ houses to help them pull apart their flood-damaged homes, the good souls who cooked two hundred meals for a local town whose town no longer exists, the kind spirits who volunteered or donated at food banks, or blood banks – those are the people we need to take a moment for.

Photo Credit: Sandra Showalter

Those are the people who remind us that there IS still good in the world.  That the good does outweigh the bad, that when in times of great trial, destruction and seemingly all-engulfing darkness, that light still shines strong.  I’ve had an outpour of good will on my Facebook feed, from my friends and their kids.  From ladies cooking hundreds of meals and taking them to victims, to bulk-kolache buying for first responders, to donating time, money or resources to various charities, from blood banks to animal shelters, I had a friend whose son paddled around the neighbourhood in his kayak, helping out his neighbours and another friend whose little boy packaged up Hot Wheels, PlayDoh and snacks for the kids less fortunate than him and helped his mama prepare meals for delivery.

Photo Credit: Becky Rivero

You guys.

I can’t EVEN with this kindness and generosity right now!!

THAT is the America I know and love.

That is my town and those are my people.

Good, selfless people, raising good selfless people.

The effects of Hurricane Harvey will be far-reaching and long-lasting for Texas, and, in some ways, (gas prices and the like) for the entire US.  And while we sit here telling Texas to hang in there, that we got your back?  We barely have time to catch our breath before the next major hurricane gears up to come in and strike from the gulf – this time, a category 5 storm, Irma, is making a bee-line for Florida.  While my heart is heavy, and 46% of my state is soggy and trying to wring themselves out, I’m reminded of a meme I saw yesterday, ‘If you think Texans are obnoxious with pride now? Wait until this shit is over and we dry our boots off’.

Get away to Louisiana! (Part III) New Orleans; The Attractions

For my last New Orleans blog post, I wanted to take a moment to talk to you about the different attractions we visited while we were in town.

Cajun Encounters swamp tour

Col and I on the boat!

This was, by far, my favourite activity while we were on our little road trip to Nawlins. In fact, we all loved it! We didn’t have time to do the daytime swamp tour, so we opted for the nighttime one.  It definitely had its benefits, it wasn’t too busy, it wasn’t ‘sunburn’ hot (though it was sticky and muggy) we got to see all kinds of red-eyed gators in the dark and it was an excellent experience all round.

Gator!!

Bring bug-spray – it’s skeeter city out there in the bayou.

Bring water – it’s freakin’ sticky and hot out there.  Hydration is the new re-hydration.

Wear long trousers – did I not mention the skeeters?

Cost: $39pp

Duration of visit: 2 hours (+ travelling to get there)

The national WWII museum

WWII Museum

The only reason we went here, was because Trip Advisor had it as the number 1attraction in New Orleans.  It’s one of the more expensive museums I’ve been to, so I was a bit wary.  But I kept the faith in the power of social media and off we went.

I loved it here.  It was, hands down, the best museum I’ve ever been to.

We opted for the combination ticket, to see the Tom Hanks, hour long film about the war before we toured the museum.  It was worth it.  Even for my younger brother, who I thought would spend the day complaining that he was bored – there was something for all of us.  I can’t recommend it enough!

Cost: $27 for a combination ticket (movie and museum)

Duration of Visit: At least 3-4 hours for the museum plus the additional hour for the movie.

Voodoo Museum

I’d say don’t bother, it’s not really a museum.  It’s a house with a lot of voodoo ‘stuff’ in there, much of which doesn’t have any description or literature.  We were in and out within 20 minutes.

I think if there was more literature, and less tampax (tributes to a voodoo icon I think) it would have been a better experience all round.  Not to mention it was HOT and sticky!

Cost: $7

Duration of visit: 15-20 mins

Steamboat Natchez

A two-hour cruise up the Mississippi river, through one of the worlds largest, and busiest ports.  We were very excited to get on board this steamboat.  We had a short wait, but thankfully they have a shaded area where you can wait and listen to a lady playing (albeit terribly) a pipe organ.

When you get on board, you want to sit on the left side of the boat.  That’s the shaded side.  So, get on the boat, face the front of the boat (the bit that points and moves forward) and sit to your left.  I made the mistake of facing the back of the boat and sitting on the left and ended up getting a little sun.

Thankfully they had a yummy strawberry daiquiri on board that wasn’t horrifically expensive, that I enjoyed as we sailed up the river.  It’s definitely a fun few hours on the water, but it’s not something I’d repeat – if that makes sense.

New Orleans skyline

Cost: $25

Duration of visit: 2 hours

Tropical Isle bar (Bourbon St)

After our trip to the voodoo museum, the skies opened and we were walking in the rain.  We came across a place that my friends Lindsay and Duane had told us to try if we had the chance.  It looks trashy, cheap and tacky – but I loved it!

Maybe, perhaps, because of the rain, but I was curious to try these hand grenades that the Reilly’s had told us all about.

I wasn’t disappointed, the bar tender was friendly, the atmosphere, even for the middle of a miserable day, was good and the drink? Was definitely worth the hype!

The rules!

Cost: $8 for a large drink (including the plastic glass)

Duration of visit: As long as you’d like to spend having a drink.

French Market

I love nothing more than a good mooch around market stalls, so the French Market piqued my attention.  It was, however, raining again, so many of the vendors had packed up and left for the day but there were lots of things to look at.

We even picked up a few gifts for my family at home, there was an Asian bloke there who did some excellent painted ‘name art’ while you waited.  It was very impressive.

Cost: Free to walk through.

Duration of visit: At least an hour

Candyland Cottage  (Rayne, Louisiana)

On our way home we decided to indulge ourselves and go visit the worlds largest gummy bear.  We’d seen the road signs on the way through to New Orleans and we figured there were worse places to stop than a sweet shop.

The place had a wonderful selection of sweeties, including Bob the 25lb gummy bear, gummy frogs and any number of random gummy animals and treats.  Beyond that, it has a fudge bar and an ice cream selection that makes it very difficult to leave without indulging in something.  I picked up some red velvet fudge for a friend and enjoyed a yummy ice cream while I was at it.

Furthermore, the staff were absolutely lovely.  They asked us to sign the guest book, talked to us about where we were in town from and chatted to us a bit about the shop.  It’s definitely a worthy place to stop en route to/from New Orleans.

Things I want to do next time we’re in town:

Old New Orleans Rum distillery
Streetcar
Superdome (Geaux Saints!)
Algiers Ferry
Louisiana State museum
Confederate memorial hall museum
Old US Mint
Louisiana state prison museum

Get away to Louisiana! (Part II) New Orleans; The Food.

It’s been a while since we went to Nawlins, I think perhaps I wanted the pain of my brother going home to settle a little before I delved deeply into the recent memories of going on a trip with him.  Yes, it sounds rather pathetic, but, when you live with someone for five months, upon their leaving, you get sad.  It’s that simple.

So, what did we get up to in the ‘most unique’ city in America? Well, where to begin?

As I’ve already told y’all, we spent a little of our trip in Baton Rouge – a place I’m adamant that you should pencil in on your trip to the Bayou state.  I think the simplest way to do this blog is to split it into two parts.

Part I: the important part – the food, where to eat and what to eat.

Part II: the attractions, where to go and what to do.

On our first morning in the city, we made a bee-line straight for Decatur street, for breakfast.  I’d heard rave reviews from friends and I’d stumbled upon reviews of a wee cafe that I was bursting to try, Cafe du monde.  This cafe is pretty much a no-frills cafe, but when you’ve got a good thing goin’ on, it’s best not to mess with it!

It’s essentially an out-door cafe, you’re under a roof, but that’s pretty much it.  There are pigeons scavenging around your feet for crumbs – who knew they enjoyed a sugar rush too?

While I sat in this little cafe, listening to the daily musician of choice in the plum spot, (who happened to be the first performer of the trip that I tossed a few bucks to).  I got quite emotional, I felt as though I’d been transported to Paris and was sitting enjoying my sugary delight of a breakfast right underneath the Eiffel Tower.

The beignets were everything I’d been led to believe they were, and definitely gave me the sugary-boost I needed to endure walking around the city in the August heat!

Where is it? 800 Decatur Street, New Orleans 70116

What to order? Beignets and cafe au lait.  Wear something you’ll not mind getting covered in icing sugar.

When is it open? Open 24 hours a day (closed 6pm December 24 and opens 6am December 26)

After our steamboat tour, we were ravenous! Across the street from where you board the boats, there was a restaurant that caught our attention, Cafe Maspero, ok, so it’s just outside the top 200 places to eat in New Orleans on trip advisor, but we gave it a whirl anyway!

My catfish poboy was bland, soggy and limp, Col’s roast beef was much better, but by far the best meal of all was Row’s muffaletta, a local delicacy that originated among Italian immigrants in New Orleans.  It’s comprised of ham, salami, and pastrami piled high on a seeded Italian roll topped with melted Swiss cheese and our famous olive salad, served with French fries.

Row was almost beaten by that sucker!

If you do nothing else while you’re passing this place, grab a $1 daiquiri.  I went with the $3 option and was drinking it all day, I was greedy.  Don’t you be greedy too!

Where is it? 601 Decatur St New Orleans, LA 70130

When is it open? Sunday – Thursday 11am – 10pm and Friday – Saturday 11am – 11pm

What to order? A muffaletta and a buck margarita

For dinner on our first night, we went to the restaurant ranked #5 out of 989 on Trip Advisor, Zea Rotisserie and Grill.  This place came recommended by one of my friends and I was keen to try it out, especially when I saw the menu.

I ordered the ‘rotisserie platter of the day’, which, unfortunately was less of a platter and more of a small plate.  (The portion size for all our our meals, was rather underwhelming, especially given the cost per plate.)  The platter of the day was rotisserie pork with rosemary garlic glace, the pork was sliced so finely that I barely got a taste and there wasn’t much garlic/rosemary taste to it either.  My sides were broccoli (which is pretty hard to get wrong) and the ‘Zea potatoes’, which I could eat every day for the rest of my life!

Col ordered the ribs, which, again were underwhelming and the server recommended a speciality side, the corn grits – which were just ‘ok’, Col was non-plussed.

My brother, ordered a burger, ‘medium well’ he said, and when it came, it looked fine until he got in to the centre, where it was still raw.  By then, Col and I had already finished so there was no point in sending it back.

Disappointing sums up this little adventure, and I had such high hopes for this place, especially considering it was filled with delicious smells as we arrived.  One other, minor note of botheration for me, is they brought a new straw each time we got a drinks refill.  Ugh.  No need!

Where is it? 1525 St. Charles Ave. New Orleans, Louisiana 70130

What to order? Zea potatoes and the rotisserie chicken at the table next to us looked delicious!

When is it open? Sun-Thurs 11am-10pm and Fri-Sat 11am-10:30pm

Surreys cafe was where we ended up for breakfast on our second day, it came highly recommended from a friend who used to live nearby.  I really only need to say one thing about this place, BANANAS FOSTER STUFFED FRENCH TOAST.  No, really, that’s it, mine and Rowans breakfasts paled in comparison to Col’s breakfast of champions – oh, and the fruit juice is extortionate!

Where is it? 1418 Magazine Street New Orleans, LA 70130

When is it open? Open 7 days a week from 8am to 3pm

What to order? Didn’t you read about the bananas foster stuffed french toast?

After a morning of WWII education (in, what happened to be one of, if not THE best museum I’ve ever been in), we were, once again, famished.  One of our many travel and food apps told us that the Ugly Dog salon was a short walk away – and in Louisiana, in August, short walks are the best kind – if you’ve got to walk at all, of course!

Once again, we had a varied success rate, firstly, the place seemed like a bit of a dive and, for the most part, it’s self service – including putting your plates etc away, and, considering that, it’s overpriced.  I’d normally pay that much including a tip for someone to do it for me.  It definitely could do with a Ramsay makeover or something!

Food-wise, I didn’t like the herbs on my chicken, though the mac and cheese was absolutely delicious (just like I’d read in reviews!) and if you can’t find it on the menu, check out the specials board up on the bar.

Col’s roast beef po-boy was the best we found on our trip to the Bayou State.  I ended up relieving him of that burden (oops!) ’cause it really was deeeelicious!

Where is it? 401 Andrew Higgin’s BLVD New Orleans, Louisiana 70130

When is it open? Their website is so utterly crap I can’t find that information for you!

What to order? Roast beef po-boy with mac and cheese!

For a late-night feeding, which we needed after a night out on the swamp, there’s only one place in town to head to.  I texted my friend and said, ‘where’s open for us to eat, we’re hungry’ and her reply was a ‘Travellers choice 2012’ winner on Trip advisor and ranked #14 out of 988 places to eat – The Camelia Grill (I can’t seem to find a website for it) – which was already on our list to do for breakfast.  Perfect!

I think this was our collective favourite place to eat during our time in New Orleans, it’s quirky, it’s fun, it’s cheap, it’s bustling with a great atmosphere and our server was excellent.  He just hollered our order to the chef, who didn’t write a dang thing down, but got everything spot on – it was impressive to watch!

Where is it? 626 S Carrollton Ave, New Orleans, LA 70118

When is it open? Mon-Thu, Sun 8 am – 12 am and Fri-Sat 8 am – 2 am

What to order? Apparently their breakfasts are TO DIE FOR.  But none of us got breakfast food so I can’t advise you on that.  Col loved his ‘freeze’ and I really thought the ‘Harry’s Yankee’ roast beef po-boy and a large cheese fries was delicious! They must have good gumbo here, a couple came in, he ordered a Reuben, she asked for Gumbo, they’d none left so she got up and left!

For breakfast on our last day, we hit up a cafe within walking distance to our hotel, the Ruby Slipper Cafe, being #34 on the list of restaurants in New Orleans, it couldn’t be too bad at all, right? (Yes, I put an overwhelming amount of faith in Trip Advisor, but it normally doesn’t serve me wrong!)

This time was no different, I ordered the Migas, definitely better than in Surreys cafe, however, I could have done with a tortilla or some breakfast potatoes and could have done without the huge dollop of sour cream or mayonnaise or whatever it was that was stuck on the side of the plate.

Hubby got the pecan maple pancakes – they were good, but they didn’t beat Surreys bananas foster stuffed french toast.

My brother got a chicken sandwich which he enjoyed, and the atmosphere was fun.  The service was good and our server was friendly.

Where is it? 200 Magazine Street, New Orleans, LA 70130

When is it open? Monday – Friday – 7am – 2pm and Saturday 8am – 2pm, Sunday 8am – 3pm

What to order? Something from the specials board, and, if you’re a drinker, try a Bloody Mary or a Bellini, I’m told they are delish!

Get away to Louisiana! (Part I) Baton Rouge

I’ve been having an internal battle about how best to recount my recent trip to Louisiana.  After some hm-ing and ha-ing, I decided that since, I, myself, was so surprised at how wonderful Baton Rouge was, that I wouldn’t lump it all together in to one post, but I’d post separately about both Baton Rouge and Louisiana.

Let me tell you, when we decided to go to Louisiana, aside from the State Capitol being in Baton Rouge, I assumed we’d spend the rest of our time in New Orleans.  I didn’t give a second thought to anything else to do with Baton Rouge, and that, my friends was my first mistake!

As we drove through Baton Rouge towards the State Capitol, we happened upon some places we didn’t know existed and I was pleasantly surprised to find, it has a lot more to offer than one would think.  So much so, we had to go back to Baton Rouge on our way home, to spend some more time there and do a few more things.

I think that Baton Rouge lives in the shadow of New Orleans, even the lady who chatted to us at the Capitol said,

“Are you staying in town for long? Or are you off to New Orleans?”

When we told her the later, she frowned and said, “yeah, that figures, most people just pass through.”

That said, my first piece of advice about Baton Rouge? Don’t overlook this lovely city!

Our first port of call in Baton Rouge was our 6th State Capitol visit, and boy, Louisiana didn’t disappoint.

Leading up to the main entrance are a series of steps with the names of all of the United States in the order of each state’s admittance to the Union.  The first 13 steps symbolize the original 13 states, after a small platform, the steps continue again with the rest of the 48 states. The 49th step lists both Alaska and Hawaii, which were admitted to the Union in 1959 after the Capitol was constructed.

It’s the tallest State Capitol building in the U.S and it has something we haven’t yet come across on our Capitol visits – an observation deck.  It gives you a great ‘from above’ view of the city, the river and the surrounding areas.  There’s also a gift shop up there, but it was closed when we got there.

Aerial view

When you go inside, this Capitol has a little more history to it, than many of the others.  Former Senator and Governor of Louisiana, Huey Long was assassinated in the halls of the State Capitol.

You can even stick your finger in the only remaining bullet hole from the attack.

This place is filled with history, with lots to look at and lots of photo opportunities!

Row and I with the flag at the chamber door

Col and I enjoying the scenery from the observation deck

Col, Row and I outside the Capitol – the building is too tall to get in the picture! LOL!

The next place we visited in Baton Rouge, was when we were leaving the state of Louisiana, after our few days in New Orleans.  We saw it on our arrival to the city, but when we went to go and visit it, the lady said that the time we had left before it closed, wasn’t long enough to see everything we’d want to see.

She advised us to come back if we could, and I’m very glad she did!

The USS Kidd, Fletcher-class destroyer, the ‘Pirate of the Pacific’.

Located in the heart of scenic downtown Baton Rouge, Louisiana, she is the centerpiece of a memorial which serves to honour the men and women of the American armed forces.  We saw her moored when we drove past and the curiosity of all three of us, was most definitely piqued!

When you arrive, there’s a memorial plaza outside the museum, with an eternal flame burning in the centre of a wall of names, names of the fallen soldiers.

And a tribute to each of the branches of the US Military.  It’s very moving, there is an air of sadness as you walk around, reading the names etched into the marble.

From there you go in to the veterans museum, which is drenched in even more sadness.  Tributes to fallen soldiers, individual memorials and shrines, pictures, stories and anecdotes about these individuals.

Lots to look at though, many model ships (including a model Titanic) and lots to read/watch as you wander the halls.

I found this part of the museum very interesting, in spite of the sadness, I enjoyed reading about the soldiers who gave their lives defending my freedom to live in this country.  I felt, that some how, the least I could do was read their stories, when they gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect me.

From there we ventured outside, over a short bridge to where the USS Kidd lies – stopping en route, of course, to pose in front of the ship in our newly purchased Navy hats from the gift shop in the museum.

Row and I, ready to board!

The lawds 😉

Just think, for only $5, you, too, could own a navy hat like me 😉

The ship itself was pretty hot in August, when we boarded, there were four vets sitting having a chin-wag on deck.  They told us to ask them any questions we had, but I tend to get star struck around servicemen, active or vets, so I just kinda nodded.

You get handed a map, and it’s a self-guided tour.  Recommendation? Follow the numbers, it makes more sense that way!

You can, if you want, go below decks, I, however, suspected the overwhelming heat (the boys reappeared dripping with sweat) and I stayed on the top three decks, poking around and checking out her artillery.

The big guns!

We easily spent an hour on the ship alone, Col could have stayed there all day, but we were all cooking alive out there.  It was very interesting, and, I read on Yelp, that it’s the best restored WWII vessel around.

Had we known how much there was on offer in Baton Rouge, I’d have planned for an overnight there, two days of tourist things, places I want to go back and visit, include:

LSU stadium to visit Mike the tiger and watch a Tigers college football game (for those of you who don’t know, I copped out of picking a side in the Aggies/Longhorns Texas college football debate and decided to go with LSU cause I like their colours – yes, I’m fickle, so sue me!)

Louisiana State museum/ Capitol Park Museum

“The Capitol Park Museum features thematic exhibits on the diverse aspects of Louisiana history, industry and culture. The museum includes two permanent exhibitions, entitled Grounds for Greatness: Louisiana and the Nation, and Experiencing Louisiana: Discovering the Soul of America.

Topics range from the Louisiana Purchase to Sportsmen’s Paradise to Mardi Gras traditions throughout the state. Artifacts include a 48 foot wooden shrimp trawler, a Civil War submarine, a record breaking Marlin, a Krewe of lawnmowers, a New Orleans Lucky Dog cart and musical artifacts from Fats Domino, Buddy Guy, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Aaron Neville and much more.”

Louisiana Old state Capitol

“Louisiana’s Old State Capitol, a Gothic architectural treasure, stands high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. The 160-year-old statehouse has withstood war, fire, scandal, bitter debate, abandonment and an occasional fistfight. Today, the building stands as a testament to bold, inspired leadership and active citizenship.

In 1990, the Louisiana Legislature placed the former statehouse under the jurisdiction of the secretary of state and appropriated funds for a major restoration project. The building re-opened as the Center for Political and Governmental History in 1994. Now referred to as the Museum of Political History, the Old State Capitol has received awards for its architecture, exhibits and preservation.”

The old governors mansion

The Old Governor’s Mansion was built in 1929 by the “Kingfish,” Huey P. Long. The Mansion served as Executive Residence from 1930 until 1963 and housed nine of Louisiana’s governors including Earl K. Long and the “singing governor,” Jimmie Davis.”

Pentagon barracks

“The Pentagon Barracks of East Baton Rouge Parish has been won and lost by the Spanish, French, and the British, and even has the distinction of being the site of the birth of a nation – the short-lived Republic of West Florida. During it’s use as a military post, many famous men and public figures served or visited, including Lafayette, Robert E. Lee, George Custer, Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln…Today the Pentagon Barracks houses the offices of the lieutenant governor and private apartments for state legislators.”

Not quite in Baton Rouge, about an hour North, in fact, Angola Museum (Louisiana State penitentiary museum)

“The museum, which was established in 1998 by Warden Cain, is dedicated to preserving Angola’s history.  The museum has become an official tourist site in the parish and serves as a resource for information on the state’s correctional system.”

They also have a rodeo for the inmates!

“What began 40 years ago as a “fun” thing by a handful of rodeo-loving inmates and employees is now big business.  Proceeds from the Angola Prison Rodeo cover rodeo expenses and supplement the Louisiana State Penitentiary Inmate Welfare Fund which provides for inmate educational and recreational supplies.”

I’m trying to talk Col in to getting tickets for this year 😉

I guess, what I’m trying to say is, spend a day or two in Baton Rouge, a city that is most definitely one of, if not, the, unsung hero of Louisiana!