New Orleans: Wild

The French Quarter

New Orleans is not usually the first place I think of going when I want to get away for a long weekend but the airfare was cheap and NOLA was a city that neither me nor my wife has ever to been to so why not? I am traditionally a pretty reserved person so the thought of cutting loose and getting hammered on Bourbon Street was probably not the experience I was going to have.  Our goals for this trip were pretty simple: eat some Cajun food, hear some jazz, have a beignet, get out of the city a bit, and if we have time…tour a cemetery.  Chances are that we wouldn’t get to everything but we’d at least give it a go!

After landing at Louis Armstrong International Airport, we made a beeline to our hotel just outside of the French Quarter to drop our bags off.  Once that was done, we checked the maps and followed the hoards of tourists into the French Quarter.  I normally don’t like to be in a group of “tourists ” but there are some notable exceptions to that.  How can anyone go to New Orleans without going into the French Quarter right? So we did and we quickly discovered that this place a vibe all to its own. The people were friendly, uninhibited, and quite honestly a little weird.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, in fact it gave the area a unique quality all its own. The best way that I can think to describe it is like Paris meets Las Vegas meets Miami meets the circus.

We were hungry from the days travel and found some fast food on Bourbon Street (it was pretty good too).  While sitting in the open storefront, we could hear one of the neighborhood parades that are common in the city coming up towards us.  The sound was similar what a high school band would sound like if it were on steroids.  At the back end of the parade is where we got our first taste of the bead throwing tradition during Mardi Gras.  However, the is not the part of Mardi Gras where you had to “earn” your beads, you merely just had to catch ’em!

Beads, just before impact!

After the sun went down, we hung around and waited for one of the Mardi Gras parades to begin. We waited for quite awhile during what was actually a pretty chilly night.  While we were waiting we watched from a distance as a heavily enebriated woman fell and hit her head on Canal Street.  Medics on bikes were on the scene quickly to help as she waved to everyone who passed by, oblivious to the scene she created.  The parade eventually made its way past us and was mostly comprised of local high school bands, youth dance academies, and some floats representing various organizations. After the parade ended, it was back to the hotel for some sleep before heading out of the city the next day to have a wild day in a much different way.

The following morning was sunny but cool for our kayaking trip into the swamp. We signed up with Wild Louisiana Tours ( for two hours of paddling through the Bayou, an environment I knew almost nothing about.  The trip took us through a maze of waterways as our guide pointed out local flora, fauna, and history. One notably absent member of the fauna community was the American Alligator as it was a bit too chilly for them during this time of the year (late winter).  I wanted to see gators but then again maybe I didn’t !  Our primary complaint about the tour is that we wished it would have lasted longer since we enjoyed it so much.

Kayaking Manshac Swamp

After the kayaking was finished, we decided to drive to a plantation since we were already about half way there from New Orleans.  My wife Kimberly has always talked about visiting a plantation and we time to visit only one of them.  I had done a little research before we left and it seemed that the Oak Alley Plantation would be the best fit for us and our time crunch.  Oak Alley was a sugar plantation back in the day and the house is very well preserved and uses guides dressed in period costumes to make the visit feel that much more authentic.  But make no mistake, this plantation is most famous for its Live Oak lined pathway in the front part of the property.  The trees have grown quite large and create a tunnel-like feel as you walk underneath them.

Live Oak, Oak Alley Plantation, Louisiana
Oak Alley Plantation

Unfortunately, we mistimed our arrival back in New Orleans and had to navigate the streets during another Mardi Gras parade.  This turned into a huge problem, or adventure, depending on your perspective. Since I am typically a very impatient person, this was a problem. For my wife, it was an opportunity to view some other parts of the city.  To kill some time, we decided to stop by the NOLA Brewing Company for a couple of beers and some food while we waited out the parade.  The app on my phone said it was 10 minutes away so we decided to go.  The problem was that every street we tried to turn on was blocked off by the parade.  So we basically tried getting to the left at every intersection, only to be thwarted every time.  Eventually, we found one street that we could turn onto, only to immediately come upon another roadblock.  Eventually, a police offer gave us some great advice to go through a parking lot and wait there until the parade ended, which it did soon after we got there.  It ended up taking two hours to get to the brewery and we were able to wait out the rest of the parade from there.

The next day was checkout day and we asked for a late checkout so that we could get in one more thing before the next round of parades started up.  Kimberly has always wanted to see an above ground cemetery and closest one we could find within walking distance was the St. Louis Cemetery Number One.  It was on the outskirts of the French Quarter and was in an area that looked a little bit run down, so use caution when walking around there. As it turned out, buried in this cemetery was the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, who I actually knew nothing about but I do now.  Perhaps just as interesting though is that actor Nicolas Cage has purchased a plot here.  The plot has a pyramid on it already (very National Treasure-ish) and I must admit that it looks grossly out of place in the cemetery that dates back to the late 1700’s.

So then it was back to the hotel to get the car and then try to get out of the city before all of the roads get blocked. We decided to get out of the city altogether while killing time to catch our flight home. We ended up driving from New Orleans out towards Bay Saint Louis Mississippi only to be stopped again by another parade on the outskirts of the town. This forced us to head toward the gulf and through the small town of Waveland.  From there we found a long pier and walked out to the end of it where we at least got some fresh air and exercise before heading back to the airport.  We managed to avoid the city by taking the causeway across Lake Pontchartrain and made it there with just a little time to spare.

We did not get to see and do everything we wanted to but we did try beignets at Cafe Beignet, as Parisian a cafe as you could imagine and the beignets were delicious.  So we missed out on the jazz clubs and Cajun food but we’ll cross that off the list next time.  That’s right, we’ll be back, just not during Mardi Gras.

Hike: Ka’awaloa Trail -Hawaii

imageLiving at the relatively high altitude of a mile above sea level in Colorado, sea level hikes usually just don’t sound too tough.  So when my daughters boyfriend Anthony agreed to hike the Ka’awaloa Trail on the Big Island of Hawaii with me, I figured we were in for a fairly routine four mile or so hike.  As you can see from the sign above, it basically says that you should be a superhero to safely complete this hike.  I’ve seen signs similar to these before and they’ve ended up being pretty tame considering the warnings (spoiler alert: this sign was spot on).  The hike is primarily known as an alternate method for getting to the Captain Cook Monument.  You can kayak there yourself and try navigating all of the rules (and there are many) set forth by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (which we did do too), you can pay to have someone guide you by boat or kayak (which we did not do), or you can hoof it in your Keen’s like me and Anthony did.

The trail down to the water was tougher than I expected it to be with awkward sized stones making the footing loose.  So loose in fact that Anthony wiped out pretty hard right in front of me, drawing blood (which I hear can attract sharks 😉).  He was fine to continue and we made it down to the monument without further incident.

The view along the trail

So a little bit about the monument.  The Captian Cook Monument is said to mark the spot where Europeans first made contact with the native population of the Big Island of Hawaii.  Not far away, it is also known to be the spot where Cook met his end at the hands of the Hawaiians over a disagreement about a stolen boat.  There is a white obelisk to commemorate the landing spot and an “X” to mark the spot where Cook was killed.  Some of Cook’s remains are said to be in small caves on the cliffs to this day.  I decided to ask a local native Hawaiian who was sitting right beside the white stone monument what he felt about the fact that this area was set aside to memorialize Cook and his achievement with a large white stone pillar and he said that he wished he could paint it black.  Sore subject apparently (I thought it might be, but felt compelled to ask).  There is obviously also some non-European Hawaiian history here as well.  The ruins of the village of Ka’awaloa can still be seen in the area just a few paces away from the obelisk.

Cook’s Monument

So the hike is nice and the history is fascinating, but the main reason most people go down to monument is for the snorkeling in crystal clear Kealakekua Bay.  We saw lots of colorful tropical fish, coral, and no, Anthony’s wounds didn’t lure in any sharks.  Dolphins were sleeping off in the distance (don’t ask me how dolphins sleep, I have no idea) but we didn’t get close enough to see them while in the water snorkeling.

X marks the spot where Captain Cook was killed

After being totally refreshed snorkeling, it was time for the 1,300′ hike back up to the trailhead.  What I have learned through the years is that almost every place you travel to, there is always some great equalizing force to make things difficult.  At home in Colorado, the lack of oxygen as you rise can be substantial. In Hawaii, the proximity to the equator and humidity were a substantial challenge comparable in difficulty to the oxygen deprived mountains of my home state.  I have never sweat that much on any hike, anywhere in my entire life.  I was outwardly embarrassed by how soaked my shirt was, but was secretly grinning from ear to ear at the experience. Anthony proved to be a great hiking buddy, the hike was as tough as advertised, the history, the snorkeling, and thankfully no sharks.





A Day in Northern Ireland

My wife and I talked the night before about our plans for the next day and talked each other into the long drive to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland from Castlebar in the western part of the Republic of Ireland. The gas station attendant said it couldn’t be done in one day.  It was going to take approximately four hours just to get there but the experience seemed worth it, if just a little on the crazy side. So we got up early, had a hearty Irish breakfast and piled into our rented Fiat for what promised to be some quality time together on the road.

We drove generally northeast through County Mayo and then through Yeats country in Sligo before entering the last county, Donegal, in the Republic before reaching Northern Ireland proper. The weather that day in the late winter/early spring was a little nasty but added to the character of the scenery. As we got farther to the north, some of the peaks were even capped with snow giving the area a more Scottish feel than Irish but that also added a sense of wildness that we hadn’t seen in the other parts of Ireland we’d visited.

After crossing a bridge near the Irish town of Bridge End that once would have been heavily guarded by British troops during The Troubles, we crossed the border into the country of Nothern Ireland without a soldier in sight. In fact, the only indication that we had crossed into another country was the presence of several  Union Jacks flying from east side of the bridge. Admittedly, I was a little unsettled thinking about the possibility of crossing what I thought might be a heavily guarded border.  After crossing the bridge, our first order of business in the U.K. was to get some British Pounds since we only had the Euros needed in the Republic. We were now just outside of the town of Derry/Londonderry and about an hour from our goal.

Once we arrived at the parking lot of the Giant’s Causeway and got out of the car, we were hit by a cold North Sea wind that was both terribly cold but refreshing after the long drive we’d just been on. After checking out the visitor center, we headed down the trail to the water where the stones were. In the distance, misty islands could be seen in what I thought surely must be Scotland. After about a one mile walk down, we made it to the waters edge where the famous rocks and the sea meet. The formations are truly unique, so much so that the area has become a UNESCO World Heritage site. They are arranged in such a way that it looks like someone put them there, like you would place stones in your backyard, only better…way better. But since we had so much driving to do still, we didn’t linger for too long. We were there long enough to get some great photos though and to sit on the rocks for awhile but were not there long enough to do the place justice.  Once we were back at the visitors center, I was curious about whether the islands we saw were truly Scottish or not and asked a couple of park employees but none had the answer. Finally, they rounded up one of the more senior employees who confirmed that the islands were indeed in Scotland and were part of the Inner Hebrides. After thanking him, I overheard him in his Scottish accent (with pride I might add) that there were more whiskey distilleries on that island we saw (Islay I believe), than on the whole of the island we were presently standing upon, Ireland.

The Giant’s Causeway

After seeing the Giant’s Causeway, we decided to try to look for some unique trees that my daughter saw on Instagram before we left on our trip. After having to stop in Armoy for directions, we were able to find the Bregagh Road and the famous Dark Hedges.  The trees are amazing, even though it was still too early in the season for leaves.  Even without the leaves, the beech trees create a tunnel-like cover over the road.  The trees have been there since the eighteenth century and are a photographers paradise, which is why we’re here, so my wife can take some pictures.  She took about 200 pictures in a little over an hour and there were a few really good ones in the mix.  For me, the best part of traveling with a photographer is that you really slow down and get to see details that you would might otherwise miss.  You really get a sense of the place that you wouldn’t get if you just spent five or ten minutes just taking a couple of pictures for your Facebook page.

From the Dark Hedges, we made our way to Belfast to get some food and to see a little bit of a city we’d heard so much about growing up.  The city has the feel of a city going through a revival of sorts.  The main part of center of the city has a very modern feel with lots of trendy shops and restaurants.  Surrounding its center, was a city that looked like it had been through some tough times.  But honestly, we were only there to grab a quick bite and a cider before the long drive back to our hotel.  We’d been trying to eat local dishes whenever possible and always tried to avoid chain restaurants when traveling.  We found Irish food to be hearty and tasty, especially the stews but the ciders are truly the best.  Our favorite cider was made by Armagh Cider Company and we liked Madden’s Crisp and Madden’s Mellow the best but have been disappointed that it isn’t available in the States.  Now it’s dark and raining and we still have three hours to go to get back to our hotel and made it back by midnight. We heard during breakfast the next morning that Belfast had a heavy snowstorm that night that caused power outages throughout the city.  Tiring, but we made some great memories for our short day in Northern Ireland and have great photos that will last a lifetime.  One day in Northern Ireland was certainly not enough!



Photo © Kimberly Wallace