Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Southern Hospitality: The Big Easy Way!

New Orleans instantly brings Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street to the minds of many adults but rarely do people think of it as a family place. So I decided to prove wrong all the naysayers by venturing out of Southern California to the Big Easy with my family.  First, we stayed at one of the unique boutique hotels located in the heart of the French Quarter—The Mason Dupuy.  From there we boarded and immediately indulged in fine Creole dinning on a Mississippi River Cruise—The Natchez Steam Boat River Cruise. The next day, we ventured into the French Quarter for some fine Creole cuisine tasting and other indulging experiences. Finally, we finished our Big Easy trip in the alligator-infested swamps near Slydell, Louisiana!

Our trip first started in sunny Southern California and soon arrived in San Antonio, Texas for a few days before we departed to New Orleans in about 8 1/5 hours.  On the way over there we drove past a few other great American cities like Houston, Beaumont and Baton Rouge to name a few, before getting to the Big Easy.  The road to New Orleans is a breathtaking one.  It is landscaped by marshes, bird life, and lots of alligator infested swamps!  At first, I felt a bit hesitant about seeing or even interacting with the alligators—who are the real owners of the swamps. But upon admiring the scenery, I embraced its beauty and it’s geographically important location in the history of the United States.

As we drove past Houston we noticed a swampy area with a wooden walkway leading into the marshy swamp where we spotted our first alligators. At first we marveled at the murky waters, bromeliad, and moss covered cypress trees with a large Heron sanctuary strewn across the marshy waters.

Nonetheless, we were determined to see alligators and sure enough, it wasn’t before long that we spotted our first pair of alligator eyes just above the water line looking at us.  It was then that behind the shield of the wooden railing, I began to take some pictures, recording the magic of the swamplands through the lens of the camera.  That was the first time we saw alligators in the wild. An absolute thrilling moment that all of us enjoyed!

As we continued our road trip, we could not help ourselves but to talk excitedly about our first encounter with the alligators and before we knew it we had arrived at New Orleans. A new world came to sight!  We could still see the remnants of hurricane Katrina but with a surprising touch of steady renovations of the historical buildings in the French Quarter.  At first, The Big Easy appears like no other with its buzzing nightlife, vibrant restaurants, world-renowned Jazz concert halls, and it’s famous party atmosphere.  But upon arriving at our hotel, I immediately felt the years of history and tradition apparent through the iconic walls of the French Quarter hotel-The Mason Dupuy.  The boutique hotel is in a class of its own because of its historical architecture, combined with a taste of the latest trends in hotel hospitality.

New Orleans without jazz would be like the vineyards without grapes.  I couldn’t wait to hear the fine musicians that perform at the French Quarter on a nightly base!  From my hotel room I had plenty of fine choices:  I could sit and absorb the view from my balcony, go for a stroll and engulf into the New Orleans ambiance of the French Quarter in less than five minutes, head down stairs for a much needed splash in the hotel’s outdoor saltwater pool or simply relax listening to jazz at the casual Bistreaux!

Well, as the curious explorer that I tend to be, I ended up doing a bit of everything! Strolling through those very old streets, I felt as if suddenly, I had landed somewhere else in the not so distant past. When done and tired from shooting pictures, we returned to the hotel and immersed ourselves into the salt-water pool.  The weather in New Orleans was warm and humid!  But then, again, it was the start of summer and most of the United States, including New Orleans, was experiencing a record-breaking heat wave. The day ended at the hotel’s Bistreaux, where we spoiled our senses with great food and jazz music from the hotel’s resident jazz musician Paul Longstreth. Later, I would visit Preservation Hall for yet another enchanting evening of more jazz.

Up and ready to discover more of New Orleans, we boarded one of the Mississippi River day cruises: the Steamboat SS Natchez, which was built in 1975.  We were welcomed by a very hospitable staff and even shook hands with the captain! Once onboard, we indulged on a delicious Creole dinner buffet, explored the port of New Orleans, wondered on the decks and eventually allowed for the current of the Mississippi River to take us into what would be another splendid sunset—all while listening to an amazing live jazz band. 

The next day, we drove about 40 miles outside of city and headed out to one of the most popular swamp tour companies. We arrived at The Cajun Encounters swamp tours and immediately enjoyed the landscape filled surroundings with a constant flow of dragonflies and a surprise sighting of wild pigs while we waited for our swamp tour!

We finally were rounded up by our guide and escorted into our aluminum build swamp tour boat. As we ventured into the swamps, I could not help but notice the abundance of wildlife. Then, came the moment we had all been waiting for. “Alligators love marshmallows!” announced our tour guide as we giggled nervously.  The guide began throwing a few in the water, and like children, the alligators devoured them as soon as they hit the water. Then came the ten-foot female alligator towards the tour guide. He immediately took out a hot dog while petting her in exchange for more treats. Amazing!

As if that wasn’t enough of a Gator experience, we managed to head on down the road for a second fill of gators at this awesome Insta-Gator Farm.  Unlike the swamp tours, the Instagator farm offers hands-on Eco-educational tours that explain the preservation of the species and its environment in a more in depth way. Some of the tours even let you interact directly with alligators by holding them while their mouths are taped.  I learned so many things about alligators: from how they build their nest to what frightens them!

There was so much more to see and do in New Orleans like:  the French Quarter haunting, its famous cemetery tours, Creole cuisine like Gumbo with delightful hot beignets to complement the meal, beautiful neighborhoods, museums, art galleries, bars in nearly every corner—and of course, Mardi Gras in the Spring.  But the most valuable thing that will forever remain in my mind and heart is the wonderful and full spirited people we met while visiting New Orleans. The voices of New Orleans echo a strong history and whisper an unbeatable and unrelenting human spirit.

A special thanks to the city of New Orleans, The Mason Dupuy, Cajun Encounters, Instagator Farms, and of course the gators who entertained us with such scaly hospitality!

 Until next time New Orleans…

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Southern Hospitality: San Antonio Style

The red structure in the background is the official symbol of San Antonio.
Besides writing, traveling is one of my other passions. This year, I wanted to do something different that would be far from the norm for my family. This yearning led to a four thousand mile road trip through the southern states! My first itinerary, which was in San Antonio, consisted of: The River Walk, The Alamo, Museums, Sightseeing tours, a River Walk Cruise, The Japanese Botanical Gardens, The San Antonio Zoo, Caverns, A Water Park, the Market Square, Restaurants, Parks, the San Fernando Cathedral, Sea World, and not to mention the historical and cultural richness through out the city.

Take a tour on the city's double decker buses!
Being a photographer and author, I tend to travel with and without my family but this time summer was calling us ALL to take a trip.  Therefore, without much hesitation, at at about 2:00 a.m., I ventured out from beautiful Southern California on a family road trip going east on the ten, along with my wife, 11 yr. old daughter and 12 yr. old son. For some people, this long road trip through most of the southern states could be considered a punishment, but to my family, it was the opposite. The solemnity of the desert and the mystery of its living things opened the gates of our imagination. I’ve always wanted to visit San Antonio, the second largest city in Texas. Its rich history and cultural diversity, the home style cooking, and of course its well-known River Walk all appealed to us.

Visit the historical Alamo!
As soon as we arrived, I immediately sensed a different charm to what I have experienced in other cities. As I began to explore downtown San Antonio, I could not help to see the resemblances between the lush waterways of the River Walk and it’s beautifully assembled architectural buildings to the waterways of Venice, Italy and the 1930’s style buildings of the New York skyline. As my hunger towards food set in, I could not help to notice the abundance of inviting restaurants next to the river. I immediately chose one of the Tex-Mex restaurants I thought had the greatest view by the river. We sat there like all the other tourists, slowly savoring a cold drink while at the same time enjoying a traditional San Antonio Tex-Mex meal.
I eventually found the courage to leave the confines of the restaurant to embark on a Rio Cruise that is another unique San Antonio must-do experience. As I listened to the tour guide highlighting the historical aspects of the River Walk and the architecture of the buildings that are complimented by lush and exotic flora, I became sidetracked by the thriving animal life within the beautiful greenery.
The San Antonio River Walk is as vibrant at night as in the day!

With no time to spare, early the next morning, I visited the alluring Natural Bridge Caverns. They are considered to be one of the largest caverns open to the public in Texas. Its inhabitants include bats and other small creatures of the underground world along side its most valuable asset, the limestone formations. We went through a two-hour self-paced tour marveling at how wondrous our world is. The caverns were truly another of San Antonio’s must see attractions.

The Natural Bridge Caverns are minutes away from downtown San Antonio.
From there, we stopped by another particularly enticing place: The Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch. This is a rare and truly unique drive-in zoo that offers the longest running safari park in Texas with different animal species from around the world. Upon entering the Zoo, you’re given a bag of food to feed the animals. It was beautiful to drive slowly, seeing the animals roam about as they would in their natural habitat. Then, from out of nowhere, my camera lenses detected a Llama preparing to spit into my window-but, not before I closed it!
By now, I was ready to attack my itineraries some more! The next morning, we engulfed ourselves into a 45-minute IMAX docudrama entitled “ALAMO-The price of Freedom,” at the San Antonio IMAX theatre Rivercenter. The docudrama relived the history of the unforgettable Texan and Tejano defenders fight for independence. It explained the Alamo and the immense sacrifices that were made. Watching the movie helped me gain a better understanding of the meaning of the Alamo and the many people that made the ultimate sacrifice in order for future generations to live on its land freely. This is a must do attraction!

Great restaurants are in abundance at the River Walk!
Afterwards, my family and I headed back to downtown San Antonio, which beckoned us to explore some of its many other attractions, like the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum, that is located right across from the Alamo. As we visited the Wax Museum, we ended up having a few moments of fame with Oprah, President Obama and Jay Leno. But after getting spooked at the haunted house, we ended up paying a visit to the historical and breathtaking San Fernando Cathedral and the Main Plaza. The San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio is said to be the oldest cathedral sanctuary in the United States. The famous Alamo defender James Bowie was married and buried there, Santa Ana used it as an observation post and other legends such as William Travis and Davy Crockett are also buried there! The cathedral is a spiritual experience to the soul and to the eyes as it has been breathtakingly designed. Afterwards, we returned to the reprieve of the River Walk for another Texas-size cold drink and the calming waters of the river.

The San Antonio Zoo is also a fun place for the whole family.
There is so much to see and do at San Antonio! There is enough for the young and old in this beautiful city like the: nightclubs, bars, zoos, ranches, caverns, eateries, museums, art galleries and more. However, what makes it all the more remarkable is its rich history and memorable southern hospitality. With that being said, I would like to express my sincere appreciation to the city of San Antonio for providing valuable tips and resources that made our experience at San Antonio—an unforgettable one.

A beautiful place indeed!

Stay tuned for Episode II—New Orleans and the Swamps!