kayaking on Loch Leven near Glencoe, Scotland, 2018

kayaking on Loch Leven near Glencoe, Scotland, 2018

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sulphur, La.

Just west of Lake Charles you’ll find Sulphur, Louisiana. I’ve been to Sulphur many times, but the boys and I managed to find a few places we hadn’t yet explored. The Sulphur website claims this town is the 13th largest city in Louisiana with a population around 22,000. The thing is, there’s no “town” – no downtown, uptown, or town square – only three consecutive exits off I-10, with every business and chain imaginable, surrounded by a community. When I’m going to Sulphur and need directions, I ask “Do I take the first, second, or third exit?” And that’s pretty much all I need to know.

Sulphur became a town around the early 1900s and thrived on the nearby sulphur mines. The business became lucrative when German immigrant Herman Frasch invented a new method of mining the mineral. He pumped steam into the ground, liquefying the sulphur, then pumped the liquid to the surface. I wonder what the area smelled like then. I don’t know what year the sulphur mines closed.

We had lunch at Cajun Charlie’s. They’ve got a nice buffet. Good food. This was one of the first restaurants Bob took us to, even before we officially moved to Lake Charles three years ago, to give us a “taste” of our new home. I remember finding it all quite novel and fascinating, trying crawfish, fried alligator, gumbo, and etoufee for the first time, listening to Cajun music, seeing the antique pirogue (pee-row, a Cajun canoe) hanging from the ceiling, and browsing the gift shop. Mmmm, they have the best bread pudding. But is there something symbolic about a restaurant that sits right next to a graveyard?

There’s a little shop on Maplewood I’ve passed dozens of times and have always been curious about. Eighty One is an antique/gift/art shop that even the boys enjoyed browsing through. If you like fleur de lis, this is your place. They’ve got lots of them. Even now having been there, I’m still curious. I want to know why it’s called Eighty One. The lady working there said she didn’t know, that the owner will only say it’s his IQ. They’re moving soon to Ryan St. in Lake Charles.

We went to Henning Cultural Center, an art gallery with regularly changing exhibits. The boys enjoyed the current show, called “Chaos Theory.” It’s all comic strip and cartoon characters, super heroes, and video games.

Next door is the Brimstone Museum, dedicated to the history of Sulphur. We were told the exhibit is “in progress.” Currently, there are a few photos of the sulphur mine, early photos of the town, and a small corner of dental and medical equipment.

Thank goodness dentistry has made great strides over the past century.

Here’s a hunk of sulphur in a display case.

A real gem in Sulphur is Frasch Park. This complex is well-known for its ball fields. Many big-time little league championships are played at this facility. There’s a public golf course. I might play there someday. In the fall. When it’s cooler. But mostly we like the park for SPAR (Sulphur Parks Aquatics and Recreation), aka a waterpark.

Just down the road from SPAR is Winkydoo’s Malt Shop, a delightful ice cream parlor. We stopped on our way home. Awesome chocolate malts.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

DeQuincy, La.

I recently visited DeQuincy, Louisiana, a small railroad town that grew up around the tracks in the late 19th century. In the heart of town there’s a railroad museum.

From the outside, it appears to be large. But this museum, free to the public, is small and sadly in need of some serious TLC. Next to the museum several train cars stand guard. I suspect they may sometimes open these cars for viewing, possibly for groups, but the day I visited, they were locked up tight.

Each spring the town sponsors the Louisiana Railroad Days Festival on the museum grounds. Here’s a stage and backdrop.

If you’re hungry in DeQuincy, you’re limited to either the usual fast food, a couple of take-out BBQ joints, or a diner called Fausto’s. I enjoyed a decent burger there. Next door there’s a Dairy Queen. Big plus in my book.

Behind Fausto’s and DQ, you’ll find Nichol’s Dry Goods, one of those stores that sells just about anything and everything; hunting and camping equipment, home furnishings, gifts, school supplies and uniforms, jeans and boots. Lots of jeans and boots.

Miller’s Livestock Market is another interesting attraction. Auction every Saturday morning. Six bucks will buy you a cute baby goat.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Rayne, La.

Rayne is known as the “Frog Capital of the World.” Each November, they have a Frog Festival. They crown a Frog Queen, have frog races and frog jumping contests. A frog golf tournament, 5K run, carnival, arts and crafts, music and dancing, a parade; the usual festival activities.

The frog theme leaped on the scene when Jacques Weill and his two brothers started a lucrative frog export business, shipping frog legs to restaurants around the country.
Rayne is also known as the “Louisiana City of Murals.” I’m not sure exactly how many there are, but they’re beautiful and everywhere in town. We stopped here on our way home from Breaux Bridge, and didn’t have a lot of time to see anything but the murals. But there are a few attractions in town. The cemetery at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church is the only graveyard in the country where the graves face north and south. It’s in Ripley’s Believe it or Not. There’s an antique mall and an old-fashioned five and dime store. Supposedly there’s a museum, but I couldn’t find out any information on that.
I’ll let the frogs tell the rest of the story. Keep in mind, this is only a sampling of the murals. In this first mural, you see the words Fais Do Do. Best I can tell, a fais do do is a Cajun hoedown.

I wonder which dogs prefer, the hydrant or the frog?

I love the way this frog looks like he’s crawling right off the wall.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Nottaway Plantation -- White Castle, La.

A side trip from Breaux Bridge found us at Nottaway Plantation in White Castle, south of Baton Rouge. Nottaway was built in 1859 and is one of the more popular plantations open for tours in Louisiana. John Hampton Randolph came to Louisiana from Virginia to grow sugar cane and built this grand home along the Mississippi River. Here’s a view of the front of the home from atop the levee.

The Randolphs enjoyed their new home, hosting parties and entertaining guests, until two years later when the Civil War broke out. Mr. Randolph fled to Texas to maintain their livelihood, leaving Mrs. Randolph to run Nottaway, including over 100 slaves. Of their three sons, the oldest was killed in battle, one died of malaria before ever seeing combat, and the third survived and came home.

South side of the home.

The air here carries a subtle sweet scent, possibly from the acres and acres of sugarcane abundantly growing in this area.

View from the north side.

This ballroom highlights the tour.

Unlike many historic homes operated and maintained by a historical society or museum, this antebellum home is privately owned by an Australian investor, and it’s obvious Nottaway is a resort-style business. There’s a nice restaurant. A day spa, pool, gift shop. The management caters to weddings and other special events. In many historic homes, touching anything at all is strictly forbidden in order to protect the antiques and integrity of the home. But not here. Our tour guide carried a water glass and sat it on a piece of antique furniture in every room. You could see the visitors checking for water ring marks. All the bedrooms in the house, including those on the tour such as the one below, can be rented for overnight use. Just be out by 9:00 when the tours start.

Monday, July 12, 2010

St. Martinsville, La.

Continuing south, Bayou Teche winds its way 16 miles and finds St. Martinsville. This quaint charming small town embodies the history behind the plight of the Acadian people (also called Cajun); their expulsion and trek from Nova Scotia to southern Louisiana in 1765. St. Martinsville contains an abundance of fascinating history – museums dedicated to both the Cajuns and Creoles (West African or Haitian immigrants), a State Historic Site with another museum, a plantation house tour and a farmstead depicting early Acadian life, the 19th century Duchamp Opera House and Mercantile, St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church – so much history that we decided to save exploring the majority of this town for another day.

Possibly St. Martinville’s greatest claim to fame is the Statue of Evangeline, the Acadian heroine immortalized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his 1847 epic poem by the same name. Fictional Evangeline and her beloved Gabriel become separated during the Acadian deportation. She spends her life in search of him. In the end, living in Philadelphia and working at a hospital for the poor, Evangeline finds Gabriel on his deathbed and he dies in her arms.

Based on this poem, in 1929 Hollywood came to St. Martinsville and made a silent movie starring Dolores del Rio. She fell in love with the Acadian people and donated this statue to the town.

Also impressive is the oak tree made famous by Evangeline’s saga.

This bust of Longfellow stands near the tree.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Breaux Bridge, La.

Bob and I hit the road for Breaux Bridge, La. Thursday after he got home from work. We’d heard fun tales of this town, “the crawfish capital of the world.” Before writing this blog post, I got out my thesaurus and looked up synonyms for quaint and charming. I fear I’m beginning to sound redundant. But other words don’t quite give the same impression. Most of these towns I visit are, indeed, quaint and charming. This small town is no exception. Just a bit east of Lafayette and in the heart of Cajun French country, Breaux Bridge is named after its founding father, Firmin Breaux, and the bridge which crosses Bayou Teche upon entering the town. Note the crawfish sign at the top of the bridge.

We stayed at Maison Des Amis Bed and Breakfast.

Two hungry cats live in the back yard. And a fig tree grows with the most delectable figs hanging from its branches like giant teardrops of pure sugar. We plucked them from the tree and popped them whole into our mouths. Sweet! Here’s the view from the back of the house. The fig tree is center left.

And the view of the bridge from the gazebo. The bridge "sings" when vehicles cross it. The faster the speed, the higher the pitch.

This delightful town consists of a few restaurants, most notably Café Des Amis – more on that later – several gift shops, and oodles of antique stores. One can browse through Breaux Bridge an entire day. My favorite antique shop is Le Napolean, where I bought a lovely framed Audubon print of a roseate spoonbill.

For dinner Thursday, we ate at Mulates. Live music and dancing every night. Lee Benoit and the Bayou Stompers entertained that evening. Check them out here.

Folks in Cajun country sure know how to have a good time. In between numbers, dancers would sit down and grab a few bites of catfish, crawfish, or gumbo. Then back to the dance floor as soon as the band struck up the next tune. They danced a Cajun version of the Electric Slide which was great fun to watch. (Bob doesn’t dance.) The Cajuns exclaim “Ay-YEE.” Akin, I suppose, to the Texan Yee-Haw. Unless you know the language, forget about understanding the lyrics, but you can’t help but want to dance.

Upon recommendation from a friend, for dessert we tried the Praline Supreme. Vanilla ice cream topped with pecans and laced with rum that packed a supreme kick.

The “breakfast” part of Maison Des Amis Bed and Breakfast is at Café Des Amis, just around the corner.

In addition to the two breakfasts, we ate dinner there Friday night. Breaux Bridge being the “crawfish capital,” we ordered crawfish etoufee and it was fabulous. But the highlight of our visit to Breaux Bridge surely was Café Des Amis’s famed Zydeco Breakfast. Every Saturday morning, a zydeco band – today Same Ol' Two Step -- plays in the front window and the people come out to dance. Some eat breakfast, too. But mostly dance.

I ate a Cajun breakfast staple called couche couche (coosh coosh). It’s similar in texture to mediterranean cous cous, and essentially is grits cooked down till it’s thick and dry. By itself, it’s bland and tasteless. But I can eat anything if there’s enough milk and sugar on it.

The place is jam packed by 8:00. Standing room only. We were lucky to get a table. Amidst countless cups of coffee, (they ran out of mugs and served our coffee in a high-sided Styrofoam bowl) mimosas, bloody marys, and bottles of Bud Light flowed. Revelers so crowded the dance floor they could hardly move. But they managed.

Where else but in southern Louisiana can you have this much fun at 8:30 in the morning? I love this state!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Connellsville, Pennsylvania

This week I’ve been visiting family and friends in my hometown, Connellsville. It’s difficult trying to be a tourist in your own hometown. It’s all too familiar, the interesting becomes mundane. Yet there are noteworthy sights in this small southwestern Pennsylvania town.
This corner of the Keystone State, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, boasts lush deep woods, clear streams and rivers, and spectacular vistas. I love this part of the country – except in winter. Connellsville hugs a scenic section of the Youghiogheny River and is steeped in rich history dating back to 1806. Our tour starts with lunch at Canelo’s Mexican Restaurant. Great quesadillas and good guacamole.

We stopped at Connellsville Bottling Co., a beer distributor, so I could buy a case of my favorite beer, Penn Dark, made at Pennsylvania Brewery in Pittsburgh. A bit of explanation for my Louisiana readers . . . in Pa., one can’t simply walk into a grocery store, gas station, or pharmacy and buy a six-pack. No, in Pa., if you want to buy beer for home imbibing, you either have to buy it by the case at a distributor, or buy bottles individually at a bar at the going rate. When I lived here, I didn’t think much about it. Just the way it was. After living in a reasonable state for three years, I find the Pa. policy quite inconvenient.

As a testimony to the historical nature of Connellsville, this old train station has been preserved and currently houses an impressive stained glass store. Sadly, the store is going out of business.

One of my favorite things, and one of the things I miss the most, is the biking/hiking trail that runs alongside the river. In Connellsville, it’s called the Yough River Trail, but it’s a segment of the Great Allegheny Passage, a 318 mile long rail trail connecting Pittsburgh and Washington, D. C. I’d like to take this trip sometime in my lifetime. When we lived in Pittsburgh, the trail wasn’t quite complete. But we often rode the trail between Connellsville and Ohiopyle.
In 2008, the folks in Connellsville wanted to spruce up the trail, so they commissioned a few artists to create these beautiful works of art along the trail. The stained glass is significant because glass works play a role in Connellsville’s history.

It’s hard to see in these photos, but atop the paint on these silo-like structures are thousands of pieces of stained glass. Sparkly!

Next stop, the high school stadium and the “Johnny Woodruff tree.” John Woodruff is one of Connellsville’s claims to fame. In 1936 at the Olympics in Germany, this hometown hero won a gold medal in the 800 meter race. Each gold medalist received an oak sapling from the Black Forest, a gift from Germany’s government. John brought the tree home and planted it beside the stadium where he got his start. Today the tree is a historical landmark. I sold John’s fascinating story to Highlight’s For Children in 2008. Text of this article available upon request.

Here’s my alma mater.

And tomorrow I return to Louisiana!