Tuesday, June 21, 2011

New Orleans Research Trip - Day 2!

Morning started early for us. We rolled out of bed, dressed, lathered up with sunscreen and copious amounts of bug spray (we had heard horror stories about chigger bugs and among other things in the swamps), and headed off in search of breakfast. We shared an enormous continental breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt, cereal, muffin and coffee, and then used the ladies room (men’s room in Virginia’s case as she was impatient to wait). Just as we were just finishing up ‘powdering our noses’ our ride arrived at the curb; 8am on the dot!

Whoo Hoo, Cajun Encounters was awesome!

We boarded the little minivan and were the first passengers of the day so we talked and joked with our driver for a bit who, incidentally, was hilarious. A great start to the day. Our driver picked up the other tourists at their hotels and then dropped us off at our meeting point on a curb in a foreign part of town. The rest of our tour group was gathering so we waited patiently to board the much nicer bus that would take us on the tours. Finally, our official “Cajun Encounters” bus arrived and we all loaded up and trucked out to the Laura plantation.

The ride became entertaining with our fire-cracker bus driver cracking jokes and commenting on the local scenery (this was a bonus feature; we did not get the same ‘city tour’ on our return trip back at the end of the day) As we drove further into the country we saw the landscape change to swampland Tall cypress trees adorned with Spanish moss stood proud above the water.

The driver quieted leaving us a bit of time to get to know our fellow tourists. Between chit-chatting with some nice ladies near us, and snapping pictures through the bus window at the passing countryside, we overhear an interesting conversation from a threesome across from us. One of the best parts of traveling is meeting different people. In this case, they were paranormal investigators from somewhere in the mid-west who were giving free travel advice about visiting Reno vs. Las Vegas (Ha ha- Remember the day before when Kristina tried to board the Reno plane…. I digress) to a couple of Aussies. Between listening in on which gambling establishment was preferred to hunting Bigfoot we were entertained!

About an hour from our starting point we stopped at the historic, Laura Plantation. This plantation stands apart from others in the area, as it is a Creole plantation with a very interesting past. From the exterior, you first notice the bright happy colors on the architecture significant to the Creole culture. As we continued our tour we learned the plantation was run by the women and always passed on to other female family members through each generation. We were enchanted by tales of murder, slaves, conspiracies, and the scandalous pasts of the property. After many generations the last owner of Laura plantation was more socialite than businesswoman. Thus, she sold the plantation, and chose a life in the city with her husband and family and lived happily ever after. After a quick perusal of the gift shop (to which we found nothing we had to have) we scurried back into our tour bus and to our next location, the famous Oak Alley Plantation. 

Laura Plantation  

Such nice hosts at Laura Plantation...

Oak Alley is probably the most famous plantation house and has been featured in a few movies such as Nora Roberts ‘Midnight Bayou’ and most notably, ‘Forrest Gump’. As we drove up the winding road in front of the home, we were immediately impressed by the famous ¼ mile oak lined drive. The house’s most impressive feature and namesake was originally designed to channel the breeze off the Mississippi River and into the home. The more we looked around we were mesmerized; every feature of the property was stunning. The hundreds of years old gnarled and twisted oaks in their gigantic beauty were just the frame.

When we entered the house there was a tangible presence in the home, almost as if the energy of the past still lingered in the air. Led by a guide wearing a giant, pink fluffy dress that Scarlett O’Hara would envy, we toured the house. After we had peeked in every room and taken our ‘happy snaps’ from the lanai, we headed out in search of the gift shop. Kristina grabbed a coke for energy, and then we realized that our time was up and headed back to the bus. We waited for a bit in our seats as the other tourists filed in. To our amusement, the paranormal team boarded with Big Gulp sized mint juleps! At the tour continued you could see the team felt pretty good because their stories became more and more interesting. They told tales of Big Foot, alien conspiracies, and government cover-ups among other things… 

The oaks.
Virginia and Kristina at the entrance to Oak Alley
Oak Alley's beautiful lanai.

The trip back to town was quiet and we were once again dropped off somewhere near the French Quarter to pick up some lunch. We had about an hour to kill before the next bus would arrive so we hunted for a place to settle. With little food insight, we chose a restaurant near where we had been deposited, Huck Fins. Virginia was skeptical about the food so she ordered a simple side salad, and Kristina ordered the shrimp caesar salad. Both salads were littered with pieces of brown, limp and slimy lettuce. The food was unimpressiveL. We ate enough to fill us up, paid our tab and headed out to explore with the little time we had before our next bus came.

The area was starting to look familiar and we realized we were only a block away from the famous, Candy Shoppe! So, with our eye’s on the prize we B-lined for some New Orleans pralines! The store was small, quaint and smelled like heaven! Upon entering we were offered samples and tempted into purchases; one bite is never enough with these things. Think sweet, buttery, and crunchy…. They were incredible! 

We were standing on the corner of our meeting point, munching our sugary, goodness when the bus pulled up to take us on the second half of our tour, the Honey Island Swamps! We couldn’t wait to see the swamps of Louisiana. Our expectations were high after having seen them in pictures and on TV.

It wasn’t until we were there, surrounded by the trees, the cool breeze wafting up off the water carrying the smell of blooming water hyacinth to us, that we actually realized the beauty and majesty of the swamp. Our tour group was herded onto a covered pontoon boat where we piled in (We took the only two seats at the front on either side of the captain) and headed down the bayou. The water lilies and wild irises were blooming allowing us to get some great shots. Birds chirped overhead around us, but our first ‘swampy’ creature we spied was a snake in a tree less than two feet away from Kristina’s head!!!…Kristina had a hard time seeing it at first, then exclaimed, “if it was a snake it could have bit me!” The group laughed at that as we rode along, pointing out more snakes as we looked for gators. Our captain made us laugh with his off color jokes, and he told us of being a native Cajun and growing up in the swamps. He was even excited to share with us that he was featured on the Regis and Kelly show after he gave Kelly and her family a tour. Kelly was so impressed with her tour she sent her film crew back later and did a bit with him for the show! 

Virginia on the boat.
The majestic Honey Island Swamps.

With no Kelly in sight this trip, our main attraction was the swamp, and the alligators! We spotted our first one shortly after the snake sighting, and the captain threw our marshmallows to entice him to come closer. We had no idea alligators liked marshmallows. With the amount they were being fed, Virginia pointed out that they’d all be diabetic soon.  The alligator came up close to the boat and our captain then placed part of a hot dog on a stick and made him jump nearly out of the water to get it.

After the gator fun passed we drove along peacefully admiring the flowers and birds and smelling the fresh clean air. Our swamp didn’t smell at all and our captain explained it’s a common misconception that swamps smell and are bug infested. The water moves just enough to keep the mosquitoes out and the nasties away. We were thrilled there weren’t any bugs to bite us (though one did fly straight down Virginia’s shirt). Even the alligators and snakes didn’t bite which was great. The captain told us he had only been bitten by a gator once, and only one person had ever been bitten by a snake on his boat. He explained that the snakes sometimes fall into the boat as it passes through the tight waterways when the side of the boat brushes against the branches which shakes and knocks the snakes into the boat- OOPS! (Exhibit A: Snake by Kristina’s head at the beginning of the trip) The swamp was so inspirational to us that we developed a special scene for Gift 2 in which its beauty will be showcased. :)

Kristina with camera in hand on the boat.
The Gator's love Hot Dogs on a Stick!
So cute!
Almost all the way out!

After our tour docked and the other tourists unloaded, we chatted up the captain a bit and posed for pictures. He even put in a request for his own copy of GIFT OF BLOOD, and of course we said we’d send him a signed copy. 

Posing with our amazing Cajun Encounter's Captain!

The trip home was long and we were hungry and tired. We were finally dropped off at our hotel around 8pm that night. No complaining though, we were in NOLA and there were fun times to be had.  So upstairs we went to clean up and get pretty again…

Smelling like roses, we headed down to the lobby in search of food only to be stopped by our hotel manager. This young man was very friendly (everyone is very hospitable we’d noticed.) As our chosen local guide, we asked him for a good recommendation for dinner.  He took to us and walked us to a restaurant a few blocks away called, the Gumbo Shop. Our manager headed back to work and we went inside and sat down. Virginia ordered the chicken and andouille gumbo, and Kristina ordered filet mignon. Both dishes were amazing so it made up for our less than spectacular lunch.

After we fed, we headed out in search of entertainment. Our small taste of Bourbon St. from the night before left us thirsty for more. It was our duty to go back where the action was. Once out on the street though, we were confronted with too many choices. Clubs and bars were everywhere and they all looked great! For a bit we bounced around like kids with ADD as we tried to decide where to go. We quickly became memorized by all the music and neon signs but we finally narrowed our options and choose a Karaoke bar called, The Cat’s Meow. Trendy music pumped through the open doors and called us in. On stage a professional Karaoke singer was rockin’ it with everything he had, we giggled at the sight and headed to the bar to get our groove on. At the bar we ordered two huge Big Gulp cups of the fruity goodness that is the hurricane. We wanted to fit in with the other partygoers, and with our huge cups of boozy-juice, our look was complete.  A few sips later, our feet were itching so we hit the streets and to scope out our next adventure. We walked around amused and surprised at the revelry around us when we spotted the paranormal investigators from our tour! We waved our hellos and tipped our glasses and walked our separate ways. 

Big Gulp size Hurricanes :)

We had explored up and down the street and finished our drinks when Kristina announced her need to use the potty. Since we were only a few blocks from our hotel, we ran back there instead of using dirty bar bathrooms. As we were heading through the lobby we bumped into our hotel manager once again. He asked us where we were heading, and our blank stares prompted him to make a few suggestions. He recommended that we head across the street to the ‘Tropical Isle and the Funky Pirate’, to see a man called Big Al perform. Kristina asked if he was going to take off his jacket and come with us, but he replied, “I’d love nothing more than to join you both, but I can’t. Maybe later though.”

After we left the manager, we had a better idea of what to look for, but before settling down to watch Big Al, we roamed the streets some more.  Eventually our curiosity won out and before long we were seated back at ‘Tropical Isle and the Funky Pirate’ at a long wooden bar watching a HUGE charismatic man sing hilarious, crude songs. Our manager was spot on with his recommendation; Big Al was a hoot!  By this point in the night our throats were beginning to dry so we turned to the bar to order something quenching… While Kristina chatted with the bartender which beverage choice would suit her needs best, Virginia looked up and saw a sign that advertised the ‘Hand grenade’ as “New Orleans strongest drink.” Sold! Before Kristina could put in her order, Virginia shouted across the bar, “Two hand grenades! It’s on me!” She threw Kristina a wicked grin and put the money on the bar. When the bartender turned he placed two neon green souvenir glasses in front of us, dropped little plastic decorative hand grenades in each cup, and then handed us each buttons that read, “I drank a hand grenade at the Tropical Isle.” Of course, we pinned them on right away and proudly held our huge neon green plastic hand grenade, funnel shaped cups with pride. This was a photo opportunity! 

Us with our stylish hand grenade cups.

We sipped our drinks and listened to Big Al sing his dirty songs. I don’t know if it was the alcohol, but he was really, really funny! We sang with him, waving our cups in front of us, “Shake it to the left., shake it to the right….” And then Big Al sung us a story about one time with a lady friend, “And she said, put your hand in it!” (Hand gestures here)… More music and, “Put your other hand in it-” (Two hands wigging now and Big Al’s surprised, but happy face) We laughed and sipped some more of ‘New Orleans strongest drink.’ We were feeling pretty great so when the music shifted to something swingy we jumped up and had to dance! We couldn’t leave our drinks unattended, so they too joined us on the dance floor. After our dance we settled down in our stools and pulled out the camera to document our adventure. We were taking our self -portraits when a nice man came forward and offered to take a few for us.

Having fun...

Big Al’s show ended soon after so we headed out in search of more trouble entertainment. We walked to the end of Bourbon St. when Virginia announced she had to pee now. We looked around and realized that we were in front of an establishment charmingly named, Ye Old Dungeon. Perfect, we thought! This was one of the places on our list of things to see. Hesitantly, we walked through the doors and headed to the little girls room. The room was cramped and stuffy but inside we made friends with another girl waiting for her turn in the single stall. After completing our business, we left the ladies room and were immediately confronted by the bouncer who scowled and said, “Only one person at a time in the bathroom!”

So Virginia and her hand grenade replied coyly, “Are you gonna punish me?” The bouncer was stunned and his hard stare transformed into a befuddled smirk. He suddenly lost track of what he was saying and stood there dumb. His reaction was pretty disappointing, no sharp comebacks, no punishments, no getting kicked out for having a smart mouth :(. Disappointing indeed! We passed by the bouncer and wandered to the bar and ordered a couple glasses of water. We found out later that our hand grenades were equivalent to over 4 shots! Combined with the Big Gulp hurricane’s, we were well into our cups and dehydrated. Water was definitely needed. We didn’t stay too long at Ye Old Dungeon as there was little to no crowd. We had higher expectations but according to the website we were still rather early in the evening (nothing really gets going till around 2 am). Either way, we decided that the place was just not hard-core enough for us.

More fun... :)

On the way back to the hotel we were pulled into a few random places but eventually escaped, as Pink would say, “We were too school for cool.” Our hotel was nearly in sight when we were sucked back into the ‘Cats Meow’ (where we started the evening) by a pair of well-muscled doormen. We had no choice but to go in and dance. The party people were out to play, so with our empty souvenir hand grenade glasses we showed off our moves! I don’t think we were there for five minutes before we were called up on stage by the DJ to dance. We must have really had it going on because after that we were called twice more to strut our stuff.  During our final performance (we were really getting into it) Virginia noticed a hardhat underneath the piano, so with a wiggle and a dip she scooped it up never losing the beat to the music. With a shimmy-shimmy-shake, the hat was on Kristina’s head. It didn’t stay there long, Kristina quickly removed the hat and passed it back to Virginia who worked it with all she had (thank God neither of us came home with head lice!) We danced around and eventually the hat fell to the ground in a thud as the song ended.  As we were leaving the stage the DJ nodded to the other ladies (we weren’t up there as the main attraction?), then turned to us and took each of our hands and kissed the backs. What gentlemen, these southern boys! Back on the dance floor, we expertly writhed to the music when a fellow drunk came up to Virginia and started to dance. His eyes were half-mast and he could have tipped over at any moment so Virginia saw her opportunity and reached over and took the sparkly beads from around his sweaty neck. As she dropped them over her head he slurred with a grin, “Oooh, I like that!” We giggled and scurried away. Virginia clutching her sweaty prize to her chest as we left.

We stumbled back to the hotel, and fell into bed somewhere around 3am-ish.

The end (for now) 

Friday, June 10, 2011

NOLA Research Trip - Day 1

As GIFT OF BLOOD comes to conclusion, I find myself constantly thinking of book 2 of The Gift series. Since the beginning, the plot has been constantly unraveling in my imagination. A major focal point in the next adventure is the city of New Orleans. So, to satisfy my wanderlust and inspire my muse I recently traveled down south to research and get a better feel for the city

I come back from these trips with such great stories of my adventures and love to share. So, here it is, my first day in NOLA!

Monday 3:30 am:
We were so excited to get to New Orleans (NOLA), but when the alarm clock blared our enthusiasm was lack-luster to say the least. We grudgingly rolled out of bed, threw on some clothes, tossed our luggage in the car, and drove to airport to catch our 6am flight…we were in need of coffee big time.

9:00 am:
We had just landed in Denver for a 30-minute layover and hustled to find our gate. We were a little more refreshed and awake than earlier in the morning, but not my much. Kristina tried to board a plane heading for Reno, NV but was quickly redirected. Our departure gate was hidden just behind the big line of people who were waiting to board a plane to Reno. Back on track, Kristina settled down with the luggage, while Virginia ran to get a bottle of orange juice from an overpriced coffee stand. Our layover was so short that by the time the juice was gone we were ushered onto the next flight. Next stop, NOLA!

1:30 pm:
Our plane landed in beautiful and sultry, New Orleans. We collected our checked bags and caught a cab to our hotel, The Bourbon Orleans Hotel in the French Quarter. When we arrived, it was too early to check in, so we had our bags held at the front desk. We exchanged our shoes for sandals, and then headed out to explore. Our stomachs were starved for real meal since all we had eaten all morning was airplane cookies. The streets were almost empty as we walked around searching out food, and it was quite a challenge to find somewhere to eat on Bourbon Street in the middle of the day. There was a lot of places to quench one’s thirst, but not much in the way of actual food. Finally, we spied a quaint little restaurant tucked into the brickwork, Pat O’Briens Restaurant and Bar. An amiable hostess quickly seated us at a table outside, and we ordered our first Hurricane cocktails of the trip. Our drinks were delivered in stylish souvenir glasses, by our awesome server, Vanessa Carlson, who indecently is also an aspiring stand up comedian. We chatted for a bit and finally she caved to our charm, and sat down with us for over 20 minutes. By the end of our chat, we held a sheet of notepaper covered with suggestions for restaurants and other fun, local points of interest. Our Hurricanes turned out to be unexpectedly strong; what we thought was mostly juice was beginning to cause our fingers and toes to tingle. At that point we were relaxed, loosened up, and frankly, a little silly. Lesson learned, don’t drink a hurricane on an empty stomach; it goes straight to your head. Then it was, back to the hotel room to freshen up and change.

Our first Hurricane; yummy!
5:00 pm-ish
Due to the Hurricane at lunch, the rest of the afternoon gets a little hazy here. There were some paparazzi-like photos taken back at the hotel, jazz hands, a Facebook post malfunction, and probably more events that honestly, we just can’t really recall. We don’t remember where the time went between the hurricanes but we were on NOLA time so, who the hell cared?

Relaxing by the pool.

About an hour later we felt more like ourselves and headed back out of the hotel to explore and get a feel for the city. We walked not even a block down the street from our hotel and were impressed by the towering visage of The St. Louis Cathedral. Cameras in hand, we stopped for a few happy snaps and then carried on. We browsed along the small cobbled streets, looked in the windows of little shops and passed local artists and musicians until we came around to Jackson Square. The street performers in front of the square were AMAZING so we stopped, entranced for a few moments as we enjoyed the eclectic blend of instruments and harmony in the warm and slightly humid air.

Kristina strolling down the streets of the French Quarter

St Louis Cathedral 
After a few songs, we continued our adventure down to the waterfront of the Mississippi River. People were lining up to board a riverboat for dinner and the impressive paddle was churning the river’s muddy water while a horn blew its fury. A little further down the footpath we came upon a park with a pergola and a giant painted Louis Armstrong statue where posed for more pictures. Music notes skipped across the breeze to our ears as a young couple not far away was serenaded by an older trumpet player. The adventure made us hungry, and we were forced to search out nourishment once again. This time however, we had our faithful list courtesy of the best server in NOLA. With a local map in one hand, and the list in the other, we chose the CCL Brewery for its proximity. Seated once again outside in an ivy-covered courtyard. Virginia ordered the crab cake appetizer for her main and Kristina chose the shrimp Po’Boy.

Riverboat on the Mississippi!

Kristina with Louis Armstrong
Virginia with Louis
Some of the amazing street performers and a dancing couple

After dinner we headed back to the hotel to clean up, don our skinny jeans, and paint on our hooker-eyes for a casual night out. We weren’t sure what to expect from Bourbon St, but was ready for anything! Just outside our hotel doors the party was starting, the place was crazy, and it was only Monday night!

Note worthy observations from the non-NOLA-eonite:
• The streets were closed to cars so the drunks wouldn’t get hit and maimed
• There’s nothing but pedestrian traffic, dancing, and drinking in the streets.
• Drinking out in the streets is encouraged as long as you have a plastic cup
• Plastic cups come in many outrageous shapes and sizes and can be filled with varies liquid concoctions.
• Ghosts are cool
• EVERYONE is your best friend (among other things)!
• You can earn beads ANY time of the year, not just at Mardi Gras
• Bourbon St is one big party!

We adjusted to our climate quickly, like veterans, until Kristina saw the police. No cars allowed meant that the officers were clustered around sitting tall in their uniforms on horseback. Quicker than a blink, she ran over and asked one if she could to pet his horsey. It would have been much too easy to let the evening get out of hand so being, reasonable and mature women, we put a limit on our evening’s activities. We sensibly agreed to stay out only 15 minutes longer as we needed to get up early the next morning for our swamp and plantation tours. With curfew was set, we searched out a spot to sit down, relax, and have a drink before we needed to head back to the hotel.

A hint of the Bourbon St atmosphere; note the police on horseback.

An hour later, we found ourselves with beers in our hands at a bar with a live Cajun band. We were innocently enjoyed the music until one of the band members grabbed Kristina and pulled her up to the stage. The bewildered Kristina stood stunned as he outfitted her with washboard chest armor and a pair of bent metal spoons. The man gestured the band in the back that picked up the cue and began to play. When in Rome, or in this case New Orleans, you gotta roll with the punches, so Kristina stroked her washboard abs with the spoons and gyrated around the dance floor as she rocked her new look like a pro. She looked so good up there the band offered her a permanent gig playing back-up washboard.

Kristina on stage rockin' the washboard

Shortly after Kristina’s debut, we stumbled back to the hotel to get our beauty sleep.

To all of my book-loving followers out there, I'd like to give a shout out to Leslie Tentler and her romantic-suspense book Midnight Caller. A writer friend of mine, Pamela Mason, suggested this one to me because of my newfound love of all things New Orleans, and I have to say she was spot on with her recommendation!

I took a sneak-peak through the sample provided on Amazon, and was instantly hooked. Leslie grabs her reader by painting a vivid portrait of the New Orleans I experienced. For a moment, I was back in the garden district feeling the warm, sultry breeze on my cheeks, and then with the flip of a page transported to the French Quarter smelling the nostalgic scent of spilled beer on the street.

I suggest Midnight Caller to anyone looking for a steamy summer read! Take it with you on your own vacation, or crank up the air-conditioning, curl up in your favorite chair, and let the story transport you. I can’t wait to see what happens next! Check out her website http://www.leslietentler.com for more information.

Happy reading everyone and thanks for checking out my blog- Stay tuned for more NOLA fun, it just gets better!

And for those of you anxiously awaiting GIFT OF BLOOD we are editing like crazy and hoping to have more news soon!

Best Regards,
VK Tremain