Tuesday 14 July 2015

The Great American Road Trip - Summer 2015

Mustang Sally
Friday, 3 July

The theory and reality of cruising in a soft top Mustang around America are two separate things.  Like a Campari Cooler; sounds great on a hot day, looks beautifully refreshing but tastes god awful.  In our heads we had the blue breeze running through our hair, the warm sun stroking our skin and our feet tapping to a killer soundtrack.  Reality meant things flying out the back of the car, sun burn and shouting over the wind as it slaps your ears.  15 minutes into picking up our 2015 Mustang Convertible, we pulled over and put the roof up.  We dropped it off at our hotel and headed out for our first American meal; Buffalo Wild Wings.  We shared 20 wings cooked in 4 different sauces and they were amazing ($13 on a special offer!).  Crispy, sticky and chewy where it needed to be with perfectly cooked chicken down to the bone.  I am coming back and having 20 all to myself!  I need to make the most of cheap chicken wings as they are ridiculously expensive in China!
We didn't plan a long stay in Orlando with only Universal Studios listed on our itinerary.  Our hotel offered to give us one free ticket with a free breakfast and transport if we booked with them!? Like the Mustang Convertible, it sounded great! All we had to do was take a 90 minute tour around another hotel.  Clearly wasting valuable queuing time in Universal Studios!  We declined and bought the tickets in full ($154) for both parks against recommendations of doing just the one park in our limited time.  I think we made the right decision as we saw pretty much everything we wanted to see with 4 hours still to closing.  Ofcourse if you wanted to you could easily stretch it over two days.  Queues were short for the most part which was great though so much effort and detail goes into the queuing areas I couldn't help but feel a little sad for walking straight through it all.  Feeling bad for not having to queue; that's the British in me!  No words can explain how impressive Universal Studios Orlando is.  The rides are just on another level in comparison to any theme park I have been too (worth noting that these are limited to England!).  It's a completely new age of rides where the realism of 4D cinema meets the adrenaline of a roller coaster.  Put these together and you have the extraordinary Transformers ride (and Harry Potter's Gringots Bank ride!).  Comparing these with the top ride in 1998, the Twister ride, is an astonishing representation of how technology has advanced in the last 15 years.  The attention to detail across the entire park is mind blowing and I couldn't think of a better way of spending $150 in Orlando.

We had dinner in the worlds largest Hard Rock Cafe which, like all Hard Rock Cafes I have been to have an amazing atmosphere but not the food to match.  I ordered a double serving of pulled pork in which the first bite instantly reminded me that I made the exact same order at the New York Hard Rock and was equally disappointed.  Live and learn! Or not as the case may be...

Yesterday we drove for 7 hours, with roof on, towards New Orleans and stayed in a roadside motel in Pensacola.  A pretty non-eventful day was improved by our night out at Florabama; a beach side bar on the border between Florida and Alabama.  Yup we drove for 7 hours and still hadn't left the state of Florida!  This is; however, where the soft top comes into its element.  Evening cruising is lush in the Mustang.  4 further hours of driving this morning took us through Florida, Alabama and Mississippi and we stopped off for a road side American breakfast.  Biscuits and gravy doesn't sound quite right to the English ear and looked nothing like what I expected (Bisto and digestives!).  The gravy was white for a start and what they call "biscuits" is what we call... well... we don't really have an equivalent.  A savory English scone would be close but still not quite right.  As a breakfast it is the epitome of satisfying savory stodge that is clearly not good for you.  The sausage gravy is delicious with chunks of sausage meat in it and is generously smothered over the entire plate.  With full bellies we arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Orlando was short but sweet.  Lets see what New Orleans has to offer!

Happy 4th of July!
Tuesday, 7 July

Wow New Orleans is bustling, noisy and busy; largely due to the "Essence Festival" that we completely overlooked and made it seriously difficult for us to find accommodation.  On the upside the atmosphere was completely buzzing!  We had a deadline to get to New Orleans as we were booked into a swamp tour upon our arrival; however, though we made it just in time we learnt that their office was not the place we were suppose to meet.  No worries, simply rescheduled for another day.  Chris has been here before and wanted to take us straight out to show us a typical New Orleans snack in the French Market.  Using directions from memory we also got a nice little tour of New Orleans too!  He was taking us to Cafe Du Monde - a cafe opened over 150 years ago and cherishes just 4 perfected items on its menu; Dark Roasted Coffee, Chocolate Milk, Fresh Orange Juice and Beignets (pronounced "ben-yays").  Beignets are pillows of fried donut mix in which its freshness is its pulling power.  Freshly fried it's got the outside crunch and the soft, fluffy center. Covered in powdered sugar you eat it leant forward with neck stretched whilst holding your breath.  

We heard a lot about Bourbon Street from some girls we met in Flora-Bama with their main advice being to not spend too long on it.  It is clearly the main party street lined with bars and loud music but our inside knowledge told us much better can be found on Frenchman Street.  I started ticking of New Orleans delights with a chicken and shrimp Jambalaya (a kind of spicy risotto/paella) before heading out for an evening of live Jazz music in The Spotted Cat Music Club(video below).  Music in New Orleans is incredilbe with its big brass bands on the street and live Jazz in every bar.  Frenchman Street is 100% definitely more my cup of tea to Bourbon Street; still lively but more refined and quaint with its night craft markets and fairy lights.
Not quite New Orleans gourmet but Popeye's is an american fast food joint that serves Louisiana fried chicken.  I had to have it at some point and why not for my Independence Day breakfast!?  Louisiana has a surprising amount of unique dishes with its Cajun and Creole cuisines (yes they are different!).  A soup dish of seafood and okra is probably the most famous local staple known as Gumbo which has been on my Extras list since the start of this blog.  There are signs for "The best Gumbo" everywhere but the official Gumbo award jumps between The Gumbo Shop and The Gumbo Pot which are within 5 minutes of each other.  We chose The Gumbo Shop for its better TripAdvisor reviews and were not disappointed.  I have never had Gumbo before and it wasn't a stew as I expected.  More soup like it was delicious with a smooth, almost slimy texture from the okra with a meaty taste of sea.  Preceded by alligator sausage and followed by warm pecan pie I can thoroughly recommend The Gumbo Shop!
"24 hours free parking if you spend 30 minutes gambling in Harrah's Casino" you say!?  We did the deed however depressing it was.  Man these places are life sucking!  It's full of old people that literally just sit there pressing buttons and pulling levers and watch their money excruciatingly slowly but surely diminish down to zero.  And then they put another $100 note in.  Anyway, $5 later we had our free parking!  It was an important day as every shop assistant and waitress reminded us with a cheery "Happy 4th of July!".  We watched the spectacular fireworks over the Mississippi river before heading back to Frenchman street for another night of Jazz.  The streets were alive with big brass bands (video above) celebrating independence with their battered and dented instruments whilst we danced and drank in the closed off roads.  We finished our night with 2am Beignets from a still humming Cafe Du Monde which prides itself for only ever closing on Christmas day.
I'm falling behind in my attempt to eat every local dish of New Orleans but next on the list was a Po Boy; an overfilled sub sandwhich.  Last years award winning Po Boy was called the "Peacemaker" and was created at Mahoney's Po Boys.  Jam packed with deep fried Oysters it's not for everyone but it certainly is for me.  Crispy on the outside and beautifully creamy on the inside they were amazing.  Not to mention our side of Pig Fries which were smothered with pulled pork, cheese, BBQ sauce and onion straws!
Hot Eight brass band at The Howlin' Wolf

Now the Essence Festival is over we were able to to move out to much cheaper accommodation at St Vincent's Guest House.  Cheap for a reason but room was clean and we were satisfied!  A storm was looming so our rebooked swamp tour was cancelled and again rebooked once more for our last day in New Orleans.  We had already booked ourselves onto a city tour with Cajun Encounters for that morning so it was going to be a busy day.  We couldn't leave without seeing the swamps!  The day tour was very interesting with a visit to the cemeturies, musician's village and areas heavily impacted by hurricane Katrina.  After the hurricane, 75,000 residents ended up not returning at all including many of their much loved musicians.  To fix this they built Musicians village!  Houses built around a music centre for anybody that plays an instrument.  The swamp tour was great fun and the kayaks allowed us to get right in to the thick of it.  I had forgotten how tiring kayaking is when I insisted on having a kayak to myself.  Soon enough it hit me and I tried to sneakily sell the freedom of lone paddling to Chris and offering a swap.  He was having none of it.  The prospect of seeing an aligator is far more exciting when approached from a small plastic kayak and it's amazing what can look like a gator when you really want it to.  I got tricked by drifting deadwood so many times that I am pretty sure there were gators that I had mistaken for drifting dead wood!  We looked hard but did not see any.  Seeing a gator was the main reason we came on the swamp but it really didn't take anything away from the experience.  The swamps look amazingly eerie with an atmosphere unlike anywhere I have been before.  And with the confidence in not seeing any gators we made good use of the rope swing instead!
We're sad to leave such a welcoming and friendly place and have already announced New Orleans as our favourite city of America.  We finished our stay with a dinner at Mulates which is famous for celebrating the music, food and culture of South Louisiana.  There are still a number of Cajun dishes I have missed; there were just not enough meal times in the day.  Red Bean, Crawfish Etouffee and Crawfish Pie are the big ones.  I had to pick from the three and went with Red Bean on the advice that Crawfish were not in season.  It was everything I hoped for in my post sun, swim, swamp ravenous state.  Smokey beans stewed with pork hock felt like a giant homemade hug.  Goodbye New Orleans, you will be sorely missed! 

"Thank you, thank you very much"
Monday, 13 July

We've done well in not forgetting to tip but remembering to add the tax on is such a pain!  Twice now I have selected items in the gas station that perfectly match up to the coins in my pocket only to be stung with tax!  I'm not a massive fan of leaving tips for poor service either.  Some restaurants recommend 18% instead of 20% if you were not happy.  What's 2%!?  7 hours from New Orleans we arrive in the Barbecue capital of Memphis famously the birthplace of Rock 'n' Roll.  Ofcourse first stop had to be the fine tuned Central Barbecue that holds an award winning pulled pork sandwhich.  This sandwhich held no resemblence to the one of Hard Rock Cafe.  The meat was succulent and sweet; the bun wasn't holding any pork fat and the slaw crunch and coolness topped it beautifully.  We shared a juicy rack of dry rub ribs, a few beers and sat back under the sun and smiled at how little it cost us.  I like Memphis.

I dined on sweet potatoe pancakes in Mephis's oldest Diner called Arcade before hitting some of the sites.  Memphis is famous for a lot more than I realised; so many musicians came out of here and this was the city Martin Luther King took his last breath!  Part of the hotel he stayed in when he was shot has now become The Civil Rights Museum and takes you through the entire history from the start of the slave trade, through to the abolition of slavery, the fight against segregation and finishing at the balcony of King's assasination.  You can then continue across the road looking at the aftermath.  Very moving and truly fascinating that just 50 years before Obamas presidency blacks and whites were educated seperately by law!  Would there be an Obama without King?

We had dinner at the Rough Guides 2009 number 1 soul food restaurant of the entire USA called The Four Way.  Anyone we spoke to in the resaurant had no idea that they were in the book and the place didn't really give off the number one vibe.  The food; however, was homemade comfort food at its best.  We shared some fried green tomatoes and curiousity made me order the neck bones.  All very satisfying!  Perfect fuel for our night, like every night in Memphis, on Beale Street; known for it's lively Rock 'n' Roll bars.  BB King's drew us in with the amazing vocals heard from the street. 

We accidently did the main tourist attractions of Memphis in the perfect order; National Civil Rights Museum, STAX Museum, Sun Studios and then finishing with Graceland.  It's like one big intertwined story.  Sun Studios is the birthplace of Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.  The tour is great and will easily keep the none music enthusiasts (me!) entertained too.  You get to listen to Elvis's very first audition whilst you stand in the same room it all began.  Then you get to (pretend to) sing into the exact microphone used by all the music legends coming out of Sun Studios.  STAX is similar but for Southern Soul Stars like Ottis Reading and Isaac Hayes. 
I have never been to a baseball game before!  We bought tickets for the Memphis Redbirds Vs Nashville Sounds game for the evening and learnt the rules as we watched whilst drinking beer and eating hot dogs.  That's how they do it on tv right!?  Memphis lost and we stumbled home to get ready for another Beale Street special.  Cayote Ugly this time where the half naked bar ladies rip men off raw!

Chris: 5 Jagerbombs please.
Cayote: and one for me right?!
Chris: er... yer sure.
Cayote: that will be $64 please.
Chris: ...

And then later in the night I payed a $20.40 round with $30 and she blew me a kiss and gave me no change back!?  Oh Frenchman Street how I miss you...

A little worse for wear this morning we were up and out early to see Graceland so we could head to Nashville in good time... only to find out that we had a to wait 2 hours having not booked online before hand!  I was secretly quite happy about this predicament as there was still one more place I wanted to eat at; Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken.  We had a 2 hour window to find it, eat it and get back in time for our invite to Elvis's house.  It was overflowing with customers at 11AM and so we ordered to take away and stuffed our faces in the back of the Mustang.  You will not find better fried chicken anywhere in the world.  They have just perfected every element that someone expects from their fried chicken.  Elvis's home was interesting and very modest for the king of Rock 'n' Roll.  I can imagine it being incredible for an Elvis fan and even I got a lump in my throat at his grave stone.

On our last leg now and I am starting to realise that it's nearly impossible to stay healthy in America.  I use to follow the rule of eating whatever I want on holiday and then eating sensibly for the rest of the time but it has come to the point now where my wasteline doesn't have time to recover before the next trip!  So eating healthily has been at the back of my mind the whole time though has pretty much remained firmly back there.  On the way to Nashville we had a quick supermarket lunch where I could choose from a small tray of carrot sticks and grapes for $5.99 or a slice of pizza the size of my face for $2.99.  I had just tipped $9.60 for a few drinks the night before so ofcourse I'm going to take the cheap option.  I'm starting to crave food that is not beige!  In Nashville I ordered BBQ pork with two sides of veg; Okra and Courgettes.  Looking forward to some green on my plate I got BBQ'd pork with battered and deep fried vegetables.  A plate of beige.  We had a great night out though.  Elsa's friends took us around the Honky Tonk bars down Broadway Street where every bar has brilliant live Country music.  Why don't we have places like this in the UK?!  Breakfast at Cracker Barrel was recommended for a traditional country breakfast served with a side of grits and stewed apples.  I have always wondered what grits were and now I know it's not worth wondering about.  It tastes like flavourless mashed up unsweetened rice pudding.  Fits with nothing on the plate and has the nutritional value of a soaked and blended card board box.  Stewed apples on the otherhand is a revelation!   

It was a short stay in Nashville as time was running short to get ourselves back in Orlando in time for our flight.  We drove through the days, stayed in a cheap motels and as promised to myself our last meal in America was 20 Buffalo wings all to myself back in the same restuarant in Orlando where we had our first American meal.  Eating healthily remained at the very far back of my mind.  After two weeks of padding out my clothes with fine American cuisine, I couldn't think of a better time to squeeze into my trunks and bathe under the Caribbean sun.  :o)

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