Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
After carefully researching the meaning of “steampunk,” I have finally decided to borrow a line from Justice Potter Stewart who, in a Supreme Court decision regarding obscenity, said “I’ll know it when I see it.” So, on a dreary cool spring Saturday morning, I set out to attend the Watch City Steampunk Festival where I saw it and came to know it!
Steampunk involves integrating things Victorian including fashion, machinery, science, and artistic interests with modern technology. It includes lots of doodads and maybe a few computer chips thrown in for good measure. It can, as one person described it, be pretty much anything you want it to be.
In 2010, the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation in Waltham (i.e. Watch City), held a fundraiser entitled, Steampunk: Form and Function, an Exhibition of Innovation, Invention and Gadgetry. After two successful years, the Museum turned the Steampunk Festival over to the community who now run it as a free event for families and everyone else.
But without any background, my friend and I stepped through the Looking Glass and onto Waltham Common. We entered at the same time as a man dressed in character, although what the character is, I will leave up to you. He had, as did most Victorian men, facial hair—his a waxed moustache. I am not sure what the message of his “uniform” was, but on his back was a mixture of brass and containers and interesting do-dads. He was most willing to be photographed, and one of the recurring pleasantries of the day was the camaraderie that developed from asking someone if you could take their picture and then watching them pose as we did. Unfortunately, it is only in retrospect that I wondered who they were and how they came to be here, but perhaps that is part of the mystery of Steampunk.
Some of the women were beautifully dressed in costumes that they had made themselves and were definitely of the Victorian age. And some of the surrounding booths offered corsets, boots, gloves, eyepieces, hats and feathers that could be used to create or embellish a costume.
Most of the booths kept with the theme of the day and they were quirky and perhaps more unique than those one usually sees at the summer fairs in a park or by the sea. My absolute favorite was Dark Rain Design, a husband and wife pair of artists who design “Critters” that react and move when touched. Their dinosaur was especially remarkable because its electronic innards cause it to respond affectionately to stroking and touching. A sign on the table noted that these are not toys for children, and I could imagine myself touching my not-a-toy elephant to see him raise and lower his trunk.
We also saw doll art, masks, canes and magic wands, assorted “junk” that could be used to embellish outfits, a beautifully crafted “Blessing Holders,” and even a Steampunk Barbie doll.
At this location and elsewhere were performers, including “the manipulation of fire”; Karnevil, the traveling sideshow; a stiltwalker and the Old Howard Troupe who performed a Music Hall Show that we missed. Fortunately we did not miss seeing some of their costumes, including the best hat on display that day. There were also some games and activities for children, as well, including an opportunity to learn sword fighting.
There were three especially absorbing exhibits. Prospect Hill Forge, a teaching smithy located in Waltham, set up a complete work station including a coal forge, a bench, a blacksmith’s vise, a machinist’s vise, a collection of hammers, punches, chisels, measuring tools, and more.
Those of us who have traveled up a mountain in a cog railway or funicular could especially appreciate Peppersass, the first mountain climbing cog railway train engine in the world. It was handcrafted in New Hampshire 150 years ago and used to climb Mount Washington. Can you just imagine sitting in the train behind it, probably covered in soot?
While Pepperpass was a passive display the exquisite working of 19th century engine models located next to it were puffing along under the power of steam. Their designer is Todd Cahill, an artist, mechanical engineer, model builder, and interpreter of the history of technology.
It was a great day, and I am having a fantasy of what costume I could put together for next year. I have the sense that, once one has heard of Steampunk, you will encounter it more than you expected. There are other festivals to attend and, if you get to New Zealand, be sure to stop by Oamaru where the Blue Penguins are famous and Steampunk HQ is a less expected and an even more fascinating stop.
If you plan to be in the vicinity of Sarasota, Florida, be sure to set aside time to visit The Ringling.Listed as the top tourist attraction in Sarasota by Trip Advisor, The Ringling was the estate of John and Mabel Ringling. The many exhibits provide something of interest for all ages. including the circus museums, Venetian style mansion that was home to Mabel and John, the magnificent formal gardens and lush grounds, and a first rate museum.
Five hours was enough time to skim many of the exhibits, but I look forward to returning to explore more of the galleries and grounds and take at least a few tours with the docents.
While we started with the Art Museum, the most unusual exhibits were in the circus museums, so give some careful consideration to your time and the interests of your group because you should absolutely not miss these buildings.
We approached the Museum by walking past the Dwarf Garden and over a bridge. The many dwarf representations of commedia dell’arte players were hidden among the plants forming a circle around a great banyan tree. There were many banyan trees on the estate and these are a wonder of nature. While they may start as one tree, the banyan sends out many aerial roots that hang down and reach the ground where they become additional mature trunks of the tree. Over the many years since their planting, they continue to spread out to form canopies that cover sizeable areas.
While the Museum itself had many interesting galleries including European art, fascinating sculptures, some modern glass which will eventually be moved to its own wing, and a very interesting traveling exhibit of Islamic Art from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the most noteworthy aspect of the museum is the stunning and expansive Italian Renaissance courtyard and gardens. The open porticos surround the courtyard on three sides, forming a U shape.
There are three terraced levels in the courtyard including reproductions of two classical fountains among the water features. Throughout the gardens are casts of classical statues. The open end of the courtyard faces the bay and links the two wings with a bridge. A cast of Michelangelo’s David is in the center of this bridge. Standing here, we could fully appreciate the spaciousness and sense of order and beauty of this dramatic courtyard while we could also look west and see the water.
By this time, we were hungry and followed the short path past the enticing playground full of school age children to the Banyan Café. This simple lunch spot offers made-to-order sandwiches, hamburgers, and salads to be eaten at outside tables. This was a good stop prior to our 1:00 unguided tour of the Ca’d’Zan.
On the way to the mansion, we detoured through the rose garden. In March, there were some roses, but I was informed that they had recently been pruned and were only now starting to bloom. It must be spectacular when many of the 1200 roses that form this wagon wheel design are in full color.
Walkway with Zodiac Leading to the Mansion
We continued up the palm-lined walk on the path of terra cotta mosaic inlaid with signs of the Zodiac, where we lined up for admission into the mansion. Ca d’Zan, obviously named for its owner, means House of John in the Venetian dialect. We had selected the quick self-guided tour because of our time constraints and because there was no additional fee. I so enjoyed the splendors of this structure that, on a future trip I would consider both the 40-minute guided tour of both the first and second floors for $10, and also the $20 Private Places Tour that includes the third floor game room and the Belvedere Tower. It is important to note that, for the unguided tour, 25 people are admitted every five minutes, so it makes sense to arrive shortly before one o’clock.
Each room in the Ca d’Zan included beautiful architectural details and possessions, from the gilded door in the solarium to the silver asparagus tongs in the pantry. I especially loved the windowpanes throughout the house, tinted lilac and blue; the green and clear crystal chandelier in the breakfast room; the ceiling in the dining room that looks like hand carved wood, but is really plaster and the Tap Room. I could happily imagine bellying up to this bar during Prohibition!
We exited the mansion onto an expansive terrace overlooking the bay. Everywhere on this visit, there was so much of interest to see and to absorb. Standing on the terrace, we could enjoy the beautifully patterned marble terrace floor, the house with its row of arched windows, tower, and patterned façade, the detailing on the balustrades and, of course, the view of Sarasota Bay.Fortunately, there were chairs so we could rest a while and savor all of this.
We were foot weary at this point and a bit on overload, but we hadn’t yet arrived at the two buildings of the Circus Museum. Fortunately, the Ringling has many golf carts to transport tourists, so we rode comfortably to the Original Circus Museum. We saw costumes, posters, beautifully carved and painted cage wagons for the animals, and even the cannon used for humans! The most interesting display, to us, was the luxurious railroad car that transported John and Mable to and from New York and on tour with the circus.
Main Room with Chandelier
A movie about the Ringling family and especially the lives of John and Mable provided interesting information and historical perspective. John and his four older brothers became interested in the circus as boys and he continued to run it long after his siblings had aged out and died. John became one of the richest men in America through his involvement with oil, ranching, railroads and real estate, including extensive holdings in the developing city of Sarasota. After John Ringling died in 1936, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Consolidated Circus was managed by his nephew until it was sold in 1967. The estate became the property of the State of Florida in 1946 and continues to be expanded and improved.
From their purchase of the property in 1911until her death in 1929, Mabel was actively involved in improving the estate. Her initial projects were two gardens, the Rose Garden and a less formal Secret Garden. From 1924 until 1926, the Ringlings replaced their existing house with the Venetian Gothic style mansion that became their winter residence. Sadly, we also learned that Mable only lived for three years after the completion of Ca d’Zan. Mabel’s final project was the building of the Art Museum in 1927.
We continued on to the second building in the Circus Museum, The Tibbals Learning Center, where we encountered a most unique display and the absolute highlight of our time at The Ringling. The first floor houses a miniature model, scaled to ¾ inch, of a tented circus as it would have looked in its heyday when it had over 1300 personnel and 900 animals and traveled from town to town, setting up one morning, tearing down that evening, and repeating the entire process the next day.It is located in a 10,000 square foot gallery, with ceiling and skyline painted to represent Knoxville, Tennessee, including the train yard, trestle bridge, and passenger terminal.
You enter the display space by the railroad yard with its 55 railroad cars and continue around the perimeter viewing all the miniature tents and scenes that would have existed as part of the circus set-up. We walked past the cookhouse and the dining tent with its tiny place settings, including 145 sugar bowls and a multitude of diners, each assigned to his own designated seat at a table.
There were miniature tents for the horses that performed in the big top and the backyard where the performers, staff, and workers spent their time between performances, including the private tents with accommodations for the stars of the circus. The areas for the public, included built-to-scale people, animals, wagons, refreshment stands, and more. There was even the men’s rest room tent, including miniature figures and a sign reminding the men to face the wall!
Of course, the Big Top was the most spectacular sight with its three rings, four stages, and arial acts. Some of the models are of real performers, such as the Flying Walendas and Emmett Kelly, the clown. As many as 13,000 people would attend one performance, with straw bales providing additional seating for children at a sold-out circus.
As we were leaving the exhibit, we noticed tourists stop an older man and ask for his picture. He posed, a little sheepishly. Here was Howard Tibbals who, along with other skilled workers, continues to add to the circus. Tibbals built this one-sixteenth life-size scale replica over 50 years. Before it arrived at its permanent home in 2006, he had exhibited it at ten different locations.
Clearly, more than a full day could be spent simply marveling at the details of the Howard Bros Circus, but we returned to the Visitors Center and the gift store. I purchased two very interesting paperbacks that have been helpful as background for this article, The Circus in Miniature: The Howard Bros. Circus Model and Grounds and Gardens.
We made one final stop, near the front door of the visitors center, at the Asolo Theater, an 18th century Italian Theater that was moved to the property in 1950. The three tiers of this u-shaped auditorium sparkle with white wood trimmed in gold and brightly illuminated.
While we spent much of our time inside buildings at The Ringling, the grounds are magnificent and one could easily spend a day simply wandering outside or sitting at an easel painting. I especially enjoyed seeing so many mature Banyan trees. Among the other sub-tropical trees were cabbage palms, royal palms, pines, and multiple types of oak, some with Spanish moss. On another trip, I would like to walk along the Bolger Promenade studying the plantings while looking at the bay. It would be fun to see the flowers in the Secret Garden, to share the play space with a child, and to revisit so many of the venues we have just discovered. Perhaps that three-day pass is in my future!
As the guide for the American guests on the their safari here at Sabi Sands, I want to thank all of you animals who participated and provide some feedback. I know some of you came over from Kruger National Park and some of you were already nearby, but thanks to all of you. These guests were at the lodge for eight game drives, so you had plenty of time to impress.
Special thanks to the Spotted Leopards for outstanding participation! The guests really loved that first sighting when one of you held the standoff with the Warthog. It was fine that you decided not to engage, and the departure of the Warthog with four little ones trailing was a terrific cameo appearance. It also set the stage for me to detail dramatic examples of what fierce fighters you Warthogs are. Leopard, thanks for staying around after the confrontation with the Warthog to stalk those Impalas. Your tail flicks indicating your various levels of desire to pursue those Impalas was dramatic especially since the rest of your body remained completely still. Too bad the birds warned them of your presence before you could attack.
Your appearance by the riverbank on Day 3 also impressed, Spotted Leopard. You were clearly relaxed and a bit sleepy, so we could drive very close and study your markings in detail. You are one magnificent Leopard, and I know those who have seen you will never appreciate fake leopard apparel again after studying your rosettes, creamy underside, powerful muscles and beautiful face.
Six appearances in eight drives! Good job, Spotted Leopards!
But while I’m talking to you big cats—-where were you, Lions? Not so much as some tracks for us to follow! After your big kill in Kruger last week, and your appearance at the watering hole, you simply disappeared! Fortunately, the guests were so excited when the Giraffes finally showed up on Day 4—and a “journey” of Giraffes the next day— that they didn’t care about not seeing you. In fact, they decided the Giraffes were more interesting than you would have been, so your significance was diminished by your absence. This was bad PR.
Kudos to you, Elephants. It was very nice that a herd of eight participated many times at different locations. They loved seeing the little ones, and, Mom, having that tear in your ear made it easy for them to identify you by themselves. They feel so proud when they do that. All of you were impressive, especially coming so close to the land cruiser. You could have given them quite a thrill had you lifted your trunk just a bit closer to them. You could even have touched them if you had been inclined. But perhaps it would have been too much for some of the more timid guests. I think the Americans would have appreciated it, though.
But your kids! What showmen! Thanks to your little one for blowing bubbles in the pond with his trunk! You might ask him to do this again for future guests. It was a hit. As you know, I have a bias towards you. You always entertain, keep moving so you provide action, and charm your audience.
Thanks also to the two males who visited us one day. Everyone enjoyed seeing them play together, since the human males also wrestle sometimes.
Impalas, I know we are prone to take you for granted because there are so many of you, but please remember that we love your beauty, your grace and your antics. When a hundred of you came to the watering hole, all lined up like a parade, everyone watching from the lodge was charmed. But, when you repeated the performance the next day and added all that running and leaping, it was a wow moment—or moments—since you continued the show for so long.
And thanks to the Bachelor Impala Herd for putting in a few appearances. Good for everyone to see that you males are still around, even though only one of you at a time gets to be with the ladies and the kids.
Spitting Cobra. Quite a surprise to see you! Thanks for being on your good behavior and keeping your appearance short. I was a bit concerned that you might spit at one of our guests—-and most of them were not wearing glasses to protect their eyes—so I did need to move us away quickly.
Chameleons, you livened up the drives, especially that first night. It was a bit of a slow night, so your appearance gave me something to talk about. You may be small, but you are very charming. The guests liked that I could pick you up and bring you over for close viewing. Always good to have you participate.
African Buffalo and Crocodile—quiet but satisfying performances. A bit more activity would have enhanced the wow factor but, hey— sometimes it is enough to just show up!
Hippos, same to you. Wish we had seen your pod closer, but you did make a few dramatic bellows and leaps in the water—enough to whet their appetites for more hippo viewing.
Monkeys, thanks for staying out of the Honeymoon Suite at the lodge. While we had warned the couple to keep the doors shut, it was good that they were able to open them and get some air. We love you, but sometimes, quite frankly, your respect for boundaries is questionable.
White Rhinoceros—good job. It’s a shame that two of the guests missed the final morning drive and did not get to see that “crash” of you close up, but that was their loss. I know their designated photographer did take many shots of you, so your participation was captured. Good involvement on your part.
Wildebeest and Kudu, you must have been disturbed since every time you appeared, there were references to how tasty you are! You could almost hear them salivating. Having that Warthog carpaccio for dinner their first night set a tone, I guess. However, Kudu, your spiraled horns are a showstopper, and they enjoyed seeing you and seeing you frequently. It’s always good to have you here. George, thanks for hanging around the watering hole. You are an awesome representative for all Wildebeests.
Waterbuck, sorry you had to hear me talk about how smelly you are. Oh, well, they loved your markings. The white ring on your rump makes you especially memorable, although there is always that joke about “pinning the tail on the waterbuck.”
I apologize for forgetting to mention you, Zebras. Your “dazzles” dazzled, and your little ones are scene stealers. Thanks for presenting a group with diverse markings. The guests did not know you could have brown “shadow stripes,” so good to have those of you with this coloring represented. You never cease to add a dramatic element to the wilderness.
As always, you birds fill a special role in these drives, Nice to have you here in profuse numbers, adding to the soundtrack, calling your warnings to the animals, and often staying in position long enough so you could be clearly identified.
They were thrilled to see you, Saddle-Billed Stork, on their very first drive and glad you remained at the watering hold for the next day. Always good PR to see endangered species, southern ground hornbill. cape Glossy Starling, despite your profusion, your magnificent blue-black iridescent feathers always glitter.
Grey Go-Away Bird, your ‘mohawk” is memorable. Lilac-Breasted and European Rollers, your pastel colors always draw ‘oohs and ahs.” Thanks also to the two unidentified small yellow-breasted birds who appeared to drink from the infinity pool most days. The guests were delighted that your routine always includes this stop.
To those of you who put in an appearance, or appearances, that I have not mentioned, you also filled in otherwise quiet moments of the game drive. From the smallest of you—Rabbit, Ground Squirrel, multiple Mongoose, and Tortoise—-to those who leaped or loped by—Side-Striped Jackal, Spotted Hyena, Nyala, Steenbok, Grey Duiker, I thank you for your participation.
Well, that’s about it. I know our American guests took a lot of pictures and will give good reports to their family and friends. With all the German tourists present that week, it is useful to know that news about us will also be shared in the United States.
Photos by Daniel Kobayashi
Read Susan Kobayashi’s article on Nkorho Bush Lodge.
The perfect culmination of our three weeks in Lesotho and South Africa was the five days we spent with our son and his wife at Nkorho Bush Lodge in Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Since Sabi Sands is located next to Kruger National Park and shares 50 kilometers of unfenced boundary, the animals roam freely over this large natural area.
Airport waiting area, Skukuza Airport
Some visitors to the area stay at different lodges for two or three nights, but we remained at one lodge for our full four nights, becoming totally relaxed and deeply in the present moment. When we made our reservations, we did not realize that our lodge was two to three hours away from the Skukuza Airport, located within Kruger National Park.
Kruger National Park Entrance
However, we had arranged drivers in both directions and all we had to do was sit back, look around, and nap. Skukuza is a very small, but beautifully designed airport. The “departure lounge” located outside feels like a luxurious spot to relax and actually enjoy waiting for a plane.
Our bathroom with showers indoors and outdoors
The warm greeting we received at Nkorho upon arriving set the tone for the remainder of our stay. Nkorho is a small lodge, having only seven cottages and a maximum of about 16 guests. The chalets have very attractive comfortable bedrooms with sliding doors to the deck. Our bathroom, and I think all of them, was quite luxurious with showers both inside and out.
The common space at Nkorho includes a thatched building with inside and outdoor lounging areas including the bar, the infinity pool, a smaller rock pool, and a thatched dining porch. It overlooks the open plain and the watering hole where the animals come to drink, so we often had entertainment even when doing nothing.
One interesting fact is that the only fence around the property is a wire to keep out the elephants. Therefore smaller animals can, and sometimes do, get in. This does not appear to be of much concern during the day—-unless it is, for example, the lion we were told once came in and decided to stay—-but we were warned that once we were all in our cottages for the night and the outdoor lights were turned off, we should not go wandering. Since there were wild animals around, guests were realistically confined to the premises and could not, for example, go for a run or an unaccompanied hike, which was the one drawback for some guests.
Sunset on game drive
Each day had the same structure. The rangers woke us about 30 minutes before our pre-dawn drive started. After a quick cup of coffee, we climbed into the land cruisers for a two to three hour game drive. Those wishing could go on a bush walk with the ranger and spotter as soon as we returned. Between breakfast around 9:30 a.m. and lunch at 2 p.m., many of us would go back to bed or lie on the lounges on our decks or by the infinity swimming pool with a book, a drink, or binoculars so we could see the action at the nearby waterhole. By 4 p.m., we would be back in the land cruisers for a drive that would transition from late afternoon, through sunset. When we returned in the dark, we were greeted by a blazing fire set in a barrel. The attentive staff offered us refreshing drinks. Dinner was served in the boma, a circular enclosure made of leadwood branches. It was lit by a central campfire and many lanterns. The food was tasty and plentiful, including a memorable warthog carpaccio.
Night sky during cocktails
While some guests retired right after dinner, we found it was an enchanting time to sit in the outdoor patio next to the pool, drink in hand. The bar was staffed by the rangers and the other staff we saw routinely, so we had additional opportunities to talk with them. I remember some very nice moments near the bar with our ranger, Jason. We discussed his family background and training to become a ranger, and studied the map on the wall of the Sabi Sands preserve. When I was curious about the difference in the roars of a lion and a leopard, Jason whipped out his cell phone and we compared videos of the two. (Yet I still can’t imitate the appropriate roars with my two-year-old grandson!)
Each game drive had the same structure, but each was, literally, a trip in itself. Despite our wishes it were otherwise, the weather and whether the animals appeared remained beyond our control. There were blankets if we were cold, ponchos in case it was wet, and conversation was encouraged while we were driving along, so that helped to keep us entertained when the animals did not cooperate. Nkorho used two land cruisers, each one with three rows of bench seats that were capable of holding 10 passengers, but we never carried that many, and we always had space to spread out and have clear sightlines.
Close to the elephants
The guides were in contact by radio with other guides in the area so, if one found something of interest, others could be informed. The guides would not want to raise false expectations for the guests, so they used code names for what they were stalking. If there was an interesting sighting, no more that three cruisers would congregate at a time, so we never felt in the midst of the tourist horde.
Because the animals were comfortable with the cruisers we could get up close to most of the game. In Sabi Sands, the cruisers were permitted to go off the roads, which allowed us to be very near the game in their natural surroundings. We were, however, warned to stay seated. It was almost as if the cruisers were just another animal!
Coffee break on morning game drive
The morning game drives included a stop to stretch and have coffee and a snack. We were asked at lunch what we would want for our “sundowner drink” so that, when we would stop during our evening drive, our preferred libation was provided, along with snacks such as biltong, pretzels, and other munchies. Some of these stops were in open plains and one memorable one was near a riverbed. A sundowner in Africa, on a game trip, with a full moon, or seeing the stars and the Southern Cross, is a magical moment in time, and space.
With Jason in driver’s seat
Each game drive had a team of a guide and driver, Jason, and a tracker, Victor, who sat on a little seat in front of the cruiser hood, spotting game or searching for tracks. Sometimes the two would get out, follow a track, then get back in the cruiser and drive into the bush, hoping to spot the game that they had tracked. Of course, everyone wanted to see “the Big Five” (Lion, Elephant, Buffalo, Leopard, and Rhino) and we saw all of them except lions who seemed to have moved on to other areas after making a kill nearby the week before. Sometimes, it was only one animal, at other times a larger group, including a dazzle of zebras, a crash of rhino, a herd of elephants, a pod of hippos and a journey of giraffes.
Elephants at the watering hole
We had especially good luck seeing spotted leopards and elephants. Jason knew the nicknames, personalities, and history of some of these magnificent creatures. When we saw one stalking prey, Jason shared what he was observing, the movement of the tail and its meaning, for example. We also were able to see a spotted leopard at rest on a riverbank. While it lacked the drama of a kill or a mating, it provided time to really study the amazing rosette design, the different colors of the fur, including a creamy white, and the mesmerizing eyes of this masterpiece of nature. One day, we spent about 30 minutes near a group of eight elephants at the waterhole. Jason’s enthusiasm and visible affection for the elephants was part of our experience, and he had all of us entertained with commentary on the baby elephant’s awkward efforts to drink water.
Our tracker and guide were also adept at spotting the little animals. On one night drive when we were having little success seeing the big animals, Jason stopped the cruiser, placed an interesting chameleon on his arm, and we studied him while Victor held the spotlight. We also saw magnificent birds, termite mounds, and many smaller animals such as mongoose, steinbuck, and turtles.
Impala and Wildebeest watering hole
The animal that seemed most profuse was the impala. In addition to seeing the “bachelor herds” since only one male accompanied the females, we witnessed, on two days, parades of impala lined up neatly walking to the watering hole. We were in the infinity pool, as hundreds of them approached in a neat line, drank, and then leaped away.
While each of us intellectually understands that there are patterns in nature, this visit to the bush dramatized it. In addition to the rosettes on the leopard and the spots on the giraffe, we saw the waterbucks with a large circle of white surrounding their tails and the stripes on the kudu and the wildebeests. We witnessed the variety in the stripes on the zebra. Some of them are actually “shadow stripes” of brown, and the layout of black and white patterns vary from one zebra to the next.
I assume that most of us returning from Safari make lists of which animals we saw, but it is of greater value to reflect on what we learned about these animals. It is humbling to be a guest in their world, still enjoying the comforts of ours, and grateful that, at the end of each day, we can both be in the places that feel like home.
My New Orleans was a city of my teenage past. I lived there in the 50’s and 60’s and, once I left for college, spent very little time there. Mine was a city where driving down Bourbon Street and peeking in at the strippers was a evening family activity, where teenagers could ride around the city safely at night, watching the colorful lights of the Mardi Gras Fountain by the lake, getting front row seats to hear Al Hirt in his bar, having dinner with friends at Commander’s Palace, being served old fashions at a high school graduation lunch at Arnauds, of walking up the stairs of a half-demolished house in the French Quarter to attend a party.
I had been back only once since Katrina, and I was still searching for coffee with chicory, the reliable favorite creole foods, traditional Dixieland jazz, and a Bourbon Street worth seeing. Starbucks seems to have replaced the coffee with chickory; recent cooking trends have replaced much of the food I grew up eating—or transformed it in some way; jazz and other musical trends have expanded; and Bourbon Street is now an exceedingly tawdry tourist trap but still has a few good joints.
When my friend suggested a “women at 70” visit to the city weeks before my birthday, I was ready to explore the vibrant new city of New Orleans. Five days was enough to dent the wallet, learn that the city is great at any age, experience some of what remains and what is new, and to list what we might do on a future trip.
Here are some of the things I learned:
The locations of the official, staffed New Orleans Visitor Information offices are one of the city’s best-kept secrets. We were on day four of our visit before, by accident, we happened upon Basin Street Station adjacent to St. Louis Cemetery No 1. This charming rehabbed, privately owned building was the old headquarters of the Southern Railroad and includes interesting exhibits about the railroads as well as information about jazz in New Orleans neighborhoods, and more.
While there are plenty of tourist information offices to be found, they are actually sales locations for the many tours and do not have the New Orleans Official Visitors Guide. This comprehensive free book, updated annually, includes maps; discount coupons and information about almost everything you can think of. The book can be ordered on line, but the physical locations of the visitor centers are almost impossible to locate on line. I could only find 501 Basin Street by typing in this address, and I only assume that the other official visitor locations, 2020 St. Charles Avenue, and 529 St. Ann Street, are also staffed. Another useful book we picked up at Basin Street is Louisiana, Official Inspiration Guide. This brochure was subtitled A Culinary Celebration, but also included comprehensive information about all areas of the state.
The National Park Service visitor bureaus are much easier to locate, electronically and geographically, and should definitely be visited. Jean Lafitte’s French Quarter Visitor Center, located at 419 Decatur Street, is an easy walk from Canal Street, on a street you will probably explore anyway. It is open from Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and provides exhibits about “the history and traditions of the city and lower Mississippi River basin.” There are also brochures about the other national parks nearby. While there, I purchased a very instructive book, A Young Person’s Guide to New Orleans Houses, by Lloyd Vogt, and studied it extensively as I viewed local architecture.
The New Orleans Jazz National Heritage Park, located at 916 N. Peters Street, in the French Market, is another great free resource. As we approached, we encountered a volunteer starting a free tour about jazz in the French Quarter. A drummer himself, he was very knowledgeable and even carried a small speaker so he could play historic jazz passages as part of the tour. It ended at the Old U.S. Mint where the Park Service hosts live educational performances. A visit to the National Park Service, New Orleans, web page prior to your trip is a good use of your time.
There are endless services and tours you can purchase. We learned through experience to think carefully and ask the right questions in planning our tours. One question I would ask in the future is “What is the experience of the guide for this tour?” We reserved our Grey Line Super City Tour tickets in advance on line. Whether the guide was new or a substitute, he was dreary and uninformed. At the stop in City Park, I asked him if he could talk a bit about New Orleans architecture, and he looked panic stricken. Our $43 tickets were not a total waste. We did get a few bits of new information, a tour around parts of the city we would otherwise have missed, such as the magnificent City Park, and a haven from the pounding rain.
Our other on-line ticket purchase provided another lesson. Eileen had purchased tickets on line for the hop on hop off bus tour, thinking this would be an efficient way to travel and to see parts of the city. We realized we were not going to use them and were told that the only place we could get our money back was at 501 Basin Street (mentioned above!). Without realizing it, she had purchased them through a vendor, so the process to return them became very complex. (She did eventually receive a reimbursement.) We had a similar experience in booking our hotel, so we have learned to be extremely careful to assure we are buying directly from the service provider.
In planning our trip, we also decided to use public transportation as much as possible. Most tourists learn about and ride the trolleys. Maps of the trolley and bus lines are only available in the vehicle or on the web, so I would encourage travelers to print information out in advance—there are no readily available printed transit maps for the city in its entirety.
While I am positive that most lines have more than five stops, only major intersections are noted on the maps of the lines, so this makes planning travel more complicated. We ended up having one very long, very hot walk because the trolley driver let us off one stop too soon. There is a useful resource at the stops however. Posted information is provided so you can call or text to learn when the next vehicle is due to arrive.
It was a slow tourist week in New Orleans, and we found it easy to flag a taxi in the central tourist areas, but hard to call a taxi to our neighborhood. We were not able to get the UBER app, so I would be sure to set this up in advance were I to go to New Orleans again.
We were fortunate to have extensive lists of restaurants provided by locals, so we were off to a good start. Reflecting back, I understand that for the splurge meals, it is not enough to know the name and check the menu on line. You also need to get a sense of the atmosphere in the restaurants. Last year, I ate at Peche, one of the current rave restaurants in New Orleans, but it was so loud we could not hear each other. Dante’s Kitchen by contrast, was perfect for superb food in a gracious setting. You can always call and say you are hard of hearing and would it be a problem for you in their restaurant!
For this trip, our Commander’s Palace lunch reservation was made before we left home. Our splurge meals were at three very different prestigious locations, each with a very distinctive personality.Commander’s Palace was by far the most formal, waiters clearly trained to set a table with all the precision described in Downton Abbey. Dark carpets and woodwork, crystal chandeliers, waiters who placed one’s napkin in one’s lap and who glided quietly about the dining room waiting for you to call them over. It is a place where locals go to celebrate occasions, and there were many tables with balloons and a guest of honor wearing a paper crown/hat. The food was excellent and presented with flair— stirring the sherry into the turtle soup at the table; breaking the meringue on the bread pudding and adding hard sauce. The French bread had a delicate interior with the perfect crust, an example of the care that goes into the cooking in this globally acknowledged restaurant.
A side benefit of eating at Commander’s was receiving their complimentary brochure providing a self-guided walking tour of the Garden District and we followed it on a sunny day. It did not include The Rink, a small shopping plaza very near Commander’s with a fantastic independent bookstore that was browse-worthy.
Cochon, our next splurge meal, was in the warehouse district, with blonde wood tables, chairs, and benches, an open kitchen at the back, and a noisy but cheerful vibe. The bench tables were far enough apart to provide some privacy, but close enough together to allow for cheerful discussion with our neighbors about their food selections, where else they had eaten, and why they were in New Orleans. When Eileen spoke with her Italian hands and knocked over her martini, it was swiftly cleaned up and replaced immediately (and at no charge.) My most memorable savory dish of the trip was wood-fired oysters with chili garlic butter. The warm, soft rolls were perfect for soaking up every bit of this sauce. The smoked pork ribs with watermelon pickle were tasty and lean. The service relaxed but very attentive. I would eat here any time!
Our last night, we taxied out to La Petite Grocery for yet another memorable meal, graciously served with the right touch of warmth, in a converted old grocery store with a tin roof, white tablecloths, mirrored walls and the feel of perhaps a great French bistro. This was Eileen’s favorite meal of the trip and the dessert was the most memorable I’ve ever tasted, with a delicious disc of chocolate torte topped with chicory ice cream.
In addition to experiencing these highly acclaimed restaurants with radically differing personalities, we also spent a rainy afternoon at Pere Antoine, sitting next to the large open windows, watching the water cascade, and chatting with the waitress who pulled up a chair on this slow day. When it comes to food that is as good as my memories, the gumbo was impeccably spiced and matched my expectations of the perfect bowl.
As we chatted with our waitress, I commented that they served the “wrong” type of po-boy’s, with romaine lettuce and a roll instead of French bread. She agreed, but explained that this is what many tourists preferred. One could still get a tasty traditional po-boy with shredded iceberg, a slather of mayonnaise, pickles, tomatoes and fried seafood or gravied roast beef at Johnny’s. This order-at-the-counter restaurant looked a mite seedy but had a SRO crowd. Our final meal before departure was at Felix’s where the oyster po-boy was exactly as I wanted it. Felix’s is a classic New Orleans seafood bar, with a long marble bar and fresh oysters shucked as you eat them. The hot syrup-soaked bread pudding was proudly served right from the oven by the chef himself!
We also had great breakfasts of eggs, grits and even the perfect biscuit for under $10.00, relaxed dinners on Frenchman Street, and even a Hebrew National Hotdog outside the Aquarium. Our first night was at Joey K’s on Magazine Street, one of the many excellent neighborhood restaurants that I would visit regularly if I lived nearby.
There are many restaurants for tourists that may or may not have good food. When we were looking for raw oysters we were taxied to a French Quarter restaurant that served six oysters for $20, as well as Dugness crab and lobster. (Why eat these when the local seafood is so good?) We left immediately. Instead, we went to The Bayou on Bourbon Street, where the retracted doors open to the street view, and the oysters are plump and reasonably priced. We also had great hamburgers at Snug Harbor before going to hear jazz and good gumbo with crabmeat in the shell (and very loud music) next door at The Marigny Brasserie on Frenchman Street.
Not a bad meal on this trip!
Listening to jazz is certainly one of the highlights of any trip to New Orleans. I will not evaluate the quality of the jazz played at the airport, by the street bands, or in some of the bars since my ear is not discerning, but I can confirm that Frenchman Street is definitely not to be missed. We had two nights of sitting comfortably at Snug Harbor first mesmerized by the Jonas Stewart Quartet and, the next night the Ellis Marsalis Quartet (including Jonas Stewart and Jonas Marsalis). We also wandered in to the Spotted Cat to join the sweaty crowds standing and enjoying the music, meandered through the Arts Market and down the street listening to music flowing out of other doors, and joined the dancing to the brass band music played on a street corner by a large group of young teenage boys.
The New Orleans Official Visitors Guide includes a list of many locations for live music. It also makes sense to check out special events during your visit. These can be found in the many free magazines, including Off Beat. Next time, I would hope to go to the Maple Leaf Bar and return to Maison Bourbon, where I took my two sons, age 12 and eight, to hear live jazz and taught them that, in a bar, you sip your Coke, not gulp it!
PLACES TO VISIT AND TOUR
There were so many museums and other activities we wanted to experience—-the free and self-guided tours, Magazine Street by day (but also a pleasant evening stroll), World War II museum, City Park Sculpture Garden, Mardi Gras World, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, the lower ninth ward, the Presbytere, Cabildo and more art galleries and antique shops on Royal Street— if time and foot weariness didn’t intervene. We spent a lot of time at the places we did visit and enjoyed a quality experience at each.
On one very rainy day we visited the Osborne Museum of Art and enjoyed it so much that we returned after our lunch at Commander’s to finish our tour of the exhibitions. These include southern art from the colonial period to the present. Favorites were the modern artists and ceramics.
On a breezy, sunny day, we popped in to the Aquarium for what we expected to be a brief visit, but stayed for four entrancing hours. Eileen loved the parakeets and my favorite was the seahorses, including the tank of very pregnant males. We fed the sting rays, watched the penguins swim and eat fish, saw a poisonous frog that looked more like a black and yellow lacquered ornament than a living creature, and enjoyed the visual beauty provided by fish in tanks and in the glass tunnel under the main tank.
Next door to the Aquarium is the ferry to Algiers. We spontaneously took the brief ride over and back on a beautiful day when we were tired of walking. Seeing St. Louis Cathedral and the waterfront from this special perspective was well worth our fare of $1.00, exact change (senior citizens are half price.)
Woldenerg Park, a promenade starting at the Aquarium, was another highlight. It replaced old wharves and warehouses right next to the Mississippi and has lots of grass and benches, beautiful sculptures and a river view of New Orleans and Algiers. The Holocaust Memorial entranced us for about 30 minutes, with its nine panels of stained glass that meld to form distinct images as you slowly walk around. Nearby, a white Carrera marble monument, funded by local Italians, combines a sculpture of Miss Liberty and an immigrant family.
Visiting New Orleans, we saw tourists of all ages, shapes and sizes and clearly of varying interests and incomes. Had there been a major convention or tourist event in town, our experience would certainly have been impacted. To fully enjoy a trip to this city where there is so much to see, do, and eat, take some time to plan in advance, make reservations at those restaurants you do not want to miss, and send away for tourist information well in advance. Remember that what is inexpensive or free does not bring money into the city and receives less publicity, but a well-planned visit will save you money and help you focus your time on those aspects of the city that interest you most.