Friday, March 9, 2018

USA Part 3B: The Deep South

When I first started to plan what to do post-wedding with my newly minted in-laws, my first inclination was to go to Cuba since I knew exactly how far away it'd be (not much, 90 miles).  But that quickly got put into the too hard basket (delightful Aussie phrase) so I decided to look somewhere easier, closer and domestic.  Somewhere I'd never been before!

See: South, Deep
I came across two cities well loved by tourists, within easy driving distance of Florida and an even easier driving distance of each other: Savannah, Georgia & Charleston, South Carolina. 

Similar yet unique, these cities are chock full of southern charm, history and didn't require one word of Espanol.

Savannah, GA

In preparation for my visit I read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  It's set in Savannah in the 1980's and is a delightful romp around what makes Savannah, Savannah (except for the whole murder thing).  So of course Priority #1 for my trip was to scope out the house where the events of the book take place.

Mercer-Williams House

I'm going to admit right off the bat that I preferred Savannah to Charleston - but - I did spend more time there, so I don't think it's a fair comparison.  Accommodation in Savannah was so much cheaper than Charleston, so in addition to more time we had the added benefits of staying right near the action and walking everywhere.  Which is perfect, because walking around this pretty, leafy city is the ultimate thing to do there, especially with 22 historic and picturesque squares lining the city.

Arguably the most famous square is renowned not because it is particularly big or beautiful, but because Forrest Gump's bench was there!

Chippewa Square

Key word: was.  Or more accurately, never really was.

The bench (and platform it sat on) was merely a movie prop and was never really there.  The bench itself is now in a museum (which I did not see) but I did stand in about the spot where the bench was for a picture.

Though Mr. Hanks stole all the thunder, there are squares that are bigger and more picturesque, namely:

Forsyth Park

This being the deep south there are a lot of statues celebrating Confederate soldiers from the Civil War.  That's a hot button issue these days so prepare yourself for the commemoration of some not-so-great human beings everywhere you look.

On the topic of the Civil War, we learned that Savannah was spared from total destruction unlike unluckier other cities.  There seems to be some differing opinion on why this fair city was spared, but I - and the Savannah tourist board - are certainly glad the beauty and charm of the city wasn't destroyed.

City Market

This is a major touristy area and we didn't really spend any time there so I don't know exactly what - or who - was sold at this market.  I can about imagine.

After a day and a half in the city we got back into the car to explore the surrounds of Savannah, which are worth the trip if you've got the time and wheels to get there.

Tybee Island

A tourist destination in its own right, Tybee Island is a mere half hour drive from Savannah and is the place to be in summer for a beach holiday.

This being mid-November the water was devoid of swimmers, but there were plenty of people hanging around and fishing off the boardwalk.

Also on Tybee we stopped at a farm where you can buy some food to feed the alligators:

I was disappointed to learn that the food came in dry pellets, more like house pet food than what you'd think gators eat.  I think they felt the same way, as only one was interested in what I was offering.  A feeding frenzy this was not!

Another stop one must make on the way is the most famous cemetery in the state.  Half way between Savannah and Tybee is:

Bonaventure Cemetery

It's strange that an active cemetery is a tourist destination, isn't it?  Two things make this cemetery interesting:

1. It was one of the settings in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

2. It's haunted

Well, one of the graves is, at least.

Little Gracie was only 6 when she sadly died in 1889 but has carried on her legacy by haunting the place for nearly 130 years.  I can't say I normally believe in such things, but I can confirm that the haunting rumors are not without their merits.  That little chick gives off a weird vibe.

Another famous girl from this cemetery, the "bird girl" statue that was on the cover of the book/movie poster is no longer there.

Like Forrest's bench it, too, has been moved into a museum for safe keeping.  Which I did not get to see.  Boo.

After two and a half days in Savannah it was time to move along.  I think Savannah could be comfortably done in a weekend, preferably a long weekend, as it would've been nice to have an extra day in the city.  But there's no time to spare on a whirlwind tour of the deep south!  Onto:

Charleston, SC

As far as I can tell there's one thing that every single visitor to Charleston does.

Look at the arse of a horse!  As it pulls you in a carriage, that is.

It was super interesting to see how the carriages fit into the streets of the modern world.  There's a limit to how many carriages can be in operation, and of course animal welfare is closely watched.

This is our trusty steed, Larry.  He was formerly an Amish work horse in Indiana or some such place, and this is his cushy retirement job.  Previously he worked from sun up to sundown 6 days per week but now works a few 4-hour shifts per week.  Larry is living the equine dream!  Except for that fact that his temperature is taken rectally after every trip.  Maybe Larry's kinky like that, and really is living his best life.

Where in Charleston your carriage tour will take you is entirely up to chance.  When departing a central location, each carriage stops at the "toll booth" that uses a contraption normally used for spitting out Bingo balls, which dictates exactly where they can go.

So traffic congestion is avoided.  I thought this system was exceedingly nifty!  Along the route the carriage driver has to pull over every time a car approaches, since they can get a fine for not getting out of the way of regular traffic.

The most interesting thing of all are these little rubber flag thingies:

Carriage drivers drop one on the ground whenever their horse drops a load (liquid or solid) on the street, and the "equine sanitation patrol" comes and cleans it up!  That is someones job!  Searching for then cleaning up horse excrement on the streets.

What a place!

In addition to the history of the city, we heard a lot from the tour guide about the architecture of the buildings, like how these studs are built through most big structures to help them survive earthquakes, which I had no idea Charleston was prone to:

My favorite thing (besides the poop flags, because you can't top that) is the superstition of painting a porch ceiling "haint" blue.

Somehow this color, which is distinctly different from the color of the sky, tricks evil spirits into thinking the blue roof is the sky, so they don't come into your house.  The results are really pretty, and I whole heartedly support this practice.

Hmm, this gives me some home decorating ideas...

Both Savannah and Charleston were lovely cities, and are great for short visits.  I recommend you hit them both in on fell swoop, which can comfortably be done in a week.

Everything we saw and did in these two cities was enjoyable, but I must admit nothing could hold a candle to what we ate!  I hadn't realized until just this minute that I'm in the habit of doing separate food post (for example Bali and Germany) on top of the who/what/when/where/why post.  I will definitely continue the tradition for this USA trip, as I've got 5 states, 1 province and 1 District of Columbia of deliciousness to cover!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Home Sweet House

I was happily blogging the rest of my USA trip, then abruptly dropped out of the blogosphere because I was diving head first into the biggest financial commitment of my life.

We bought a house!

We weren't expecting to buy a house, at least so soon, but when our rental apartment told us they were giving us the boot we had two choices: rent again and keep saving up to buy a house - and sign ourselves up for a second move (groan times infinity) - or just go ahead and do it, start to finish in six weeks flat.  Over Christmas.

I don't know how in the hell it all came together, but the stars aligned and I am sitting in our new house right now, so I only believe it because I see it with my own two eyes.

Buying over Christmas I think was actually a fairly good move.  Sellers still want to sell, but not a lot of buyers are in a buying mood during the festive season.  There's less competition, at least I'd like to think we got a good deal.  If you can get a bank to call you back to arrange financing (big if) then you're in business!

Here are some snaps from the real estate ad:

And the piece de resistance:

Naturally it doesn't look quite that good when our crap is laying all around, and it's not being staged for photos.

But you know when it looks even worse?  Four years ago when the previous owners bought it.

I found the previous real estate listing online, so got a reference point for how far the house had come in a few short years when the previous owners (first time home buyers like ourselves) bought it and spruced it up.

I find this endlessly entertaining so hopefully you do, too.

It doesn't help matters that the old pictures are obviously amateur, and the new ones professionally done.  If you want to make bank selling your house, pro tip: spend a few bucks for good photography.

The biggest upgrade came in the basement, which was mainly unfinished before, and now is a livable space.  It went from this:

To this:

It essentially doubles the living space of the house, but Martin saw "the biggest spider he's ever seen" down there and now refuses to go out there.  At this rate we might as well just seal off that whole floor, because the only use it gets is for laundry by me!

So there you have it, our little slice of the world.

Nothing has gone horribly (or expensively) wrong yet so I'm happy with our decision thus far.  We went from living in the most populated, bustling part of Brisbane to 10 kilometers from the city in a very quiet neighborhood.  I'm already acclimated because whenever I venture close to the city I feel overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle and number of other people surrounding me.

But maybe that's just me getting old!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

USA Part 3A: Florida Travels

After an incredibly exhausting three days of full-on wedding activities we set sail for our "honeymoon", which included both sets of parents, all of our siblings, three nieces and a nephew.  A communal honeymoon - the romance is not dead with us!

But don't cry for me; we knew what we were getting into from Day 1 which is why we declared our only other trip this year, New Caledonia, as our pre-honeymoon, because we knew that's all we were going to get in terms of alone time.

I've learned, over my ten years of living overseas, that if you're going to go home and visit family you should also visit fun places while you're there.  Family obligations plus vacation = oblication!  Because when there's an opportunity to visit somewhere besides North Dakota I intend to seize it!

I crammed in a lot of really cool places into a short period of time and since I'd never been to Florida before (or anywhere southern) I made it my business to cover a ton of American soil.  But first, on the drive between Key Largo and Key West:

Feeding tarpons at Robbie's

Robbie's in Islamorada is a marina and restaurant that appears most popular for selling buckets of fish to tourists, who holler and squeal with delight as gigantic fish called tarpons leap out of the water for a free snack.

It is an enormous amount of fun, yet scary to dangle your fingers above the gaping maws of fish that can grow to be 280 pounds.  None of Robbie's fish are quite that large but there were some Big Berthas among the bunch.

Robbie's is absolutely a must do if you're driving to Key West (which you probably will, since flying directly there is wildly expensive).

Key West

I can't even find the words to describe Key West, besides, "it is such a cool place".  That sums it up succinctly and accurately.  It's like nowhere I've ever been before and I'd bet it's unlike anywhere else on earth.  It's got a really funky, fun 24/7 party vibe but has found a way to retain its charm.  It's what Vegas could have been had it not sold out to overweight Midwesterners.

When we got there we quickly realized something was going on around the marina.  Apparently there was a "super boat" race happening featuring the craziest colorful, loud and dangerous boats I'd ever seen.

It was not my cup of tea (have I mentioned Key Lime pie on every corner?  Because that's my cup of tea) but the menfolk had a blast gawking at boats worth more than they'll make in a decade.

There's so much to love!  And see!  And chase around!

To my infinite delight there are free range, communal chickens running around everywhere.  I honestly have no idea where these originally came from but it's amazing and they're just as much a part of the landscape as plastic takeaway margarita glasses.  By that fact alone this is one of America's finest cities.  Fun for all ages!

We did a ton in our weekend there, which I think is a perfect amount of time to visit.  The fact that it's super expensive means you'd be wise to keep your visit short and sweet.

Sunset cruise

We took to the sea on our first evening there to see the sunset up close and personal.  Naturally the boat featured a live band and all the booze you could drink for the duration of the trip.  Once we got back to land they even encouraged us to take one for the road, informing us "It's legal in Key West!"

An Extended Family Affair
I learned something really, really clever on this trip, born out of necessity but something I think I'll carry into the future.  Because we were so occupied with family during the day we didn't have a ton of time to see the tourist sites that one must see.  When the sun goes down there's plenty of time to hit the tourist trail (assuming sleep isn't that important to you)!  It's much cooler and pleasant to walk long distances when the sun isn't beating down on you, and you have the once crowded sights virtually to yourself.

Mile Marker 0

This oft stolen sign marks the beginning of US Highway 1 which spans the entire height of America from Florida to Maine.  2,369 miles!  Hoards of people by day, nobody there at night.  Genius.

Southernmost Point

This concrete buoy is the southernmost point of the continental United States (or symbolizes it, it isn't technically) and is 90 miles to Cuba.

This is what it looks like during the day:

You would be wise to take my advice!

Hemingway House

Author Ernest Hemingway lived in Key West in the 30's, which I don't find particularly interesting.  But what I do find interesting is the population of 6- and 7-toed cats that live on the property to this day that are descendants of his cats.  The New York Times even reported on them after Hurricane Irma!

I saw two of the kitties waltzing around the property through the gates, but this being nighttime we couldn't get in and my pictures didn't turn out.  Such is life when you choose to be a tourist at night.  I would like to see freak show felines up close!   

Mallory Square

If you're not out on a boat during sunset then this is the place to be.  There's so many people!  But despite that fact at no point did I feel like there were too many people or I was being swallowed by a crowd.

Must be those island vibes, man.

Charming pastel Key West houses
I was not aware until I was there eating a literal mountain of nachos that Key West is home of the original Margaritaville chain of restaurants, which was a must do for those in attendance who don't even have regular access to a Dairy Queen.

If you've come as far as Key Largo and don't pop down to Key West I'm convinced you've wasted your time.  It is a long, slow (45 mph maximum speed limit!) drive between the two but the pot of gold at the end of the archipelago is well worth it.

At that point it was time to part ways with my family (for the time being) and continue back up north with Martin's parents.  Next stop: the bayou!

Everglades National Park

The Everglades (or at least the part protected by the national park) are 1.5 million acres of swamp.  And what is the one and only thing one must do on 1.5 million acres of swamp?  Ride one of these bad boys:

And before you ask, yes, we saw gators!

But they were cleverly hidden and/or not more than a foot long.  Nothing massive but still fun to see!

We stopped back in Miami for the night, and I was excited to get out and see South Beach a little bit, but Mother Nature had other plans.

We got 4 blocks from our hotel and it started pouring rain like I have never seen in my entire life.  And I live in a sub-tropical climate!  Holy smokes it was insane, and it did not let up for a second.  We sat undercover and try to wait the rain out, but after 15 minutes called an Uber whose driver spoke literally no English to drive us the 30 seconds back home.  Never change, Miami.

I'll happily take an urban rain shower if it means perfect weather for my #1 priority for this trip (yes, even above getting married).

Seeing manatees in the wild!!!

So exciting!!!  I would've been so heartbroken if we didn't see any.  Luckily my dreams came true!

Photographing manatees is no easy feat, as they do literally nothing.  They don't ever stick their whole face out of the water and when they pop their nose out for a quick breath it's back in underwater in a flash.  So this is the best shot I got of the gang.

Lumps of back fat.  They don't call them "sea cows" for nothing!  So here's a picture I pilfered from National Geographic:

They are so great!  Thankfully they're no longer endangered, as their numbers have gone from a few hundred to over 6,000 after decades of conservation efforts.  A world without manatees is not a world worth living in, so I hope they continue to improve their numbers.

Where can one find manatees in the wild in Florida, you ask?

Merritt Island

What's wild about Merritt Island near Titusville is that it's half pristine wildlife refuge and half launching rockets into outer-freaking-space.

On the wildlife side of things we did the Black Point Wildlife Drive, which is a 7-mile gravel track where you drive through at 15 miles per hour and gawk at nature.  Mainly birds, to Martin's great pleasure.

But there is also wildlife of a more reptilian persuasion.

The ones we saw here were much bigger and gnarlier than the ones we saw in the Everglades!  We had a gay old time at dawn driving at a glacial pace, enjoying the vast wetlands and searching for gators.

Then, on the very same island:

Kennedy Space Center

NASA, featuring a real live space shuttle!  Retired now, of course, as they all are. 

When I was about 10 I saw the movie SpaceCamp for the first time (of many) and loved it so, so much.  I even had a NASA poster on my bedroom door, which is deliciously ironic considering I grew up with only the barest minimum of science education.

I've literally never met anybody else who has seen this movie.  It was a huge box office flop because it was released just a few months after the Challenger disaster, but make no mistake this movie kicks a large amount of ass.  This long winded tale of 80's cinema history is for the purpose of telling you that this shuttle, Atlantis, is the one used in that movie.  Fun for me [and absolutely nobody else]!

Moon rock you can touch
Shuttle landing simulator
You could spend days on end here, but we had to cram it all into one.  We took a tour of the launching facilities which are disused by NASA but still very much in operation by Space X and anybody else requiring the infrastructure to launch rockets into outer space.

Dude on left, above the grey rectangle, for scale

Were you aware that each shuttle mission had its own logo?

I was not aware of this.  This wall of plaques features each shuttle flight logo, along with their take off and landing date, for those lucky enough to have both.  It was really nifty.

Most places I visit I realize that I likely won't ever expend the time, effort and money to visit that place again in my lifetime (assuming I remain a pleb wage earner).  But Florida?  Not true at all.  I know with absolute certainty that one day I will be back in the future, with kids.  

I can think of nowhere else that has more or better attractions so close together that kids will love.  At that time I will no doubt have to substitute Key West for Disney World, which is nothing short of a tragedy, but that'll be a different me at a different time and I fully expect to enjoy Florida just as much then as I do now! 

After driving from the literal tip of Florida to the northern border it was time to head north, bizarrely, into the Deep South.