Saturday, February 28, 2015

Winter, 2015 Road Trip!

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Nissan Rogue, Decked Out For Road Trip
Nissan Rogue, Skis Atop, New Cargo Carrier On Back

From December to mid-February, we logged over 5,000 miles of travel. Not 1 of those miles was by air. To maximize our mileage streak without setting foot in an airplane, why not take a road trip? With some work to do in Boston, and with lots and lots of powdery white snow all over the place up north, every flake of it ski-worthy, a February-March trip north made perfect sense. And it also made perfect sense to invite Lori's sister and brother-in-law, Susan and Randy, to tag along with us.

The only challenge proved to be stuffing our Nissan Rogue with 4 people, ski gear, cold weather clothing, and enough wine and snacks to keep us alive for a week should we run off into a snow bank. As with most challenges, careful planning led to solutions. First, we put crossbars up on the luggage rack, on which we strapped down our ski tubes. That got the skis out of the car, but the luggage count was still too high, so--second--we had a hitch put on and bought one of those cargo carriers. Voila! Rogue-turned-road-trip-machine.

There's actually a whole week in central Florida that we've skipped over here, but with the next few blogs we'll return to sunny Central Florida. In the meantime, we thought we'd let you know about our winter road trip and give you a few pictures so far. In another week or so, we'll blog about some of the sites we've seen along the way that we haven't seen before, like Mount Vernon and Valley Forge.

When it's all said and done, our non-air travel mileage streak will be well over 8,000 miles. The itinerary of our winter 2015 road trip looks, so far, something like this:

Thursday - Susan and Randy drive from Gulfport to Atlanta
Friday - We all leave together from Atlanta and drive to Washington, DC
Saturday - Washington, DC
Sunday - Washington, DC
Monday - Drive from Washington, DC to Philadelphia
Tuesday - Philadelphia
Wednesday - Drive from Philadelphia to Boston
Thursday - Boston
Friday - Drive from Boston to Killington, Vermont
Saturday - Killington
Sunday - Killington
Monday - Killington
Tuesday - Killington
Wednesday - Killington
Thursday - Drive from Killington to Boston
Friday - well, we're still working on how we'll wrap up the trip...stay tuned.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Washington Monument and Snowy National Mall
The Washington Monument and a Snowy National Mall

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Lincoln Memorial
Lincoln Memorial 

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Troop Huts at Valley Forge
Troop Huts at Valley Forge

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Flag and Monument, Valley Forge
Flag And Monument, Valley Forge

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - The Liberty Bell
The Liberty Bell

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Independence Hall
Independence Hall

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Where Declaration of Independence and Constitution Were Signed
Where The Declaration of Independence And Constitution Were Signed

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin, My Hero

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

When Your Hotel Neighbors Show Their Love

Warning: this may be our first, and only ever, R-rated blog. So if you're accustomed to reading our blog to your children, you might want to tell them we just didn't blog today. If you're a mature adult reader, not afraid to delve into what goes on in hotel rooms around the world, then read on.

There must be something about hotels. In Saturday's blog we mentioned in passing that raw oysters are purported to be one of the best aphrodisiacs, but with all the time we've spent in hotels the past year we're pretty certain that the best aphrodisiac is checking into a hotel. Without the kids, of course.

We've both endured and enjoyed some interesting episodes through the years. Just a week ago, during a week-long stay in Kissimmee, Florida to visit family and do some house hunting, we had some particularly amorous neighbors. Granted, it was Valentine's Day. Well, to be precise, it was about 2am that night. Our room was one of those with a door to an adjoining room, and under that door came the unambiguous sounds that passionate human beings make. I'm not talking about ambiguous tap-tap-tap's or squeak-squeak-squeak's which, after all, could be any repetitive activity or motion. We're talking the soundtrack from a seedy, late-night, college-town, drive-in from the 70's. We're talking spoken directions, requests, and advice given from one partner to another. We're talking we should've recorded it and sold it online: just the audio track could have made us rich.

We both rolled over with a sigh with their grand finish. But then a little bit later, round two began. We (sort of) laughed it off, but by the end of round two, we were pretty well awake. We attempted to return to sleep, but just as we were dozing off again, round three began.

"Three times?" Lori asked incredulously.

"I'm obviously taking the wrong vitamins," I replied.

It was with great restraint that we didn't stand up and cheer with their third, grand finale.

This, our dear reader, is a true story.

The next morning we had to check out. I (Chuck) cheerfully volunteered to fetch coffee and carry luggage to the car, a piece at a time if that's what it took. I confess I was hoping to catch a glimpse of our neighbors. What, I wondered, did this love god and goddess look like? Is that wrong? I don't know, but unfortunately I never got that glimpse. They were, obviously, too tired to awaken as early as we did. But--I swear to you, I couldn't make this up if I wanted to--just as we left our room for the last time, they were starting up again. They were, apparently, "morning people".

This was a very exceptional situation, but not particularly uncommon. Usually the sounds are discrete and, like we said before, ambiguous. Anyone who's spent any significant time in a hotel can relate and tell their own stories. The truth is that we probably didn't want to see who it was in that room next door; quite likely there would have been disappointment or surprise somewhere in the discovery of who it was making those noises. But then again...

One time a few years ago, we used up some free hotel nights we had earned for a weekend in downtown Atlanta. We stayed at a hotel in a historic, turn-of-the-century building. One with paper-thin walls. Late that first night we noticed the tell-tale noises in the room next to us. They weren't the graphic vocalizations like we heard recently in Kissimmee, just the typical, innocent, barely overheard but unmistakable sort of noises that are surely common in that old hotel. The kind of noises that made us smile at one another and feel just a bit guilty for listening in. The next morning as we got ready for breakfast, we noticed the noises again. We frequently spied through the peephole (ok, ok, Chuck spied through the peephole), but didn't catch our neighbors leaving their room. We went out for the morning and returned around midday. A few hours later, as we prepared to go out for the afternoon again--you guessed it--we heard the noises again.

This time though, our room exit followed theirs by just enough time for us to inconspicuously spot them as they headed out of the lobby and off for a walk. I'll only say that we didn't feel guilty at all: they were obviously happy and in love, and it was heartwarming to see them walk off, hand-in-hand. We've faithfully kept their secret ever since.

So, dear readers, particularly our fellow couples, remember when you're in a hotel room and "the moment" arises (so to speak), to be aware of those thin walls, those adjoining rooms, those neighbors inevitably spying for a glimpse through their peepholes. Speak softly, whisper to one another perhaps, and try not to make the headboard tap, or the box springs squeak, too vigorously.

And guys, I found these: Vitalast NewVigor Boost

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Seafood of the Northern Gulf of Mexico

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - A Seafood Platter from Wiki Commons

When I (Chuck) was a kid, I was a picky eater: I ate hot dogs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and fried shrimp. Many picky eaters never learn to like shrimp, but if you grow up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and you don't eat shrimp, you'll likely starve.

It never fails to amaze us how many people are lost when it comes to seafood, but obviously we grew up where fresh seafood is a staple of everyday life. People of the coastal communities of the Northern Gulf of Mexico who don't eat seafood are like people from Wisconsin who don't eat cheese. So to wrap up our series of blogs on this corner of the world, especially since eating is one of the top activities for travelers, we give you a primer on the seafood you'll find around these parts.

First, a few words on the ways you'll find the seafood here prepared. This being the deep south, fried is the most common preparation, one that everyone is familiar with: your seafood is coated with either a dry breading, usually cornflour-based, or a wet batter and deep fried in oil until it's a golden brown. It may be the most common preparation of seafood in the deep south, but it's obviously calorie-rich. Pan-fried or sautéed might be spotted in some of the fancier restaurants, but it's not overly common.

Grilled and baked preparations are pretty self-explanatory. Some seafood--particularly shrimp and crawfish--are boiled in water: that water is extra-salty and extra-spicy so that the flavors get infused into the seafood, hence if you order boiled shrimp be careful not to rub your eyes as you peel and eat! Residents from our neck of the woods can easily tell when "inlanders" boil seafood, as it lacks any amount of seasoning because (simply put) they're afraid to use the seemingly enormous quantities of spice necessary.

And then there's the highly misunderstood, rarely prepared accurately, method of cooking called blackening. Blackened Redfish was a dish invented by New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme in the 1980's. The technique involves coating the fish filets in butter, dipping them in a spicy seasoning powder, and pan-frying them in an extremely hot cast iron pan. The process creates lots of smoke so must be done in a well-ventilated kitchen (or even outside: it's that smoky). The result is a spicy caramelized coating on a super-moist, fleshy piece of fish.

Blackened Redfish became so popular that redfish fishing had to be restricted. As a result, people started "blackening" pretty much everything they could get hold of, and not just seafood. Unfortunately, many foods just don't translate well to Prudhomme's original intentions for the recipe, and too many chefs today think "blackening" simply entails coating and cooking a meat with a ridiculously spicy dry seasoning. Your best bet to get genuine blackened seafood is to stick with flaky white fish, and you're most likely to find true blackened seafood the closer you get to New Orleans.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Bust From Chatsworth House That Looks Like Bubba Blue
Bust of Bubba Blue
(not really)

Shrimp - "They's the fruit of the sea", and they can be boiled, fried, grilled, blackened, and they can be prepared in a creole, stew, etc. Shrimp are the world's most popular, most common, crustacean. They absolutely love to breed in the waters all along the Gulf, from Texas to Florida, but they're particularly prolific, and particularly tasty, in the brackish waters created inland from the barrier islands here and there along the coast, especially the waters off Louisiana and Mississippi. If you order them boiled, they'll come with peels on (remove them before you eat!), and sometimes they'll come with the heads on (also remove). Boiled shrimp from around here will likely also be coated with hot spices, but don't worry: the actual meat won't be that spicy. If you order them fried, they'll most likely be battered and fried, will come peeled and (most likely) with heads removed, but the tails will still be attached as a nifty little handle (just don't eat the tail). Shrimp po-boys are subway-style sandwiches of ready-to-eat fried shrimp; if you see them offered "overstuffed", don't ask questions, just order one. Shrimp season (when you'll get local, fresh shrimp) is summer and fall. Final note: "shrimp" is both singular and plural. If you order a platter of "shrimps", you're sure to earn some kitchen snickers.

Oysters - These are a mollusc (an invertebrate that grows in a shell) that thrives on the bottom of brackish waters close to the coastlines, just like shrimp. If you ask someone around here what the difference between oysters and clams is, they'll tell you, "Northerners eat clams". They're only partly right: there are other differences, but--for the most part--clams come from freshwater, oysters from brackish saltwater. Oysters are most commonly eaten fried, raw, or grilled. If fried, they'll be battered and deep-fried and can be popped right into your mouth. Raw oysters take some fortitude and are the domain of both advanced seafood eaters and the amorous (they're purported to be one of the best natural aphrodisiacs on the planet, but we'll let you decide for yourself). Oysters are literally dredged up by net from the bottom and transported in their shells; all along the coast you can find these shells making up driveways and parking lots. Local favorites are the smaller oysters that come from the Apalachicola area of Florida. Oyster seasons from state to state are typically in the fall.

Crab - The crab of choice around here is the blue crab. It is indeed the same blue crab as served up in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, but (naturally) much more tasty when coming from the warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico. If you walk into a restaurant in Biloxi, Mobile, Pensacola, or Fort Walton and order crab, they'll come boiled. If you see "soft-shelled crab" on the menu, these are (most likely) blue crabs harvested during their molting: their guts are removed, but otherwise they are battered and deep-fried in entirety and can be eaten whole since their new shells haven't yet hardened. Here and there you'll see other crab varieties, including crab claw appetizers, and while quite tasty, they likely are flown in from somewhere else or frozen. Local crab seasons typically follow summer and fall shrimp seasons.

Crawfish - These are "toy lobsters", crustaceans that look identical to their bigger cousins (in fact in Europe they're often called "langostinos", literally "little lobsters"). Crawfish are 2 or 3 inches in total length, but it's the tail meat that you're after. They grow inland, not in open waters, and they particularly love the muddy wetlands of Southern Louisiana. 9 times out of 10, you eat them boiled, and you'll have to pull the tail off and peel it just like a lobster (suck the spicy juice out of the head if you want to be just like a local). If you're lucky enough to find a place that peels them for you and batters and fries them, you're in for a special treat: a crawfish and pepper (jalapeño, usually), aka "craw-pep", po-boy (sandwich) is one of God's greatest gifts to humanity. Crawfish are also commonly used in gumbo and other cajun dishes. If you're invited by a local to attend a crawfish boil, don't turn them down: it's a major social and culinary event. Crawfish season is spring and early summer. And, whatever you do, please don't call them "crayfish" when visiting this area: those snickers will occur at the table in front of you.

Fish - There are more varieties of fish available to you when visiting the Northern Gulf of Mexico than we can adequately address in a single blog. Here's a quick sampling of what you might see on the menu: amberjack, bonefish, catfish, dolphinfish (the fish, not the mammal!), flounder, grouper, redfish, various shark (particularly lemonfish), snapper, swordfish, tuna, wahoo, and yellow jack. We won't describe each one; instead, we'll summarize them into either a white fish or an oily fish. If you're knowledge of fish is limited, you're most likely to prefer a white fish: simply ask your server if their catch of the day is a white fish or not. It will most likely be offered baked, grilled, blackened, or fried. Seasons can vary widely by species and the state they're caught in: stick with the restaurant's fresh catches. We will make one fish recommendation: if you visit Mississippi and find a catfish house, don't pass it up. Bar none, the best catfish house in the world is Catfish Charlie's in Gulfport, Mississippi.

A word on wine pairings, and we'll keep it simple: drink what you like. We have no problems drinking red wine with our seafood, particularly if we're eating fried. But if you want to drink like a local, it's likely a beer: Mexican beers, particularly Corona, are especially popular around here. If you find yourself on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, ask if they have Lazy Magnolia's Southern Pecan beer for a special treat.

Finally, on every table in any seafood restaurant in this area, you'll find a bottle or two of hot sauce. The three predominant brands are Tabasco, Louisiana Hot Sauce, and Crystal Hot Sauce. Tabasco is, of course, world famous: it's made in Louisiana with a unique pepper variety known as the tabasco pepper. Of the 3, it's slightly more spicy than the other two. Louisiana and Crystal have a bit more of a vinegar bite to go along with the hot. All three are especially good sprinkled on fried seafood.

Bon appetite, ya'll!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Alabama's Redneck Riviera

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog, Lori on Orange Beach, Alabama
Lori Somewhere Near Orange Beach, Alabama, Circa 2004

The hardest thing about writing today's blog was finding a picture to include. For some reason, we've never taken a lot of pictures during any of our stays at Alabama's Redneck Riviera. Actually the reason is pretty clear, and it involves countless attempts at perfecting frozen margaritas and roosters (recipe below).

As we said in last Saturday's blog, we've spent a lot of time here. We might be a bit biased, but we think (and lots of people will agree with us, we know) these beaches are among the best in the world. The 15 miles or so of white sand and surf here are nicknamed the "Redneck Riviera" because, if you stay during the high season, you're guaranteed by the local chamber of commerce to run into either Jeff Foxworthy or Larry the Cable Guy during your stay.

Ok, not really. But you will go home a little more tanned and with a smile on your face. "Redneck Riviera" simply refers to this little slice of beachy heaven being situated in the heart of Dixie. In particular, it's the stretch of beach on Alabama's Gulf of Mexico shoreline to the east of Mobile Bay. The communities of the Redneck Riviera, from west to east, are Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, and the unincorporated area of Perdido Beach. Gulf Shores is the older, more established, of the three, and in fact the whole area is often called "Gulf Shores". Orange Beach is the big condo community, with everything from beach houses and high-rises available for rent. Perdido is the least developed area, and its semi-official city hall is the Florabama bar of Jimmy Buffet fame.

Speaking of Jimmy Buffet, if you aren't familiar with his music, you likely will be by the time you leave the Redneck Riviera. His big hit (from 1977) is "Margaritaville": if that doesn't jog your memory, well then, we got nothing other than pointing out that Jimmy is one of the top grossing performers of all time, a big-time entrepreneur, and a globally idolized country/caribbean crooner. He grew up just across the bay, so this beach helped define who he is, making it the center of the Parrothead (what Jimmy Buffet fans call themselves) universe. To visit these beaches (did we mention we think they're among the best in the world?) you're required to know the lyrics to "Margaritaville": it's an Alabama state law. But don't worry, we'll include the lyrics below.

For quite a few years, we had block parties at Orange Beach. By that I mean literally everyone on our street would pick up and head down to the Redneck Riviera for a long weekend to a full week; sometimes we did this a couple of times a season. It was easy, of course, because we lived on a cul-de-sac of only 3 houses, but still...we frequently also had extended friends and family join us. We have more great memories from these trips than we can relate, but two seem worth mentioning:

☀ There was the time Chuck learned to make margaritas. If any of our readers think they make great margaritas, you got nothing on Chuck: just challenge him to a margarita-making contest. One day at Orange Beach, he meticulously developed his recipe, batch by batch, sampling and taste-testing each one to achieve frozen concoction perfection. Each batch, surprisingly enough, was better than the last, the whole exercise ending with him and neighbor Lisa dancing in the back of a pickup truck. That's all we have to say about that.

☀ Another time, the teen daughter of a friend, and one of her friends, joined us at Orange Beach a few days late because they had a dance performance back home before they could leave. When they arrived--the great, supportive adults that we are--we encouraged them to show us their dance routine. Now, understand that the condo that we were staying in at the time was one of those big, concrete high-rises and our unit had tile floors. Also understand that the girl's routine was a tap dancing routine. And finally understand that there were people beneath us. See where I'm going with this? We've always wondered if the people below us, just before they beat on the ceiling, asked, "What they hell are they doing? Tap dancing??"

If you are considering a visit to the Redneck Riviera, the best time to go starts in April and continues to September, but know that this is also high season. Fall and winter can be great times to go, but it'll be cool enough to shorten your beach time. There are hotel options, but we recommend looking for a beachside condo on

Lisa, we miss you guys: how about we all get together this summer like old times?

How to make roosters
1 fifth of vodka, your choice
2 quart carton of orange juice
1 64-oz bottle of cranberry juice
- The evening before your beach-going, pour it all into a big bowl and stick it in the freezer. The next morning scoop it into a container suitable to take to the beach and enjoy it like a big-people's slushy.

Margaritaville, by Jimmy Buffet

Nibblin' on sponge cake,
Watchin the sun bake;
All of those tourists covered with oil.
Strummin' my six-string
On my front porch swing;
Smell of shrimp, they're beginning to boil.

Wasted away again in Margaritaville,
Searchin' for my lost shaker of salt.
Some people claim that there's a woman to blame,
But I know it's nobody's fault.

Don't know the reason,
Stayed here all season,
With nothing to show but this brand new tattoo.
But it's a real beauty,
A Mexican cutie;
How it got here I haven't a clue.

Wasted away again in Margaritaville,
Searchin' for my lost shaker of salt.
Some people claim that there's a woman to blame,
Now I think: hell, it could be my fault.

I blew out my flip-flop,
Stepped on a pop-top,
Cut my heel, had to cruise on back home.
But there's booze in the blender,
And soon it will render
That frozen concoction that helps me hang on.

Wasted away again in Margaritaville,
Searchin' for my lost shaker of salt.
Some people claim that there's a woman to blame,
But I know: it's my own damn fault.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

America's Panama City (Florida)

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - The Pier at Panama City Beach
The Pier At Panama City Beach, Florida

Most Americans and Canadians knows this, but for the benefit of our overseas readers, it might be worth mentioning that there's a Panama City in Florida, not just in the Latin American country of Panama. Even though the Latin American capital is about 20 times more populous, when you tell a North American you're going to Panama City, they're way more likely to assume you're headed to this beach town on Florida's panhandle.

In Saturday's blog we used Panama City as the eastern border in our definition of the northern Gulf of Mexico's beach destinations. We had the luck to be able to spend a week here on our way down to the central Florida vacation lands, and although it's a good five hours from the Mississippi Gulf Coast (where we're from originally) it still sort of felt like visiting home. We think it had a lot to do with the beach, the moss-covered oak trees, and the seafood.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Moss-Covered Oaks in Panama City
Moss-Covered Oaks in Panama City, Florida

Those mossy oaks deserve a special mention. Oaks are indigenous to the beach destinations of the Northern Gulf of Mexico, not the southern pines you see there so prevalently today and that you see so thickly growing just a few miles inland. Oaks are slow-growing hardwoods, and pines (the weeds of Southeastern trees) grow rapidly. Oak wood is prized for its durability and hardness; pine is valued for it's rapid growth and its resulting cheapness. Oaks thrive along the northern Gulf Coast because they're salt-hardy. In fact, when hurricanes sweep through with their tidal surges, the salt water kills the pines and leaves the oak trees.

Men have prized the durability of oaks for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. In Gulf Breeze, Florida, very close to Alabama's Redneck Riviera, you can find the Naval Live Oaks Reserve, part of the National Park Service's Gulf Islands National Seashore. Back when the United States of America was only a few years old, warships like the USS Constitution were built with oak. Being such a slow-growing wood, the federal government recognized it could take a century or more to grow and harvest enough wood to build a navy, so they planted a forest of live oaks. In the meantime, oak warships were replaced with steel ones, but the trees our founding fathers intended to become warships are still growing. It's bizarre to see these beautiful, majestic mature oak trees neatly planted in rows like just another fruit orchard, and it's especially bizarre to think that our government used to actually plan more than a century in advance.

The moss that decorates all these oaks, by the way, isn't a lichen as you may have thought: it's a leafless, flowerless, and seedless simple plant. Because of its biology, it absorbs water from the air, which means it needs a humid environment to live, which also explains why it thrives in this very humid geography. Moss has been used for centuries for bedding, insulation, kindling, and anywhere packing or filling material might be used.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Fried Shrimp, Oysters, and Fries
Fried Shrimp and Oyster Basket: Not Good For Your Heart or Waistline, But Oh, So Good For Your Soul!

If you come to Panama City or Panama City Beach, you're mostly likely coming for the beaches and for the seafood. You won't be disappointed in either regard. Captain Anderson's is a well-known mainstay, but it was still closed for the season when we visited. But based on this trip and our last visit a couple of years ago, we can recommend Pineapple Willy's and Schooner's in Panama City Beach and Uncle Ernie's and Bayou Joe's in Panama City (try Bayou Joe's for great breakfast options like their "bayou omelet" with shrimp, fish, and a heavenly cream cheese sauce). If you like seafood, but you're lost looking over the menu at a seafood restaurant, stay tuned for an upcoming blog on Gulf Seafood 101.

So far as beach-going, we think the best spots are the mile east and the mile west of Panama City Beach's giant pier or Saint Andrew's State Park. If you're looking for activities that don't track sand in your car, check TripAdvisor: there's a marine park, an alligator park, water parks, miniature golf, the Miracle Strip Amusement Park (in season), and even a Ripley's Believe It or Not in PCB. In Panama City, check out the Bear Creek Feline Center, the Museum of Man In The Sea, and don't forget to stroll around downtown. If you're into beach art, particularly pastel watercolors, be sure to stop in Paul Brent's gallery.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Lori on Beach at Sunset
Panama City Beach Faces Southwest, Offering Great Sunsets

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Chuck and Lori's Feet On The Beach
Next Week The White Stuff Under Our Feet Will Be Snow, Not Sand