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  • Writer's pictureSusan Byers

N'Awlins, Y'all!

There is much to love about New Orleans. There is the juxtaposition of old and new, antique iron lace, stucco and brick against a background of glass and concrete; the driving beats of jazz against the constant pulse of traffic ...

... convoluted canopies of old oak trees draped with Spanish moss and furred with ferns ...

... colorful old houses twisted out of shape by the shifting earth (New Orleans was built on a swamp, and bedrock can be over a hundred feet down) ...

... artists and restaurants and street performers and music, music and more music! Yes, it's a big city, and many parts are less than attractive. But so much of it is vibrant and full of life! It seems to have a heartbeat of its own. And already, weeks before Mardi Gras, everything is already decked out in purple, green and gold.

Getting to the Big Easy wasn't easy, a three-day slog from Orlando, mostly flat and straight. And after just two days here, we are heading out again. But what a full two days!

Our campground, the New Orleans KOA, a good half-hour or more from the old part of the city, offers a shuttle to the French Quarter, and it included a bit of a tour ... about 40 minutes' worth of amusing chatter about, oh, all kinds of tidbits, from local lore to how things have changed since Katrina, to bits of history around the city. We drove through part of the Garden District and along parade paths, where the trees are dripping with Mardi Gras beads from years past.

Once in the French Quarter, we headed straight to Café du Monde for beignets, because that's what you do when you visit New Orleans ...

Café au lait with chicory for me, hot chocolate for Len. We made short work of it (that's my second cup of coffee) and had powdered sugar down the fronts of our shirts (I was prepared, and wore a scarf to hide the evidence).

The beignets and coffee with chicory are still as good as I remember, but the café is a big, noisy machine these days; there are other places to enjoy New Orleans' favorite breakfast in more peaceful environs. We understand The Ritz has the really good ones ... We'll find out next time.

After breakfast, we took a tour of the city on a double-decker bus.

Of course I had to ride on top ... which was only partially covered with a canopy. At first, it was lovely. But then, the sun disappeared behind clouds and the breeze picked up, and it got downright chilly.

We had struck up a conversation with the couple behind us during a pause in the guide's recitation, and when four seats opened up down below (it was a hop-on-hop-off bus that you could get off when you wanted to explore), we moved down together. Frequent visitors to New Orleans, Nancy and Paul were headed to Commander's Palace, a popular restaurant in a lovely old Victorian mansion that I had considered as a spot for dinner, and we ... well, we kind of invited ourselves to join them--and are so glad we did! The four of us really hit it off over a long, lovely lunch (the 25 cent martinis didn't hurt), then headed back to catch the next bus and finish our tour.

We exchanged contact info with Nancy and Paul, and promised to get in touch next time we were in Philly (we'll be there in March). There were no seats below, so we went back upstairs. Nancy and Paul moved down when a couple of seats opened up, but before they got off near their hotel, Nancy ran up to give us hugs and repeat her invitation to get together again. We texted back a forth a bit throughout the afternoon.

The next day was rainy in the morning and chill, but we were prepared for that, planning to visit the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. This time, we drove into town. The museum is a lovely gem of a collection, comprising everything from prehistoric works to Native American beading and basketry to Greek urns to Renaissance and Impressionist masters to modern art--including a room dedicated to the Bayou School of Art--in a relatively small but elegant venue. There was one work there that deserves its own blog, so stay tuned. We were there a good two hours and would love to have stayed longer to see the third floor, but we still had lunch and the Aquarium. Next time.

We left the truck near the museum and caught the streetcar downtown, not wanting to negotiate the streets with our dually (a big-butt truck with four tires in back). What we'd forgotten about was that part of the streetcar route was blocked off because of the Hard Rock Hotel collapse last October.

It's still standing there (behind the red brick building), with a crane precariously hanging off of it--and two bodies still inside that can't be safely retrieved (it's scheduled for demolition in March, after Mardi Gras). This meant that halfway through our trip downtown, we had to transfer to a bus, which took a winding path around several blocks and dropped us off to pick up another streetcar on the other side of the blockade. While we were discussing which stop we needed, a young woman asked where we were trying to go. We told her, "Mother's," (another popular eatery that's been around for almost a century), and she told us to get off when she did. She sat near us, made sure we got off with her, then pointed us in the right direction.

After sharing a shrimp-and-oyster po' boy and filé gumbo at Mother's, we hiked half a mile to the Aquarium, supposedly one of the best in the country. Design-wise, it really is terrific, but we were frustrated by the lack of information about the various tanks and other exhibits. They need more signage! The highlight: ...

... getting to feed the stingrays in the petting tank. They have big, soft mouths that gently suck little fish out of your hand. It was SO COOL! I felt like I was seven.

We left at closing time (five) and repeated the streetcar-and-bus slog, which took a very cold hour--I had left my coat in the truck because it was so warm when we left the museum ... It was warm for maybe 30 minutes.

At the end of the line, we chatted a bit with the operator, who was from Illinois, like Len. After that, we still had a 45-minute/7.5 mile drive to get home (getting around this city is ... challenging). Fortunately for our dogs, the KOA offered a walking service (thank you, Roberta!), so we knew they were okay.

One of the most wonderful parts of our trip has been meeting really nice, interesting, often generous people wherever we go. At our first campground, an elderly couple asked if we liked tomatoes, and the next thing we knew, they delivered three huge ones, the size of small pumpkins. The following day, it was peaches from their neighbor's tree (they lived just minutes away, but were camping with their grandchildren). And corn. At our second campground, we parked next to a well-known holistic veterinarian, Dr. Judy Morgan, who gave us a copy of one of her books when she learned we were traveling with dogs. We have stayed at that campground a few times, and one of our favorite things about it are the chickens and ducks the campground managers keep.

The last time we were there, we got into a conversation about the chickens with their owner and ended up with two dozen eggs--and another dozen the day we left! At another campground, we asked about getting wood for campfires, and several people got involved in making that happen (we hardly made a dent in all that showed up, so we left it for the next campers). We had a lovely visit with a woman at a winery where we spent the night a couple of times coming and going to Asheville. There were several Canadians we chatted with most mornings at a recent place. Almost any time I've had trouble backing into a tight site, helpful souls appear to help. And the myriad conversations struck up while walking the dogs are beyond counting.

So our trip has been--and no doubt will continue to be--a combination of seeing the country while visiting family and old friends, and making new friends. A few we may see again; most we will not. But we will always treasure the interactions that enrich this journey beyond measure.

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