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Arles, Provence

Still trying to conquer jetlag and enjoy the offerings on day 2 of our cruise. We have signed up for a leisurely walking tour through the city of Arles in classic Provence.

IMG_3503Breakfast in the dining room proffers an American style hot breakfast of omelets, scramble, sausage and bacon as well as a European selection of meat, cheese and fruit. Our breakfast companions inform me that the the coffee is excellent but I am avoiding liquid before our planned excursion as we have been told that French public toilets are scarce and…”oh la la.” Yes, they actually say that here.

Soon we board a comfortable Mercedes-Benz coach bus and we are off to explore Arles and the Roman ruins in the city. The scenic countryside of Provence unfolds outside our windows. Ditches are clotted with wild yellow iris and scarlet poppies. Cherries are just pinking up in their orchards, thorny artichokes ripen in neat rows, and bridal spirea hedgerows arch to the ground with their heavy blossom bounty. We fly past horses grazing in the morning sun, ancient terracotta roofs, giant sycamores, elegant cypress, a colour all their own.

We pull in to Arles on the Rhone river, just outside the city ramparts. The ancient stone ramparts are softened by eons of time and have given themselves over to wildflowers. Our guide says the city would like to restore them but I think they are magnificent as is.

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We enter the city beyond the ramparts and begin our walking tour through Arles. Classic Provence. Cobbled streets in amazingly good shape and lovely, colourful, shuttered windows bedecked with window boxes and planters of all kinds greet us cheerily. The ship gives us quiet box radios to listen to our guide through. We are lucky to have a most excellent and informed guide. She allows us to walk and explore at our own pace and we are guided by her voice, always knowing down which narrow alley the tour will go and when to jump out of the way of the cars which travel down these narrow streets.

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Arles is waking up this Monday morning and the small shops and cafes that dot the charming streets sputter to life.. The sun warm on the light breeze makes the walk perfect.  As we move through Arles we come to the Colosseum built by the Romans in 90 AD. The structure, largely intact serves today as a stadium where bullfights are hosted. Go Bull! Sitting on the cold, ancient stone seats brings the ghosts of another time to the fore.

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From there we head into Vincent Van Gogh territory, the cafe where he painted “Cafe Terrace at Night”. The cafe has been unfortunately completely bastardized for les touriste, but ah….stuff happened here.

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We also were treated to the spot Van Gogh was inspired to paint “Starry Night on The Rhone” and the garden courtyard  of the Hotel Dieu, “Garten des hospitals in Arles”, where Van Gogh was hospitalized after getting loose and free with a knife near an ear.

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Our walking tour through the streets of Arles is everything you could want in a brief tour of Provence. Arles and Provence define “quaint”.

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We wind our way slowly back to the coach and are transported to Tarascon where the ship has moved in the meanwhile to meet us. We board and head to the dining room for a light lunch of squid pasta and shrimp po’boys. Not quite classic but a very nice sandwich.

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After a brief nap (still recovering from the time change), we head up to the lounge for a pre dinner drink and await the briefing about the events for the following day after which we retire for dinner at the civilized hour of 7 pm.

At dinner we meet up with companions from day one who are entertaining dinner mates. Our foursome elects to abide by the chef’s choices for the evening: Poached Scallops and Avocado, Chateaubriand and Chocolate Souffle.

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IMG_3166IMG_3168Dinner was beautifully presented and accompanied by a local wine. All in all, an excellent meal. Tomorrow we do hope to take advantage of a cafe in Avignon on our free time.

Chicken, Biscuits & A Plantation

Another scorcher. Our day is planned around the Magnolia Plantation, about which I am very excited. Award winning gardens, open since 1870.

Breakfast is at a Triple D joint, Dixie Supply Bakery & Cafe. When we arrive, the lineup is out the door and remains that way through our stay. There is minimal seating inside so I grab the only available table outside. Rob lines up to order. It is about 30 minutes until we get food from this point.

When he comes back he brings two icy Diet Cheerwines, two plates with biscuit sandwiches of fried chicken an a fried egg, smothered in country gravy.

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He also brings a slice of heirloom tomato pie to share. The fried chicken sandwich is excellent, nice biscuit, crunchy chicken, perfect fried egg with a slightly runny yolk and delicious, peppery country gravy.

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The tomato pie is tomato heaven. Made with ripe tomato slices, cheddar cheese piled into a buttery, sourcream  crust and baked to perfection. The pie is accompanied by a gingerbread “crouton”. Curious but delicious. A fine breakfast indeed.

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Bellies full, we make our way out of town to Magnolia Plantation, land that has been in the Drayton family for 12 generations. The plantation is noted for its gardens, camellia collection, plantation home and restored slave quarters. After the civil war and the freeing of the Drayton labour force, the plantation continued to thrive by offering and charging for tours of the extensive gardens. There is also a petting zoo of rescued animals on site.

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I had very much looked forward to this tour. I have never seen a plantation before and this is one of the better ones apparently. However, this is labour day weekend and everyone and his dog decided to check out this historical treasure. This came as a huge surprise to the operators of the plantation. Like, “never before have they been busy on a holiday weekend” surprised.

After a lengthly walk from the auxiliary car parking, we encountered a lineup of Disneyesque proportions. In the scorching sun. We line up expecting to be moved through relatively quickly. Three of six ticket kiosks are open. A couple at one is there for 10 minutes. The line does not move. They averaged 3 minutes or more to accommodate each guest. After an hour in line, under a hot sun in 100 percent humidity, I am basically done by the time we reach the kiosk. We plan to just buy the all-inclusive tickets (or you pay general admission and add each and every tour you want to do) but are told this will take 5-6 hours, not doable on a day like this. We opt for the general admission and 4 of the available tours. “Lets get you signed up.”, the ticket master says! “We can’t get you started on any of the tours until 2:00.” It is currently 12:15. So we go over options. This is what is taking the line so long. They are doing this with each group. Two by two. Most disordered public attraction I have ever encountered. She kept apologizing for the long line. They did not expect this, despite having given out discount coupons for this busy holiday weekend. You’ve been doing this on some level since 1870.

Anyways, we severely curtail what we wanted to see. The heat and humidity are at unbearable levels, even for me who likes the heat. We manage to do a self guided walking tour for a little over an hour. We walked through the gardens which were actually well kept but not very interesting as little to nothing was in flower. We toured the beautiful, leafy conservatory, green with palms, ferns and an occasional potted orchid, with one or two statues. We headed over to the “Big House” where we viewed the grounds, back and front and checked out the crap…I mean, gift shop. We did not go inside the house because we could not get a tour at a reasonable time. It’s online however and quite interesting.

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We paid 2 bucks a pop for off brand bottled water, which they should have been distributing for free due to the line up we were forced to endure due to their incompetence and sat on the porch for some shade with 19-year-old Big House Cat, “Sylvester”.

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Soon after we headed back to our vehicle, which took us past the restored slave quarters. We again did not do the tour of the quarters as the schedule was ridiculous. The interiors are online and again are quite interesting.

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The Magnolia Plantation is a historical treasure and we are sure that had we visited at another time of year when they were more prepared, it was cooler and more of the gardens were in bloom, this would have been the highlight of our trip. As it was, it was a massive disappointment.

Afternoon siesta: required. I love Charleston but this was absolutely the wrong weekend to land here. The city is stinking hot, humid and crowded with tourists for the holiday weekend. I’d like to come back in April.

Tonight we will have our final meal in Charleston at The Fleet Landing. We have 7 pm reservations. When we leave there are people doing an hour and a half wait. This does not speak necessarily to the quality of the food but the fact that the city is so crowded.

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The Fleet Landing is a five minute walk from our hotel. We get there early and have a drink at the bar.

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It’s a good spot to watch food being purveyed around. A live menu. When we are seated we order another round and apps. I order the crab cake. I know, I said I was done with them but this one looked to be good. I was right. It was all lump crab meat, with a bit of mayo, fried with an ultra thin crust,  served on a salad of fresh corn and topped with fried onions that on this evening were a little limp (as is everything in this city at the moment). Good idea, though.

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Rob had the calamari “steak” which was finger sized strips of squid battered and perfectly, crisply fried. Served with two sauces, a sweet Thai and an aioli. Quite delish.

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Beautiful, hot angel biscuits and butter appear. Mmmmm…

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Mains arrive. Seafood fettuccine for me, with three plump scallops, good shrimp, mussels, and crawfish tails in a nice cream sauce. The generous coins of andouille sausage were really good and super spicy with a heat that kept on coming. They do not offer shaved parm but there are a few thin slivers melted on top. Unnecessary really.

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Rob’s main was a fried seafood plate with shrimp, scallops with some Charleston red rice and some creamy coleslaw. First off, the sides were killer. The red rice was smoky and seasoned with just a little zing. The cole slaw was creamy with a bite. The fried shrimp and scallops were a little greasy, which is a first in our experience of the South. Usually, items are fried perfectly. Not so, here. The shrimp were better, but the scallops were not winners. Even so, there was a lot of food, so a lot got left on the plate anyway, but there was not a single grain of that red rice left.

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Goodbye Charleston. Tomorrow we head to Wilmington North Carolina on our way to Washington, DC.

 

Road Trip – Savannah!

We have two full days in Savannah. First things first. Get the lay of the land. Best way to accomplish this is a “hop on-hop off” bus tour. We sign up with Old Savannah Tours. 16 stops and it leaves from the front of our hotel. The tour is informative with actors hopping on occasionally to bring the Old City alive.

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Our only complaint was that it was hard to take pictures. The trolley driver never slowed for photo ops. Even the train on last summer’s “road trip” slowed for pics. It was also hot and not the best light. We will go back early morning or evening for more pictures. On the plus side several of our touring companions were of the canine persuasion. This is Bailey.

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Our “hop on-hop off” pass enabled us to debus at The City Market. Very little in the way of breakfast places were open at 10:30. We found just one place, Pie Society, open. A happy accident indeed.

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They serve tea and savory pasties as well as sweet pies. We both ordered egg and sausage pasties hot out of the oven. Wrapped in a buttery, flaky pastry were two hard boiled eggs and a sausage.

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We split a smaller sausage and apple roll that seemed intriguing. This roll was also nice and flaky with a sausage interior spiced with sage and large pieces of apple. Inexpensive, excellent fare.

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After completing the 90 minute tour and experiencing some of Old Savannah, a city designed around 24 town squares/parks, we climb aboard Moby and head to Tybee Island for lunch and a view of the Atlantic ocean. A short drive through the porous coastline brings us into the island and to the famous lighthouse.

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We explore a little more, through kitschy seaside neighbourhoods reminiscent of the Florida Keys and then head to the ocean beach for a look-see.

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…and then head over to The Crab Shack for lunch.

The Crab Shack on Tybee Island, is a string of “hurricane-chic” huts strung together. Completely homemade. Completely fun.

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When we first arrive we are attracted to The Cat Shack, a home made cat house for the semi-feral cat population. The staff ask that you not feed any wild or domestic animals. Signs assure patrons that the kitties are well fed and spayed and neutered. Meet Oreo and Smokey.

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On the patio overlooking an inlet, the sun is hot, there is a gentle breeze and the beer is cold. Misters and fans keep us cool.

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We order Blue Moons and Yeungling and wait for our massive House Specialty Sampler Platter of local crab, shrimp, mussels, crawfish, sausages, potatoes, corn on the cob and Alaskan king crab, done in the Crab Shack’s own spicy boil.

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I do not want Alaskan king crab in an area that has its own fresh seafood, but I must admit it was good. The corn on the other hand was mushy. This is a common complaint of ours at “boils” or BBQ joints. They cook it ahead of time and leave it in a pot of hot water all day. Corn cooks fast so make it fresh or don’t bother. The meal was good, messy fun and perfect with the sunshine, the view and the company. On the whole, the local seafood is delicious and the beer goes down well.

Time for a little siesta back at the hotel before rooftop cocktails, a stroll along the Savannah River front and dinner at Rocks on the River. Rocks, located in our hotel, The Bohemian, is right on the Savannah River where the river is fairly narrow affording amazing views of huge ocean freighters loaded with colourful cargo containers drifting by so close you think you could touch them.

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After a stroll by the shops along the river front and a cocktail at Rocks on the roof, we head down for dinner. Staff is friendly and efficient as it has been throughout our stay. We are seated and order. Chicken and waffle app to share and she-crab bisque for me. The bisque is reputed to be the best in the city. It tastes delicately of crab with a mild alcohol bite. I have to say my shrimp cognac bisque kicks this bisque’s ass. More booze for a larger sting and a good reduced seafood stock are the key for a deeper flavour.

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The chicken and waffles is decent but no where near the gold standard that is Roscoe’s in LA. This is an app and it has been tarted up with boursin and arugula (Snoop Dog dies a little). A sweet strawberry-black pepper coulis adds a nice foil to the fried chicken. All in all a fine app.

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Mains arrive, seared scallops and succotash for me and a hopefully righteous burger for Rob. The scallops are perfect and the succotash is excellent. Lima beans, corn, peas and smoky, salty bacon.

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Rob’s burger was indeed righteous – Great bun, great toppings and most importantly, good beefy flavour.

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Washed down with a bottle of Perrier-Jouet, a fine evening indeed.

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Austin!

Touched down just after noon on Friday. Up since 4 am we are tired and hungry. Austin is overcast and a light rain falls but it is also verdant with spring, mild and the birds are singing, with the bonus of being sans slush and the treachery that is our Ottawa driveway currently.

Rob and I have been to Austin on two other occasions for all-too-brief stops on road trips, so we already have a basic lay of the land and some favorite places to grab a bite. We make an easy decision. Gueros!


Guero's Taco Bar on Urbanspoon

Despite the drizzle, South Congress is alive and buzzing on this Friday mid-afternoon. We luck into a parking spot across from the restaurant and head in. Guero’s is packed but has a couple of free tables. We get seated and first up: Margaritas! We already know Guero’s does ’em right. They offer about 15 margs with different tequilas. We order The Don, February’s featured marg made with Don Julio tequila, Triple Sec, fresh lime juice, rocks, salted rim for me, no salt for Rob. Our drinks arrive with a slice of lime and starting to sweat. Guero margs are in short glasses and are about twenty shades paler than the neon chartreuse abomination that the unfortunate think is a real margarita. Ooooh! Goes down easy after our long day.

Drinks arrive with complimentary, well made corn tortilla chips and two house salsas. The first, a smooth, roasted tomato chile dip provides a nice spicy burn. The second is a fresh, chunky pico de gallo with a hint of creaminess provided by some chopped avocado. I’m not sure which I prefer. Both are great with a margarita. I do immediately regret wearing a white shirt however.

Starving, we select a few apps off the menu to share. Tacos Al Pastor and Chorizo Quesadillas. The tacos are small, open-faced and piled with spiced pork and pico de gallo laced with coriander and fresh pineapple. They come with lots of fresh lime. The quesadillas keep me coming back to Guero’s. The soft, pillowy flour tortillas (corn are also available) are sumptuous with just enough cheese, chorizo and spiced oil rendered from the meat to glue the tortillas together. A generous helping of guacamole and sour cream for spooning up with each bite makes these the perfect marg-soaking-up food. With our bellies content we head to the hotel to check in and have a much needed nap.

Refreshed and ready to roll, we select the Iron Cactus for dinner because we can walk there. We are only a block from 6th street which is hopping on a Friday night despite the rain. The Iron Cactus, a large two story affair here in Austin, has a few locations in Texas, much like the Lone Star in Ontario minus the fake Texas crap and waiter named Durango. We have a 15 minute wait at the bar where the tender tells us they make a  mighty good margarita. We bite. They have a pretty good array of tequila behind the bar. He makes us a decent drink with fresh lime and agave nectar. It’s good but a tad too sweet. Not bad though. The bar is noisy on a Friday. We are by a factor of two, the oldest people in the joint. Oddly the sound track beckons to us: The Zombies, Johnny Cash, Pink Floyd, Tom Petty and Steppenwolf.

Iron Cactus on UrbanspoonAfter we are seated, I order a local beer, Fireman Four. Complimentary chips with two roasted chile -tomato salsas, one warm, one cold arrive. Chips are good and the salsas tasty. We order a Chile Con Queso app. It arrives in a cast iron pan, thin and white with a few chunks of chilies and tomato. Quite average but really good when sharing a chip with the mildly spicy roasted salsas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For mains we are sharing an order of shrimp and pork carnitas fajitas. The dish arrives hot but not sizzling.  The pork is in good sized chunks, sweet and nicely spicy. The shrimp appear to be wild caught as they have an intense shrimpy taste and are smokey sweet. Accompanying the proteins are nicely sauteed onions, poblanos, and red peppers. The flour tortillas (again corn are offered) are soft and perfect. Our mains come with a choice of beans. We both opt for the bacon onion beans which are very good but not sweet. The Mexican rice is dull and the classic fajita fixins are fine but in our book cheese is a no no and the guacamole had been set out too far in advance and had started to oxidize which is unappetizing.

We head back to our hotel via 6th Street, Austin’s bar and restaurant scene. Lots of colourful characters and live music spill out into the street. Can’t wait to check it out!