Sunday, July 24, 2011

Two Busy Weeks in Cape May

My recent two-week vacation was packed with more action than usual but at the same time I actually attained relaxation. I had planned a reading and writing vacation and brought a few stacks of books and notebooks. My main writing would be for's Jersey Shore Blog. I'm contributing there about extreme South Jersey (i.e. Cape May, Wildwood, and points inland) just for the summer season. Therefore, I'd have to experience some adventures so I'd have plenty to write about for the agreed-upon twice-a-week posts.

On my first day, I took a whale watching cruise out of Cape May. I've done this before and only ever seen dolphins, so I was set to write a nice little post about those Atlantic Bottlenose scamps. To my surprise, the captain announced that there were three humpback whales sighted about eleven miles out and we were headed right for them. I'd seen whales off Bar Harbor, Maine, and San Diego, California, but never off the coast of Cape May! But there was one right in front of our boat, spouting and diving, and I got some great whale's tail photos. It was magnificent. Read about that cruise here.

I like boats and I'll take any excuse to ride on one. I also like pirates. We set sail on Wildwood's Dark Star Pirate Cruise on the last day of vacay. Fred and I were the only adults not accompanied by kids, but we had a fabulous time. Those pirates maintained the action and the interest for the entire hour. We learned some pirate jokes, pirate lingo, pirate history, hauled some treasure aboard, and we got to engage in a firefight (actually water) with another pirate ship. I posted about that here.

In-between the whales and the pirates, I explored Cape May. As a lifetime part-time resident, I know this place well, but I always learn new things on these (Cape May Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities) tours. During these two weeks, I toured East Cape May to see the mansions by the sea,

West Cape May to learn about its farms and history, the iconic Victorian architecture including Show allthe Physick Estate,

the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center (including the Sunset Parade), the 2011 Designer Show House (this year on the century-old Cape May Harbor), and I had a seat on the Ghosts of the Lighthouse Trolley Tour. Ghosts are really big this year (in New Orleans, too), so I had to sample a piece of Cape May's paranormal offerings. This tour included a nighttime climb of the lighthouse, another first for me. I have or will post about all of these things on that blog, along with some local farmers' markets and the Ocean Drive. What a fun experience that has been, and I still have over a month of posts left to dream up.

There were two excursions during this vacation that required some mileage and some decent outfits: a very pleasant al fresco dinner party with friends, and a book talk and signing at the Avalon Public Library. I just happened to notice an ad for this in the newspaper, but people I spoke to at the event had been looking forward to it for months. David and Julie Nixon Eisenhower spoke about themselves, their families, and their new book, Going Home to Glory, about Dwight D. Eisenhower's post-presidential years (1961-1969). I had the opportunity to chat with Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and found her quite witty and charming. They were headed to Cape May after the talk, and when she asked me how long it would take to get there, I had the answer: 27 minutes.

Even with all of these adventures, I had to be sure to squeeze in my favorite activity, the beach! I made it to my three favorites, the Cape May Point State Park beach, the Delaware Bay Beach (with Gladys), and the ocean beach at Jackson Street. A Cape May vacation can be so much more than just the beach, though! I hope you will click on some of the links above to get a sample of how I'm keeping myself busy this summer!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Perfecting our Saunter at Three Louisiana Sugar Palaces

The River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is actually a network of roads on both sides of the Mississippi River. Sugar cane was the big money crop here (and is still grown here), and the grand plantations built on sugar remember a grand lifestyle. We toured three of these, perfecting out hot-weather saunters on a sunny June day in Louisiana.

First on the agenda was Laura, a Creole plantation built in 1805 in Vacherie, Louisiana. The tour through the house and grounds was fantastic and we felt the most authentic of the three we'd see. We learned that these houses are supported by huge underground pyramids of bricks because the earth is so soft and wet. The house is painted in traditional Creole colors which set it apart from the white Greek Revival mansions we would see next.

Another unusual fact about Laura is that since its owners were of French descent, they saw no problem with women inheriting property. (The English didn't allow it.) Three generations of women ran the Laura plantation, ending with Laura Locoul Gore, upon whose memoirs the tours are based. The first-hand accounts of family and house history helped make this tour compelling.

It's also interesting to learn that the folktales told by the Senegalese slaves at Laura were recorded by a Louisiana State University professor and eventually became known as the B'rer Rabbit tales.

Just upriver from Laura, and still in Vacherie, sits Oak Alley with its iconic 300-year-old live oak canopy. This shot seems to be everywhere, but I had to take a few of my own. The trees predate the current house and the levee across the street. The 28 oaks were planted by the French owner of a much more modest house exactly 80 feet apart. The idea is for the two lines of massive oaks to draw the cool river breezes towards the house and sauntering people. One hundred years after that modest house, the current mansion was built on the site with 28 Doric columns, eight feet in circumference. (That's thick, but consider those huge live oaks are about 30 feet around!)
People used to sit on the veranda , sipping mint juleps, to watch the ships passing on the river. That's no longer possible since the levee hides the river from view. On the other hand, that levee protected the region during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Our third plantation visit was Houmas House in Burnside, Louisiana. This one gets the prize for the most interesting gardens. Exotic, tropical flowers, ponds, fountains, whimsical garden accents, and buildings populate the grounds along with live oaks, magnolias, and crape myrtles. There is color everywhere. This Greek Revival "sugar palace" was begun in the early 1800s and finished in the 1840s by his son-in-law. Gorgeous hand-carved furniture and fine art decorate the house along with noteworthy architectural elements. The three-story free-standing wooden spiral staircase caught my eye, as did the older, colorful French House connected behind the mansion which contains an open-hearth kitchen. By the way, men are required to climb it first so that women don't accidentally flash them any...ankle. Re-watch the movie "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte"--it was filmed here and Bette Davis got to stay in the house. Today the current owner lives in the mansion, and it was a little odd to come upon his historically-correct bedroom and walk through it on the tour. Odder still, the wedding picture display of his pair of Golden Retrievers...