The Florida Panhandle
Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge: Located just where the Florida Panhandle begins, this is a large, quiet, and beautiful refuge. The Florida Panhandle is the least populated part of Florida, and one of the least populated areas in the Eastern US. We went for a couple of lovely hikes here. You really don’t feel like you’re in Florida® anymore.
Driving the Big Bend Scenic Byway: Some call this area “Old Florida” as the endless sprawl that has developed in other parts of the state has yet to find its way here. This drive along the coast is absolutely breathtaking in its beauty. For much of it, the highway winds along with the ocean are on one side and the forest on the other. Most buildings along the southern coasts are erected upon stilts in case of flooding. We’ve seen so many of these, it’s become commonplace for this area. Along the drive we also passed through several picturesque towns, including our favourite, Apalachiola, a small fishing village responsible for most of Florida’s oyster extraction and a really nice place to spend an afternoon wandering. We wandered into the Owl Café to discover they had vegan jambalaya. Delish!
Bald Point State Park: This park has an absolutely gorgeous beach, and some amazing opportunities to see birds. If it wasn’t so chilly, we definitely would have gone swimming. Just under the water, we spotted several cute little hermit crabs scuttling along, leaving little trails behind them in the sand. When we got close, they quickly hid in their shells, trying to pretend they weren’t even there.
St. Andrews State Park: We decided to spend the night here after discovering they had available campsites. While Panama City was nothing special, this state park is really beautiful. Is has several beaches to choose from, one of which faces the lagoon and has a breakwater that makes for a more enjoyable swimming environment. There is also a marsh with dozens of nesting Great Blue Herons, and a small community of deer, including a number of beautiful bucks. Our campsite was right beside the water, and definitely the prettiest one we’ve had so far. The birds here are more comfortable with humans, and one Great Blue Heron watched us make breakfast with great interest. After turning our backs to observe a nearby red-bellied woodpecker, the heron was right up and over the picnic table scoping things out. It quickly, backed off, only to sneak around the tent to try another approach. It only left after we put everything away.
Gulf Islands National Seashore: A collection of preserves, the Gulf Islands National Seashore has beaches unlike any we’d seen before. Entire islands made of rolling white sand dunes and beach as far as we could see. While we were passing through, the fog was thick and it was quite windy and deserted, all of which made it feel like we were driving on another planet.
Bonus: Using Walmart parking lots to sleep in the van for free.
Strawberry Sweet Tea: It is that good.
Mobile Carnival Museum: As Mardi Gras was fast approaching (it was only six days away) and there were no parades in Mobile that day (it was very quiet in town as folks recuperated from earlier events), we decided to brush-up on some history and took a tour of the local carnival museum. It’s really interesting how differently Mardi Gras is celebrated in different towns along the coast. In Mobile, where it started in 1703 (unless you’re talking to someone from New Orleans), Mardi Gras is marked by the usual parades, but also extravagant balls with kings and queens who have incredibly complex suits, dresses, and trains. Our tour guide insisted on calling the Civil War the War of Northern Aggression, so that tells you something. The other interesting thing about Mardi Gras (in the larger cities at least), is the fetish locals have for demonstrations of opulence, extravagance, and the exclusivity of monarchies – the same things America was so keen to reject in its formation.
OK Bicycle Shop: A bar with an enormous selection of delicious beer and awesome Mexican food. We spent several hours here drinking and unwinding from many days of driving.
Bonus: Alabama Coastal Connection Scenic Byway, the architectural driving tour of mobile (more than an hour of beautiful old houses), small non-stick cooking pots (it took days of searching, but Ben finally found one).
New Orleans, Louisiana
The food: There was so much delicious food to be found in New Orleans, even for a vegan. Our first breakfast was at The Crepe Cart, where we enjoyed a delicious pecan pesto, broccoli, tomato, and spinach crepe. The beignets (donut-like pastries coated in icing sugar) were sumptuous – just don’t try adding the left-over sugar to your coffee – gross!!). The roasted sweet potato po-boy at Killer PoBoys was super satisfying. The vegan fettuccine and mussels at Bacchanal was excellent. We were able to grab vegan sausages (topped with rice and beans) at Dreamy Weenies. Perhaps the most delicious meal was African jambalaya with steamed spinach and plantains at Bennechin. The chefs here know what they’re doing.
The music: Music is everywhere in New Orleans. Every corner you turn is a new discovery. Bourbon street was a ridiculous party (we were here on February 5th and 6th so the real event was still a few days away), but the constant music and good cheer kept us from feeling too overwhelmed. In particular, we loved the music of the French band Harmonouche. The next day, while walking, we stumbled upon an absolutely magical gathering. As we turned a corner we began to hear the sounds of a tuba and decided to investigate. As we walked across some train tracks towards a large warehouse, the music got louder. Finally, coming around a corner, we were enveloped in sound. A couple dozen musicians had gathered in a large circle in an industrial parking lot and were making the most amazing music. We stopped to listen, as did some others, before continuing on, leaving the band to fill the neighbourhood with music. They were still there, playing when we returned hours later.
The parades: On the Saturday, we watched the Krewe of Isis parade. There were more than 20 extravagant floats, and just as many marching bands. It was absolutely epic in scope, and it’s hard to comprehend that this is just one of several dozen smaller parades that take place in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras proper. There was a visible difference in energy levels between those excitedly throwing things from the floats and those exhaustedly marching (the parade had already been going for three hours when it passed us). While many were yelling for beads and other loot, it is, in fact, hard not to come away with something. Watching a Mardi Gras parade is kind of like a martial arts exercise in self-defence – we needed to constantly protect ourselves from numerous aerial projectiles flying towards us from multiple directions. Without being careful, we were likely to be hit in the face by a necklace of plastic beads.
The French Quarter: It may be tourist-central, but it is a great part of town to walk around, even during the lead-up to Mardi Gras. There are so many historic buildings, nice parks, small streets, shops, and hundreds of places to eat and drink. Parking was exceedingly difficult though (but that was mostly due to much of the street parking being cordoned off).
The Bywater: A couple of neighbourhoods east of the French Quarter, is a much quieter part of town, and definitely a charming one. Several people had recommended visiting this part of town, and specifically Bacchanal. It’s a little hard to explain what Bacchanal is. It’s part wine and cheese shop, park cocktail bar, part restaurant, part backyard patio and music venue. We ordered a bottle of wine, some food, and spent several hours outside enjoying a couple of different jazz bands. Nearby, we visited The Country Club, a large queer-friendly house in the middle of a residential street famous for its bottomless mimosa brunches, cocktails, and backyard pool where you can drink, swim, and party. It was pretty chilly while we were in New Orleans, so we didn’t swim, but we did try alcoholic root beer for the first time – it’s dangerously good.
The Historic New Orleans Collection: This pretty great (and free) museum was recommended to us by one of the local book shop owners. There are lots of maps (which Ben loves) and other artifacts illustrating the city’s history, mostly all written in French. It was very cool and quiet, and nice break from the surrounding chaos.
Bonus: The Mardi Gras weekend mask market (where local artisans were selling some amazingly creative Mardi Gras masks), all the awesome book shops, the free daily history walks offered by the National Parks Service, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway (at 23+ miles long, it’s the longest continuous bridge in the world), the New Orleans Food Co-op, the tree from True Detective (it’s about an hour away, but were pretty sure we found it).