Vacations

This looks like we had our car all packed up and ready for family vacation, doesn’t it? And we did … although we really hadn’t started packing yet. Fourteen folks in my family were headed to the beach in various cars and at various times and turned out Dear Husband and I had the fewest people and the most room in our car. So of course when we were all in the pre-packing stage, I told everybody, “Sure, we’ll take those chairs/boxes/bags for you if you don’t have room. No problem.” I was happy to help out and it wasn’t a problem — until I realized I’d almost offered out all available space and left only a few square inches for Husband’s and my bags. But some creative shifting freed up the necessary room. And, as usual, I overpacked, anyway. Anytime I’m lucky enough to go to the beach, I end up being totally minimalist and pulling on whatever’s easiest — T-shirts and shorts over swimsuits most of the time  — and not even caring if I’m wearing the correct white top-with-black-capris combo accented with appropriate jewelry and handbags I usually do during Real Life. (Hey, I’m a Southern girl. Appropriate handbags are in our DNA, you know.) Sadly, I forget that and always persist in carefully packing coordinated outfits that end up unworn in favor of the wrinkled three-days-in-a-row tank top. And I bet there are lots of you all who suffer from Vacation Overpacking Disorder, too. We should band together and start a support group. And of course the only cure for our afflication is — more vacation packing! Who’s with me???

Tunica

We went to Tunica and all I got was some chocolate cake. My husband was luckier, however — he picked up two first-place awards from the Mississippi Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest for headlines and sports columns. We were in Tunica recently for the MPA annual get-together and awards luncheon. It was my first glimpse of the famous gambling town and only my second time ever to go to a casino. And in fact we didn’t even go to the casino so my record still stands at once … and I don’t think I got the full experience even then since I only sat at a nickel machine for a few minutes and watched my dollar bill dribble away. Sigh. Anyway, our Tunica adventure was on a Saturday and my sports-editor husband could only take enough time out of a work day to drive over (Down? Up?) to the luncheon, so we only saw the inside of the Harrah’s conference-center room. I had a blast sitting with friends from my husband’s newspaper, and although we were all less than impressed with the food and the service — Seriously, no tea or water refills and only one carafe of coffee for 200 people? — our dessert of chocolate cake certainly looked intriguing. The cake itself was on the dry side, but the berry puree and the chocolate ganache were divine. I also can report that I saw beautifully landscaped grounds and a sign advertising the Paula Deen Buffet, but that’s about it for my Tunica Harrah’s experience. Husband and I agreed we needed to come back and stay longer. See for yourself at http://www.harrahstunica.com/casinos/grand-casino-resort-tunica/hotel-casino/property-home.shtml.

Helen Keller and Tuscumbia, Alabama

I always forget that people come from all over the world to our little corner of northwest Alabama to see Helen Keller’s birthplace, Ivy Green, in Tuscumbia. I drive past the historic site practically every day and love seeing school buses and tour buses and license tags from All Those Other Places That Are Not Alabama.  If you’ve never been, you’ve got to schedule a visit. The birthplace is down-home and low-key and you will learn so much. Everyone’s always amazed to see how small the cabin is where Anne Sullivan took her wild-child charge for some intense one-on-one training — and how close the building is to the Keller’s actual house. And the famous water pump is there, too. Now is a good time to come. It’s the Helen Keller Festival, a week of music, art, history, Southern culture and deaf/blind awareness. You also can watch an outdoor performance of “The Miracle Worker” on the Ivy Green grounds — essentially watching the story unfold on the very spot where it happened. Learn more at http://www.helenkellerfestival.com and http://www.helenkellerbirthplace.org/. And while you’re there, be sure to wander around downtown Tuscumbia. You’ll find a cozy local bookstore with real nooks and crannies and comfortable reading spots, a chic women’s boutique, an authentic drugstore where you can get actual old-fashioned milkshakes and malts and my favorite spot of all: A prom- and wedding-dress shop smack dab next to a feed store. I didn’t realize how incongruous this was until one day I saw some Folks Not From Around Here taking a photo. I personally don’t see anything weird about it, but then I’m someone who knows that when you order “tea” in a restaurant, it’s supposed to come in a long tall icy glass and be sweet enough that the spoon stands by itself. So there you go.

Lynchburg, Tennessee

For years I have driven past Lynchburg, Tennessee — home of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey — several times a month on the way to my hometown of Manchester, Tennessee. Lynchburg famously is the tiny little town that Jack built. It’s an old-fashioned town square tucked into the Tennessee hills and surrounded by all things Jack Daniel. So far, so good. The thing is, lately Husband and I have noticed that  every time we drive by, the square is full of motorcycles. It’s true. Apparently Lynchburg has become a motorcycle destination. And I want to know why. Also: How? I mean, what is it about Lynchburg that attracts so many bikers? And how does the word get out? Is it some sort of motorcycle flashmob? Simple coincidence? Inquiring minds … But motorcycles are not the only intriguing visitors to Lynchburg. On a recent walk around town, I spotted: 1) A stretch limo so long it took up practically one whole side of the square; 2) two guys with backpacks who talked like Bret and Jemaine from the Flight of the Concherds; 3) two barefoot guys literally running around taking digital camera shots of every building; 4) a young dreadlocked couple who wanted their picture taken with a sculpture of an elderly man playing checkers; and 5) a man with a Minnesota car tag who was asking the tourism-bureau volunteer about a route to Nashville that was both scenic and quick — and who argued with her when she told him it couldn’t be done. In Tennessee, you can be quick. Or you can be scenic. You have to choose — unless, maybe, you’re riding a motorcycle. Learn more about Lynchburg at http://www.lynchburgtn.com/ — y’all come!

Packing

Whether I’m traveling on a 10-day vacation or an overnight stay at grandson Capt. Adorable’s house, I overpack. I can’t help it. It’s not that I’m a fashionista and I have to change clothes three times a day and always be perfectly and impeccably dressed. On the contrary, I’m pretty low maintenance and can even wear a pair of blue jeans, like, three days in a row. It’s just that I’m wishy-washy and notoriously indecisive and when I’m standing in my own closet it takes me many many minutes to figure out what to wear. So when I’m packing to go somewhere I have to plan for that. I mean, how do I know in advance what I might think that I want to wear? I have to include all the choices I would mull over so I can dilly-dally in front of my luggage  the same was I hem-and-haw in my closet at home. The result, of course, is that I end up with 2 1/2 tightly packed bags for a friend’s out–of-town wedding weekend, my husband as always brings along only a half-empty tote and I’m highly embarrassed when we stop on the way to visit another friend and she’s got everything she needs for a two-week tour of Italy tucked into A KID-SIZED BACKPACK. Read more in my weekly newspaper column at http://www.timesdaily.com/article/20100604/NEWS/100609931, and share your packing tips. Please!!!

Travel

When the gray and cloudy days of winter seem as if they’ll go on forever, just remember that somewhere the sun is shining and the sky is blue — and sometimes that somewhere is just a few hours away. Some friends and I were lucky enough to get an early spring break this past week when we gathered for some girls-only time at Perdido Key, Florida. We stayed at Needle Rush Point, and if you are looking for a non-high-rise Gulf Coast vacation spot, you need to check it out. It”s comfortable and homey and just right for hanging around, talking and laughing and eating and not doing much of anything else — which is exactly what we needed. Needle Rush is on the Gulf and also across the street on the bay/river side, which faces famed and exclusive Ono Island. We tried our best to spot some of the rumored celebrities who might or might not have houses over there, but the only folks around were locals and snowbirds — retirees who’ve had enough of winter and come south to enjoy the sun. Of course, it still seemed chilly to us Alabamians, but when you can walk along the beach and eat fresh seafood, who’s complaining? Check out Needle Rush Point at http://www.needlerushpoint.com/

Food

When winter is getting to you, isn’t it lucky to have friends with beachfront condos? Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mary Bonnie! She invited some of us to share one of her weeks at the Gulf coast condo she and her husband have — and just in time, too, since here in Alabama we’ve had enough snow and ice and cold to last us, thank you very much. We had a great time and I’ll tell you all about it, but first I want to give you a Florida wildlife report. No, not that kind of “wild life.” The nature kind — well, our version, anyway. One night we went to the Shrimp Basket in Perdido Key, Florida, when we all spied the most realistic statue of a blue heron ever and were in the midst of speculating why someone had placed such a statue so close to a parking space when suddenly the “statue” blinked its eye and we all jumped — and reached for our cameras. We got the distinct impression that the heron was posing for us and waiting for us to notice he (she?) had given us his (her?) best side for photography purposes. We didn’t see any dolphins/porpoises in the water while we were there, but we did spy an osprey perched high up in a tree next to its nest one day and walked along the beach with hundreds of twittering (in the non-online sense, of course) sandpipers. The weather was clear and sunny and gorgeous while we were there — too cold for us to get in the water although I did see a couple of energetic teenagers brave the waves one day. The sunsets were stunning — I caught a bit of the light in this photo. And the Shrimp Basket was great! Nothing fancy — just fresh good seafood and friendly service. It’s where the locals hang out and is about half the price of touristy seafood places (Crab Trap, we’re talking to you!). I had the blackened shrimp and fish with new potatoes, cole slaw (with shrimp in it) and hush puppies. Plus, I saved one of my oh-so-good raw oysters to show you. Other orders at our table were fried oysters, fried shrimp and tuna dip — everything was perfect. Check it out at http://www.shrimpbasket.com. There are locations all along the Alabama/Florida Gulf coast — just watch out for blue herons in the parking lot.

Cajun Week

L'Auberge du LacThis past weekend  I had the great good luck to Casinosbe in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Some friends and I drove down to Cajun Country for a wedding and stayed at L’Auberge du Lac Casino Resort. You know that in Louisiana (and Mississippi), gambling places by law L'Aubergehave to be on water, so L’Auberge — billed as a “riverboat casino” — is built on a bowl-like structure that’s in the lake but you’d never know it. In fact, with the hotel’s dark wood and metal Arts and Crafts-like decor, you’d never know you were in Louisiana. I loved the massive fireplaces and the solid oversized furniture, but it reminded me more of the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, than a Cajun casino. But then this was the first casino I’d ever been to, so what do I know? Since my only casino experience is from Ocean’s Eleven, I really didn’t know what to expect. The hotel part, however, was lots of fun. The two rooms we four women were in were lovely, with wonderful bathrooms (you know I always love a good hotel bathroom) and especially luxurious bed linens and mattress — a good thing, too, because due to an apparent twist of the air vents, we could hear everything said and done in other rooms somewhere in the hotel. Every. Little. Thing. Not so noticeable during the day, but at 4 a.m. when a bunch of drunk females wandered back to their room in a loud and feisty mood? Extremely annoying. We didn’t Lake Charles, Louisianaget much sympathy from hotel management, either. Oh, well. Isn’t a hotel stay always a gamble? And speaking of, I did try my luck in the casino under guidance from my more experienced friends. Unwilling to risk anything more than what it would cost to eat at McDonald’s, I plopped down in front of a 1-cent slot machine, making $1 last about 20 minutes and losing a total of $1.76. I just don’t get gambling, although I thought I had an addictive personality since I cannot leave any Mint Milanos in the bag and have been known to sit through an entire day of America’s Next Top Model reruns. Maybe if I knew how to play something that involved some skill, such as craps or 21, I might like it better, I think — although my husband was glad to hear that I found my gambling experience sort of boring. However, I did pick up some helpful gambling tips: Always get the machines close to the door, because they pay off more. Always get the machines farthest from the door, because they pay off more. Always get a machine that’s been paying off, because it’s hot. Always get a machine that hasn’t paid off, because it’s time is coming. Always play for big money, because you’ll win big. Always play for small money, because you won’t lose much. Good luck!!!

Check out the Web site for L’Auberge du Lac at http://www.ldlcasino.com