As we began Debbie Fest in earnest with a celebration of her retirement at Loco Willy’s with 20 or so friends on 31 March, the next BIG event was just on the horizon: a quick trip to New Orleans (NOLA) for 3 afternoons and evenings of adventure with our partners in crime, David & Deb. This would be Debbie’s first trip to NOLA and for all intents and purposes my first real trip as my previous visit was too short to really do much.
Debbie’s Last Day at YKK
There was also quite a bit going on between the Friday night celebration and our Thursday morning departure for NOLA on the 6th. Clearly, the most significant was Debbie’s final, official day at work when a good part of the day was spent by her co-workers and company executives wishing her well with her retirement.
In addition to the typical in-office type of activities such as decorating the workspace and cake, the company executives who had worked with Debbie for most of her 14 years at YKK decided to take her to the Buckhead Club for lunch, a very special tribute when you consider the time needed to travel down into Atlanta and for a white table-cloth lunch at a $$$$ establishment! It was a quite a day for her and very well-deserved. I don’t think Debbie appreciates how her always cheery attitude, beautiful and ever-present smile and genuine interest and concern for anything anyone has to say lifts the spirits and attitude for everyone around her. She is always a welcome flash of bright light in a sometimes dim world and I know that’s what will be missed, along with the tremendous work ethic and competence she demonstrated every day working some of the largest and most challenging accounts at YKK-USA.
I decided to cap-off Debbie’s big day by taking her to dinner at Henry’s Louisiana Grill in Acworth — pretty much the easiest way to enjoy 4 Star New Orleans meals without the long trip or hefty 4 Star price tag –– for dinner. Wesley, Julie, Caroline, Charlotte and Vivian joined us for the family celebration.
The Kids on Spring Break
While I don’t remember ever going on a spring break vacation when we were kids, I’m guessing it’s because we really didn’t have a spring break: we had longer summer vacations. But, apparently the one-time College tradition has now trickled down to high school, middle, grammar and even pre-school.
So, it should come as no surprise that our son Wesley and wife Julie took the three grands on a spring break holiday. Their destination was Amelia Island one of the vacation hot-spots along the barrier islands that run from the Carolinas into the lone barrier island in Florida, Amelia Island located just over the Georgia-Florida state line. Were it not for the horrendous traffic on the Interstates that pass through Atlanta the 350 – 380 mile drive on I75 or I85 would take about a 5.5 – 6.0 hours. But, add-in normal traffic and then all of the spring break traffic heading back north from the vacation destinations along the barrier islands and Gulf of Mexico and you can easily add an extra hour or two to the trip. That’s a long haul with a 10, 8 and 2-year-old! God love ’em for how they dote on those lovely little girls!
But, from all indications and the photos Debbie’s been receiving this past week they’ve been having a wonderful time at the beach, cycling under the moss-covered oak tree canopies and just enjoying their family time freed from the hectic schedules they maintain when they’re at home.
Thursday’s Drive and 1st Night in New Orleans
Let me caveat my New Orleans recollections by noting the week before we headed down our annual pollen festival here in Atlanta gave me sinus problems and drainage that then caused a sore throat which typically precedes a nasty chest cold, on par with pneumonia… or so it feels: we call this the crud. The sore throat went away on Tuesday night and I was feeling pretty good on Wednesday, although I did find I needed to take a Benadryl which wasn’t a good sign. By Thursday night all indications were I had not dodged the bullet on the chest & lung crud and I started to struggle a bit on Friday after sleeping for 9 hours (very unusual), with the start of a persistent cough, fatigue, irritability and other kill-joy symptoms while out on vacation and trying to have a good time. It definitely put a huge damper on the trip and by Friday night — after taking a two-hour nap on Friday afternoon — I was pretty sure we’d be cutting the visit short by a day and heading home on Saturday instead of Sunday. Sure enough, by Saturday morning I was coughing up brightly colored mucous and was physically drained even after 9-hours of sleep. Sadly, we ended up bailing out on David & Deb around 9:30am so we’d still be able to make the 7.5 hour drive home before I needed to sleep again. So, it’s fair to say Thursday was clearly the more representative part of our visit, whereas Friday was definitely handicapped by me being far off from 100%. In fact, while a return visit to NOLA may have been in doubt as of Saturday, the more I reflect on the high points and look at all we didn’t see, the more I’m thinking we’ll definitely need to give NOLA a second look at some point in the not too distant future. Maybe not this year — and definitely not during spring break or any other holiday — but most likely on a Monday-Thursday at a less busy tourist season time we can enjoy the museums and restaurants without holiday or weekend crowds at mid-week hotel rates. Therefore, with that as some background, here’s the update:
After having dinner at Loco’s on Wednesday night we headed home to pack so we could be up and on the road by 6:00am Thursday morning for the 495-mile, 7.5 hour drive from our home near Atlanta to New Orleans.
I was surprised at the amount of traffic we encountered close to home on I75 through Cobb County given it was Spring Break and so many of the regular commuters would have been off from work. But, once we were on the I-285 perimeter things opened up and remained that way all the way into New Orleans: it was a relatively easy drive.
We grabbed a couple of English muffins for breakfast before hitting the interstate and made just one gas stop down in south Alabama around 11am Eastern Time where we grabbed a sandwich at Subway that we split. We didn’t want to spoil our appetite since one of the major attractions in New Orleans is the food!
As we started to get closer to New Orleans we updated our ETA to our friends David & Deb who had been in NOLA since Monday. Instead of heading to the Hampton Inn near the French Quarter where we’d be staying, they gave us The Blind Pelican as our 1st destination where we’d meet them for lunch… more correctly, oysters!
It was an amazing meal and start to the NOLA adventure. Seriously, they were THE BEST oysters I’ve ever had: just huge and delicious. In fact, they were so big they didn’t need to do what a lot of places that serve oysters do and bury the small oyster under a bunch of cheese and other toppings instead of the light dusting of parmesan cheese they used at The Blind Pelican.
We were at our hotel by around 2:00pm and checked into our rooms. I must say the room we had was probably one of the nicest and largest room I’ve ever stayed in, second only to the massive suite at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. After getting ourselves unpacked and a little refreshed after the long morning’s drive, we headed on out to explore the French Quarter, a mere two blocks away from our hotel.
I’ll have to volunteer right up front that my recollection of Bourbon Street was vague at best from my one brief visit a few decades back, a visit that did not include any bar hopping. So, I was essentially a first time visitor to the fabled destination right there with Miss Debbie. The first impressions were mixed at best and not overly flattering. Perhaps it’s the grittiness that makes it all that much more attractive to a lot of visitors. But, quite frankly, if we make a return to visit to New Orleans I’m not sure Bourbon Street will be on the itinerary for “must see” places.
Setting aside Bourbon Street for a minute, the rest of the French Quarter is very interesting: lots of great old buildings, mostly occupied by galleries of some sort, cafe’s, restaurants or vacant spaces in transition. The area vastly improves the closer you get to Jackson Square, fronted by the lovely St. Louis Cathedral, the Louisiana Museum and Cabildo, former seat of the Spanish Government in New Orleans. Most of the better restaurants can be found closer to Jackson Square and this is also where one of two large venues for the French Quarter Festival were located, the other being at Woldenberg Park along the Mississippi River. In retrospect, this is where we should have probably headed on Friday afternoon and evening in search of places to eat as well as night time entertainment. I definitely didn’t do my homework on New Orleans and really wish I had as I’m guessing I’d have come away with a very different feeling towards the grand city on the Mississippi.
After walking around Jackson Square and listening to the so-so band that was playing the afternoon spot on the schedule we headed back towards Bourbon Street. In terms of first impressions based on our broad daylight visit on a warm, 73°F day it was a very dirty place with a distinct and unpleasant, ever-present smell. Although I’ve heard it said they wash the place down every evening, I’m wondering if that happens during the week nights or just on the weekends and during Mardi Gras. In fact, one of our friends from Loco’s who has spent a lot of time on Bourbon Street suggested taking shoes along that you would be OK with throwing out after spending a couple of nights walking up and down Bourbon Street: we now know why! But, all that said, we ended up finding a few places that allowed us to have a pretty good time on Thursday night so I guess that’s why variety is the spice of life. Not every place will appeal to every visitor. However, it somewhat improved as the sun went down and traffic was closed off to vehicles around dusk.
Now, that’s not to say we didn’t have a good time while wandering up and down Bourbon Street; we did indeed! In fact, at right is a very rare photo taken by Miss Debbie! She also took the photo of the beads on the trees.
Now I must say Debbie and Deb did not “earn” their beads the way you might come to believe how all beads are earned. In fact, there were just some folks up on a second floor balcony who decided to start throwing beads out to all of the passers-by. Perhaps it’s something the bar they were in likes to do to give Bourbon Street more of a Mardi Gras flavor, or perhaps they were hoping for a sign of gratitude by a guilt-ridden bead recipient who didn’t feel like they’d truly earned their beads. No, the “girls” did not make a public appearance, but there was definitely a moment when I thought they might. I think it was something about hearing public exposure was now being more heavily policed and, well, the 12 oz Pina Colada instead of the 20 oz.
I think we went back to the hotel to freshen up a bit after our first visit to the French Quarter and then went in search of dinner, as our oysters at The Blind Pelican while delicious weren’t really all that filling. We ended up getting a table without any wait at Oceana Grill just off Bourbon on Conti Street. I think it was the crab stuffed tuna that caught my eye and it was really a very tasty meal; just about what we needed for where we were in the day. It was my kind of place; well-reviewed but casual and moderately priced with “good food”. Sadly, a lot of the really great places in New Orleans are just a bit too stuffy for me, even if the food is off-the-charts. Moreover, unless you get reservations a day ahead of time, don’t even expect to walk up without a 1hr – 2hr wait after 5:30pm. Early birds definitely win-out at these places.
We spent a goodly amount of time at Pat O’Brien’s where I made the mistake of taking advise from our friend Clark who tagged onto a Facebook check-in with “Hurricane!” Yup, not just once but on two not nearly well spaced out visits I sampled the New Orleans developed Hurricane with its 4 oz of rum. It definitely lifted my spirits in a way that my usual poison of choice — tequila — wasn’t during our visit to New Orleans. I wasn’t sure what was up with that until I began to realize I was slowly moving into a nastier stage of the crud on Friday. But, at least on Thursday night my spirits were high along with everyone else’s and we had a grand time dancing and enjoying the night at the Prohibition Bar. We were having so much fun I don’t think anyone even bothered to touch a phone to check-in or take any photos. But, it was just the right mix of a great live band playing good music you could dance to, having just the right size crowd filled with folks who liked to dance and no one around who had over-indulged to the point where they were falling down. Oh wait, Debbie tells me I got to that point after a 3rd Hurricane at the Prohibition Bar that I simply don’t recall and that’s never a good sign. However, I’m told it was still a great evening.
Friday and The Beginning of the End
I didn’t sleep well on Thursday night and part of that was due to my over-indulgence of Hurricanes. A short walk to the 24/7 corner grocery next to the Hampton landed me some Goody’s at 4:00am which allowed me to quickly fall back to sleep… for far too long. It was odd I’d slept until nearly 9:00am which for my biological clock would have been 10:00am. I also woke up with a pretty good chest full of crud, but it was mostly clear so while a bit concerned I figured I would work through it with a few good coughs. We had breakfast around 9:30 and Deb & David joined us around 9:45.
After getting cleaned up we headed for our first stop of the day, a 1-mile walk through Lafayette Square to the National World War II Museum at Higgins and Camp Streets just a block from the Robert E. Lee Monument at Lee Circle. There’s no question why this is New Orlean’s #1 visitor destination: it’s beyond amazing. In fact, I think we were there for 2.5 hours and saw only a small fraction of the exhibits: mostly the war in Europe exhibit, a timeline walk through the expansion of the Nazi Party in Germany through VE Day. Even just that exhibit was mentally overwhelming, between printed media, motion-media and the descriptions of hundreds of artifacts on display. I would think a person would need to spend several days to take it all in if they were to give each display it’s due. Again, just an amazing collection and candid telling of World War II, including some of the less than “winning moments” most museums and historical remembrances tend to focus on. And mind you, there are three or four other museums right next door to this one that could easily consume several days of a visitor’s time, ref. my earlier comments about giving New Orleans a second look in the not too distant future.
I think it was during our visit to the WWII Museum that I started to run out of gas. We walked the mile back to the French Quarter in search of lunch and had a hard time finding something appealing. For me I had no appetite so it really didn’t matter to me and that didn’t help. We ended up at the Royal House which had a great looking menu, but in all honesty the food was just average. We had the BBQ shrimp & grits and it ended up being more like bland popcorn shrimp over rice. The gal waiting our table was also less than attentive and that didn’t help matters, nor did the A/C kicking on every five minutes to give us the goose bumps on a day when no one needed to have A/C blowing in an open air, corner restaurant. But, as always, we put on our happy faces and made the best of it!
I think our next destination was a walk down to Decatur Street where we listened to a little jazz being played by some of the bands at the smaller French Quarter Festival venues. We walked along the top of the levee and checked out the muddy brown Mississippi River and eventually made our way to Cafe’ Beignet where we split a serving of… you guessed it, Beignets. They were quite tasty but what a mess! There was powdered sugar just about everywhere.
After our walk down to the Mississippi — which helped up rack up a total of 7 miles of walking for day, per David’s Fitbit — we headed back to the hotel to rest and clean up for the night. Once again, I had a pretty good indication I wasn’t at 100% as I feel asleep in the middle of the day for a couple of hours. In fact, it was David & Deb texting to see what time we’d meet for dinner that woke me up and probably put us behind for the night. I’d thrown out two suggestions: Loco Willy’s out of habit or perhaps Red Fish Grill. Not getting out to look for dinner until 7:00pm make getting into the close-in better restaurants a challenge as they didn’t have openings until 8:45 at Red Fish Grill, 9:15 at J.W. Fins and 9:30 at NOLA. Just a bit late to be taking in dinner and, once again, I didn’t have much of an appetite. We found one relatively new place that seemed to have lots of empty tables and after attempting to order a couple of drinks and trying their seafood gumbo is was clear why the place was empty. We paid our $30 tab for the gumbo, a beer, a wine and two diet cokes and continued our search. We finally ended up at the Original Pierre Maspero’s just a few doors down from Emeril’s NOLA restaurant. It was a quirky little place with great reviews and a 20-minute wait. Debbie and I split the Red Fish with a side of mashed potatoes and slaw which was good but not OMG great. Then again, I still didn’t have much of an appetite so that didn’t help either.
It was at this point just after dinner I was also becoming a bit fatigued and irritable, that nothing seemed to be quite right: I found most of the street performers who were a novelty on Thursday to be hucksters on Friday. The crowd was not nearly as fun-loving, as “groups” of bridesmaids, groomsmen, college-age kids and the like filled the streets and bars. Moreover, even though I was having more than my one-shot per hour to zero effect, confirmed by Miss Debbie. We’d hoped the same band would be playing at Prohibition but that was not the case; the Friday night band was mediocre bordering on bad so we kept looking. Much to our dismay, nearly all of the live bands were pretty awful-sounding (out of key, etc.) and the other places that looked like they normally had live bands had a karaoke thing going on where they had one paid performer on stage signing lead to the Karaoke-fed music system. It was just awful. We probably should have headed down towards Decatur Street with its jazz clubs and Irish pubs to find a different kind of New Orleans nightlife but stuck it out for a bit. But, instead, we called it a night bit earlier than probably planned and headed back to the hotel. Again, I was now fully aware I wasn’t feeling all that well and started seriously considering an early departure.
Oh Crud! Saturday and an Earlier Departure Than Planned
I hit the pillow hard on Friday night and didn’t wake up until 8:30 coughing up what was a chest full of bright yellow-orange mucus. Oh, it was not good and I was not in a good place. It pretty much explained why I was subconsciously longing for home most of Friday and not wanting to be out-of-town in unfamiliar places: when you’re sick you want to be at home with familiar surroundings. That also explained my suggestion of “Loco’s” when David asked where I wanted to go for dinner on Friday night, as I was not into the New Orleans thing given how I was feeling.
So, knowing my condition would likely get worse and not better over the next 24-48 hours, I sent a text to David & Deb to apologize for and let them know we’d be heading home right after breakfast. With any luck, we’d be on the road early enough to stay ahead of the people headed home from spring break vacations at the Gulf as they converged on I-85 North in Alabama and Georgia.
While David & Deb soldiered on in New Orleans without us — such as their return to The Blind Pelican for oysters — we made our way east on I-10 and then North on I-65 with ease. Unfortunately, when we hit I-85 north just outside of Montgomery an earlier accident had brought the northbound lanes to a dead stop for nearly an hour, with pretty much the same effect on the alternate routes around the accident. Oh the joy of sitting on a freeway at a near dead stop for 75 minutes! Once the accident was cleared, traffic immediately began to flow nicely again, albeit with a lot of idiots now trying to make up time by passing slower cars on the right and then diving into gaps that were too small to be safe in the left lanes making for a very uncomfortable drive home. Moreover, once we reached the I-85 and I-185 interchange just north of Columbus, Georgia, traffic once came to a dead stop for 15 more minutes as the traffic we were hoping to beat coming north from Panama City Beach and Destin through Columbus had now backed things up.
After clearing that traffic jam there were a few more minor back-ups and we opted to by-pass the I-285 Atlanta and I-75 traffic by taking back roads home from Palmetto Georgia, as we normally do when headed down and back from Panama City Beach. The drive time was the same, but without the prospect of getting stuck in traffic, so it was a far more relaxing way to end the drive which all told was about 8.5 hours. When our original ETA at home was 5:30pm we’d considered going there first to clean-up and, for me, to drug-up before heading to Loco’s for dinner. However, with an ETA of 7:00pm we opted to go straight to Loco’s where I’d substitute a Margarita plus my shot for drugs. As was the case on Friday night, the alcohol had zero effect beyond soothing my sore throat a bit and momentarily suspending my coughing for an hour. Debbie and I split a Willenburger and Debbie chatted with some friends while I pretty much tried not to fall asleep at the bar; no, I was tired not hammered.
After getting home around 8:15 and unpacking I went downstairs where I sat down on the recliner, checked my Email, posted one entry on Facebook and promptly fell asleep around 8:45pm. I woke up at 2:00am still in my recliner, went to bed and then slept until 8:30am, about 12 hours all told when I normally sleep for 4-5 hours a night.
I’ve spent the rest of the day pretty much resting and working on my blog entry in between naps. But, on the bright side, I finally started feeling a little more alive around 3:00pm, so there’s hope for the week ahead. Debbie’s kept herself busy with laundry, grocery shopping and is now out on her single bike for a short 20 mile ride just to get the cobwebs out from yesterday’s 8.5 hour drive. I thought about joining her, but quickly realized that was a nutty idea. Sucking in a bunch of tree pollen is not what I need, which is why I’m also deferring the weekly mowing of the lawn until an evening later in the week.
Our friends David & Deb arrived back in Atlanta around 5:30pm and we met up with them for dinner at Loco’s around 6:30pm so we could finish out New Orleans trips together and hear what kind of trouble they found on Saturday. It was a great way to end the somewhat fractured visit in NOLA.
There you have it… for the dedicated readers who made it this far. As for what lies ahead during Debbie Fest, next weekend will be somewhat structured around Easter and spending time with the kids and grandkids as the priority. There will definitely be some tandem time if weather permits and maybe even a short ride on the motorcycle. The following weekend will be a celebration of Debbie’s 60th birthday and then her actual birthday on 25 April, followed by a weekend of downtime before we head to Panama City Beach for bike week during the first weekend in May.