The Big Easy

29/12/16. Change of plan. The motel was worse than “shabby”. It was awful! Neither of us slept at all well, thinking of how horrible the room was and imagining all sorts of things, and we woke up feeling “unclean”.

First thing in the morning, Stephen walked across the road to our Plan A motel to see if they had a room and could store our things while we went into the city for some sightseeing. They did, and although it was $25 more than the fleapit where we had spent the night, he signed up immediately. On the way in, he had bumped into a young German who had been in the room next door the previous night and with whom he had spoken about how horrible the room was.

It transpired that he (the German) had spent 2 hours on the phone to Expedia (through whom he had booked the awful room) trying to get their booking changed. Eventually Expedia had agreed but he had “lost money” on the way. But he was fulsome in his praise of the second motel and said the breakfast provided was OK even though it didn’t include “cheese and sausage”!

By 9.30 a.m. we were checked into the new room and the first thing we did was shower to “wash the other hotel away”.

We then caught the bus towards the city centre (a bargain at $3 for a 24 hr pass that was valid on the streetcars as well). A change of buses was needed but we misunderstood how far from the centre we were and so started walking when we just missed the second bus.

Another mistake! It was a long, long walk beside a busy main road through not very salubrious areas. Eventually, when it felt “safe enough”, we waited at a bus stop for the next bus and were relieved to jump on even though we were, by now, close to the French Quarter and the bus got caught in traffic meaning it would have been quicker to walk.

We followed a walking tour suggested by the Lonely Planet Guide and were very impressed by the atmosphere and the architecture. The buildings reminded us a lot of both St Augustine (Florida) and San Juan (Puerto Rico) because of the Spanish influence while the jazz musicians and “general feel” was a mixture of American and French (Startling revelation. Not!) which we had not experienced before.

By the time we decided to head back the sky had clouded over and, as we stood at the bus stop, the rain came. It had been wonderfully warm and sunny up to now (mid 20s) but, with the buses running only every 30 minutes and the state of traffic in the centre of the city, it was not far short of an hour before we were out of the rain.

For Thursday we decided to revert to Plan B (or was it C? Or A?) and head for the campsite in the Bayou Segnette State Park on the south western edge of the city. It was less than 20 miles away but “city cycling” is often slow going.

Initially, we carried on along the US90 which after the first few miles at least had a sidewalk we could use, followed by a bike lane with a hatched area of paint between us and the main carriageway. Then we turned off onto quieter roads which led us through a mixture of affluent and needy areas into the heart of the French Quarter.

After a spell along the main shopping/tourist street we hit the river bank to gaze again at Ol’ Man River. We have to say that, for a major, major world river, so close to the sea, it was a little underwhelming. The Danube and the Rhine are more impressive.

We were also surprised at how few bridges there are. We were psyching ourselves up to use one of the busy main roads when we saw a sign for “river ferry” and leapt at the opportunity to avoid them.

A very reasonable $2 a head (“Exact money only. No change. No credit against future trips.”) and short (5 minute) ride later we were on the western bank of the Mississippi. For a while we followed the levee alongside the river which was remarkably pleasant, not least because of the strong north east tailwind.

Then, however, we were forced to rejoin the road, which, while not busy, had some large trucks and led through a long stretch of uninspiring heavy industry. We were pleased to turn off this and into a more residential, but not prosperous, area before arriving at the State Park at about 2.30.

For somewhere so close to a major city centre, the State Park does an impressive job of preserving a flat and swampy area of countryside that fits in with our preconceptions of what the bayoux of Louisiana are like. Tomorrow, we continue to head south west (ish) into what we are expecting to be even more archetypal countryside.

As the sun dipped in the sky the temperature fell from an unseasonably but very pleasant low 20s so we have got the “cold weather sleeping gear” (inner sleeping bags and socks) at the ready!

Bienvenue à Louisiane

27/12/16. With Christmas Day done and dusted it was back on the road on Boxing Day. And what a superb ride it was!

The hotel was close to the bridge (a new one replacing the one damaged by Hurricane Katrina which also devastated New Orleans in 2005) over the mouth of Biloxi Bay. With a wide shared bike/pedestrian path it was a pleasant experience for a change – bridges tend to be narrower than the approach roads so they are often the “exciting” parts of the route.

As we passed through Biloxi we passed a couple of casinos which were inevitably rather brash but the rest of the town seemed rather nice as we cycled along the sidewalk between the coast and US90. The beach was a beautiful looking sand and almost deserted even though temperatures were climbing into the low to mid 20s. With a gentle tailwind and a pan flat route we had a ball and made very good time. On the way we passed but did not stop at the home of Jefferson Davis who was president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Gradually the sunshine gave way to a light sea mist as we passed through Gulfport and Long Beach (not the California one). This got thicker as we crossed another long bridge (also with shared path and also rebuilt following Katrina) so that by the time we turned away from the main road towards the campsite at Buccaneer State Park visibility was quite restricted and we were riding with our lights on

The fog stayed overnight so we woke to the sound of water dripping off the trees and a damp tent. As we set off visibility started to improve but we were still pleased to be on quiet roads rather than a “racetrack”. At times it seemed that the sun was about to break through but it was still a light haze when we rejoined US90 which was, thankfully, on one of its less busy stretches.

Just before we crossed into Louisiana (complete with bilingual welcome sign!) we stopped to buy bread from a small grocery/general store ($3.73 for a loaf of sliced processed “stuff”! Bread is expensive over here!). Christine started chatting to an old boy sat outside and he warned us that the eastern suburbs of New Orleans are not good – “safe enough to ride through in the day but don’t try it at night”. Eek. He also said that the strangest sight he had seen was eight young women rollerblading from California who had camped in front of the store one night.

See. We’re not the most insane people around!

The road remained quiet and passed through a swampy landscape which the mist made quite atmospheric. There were some nice looking houses on the shores of a couple of the lakes which we rode by and there were two places offering airboat rides.

Eventually we reached the outer limits of New Orleans where, of course, the road started to get busier. For a while there was a reasonable shoulder, albeit often covered in glass fragments (thank heavens for our Schwalbe Marathon tyres which are extremely puncture resistant – famous last words!), but suddenly it disappeared and we were in with the traffic. Not nice.

We made our way to the intersection with the Interstate 10 where we had seen there was a motel in a chain which we had used before. However when we reached it it was on the other side of the road while there was another place on “our” side so we decided to patronise that one as it looked OK.

Big mistake. Reception was reasonably smart but the room is very shabby. We had been thinking of staying two nights and taking a bus into the city but will be moving on to a state park instead.

Merry Christmas From Mississippi 2

25/12/16. The night under the house (it’s on stilts in case you were wondering – to prevent flooding when a hurricane hits) passed quietly and it felt a little warmer. There was another long bridge to cross to the mainland but thankfully this one was much quieter than Three Mile Bridge into Pensacola.

We then followed an even quieter road through the countryside until we came to our old friend US90 which was quite a lot busier than last time we were together. However, at least there was a reasonable shoulder. For a while.

This changed as soon as we hit the Alabama/Mississippi border where the shoulder changed to concrete with many cracks, most of which had grass and other vegetation growing out of them. It became quite unpleasant for a while but did start to improve a little when we reached the reasonable sized town of Pascagoula.

In our short two day stay in Alabama we had been impressed with the provision of bike lanes – wide and well surfaced for the most part. They were definitely better, on average, than Florida but our initial experience of Mississippi did not auger well.

We stayed on the main road through Pascagoula and beyond onto a long causeway over a river and through marshy/swampy land. To make matters worse it started to get a little misty. However, by this point we were almost at the turnoff to the State Park where we were going to camp for the night. The only provision for tents at this park was in the so-called “primitive camping” area which generally means no “hook ups” (to water, electricity and sewage) which RVs and caravans need/expect. This was not a problem as we were the only campers in a large area under the trees where there was a covered pavilion with benches and tables and a power point. Water was available at the reasonable toilet block. The one omission that would have been welcomed would have been showers but at $13 for the night we were not complaining.

In the morning we set off reasonably early even though we only had about 30 km to go to Ocean Springs. We had decided that we would hole up in a hotel for Christmas for three nights (those of 23rd, 24th & 25th) and wanted to get there reasonably early to stand the best chance of finding “room at the inn”! We had chosen Ocean Springs based on the description in the Lonely Planet Guide –  “a peaceful getaway, with a lineup of shrimp boats in the harbor alongside recreational sailing yachts, a historic downtown core, and a powdery fringe of white sand on the Gulf.” And Biloxi, the next town along was full of casinos and seemingly expensive hotels!

We can confirm that the Lonely Planet Guide got it right! Ocean Springs is very pleasant indeed, although Stephen was not especially impressed with his Christmas Eve bike ride to the north of the town because the few roads seemed generally too busy for good cycling. We have been for a couple of walks through the old town to the beach on the Gulf and Stephen even went for a paddle in his undercrackers which was a sight for sore eyes!

Unfortunately the Christmas Day service brought home to Stephen  the experience which Christine has had at most of the church services which she has attended in the US – a few people said “Merry Christmas” and smiled but no more. This included the minister as we were leaving who seemed intent on “processing” the queue of people lined up to shake his hand as quickly as possible. This is a complete contrast to what was happened at services elsewhere in other countries on our travels.

For Christmas lunch we have treated ourselves to a rotisserie chicken, caesar salad, baguette and key lime pie from the local Winn Dixie supermarket as a change from pasta and tomato sauce!

Merry Christmas From Mississippi

24/12/16. Five weeks in Florida. Two days in Alabama.

We’re not speeding up (far from it!), it’s just that the coastal stretch of Alabama is tiny.

It would have been another 2, or maybe 3, days in Mississippi if we hadn’t decided to take a break in a hotel for the holiday season. And, although our Christmas celebrations are very low key compared with when we are home, time seems to have run away with us so no proper post has been written. Sorry!

In the meantime, Happy Christmas from us both. We wish you a peaceful and happy time. Let’s hope 2017 is better for the world than 2016 looks to have been!

Farewell Florida, ‘Allo Alabama

21/12/16. When we left you, we were waiting for Charlie to “rescue” us from the freezing cold!

Suffice to say, our “knight in shining campervan” appeared! He whisked us along the quieter but slightly longer road which we would have taken if the weather had been kinder. It was a fabulous road along the Gulf Islands National Seashore with “the whitest sand” in the world – a claim we had heard elsewhere on our travels in NZ and Australia!

Who are we to judge? It was definitely very white sand. And it would be a lovely bike ride providing the temperature was well above the 3 or 4° outside the campervan where we were de-thawing.

Charlie took us to see Fort Pickens, a Civil War fort at the end of the peninsula, which had lots of interest – but that bitingly cold wind had all of us wanting to be inside. He took us home where he and his wife, Missy, and Charlie made us extremely welcome – showered, warmed, fed, watered and entertained in fine style.

We spent the night in the campervan-  and it was bliss compared with a tent. So much room! And warm! And all the “facilities”!

Rising on Tuesday morning it felt warmer – but only just! We waved goodbye to Missy & Charlie and set off over Three Mile Bridge (it was that long!) to Pensacola. Then, passing through the downtown area, Stephen realised that he had left the tyre pump behind. A phone call to Charlie to see if anyone would be home if he cycled back, elicited the news that he (Charlie) was driving in the opposite direction – but, Charlie being Charlie, he immediately turned round and picked up the pump before bringing it to us in the cafe where we had stopped.

Kindness or what?

We continue to be be blown away by the unbelievable goodness that we encounter on our travels. We look forward to repaying some of that when we are back home and settled.

With pump securely back on the bike, we set off through unappealing suburbs of Pensacola (the downtown area looked to be very nice and worth a visit to one of the oldest towns in Florida, something St Augustine also claims). We passed a couple of naval bases before passing over the intracoastal waterway to yet another barrier island where the level of affluence was turned up a notch or two.

And then we reached the stateline. Finally, after 5 weeks we were across Florida and into Alabama! Encouragingly, the bike lane beside the road improved immediately with an additional white line and 2 feet wide lane separating it from the road. This better provision for cyclists continued for much of our two days in Alabama.

We soon came to our goal of the Gulf State Park, which all the reviews suggested was top notch in both quality and price. We opted for “primitive camping” which was a site without hookups for water, sewerage or electricity at a cost of $26, compared to $50 with facilities. (We may have nipped across the road to an empty non-primitive site to get water and plug in Garmins, phones etc!)

The campground was particularly notable for the signs saying “Don’t Aggravate the Alligators”. We managed to restrain ourselves from so doing, not least because we didn’t see one of the critters!

The day had been marginally warmer than Monday but it was still decidedly nippy and even Stephen had at least 3 layers on the top all day although he did have some extra ventilation in the area of his rear end where his cycling leggings developed a gaping foot long hole, mended later that night by Christine! We were soon ensconced in our cozy little tent and hoping the promised warmer weather would arrive overnight.

Sadly, things were still chilly the next morning although perhaps a degree or two warmer. Towards the middle of the day the temperature got into the “acceptable” zone but as the sun went west it started to get chilly again.

It was a lovely ride for the first 20 km or so along either roads seemingly closed to motor traffic or designated bike paths. When these came to an end we joined a quiet road to Fort Morgan and the ferry to Dauphin Island. With a reasonable shoulder, the few cars were not a problem.

We arrived at the point from where the ferry left with an hour to spare which made for a convenient lunch stop (table and benches provided). As the ferry pulled in we joined the queue of 5 cars (from 5 different states) and paid our $5 a head fare for the ¾ hour trip.

Danielle and Kyle who we met 3 or 4 days earlier had had a horrible sounding crossing with 4 foot waves coming on board but we were much more fortunate. It was like a mill pond allowing us to view the oil & gas production platforms in Mobile Bay and out in the Gulf.

Arriving on Dauphin Island it was a short ride to our overnight stop. This was under the house of yet another WarmShowers hosts (John & Jan) who allow cyclists to use their property even when they are not there. There is a tap, cold open shower, power point, “portaloo” (with shovel) and password free wifi. What more do you need at the end of a long day in the saddle?

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Baby, It’s Cold Outside

19/12/16.  When we woke on Monday morning it was even colder than the forecast had predicted at 3°C rather than 7. When we were checking out of the hotel the lady clearly thought we were bonkers.

And not long after starting we both thought she was right! Even Stephen who has been known to go riding in the snow at home. The wind was blowing from the north all the way from Canada and, although not strong, cut right through us.

After about 12 km we spied some “golden arches” and popped in to warm up over a coffee and hot chocolate. Thankfully the heating was not cranked right up so going out again wasn’t too much of a shock.

Another 12 km further on we arrived at the town of Navarre. At this point Stephen suggested taking a room at one of the hotels we had just passed, even though we had arranged a Warmshowers stay for the night. Christine didn’t take any persuading so we dived into another convenient McD to look at the options and to contact our host, Charlie.

Within seconds of us sending the message Charlie was offering to drive the 20 miles to pick us up. How wonderful is that? We just love Warmshowers and the people we have met through this “organisation”. Without exception they have been so friendly and hospitable people who cannot do enough to help their guests.

Incidentally, Christine is back in love with America, even before Charlie’s great offer, having had a much better church experience at the Lutheran church in Fort Walton Beach yesterday.