Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Of Crafts, Coke and Cotton: Monroe joins the Louisiana Holiday Trail of Lights

            For years Shreveport-Bossier City and Natchitoches have teamed up with three east Texas towns for the annual Holiday Trail of Lights. This year, it’s all about the Bayou State, with Texas leaving the trail and Monroe, Minden and Alexandria joining the fun.
            The 2011 trail makes a nice loop through the state with Natchitoches and its 85-year-old popular Christmas festival at the core. On its left flank will be Monroe, which offers a unique holiday experience.
            Christmas on the River will be a month-long holiday celebration that includes both Monroe and West Monroe, each facing the sleepy Ouachita River. Here will be dancing lights along Antique Alley (a great place to find unique items at great prices), a downtown gallery crawl, the fourth annual Bawcomville Redneck Christmas Parade along with a parade sponsored by the Kiwanis Club and a pet parade, chili cook-off, theatrical performances, fireworks and much more.
            The Children’s Museum will transform into a Santa’s Christmas Village with photos with Santa and snow falling, letters to Santa at the Peppermint Post Office, a place for children to create ornaments and a store to purchase gifts for family. In addition, there’s ice skating outside. Admission is only $5, $10 for ice skating.
            The Biedenharn Museum and Gardens has built by Joseph Biedenham, the first bottler of Coca-Cola. His daughter Emy-Lou, a European opera singer, lived in the home for years, creating a beautiful garden and conservatory out back. Today, the house and garden is open for tours, along with the Bible Museum next door (Emy-Lou collected Bibles and the museum exhibits both hers and traveling displays) and the Coca-Cola Museum on the corner with its Model T delivery truck, memorabilia and machines that sell the beverage for 5 cents.
            Christmas at the Biedenharn will include unique decorations of each room throughout the month of December. There will be a Chamber Arts Brass Christmas Concert on Dec. 6 in the fountain room and an open house Dec. 8-10. The Coca-Cola Museum also has a gift shop with wonderful unique gift items, not to mention a fabulous artistic nativity.
            I mentioned shopping on Antique Alley — there are numerous antique shops in the Cotton Port Historic District of West Monroe, and they vary from collectibles and Americana to 18th and 19th century furniture. Since I like to include a book to enjoy in travels, I recommend Memory Lane Antiques with its extensive collection of old books, many Victorian with gilded covers and unique illustrations. I found an old copy of Longfellow’s “Evangeline” with photos of Nova Scotia and the original Cajun homesteads, plus a Golden Book of “Rudolph” — remember that one?
            As for a great place to eat, don’t miss Cotton, formerly known as Coda Bar & Grill, run by Chef Cory Bahr, a recent Louisiana Cookin’ Chef to Watch and winner of the Louisiana Seafood competition. The restaurant, with its menu of exquisite boudin balls, red bean hummus, creamy shrimp and grits, tender pork loin and so much more, is housed in the second oldest building in Monroe.
            For more information on the holiday festivities, visit www.christmastontheriver.org or call (318) 387-5691.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A golden weekend in Dahlonega

             The first thing I needed to do upon visiting Dahlonega, a quaint town north of Atlanta in Georgia’s sleepy Appalachian mountains, is learn how to pronounce the name. Da-lon-a-ga was named for the Cherokee word Talonega meaning “golden.”
            The second thing I learned was that Dahlonega was the site of the first major U.S. gold rush, in 1828, hence the name.
            Celebrating this discovery of gold in them golden Georgia hills is the 54th annual Jaycees Gold Rush Days Festival Oct. 15-16, 2011. The two-day event will feature live musical performances by Lonesome Road Bluegrass Band, Kayla Armstrong and Heather Faraday; more than 300 arts and crafts exhibits; children’s activities; food and a 3 p.m. Saturday parade through downtown.   
            According to the Jaycees press release, festivities kick off around 9 a.m. each day and will include a number of special performances, such as Scotsmen playing tradition bagpipes on the square on Saturday. Festivities include a fashion show, treasure hunt, hog calling contest and a clogging contest where at 2 p.m. Saturday the clogging king and queen will be crowned. 
            If you can’t make the festival, be sure and visit the Dahlonega Gold Museum located in the courthouse in the center of town. Visitors will find a comprehensive film that explains the gold rush days and the formation of the town, plus exhibits on the history of Dahlonega.
            Visitors can also pan for gold at the The Crisson Gold Mine, which dates back to 1847. It’s open every day but Christmas.
            Outside of its golden heritage, Dahlonega is home to luxurious day spas, wineries, places to enjoy horseback riding and canoeing, accommodations that range from the Smith House Hotel with a gold mine in its basement and the elegant suites of the Park Place Hotel (shown below) to hidden cabins and retreats in the mountains. Dahlonega is also close to the beginning of the Appalachian Trail and a great place for hiking and backpacking.
            The perfect book for a trip to Dahlonega, especially during the haunting days of October, is “Dahlonega Haunts” by Amy Blackmarr. The book lists homes and businesses where folks refuse to leave with Blackmarr explaining the stories and psychic R. Brian Keith giving his take on the spirits. It’s an entertaining read and a great way to learn about the area.
For information about Gold Rush Days, visit www.dahlonegajaycees.com. For information on the Golden City, visit www.Dahlonega.org or www.facebook.com/DestinationDahlonega

Friday, September 16, 2011

Come home to Museum of Appalachia

John Rice Irwin would travel the Tennessee countryside spying historic buildings, machinery and other objects that told the history of the Volunteer State. He would stop and offer the owners money for their possessions, eventually collecting more than 250,000 pioneer relics.

Today, these historic objects and 30 log structures make up the Museum of Appalachia on 65 acres outside Oak Ridge, Tenn. Not only does this awe-inspiring museum complex offer the public and visiting schoolchildren an authentic peek into Appalachian life, it sets the stage for one of the country’s best fall festivals.
The Museum of Appalachia’s 32nd annual Tennessee Fall Homecoming will be Oct. 7-9, 2011, with five stages featuring some 400 musicians playing traditional tunes from “Wildwood Flower” to “Wabash Cannonball.” New to this year’s Homecoming is the Carter Family III (shown above right), playing old Carter tunes as well as new songs. The band, which rarely tours, includes John Carter Cash (Johnny & June Carter Cash’s son), his wife Laura Cash and Dale Jett (Janette Carter’s son). Also making their Homecoming debut are the Steep Canyon Rangers, the 2006 IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year, and the Roys.
Returning to the stage are the John Hartford String Band, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Blue Moon Rising, Dixie Gray, Southern Raised, Cody Shuler & Pine Mountain Railroad, the Cluster Pluckers, Lilies of the West, and the Quebe Sisters Band which features three sisters playing triple fiddles.
Authors appearing include Bill Landry with “Appalachian Tales & Heartland Adventures,” John Carter Cash with his new book “House of Cash,” Randy Rudder with “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music: The Inspirational Stories behind 101 of Your Favorite Country Songs” and Jill Peterson, who founded the magazine, A Simple Life, will present her new cookbook, “Simple Cooking for a Simple Life.”
Advance Homecoming tickets can be purchased through Sept. 21 at a discounted rate; call 865-494-7680 or visit museumofappalachia.org. The Museum is located on I-75 at exit 122, then one mile east.

About Oak Ridge, Tennessee
When the U.S. government realized Germany was developing an atom bomb during World War II, they turned the 59,000 acres of sleepy farmland in middle Tennessee into the city of Oak Ridge where 75,000 civilians and military would enrich uranium, the element needed to fuel a bomb of our own. This “City Behind a Fence” secretly operated for three years as part of the Manhattan Project before the bomb was dropped on Japan. Many of its residents didn’t know what they were creating until the news followed after Hiroshima.
            The incredible legacy of Oak Ridge remains today, with the government facility of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. And although technological breakthroughs continue with the new Spallation Neutron Source at the laboratory, the community of Oak Ridge extends far beyond its atomic inception.
           Places to visit in Oak Ridge include:
American Museum of Science & Energy (shown left) — naturally a science museum in a city full of physicists and scientists would be well-funded and highly creative, a perfect jumping off spot to learn about Oak Ridge’s scientific history, plus the museum offers tram tours to take visitors inside the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge is located within an old elementary school building and every corner provides an imaginative experience.
Secret City Scenic Excursion Train takes visitors inside the original Oak Ridge atomic laboratory in a fun, relaxing train ride.
Green McAdoo Cultural Center (shown right) honors 12 African American high school students who were the first to attend a desegregated state-supported high school in the South.
Norris Dam was the first dam built in the Tennessee Valley Authority system and its location was one of the reasons why Oak Ridge was chosen for the Manhattan Project.
For information on Oak Ridge, Tenn., visit the Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau at http://oakridgevisitor.com/.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Crystal digging in Mt. Ida, Arkansas

            I was on my way to Eureka Springs, leaving out of Lafayette, Louisiana, a long drive that’s hard to make in one day. I looked on the map hoping to find a nice halfway spot to rest my head — maybe Little Rock — when Mt. Ida caught my eye.
            On a previous trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas, I had stopped at Crater of Diamonds State Park, the only place in America where diamonds have been found. The state park lets visitors dig through the dirt in the hopes of finding diamonds — and some have. The time I visited I didn’t find anything resembling a diamond. However, I did notice that some local merchants had gorgeous quartz crystals on display. I was told that nearby Mt. Ida offered several quartz crystal mines where visitors could try their luck.
             So this time traveling through the great state of Arkansas, I stopped at the “Quartz Crystal Capital of the World.” There are several places in and around Mt. Ida that allow visitors inside private “mines” to search for quartz crystals. There are even more places where crystals and other rocks and minerals can be bought. For a complete list of both, visit the Mt. Ida Chamber of Commerce Web site. I arrived late in the afternoon and during an intense dry spell with temperatures hovering around 110, so chose the latter, purchasing six beautiful specimens for $20 from a roadside vendor named John Hashim.
            Feeling pleased with myself I took my lovely crystals and spent the night at the Royal Oak Inn, a comfortable and clean motel in Mt. Ida with a refreshing pool, lots of ice and great customer service for only $39.95 a night.
            Mt. Ida is also known for its live music Friday and Saturday nights on the steps of its historic courthouse.  Known as The Front Porch Stage, the event hosts bands such as the Arkansas Trainwreck and Happenstance, with a web page honoring a possum queen and declaring itself “mercifully free of the ravages of intelligence.”
             If you’re really into digging for crystals, you might want to try your hand at Mt. Ida’s 25th Annual World’s Championship Quartz Crystal Dig Oct. 13-15, 2011. Diggers choose from four working mines, keep what they dig and compete in cash prizes for the biggest crystals. In addition, there will be a gem and mineral show, quilt show and craft show.
            Note: If you want to dig for crystals, wear clothes you don’t mind getting stained or that can be thrown away. Same goes for shoes; the sturdier the better. Some mines are kid friendly, some aren’t, so it’s best to visit the individual web sites.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Take 5 Houston - Spots to Cool Off for Free

1. Along the MetroRail in downtown Houston there are places where water is spritzed into the air, falling along the rail tracks in graceful arcs. We don’t encourage people to get anywhere near the MetroRail tracks (PLEASE DON'T!) but pedestrians and bikers in the area will experience a nice wet breeze walking by at the Main Street Square stop, in addition to other water features along the MetroRail's route.

2. Discovery Green downtown includes a massive splash fountain that’s usually full of kids running through but don’t let your age stop you from enjoying this incredible fountain that makes cooling off so much fun. The water emerges in spurts, but in syncopated times, leaving you guessing which is part of its fun.

3. The Williams Waterwall near the Galleria rises above the Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park as a multi-story horseshoe-shaped fountain. It’s both cooling and dramatic (we’re talking TALL) and makes for a great day trip. Visitors can enjoy a picnic in the park, then cool off by the waterfall. Be sure and bring a towel, you will get wet enough. 

4. The Buddy Carruth Playground for All Children is a massive playground within Hermann Park that offers a handicap accessible playground with interactive water play area that’s fabulous. This is a must for young children, but that didn’t stop us adults from jumping in with our kids.

5. We probably shouldn’t mention Tranquility Park downtown because more than likely jumping in this collection of fountains is frowned upon, but on the many visits we’ve had to Houston, particularly in the summer when heat indexes soar, we’ve seen lots of people cooling off in this oasis amid the concrete. Just to be on the safe side, we’ll not post a photo. But here’s another hint, there are fountains all over Houston and if you’re brave enough to “fountain jump,” you can start with Tranquility Park and spend all day visiting others.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hip Houston

           In only a few years Downtown Houston has reinvented itself. Once a place to do business during daylight hours, in addition to some nightlife and the Astros, today downtown Houston owns a thriving shopping and dining scene, the remarkable, sustainable Discovery Green park and hip new places to live and stay overnight.

            The new EmbassySuites is a prime example, sporting fun colors and modern furniture and designs, plus complementary amenities of free Wifi, manager’s reception at night and a full “cooked-to-order” breakfast with friendly, helpful staff. The hotel features 262 all-suite rooms in this hip high-rise, with a sitting area separate from the bedroom, both very comfortable and arranged to accommodate any mood, whether business, entertaining or a family gathering. All rooms offer a kitchenette, sofa bed, MP3 connections and flat-screen TVs with HBO and Showtime.

            Swim through fountains in the indulgent pool or soak in the terrace spa, both of which overlook Discovery Green, the George Brown Convention Center and Minute Maid Park, or work out in the 24-hour fitness center. A shuttle is available to take visitors throughout the downtown area until about 10 p.m. each night.

            Because of the location, visitors should take advantage of Discovery Green and its almost daily activities, whether learning yoga or zumba or listening to a free concert. Also close by is Houston Pavilions, Houston’s Theatre District (fourth largest in the country) and Bayou Place. Houston Pavilions is home to many dining options, including the House of Blues. Since we arrived mid-afternoon, we voted for Guadalajara, another colorful hip spot downtown, and its Happy Hour, enjoying margaritas and appetizers for a discount.

            Along that vein I would recommend “Houston Classic Mexican Recipes” by Erin Hicks Miller (Pelican Publishing), a collection of recipes from the city’s many great Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants.