December 2016 – Another Road Trip

On December 15, early in the morning, I started an almost 1700 miles car journey on my own. It was the first time I would drive that long distance without someone accompanying me on the front seat. So, I started the journey with some trepidation, but confident that everything would be alright.

My first destination was Atlanta, Ga. I had read about a restaurant called Canoe, which was named by Open Table as one of the 100 best restaurants in America, and only one of four in Georgia. So I headed there for lunch. The restaurant is located north of Atlanta, on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, and I was seated at a table next to a panoramic window that gave me a grand view of the gardens and the river. The crab cake with salad was first rate and the service excellent. The accolades were well deserved.

Swan House Grand Hall
Swan House Grand Hall

Before heading to my hotel I visited the Atlanta History Center. The complex includes, spread through the woods and gardens, three historic homes: the Wood Family Cabin, the Smith Family Farm and the Swan House. The first depicts life of early settlers in Georgia’s first half of the nineteen century; the farm illustrates life as it was during the time of the Civil War and the last is a stately mansion build in 1928 for a rich Atlanta family. In the main building there are several exhibitions. I enjoyed most the one dedicated to the Civil War, with a comprehensive display of more than 1400 original Union and Confederate artifacts, as well as photographs, videos and displays.

On my way to the hotel, which was located downtown, I encountered a massive traffic jam. Not since living in NYC I had been in such heavy traffic. When I got to my hotel I was happy to have a place to park my car for the duration of my visit, as the location let me go to my sightseeing destinations by just walking. Although, it appeared that the “hilly curse” that plagued me in Portugal and Spain, also continued in downtown Atlanta. While crossing from the side where my hotel was to the side where I would do mostly of my touring I had to go up a hill and repeat it on my way back.

The next morning I headed to the Centennial Olympic Park. I looked for, what I had read was a beautiful Fountain of Rings, but was disappointed that at that morning it wasn’t working. So I crossed the park and went into the CNN Center and took a backstage tour of the studios. Pretty interesting to see how news and entertainment mixes in our modern society.

Jelly Fish
Jelly Fish in the Georgia’s Aquarium

I had lunch in one my favorite chain sea food restaurant, McCormick & Schmick’s and then headed to the Georgia Aquarium. Although the best I have been, with (they say) more than 100,000 animals, representing more than 500 species around the world, I believe that the admittance ticket, about $ 40, is a bit steep.

Being very tired I just took a short walk that touched parts of the Sweet Auburn District, the national historic site that epitomizes the black urban culture in the South, and returned to the hotel for a rest.

Then before, I had dinner I went to the View, at the top of the Westin Peach Tree Plaza Hotel, to take the view of the city from the 72nd floor observatory. I got up there a few minutes before Sunset and enjoyed the breathtaking panorama of Atlanta’s skyline and the setting of the sun at the distance. And it was free…

Early next day I continued my trip towards Sarasota, FL. I took Interstate 75 and stayed on it for over 8 hours and arrived at my cousin’s Erich place around 4 pm. Erich has a beautiful and large condo with great views of Siesta Beach and its environs. I enjoyed spending the next three days, sharing anecdotes about our families and our lives. See, even if he is my cousin, because we were born in different continents we didn’t met, here in the States, until we were in our late teens. After which, we only saw each other in another three or four occasions. So, it was great to spend some quality time together.

Erich outside Cá d’Zan

Erich was a wonderful host and showed me many sights around Sarasota. He took me to Venice, a picturesque town South of Sarasota;  showed me around Inland and Bayfront Parks, with a towering and colorful statue, called Unconditional Surrender on the city’s waterfront and brought me to see the Ringling Museum, an art museum sited in what used to be the property of John Ringling, one of the brothers of circus fame and which houses not only the art collection that he and his wife, amassed during their travels and then donated, in 1927, to the State of Florida, but also other objects (for a total of about 10,000)  that were acquired after. There are other buildings and exhibitions in the 66 acres estate, including the Circus Museum and the lavish Venetian Gothic home of John Ringling, Cá d’Zan, which we didn’t visit.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
Entrance to the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

We also walked the white sands of Siesta Beach and had lunch and dinner in some of the nice restaurants of the area. I went on my own to visit the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, a tropical, urban oasis, found on the Sarasota bay-front, and featuring many horticulture displays that include more than 20,000 species.

On Wednesday morning I said goodbye to my cousin and headed towards Saint Augustine, FL, but made first a stop at the DeSoto National Memorial, a park near Bradenton, FL, north of Sarasota, which marks the presumed point of disembarkation of the Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto’s on his expedition to North America in 1539.

I arrived at my hotel in St. Augustine by mid-afternoon and after a short rest, I headed downtown to admire the Night of Lights, which I had read was a magnificent display of holiday lights around town that had received accolades all over the world. As it happens, I believe that as I have aged, I have become harder to please or my expectations have become higher, so as I walked around the town I really wasn’t that impressed.

Oldest House Gallery
Gallery at the Oldest House

Next day, I figured I would get an overview of the sights and I boarded a hop-in, hop-out bus tour. I stopped at the Gonzalez-Alvarez house, the oldest surviving Spanish colonial dwelling in Florida, and build in the early 1700’s. My next stop was at the Old City Jail, where a genial and histrionic tour guide, dressed as an inmate, did escort visitors through the jail, build in 1891 and used until 1953. In keeping with the resort style of the town, at the time of its building, the edifice has the distinct appearance of a Victorian house without the interior comfort and charm. It is almost unrecognizable as a jail apart from the barred windows and a gallows build in the backyard.

I had lunch at a foot truck, Uptown Scratch Kitchen, where I had the best fried chicken I can remember eating. The place is the number 1 restaurant in St. Augustine, as per Trip Advisor, and probably it deserves the distinction. I was a bit tired and went to the hotel to rest and later on I made a stop at the Oldest Store Museum. There tour guides impersonated store clerks at early parts of the 20th century, showing the wares that were used at that time.

St. george St
St. George St – Pedestrian Mall

Next day I started my sightseeing visiting the Castillo de San Marcos (St Mark Castle), the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. Construction started in 1672 and it was completed 35 years later, in 1697. The walls are made of a stone called coquina (Spanish for “small shells”), formed by ancient shells that have bonded together to form a type of stone similar to limestone. (Many old buildings in St Augustine are made with coquina.) The fort, during its history, was occupied by Spaniards, Englishmen, Spaniards again and Americans. For a short period of time (15 months) it lodged Confederate troops, but it was retaken by Union troops on March of 1862. After the Civil War ended, the Castillo was converted into a federal prison, and for decades it held mostly Apache Indians. Today, one can see recreations of the activities at the fort, through its history, especially during the Spanish period.

After my visit to the Castillo I stopped at the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park, a park with exhibitions that perpetuate the myth that the conquistador Ponce de Leon, disembarked in that area and its purpose was to find a Fountain of Youth. In the park there is even a spring that pretends to be such fountain and where tens of thousands of visitors come every year to sample the sulfur-smelling well water (I passed). Anyway, the grounds are lovely and there are displays that depict how both Native-Americans and Europeans, may have lived in the early 1500’s.

My last stop in my sightseeing tour that day was the St. Augustine Lighthouse, the 165 ft tall structure that is Florida’s first official lighthouse, which was built in 1875 and replaced the old Spanish lighthouse that stood in that area since 1565. Perhaps, if I would have drank some water from the Fountain of Youth, I might have attempted to climb the 219 steps to get to the top, but as I didn’t, my old age inhibited me to do it and I stayed on the ground.

However, that night I was adventurous enough to eat at a restaurant called Barnacle Bill and ordered alligator tail. As they usually say, when describing some exotic food, “It tasted like chicken…”

The following day, I headed back north and stopped at Savannah, GA. I had been in Savannah almost two years ago during my cross country trip. While there I had been told about a restaurant, the Old Pink House that was supposed to be excellent, but couldn’t dine there because I hadn’t been able to make a reservation. This time, and considering that I would be there on Christmas Eve, I made a reservation early in December.

The Georgia Queen
The Georgia Queen at Savannah’s Harbor

Anyway, I got to Savannah long before my appointed time for dinner, so I walked and had lunch around River St, the picturesque cobbled stoned street that parallels the Savannah River, and then headed to the Bonaventure Cemetery, made famous by the book and film, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”.

John Muir, the legendary naturist and explorer, spend 6 days and nights in 1867 in the Bonaventure Cemetery and he wrote about his experience in his book “A thousand Mile Walk”. Here is a quote from the chapter “Camping in the Tombs”:

“The most conspicuous glory of Bonaventure is its noble avenue of live-oaks. They are the most magnificent planted trees I have ever seen, about fifty feet high and perhaps three or four feet in diameter, with broad spreading leafy heads. The main branches reach out horizontally until they come together over the driveway, embowering it throughout its entire length, while each branch is adorned like a garden with ferns, flowers, grasses, and dwarf palmettos.”

Almost one hundred and fifty years later I couldn’t agree any more, as I was very much impressed by those centenary oaks many of the covered by phantasmagorical Spanish moss.

Water Fountain at Forsyth Park

I returned to the Historic District and walked some of the parks for which Savannah is known for. The largest, Forsyth Park was teeming with people enjoying the balmy weather.

I headed then to my hotel where I rested for a few hours, before getting ready for my Christmas Eve dinner. My reservation was for 8:15 pm. When I got there, the place was packed full, but I was seated not after a long wait. A lot of families and couples where enjoying a Holiday dinner, and so did I, even if I was alone. The duck and the wine were first-rate. However, they don’t seem to know how to make an Irish Coffee. The one they brought me was coffee with whiskey (I assume it was Irish), but no sugar or whipped cream. So they get just three stars from me. By the time I left the restaurant, (10:00 pm) I was surprised to see people still coming in. It reminded me of Buenos Aires, when people, going out for dinner, will rarely sit at the table before that hour.

Next morning, I started the final leg of my trip. The highways, being Christmas Day, were almost empty and I made excellent time. I arrived home by 2 pm. Another trip had ended.

You can see more pictures in my Facebook page. Click the Facebook icon in this page (under FOLLOW US), then PHOTOS and select the ALBUMS marked December 2016.