Introduction: We decided to do this trip based on some fairly random factors - we hadn't done more than a weekend trip with the baby, so we wanted to keep it a bit shorter than normal both in terms of travel time and total trip length. We wanted to go someplace new. We've been talking about some kind of driving trip up the Mississippi for a while but it never quite jelled. We've also been meaning to visit New Orleans for a long time and have friends there. So we decided to fly into New Orleans and work our way up a bit - not all the way, by far, but just sticking with the river for a bit and making our way over to Nashville and flying out of there. Well, as luck would have it massive flooding hit Nashville and we tweaked the rest of the trip at the last minute - to still fly out of Nashville but to keep the last couple of days in Kentucky. That way we'd only have to change one hotel and not the airplane tickets or car rental and we'd still see a bit of Nashville.
Day one: Travel to New Orleans: The best flight ended up being crazy early - 6:25am, arriving at 2:00pm. Luckily we're near the airport but waking up the baby at early o'clock was no fun. The plane landed in Colorado but we didn't have to get off. The hope here was that the baby would basically just go right back to sleep on the plane. Not a chance - she slept maybe 20 minutes the whole way. Luckily she wasn't too crazy but it took a determined effort to keep her entertained the whole way. This was a big change from the Seattle trip where she slept most of the way. We got a rental car and headed to our hotel in the Central Business District - a couple of blocks from the French Quarter, which is the oldest part of town and where most of the tourism happens. You don't really need a car in New Orleans if you're mostly interested in the historic areas and are staying in the French Quarter or nearby, but it was nice to be able to hit a grocery store on the way in and it sped things up a lot in terms of being able to get to the hotel and get started right away when we left - but it sat in a parking garage for a couple of days. Basically it was an expensive luxury - not a terrible thing to have with the baby but not necessarily how I'd do it next time. Anyway, by the time we were checked in and the baby had a nap we just wanted to get a little dinner and get basically oriented as to where things were. We actually ate at a Thai place because it was nearby and had good reviews on Yelp (the more recent ones anyway), and it's kind of comfort food for us (we ate a lot of it in college) and they always seem to love babies in Thai restaurants. Then we walked into the quarter a bit and poked around and headed back to bed. Not the most exciting of days but it put us into position to get started right away on day two.
Day two: Poking around New Orleans, the Aquarium, Dinner with friends: This was our first real day of tourism. We spent the morning basically just walking around the French Quarter, checking out the buildings and the people, walked through the French Market, had beignets at Cafe du Monde (which has been serving them there since 18mumblemumble etc. ect. they're very good, be aware the coffee's the local kind with chickory). We made our way down the waterfront to the aquarium, which we enjoyed. We pretty much always go to aquariums on trips and they're almost always interesting. Unlike zoos which almost have to spend a lot of money on the same elephants, giraffes, tigers, etc. aquariums often specialize in the local area so they're more interesting. We picked up some poboys at a recommended restaurant across the street from our hotel - the catfish poboy was just incredible. Seriously one of the highlights of the trip, no joke. Then after the baby's nap we headed out again, poked through the quarter some more and met our friends at The Gumbo Shop (which was good) and wandered around with them a bit before heading back to the room. Basically just a nice pleasant day but we walked a little over 10 miles. Since day two was more interesting to do than to write about this is probably a good time to mention Katrina. Everybody asks about if we saw hurricane damage. The answer is no. First off, the old part of town was built on the highest ground and there wasn't really any flooding. There was wind damage but it was five years ago - within a couple of months everything was fine. Now, the city's population's still lower than it was, and my understanding is if you go to some neighborhoods where it really flooded it's going to look different. But as a tourist you're just not likely to be in those neighborhoods. If you've been waiting for some kind of a recovery before going, wait no longer, get your butt down there and start eating. :-)
Day Three: New Orleans Museums: We'd seen references to an insectarium, roughly modeled after the one in Montreal which we'd enjoyed, and it's right on canal street so we decided to do that. It was a lot of fun - lots of insects, a very cool butterfly room with tons of butterflies and they even have a free tasting bar with things like chocolate covered crickets and cinnamon mealworms. I tried a couple of things and they were actually really good, go figure. Even the bugs taste good in New Orleans. Then we walked to the national WW II museum, which is nicely done, getting lunch at a random cafe along the way - again, wonderful food. New Orleans is an amazing town if you enjoy food. In the evening we were kind of worn out and other than some more beignets never had a real meal, we just finished up some snacks in our room. I find when traveling we often only really do two big meals a day, because they're so big, and then just snack.
Day Four: Travel to Vicksburg Breakfast across the street at P&G (the place with the poboys I mentioned earlier) - I got an egg, bacon, grits, two huge biscuits and a big thing of juice and the wife got some pancakes and it was maybe $12. Such a deal. We drove through the garden district a bit just to check out the cool old houses, then took the scenic route out of town. We took 55n out of NO to go by lake pontrachain, then 20 to Baton Rouge, then up 61. This took us by A Taste of Bavaria - we just got some bakery goodies but they were really good. This was another Yelp find - I have mixed feelings about Yelp, because everyplace seems to end up at 4 stars and some of the reviewers are truly idiots but if you're going down the highway and you pull up the iPhone app you can look for places near your GPS coordinates and if there's a few people who like the place I'd rather try it than eat at yet another burger place. We had 3-4 major wins doing this, a bunch of OK places, and only one place that was bad. We visited The Donut Shop in Natchez. Very fresh but they like their doughnuts so sweet in this part of the world they were overwhelming. If we'd thought ahead we would have picked up some tamales there for later - the whole Mississippi delta area has their own kind of tamale - small, differently spiced, and usually wrapped up so they'll stay warm for later. They're really good but I didn't realize at this point how long they stay hot.
Part of the route we took was the Natchez Trace - the historic route. Very pretty, some cool stops to visit various old structures and a cool Indian mound (The Emerald Mound ). You can walk one section of the "sunken trace" where the dirt was so soft and dusty that people quickly wore a path that eroded into a sort of canyon effect. Definitely spooky walking down it and thinking about doing it in the old days, far from help, and getting ambushed by highwaymen. We eventually got into Vicksburg. We were trying to avoid fast food on this trip but we had to hit the supermarket again and were running short on time and were run out so we ate at Popeyes (fried chicken - it's good but we have them at home). Part of the logic is that there seemed to be only a couple of good places to eat and we could just go tomorrow... but we hadn't thought ahead to tomorrow being Sunday and one was closed. Or even without knowing that having some tamales or getting new ones would have been good options too. Oh, well. Our hotel unfortunately was not very nice - Mississippi's where mildew goes to party, and these people had extended the popcorn ceiling into the shower. They'd also never cleaned the carpet - we tried to clean up a stain and the towel came up black. Yech!
Day Five: Vicksburg: Vicksburg has one big claim to fame - the local battlefield. It also has a small but nice historic district along the Mississippi. It's not what it could be (there are a lot of empty buildings) but there's some interesting things there including a Coke museum - this is where Coke was first bottled. Unfortunately since it was Sunday almost everything was closed or had limited hours. We did get to see some great murals near the waterfront, (with a railroad building next to it - totally empty - that would have made such a cool museum. Vicksburg was full of missed opportunities like this.) We drove through town a bit and checked out the houses a bit before getting lunch at the one sit down place I was aware of - the excellent Walnut Hills which is in a very cool 1880s house. Luckily we got there just before the main rush - it's clearly very popular. Then we headed to the battlefield. I'm not generally a battlefield tourist but this one had enough earthworks and information to be interesting. Basically it was a 47 day siege far enough outside the city that nobody ever built over much of the fortifications both sides threw up. There's a 16 mile driving loop - get the audio CD at the visitors center which really brings it to life. In addition to the fortifications there are about a billion monuments to individuals, regiments, states, etc. etc. which are very cool if you're into that sort of thing.
One trip planning note - if you were going to be there on a Sunday definitely save the battlefield since that day. There's just not a whole lot to do in Vicksburg otherwise, and given their lack of Sunday hours you'll be kicking yourself if you did the battlefield on Saturday and then on Sunday basically had nothing to do.
Day Six: Vicksburg to Memphis: We had a little cleanup to do - things we'd missed earlier. We got some tamales for later (excellent and really handy since we had quite a bit of driving), hit the coke museum (excellent) and headed out of town. We headed to Jackson with a mission. I had a critical cable die and needed a replacement. And it turns out there's one Apple Store in the state and it was on the way. So we popped into there, got a replacement cable and a car charger for my iPhone (I'd forgotten to bring one - I somehow forgot to grab some stuff like that out of my car before leaving). We hit the local natural science museum which is nice enough - basically we just needed a break before continuing on but it had an aquarium section and sure enough it focused on the local critters and was interesting. And then we drove the three or so hours north to Memphis. The drive is vaguely attractive but not very interesting. We hit the hotel (much nicer than the last one thankfully) and consulted my list of BBQ places to try. We went to The Pig on Beale. That's actually the name including the "on Beale". Beale's a historic street - center of blues and jazz, turned abandoned mess, turned nice club and restaurant area. The ribs and pulled pork were excellent! They would turn out to be the best ones of the trip.
Day Seven: Memphis: We went to Graceland. I'm not particularly an Elvis fan in the sense that I like him OK but I don't really get why for some folks it's a religion. But Graceland was interesting - it's a cool old house decorated in the fashion of the 70s which is kind of an odd combination, there are exhibits of old cars and planes Elvis used. Pretty much all of that would have been interesting to me no matter who owned them. And then there are things like the Vegas jumpsuits or whatever. Everybody was super nice - they made sure we knew how it worked with a stroller (you hand it off at one point before you go in, and it's waiting for you once you're pass the portion of the tour with steps). It's kind of expensive (it's the kind of place that charges you both for admission and to park and it's $4 extra to see the cars and planes). I don't know that I'll ever go back but I'm glad I went. We hit the next place on my BBQ list - Cozy Corner - the spicing and such was excellent but they were underdone to the point of being chewy. This is the problem with BBQ restaurants - they get busy (it's never a good sign when they're running out of almost every side dish) and there's just no way to rush the product and maintain quality. Another day they might be excellent but not today. After that we attempted to go to the Memphis Brooke Museum of Art. Turns out it's closed on Tuesdays. On a Sunday or Monday I'd have checked their website, but a Tuesday? Oh, well, it was only a couple of miles from the BBQ place, but still disappointing. The way the timing worked out it made sense to pop back to the room for a nap (mostly for the baby) and then go to the Pink Palace. It's a museum in the home of the founder of the Piggly Wiggly chain - it's an amazing huge mansion and the exhibits are very good from what we could tell. Unfortunately a good part of the mansion portion of the museum (there's also a side structure) was closed due to some ADA improvements. But from what we saw we'd like to go back. It's a bit of a hodgepodge of natural history and local history (including a very cool recreation of a Piggly Wiggly - the first attempt at something resembling a supermarket). After that, yes, more BBQ. The Blues City Cafe which is only about a block from The Pig on Beale. They were good - actually a bit overdone this time. With ribs a little overdone's better than a little under (if the meat is falling off the bone without your help it's over done and at some point they get mushy this wasn't quite that bad but dangerously flirting with it). But still I think The Pig on Beale was the clear winner, no question about it. So all in all I liked Memphis, and if I'm in the area again I'd like to visit the Pink Palace when it's totally open and maybe try that art museum again (sigh).
Day Eight - Travel to Bowling Green via Nashville: This is the point in the trip where we'd originally intended to go to Nashville. It's suffered from horrible flooding. We were getting mixed messages about if it was better to stay there and spend money or better to stay out of the way and not use up resources - the water treatment situation was still dodgy (running at half capacity) and I know they were trucking in water from elsewhere. They were saying they were hoping to get the big piles of flood damaged stuff off the street by mid June - three weeks from now - which didn't sound encouraging. As a result we decided to shift our hotel about an hour north to Bowling Green, KY. It's a nice, smaller town. It was affected some by the flood but not too much, and it's near some interesting areas. Between baby naps and about four hours of driving it was pretty much dinner time by the time we checked in. The guy at the hotel reception desk mentioned a good local BBQ place - the Smokey Pig - and it was very cool. The style of BBQ they cook has a vinegar based sauce with no kind of tomato or anything - it's kind of spicy and tangy and good.
Day Nine - Mammoth Cave: The big item today was Mammoth Cave. It's a huge cave system - longest in the world - but not necessarily one of the prettiest ones. It's more bare walls and less cool formations. But there are some very beautiful areas. and there's one of their many cool tours that highlights one of these areas - the Frozen Niagara tour. It's short and not too hard to bring a baby on if you use a front facing sling (no backpacks, it's too easy to turn and wack into something). It was fun, and all of the park folks and the tour guide were great - I'd like to go back and do some of their more extensive tours. It's also just a lovely area. We got there, got reservations for the tour (which we could have done online but we weren't sure when we'd get there - in their busier season reservations are critical). We had time to eat so we did that, then we did the tour, wandered around a bit including hiking to the historic entrance (you couldn't go in very far if you weren't on a tour but it was still interesting - massive cold wind coming out of the cave for one thing). Then we took the scenic route back into town. For dinner we tried Koyoto Steakhouse, a "Japanese" place serving stir fried meat and veggies over rice, with Chinese decor and fortune cookies. The workers all appeared to be southeast Asian. But it was the first time we had recognizable vegetables since the trip started, no joke. The baby was delighted - she's used to getting carrots and broccoli fairly often and hadn't seen them since we left.
Day Ten - Corvette Museum, Railway Museum: It turns out that they make Corvettes in a GM plant here, and there's the national Corvette museum nearby. It's fun if you like cars, or maybe even if you don't - just the evolution over 50 years is pretty interesting. For the guys the highlight was that somebody was reving up a modified '73 (with one gazillion horsepower) and everybody ran over to that part of the museum to listen. We all probably got hearing damage and the fumes were interesting but well worth it.
After that we visited the railway museum - the highlight was a guided walk through some old train cars. The post office car was very cool, and the way the different passenger classes work, especially the sleeper cars, was pretty fascinating. We had the Worst Thai Food Ever for lunch. Just don't even want to think about it. This was the only bad meal on the trip. One weird thing these days is on Southwest Airlines to get a good number you have to check in exactly 24 hours in advance, and while traveling it's kind of awkward. But they have a pretty useful iPhone app that will let you do it anywhere you have signal which helps. I'm too cheap to pay the $10 extra to get automatically checked in early but it's definitely a distraction.
Day Eleven - Nashville, Fly Home: We had an afternoon flight out so we had plenty of time to drive the hour to Nashville and fit in a little tourism before hitting the airport. We went to the Tennessee State Museum which is downtown, partially because it was free, but they had interesting history stuff, including all kinds of old tools and so forth from different eras. In terms of the flood damage... there wasn't any real visible signs except that they were holding the Grand Ole Opry concerts in some kind of civic auditorium. But parking was nonexistent and the drivers were crazy and frankly I think we had a better time in Bowling Green. There's a couple of things I'd like to see in Nashville and I'm sure I'll be through there again eventually but for this trip I think it was the right choice to divert north a bit. Then, we flew home. The baby of course fell asleep about 15 minutes before the plane landed. Sigh...