Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Greetings from Pensacola Beach

It is currently storming in the Florida panhandle, but I don't care because I got more than an hour in the Gulf of Mexico in the early evening, where the water was warm, the air was relatively cool (it was nearly 100 in Mobile earlier in the day), and there were few people and lots of seashells. I didn't know what to expect, having never seen the Gulf before this afternoon -- I didn't find mole crabs, but I did find little burrowing coquina clams like in the Carolinas, and there were herring gulls, laughing gulls, and pelicans all flying over the water which had fairly good-sized waves in the wake of the afternoon's thunderstorms.

Earlier in the day, we left Georgia and drove into Atlanta, where we picnicked at a very warm rest stop before heading into Mobile to visit the Museum of Mobile in the Southern Market, which used to be City Hall. There's a temporary exhibit on Florida's East Coast pirates -- pieces of eight and artifacts from the Atocha wreck, plus maps, weapons, and illustrations of Drake (considered a pirate in these parts apparently), Teach, Bonny, Read, Gambi, Lafitte, et al. There are also history exhibits on the city and the region, including a replica of the hold of a slave ship, the interior of a Confederate submarine, one of Mobile-born Hank Aaron's home run balls, several historic carriages and house models, and an exhibit on Mardi Gras in Alabama.

Daniel and Adam in the pirates exhibit, which had videos of old pirate movies...

...as well as guns, cutlasses, armor, sailing equipment, and treasure including silver coins and copper blocks.

Here are the boys in the model of a Confederate submarine, which looks considerably less fun to travel aboard.

One of the many early artifacts of the region in the historical exhibit downstairs.

A statue in downtown Mobile of Confederate naval hero Raphael Semmes, captain of the commerce raider Alabama, which took dozens of prizes. After the war and his trial for treason as a U.S. naval defector, he taught philosophy at LSU.

The USS Alabama, which saw a great deal of action in the Pacific in 1944-45, is in Mobile Bay's Battleship Memorial Park.

The view from our room at the Hampton Inn in Pensacola Beach.

Here are the kids when we first arrived at the beach, before they determined that the water was warm enough to take their shirts off and stay a while.

Tuesday after some morning beach time we are off to Biloxi and New Orleans! I hear there was a coup in Honduras, but the news here still seems to be the All Michael Jackson, All the Time channel, except for five minutes on Billy Mays...

Monday, June 29, 2009

Greetings from Union City

We spent Sunday in downtown Atlanta, which had some very entertaining aspects and some disappointing aspects. I readily admit that we have been spoiled when it comes to aquariums -- we've seen the best, in some cases behind the scenes, in both the U.S. and the U.K. -- but many people and tour books both had said that the Georgia Aquarium was a can't-miss attraction, so we had rather high expectations. We were very disappointed to learn that the penguins are completely off display unless one pays $50+ a person for a behind-the-scenes tour -- outside our budget, given that the aquarium has an entrance fee (and they nickel-and-dime you inside for everything from the Titanic touring exhibit, which is fair enough, to the short Disney-ripoff looking movie, which we skipped, to plastic bags for lunch leftovers which...don't get me started, and they yelled at me for taking a photo of the "Hairy Otter" t-shirt display in the gift shop, possibly because they stole the logo from the Maryland Zoo). We didn't find much Southern hospitality there.

So while the Georgia Aquarium is a must-see for anyone obsessed with sharks, given that it has enormous whale sharks in a fantastic ocean tank that also has many other species of sharks, rays and fish, and there are several touch tanks terrific for kids, I don't think the aquarium comes close to the Cincinnati Aquarium in overall impact, and I prefer the more low-key style of the Baltimore, Boston and Chicago aquariums (I haven't been to the latter in many years, so perhaps it has changed, but I don't remember huge advertising billboards, prominently placed gift shops, or crowds so thick that it was impossible to see most of the smaller tanks up close without waiting a long time). I find it ironic that World of Coca-Cola, which is an entirely commercial enterprise with all the tourist-trap insanity implied -- a steampunkish Coke "happiness" film, a 4-D presentation about Coke around the world, a room running Coke advertisements over the years -- feels lower-key and less hyped than the aquarium in some ways.

Our plan for the evening was to have dinner somewhere downtown, hopefully with Krabapple, but she has a sinus infection so we didn't get to meet up with her, and when we arrived at the Atlanta Underground after a quick stop at the Georgia State House, we discovered that it closed an hour earlier than we thought, so we went through quickly on the main level which is most of what survives of pre-Civil War Atlanta -- the city was founded as a railroad crossroads, and a depot (the one from Gone With the Wind) once stood where the Underground is now, created during the 1920's when viaducts elevated the streets and left the old storefronts below the surface. We missed the Martin Luther King site entirely -- it closed even earlier. So we went back to the hotel, took the kids swimming, and cooked Indian food in the microwave in our room to save money for dining in New Orleans!

It's hard to get a sense of exactly how enormous the whale sharks at the Georgia Aquarium are without seeing how they compare to everything else in the tank and the people sitting outside watching them. That's one in the upper left.

The boys pose outside the beluga whale tank. The animals are delightful, but I can't help but compare this exhibit to the one at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, where one doesn't have to pay a fortune for a behind-the-scenes tour to see them surfacing above the water and playing with toys.

Me outside the Pacific reef tank, which is a wave tank, so the water gets churned every minute and gets the little sharks swimming.

The manta ray, which is in the big ocean tank with the whale sharks, is pretty amazing to look at.

At several points in World of Coca-Cola, we laughed and said, "We paid for this?" It's even more a celebration of Coke than the gratuitous references in old Columbia Pictures movies (one of Ghandi's Oscars is there), but there's no denying that Coke has been a part of all our lives.

Just about every place we went, someone wanted to take our photo and sell it to us for $20. I managed to take a photo of all four of us in reflection in this display in the World of Coca-Cola of an old fountain soda shop.

We enjoyed all of the Coke tour, which is not free like the Hershey factory tour, but ends with all the cola you can drink...and that includes flavors from Latin America, Europe, and Asia as well as eight kinds of Coke plus the rest of their U.S. products (Sprite, Minute Maid, VitaminWater, and many others).

Here is the central crossroads of Underground Atlanta, where Pryor Street meets Alabama Street. Now it's an urban mall with bling, sports team memorabilia and inexpensive restaurants, but at one time it was the heart of the produce district beside the heart of the Southern railroad.

Monday we will leave Georgia, visit historical stuff in Mobile, then head to the beach near Pensacola!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Greetings from Atlanta

After arriving from Augusta in the late morning, we spent nearly the entire day at the Atlanta History Center. This fabulous museum has a main building with several interactive museum exhibits on the history of Atlanta, the Civil War, and the Olympic Games, plus a historic research center, extensive gardens and woods, and two historic houses -- the Swan House, which was originally the main building on the private estate, and the Tullie Smith Farm, whose main house was moved to the property to become part of the collection and has other buildings restored or brought from other local farms. (The Margaret Mitchell House, which we stopped at briefly late in the day, is also part of the museum.)

We had lunch in the Coca-Cola Cafe (a Chick-fil-A covered with historic Coke posters and decorations), then walked to the Swan House, the 1928 home of the Inman family who inherited a fortune from cotton futures. The library and master bathroom are really stunning, as is the massive fountain out front. Then we wandered in the 100-degree heat to the farm, where we saw sheep and chickens as well as the large farmhouse and reconstructed slave cabin. Back at the museum that houses the Atlanta History Museum and Centennial Olympic Games Museum, we went through the large Civil War exhibit with artifacts and short films covering each year of the war from Atlanta's perspective, and the kids tried out the rowing machines and bikes in the Olympics exhibit which has the only complete collection of Olympic torches and medals in the U.S.

Daniel and Adam outside Swan House. No photography was permitted inside, but trust me when I say it's as opulent as one would expect from this exterior.

Here are the boys and the sheep at Tullie Smith Farm, wilting in the heat.

Adam strikes the winner's haughty pose in the Olympics exhibit. You can tell how much Daniel did not want to be in this photo. Paul didn't care.

Daniel was more willing to race his brother in the interactive display upstairs.

Here is Adam in the Civil War museum exhibit on the siege of Atlanta conducted by General Sherman.

Life-size figures of Union and Confederate soldiers with their gear -- there were rifles, ammunition pouches, and packs to pick up to give a sense of the weight of what they had to carry.

The Atlanta History Museum follows the city's development as it went from a rural railroad crossing to a huge modern metropolis, with particular emphasis on the ethnic, racial and class contributions and tensions that shaped its character.

Margaret Mitchell's house will have a grand reopening of the home and Gone With the Wind exhibition...next weekend.

Sunday we will visit the aquarium, Coca-Cola factory, Underground, and Martin Luther King memorial!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Greetings from Augusta

We have left Charleston after a fabulous day at the waterfront there, starting with a morning walk from our hotel to the Spirit of Charleston, which took us on a half-hour cruise past the Charleston coastline and the visiting tall ships to Fort Sumter. I learned a lot -- for instance, I didn't realize that the entire island upon which the fort stands was built on an underwater sandbar -- from the audio tour on the boat, which covers both the historical background and some of the architecture of the city. Adam and I stood on the forward deck for the whole cruise watching the pelicans, swallows and seagulls, plus Pride of Baltimore under sail and tugboats directing enormous freight tankers to the deep-water docks. It was very hot within the fort where the Civil War started, though also lovely, with little fiddler crabs and arthropods among the rocks.

After the boat ride back, we went to the South Carolina Aquarium, which mostly focuses on native species though it has a visiting exhibit on Magellanic penguins on loan from SeaWorld. We picnicked on the tables behind the aquarium overlooking the harbor, then we went to the dive and feeding at the big sea tank, which has sharks, a sea turtle, moray eel, and a lot of fish. We also spent a lot of time in the "outdoor" exhibit of shore birds, turtles, crabs, and fish found near the harbor (the room is surrounded by mesh but is open to the air and has local plants). And we saw the Carolina rainforest, an exhibit on rivers with otters and snakes, the touch tank with horseshoe crabs, urchins and rays, an interactive exhibit on camping with skunks and owls, and the aforementioned penguins, whose feeding we attended. In the late afternoon, we drove to Augusta, where we had dinner in our hotel room and took the kids to the pool.

The boys at the entrance to Fort Sumter, which Confederate fighters captured from the Union at the start of the Civil War.

From inside the fort, one can see the Charleston riverfront as well as the wildlife that lives in the brackish water.

Here is a view from the upper level of the guns in the fort as well as the boat that brought us there.

Harborfest visitor Pride of Baltimore under sail -- we passed her in the river on the way back to the dock -- with some of the area's gorgeous waterfront houses in the background.

The U.S. Coast Guard barque Eagle in the water in front of the Custom House.

Russian four-masted barque Kruzenshtern and Romanian barque Mircea. Kruzenshtern lost most of her foremast in a storm while sailing to Charleston.

Adam with one of the visiting penguins at the South Carolina Aquarium.

And a glimpse into the Ocean exhibit, which holds 385,000 gallons of salt water and has hundreds of fish, plus a loggerhead turtle.

Saturday we go to Atlanta to see Civil War sites and Gone with the Wind settings!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Greetings from Charleston

We are in glorious South Carolina, which was mired in gubernatorial scandal this morning but that has been wiped off the front pages by the definitive end of my childhood via the deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. That was all anyone was talking about as we traveled today -- the former not entirely surprising given her well-publicized struggle with cancer, the latter a total shock. It's always interesting to me how people feel this sense of having something in common with total strangers via celebrity deaths, even someone as controversial as Jackson was in recent years.

The other running theme of our day was stray cats, several of whom tried to adopt us (and it's probably a good thing we weren't going home, or the first one would probably have succeeded). After saying farewell to that cat outside the motel, we went to Petersburg National Battlefield, which has a museum and several large earthworks preserved -- its most famous feature, the Crater, was created by a massive mine explosion that killed about 300 Confederate soldiers instantly. We also went to a reconstructed Union trench site with cabins and an underground magazine. Then we drove to Bentonville for lunch, site of a smaller Civil War battle, and into South Carolina where we stopped briefly at South of the Border, which remains as tacky, stereotypical, and goofy as ever.

Now we are in Charleston, where we arrived around dinnertime and ate during the late afternoon thunderstorm that broke the heat. Afterward, we walked from our hotel down to the waterfront, where the ships for Harborfest had arrived -- some were sailing under the bridge giving tours, like Pride of Baltimore, but most were docked, and we got to see both ships we'd visited before (the Schooner Virginia, the Mircea) and gorgeous big ships like the Dutch Europa, the Russian Kruzenshtern (which broke a mast sailing to Charleston), and the French schooners Etoile and Belle Poule. The sunset was glorious as we walked back past the customs house and old market; we had Ben & Jerry's after we passed the fiddler crab-filled marsh, listening to cicadas and watching the bats fly above the trees.

Earthworks at Petersburg National Battlefield recall the months-long siege of the city as well as the trench warfare tactics of World War I adapted from Civil War innovations.

This is the monument at the Crater, where hundreds of soldiers on both sides lost their lives -- the Confederates largely in the initial blast, the Union soldiers when confusion after the explosion allowed the South time to regroup.

The historic district of Petersburg, with stone streets and buildings that in some cases have been standing since the American Revolution, has antique shops and this pub that serves fried green tomatoes alongside shepherd's pie.

Here are my kids at that iconic monument to bad taste, South of the Border, which clearly wants to be Wall Drug but lacks the fabulous setting and historic character.

Tall ships like Europa, at left, have gathered in Charleston for Harborfest this weekend.

We got to watch a beautiful sunset. You can see some of the color behind the Etoile and Belle Poule.

Here is one of the little crabs that lives in the marshy area between the dockside warehouses and the water.

Mule-drawn carriages are a popular way to see the city. This one is stopped across the street from the old market.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Greetings from Petersburg

No poems while I'm traveling -- it's too complicated to keep straight what I've already posted, sorry. I spent the early part of the day fighting with an Avery template to print address labels for Adam's Bar Mitzvah thank you notes, then panicked, sent the kids to the pool, packed, and got out of the house as rush hour was ending, which was the perfect time to brave I-95 South.

It wasn't yet dark after 9 p.m. when we reached Richmond and met Dementordelta for ice cream. Then we headed on to Petersburg, where we'll visit the battlefield in the morning before heading to Charleston -- after tracking down rubber bands for Adam's braces, since he somehow managed to lose his package of them between our house and the motel. I am hoping the CVS in town has them; if not, it may be an interesting (hah) day tomorrow.

Here are the last of my Baltimore photos from last weekend:

Seven Foot Knoll lighthouse, a screwpile lighthouse moved into the city once a land-based tower was built nearby, now part of the Baltimore Maritime Museum.

The wheel of the Lightship Chesapeake, also moved to the Baltimore Maritime Museum after duty protecting sailors.

The imposing USS Constellation is the newest ship to join the maritime museum's passport-ticket system, though it is the oldest of the ships in the harbor.

It is relatively rare for a ship with taller masts than the Constellation's to visit, but the Cisne Branco is one of the largest to dock in this part of the harbor.

Here is Federal Hill seen through one of the Cisne Branco's life rings.

And here is the Cisne Branco from the bridge of the Chesapeake.

Birds nest on top of both the USS Torsk and the USCGC Taney. Here is a small visitor to the latter.

Hibiscus flowers have been planted all around the Inner Harbor.

Shouting love to Hufflepants who is taking care of our kitties! Hope they are letting you get some sleep!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Poem for Wednesday

The "World-Famous" Lipizzaners
By Julie Bruck

They trail the trademark Royal Lipizzans,
a day or three later, eschewing big arenas
named after software for more questionable,
outdoor venues, county fairs like this,
where you wander among pygmy goats at dusk
to locate the gate, always pay cash.
There are fewer white stallions here,
and they don't jump as high, but the crowd
of fat men, angular women, and their sleepy,
sun-kissed kids cheers wildly and stomps
its boots in time to brave Beethoven squeezed
from two tiny speakers. That's the way,
Santa Rosa
, barks the commentator
in his iridescent blue suit, a decade
or two past Vegas. These horses
love it when you make a lot of noise!

So do the red-uniformed women riders,
who grin resolutely through quadrilles,
, and airs above the ground,
broadcasting their teeth. Best of all,
these horses like to jiggle from the ring,
halt, then bolt breakneck for the barn—
whee! Hang the rules! A stud stampede
of Royal Riding School truants! Oh, less
than venerable Viennese, elbows pumping
their horny white stallions barnward
at suicidal speeds, driving Santa
Rosa mad with glee, as mushroom clouds
of dust ascend under the klieg lights,
coating our throats! Get a load of how
they do this in California, oh, Emperor
Franz Josef, oh, Elisabeth, mournful
Empress, oh, Troy Tinker of the blue neon
suit! We eat this dust, we yell for more.


Another from this week's New Yorker.

We are leaving town tomorrow afternoon, meaning that today was spent doing necessary chores like laundry, tracking down the books the kids want to read in the car, tracking down necessities at Target that we didn't track down the last time we were at Target, and more laundry. I still need to burn a bunch of photos to disc in case of computer catastrophe, and I still need to pack pretty much all the practical stuff, but I have most of tomorrow for that while the kids are hopefully at the pool.

We had dinner with my parents, though I was a bit foggy since I had a seasonal migraine. And now I am spazzing about all the things I may forget to do but am too tired to do any of them. So instead I am listening to Hoawrd Dean talk to Stephen Colbert about health care (though not his own apparent plastic surgery and who paid for it, I note), and have my cat ignoring me in favor of sleeping on the new bath mat purchased earlier in the day.

The USS Constellation seen behind NVE Cisne Branco in Baltimore last weekend.

Another view of Cisne Branco, this time from the gun deck of the Constellation.

Adam tries out one of the hammocks on the deck below.

The wardroom and officers' quarters have recently been restored.

In fact, the quarters are quite roomy compared even to the captain's quarters on the USS Torsk and most of the officers' quarters on the USCGC Taney.

The dispensary has been restored as well.

An older ship's wheel is on display in the small museum outside the ship.

Here are the Constellation (at right) and Cisne Branco (at left) plus a few harbor dragon boats seen from the bridge of the Lightship Chesapeake.