Sunday, April 28, 2013

Backyard Bucket List: Drumheller Hoodoos and the Suspension Bridge

A couple of months ago, I posted a comment on Twitter about some of the great natural wonders one can visit when traveling to Alberta.  Among the items listed, I mentioned seeing the hoodoos in the Drumheller Badlands.  A Twitter friend from Germany questioned me about the hoodoos - she thought I had made some sort of strange typo.  I do admit, the word 'hoodoo' is a weird term, but it is a fitting word considering the absurd nature of the formation it describes.  Since summer is almost here, and lots of people are planning road trips and vacations, I'd like to encourage visitors to try checking out the ever-interesting hoodoos of Drumheller!

Before I tell you about how to visit the hoodoos in Drumheller, Alberta, I should probably make sure you all know what a hoodoo is, how it is made, and how they tie into the area known as the Badlands. The Badlands are part of the Drumheller valley, cut deep into the flat prairie horizon by erosion from the Red Deer River, wind, and rain run-off.  This area is classified as dry, reminiscent of an alienesque-desert landscape, but with vibrant colors caused by layers upon layers of sedimentary rock and sand.  It is really a very beautiful region, and worth the visit just to hike around the hills and gulleys.  

Drumheller Alberta, Dinosaur Trail, Horse Thief Canyon
The Drumheller Badlands really aren't so bad - they're beautiful!

The hoodoos of the Drumheller valley are tall rock formations made out of two types of stone (sand and clay) and rest upon a base of shale.  The pillar is made out of a softer sandstone, while the capstone is typically harder and less prone to erosion.  As the effects of wind, frost, rain, and water run-off whittle away the softer stone of the pillar, the capstone erodes far less quickly.  Eventually the pillar becomes quite small, while the capstone remains, balanced precariously on top like a flat tray or hat.  

Hoodoo trail, Alberta hoodoos, natural rock formations
Hoodoos are one of my favorite natural formations in Alberta.

The story goes that early Europeans arriving to the Drumheller Badlands associated these somewhat-creepy looking formations as signs of magic, witchcraft, or 'voodoo', which is how they became known as 'hoodoos'.  Early First Nations groups of the area believed that the rock pillars were petrified giants who came to life at night.  

Drumheller Alberta Canada, Hoodoo Trail, Alberta hoodoos
I pose with a baby hoodoo - I wonder what it will look like in 1000 years?

You can find hoodoos all over the badlands area, but the best place to see them is in the protected area, which has the biggest and most identifiable landmarks.  If you want to visit, you have to drive about 15 minutes (16 kilometers) east outside of Drumheller down Highway 10 (nicknamed Hoodoo Trail).  There is a big parking lot and several gigantic hoodoos right by the road, so you can't miss it.  It is free to visit. However, the hoodoos are very sensitive, and erode quite quickly and easily, so the good people of Alberta beg you to walk only on the designated paths and avoid touching the hoodoos themselves. 

Hoodoo trail, Canada Alberta hoodoos, natural rock formations
My husband and father liked this hoodoo the best!

If you get tired of hiking around the hoodoos, another fun thing to experience in this area is the Rosedale Suspension Bridge, which hangs just above the murky Red Deer River.  If you are driving from Drumheller, you will actually hit the community of Rosedale and the Suspension Bridge before the hoodoos (the hoodoos are 1 km further to the east).  The bridge was used by early miners in the days when Drumheller and area was a coal-producing community.  

Rosedale suspension bridge, Drumheller Alberta, things to do in Alberta
The Rosedale Suspension Bridge - fun for the whole family!

Today the bridge is mainly a free tourist attraction, and it provides access to some great hiking trails throughout the Badlands on the other side.  It is also used by locals and travelers alike for fishing in the Red Deer River.  I like going across it so that I can jump up and down once I get to the middle and make everyone else on the bridge with me wet themselves in fright!  Good times!

Rosedale suspension bridge, Drumheller Alberta, things to do in Alberta
My husband, Mom, and Dad high above the Red Deer River.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Louisiana Swamp Tour: Part Deux

I won't belabor this topic too much, since I have already written one post on this blog about touring the swamps and bayous of Louisiana during my 2008 trip, and wrote a guest post on the site "We Said Go Travel" about my 'gator-spottin' experiences.  But going on another trip to the swamps was a fun part of my most recent visit to New Orleans, and I'd like to share some highlights with you.

Originally, I wasn't going to go.  My two travel partners booked rather last minute for a late afternoon voyage out to swamp country in Louisiana, and I had plans to meet another travel blogger for dinner.  However, my plans fell through.  I was okay with exploring the city on my own while my friends explored the swamp, since I still wanted to trek around Audubon Park, find the home of Edgar Degas, and a few other items on my "see-and-do" list.  But, ultimately, my friends' excitement about the excursion, and their pleas for me to join them, won me over.  Five minutes before the tour bus was to arrive, we phoned the company and asked if we could tack on one more passenger. Of course, they said yes - it was an extra $70.00 in their pockets!

Cajun Encounters Swamp Tour, New Orleans Swamp, Louisiana alligators
Cruising down an "alley way" in the swamp

Once again, we used the company 'Cajun Encounters'.  I really cannot say enough good stuff about this business - they pick you up at your hotel, their drivers are knowledgeable, funny, and friendly (ours had a giant bag of Fireball candies that he shared with the whole bus), and the tour is exciting and satisfying.  There are several swamp tour companies, but you pretty much can't go wrong with 'Cajun Encounters'.  I highly recommend them. (And no, they did not pay me to say that... but if they want to, they sure can feel free!)

Louisiana Swamp Tour, New Orleans Swamp, Louisiana alligators
The Cajun Encounters tour office - in the middle of nowhere

The weather in New Orleans the week we visited was unusually cold - I certainly did not pack warm enough for the climate we had that week.  If you want an idea of how cold it was, it was warmer in CANADA a few of the days we were there.  That's sick and wrong.  So, unsurprisingly, the 'gators were not in the mood to be out of the water, lounging in the cold wind and shade.  We only saw two alligators during our tour: one tiny little female, clinging to the side of a log to try and keep out of the wind, and one male.

Cajun Encounters Swamp Tour, New Orleans Swamp, Louisiana alligators
The "Wishing Tree" which was used in Disney's "The Princess and the Frog"

The male, however, is what made the tour so satisfying.  He was HUGE!  Bigger than any of the five 'gators I saw during my last trip out to the swamp.  My friend wanted to get super close to him so she could nab some mind-blowing photographs, and cajoled our affable captain ever closer.  We got some fantastic shots of him, before he started moving his legs oh-so-slowly towards the water, preparing himself to warn us off if we got too close.

Cajun Encounters Swamp Tour, New Orleans Swamp, Louisiana alligators
The big, big, BIG alligator!

Another 'new' part of the swamp tour was how they had incorporated the wild pigs into the mix.  The last time I was in New Orleans, the wild pigs weren't such a problem, and no one spoke of them.  Now, the wild pigs are over-populated and invasive, taking over whole areas and affecting natural species.  It is a real problem, except for the area surrounding the 'Cajun Encounters' swamp tours.  They feed their wild pigs, and not just with vegetable scraps from the kitchen.  They feed them marshmallows!

Cajun Encounters Swamp Tour, New Orleans Swamp, Louisiana wild pigs
The wild pigs sure loved marshmallows. 

We got up close and personal with a mother pig and her two wee little babies (and her baby from the year prior, whom she kept trying to run off.  I guess even pigs want their kids to leave the nest eventually).  The captain flung about 20 marshmallows from out of the boat, and the pigs swam right up to us to grab them.  The babies were adorable!

Cajun Encounters Swamp Tour, New Orleans Swamp, Louisiana alligators
I really enjoyed my time in the swamp once again

In the end, I was very happy that I had decided to attend the swamp tour.  It goes to show that things are never the same way twice.  Just because you think you've "been there, done that", it doesn't mean an activity, event, or location isn't worth visiting again.  Life always surprises you!

Explore the swamps with "Down the Wrabbit Hole"!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Buried Above Ground: Strange Tales of Death from New Orleans

If you are any type of fan of this blog, which might amount to a whopping total of five people (up five from last year), you'll know that I gravitate a bit towards the morbid side of history. I love wandering through old cemeteries, learning about epidemics and diseases that swept through medieval cities and towns, and educating myself about customs surrounding funeral rites and burials. These topics might be gross to some, I realize, but I personally find it fascinating how humans deal with the everlasting mystery of 'death'.

cemetery, family vaults, tombs, St. Louis Cemetery No.1
The entrance to St. Louis Cemetery Number 1 in New Orleans - strange yet beautiful!

Hence my desire - nay, NEED - to visit a historical cemetery in New Orleans (where they bury their dead above-ground) and learn the stories about Louisiana's strange funereal laws. This post is a decoupage of visits - combining my trip in 2008, when I actually got to stroll around the cemetery of St. Louis Number 1, with my most recent visit in 2013, where I learned some fascinating stories about death and burial in New Orleans from a most-knowledgeable tour guide. The two journeys together create a concrete and insanely interesting weave - I hope you enjoy!

The most accessible cemetery, should you choose to visit one while exploring the city of New Orleans, is St. Louis Cemetery Number 1. It is a quick walk from the French Quarter, at the end of St. Louis and Basin Streets. The neighborhood surrounding the cemetery is a little sketchy (it is not as 'touristy' as the rest of the main French Quarter area) so it is recommended you go in groups and during the day. There are tons of tours if you would rather go with a guide, but I went with just my two girlfriends in the late morning, and we were completely fine.

The girls out for a nice morning stroll in a creepy cemetery!

St. Louis No. 1 was established in 1789, and is in amazing condition considering its age. It is literally a maze of tombstones, mausoleums, and personal and family vaults. We got lost as we wandered the grounds, and it was difficult to orient yourself as the cemetery is walled and enclosed - you can't use outside buildings to navigate. There are a lot of New Orleans historical figures and aristocrats buried in this formerly prestigious graveyard, but my favorite was the tomb of voodoo queen and figurehead, Marie Laveau. I did not write my three X's on her tomb wall, or leave an offering, or make a wish, but I did take a photo!

New Orleans cemetery, Marie Laveau grave, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
The tomb of Marie Laveau, New Orlean's "Voodoo Queen"

My visit in 2008 was brief - we came, we saw, we photographed, and then we ran back to our hotel to catch our flight (which turned out to be totally and completely cancelled). During my 2013 visit, I got the background information I was so sorely lacking for my 2008 cemetery experience. It turns out that the afterlife in a New Orleans cemetery is surprisingly temporary!

To begin with, you must understand why the citizens of New Orleans chose to bury their dead above ground. Geographically, the city is pretty much built upon a big swamp. The water table is extremely high in this area. To bury a casket 'six-feet-under' is virtually impossible - the hole will fill with water long before you hit six feet. In fact, even if you buried a casket just a few feet under, the water table would eventually push the casket to the surface and unearth it. And watch out if you were to experience a rainstorm - caskets would be popping up like daisies from the ground!

New Orleans cemetery, cemetery plaque
The city plaque clearly states the history of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1

People tried to keep those pesky caskets underground in some creative ways. They tried filling the caskets with stones. This didn't suffice - just as a cargo ship can carry large loads using water buoyancy, so worked the caskets. Up floated the bodies. Another strategy was to pre-fill the caskets with water, or bore holes in the top of the casket with the thought that the water inside the casket would supplant the water outside the casket. No such luck. This only helped to accelerate the decomposition process, and made the smell even worse.

In frustration, the citizens of New Orleans began to build mausoleums and family vaults to house the bodies of the dead. This seemed to do the trick. The rain might flood the vaults, but the caskets stayed where they were. But from this solution stemmed another couple of problems - the first was the issue of the decomposition process. Vaults could get rather nasty during this time. To solve this, the vaults were sealed as airtight as possible, and it then became law to keep the vault sealed for one year (now two) before it was allowed to be opened again. This prevented the cemetery from smelling constantly of rot, and also helped to prevent the spread of disease.

family vaults, New Orleans graveyard, St Louis Cemetery No 1
Family vaults and mausoleums made storing bodies easier in water-logged NOLA.

The only issue with this was, had you been very ill to the point where you'd fallen into a coma and then re-awakened to find yourself most distressingly inside a casket, you were very much trapped inside the airtight family vault, never to escape. This was more common than you'd think, which is a frightening thought. When another death occurred in that same family, they would open the vault to store the new coffin, only to find the body of a loved one they had previously thought dead - very much out of their casket and not as they'd left him or her. Hence, New Orleans is riddled with historical stories of zombies and the undead.

zombie grave, tombstone with cage, gothic grave
No zombies for you! Zombie cage tomb courtesy

Another problem with the vault system was that of space. The vaults could hold up to six caskets maximum. What to do when the vault was full? Land was expensive and limited, and most families couldn't afford to build multiple vaults. The solution was to begin creatively storing the bones of the long-dead inhabitants of the cemeteries. Burial bags were provided to family members (and only family members could enter the vault to do this particular job), so that they could remove the bones of the dead from the casket, transfer them to the burial bag, and shove the bag into an alcove at the back of the tomb called a vault hole. The bones of the dead would join the bones of their ancestors in a giant jumble of bone baggies. They do say time spent with family is precious!

Now, what to do if you have multiple deaths within that one (or two) year period? It is forbidden to open the vault before the allotted date, but you can't bury the newest member of the afterlife in the ground. The city came up with yet another solution: they built temporary holding vaults, almost like the sliding mortuary tables in a morgue, so that you could 'store' the body of your beloved until it was time to transfer them to the family vault.

New Orleans cemetery, St Louis Cemetery No 1
A temporary vault built into a wall unit in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.

This is why the afterlife of a body in New Orleans is so 'temporary'. Your body could hypothetically be moved, packed, and re-packed up to three times before coming to rest. And that's IF your vault doesn't get flooded and your bones don't float around inside until it dries up! Busy, busy, busy!

Nowadays, most residents have a cremation clause in their wills. It is simply easier and more economical to be cremated and stored in the city's cremation vaults, which look like post office boxes.  It is a much more permanent and logical solution.

Who else loves learning about strange burial customs from around the world? What's the strangest one you have heard of?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Taste of New Orleans: Creole & Cajun Cookin'

When visiting New Orleans, you can't help but be tempted by the many famous (and sometimes infamous) local delicacies and dishes.  Gumbo, jambalaya, crayfish (spelled crawfish in good ol' NOLA), and alligator are only the beginning - New Orleans, sandwiched between the edge of the Gulf of Mexico and the giant saltwater Lake Pontchartrain, features many seafood and swamp specialties to soothe your growling stomach.

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants
Oceana Restaurant on Conti Street just off Bourbon Street

A couple of weeks ago I was in New Orleans, and truth be told, I might have been more excited to eat the food down there over doing any sort of sightseeing.  I literally had a list of things to sample during my week-long stay, and I drug my traveling companions along with me to all of my favorite restaurants, which I will share with you in this post.

Before I go ahead and make you hungry, though, you first need to understand the difference between "Creole" and "Cajun" food.  In this day and age, typically, the two words are interchangeable.  There are only some subtle culinary differences between the two styles - the biggest differences are cultural from days gone by in Southern Louisiana.

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants
Louisiana offers a plethora of amazing hot sauces!

The Creole culture was predominantly European-based; the upper echelons of Louisiana colony culture, if you will.  These families ordered their supplies from local markets, who in turn were often supplied with wares directly from Europe.  On the other hand, the Cajun community consisted mainly of non-colony locals and displaced French-Canadians, known as the Acadians. The Cajuns were a poorer and simpler folk.  They lived off the land, and produced their own food supplies from farms and gardens.  In this way, the Creole and Cajun styles of cooking varied due to different products. This also explains why today, in a world where restaurants get their raw materials from similar commercial suppliers, the terms 'Cajun cooking' and 'Creole cooking' are basically equivalents. The spices, cooking styles, and dishes are similar to begin with - for example, both groups enjoyed a good pot of gumbo now and then.  The Creoles made their gumbo with a tomato base and pureed it into a refined soup, while the Cajuns used a simpler roux base and kept their gumbo in a stew form.

All of the restaurants we visited boasted both styles of food - now you know why both varieties are so common in New Orleans!

Our first full day in New Orleans was a busy one: convention keynote speaker and sessions all day, and then we explored Bourbon Street in the evening.  As we strolled down Bourbon, I saw a familiar sign for a restaurant called "Oceana" hanging just off Bourbon on Conti Street (739 Conti Street to be exact).  I had eaten there last time I was in New Orleans, and memories of the most delicious crab cakes ever tasted by any human floated through my mind.

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants, crab cakes
Delicious crab cakes from Oceana restaurant

The sign was the same, but the line-up was new, winding a few doors down from the restaurant. Rather than be discouraged, we figured a line-up was a good sign and so we joined the crowd.  While waiting, we bonded with a fellow Canadian who was just ahead of us - Charles from Vancouver, down to visit NOLA for the week just for fun. We convinced him (forced him?) to join us for dinner, and in we went.

Once again, I ordered the crab cakes, which were just as good as I remembered.  They were thick, moist, and covered with a delicious shrimp sauce.  I also ordered the alligator sausage appetizer.  The sausages were definitely tasty, if not a little spicy, but also quite fatty.  Still, worth a try in my opinion!

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants
Spicy alligator sausage - yum yum!

Red Fish Grill
Another flavor favorite for me are the BBQ oysters of New Orleans. What better place to have them than the "Red Fish Grill", located right on Bourbon Street a few steps down from Canal Street.  It is a nice restaurant with great service, and fantastic fare.

If you want to watch your oysters being freshly shucked, head to the bar and plunk down at the end closest to the kitchen.  There you can see the shells being wedged open, their tasty prizes just waiting for you to eat.  Sadly, I did not get any pearls from my oysters.

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants, Red Fish grill
The oyster shucker at Red Fish Grill - live in action!

The Red Fish Grill has tons of different items to choose from, but the BBQ oysters are my favorite.  Of course, their house specialty is the grilled red fish (but of course!), which one of my travel partners tried and loved.  It was a bit pricey for its size, however, but I suppose that's what you can expect when you order the 'fanciest' thing on the menu.

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants, Red Fish Grill
BBQ oysters with blue cheese sauce at Red Fish Grill

I also tried their gumbo, which was cooked Creole-style and was more of a soup than a stew. I myself prefer my gumbo Cajun-style, with chunky morsels and a thicker base. It was still tasty!

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants, Red Fish Grill
Gumbo served Creole-style at Red Fish Grill

Blind Pelican
One evening, after puttering up and down the St. Charles Trolley to see the majestic Garden District with all of its Grecian-pillared verandahs, we decided to get out of the French Quarter for dinner.  Halfway back to Canal Street, we jumped off the trolley and meandered down St. Charles Avenue, photographing the trees dripping with so many left-over Mardi Gras beads they looked like bedazzaled Christmas decorations.

New Orleans Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras beads, St. Charles Ave New Orleans
Mardi Gras beads hanging from St. Charles Avenue trees

To our right, at 1628 St. Charles Avenue to be precise, a restaurant that looked like it used to be an old house beckoned.  Three men stood just inside the front gate, two of them holding white styrofoam containers which they were eating from.  Curious, we headed over to investigate.  The men were very friendly and willing to share - not just information, but their actual food! The third man turned out to be the cook, and he was cooking a soup of boiled crawfish, shrimp, corn, and potatoes inside a giant vat right there on the restaurant's front porch!

The two men with the styrofoam containers shared with us their shrimp and crawfish.  Being out-of-towners and from land-locked Alberta, Canada, we we unaware of the proper etiquette when it came to eating fresh crustaceans.  One of the men showed my friend and I how to pop the head off a shrimp and eat it by pinching the tail and pulling with your teeth.  The shrimp was delicious!

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants, The Blind Pelican
Too cute to eat? Nope - just squish his head and suck! Tastier than it sounds...

More curious was the process for eating a crawfish.  You rip the poor thing in half, pull the meat from the tail with your teeth and eat it, then pop the other half in your mouth, squish the head, and suck the juices out!  I was disgusted watching my friend do this, but once I tried it myself, it was really good!  The 'head juices' are spicy and rich - as long as you don't think about what you are eating!

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants, The Blind Pelican
Piles and piles of delicious crustaceans at the Blind Pelican

Convinced of the restaurant's worth, we headed inside and ordered our own plate of shrimp and crawfish right from the boiling vat.  We also dared to try some raw oysters, which were one of the restaurant's specialties.  I wasn't so taken with those!

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants, The Blind Pelican
Raw oysters... not my favorite thing ever.

If you want a nice place in the French Quarter to grab some lunch, try this little place we discovered while wandering the Quarter in search of the Voodoo Museum. The restaurant is called, simply, "Eat", and is located at 900 Dumaine Street.  It is cute, small, and pleasant.  You can even bring in your own wine to drink without a corkage fee (lots of places in New Orleans allow you to bring your own wine, but most charge a $15 corkage fee right off the bat).

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants, Eat Restaurant NOLA
Fried crawfish po'boy at Eat in New Orleans

I was originally going to order a nice, light salad, since I'd been eating heavy Creole and Cajun food all week, but couldn't pass up the chance to try a fried catfish po'boy and some fried green tomatoes. A po'boy is basically just a big sandwich served with some sort of fried meat.  In this case, it was the catfish, which was delicious.  I had to take the bun out of the whole equation - my po'boy was gigantic and I never would have been able to eat it all.  So basically I just ordered fried catfish.

I was really happy with the fried green tomatoes.  I'd never had them before, but they were tasty and super simple: something I could make at home.  I need to find a good recipe for them - if anyone has one, feel free to send it my way!

Huck Finn's 
The last restaurant I want to mention is actually one that we didn't get to visit, although we walked past it on the way to the French Market down at 135 Decateur Street. During our swamp trip, our captain overheard us talking about the alligator sausage at "Oceana", and basically berated us for being such tourists. Apparently, the alligator sausage and jerky samples that you can find all around town are mixed with beef or pork or other blends of meats, and aren't 'pure' alligator.

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants
Huck Finn's restaurant, courtesy

He recommended that we try the Alligator Platter at "Huck Finn's", which offers blackened or seared alligator, the best kind to eat.  We never did get to this place, so now it is on the bucket list for my next venture down to the Big Easy! For those of you horrified at the thought of eating alligator, don't worry.  You won't be eating a hunk of endangered or poached alligator - there are actual alligator farms down in Southern Louisiana, and alligator meat is sold in supermarkets all over the place.  It is a guilt-free meal!

Other tasty treats we tried include the giant muffeletta in the French market (I ate only a small portion of my meal and was still ready to be rolled home afterwards), pralines at a little corner store (which were too sugary for me), and beignets from Cafe Beignet (not Cafe du Monde as it was too crazy and lined up on every single day we visited).  If I wrote about them all, this post would be much too lengthy and we'd all have drool slipping up our keyboards, so I'll refrain.

New Orleans food, Cajun food, Creole food, New Orleans restaurants
Slap Ya Mama spice - I put that stuff on everything!

One last word on New Orleans cuisine - if you are down visiting the city, pick up a bottle (or five) of a Cajun spice called "Slap Ya Mama".  I bought some in 2008, and have been waiting to go back to NOLA ever since just to get my hands on some again.  This time around, I bought four bottles, just to be safe.  This stuff is good on fries, potatoes, popcorn, and basically everything!  Yum yum!

Eating raw oysters at the Blind Pelican - my face says it all...