Thursday, February 4, 2016

South Padre Island, Texas - Spring Break: Senior Edition

The beach scene in February at South Padre Island, TX 

Another week away from the blizzards of the Great White North: sunny skies, low 70s, fresh shrimp, sunset sails, retirees, families. Not so many Canadians this year, so the locals say, due to the dropping value of the CDN dollar, but we’ve seen many Manitobans and Quebecois flocking here alongside Minnesotans, Wisconsinites, North and South Dakotans and New Yorkers. Despite, or perhaps because of, the greying Winter Texans and kids here, Port Isabel and South Padre Island have a nice, laid back feel, at least for now. Rumor has it that the snow birds are about to fly the coop since the college spring break mayhem is getting ready to erupt. For now though, it's peaceful.

Enjoying a cold beer and live reggae music at Clayton's, South Padre Island

But, hey, even senior citizens enjoy live music, dancing and a cocktail or two, so there is also a lively beachside bar vibe even before the wet bathing suit contests commence. Camping here is expensive by our standards though, so we’ve been Wal-Marting it in Port Isabel, 15-minutes away and driving over the bridge every day. There are lots of coupons and specials though, so I managed to snag a deeply discounted sunset sail and dinner on the Southern Waves catamaran.   

Eating grilled shrimp on the Southern Waves catamaran 

We did find an inexpensive campsite at Isla Blanca, right before you enter the park gates, there is a small camping area that can cost as little as $15 for a tent site. RVs can use those sites too, but there are no hookups (electric or water) although you can still use the showers and dump your tanks in the nearby park. We also visited the SPI Birding and Nature Center during an event with several lectures on dolphins, raptors, etc. and the Sea Turtle Rescue Center, where they rehabilitate injured turtles and are able to release 90% back into the wilrd.  

 Blue heron at SPI birding and nature center 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Texas Gulf Shores: Port Aransas & Mustang Island

Port Aransas seawall & ferries 

This week, while everyone else in the country was buried in snow, we traveled further south down the Gulf Coast to Port Aransas and Mustang Island, Texas. We’ve been trying to resist the urge to gloat, but, frankly, it’s not easy. Instead of digging our car out of our driveway, we’ve been digging our toes into the sand, strolling along the long stretches of beaches with the white winter sun glistening on the waves and the seagulls and terns swirling overhead.

Luis trying to eat his breakfast in peace

We’ve watched pods of dolphins following ferries and leaping in great twisting arcs out of the water in front of the oil freighters. White Pelicans bob on the waves, lazily dropping their pouched beaks into the surf to scoop up whatever unlucky sea creature floats into their paths. Comical toupee-wearing Royal Terns, stand side by side on the beach, all facing into the wind, and the aviary super-models, the Egrets, Ibis and Herons standing patiently on their long, thin legs in the wetlands, watching for the slightest ripple in the water before striking at lightning speed, their prey swimming shell-shocked in fish heaven before they know what hit them.

Snowy egret fishing for dinner

It’s the laid-back, easy way of life here that’s so appealing: friendly, helpful people, lots of restaurants with affordable menus, well-run free car ferries that connect islands to each other and the mainland, a $12 annual beach parking pass that allows camping on the beach for no additional cost. Technically, the restriction is for three nights in a period of 21 days, although, according to the locals, this is seldom enforced out of season. It is pleasant to camp between the sea and the dunes, with the sound of the surf at night, people walking their dogs, and the winter residents’ golf carts zipping along the flat, 18-mile stretch of sand between Port Aransas and Mustang beach. I think we'll dig our toes a little deeper into the sand... 

Dolphins playing at the bow of oil freighters 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A New Year is Here: Adding Bright New Threads to Your Tapestry

Enjoying New Year's 2011 celebrations with my lovely niece, Louisville, KY, USA

Happy New Year to all! I've read several posts on Facebook in the past few weeks from friends saying that they wished that they'd done things differently this year, but that they're going to focus on the positive things in their lives, which is a very healthy attitude. I think everyone feels the same way at some point: "I wish I had done this instead of that"; hindsight's 20/20 after all. But we wouldn't be who we are if we hadn't made mistakes or gone through painful experiences as well as making great decisions and feeling deeply happy about other things. Not to sound too new age-y, but every experience, good or bad, is a new thread in the big tapestry of who we are. Every event in our lives adds a brightly colored or muted or roughly woven or sad-looking or silvery shimmering thread. All of it combines to add interest, color and texture to our lives. And I can tell you, that, for better or for worse, my tapestry is turning out to be pretty damn colorful! 

New Year's 2012 with my best friend, hubby and travel partner, Seattle, USA

We visited an old friend in Austin this year and one of the things that that struck me was that her mother, an amazing, courageous woman who had reached her 85th birthday, had lately been feeling depressed. Despite an incredible adventure-filled life that included escaping an abusive marriage, shepherding four tiny children out of Cuba in the 1950s, learning a strange foreign language and beginning a new life in the United States with next to nothing in assets, traveling to every continent on earth except Antarctica (which she was still planning on visiting), starting her own business, and dating men 20 years younger than herself, she had somehow arrived at the conclusion that she had accomplished nothing in her life. Kindly, her daughters had put together a slide show of all the important moments in her life to remind her of just how incredible it had all been, including the comical side of the many failures. They braced themselves for how she would receive it, but were pleasantly surprised when she embraced it. We all need reminding sometimes of what amazing lives we've lead.  mile emoticon

New Year's Eve 2004, Hong Kong (photo by Simone Cannon)

We all reach the point of questioning what we have accomplished in our life. There are so many things that we want to do, but as our 50th or 60th or 70th birthday approaches, we fear that we are running out of time. On our travels, we've been lucky enough to meet many senior citizens, still vital, adventurous and making future plans. The happiest ones understand that the decisions, right or wrong, that they made in their lives were the best ones that they could have made at the time and that a life without regrets and mistakes isn't a life fully lived. They have a robust sense of humor, healthy social connections and an optimism that is encouraging and inspiring. Despite their advancing years and sometimes declining health, they continue to add texture to their tapestries for as long as they can. Here's wishing everyone bright new threads in the coming year.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Texas BBQ: We Don't Need No Stinkin' Plates!

Preparing the pork ribs at Rudy's BBQ, Austin, Texas (photo by Simone Cannon)

We are spending our winter in Texas this year since we have some personal matters to take care of that require us to stay within striking distance of Houston and decided to make the best of things, so  started hitting the BBQ joints at top speed. When in Rome and all that. For the uninitiated, BBQ in the United States can be very different depending where you happen to be standing in line, which is usually how you will order your meal, cafeteria style with a tray. Sauces (tomato-, mustard-, vinegar-based or none at all), meats (beef, pork, chicken, mutton) and smoking and grilling techniques change dramatically in different regions of the Carolinas, the Southwest or Chicago. Texas, as the state motto makes clear, is a whole other country. The star of Texas BBQ is long-smoked beef brisket with a black pepper crust and sauce served on the side. 

Chopping slow-cooked brisket: like buttah! (photo by Simone Cannon)

Well-cooked brisket needs no sauce or, for that matter, no knife. It should just break apart into tasty, tasty morsels. We learned from our more BBQ-savvy friends to always ask for "moist" brisket and ask to see it before they serve it to you. Due to Texas's many cattle ranches, beef is the main meat served, but pork ribs, pulled pork and sausage are usually also available. BBQ is sold by the pound, so if you like pork ribs, which are no question an absolutely delicious, but costly (at $16-$18 a pound) order, ask for pulled pork instead. That way, you are paying for all meat, not bones and fat. And BBQ is not cheap. A couple of slices of brisket, a couple of ribs, some cole slaw, beans and a local craft beer (in my opinion, the only viable beverage option with BBQ) will run you about $25 a person. 

No plates, just juicy, smoky deliciousness (photo by Simone Cannon)  

As always, there are outstanding to mediocre BBQ places everywhere; always check with locals or on sites such as Chowhound or Yelp. Just be prepared for long waits: word spreads far and wide about great places, especially through social media. If you want to sample BBQ at Franklin's, for example, one of the best places in Austin, you can expect to join the customer line at 5am and wait for several hours before being served. They close when they run out of meat, typically around 11am. Austinites regularly pay people to stand in line for them. We found all this out by accident when we asked someone what time Franklin's opened for dinner and he laughed out loud. We visited several other places, which were so-so, but really enjoyed Rudy's which required only a short wait and had pleasant, helpful employees, a good choice of local beers and, most importantly, smoky, succulent meat.  

Slicing sausages (photo by Simone Cannon) 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Si Formidable! The Delicious Food and Welcoming People of Quebec

Wonderful selection of breads at Boulangerie Artisenale Grains de Folie, Amqui, Quebec

We knew we'd crossed over the border into Quebec even before we saw the sign welcoming us to the province. Boulangeries (bakeries), fromageries (cheese shops) and bouchers (butchers) started appearing immediately on the sides of the road. It didn't take long until the RV (of its own accord, I swear), kindly pulled into the parking lot of a charming boulangerie so that its owners could buy some bread and cheese. Despite our abysmally bad French and the owner's equally lacking English, we somehow managed, with a lot of laughing and charades, to leave with 100 grams each of locally made pied-au-vent triple creme cheese, duck and cranberry terrine, raclette with black peppercorns, rustic bread, a couple of chocolate brioche, and a half dozen croissants. Oooh la la!

The cheese selection 

   Recently while traveling in Newfoundland, Luis and I met a couple, Jacques and Carmen from Quebec, who invited us to spend a few days on their small farm, Ferme Aux Trois Vallons in Canton Stanstead. We looked at the atlas and saw that their place was not so far off our route, so we swung by and spent three wonderful days enjoying home-cooked meals and great company. We knew we were in for a treat when Carmen asked us if we preferred farm-raised rabbit or deer for out first dinner. I had found some chanterelles and other foraged mushrooms in woods while hiking, so I brought those in and Carmen and Jacques prepared roast rabbit with the mushrooms along with apples and root vegetables from their farm for a cozy autumnal meal in their charming farmhouse kitchen.

Jacques, Carmen and Luis enjoying the rabbit and chanterelles

 Over the three days we visited, they took us walking around their farm, showing us the various plants and structures they'd built or inherited, including a hunting blind, rabbit hutch and maple-syrup processing hut. They fill their chest freezers with the organic meat and produce that they can access more or less right out their back door, supplemented with the few items that they can't grow themselves. An amazing, generous, lively and active couple, they had done most of the renovations on their 100 year old farmhouse themselves, continued to work the farm and make secondary items such as chocolates or jams and, if that wasn't enough, Jacques is an avid hiker and mountain climber. Having reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro at age 69, followed by Mt. Everest's base camp at 70, he was now thinking, at age 74, of climbing the highest mountain outside of Asia, Aconcagua.

Jacques picking dragon carrots from his garden