Your Cross Country Road Trip Continues Even Deeper into the South
The soupy bayou air is starting to envelop you as you continue on your southern cross country road trip into Mississippi. Although you’ll just be quickly passing through Mississippi, you’ll be sampling some of the things about Louisiana and Texas that have made these states famous – from music influences to cuisines to the cowboy culture (and much more). All I can say is, "Yee haw!"
Due to our cross country road trip trajectory, we’ll only be able to sample a little of the great state of Mississippi. One stop you can easily make on this route is to stop in Biloxi.
Although seriously damaged by Hurricane Katrina, Biloxi has bounced back and replaced their well-known casinos with brand new ones that sparkle invitingly by the Mississippi Sound. Stop, have a little fun gambling if you wish or take an excursion boat to Ship Island to enjoy the secluded beach and abundant marine life in the waters there – dolphins usually follow and play around all the boats heading to and from the island. If you have a lot of time for this cross country road trip, head inland and visit two must-sees: Clarksdale (cradle of the Blues) and Natchez (tons of historic antebellum homes).
Whenever I visit Louisiana, I feel simultaneously charged up and weirdly mellow – a strange mixed-up feeling that I blame on all the magic and voodoo just floating in the air in New Orleans, the countryside, and the gator-ridden bayous. Other people feel it too: everyone that goes there or lives there speaks of it (or writes of it like Anne Rice). So, if you feel like you’re under a spell, you are.
What’s the first hit in this state as we continue our cross country road trip? Well, if you’re in Louisiana, you’ve just got to visit a swamp!
- Slidell – There’s nothing like a swamp to really give you a sense of Louisiana. To get a real feeling for it, take a tour of the swamps in a flat-bottomed boat with the Honey Island Swamp Tours and see gators, birds of prey, and huge cypress trees growing out of the water. Are you getting that eerie feeling yet?
- New Orleans – Now, don’t let me catch you pronouncing it "New Orleens" or "New Orlee-ons" – it’s "Narlens" and I’ve had this drilled into my head by people from this great city again and again, so this comes straight from the source. What to do? An entire article wouldn’t cover it! It would probably take three or four (or more) articles to do it justice. My favorites: ride the St. Charles Avenue streetcar through the Garden District. Wander the French Quarter (but avoid Bourbon Street unless you’re drunk - very seedy and stinky) and stop for a beignet and some chicory café au lait at Café du Monde while watching the action on the street and in Jackson Square. Be sure to sample the amazing amount of great road food this city has to offer – more than any other in the U.S. If you’re a sucker for the spooky (me, too), be sure to visit the Lafayette Cemetery and go on a ghost tour – lots of fun! If you have a thing for bridges and you’ve got the time, be sure to drive over the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway: the longest bridge over water in the U.S. Our cross country road trip continues in a different direction, so you’ll have to turn around and enjoy the ride twice to get back on track. I found the bridge amazing and actually scary (not a feeling I usually get from bridges). Whatever you do, make this stop a longer one. New Orleans can’t be seen in a day and you’ll miss so much if you rush.
- Vacherie – Our Gone With the Wind theme on this cross country road trip culminates in Vacherie where Oak Alley Plantation was the setting for both that great movie as well as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This elegant home is now a B&B and is open to visitors. Tours are not recommended here (little to no information, just guides wearing period clothing for the most part). Instead, go here early in the day before the crowds hit and take in the amazing alley of ancient oaks lining the drive (photo op!). Wander the grounds and enjoy the beauty of the property before heading over to Laura Plantation for one of the best historic sites around. The house is brightly colored and nothing like "Twelve Oaks", but the guides are well-informed and entertaining and you’ll walk out with a better understanding of plantation life and slavery than you would from any other historic plantation. It’s a must do! Both shouldn’t take you more than a couple of hours, so get back on Highway 90 heading west and go to our next stop for the afternoon and evening.
- New Iberia – You’ve probably had a good dose of Creole cooking in New Orleans, now get ready for some delicious Cagun grub – and if that isn’t spicy enough for you, you’re visiting the birthplace of Tabasco sauce at nearby Avery Island! The McIlhenny family business was founded here and you can tour the factory and stock up on plenty of their famous hot sauce in their store. The real gem at Avery Island is the Jungle Gardens – a wildlife preserve also founded by the McIlhennys that you can explore on foot or in your car. A word of warning: if you go on foot, keep an eye out for gators – they roam free here and there’s nothing to protect you from them. Stay overnight in New Iberia; there are tons of great lodging choices.
- Eunice – I love Cajun and Zydeco music! It makes you want to cry when it’s sad and dance your head off when it’s party time. It’s got its own sound, and if you haven’t heard it, Eunice is the best place to go. A must-visit on your cross country road trip is the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center in the Jean Lafitte National Park downtown which does a great job of covering this area’s culture and history. If you’re here on a Saturday morning, make it a priority to head over to the Savoy Music Store for a Cajun jam session like none other between 9 and noon. If you can go here on a Saturday in the course of your cross country road trip, do so – not only will you have the morning jam session, the weekly "Rendezvous des Cajuns" (a local variety show with music, dancing, and storytelling that will wow you) runs every Saturday night.
What they say about everything being bigger in Texas is true – it’s a big state, just miles of it, and a lot of big things have come out of it including huge space shuttles, enormous oil booms (it’s a gusher!), and large cowboy hats. This cross country road trip through Texas includes a lot of what’s big and truly great about this state.
- Houston – One of the most unexpected things about Houston is its thriving art scene. Even if you don’t consider yourself an “art person” three extremely unique curiosities are worth seeing anyway: the Beer Can House, the Flower Man’s House, and the Orange Show. Three different people in Houston individually decided to create a tribute to what they loved most out of their own home: beer (cans and parts of cans have creatively been used to decorate every inch of this small house), flowers (all-around interesting looking junk and flowers plaster this man’s abode and even his one method of transportation: a flower-festooned bicycle) and oranges (this amazing structure – an ode to the citrus fruit – is so popular, it is now a permanent public installation adopted after the death of its creator). Located only a handful of miles apart, you could make an afternoon – or a full day- out of viewing these remarkable labors of love on your cross country road trip. If you do enjoy art, you must visit the Menil Collection, a rave-worthy museum created by a couple with a mission to bring art to the people of Houston. It is considered the "heart" of this city’s art scene as well as one of the greatest private collections in the world. Also, be sure to swing by the Art Car Museum to see cars that have been made into art with all kinds of décor weighing them down as well as full throttle transformations (why not make a Volkswagen Bug look like a real bug?) Finally, what would a visit to Houston be on your cross country road trip without a trip to Space Center Houston which broadcasted one of the most famous quotes of the 20th century, "The Eagle has landed" when the first man touched down on the moon? The center offers great films, exhibits, and activities about our space program that both instruct and inspire. You could easily spend at least two days here – one enjoying the art scene and one taking in the Space Center – before heading on.
- Taylor – The next "hit" on this cross country road trip is for a truly Texan meal. Plan on leaving by 9 am at the latest to hit Louie Mueller BBQ by lunchtime. It’s just outside of Austin, which will be our next stop for the afternoon and evening. Generations of the Mueller family have been serving up some of the best brisket, sausage, and ribs around for years, so bring your appetite. Louie Mueller BBQ is a must-do truly authentic road food pit stop!
- Austin – Austin is all about music – live music, great music, jump-up-and-down music. If you’re a confirmed music nut, you haven’t lived until you’ve gone to Austin. No matter what your tastes are, there’s something for everyone: new edgy music, classic R&B, country, jazz, blues, and kick-butt rock-and-roll. To make matters even better, all of these venues are located together on Sixth Street and the nearby Warehouse District. Check in to your hotel, park your car, and just spend the afternoon and evening wandering and soaking it all up for a live music extravaganza! Haven’t had enough funky art? Then, before heading out of town, be sure to stop and visit one man’s (Vince Hanneman) Cathedral of Junk. This zany structure of found things and leftovers is very cool and fun to see. If you’re a music aficionado, you can spend days (and many late nights) in Austin. If you’re not, one afternoon and evening should do you before you continue on this cross country road trip.
- Gruene – After all that live music, the fun continues in Gruene, the epicenter of boot-scootin’ country dancing a la Thelma and Louise (without the sad/bad parts). There are many legendary dance halls here, but the granddaddy of them all is Gruene Hall. Even if you don’t dance, it’s fun to go and watch, especially the line dancing (pay attention to the moves, and you can easily join in, just as easy as doing the Macarena). Stay here for the night – not only does the area boast tons of great dance halls, there are charming antiques stores, great restaurants, galleries, and plenty of outdoor fun on the Guadalupe River. Texans’ favorite pastime is inner tubing and there are plenty of places to rent for a day. I love the lazy feeling of floating down the river, toes in the cool water…
- San Antonio – A must-see on your cross country road trip through Texas is the Alamo! This small mission is an icon of Texas and the state’s brave past. The history may be big but, but as I said, the building itself is small, so make sure to soak in as much of the story of the Alamo as possible by going to the RiverCenter Mall next door to watch the IMAX movie on the Alamo and visit the Long Barrack Museum in the Alamo complex that details the state’s history. After getting a history lesson all day, swing over to the River Walk area (on the river downtown) to stroll, stop for a bite, and enjoy this pretty area. For dinner, the must-have is Mexican, and you’ll find a huge selection of great Mexican – or Tex-Mex – restaurants (to give you an idea: we’re talking hundreds of Mexican restaurants all serving up outstanding food). San Antonio is a one full day and night stop on your cross country road trip before hitting the trail and heading to a place where real cowboys still ride the range!
- Bandera - If you’ve ever wanted to stay at a dude ranch, Texas is the state, and Bandera is the town. Bandera is just outside of San Antonio and Dixie Dude Ranch is the place to experience Texas like a cowboy. It’s a real working ranch with honest-to-goodness cowboys who work the horses and regularly compete in rodeos. They even ring a chow bell at mealtimes! There’s plenty to see and do including horseback riding, campfire sing-a-longs, and hayrides. Although the accommodations are not luxurious, the fresh air and authentic cowboy experience more than make up for it if you decide to stay a night or two.
To continue this cross country road trip and still have fun things to see and do, the best plan is to do a mini-haul. Stop wherever comfortable in terms of how much driving you can handle –there are no great sights in this area until we hit New Mexico. Head in the direction of Carlsbad, NM (yup, we’ve got some amazing caverns that boggle the mind coming up).
Next, we’re on the last third of this cross country road trip through the southern portion of the U.S. and it’s jam-packed with gorgeous parks (one of the most famous canyons in the world), old Route 66 towns, incredibly cool caverns, and plenty of Hollywood fun before ending up in the beloved city of San Diego. Fasten your seatbelt!
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