9 - 17 April 2016 Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana - Orlando to New Orleans

Saturday 9th April

We picked up Simon and Ninette in the RV at nine this morning at their hotel to start our journey to the gulf coast. Simon is now feeling much better thanks to the marvels of penicillin.

Making out way north-east through Ocala, a horse breeding area, we got onto highway 98, travelling through lots of small towns towards Tallahassee. Eventually we skirted around Apalachee Bay, past see front houses built high on stilts. Our destination was the Ho Hum RV Park in Lanark Village, four miles east of Carrabelle.

We have a front row parking spot overlooking the Gulf. As soon as we arrived we met Peter Flynn and his partner Roberta. He comes originally from Rhodesia and went to University in England. They have been here for a few months, Peter has a small sailing boat that he takes out on the Gulf.

The weather is sunny but windy and the sea is grey and running fast. We are so close to the seashore that from the window of the RV it looks like we are in a boat.

The grey/brown colour of the sea is attributed to the runoff from rivers flowing into the Gulf.

For dinner we went to the Fisherman’s Wife Restaurant in Carrabelle. We all had shrimp in one form or another accompanied by fries and hush puppies. The family on the next table were very friendly and we sat chatting for a while. We were the last out and stayed for a while talking to the owner about the upcoming election.

Sunday 10th April

This morning Tony and I went into Carrabelle to get supplies.

Later we all went to have a look around Carrabelle. This is ‘old Florida’ a quaint southern fishing port of small shops and buildings, surrounded by state and national forests.

The town has the world’s smallest police station, in a telephone box.

We called at the Tourist Office and it was closed but no problem the lady who had the little shop next door let us in there and we gathered a few leaflets.

Next we stopped at the Shop by the Sea where there were nice gifts and clothes. We talked to the owner who lives and works in Tallahassee during the week and comes to Carrebelle at weekends to open the shop. I bought a tee-shirt and Ninette found a nice small Roman looking pot for five dollars and a turtle shaped hook for the wall for eleven dollars.

We could hear some music coming from down the street. It was a local bar called Fathoms which was set in an old boat house, selling food and drink and with a country rock singer on a small stage in the corner. There was a lively crowd in there and we had a really nice afternoon overlooking the water.

Back to the RV for barbeque dinner.

Monday 11th April

We travelled north east from Lanark Village to Wakulla State Park to one of the largest and deepest springs in the world. On arrival we parked at the lodge that was built in 1937 by financier Ed Ball. He purchased the land here to develop it into a wildlife and habitat preservation area. We booked on a boat tour of the park – unfortunately no dogs allowed so Tony stayed behind with Sandy. Our guide, ranger Charlie

took us on board the boat and explained that we were sitting on top of the Floridian Aquifer and a deep cave system that produces the spring water. Twenty years ago the waters were crystal clear which gave a clear view of the underwater caves but there has been a growth in algae due to pollution in the rivers which has stained the water.

We moved off down river and immediately saw the floating eyes of an alligator.

There were many Bald Cyprus Trees covered in Spanish Moss. Some of these trees can live a thousand years.

Next we saw a thirteen foot alligator resting on the river bank.

Swanee Turtle.

Heron.

Osprey in nest.

Alligator in bulrushes

We moved into a narrow concourse of the river where the shallow water was crystal clear.

We came into the shaded but shimmering waters where back in the thirties Tarzan movies were made and horror flicks like The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

We spotted three more turtles and then a Florida Brown Water Snake came into view hanging around a tree stump.

The water is filled with lush vegetation here and as we rounded a bend, coiled on a tree was another Florida Brown Water Snake.

Just when we thought we had seen it all, an alligator came cruising by. When he eventually noticed we were there he disappeared into the depths. Then finally to top it all we saw two turtles lying on the back of an alligator.

What a fascinating look into old Florida. Only the ranger led tour boats are allowed on this part of the river, keeping it very much the same as the first settlers would have seen it.

After our very enjoyable time at the park and look around the lodge, we went to Carrabelle Beach

and then back to the RV Park for a walk along the beach near the Park - once the tide had gone out and revealed the beach. We saw several horseshoe crabs on the beach mating, strange pre historic looking creatures.

Back to the RV for dinner and then a dvd - The Heartbreak Kid, it never fails to make me laugh.

Tuesday 12th April

Departed Lanark Village this morning and took highway 98 east, following the coast until we got to the town of Eastpoint and over the John Corrie bridge across Apalachicola Bay.

The town of Apalachicola has nice Victorian buildings and prettily painted clapboard houses.

We continued on along straight tree lined roads until we came to the town of Port St Joe and again followed the coast road through seaside towns.

Past the large Tyndall Air Force base we approached the Bonita Bay Bridge towards Panama City.

As we entered Destin and the Emerald Coast it started to rain heavily. We could see white sand beaches through the rain and mist and then the high-rise hotels along the beach came into view.

West Dustin RV Park on Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa Island is a very smart but expensive park with a pool overlooking Choctawhatchee Bay, we are booked in here for three nights.

The rain stopped and we headed into the Harbourwalk Village and the massive Emerald Grande Resort and Condominiums standing out on its own overlooking Destin Harbour and the Gulf of Mexico. We strolled along the Harbourwalk with its restaurants, boutiques and wharf side boats offering fishing and snorkeling excursions.

After checking out several restaurants we settled on AJ’s Seafood and Oyster Bar. Undoubtedly, the snow crab legs that Simon ordered were favourite.

Wednesday 13th April

The rain continued today so no beach for us. We decided to seek out the local shopping mall and went to Destin Commons about ten miles east on highway 98.

The complex was like a small town and had plenty of nice shops to browse around.

We stopped for lunch at Johnny Rockets, a 50’s style diner.

We have fond memories of Johnny Rockets on board the ship Voyager of the Sea when Simon and Ninette got married. We were in the diner one day when the song, ‘A little Respect’ came on the duke box sung by Aretha Franklin. Suddenly, all the staff lined up in the middle of the diner and danced to the music, it was fantastic, they were so good. When the song finished they just went back to serving as if nothing had happened. Obviously, we asked Charlie our server if she would be dancing today but she decided the floor was too slippery.

Tony and Simon went back to get Sandy and take her to the dog park. Ninette and I carried on shopping and ended up in the Bass Pro Shop where they had the usual arrangements of stuffed animals, e.g. a bear in a tree

and a fish tank with very much alive, enormous sized bass and grouper swimming around. Simon bought Sandy into the shop and sat her on a fake rock near the fish tank. One of the large bass swam towards her as she glanced around, she nearly jumped out of her skin, just like a cartoon cat.

The rain continued and we decided to stay in and have takeout pizza, watch Big Bang Theory and a film on the tv.

Thursday 14th April

Woke to the sound of torrential rain and thunder. Yet another day when we would not be hitting the beach, very disappointing. The forecast was for continuing rain throughout the whole Gulf region, further north they were expecting hail stones. We have decided that we should give up on the idea of spending time on the beach because the weather looks bad for the next few days. Instead this weekend we will be heading to Biloxi in Mississippi for the Crawfish Music Festival and then to Angola in Louisiana to the Angola Prison Rodeo.

Ninette made some chocolates which were similar to Ferrer Rocher but better, all I know is it involved butter, nutella, coco pops and crushed almonds, they were gorgeous!

This evening it eventually stopped raining and we went across the road onto the beach.

The RV Park is owned by the Ramada Hotel which is opposite the park on the beach. All the hotel facilities can be used by anyone staying in the RV Park and we walked through the hotel grounds to the beach.

The sand is beautiful, like castor sugar, and stretches for miles and almost looks like snow. This is known as the Emerald Coast but unfortunately the sea has been more grey than green. We walked along for a while looking for a local eatery for dinner. Chatted with a couple of ladies from Minnesota.

None of the restaurants inspired us, therefore we got in the car and went to Beach Walk Café located at the Henderson Park Inn in Destin.

What a good move that was, a really smart cosy restaurant with an excellent menu, including, Shrimp and Grits, Seafood Pasta Rockefeller, New Zealand Venison and the dish I had Grouper Vince, the fish being covered by a pecan nut crust served on a potato cake with honey-Worcestershire sauce. Ninette and I shared Key Lime pie for dessert. What a lovely evening.

Friday 15th April

Very blustery, chilly morning with the water in the Bay running fast and looking grey. We hitched up and headed west on highway 98 through Fort Walton to Pensacola where we crossed the bay bridge

and headed north to the I-10. Once on the I-10 we headed west again and soon crossed the Alabama state line and stopped off at a rest area for a while.

Crossing the bridge over Mobile Bay, the battleship USS Alabama came into view. The ship was commissioned in 1942 and served in the World War II in the Atlantic and Pacific theatres. Retired in 1962 it was taken to Mobile Bay in 1964 and opened as a museum ship the following year.

We soon crossed the short strip of coastal Alabama into Mississippi. Called in at the Visitor Centre at the rest area just over the state line and the first thing the lady behind the counter said was, ‘can I offer you a cup of coffee’ - southern hospitality. On our short stay in D’lberville, Mississippi on the way over to Florida, we had a nice feel about the place and the friendly people in Mississippi which has again been reinforced.

We reached Biloxi early afternoon and turned onto highway 90 the coastal road running through the town. Pulled in at the Cajun RV Park which was just across the road from the endless white sand beach.

In the evening we went to the Mississippi Coast Coliseum for the Crawfish Music Festival. The festival is held over two weekends and has live music, rides and amusements, food vendors, merchandise stalls, crawfish cook-off and a beer garden. We are in ‘Bubba Gump’ country here where one of the mainstays of the economy is fishing and the annual crawfish season is celebrated. Simon and Tony had a large pan of crawfish boil which included red potato and corn.

The first group that we saw on the outdoor stage was called Easy Leaves from California. They played country style music with elements of folk and rock.

Next up was a rock band called Paper Airplane with male and female vocals, two guitars and a talented keyboard player.

The festival wasn’t busy, probably due to the weather, we decided to head off to one Biloxi’s other mainstays of the economy the casino, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.

The place was busy and filled with the sound of rock music and had plenty of rock memorabilia on the walls and in glass cases everywhere. It had a very different atmosphere to the Hard Rock in Orlando, there seemed to be a lot of local people on a night out as well as others there for the weekend. We went into the casino which had the usual mix of roulette, blackjack, gaming machines etc. Ninette got some chips and we went up to an empty roulette table, we soon discovered why it was empty, the minimum bet was twenty five dollars. Anyway, Ninette had one bet and won. We moved on to a lower stake table and she won again, hurray! It was now time to withdraw whilst ahead. Ninette came out seventy dollars on top, that’s the way to gamble. We immediately went to the shop.

Following Nin’s success at the gambling table and a few purchases from the shop we went into the Hard Rock Café to celebrate.

There was a trio performing called The Tall Boys, playing country rock and bluegrass music. The drums consisted of a tin bath tub but it was expertly played, they were a lot of fun.

Later we decided to have supper which for me consisted of chocolate brownie and ice cream. I should have known better, it was ginormous.

Saturday 16th April

Left Biloxi this morning and got onto the I-10 and eventually the I-12 north of New Orleans, before taking Louisiana highway 19 at Baton Rouge to travel north to Zachary. Here we stopped off at Bennett’s Waterski School,

run by Jay and Anne Bennett and their daughter Danyelle. Danyelle is married to Steve from England who we know from Hazelwood’s Waterski School in Lincoln where Tom used to train.

Also, there were several skiers from the European water ski scene and at Uni with Tom, including Claudio from Italy, Eleanor and Jennifer, sisters from England and Dany from the Ukraine. They were at Bennett’s for the weekend getting in some training.

Also there was Michael (alias Woody), another Hazelwood’s skier who is working at Bennett’s.

First we watched Tom on the ski jump.

Danyelle and dog Tracker.

Tom on the slalom course

Late afternoon we moved on north-west to our camp site for two days in Marksville at the Paragon RV Park. The Park is part of a casino/hotel resort owned by the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana. The RV Park was large with spacious, well-kept grass sites and a nice swimming pool. The resort runs regular transport from the Park to the hotel and casino or there is boardwalk through the forest.

We walked to the hotel and through the casino to the steak restaurant for dinner. The resort is large with a cinema, tropical pool, spa, shops and several dining choices. One thing we did find strange here and at the casino in Biloxi is that people can smoke inside the building. Luckily, the restaurant had good air-con and we had a really delicious meal.

Sunday 17th April (NO CAMERAS ALLOWED IN ANGOLA PRISON - ALL PHOTO'S TAKEN ON PHONE)

This morning we set off to visit Angola Prison Rodeo. Although the prison is about thirty miles from Marksville, by road via the Mississippi River bridge it is over ninety miles away. On our way we noticed a sign for a ferry to Angola and turned off to investigate, hoping this would cut our journey time down. Making our way along swamp roads we came to the grey looking Mississippi River and the embarkation point for a small car ferry. After a short wait the ferry arrived and we were on our way across the wide river. The ferry dropped us at the back of the prison and the barbed wire fence and turrets of the prison soon loomed up in front of us.

This Louisiana State Penitentiary is a maximum security prison built on the old Angola plantation that it is named after. The rodeo is an annual event held in April and October. It started in the 1960’s and has grown over the years to quite a big event.

We met up with Tom and everyone from Bennett’s at the ticket booth.

After going through a search we went behind the fence into the compound where arts and crafts that the inmates have created are set out.

There was also food stalls where everything seemed to be fried, including, yes, fried coca cola!

The rodeo is held in a stadium and is professionally run with the inmates joining in for some of the events.

There are also inmates in the audience in their own fenced in area.

The inmates taking part wear flak jackets and helmets for some of the events and the rodeo clowns are there to keep things as safe as possible. Apparently they are all volunteers but it is still a tough call going in the arena with wild horses and bulls. There was the usual horse and bull riding

but also Convict Poker, four men sit around a table and a bull is let loose in the area, last man sitting or standing wins.

Or, Guts and Glory, where a poker chit is attached between the horns of a bull and the first one to get close enough to snatch it wins. I am usually concerned about the welfare of the animals at rodeos but I think the humans came off worst in this case.

After the rodeo we went out to have a look around the arts and crafts on display. Some of the pieces were very good, from paintings to furniture there was a lot of quality work and plenty was being purchased. Many of the inmates in this area are trustees and allowed to mingle with the public. We talked to an inmate who was in the military at one time and was stationed in Ipswich. His daughter trained as a chef in London and now has a restaurant in Cornwall. We didn’t get as far as finding out what he was in for. Other inmates are in an enclosed space surrounding the arts and crafts area. They can discuss their work with the public and talk about price etc but can’t mingle.

This had been one of the most unusual days I have ever had. It was fun and interesting but strange and quite surreal at the same time.

We finished off the day at The Francis Southern Table and bar in a small place called St Francisville.