It turns out New Jersey is a rather beautiful state. We avoided the major cities, but drove through and visited a handful of old picturesque towns. On Wednesday December 5 we arrived in Princeton to visit Dan’s friend Sam and his wife Caroline. We can attest that the university town has a charming main street and at least one very good Indian restaurant. Before leaving on Thursday, we wandered the historic campus, which felt more like England than New Jersey.
Princeton cannons are scooter-accessible
Thursday afternoon we arrived in Flemington to visit Wendy’s Uncle Michael and Aunt Maureen, who treated us to a tasty seafood dinner. Michael was keen to show us the new local brewery, Lone Eagle, who had solid offerings in various styles.
Friday we braved the drive into Brooklyn and found free street parking on the same block as our AirBnB. We were shocked. We planned on quickly making our way into Manhattan to purchase discount Broadway tickets from TKTS, but avoided this chore thanks to Wendy’s ridiculous luck in winning the Hamilton lottery! That gave us time to wander into neighbourhood record stores and book stores before the show.
The Hamilton performance was excellent. The original cast is long gone, but we were very impressed. We don’t know exactly how many other lottery winners there were, but we were seated close to several others, all of whom had been entering the contest daily for much longer than us.
Saturday we were treated to an excellent brunch at our friend Tenley’s, and then walked up to the Christmas chaos that is midtown in December. The annual Santa Crawl was happening, resulting in a handful of drunk Santas on every block (and subway car). We stopped by the tree at the Rockefeller Center and viewed the elaborately decorated windows at Bergdorf’s and Macy’s. That night we went to see the Sun Ra Arkestra and the New York indie band du-jour Parquet Courts. Sun Ra’s old band opened with a fun and danceable soul-jazz show. Parquet Courts were the main draw for the crowd, though we could only get into about half their songs.
Sunday was very Brooklyn-esque: we attended a children’s book reading at an indie book shop by a friend-of-a-friend’s mother that was mostly attended by 30-year olds. We had fun playing with Play-Doh and listening to the story, “Spectacularly Beautiful”. This was followed by a couple fancy afternoon beers and visits to wine shops and bakeries. Our last night of the trip was spent back in Manhattan with Dale and Tenley, enjoying some excellent homestyle Italian food.
Our final stretch of driving went smoothly – we got back to Ottawa without hitting any ice or snow on the roads and had another easy border crossing despite the layers of crap in the back of the van.
Our visit to Richmond, VA was brief, allowing us just enough time to wander around the grounds of the state capitol and to drop into a single thrift shop. Due to the form and grandeur of the capitol building, as well as the variety of federal offices in the area, we could sense we were approaching the political centre of the country.
While we happened to arrive in DC as George H. W. Bush was lying in state, we decided to skip that line and focus on the Smithsonian museums. We started our day at the Natural History Museum, wandering the impressive collection of ancient sea fossils.
In addition to natural phenomena, the museum includes bits of human history as well. We learned about modern day epidemics and the human response in the new Outbreak exhibit. (We learned the term “natural reservoir”, which refers to the species that carries a disease without being affected by it. It’s usually bats.) We also spotted some poles from the Haida people, whose land we visited earlier in our trip off the BC coast.
In the afternoon Dan insisted on a follow-up visit to the Air and Space museum, having first visited in 2016. Given the size and scope, it was not hard to spend a few hours seeing new things. We tried the VR experience of the International Space Station, and Wendy learned about dark matter from Neil DeGrasse Tyson (on video in the planetarium) while Dan wandered the golden age of aviation.
On Tuesday November 27 we met up with Dan’s Aunt Barb and Uncle Bun for a delicious seafood lunch in Hilton Head, South Carolina. The island is covered in greenery and much of it is bordered by a 12 mile long sandy beach, making it a popular vacation and resort spot.
Later that day we arrived in Charleston for a short one-night visit. Similar to Savannah, the city is full of large southern style mansions. Our one educational excursion was to the Old Slave Mart museum. We learned that until 1856, slave auctions were primarily held outdoors, but for the sake of appearances, the city then mandated that they be held indoors away from public view. Following the new law, dozens of indoor slave markets were established.
On Wednesday we drove to Asheville, NC, mainly so that Dan could visit a few of the 30 breweries that operate out of the small city. Not long after arriving, we learned the city has much more than beer to offer, with an active arts scene and tons of cool used book stores and record stores.
Our brewery visits included the Thirsty Monk, White Labs, Burial, Eurisko, and Hi-Wire. White Labs is primarily a brewer’s yeast manufacturing facility and was the most interesting stop. At their bar, we were able to try beers brewed using the exact same recipe but fermented using different yeast strains – the difference that yeast makes is amazing!
Our brewery crawl was capped off with some Carolina style barbecue – it is distinct from Texas barbecue in its use of vinegar-based sauces and whole-hog style pit cooking.
On Friday we left Asheville and drove an open (ice-free) portion of the Blue Ridge parkway. Despite the grey rainy weather, we really enjoyed the slow winding drive through the mountains.
Next we visited Dan’s brother’s friend Steve and his family in Greensboro, NC. We had lots of fun playing with his young kids, and were able to catch a jazz gig Steve played at a local hotel.
We were also able to meet up with Wendy’s friend Sarah’s parents Mark and Raz for lunch in Greensboro, and then met up with Sarah’s sister Emily and her girlfriend Megan for brunch in nearby Cary, NC.
While in Greensboro it was suggested that we visit the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. The museum is located inside an old Woolworth’s department store where in 1960 four African-American students started a sit-in movement at the lunch counter to protest racial segregation. We appreciated the guided tour, as it made the victims of racism’s stories even more poignant.
After a quick stop in Atlanta for a dinner with friends, we drove back towards the coast to explore the city of Savannah. One of the first things you notice when entering the city are the huge live oaks towering over the streets and the amazing amount of Spanish moss hanging from their branches.
Upon arriving we made our way to the east side of town to visit the picturesque Bonaventure Cemetery and stroll between the old monuments. Confederate generals and old Southern songwriters lay not far from one another. There were many statues throughout the cemetery, though the famous Bird Girl from the cover of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” has been moved to a downtown museum to avoid too much trampling from tourists.
We spent our first evening slowly walking along the Savannah river, learning a bit about the history of the city from its development as an English colony to its occupation by the British during the American revolution and then its role during the civil war.
We had supper at the Olde Pink House, one of many old southern style mansions in the city, and enjoyed some classic southern cuisine: fried green tomatoes, fried fish and pork, and collard greens.
We spent the next day wandering the many public squares and parks throughout the city, touring a few art museums, and visiting the Thomas Owens house, another mansion that featured the earliest known example of indoor plumbing in the USA, and also a separate preserved building that served as the slave quarters. There we saw indigo blue ceilings, painted by the slaves with hand-made paint, meant to represent a protective body of water.
That night we visited Pinkie Master’s, one of the oldest dive bars in town (Jimmy Carter reportedly announced his candidacy here) and enjoyed a few drinks with the regulars. We were served by a heavy metal guitarist who gave Dan some tips about the local scene. We met an ex-drag queen who drank PBR from a straw and had a weekly piano gig at the bar. We also met a retired languages professor who chatted with us in French for a few minutes and recounted a few of the struggles that African-Americans are still facing in the South – her professor’s salary granted her the means to buy a home wherever she wanted in the city but certain neighbourhoods are still not open to everyone.
After a few months on the road and starting to miss family back home, we were lucky to be able to spend a week in Siesta Key, FL with Wendy’s grandmother, sister, and brother-in-law.
We enjoyed a few days lying on the white sandy beach, but did not venture far into the water as the area was still recovering from some red tide.
We spent the evenings enjoying plenty of the food on offer in Siesta Key – fried seafood, pizza, ice cream, and the anniversary special at the Lobster Pot. Wendy’s grandmother also hosted us a couple nights, including a delicious ham dinner for American Thanksgiving.
To break up the pattern of sloth and gluttony, we went for a short kayak tour on neighbouring Lido Key. The guide helped us spot a few manatees and then lead us through a series of mangrove tunnels. The tunnels are man-made and we are told they were originally dug to help with mosquito control. Paddling through the labyrinth of branches was a very unique experience. Apparently the tunnels are no longer allowed to be pruned and will gradually fill in, so it may only be possible to explore them for another decade or so.
One evening we drove up to Tampa Bay to catch the Lightning take on the Florida Panthers. It turns out Tampa Bay is a great hockey town with a loyal following and a really fun arena – they even have Tesla coils that light up when the home team scores! We also happened to be there the night celebrating Martin St. Louis being inducted into the hall of fame.
After leaving New Orleans we drove east to Florida, making it through the Gulf Coast portions of Mississippi and Alabama without even stopping.
After almost two days of driving we made it into Miami and checked into our motel in Wynwood, north of downtown. We were told the area was a virtually abandoned industrial sector a couple decades ago, then some local developers worked to create a trendy new neighbourhood. The coffee shops, cocktail bars, and craft breweries are a familiar sight in a rejuvenated area like this, but Wynwood is notable for the massive amount of impressive street art. Some walls feature carefully crafted works by hired artists, reminiscent of the East Side Gallery in Berlin, while much of the neighbourhood is covered in more traditional (but still impressive) graffiti.
Our two days in Miami were the hottest we have experienced since leaving Ontario back in mid-July. We visited Miami Beach for a few hours, but didn’t last too long in the sun before seeking refuge in a nearby (air-conditioned) Cuban restaurant. We also checked out the Bayside Marketplace, which turns out is not much of a market and more-so an outdoor shopping mall. We used the Miami city bus system to get around all day and were very impressed – we could buy a cheap day pass on our phones and just show our phones to the driver!
Next we made our way down to Key West, the southernmost point in the continental USA. We very much enjoyed the drive through the keys, frequently being able to see the ocean from both sides of the van. We camped on Bahia Honda Key, though had to sleep in the van because it was too windy to set up the tent!
Windy Wendy in Key West!
There were roosters and chickens everywhere. We don’t know why.
On our way back north, we visited the Everglades National Park and saw lots of gators and egrets and herons and one turtle. We camped at a nearby lake and luckily did not need to fend off gators in the middle of the night.
We thought these were cranes for a while. Turns out they’re egrets.