We planned our trek back to Oklahoma from Alabama along a southern route so we could see new things. We crossed the rising Mississippi River again, but this time at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As we headed north from there, we also crossed the Morganza Spillway, which had been opened the previous week to relieve some of the flooding upriver.
Our overnight destination was Natchitoches, Louisiana. We had no expectations, just wanted a comfortable bed, a clean room, and some dinner. How lucky we were to find that Natichitoches is very historic and has many bed and breakfast establishments, particularly close to the historic downtown area.
We drove around the area, enjoying the ornate filigree balcony railings on the riverfront buildings and the riverfront park. Natchitoches is the oldest established town in Louisiana, and is the setting of the movie Steel Magnolias.
After looking at the quaint shops and numerous restaurants along the street, we selected “The Landing” and were pleased that we did. Though we were casually dressed and some of the diners were somewhat dressed up, we were greeted graciously and shown to our table. The waiter gave good recommendations for our dining pleasure, and we were thoroughly satiated when we left.
Natchitoches is one of those places that invites the traveler to return. I hope we find our way back there one of these days and can explore some of the historic sites — forts, Creole plantation homes, the Cane River National Heritage Area, museums, historic homes and churches, pecan plantations, just to mention a few. It has Southern charm and hospitality oozing out its pores!
Since the purpose of a vacation was relaxation for us, it stands to reason that I’m going to talk about that at some point, doesn’t it? And what better place to relax than on the beach! The sands of Orange Beach were definitely NOT orange. To the contrary, they were beautifully white!
There were several boardwalks on the public beach areas and we investigated several of those. The protected beach grasses and other flora and fauna provided a lovely natural landscape, and the boardwalk kept pedestrians from interfering with their growth. There were families picnicking near the water, windsurfers, people enjoying a casual beach stroll (like us); and all seemed to enjoy it as much as we.
Of course, to us the most perfect way to enjoy the beach was to alternate strolling along the water’s edge and inhabiting beach chairs. Because the beachfront location of Sugar Beach Condominiums is considered a private beach area, we were able to reserve the chairs plus umbrellas for the day. An on-site attendant would periodically offer to adjust the placement and position of the umbrellas, too, so we felt totally spoiled.We read (four people, four Kindles), napped, watched children frolicking in the surf – in short, we relaxed! At lunchtime two of the group went for burgers, and we enjoyed a beach picnic of the easiest kind!
To have a true beach vacation, Oklahomans have to travel out of state. Many will head south to Galveston or Padre Island or Mexico, given the chance; but we would recommend going a little further east to the Gulf Coast of Alabama for a delightful change of scenery and excellent cuisine (oh, I didn’t even mention the great eating we enjoyed!), wrapped up in an affordable vacation.
The Gulf Coast at Gulf Shores/Orange Beach is beautiful, and we picked it because it is nearer Oklahoma than a Florida destination. It was a bit cooler than we expected for a May vacation, but we didn’t let that slow us down. Two particularly things we enjoyed actually did not involve the beach itself.
One morning we drove to Gulf State Park, which was just across the highway from our condo. As we drove through the park, we saw cranes but not a lot of other wildlife. We were looking for a walk path, and finally saw a bridge from the road into a wooded area, so we parked and prepared for a hike.
As we started across the bridge, a group of hikers were finishing their walk. They said that they had been told by a park ranger that a mother alligator and her babies had been sighted down the road and to keep a lookout for them. We were glad for the alert and kept our eyes peeled for any sign of them.
As we walked along the wide, well-established path, we saw lots of Spanish moss hanging from the trees. You know it is parasitic, but it does present a pretty picture. We saw several ponds and a great variety of trees and plants but luckily, no alligators!
The other activity we thoroughly enjoyed was a sail in the Gulf. Captain Ryan Rayfield took the four of us on his lovely big sailboat Sailob. It was perfect weather for a sail, not too cool nor too hot, and it was just wonderful letting the breeze blow through our hair and view all the hotels and tall condo buildings from the water side.
Captain Ryan was a very interesting young man and his story made the sail all the more interesting. Though he was originally from the area, he had been part of corporate America after college. In 2006 he left the corporate world and in 2007 began his sailing charters at Orange Beach. Sailing in the Gulf of Mexico for day sails and overnights, he has won several awards, including the 2010 Best Sailing Charter on the Alabama Gulf Coast.
The trip was every bit as educational as enjoyable. Our only complaint was that the 2-hour sail was too short. We would have loved to do that every day of our stay in Orange Beach!
After enjoying several days in Hot Springs, we began our journey onward to the Gulf Coast. The flooding of the Mississippi River was a big news topic we faced. Where would be the best place to cross the
“Mighty Mississip”? All reports indicated that it would be later in the week before Vicksburg was in jeopardy, so we followed our route guidance and had no problems crossing there.
Actually, the crossing at Vicksburg was much easier than the last time we had crossed there. In the 70s we had been on that highway, pulling a 17-foot travel trailer, and the bridge was a narrow two lanes. The bridge today is high and wide and much safer.
After an overnight stay in Hattiesburg, MS, we forged on to our destination at Orange Beach, Alabama, where we were to meet Jim’s sister and her husband (from Maryland). Our accommodations for the week were reserved through VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner). This website serves as a portal for listings of properties all over the world. A friend had recommended it after having used it for stays in a number of places in the U.S., but we were still a bit apprehensive.
The reservation process had been seamless, and we were hopeful that everything would be as lovely as it looked online.
After sending an e-mail in January with a request for information about the specific property we thought looked good, I received an immediate response from the owner. The reservation for May was secured, a deposit sent, and over the next few months, we received e-mails several times about the refurbishing that #290588 (VRBO property number) was undergoing. In the last couple of weeks prior to our trip, the owner graciously gave us suggestions for their favorite eating places and things to do in the Gulf Shores/Orange Beach area.
On arrival we met our family at Sea N Suds for lunch, then went to check in at the beach-front Sugar Beach Condos. In an area of hundreds of high-rise buildings, the 4-story Sugar Beach was great. Parking was on the ground floor with three stories of apartments above. Our 2-bedroom, 2-bath condo was perfect, and the balcony overlooked one of the three swimming pools, with the beach directly past that. What a sight for land-locked Okies like us!
After unpacking and a quick (well, sort of) trip to the grocery store, we were ready for sun and sand and relaxation!
Hot Springs, Arkansas was named for the springs of healing waters that converge in a pool in the national park there. The area is sometimes called the Valley of Vapors, because of the mists that rise from the warm mineral waters. Legend has it that warring Indian tribes would not fight there, believing the gods gave mystical powers to the waters and the sparkling mists that would float up from the valley.
The legends may be true, but what is definitely true is the wonderful warm waters are used in several public bath houses. I am not sure what I expected a “public bath house” to be but was very pleasantly surprised at how lovely the Quapaw Bath House was. The reception area was furnished with comfortable seating for waiting guests and a large reception desk for purchasing a variety of bath services, including time in the public pools, private baths, massages, etc.
We opted for a private couples bath and were shown to another waiting area that was surrounded by individual rooms, each with a large two-person, Jacuzzi-type tub. The twenty minutes allotted was just the right amount of time to spend in the very warm mineral baths.
The real purpose of our time in Hot Springs was to luxuriate with personalized spa services, and by Googling that topic, we found a very accommodating spa that designed specific services to meet our wishes. Andrea Rose Day Spa and The Rose Cottage Inn inhabit three historic old homes that sit on one of the hilly side streets. A full menu of services included various types of massage, sugar scrubs, mud wraps, facials, etc. The services that we chose were therapeutic and the results were very beneficial.
Is it “over the top” to go to Hot Springs for spa services that we can get at home? Maybe so – but we’d do it again in a heartbeat. It was sheer luxury to be pampered and spoiled for a day and I highly recommend it!
Some years ago Hot Springs, Arkansas was a preferred honeymoon destination for the region around that state; but I haven’t heard anyone mention it in those terms in a very long time. Nevertheless, that was an “interim destination” we chose for our recent trip to the Gulf Coast.
It’s important to remember that most any place can look good on the Internet with well-staged pictures and creative verbage, so reading reviews can help make decisions. Rather than selecting one of the typical chain motels, we chose a gem of a motel that was near downtown, the Alpine Inn. While the motel was obviously old and the room was small, it was a wonderful value and we enjoyed our stay and the convenient location.
What makes a motel “obviously old”? you might ask. Well, having to unplug the closet light to plug in the coffeemaker for morning coffee is one telltale sign. Keeping the bathroom door open so the bedroom will stay cool because the air conditioner is in the bathroom is another!
And how small is “small”? Because we opted for a room with a king-size bed, the floor space allowed for only one person to walk around at a time. The inn has other larger rooms and suites, but ours was “cozy” and functional for us. And the best part? The Scottish owners, Eric and Leslie Wilson, are delightful and, as one reviewer said, provide European-style hospitality!
Note to self: Take time to find charming older places when possible for our travels.
When retired, you should be able to take off on a whim and travel where you want, when you want – right?! Actually, that frequently isn’t the way it works. It seems there are still responsibilities and expectations that keep you tied down. So we’ve decided that now’s the time to “break the chains” and start the retirement life we expected.
Even though we have taken several trips since I retired, our plan to take at least one trip a month hasn’t quite materialized. As we began planning for our annual trip with Jim’s sister and her husband (part of our traveling companions on last year’s trip to Italy), we decided a Gulf Coast destination would be ideal this year, and though they would fly in from Maryland, we would drive. Taking driving trips, seeing the sights along the way, has been one of our dreams for retirement travel, so this would give us a good taste of that.
Using Google maps to plan our route worked out well and allowed us to determine the best places to stay overnight along the way. I have been the “travel agent” and “navigator” in our previous travels and this was no exception.
I used KAYAK to compare lodging prices, because it makes a comparison of the prices with Priceline, Hotels.com, TravelZoo, and others. I then made reservations on the websites for the specific hotel chains (such hilton.com and choicehotels.com). Making the reservations through KAYAK results in your credit card being charged immediately rather than when you check in. I prefer the latter option in case the reservation has to be canceled at the last minute. KAYAK also has user reviews of the hotels. These can help steer you away from hotels that might not meet your expectations.We also found that comparing the route directions from Google Maps with those provided by the Maps app on the iPhone and by the navigation system on our Ford Fusion gave us some options. Creating a route by selecting the fastest way or by blocking certain features allowed us to see a few sights we would have missed had we relied only on Google.
With all these reservations and decisions made in advance, we were ready to set out on our adventure. First stop: Hot Springs, Arkansas. Our drive was smooth and we made it to our first destination with only a minor change: we decided to alter our route and used the iPhone app to give us a shorter route by taking a minor highway instead of an interstate. That turned out to be an advantage, because Highway 7 in Arkansas is a beautiful drive through the Ouachita National Forest, and we would have missed the forest and winding road if we had stayed on Interstate 40.
So, we make our plans, plot our route, make reservations – and then make changes! Flexibility!