One Cow at a Time in Little Rock

Friday, April 4, 2014 by Debbie Henriksen

Sometimes a vacation experience can be enjoyable and serious at the same time. That’s true at Heifer Village on the campus of Heifer International in downtown Little Rock. Its neighbor, the Clinton Presidential Library, gets loads of attention, but the hands-on learning experience of Heifer Village has a special appeal, too.

Heifer International is a global nonprofit whose goal is to end hunger and poverty. That’s a tall order, but it’s been working on it one family and one cow at a time since 1944. In truth, it’s not just cows. Heifer International also provides sheep, rabbits, honeybees, chicks, ducks, goats, geese, pigs, llamas, water buffalo and other livestock to needy people in more than 125 countries.

Visit Little Rock Arkansas vacation tripYou learn at Heifer Village that the concept is to give livestock and training to families so they can learn to produce more of their own food and help their neighbors. It’s a mission based on the proverb, “Give a man a fish, and you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime.”

As you might expect, Heifer International is big on sustainability, so it’s no surprise to learn that its Little Rock headquarters is a LEED platinum-certified building. Adjacent wetlands along the Arkansas River complement the building’s design and the organization’s mindset. Inside are a visitor center, a café, a gift shop and spaces for a variety of programs and events throughout the years for families and adults. Stop by the gleaming headquarters, have a bite of lunch and learn how people in Arkansas extend a helping hand around the world.

Forty-five miles away in rural Perryville is another Heifer International facility, the Heifer Ranch, where you and your family can learn even more about practical ways to address hunger. 

Read more about visiting Little Rock, Arkansas at Escape to the Southeast!

"Start Your Engines" for NASCAR's Main Event - the Daytona 500!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014 by Debbie Henriksen
 
 
Daytona 500, NASCAR, Daytona Florida, Florida travel, Florida vacation
 
One of the things February is known for is the Super Bowl, the most anticipated and watched sporting event of the year. But actually, there's another huge sporting event that takes place in February, and it's much more fast-paced and exciting than the football match-up. It's the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing”, the Daytona 500.
 
daytona 500, NASCAR, daytona florida, florida travel, Florida vacationHeld annually at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, this main event is a 500 mile long NASCAR Sprint Cup motor race, and is regarded as the most important and prestigious race on the NASCAR calendar. This year, the race will commence on Sunday, February 23 at 1:00 pm. There are a lot of fascinating activities leading up to the big event so if you are a racing fan, give yourself at least a couple of days to experience it all. Here’s a schedule of the events taking place at the track.
 
Even if you are not a fan of racing, once you get there and take it all in, you will no doubt become one. I would highly recommend you splurge for one of the tours.(Check the list of available tours). I did a few years ago and absolutely loved it.  We got to explore the track and take a lap around the infield. No, not in a race car... but riding in the slow moving tour vehicle gives you a much better chance to experience it all! I knew that the track was big, but you can’t imagine the scope until you are actually there. And those intimidating 31 degree banks…let’s just say that seeing it on TV does not do it justice. I especially loved the Victory Lane -- it was so cool to see where the winners stood and actually stand there myself! You can also walk around the exhibits, get up close to actual race cars and so much more! It was definitely one of the highlights of a very exciting week! 
 
And while you are in Daytona Beach, try to find some time to explore the area because it is rich with history, culture, nightlife, and some of the most beautiful beaches you will ever see. 
 
So “drivers, start your engines” and head over to Daytona International Speedway for one of the most exciting sporting events of the year!
 
>> Read more about Florida travel on Escape to the Southeast.
 
 
 
Photo credits: Top BannerRight Image

Hot Springs, Arkansas: Take a Long, Hot Soak on a Chilly Winter Day

Friday, January 31, 2014 by Debbie Henriksen
 
hot springs, arkansas, visit arkansas, arkasnas
147 degrees.
 
That’s the temperature of the mineral water bubbling out of the ground in 47 spots around Hot Springs, Arkansas. And in the midst of one the country's coldest winters, I can't think of anything nicer than taking a good, long soak in these natural, healing waters. 
 
Folks have always gathered at these founts, from pre-history American Indians to today’s vacationers, to wash their cares away. A storied history swirls around the healing waters. Recognized as the first national preserve in the U.S., the area attracted bathers galore before the Civil War. Gangsters, including the infamous Al Capone, laid claim to the town in their era, but not all visitors were so sketchy. Major League Baseball teams practiced here at the turn of the 20th century so players could soothe aching muscles.
 
hot springs, arkansas, visit arkansas, arkasnasThese days, Hot Springs visitors flow around the National Park Service’s eight historic structures called Bathhouse Row. Start your visit by walking through the Fordyce Bath, which provides a glimpse into early 20th century bathhouse culture. Then, pick out a couple of services at either the Buckstaff or the Quapaw Bathhouse. Both are privately run.
 
Patrons line up morning and afternoon for the no-frills Buckstaff. Forget the idea of chic spas with piped-in mood music. Buckstaff hasn’t changed much in decades, and that’s a good thing. For a whopping $64, you can partake of the Traditional Bath experience that includes sliding into a 100+ degree bath for 20 minutes and following that with your choice of a sitz bath or the steam cabinet and then a cool shower. Before you depart, you’re treated to a full-body Swedish massage. 
 
hot springs, arkansas, visit arkansas, arkasnasThe Quapaw Bath & Spa reopened a few years ago with several unisex pools open to guests. Each is kept at different temperatures, from 90 to 104 degrees. Even if you forgot your swimsuit, Quapaw’s gift shop offers affordable swimwear as well as upscale products. You could spend the entire day here, trying out the steam room that’s situated over a natural spring, sampling the café’s salads, sandwiches, beers and smoothies, and relaxing with a soothing massage. 
 

For more information on Arkansas travel, visit Escape to the Southeast!

Experience Louisiana's Christmas Eve Bonfire Tradition

Monday, December 23, 2013 by Debbie Henriksen
 
Christmas bonfires in Louisiana
 
 
Leave it to the Cajuns to redefine the meaning of "Christmas lights".
 
For miles along the levees of the Mississippi River, Christmas Eve in St. James Parish, Louisiana is ushered in by over a hundred enormous bonfires. Although not everyone agrees on how the Christmas bonfire tradition began, most people do agree that there's a real beauty to the 20-foot flames that light up the night sky.
 
Louisiana Christmas Eve bonfiresSome believe it began as a way to light the path for those attending Christmas Eve Mass after dark. Others think it was started as a beacon to help Papa Noel (the Cajun Santa Claus) find his way to children's homes. Whatever the origin of the tradition, the "feux de joie" (fires of joy) bring many families and friends together each year on Christmas Eve. 
 
Preparations for the bonfires begins soon after Thanksgiving as people in the community build extravagant wooden pyramids along the river. While bonfires can be found in many parts of Louisiana, the Parish of St. James has really embraced the tradition, particularly the small riverside communities of Lutcher, Gramercy and Paulina, along Highway 44. 
 
On Christmas Eve, the festivities begin at around 7 pm, when the fire department gives the "go" sign and the pyramids are set ablaze. Fireworks are usually part of the celebration too. The fires line the levee for miles and attract thousands of visitors. It's no wonder, as the long line of fires reflecting on the water is a spectacular sight.  
 
If you'd like to be a part of this tradition, there are a few ways you can participate. You can walk along the levee and experience the many different celebrations taking place around the fires. Each one is typically surrounded by family members who built the fire. Stop and chat with these friendly folks along the way. You can also opt to get there before dark, scope out a parking place and "tailgate". Many people bring their own food, but there are usually vendors out selling delicious gumbos and other authentic Cajun foods. (Driving directions and parking advice can be found here).  Another option is to leave the transportation to someone else by taking a bus tour.
 
If you go, you're sure to enjoy this this unique Louisiana take on "Christmas lights" and perhaps even make it part of your annual celebration.
 
Wishing y'all a very Merry Cajun Christmas!
 
 
 
 
 
 

Asheville NC's Mecca of Gingerbread Artistry

Friday, December 20, 2013 by Debbie Henriksen

There's a spicy-sweet smell wafting through the air in Asheville, NC. That's because the biggest gingerbread throw-down in the U.S. happens here at the Omni Grove Park Inn. Gingerbread artists from across the country converge here in November for the chance to have their creation take top prize in the National Gingerbread House Competition.

These ain't your grandma's gingerbread houses!

Those who compete in Asheville are decorating masters, elevating a simple recipe of flour, sugar and spices to extremely detailed, complex, artistic tableaus of holiday scenes, animals, and vehicles - with precision, beauty and whimsy.  The prestige of this contest is evident, not only in the judges who preside, most of whom are culinary celebrities, but also the serious prize money:  First place winner gets $5,000!

Contrary to the contest title, entries don't necessarily have to be "houses". And they don't have to be entirely gingerbread either, although each entry must be completely edible. Contestants may use things like candy, fondant, chocolate and other decorative or structural baking materials.

Judges evaluate every minute detail. They examine each piece with flashlights, rulers, measuring tapes – they even use drills, to ensure that no inedible substances are used. What are they looking for?  Creativity, complexity, originality, difficulty and precision. 

2013 marks the 21st year of the contest.  Over 150 entries were submitted. On November 18th, prizes were awarded in four categories: child, youth, teen and adult.  Here’s a look at all the winners

Contest entries are on display at the Omni Grove Park Inn through January 2 and there’s no charge for admission!  In addition to the gingerbread profusion, enjoy the beautiful holiday displays and festive music throughout The Grove. A day – or weekend – spent here is sure to boost your Christmas spirit.

Asheville is a cool town with a fun “mountain” vibe and plenty of holiday events and boutique shopping. For more information on Asheville and surrounding areas in North Carolina, visit EscapeToTheSoutheast.com.

 

 

Visit the Spirit of Christmas Past in Williamsburg, VA

Monday, December 2, 2013 by Debbie Henriksen

Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia is a living time capsule of a thriving early American colony. No matter what season you come, you leave life as you know it behind. You become an 18th century traveler to the early years of the American Revolution, a time when our country's freedom and independence was taking shape. But visit during the month of December, and you'll step back into Christmas 1775.  All of the original homes, shops, taverns and public places that stood more than 300 years ago are entirely decorated in a festive array. The city is taken over by the sights, smells and sounds of holidays past. By nightfall, each window is illuminated and the scenes glow in warm candlelight.

Colonial Williamsburg Holiday CelebrationsColonial Williamsburg's calendar is filled with special events all throughout December. Here's just a sample:

  • The Grand Illumination – This event on December 8th kicks off the season with a bang - literally. Spend the day strolling the city, taking in all the beautiful decorations and enjoying special dining events and performances as you wait for the evening’s highlight: a thrilling fireworks display.
  • Christmas Decorations Walking Tour –  A guided look at festive building exteriors and streets decked in their holiday splendor.
  • Musical Performances – From symphonic orchestras to fiddle and banjo duos, from carols played on the glass armonica (an instrument  invented by Benjamin Franklin) to wassailing carolers, music of every kind is present throughout the village.
  • Holiday Dining – Experience the flavors of an 18th century Christmas. All restaurants in the Village embrace the season, offering their own take on a colonial-style holiday feast, through food, entertainment and atmosphere.
  • Various plays and reenactments, including the Dickens classic "A Christmas Carol" can be enjoyed throughout the season.

There are many more events, too numerous to list.  See the whole itinerary at the Colonial Williamsburg Holiday calendar. Certain events require tickets which can be purchased online, but don’t wait.  Popular events sell out quickly, as do the lodging options in town.

Start a new holiday tradition this year at Colonial Williamsburg.

Learn more about things to do in Virginia at EscapeToTheSoutheast.com!

 

Weston, WV: You'd Have to Be Insane To Enter This Asylum

Monday, October 28, 2013 by Debbie Henriksen
 
Are you looking for a truly spine-tingling adventure this Halloween? Then head out to Weston, West Virginia, where you’ll see one of the most impressive (and haunted) structures in the country, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.
 

Construction began in 1858 but was delayed due to the Civil War. It was completed in 1881, and this enormous structure is the largest hand-cut stone building in America. (It is the second largest in the world, surpassed only by the Kremlin.) It was built to house 250 patients but by 1950 it reportedly contained over 2400 patients! Conditions were horrible for the patients -- they were kept apart from families and friends, and so-called treatments included frontal lobotomies and electro-shock therapy. Thousands of deaths occurred here, including patients killing one another and employees of the asylum. And since many were buried right on the grounds, it’s no surprise that this historic psychiatric hospital is one of the most haunted places in America.

The facility stayed open until 1994 when it was forced to close due its deteriorating condition. It was bought in 2007, and today it not only offers ghost tours (including a Private Paranormal Tour) but also historic tours that sound fascinating. >> Tour information

I am hoping to spend my Halloween taking part in their Overnight Ghost Hunt this year. (If you can’t make it on Halloween, a few other dates are currently available.) On previous tours, visitors have reported seeing ghostly forms, lights and orbs, etc. and hearing gurneys being pushed back and forth, banging noises, voices, laughing, screams coming from the electro-shock area, and warnings to leave the building! You can go it alone, but I think I’ll stick with the group option. Not that I’m afraid of encountering spirits and experiencing paranormal activities in a dark, scary, oppressive asylum all by myself, mind you!  It’s just that I think it would be even more fun sharing the experience with other like minded individuals…yeah, that’s it!  (You can find more like-minded individuals on their Facebook page.)

 
 
For more information about traveling in West Virginia, visit Escape To The Southeast.
 

5 Uniquely New Orleans Things to do for Halloween

Sunday, October 27, 2013 by Debbie Henriksen
 
Right around now, people across the U.S. are doing typical Halloween activities like pumpkin picking and hay rides, costume parties, haunted house attractions, etc. But in New Orleans, Louisiana, things are FAR from typical.  With a flair for the macabre and a close connection to the spirit world, NOLA is a city that celebrates the haunted, the spooky, the mysterious all year long. That's why there's just no better place to visit this time of year!
 
Here are just a few uniquely New Orleans ways to celebrate Halloween:
 
 
1. Experience a "Mourning" at Hermann-Grima House
Hermann-Grima House is a historic Federal mansion in the French Quarter of New Orleans. A fascinating tour any time of year, the home takes a dark turn every October to reenact the funeral of the widow Grima. With rooms in the house draped in black, tours will focus on the many "rules and regulations" of death and mourning in the 19th century.
 
 
 
 
2.  Purchase a "Spell Kit" at Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo
Named for the 18th century Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau's has what you need to cast a spell, perform a seance ritual or beckon the spirit world.  The store offers a great selection of Voodoo Dolls, Skeleton Keys, various animal bones and claws and much more. Even if you're not looking to cast any spells, it's a very intriguing (and somewhat creepy) store to browse through, whether in October or any other time of year.
 
 
 
3.  Prepare to be Scared on the Ghost Tour of the French Quarter
With so many haunted sites, cemeteries and ghost tours in and around NOLA, which one do you choose?  Depends whether you want to get REALLY scared or not.  If you're after the real deal, sign up for the New Orleans Ghost Tour of the French Quarter. Visit sites with actual, documented paranormal activity. 90% of tour participants capture spirits in their photographs! This tour is offered year-round but it's a perfect addition to your New Orleans Halloween revelry! The company also offers several other spooky, creepy tours focused on Voodoo and Withcraft Rituals, Vampires, or Cemeteries.
 
 
 
 
haunted new orleans4. Go on a Haunted Pub Crawl with Bloody Mary 
Throughout history, the local pub has been a place where nefarious plans have been laid and scandalous deeds, fueled by whiskey and beer, have been carried out. Do the spirits of murdered pirates, politicians and prostitutes still inhabit the pubs where they died? Bloody Mary takes you on this fascinating walk through some of New Orleans' legendary pubs. Don't think of this as a bar-hopping, drinking pub crawl.  It's a history tour with a paranormal twist. Having said that, a few cocktails may be served (at extra cost) so guests must be 21+.
 
 
 
5. ...and speaking of Bloody Marys 
It's typically thought of as a brunch drink, but the name is just so perfect for Halloween imbibing. If you enjoy that mixture of tomato juice, vodka and hot sauce, here are a few of the best places in New Orleans to get a "killer" Bloody Mary (from Eater.com)
• Cafe Atchafalaya -  Their garnish-your-own-Bloody-Mary bar lets you build a meal in a glass.  Plenty of creative add-ins you'd never expect make for a unique experience.
• Dante's Kitchen - Everything's better with bacon, including Dante's special bacon-infused Bloody Mary.
• Cafe Adelaide - try the perfectly-spicy secret recipe, garnished with okra, green beans and olives.
 
Do you have any suggestions for unique Halloween fun in New Orleans?  Please let me know in the comments.
 
Planning a trip to New Orleans, LA?  Visit EscapeToTheSoutheast.com for more information. Order your free brochure here.

South Alabama Raises a Monument to a Pest

Tuesday, October 1, 2013 by Debbie Henriksen

In Enterprise, Alabama, at the intersection of College and Main Streets, there’s a 13-foot tall monument that holds above her head an object of great admiration and honor: a boll weevil.  In further reverence to this shiny insect, there is a street called  Boll Weevil Circle, a strip mall called the Boll Weevil Plaza and a Boll Weevil Inn. Your country music plays on radio station Weevil 101 (call letters WVVL).  Why all this glory for what most consider an insidious pest?

Early in the 1900s, boll weevils invaded the U.S. from Mexico, eating up cotton crops wherever they spread. Rather than throw in the towel, farmers around Enterprise resisted – not by fighting the insects, but by planting crops the weevils wouldn’t eat. In short, they heeded the advice of agricultural scientists such as George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute and rebounded dramatically with crops of peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans.

In 1919, an Enterprise city councilman proposed honoring the boll weevil for forcing Enterprise to diversify its economy. A monument was dedicated that year. The monument is a classical Greek female figure standing on a pedestal and holding high a giant boll weevil. The inscription reads: “In profound appreciation of the Boll Weevil and what it has done as the Herald of Prosperity, this monument was erected by the Citizens of Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama.”

Every October, the South Alabama town renews the tribute with a one-day Downtown Boll Weevil Fall Festival. This year, it will fall on October 19th and promises small-town fun at its best.  For more information, visit the City of Enterprise, Alabama's website.

 

 
If you're planning a vacation in Alabama or any of the USA's Southeast states, please visit our website for lots of great travel information.  You can also request a free copy of our "Escape to the Southeast" Travel Guide, the official guide of the Southeast.  Order it today! 

 

Put on Your Lederhosen! It's Oktoberfest in Helen, GA

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 by Debbie Henriksen
Helen Georgia travel

 

It's in the air: the smell of schnitzel and beer, the sound of the oompah-pah band.  It's time for one of the oldest and best Oktoberfest celebrations in the United States in Helen, Georgia!

Helen is a charming alpine city tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains along the Chattahoochee River.  Although it's only an hour and a half drive northeast of Atlanta, Helen's Bavarian-styled buildings and cobblestone streets will have you thinking you somehow arrived in Germany.

Helen's famous Oktoberfest began on September 19 this year and runs through October 27.  You can expect to see a wonderfully eclectic mix of people, ranging from octogenarians in lederhosen to hillbillies in overalls.  The center of the festivities is the Festhalle, a walled pavillion with one side open to the river.  

Helen Georgia vacation

There are dozens of long tables for communal seating, concession areas, bars, a dance floor and a stage for the various bands.  You can always expect some great music at the Helen Oktoberfest. (Check out the 2013 band schedule.)

As expected, there are lots of traditional German delicacies to enjoy such as pretzels, schnitzel and, of course, Bavarian beer which you can enjoy in their outdoor biergarten.

If you need a break from the beer and Bavarian revelry, Helen has plenty to offer, including a market square with galleries, shops and restaurants. 

Nature lovers will enjoy canoeing, fishing, kayaking and tubing on the  Chattahoochee River.  Breathtaking Anna Ruby Falls, with its rare double waterfall, offers amazing photo ops.  For something different, try a gold mine tour! 

At this time of year, though, the main attraction in Helen is the Oktoberfest.  Yes, it can be touristy and boisterous at times, but then again, that's kinda the reason it's such a fun event.So, polka your way down to beautiful Helen, Georgia!  You'll not only experience an adorable Alpine village, but a wonderful Oktoberfest that guarantees a great vacation for the entire family.

Prosit!!

 

 

>> More information about Oktoberfest in Helen, GA

 

 

 
 
 

Whooping It Up for Whooping Cranes in North Alabama

Thursday, September 19, 2013 by Debbie Henriksen

Although you'll most likely drive into into Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in North Alabama, most of its visitors arrive by air.

That’s because most visitors here are birds – many, many birds. In fact, 285 species have been identified on this 35,000-acre tract along the Tennessee River between Decatur and Huntsville.

The most storied and conspicuous of Wheeler’s visitors are whooping cranes. These giants stand up to five feet tall and have wingspans of almost eight feet.

A few whoopers, North America’s most famous endangered bird, plus thousands of slightly shorter sandhill cranes spend winters at Wheeler. There are now a few hundred whooping cranes in existence thanks to human intervention and protection after the total population at one time plunged to only 15 birds.

The first whooping cranes found Wheeler thanks to a follow-the-leader game. A man disguised as a bird flying an ultra-light aircraft first led juvenile cranes to land here as part of Operation Migration, which established an eastern wintering ground in north Florida.  Operation Migration teaches whoopers from central Wisconsin the route. In the program’s early years, they stopped at Wheeler. Now, mature birds bring youngsters with them.

Wheeler’s wildlife observation building offers a glass-enclosed room (spotting scopes included) that provides you a sheltered place to see a great variety of birds – migrating songbirds in spring, hummingbirds returning from Central America as summer approaches, warblers in October and thousands upon thousands of ducks and geese in autumn and winter. In addition, other wildlife is abundant, five hiking trails are open and fishing is good.

For more information, visit the websites for Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge and Operation Migration

 
If you're planning a vacation in Alabama or any of the USA's Southeast states, please visit our website for lots of great travel information.  You can also request a free copy of our "Escape to the Southeast" Travel Guide, the official guide of the Southeast.  Order it today! 

 

Richmond, VA: Rich in Civil War History

Tuesday, September 3, 2013 by Debbie Henriksen
 
I saw the movie “Lincoln” recently, and it reminded me how less than 150 years ago, a large part of Richmond, Virginia had been burned to the ground. Back then, Richmond was the capitol of the confederacy, and when the Union army was threatening to capture Richmond, retreating Confederate soldiers set fire to as many buildings as they could. But in practically no time, Richmond bounced back and emerged from the smoldering rubble of the Civil War to become an even more important and economically powerful city than before!
 
Richmond is a city that everyone should plan to visit. But it’s an especially great destination if you are even a little intrigued by our nation’s history. Begin by spending some time at Richmond National Battlefield Park. The park is actually a number of battlefields and visitor centers located in the City of Richmond and adjacent counties. The park's Visitor Center at Tredegar Iron Works houses an informative museum containing many Civil War artifacts. The surrounding grounds were the location of the iron works which produced cannons, small arms and the armor for the warship Merrimac. The American Civil War Center next door also has some artifacts and a gift shop, but its main focus is in showing different perspectives of the Civil War, from the viewpoints of northerners, southerners, and African-Americans. I found it really fascinating and thought provoking. A driving tour of the battlefields includes 13 separate sites with four visitor centers along an 80 mile route (some of the visitor centers are only open seasonally), and though I suppose you could see them all in one day, I’d recommend that you give yourself a couple of days to take it all in.  
Don't rush your way through Richmond! The city is filled with so many wonderful historical things to do and see. For example, you can take a free guided tour of the beautiful Virginia Capitol Building, which is full of historically significant artifacts and rooms. Take a nice walk or drive on Monument Avenue, where you’ll see statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, and more. Pay a visit to St. John’s Episcopal Church (where Patrick Henry delivered his impassioned "Give me Liberty or give me Death" speech.) and stop by the fascinating Hollywood Cemetery, where U.S. presidents James Monroe and John Tyler, Jefferson Davis, Jeb Stuart and George Pickett are buried. (Make sure you pick up a guidebook at the gate house - it will lead you to all of the many prominent people who are buried there.) 
 
Of course, Richmond is not only a mecca for history buffs -- it’s an incredible, vibrant city with something for everyone.
  
 

Charleston, WV: Catch Up on Culture in the Capitol

Monday, August 26, 2013 by Debbie Henriksen


Mention the southern city of Charleston and most people will think of South Carolina.  But West Virginia features a Charleston too, and it happens to be the state capitol and the largest city in WV (not to be confused with another WV city called Charles Town). Home to a variety of exciting cultural and recreational attractions, it's a city well worth visiting.  And, if you're into history you can't miss the Cultural Center near the State Capitol building.

As you enter the Center, you are greeted by its Great Hall, a beautiful space with marble walls and floors and crystal chandeliers. There is a theater behind the great hall which features dance, music, plays, film festivals, and many other types of events. The center also houses reference and archive libraries, and a wonderful State Museum which was constructed to showcase the Mountain State’s historic, artistic, and cultural heritage. The Museum was recently renovated, and what an amazing job they did! It is like something you might expect to find in Washington, D.C.  The layout makes it a pleasure  – you don’t wander around aimlessly, hoping to catch something interesting. No, they have it ingeniously laid out so that you follow along chronologically, taking in their self-guided exhibits at your own pace. It is a great way to experience some of the pivotal moments in West Virginia’s history. 

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this experience, and also pleasantly surprised to find out that my visit was free! The museum is open to the public January through December, most days except major holidays, Tuesday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5:00 p.m.

I consider the State Museum at the West Virginia Cultural Center a must-see for anyone living or visiting the great state of West Virginia!

Beaufort: the Heart of SC's Lowcountry

Monday, July 22, 2013 by Debbie Henriksen
 
A lot of people who visit the state of South Carolina take trips to such historic cities as Charleston and Savannah, stops well worth making! But in between these two cities, in the heart of the Lowcountry, is a charming city called Beaufort. Situated on Port Royal Island, Beaufort is one of the largest Sea Islands in the country. It is renowned for its downtown historic district, complete with gorgeous antebellum mansions built by wealthy plantation owners during the 30 years or so preceding the Civil War. Over 50 historic buildings have been restored and are available for viewing. You can venture out on your own, but the area is best experienced with the help of a professional guide leading the way. Some of the tours offered are walking tours, van tours, and horse-drawn carriage tours - an appropriate way to see the area I would think!
 
But Beaufort has a lot more to offer than just its fascinating history. There are art galleries, quaint shops, phenomenal restaurants, festivals and events, and the beautiful Waterfront Park, where you can walk along the water or simply relax and take in the spectacular views. These are just a few of the reasons it's been featured in the NY Times, named “Best Small Southern Town” by Southern Living, and this year was hailed as “America’s Happiest Seaside Town” by Coastal Living Magazine!
 
Beyond downtown Beaufort, there is Hunting Island State Park, a perfect retreat for those seeking a relaxing day at the beach, or some adventure exploring the incredible nature on this barrier island. Make the climb up to the top of a lighthouse built in 1859 for some incredible views of the island and shore.
 
Beaufort is also a sportsman’s paradise, especially when it comes to water sports such as fishing, kayaking, boating, etc. And for the golfing enthusiast, there are plenty of courses in the area with really beautiful views.
 
There are so many more things to do and see here, especially for those interested in history, architecture, art, nature, outdoor adventure, relaxing and good eating!
 
For more information, visit Beaufort.com and South Carolina's Lowcountry.
 

Thomas Jefferson's Beloved Monticello: An Unforgettable Virginia Landmark

Monday, July 1, 2013 by Debbie Henriksen

As people across the U.S. are all preparing for our Independence Day celebrations, it's the perfect time to think about one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson.  We all know Jefferson as the framer of the Declaration of Independence and one of our most beloved presidents. But not everyone knows he was also an inventor, a farmer and plantation owner, an architect, a scientist, meticulous record-keeper, and a voracious reader and writer.  Fewer people know of his darker side as a slave owner and "baby-daddy" to several children he allegedly fathered with one of his slaves. To really get an intimate look into the man and his daily life, you have to pay a visit to Jefferson's beloved home, Monticello, located just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia.

Virginia travel destinationsJefferson built Monticello in 1775 based on Italian Renaissance design.  The home contains many of his own design innovations and inventions. It is really fascinating to get a glimpse into Jefferson's daily life, his hobbies, his passions, and to understand what drove this brilliant man to be the patriot he became.  A Day Pass to Monticello includes a guided tour of the home's first floor.  Also included is the "Slavery at Monticello" tour   Other tours are available for additional cost, including a "Behind the Scenes Tour", where you get to see the upstairs floor, a "Revolutionary Garden Tour".  Visitors are also free to explore the grounds to get a real feel of what life was like on an 18th century plantation.  The website is a treasure of information about Jefferson, Monticello and what you will experience during your visit.  I highly recommend spending some time on the website to check what seasonal events may be going on and buy tickets to any tours you're interested in - tickets sell out quickly during peak travel season.

On my recent visit, I had a very personable and well-informed Visit Monticello in Virginiaguide. She was a great story-teller and seemed to know everything about Jefferson, his home and his family. I was left with a newfound sense of admiration and respect for this larger-than-life American icon!  Instead of taking the shuttle back to the orientation area, I decided to stroll along a gravel path to really take it all in.  Along the way, I passed the cemetery where Thomas Jefferson is buried. A  wrought iron fence keeps visitors from getting too close, but still, it was a surprisingly moving experience for me! I guess by that point I felt like I really knew the man!

For more information on planning your Virginia travel, visit www.EscapeToTheSoutheast.com.

 

Star-Spangled Celebration in Baton Rouge

Thursday, June 27, 2013 by Debbie Henriksen
Situated on the east bank of the majestic Mississippi River, Baton Rouge is always a great place to visit.  The city boasts southern hospitality laced with French savoir faire and a dash of zesty Cajun fun. And even though Baton Rouge is the state capitol and Louisiana's second largest city, it still has a nice, easy-going, “sleepy” feel to it.
 
But Baton Rouge is an especially great place to visit on the Fourth of July. Besides all of the other great things this thriving city has to offer, they host the annual "Star-Spangled Celebration", an amazing, all-day event!  Head downtown to the Baton Rouge riverfront area and begin the day by touring the USS Kidd, a Fletcher-class destroyer nicknamed the “Pirate of the Pacific”. The USS Kidd was an outstanding ship; she received eight battle stars for her service in World War II and four for her actions during the Korean War.  The ship is the centerpiece of the Veteran’s Memorial Museum, a great place to learn about some of the sacrifices our veterans made to insure our freedom. What a perfect way to celebrate Independence Day, don’t you think? You can also just visit the museum, if you’d like. But I would highly recommend doing both; it really is a very moving experience and well worth the extra charge. (Check website for tour info and pricing).
 
4th Fourth of July in Baton Rouge, LAThe festivities officially commence at noon, when the vendors open up their booths offering a variety of delicious local food and drinks. And if you overdo it, you can dance away some of the calories because a variety of musical performances will be going on all day! Make sure you’re in the area at 6:10 p.m.. because you don’t want to miss “Air Raid Baton Rouge!” This is when you get to see the beloved USS Kidd defend herself from “attacking” warplanes! Quite a thrilling experience! View the full schedule of events here.
 
At 9:00 pm, WBRZ Channel 2 & The Advocate present “Fireworks on the Mississippi” - a spectacular fireworks display over the river. You can also watch the display from the decks of the USS Kidd, but the $10 tickets are limited so get a move on if that’s something you’d like to do.
 
The Star-Spangled Celebration is also the largest fundraising event of the year for the USS Kidd Veterans Memorial, so come on down and not only will you have a blast celebrating our independence, you’ll also help keep one of America’s best veterans' memorials alive and thriving!  
 
Happy 4th of July!
 
Planning a trip to Baton Rouge, LA?  Visit EscapeToTheSoutheast.com for more information. Order your free brochure here.
 

 

Shreveport, LA is Mad for Mudbugs

Wednesday, May 15, 2013 by Debbie Henriksen

 

Note: this is a repeat of last year's Mudbug Madness blog, but all the dates and details have been updated for 2013

Accordions and fiddles belt out a lively Zydeco rhythm and the smell of boiled crawfish fills the air.  Mudbug Madness Shreveport Louisiana LAIt's the annual Mudbug Madness Festival in Shreveport, LA and you don't want to miss it!

On May 23-26, this northern Louisiana city takes on a south LA flavor and celebrates the crawfish or "mudbug" with Cajun food and music that define its southern traditions.

Beginning in the eighties as a two-day street festival in downtown Shreveport, Mudbug Madness has become one of Louisiana’s largest and most popular festivals, featuring well-known Cajun, Zydeco, Blues and Jazz artists, fantastic authentic Cajun cuisine, crazy and quirky contests, and fun for all ages. Now a Shreveport institution, Mudbug Madness is nationally recognized as one of the Southeast Tourism Society’s Top 20 Events. 

Hundreds of people will line up to buy their box o’ bugs, brimming with boiled crawfish, red potatoes and corn on the cob. The crawfish are cooked with a zesty blend of spices, a little bit hot and a little bit sweet. If you've never eaten a crawfish, friendly “natives” are quick to tell you how: twist, peel and bite! For those who don't desire a mess of mudbugs, the festival features some of the best jambalaya, crawfish étoufee, poboys, alligator, dirty rice and other dishes unique to the region.

After you’ve sampled all the food, the infectious beat of the music will likely draw you over to one of the three stages of live entertainment to clap, dance and sing along. This year’s event will feature performances by Louisiana favorites such as Grammy-winner Wayne Toups & ZyDeCajun, Dwayne Dopsie & the Zydeco Hellraisers.

While the crawfish is the star of this festival, the weekend is really about celebrating Louisiana’s rich cultural heritage and the people of Shreveport are proud to bring a little bit of south Louisiana up north.

>> Read more about visiting Louisiana!

 

Hernando, MS: Home to One of the U.S.'s Best Farmer's Markets

Thursday, May 9, 2013 by Debbie Henriksen

 

Coming across a great farmer's market in the U.S. Southeast may not be cause in itself for a blog entry.  I mean, there are so many farm stands and fresh produce markets that start to pop up in the springtime, that it's hard to single out one that is notable in one way or another.  And yet, there is one that I think bears a special mention. If you're lucky enough to live in northern Mississippi, you most likely already know the place because the Hernando Farmer's Market has been voted the best in Mississippi, and was ranked number 5 nationally!  That really says a lot for a small town like Hernando, competing against markets in big cities across the U.S like Baltimore and St. Paul.
 
The Hernando Farmer's Market was formed in 2008 and is located on the historic Hernando Square, nestled under the tall oak trees surrounding the courthouse. Vendors sell local fruits and vegetables, dairy products from grass-fed cows and goats, meat, eggs, soaps and lotions, home-made canned and preserved items, all types of fresh breads and other wonderful baked goods, honey and much more.

One key thing that sets the Hernando Farmer's Market apart is their commitment to teaching people about eating and living healthier. Mississippi has been known as one of the unhealthiest states in the nation and one of the most obese. But in 2010, due in part to its active farmers' market, Hernando was named the "Healthiest Hometown in Mississippi" by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Mississippi Foundation. And, it was mentioned by First Lady Michelle Obama in her "Let’s Move" publicity campaign!  
 
Not only does the market feature fresh, organic meats, eggs and veggies, they also have "lunch and learn" discussions on topics like gardening and healthy eating.  Vendors at the market can learn about food safety. There are yoga and zumba classes on the lawn for anyone who wants to join. And if those don't get your heart pumping, you can get up and dance to the great musical guests featured on weekends.
 
The market is only open until 1:00 so plan on getting there early and starting out in the nice café that serves coffee and breakfast items.
 
Hernando is located in the northwest corner of Mississippi, and is about a half hour drive south of Memphis, TN.  If you're traveling around the area, I highly recommend adding a Saturday morning stop at this fabulous market to your itinerary.
 
 
Saturdays, 8 am - 1 pm.  April 20 through Oct. 30.
Hernando Courthouse Square
475 West Commerce Street,
Hernando, MS 38632
 
 
If you're planning a vacation in Mississippi or any of the USA's Southeast states, please visit our website for lots of great travel information.  You can also request a free copy of our "Escape to the Southeast" Travel Guide, the official guide of the Southeast.  Order it today! 

 

 

Hug That Tiger, Cuddle That Kangaroo

Friday, April 26, 2013 by Debbie Henriksen

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Did you know tiger cubs don’t purr? But they do cuddle and play just like a typical house cat. And, you don’t have to watch from the other side of a fence or wall to find out.
 
At the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo in Gulf Shores, you can have a hands-on encounter with several kinds of baby animals. Each spring, Zoo Director Patti Hall brings in tiger cubs, plus baby kangaroos and lemurs. Her Animal Encounters program puts visitors and babies face to face. You pay an upcharge from the regular admission for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. In return, the wild animals become accustomed to being handled. It’s a good relationship all around. When the creatures grow to a certain size – for tigers, it’s 25 pounds – they move on to other zoos for permanent residence.
 
Last year, Hall had two sets of tiger cubs, one white and the other yellow, for the interactions. Animal Encounters aren’t the only reason to stop by this old-timey zoo just five minutes from the Gulf of Mexico. Take your time walking around the shady paths and learning the stories behind the scenes. CNN nicknamed it “The Little Zoo That Could” because the menagerie made international headlines during hurricanes Ivan and Katrina when the property flooded. Hall was a quick thinker. She loaded all 270 animals onto trailers and drove them 15 miles inland to her own backyard to ride out the storms. Videos of her bears as they frolicked in her swimming pool captured hearts as far away as China and Russia.
 
Today, Hall wants to move the animals again. Because of the threat of floods and the growth of Gulf Shores, the zoo is developing 46 acres north of town. “We’d love to be there by the end of 2013,” she said. As a non-profit, she is accumulating donations to make the move. One thing is for sure: If she keeps putting these cute animals in people’s hands and hearts, she’ll get there soon. Visit the Alabama Gulf Zoo's website for more information.
 
 
If you're planning a vacation in Alabama or any of the USA's Southeast states, please visit our website for lots of great travel information.  You can also request a free copy of our "Escape to the Southeast" Travel Guide, the official guide of the Southeast.  Order it today! 

 

Cool Temps, Hot Bluegrass at Cumberland Caverns in TN

Friday, March 22, 2013 by Debbie Henriksen

There's a unique theater in McMinnville, TN that began construction 3.5 million years ago. That's when geologists estimate Cumberland Caverns started forming in the limestone hills of Middle Tennessee. For most of those millions of years, the caverns have been silent, but when nature designs an acoustically pure and perfect place, you have to find a way to honor it.

 

Once a month, 333 feet below the ground, the otherwise perpetual quiet of Cumberland Caverns gives way to an amazing aural experience in the "Bluegrass Underground", a live concert series featuring some of the country's biggest acts in bluegrass music. Fans of this style of music are sure to know the stellar names that appear on the stony stage but really, it's a must-see for any music lover, as the bluegrass blends with an eclectic mix of "Americana". There's truly something here for everyone and the quality of the sound will blow you away.

Bluegrass music in Tennesee TNYour experience at Bluegrass Underground begins as a Cumberland Cavern tour guide leads your descent into the subterranean world, taking you past underground pools, waterfalls and stunning cave formations to the stage where you will enjoy music in a venue unlike any other you are likely to ever experience!

When you think "cave", you may think "dark and creepy", but The Volcano Room, where the concerts are given, are anything but.  The musical acts are well-lit and the natural stone walls create a shadowy and ethereal beauty.  In fact, the theater won a 2013 Emmy Award for lighting. 

To say that this is a very cool venue is true in more ways than one: the cavern temperature is always a temperate 56 degrees (so don't forget your sweater).  And don’t worry about silencing your cellphone…you won’t find any service here.

 

The Bluegrass Underground program is broadcast on AM radio station WSM in Nashville, also home to that other famous country music show, the Grand Ole Opry.  Performances are streamed world-wide on wsmonline.com.  But if you can make it in person, you will experience an event you will never forget.

 

Take a look at this clip of the PBS special on the Bluegrass Underground: