Monthly Archives: January 2014

5 days in the BIG EASY


There are not many big cities on our list of things to see and do while we are away for 8 months – I guess that is somewhat telling about our interests… we are just not big city people. Our stop in New Orleans was all about history and culture – closing off our work on American History, experiencing the mighty Mississippi River and learning about the southern culture through food and music.

To make the most of our visit we stayed at the French Quarter RV Park. As it is 5 minutes north of the French Quarter, it is very expensive and right next to I-10 but well worth it as we were able to park everything and just walk everywhere. It was even a novelty to be able to grab a taxi when it was pouring rain and go out for dinner.

We woke up on our first morning at the campground to this really cool view out the window – the Ghostbuster car! It turns out that they were here for a VIP event at the NADA conference that was in town. You can rent it from Bob’s Prop Shop in Texas…

In order to get a history overview and see as much of the old city as possible, while still having fun, we did a bike tour with Crescent City Bike Tours. Their business is just in it’s first year and is run by a very friendly couple Kristine & Richie and it reminded me very much of Boreale, our local bike company. The tour was close to 3 hours and we learned lots of neat facts while seeing some great architecture and being active. The pace is quite easy and the bikes are big cruisers so it’s a great idea for almost anyone.

Just around the corner from the RV Park was historic St. Louis Cemetery (#1). Right next door to us was the larger St. Louis Graveyard (#2). We stopped into #1 on our way downtown one day and checked out what a historic graveyard is like. Due to the water table here (at, below, or barely above sea level) you are not able to burry anyone underground here. In many cases, families have crypts with up to 8 people in them!

We took a wander down Bourbon Street late in the afternoon one day to get a sense of the area without the chaos of the evening crowd. At 5pm things were definitely getting warmed up. Hunter thought it was much too loud and chaotic for his tastes. I figure that’s a good thing!

One of our outings was on the Creole Queen – a paddle wheeler that takes people down the Mississippi River for history cruises. We went on the afternoon cruise out to the Chalmette Battlefield – site of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. It was a sunny day, which was nice after a number of rainy and cool ones. We enjoyed being out on the river and seeing all the boats, barges and tugs. We were really disappointed to learn that the Battlefield site, which is a National Historic Site managed by the National Parks Service, is closed on Sundays and Mondays. This made it a very flat experience with me reading information off my iPhone.

Our culture efforts were focused on food and music.

  • We started out at Mulate’s (Business District) for live Zydeco music (band there every night) and Cajun Food. We boldly got a sampler platter to start with and tried frogs legs, grilled alligator, fried crawfish amongst other things. They also had yummy crawfish étouffée and jumbalaya
  • We experienced live Jazz at Preservation Hall (FQ) and this was Hunter’s favourite and a bargain at $20.00 per person (they let Hunter in free)
  • We did the House of Blues Gospel Brunch (FQ) for yummy southern food (waffles & fried chicken!) and amazing Gospel
  • Cafe du Monde (FQ) for Beignets and Hot Chocolate
  • The Grill (FQ) was an awesome find when we couldn’t get into Deanie’s (FQ) – true diner layout and service, really good food and dirt cheap prices
  • Hard Rock Cafe (FQ) because Hunter really wanted Ribs and the House of Blues was closed for a private party

The absolute recommendations that we have are The Grill for any meal, Preservation Hall for intimate Jazz in a historic building  and the House of Blues Gospel Brunch for anyone that hasn’t done Gospel before.

We spent our last planned day at the National WW2 Museum, which is located in the downtown business district. They have an extensive exhibit section, multiple small videos and then 2 hollywood style movies/experiences. We chose to do everything since we were there. I personally was a little disappointed with the lack of a global focus – it really is about the US’s role in WW2 and there is very little about the events prior to them becoming involved. I found myself doing a lot of explaining to Hunter about what started the war. The scale and scope of the exhibits was impressive and certainly captured Hunter’s attention. We had lunch at the soda shop on site which I would not recommend due to high prices and very slow service.

NOLA road closures jan 29th

Our 5 days actually turned into 6 thanks to Winter Storm Leon (I didn’t know that they named winter storms like they name hurricane’s). It rolled in on Monday night from the west (the direction we are going) and brought snow, freezing rains and high winds, which resulted in road closures, school closures & city shut downs. We hunkered down all day Tuesday and then decided to venture out on the back roads Wednesday to try to make some progress towards Texas. It only took us 6 hours to travel 200 miles…


E-ONE Firetruck factory tour

hunter & e-one signE-ONE Firetrucks is a worldwide designer & manufacturer of Firetrucks, located in Ocala, Florida. We phoned them up to see if there was a chance of getting a tour as part of our homeschool activities and they generously said YES – Hunter was on cloud nine and bouncing off the walls in anticipation!

hunter & fire truck out front

It was really interesting to see how a firetruck goes from design right through to completed testing and sign-off. There are an amazing number of small details throughout the process, even just picking the colours and lettering!

hunter & stickersE-ONE is vertically integrated and makes everything on and in the firetruck except for the engine. They also do all of their own repair work. It was a wonderful experience and we really appreciate their generosity.

Manatee do-over brings success!

manatee 1With all of the recent cool weather, one of the upsides is that the manatees have travelled from the ocean to the inland springs in search of warmer water. We figured we would go and check it out since we were back in the neighbourhood!

hunter snorkeling with manatees

Tim, Hunter and Grandma Liz headed out to the Weeki Wachee River (I am benched at home due to bruised ribs due to EPIC crash on Friday) on Monday. It is a short paddle up from a small park and you reach a deep water hole where the water is significantly warmer. It was somewhat busy with 4-5 other kayaks around and the sun was shining so it was lots of fun to swim and hang out with them…

Today they drove up to Crystal Springs to check out the manatee population there. It was a bit more crazy with respect to other people (aka tourists) in search the elusive manatee. It was also a bit chillier, with cool winds and a momentary thunderstorm!

With all those people the water was fairly stirred up so visibility was much lower.

manatees CR1hunter snorkeling CRAfter our first strike out, it was great to get to see these wonderful creatures in their natural habitat. They are just so gentle and peaceful to watch!

The Civil War comes alive at the Brooksville Re-enactment

hunter & union troopsIt was serendipity when we learned that there was a civil war re-enactment in Brooksville, just down the road from Grandma Liz’s house. It was a good enough reason to head back down to Brooksville to visit for a few days to catch some warmer weather.

It is the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and this seemed to be quite a large re-enactment. We got there late morning, just in time to catch the cannon shooting contest (yep  – 2 cannon’s aiming at targets!).

We enjoyed wandering the rows of vendor tents and checking out the period clothing, the weaponry and all the miscellaneous things that go with life during the civil war times.

We really enjoyed being able to wander through the Union and Confederate camps and get a real sense of what life was like during the civil war.

We stayed for an hour watching the battle. Although it is “scripted” the actual decisions on the field are real-time decisions made by the Generals. It was definitely interesting to watch, although we were all surprised at how long it took for some of the soldiers to start to die with all the shooting that was going on!

Mtn Biking in the Vortex at Santos State Park

vortex trail labelOne of the biggest lessons that we have learned through our 5 1/2 months on the road is how to be flexible. Our original plan for the first 2 weeks of January had us surfing and exploring historical monuments along the coast from St. Augustine to Charleston. 2 weeks of abnormally cold weather resulted in us skipping the surfing and powering through the history stuff (while well bundled).

With extra time on our hands and another cold front rolling in, we made the disappointing decision to skip the Columbus Whitewater Park (likelihood of paddling at 0-+5c being slim & none) and started looking for better weather and an adventure to fill the slot.

Mountain Biking – we can do that when it’s cooler and we haven’t been on any trails in over a month! Thanks to the North Florida Mountain Biking Facebook page, we discovered Santos State Park and the amazing work that the Ocala Mountain Bike Association have done. All they need is a mountain and they would be a destination trail system… The cherry on top is that you can camp right next to the trails in the State Park Campground, which is a small, clean park with basic services. There is a fat tire festival in March that would be great for anyone that is heading down to Florida on vacation anyways!

There are 2 looped trail sections,  an 18 mile (out & back) cross country trail that received IMBA recognition as an Epic trail in 2006 and a total of 80+ miles of trails under the care of OMBA. The trail section closest to the campground has it’s own pump track & skills park. It also has a series of mostly blue and green (yellow & green in their colour coding) trails that intertwine with a handful or black (red in their colour coding) smack in the middle. Yellow is rideable by anyone, Blue is a green trail that has either a lot of roots or some tight turns and Red has some steepness (up & down) to it as it is in the middle of a gully. The majority of blues and yellows that we rode had fabulous flow to them, which just made them fun to ride and chase the rider in front of you

bike washing standOur first morning was spent on this main section of trail, getting our bearings and sorting out how they rate trails. We rode 12km and then headed back to the camper for lunch (an amazing feature of camping at the trails!). After a 2 hour break, we went in search of the man-made structures and headed over to the Vortex trail system.

There is a “limiter” feature at the entrance gate that they state, if you can make it over the access ramp, then you can ride the trails…

hunter jumps play parkHunter was in heaven as they had a jump park with 3 sets of jumps tracks (small, medium, large) – he’s working on getting air and sooo excited when he does! They were really well made with wooden take-off ramps and sand landing ramps to help minimize the degradation the sand.

lee hunter walking wooden bermsThere is a double black diamond trail that goes around the edge of an old quarry. The opening image above is the sign that is at the entrance to the trail system and they have another wooden “limiter” feature at the entrance to give you a sense of who should be riding it. On our first time through it (first afternoon), there was a decent amount of stopping and checking out the features (drops, climbs, wooden berms & skinnies).

About 3/4 of the way around there is a section with a big downhill & wooden berm, long narrowing skinny and then a jumps area that just opened last week. We happened to come upon this section of trail just as 3 of the OMBA executive were riding the drop/wooden berm and getting filmed for a promo video for the area. They cheered us on as Tim and I tried the drop & berm feature for the first time and we then followed them over to the new jump area.

The filming was really cool (for those into camera work). The photographer had built his own gyro remote control helicopter with 2 go pro’s mounted on it that allowed him to film in 2 directions at once. He was able to follow the riders down the roller coaster feature (more on that below) and really get a sense of the feature by travelling the ups and downs with them. Check out the link for the video (that’s hunter riding the little dirt berm!)

We were pretty pleased with ourselves that afternoon – we tackled the wooden berms (small, medium & large), various downhill drops, some skinnies and the small drop jump. 27km of riding in total and everyone excited to ride again – NICE…

We took a day off and headed down to Brooksville to visit with Grandma Liz since we were only an hour away. We did some errands and enjoyed the internet access.

Friday we were back at it (after the dew had all evaporated off – about a 10:30 start), with the goal of doing a morning and afternoon ride that day. Hunter wanted to head straight to the Vortex trails. Luckily you have to ride about 4km of the green/blue trail system to get there so at least we get some endurance work in. More fun in the jumps park (it’s amazing how many times he can go around and around in that) and then we headed back onto the double black diamond trail. It was a faster ride this time since we had some sense of the trail.

tim medium dropWe all graduated to the medium drop, which feels like a 90 degree roll-over (ACK). I boldly looked at the roller coaster feature and determined that it was the same degree of difficulty so let’s do it!!! Rarely am I the first one to do anything – we reserve that for Tim. We send him into public bathrooms first and we send him down, up and over features first and then rate ourselves against how difficult it was for him. I caught his camera work totally off guard when I launched myself off of it vs the medium drop.

So – the roller coaster… It’s a series of 4 features that starts with a really scary steep drop, rolls down and up to another drop (not quite as steep), then another up and down (a little less steeps) and then ends on a small up that is tilted to the right and slight down to bring you to the ground. The crosscopter video does it much more justice than my still photos (we are in the background standing around the wooden fences and Hunter is featured riding the dirt berm!!!).

Another lunch break and we were straight back to the vortex area again. This time Hunter decided he was ready to tackle the wooden berms and I think he did the first one 5 times (“again, again… that’s so much fun!”). We were all much stronger on the trail and everyone successfully did the skinnies. Tim and I both did the Roller Coaster drop a few times while Hunter went back and forth between the small and medium drops.


It was 4:30 and last run of the day… I rode up the hill to the top of the drops (in my granny gear) and launched myself happily and confidently down the roller coaster, even getting a little air off drop #3. I hit the uphill on #4, went to pedal and discovered that my chain had come off in the last landing and I spun and spun, which when tilted sideways left to right is not so great. I got my right foot down but gravity was well underway and I fell sideways 4 feet off the feature to the ground, with my bike landing on top of me. UGH UGH UGH – grateful for my camelback which broke the fall (everyone should consider these a piece of safety equipment) and for the fact that I bring 911 with me on all decent adventures (aka TIM). He did the 20 point inspection, determined no major damage and I hobbled to my feet and we slowly rode home. The end result is 2 jammed fingers (they get puffy and nice & purple so easily!), and an entire right side that is bruised, from knee to shoulder and hurts when I breathe or do anything useful. I’m still really proud that I did it (and acknowledge total user error in not changing gears before doing the drop).

We topped off our trip to Ocala with Friday night at the Ocala Drive In – another check off Hunter’s bucket list and a fabulous time. Even better that it was a kids double feature of Nut Job & Frozen.

Tybee Island, Savannah Georgia

hunter tybee turtle 2We used Tybee Island as our home base for all of our Savannah activities. It is a great little beach community about 20 minutes east of downtown Savannah. It is a bike friendly community and the local surf spot. We stayed at the Rivers End Campground, which is owned by the City of Tybee Island. It is clean, well cared for and has good internet and cable (and space for us to sprawl since it is low season).

We stayed here before and after our trip to Charleston. One of our reasons for coming was for Tim to try out some surf kayaks. Nigel from Savannah Canoe and Kayak was amazing – he spent tonnes of time with us and allowed Tim to demo abunch of boats.

We had one really nice day onour 2nd stop here so we got out for a beach bike ride and an afternoon of surfing. It was wonderful!

We would definitely recommend Tybee as a place to come and stay. It seems like it is fairly busy from March to September in terms of Campground traffic so be sure to book ahead!

Rock Climbing & Slack lining in Charleston

family photoFor our visit to Charleston we camped at the James Island County Park Campground. It is about 15 minutes away from downtown Charleston and a fabulous facility for outdoor people. It is a 643 acre park with an outdoor centre, bike paths, dog park, playgrounds, canoeing and multiple activity centres where they hold programming. After 3 days of playing tourist, we needed some adventure time. We got up early on our last morning and headed over to the outdoor centre for a morning of playing. They have a slack line area, a portable climbing wall with self belaying, a large climbing wall and a frisbee golf course.

We started in the slack line area and had a great time. They had 3 different heights and we did pretty well on the beginner side. Tim and I did the intermediate but no one tackled the advanced (3 feet off the ground).

We moved over to the portable climbing wall. It has a self belaying system so we could all climb at the same time. After testing it out a few times in one on one climbs, Hunter decided we should have races. Everyone hooked up at the same time, taking 3 steps back from the wall and then GO – you have to get to the top of the wall, hit the button (which rings a bell) and then get back to the ground first to win. We probably did this 10 times and by the end were laughing so hard we had to rest.

The main wall was a pretty busy place so we chose to play in/on the scrambling hut. It is a smallish building and the idea is that you should be able to climb all the way around the walls without touching the ground, yet you are never more than 1-2 feet off the ground. A great learning environment for everyone and often harder than the big walls themselves.

The big wall was the last part of the park that we tackled. It requires that you are belayed by a staff member or that you take a test that demonstrates you can belay. Tim and I took the test (and passed) so everyone got at least one climb in on the big wall. After playing so much on the portable wall, the big wall felt really long in terms of climb time. We were all very tired, in a good way, after our morning here.

We would definitely recommend James County Island Park. The outdoor centre facility is impressive and has very friendly and helpful staff and incredibly reasonable rates ($12 pp for the day). The campground is very clean and well maintained with top notch internet but no cable.

Fort Moultrie National Monument, Charleston

fort moultrie signFort Moultrie was first built in 1776 (at that time called Fort Sullivan) to prevent British naval incursions into Charleston Harbour. It was built of palmetto log walls that readily absorbed the shots and shells fired when 9 Royal Navy warships attacked on June 28, 1776. Colonel William Moultrie and his 400 men fought a day long battle that ended with the heavily damaged British ships being driven from the area. This decisive American victory galvanized the Patriot’s cause for independence, and resulted in the fort now being called Fort Moultrie.

The first fort was beaten up and washed away by storm waves so a 2nd fort was built in 1798 of earth and timber. It unfortunately faces the same demise due to coastal storms. The third and present fort was constructed of brick in 1809. Originally fitted with 40 guns, the fort garrison consisted of 500 men.

On December 26, 1860, six days after South Carolina left the Union, Fort Moultrie’s small Federal garrison abandoned the fort, moving to the unfinished but more defendable Fort Sumter. State militia troops occupied Fort Moultrie the next day. Confederate Fort Moultrie participated in the April 12, 1861 firing on Fort Sumter that began the American Civil War. Heavily damaged by Federal bombardments that commenced in 1863, Fort Moultrie remained in Confederate hands until February 1865.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Fort Moultrie underwent numerous changes as improving military and engineering technologies added to the complexities of coastal defence.

New threats of submarine and aerial attacks ultimately rendered static seacoast defences obsolete. On August 15, 1947 the army lowered Fort Moultrie’s flag for the last time, ending 71 years of service.

This was the last of our Charleston Forts and Hunter proudly got another Junior Ranger Badge along with his Civil War Historian patch!


Magnolia Plantation, Charleston

main houseRounding out our tour of the Charleston area, we spent the afternoon at the Magnolia Plantation, which was founded in 1676 by the Drayton family and continues to be held by the family. It is the oldest public tourist facility in the low country and the oldest public gardens in America, having opened to the public in 1870 as a way to raise funds to maintain the plantation after it was ransacked by Union troops at the end of the Civil War.

The Plantation started out at 2000 acres along the Ashley River where it grew a number of different crops, finally becoming very prosperous growing rice. It is now down to 500 acres and provides an extensive tour showing you the grounds, the slave houses, the gardens, the house and a small petting zoo that they have developed. The Plantation is also very bike friendly with bike and walking trails throughout.

We started our visit with the movie and then moved onto the petting zoo. The animals were incredibly friendly and very well cared for. Tim was intrigued with the peacocks (as you can see from the photos) and Hunter enjoyed all of the animals.

We then took a stroll through the gardens. They had started out as a 3 season garden but were gradually turned into a 4 season garden. At this time of year, there should be an abundance of camellia’s, azaleas, daffodils, pansies and other flowers. Unfortunately, due to the freezing cold weather, most of the blooms had died off or not bloomed at all. We were able to see some orchids and other plants in the solarium.

Slaves played a big role in the economic success of Magnolia over the years, both in the fields and in the gardens. These houses were occupied from the 1850’s through to the late 1990’s. Many of the slaves stayed with the plantation after the civil war and shifted from being slaves to “servants” or “field workers” – doing the same work but now having their freedom. The neatest thing for me was that the overseeing of the Gardens has been in the same 1-2  families for the last 200 years, having started with the first slave gardener in the 1840’s.

Our next stop was a train tour of the property to see the breadth of the property and some of the local flora and fauna. A number of the old rice fields have turned into swamps and are covered in duck weed – a murky green substance that is on the surface and the ducks just love to eat. Other fields are definitely havens for wildlife but you can see where the rice would have grown. Although the weather was quite cool, were were lucky to see 2 alligators out on the banks trying to soak up what little sun there was.

The last stop on our tour was to check out the house. They do scheduled tours of the house every 30 minutes to limit the number of people in the house and provide you with a historic overview. There is no aimless wandering allowed. The house has an interesting story as it is actually the 3rd house in this spot on the property. The 1st was burned down due to nature and the 2nd was burned down by Union forces at the end of the Civil War. This house was built in sections as the family could afford to rebuild over the last 100 years. It was lived in by the family until 1975, when they decided to open it to the public and move out to a house in Charleston.

Overall it was a worthwhile experience. We chose to do the tour as a package with a guide from Historic Tours of Charleston. The plus side was that this is slow season and there was no one else on our tour so we basically had a private tour (same thing happened with the pirate tour in the morning). The downside was that it felt quite scheduled and rushed and we weren’t really able to wander where our interests took us. It would be a great place to spend the day and either walk or bike ride around. They have a small cafe on site so lunch and snacks are available.

Historic Charleston is rife with PIRATES

hunter & pirate tour guideWe killed 2 birds with one stone and everyone was happy (fabulous parenting moment for me!). We went on the Charleston Walking Pirate Tour and learned about the cities sordid pirate past as well as got to see and experience much of the historic architect. We managed to do a 2 hour walking tour with no complaints about the walking part… The pirate part was really interesting for all of us, with Hunter being more interested in the shooting, jailing, plundering etc., and it fit in very well with all of our American History work.

tim hunter powder museumThe walking tour starts out at the Powder Magazine, Charleston’s oldest public building. It was built in 1713 and used as an arsenal from 1713 to 1748 to defend the colony from the Spanish, French, pirates, slave rebellions and native attacks. It provides you with a great visual overview of the City of Charleston and the founding history.

Historic Charleston has stood for a century as the cultural capital of the south. It was, and still is, an economic centre. It was founded in 1670 and was subject to periodic attacks from French, Spanish and plenty of Pirates. The heart of the city was fortified in 1704, however most of the walls were removed during the 1720’s.

Through our walk we learned all about a number of Pirates, their role in the history of Charleston, the difference between pirates and privateers, the story behind the pirates being offered pardon’s by the British Colonial Government and lots of other juicy tidbits. We also touched lightly on the slave trade. As a compromise between the North and the South, the sale of slaves on the street was made illegal in the 1850’s. This caused the creation of the Old Slave Mart in 1856, where slave auctions were held until the end of the Civil War in 1865.

slave martWe had a bit of a rush between the end of our Pirate tour and the afternoon tour we had arranged. As we walked to our afternoon stop, we took a quick detour to check out the downtown Charleston Fire Station.