Friday, April 25, 2014

Family Offerings in Alexandria, Louisiana

New Land of the Jaguar section at Alexandria Zoo
Alexandria lies right smack in the middle of Louisiana, neither full blooded Cajun nor Creole, but a nice absorption of  cultures that have passed through.  And there have been many.  First the Choctaw, Tensas, Appalachee and Pascagoula Native Americans, followed by the French, and then the U.S. picked it up in the Louisiana Purchase.  As with many town names, it’s probably named after founder, Alexander Fulton, who laid out the plan for the city in 1805.  Thanks to its location among several national forests, its military history and sites to see, Alexandria is a good base for exploring central Louisiana and has something for the whole family.  

Draped Mirror at Kent Plantation House
Purple Funeral China at Kent Plantation House
For a taste of history, Kent Plantation House, a classic raised Creole cottage, is one of Louisiana’s oldest structure (213 years) and is filled with era appropriate furnishings.  The house is treated as if it were occupied, meaning its decorations vary by season and life’s happenings.  Mirrors  were draped in black net on our visit, signifying a death in the family.  Our enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, Sandy Lott, filled in  other funeral customs such the use of purple as the funeral color extending to even  purple forget me not flowers on china and a purple cake.  A kneeler was placed in front of the casket for private prayers for the deceased. Sandy kept us entertained with the source of many of our sayings such as “shoo fly” and “cost an arm and a leg”.   I would love to see this home decorated for the Christmas season but it’s beautiful anytime.

One aisle in Silver dollar Pawn and Jewelry Shop
Stop by Silver Dollar Pawn and Jewelry Store, where Jimmie, “the Don of Pawn” DeRamus, will entertain and educate you for as much time as you have. He claims, “You can fact check everything I say.”   His ‘stuff’ fills 65,000 square feet and includes the MLK hearse, Jerry Lee Lewis’ diamond ring, a steamboat chandelier, five Bone Allen Saddles, and an Elvis Presley watch.  Movie producers call for props and educators are loaned what they need.  He takes his Christian faith seriously as evidenced by the proud display of the Ten Commandments on the outside wall. Everyone can find something of interest here.
Martin Luther King Hearse
Jerry Lee Lewis Diamond Ring

The small Alexandrian zoo is a surprise in a town this size.  Opened in 1926, accredited  Alexandria Zoological Parkhouses 500 animals and has the unique Louisiana Habitat section complete with alligators.  Land of the Jaguar had just opened when I visited and contained an active ocelot, an unusual Tyra, Chilean flamingos and a huge Giant Anteater.  In the Asian area, a beautiful white Bengal tiger lounged comfortably by the fence, allowing close viewing.  This zoo is a perfect size for younger children but engaging to all.
Bengal Tiger at Alexandria Zoo

Original Eli Whitney cotton gin
Cotton Picking Sacks

Just over an hour’s drive from Alexandria is Frogmore Plantation and Gin, an 1800 acre working, historical cotton farm complete with old and new cotton gins.  Reconstructed slave quarters include the cook cabin, overseers dog trot, and commissary.  The tour traces the history of cotton and, in particular, its harvesting.  Eli Whitney’s cotton gin removed seeds from the cotton and replaced 50 working slaves.  After slavery came share cropping.  Lynette Tanner, owner of the plantation, even talked about modern day cotton and China’s predatory pricing tactics.  Check before you go, but often the family can don long cotton sacks and try picking cotton by hand.  Your kids will never complain of chores again.

Surrounding Alexandria are National Forests with good hiking trails.  Unfortunately, our visit was during the government closing of parks and we only hiked a small part of the  Kisatchie National Forest.  But that was enough to realize the potential for sustained hiking in the area. The Wild Azalea Trail is Louisiana’s longest hiking trail, measuring in at 31 miles.  Bicycles may also be rented, allowing families to use cycling trails. For fishing, try Kincaid Lake Recreation Area.  

Unless you are a real history buff, you may not know of Alexandria’s important military past.  In the Red River Campaign of the  Civil War, the Union Army was stopped here from progressing further and taking Louisiana and Texas.  The story of Bailey’s dam is illustrated at Fts. Randolph and Buloh State Historic Site. And during World War II, this area was humming with soldiers and bigwig officers.  In the Louisiana Maneuvers, soldiers trained for entry into WWII at four bases and practiced throughout the nearby Louisiana countryside.   The Louisiana and Military Maneuvers Museum will tell you more. (409 F Street Pineville, Louisiana 71360
(318) 641-5733

In the past, you could have followed the Red River from northern Lamar County to Alexandria.  Today, just head to Texarkana and turn south.  There’s plenty to see on the way but save time for Alexandria and environs.  

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Hostel Life - Are you ever too old? Torres Del Paine National Park Lodging

Paine Grande Mountain Lodge
 It was not our intent to stay in hostels on our trip to the magnificent Torres del Paine National Park in the Patagonia area of Southern Chile.  We had only heard of the beauty of the setting and challenging hikes.  A four day, private tour was booked which included food, lodging, transportation and a guide - a petite, young Chilean woman named Saundra.  While in the mountains, we were to stay in a “refugio” and a “lodge”, words we should have investigated more carefully. Saundra brought by the duffel and sleeping bags (should have been first clue) needed for the two nights at our lodgings on the trail. We re-packed minimal clothes and toiletries but maximum trail paraphernalia like walking sticks, rain gear, bandaids, moleskin, hats, and sun screen.

Dining room at Refugio Las Torres
The next day, after a ten hour hike (another story),  we arrived at Refugio Las Torres, at 8:45 pm barely in time for a hearty dinner of instant asparagus soup, roll, very good pork roast with garlic sauce, mashed potatoes and dessert.  It was obvious they most often cook for young hikers who are starved.  We weren’t the only over 60 participants but definitely in the minority.  At our table were three older Canadians traveling for a year, often via cargo boats.  After dinner, we carried our duffle bags to a separate building and had the first look at our rooms.

My introduction to hostels came in 1972 on a five month tour of Europe, where the youth hostel idea was conceived in 1909 by Richard Shirrmann, a German schoolteacher.  It was an inexpensive form of lodging with the all important opportunity to meet other young travelers.  Hostels today have  followed the expanded territory of backpackers.  In  Puerto Natales, a launching town for Patagonia, a population of 20,000 supports 20 hostels as listed on  In comparison, there are only two hostels listed for Dallas on the same site.

Our room at Refugio las Torres
Forty two years later, I’m looking at an old familiar site - three bunkbeds in a single room.  We were only four, meaning space shared with stranger(s).  Fortunately, our first bunkmate was a quiet, young Dutch man who came in late and left early.  With limited space, we kept bumping into each other trying to find “stuff” to take to the separate bathrooms.  My brother and his wife whipped out a pad to place on the beds “just in case” of bedbugs, as suggested by their 25 year old son.  My husband and I could only hope for the best.  The light at the women’s  bath was out.  All the fit, young women were prepared with miner lights,  strapped on their heads to navigate.  I only had a very small flashlight to put in my mouth, working for all needs except brushing teeth.  The night was long with much wind and snoring.

Next day brought a change of residence to “Paine Grande Mountain Lodge” on Lake Pehoe which sits alone at the vortex of two of our planned hikes.  We arrived in a catamaran with  wind gusts of 60 mph and rain showers.   The “lodge” had a large dining room with beautiful views but it soon became apparent we were again in a room with three bunk beds.  Our roommates didn’t arrive until 5 and I’m sure those two young men from Los Angeles were horrified to find their “parents”  ensconced on all the lower beds.  All they requested was to hang their clothes to dry.  Soon shirts, pants, socks and even underwear were hung over beds, storage units, and curtain rods. And, they, wisely, took the ear plugs offered by my sister-in-law.

Noise level in the lodge increased as groups of hikers hurried in from the cold.  Four German women arrived in heavy hiking boots, layered clothes, jackets unzipped, and covered backpacks slung over the shoulders .  One American woman dried her shoes and warmed hands in front of a wood burning heater as another put vaseline on legs and shoes.    A Spanish girl complained of pain in her legs and feet and several were limping.  A young buck walked by with towel around his waist.  Freshly changed young adults headed to the bar in flip flops where Spanish, English, German, French, Italian and Japanese were heard.  All were so comfortable with the mixed sex rooms and visiting seemed easy among them.

Taking advantage of Happy Sour - 2 Pisco Sours for price of one - we waited for dinner.  Ever though the lodge was unexpectedly full because of the gale outside, it still offered generous servings of a mild curry chicken with lots of vegetables, corn soup and flan.  The large, full dining room had about 85% young and 15% older guests.
Basic breakfasts at hostels

Wind blew all night and our room seemed barely heated. Sleeping bags sufficed for warmth but a closer bathroom equipped with paper towels was missed.  All quieted by 11.  The next morning, we were up early and the dining room was more equally divided 50/50 between age groups.  I guess they used up all their funds for dinner as breakfast was marginal - first time to try chocolate bran cereal - yuk- and coffee  served with hot water, small packets of instant coffee and fortunately, hot milk to mix.

Waiting for the Catamaran with backpackers

After the morning hike, we waited with a line of backpackers for the return voyage on the  catamaran.   An equal number of backpackers emerged from the boat to start their hikes, with one lone Asian couple carrying a suitcase.  I actually felt quite proud that we had survived two nights in hostels but was looking forward to our private bath and hot water at the next hotel.   Some experiences truly favor the young but I say never say never. It’s only a night.

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