The Derby

May 29, 2013

Diane and I went to The Derby.  Not the Kentucky Derby, but Derby Lane in Saint Petersburg, Florida.

The exterior of a large white building with palm trees in front, and large lettering "Greyhound Racing.  Derby Lane"

Derby Lane Entrance

Derby Lane is a racetrack too, and we were there on the same day as the other derby in Kentucky.

A sign on the side of the racetrack encouraging people to come to Derby Lane on Kentucky Derby day

Kentucky Derby Day Advertisement

But there weren’t any horses present.  Derby Lane is a greyhound racing track.  Opening in 1925, it was the first commercial greyhound racetrack in the United States.

Dog racing isn’t something I’ve ever been exposed to, another experience I’ve only seen in movies and on television.  In most regards, it is similar to horse racing.   The  greyhounds parade to the post with their handlers.

Greyhounds being led down the track by their handlers

Parade to the post

Each fit, beautiful dog walks up the track wearing coloured race silks and a muzzle.

A grey greyhound walking with a handler

Greyhound walking

Spectators get a good look at each dog, and have a last chance to place their bets.

Patrons lining up to place bets at the gambling windows

Place your bets!

The dogs are loaded into starting traps and wait, trembling with excitement, for the doors to open.  The dog handlers run back down the track.

The dog handlers run back down the track to the place where the dogs will finish

The running of the dog handlers

And they’re off!

Greyhounds released from the starting gate

And they’re off!

The greyhounds chase a mechanical lure known as a ‘rabbit’ around the track.

5 dogs chasing a white lure extended on a pole out onto the track

Chasing the rabbit around the final turn

The dogs are extremely fast.  Greyhounds can reach up to 70 kilometers per hour (43.5 mph) within their first 6 strides, and accelerate faster than any other land animal on the planet except the cheetah.  The fastest dogs win and place, and the rest of the pack follows.

2 greyhounds crossing the finish line

The finish

Greyhound racing is a controversial form of entertainment.  The number of states that allow greyhound racing is declining; several states instituted specific bans in the 1990s.  Florida has about half of the 30-40 commercial greyhound race tracks remaining in the United States.

According to the Human Society of the United States, greyhound racing is considered inhumane because of the industry’s excessive breeding practices, the sometimes cruel methods by which unwanted dogs are destroyed, the conditions in which some dogs are forced to live, and the killing and maiming of bait animals (like rabbits) during training exercises.  The Greyhound Racing Association of America counters that excess dogs are humanely euthanized by licensed veterinarians under American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines, that the greyhounds are well treated, and the use of live lures in training and racing is prohibited.   Recently doping has also emerged as a problem, which the industry is actively working to prevent by introducing urine testing.  Attempts are made to recover urine samples from all greyhounds in a race (there’s a job I don’t want), not just the winners.

A sign on the racetrack fench saying, "Adopt a Fast Friend..."

Adopt a greyhound

A racing greyhound’s career begins at about 18 months of age, and ends some time before they reach 6 years of age.    Prior to the formation of adoption groups, thousands of retired greyhounds were killed each year in America.  Today, thanks to the efforts of greyhound adoption groups, the majority of retired greyhounds are adopted, but many are still destroyed because there are not enough homes to accept them.  In addition, many greyhound puppies that won’t be competitive are ‘culled’ at a young age.

I was surprised to learn that greyhound racing is legal in Canada.  Dog racing is unregulated in Canada, except for the general animal protection legislation that applies more broadly.  Only horse racing and the parimutuel betting associated with it are legislated in Canada.  There is only one permanent greyhound racing facility in Canada, the Calida Greyhound Race Track in Sylvan Lake, Alberta.  Only pool betting is allowed there, which means that the track makes no money from the gambling, so it is not subject to gaming legislation.

Lure coursing and sighthound racing are also practiced as an amateur sport across Canada and the United States. Oval, straight, and track racing are popular (apparently particularly in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia where I’m from) for all sighthound breeds, not just greyhounds.  Canada also has a small greyhound adoption association, the Northwest Canadian Greyhound League located in Grande Prairie, Alberta.

Diane didn’t enjoy the dog track.  I saw and learned what I wanted and we left.

Diane sitting in the stands, not looking very happy

Diane wasn’t impressed

Parking and entrance to The Derby greyhound track are both free.  Those of you who believe that greyhound racing is a violation of animal rights can rest comfortably knowing that Diane and I didn’t leave any of our money there.


New Friends in Dunnellon, Florida

May 28, 2013

On our first night in Crystal River, we met locals Kyle and James at Burkes of Ireland, a neighborhood pub.  The next night, we met Kyle’s wife Heidi.  Kyle, a wise-cracking beer lover, and Heidi are regulars at Burke’s (not sure about James whose wife was out of town), and they made us feel right at home.  We made Burkes our Crystal River base of operations when not snorkeling or diving.

The storefront of a pub painted green with a door, 2 windows, and a sign, 'Burkes of Irleland'

Burkes Again

Kyle invited us, complete strangers (attractive and charming though we are), to spend the evening at his place the following night.  He lives in nearby Dunnellon, just down the road from the soon-to-be-closed nuclear power plant.

A road flanked by green trees with a nuclear power plant cooling towers in the distance

Just like Springfield

Kyle has a totally cool ‘man cave’ in his covered carport.  It comes complete with a red Mustang, pontoon boat, pool table, bar, and live music.  Kyle and his friends are talented musicians, and most Saturday nights there is a jam session in progress.  Kyle plays guitar, bass, and drums.  That’s him on the drums…

Kyle in a yellow T-shirt sitting at the drums

Kyle on the drums

And yes, that’s me sitting in on the bass.

Patrick playing the bass guitar seated

Me on the bass

We had a great evening, drinking a lot of unusual beers and eating bar-b-que, and spent the night in the Dream Machine on Kyle and Heidi’s large property.  Here we are posing behind the bar the next day.

Kyle, Heidi, and James standing behind the bar with lot of signs and photos on the wall behind

Kyle (left), Heidi, and James (right)

Patrick and Diane hugging behind the bar

Diane groping me

The next day Kyle and James invited me to join them fishing.

Patrick and James standing on a pier.  James in orange shirt showing Patrick how to bait a hook with live shrimp

James showing me how to bait a hook with shrimp

Patrick in a grey t-shirt and beige brimmed hat baiting a hook with live shrimp

Me giving it a go

There was a lot of casting…

Patrick casting off of a pier with Kyle in the background

Patrick casting…

And a lot of waiting…

Patrick sitting on a rock and holding a fishing rod

Patrick waiting…

But not a lot of catching.

Kyle standing in the shallow water in beige shorts and an orang et-shirt

Kyle waiting too…

Although the fish eluded us, I had a great time.  It’s terrific to meet interesting people on the road, especially when they are as generous and welcoming as Kyle, Heidi, and James.

Feeling the need to correct a seafood deficiency, we stopped at the Blue Gator (recommended by our new friends) on the way out of town.

Wooden sign with a small carved gator and the words "Welcome to the Blue Gator, Come On Over"

Diane seating at the counter looking at the menu with iced tea in a plastic cup

Diane drinking half-and-half tea

We shared the crab cakes…

Basket of fried crab cakes, french fries, and hushpuppies

Crab cakes, hush puppies, and fries

And the amazing peel-and-eat shrimp…

A basket of tail-on shrimp with melted butter and coleslaw

Awesome Shrimp

Thanks to Kyle, Heidi, and James, we enjoyed a terrific weekend in Dunnellon, Florida.


Diving the Rainbow River

May 27, 2013

When I turned 16, the first two things I did were get my driver’s license and my scuba diving certification. Years of Jacques Cousteau as a child (I was even a member of the Cousteau society at one point) had me thinking that I might want to be a marine biologist.  That passed, but the desire to dive and explore remained.  In the many years since, I have dived (dove?) in British Columbia, Hawaii, and Thailand but always with years passing in between outings.

I wanted to take a scuba refresher class with hopes of doing some diving down in the Florida Keys.  The manager at the American Pro Dive shop in Crystal River asked Diane if she would like to try diving.  At first she said no, but apparently she enjoyed snorkeling with the manatee enough to consider it.  After a retreat to the RV for lunch to consider it, she returned to the shop the same afternoon.  We made arrangements to do a combined class, a refresher for me, and Discover Scuba Diving (DSD) for Diane.  Win-win.

Diane at the counter in the dive shop

Diane signing up

We arrived at the dive shop just after lunch the following day.  Our very young instructor Rich wore a beanie but was very professional.  After getting geared up, Diane watched a short video while I tried to figure out the cheap underwater camera that I’d purchased to record the event.  We also met our captain Zac who ate his lunch while the video played.

Diane standing on 1 foot putting on a wetsuit in a room full of wetsuits and diving gear

Diane getting geared up

We both took the short Discover Scuba Diving quiz.  I kept thinking that since I was doing a refresher course, that I should have received something more or different, and a record for my log book (which I don’t have with me anyway), but I basically did the same as Diane.

Driving the Dream Machine, we followed them and our dive boat about 20 miles to K.P. Hole Park in nearby Dunnellon.  The park charges $5 admission per person which is common in American state and some county parks.

A pontoon boat with cover being pulled by a white pickup truck

Chasing our dive boat

The very clean Rainbow River is fed only by underground springs.  It is very popular with kayakers and inner tubers, who float down the river enjoying the water, the wildlife, and the sunshine.  The county helps to keep it clean by banning disposable drink containers of any kind on the river (a $75 fine).

Diane sitting on a bench on the pontoon boat while the captain stands at the helm at the rear

Heading up river

We headed up river, enjoying the scenery, while Captain Zac gave us the safety lecture.  We put on our wet suits and got ready to go.  Diane was nervous.

Diane standing beside Rich in their wetsuits while Patrick completes putting his on

Getting ready

Zac anchored our boat near the river bank and took pictures while we were in the water.

Diane, Patrick, and instructor Rich standing in shallow water in full scuba gear

Class in session

Rich led us through the basic scuba drills starting from the beginning…

Diane and Patrick with faces in the water while instructor looks on

Breathing with only your face under water

Patrick, Diane, and instructor just below the surface of the water

Breathing while sitting on the bottom

We then progressed through other skills like using the buoyancy compensator, regulator remove and replace, mask clearing, and equalizing the pressure in one’s ears.  The pace was fine for me, but I thought rushed for Diane or anyone who hadn’t done this before.  Diane had to try the full mask clear twice and seemed a little apprehensive, but did well.

Diane, Patrick, and Rich posing for a photo just before heading downstream

Posing (Patrick on left, Diane on right)

After a quick photo op, we headed down river.  Rainbow River is a drift dive, where for the most part you can just let the current carry you along.  Very relaxing.  The river is shallow, varying from 3 to 23 feet deep, which is great for a beginner.  Plenty of opportunity to practice ascending and descending.

Sign with words "Shallow Area" with a bird sitting on top

Shallow

The river bottom is sandy and mostly covered in long grass, which bends gracefully downstream.  The visibility is amazing.  Crystal clear water allows you to see over 100 feet (30 meters).  There are lots of fish and turtles.

We drifted down 1 mile of beautiful river for about 40 minutes.  I took pictures of Diane to record the event.

Diane diving just above gras with a blue water background

Diane in the grass

Diane scuba diving and pinching her nose to equalize her ears, with only blue water in the background

Diane equalizing her ears

Diane with black wetsuit and yellow framed mask with a blue water background

Diane looking like a pro

Closeup of Diane's face wearing a scuba mask with bubbles

Diane — It’s time for my close-up Mr. DeMille

Diane asked to come up at one point, “just so I knew I could”.  Despite the wet suits, we both got a bit cold by the time we were ready to board the boat.

Diane, Patrick, and Rich floating on the surface just behind the pontton boat

Fun’s Over – Ready to board

Diane was happy.

Diane sitting on a bench on the pontoon boar wrapped in a multi-coloured towel

Diane smiling

Until she saw the alligators.  You see, there are almost no bodies of fresh water in Florida that don’t have alligators.  And snakes.  We passed 2 alligators on the way back, both about 4 feet long.

Alligator floating on the surface in the weeds

Let’s go swimming!

Alligator head among the weeds

Time for his close-up!

Diane said that if she had known about the alligators in advance, she wouldn’t have done it.  Perhaps that’s why Zac and Rich didn’t point them out until after her first scuba dive.

Oh, and I had a great time too.  Now I have visions of Diane and I scuba diving together in exotic, crocodile-free waters around the world.  Diane’s not so sure.

Patrick on the pontoon boat wearing black swim trunks

This guy needs a tan!


Swimming with Manatee

May 21, 2013

Crystal River, a small town (3,500 people) in Citrus County, Florida, is the self-professed ‘Home of the Manatee’.  The city is situated around Kings Bay, a coastal waterway which is fed by over 60 natural springs, keeping the water a constant 22 degrees Celsius (72 degrees Fahrenheit) year round.    During the winter, when temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are lower, Kings Bay is home to over 400 manatees, who can’t tolerate water below 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit).  It is also the only place in the United States where people can legally interact with manatees in the water.Manatees are large, herbivorous marine mammals sometimes called ‘sea cows’.  They measure up to 12 feet (3.6 m) long and weigh as much as 3,900 pounds (1775 kg).

We were excited about the opportunity to see a manatee up close in the wild, but hadn’t made any plans yet to do this.  When in doubt, have a beer and think about it.  Over a beverage (or 2) at Burkes of Ireland, a small local pub with good beer on tap, we met 2 guides from  American Pro Dive Center who said that if we showed up at their shop the next morning around 8 AM, we could join their guided tour, which at that time was very undersubscribed.  We also met a nice accountant named Phillip who let us park The Dream Machine at his office overnight, so everything was working out great.

The next morning we arrived at American Pro, got outfitted with snorkeling gear (wet suit, fins, mask and snorkel), and followed our young captain Deanna down to the marina where she launched the pontoon boat we’d be using.

A pontoon boat with sun cover moore at the dock

Our pontoon boat

After Diane grabbed her last cup of coffee at the floating bait shop, we idled out into the marina. The only other clients on the boat were a young girl and her “mother’s partner” (she corrected me when I incorrectly assumed that he was her father).  Not having done my usual amount of research (due to the Irish pub and the beer and the early start), I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I knew that because we had arrived around the end of April, most of the manatees that spend the winter had headed back out into the warming waters of the gulf.  But I learned that there was a resident population of about 20 manatees that spend all year in King’s Bay.  We didn’t have to go far find one.

A view of the rear of the boat with captain Deanna at the helm, Diane, and 2 other participants

On the boat

Manatees spend a lot of time sleeping in the water, surfacing for air periodically.  They spend the rest of their time grazing in shallow waters at depths of 1–2 meters (3 – 7 feet).  Although they have a large, powerful tail, when feeding they tend to use their stubby front flippers like legs, to anchor and pull themselves along the bottom.

A manatee area warning signKing’s Bay is shallow but the water is dark and murky unless you’re very close to the vent of an underwater spring.  It is sometimes possible to spot a manatee’s grey colour in the water (polarized sunglasses help), but normally they are noticed when they surface to breath, when the water roils from their swimming near the surface, or from their fart bubbles (apparently manatees are quite flatulent, but I suppose I would be too if I ate what they do).

We spotted our first manatee in about 10 minutes.  Deanna anchored the boat and we donned our snorkeling gear as she got into the water. The visibility was terrible, the worst I’ve ever experienced in any water. I could literally ‘barely see my hand in front of my face’ with my arm outstretched.  If anyone touched the bottom, stirring up muddy silt, the visibility dropped to zero.  In the very shallow water, the less experienced snorkelers were encouraged to float on lifejackets to avoid stirring up the bottom.

Finding a manatee in the water under these conditions is difficult.  It’s a bit like looking for a black rhino in the tall grass, you don’t realize you’ve found it until you run into it.  We tracked our guide on the surface, swimming toward her snorkel, until a manatee suddenly emerged from the murk.  With limited visibility, we could only see part of it at a time.  Its head, munching through the weeds like a underwater mower.  Its tail, broad and paddle shaped, not fluked like other marine mammals or its closest relative the dugong.  Its back, scared by deep parallel cuts from a propeller.

The head and face of a grey manatee in the water

Crystal River Manatee

There are an estimated 2000 to 5000 West Indian manatees in Florida (one of the 3 known species of manatee).  They don’t have any natural predators, but they are threatened due to boating and human development in their coastal habitat   It is illegal under Florida law to injure or harm a manatee, but their slow-moving, curious nature and preference for shallow water results in many collisions with boat propellers, leading to maiming, disfigurement, and even death. A large proportion of manatees have propeller scars on their backs.

A sign saying, "Manatee zone.  Idle Speed.  No Wake"

Speed Sign to help protect manatees

Manatees are very peaceful, and generally oblivious to their observers..  We could get close enough to touch our manatee gently on the back, which feels like the rough skin of an elephant, complete with the stiff hairs that extend a couple of inches.  He or she didn’t seem to mind this at all, and kept eating calmly.  After about 10 minutes, our manatee swam away with powerful strokes of its tail.  Manatees can swim up to 30 kph (20 mph) in short bursts.

Patrick and Diane in wetsuits

Patrick and Diane in wetsuits

And that was it.  Although we spotted one other manatee, we couldn’t get close in the water.  If they don’t want visitors, they won’t stick around.  Except for nursing mothers and during breeding, manatees are generally solitary creatures, except when they’re sharing the warm spring waters of Florida each winter.

Baby manatee with her head up against a femaile manatee's right front flipper

Baby manatee nursing from mother’s mammary glands located under her flippers

Even though we only saw one manatee, we enjoyed ourselves.  We were glad to have observed (and felt) a wild manatee in its natural habitat.  And, I was proud of Diane for snorkeling in such challenging conditions.  Perhaps she’ll try scuba diving one day?


Impressions of Louisiana

May 14, 2013

Louisiana has a very different feel from Texas, even though they’re adjacent. Sometimes the things I notice the most are those that contrast with the place I’ve just been.

• Louisiana is very flat and swampy. The ground underfoot even feels softer than Texas. As a result, there are a lot of raised roadways and bridges.

Patrick pulling a thick rope to pull a ferry across the water

Ferry crossing, the old-fashioned way

• The music is zydeco and jazz, with a lot less country. There are hardly any hats, boots, or buckles.
• Bar-b-que is replaced by Cajun food like boiled crawfish and shrimp, étouffée, gumbo, jambalaya, rice and beans, and beignets. But they’re not the only kind of food here:

Diane eating a slice of pizza off a white paper plate

Pizza near Bourbon Street

• There are more African-Americans, and a lot fewer Hispanics than Texas. Louisiana has no common border with Mexico.
• Louisiana has a laid-back, convivial atmosphere, living their common expression Laissez les bons temps rouler! (Let the good times roll!)
• Like Texas, people here like to dance. The dance floor is always full, even outdoors on sunny afternoons.
• Louisiana has visible French roots. It was named after French King Louis XIV. It is the only state in the union to have parishes rather than counties. The Fleur-de-lis is everywhere. Most streets and places have French names.

A gold fleur-de-lis on a blue fabric background with a gold border

Fleur-de-Lis

• The United States paid $15 million to France in 1803 to purchase the Louisiana Territory, 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River. These lands stretched from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. Thirteen states were carved from the Louisiana Territory, and the Louisiana purchase almost doubled the size of the United States at the time.

A white cathedral with three pointy towers fiewed form the Mississippi River

The Saint Louis Cathedral, the oldest in North America, from the Mississippi River

• Louisiana has a vibrant Cajun culture. Cajuns are an ethnic group, descendants of Acadians, French-speakers who came primarily from the Canadian maritime provinces in the mid-1700’s because they refused to swear allegiance to the King of England.
• Cajuns speak their own dialect of French which evolved from 18th-Century French.
• The Creoles are another ethic group in Louisiana. They are descendants of African, West Indian, and European pioneers.
• Tabasco sauce has been made by generations of the McIhenny family on Avery Island, Louisiana since 1968. It’s ingredients are tabasco peppers (Capsicum frutescens var. tabasco), vinegar, and salt.
• Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana on the morning of August 29, 2005. The eye of the storm hit St. Tammany Parish as a Category 3 hurricane at 9:45 AM, causing massive flooding that extended over 6 miles inland, from 7 to 16 feet deep plus wave action. By August 31st, 80% of New Orleans was flooded. The historical French Quarter, the highest part of the city, was spared.

A reddish corner building with 2 white metal balconies over a street full of people

French Quarter Spanish-style Building

• Louisiana appears to have a lot of obese people (perhaps too much bons temps), many of which seem to be African-American.
• There is still a cotton and sugar cane industry here.
• There are alligators in most of Louisiana’s bodies of fresh water. They can run up to 40 mph (60 kph) on land over short distances.

A yellow sign showing a black alligator and the words "No Swimming" against a white sky background

Alligator warning sign

Alligators are hunted and eaten here. Like Diane, they also love cats.

2 large alligators lifted by a backhoe with 2 men posing beside them


New Orleans Gastronomy

May 13, 2013

In addition to the culture, and the history, and the amazing music, an essential thing to do in New Orleans is to eat.  And to drink, but that almost goes without saying in New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA). We were here about 10 years ago (pre hurricane Katrina) while I attended a business conference, but other than some convention food and a great steak at Smith & Wollensky (since closed), we didn’t really experience the food here. Thankfully my buddy Lee introduced us to his friend Greg, a foodie from North Carolina, who sent us his top picks for New Orleans.

We approached the city from the North, over the Lake Pontchartrain causeway (the longest continuous bridge over water in the world at 23.8 miles or 38 kms) , which allowed us to stop at the Abita Brewery for their afternoon brewery tour.  The tour includes a video about Abita and a quick walk through of the brewery itself.

Patrick and Diane standing with a large stainless steel tank behind and blue paper booties over their sandals

Enjoying the tour, booties and all!

The best part of the tour is that all of Abita’s beers are available on tap, from which guests can pour as many or as much as they like. Diane’s favourite beer was something called ‘Purple Haze’. With unlimited beer, the tour quickly turns into a ‘kegger’, with everyone having a great time. We met Andre and Laura here, a couple who just recently started full-time RVing. The tour and the beer are both free!

Patrick standing in front of a wooden bar with many beer taps and pouring beer into a plastic cup

Open Bar!

The next afternoon, after narrowly avoiding a deluge on the walk there, we visited Cochon, a restaurant in the Garden district. We arrived moist to find the restaurant was just getting going again after a power failure. Neither affected our great lunch.

Our first appetizer was the Wood Fired Oyster Roast. Others had raved about this dish online. They were the best oysters I’ve ever eaten. An ideal combination of garlic and spice that didn’t mask the taste of barely cooked oyster. The perfect compromise between cooked and raw. They were so good that we licked the shells. They were so inspiring that afterwards Diane launched in to a spontaneous emotional monologue about how “I just don’t understand people who don’t like good food”. I wanted to make a trip back later in the day, just for some more oysters. That’s how good they were.

A white bowl of dark brown gumbo and beside it a metal plate of 6 oysters with red sauce on a bed of rock salt

Shrimp and Deviled Egg Gumbo & Wood Fired Oyster Roast

We also had the Shrimp and Deviled Egg Gumbo. Dark in colour and rich in flavour, it had a deviled egg floating on top. It was good, but not hot enough, and it paled in comparison to the oysters.

The Fried Alligator with Chili Garlic Aioli was lightly battered, deep fried and dressed in aioli containing sizeable pieces of parsley and mint. It was pleasingly firm on the tooth with the occasional chewier piece. The meat was perfectly spiced to balance the creaminess in the sauce.

Fried alligator bites in a beige sauce on a white plate

Fried Alligator with Chili Garlic Aioli

Next up were Smoked Pork Ribs with Watermelon Pickle. The ribs were cooked just right, and easily encouraged to shed the bone. The rib sauce was tangy, with a pronounced but agreeable vinegar taste. It contained diced, pickled watermelon which is sweet, almost like candied fruit. The combination was packed with flavour.

Finally, we shared the Louisiana Cochon. The base of the dish is pulled pork fashioned into a disc and then baked to crisp the exterior. It’s topped with turnips, cabbage, and picked turnips with a large cracklin balanced on top. The cracklin was intentionally served at room temperature and was perfectly salted. It wasn’t the moistest pork I’ve ever eaten, but was good when dipped into the flavourful pan sauce.

A disc of roast pork with a large crackin on top in a white bowl

Louisiana Cochon

Another New Orleans essential we visited twice is Café du Monde. The original French Market location has been serving hot coffee with a hint of chicory and glorious beignets since 1860.

Patrick in white shirt holding 3 beignets coasted in confectioner's sugar on a small white plate

Patrick (right) and Beignets (left)

We ate dinner at Adolfo’s, an Italian Creole restaurant above a tiny jazz bar in a nondescript building on Frenchmen Street. It’s a small and incredibly popular place that people line up for. No reservations, no credit cards, and no web site. The service was more efficient than caring during the first stampede seating.

We started with the Muscles, classically prepared with garlic and white wine. Amazing. The huge serving (enough for 2) was perfectly cooked. They served it with bread, lightly flavoured and barely toasted, which was essential to soak up every drop of the flavourful broth.

A large white plate of muscles on a red and white checked tablecloth

Adolpho’s Muscles

Salad and pasta starters also came with our meals but were nothing special. The bagged salad had a spicy dressing, and the spaghetti was properly cooked but forgettable.

As an entree, we shared the Drum (a type of fish) with Spinach Lemon Sauce, which was recommended by the waiter. It had no shortage of creamy yet light spinach sauce that was surprisingly spicy.

Drum with Spinach Lemon Sauce on a white plate on a red and white tablecloth

Drum with Spinach Lemon Sauce

We also shared the Rib Eye Steak with Ocean Sauce, another favourite of prior patrons. The inch thick steak was cooked medium rare, but wasn’t overly tender. This was more than made up for by the fact it was topped with Ocean Sauce, a house speciality. Half of the steak was covered in shrimp and the other half in crawfish, both in light cream sauces. Gorgeous. Worthy of the acclaim.

A thick rib eye steak covered with shrimp and crawfish and sauce on a white plate

Rib Eye Steak with Ocean Sauce

We frequented d.b.a, a primarily beer bar with live music. It has a less than rustic décor and no furniture, but is packed every night because of the live music, with performers on the low stage so close that you can almost touch them.

Black sign with white an yettlow writing

Diane also liked the Spotted Cat Music Club, another intimate music venue on Frenchmen Street. Like d.b.a, the musical performers were almost too close. We listened to a jazz trio on steel guitar, harmonica, and washboard.

A sign of a black cat with white spots sitting on a brown wooden fence in front of a full moon

The Spotted Cat

On our last day in New Orleans we went to Elizabeth’s, a funky restaurant in Bywater for brunch. The colourful décor included bright colours and plastic tablecloths on simple wooden tables. The service was very fast, despite it being a busy Saturday. In our case, they lived up to their motto, Real Food Done Real Good.

A 2 story rectangular white building with a dark roof covered with hand painted signs advertising food they make

Elizabeth’s Exterior

Diane ordered Crabby Eggs, crab cakes topped with poached eggs and hollandaise sauce. Each had just the right amount of hollandaise to accent both the egg and the fresh warm crab. Unfortunately, the dish had a lacklustre presentation on an oversized plate filled with fried potato chunks.

2 poached eggs on 2 crab cakes and fried potato chunks on a white plate

Crabby Eggs

I ordered Eggs Florentine, an over-the-top dish of creamed spinach and fried oysters on a bed of pan-fried potatoes topped with 2 perfectly poached eggs, each with a dollop of hollandaise. The sauce was rich and subtly spicy, but the potatoes which could have been warmer.. The hollandaise was creamy and sweet with a distinct lemony top note. The deep fried oysters had a crunchy coating sealing in a juicy, flavourful interior.

Potatoes, fried oysters, and poached eggs in a white bowl

Eggs Florentine

We also ordered the house speciality, Praline Bacon. 4 thick slices of bacon covered in a sweet praline topping, which wasn’t hard or overly crunchy, just on the edge of crystalline. It was sweet and salty, but a bit of gimmick. Not something that I’d order on a regular basis. Bywater is 1 mile east of the French Quarter, and the trek back allowed us to start walking off our brunch.

Diane eating a piece of pracline bacon

What’s better than bacon? Bacon AND dessert!

Later that afternoon, we had 2 plates of crawfish boil from a booth at the 30th Annual French Quarter Festival that we’d been attending all weekend. After Mardi Gras, the <> is probably the largest event in New Orleans, with live music from over 1400 musicians on more than 20 outdoor stages. The streets are packed with lively people moving between the various venues, restaurants, and bars.

A large stainless steel vat filled with boiling crawfish

Crawfish Boil

Crawfish (also known as ‘crayfish’, ‘crawdads’, and ‘mudbugs’) are boiled whole with spices, sausage, potato, and corn, which augment the terrific flavour and provide accompaniments. If you’ve never eaten crawfish, it’s relatively simple. Using your hands, you pull the head off, and suck out its rich, savory contents. Then you peel the body and eat the small bit of meat. It takes a lot of crawfish to satisfy one hungry crustacean-loving person, typically 3 pounds or more.

A styrofoam food container with boiled crawfish, dorn , potatoes, and sausage

A crawfish boil serving

Thanks again to Greg for some great food recommendations. New Orleans is a terrific city that never disappoints, espeically in the food and beverage department!

A hand holding a singe boiled crawfish for a side view

Wave bye-bye!


River Road Plantations

May 6, 2013

In the years prior to the U.S. Civil War, the 70 mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans was a corridor of sugar cane plantations, many showcasing monumental homes.  Today the sugar cane and a few of the antebellum mansions remain, intermixed with petro chemical plants that sprang up in the 20th Century.  We drove the length of the River Road, visiting the plantations and small, historic towns along the route.

Of the historic River Road plantations, the most recognized is probably Oak Alley.  Its white pillared house, built in the Greek Revival style, has been featured in many movies and television shows.

A white pillared house at the end of a long walk line with beautiful old oaks

Oak Alley

The 300 year old Southern Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana) which line the path extending from the house to the river, pre-date the building.

Pat and Diane on the oak-lined walk of Oak Alley

Visitors to the plantation are taken on a guided tour of the house.

Our tour guide wearing a white dress standing in front of a fireplace

Our tour guide in period dress

Oak Alley looks like the stately southern mansions of my imagination.

The parlour filled with furniture include blue upholstered wooden furniture, and a small piano

The Parlour

A foyer long foyer extending the width of the house with a narrow staircase extending to the 2nd floor

The Foyer

A long dining room with wooden floor and a set wooden table, with a fabric fan hanging above the table

The Dining Room

Many plantation homes were abandoned, ruined, or destroyed during the 20th century due to encroachments of the Mississippi, federal action, owner disinterest, fragmented ownership, demolition by industry, and a weak economy.  The revival of the remaining River Road homes began with the restoration of Oak Alley in the 1920s.

Diane standing behine a large metal cauldron filled with water and lillies

Diane with an old sugar cauldron

The River Road plantations were narrow and long, allowing each to have access to the Mississippi river, which was bounded by a small levee to protect from spring flooding.  In addition to the main house, each had a large number of buildings including a sugar mill and many slave cabins.  The plantations produced a cash crop on a large scale for world export.  They were self-contained communities run like a manufacturing business.

We also visited the Laura Plantation, one of the few Creole plantations that remain.  Creoles were a multi-racial people descended from the French, African American, and Native Americans.  Creole plantation houses were generally smaller and brightly coloured.

A 2 story house painted hellow with an upper pillared balcony

Laura Plantation House

At its largest size, the Laura Plantation was approximately 12,000 acres (4850 hectares), which included properties amassed over time.  The main house, in addition to being the living quarters of the plantation owners, was also their business office and the place where grand social occasions took place.

Dinae standing in a white walled room in front of a fireplace with a large set dining room table with white tablecloth

Laura’s Dining Room

Laura Locoul, after whom the plantation was named, left a journal for her daughters, so a great deal is known about the family itself and the estate. The guided tour offered at this plantation is based on personal accounts about life on this historic farm found in Laura’s journals and the French National Archives.

in the center of the property, 3.5 miles behind the house were the slave quarters.  There were 69 cabins, each holding 2 families, communal kitchens, an infirmary, and several water wells.  By the 1850s, the Laura Plantation was the workplace for 100 mules and 195 humans, 175 of them slaves.

2 small shacks among trees in the distance with a large bell int the foreground

Slave Quarters


Scott Boudin Festival

May 1, 2013

We drove out of Texas and into the swamps of Louisiana. The tourist office at the state boundary mentioned something called the Boudin Festival happening in the town of Scott. We had no idea what boudin was, but when we learned it was food, Diane set a course for Scott.

Brightly coloured festival poster with a train and pig engineer and boudin!Boudin is a dressing of meat (usually pork), rice, traces of vegetable, and spices that is packaged in a sausage casing (i.e. pig intestine) and boiled. Not as much meat as sausage, and no oatmeal like haggis. Like sausages everywhere, it’s something to do with the leftover bits of slaughtered pig (like liver and butt). Boudin has been made in southern Louisiana since the mid-1800s, probably originating with French Acadians, ancestors of the Cajuns, Some modern versions of boudin substitute crawfish or shrimp for pork.

We arrived hungry on the opening day of the festival. The announcer put out a call for anyone from out of state who had never tried Boudin before. I volunteered and soon found myself onstage and being introduced.

The announcer worked the crowd saying, “We had to go all the way to Canada to find a person who had never tasted boudin before!”  Cheers from the crowd. After some pleasantries, I was handed a foil wrapper. Fearing a set-up, I opening it carefully.

Patrick on stage with drums behind, wearing shorts and a t-shit and standing beside the annouuncer with a microphone.  Patrick opening a silver foiil package.

Opening my 1st boudin

What emerged was an 8 inch brownish tube, warm and slippery. I wiggled it. The announcer said to, “keep it above your waist”. It was family show. Laughs from the crowd.

Patrick on stage holding a half unwrapped boudin

Staring down my 1st boudin

I tasted it. The crowd held their breath. Who knew food could be so exciting?

Patrick on stage with boudin to his lips

Bite the casing and slurp out the goodness

The announcer asked me to describe it.

Tasting Boudin (P1100598)

Patrick on stage holding a boudin in one hand and a microphone in the other

Trying to describe boudin

As is my nature, I gave an overly analytical response, like a damn restaurant review, “flavourful, surprisingly spicy”. What the crowd really wanted was for me to throw my arms in the arms and say, “I love it!”.  Leeson Learned.

Patrick on stage with both arms raised in the air

Patrick whooping it up on stage

My on-stage appearance raised our visibility for the rest of the day. People approached us, we were given tastes by a couple of food vendors, and I was interviewed for local TV.

Patrick being interviewed by a reproter with the camera man int the foreground

My TV interview

An impetus for this inaugural festival is that Scott, Louisiana was recently named Boudin Capital of the World, the result of a bipartisan bill passed by both the Louisiana House and Senate in April 2012. This was done over the objections of Broussard, Louisiana which had previously been using the title but couldn’t prove it had an official designation, and despite the protest of Jennings, Louisiana which was declared Boudin Capital of the Universe in the 1970’s. The feud between the Boudin capitals even made the Wall Street Journal.

The small city of Scott (8800 people) produced 1.5 Million pounds of boudin in 2012. That’s 3 Million links! Within the city limits there are four establishments employing 80 people who make and sell $5 Million of boudin each year.

Although boudin is the raison d’être of the festival, there are other things to do. There is a busy stage with non-stop cajun, zydeco, and rock performances. People aren’t shy about dancing, even in the afternoon sun. Folks sit around on folding chairs enjoying the music. There is a busy midway for the young and young at heart. But the star of the show is definitely the food.

A street lined with food tents and filled with people

Busy food vendors

We ate our way through virtually everything the food vendors had to offer. In addition to boiled boudin, we enjoyed:

Links of boudin on a cutting board with 2 pairs of hands

Smoked Boudin

2 deep-fried balls of boudin about 2 inches in diameter in a white paper dish held by Diane

Boudin Balls

Diane eating jambalaya with a plastic fork from a disposable bowl

Jambalaya

We really liked the cracklins, which are seasoned, crispy bits of deep-fried pig skin and fat with an occasional bit of meat.  Very tasty, but not even remotely close to healthy.

A man in a red t-shirt with a long metal pole standing over a boiling black vat of oil

It’s hot work making cracklins  I

A black pot filled with boiling oil and bits of pig skin

Cracklins fryin’

Diane with a cracklin in her hand about to eat it

Diane enjoying cracklins

We still managed to find room for a grilled pork sandwich, a huge slab of tasty pork on soon-to-be-sloppy white sandwich bread.

A person standing over a large frying grill covered in pork steaks

Grilling Pork

Patrick eating a pork sandwich in one hand with a paper tray to catch the drips in the other

Tricky to eat

A suggestion for next year’s festival is to offer real beer, something other than mini-Budweisers.

Patrick holidng a small can of Budweiser beer

Even when it grows up, it still won’t be a real beer

Overall, it was a great small town festival. Comfortable and friendly. Tasty and interesting food. Terrific music. It’s wonderful to stumble across gems like this, where we can experience something new and unique.

The back of a woman with a lime green t-shirt with the words, "Where the west begins, and the boudin never ends"

A friendly festival organizer’s t-shirt


Impressions of Texas

April 30, 2013

This is our first visit to Texas, so it was a new experience for us.  Here are some things we find interesting about Texas.

  • I’ve always heard how big Texas is. At 268,580 square miles (695,621 sq. kms), it is the largest state in the contiguous United States, second only to Alaska among all U.S. states, and is larger than every country in Europe (except Russia which isn’t really in Europe in my mind). However, the area of Texas is not quite as impressive as its reputation. There are 5 Canadian Provinces and Territories that are much, much larger than Texas (British Columbia!, Ontario, Quebec, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut), and 3 that are almost as big (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba).
  • The word “Texas” derives from local Indian words meaning allies or friends. Reflecting this, the Texas state motto is friendship.
  • Texas has been part of or ruled by 6 nations in its modern history – Spain, France, Mexico, The Republic of Texas, The United States (twice) and the Confederate States of America (during the American Civil War). The words ‘6 Flags’ are incorporated into a lot of Texas venue names.
  • The Texas state capitol building in Austin was completed on May 16, 1888. It is the largest of all state capitols in the nation in terms of square footage. Its construction was paid for by bartering 3 million acres of land in the Texas ‘panhandle’ to the builders.
  • West Texas is mostly wide-open, dry desert. It is sparsely populated and there are no big cities except El Paso (on Texas’s Western border with Mexico and New Mexico). The Eastern side of Texas looks very different, with grass, green trees, and more agriculture. The dry west and green east are separated by the 100th Meridian (100 degrees West of Greenwich England), a line which happens to closely approximate the 20 inch isohyet (a line of equal precipitation, not unlike the lines of equal elevation on a topographic map) which is commonly used to demarcate arid and non-arid land

    A silhouette of a tree against a graduate grey background

    West Texas Landscape

  • Texas is part of the Southern ‘bible belt’ and has a majority Christian population, primarily Evangelical Protestants (65%) and Catholics (21%, a byproduct of Texas’s 38% Latino population

    A large billboard with black print on a white background reading "Think God"

    Texas Billboard

  • Famous from old Western movies, the Rio Grande River serves as a natural border between Texas and Mexico.

    A piicture of Patrick's muddy feet stadnign on cracked mud earth

    Muddy feet after I waded the Rio Grande into Mexico

  • Because Texas shares a long border with Mexico, there are almost 10,000 United States Border Patrol agents in the state. Roadside checks are common like in Southern Arizona.
  • A lot of Texans like to dance. There are old-fashioned dance halls throughout the state where people enjoy the 2-step, waltz, and occasional polka.
  • Texans also love their bar-b-que (BBQ), which is meat cooked using the indirect heat of wood smoke. What we usually call BBQ in Canada (i.e. cooking over direct heat or flame) is actually grilling, not BBQ.
  • Texas is a conservative place, and is currently one of the most Republican states in the United States. Republicans control all statewide Texas offices, both houses of the state legislature and have a majority in the Texas congressional delegation. Despite this, the state capital of Austin is liberal, artistic, and actively encourages individuality (‘keep Austin weird’)

    Brown building of Austin Texas seen from the river

    Austin Skyline

  • Texas allows RVs to park overnight in roadside picnic areas, which are generally nice and clean, but sometimes right beside and not separated from the roadways.

    The Dream Machine parked with slide out in a rest area beside the road

    Sleeping at a Texas roadside picnic area

  • Texans are very patriotic. There are American flags everywhere and a lot of Texas flags.

    The Texas flag flying against a blue background

    Texas Flag

  • Although George W. Bush is commonly associated with Texas (he was the State Governor and owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team), he was not born there (actually, New Haven, Connecticut). But Dwight D. Eisenhower (elected 1952) and Lyndon B. Johnson (elected 1963) were both born in Texas. Johnson spent much of his presidency on his ranch in Texas, operating from his home nicknamed ‘The Texas White House’.

    The Dream Machine parked beside a Jetstar jet under a roof

    The Dream Machine and Lyndon Johnson’s mini-Air Force One

  • Many restaurants in Texas don’t have a license to serve hard liquor, sometimes only beer and wine). Some of these restaurants allow you to bring your own liquor and they’ll sell you ‘a set up’, which is the glasses, ice, and mix that you need to make your own drinks.
  • The Texas drawl is real, not just in the movies. “Y’all” is the most common pronoun here. When people call us “Sir” or “Ma’am” we feel old, but folks are just being polite.
  • Texas’s State Flower is the Bluebonnet, a sentimental favourite, which was blooming as we passed through.

    A field of blue flowers with green leaves

    Texas Bluebonnets

  • Like Arizona and New Mexico, the Texan desert is home to the collared peccary (known in the south as javelina). They are social animals, often forming herds, and adults weight 40 to 90 pounds.

    A brown javelina on dry grass.  it looks like a small pig with stiff hair.

    A Javelina visiting our campsite in Big Bend National Park


Comparing The Dream Machine and The S&M Motel

April 25, 2013

Last year we traveled around Europe by motorhome for 9 months. Our friends Sue and Martin loaned us their camper van (British for motorhome) which we nicknamed The S&M Motel. Now that we’ve been traveling in our own motorhome (recently named The Dream Machine) for 3 months, we’ve been able to appreciate some of the differences between our North American motorhome and those that are commonly available in Europe.

The S&M Motel Camper Van in front of a grassy field with mountains and a castle in the background

The S&M Motel

What follows are some of the differences between our Forest River Solera 24S and how we traveled in Europe. Most of these differences would apply generally to all Class C and Class A motorhomes in North America versus their European counterparts. This comparison is not in any way intended to be a criticism of The S&M Motel nor our generous British friends who took a giant leap of faith in loaning it to us.

Our motorhome on a gravel road by the river

The Dream Machine

Note — This comparison is lengthy and detailed in places.  Feel free to skim to the topics you’re interested in.

Size — Our Solera, although it’s on the small end of the scale for North American motorhomes, is longer, wider, taller, and heavier than most in Europe. At 24 feet 6 inches (24’6”) it is 5’8” (1.75m) longer than the S&M Motel, not including the bike racks on the rear of either unit. At 11’6” (3.5m) it is 2’3” (0.68m) taller and at 7’7” (2.3m) it is 5” (0.13m) wider.

Engine – To power our bigger, heavier coach, the Dream Machine has a 3.0 Litre 6 cylinder engine while the S&M Motel has a 2.8 Litre 4 cylinder engine. Both are turbo diesel and seem to have sufficient power, especially on hills where the diesel engines really shine.

Fuel Economy – Our larger engine gets lower gas mileage, currently averaging around 15 mpg (15 L/100km) versus the S&M Motel’s 21 mpg (11 L/100km). Our motorhome has a 26.6 gallon (121 Litre) tank for a theoretical range of 400 miles (645 km). The S&M Motel has a smaller 21 gallon (80 Litre) fuel tank but a slightly greater range of 440 miles (725 km).

Fuel Cost – Diesel fuel is cheaper in North America than in Europe. I’ve estimated a blended rate of $4.58 per gallon for our route (lower in the United States and higher in Canada). The lower fuel economy and less expensive fuel balance each other out though, and both vehicles have an operating cost for fuel of about $15 per hour. However, the distances are much greater in North America.

Transmission – The S&M Motel has a 5-speed manual transmission, which is more common in Europe.  The Dream Machine has a 5-speed automatic transmission with overdrive and tip-shift, which also allows the gears to be shifted manually while driving.

Handling – With a longer wheel base, the Dream Machine isn’t as maneuverable. It drives well, but requires more room to turn, especially ‘U’ turns. With a longer overhang behind the rear wheels, the ‘swing out’ is greater and needs to be considered in tight spaces. Being taller it tends to sway a bit, particularly at slow speeds on uneven ground like speed bumps traversed at an angle or potholes.

Interior Space — Our Solera is 7 feet (2.13m) tall inside, which will allow our height-endowed friend Martin to walk comfortably inside. It’s a much tighter squeeze for him in the 6’5” (1.96 meter) tall S&M Motel. When our coach is parked the slide can be extended which adds an additional 23.6 square feet (2.2 sq. m) of floor space and 142 cubic feet (4 cu. m) of interior space. Although the Dream Machine is still very usable with the slide in, it is positively spacious with the slide out. The difference between in and out is like night and day.

Storage – Because of its larger size, our Solera has a lot more interior and exterior storage. Even though we have a lot more stuff with us, we have room to spare. The limiting factor is weight not space.

Cook Top – The S&M Motel has a 4 burner cook top (3 gas and 1 electric). The Dream Machine has 3 burners, all gas. Having an electric burner is great because it saves on gas when connected to shore power. We’re thinking of buying an electric frying pan to achieve the same result.

Oven – The S&M Motel has a decent-sized oven and a separate broiling compartment. Despite both ovens being about the same overall size, our oven compartment is only 5 inches (13 centimeters) high, barely enough for a casserole dish, and has a questionable broiler underneath.

Refrigerator – Our refrigerator has 2 separate compartments for fridge and freezer, each with their own door, and is much larger than the one in the S&M Motel. Ours runs on propane or 110 Volt electricity when connected to shore power, but can’t run on 12 Volt electricity during travel like the S&M Motel’s fridge. Ours runs all the time, automatically switching between propane and electricity if it is available. This means that we always have cold food, cold beer, frozen food, and ice in the refrigerator.

Microwave – The Dream Machine has a small microwave that is great for defrosting and reheating. It requires 110 Volt electricity though, so to use it we either need to be plugged in or start the generator.

Bed – Our rear corner bed is available all the time, and doesn’t need to be made every evening and morning.

Shower – The Dream Machine has a separate shower, so the toilet area stays dry. This uses more space, but makes cleanup easier. Perhaps because of the dedicated shower, leg room on the toilet is limited.

Vanity – We have a small sink, mirror, and cabinets located just outside the bathroom. This sink can be used while the toilet or shower are occupied, and provides convenient access to a second sink in the main living area.

Batteries – Our motorhome has 2 household batteries rather than 1, providing more capacity. We connect a small power inverter to the batteries to get AC power without a hookup (e.g. for charging camera batteries).

Electricity – The S&M Motel uses 220 V European power and requires a few adapters for the different plugs used in various countries. Ours uses 110V North American power and we also need adapters to fit the various RV plugs available (20, 30, and 50 amp).

Generator – The Dream Machine has a 3.6 kilowatt generator which runs on propane. This provides us with 110 Volt electricity if we need it, but we try to limit its use, especially if the noise might disturb someone.

Interior Lighting – Our coach has more interior lights. They are all flush mounted and so they aren’t directional, which would be nice for reading. We have installed LED lights throughout, which use less power than florescent or halogen lights.

Entrance Step – The Dream Machine’s electric step extends automatically when the door is opened and retracts automatically when the door is closed or if the engine is started.

Door screen – Our Solera has a screen door, great for keeping out the bugs.

Windows – The Dream Machine has fewer and slightly smaller windows. For its size, the S&M Motel has larger windows that any motorhome I’ve ever seen (in Europe or North America). Our motorhome is more typical of motorhomes in both countries, with smaller windows and a slightly darker interior. It has tinted, frameless, awning windows (jalousie or louvered windows with a single large glass panel) which tilt open a few inches at the bottom by turning a knob inside. This style of window, in addition to being stylish, can be left open during most rains. The drawback is that they don’t open fully. The S&M Motel’s large side windows swing up to create a glorious open feeling and are also handy for visibility at angled intersections.

Skylight – Both motorhomes have 2 roof vents in the main living area, plus one in the bathroom, but the S&M Motel also has a nice skylight.

Black and Grey Water – Our black water tank is built-in and does not utilize cartridges that can be emptied by hand. Both the black and grey water tanks must be drained via a large sewer hose at a dump station.

Tank capacities – Our fresh water tank is 41 gallons (155 Litres) versus 17 gallons (65 Litres) for the S&M Motel. Our grey water tank is 33 gallons (125 Litres). Our black water tank is 35 gallons (132 Litres) whereas the S&M Motel toilet cassette holds only 4.6 gallons (17.5 Litres), a huge difference! Larger tank capacities mean that we can easily go a week or more without filling or emptying fluids.

Propane tank – The Dream Machine and the S&M Motel both use propane gas for the cook top, oven, refrigerator, and furnace. Ours also uses propane for the generator. We have a single, fixed propane tank while the S&M Hotel has 2 separate but integrated refillable cylinders. Both coaches can be filled easily at a propane filling station. Our propane tank has 9.8 gallons of usable capacity (80% of a 13 gallon tank) and the S&M Hotel has two 6 kilogram tanks which I estimate have a total usable capacity of about 5 gallons of propane.

Furnace – Our furnace is propane only, whereas the S&M Motel furnace will run on propane or electricity. We carry a very small electric heater with us to use when we have shore power.

Air Conditioning – The Dream Machine has air conditioning in the dashboard (part of the Mercedes-Benz chassis) and ducted throughout the coach ceiling from a roof-mounted air conditioner. Running the 110 Volt rear air conditioner requires shore power or the generator to be running.

Arctic package – Our grey and black water tanks have electric heating pads that can be used to prevent them from freezing, but only when the RV is connected to shore power.

Bike rack – Like almost all European motorhomes, the S&M Hotel has a built-in bike rack high on the rear of the vehicle. On ours we had to add a rack on the rear receiver (aka trailer hitch) which led to some other issues (see << LINK Layed Up in Lynnwood >>).

Safety – Our motorhome has smoke, carbon monoxide, and propane gas detectors, which are standard in all new North American coaches.

Multimedia System — Our Solera has a built-in flat panel television that can receive ‘over the air’ high-definition television broadcasts using the adjustable roof antenna or display video (DVDs) from the cab multi-media system. This system can also display images from a CD, DVD or USB storage device. There is an iPod docking station and auxiliary input for other devices. The same multimedia system provides in-dash navigation with voice commands integrated with the audio.

Design – Overall I would say that the practicality of its design and the quality of the S&M Motel are slightly better, despite it being a few years older. Our Solera, though newer and probably prettier (though nowhere near as cute), isn’t quite as robust. Although all motorhomes seem fragile compared to houses or apartments, European design and attention to detail are noticeable.

Overall, I would say that each coach has its advantages. With its smaller size, the S&M Motel was excellent for Europe where roads are narrower, parking is scarce, and fuel more expensive. Its large windows and skylight create an open feel despite it being a smaller coach. The Dream Machine, due primarily to its larger size, has the advantages of more interior space and storage, a dry shower, a bigger refrigerator, a microwave, a flat screen television, an extra battery, and larger fluid tanks. It also has a generator, which isn’t common in European motorhomes. Each coach is well suited to its environment.

Note — all gallons referred to in this article are US gallons because The Dream Machine was made for the US market.