Saturday, March 30, 2013

Walk Through History at an Old New Orleans Plantation

The last time I was in good ol' "NOLA" (the affectionate abbreviation for New Orleans, Louisiana) was in March of 2008 when I visited for a teacher's conference with some work colleagues.  I fell in love with the city during my stay, and admired many facets that make New Orleans so unique - the sweeping architecture, the Creole culture, the energy and exuberance of the French Quarter, and even the magical infusion of voodoo and history.

New Orleans, Bourbon Street, Louisiana
Come to New Orleans for a taste of the voodoo scene - highly commercialized, though!

And did I mention the food?  New Orleans cuisine is worth the visit alone.  Ghar-uhn-teeed (pronounced Cajun style)!

Last week I found myself wandering the streets of NOLA once more, thanks to another opportunity to visit the city and attend a technology-based teacher's conference (the SITE conference).  The event was great, and I now know how to make my own app - watch for my best-selling app to appear in the iTunes store one day soon! (I wish!)

After our first day of 'conferencing', my two travel companions and I had booked a tour to visit some of Louisiana's historical plantations.  I had booked us with the "Old River Road Plantation Adventure" tour company.  It offered three different tour packages at decent rates, showcasing the Laura Plantation, St. Joseph's Plantation, Evergreen Plantation, and Oak Alley Plantation.  At the time of booking, the website informed me that Laura Plantation was closed on Mondays (the day we wanted to tour), and that the Evergreen Plantation was closed due to a movie being filmed there.  With limited options, I chose the tour that featured St. Joseph's Plantation and Oak Alley Plantation.  The tour cost $70.00 per participant, and offered hotel pick-up.
Oak Alley Plantation, New Orleans, Louisiana, slave plantations
Oak Alley Plantation - one of the big highlights of any plantation tour.

We hopped on the shuttle that was to take us first to St. Joseph's Plantation. Our guide was very knowledgeable and acquainted us with some great facts that I hadn't known before.  Since I am a history nerd (learning about the history of a place is one of my favorite things about traveling), I want to share with you at least one of my favorite tidbits:
  • Louisiana was originally a French colony.  This fact I knew already.  What I hadn't known was how it got its name.  At the time that the colony was first being established, King Louis XIV (the Sun King) was 'ruler' of France.  However, Louis was only a small child when he ascended to the throne, and his mother, Ann of Austria, led the nation as his adviser.  Therefore, they were both technically rulers.  The founders of the colony of Louisiana wanted to name it after Louis, but that was too blunt and lacked a feeling of grandeur.  The Colony of LOUIS just sounded too plain.  So they blended the name of the joint rulers and called it "Louis et Ann", which is pronounced LOO-EE-AY-ANN.  When the Spanish came into Louisiana and took over, they kept the name but changed the pronunciation to fit the Spanish language, making the colony "Louis-y-Anna", pronounced LOO-ISS-EE-ANNA. Hence, the name we use today, Louisiana, was born.
There were many other fabulous stories told during our ride out to the plantations, but I highly encourage you to visit and hear them for yourselves!  If you want to know more and can't just fly out to New Orleans, feel free to comment below or email me.

Our bus drove for about an hour outside of the city of New Orleans, and pulled up in front of the Laura Plantation.  85% of the bus disembarked to tour the Creole plantation in all of its glory.  I was a bit indignant - according to the website, the Laura Plantation had been unavailable for Monday tours. If I had known that we could go, I would have booked it!  Oh well.  It wasn't a big deal.  We watched the large group stroll into the grounds of Laura, and then the bus driver took our tiny group of five to the St. Joseph's Plantation.

Laura Plantation buildings, New Orleans, Louisiana, Creole Plantation
A cabin from the Laura Plantation - pretty flowers!

St. Joseph's is literally a six-minute drive down the road from the Laura Plantation, and Oak Alley is another two minutes down that same road.  All of the commercial plantation tours seem to be in the same area.  There are many plantations that are still operating today, but those are closed to the public and are more spread out.  All the plantations in the New Orleans area are in the sugar cane industry - cotton is not grown in this area at all, so don't expect to see any!

sugar cane fields, sugar cane seedling, New Orleans, Louisiana
Sugar cane - looks just like clumps of grass!

As we drove into the St. Joseph's Plantation, our driver pointed out another grand looking mansion - the Felicite Plantation.  I got very excited as this plantation is where one of my favorite movies, "The Skeleton Key", was filmed.

New Orleans plantations, Skeleton Key plantation, Skeleton Key mansion
The Felicite Plantation - a Hollywood favorite!

St. Joseph's Plantation is owned and operated by a family group, the Waguespack and Simon families, who have owned it for hundreds of years.  It was a family home until about 10 years ago, in fact. At that point, the family decided to get into the plantation tour business, so they renovated and opened up the building and grounds to the public.  Our tour guide was a descendant of the last true plantation owners, and grew up inside the house.

St Joseph from behind, New Orleans plantations, Louisiana, slave plantation
The St. Joseph's Plantation as seen from the backyard

It was a nice tour, but nothing that I would highly recommend.  It was obvious our tour guide loved the home, and every object and room was near and dear to her heart. However, the tour was lengthy, over-personalized, and dry.  The only really spicy stories came to us in the 'Mourning Room', where Jean, our guide, told us of her grandmother's death (she burned to death in the backyard after setting herself aflame by mistake on a windy day), and the death of her great-uncle.  He and some neighbors had fled to a local church during a tornado, and when the roof of the church collapsed, Jean's great-uncle covered the bodies of his children with his own.  They all survived the tornado and the roof collapse, but Jean's great-uncle was axed in the head by his rescuing fire-fighters, and was killed instantly.  The children survived.

St Joseph's plantation, New Orleans plantation, Louisiana history
Items from St. Joseph's: a mourning gown, a mustache cup (kept the mustache dry when drinking tea), one of the several antique clocks, children's beds

After the tour, we ducked out into the grounds of the plantation and explored the old slave houses that dotted the fields. Compared to the wide-open, large, and lavish plantation home, these houses were tiny little duplexes that were designed to squish in eight to ten people within the living quarters.  It was truly eye-opening.

oak tree with slave cabins, St Joseph's slave cabins, New Orleans plantations, Louisiana
The slave cabins at St. Joseph's Plantation

St Joseph's slave cabins, New Orleans plantations, Louisiana history
Interior of a slave cabin at St. Joseph's Plantation

Our next stop was the majestic Oak Alley, built in 1839 as a 'honeymoon palace'.  Where St. Joseph's was simple and quaint, run by a family and operated with love, Oak Alley was a tourist attraction at its finest.  Oak Alley had a gift shop, restaurant, places to stay overnight, and a massive parking lot.  The plantation mansion and grounds were impeccably kept.  It was all impressive and grand - but very tourist-oriented.  (And I don't say that negatively, because I freely admit I am the biggest tourist of all sometimes.)  It was just so very different from St. Joseph's.

There were no morbid stories, such as the ones offered by Jean about her family tragedies, but the tour guide was engaging and funny.  He told us about the "courting candle" and the "ladies tea" in the parlor, which elicited several laughs, and interacted with the audience quite a bit.  

Oak Alley history, New Orleans plantations, Louisiana history
Top Left: While men drank sugar cane spirits, women had to drink 'fruit tea' - fruit soaked a jar of spirits. Much more lady-like! Bottom Left: The master suite, with the only original piece of furniture - the cradle.  Right: The courting candle. The candle was set to high or low, depending on how much the family liked you. When the candle burned to the first coil, the date was over!

My favorite part of Oak Alley was its name-sake: the beautiful and imposing oak lined alley leading up to the plantation mansion's front doors.  It was picturesque and postcard perfect.

Oak Alley plantation, New Orleans plantations, Louisiana history
The Oak Alley walkway

My least favorite part of Oak Alley was the Mint Julep drink.  Considered a Louisiana classic, it is made of three parts bourbon, one part mint syrup, and one sprig of mint.  It is disgusting.  I hated it, as you can tell by my face.

Mint Julep drink, bourbon drink, mint drink, Oak Alley plantation, New Orleans drink
Oak Alley's Mint Julep drink - a famous and traditional Louisiana beverage

I hated that stupid Mint Julep!

I highly recommend a trip out to see Louisiana's plantation country.  Pick and choose according to your tastes - St. Joseph's Plantation if you want to see a family-run plantation, probably looking much as it did 100 years ago, or the Laura Plantation for a Creole plantation experience, or the Oak Alley Plantation for a movie-quality experience.  Or just go see them all!

Explore the plantations with me!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Pubs in Edinburgh's Grassmarket District: Drink in the History

Today is St. Patrick's Day, one of my favorite little holidays (besides Halloween and Christmas).  I have some Irish blood bubbling in my veins, thanks to the hardy Irish stock on my mother's side, and so I take St. Pat's very seriously.  Yes, this year it falls on a Sunday, but that hasn't prevented me from brushing off my green velvet top hat and preparing to go out for a traditional green beverage at the local watering hole.

irish traditions, marti ingram
I LOVE dorky St. Patrick's Day head gear!

I wanted to do a St. Pat's themed post today, but alas, I have never been to Ireland.  However, I was in Scotland last year - which is just as green and beautiful, or so I imagine.  (Really, the only way to truly compare is if I go to Ireland too... so you see, I HAVE to go now...)  While my husband and I were in Scotland, we visited many fantastic pubs, met some fantastic people, heard some fantastic live music, and ate some amazing food.  I love Scottish pubs, and so I imagine I'd love Irish pubs, too.  Actually, I like the atmosphere of pretty much all pubs, if I am going to be honest.

What I found to be a common theme in Scotland was that any pub worth its salt, a truly traditional pub that had been around for centuries, usually came with a great historical story attached to the building. While preparing for our Scotland trip, I had read all about the Grassmarket area and was ready for the wide range of old, tried and true restaurants and 'public houses', but I didn't expect it to be quite so fascinating and unique!

Scotland pubs, Edinburgh pubs, Grassmarket pubs, down the wrabbit hole, marti ingram
The Beehive Inn serves a great steak pie, if you are so inclined!

There are tons of semi-famous establishments in Grassmarket: Biddy Mulligans (we liked that one because our cat is named Mulligan), the Beehive Inn, the White Hart, the Three Sisters, and the Dropkick Murpheys, to name a few.

Grassmarket district pubs, down the wrabbit hole, marti ingram, Scotland
This public house holds a spot near and dear to our hearts - because of our cat (?)

Grassmarket also used to be an area designed for staging public executions.  In fact, you can still see where the gibbet (a tall post used for hanging felons) was mounted in the middle of the oddly-shaped square.

This is what a gibbet looks like.  Image courtesy

One pub is named "The Last Drop" in honor of this morbid piece of Grassmarket's rich Scottish history - it said that the condemned criminals would be allowed to partake in their final worldly drink at the pub before being shuffled off to the gibbet.

down the wrabbit hole, marti ingram, scotland pubs, edinburgh pubs
The Last Drop Pub - quite possibly the creepiest pub in Grassmarket.  But cool!

One of my absolute favorite tales came from the pub "Maggie Dickson's Pub" in Edinburgh's Grassmarket District. Her story is so bizarre, it is basically local legend now. Her tale begins in 1723, when Maggie was abandoned by her husband in Edinburgh.  Destitute, she left the city to stay with relatives in the south.  During her journey, she stopped in the town of Kelso to work for a bit, in order to earn some money. She worked at an inn, where her employment offered her free room and board as well as some extra cash.  It also offered her the chance to meet the landlady's son, and soon she found herself with child.

Afraid of being fired from her job, Maggie hid the fact that she was pregnant.  What you must understand is that during this time in history, Scotland had a "Concealment of Pregnancy Act" in which it was illegal to hide a pregnancy. When the baby was born prematurely, and died a few days later, Maggie really freaked out and decided to dispose of the baby's body in the River Tweed.  She couldn't bring herself to do it, though, and so instead just left the corpse on the beach.

Maggie's crime was eventually traced back to her after the body was discovered, and due to the fact that she had broken that Concealment Act, she was sentenced to be hanged. On September 2, 1724, Maggie was tied to the gibbet in the middle of Grassmarket and dangled from the rope.  Her body was cut down, and was on its way to Musselburgh for burial when people began hearing sounds from inside the coffin.  When they opened it up, they found Maggie inside, very much alive!

down the wrabbit hole, marti ingram, grassmarket, scotland, edinburgh history
The "Shadow of the Gibbet" in Grassmarket, where the real gibbet used to stand.

The courts determined that Maggie had indeed served her sentence (the ruling had only said she was to be hanged - but no where did it state 'to death', which was added forevermore after this incident). Maggie was allowed to live out the rest of her life in freedom.  She lived in Edinburgh until her death many, many years later of natural causes, and was known as "Half-Hangit Maggie".

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Planning for a Trip the Obsessive Way

There are two kinds of travelers: those that flow freely with the ebb and tide of travel, making plans as they go and hoping that everything rolls out for the best.  Then there are those that like to have all their ducks in a row, all their roads mapped out, and all their rentals and reservations confirmed beforehand.  Usually, if you are of style A, you shouldn`t be traveling with someone who leans towards style B, lest frustrated and murderous thoughts lead you to making some poor choices.

Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, Iceland. Image courtesy:

As much as I`d like to be someone who just flits along merrily, assuming the universe will roll out a red carpet for me as I go, I`m not.  I need to know that when I land at the airport, I know how to find my hotel.  I need to know my hotel is expecting me, and that I won`t be sleeping on the streets that night. I need to know that when I want to drive through the beautiful countryside, I have a car (or if necessary, a 4x4) waiting with a full tank of fuel and a spare tire in the trunk.  With these things prepared and ready, I can then enjoy my time in a foreign country, seeing the giant list of things I`ve researched in advance.

Yup, I`m a travel nerd.  An obsessive, type-A-personality, PowerPoint-havin`, reservation-callin`travel nerd.  And that works for me.

My husband is a bit more free-spirited.  He doesn`t mind bouncing from hotel lobby to hotel lobby until he finds a free room, even if that free room is a 10-bed dormitory with one shared bathroom. He doesn`t like having an itinerary of things to see and do - he`d rather float through the city or countryside and discover things for himself.

Shared dorms are not my style - sorry! Image courtesy:

Now I`m not saying that his style is wrong.  But my argument is: a) EW! on the 10-bed dormitory style hostel with one nasty shared bathroom... that is all I have to say about that.  And b) when you don`t research the country you are about to visit, you will inevitably miss out on some of the hidden gems.  Sure, signs and pamphlets at your hotel or the airport will tell you about the major attractions, but what about the little places that, unless you speak the nation`s language fluently and can chat openly with locals, you will no doubt miss out on? I prefer to have a plan of attack, thank you very much.

Iceland, here I come! Image courtesy:

In July, we are headed to Iceland.  I have been researching Iceland since November when we began tossing ideas back and forth about places we might want to visit in the summer.  Six months have gone by, with me doing the following to prepare:

1. Created a Pinterest board with Iceland ideas - big attractions, tips from locals, amazing photographs of waterfalls and geysers, and places I`d like to see and things I`d like to do.

My obsess-much Pinterest page on Iceland

2. Dug deeper into some of those Pinterest photographs and looked up websites on locations, driving distances, costs, hours of operation, and reviews from past travelers and locals alike.

3. Charted a pretend trip itinerary and slapped my must-see destinations in logical calendar order to ensure we`d be able to get through it all in a 12-day trip.  Along with this pretend itinerary I made multiple notes about my must-see destinations.

Notes, notes, and more notes on Iceland trip ideas!

4. Pre-booked a rental car, flight plan, and a few hotels, to get an approximate cost estimate before cornering Joey and forcing him to agree that Iceland was the right choice.

5. Researched the national language of Iceland and learned some preliminary necessities (hello, goodbye, how much does this cost, where is the bathroom, can I have a beer).

6. Calculated the conversion rate between the Icelandic krona (ISK) and the Canadian dollar (CAD), and created a budget for the trip.

I love the power of the Internet for research!

After all of this obsessive behavior, my husband realized the trip was most likely going to happen with or without his blessing, and he booked the time off work.  This allowed me to do what I had been dreaming of doing since November: I hit `BOOK IT` on the Expedia website and formalized our trip plans!

Now, I am compiling all of my data and research into a Google Docs PowerPoint (yes I know, here`s where it gets REAL nerdy) and am in the process of nailing down the details.

Making travel PowerPoints makes me feel organized and oh-so-excited!
This includes booking the bus from the airport to the Blue Lagoon and then to our hotel in Reykjavik (check).

Headed to the Blue Lagoon in July - yay! Image courtesy:

This includes booking the rental SUV to tackle those bumpy highland roads (check).

This includes booking our tour of the Golden Circle outside Reykjavik (check).

Gulfoss in the Golden Circle. Image courtesy:

This includes booking two hotels for the first six nights of our trip as we drive around the southern lip of Iceland (check and check). 

And this is where Joey stepped in.  `Why don`t we just see how it goes when we get there?` he asked when I expressed frustration over the fact that most hotels were full or sold out.  (On a side note, one of the Icelandic B&B owners told me that big travel companies block out entire hotels or sections of hotels for their tours, then release the unsold rooms in the late spring.  If you are having trouble finding rooms on the island now, try again in late May.)

Reykjavik from above. Image courtesy:

Remember that note I mentioned above, about two travel partners having to be similar?  I myself need to be reminded of that from time to time.  For the second half of our trip, while I still do have a list of things to see and do, I am going to try to flow with the ebb and tide of travel.  We will talk to the locals and get their take on what we should experience, and try to find places to stay as we go.  I sure hope it works - I wonder how much divorce costs in Iceland?  Just kidding!! Wish me luck!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Space Simulators & Jars of Earwax: The Edmonton Science Center

There are two official 'science centers' in Alberta.  Families and schools have the option to visit the Calgary World of Science and the Edmonton World of Science, depending on their proximity.  They are both owned by the Telus World of Science corporation, who also happens to own the Vancouver World of Science as well.

Have I said "World of Science" enough times for you yet?  Read that last paragraph five times fast; I dare you!

Last month I was able to slip along on a Junior High field trip to the Edmonton World of Science, despite being a Grade 4 teacher this year.  I think my principal was sensing that I miss my Junior Highs every now and then, and figured it was time for a major dose of fun.  The kids were excellently behaved and the science center proved to be a fantastic learning experience for all.

things to do in Edmonton, Telus World of Science Edmonton
The Edmonton Science Center, courtesy

The major focus of our field trip to the science center was to visit the giant IMAX theater and watch a film about life in space.  The IMAX screen at the Edmonton World of Science is 13 meters by 19 meters, which means you feel as if you are falling into the movie as you watch it - the screen seems to wrap around and encompass you.  This IMAX theater was actually the first one in all of Western Canada - yay for Edmonton!  Unfortunately, the admission for the IMAX show is NOT included in the general admission price for the science center (something we as a school field trip were not aware of, causing some confusion and panic at the admission desk originally).  Prices for the IMAX shows range from $13.95 for an adult to $9.50 from children 3 to 12.  You can also buy a combo pack to blend the general admission cost and the movie in order to save a bit of money.  For more information on pricing, click here.

things to do in Edmonton, Telus World of Science Edmonton
Enjoying my time as an astronaut.

Within the regular exhibition areas, we found many favorite features.  Many of my students really enjoyed the Forensics Exhibit.  Last year I taught a Forensics Option course, so the kids had some background knowledge in the area, and were able to navigate the exhibition with some clarity and understanding.  Another favorite was the Space Gallery, where the kids had fun (for some reason unknown to me) lying on the ground and pretending to fly through space.

things to do in Edmonton, Telus World of Science Edmonton
Flying through space, kind of...

A favorite exhibit was the Environmental Gallery, which featured imitation tidal pools, an aquarium, a lightning simulator, and to everyone's excitement, the tornado simulator.

things to do in Edmonton, Telus World of Science Edmonton
Feeling mighty powerful and creating my own tornado!

Another fun favorite was the Health Gallery.  Once the kids and adults alike stumbled into the room, there was no getting us out!  This room is designed to teach kids some of the miracles of the human body, such as how far blood will spurt when a major artery is damaged, or how our olfactory senses can distinguish between smells. (Some of the example smells were pretty nasty to sample!)

In a caged off section of the Health Gallery is the Grossology Gallery - a room stocked full with disgusting facts, simulations, interactive features, and my favorite, the display of nasty glass jars loaded to the brim with human 'excretions'.  Jars filled with urine, ear wax, sweat, eye goop, dandruff, and much, much, (MUCH) worse are stacked seven feet high for young scientists to marvel at.

things to do in Edmonton, Telus World of Science Edmonton
I hardly have to explain how gross this is after you read the labels...

things to do in Edmonton, Telus World of Science Edmonton
Mm, a giant bottle of sweat.  Christmas gift, anyone?

things to do in Edmonton, Telus World of Science Edmonton
At least this one was only 1/4 full... does that make it better? I don't know.

If the experience at the Edmonton World of Science had to have a highlight, however, it would be the Space Simulator.  All of the students (and me, the only teacher with an iron stomach) tried our hand at strapping into the swirling, spinning machine - some kids went twice!  It was only a 30 second ride, but got the blood flowing to your head quite quickly.  I stepped out of the simulator feeling, not dizzy, but very warm from the increased flow of blood.  A strange sensation.

things to do in Edmonton, Telus World of Science Edmonton
Me braving the space simulator - it was quite fun!

If you want to take your family for a fun day trip, or go out on an adventurous and stimulating date with a special someone, visit the Edmonton World of Science webpage for information on admission prices, location, and special exhibits.  Gallery content, IMAX feature films, and special exhibits rotate quite frequently to keep things exciting and interesting.

What was your favorite experience at the Telus World of Science?  Feel free to share!