Ducking around in Memphis

Our last stop on our cultural tour of the South (a family road trip in mid-July that began in Austin and included New Orleans, Atlanta, and Charlotte, North Carolina) was Memphis, Tennessee — Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock-and-Roll. We spent two nights at the famous Peabody Hotel, within walking distance of legendary Beale Street. Having recently strolled Austin’s own Sixth Street and New Orleans’s Bourbon Street, we felt the boozy, bluesy, neon-splashed trifecta was now complete.

Built in 1925, the Peabody is a grand old hotel in downtown Memphis, which sits on the east bank of the mighty Mississippi River. The Peabody is famous for its ducks. Yes, ducks.

Every day at 11 am, the Peabody’s duckmaster leads 5 resident mallards from their rooftop digs, down the elevator, and along a red carpet to a marble fountain in the center of the lobby. They swim all day in the fountain, or snooze on the rim, and at 5 pm the duckmaster reappears to lead to them back out.

It’s a highly choreographed spectacle that attracts throngs of visitors who arrive early for a good view. We arrived at 4:30 pm for the 5 pm show and had to watch from the 2nd floor gallery, but it really was fun to see. The duckmaster appeared in a smart red jacket, rolled out the red carpet, and in a ringing voice shared the ducklore: how, in the 1930s, the manager of the Peabody and his friend brought live decoys back to the hotel after a duck hunt and put them in the fountain before collapsing in bed to sleep off hangovers. How they came downstairs the next morning to find that hotel guests loved seeing the ducks in the fountain. How a former circus animal trainer offered to bring the ducks in and out every day, thereby earning the first duckmaster title, a position he served in for 50 years until his retirement in 1991.

After the speech, the ducks marched in a dignified manner out of the fountain, down the red carpet, and into the elevators.

Aside from Beale Street-strolling, duck-watching, and oh-so-good rib-eating at Rendezvous we also visited Graceland, home of Elvis Presley. Here’s our family at the gates of Graceland — or at least a painted facsimile. Elvis belonged to my parents’ generation, and while my husband and I know his music we don’t think of ourselves as Elvis fans. For our kids, Elvis is nearly unknown except as a character to dress up as at Halloween or as the patron saint at Chuy’s.

Not being fans mattered not at all, it turns out. We all four enjoyed seeing Elvis’s home, which included an audio tour via iPads handed out as you enter. Sure, Elvis’s troubled later years and his cause of death were glossed over, but it was interesting to see his eclectically decorated, yet somehow still homey, mansion, not to mention his rhinestone-glittery costumes and all those gold and platinum records. He’s a legend for a reason. If you’re in Memphis, don’t miss it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short travelogue of our Southern road trip. For a look back at our visit to Atlanta, where we saw a light exhibit at Atlanta Botanical Garden and the Georgia Aquarium, click here. For our visit to the Big Easy, aka New Orleans, click here.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

posted in Birds, Fountains, Travel

Munro Lights at Atlanta Botanical Garden, and a whale of a show at Georgia Aquarium

Earth Goddess, Atlanta Botanical Garden

After we left New Orleans, we drove to Atlanta, Georgia, arriving in time for a Sunday evening visit to Atlanta Botanical Garden to see a special art exhibit, Bruce Munro: Light in the Garden.

Seeing a garden in late afternoon and at dusk, especially during the hot summer, is a treat in itself. During the Munro exhibit, which lasts until October 3, 2015, the garden offers special evening hours Wednesday through Sunday, from 6 to 11 pm. If you get there right at 6 pm during the long days of summer, you can see the whole place before the sun sets and then stay for the light show after dark.

While ABG is a pleasant and green oasis near downtown Atlanta, I didn’t find it to be particularly exciting in terms of its plant collection or garden design. However, it does have a few unique features that we really enjoyed. One is this monumental, 25-foot-tall Earth Goddess, which fosters an illusion of the garden come to life. Completely covered in plants, she holds a waterfall in one uplifted hand and presides over a larger cascade and pond garden.

One last look

Our favorite feature of the gardens turned out to be the Canopy Walk, an elevated path through the canopy of Storza Woods. It spirals from ground level to 40 feet high amid the trees, allowing for a bird’s-eye view of one of the Munro light exhibits below, which you can see in this daylight shot as white dots at ground level.

We came back here after dark to view the lights, but while we had daylight we continued to explore the main gardens.

We saw a Chihuly glass centerpiece in a formal fountain…

…and a small but picturesque Japanese garden…

…with a moon gate.

A wrought-iron lizard gate added a humorous note…

…especially with a chameleon finial.

A large pond by the conservatory is also nice. I couldn’t help noticing that the women’s dresses match the color scheme of this garden. Serendipity!

Inside the tropical house, one of the Munro light pieces glowed like a tentacled sea creature. We saw several other Munro pieces in this part of the garden, but the main attraction was…

…the light display beneath the Canopy Walk. It’s simply incredible and reason enough to pay the hefty admission price for this exhibit. The lights seem an organic part of the woods, like the alien phosphorescent landscape in Avatar.

Called “Forest of Light,” it consists of thousands of softly glowing, fiber-optic lights set on tubular stems in the undergrowth. Glowing green, blue, yellow, and purple, they slowly change hue in waves of color.

It’s as magical as a fairy forest.

You can easily spend an hour or more wandering the paths at ground level and on the Canopy Walk, enjoying the display. If you get the chance, go see it.

The next morning, before driving on to Charlotte to visit my dad, we visited the Georgia Aquarium in downtown Atlanta. I’d been wanting to see it since it opened 10 years ago as the largest aquarium in the world. These days it’s only the largest in the Western Hemisphere, but its collection includes whale sharks and beluga whales in enormous tank habitats.

Three whale sharks swim here, along with various smaller sharks, manta rays with 13-foot wingspans, and who knows how many other types of ocean fish.

It’s a jaw-dropping display. This is the main gallery window, but on the other side there’s a glass tunnel you can walk through to view the fish swimming all around and above you.

Manta ray

Aside from the wild, this is the only place outside of Asia where you can view whale sharks. We were told these three came from Taiwan, where they were taken from the annual fishing quota and would otherwise have been processed for human consumption.

Another large tank houses three beluga whales.

I had mixed feelings about seeing these magnificent, intelligent animals held in a tank that, while large, is only a tiny fraction of the size of their native environment.

I do believe in the value of zoos in educating the public and making them care about animals they’d otherwise never see except on TV. However, in the wake of the Sea World controversy, I’m not convinced that keeping intelligent whales and dolphins in tanks can be justified.

These are questions I wrestled with while viewing the belugas. The other displays of river fish, otters, and other aquatic creatures were interesting to see. A much-hyped dolphin show, however, was a silly pastiche of Disney-esque songs, cheesy special effects, exhorted audience participation, and, amid all this, a few dolphin jumps. Skip the show and spend your time on the exhibits.

Despite my reservations about the dolphins and belugas, I did enjoy the whale shark and manta display. If you go, get tickets for opening time, before the place fills up, to enjoy the attractions.

Next up: Ducking around in Memphis. For a look back at our visit to New Orleans, click here.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

It’s not hard to enjoy the Big Easy

If you want to feel that you’ve traveled to a foreign city without leaving the country, visit New Orleans and stay in the historic French Quarter. We made the 8-hour drive from Austin a couple of weeks ago — our first stop on a family road trip across the South — and stayed two nights in this genteel, relaxed, living-easy city.

What do you do in New Orleans? Well, you eat good food, admire the lacy ironwork and sunset-hued architecture of the Quarter, and listen to jazz players on every street corner. Doesn’t that sound nice?

The first morning we rose early to beat the heat (mission not accomplished) and strolled to the famous Cafe Du Monde, within spitting distance of the mighty Mississippi River, for an order of sugar-powdered beignets. After this decadence, we walked past Jackson Square and the magnificent St. Louis Cathedral, pictured at the top of this post.

The back of the church overlooks a plaza where fortune tellers, portrait sketch artists, and jazz bands gather, attracting throngs of tourists.

It’s a good place to people watch.

I spotted a statue near Cafe Du Monde that I recognized from 30 years ago, and asked my daughter to pose…

…echoing this 1985 photo of her much-younger mama.

I did a lot of gawking at the fern- and ivy-bedecked balconies throughout the French Quarter.

Balcony gardening is a way of life here.

I caught a glimpse of an architectural sketch in the window of one local business.

Horse-head hitching posts line streets throughout the Quarter.

When the sun grew too hot, we ducked into Napolean House for muffalettas and a Pimm’s Cup. The building is a 200-year-old landmark, its aged walls hung with dozens of portraits of its namesake.

Hotel Provincial offered a shady respite during the heat of the afternoon, with a pretty courtyard fountain…

…and two swimming pools.

The French Quarter isn’t the only neighborhood worth exploring. The Garden District also beckoned. We took a streetcar (it was, disappointingly, a less picturesque substitute bus on that day) along a pleasant, 45-minute route to reach this new-money, American-settled neighborhood (as opposed to the older, French-Creole Quarter) of glamorous, 19th-century mansions. I didn’t take a single photo, despite the beauty of the neighborhood — not even when we passed vampire novelist Anne Rice’s childhood home.

I did take photos in the spooky Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, which borders the Garden District. Established in 1833, it’s one of several “cities of the dead” found throughout the older neighborhoods. Because New Orleans sits below sea level and the water table is high, the dead weren’t buried (legend says coffins would pop out of the ground when it rained) but laid to rest in above-ground tombs that contain entire families or fraternal groups.

I’ve always loved touring old cemeteries. Ironically, they seem to bring a city’s history to life.

Plants are colonizing the tombs, gaining toeholds in crevices and crumbling mortar.

These ferns seem to grow out of bare stone.

New Orleans has plenty of spookiness to go around, and our first evening we explored the House of Voodoo, where picture-taking was forbidden — so no shrunken head pics for you (just kidding, but we did see lots of voodoo dolls).

The House of Voodoo sits across the street from what we really came for: a jazz show at Preservation Hall. I’d last been here during my college years and was ready to make another pilgrimage.

Preservation Hall hosts nightly, 45-minute concerts of traditional, swinging jazz, performed acoustically by jazz veterans. It’s open to all ages, and I’d purchased VIP tickets ahead of time so that we could get a seat right up front.

The place is charmingly rustic: a few rows of bench seating and pillows on the floor for the audience. No air conditioning — that’s right, in New Orleans in the summer. You’ll sweat through the show, but it’s worth it. Photos and video are forbidden during the performance, but here’s where the band played: trombone on the left, cornet and vocals in the middle, clarinet on the right, and piano, bass, and drums in the back.

I’ll end my New Orleans travel post with a pretty, garden-pattern dress I spotted in a shop window. Look carefully, my fellow hot-climate gardeners: those are prickly pear pads along with tropical foliage — fun!

Next up: Exhibits at Atlanta Botanical Garden and Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.