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Unexpected finds on a family road trip make the journey enjoyable

There wasn't supposed to be anything unusual about this trip.

It was time for our annual visit to the Texas grandparents — a painless flight to San Antonio, followed by a quick drive to their farm in rural Wilson County.

Then we started shopping for plane tickets and couldn't seem to find three for less than $1,000. Had we always paid so much? Maybe the price had gone up, or perhaps we were feeling more cost-conscious in these penny-pinching times.

Either way, it somehow felt like burning money to spend it on cramped seats, cheap pretzels and not even a decent memory to show for the investment.

Surely we could drive the trip for less, and see a bit of America. Our 7-year-old daughter had been begging for a road trip to see the 50 states — a good handful of them, anyway. Now was our chance.

We would give ourselves 2 1/2 days to drive from the Tampa Bay area to the farm, about 1,120 miles one way. Then we'd have to turn around and do it again to get home. But we would take our time, avoid chain hotels and fast food whenever we could, and try not to drive more than 10 hours at a stretch. We would experience a bit of Gulf Coast culture on the fly, without spending our whole vacation on the road.

We might feel a little more tired each night. And we'd hear more than we wanted to hear from the bossy lady inside our GPS. But no one would ask for a boarding pass, scan our bodies for weapons or ask us to take off our shoes.

When it was all over, we had eaten at some unique joints and seen a bit of the country we would never have witnessed on a flyover. Here's our travel log:

Leaving Tampa Bay

As often happens, we begin our vacation exhausted and late, pulling out of the driveway at 5 p.m. Tomorrow we'll be in New Orleans, but only if we get moving.

Driving up U.S. 19 toward Tallahassee, we begin to unwind as we pass through a landscape of piney woods and brilliant wildflowers. And we learn our first lesson of road-tripping: The small pleasure comes when you least expect it.

Stopping for coffee at Burger King in tiny Chiefland, population 2,095, we notice an orange tabby in the parking lot. She has clearly staked out this spot for its culinary delights, and our daughter is more than happy to share a few bites with the cat, who is promptly named Nugget.

Gulf Coast pit stops

Few sights along the Gulf Coast can match Mobile Bay for sheer drama. (Our trip was before the gulf oil disaster and we hope what we saw will remain safe from tar balls washing onshore.) As you drive down the bluff and across the causeway, the urge to pause and breathe the salt air is strong. So we stop for lunch at Felix's Fish Camp, a sprawling seafood operation right off the causeway, splash in the middle of the bay.

Our waiter is a Deep South transplant from Denmark, and he reads the daily specials in an accent that suggests one part Northern European, two parts good ol' boy. We especially like the Shotgun Shrimp basted in Thai sauce and the Grand Causeway Mixed Grill, which includes a huge, flaky crab cake on a fried green tomato, jumbo shrimp and marinated beef medallions.

The quest for a decent cup of coffee takes us on a brief jaunt down to the ocean in Long Beach, Miss., just west of Biloxi, where we find Bankhouse Coffee. The fact that java is now ground daily amid the brass and tiles of a former bank is a good indicator of the change that has reached these parts. Buy a large, iced cappuccino and drive along the beach where Hurricane Katrina flattened many of the grand Victorian homes. Bank on it: When you return years from now, the place will be hard to recognize.

24 hours in New Orleans

When we planned this venture, we intended to splurge on high New Orleans cuisine — or at least a proper gumbo and crawfish etouffee — on our only night in the city. But after a whole day in the car, our cravings are far more basic. We want comfort food at a quiet, quirky local joint. And Mona Lisa Restaurant fits the bill.

Their pizza is heavenly, with thin crust and a tangy sauce. And Mona herself gazes down from dozens of paintings — Mona in sunglasses, Mona with green hair ribbons, Mona as a cow. Get there early or be prepared to jostle with hungry locals for a table in the two narrow rooms.

We are spending the night in the venerable Caribbean-inflected St. James Hotel on the quiet edge of the French Quarter. On the way back from dinner, we leave the windows down in our cab and hear a dozen snatches of the New Orleans party scene — a little Dixieland, 10 seconds of blues, and smoking jazz. With a tired 7-year-old onboard and miles to go, we can't stop.

The next morning, we eat at a New Orleans breakfast institution: Mother's Restaurant. We step up to the counter, order a plate of eggs and spicy boudin, and grab some hot coffee. Some people stop by on their way home from the bars. First meal of the day or last, it's all good.

Cajun country

Some local pleasures are far from the beaten path. But Breaux Bridge is hidden in plain sight on Bayou Teche, just minutes from the chain hotels off I-10 west of Baton Rouge. Drive 15 minutes and find yourself in the heart of Cajun Louisiana.

We stay at the charming Maison Des Amis, a restored Creole cottage from the 1860s. The walls are thin and the floorboards creak, but those are small sacrifices compared to the pleasure of spending a night on the bayou amid the crickets and bullfrogs, deep in the 19th century.

Breakfast at a local cafe is included in the price, and on Saturday it's an outright sin to miss the Zydeco breakfast at Cafe Des Amis down the street. By 7:30 a.m., locals and tourists line up down the block for a chance at mimosas, boudin omelettes and a bracing dawn hoedown, Louisiana-style. If you miss a table for the first sitting, scarf down a few beignets at the bar and work up an appetite on the dance floor.

East Texas delights

Roaring along I-10, it's easy to judge east Texas as a billboard-choked wasteland. Unfair! West of Houston, nearly every exit opens onto the Lone Star State's hidden European heritage. One town boasts locally made German sausage and beer, another Polish kielbasa and pierogies.

We stop in Schulenburg at the Original Kountry Bakery for Czech delights that have been passed down through the generations to lure the weary traveler. Who needs a Big Mac when you can have sausage wrapped in a fresh, flaky pastry? And who can resist a cream cheese puff or poppy seed kolache with coffee for the road? Certainly not us.

And if you must succumb to the billboard call, do it Texan-style with a stop at Buc-ee's. Whoever dreamed up the idea of a devilish beaver luring visitors into this tourist trap knew a thing or two about kids and long road trips. Even mystified French tourists can be heard trying to figure out the aisles of candy, tourist trinkets and beaver-emblazoned T-shirts. Quoi? We pass on the dizzying varieties of jerky and get off easy with a Coke slushy. Just try to drive by.

And then, we arrive at our destination, not too much worse for the wear but happy to be out of the car. A stack of books and car games like Twenty Questions entertained our daughter between the restaurants and local sights. Now she's got the open spaces of the farm to let off steam.

And we have six days before heading back.

The Florida homestretch

If the road out of town is liberating, the road back feels like the Long March; time has a way of slowing down on the trip home. But drive strong and stick to the game plan of seeking out local pleasures. Don't let a moment of fast-food weakness provide the trip's last memory.

We stumble on Mom & Dad's Italian Restaurant in DeFuniak Springs west of Tallahassee at the tail end of a nine-hour drive. It's our last night on the road before we hit Tampa Bay. We want what they have: fresh food, cooked simply. That means crisp salad, chicken tenders for the kiddo, hot pasta and steaks, and cold beer. If there was any doubt walking in the door, the jammed parking lot settles the matter.

Driving south on U.S. 19 through Chiefland on a Sunday, we need one more treat — something to cap off our journey. The Yum Yum Shoppe catches our attention

There's no Yum Yum Shoppe off I-75, and no 40 flavors of Working Cow ice cream and free WiFi. You'll only find it if you're not rushing down the pike. We took our cones as the final, sweet reward on our road less traveled: our just desserts.

Tom Marshall can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. Shary Marshall is a Times correspondent.

Unexpected finds on a family road trip make the journey enjoyable 06/02/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 2, 2010 1:35pm]
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