Category Archives: Other Trips Across The U.S. and Beyond

Blowin’ ‘round NOLA

New Orleans French Quarter

Blowin’ ‘round NOLA on a 3-day family trip

The late playwright Tennessee Williams is credited for saying, “America has only three great cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

In other words, our nation has only three standouts, the rest are pretty much the same. Sorry L.A., D.C., et al, there’s nothing particularly special about you, according to this famous quote.

So having never been to New Orleans, I had to see for myself if it was a cut above the rest.

Going into any trip, you have preconceived expectations. For New Orleans, I anticipated great music, food, architecture …and glimpses into the seedy side of life, which might be eye-opening for my coddled teenagers.

It was the week before Christmas when we arrived to experience this town otherwise known as NOLA (short for New Orleans, Louisiana) and The Big Easy on a long list of nicknames. After an all-day drive, we checked in late to our hotel just across Canal Street and The French Quarter. We needed food fast so we stepped outside and looked left then right. We only saw a sign for chicken so we blew down a dark and narrow street to get fried chicken. Once inside, we realized it was a liquor store. I don’t know if it was because we were so hungry that the rubber sole of a shoe would have hit the spot or not but that was some damn tasty chicken. I even woke up halfway through the night to steal my wife’s leftover piece.

Royal St Charles Hotel New Orleans

That’s when I must have knocked my prescription sunglasses onto the floor.

By the way, I don’t cuss a whole lot but I had a standing deal with my kids that whenever they heard a bad word uttered from my lips, they would each get a buck.

That morning, I walked through the cramped hotel room and heard plastic crack at my feet.


“Dad, you owe us both twelve dollars.” (Laughter)


“Dad, now its times two.” (More laughter)

So we went to a nearby drugstore for superglue. On the way around the corner we stepped past some sleeping bodies and weaved between those awake with their hands out. This was the business district and a whole lot of transactions were already taking place.

When we were walking out of the drugstore, a man with a burgeoning backpack whisked by us with store management hot on his heels urging backpack man to stop and return all that he took. They had him dead to rights but he just kept walking – more like leisurely strolling – along the sidewalk on Canal Street in broad daylight with a deaf ear.

Translation: “Whatchoo gonna do about it?”

The answer apparently was cease pursuit and watch your merchandise fade out of sight.

Welcome to New Orleans!

Friends of ours, we learned after booking our trip, were staying at a nearby hotel at the same time. They were frequent visitors to this storied town. We couldn’t have had better ambassadors to escort us. We hopped a couple of cabs and headed through the French Quarter to the far side of the Bywater neighborhood to Elizabeth’s Restaurant for breakfast. On the drive I had a nice conversation sitting next to our Haitian cabbie.

Elizabeths Restaurant New Orleans

Elizabeth’s was as down home as it sounds. It was definitely off the beaten path and not a place we would have thought to seek on our own. This corner house-turned restaurant was at the edge of an aging neighborhood just a stone’s throw from a very high concrete levy. We walked into the joint and it screamed character from the get-go. After we read the menu we read the walls. They were littered with the works of a famed local artist known as Doctor Bob. You can see him in Katrina documentaries. By the time we left, two words were forever cooked into our brains – Praeline Bacon!

Out on the street corner, we decided to walk to the French Quarter. Our friends said we could blow up this street or down that. “That” being the one that would take us to Doctor Bob’s art studio.

It was a no-brainer.

Past a wavy metal graffiti-filled wall and across from the giant metal praying mantis lurking above a small abandoned brick building slapped with a fresh coat of paint was Dr. Bob’s place. We followed some non-lit neon arrows across the fenced in compound past a pile of debris that had old sinks, doors and who knows what else and entered the shop. It smelled like someone just finished a wake and bake.

If I had a truck filled with money, I would have dumped the money and loaded the art. Dr. Bob’s creations certainly had a twist.

Outside, I was drawn to the backyard featuring colorful giant metal roosters, a half dozen plywood tables and spray paint cans littered about. There was also an interesting old shipping container painted purple with windows and awnings painted yellow, blue, green and red.

That’s when this wiry dude appeared from across the lot with his pit bull mix not far behind. The seven of us gathered around him and his pulpit – a wood workhorse with tall weathered boards stretching high above as a backdrop next to a rusty yellow gas pump from bygone days. The wind-whipped gray-haired man with blue jeans thickly smeared with different colored paint flashed a charismatic smile and delivered a sermon full of laughs and politically incorrect commentary. We hung on his every word. It was a ball for all. And it wasn’t even until halfway through the conversation that I realized this was Dr. Bob.

A lady drove into the lot, got out and expressed exasperation about her fight for the cause.  Dr. Bob explained the threat of developers bent on constructing high rise condos pointing just past his compound.

“There goes the neighborhood!”

He walked us to the curb after a hearty and memorable conversation and wished us well, making recommendations you won’t find in the tour books.

He reached for a smoke, laughing, “See that little old building there? I pelted that sucker with marbles and watched the riffraff scatter and then I gathered up about twenty packs of Marlboro.”

We walked past the black Santas near the curb, turned, smiled and waved bye to one of the most authentic and delightful personalities NOLA has to offer.

There was something about walking the old neighborhood residential streets back to the French Quarter that made me feel like I was in a town with its own identity – and we hadn’t even scratched the surface.

French Quarter New Orleans

The French Quarter is the oldest neighborhood in the city. Most of the buildings were erected in the late 18th Century under Spanish rule. This was after the Quarter’s old French Colonial architecture was destroyed in the two great fires of 1788 and 1794. The ensuing architecture incorporated a lot of lacy wrought and cast iron balconies. Most buildings were then made of brick to safeguard against fire. It combined French and Spanish styles with a touch of Caribbean influence, too. In the late 19th Century, the French Quarter nearly became known as the Italian Quarter. It had become a less desirable area and was flooded with Italian immigrants.

A man standing in front of an Italian restaurant sounded like a carnival barker, when he yelled, “Step inside for the best cannoli in town.”

So we did. And when we told our waitress that’s all we came in for, she was taken aback and said with surprise, “Are you serious?”

Having Italian blood we make a point to taste cannoli in every town. Cannoli is an Italian pastry with fried dough rolled around a ricotta cheese filling but the quality and types are wide-ranging. Nothing that I’ve ever tried beats Mike’s Pastry in Boston and I’ve been to Italy. This place had respectable cannoli but it cost the seven of us $70, including tip.

We walked off our sugary lunch by doing some shopping in the French Market. This spanned about six blocks featuring an open air flea market accented with a political peddler with a stand in the street selling antigovernment paraphernalia and obscene political satire under a sign that read in part, “…telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” The man mimicked Uncle Sam complete with loud red and white pinstripes to go with his rhetoric.

Street performers filled Jackson Square. Little did most know, there was a time when entertainment in the Square centered upon public hangings. The Square is named after former President Andrew Jackson for leading the famous Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. Bustling energy danced through the throngs of people coming from all walks of life. Jazz musicians were spread about performing with hats out for donations. We took a load off, sat along a curb and just enjoyed the sounds echoing around us.

The streets were alive with the sound of music.

A magician plucked my son from the crowd to assist him in his impromptu act. A crowd wrapped around as his performance built. When it reached its climax, everyone was stunned and delighted. Then just like that, the whole scene dispersed. Walk a quarter block in any direction and similar scenes replicated on and off across the Square all day long.

Our shopping and sightseeing culminated at a couple of Voodoo shops and museum before readying for our second wind. To kick off the evening, we blew with the Mississippi River breeze to gaze out at the nostalgic riverboats and their giant bright red paddle wheels. Our paths crossed a couple of painted men frozen in time. A crowd looked on with smiles as a young boy struck up his pose facing such a man and a staring contest began. Eventually we worked our way back to Jackson Square but this time from an elevated view that had an equestrian statue of Jackson framed with the gorgeously lit backdrop of the St. Louis Cathedral.

The Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France (St. Louis Cathedral) marks the heart of New Orleans standing tall amongst the surrounding historic neighborhoods with three stunning steeples. It is one of the oldest cathedrals in the United States. You can hear its bells toll for saints and sinners both albeit probably more so for the sinners of the city.

As festive as the Quarter is by day, the activity and crowds compound at night. Bourbon Street was thumping as street musicians filled the air inside and outside with jazz performances – some were absolutely incredible drawing crowds ten people deep along the curb. Then a lonely sword swallower asked for my son’s assistance. Passers-bye stopped to gawk briefly as this man did as you’d expect to the chorus of, “Oh gosh” and “Ohhh nooo!”

We walked away wondering why our son was a favorite catch for buskers (street performers) to have assist them with their craft.

At dinner I tried to keep my eyes in their sockets as I read the menu. If the rest of our meals were going to bring the same sticker shock, I’d be panhandling by the end of the trip. But as you would expect from New Orleans faire, it was worth it or so I convinced myself.

Back at Jackson Square we just missed joining a Second Line. This is when a jazz band strikes up an impromptu parade making up the First Line. Those who fall in and follow behind are the Second Line. Nonetheless, fun was to be had everywhere. As it was the week before Christmas, we joined hundreds of others singing carols in the Square to kill time before our ghost tour.

During the ghost tour, we saw a very large Second Line parade shimmy by with loud music and lots of twirling and dancing in the street before it trailed off and our guide could recapture our attention. Not long after, he was again interrupted by a makeshift parade of drunken carolers exuberantly singing, “…O come, let us adore Him…” from the song O Come All Ye Faithful. It was a pretty funny sight of contrast. The kids found it particularly amusing and realized New Orleans was a party town like no other.

The tour itself, despite the entertaining interruptions, was chock full of intrigue. Our guide was a master at his storytelling craft and entertained us as much as he informed us.

We walked the dark streets to pause at the façade of one chilling tale after another but none as horrific as at 1140 Royal Street. This was the home of Madame Lalaurie. If you think the depiction of her in the television show American Horror Story: Coven was bad, wait ‘til you get a load of the real Madame’s story. The Lalaurie Mansion is widely considered the most haunted site in the French Quarter. And trust me, it’s in good company.

This enigmatic infamous woman had beauty and prestige. But beneath the surface she was a cruel cold-blooded murderess. After a fire, firefighters discovered a secret door to a torture chamber. In it were slave bodies found in small cages or chained to walls and operating tables. Tales say body parts filled buckets, torture tools were strewn about, a woman was gutted and had her insides wrapped around her waist, a man had a hole drilled into his head so his brains could be stirred, another was trapped in a tiny cage with many broken bones that were forced to reset at odd angles, a woman had excrement sewn into her mouth and on and on news of the hideous atrocities of Madame Lalaurie spread across the Quarter like a plague. Before an angry mob charged the mansion, the Madame had disappeared never to be seen again.

On our slow walk back to our hotel, a lone guitarist by the name of Joe Shedlo perched at a dark and solemn street corner crooning the lyrics of Christmas in Prison. I bought his CD.

Umbrellas in hand, we ventured into the elements the following morning. From the smell up and down Canal Street, there was a lot of waking and baking going on. We had another great meal to kick start a waterlogged day that began with all things – a swamp tour!

Once wrapped with rain gear, we boarded an airboat. Our Cajun guide grumbled aloud about the lousy weather and pressure to find us an alligator. That’s when I let ‘em off the hook and simply said we were here more so for the boat ride than wildlife. He smiled in relief and warmed up to us. This guy seemed to have a screw loose and before we knew it, we were stuck in the swamp and he had to radio for rescue. Back in action, damn, that airboat could fly! The tiny rain drops felt like hail pelting my face as we zoomed up and down swamp channels sometimes creating paths where there weren’t any before. I winked at my wife when we zipped past signs that read, “No Airboats” and “No Trespassing.”

When we stopped for stories, it was like this dude was an old drinking buddy who had no filter. He told stories that were probably inappropriate for our PG-13 tagalongs but hey, this is New Orleans, right? Whatever the case, he was a hoot and we enjoyed the ride …every bit of it (minus the wet and cold and not seeing an alligator). On our way back to the airboat shack we started from, our Cajun guide left the waterway altogether with our airboat and climbed onto dry land up a ridge and continued as if we were in a Star Wars land speeder. For the girls on the edge overlooking the ridge concern for them and their children rushed through their veins. I just laughed the whole way. I’ll admit, I looked back once to make sure my light-as-a-feather son didn’t blow out. It’s not like we had seat belts or anything to secure us.

We slowed to a stop, turned and the front of the airboat dangled over the edge of the ridge for a moment. Then, we plunged down totally submerging the floor which quickly popped above water again. We had to be quick to lift our feet to avoid the brief rush of water.

The guide looked at me on the sly and asked, “That is what you wanted, right?”

I laughed a reassuring, “Yes.”

As we pulled in, our guide spoke loudly as if this ride had been normal, “Please keep your hands and feet in the boat until it comes to a complete stop.”

I’m not sure if people around the dock realized why our guide’s professional sounding safety advice produced so much laughter from our group.

I tipped him pretty generously for the memorable experience.

Our combo package included a tour of a nearby plantation. But as fate would have it, the folks there were not expecting us and had closed in preparation for a large event. Our bus operator quickly problem-solved and gained access to one of the top-two plantations in the area – Oak Alley. He asked if it was okay. I resoundingly said yes because that’s the plantation I most wanted to see anyway but the combo tour was too economical to pass up.

The drive there was pretty long, clearly why it wasn’t part of a package. Our bus guide, a 73-year-old NOLA native, proved to be a treasure trove of information in that time.

The rain parted soon after we arrived at Oak Alley plantation. Just getting to see the towering oak groves of 300+ year old oak trees alone was worth the trip.

Once inside this time capsule, a Creole man took charge of our group and talked with such an authentic accent, it made us feel like we were his personal guests. He dressed the part and walked us from room to room talking about life on this plantation through its years.

Creoles are those who descend directly from colonial settlers of Louisiana prior to the Louisiana Purchase. It means Native born. Their roots are commonly French or Spanish. And they don’t think too kindly of Americans. NOLA Creole culture is most recognized in the cuisine. Many restaurants offer staples such as Gumbo, red beans and rice and Jambalaya.

What makes Oak Alley so unique is the double row of southern live oak trees stretching some 800 feet framing the plantation mansion. Oddly, the trees were planted well before the house was built. Although the variety of stories about the historic plantation’s past residents, slaves, their quarters, etc. was interesting, the fact that free blacks in Louisiana were also slave owners threw me for a loop. Granted, some bought slaves to free or care for them but some didn’t.

Oak Alley Plantation Oak Grove

Back in the French Quarter, we walked to dinner. Along the way, I took note of the water running through the streets where mini trenches were designed in the brick and stonework to carry away waste tossed out by the buckets from upper story windows before modern sanitation. Maybe that thought hung with me and that’s why I didn’t find my meal as tasty as I might. Because I just nibbled at it, it drew questions from family, friends and even the waiter. I was embarrassed by the unwanted attention but even then, I just couldn’t eat what was on my plate. My wife’s plate, however, was a different story. Anyway, I insisted it was just me and not the food but against my will, the waiter removed the charge from the bill. This may have been fate penalizing me for avoiding traditional local dishes our friends had recommended. Well, lesson learned.

Our evening entertainment was at the legendary Preservation Hall. Standing in line a homeless guy asked one of our friends for money for food.

Our friend nodded toward the pizza parlor that happened to be next to us and said, “Step inside and I’ll buy you a slice.”

The homeless man quickly said he was tired of pizza but if he had money he could get something else down the street. I don’t know that that something else was going to be food but he got his dough to do with as he pleased.

Preservation Hall was a hole in the wall kind of place but in an awesome artistic kind of way. They jammed us in until seats were gone and then lined the floor no doubt ignoring any fire regulations for room capacity I suspected. Thank goodness our friends knew to get tickets in advance so we could be one of the first to enter. Our group was split and placed in several locations within the small chamber.

This place was chewed up, spit out, flipped over, and torn into a dozen or more times over or so it seemed. But you just knew it was dripping with a history that made it one of the most beautiful landmarks in the Big Easy. Then walked in the band. They squeezed in front of everyone and let it rip. By “it” I mean Traditional New Orleans Jazz. It was music to my ears – everybody’s ears.

Preservation-Hall New Orleans French Quarter

On our last day in town our friends were departing so we ventured out on our own. I was running low on tip cash so I used a bank machine inside the hotel and shoved some twenties into my wallet knowing I had to break those bills down.

As soon as I walked through the hotel doors onto the sidewalk, I was face-to-face with a homeless man asking me for 47 cents. I have no idea why he asked for such a strange amount unless he figured he’d end up with a buck. But I didn’t have a buck, let alone change, only twenties and he wasn’t getting that.

I would have otherwise ignored him but we were face-to-face so I smiled and said I didn’t have cash on hand but I would later so if I see him again, I’ll be happy to help out. By this time, my whole family was bunched up along the curb by this man so I began to walk away to create room for everyone.

“You won’t all always be together,” the man yelled at us, waving his finger in a threatening manner.

Now I know he probably wasn’t playing with a full deck but I couldn’t help myself.

I stopped, turned around and said, “Did you just threaten my family?”

He proceeded to shout at me and called me N-this and N-that (which probably confused the heck out my kids) and walked by us heading in the same direction as we were. For the entire block he kept turning and berating me verbally. I think the kids were scared. He crossed Canal Street so we decided to walk a block before we crossed. But first, I paused to see which way he was going to head on the other side. He turned and scanned my side of the street until he found me. Then he waved me over in sharp motions as if to say, “Bring it on!”

I laughed to myself and walked away.

Curiously, there wasn’t a crowd waiting to get inside the Ruby Slipper Restaurant. A young guy out front said they had a fire and wouldn’t be opening. We were redirected to the one on Magazine Street so we backtracked and blew that way. Once we ordered I headed to the rest room.

When I opened the door, a young employee looked beside himself and said, “You can’t come any closer, someone blew chunks everywhere.”

Miraculously, I was able to clear my mind of that and had a great breakfast.

Lafayette Cemetery No 1 Garden District New Orleans

Later, we took a cab to The Garden District for a tour of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. We had been warned to not explore cemeteries – even by day – unless you were with a group. Some of them are unbelievably huge and every burial site is above ground because you can’t dig down and not hit water. This created a paradise for muggers.

We watched tour group after tour group gather and depart when finally a little old lady asked in a gravelly voice, “Are you my tour?”

Apparently so.

At first, I didn’t know what to make of our 81-year-old, four foot eleven guide. She was very kind and thanked us about 16 times for coming despite the weather.

She stumbled and said, “That’ll happen when you have too much to drink in the morning.”

I hoped that she was kidding.

“Can I persuade someone to carry my bag for me?” she asked giving puppy dog eyes to my teenage daughter. My daughter reluctantly accepted and held the lady’s purse.

This guide was good. She was real good. I could overhear some younger guides in nearby groups and they had a command about them but the information didn’t match the level of knowledge and style of delivery we were getting. She even wobbled over and corrected another tour guide from another company in front of his group. It was hilarious.

“Watch your step. Don’t trip,” she often cautioned like a grandma might.

“Did I say I’m really glad you all came even with the threat of rain?”

“I’m glad this is such a small group so I can take my sweet time and just talk.”

Those were just a few quips of the many she dropped along the way. Her storytelling was so much slower paced and personable than the other guides buzzing about. Her tales were very interesting. We learned why burial sites were above ground and had multiple people laid to rest in each. She told us of movies like Interview with a Vampire that were filmed there.

“You can check these motion pictures out at your local library.”

Lafayette Cemetery Number One

We also learned the ins and outs of a jazz funeral. At times, people hung on the edge of our group – which consisted of our family of four and one other lady. They were also hanging on our guide’s every word.

“You can join our group for just the cemetery portion of the tour for five dollars,” she’d bargain.

Every time the freeloaders quickly disappeared.

We learned she was of Sicilian descent with some Irish too. And we learned she could be feisty in an enduring way when she told us of a dashing young Spanish guide who once stole her tour.

“I wanted to wring his neck!”

As we walked the sidewalks of impressive mansions in the surrounding neighborhood she told us about her chance meeting with actor John Goodman and other famous people who stayed at or owned this house or that.

During our leisurely walk with this wonder woman she even described her personal experience living through Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath and recovery.

“We have a very nice young Spanish man in our neighborhood who is a contractor and the other girls and I decided to go with him to rebuild our homes. All of us but Doris. Doris did her research and went with the best outfit. Our homes were done better than ever soon after but poor Doris. Her people took her money and blew out of town with a job half done.”

When our 10 minute goodbye finally parted us, she pointed us to where we could catch the St. Charles Streetcar to get back to Canal Street.

St Charles Streetcar New Orleans Trolley

Still in the upscale neighborhood I noticed trees sparkling along the streetcar line. They had more beads than branches and leaves. Strings of beads are part of the Mardi Gras parades and festivities. They are often thrown from floats to parade goers. Mardi Gras is a wild season of celebration throughout New Orleans. Its biggest day is called Fat Tuesday which is the day before Ash Wednesday on the Christian calendar.

The streetcar stopped somewhere around the World War II Museum. The operator explained that she can’t continue because it lost its brakes. We waited a bit and eventually another streetcar came and we emptied ours to board it.

Our three-day family trip blowin’ ‘round New Orleans finished at Mother’s Restaurant where they say its cafeteria style but it wasn’t really. Basically, you get your menu, stand in a line, order your food and then they bring it to whatever table you find. I finally tried my luck at some Creole food and loved it.

So, with a three-day stay in one of America’s only three great cities, according to the late playwright Tennessee Williams, I have to say, there’s no place like New Orleans, Louisiana.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Mississipi River Boat

First Time Cruisers

sandy beach with palm trees

When we decided to take our first cruise, I couldn’t help but think of the horror stories. There was the guy I knew that spent the week puking more than his body weight. There was the ship that infected half its passengers with a virus. How about the vessel that tipped over or the one that lost all power out at sea?

My wife and I were going to celebrate our 20-year anniversary and suburban peer pressure said dinner and a movie wasn’t going to cut it. Besides, you could get real bargains for cruises. So I went to Triple-A and initially, it seemed we could budget both a cruise and a family vacation this year.

Do you want a balcony or interior cabin? Balcony. Food plan, drink plan, tips prepaid – yes, yes, yes. After all of the extras we threw in with the excuse, “It’s our anniversary,” the family vacation got axed from the annual budget. A cruise meant updating my summer wardrobe. Something I don’t do very often. Add that to my wife’s clothing bounty and the expense grew deeper along with the snow we were still shoveling at home in Ohio.

The possibility of bad flying weather had us plan a night in Ft. Lauderdale prior to the launch of our cruise. My best friend from the Army whom I roomed with in Germany lived just up the Florida coast. This enabled us to reunite after 20 years. The last time I saw him was when I drove to Florida for spring break during my college years but that’s a story for another time. Anyway, our flight out of Ohio was set for early Sunday morning. With the recommendation to get to the airport two hours before boarding, we scrambled out of the house at 2:00 a.m., leaving the kids with their grandparents.

When we arrived at the park and ride lot, one of the shuttle buses got in an accident.

Our driver sighed and said, “This is his first day on the job, too.”

I half-jokingly asked if it would be his last day. She said, yes. We all felt bad for the guy.

Once we were inside the airport, my wife cracked, “Whew, good thing we got here when we did!”

empty airport terminal

Instead of a cricket chirping an old guy on top of his floor sweeper slowly hummed in a circle pattern nearby. Every ticketing terminal was lifeless. The workers hadn’t even clocked in yet.

After a long layover in Washington D.C., we arrived in Florida. That’s when my worst fear came true. All that crap we bought for the trip – two suitcases full – was nowhere in sight. The baggage claim had one last bag circling round and round and it wasn’t ours! We asked an airport employee what we should do now and he pointed us to an office.

When we approached the door, my wife gasped, “Our bags!”

We grabbed them (one had a torn handle) and headed for the shuttle. It was a long walk and then a long wait as we just missed our hotel’s bus. The next one came and went when we allowed some older people to fill it. Then, we really waited a long time. But our wait was sort of fun because we hit it off with a lady traveling from Maine to partake on a cruise for Insanity workout gurus. We laughed about their having to get up at the crack of dawn every morning for a group workout.

Our paths crossed again with our chipper Insanity travel friend. We had all walked to a nearby drug store to restock some things that were confiscated at the outbound airport such as a tube of toothpaste which was in a bag that we didn’t intend to be a carry-on. Plus, we heard you could bring a couple bottles of wine onto the cruise so we bought some cheap stuff (the best stuff you can buy in a drug store). The following morning, we joked about our bad wine to the customs guy and he smiled and said there’s no such thing. But that’s jumping ahead.

moody sea at dusk

The night before we sailed meant being reunited with my best friend from the Army and his dear wife – a Canadian girl – that we had befriended in Germany. The four of us ate dinner and then grabbed more drinks at a place we remembered partying at 20 years earlier. As it grew deeper into the night, the historic beach town grew rowdier.

Police were sent to our niche club to settle down some people getting out of hand. We took it as our middle-aged queue to leave. Entering our parking garage were some real hellions. We knew of a side door to the basement where we had to park. It enabled us to get ahead of the vandals. But as we got to the car, we heard them coming our way. The hellions kicked out a headlight on a parked car just before we slowly rolled by them. The moment was tense as they stared at us, contemplating their next move and us doing the same. It seemed fitting to have a bit of an abnormal night with my old partner in crime, so-to-speak.

caribbean cruise ship

Once we boarded the cruise ship, I felt a bit claustrophobic. My wife suggested we explore each deck. Soon thereafter, we learned to bypass the casino because by the time you reached the other side, your eyes were red and your hair and clothes smelled like an ashtray. Anyway, moving out onto the open air decks is what I needed to acclimate my sea legs and clear my lungs. I couldn’t believe the size of the ship and all that was on it. There were several pools, bars and restaurants galore, stages and other entertainment areas, a grand theatre, you-name-it. The passengers were a nice variety of all ages.

Quickly, I realized why so many people cruised regularly. For an entire week, you are treated like royalty. The friendly service is second to nowhere. In fact, the total passenger to staff ratio was 2 to 1 and the food services staff alone was a 3 to 1 ratio.

My wife had done a tremendous amount of research online, for fun, about our ship well in advance. She revealed a little known fact just as we were shoving off. On a certain floor, in the bow – front – of the ship, there was an open air deck that almost nobody knew about. Even I was hesitant to go through the door at the end of the hall just beyond where the interior hall bends. Although unmarked, it whispered, you aren’t supposed to be here. But it was unmarked. Nothing said we couldn’t use it, so we did.

And it was exactly as billed. What a find! Nobody was there. Every other deck was 10 people deep with passengers waiving and snapping photos as the ship left port. And there we were with a huge private deck to ourselves. I wandered around it and up to a balcony but my wife stayed close to the door. Her good girl instincts said that despite what she read, this was not right. After I moseyed against a metal railing that seemed way more old-school than the rest of the decks, I paused to look at the decks above. I was in full sight of the glass walled gym, and other decks with a full and probably puzzling view of me! That’s when I decided to retreat before security got to me. Besides, by that point I realized I wouldn’t be able to coax my wife to reenact the “I’m the king of the world” scene from the movie Titanic.

We signed up for a dinner plan that had us eat at a set time each night in a designated dining room. This meant no waiting but you had to be on time. Oh, and you sat at a table with other people who would be your dinner company every night. It could be anyone so in looking at some of the passengers, I started to rethink the pros vs. cons. Fortunately our dinner companions couldn’t have been better. Hopefully they felt the same. Every evening with them was filled with laughs and enjoyable conversation.

Every other day, we landed at an island to explore. On two of them, we had booked special excursions. One included a mishap while horseback riding and on the other we stood out as THAT couple while on a dune buggy ride. More about those incidents in a moment.

Our days and nights on board were filled with activities. From sunrises at sea to walking several laps around the ship on the Promenade deck, we digested breakfasts so large I never thought I’d move again. Afternoon pizza and drinks out on the sun decks with regular entertainment kept us busy all day. In fact, just about anywhere at any given hour, there were activities, contests or entertainment of some sort. It was like Las Vegas on a boat.

The best part was the nighttime headlining acts. Come early enough and you could get the best seats in the house. We saw a first-rate comedian, a magician that finished highest ever on America’s Got Talent (at the time), and singing and dancing acts from around the world. Quieter settings included retreats to lounges to hear Jazz or watch a fun show. For dancing there were Caribbean starlit deck parties. In the wee hours you could take a moonlit swim. Movies played on screens throughout as well. And if island shopping wasn’t enough, there seemed to be plenty of stores on board as well offering bargains. Most days were spent in swimming trunks or shorts and evenings in business casual or semi-formal attire.

Our first excursion was on a small island that had not fully recovered from a hurricane. As we were transported to a remote corner of what was still a tropical paradise, you could see where some former homes were now shelled out buildings or stone fenced yards with no structure left within it at all. Upon arriving at the beach stable for our horseback riding adventure, we were instructed where to go to use the restroom beforehand. When I was done, I came out a bit embarrassed and said the toilet won’t flush. That’s when an island girl, a bit embarrassed, said that’s what she’s there for. And then she entered the latrine with a bucket of water.

The gentlemen – boys really – handling the horses were so loving life. Their laughter was infectious. Our first ride was on land and on sand. We saddled up and trotted uphill and down learning how to lean forward or back in the saddle. I had never ridden a horse by myself before. Of course, I got a horse with a mind of its own. He’d stop on a hill and decide to snack on the grass holding everyone up. When I dug my heels into his side and pulled the reigns, he cocked his head to look at me. I could swear he gave me an evil eye as if to say, “You wait, buddy!”

Ironically, my wife had a horse named Frenzy but Placid would have been more fitting.

horseback riding on caribbean island

After a pretty lengthy ride which I was more than ready to end, our guides removed saddles, replacing each with nothing more than a pad. It was time to ride the horses along the beach basically bareback and into the water. We only went four at a time for this ride plus two horses with guides. I wasn’t aware of the short strap for holding in front of me. I just played with the reigns. So when the guide unexpectedly hollered and the horses went into a full charge in the water, I was hanging on for dear life. I felt like it was a timed ride in a rodeo. And it was only a matter of time – not much by the way – before I knew I was going for a swim. I thought I might get trampled by the three horses on my tail so when I came off that thing, I did it with gusto to try and splash clear of danger.

When I came up out of the water, you’d think maybe I’d be humiliated but I have to say, it was exhilarating. The 13-year-old boy, who had been chasing us all over that morning on foot, snapping photos for sale, ran into the water with an ear-to-ear grin. I threw my arms up and made the most of the picturesque moment. Then one of the guides helped me back onto my horse. That’s when I noticed a look in my horses eye like, “I told you I’d get you.” My horse charged like the dickens again, thundering through the water. It was a wild ride with lots of splashing. Then we turned around, barely slowing to do so, and charged back the way we came. This back and forth repeated several times. It was pure fun! So much so, I did not mind losing my prescription sunglasses. One of the guides later found them anyway.

So, making a spectacle of me had caught the attention and funny bone of everyone. It wouldn’t be the last time during our trip that all eyes fixated on my shenanigans. But before I explain the next island’s mishap, I have to mention another secret getaway that we found.

When we came back to the resort area it was thick with sunbathers. We decided to walk the beach for a while. A band of younger people had the same idea. We wrapped around a corner of the island out of sight from the masses and kept going. Eventually, even the college-aged kids stopped in a remote area to snorkel. But we pressed on to a soft sandy area with absolutely no one near us. The hours of afternoon peeled away, effortlessly, much like my skin later.

shell on beach

On another island, we had signed up for a dune buggy tour. About a dozen dune buggies went off road on some rough terrain. At the first stop, you could hear almost every wife quipping about their husband’s driving as we sat two to each dune buggy. We saw a couple of landmarks and then came terrain that even the guides warned about. As we drove on in a single file line, a rather large mud puddle swallowed the path just before a hill we needed to ascend. My thinking was, finally, we get to really dune buggy.

I slowed enough to allow plenty of open space between our dune buggy and the one in front of us. Then, I opened it up, pedal to the metal, and hit that water filled crater so hard that the couple behind us couldn’t stop laughing about it.

muddy dune buggy ride

“If you could have seen what we saw,” started the husband once we reached our next destination. “Mud and water shot like a tidal wave out of every side. It was absolutely hysterical.”

We knew because most of the water and mud shot up from underneath our dune buggy. There’s no floor so we got it all in the most unexpected direction. And it smelled! Oh did it smell! Fortunately, we ended up at a slice of heavenly beach with no one except our group on it. It allowed us the opportunity to go get a saltwater bath to clean off. Then, we hiked into the rocks for vantage points that say, yep, you’ve found secluded Caribbean island paradise.

rocky caribbean island beach

On the way back, it was as if the other husbands noted my bit o’crazy and upped the ante. The winner of the craziest dune buggy rider went hands down to the guy that darn near ended his marriage by purposely taking a turn wide then sharp putting the dune buggy on two wheels. His wife was so close to the ground before all four wheels finally touched again – and we weren’t sure that’s the direction it was going to go – you just knew he was in for it later.

On the day before our cruise ended, we received our disembark time and location to leave the ship, get our luggage and go through customs. It’s a good thing we looked because they had my wife and me separating and departing the ship at two different times and locations. We called and it was changed. That would have been disastrous knowing the rat race that ensued the following morning.

When we made it to the airport, we found out that our flight was rerouted, as were much of the flights, due to severe weather blanketing Florida. As we waited at our gate, we recognized a lady across from us. It was our Insanity cruise “friend” from the first day shuttle and hotel. But she looked a little off. We asked how her fitness cruise went.

She struggled to say, “I spent the week sick as a dog,” while trying to show that cheerful face we enjoyed so much at the beginning of the week.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Pelee, The Island Of Laughter

Pelee Island Lighhouse

By Frank Rocco Satullo,
Your Tour Guide to Fun

Our first trip to a lesser traveled Great Lakes’ island started with horror and then built into a wonderful week of fun and adventure for everyone. The memories and storytelling of our visit to Lake Erie’s largest island are why we’ve made it a repeat trip. It’s kind of ironic considering nothing happens fast on Pelee Island. But it allows our extended family quality time together, which is what this kind of vacation is supposed to do.

Before I share the entertaining tale of the attack of the blood thirsty black flies, let’s start at the beginning of this island adventure.

Most of us couldn’t stomach the ferry ride to Pelee Island. It was nighttime and Lake Erie was white capping. Grandma regretted her sugary snack and cup of coffee. Her eyes fixated at the bottom of a bag. The contents of her stomach followed. The boys returned from the bow, soaked head to toe. They were having the time of their lives facing uncertainty on the high seas.

The next day, we awoke at our beachfront rental to sunny skies and waves that were still pretty big. We swam, diving into the breaking waves all morning. Then, we noticed swimming companions peeking out from the water, shooting from waves, doing wild wrapping rituals on the beach. They were Lake Erie water snakes; an endangered species but you wouldn’t have known that from looking around. Pelee Island was a haven for them as well as the endangered blue racer snake. It’s the only place in Canada you will see either of those two snakes. Another endangered snake on the island is the eastern foxsnake. Anyway, after seeing several water snakes near me in the water, I beached myself but the kids were having too much fun to care.


Pelee Island was perfect for bicycle riding an afternoon away so that’s what we decided to do. Our destination was to be an old lighthouse built nearly 200 years ago. Before we set out, we all took turns spraying each other with bug repellent.

“I swear they’re biting me more after I put the repellent on than before,” I complained to my wife.  She said it was my imagination. Maybe it was.

It was time to go and Grandma, my mom, zoomed ahead. She lives life like she’s forever 12.

“Why doesn’t Grandma have to wear a bicycle helmet?” asked my 12-year-old daughter.

“Just ride,” several of us sighed.

My niece was not very good at riding a bicycle, especially compared to her daredevil little brother. So, the pack broke in two. I kept pace with my daughter, son and nephew. My mom stayed back – much as she loved riding fast with a huge grin and wild eyes – with my niece, wife, sister and sister’s boyfriend. About every quarter-mile, my niece wiped out. But the fractured pack kept moving down the road to an end of the island where we would eventually pick up a trailhead to a beach and finally the lighthouse.

I kept getting bit by black flies. No one else seemed to notice, so I gutted it out and continued. I really had no choice. It was more of a nuisance than anything else. Nearly two miles into the ride, there was a considerable gap between my group of kids and my niece’s group of adults. I nearly jackknifed my bike I was bit so damn hard by a black fly. It hurt but that pain was quickly eclipsed by another, and another and another.

I was miserable.

It turned out that I was no longer the only one. My daughter and nephew were ahead of my son and me. They slowed down because the black flies grew thicker and thicker. The four of us pressed on a little bit further, hoping we’d blow through the swarm. By the time we reached the end of the road and the beginning of the trailhead, we were engulfed in a cloud of black flies. My daughter was hurting out loud, my son had no filter as he shrieked from the constant biting, and my little nephew suffered in silence. I yelled at the flies. It was all I could do before we turned around and tried to flee. My daughter was the fastest out of there. I hung back with the two young boys. They needed to keep both hands on their handlebars and that kept them from swatting at the meat-eating flies. The swarm was so thick, and the bites so ferocious, my son was bleeding. I considered maybe it was my scent since I had attracted them long before anyone else even noticed. I told the boys to ride ahead and follow my daughter.

Once they were well ahead of me, I rode like the wind in my effort to escape the misery. But misery was glued to me. As it turned out, the flies never left the boys, either, nor my daughter for that matter. When the four of us flew past the slower-paced riders, headed in the opposite direction, the kids were screaming in pain – except for my silent nephew – from the constant biting. As the slower group described to us later, when we flew past them our white shirts looked black, and we resembled a bad Pig-Pen scene from the Peanuts comic strip. As for me, they reported that I looked just like a bee-keeper blanketed in bees. The black cloud stuck to me no matter where I went. As I rode past the slower group, I yelled to turn around but it was too late. The flies swarmed them, too, unbeknownst to me because I had the boys to worry about. My daughter was too far ahead for me to have any immediate concern.


It was sheer terror for about two miles. At some point, my wife left her slower group and caught up to us, typical of a mother needing to protect her young.

I had to make the painful decision to have the boys stop their bicycles a couple of times to shake and swat the flies away.

After a while, I said, “Just ride! The only way this is going to stop is getting back to the house.”

It was awful not being able to help them. Both boys were downright scared. My son yelled out loud. My nephew had horror in his eyes but never said a peep. They both rode and rode because there was no alternative. They looked to me for help but there was nothing I could do except emphasize that the only way to make it stop was to get back so ride-ride-ride!

Finally, we got back, shook the flies off and ran inside to safety. I went back outside to look down the road to see how far back the others were. That’s when my sister skid across the lawn, jumped from her bike before it stopped and sped off in her car. It happened in a blur.

Because my niece couldn’t ride a bike far under normal conditions, she was being eaten alive along with everyone in her group. She was in hysterics by the time the rescue vehicle brought her back.

An hour later, small amounts of blood were wiped from the fair-skinned youngsters. Tears dried and medicine applied, we sat around the room overlooking the beach and lake, completely drained from the experience.

My niece joined us. She was washed up and wrapped in a towel for comfort.

Since I wasn’t with her on the ride, I said, “Tell me about your awesome bike ride.”

Her bottom lip puffed out as she softly replied, “I fell down a hill, got scraped and got eaten by flies.”

“So it was fun,” I teased.

“No,” she said sheepishly.

“Was it kind of fun?” Grandma asked.

She looked through sad eyes with that puffy lip expression and faintly said, “Yes.”

The room erupted in laughter because we all knew this was an incredible experience we’d not soon forget.

The rest of the week was one wonderful adventure after another. We didn’t go anywhere without riding bikes and rarely saw a motor vehicle. The island is as flat as flat can be so even little kids can ride bikes pretty much all day long. It’s probably why a popular Ontario marathon is held there. If you don’t bring your own bikes, no worries, there’s a bicycle shop on the island just down the street from the ferry port in what you might call downtown. This stretch has a restaurant and bar, antique store, museum, ice cream stand, the bicycle shop and not much else. Be sure to bring your own groceries! There is a commissary on the other side of the island, but it’s nothing like a full grocery store. If you run out of some staple items, you can hopefully get them there.

A few days later, we worked up our bravery to return to the site of the historic lighthouse. We were astonished that not a single black fly was anywhere to be found this time around.


The trailhead led us to an unmarked split in the trail so we turned right and walked over a little footbridge instead of continuing straight. It led to a beach and long sandy walk toward The Pelee Island Lighthouse. All and all, it’s about a mile long walk from the road to the northeastern tip of the island and Lighthouse Point Provincial Nature Reserve.

The whitewashed tower was erected in 1833 and became inactive in 1903. You cannot go inside but it is a photogenic piece of architecture. The quaint tower has giant wood beams braced at angles from the ground, leaning partially up its walls for further support to protect it from decay due to the erosion of crashing waves. The timbers certainly add to its allure and picturesque quality. Surrounded by huge boulders, trees and brush, it’s no wonder much of the island’s art shops use it as a focal point.

Historic Pelee Island Lighthouse

Leaving no stone unturned so-to-speak on this day of adventure, we learned the legend of Hulda’s Rock. This story centers on an unassuming rock jutting from the shoals just offshore. Hulda was an Indian maiden. She was the beautiful daughter and pride of the island tribe’s chief. One day a pale face man came to the island for fish and game. But his heart and hers intertwined. So he stayed. Happy years passed and then came word of the man’s dying mother on a distant shore. So Hulda’s love went to be by his mother’s side one last time. He pledged his return to his true love before another moon should wane. But many moons came and went, and with each Hulda’s heartache grew to unbearable pain. Eventually, a letter made its way to Hulda’s outstretched hands.

It was… “A letter that brought a withering blight
And broke a faithful heart that night;
That told a tale of broken trust
And hurled bright hopes down in the dust.

Hark! Hark, a wail of dark despair
Floats out upon the midnight air;
A splash is heard, and Pelee’s pride
Floats out upon blue Erie’s tide.

Upon the north of Pelee Isle,
There stranger liner but awhile;
View “Hulda’s rock” – the mariner’s guide,
That marks the fate of the Indian bride.

It marks that death-leap into the sea,
And marks a white man’s perfidy.
The waves that gainst it foam and surge
Seem chanting e’er a funeral dirge.”


As we biked to another part of the island we came across a rather large, roadside, stone model of an old winery that used to be on the island. Its ruins can still be seen today. It was called Vin Villa and it was the first known winery in Ontario, Canada. It was built by Thaddeus Smith in 1868. His wine cellar was cut 12 feet deep into solid rock. The cellar was 40 feet wide by 60 feet long. The basement was built over top of it. The entrance was large enough for horses and wagons with full loads of grapes to clear. From the ground up stood a one and a half story, southern-style mansion. The entire structure was built from the stones hewn out of the wine cellar. It was mostly burned to the ground in 1963, leaving some tall stone walls reaching skyward along with the trees now rooted all-around what’s left of this architectural gem.


A newer winery is just down the road from the stone model. Just follow the vineyards to the Pelee Island Winery. Here, you can barbeque your own meal on a gorgeous outdoor patio large enough for many groups to do the same but with enough space between grills and tables to feel you’re on your own. Special entertainment is often in the air mixing with the sweet smell of grapes. The pavilion is the hub of island activity. An interactive wine tour and tasting is definitely recommended. Heck, you can even sit at a table inside a giant wine barrel if that’s your taste.

As I mentioned earlier, this was not our only retreat to Pelee Island. In a recent visit, we spent time at two wonderfully strange stops and gathered more sea glass than we had anywhere else, including Glass Beach in California.

But first, like the first time around, our week started with an unexpected obstacle to overcome.

We hopped in our car once they rolled it off the ferry, and headed for the customs checkpoint. After all, this was Canada and we were entering from the United States. Anyway, I was in an honest mood so when the customs officer asked if I had any pepper spray, I said yes. Now, I did pause to consider how to answer. I quickly wondered if they already knew because we were separated from our vehicle on the ferry where they were parked below and out of sight. When I said yes and had my wife hand me the tiny bottle from the glove compartment, my 17-year-old daughter spoke up and said, “I have Mace in my purse. Is that illegal?”

So I was escorted to a little building to find out.

Inside it was explained to me that if I did not voluntarily give them the spray, I would have been in serious doo-doo if they had found it on their own. According to the agents (Is that what they are called?), pepper spray is considered a weapon and if they would have found it, the situation would have been treated exactly the same as if I were trying to smuggle in any other type of weapon. I filled out some paperwork and left the spray bottles with them.

We rolled up to another beachfront stay only this one was very secluded. There was nobody else in sight, except for dozens of geese bathing on our beach. But hey, no snakes. None that we could see anyway.


Pelee Island is a major destination to see migrating birds as they pause there on their flight across Lake Erie. The Pelee Island Bird Observatory is a member of the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network. During peak migration, experienced birders regularly report citing more than 100 species per day. The island is a haven for songbirds. Common migrating species include horned larks, ducks, geese, swans, common flickers, tree swallows, hermit thrushes, winter wrens, gulls, herons, swallows, woodpeckers, rails, sparrows, hawks, thrushes and warblers. And that’s the short list!

Every morning and evening, most of us combed up and down the beach and found sea glass that washed up with the tide. My nephew was the “sea glass whisperer.” He perfected a ritual he had developed. He’d chant and dance for the island sea glass gods from a boulder at the water’s edge before his hunts. It worked because he found more sea glass than anyone else.


Almost from the get-go, we headed out on our bicycles for a 17 mile trip around the island, hitting our favorite spots, including two roadside novelties I have yet to reveal. Along the way, there was lots of waving to strangers as you rode past one another much like boaters out on the lake. Keep in mind, bicycling is easy on this flat island unless you choose some of the inner island roads which can be deep in gravel. Then it’s like riding in quicksand. But the perimeter and main interior roads were pretty much smooth sailing.

Still, be careful. Just like several years earlier, my niece had her biking troubles. This time, someone stopped suddenly and the chain reaction had her swerve to miss the person in front of her only to find just beyond the brush – on almost every road mind you – is a steep drop to an old canal. These trenches are all throughout the island’s interior. So over the handlebars she went, skidding headfirst until she tangled in enough foliage to stop her from the murky stagnant water below. It was a minor miracle that we could pull her back up by the ankles and that she didn’t have a scratch on her.

Things were going our way.

The island is chock full of hidden surprises. But we were well aware of two strategically spaced ice cream huts that always proved to be great stopping points for rest and refreshments. One was just down the road from a water toy rental place we had not known about. They had everything there to provide hours of fun in Lake Erie. You could rent kayaks, paddleboards, and a number of other toys by the hour, half-day or all day.

As we circled the island we came to one of our two favorite stops – the shoe tree. There were so many pairs of shoes tied together by their laces and snagged on branches that one limb had broken. It was now braced back up with the help of some supports. My niece pulled a pair of old tennis shoes from her backpack and proceeded to add to this weird form of art. But it proved more difficult than it looked to actually get a pair of shoes to wrap their laces around a branch. Finally, her place in shoe tree history was secured. At least as long as the shoelaces would take to rot through.


A short distance further down the western side of the island is a haven for Inukshuks perched along the stony shoreline, gazing out to sea. An Inukshuk is a human-looking stone structure that usually includes stacked stones for the legs, a long stone laid across the leg stones creating hips, and another even longer stone stacked on top of it for shoulders. Finally, a rounder stone was hoisted and centered at the top to form the head. These landmarks were created by Inuit and other tribes of native people spanning North America. They marked that someone was here and you are on the right path. It was the official symbol used for the Vancouver Winter Olympics. On Canada’s Pelee Island, overlooking all the smaller, makeshift stone men left by passersby, is the Stoneman. This massive stone sculpture was designed as a testament to island perseverance. It was built by Pete Letkeman and named by the students of Pelee Island Public School. Yes, people do live here year-round. There are a lot of farms on the island. There’s even a small public library.


Although trips in the car were done sparingly, it was necessary for exploring the many artisan and antique stores dotting the island. And of course, how else were we to transport back to the rental house all the tastiness we boxed up at Conorlee’s Bakery & Delicatessen? For the heck of it, we also stopped at the Pelee Island Heritage Center. It had some pretty cool old-time exhibits. The pinned map of shipwrecks in western Lake Erie stood out as did the diverse collection of kites on display.


We wished our island stay overlapped with the much-hyped annual summer music festival – The Island Unplugged. It’s a family-friendly music and arts festival featuring music acts from regional to national fame. An old rock quarry on the island serves as a unique setting for a wide variety of special events.

Back at the rental house, we had eight of us circled around a huge wooden dining table playing a board game and laughing it up. The house had no air-conditioning because the screened windows all around provided all the coolness you needed. An unexpected and massive crack of thunder shook everyone out of their skin. The breeze picked up and the sun dimmed but we figured we had enough time for someone to finish their turn at the game before we went outside to watch the storm roll in.

That’s when a hurricane-force wind blasted us and everything in the house!

Contents of shelves blew to the floor, a picture flew off the wall, and darkness fell on us all. We scrambled to an interior closet, emptied it and packed it with bodies. When all was clear, we assessed the damage and wondered how long before electricity would be restored. It wasn’t much of a storm. It hardly rained and after the first few minutes of wind blasts, it was pretty much over.

We soon found out that the toilets and water supply also needed electricity to work.

In the morning, we discovered a couple of telephone poles on our edge of the island had blown over. The other half of the island still had power. But our fate rested in the hands of a crew that had to be notified on the mainland and catch a ferry across before they could even begin working to restore the lost power. So we headed to the commissary and bought the last of the bottled water they had available.

Afterward, we rode our bikes to the southernmost point on the island, known as Fish Point Provincial Nature Preserve. Other than the nearby, tiny and uninhabited Middle Island, Pelee Island was the furthest populated point you could stand in Canada. And in a freak of nature, it has a sand bar created by competing currents. It twists southward like a tail creating what is known as Point Pelee. While on the wooded trail to get from the road to the sandy beaches and Point Pelee, we took a wrong turn. The trail turned but we went straight because the shore was right there. So we spent a lot of time and energy navigating enormous pieces of driftwood. It was pretty to be sure. So pretty, a couple had a photographer snapping shots of them with the smooth, wavy, sun-bleached and the barkless tree remains as their backdrop to happiness.


Finally, we reached the Point Pelee beach and the long walk out to its southernmost tip. Pelee. From an aerial view, which my brother-in-law had when he flew to the U.S. mainland in a four-seater airplane, the island with its sandy tail looks like a stingray. The sand is soft and deep making it one helluva workout to trek across. When we neared the Point, the kids ran through the hundreds of seagulls blanketing the last stretch of the island’s tail. The seagulls lazily took to the air creating quite a dizzying sight of white in every direction we looked.

Our last evening was filled with s’more over a beach fire, hammock time, swimming, sea glass hunting, and stargazing.

Fully relaxed and ready to face the hectic lives we all had to return to, we retreated inside. The lights flickered and turned on for the first time in 24-hours.

As we reminisced about our island escapades, we were reminded why Pelee is an island of laughter.

By Frank Rocco Satullo, Your Tour Guide to Fun


Pelee Point


Pelee Island Point


Outer Banks Feed The Inner Soul

outer banks sunrise

Just our luck. In the weeks leading into our beach vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, there was a shark attack, then another, another, again and again all along the eastern seaboard near where we were headed. Holy crap!

So on the marathon drive there, we pulled over for the night at a place with a pool.

“Kids, you better swim now!”

Our pit stop was just outside Colonial Williamsburg, a place we’d been before but during the bustling daytime activities. It’s one of those places that leaves such an impression that you yearn to return but upon doing so, it just isn’t the same. The daytime energy and theatrics were gone, leaving a ghost town in more ways than one.

Colonial Williamsburg

On our ghost tour, we enjoyed the drama of the actors and dinner in an historic tavern authentic of the colonial times like everything else so well done here. Afterward, we stopped in the lobby for our teens to have the fortune teller glimpse into their future. Our daughter went first and when the routine was over, our son went next.

The fortune teller made an obvious break in character and turned to us and said, “They pulled the same two cards in the same order from the fanned out deck.”

He seemed weirded out by it. To us, it was a sign of our typical family vacation.

The next morning we got on the highway, drove a bit and exited for a pancake house. We were led in a big loop and after a while, my wife pointed out the motel we had left earlier.

“Doo-doo-doo-doo. Doo-doo-doo-doo…” – That’s the theme music from The Twighlight Zone playing in our heads.

With five hours still to drive, we settled in and made up a game in which we’d ad-lib a story sparked by billboards in relay fashion building on what the last person said in regard to the last sign. Then, a huge bright billboard advertised, “I got my crabs from Dirty Dick’s.”

Game over.

outer banks wooden fishing pier

We arrived at our beach house rental in Kill Devil Hills a little early. The lock box was on a timer so it wasn’t ready to take our code. We hit the beach and took note of the nearby, wavy wooden fishing pier.

Shark bait was all I could think.

We went shopping at a grocery store called Food Lion.

By now, we were in a slap-happy mood. At every stop in the store, I made a ritual of saying, “Food Lion. RAWR!” while making a hand gesture in the air clawing downward toward my family.

The laughter made me continue well past its expiration. And the awkward glances by other shoppers meant I wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. We were having a ball with our silliness and that’s all that mattered. Vacation had officially begun.

I made it my (our) mission to see a spectacular sunrise. So we were up at 5:30 a.m. ready for the ball of fire to rise out of the ocean at 5:55 a.m. But there were too many clouds to see it. The kids groaned and went back to bed.


All day was spent splashing in the sun …notice I didn’t say water. In fact, it was like the beach scene in the movie Jaws after the shark attacks. Nobody was swimming. At best, we’d wade out knee-high. But the beach was festive. We invented a game from some colorful plastic rings and balls we brought with us. It caught the attention of those strolling by. They thought they were witnessing the newest thing to hit the market.

That night we took a family walk along the beach. The sand ahead of us seemed to move with every step we took. Then we concentrated our flashlights together for closer examination. Our daughter shrieked. Ghost crabs scurried every which way clearing a path for us. We gave chase and had fun with this novelty for some time.

Another day another failed sunrise. But there would be no going back to bed on this morning because we had wild horses to see. The kids’ eyes opened when our four-wheeling machine headed into Corolla. Oh the pressure these guides have to return happy customers pleased to see what they deem their share of wild horse encounters. It struck me funny that we were zigzagging between multimillion dollar vacation homes looking for wild horses. A radio call later and our guide was zipping this way and that through sandy paths to another set of houses. There was a wild horse grazing just off someone’s back patio while the homeowner sipped their morning coffee like this was the normal routine.

corolla wild horses

Anyway, the experience seemed anything but wild.

Finally, away from man’s encroachment, wild horses actually looked like they were as advertised. Back out on the beach, several horses stretched their morning legs. This is what I wanted to see. It was beautiful. My imagination wondered what it must have been like before money bought up paradise here.

wild horses of corolla outer banks

A storm allowed us to nap away the afternoon before a second morning so-to-speak opened our eyes and the flood gates back to the beach.

That night, we sat around the dinner table and played the board game Clue. In the middle of the whodunit mystery, another mystery began to unfold with a knock at our door. Mind you it’s dark and we left our curtains open with lights on, advertising here’s a vulnerable family of four.

I looked through the front door window at what could only be described as charming young Charlie Manson. He smiled and asked me to step outside to talk with him. I answered that we’re already talking, what do you need? He insisted I step outside.

I looked left and right to see if anyone else lurked in the shadows. Then I asked again what he needed.

He said he was from next door and wanted to let me know he’s throwing a party and would like to give me his cell phone number in case I needed to complain about the noise to him.

“No worries. Have fun,” I replied and that was the end of that.

But then as we went back to trying to solve a murder, I grew suspicious. There was a family like ours on one side of us and a vacant house on the other. I looked at the vacant house and it was dark, silent and empty. I wondered if ole Charlie was casing random vacationers to scam in some way so I decided to call the police to see if any others had called about such a situation.

“No but we’re sending a patrol car over,” the dispatcher said.

“No-no, that’s unnecessary,” I said.

A police officer showed up anyway. I explained Charlie’s claim and then pointed at the dead house next door. The police officer investigated under our house. Beach houses were set up on stilt-like structures so storm surges could flow under them.


The cop left and not long after, my son saw Charlie coming back.

“Did you call cops on me?” He demanded.

“Nope, not me,” I lied through my teeth to settle him down. “But a policeman did stop to ask questions.”

“So you did call?”


He scratched his head and left.

Now we’re turning off lights and peeking out windows. Next door, lights came on, music cranked up, cars and people arrived and a party kicked off nearing Midnight and lasted until 4am. Then the place turned silent and dark again and some stragglers hauled away a bunch of trash bags leaving no clue behind.

The place stayed empty the rest of the week. Go figure.

Out on the beach the next day we befriended a group of families that were on the other side of the abandoned party house. They weren’t happy vacationers after Charlie’s party kept them awake until close to daybreak.

kite flying outer banks

We had another lazy day on the beach flying kites and Styrofoam airplanes, swimming up to our waists now. Night drifted in and me and the Missus popped a cork and sipped wine with our toes in the sand. Not a bug whatsoever, just a gentle breeze and rhythmic waves lapping the shore.

On day six we figured we better stop at Kitty Hawk to pay homage to our home state heroes, the Wright Brothers. I wondered why history referred to Kitty Hawk as the location of the first manned flight when it was actually in Kill Devil Hills. It turns out that what used to be Kitty Hawk was later broken up and although the land north remained Kitty Hawk, the Wright Brothers place in history was now called Kill Devil Hills.

kitty hawk wright brothers kill devil hills

Other than eating out, we spent time going to a couple of pawn shops. Our son had found a perfectly round, hard white object on the beach leaving us to fantasize that it could be a pearl. It wasn’t. It was perhaps a paintball pellet.

Another failed sunrise and we were headed south for a dolphin cruise. Boy did we get lucky! Or so the captain and crew kept telling us. We saw so many dolphins that after a couple of hours it was like ho-hum another one. The captain wished he had the power to more evenly distribute the sightings because he has had groups where one or none resulted.

We had seen the Bodie Lighthouse from a distance and decided to check it out. It proved to be a picturesque photo opp and then we headed back north. A big sand dune could be seen just up ahead but we underestimated it and nearly passed it up without much thought. It was a good thing we didn’t.

bodie lighthouse

Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head ended up being the most memorable site we visited. It happened to be the tallest active sand dune system in the eastern United States. The vastness of nothing but blue sky and sand everywhere you looked was mesmerizing. We walked and walked to the point we envisioned a mirage of a scene with C3PO and R2D2 in the original Star Wars. The endlessness of it swallowed the people there, visually. We were but a few ants spread across a hill of epic proportions. It’s so big that the brochure has to address what to do if you get lost. All in all, this was an incredibly unique experience now burned into our brains. The sand can get as hot as 125 degrees.

nags head sand dunes Jockey's Ridge State Park

After dinner and ice cream we returned to a beach where huge waves crashed ashore. We had fun playing in the waves even though one eye was peeled on the lookout for “Sharknado” cascading down on us.

On our last day, all of our problems were finally washed away. We had those deep bonding family moments and conversation, laughter, sun splashed memories in the making and even built a sandcastle.

Then, on our last morning, it happened. A burning ball of fire rose from the ocean as we said goodbye.

outer banks sunrise sunset

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Enjoy more photos and brief video clips from
The Cutting Room Floor

dolphin tour nags head

fishing-pier-outer banks kill devil hills

wild horses of corolla outer banks







corolla wild horses outer banks north carolina

outer banks boradwalk

wooden fishing pier kill devil hills

wright brothers kitty hawk



Walking in Memphis


We came to See Elvis and MLK
but left remembering Nina

On our way to Memphis, we made a pit stop at Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park. It’s the world’s longest known cave system. It extends more than 400 miles.

It wasn’t much for stalactites and stalagmites – at least not on the tour we chose – but the enormity of the subterranean chambers is impressive. I’ll remember it most for two things. One is an awkward family photo at the entrance sign. The other is for a little prank I played inside the labyrinth.

The tour guide had us all take seats that were built into one rocky chamber. Then, he turned out the lights so we could experience pitch blackness and silence. I anticipated this and since an aisle divided my wife and daughter from my son and me, I quickly eyed up the three steps it would take to my right to reach my daughter.

When I clutched her shoulder in the darkness, I gritted my teeth hoping I had the right person. When I heard the squeal, I swiftly retraced my steps back to my seat. I felt around half expecting to sit in someone else’s lap. When the lights came on, I couldn’t help but laugh at seeing how displeased my daughter was when she realized that I had been the culprit.

Sometimes in this family, we laugh AT each other.


Our Memphis visit first took us to Elvis Presley’s mansion. Only it was a rather modest home all considered. Don’t get me wrong, the home was pretty large but the façade seemed modest upon approach. The brick fence wrapping along the sprawling wooded grounds with lush lawns was beautiful, especially knowing the surrounding area was an urban jungle. It made me wonder if the congestion outside those famed gates existed back when the King ruled.

Inside, the storied rooms of Graceland met every expectation. In fact, for me, it exceeded expectations. It was a wild journey from room-to-room. The colors. The styles. It was a time capsule of one of the most original – and yes gaudy – periods in American history. Yet it had such a charming, personable sense that made it feel like a home. People marveled at the Jungle Room but the Billiards Room with its walls and ceiling completely covered in fabric was where I wanted to linger the most. The out buildings served as a museum with an absolutely incredible display of Elvis’ records, stage costumes, you name it. The stories told were pretty cool too.


But some things seemed so humble for the king of rock and roll. For example, his pool seemed quite small. Lisa Marie’s metal swing set was no better than mine growing up. And mine was bought on a blue-collar budget. Other stops across the grounds made people realize how famous and rich the man was. His car collection is stunning. Oh, and you can board his private airplane too. I have visited the Air Force One airplane from the same era in Dayton, Ohio, and Elvis’ craft is comparable.

Visitors to Graceland cannot leave until they get a photo at the customized iron gates and the picturesque graffiti-filled brick wall at the foot of the long drive.


A short drive across town took us to Sun Studio where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and other legends first cut records. Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Studio, formerly Memphis Recording Service, opened the doors at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis in 1950.

The exterior of the two-story, brick, corner building exudes historical site. It isn’t a large place except for its reputation. Inside, it’s smaller still. But again, history looms large in every nook and cranny making it a big deal. But this run down place would be a quick walk-through – there really isn’t a whole lot to it at a glance – if it weren’t for Nina and the other tour guides.


We were treated to a show. Nina made Sun rise! Our group gathered in a back room that seemed untouched since Sam Phillips last walked out of his office. The wall hangings and cluttered desktop with all its 1950s relics scattered about seemed to create an energy in its stillness. I felt the chaos of running that studio all those years ago.

Nina’s sense for dramatics wasn’t wasted. From the moment she swung open a heavy old door to a window to the past, it was like an old juke box slowly powered up as we climbed the rickety, dark, tight staircase to the second floor where everything came alive. It was just one room with memorabilia behind glass but Nina pushed all the right buttons. Her enthusiasm was spot-on. Her set up of each story was seasoned just right. And then she delivered tidbits that you could only hear from the oral traditions and storytellers like Nina.

Sun had soul! And it Rock N Rolled.


Back downstairs, we entered the hallowed recording studio where Sam Phillips launched the legendary careers of so many music hall of famers.

Nina grasped an old 1950s microphone and floor stand, lowering and slowing her voice. She spoke into it even though it wasn’t on – but in our minds it was – to tell us the story of one night where the legends of Sun gathered – some under different record labels at the time – and had a blast singing songs together. This piece of time at this storybook place had The King, Man in Black and The Killer – to name a few – laugh and sing together in that room from that microphone bouncing sound waves off those deteriorating but original sound walls.

There’s a photograph on the wall capturing this little known moment one night in Memphis.

Then Nina invited each of us to hold that very microphone for our own moment and photo op.

From Sun’s high we went to a Memphis historical low – The Lorraine Motel.


This is an old nondescript two-story motel where the doors to the rooms are outside. But almost hidden from the frontal view is the large building built connecting to it. This housed the National Civil Rights Museum.

We wanted to pay homage to one of the true heroes of history – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As we walked up to the front of the motel, I noticed we were the only white people there at that time. I mentioned it out loud to my family to which my kids said they didn’t even notice and then chastised me for noticing. But I did notice. And I noticed that the same thing was true when we visited the MLK memorial in Washington D.C. a year earlier. Eventually, we saw other white people but it was rare. Why? I asked myself. With such a great man representing such a positive message I would expect to see many white people. I could understand why there would be more black people perhaps than white but there were virtually no white people at all. And there were a lot of people there.

Inside I fought back tears. I walked for a time behind a young black couple with the sweetest and cutest little girl. It was the flow of movement from one exhibit to another that kept us connected. The exhibits were gripping enough but what sent me pulling my shirt sleeve over my eyes was when the innocence of a little girl could not see color – just people – and asked, “Why is that man holding a sign that says ‘I AM A MAN.’ Of course he’s a man.” And at another exhibit, she innocently asked, “Why are some people being so mean to other people?”


As we wound through different areas – sitting with a replica of Rosa Parks inside a bus, participating at a sit in at a lunch counter, turning away from a fire prop showing the Freedom Bus ablaze – we neared the modest motel room of the original Lorraine Motel where MLK had stayed. The room was just as he left it, breakfast tray and all, a moment before tragedy struck on that balcony.

I stood still for so long, a gentleman working there did what he did to others before me. And that was to gently tug my sleeve to say time to move on for others to share in the experience.

Aside from cruising past Beale Street, the heart of Memphis blues, we craved one more uniquely Memphis staple – Memphis style Barbeque! And Central BBQ didn’t disappoint.

Neither did this town steeped in culture and icons.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

MLK Last Breakfast Lorraine Hotel Memphis

MLK Last Breakfast Lorraine Hotel Memphis