Think Beyond Price

The best surprise is no surprise.
–Kemmons Wilson,
founder of Holiday Inn

Many factors go into the selection of the perfect hotel for each vacation. Most people start with the price point they feel comfortable with; what is the best room that can be had for that price? Others start with a hotel name they have heard about then ask what the optimum price might be for a room at that hotel. Paying $95 a night for a broom closet (complete with smelly mops) is not a bargain, even at the Ritz! There is much more to think about than price.

Many hotels offer "just like home" comfort.

Many hotels offer “just like home” comfort.

First, do you want to repeat a predictable experience you have had before? Macon Leary, the change-phobic protagonist of The Accidental Tourist, preferred places which were so much like home he would never feel displaced. Most of us are not THAT set in our ways, but there is a time and place for having a room with no surprises – pleasant or unpleasant. If you are feeling like having a room which is the equivalent of nursery food (I don’t mean that as a put-down) then chain hotels are for you. If you travel a lot for business and can join that hotel’s benefits program, so much the better.

On the other hand, if you are traveling to have a new experience, seeking out unique hotels will pay off nicely. Independent hotels are much more likely to give you a better sense of the place you are visiting. They offer unique architecture and a local atmosphere which the cookie cutter hotels cannot. Often these hotels are older and can reward you with the best beach (because they were there first) or the prime location in the historic city center.

Many analysts might try to tell you which hotels are “the best.” I consult TripAdvisor.com occasionally and find their ranking system unique. Apparently they rank hotels in a city according to customer satisfaction. Sometimes the satisfaction rate for the folks who stayed at the Golden Canary Motel ($75 a night, 6 rooms, no air conditioning) is as high as for the people who lounged in the Posh Palace ($600 a night, 350 rooms, air conditioning and waterslides). Does that mean the two hotels are equal, or that you will have the same experience in both? No. More likely it means that these people all chose the hotel which offered what they wanted, and they were happy with their choice. It is important to read the comments about why each place enjoys those ratings.

Let me know if you would like a copy of the directory for yourself.

Let me know if you would like a paper copy of the directory for yourself.

Who says a hotel is “the best”? Virtuoso (the consortium I work with) publishes a catalog of their hotel collection, encouragingly titled “Best of the Best.” All hotels in the collection are excellent (and customers who book these hotels through me receive additional complimentary amenities!)  But we should not expect that the title means “all the world’s hotels were independently juried for excellence and these are the winners.” There are other excellent hotels which are not members of Virtuoso.

Sometimes you can find a unique hotel which has affiliated itself with a major chain. Hilton now has their Waldorf Astoria Collection (including my favorite, the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix). Marriott has the Autograph Collection, and Starwood has the Luxury Collection. These affiliations give you points, benefits, and the reliability of your preferred chain connection at a unique, often famous property.

The important thing in each hotel decision is to sort out which kind of hotel you are looking for in your travels. It might vary from trip to trip, or even within the same trip.  Think seriously about what you are looking for in your accommodation. I will be happy to help you sort out how it should accommodate YOU.

The Arizona Biltmore, from Frank Lloyd Wright's design team, is now affiliated with Hilton.

The Arizona Biltmore, from Frank Lloyd Wright’s design team, is now affiliated with Hilton.

Boundaries divide. Travel unites.

15 September 2016

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Evensong at St. Martin in the Fields

Corporate worship is a regular gracious reminder
that it’s not about you.
– Paul David Tripp

Every once in a while it is really enlightening to vary your spiritual practices. Stretching your usual habits to add new experiences lets in new light. This can give you insights to perspectives which familiarity and comfort have perhaps screened from your realization. That was my experience when we attended evensong at St. Martin in the Fields church in Trafalgar Square near the end of our latest London visit.

Evensong at five o’clock on Sunday afternoon is not a service which my husband and I know. I doubt it is used much in the US. There was plenty of music — singing of hymns for all and chanting of psalms by the choir. The rector read two passages of scripture (Old Testament and Epistle) but no Gospel (which is the centerpiece of Sunday morning worship). There were unison prayers and parish notices. It seemed to me to be a perfect service for people who want a little church, plenty of good music, and not too much heavy thinking.

I went to the service expecting excellent music; only later did I realize that the recordings I hear on classical radio are recorded at the Academy of St. Martin of the Fields. The chamber orchestra first performed at their “namesake church” which we were sitting in, but is not part of the church. (Still, I am proof that the name association provides some credit to the church.)

We arrived early enough to hear the choir practicing. The choir director was already in his close-fitting red robe. The singers were in comfortable weekend attire, polo shirts and tank tops, looking like everyday folks.  A few minutes before the service they left their seats and went to robe up. At the start of the service they processed in, transformed from casual to angelic in red robes with amazing collars. In both costumes they sounded very good. (My video below does not do justice to their sound.) The hard surface church furnishings helped to optimize the acoustics.

East window at St. Martin in the Fields, by My Modern Met

East window at St. Martin in the Fields, by My Modern Met

The main east window of the church behind the choir let in lots of light through its almost colorless panes. This is a replacement for the window which was destroyed by a bomb blast in World War II. It is a striking contrast to the design and age of the rest of the church. What do you see in the design? I see a crucified Christ. My husband, the physicist, saw an egg in a wind tunnel. Modern art can be great that way! You can read more about the design and see more pictures here.

The entire experience was borne aloft by a wonderful organ, played beautifully. Altogether it was an uplifting experience, different in many ways from our usual venue, making notable impressions with its surprises.

The organ at St. Martin in the Fields Photo by J Emmons

The organ at St. Martin in the Fields Photo by J Emmons

Boundaries divide. Travel unites.

8 September 2016

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In Search of Potato Peel Pie

“We clung to books and to our friends; they reminded us that we had another part to us.”
— Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and
Potato Peel Pie Society

Guernsey coverEverything most people know about the British Channel Island of Guernsey is what they learned by reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Like many others I was enchanted by the book and I was happy to flesh out my knowledge of the island when our recent cruise stopped there.

For the uninitiated, the book tells the story of a group of islanders who experienced the German occupation of Guernsey in World War II. (The Channel Islands, just a few miles off the coast of France, were the only part of Britain to be occupied by Germany.) Guernsey was “very heavily fortified [by Germany] during World War II out of all proportion to the island’s strategic value” (Wikipedia) and many fortifications of that period remain. “Potato Peel Pie” is historical fiction, and provides a warmly personalized account of the years of hardship, a tale which might be grim as straight history.

Touring an island to see the sites important to a fictional story required careful phrasing on descriptions of some places. Well-known places like the Little Chapel and St. Peter Port are well known and require no verification. But for characters who didn’t really live here we were shown examples of what they might have inhabited. We saw a lovely and comfortable house typical of the one Amelia Maugery might have had — where the group enjoyed the contraband roast pig dinner which kept them out past curfew, thus requiring the on-the-spot invention of the “literary society.”

This cozy home was the sort of home where the Literary Society began. Photo by J. Emmons

This cozy home was the sort of home where the Literary Society began. Photo by J. Emmons

Right across the lane was the home of Dawsey Adams, the pig farmer, who was called in to butcher the beast which fell outside the German livestock census.  The farm home and barn presented as Dawsey’s home was a far cry from the 2 or 3 story Midwestern style white or red clapboard barn I had imagined!

"Dawsey's" farm, very unlike American farms, was being refurbished when we walked by. Photo by J. Emmons

“Dawsey’s” farm, very unlike American farms, was being refurbished when we walked by. Photo by J. Emmons

Most of the children and many adults were evacuated from Guernsey in anticipation of the German invasion. Our tour guide passed around the German-issued identity card used by one of her husband’s relatives during the occupation.  Aunt Amy had stayed on as resident housekeeper for her father and brother who opted to stay on the island, and carried the card at all times as required.

A Nazi-issued identification card from the years of occupation. Photo by J. Emmons

A Nazi-issued identification card from the years of occupation. Photo by J. Emmons

During the occupation residents were not allowed to use any motorized vehicles. They could get around by bicycle, horse-drawn cart or on foot. Guernsey is only 25 square miles, but ‘going into town’ could be much more of an outing than I had imagined while reading the book. Our guide reported that people outside the city centers had a slightly easier – and less hungry – life during the occupation as they could keep chickens or grow gardens. And yet, especially toward the end of the war, everyone was very hungry, both occupiers and occupied, and these meager sources were subject to raids and theft.

This post-war bus took us around the island. The driver said it runs well but his greatest challenge is getting parts. Photo by J. Emmons

This post-war bus took us around the island. The driver said it runs well but his greatest challenge is getting parts. Photo by J. Emmons

A movie version based on the book has been in the works for several years with many changes in director and cast. Along the way Kenneth Branagh, Kate Winslet (Titanic), and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) have been part of the plans but none of those are mentioned now. Stay tuned.

I always enjoy visiting places I have read about, trying to fit my imagined people into the streets, houses, and fields I see. Guernsey looked as attractive to me as it did to Juliet Ashton from London. I recommend a visit or at least a reading of the book to appreciate this little corner of Britain yourself.

Finally, for those who are interested, here is a recipe for Potato Peel Pie, from a postcard I purchased in St. Peter Port.

Potato Peel Pie

1 lb. potatoes
1 onion
½ cup of milk
2 Tbsp. breadcrumbs
¼ oz. butter
1 little flour
Salt and pepper
Peel the potatoes thinly, retaining the peel, and slice them. Place a layer of potatoes in a pie dish followed by a layer of thinly sliced onions and repeat until pit dish is full. Mix together the peel, flour and seasoning and sprinkle on top of the mixture. Pour over the mile and finish with the breadcrumbs. Dot the butter over the surface and back in a moderate oven* for about 2 hours.
* 350 degrees
from A Flavour of Guernsey by Alpha Wearing

Boundaries divide. Travel unites.

1 September 2016

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Self-taught Scholar Who Changed the World

Math is hard. Life is hard. Get over it.
– a favorite tee shirt

I follow mathematical principles pretty well for a non-math major, and particularly enjoyed one undergraduate class titled “Physics for Poets.” But I cannot imagine how someone could come up with a new way of understanding and explaining mathematical and logical principles. But George Boole did just that, creating a new scheme which paved the way for an entirely new system of thinking.

A bust of George Boole at University College Cork Photo by J. Emmons

A bust of George Boole at University College Cork Photo by J. Emmons

A shore excursion on our recent cruise took us to University College Cork in Ireland. In the 1800s this was Queen’s College, and George Boole was the first professor of mathematics there. In 1854 Boole published The Laws of Thought and secured his place among the foremost mathematicians, philosophers and logicians of the century. The Boolean algebra incorporated in this treatise is credited as laying the foundations for the information age. Without Boole we would not have easily understood the fundamental importance of electronic switches and the world of ones and zeros governing everything that any computer does. I wonder if Boole had any idea what could grow from this new formulation!

Boole was born in Lincoln, England, the son of a shoemaker. He had a primary school education but very little academic training after that. A local bookseller may have helped him learn Latin but he taught himself modern languages. At sixteen he became the family breadwinner and became a teacher. He picked up additional mathematics books including a calculus text. “Without a teacher, it took him many years to master calculus.” (Wikipedia) Boole taught at a variety of schools and made contacts with mathematicians as he studied further on his own.

At the age of 34 he went to Ireland to become the first professor of mathematics at Queen’s College (Cork) and continued his studies and writings. In addition to his work in math and logic, he invested his interest in a variety of humanitarian causes, including early closings and measures to reduce prostitution. . He died of a fever at 49, leaving a wife and five daughters.

The university commemorates his importance to mathematics and the digital age which has followed.

A green in the older section of UCC, formerly Queen's College in Cork Photo by Je. Emmons

A green in the older section of UCC, formerly Queen’s College in Cork   Photo by J. Emmons

One thing which struck me repeatedly as we toured Ireland, however, was the frequent mention of restrictions on the Irish educational opportunities and religious practices during England’s domination. Irish Catholics were not admitted to universities there, and catholic churches could not be located on main streets. Such a flexing of colonial muscle surely reinforced bad feelings on the Irish side at least, and shored up the attitude of superiority of the privileged Anglo-Irish. I had thought that perhaps Boole managed to beat the system of Irish suppression – but he was English. However he did beat the English class system for succeeding without having an Oxford or Cambridge education.

How much Irish brain power or poetic wisdom was torched or left to die unheeded in those decades? 2016 is the centennial of the 1916 Easter uprising which began the successful battle for Irish independence. You don’t need to dig very deep to uncover residual hard feelings on the Emerald Isle.

Boundaries divide. Travel unites.

18 August 2016

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The ‘Three Weird Sisters’ of Macbeth – Temptation, Ambition, and Guilt

“And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray us
In deepest consequence.”
— Banquo,
Macbeth, I,3

“Wow” is not all I have to say about the Shakespeare’s Globe production of Macbeth, but it is a start! Two years ago we were wowed by King Lear in this theater. In July we were back to see “the Scottish play,” and loved it!

This was my view from the top balcony. Afternoon sun was hard on people directly across for a short time.

This was my view from the top balcony. Afternoon sun was hard on people directly across for a short time.

This production was arty rather than classic, but by adding music, lighting, and other special effects, they heightened the surreal implications of the prophecies and characters’ responses. The stage was altered to provide some special effects. Metal staging with trap doors was extended forward and additional grating and lighting were added around the columns.

 

The stretchy black fabric was used in the first scene and later with Banquo's ghost. The metal stage extension and grating around the pillars also aided special effects.

The stretchy black fabric was used in the first scene and later with Banquo’s ghost. The metal stage extension and grating around the pillars also aided special effects.

The witches’ lines were cut back. We had no “Eye of newt and toe of frog” cooking scene over a cauldron, and they did not come across as typical Halloween witches at all. Instead they were sleek, dark seers and tempters whose beguiling predictions were enough to turn Macbeth’s world upside down.

When the ghost of Banquo (recently murdered at Macbeth’s command) appears at Macbeth’s celebratory banquet, he usually is sitting in Macbeth’s chair – though no one but Macbeth sees him. In the Globe’s production the ghost rose up under a stretchy black cloth in the center of the stage. The figure was completely masked this way, making it clear that only guilty Macbeth could see and recognize who it really was.

Waiting for the play to begin

Waiting for the play to begin

A constant theme in the play is moral confusion. The witches say “Fair is foul and foul is fair” in the opening scene. One minute later, just before meeting the weird sisters Macbeth says, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” (Then it does get muddled!) Throughout the play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth intermingle treason and murder to make them into reasonable deeds because the ‘good’ result has been prophesied. Listening to later prophecies with a critical ear, and knowing how the story will turn out, we can hear the gaps in those predictions. Macbeth A) should fear Macduff, but also B) need not fear any man of woman born. Macbeth takes B to mean he is home free and immediately discounts A. But when C happens (Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane) he knows the jig is up. All predictions have come true and he is doomed.

Are the witches predicting things that will happen regardless, or just devilishly planting seeds to tempt ambition and see what might happen? Macbeth and Lady Macbeth take the bait and brings about their own destruction.

As often happens with a good story of any age, connections between Macbeth’s situation and ours today kept bubbling up. Seeing this play in the weekend between our national party conventions left me wondering how much of what politicians say is entirely – or even partly true. Which claims and predictions are hoped to be self-fulfilling prophecies? How many of us will fall for half-truths we want to hear? Will we confuse an evil for apparent good, or be convinced a good thing is actually very bad?

Temptation and ambition abound in the political arena these days. And guilt can inspire many further missteps once those two have been put in motion. There is real danger lurking in the too quick acceptance of any prediction.

The three evils of Macbeth are still very much with us!

Boundaries divide. Travel unites.

11 August 2016

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Genius Lived on Brook Street

“Whether I was in my body or out of my body I know not.
God knows it!” – George Frideric Handel

“My goal is to be one with the music. I just dedicate my whole life to this art.” –Jimi Hendrix

One of the biggest surprises we uncovered in our recent visit to London was the Handel Hendrix House. This is a combination of George Frideric Handel’s townhouse and the top floor apartment next door where Jimi Hendrix lived more than two hundred years later. Who knew??

Handel, one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era, came to London at age 27 and soon became established as a successful composer of opera, oratorio and organ concertos. He lived alone but used his home for composing and rehearsing with various singers and musicians. He would invite potential patrons to attend rehearsals as previews for works not yet published. He rented the house on Brook Street for many years and died there in 1759 at age 74.

Handel's bedroom at 25 Brook Street, London. Photo by J. Emmons

Handel’s bedroom at 25 Brook Street, London. Photo by J. Emmons

One comment about the bed on display in his room was that the bed might look short to modern eyes. In Handel’s day it was believed that sleeping sitting up aided digestion. Handel loved good food and probably needed help overcoming acid reflux while digesting the morsels which made him such a large man.

As they say on Monty Python, “now for something completely different”!

In an entirely different age and society, Jimi Hendrix spent part of two years of his short life living in an apartment in the building adjacent to Handel’s home. The Handel Hendrix Museum provides a good overview of Hendrix’ life and career.

Jimi Hendrix bedroom redolent of 1969 Photo by J. Emmons

Jimi Hendrix bedroom redolent of 1969 Photo by J. Emmons

There is a video summarizing his musical progress. Because his father was superstitious of anything left-handed, Jimi turned the guitar upside-down and used his right hand for fingering the frets. A bedroom is decorated as it was in Jimi’s day, using ‘artifacts’ from the era; only the mirror was actually his. Widely regarded now as one of pop music’s greatest guitarists, Jimi burned brightly before his untimely death in another London flat just months shy of his 28th birthday, just the age Handel was when he arrived in London.

In the video below things get really interesting at about 2:45.

How many cities have time-warp juxtapositions like this? Given enough years, unexpected combinations are bound to occur. But having two extraordinarily gifted musicians separated by a wall and 210 years makes me wonder if something else was going on.

Boundaries divide. Travel unites.

4 August 2016

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The Titanic Sails On

Seize the moment. Remember all those women
on the ‘Titanic’ who waved off the dessert cart.”
– Erma Bombeck

Google “Titanic Museum” and you will be surprised by how many sites are revealed. Las Vegas, Branson, Pigeon Forge, and Halifax all advertise amazing exhibits. Add to that the short term traveling exhibits at museums with greater callings (such as the Portland Science Center in ME) and it is easy to see that, more than 100 years after its sinking, the Titanic still fascinates us. The Titanic Experience in Belfast, Northern Ireland, is a very good museum and I recommend it if you are curious about this blockbuster event from the early 20th century.

Belfast is where the Titanic was built. (They love to add “It was just fine when it left here.”) The two year old museum is located in the Harland and Wolff dockyards where the hull was created (easily visible from our cruise pier but a cab ride away by land). The museum incorporates excellent multisensory presentations and displays to engage visitors about much more than just the sinking of the behemoth. Beginning with the setting in Belfast, visitors learn about the city’s two main industries at the turn of the century – linen mills and ship building. Other sections of the museum depict the construction methods, the furnishings, the sailing and the sinking.

 

The outside of the Titanic Experience looks like ship's prows.

The outside of the Titanic Experience looks like ship’s prows.

The construction work was physically demanding and dangerous. (OSHA would not know where to begin.) For example, the rivets used to connect the steel plates were heated white-hot on the ground. Young boys would pick up a rivet with tongs and toss it up to the riveting site many feet above. There another youngster would catch the rivet in a bucket (or maybe not). He would transfer it to the men applying the rivets. One man would put the rivet in place through two aligned holes (with tongs? hot pads?) and hold it in place with a small sledge hammer. Two men on the other side of the plates would immediately pound the exposed end of the rivet with alternating blows while it was still very hot and malleable to flatten and secure it. Hearing loss was a frequent health hazard for riveters.

One other interesting tidbit I remember is this: since there were no laundry facilities on board the ship sailed with 45,000 clean, pressed napkins!

The first class cabins are what usually feature in film treatments of the ship’s story, but bits of the second and third class accommodations appear in the 1997 James Cameron film. The intent of the décor for first and second class space was to look like a classy hotel rather than a ship. But the lowest category cabins, emigrant class, were not posh at all. Four single men would share one bunk room. Single women traveling could share a twin bunk room. The single women would share dining and lounge space with emigrant families, only slightly segregated from the single men.

Comparing this largest ship of its time against current ships, the Titanic had dimensions close to our mid-size ships (such as Celebrity’s Infinity). The space-to-passenger ratio by tonnage looks much larger than current ships but that is misleading. Modernization has freed up a great deal of space usable for passengers (space no longer required for furnaces and boilers) to make a voyage more comfortable for everyone. She had a capacity for 2453 passengers but was only about half full on the maiden voyage. Even with that there were not enough lifeboats for the people on board. The assumption in those days was that lifeboats would be used to transfer people to an assisting ship in multiple trips rather than evacuate the entire population at once.

The iceberg collision and sinking are truly tragic. In the final section of the museum visitors hear the actual voices of survivors describing their experience.

Why are we so fascinated with this ship? Is it the pride (the Unsinkable Ship) that went before the fall (nature’s iceberg beats human steel) that draws us? Is it the loss of life which could have been avoided? (Lifeboat requirements were changed after this incident.) What draws you back to the Titanic?

Titanic poster

Boundaries divide. Travel unites.

28 July 2016

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Create the Vacation YOU Want

Chilling out on the bed in your hotel room watching television, while wearing your own pajamas, is sometimes
the best part of a vacation.
— Laura Marano

Your time away should be invested in the things you want to do.

If you go to Whatever Town you do not have to do The Usual (as conventional wisdom would have you do). For example, Panama has the Panama Canal and that’s a great place for geek overload, watching the trains and water and ships going to and fro. But Panama has world class wildlife viewing opportunities and great beaches too. Santa Fe, NM, has wonderful art shopping, museums, and open air opera. But it is in easy distance of great hiking and camping opportunities too. Peru has archaeology, indigenous crafts, museums, and history – but it also has Amazonian wildlife and is an emerging food destination.

What do YOU want to do with your time, energy, money, and personal space? Make your trip your own!

I recently had great success reshaping what would have been seen as a slam dunk history trip into what I really wanted to do.

The Governor's Palace is wonderful but we did not need to see it again. Photo © Wangkun Jia | Dreamstime.com

The Governor’s Palace is wonderful but we did not need to see it again.
Photo © Wangkun Jia | Dreamstime.com

My sister and I live far enough apart that getting together for quality sister time takes planning and commitment. She has an abundance of timeshare credits. We both like the atmosphere of Colonial Williamsburg but have visited the shops and official buildings enough that those are not as great an attraction as they once were. We both enjoy sewing but neither of us needs new garments or sewn gifts. Lastly, we both like to dine well.

Was there hope for us to be away from home and spend fun, quality time together? Yes!

Sister Judy reserved a week for the two of us at one of her timeshare connections in Williamsburg, Virginia. Judy is an avid seamstress (much more committed than I am) so she brought her sewing machine, her serger, and an abundance of necessary tools. I brought directions for making Little Dresses for Africa. We both brought fabric from our personal stash. In the timeshare apartment, we pressed, cut, stitched and created variations on the very easy pattern. At the end of the day – or whenever we needed a change of pace – we would go out for a wonderful meal, often in CW (as the locals call Colonial Williamsburg).

Here are three of the dresses we made. Photo by J Emmons

Here are three of the dresses we made.
Photo by J Emmons

For me, this was a very satisfactory revision of the standard trip to historic Virginia. During the week we completed seven dresses, each with a variation that kept us entertained. Now seven girls have a new dress and we have a week’s worth of usefulness and shared sister time.

I realize that sewing vacations are not for everyone but you probably have a personal passion which could be shaped into a wonderful escape to suit only you. Go for it! Let me know if you need help planning.

Boundaries divide. Travel unites.

7 July 2016

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4th of July Outside the Box — with Reading List

The United States is the only country with a known birthday.
— James G. Blaine

Let’s try thinking outside the usual box this Independence Day. Before you settle in for grilled burgers and fireworks, think about refreshing your knowledge about the history we celebrate.

1776Certainly Minuteman National Historical Park in Lexington and Concord is worth a visit if you have not been there recently. If you are up for a walk in the city, try the Freedom Trail in Boston again, ending at that wonderful standby the USS Constitution.  But if you want fresh insights to familiar places, I heartily suggest reading 1776 by David McCullough. This narrative about this most important year in the nation’s birth actually begins in 1775 with the skirmishes in Boston, Charleston, and what are now the historic suburbs. The first third of the book is all the more special if you know the landscape. If you do not know the lay of the land, this book will encourage you to get out to see it.

Another site related to the colonial era (rather than revolutionary) is Plimouth Plantation and the replica (full size but still tiny) Mayflower II. It takes only about 30 seconds to see Plymouth Rock but the ship and settlement can fill the rest of your day easily.

Further afield there is Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, complete with the Liberty Bell. The park rangers have an especially thought-provoking exercise revealing who among us would have been entitled to vote in 1776.

While in Pennsylvania you really should continue west to Gettysburg, the site of the three day battle which became the turning point of the Civil War. It was fought July 1-3, 1863; if you leave now you could be there for the annual reenactment, but you might prefer to plan now for next year. If you go any other time be sure to take advantage of the guides who will talk you through the entire battle with as much detail as you have time for. To be prepared you might want to read The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War by Michael Shaara.

Hamilton

All Broadway is enthralled with Hamilton, the Tony winning hip-hop musical about George Washington’s right hand man, the first Secretary of the Treasury. Did you know you can visit his home in New York? When Hamilton’s Grange was built it was a country estate, way upland in Harlem. The house has survived more than 200 years and two moves but it is currently in a park which was part of Hamilton’s original estate. This is going on my short list of national parks to visit next. In the meantime I will be reading the biography which inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.

Undaunted CourageIf you prefer wilderness and feel more akin to founding father Thomas Jefferson, perhaps you would rather explore parts of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail with sites in eleven states. You would not have to canoe from one site to the next, nor would you have to rely on Dr. Rush’s “thunder clappers” as a cure-all purgative as the original Corps of Discovery did. But it would be mind-expanding to take in even a portion of the land they covered in two and a half years. The armchair traveler can learn a great deal about their travails reading Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose.

But if you already have travel plans and more than enough books to read, perhaps you will feel more in tune with the sentiment below. Have a happy Fourth, wherever you are!

You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness.  You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.                                                                                                                        –Erma Bombeck

Boundaries divide. Travel unites.

30 June 2016

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America’s Other Best Idea

Art is not always about pretty things. It’s about who we are, what happened to us, and how our lives are affected.
–Elizabeth Broun, Director of the Smithsonian
Museum of American Art and Renwick Gallery

The National Parks system is widely hailed as America’s best idea. The next best, in my opinion, is the Smithsonian Institution. The Institute funds and runs many engaging museums in the capital, charging no admission fee to the millions of visitors who are educated and entertained by their collections. The Smithsonian also funds and operates a multitude of educational offerings, research centers, and cultural centers. It is an amazing national resource and deserves our support and gratitude.

Most of the museums are on or near the Mall in Washington. You could tour exhibits all day for several days and not exhaust the possibilities (only yourself). Treasures of art, sciences, history, and technology are all here. The Hope Diamond, the First Ladies’ dresses, the “star spangled banner” that flew over Fort McHenry, the space shuttle Discovery, and the pandas at the National Zoo (also part of the Smithsonian) are my top memories. Who knows how much they have in reserve if we just dig a little deeper?

On our recent visit we went to the new Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center outside the city near Dulles airport. Like the original Air and Space museum on the Mall, this exhibit presents dozens of flying machines, many of them in very dynamic poses of flight. The jumble of “things in the air” made me wonder what happens at night when no one is watching. Do they all spring to life, zoom around to get the kinks out, then resume their positions at dawn as the guards arrive? It’s no surprise that others have had the same thought and made it into  “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,” incorporating several Smithsonian collections with that question in mind.

The Udvar-Hazy Center features an SR-71 Blackbird (stealth reconnaissance), the Enola Gay (Hiroshima), an Air France Concorde, and the space shuttle Discovery. Most of the specimens look very bright and shiny, spiffed up for display. The Discovery looks more weathered and used – and to my eyes more to be honored for that realism. (The difference was probably a practical decision more than anything since the ceramic tile exterior would have been difficult or costly to “refresh.”)

The scope and arrangement of the museum makes amateur photography difficult. The only machine I could get a decent picture of was “The World’s Smallest Airplane.” Who would fly this plane? There is no room for a passenger so the thrill would be all your own. It looks to me like something out of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” or “Cars.” And I saw it at the Smithsonian!

The World's Smallest Airplane Photo by J. Emmons

The World’s Smallest Airplane   Photo by J. Emmons

Boundaries divide. Travel unites.

23 June 2016

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