Tuesday, December 20, 2011

When in Rome

So do you know what it's called when the axial tilt of the earth's polar hemisphere is farthest away from the sun? And no, that's not the set-up to a joke only astrophysicists get. It's the technical description of what occurs on the winter solstice, also known as midwinter in parts of the world. In the northern hemisphere that is this Thursday, December 22, at precisely 5:30 AM UTC. In other words, the shortest day of the year. Sort of.

Of course all days are 24 hours long, but we all know that some "feel" longer than others. Take Christmas with the in-laws, for example. But the amount of sun we get in a day can make it feel shorter as well, and on the winter solstice, we record the least amount of daylight of the year. Which is why it has a special name, and is the source of numerous celebrations and observances worldwide. Did you know that Stonehenge was built to align exactly with the location of the sunrise on solstice? Yep, and you can bet your hat that place is crawling with druids, hippies, and all manner of freaks and geeks as we speak, as a result. Of course in Seattle, where I am from, a day with almost no sunlight is just called Tuesday.

But what about the other half of the world, down in the southern hemisphere? You guessed it, it's the summer solstice, and they are getting ready to celebrate the longest day of the year. So while it means missing Christmas with the in-laws, I've decided to head to the land of the Kiwis, a.k.a. New Zealand.

New Zealand was one of the last land masses to be populated by humans. It is estimated that Polynesians began arriving here around 1250. These folks became the Māori, and are considered to be the indigenous people of New Zealand. Prior to their arrival, there were no mammals at all and the land was noted for its numerous bird species, many of which can be found nowhere else. Among them, a flightless bird called the Kiwi became the national symbol and nickname for the people of New Zealand. The first contact with Europeans came in 1642 when a Dutch explorer named Abel Tasman (as in Tasmania), "discovered" it. However, the Māori discovered him and his crew, and let's just say it went very poorly for the visiting team. Europeans did not come back again for over 100 years. But when they did, it was the British and they have never left. The British brought with them English, mammals, muskets, potatoes, and Old World diseases. And all of that worked out about the same is it did elsewhere, and today about 15% of the population identifies themselves as Māori. The remainder are predominantly of European descent with minority Asian and Pacific Island groups represented as well.

New Zealand is made up two primary islands: North Island and South Island. They stretch almost 1,000 miles from north to south. So you really can't see all of this country in one go. Most people focus on one island and perhaps a portion of the other. At their closest, North and South Island are 14 miles apart, separated by Cook Strait. I chose South Island, which is the larger of the two, and is divided lengthwise by a mountain range known as the South Alps. This mountain range has 20 peaks that are above 9,000 feet, and one - Aoraki/Mount Cook - towers at 12,316 feet. So as you might imagine, the weather varies wildly depending on your relationship to the mountains, and the sea. My timeshare rental is in Wanaka, which is among the few places in New Zealand that enjoys four distinct seasons. And while they are approaching the summer solstice, the spring (September to December) is noted for rain. So it is a little soggy here and there, but the temperature is hovering in the 75 - 80 degree range and the sun is showing itself a little more each day. We don't have a name for that in Seattle, since the sun never shines for more than two days in a row.

Wanaka is located in the Otago region of South Island, just south of Lake Wanaka, from which it derives its name. It's primarily a resort town, but is not intensely developed. Kiwis are very concerned about over-development and creating a sustainable society, even when it comes to tourism. Over 30% of New Zealand's land mass has been set aside in the form of parks, reserves, and natural areas. And more and more inns and hotels are being built or retro-fitted to reduce the consumption of natural resources. It makes a lot of sense when you consider that the very thing tourists come for - the natural setting - must be preserved in order to stay viable. In this way, Kiwis see preservation and hospitality as two sides of the same coin. And having taken in some of the breathtaking natural splendor of the place, I have to agree.

Summer in Wanaka offers hiking and climbing, mountain biking, fishing, paragliding, kayaking and rafting, jetboating and close proximity to Mount Aspiring National Park. In winter, it is all about skiing, snowboarding, and anything else you can strap to your feet and scream down a mountain on. Plus there are several nice wineries in the region, as well as some seriously good golfing. And for a cinephile like me, no trip to Wanaka would be complete without hitting the Paradiso Cinema at least once (and maybe more). It's a classic old movie house, but instead of rows of stadium seats, it offers couches, easy chairs, and even an old Volkswagen convertible. Plus they have an in-house restaurant and welcome you to eat before, during, and after the show. They even show each film with an intermission, so that you can enjoy your meal and stretch out a bit. Of course, none of this is going to help a movie like Adam Sandler's Jack and Jill stink any less, but what could, really?

I am staying at Wyndham At Wanaka, which features rustic timber interiors, heated outdoor pool, sauna, steam room, onsite restaurant and bar, and is in easy walking distance of the lake and the village of Wanaka.

Well, I am off to Stuart Landsborough's Puzzling World. Describing itself as a "unique attraction specializing in puzzling eccentricity," it features leaning and tumbling towers, a great maze, hall of holograms, Ames forced perspective room, and many more illusions and mind-bending installations. There's even a Roman style-toilet. In addition to separate restrooms for ladies and gents, they offer a replica roman communal toilet area, complete with mural. I guess the mural is to give you something to focus on, rather than staring at the fellow across from you while you are trying to take care of business. I'm not really sure that this qualifies as "puzzling" so much as it is just gross, but when in Rome...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

George Washington Slept Here

While many places can accurately state "George Washington slept here" - and many, many more do so falsely - it is here at Mount Vernon that Washington slept most often, and still does. He died 212 years ago today, and is buried in a crypt on the grounds of his beloved plantation on the banks of the Potomac River. On more than one occasion, Congress attempted to have the body moved to nearby Washington, D.C., in what they felt would be a more fitting tribute to "the father of his country". But each time, representatives of southern states objected and the plans were shelved. There was even a thwarted attempt to steal his remains in 1831. Finally, in 1832 the inner vault to Washington's crypt was sealed for good, and the keys thrown into the river.

Washington came from a wealthy plantation family, but Mount Vernon was never intended to be his. In accordance with Southern plantation hierarchy, the whole kit and kaboodle was to go to his older, half-brother Lawrence, who would then pass it on to his first born son. But as luck would have it - for George anyway - Lawrence met with an early death, and left no heirs. So when George's father died, the entire operation passed on to him. At that time it was approximately 4,00 acres and primarily produced tobacco using slave labor. But George brought numerous innovations to the plantation, reducing the need for human bondage, and more than once doubled its size.

An example of his innovation: Washington felt like there was so much competition for tobacco in Virginia, that he stopped growing it entirely by 1766. He planted instead wheat, corn, flax, and hemp. The wheat and corn was ground at his own gristmill - powered by a nearby creek - to be sold at market and for conversion into booze at his onsite distillery. At one point, Washington was among the nation's largest distillers of whiskey. The flax and hemp were extremely valuable commodities used in making fabric, dye, paper, medicines, rope, food, and more. You may recognize hemp as the low-potency cousin of the marijuana plant, which was so vital to colonial life in America, there was once a mandate for planters to grow it. Of course if you tried either of these endeavors today, you'd be locked up as a moonshiner and a drug dealer. But in the mid to late 1700s, they made Washington a very rich man indeed.

In fact, after marrying into the Custis family - Martha's klan - it is estimated that he was one of the richest men in America. So you can imagine that the outbreak of war with the British was not exactly good for business. Yet he stepped up anyway, and took command of the rag-tag Continental Army to fight the mightiest military force in the world. Think about that. It'd be a bit like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet dropping everything to march into the sausage grinder that was the British Army. But he did it anyway. And while he lost most of the battles he fought in, he - and his fledgling nation - ultimately prevailed. Upon his victory, he voluntarily surrendered his command demonstrating his commitment to a military controlled by a civilian government. And had he not been elected the first president of the nation, he was fully prepared to return to his beloved Mount Vernon, and resume his "regular" life.

His life was so extraordinary, in fact, that it has always puzzled me as to why the need for so many myths about the man. Take the cherry tree story, for example. You know the one that says he admitted to his father, after having dispatched with his prize cherry tree, "I cannot tell a lie". There isn't one shred of evidence to support such a story, and there is a good deal of it to suggest that it was entirely fabricated by one Mason Locke Weems. Weems wrote a book in 1850 with the catchy title of "The Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen". In it, he recounts the cherry tree story, and it seems to have taken on a life of its own from there. Then there's the wooden teeth business. Washington had awful dental problems, of this there is no doubt. In fact, when he was elected president, he had exactly one tooth left in his head. All of the others had been extracted - without the benefit of painkillers - in varying degrees of decay and abscess. The many dentures Washington owned in his lifetime were made from various forms of ivory and bone, and one even had actual human teeth. They were attached to his sole surviving tooth via a painful tangle of wires and hooks. Remember that this was the richest man in the country, and these solutions represented the "best money could buy". But wooden teeth he never owned.

Another reason there is a good deal of misinformation regarding Washington is that most of his writings and material possessions were lost. Upon his death, Martha burned all of their correspondences. And while George had expressed concerns numerous times about his diaries and plantation manifests after his death, these too were allowed to largely slip away. Mount Vernon itself fell into a terrible state of disrepair after passing through the hands of several Washington heirs (he fathered no children). In 1848 it was offered for sale to both the U.S. government and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Both declined, and it nearly went on the scrap heap. But in 1858, a group called the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union agreed to buy the mansion and the 500 acres of plantation that remain today. During the Civil War that followed almost immediately thereafter, both sides agreed to spare the landmark of any further destruction. After the war, a restoration and reconstruction project began which continues to this day.

You can visit Mount Vernon daily from a timeshare rental in nearby Alexandria, VA, or at the National Harbor in Fort Washington, MD. Wyndham has properties in both locations and each has Metro options available to get you to and from Mount Vernon. Plan a full day (or two) if you really want to do the man and his home justice.

Well, I am off to catch the George Washington Masonic Memorial tour here in Alexandria. Washington was the first of several U.S. presidents belonging to the various orders of Freemasons. All 51 national Masonic organizations chipped in to build this monstrous combination of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Neoclassical architecture, as a tribute to the first president. I have become convinced that it holds the lost symbol required to finally reveal the secrets (and treasure) of the Knights Templar. Of course I was convinced I saw Dom DeLuise in New Orleans last Mardi Gras, despite the fact that he died in 2009. Turns out it was Paul Prudhomme, who now has a 500-foot restraining order against me.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Best and Worst of Times

So I guess it is that time of year again. And no, I don't mean hitting the big box stores and getting crushed to death in a mad scramble to save two bucks on the latest gizmo. No I am talkin' year end lists. That's right baby, the best and worst of 2011 are rolling in as we speak. The big one, Time Magazine's Person of the Year, has not yet been announced, but you gotta figure Steve Jobs has that one all sewn up. Besides his enormous accomplishments and dying way too young, checking out late in the year like that always sits well with the judges. Either way, having gone with Mark Zuckerberg last year, they've got nowhere to go but up.

Of course there are still three weeks left in the year, which is plenty of time for Charlie Sheen or Donald Trump to do something epically stupid and shake things up a bit. But here are some highlights from Time that caught my eye:

The Top 10 Buzzwords includes Arab Spring, Winning, and Man as Prefix. The first one was an obvious, world changing event, and belongs on all sorts of 2011 lists. The second one of course is from our aforementioned friend Mr. Sheen, who by the way, cost me $500 in the office death pool. Yeah, my bracket came down to Gaddafi vs. Mr. Winning. And while Sheen is the younger man, I really thought old Muammar would stick around long enough to see him into an early grave. My bad. The last one, of course, refers to things like mancave, mankini, and of course mancations. Mancations are all the rage in mantravel (see what I did there?), and I saw it as my obligation to round up a crew and head out on one of my own earlier this year. Think "The Hangover" meets "Bachelor Party", only with a bunch of old geezers an no nudity (thank God).

The Top 10 Gadgets has the Apple iPad 2 sitting at #1, which should surprise absolutely no one. In fact, the list is dominated by Apple products or Apple wanna-be products. The exceptions being gaming systems, which I will never understand, and something called the Roku. From what I gather it is a device about the size of the palm of your hand, which enables you to stream digital movies from places like Hulu and Netflix, directly to your TV. I get the feeling BetaMax just isn't coming back, and I ought to break down and have a look at one of these things in '12.

Top 10 Comebacks has congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at #1 with her truly miraculous recovery from gunshot wounds. The rest of the list, however, was almost exclusively people I have never heard of, which begs two questions: did they really come back, and if so, from what? Of course the entry that caused me to nearly fall out of my chair was New Kids on the Block and the Back Street Boys uniting to form one huge boy-band, nostalgia group. Now I know I am no spring chicken, but aren't these "boys" like 40 years old at this point? At least with Menudo they kicked you out when you turned 18, sparing you any such embarrassment later in life. Oh well, I guess it is just the year of the manboy (did it again).

Of course, I am a cinephile at heart, and it is the best- and worst-of movie lists that always get my attention. Now to say that 2011 was not a good movie year, is sort of like saying Donald Trump has issues with his hair. But The Artist as the #1 best film? Really? In case you missed it- and you were not alone - this film is black-and-white and silent. That's right, the actors speak their lines, which then appear on screen using inter-titles just like back in the '20s. Maybe I'll hold onto that BetaMax after all. Of course the only problem with the worst-of list is that you only get ten places. But to have any other film besides Adam Sandler's Jack and Jill as the worst would be a travesty. This movie is so bad it will actually stink up your house if you bring it in on DVD. If you must watch it, stream it to one of those Roku thingys and have a clothespin handy for your nose.

But if you want a really great list to ponder, check out RedWeek's Top 25 Timeshare Rental Resorts. No boy-bands, winning, or doomsday predictions here. Just honest results from real travelers, just like you and me. Well, I am off to hit the pool at my Maui timeshare rental. I wonder if I'm supposed to step into this mankini, or pull it over my head?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

They Said We'd Have Jetpacks

So did you see this guy they call Jetman flying around in formation with real fighter jets the other day? Yeah, his name is Yves Rossy, and he's clearly nuts. He straps a contraption to his back that he calls a wingsuit, and flies around at speeds of up to 180mph. Are you kidding me?! The suit consists of a pair of carbon-fiber wings about eight feet across, and four kerosene-powered jet engines. Think Buzz Lightyear from the Toy Story movies. He debuted this thing back in 2006 and became the first, and only, person to achieve sustained flight by affixing a wing and jet engines to his back. And while it is not surprising he's the only person in the world to do this, the fact that he hasn't yet killed himself is.

So why does he get a jetpack?

I don't remember a time in my life when the prospect of flying around in a jetpack didn't seem to be just around the corner. The idea of the jetpack goes all the way back to the late 1920s - no I wasn't around then - and a fellow named Anthony Rogers. You might know him better by his nickname "Buck". Buck didn't waste time getting from here to there in a car, or running into a phone booth to change into a cape, like some superheroes. No this guy was tricked out in a jetpack way back in 1928. Which is really saying something, since jets had not yet been invented.
By the 1960s, jet technology had been around for some time, and there seemed to be serious prospects of human flight on the horizon. At least that's how they made it seem in movies and on TV. Remember James Bond flying around in the 1965 film Thunderball? Well the Bell Rocket Belt, which debuted publicly in 1961, was the inspiration for that scene. It was this device that captured my imagination - along with most people my age - and how I imagined myself moving about the latter half of the 20th century. Yet here I am, still waiting in airport terminal lines with all of the other flightless schmoes.

So what's the hold up anyway? Well, it would seem that we humans just aren't all that aerodynamic. More accurately, we are not in the least bit aerodynamic. We belong flying up in the sky as much as a fish belongs behind the wheel of an automobile. But that's never stopped us before, has it? We put a man on the moon for Pete's sake. Seems the biggest problem is that the weight of the apparatus and fuel required to generate enough lift for a human being is not conducive to very long fights. The Bell Rocket Belt's maiden voyage, for example, lasted just 13 seconds - only one second longer than the Wright brothers' first flight way back in 1903. In fact, prior to the Jetman approach, with the addition of wings, the longest sustained flight with a jetpack was just over a minute.

Clearly if an easy solution was possible, it would have come along by now. Just imagine how much money people would fork over for their very own jetpack. Glenn Martin, a New Zealand inventor, seems to think it is about $100,000 dollars. He's sticking with the jetpack approach (no wings) and has flown his for almost ten minutes, and reached a height of 5,000 feet. On that last flight he wisely strapped a dummy to it, rather than go that high himself. But rather than the sleek Buck Rogers style, his looks more like you've strapped a pair of trash cans on your back. To this criticism, he told the NY Times "if someone says, 'I'm not going to buy a jetpack until it's the size of my high school backpack and has a turbine engine in it,' that's fine, but they're not going to be flying a jetpack in their lifetime." Sigh.

Looks like it's just not in the cards for me. I can cough up $100k for ten minutes in a flying trash can, or spend a few million to end up a smoking hole in the ground with a Jetman-type device. And let's not act all surprised when it happens, you know that's where he's heading with that thing.

But I can still dream, I suppose. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., houses the original Bell Rocket Belt along with the Wright Flyer and just about every other flying machine man has ever come up with. Admission is free and a timeshare rental in nearby Alexandria, VA, is just a short Metro ride away. Of course, with a jetpack...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Let's Talk Turkey

Well, it is that time of year again. I've got my copy of Planes, Trains and Automobiles all fired up and ready to go, and am getting away from it all in a timeshare rental. It's good to be the Ambassador. But you're probably looking down the barrel at holiday gridlock on the highways or the airports, relatives you could probably take or leave, some dry turkey, and the Christmas shopping onslaught. Let's hope those football games are really, really good. Seriously though, the holidays can be stressful, but it is important to keep an eye on what is truly important: turkey.

That's right, the symbol of Thanksgiving in America. I can't think of another celebration that is so closely identified with eating one specific food like the Thanksgiving turkey. In fact, it is estimated that more than 46 million turkeys will be consumed this Thursday alone. Are you kidding me?! That's more turkeys than there are people in the states of California and Ohio combined. Our relationship with the turkey goes all the way back to the founding of this country, so I guess it is not surprising that we would choose it for a major American celebration. And having a turkey dinner on the 4th of July would be just weird, not to mention hot.

Turkeys are native to the Americas, and helped to keep the European colonists alive when they otherwise might not have. So it is not surprising that they are revered. But our relationship with them seems contradictory and convoluted, too. Even the name "turkey" is a mistake. There is a bird called a guineafowl, which is like a small chicken or quail (and equally yummy). They were known to Europeans as an export from Turkey (the country) and adopted the name turkey. So when Europeans landed in America and encountered the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) they just assumed that they must be really, really, big guineafowl. After all, the New World was just Asia approached from the East instead of from the West. Wasn't it?

Anyway, the name stuck and the wild turkey became a staple of early American life. You may have heard that Benjamin Franklin even wanted it for the national emblem, which is not entirely true. While the deliberations of selecting the bald eagle as our symbol were drawing to a close (after six years), he penned a letter to his daughter, complaining of the choice. He said something like "if you are going to choose a bird that looks like a turkey, why not just use a turkey?" Which is not really a ringing endorsement.

Regardless, it was not long before the domesticated version supplanted the wild one, and access to a turkey dinner was as simple as wringing one's neck and cooking it up. But as time went on, the domesticated turkey went from something that was more or less like a wild turkey, except larger and more docile. Compare that to the enormous Broad Breasted White most people will consume on Thursday, and it seems like two different animals. These birds spend their entire existence indoors, which most breeds won't tolerate, and can easily reach a weight of 50 lbs. Their breasts are so large and their legs so short, they can neither fly nor run. They spend their time mostly banging into one of the other 10,000 birds they are housed with. In fact, their bodies are so out of whack with anything resembling a turkey that they cannot - how should I put this - make baby turkeys. That's right, there's too much "junk" in the way for them to have sex. So the entire lot, all 46 million of them, were impregnated via in vitro fertilization. Think Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs.

But of course everything you hear about domesticated turkeys is not true. For example, it is often said that they are so stupid that they will stare up at the clouds with their mouths agape when it rains, and drown as a result. Now domesticated turkeys are not terribly bright, as compared with wild turkeys. But they are no more or less stupid than say a domesticated chicken. Yet, no one ever accuses chickens of drowning in the rain. Now I've already mentioned that Broad Breasted Whites never go outside, let alone get left in the rain. So you know right there that this is a myth. But the transfixed, upward gaze people have witnessed in these turkeys does occur. But it actually appears to be the result of a nervous disorder. Now imagine being so fat that you couldn't have sex, and being crammed inside with 10,000 other fat idiots in the same boat. If that's not cause for a nervous disorder, I don't know what is!

Seriously though, there are heritage breeds of turkey available that are probably a lot like what early American colonists ate. And if you are a really good hunter (or know one), you might even get a wild turkey. Or just have a ham instead. The point of the day is to be thankful for all the good things you have in this life. Mine are too numerous to mention. But at the top of that list are getting to travel and write about it for a living, and the fact I am not so fat that I cannot make baby turkeys.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Molecular Gastronomy

No I am not in the hospital having a scope of my innards. Molecular gastronomy is actually a modern style of cooking that is gaining followers and critics at a rapid pace. I just recently discovered it myself while staying at a timeshare rental in Las Vegas, and I am still not sure what to make of it all.

As a bit of background, molecular gastronomy is really the science of cooking, rather than an actual cuisine. It attempts to observe and explain the chemical transformations in food when cooked, and then use this knowledge to make dishes with more intense, even unfamiliar flavors and textures. So rather than seeing the typical grill, range-top and ovens you associate with a restaurant kitchen, you might encounter a thermal immersion circulator, centrifuge, and syringes. And on your plate, don't be surprised to find foams, gels, and powders where you would normally see cuts of meat, sauces, and sides. And then there is the liquid nitrogen, lecithin, hydrocolloids, and transglutaminase - a.k.a. "meat glue". Sounds yummy, huh?

Even the name itself - molecular gastronomy - is off-putting, really. In fact many of the chefs who are associated with these techniques, reject this term entirely. Unfortunately, none of them can agree on what to call it, and MG continues to stick around. Whatever you call it, some of the chefs normally associated with this movement are Herve This (the father of MG), Grant Achatz, Ferran Adrià, José Andrés, Thomas Keller, and more. Many of these chefs have multiple locations around the country, and there is a good chance that a popular travel destination is going to have both timeshares and MG restaurants. Las Vegas, D.C., and New York in particular.

Beyond the unappetizing name and weird ingredients, the dining experience itself is quite different as well. Take the restaurant é by José Andrés in Las Vegas. Andrés is a Spaniard who trained under MG master Ferran Adria at his restaurant El Bulli, before branching out on his own. Andrés is credited with bringing the "small plate" or tapas concept of his native Spain to MG cooking. So it is not unusual to have 25 - 30 small dishes in one evening, rather than the usual soup, salad, entree, and dessert. That's right, I said 30 dishes. Now when José says, "small plate", he means it. In fact, some dishes don't even come on a plate. One dish - a flower made from yogurt and raspberries - was served on a white ceramic hand, cast from Andrés's own right hand. Another - Bocata de Piquillo (a type of pepper) - was served atop a shoe. I'm not making this up. If this all sounds too weird, get this: é itself is a "hidden restaurant" inside another Andrés eatery called Jaleo at the Cosmopolitan Casino. Jaleo has seatings (with reservations way in advance) like a typical restaurant. é only sits six people at a time, and dinner can take up to three hours. Are you kidding me?!

I have certainly focused on the bizarre and unusual aspects of this cuisine - so as to properly prepare you for it - should you choose to explore it. Imagine if you didn't know that head cheese wasn't really cheese, or that Rocky Mountain oysters weren't oysters at all. You did know those two things, right? Anyway, what I haven't talked about at all is the taste, and that would be a mistake. While I could have lived the rest of my life without ever eating off of a ceramic hand or somebody's shoe, some of the flavors I experienced during my experience were like none I have ever had before, nor expect to again. Certain foods when jelled or foamed seem to melt in your mouth. Whereas making a tiny caviar-like ball with others - called spherification - makes for a delayed burst of flavor. And don't get me wrong, it's not all foams, gels and powders. There were plenty of meats, breads, seafood, veggies and more; just in new and unusual combinations and preparations. And any flavor you can imagine: from sweet to sour, smokey to salty, and everything in between, is on full display, and somehow more intense then you have ever experienced them. It's certainly not for everyone, and depending on the restaurant, can be tough on the pocketbook. But if you find yourself in Vegas - and want a really different dining experience - try one of the MG restaurants you can find there. New ones seem to be popping up all the time.

Speaking of Vegas, I am staying at Grandview at Las Vegas, and cannot say enough about my stay. It's a 12-story resort on the south end of The Strip. My unit is a one-bedroom with a king bed, queen sleeper sofa, living area, fully equipped kitchen, washer/dryer, large-screen TV and DVD player and a jacuzzi tub. RedWeek members rate it 4.5 stars, and I can see why.

Well, I am off to the store to pick up some cold cuts and a Cuisinart. Before I was exposed to the world of molecular gastronomy, I just assumed that cultural stigmas would prevent my dream food from becoming a reality. But now, the baloney smoothie is as good as in my mouth.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

It's the Real Thing

Have you ever kicked back with an ice cold Pemberton's French Wine Coca? Me neither, and you'd probably get hauled off to prison if you tried to today. But way back in 1886 coca wines were all the rage and were touted as treatments for morphine addiction, dyspepsia, headaches, impotence, and more. To be clear, coca wines were a combination of alcohol and cocaine, and Pemberton's French Wine Coca is known the world over today as Coca-Cola. That's right, alcohol and cocaine combined together can cure morphine addiction and impotence. Who knew? I am pretty sure it causes both as well, but that's beside the point.

Coca-Cola's original formula, developed by John Pemberton, was an attempt to make a non-alcoholic coca-wine. You see, Fulton County, GA - from where Pemberton hailed - had just become a dry county. Apparently drinking alcohol was looked down upon as a vice, but drinking five ounces of pure cocaine per serving was completely okay. In fact, the earliest version of Coca-Cola contained primarily cocaine and caffeine, derived from the coca leaf and the kola nut, respectively. Thus the name, with the "K" in Kola switched out for a "C". And it wasn't until 1904 that cocaine was removed entirely from the formula. To this day, however, coca leaves are used in the formula for making Coke. One company, located in New Jersey, is legally allowed to import coca leaves, extract the cocaine for medicinal purposes, and deliver the "spent" leaves to Coca-Cola for use in their product. Makes you wonder what might be in Mary Janes, doesn't it?

But if there is one product that is known the world over as an American icon, it's Coca-Cola. And the fellow who took it global was a man by the name of Asa Griggs Candler from the tiny village of Villa Rica, Georgia, from where I am writing to you today. Griggs bought Pemberton's formula in 1887 and began producing Coca Cola (no hyphen). Problem was, Pemberton also sold the formula to no less than three other groups. It became a legal mess which really did not get straightened out entirely until 1914. But by 1894 Griggs was bottling and selling Coca-Cola and he never looked back. Yet the town he called home, until very recently, remained a sleepy, post gold-rush village of no more than a few thousand people - despite its location just 35 miles west of Atlanta.

Villa Rica was home to the Creek tribe for thousands of years before the arrival of white settlers. The local Creek were hunters, and not warriors, and made what they thought was an alliance with the settlers in the form of a treaty in 1825. But gold was discovered in Villa Rica shortly thereafter, and you can probably guess how that worked out. With the Creek out of the way, and rumors of gold circulating, the usual suspects of prospectors, speculators, shopkeepers, thieves, prostitutes, and more, descended on the area. When we think of the Wild West, places like Wyoming or the Dakotas may come to mind, but in the 1830s, this was it. Andrew Jackson was president, one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence was still alive, and Abraham Lincoln was just 21 years old. In other words, America was still a very young nation. Yet in the next half a century, a young man from this town would go on to become world famous for a concoction he bought from a pharmacist trying to cure impotence with cocaine and caffeine. What a country.

Villa Rica is famous for more than just Coca-Cola and the gold rush. It is also the birthplace of Thomas A. Dorsey, who is widely credited with creating gospel music. He grew up in the church, the son of a traveling preacher and a church organist. But he struck out on his own playing secular blues music as "Georgia Tom", eventually returning to rural Georgia to make spiritual music. His songs incorporated a bluesy "bounce" not normally associated with church music. These new versions of old spirituals widely became known as "Dorseys" but their creator preferred to call them "gospels". The latter name stuck. He wrote and recorded over four hundred songs, some of which were hits by Mahalia Jackson, Red Foley, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and more. His childhood home is long gone, but the town honors him annually with the Thomas A. Dorsey Birthplace and Gospel Heritage Festival.

In fact, the town does a tremendous job of preserving its rich past all around. The downtown features a raised sidewalk upon which you can stroll by impeccably restored structures, quaint antique shops and eateries, and numerous historic sites. And if golf is your game - it is mine - you can hit The Frog, a Tom Fazio designed, 18-hole masterpiece. I am staying in a timeshare rental at Wyndham Resort at Fairfield Plantation, which features its own championship golf course, a swimming beach, three outdoor pools, four tennis courts, picnic areas, and a recreation center. Plus Atlanta and Six Flags Over Georgia are just a little over thirty miles away. Heck, there's so much to do and see in this area, you might need one of those cocaine-caffeine concoctions just to squeeze it all in.

Well, I am off to the Pine Mountain Gold Museum. Not only was this the location of the first gold strike in the U.S., and the current home of a neat museum, but it is still actively producing gold. That's right, and some folks estimate that 80 percent of the "mother lode" in Villa Rica was never discovered. For $5 per person, you can try your hand at panning for gold that is 98% pure, a.k.a. 23 carat, and that's just what I am going to do. With the price of gold these days, I should have this trip paid for by nightfall. But heck, I'll be happy with a Coke and a smile.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Rabbit Rabbit

So here we are on the first of November. Have you ever noticed that the months September through December contain the Latin names for the numbers seven, eight, nine, and ten, even though they are the ninth through twelfth months on the calendar? It has something to do with the switch from the Gregorian to the Julian calendar (or maybe the other way around), and I am sure they taught it to me in school a million years ago. But something I had never encountered, until just recently, is the tradition of saying the words "rabbit rabbit" on the first of the month. Do you know about this? Apparently, it brings good luck to the speaker for the entire month. Clearly I am way behind the times (and down on my luck), as it would seem to be a tradition that is at least 150 years old (probably more), and can be found wherever British colonization has occurred. In other words, everywhere.

The expression, like a lot of folklore, takes on a lot of variations. Some folks say "rabbit rabbit white rabbit" while others go with "rabbit rabbit rabbit". But among all of the variants, the goal seems to be the same: to bring you good luck in the month ahead. You are to make this utterance as soon as you wake on the first day of a new month, before you do anything else. Seems reasonable enough, and doesn't take a whole lot of effort to remember, so why not?

Trying to make sense of this, or any folk idiom, is a bit of a wild goose chase (see what I did there?). The connection between luck and rabbits in English tradition is strong and time-honored. Think of a lucky rabbit's foot, which brings luck to the bearer, but not so much to the bunny. Yet in Hebrew tradition rabbits are a symbol of cowardice, like how we use "chicken" in English. Hey, did you know that in Chinese and other East Asian countries they see a rabbit in the moon, and not a man? Yeah, so sorting any of this out may be an exercise in futility. Especially here in the States, where traditions have been brought over with wave after wave of immigrants, and woven into the larger fabric of American folklore. Perhaps that's why I am only just now learning about this leporid luck-generating mantra.

Seems like the "rabbit rabbit" tradition in America is strongest in New England, which is not terribly surprising, considering it is the second oldest British settlement in North America. The island of Nantucket in particular seems to be a hot-bed of rabbit-induced good luck theory, along with Cape Cod and other coastal Massachusetts towns. Nantucket is of course famous for another expression - which I won't repeat - and may or may not be about luck, depending on your perspective. Although the pilgrims arrived in 1620, it was not until the 1640s that the British got serious about colonizing the island. Peter Folger, in particular, is viewed as playing a pivotal role in this expansion. He was living in Massachusetts as early as 1635, and was the original surveyor of Nantucket for the new proprietors of the land. He also happened to be Benjamin Franklin's grandfather on his mother's side. So was Franklin and his kin responsible for the "rabbit rabbit" expression making it to our shores? Could be. Franklin is of course famous for quotes (many of which he never uttered), and among them is "diligence is the mother of good luck". That doesn't sound like someone who believes in superstitions like "rabbit rabbit" but you never know. I say you rent a Nantucket timeshare and do a little field research for yourself. You won't be disappointed.

Another place to look for rabbit clues is Vermont. Specifically in the Middlebury area, which upholds many British traditions from hand furniture making to craft beer brewing. Middlebury is home to the college of the same name, and the Vermont Folklife Center. The latter states as core to its mission "preservation of the spoken word," as it pertains to Vermonters and their history. So maybe the answer to the lucky rabbit lies in their extensive archive? Problem is, there are more than 3,800 recorded interviews alone in the archive. Seems like you'd need to rent a Vermont timeshare and devote some time to the listening room. Throw in some pure maple syrup, Ben & Jerry's ice cream, and world class ski resorts, and you've got yourself a serious research project. Who knows, maybe you could get a grant under the guise of furthering the pursuit of knowledge?

Other British colonial strongholds like Williamsburg, VA, Boston, MA, and Charleston, SC, are great places to look for the source of this tradition's lineage, and for great timeshare rentals. But if you want to get right to the source, check out a London timeshare and ask the locals what the "rabbit rabbit" business is all about. Just be prepared to drink some beer at a local pub as part of your fact finding. Shouldn't be a problem.

Well, I am off to perform another sacred monthly ritual: picking up my mail. As someone who travels for a living, it tends to pile up. I handle all of the important stuff online, like bills and so forth, but the junk still keeps coming. I reduced it some by joining that Do Not Mail list, but new offers keep coming to take the place of the old ones. Here's a tip I picked up a while back for any unsolicited mail that comes with a prepaid return envelope. Take the offer and cut it up into thousands of little pieces (I use my crosscut shredder) and stick it in the return envelope and mail it back. Works every time.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What to Wear?

Unlike a lot of folks, I never have any trouble figuring out what to wear to a wedding, funeral, or swanky event. For better or for worse, I have been the same jacket size since the Reagan administration, when I bought my first tuxedo. It's a traditional black, Clark-Gable-style monkey suit, with no frills or adornments, and a simple bow-tie. In other words, classic. I take it to the cleaners immediately after the event and store it in a garment bag, and think I look just spiffy, thank you very much. Halloween, on the other hand, always torments me. So many costume ideas, but I can only choose one.

Hey did you know that dressing up in costumes on Halloween is a tradition dating back over 2,000 years? Yeah, the Celts - who lived in what is now England, Ireland, Scotland, and parts of France - celebrated with a festival called Samhain (pronounced "sow-in") right around this time of year. It was more of a harvest festival, and a "let's hope we make it through the winter" type of affair than the high-fructose corn syrup bonanza we know today. They built great bonfires, offered up animal sacrifices, and dressed in costumes made from animal hides, heads, and other gruesomeness. Then they crossed their fingers and hunkered down for the winter. They also felt that at this time of year the boundary between the living and the dead was thin, like a veil, and evil spirits could slip right through and wreak havoc on the souls of the living. Man that's creepy! I get the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it.

Anyway, the Romans conquered the Celts and added their own rituals. Then Romans got religion and added Catholic beliefs to create All Saints Day. Then there was the reformation and Protestants added their two cents. And before you know it, everyone left and went to America and created entirely new rituals. Most notably among them was the idea of going door-to-door and begging for treats. Lots of people attribute this to the Irish which, considering the circumstance under which they left the Old World, makes a fair amount of sense. Whatever the case, once large numbers of Irish immigrants began flooding American cities, trick-or-treating began in earnest. And for me, that is what Halloween is all about. That and scaring the bejeezus out of the little kids that come to my door.

Which brings me back around to my costume conundrum. Thought I forgot about that, didn't you? I am not the type to buy a costume. I feel that any good costume, like any good meal, is one that is homemade. But I may be in a dwindling minority on this point. According to some recent statistics, approximately $1 billion will be spent on children's costumes this year, another $1.2 billion on adults, and get this, $310 million on pets. That's right: dogs, cats, ferrets, and anything else you can manage to wrestle into submission long enough to strap a costume to. Combine this with candy sales, and you are talking almost $7 billion dollars spent for this one day. If nothing else, it's comforting to know that in these troubled economic times, everyone has their priorities straight. For my part, I thought I'd find a dead animal along the side of the road, strap it to the top of my head, and go as Donald Trump. But the odor was off-putting, and the turkey vultures didn't give up on the carcass as easily as I thought they might. I kicked around being Mark Zuckerburg. All I'd have to do is wear a black hoodie, stuff my pockets with cash, and make uninspiring speeches all night. But that seems about as fresh as my Lady Gaga costume from last year. I took a bath on all of that prosciutto.

It's almost enough to make me want to skip town and get away from it altogether. I could get a timeshare rental at Mayan Palace Acapulco and celebrate Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) instead. Or maybe hit The Hilton Club New York and watch the freaks go by down at the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. Then there's always New Orleans, which pretty much has a parade and/or festival for every day of the year, not to mention lots of great timeshares.

But no, that would be running away from my problems, and what kind ambassador does that? I think I just need to hunker down, and go with my gut. Which means I need to get to the drug store right away and lay in as much Fake Bake Sunless Self-Tanning Lotion as I can get my hands on. If I am going to pull this Snooky costume off, I've got be as orange as a carrot by this time next week.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ready for a Fall

Well it is that time of year again. No I don't mean your annual teeth cleaning, although that's not a bad idea. I am talking fall foliage road trip! If you read my blog (you do read my blog, don't you?), then you know that this is the time of year that I pay some neighborhood kid to rake my lawn and hit the road for this annual display of color, compliments of Mother Nature. Last year I learned exactly why the leaves change color, and would like to share that with you again. Those brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows are actually present in the leaves all year long. That's right, the carotenoids in leaves are responsible for yellows, oranges, and browns; while anthocyanins provide the reds and purples. But the chlorophyll used in photosynthesis by leaf-bearing trees has a dominant green pigment to it, obscuring the others. As the nights grow longer and cooler, chlorophyll production slows and the hidden colors are revealed; sort of like watching Paula Deen remove her face makeup.

Anywho, I've got a route I take each year, starting way up north in New England and finishing in the Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. I rent timeshares at some great resorts along the way, and catch a bit of the local flavor from the great towns and villages as I go. As you may have heard, there was some pretty whacky weather this summer and fall in both the north- and southeast, and it has had an effect on the color. Most of Maine has already seen its peak color, and if it is any indicator, this is not going to be a "super peak" year. More likely, you'll see trees that have lost all their leaves, trees in full color, and some that have yet to start changing. It's still gorgeous, and well worth the trip. Heck, I'd go to Vermont just for the maple syrup and to make sure everyone was okay after the terrible flooding they had. It's easy to forget about that when there are so many other things competing for your intention. Like Paula Deen, for example.

I like to throw in a stop in Beantown to get some chowdah, even if it is wicked ha'd to pa'k your ca' there. A timeshare rental at Marriott's Custom House is an excellent base for taking in all of Boston's historic sights, and getting out into the country to "peep some leaves". From there, I like to swing across Connecticut, catching more color and great antiquing along the way, and head into the Catskills region of New York. Villa Roma Resort Lodges in Callicoon provides me a front row seat for the colorful display, and is just two hours away from the Big Apple, should I decide to take in some "people-peeping". You know they've got a Naked Cowboy down there in Gotham? They've got everything in New York. You might just want to keep north of Wall Street for the time being, particularly if you are involved in banking or finance in any capacity.

Next up I like to hit Depuy Village at Shawnee Resort, in the Delaware Valley between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I always seem to hit great color in this stretch of the Appalachians. Of course I have to make my yearly pilgrimage to the Crayola crayon factory in nearby Easton, PA, and the Hershey Chocolate factory, which isn't nearby at all. But when you start talking crayons and chocolate bars, reason just doesn't factor into the equation.

Then I turn it south and cross the Mason-Dixon line into the Old Dominion State of Virginia. The Summit at Massanutten puts you in the heart of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and some spectacular fall vistas along Skyline Drive and the Blueridge Parkway. And if the America Civil War is your thing, there are fourteen battlefields in this region alone. Most of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson is buried in his hometown of Lexington, VA; a lovely little town you should definitely check out. His right arm, which was blown off by his own troops, is buried in Orange County, VA, about 2 hours away. Seems like a bit of a morbid detour, but to each their own. Finally, I wrap it up at the MountainLoft Resort in Gatlinburg, TN. This quiet hillside community is nestled in the Great Smokey Mountains, and I can't think of any better place to wrap up a fall foliage trip. Of course if I get a hankerin' for some good ole country music, spandex, and rhinestones - which I am wont to do - I can head on over to Dollywood. That's right, Dolly Parton's got her own theme park in nearby Pigeon Forge, the town of her birth. How long before Paula Deen gets her own theme park do you think? Can you say butter flume and bacon bumper cars, Ya'll?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Jazz Takes a Holiday

When you think of jazz festivals, perhaps New Orleans, New York, or St. Louis jump to mind. But summer and the festival season are long gone in those places, not to return until next year. But in Clearwater, FL - from where I am writing to you today - they are gearing up for the 32nd annual Clearwater Jazz Holiday. For four days in mid-October musicians from all over the world, and from all genres of jazz, descend upon Clearwater and the greater Tampa Bay area.

Now I know that greater Tampa and jazz festival sound like they'd go together like peanut butter and codfish, but this free event has drawn such greats as Tony Bennett, Buddy Rich, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Tito Puente, Stephan Grappelli, Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock, The Neville Brothers, Branford Marsalis, Natalie Cole, George Benson, and many more. Beyond the great line-up, the setting is just spectacular. As the rest of the country is raking leaves and winterizing their homes, Clearwater enjoys daytime temperatures in the mid-eighties, and evenings in the mid-sixties. Just three miles long, it is an island bordered by the Gulf of Mexico to the West and Tampa Bay to the East, with beaches Conde Nast Traveler calls some of the best in the country. Art Blakey, the great be-bop drummer, once said "jazz washes away the dust of every day life." Miles of pristine, white, sandy beaches with sunrises and sunsets over crystal clear waters don't hurt none either.

In fact, with the festival going on for four days, I am going to have a hard time squeezing in everything else I want to do in the area. For example, have you heard about that new movie Dolphin Tale? It's the story of a dolphin named Winter, and it stars Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr., and presumably a dolphin. I am sure it's absolutely terrible, but the dolphin that inspired the film, Winter, lives right here in Clearwater. She was found at 4-months old caught in a crab trap. After being taken to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, it was determined she would lose her tail. What in the wild would have been a death sentence, inspired a physician to spearhead the effort to construct a prosthetic tail for the marine mammal. I'm not making this up. It worked, and today Winter is the star of the show at the aquarium, where they also care for and exhibit other dolphins, sea turtles, otters, stingrays, sharks, and more. I can't wait to meet her, and secretly hope I run into Ashley Judd while I am there. I know, I know, but a guy can dream, can't he?

Then there's sailing on a 3-masted schooner with Classic Cruises, swimming with dolphins at Encounters With Dolphins, Murielle Winery (I know, peanut butter and codfish again, but trust me on this one), and the Sunsets at Pier 60 Daily Festival. Every single day of the year, starting two hours before sundown, you will find crafters, entertainers, food, and fun for the whole family at the end of historic Pier 60. This free, daily event typically includes a spectacular sunset as well. This is all without ever leaving Clearwater. But just minutes across the bay is the greater Tampa area, which includes Adventure Island (Tampa's only outdoor water park), Busch Gardens, Florida Botanical Gardens, Museum of Science and Industry (with IMAX), the Salvador Dali Museum, and more golf that you can possibly have time for. I'm definitely going to need a Jazz Holiday.

I am staying at a timeshare rental at Chart House Suites, right in Clearwater. You can also find timeshare deals in nearby Belleair Beach, Crystal Beach, and Indian Shores. If you are hoping to hit the 2012 Jazz Holiday, I suggest starting your search well in advance, and signing up for posting alerts.

Well, I am off to Tampa's famous Ybor City neighbrohood, a.k.a. the Cigar Capital of the World. Since the late 1880s billions of cigars have been rolled in this ethnically diverse neighborhood. And while it went into a steep decline for several decades, it has seriously rebounded in the last twenty or so years. The entire downtown district is a National Historic Landmark, complete with a functioning trolley system. I am going to hit the Ybor City Museum and then score some stogies to take to the festival with me. I've got my eye on some Tampa Sweethearts, but I hear good things about the La Herencia De Cuba, too. Fortunately, depending on your perspective, they let you smoke them right there in the shop. I may end up with some of each, since I have a lot of "dust of every day life" I need to wash away.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Great Pumpkin

Do you know what's orange, weighs 1810 lbs., and needs to be transported via flatbed truck? If you guessed my 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, you'd be two thirds right. The bug actually weighs 1900 (without me in it). No I am talking about the current record holder for world's largest pumpkin. That's right, Chris Stevens of New Richmond, WI, grew a pumpkin that weighed 1810.5 lbs. to take home the 2010 prize at the Stillwater Harvest Fest in Stillwater, MN. But if the last few years are any indicator, the gourd's reign will be short lived. Back in 1981, the largest pumpkin ever recorded was "just" 460 lbs. But Stevens's 2010 monster was more than 200 lbs. heavier than the 2009 winner. So it would seem that a 2000 pounder is is very real possibility this year. That's a one ton pumpkin folks. Are you kidding me?!

Of course most pumpkins are of a much more manageable size, at about 5-10 lbs. They are members of the genus Cucurbita, which is in the gourd family. These particular gourds are native to North America, and like many New World crops, the pumpkin's origins are unknown. Seeds dating from 7000 to 5500 BC have been found in Mexico, and remain the oldest evidence of the species existence. Once introduced to the rest of the world, their popularity surged and can now be found on all continents except Antarctica. They are used for everything from agricultural feed (chickens love 'em) to human sustenance like soups, breads, and of course pies. I for one cannot sustain without pie. Others of course are purely decorative, and are destined to be your Jack-O-Lantern in a few weeks - if not sooner. These pumpkins are typically of the Connecticut Field variety, and are familiar to just about everyone.

But the giant pumpkin varieties are in a league of their own. The story goes that giant pumpkins were first created by crossing hubbard and other large squashes with the kabocha pumpkin of Japan. The hybrids were then crossed back with rounder pumpkin varieties, and their size just kept getting bigger and bigger each time out. Eventually they were classified as Atlantic Giant, since most of this pumpkin upsizing was occurring in eastern North America (go figure). Then in 1981, Howard Dill of Nova Scotia (the giant pumpkin capital of the world) produced a 460 lb., pumpkin which shocked just about everyone who saw it, and made it the largest fruit in the world. For a time Dill actually held an exclusive patent on the Dill's Atlantic Giant seeds. Even today, all Atlantic Giants are derived from his stock, making him the Giant Pumpkin King. He should consider going into the giant pickle business next.

Anyway, all of the giants went into the ground back in July, and are just now starting to tip the scales. Growers from all over the world are getting ready to cut their trophies from their vines and see if they can top 1810.5. Just two days ago at the Ohio Valley Giant Pumpkin Growers Weigh-off, Carol and Dave Stelts hauled in a 1,807.5 lb. monster from Edinburg, PA. Not sure what you do with the second largest pumpkin ever grown, unless you also happen to own the largest chicken in the world, or can team up with the guy with the largest pie crust. Either way, it would seem that a new record holder will roll onto the scales some time in the next two weeks or so. Of course you can't count out Chris Stevens as the reigning champ, and keeping an eye on the Stillwater Harvest Fest in Duluth this weekend is probably not a bad idea. If you want to see it in person, you can get a timeshare rental at The Village at Izatys in nearby Onamia, MN. It puts you about an hour away from the festival and in a really beautiful part of the country.

Giant pumpkins are a bit too passive for me. Sure I'll place a wager on this year's winner (the over/under is 1950 lbs), but I am more into punkin chuckin. Do you know about this? Every year contestants from around the world descend upon the tiny hamlet of Nassua, DE, for the World Championship Punkin Chunkin competition. Contestants enter to see who can hurl a pumpkin the farthest via an air cannon. The current record, set in 2008, is 4483.51 feet, by a team called Young Glory III. That's 3/4 of a mile folks, and it is totally awesome! The technology does not yet exist (at least not in civilian hands) to shoot giant pumpkins with an air cannon, but when it does, I am so there.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dog Days

So unless you live in Austin, the dog days of summer have probably given way to some cooler, if not soggier, weather. But if your idea of a "dog day" is one spent with your pooch, you probably already know that vacations and canines don't always mix. More and more hotels are getting on board with pet-friendly policies, but most are not really set up to accommodate you and your hound. Have you ever tried to share a Motel 6 with a bernese mountain dog? Let's just say two's a crowd, and leave it at that. Pet-friendly timeshares, on the other hand, typically come with multiple bedrooms, extra bathroom, and designated living and dining areas. Not only does this give you more room to move, but it more closely resembles your setup at home, making it easier for the two (or more) of you to get into a routine.

Of course you wouldn't leave your dog alone at home unattended for an entire day (would you?), and so you shouldn't do it on vacation either. Some resorts have excellent kennels nearby, and a few even offer a "doggy day care" for a fee. Which is fine in a pinch, but you really need to work your dog into your vacation plans. I am sorry to report that unless your furry friend is a service dog, Las Vegas Casinos and all Disney parks are off limits. Ditto for the Smithsonian and other museums, as well as water and themed parks. You'd think this all would go without saying. But you would also think that pregnant women would know that they shouldn't go zip-lining, or that tequila and skydiving are a bad combo. Alas, the things I have seen in my ambassadorial duties.

So obviously some destinations are better than others when Fido is tagging along. Beaches are popular with people and pooches. While some beaches prohibit dogs, and most others restrict their access in some way, you can almost always find a way to get some sun and fun, as well as time with your pet. Florida, Oregon, California, and Florida's coasts are all considered to be pet-friendly, and also home to many timeshare resorts. Or how about a lake or the mountains? Better yet, how about a lake and the mountains? Lake Tahoe, Big Bear Lake, and Lake Havasu City - to name a few - are all great family destinations, with or without dogs. These areas also have some of the highest concentrations of public land in the form of national, state, and local parks, which are typically open to pets with well behaved owners, if you know what I mean.

Maybe you are more of a city slicker, and think that you will have to board your dog for your vacation week. While that is an option, you might want to take a closer look at San Diego, San Francisco, or Boston. In addition to having great parks, dog runs, and timeshare resorts, these are notoriously impossible cities to drive in. But, they are famously walkable. And as anyone who owns a dog knows, a tired dog is a good dog. Further, more and more restaurants are offering outdoor seating, even in urban areas. This may have started as a way to accommodate smokers, but it is turning out to be a boon for restaurants with dog-owning patrons. Just about every board of health in the country prohibits dogs from being inside an eatery (other than service dogs), but a deck or patio is fair game. Unless of course your dog smokes.

A final word about pet travel, coming from someone who travels for living: not everyone is as crazy about your dog as you are. I know, I know, it's shocking and unbelievable. After all, he's so cute. Perhaps he is, but I still don't want him jumping up on my clothes and licking me in the face. I also know that his mouth is cleaner than mine, but that's not really saying much, is it?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Acadian Driftwood

Acadia is a Francocized (Acadie), and then Anglicized version of the word Arcadia, a district of ancient Greece. Arcadia means "idyllic place" in Greek, and the Italian explorer Verrazzano gave this name to all of the North American Atlantic coast, north of Virginia. Eventually, Acadia came to refer to the French holdings in the New World, including Quebec, the maritime provinces of Canada, and the modern U.S. state of Maine. So for those of you keeping score at home, an Italian guy gave a Greek name to Native American land, which was then colonized by the French, lost to the British, and eventually became one of the United States of America. Whew! Some day I'll tell you how the Acadians - refugees from the war lost to the British - made it all the way to New Orleans to become the Cajuns.

Nowadays when you say Acadia, most people think of Acadia National Park in Maine, from where I am writing to you today. But even this place has been through several name changes of its own. It is the ancestral home of the Wabanaki tribe, and was simply known as the "dawn lands" since this is the easternmost part of the North American continent, and the first to see daylight. After the aforementioned colonial misadventures, the name Mount Desert Island was given to the land that comprises the bulk of the modern park. It - and the surrounding islands - was officially granted federal protection by President Wilson in 1916 as Sieur de Monts National Monument. In 1919 it became the first national park east of the Mississippi River, with the new name of Lafayette National Park. This was in honor of Marquis de Lafayette and his efforts on behalf of the American Revolution. Finally, in 1929 the park's name was changed to Acadia National Park, and to my knowledge, there are no plans to change it any time soon.

Whatever you call it, it really is an idyllic place. In total, the park encompasses 47,000 acres (small by national park standards) and is comprised of mountains, ocean shoreline, and woodlands. It is home to over 40 species of mammals (including beaver) and boasts a variety of deciduous trees like aspen, birch, maple, and more. To many visitors - over 2.5 million a year - the beaver and the changing of the leaves represent what Acadia is all about. But these are fairly modern occurrences. The beaver was basically hunted to extinction in these parts, until two breeding pairs were released in 1920 by a fellow named George Dorr. Starting from there, their population crept back over the next two decades. Then in 1947 a devastating fire consumed nearly half of the coniferous forest in the park. In its place grew the leaf bearing trees we know and love today - which the beavers prefer. Both populations boomed, and "leafers" and beaver lovers alike are all the better for it.

But the park is so much more than just fall foliage and wildlife. In addition to hiking trails, campsites, lake and ocean fishing, and horseback riding, the park is home to over 50 miles of gravel carriage trails. For approximately fifteen years, billionaire philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., financed the construction of the paths, along with 17 granite bridges, 2 lodges, and acres and acres of plantings along the paths. The latter were lost in the fire and have since been replanted, but the rest remain as a testament to his commitment to this majestic place. Visitors can walk, bicycle, or take a guided tour of the park via these paths, which are edged by cut granite stones - known locally as "Rockefeller's Teeth".

I am staying at a timeshare resort called Harbor Ridge in the village of Southwest Harbor. It's a lovely little collection of townhouses with mountain and island views, just minutes from the park. I actually own this week here, and use it as a yearly pilgrimage to the park. The summer crowds have gone and the leafers are still a few weeks away. It's quiet, cool, and peaceful. And since I am still recovering from last week's poison ivy incident, the perfect retreat. There are no timeshare rentals here at this time, but you can sign up for a posting alert and be notified when one does come up.

Well I am off to The Wendell Gilley Museum, located right here in Southwest Harbor. If you are not aware, Wendell Gilley was a pioneer in the field of decorative bird carving, and author of the seminal work, Art of Bird Carving: A Guide to a Fascinating Hobby. Unlike decoys, decorative carvings are not functional, and Gilley's pieces in particular resemble their real life counterparts in spookily realistic detail. I fancy myself an amateur carver and want to have a look at his woodcock for inspiration. It's a bird, people.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

You're Gonna Need an Ocean...

If you are as old as I am, which is to say not at all, then you might remember the Coasters hit "Poison Ivy". You know, the one that went "you're gonna need an ocean (dum-de-dum-de-dum) of calamine lotion." Well that song is actually about a girl named Poison Ivy (written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller), while my recent encounter was with the actual plant, and is why my dispatch is late this week. My fingers are now only the size of hot dogs (down from sausages), and I feel like I can type well enough to get this off to you.

Firstly, let me say that the staff at Samoset Resort in Rockport, ME, are absolutely fantastic, and have really helped me to convalesce. I booked a timeshare rental at their 230 oceanfront acre resort, in the hopes of discovering the beauty of Maine's mid-coast. But I wasn't twenty minutes into my first hike in the woods when I tangled with Toxicodendron radicans, a.k.a. poison ivy. Now in my defense, I am from the Pacific Northwest, and poison ivy is generally found east of the Rockies. I do remember hearing something about "leaves of three" (or was it four?), but I certainly didn't know what it looked like. I know exactly what it looks like now.

So for those of you not in the know, let me pass along some wisdom that may prevent you from discovering the misery of an encounter with Toxicodendron radicans. First, it's not ivy at all. The "poison" part is spot on, but it actually belongs to a completely different family of plant, found only in North America. It can take the form of a thick climbing vine, a wispy trailing vine, or a shrub as big as 4 feet tall. Additionally, it can grow in the understory of a forest, at the edges of wooded areas (where I found it), or in exposed rocky outcrops. It's pretty well drought tolerant and can thrive in a range of different soil types and acidity. In other words, it's everywhere, and how it took me this long to come face-to-face with it is beyond me.

There are a few things you can do to learn to identify it, however. It does indeed have three leaves which range in color from light green to dark green, and tend to be shiny. In the fall however, they turn red and fall off, as poison ivy is deciduous. Another rhyme you may have heard is "longer middle stem; stay away from them," which is also a useful identification tip. The "leaves of three" are arranged in such a way that the middle leaf has a noticeably longer stem than the other two. And, each cluster of three has its own stalk connecting it back to the main vine. In the spring and early summer you may even see its flowers, which are a pale yellow or green. The flowers give way to a grayish berry in the late summer months. But if you really want to be able to identify it, I suggest taking the photo attached to this posting, print it out, and keep it in your pack whenever you are heading out into the woods. Likewise, take it out in your yard and look around the perimeter and on tree trunks to see if you have any on your property. You may be in for a surprise.

But once the horse is out of the barn, getting rid of poison ivy's rash is all one cares about. The plant's sap contains something called urushiol: a clear liquid to which most people are allergic in varying degrees. Let's just say I am very allergic to it, but not as bad as this guy. Urushiol typically causes a red, itchy rash, which then can give way to blisters. If left untreated (and unscratched) it will usually go away on its own in about 10-14 days. But if you have ever had poison ivy, you know it cannot go unscratched. The scratching often opens up the rash and causes a secondary infection. Urushiol is very sticky and stays in place no matter how hard you scratch it. In fact, unless you can successfully wash it away, you are are going to prolong your rash. But keep in mind that urushiol is not water soluble. So simply using soap and water is not going to cut it. You must get the oil off of your body, and there are many soaps designed specifically for this task. The one I was treated with is called Tecnu, and it contains small granules to help scrub the oils off. If I ever see the person who invented it on the street, I am going to kiss him or her, directly on the mouth. This stuff saved my life, or at least it felt that way. It certainly saved the rest of my trip from being spent in absolute misery.

Lastly, I would like to dispel a few myths about poison ivy and the treatments for exposure to it. Despite what that song says, calamine lotion does not stop the rash nor remove the oils causing it. Ditto for cold showers and compresses, Burow's solution, and jewelweed. They certainly help with the itching and are good secondary treatments after the oil has been removed. But I implore you to use a product like Tecnu that was designed specifically for this purpose. Also, you cannot give your poison ivy to someone else from the blisters on your rash. Remember, urushiol is not water soluble and will stick to you no matter what. You should not get your bodily fluids on other people for other reasons that should be obvious, but you won't spread your poison ivy in this manner.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

88 Degrees and Sunny

That's what the weatherman predicted here for today. And the day before that, and the day before that. Can you guess where I am? If you said Aruba, you'd be absolutely correct. In fact, being the weatherman in Aruba has got to be the easiest job in the world: "It's going to be in the mid-80s with steady breezes and almost no chance of rain. Back to you, Bob." When it does rain here, it generally occurs from mid-October to mid-January and amounts to about 16 inches for the entire year. In the Pacific Northwest, from where I hail, we call that much rain Tuesday. And while Aruba is in the Atlantic Hurricane Belt, it lies at its southernmost edge and chances of a direct hit from one are minimal.

Aruba's history is not quite as sunny as the weather, however. Its original inhabitants were the Caquetio Indians of the Arawak tribe from South American. They lived first as fishers-hunters-gatherers and then as agriculturalists for thousands of years, until the arrival of the Spanish in 1499. Alonso de Ojeda claimed the island for the Spanish crown, and called it "la isla de los gigantes" or "island of the giants". This was a reference to Caquetio, who were known to be large in stature. But after finding no gold or riches, the name was changed to "isla inutíl", or "useless island". It was then systematically, and completely, depopulated of its original inhabitants. The Spanish got their comeuppance at the hands of the Dutch in the 1630s, however, and it has remained a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands ever since. Gold was eventually found on the island and along with aloe, petroleum, phosphate and tourism, have helped give Aruba one of the highest standards of living to be found in the Caribbean. But it is the weather that has helped make it the destination spot with the highest rate of return visits of any island in the Caribbean. Did I mention it's 88 degrees and sunny today?

Oranjestad is the capital of Aruba and offers many historic sites, museums, restaurants, galleries and night spots. Make sure to hit the Aruba Aloe Museum & Factory, where you will get the fascinating history of this healing plant, as well as a tour of the factory and free samples of aloe products. Even though aloe vera is a huge part of the island's economy - it is even featured on its flag - it is not native to Aruba. It was introduced about 160 years ago, and at one point had taken over about two thirds of its land mass. They've since gotten that under control, and if you've ever used aloe on a burn or other skin issue, there's a good chance it came from here.

The Numismatic Museum is another one to put on your itinerary. I know it sounds like a museum dedicated to washing machines or some such, but numismatic refers to the collecting of coins. Yeah, this one started about fifty years ago when a fellow named Mario Odor was mowing his lawn. He happened upon a coin dating from the late 18th century, and then caught the numismatic bug. In all, his collection houses over 33,000 pieces from countless countries, and dates back as far as 400 BC. Why is it that whenever I mow my lawn, all I ever find is my neighbor's dog poop? Of course this guy has to walk around with the name Mario Odor, so I guess life just isn't fair all the way around. Oooh, and there is even a model train museum here. Know what it's called? Model Trains Museum. Alright, so the name is not terribly creative, but it is home to trains dating back to 1895 from Germany, The U.S.A., The UK, and The Netherlands. If you read my blog regularly - you do, don't you? - then you know how I feel about trains, and we'll just leave it at that.

But Aruba has many attractions outside Oranjestad. Among them are Arikok National Park, Bubali Bird Sanctuary, Aruba's Butterfly Farm, Indian Caves, the Historic Gold Mills, and much more. There really is a lot to see and do on this island of just 75 square miles (slightly larger than DC). You might want to arrange for a bus or jeep tour so that you can get a taste for everything to see and do here.

Of course the beaches are what keep people coming back, and my timeshare rental is located in Palm Beach, the best of them all. This two-mile-long strip is home to glamorous accommodations, beach bars, restaurants, and shops. Its calm waters are ideal for swimming and snorkeling, and its sunsets are just out of this world. I have a 1-bedroom/1-bathroom, oceanfront unit at Marriott's Aruba Surf Club, which is rated 4.5 stars by RedWeek.com members. It features a 10,700 square foot casino, an outdoor swimming pool, a lazy river, and health club - all onsite. All units feature spacious living and dining areas, full kitchens, multiple TV sets, VCR, and a private balcony.

Well, I am off to catch another perfect sunset at the California Lighthouse. No, I haven't gotten myself lost again. This beautiful beacon is located at the northwestern tip of Aruba and offers the most spectacular views of the island from its elevated perch. It is named after the U.S.S. California which sunk in 1908, and lies in about 20 feet of water just offshore from the lighthouse. That was the fourth U.S. ship to bear that name, and its replacement didn't fare much better. It was bombed and torpedoed in the Pearl Harbor attack, causing it to sink and take 100 members of her crew down with her. Wisely, a sixth U.S.S. California was never commissioned. On a cheerier note, it's 88 degrees and sunny here. Did I mention that already?

Monday, August 29, 2011

I'll See You In My Dreams

For everyone along the East Coast of the United States, I hope this week's dispatch finds you safe and sound. It has been a tough week or so for folks there, what with an earthquake, followed by hurricane Irene. Hopefully it is all over now, except the cleanup of course, but you might want to keep an eye out for locust swarms and unexplained boils, just the same.

My Outer Banks travel plans were completely wiped out by a mandatory evacuation, and that's a good thing. Irene came ashore on North Carolina's coast, and I wanted nothing to do with that. So I lit a trail inland and uphill as quick as I could, and found myself in Cashiers, NC. Over 500 miles from the sea, and at an elevation of 3,485 feet, it seemed to me to be about as far away as I could get, and still be in the Tar Heel State. And frankly, I would have settled for a Motel 6 along I-64, so long as it was high and dry. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a quaint and picturesque village tucked away on a plateau in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, surrounded by lush forests and cascading waterfalls. And timeshare rentals no less!

Now about the name. If you want everyone to know you are from out of town, which they will anyway, make sure you pronounce it just like the word for the person who rings up your order at a grocery store. Or if you'd like to pronounce it correctly, you say it "cashers". No one I spoke to seem to be entirely sure from where the name originates. This was Cherokee hunting land and names like Chattooga and Tuxaway still abound. The most popular story for its present moniker is one that involves a lost horse, but you probably could have guessed that on your own. Seems one of the earliest white settlers in the area was a fellow named James McKinney, from South Carolina. He had a white stallion for whom he paid so much money, he simply called him Cash. One fall, as McKinney was getting ready to lead his herd of cattle back to winter in South Carolina, Cash went missing and McKinney had to leave without his prized horse. The following spring, when McKinney and his cattle returned, there was the white stallion just as fit as a fiddle. So McKinney took to calling the area Cash's Valley. Over time, it became simply "cashers". Which really doesn't explain why it's spelled as it is, and makes me suspect that the whole thing is just made up. But there you have it.

A popular nickname for this area is the "land of waterfalls" and it won't take you long to figure out why. There are 19 of them scattered in and around the area, with names like Silver Run, Sliding Rock, Rainbow, Turtleback, and Bridal Veil. But the biggest and grandest of them all is called Whitewater, and features a 411 foot vertical drop. There's a hiking trail to get you all the way to the top, and I highly recommend it. Located within Nantahal National Forest, and adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, some of the best hiking trails and nature watching anywhere in the Southeast is all around you. Plus there is great public golfing at High Hampton Course, numerous Native American cultural and historical sites, excellent fishing and canoeing, fantastic restaurants, and quaint shops and boutiques.

There are several timeshare resorts in and around Cashiers, and I chose a rental at Fairway Forest at Sapphire Valley. It features an outdoor pool, park with a picnic area, 18-hole PGA golf course, eight clay and two hard-surface tennis courts, and miniature golf - all on-site. My unit is a 2-bedroom/2-bathroom with stunning mountain views from an attached deck. RedWeek members rate this place 5-stars and have pretty much nothing but good things to say about it.

Well, I am off to nearby Bryson City for an afternoon of high flying, zipline fun with Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours. Do you know about these things? They strap you into a climbing harness and shoot you down a glorified clothesline suspended above the tree canopy at speeds up to 30 m.p.h. This outfit is the first in the area, and features lines with names like The Green Mile, The Burma Road, The Slingshot, and The Bermuda Triangle. Despite the scary sounding names, this is a perfectly safe and throughly enjoyable activity, provided you follow the safety instruction you are given by your guides, and use a little common sense. For example, you'd think it would go without saying that you cannot zipline while pregnant and/or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Sadly, it does not.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

So Many Sandwiches

So I am sure you have heard that the sandwich got its name from the Earl of Sandwich, who liked to eat while playing cribbage. He was pretty serious about his cards, and placing meat between two slices of bread let him keep on playing without stopping to eat, or getting the cards all greasy. It does seem that this old tale is indeed why we call this form of food a "sandwich," but they had been around for centuries, and known by many different names. Which really says something about the Earl's sandwich intake. Can you imagine eating so much pizza that they decided to rename it in your honor?

The earliest written reference of sandwich eating is attributed to the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder (now that's an awesome name) in the 1st century B.C. He was known to eat slices of lamb between flat breads, or matzahs, held together with a mixture of chopped nuts, fruit, and bitter herbs. It is said that the layers between the bread were symbolic of the mortar between the bricks his people were forced to lay for the Egyptians. Hillel is also credited with coining the expressions "if not now, when?" and "that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow". You might recognize that second one as the "golden rule". He had me at the sandwich.

The middle ages in Europe brought another version of this food involving just one, very stale, slice of bread. The rock-hard piece of bread - called a trencher - was used as a plate of sorts, with meat and gravy placed atop it. As the diner ate the toppings, the trencher absorbed the juices and it softened up a bit. The trencher was often tossed to a nearby dog or beggar (probably in that order), or eaten by the diner, depending on his appetite. This is clearly the forerunner to today's "open faced" sandwich, which is only slightly more appetizing than the name "trencher".

But of course the Earl of Sandwich came along and the name stuck. And like many things English, it was exported to America and took on a life of its own. For example, have you ever heard of a hot brown? It's a transformative experience, and a real slice (see what I did there?) of Americana. The hot brown is an open faced sandwich of turkey and bacon, smothered with a mornay sauce, and broiled until it is bubbly brown. It was created by Fred K. Schmidt in 1926 at the Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. You might see a hot brown pop up in other parts of the country, but they are impostors, and you really need to get to the Bluegrass State and try one for yourself. Timeshares are located in Park City and Taylorsville, which are both about 30 miles away. If you think 30 miles is too far to drive for a sandwich, you clearly have never had a hot brown.

How about a muffuletta? I know it sounds like something that belongs on the underside of your car, but it is in fact a glorious sandwich made famous at the Central Grocery in New Orleans. Now a muffuletta is a round Sicilian sesame bread, about 10" across. But it is also a sandwich where said loaf is sliced horizontally and filled with ham, capicola, salami, pepperoni, swiss, provolone, and marinated olive salad. That's four meats and two cheeses for those of you playing at home, and that olive salad can be a meal all by itself. The Central Grocery sells half and quarter muffulettas, suggesting that a whole one is really more than one person can eat. I didn't find that to be the case, but I had a light breakfast that day. A timeshare rental at the Quarter House puts you within crawling distance of the Central Grocery's French Quarter location, should you find yourself incapacitated after your muffuletta.

Surely everyone knows that a french dip is a roast beef sandwich on baguette, served with au jus (with juice) on the side for dipping, and exported from France, right? Wrong. It's actually an American creation, and the subject of a heated debate between two Los Angeles eateries. Both Cole's Pacific Electric Buffet and Philippe The Original, opened their doors to the public in 1908, and each claims to have invented the sandwich. What they do agree on is that the "dipping" in the french dip is done by the chef, not the diner. That's right, the bread from the sandwich is dipped in the au jus prior to its assembly, and sent to the table "wet". You may even request a double-dip, but you will not be getting any dipping juice of your own. An Anaheim timeshare puts your within a half an hour or so of L.A., and right near Disneyland. And since the controversy over who created the sandwich is unlikely to be resolved at this point, I think you owe it to yourself to try one from each place.

It's a big country, and there are a lot of sandwiches out there to try. Knowing that you'll never get to them all, I highly recommend the documentary Sandwiches That You Will Like by Rick Sebak. In the film, he criss-crosses the country trying out regional sandwiches and gathering their histories along the way. It's good fun, and you might get a vacation destination or new sandwich idea out of it. But I have to say this guy has it easy. He actually gets paid to go all around the country, eating new foods, and then writing about it. Where do I get a gig like that?