Tuesday, May 22, 2012

My Fair Lady

So what's 905 feet long, 181 years old, and weighs over 20 million pounds? No, it's not the New York Yankees team airplane, but that's not a bad guess. What if I told you it was "falling down, falling down"? That's right, the London Bridge. Now to be clear there are currently two London Bridges: one in London (of course), and one in Lake Havasu City, AZ. I am writing to you today about the latter, and how it came to be in the middle of the Arizona desert.

But to back things up a bit, a little history is in order. There has been a bridge over the River Thames called the London Bridge since as far back as Roman times, more than 2000 years ago. The one from the famous nursery rhyme was built around 1136, and was more or less an extension of London. It spanned the river with a series of arches like any other bridge of the time. But it also had numerous tall buildings atop it that housed businesses, shops, a cathedral, apartments, and more. And from the years 1305 to 1660, was home to one of the most gruesome displays in history. Starting with William Wallace (Braveheart), severed heads were placed on metal pikes, dipped in tar (to protect them against the elements), and displayed on the southern end of the bridge. At one point, there were as many as 30 severed heads greeting visitors as they entered via the bridge. I think it's safe to say that tourism wasn't on the minds of the city fathers of that time.

Anyway, the thing was indeed falling down by the beginning of the 19th century, and was replaced in 1831 by a five-arched, granite structure designed by John Rennie. It was considered quite an engineering accomplishment at the time, and if nothing else, had no human heads mounted on it. However it was never designed to hold automobiles, and by the middle of the 20th century it had begun to sink at a rate of about an inch every 8-10 years. They did the math on that, and in 1967 the decision was made to replace the bridge. But rather than demolish it, city council member Ivan Luckin suggested that they first try to sell it. But who in the world would buy a bridge, sinking or otherwise, and what would they do with it?

Enter Robert McCulloch. He - of McCulloch chainsaw fame - had recently embarked on an ambitious planned community on the shores of Lake Havasu. In the middle-of-nowhere Arizona, the land was a defunct airstrip used by the U.S. military in WWII. It was given to him by the the state of Arizona in exchange for the promise that he develop it. But try as he might, he couldn't convince many people to even visit the area, let alone buy a retirement home there. A real estate agent working for McCulloch named Robert Plumer heard of the London Bridge sale, and suggested that this might be just what the floundering project needed: a major tourist attraction. McCulloch at first thought he was crazy, but then came around to the idea. He ended up placing the winning bid of $2.46 million. He said that he came up with the price by doubling the cost of dismantling the bridge ($1.2 million) and adding $60,000 ($1,000 for each of his years at the time). There is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that he had little, if any, real competition for the bridge, and he may have substantially over paid for it. But that's what happens when you buy a bridge, I suppose.

Regardless, the sections of the bridge were meticulously numbered, disassembled, and shipped to California via the Panama Canal, and taken over land by truck to McCulloch's Havasu City development. It was painstakingly reconstructed (with the addition of steel-reinforced concrete), and completed in October of 1971. Now what are the chances that you could buy a bridge and have a span exactly that size somewhere else to place it upon? Probably zero, which was the case here. In fact, McCulloch didn't even have a river to place it over. Instead, he had his team rebuild it over dry land. He then diverted water from Lake Havasu via a new canal he called the Bridgewater Channel, and bingo! You've got yourself a river. And can you guess what happened next? That's right people started coming to see the London Bridge.

Now there are some popular rumors that many people thought they were going to see the more famous (and recognizable) Tower Bridge of London. There is even a urban legend that this is the bridge McCulloch thought he had bought, until it arrived on U.S. shores. But that's all a bunch of baloney. He knew exactly what he was buying, even if he did over pay for it, and knew how to market it. Today the city has over 50,000 residents and draws over 750,000 visitors annually. All because of a bridge and a nursery rhyme. And a ton of cash, of course.

Lake Havasu City is also home to some great timeshares, and I am staying at none other than the London Bridge Resort. It's the only only waterfront, all-suite condominium resort in the city and offers golf, tennis, three swimming pools, a spa, several dining options, convention facilities, wedding pavilion, boat slips and much more. RedWeek members rate it 4.5 stars, and there are both rentals and resales available.

Well I am off to take a walking tour of the famous bridge, which lasts about 45-minutes. But I gotta tell you, I just can't shake the thought of those heads mounted on the old bridge. And I am in no way suggesting we return to that type of barbarism. I am simply saying that *IF* we did, wouldn't it only be fitting - in the absence of the real Braveheart - if we started with the Hollywood version of the Scottish warrior? I know, I know. That was offside, and is going to get me some hate mail. Hopefully they are not accompanied by any late night, profanity-laden voice messages from you-know-who.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

By George

On this date in 1754 the Seven Years' War officially began in North America. Now if you are like me, and let's hope you are not, you've heard of this war, but cannot quite place it. You can be forgiven for that, because in this country we call it the French and Indian War. Which is really confusing, because it makes it sound like the French were fighting the Indians, when they were in fact on the same side. Sort of. The French and Indian theater of the war was primarily fought between the British and the French. The Native Americans fought on both sides, hoping they'd all just go home. But around the world it involved Spain, Prussia (Germany), India, the Philippines, Austria, West African nations, and even Cuba. And it is known by at least as many different names, including the Pomeranian War, the Third Carnatic War, and the Third Silesian War, to name a few. It would have been way more accurate to call it World War I, but I guess the folks who name these sort of things were late in coming to that concept. Regardless, they couldn't call it the Seven Years' War at the time - for obvious reasons - and the French and Indian part of it actually ended up lasting nine years. So call it whatever you want.

Most of the North American fighting was concentrated around the Ohio River Valley, and in the areas of present day New York State and the Quebec and Maritime provinces of Canada. One hotbed of activity, which would come into play again in the American Revolution, was the site of present day Lake George, NY. The name the native tribes had for the lake and region was Andia-ta-roc-te, which doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. Champlain was the first European to view it, but chose not to give it a name. James Fenimore Cooper called it Horican, in the classic "The Last of the Mohicans", and it was also known as Lac du Saint-Sacrement for over a hundred years. But in 1755, with the war in full swing, the British forces occupying the area named it in honor of their king, George II. The town, and the body of water, have been called Lake George ever since.

The lake itself was critically important because it drains into Lake Champlain, which leads to the St. Lawrence River/Seaway. So it provided both a land and water connection from Albany, NY all the way up to Montreal, out to Nova Scotia, and the Atlantic Ocean. It is not too surprising that the French began construction of their own fort, at the Lake Champlain side, called Carillon. You probably know it by the name Fort Ticonderoga. Ultimately, the French lost and the guns fell silent for a time. The British Colonies flourished, then rebelled, and the fighting started all over again. In time peace prevailed, and even the strategic importance of the area was diminished. The Erie Canal system and then the Mississippi River became the primary means of moving goods around. Aside from timber concerns, this area was largely forgotten. Until the millionaires came, that is.

Yes, like Newport, Bar Harbor, the Hamptons, and so many enclaves of the rich and famous, Lake George was "rediscovered" in the late 19th century by the richest of the rich. They were preceded by a bunch of renowned America painters, whose work almost certainly helped put the place on the radar of the hoity-toity. Once a rail line was established between New York and Montreal, Lake George boasted summer homes belonging to the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, the Whitneys, and the Roosevelts, to name a few. In fact, the stretch of "cottages" as they were called, were dubbed Millionaire's Row, during the early 20th century. Some of these homes were over 20,000 square feet, and had more than 100 acres of lakeside property. One guy, Wall Street's Robert Pitcairn, even had place to land his autogyro, an early predecessor of the helicopter. Are you kidding me?!

But the rich and famous are a fickle bunch, and as auto travel made it easier for us commoners to visit the Adirondack region, they thinned out. All but a few of the mansions have been torn down or converted to inns. What else can you do with a 30-bedroom house? Their loss was everyone else's' gain. Present day Lake George and vicinity offers just about everything you could want in a southern Adirondack getaway. In addition to the aforementioned historical significance, the area boasts unmatched physical beauty in the form of mountains, lakes, and forests; world-class art museums and collections; hundreds of eateries; quaint towns and villages; and more boating, swimming, sailing, hiking, and fishing than you can possibly cram into one trip. Now as my friends in Boston like to say, it's wicked cold here in the winter. And winter in these parts starts somewhere around Halloween, and ends right about now. So unless you ski, plan on visiting in the summer, and expect lots of company. Both The Lodges at Cresthaven and The Quarters at Lake George offer timeshare rentals, and both are rated 5-stars by RedWeek Members.

Well, I am off to the Forbidden Oddities Sideshow for a good old-fashioned freak show. Rain and Stephen Nallie, a.k.a. Lady Riggy and Mortis, thrill crowds by lying on a bed of nails, glass walking, fire breathing, sword swallowing, and "the art" of human blockheading. That latter one is basically sticking nails and other sharp objects into your nose and face. Their latest attraction is a 300-watt electric chair gag, and I am so there. I know it's a trick of some sort, and no one is actually in danger of being electrocuted. But I am pretty sure they are really sticking those nails in their faces, so who knows?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

I'll Have Another

So did you see where I picked the Derby winner in my posting last week? Not bad for an amateur. I must admit, however, that I picked him thinking that the "Another" in I'll Have Another was a libation of some sort. But it was something far more innocent than that: cookies. That's right, the owner named the horse to honor his spouse's homemade treats. Seems whenever she asks him how he likes her latest batch, his reply is invariably, "I'll have another". A man after my own heart. That's his story anyway, and he is sticking to it as his horse heads toward the Preakness, the second jewel in the triple crown. Me? I'm gonna take my $32.60 (on a $2 bet) and run.

Of course now I have $30 burning a hole in pocket. I guess I could hold onto it until the Facebook IPO next week and try to buy shares of that. But something about helping to put $15 billion in Mark Zuckerberg's pocket (that's his projected take) rubs me the wrong way. Maybe I could buy him a necktie instead. That way when he is asking investors for $86 billion, he can look like a professional, and not the Unabomber.

With $30 I could also have the ads turned off on my Kindle 4. Yeah, I went with the "cheaper" model that is subsidized by advertisements that run on the home screen, and cannot be turned off without forking over $30. I didn't mind them so much when I first got the thing, but now that I am married to it (I spend a LOT of time in airports and on planes), they are starting to bug me. I wonder if NBC and the other TV networks would let me work a similar deal with them? Of course without commercials, I think an episode of 30 Rock is only about four minutes long. And besides, how would I carry on without the Aflac duck?

Looks like I could score the World's Largest Gummy Worm and have $2 left over. That's right, a $28 gummy worm. But this is no ordinary gummy worm. It's 26 inches long, has a 5 inch girth, weighs 3 pounds, and has over 4,000 calories in it. And according to its maker, it's "an amazing gift for now or later due to its year-long shelf life". So are we to infer that there are people who eat this thing in one pass? That's disgusting, which is saying something coming from me. At least I'd have $2 left to get some Pepto Bismol.

I bet you didn't know you could buy a timeshare for less than $30. Yep, bargain timeshare resales are available regularly on RedWeek.com. Now you do need to understand what you are actually getting for your money. For example, there is a 1-bedroom/1.5-bathroom unit available at Sea Crest Surf and Racquet Club in Hilton Head Island, SC, for just $10. Add to that a $14.99 RedWeek membership fee (if you are not already a member), and you can contact the owner and possibly work out a deal. Now this seems like a nice resort (members rate it 4 stars) located a block from the ocean, with three pools (one heated), and lots of great restaurants and nightlife options nearby. But the week is #44 on the timeshare week calendar, which is the first week in November. Is that a good time to stay in Hilton Head? Can you still go swimming? I don't know, but you need to ask these questions before even considering any timeshare purchase. Then there are the maintenance fees. Besides owning the deed on this place, whether or not you ever stay there yourself, you will need to pay annual maintenance fees. This is true on all timeshare purchases, and this unit is currently listed as $494/yr (also something you want to confirm with the resort). And then there are one-time closing fees like with any real estate transaction. So there is quite a bit more to the $10 asking price. But if you've ever stayed in a hotel, you know that $99/night is not the whole story either. And unlike a hotel, you own this week and can rent it out the years you don't use it, let family and friends use it, or resell it on RedWeek. RedWeek offers a ton of timeshare resources to help you decide if a resale is right for you.

Well, I guess I am going to hold onto this $30 until I can find something I really want to buy. Or maybe I'll blow the whole wad on this '80s Cell Phone Case from Urban Outfitters. Yeah, it's a cover for your sleek smart phone to make it look like one of those bulky, 1980s cell phones like the kid from Saved By The Bell used to talk on (remember that one?). I love the first customer review of this thing: "The idea is absolutely awesome... but its super bulky that i cant even text comfortably. I cant take pictures either... and whenever i made calls people could NOT hear me." Duh!!!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Weep No More My Lady

So do you know what has 84 legs, weighs over eleven tons, and moves at about 40 mph? No, not the Kardashians, but that's not a bad guess. I am of course referring to the field for this Sunday's Kentucky Derby. The Run for the Roses, a.k.a. the most exciting two minutes in sports, will take place for the 138th time this Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY. It's the first, and arguably the most famous, jewel in horse racing's triple crown, and enjoys the highest attendance of any horse racing event in the United States.

Now I wouldn't pretend to know the first thing about handicapping or betting on horses. I'm a $2 bet man, and I typically just go by the horse with the catchiest name. But this year's field is making even that approach difficult. You've got Rousing Sermon, Daddy Nose Best, Daddy Long Legs, and Take Charge Indy, to name but a few. But I think I have to go with I'll Have Another, which on this weekend undoubtedly refers to the mint julep. The Early Times Mint Julep is the official drink at Churchill Downs all year long, but on Derby weekend they will sell over 120,000 of them in their trademark silver cups. In case you didn't know, a mint julep is basically a giant cup of whiskey on ice, with some sugar water and a few mint leaves thrown in. Good thing the race is only two minutes long, or things could get ugly in a hurry.

Something else you may not be aware of is that racehorse betting uses a parimutuel system to keep things on the up-and-up. What that means is that everyone who places a bet on a race is betting against one another, and not the track itself. The track simply takes a cut, or a "vig" off the top, and sets the odds to be paid to the winners. So the track ownership has no vested interest in who wins the race, removing any incentive to cheat or fix races. Now the trainers, owners, riders, etc., are a different matter. But I'd like to think that a race of this stature, with its pageantry and traditions, would not be subject to that kind of tomfoolery. Of course with 120,000 cups of whiskey in play, who'd notice?

But even if horse racing is not your thing, Louisville is a great "big little city", and this region of the Bluegrass State is particularly beautiful. Pronounced "lew-a-vull" by the locals, it is also known as Possibility City and Kentuckiana, due to the neighboring counties of Indiana included in its metro area. Within city limits alone, you can cruise on the Belle of Louisville, the oldest operating steamboat in the nation; stroll one of the largest historic preservation districts in the country in Old Louisville; view over 13,000 objects from antiquity to the present at the Speed Art Museum; stumble along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail; watch a Louisville Slugger being made at their factory and museum; or visit the Muhammad Ali Center, which tells the story of this city's most famous son. And with over 2,500 restaurants and eateries, the city has established itself as a foodie destination.

You will not find any timeshare rentals in Louisville, however. You can find them in Taylorsville, about 45 minutes away, or Park City, about 1.5 hours away. The latter is the gateway to Mammoth Cave National Park, the world's longest known cave system. Over 390 miles have of caves have been explored, with still more being discovered. Combine this other worldly, underground experience with the down home hospitality of Louisville, and you've got yourself a seriously great vacation.

Well I am off to get a lip-lock on a Kentucky Hot Brown. Never heard of one? Well, it is a open-faced sandwich of turkey and bacon, that's covered in mornay sauce and broiled until the sauce bubbles and browns. Yum. It was created right here in Louisville at the Brown Hotel in 1926, and was even featured in a 2002 PBS documentary called Sandwiches You Will Like. As a side project to my timesharing travel gig, I am trying to sample each of the 22 sandwiches featured in that film. The Hot Brown marks another off of my "bucket list". Fortunately, there are not as yet any timeshares in St. Louis, and I can continue to avoid the pig ears and snouts sandwich a little longer.