Monday, August 1, 2016

Go Ahead -- Give Up the Ship! And See Greece Like a Local

The port of Hydra at twilight
From a cruise ship, it’s easy to get a taste of Greece and its 6,000 islands.  Thousands do each year, sailing from Athens to Mykonos to Santorini.   But they are missing the best part.
It’s almost as simple, and quite often considerably cheaper, to island hop on public ferries like the locals. Sure, it takes some effort, but nearly everyone speaks English, the Greeks are incredibly friendly and appreciate tourism, tickets are easy to buy from local travel agents, schedules are convenient and there’s an abundance of good hotels near ferry docks to which you can roll your bags. 

Hydra has no cars or motorbikes -- only the sounds of boats... and roosters.
Best of all, when the hot afternoon sun starts to cool off and the cruise ship passengers have all sailed away, you’re still in town – ready to enjoy a sunset on a cliff or the magic as the lights come at the cafes along the waterfront.  Greece can be brutally hot in the daytime, so many people take a siesta from 3 to 5 pm.  

But at twilight, the temperatures cool, the skies glow from magenta to deep shades of purple and the streets fill with families. Windmills along the horizon turn orange with the setting sun, outdoor cafes and restaurants glow with strings of lights, and there are crowds -- even at midnight -- dining on fresh grilled calamari, octopus and shrimp, with colorful Greek salads of juicy red vine-ripened tomato, cucumber, olives and feta cheese, all washed down with surprisingly good local wines.  

The Greeks live outdoors and every street and alley is lined with cafes.
As the sound of a musician playing a lavouto drifts across the warm summer evening, pulled along by refreshing coastal breezes, you can almost feel sorry for the poor people out there on the dark sea on their cruise ships missing all this.

On a recent trip, we visited eight islands and coastal towns effortlessly and often inexpensively, all using public transportation.  In this first article, here’s some tips on how to see Athens and the less well known island of Hydra.  In part two, we’ll explore how to do the famous islands of Mykonos and Santorini, and also stop at two nearby and practically free islands, the medieval town of Naxos and the holy shrine of Tinos. 


The Acropolis is visible from everywhere in Athens
Almost half the population of Greece, some 4 million people, live in Athens, which often gets mixed reviews as sprawling, traffic congested and noisy.  Well, it doesn’t have to be.  All the major tourist attractions are within walking distance on pedestrian streets packed with lively restaurants, bars, cafes and shops – many of which have outstanding views of the world’s number one antiquity – the Acropolis.  From the airport, simply take the $10 euro Metro Line 3 (blue line) to the Monastiraki Square station, and select a hotel within easy rolling distance.  This is the heart of the Old Town, and easy walking to distance to the Old World (and somewhat touristy) Plaka neighborhood, or the trendy Psyrri.  A great apartment rental nearby in Psyrri is Athens Suites, where for $90 euros you get a beautiful entire apartment, filled with original art.  

Despite rumors, based on people who haven’t visited Athens in years, it is one of the most compact, exciting, traffic-free, safe and easy-to-navigate city centers in Europe.  Almost all of the streets near Monastiraki Square are pedestrian and fun, many offering live Greek music.  The streets in Psyrri can look a bit sketchy in daylight because of the Greek penchant for graffiti.  Every building is covered.  Some with art – some, not so much.   But come evening, cafes and clubs sprout up everywhere, especially in buildings that by day look abandoned. 
Old Athens is filled with pedestrian streets, squares and cafes.

There are plenty of tourist restaurants with a view of the Acropolis, but, like HBO, it’s pay for view.  Since you can see the 450 B.C. monument from virtually everywhere, forget the view while eating.  You’ll get more than enough views of it elsewhere since every inch of it is lit up until midnight.   

The Parthenon sits several hundred feet higher than the town on top of a hill, so you can see it everywhere, from every angle.  So enjoy some of the more local and inexpensive restaurants on the back pedestrian streets and in quiet tree-lined squares. 

The Greek people live outdoors.  Every restaurant has an outdoor café, and once evening comes, the entire city is out on the streets, parading up and down the pedestrian paths, drinking at bars, admiring the hundreds of cats who come out to stroll or listening to live music.  
Back streets of Athens are wonderfully romantic at night

A word of warning:  don’t pet the loose dogs or cats that wander around by the dozens, and as in any city, be aware of pick pockets. 

Fresh fish and salads make Greek dining an experience.
It’s easy to get somewhat lost in the maze of pedestrian alleyways, but you can almost always see the brightly lit Acropolis sitting up on its hill to get your bearings.   Tickets for the two major antiquities, the Acropolis, which was a collection of temples and the crown glory of old Athens, and the Ancient Agora, which was the main business area of Athens from 600 B.C. until it was destroyed by Barbarians in 267 A.D., are both one-time entry tickets, so choose your entry time carefully.  Both sites are better early in the morning, or what we preferred, early evening when it’s cooler and less crowded.  Tour buses can swamp the sites in mid-day.  

Monastiraki Square station is also where you catch a simple $1.80 euro, 20 minute Metro ride on the Green Line (Line 1) to Piraeus, which is Athen’s port with ferries to all the islands.


The port is filled with fishing boats and yachts.
Hydra is in the Peloponnese, the opposite direction from the more famous Greek islands, which means you’ll have to backtrack to Athens to visit the others.  But it’s only two hours away and worth the effort, because Hydra is unlike any of the other islands. 

There are no cars or motorbikes allowed. 

Although Hydra is hardly undiscovered, it’s too small for major cruise ships, and most of the tourists here are Greeks weekending from Athens, with relatively few Americans.  Wranglers with donkeys and horses meet every incoming ferry and will carry your bags to your hotel for $10 euros, but most hotels are close and it’s just as easy to roll them (though four-wheel bags don’t fare so well on the rough cobblestone streets).

Fortresses flank the harbor in Hydra
Life is slow and quiet on Hydra, with no major attractions and not much to do but sit at a waterside café on the wonderful, busy stone harbor, or hop on a water taxi to one of the nearby beaches.  Ferries, water taxis, fishing boats, sailboats and even multi-million dollar yachts are constantly jockeying for position at the docks, sailing by the cannon-studded-fortresses that guard each side of the harbor.  Hydra played an important naval role in the 1821 Greek War of Independence, and there’s a museum filled with ship models and paintings.  But today, it’s hard to believe anyone fought over this quiet place.

There’s no beach in town, but many people swim off a stone quay with a ladder located on the rocky shoreline under the fort.  There is a delightful, two-mile hike along the top of the cliffs lining the coast, past a windmill built for a Sophia Loren movie, to the cliff-side cafes and beaches at Kaminia just 20 minutes away, or on a bit farther to the beach at Vlychos.  You can sit at a bar overlooking the idyllic scene, or hop a water taxi back to Hydra town for $4 euros.  

Cafes under the cliffs and fortress.

The harbor cafes in Hydra town have an unusual canopy system that appears to be huge horizontal sails that can be maneuvered throughout the day to constantly provide shade.  As the cooling and refreshing dusk envelops the sky, everyone heads to one of the forts to watch the sunset over the red-tiled roofs of the town, the cats come out to play (there are dozens and dozens of them) and the cafes come alive with bustling waiters and musicians playing lavoutos (funny-shaped Greek lutes).  The backstreets of Hydra are a maze of quiet narrow white-washed alleys, decorated with brightly lit shops and cafes bursting with the color of painted tables and chairs.    Until you visit the other islands, you won’t realize how peaceful life is without the noise of motorbikes and cars, in a place where the only sounds are the crowing of a rooster, the baying of donkey or the deep nautical horn of a ferry as it leaves port.
The rocky coastline of Hydra

Greek law says that menus have to indicate when calamari or octopus is frozen rather than fresh, and there is a big difference, so always check for that when selecting a restaurant.  As a rule, tavernas (local taverns) are cheaper and serve only traditional Greek dishes; restaurants – even Greek restaurants – can be more expensive and international.   Hydra’s not cheap by any stretch, especially along the waterfront, but you can always get by with the national dish – a gyro of pork or chicken, stuffed with fries, tomatoes and onions that sells for under $3 euros.   Expect to pay $10-12 euros for a calamari or octopus dinner on the waterfront.

GETTING THERE:   It’s not easy to understand ferry websites beforehand.  On arriving in Athens, find a local travel agency (there’s one in Monastiraki Square across from the station, but there are many on the side streets as well.  Tell them when you want to leave and return from Hydra and they’ll give you options.  

One of the fast ferries arriving in Hydra

The fast ferries here requires that all passengers stay inside, but get you there in just two hours.  Like a plane, ferries sell a specific seat on a specific departure.  The travel agencies also can book hotels, but hotels can also be pre-booked on sites like Expedia and  When looking at location, be aware that Hydra rises sharply from the street along the dock, so the farther you are from the dock, the more you will have to roll your bag uphill.   For information on Greece.

The red tile roofs of Hydra surround the small harbor and port. 
It's a two mile walk along cliffs and coastal paths to the beaches at Vlychos (pictured) or Kaminia.
There are no cars or motorbikes on Hydra -- horses and donkeys carry luggage and pull carts with food and supplies.
The Greeks are incredibly friendly -- and a little bit crazy. 
Greek cats are definitely crazy.  And beloved.  Every town and port is filled with them.  Be careful who you pet, though.
Ask if the seafood is fresh (although by law, if frozen, it has be indicated on the menu)

Sunset dinner in a fortress is just one of many possibilities when you spend the night in Hydra.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

On the Trail of Kit Carson in Taos

“I don’t know if I did right or wrong but I always did my best.”  Quote by Kit Carson on a placard in his home in Taos, New Mexico

Teepees near Taos 
Few people in history have received as many mixed reviews as Kit Carson.  The larger-than-life mountain man, trapper, scout, soldier, and Indian fighter was in his lifetime one of the most famous characters of the American West -- the subject of books and movies.  There are mountains, parks, a state capital and a national forest named after him.  In Colorado, where he is still a hero, bronze Kit Carson statues grace parks from Denver to Trinidad.

But in New Mexico, not so much.  An exhibit on Carson in the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe states flatly that Carson was “admired by a few, despised by many.”  Ouch.  A 2014 article in the Albuquerque Tribune was headlined:  “Kit Carson: The Most Hated White Guy in American History?”  The article seemed to conclude yes – at least in New Mexico, a state that ironically treasures every association it has with the outlaw Billy the Kid. 

The grave of Kit and Josefa Carson in Taos
Nowhere in New Mexico is this dichotomy over Kit Carson more intense than in Taos, the pretty mountain valley town where he spent 25 years of his life.  Carson’s third wife, Josefa Jaramillo, was from Taos. They married here in 1843 and had seven children.  She died giving birth to their eighth.  A heartbroken Carson died a month later.  They are buried side-by-side in a small park in the heart of Taos, called the Kit Carson Park and Historic Cemetery. 

And that’s where the problems begin.  In 2014, there was a movement in Taos to remove Carson’s name from the park.  Interpretive signs by his quiet gravesite were defaced and at city council meetings he was called a “murderer” and blamed for the “Long Walk” of the Navajos, an infamous chapter of American history in which the Navajo tribe was forcibly removed from their homelands in Arizona and marched 400 miles in winter to a reservation, where thousands of them died.  It was a Navajo version of the Holocaust.  Carson wasn’t on the march, but along with George Armstrong Custer, in the changing times of the 21st century, he has become a symbol of the tragedies inflicted on Native Americans during the “winning” of the West.

Statue of  a heroic Kit Carson in Trinidad, CO by Frederick Roth (horse) and Augostus Lukeman (figure)
Which is a fact that would have struck the humble Kit Carson as simply amazing.  A short and shy man, he was illiterate and couldn’t even sign his own name.  Despite that, he was fluent in both French and Spanish, as well as Apache, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Blackfoot, Ute and Dine (Navajo).   He had two Indian wives, lived and traded with the Indians for years and was considered one of the best and fairest of Indian agents.  He served as the principal guide to the John C. Fremont expeditions of the Oregon Trail, which was the 19th century equivalent of being an astronaut.  Fremont’s widely read journals made Kit Carson a household name across America.  During the War with Mexico, Carson helped capture California, sneaking through enemy lines in the dark and running 23 miles to get reinforcements.  Later, he commanded Union forces with honor in the Civil War. 

Kit Carson
In his lifetime, Kit Carson covered thousands of miles on foot and horseback across the American West, but you can get an intimate glimpse of both sides of the man in just a short walk around the Taos Plaza.   

“The cowards never start and the weak die along the way.”  Kit Carson

There has been a plaza in the center of Taos for more than 200 years.  Originally, it was a fortified square where livestock could be kept safe at night, but today, it’s a quiet park with large shade trees and benches, surrounded by adobe buildings in the Spanish Colonial and Territorial Revival style.  Since the buildings are all connected, when one caught fire, they all caught fire, and they’ve been burning down together for two centuries, leading, of course, to many changes.   The current buildings date back to the golden era of 1930s tourism, when artists and writers such as D.H. Lawrence lived here.  They drip with New Mexico charm with covered verandas, exposed wood beams, adobe walls and shops sparkling with turquoise jewelry, silver, and bright Indian blankets.
Near the Taos Plaza

Just a block from the plaza is where Kit and Josefa lived in a four-room, 1820s adobe house that is now a National Historic Landmark operated as the Kit Carson Home & Museum.

You enter the museum through a pleasant courtyard.  This is where the Carsons did most of their living.  The courtyard was where people cooked, washed, and socialized.  It’s also where Carson conducted business as an Indian agent for the Utes, Apaches, and Taos Pueblo tribes.  Many tribesmen pitched their teepees in the courtyard, where their children played with Kit Carson’s.

In the house, are exhibits telling his life story.  Born in 1809, by the time he was 16, Christopher “Kit” Carson had run away from his home in Missouri and gone west on the Santa Fe Trail, working as a mountain man, trapper and hunter, and later as an explorer and guide.  By the time he settled down in the mountain community of Taos, Kit was the town’s most famous citizen.   The house is small, and the doorways even smaller.  Kit was only 5 feet 6 inches tall.  When Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman met the famous scout for the first time, he wrote, “I cannot express my surprise at beholding a small, stoop-shouldered man, with reddish hair, freckled face, soft blue eyes, and nothing to indicate extraordinary courage or daring.”  
The kitchen in the Kit Carson Museum

The kitchen is reconstructed as it would have been, when food was prepared here for the nine Carsons.  Taos was still the frontier and life was very simple with few possessions.  Each of the rooms had a fireplace, which was the only heat.  

Much of the museum is devoted to Josefa Carson, and you learn that Kit wasn’t the only Carson with adventures.  Josefa’s sister, Ignacia, was married to the second most famous citizen in Taos, former mountain man and trader Charles Bent, who in 1846 was appointed governor of New Mexico.  They lived around the corner, and you can walk to their home, also a museum, in a few minutes.

The Governor Bent Museum is a crazy, hodgepodge collection of Old West memorabilia including bearskins, arrows, guns, eight-legged lambs, farm tools, and Indian baskets.  It was opened in 1959, which appears to be the last time any exhibit was dusted.  Tom Noeding’s parents opened it and today he runs it, so if it’s open, that means he’s there and can point out the room where the famous fireplace was.

The murder would have taken place right about at the sign.

While Kit was out of town in January 1847, Josefa Carson was staying with her sister at this house when the Taos Revolt began.  Taos and all of New Mexico had been ruled first by Native Americans, then Spanish, then Mexican, and then in 1846 by the United States, who captured it in the War with Mexico and appointed the first Anglo governor, Charles Bent.  It was too much change too fast for the locals.  Tensions built and an angry mob of Taos Pueblo natives and local Hispanic residents revolted and marched on the Governor’s house.  Bent tried to calm them down, but they grabbed him from the house, shot him full of arrows, scalped him alive and literally tore his body to pieces, all in front of what is now the quiet Op. Cit Bookstore.  Meanwhile, Josefa Carson and her sister Ignacia seized a poker and spoons and managed to dig a hole through the adobe wall at the back of the fireplace, and escape.

After the gruesome murder, the Carsons helped care for Ignacia and her children.  Ignacia lived to be 68 and she and her grandchildren are buried in the Kit Carson Cemetery Park, not far from her sister and Kit.
An old wagon near Taos

If there was a tragedy to Kit Carson’s life, it is that he was amazingly good at whatever he set out to do.  Unfortunately, this included fighting a war against the Navajos in 1865.  Twice, he refused the assignment, but as a soldier he was finally ordered by Brigadier General James Carleton to lead the campaign.  Carson reluctantly did, but he deliberately disobeyed his brutal orders to “capture the women and kill all the men.”  Instead he waged a mostly nonviolent, “scorched earth” war by destroying the Navajo’s food sources, which forced them to surrender with little loss of life.  Sadly, in the end, the results were equally horrifying.  The Navajos were ripped from their land by other soldiers and forced on the deadly long march to a reservation, which killed thousands.  Naturally, they blamed Carson for their defeat and never forgave him.   Ironically, Carson had nothing to do with the Long March, and he even went to Washington to lobby for the Navajos to be returned to their homeland, which they were in 1868.

Carson quit the army after the campaign and he and Josefa died shortly afterward.  Standing by their gravesite, 150 years later, it’s hard not to go back to Kit’s quote, hanging in his home.  “I don’t know if I did right or wrong, but I always did my best.”

Green chile stew at Eske's Brew Pub & Eatery

When Kit was near death, he allegedly said:  “I wish I had time for just one more bowl of chili.”  And by that he meant, Taos chili.  Delicious cuisine is just one reason that millions of visitors flow to this beautiful artist community and outdoor recreation center every year.  In addition to skiing, Taos is known for river running on the Rio Grande, hiking, fishing, and spectacular mountain scenery.  There are dozens of art galleries and a fantastic assortment of restaurants, many specializing in New Mexico cuisine based upon the most famous of all green chiles, those grown in NM.  The Eskes Brew Pub & Eatery near the main square has an excellent green chile stew as well as half dozen of their own craft beers.  Wednesday night is “Bluegrass Night,” with many local musicians pickin’ away on guitars, banjos and fiddles.

Taos Pueblo -- the oldest continuously inhabited spot in North America
Another must visit is the Taos Pueblo, four miles from town.  This is the oldest continuously inhabited spot in North America.  The two main structures are believed to be well over 1,000 years old and consist of individual adobe homes built side by side and in layers, with common walls and no connecting doorways.   They look today much like they would have when Kit Carson was their Indian agent; the only change to the adobe structures was the addition of blue entrance doors (the homes were originally entered via ladders from holes in the ceiling).  Between 50 and 100 people still live in the Taos Pueblo without running water or electricity.  Students give tours, and several of the buildings are open as shops selling jewelry, pottery and Indian fry bread.
The original San Geronimo church is now a cemetery.

In 1847, shortly after the uprising in which Charles Bent was killed and Josefa Carson had her narrow escape, the U.S. Army attacked Taos Pueblo in reprisal.  Many of the Taos Pueblo people went to the San Geronimo church for protection.  The army wheeled a cannon to the church, and fired into it point blank, killing dozens of women and children.  The ruins of the church became a cemetery and the leaders of the revolt were hung in Taos Plaza.  Visiting today, it’s hard to believe this tranquil and beautiful spot had such a bloody past.  Because of past oppressions against them, the language of the Taos People, Tiwa, is unwritten and unrecorded and is passed down orally from generation to generation.  It is quite remarkable to see people live here as they did centuries ago and walk literally back into the days of Kit Carson.

Where to Stay:

The spectacular entrance to El Monte Sagrado Living Resort & Spa
Just a short walk down Kit Carson Road from Kit’s old house is El Monte Sagrado Living Resort & Spa – one of those rarest of rare finds – a world-class luxurious resort and spa within easy walking distance of a historic district.  El Monte Sagrado (which means “The Holy Mountain”) is spread over a beautiful 11-acre oasis filled with ponds, streams, wildflowers, bridges, waterfalls and aspen trees.   The 84-room resort became a Heritage Hotel & Resort 10 months ago.  The largest independent hotel brand in New Mexico, Heritage takes great pride in their collection of culturally distinct properties, and it shows.  They are pumping big money into the $70 million, AAA Four Diamond resort, including major improvements to the rooms, landscaping and cultural amenities, as well as adding to the resort’s 300 piece art collection.
The Anaconda Bar has a gigantic snake curling around it.

Among the new amenities are regularly scheduled concerts by Native American flutist Robert Mirabal.   A two time Grammy Award winner, Mirabal is also working with the hotel and Taos Pueblo to introduce a new garden at El Monte Sagrado that will use ancient seeds to grow Native American foods and spices on the hotel’s grounds for use in its kitchens.  The hotel’s gorgeous restaurant, De La Tierra, serves all three meals, inside or on the patio.  For dinner, go local and try the Caprice Cactus salad, the Crab Quesadilla and the Elk Chop seared and glazed with Chipotle agave nectar. The hip Anaconda Bar next door has a gigantic snake sculpture wrapped around the horseshoe-shaped bar and has one of the best happy hours in Taos with $3.50 local drafts and $5 house margaritas.

The lovely grounds have streams and waterfalls.
The resort offers six types of rooms.  At the top end, the Global Suites are 1,100-sq. ft. casitas (small bungalows) each decorated with original art and architecture to reflect different regions of the world, from China, Japan and Spain to Morocco, Mexico and Argentina.  Each of the casitas has two bedrooms, two baths, log beam ceilings and all luxury amenities from wet bars to pueblo-style gas fireplaces.  Four of them have hot tubs.  If it seems strange to have a global theme in Taos, there’s no worries.  It works beautifully with the patios walking out into the gardens.

The premiere suites carry the global theme to Bali, Egypt and Tibet, while the 18 Native American suites each carry the name of a famous historic Native American and come with king beds, kiva-style fireplaces and balconies or courtyards overlooking the Sacred Circle, the green space surrounded by willow and cottonwood trees that is the center of the resort. 

One of the spa rooms.
Finally, the Casita Suites are fun and funky, part of the original historic hotel with true 1930s New Mexico style and private patios, all upgraded with modern amenities, while the Taos Mountain Rooms are more tradition resort rooms but with private balconies, fireplaces, jet soaking tubs and access to all the amenities of the resort.

And then there’s the spa.  The Living Spa, as it’s called, has won awards from Conde Nast Traveler to Spa Finder, and no wonder.  The ten gorgeous and eco-conscious treatment rooms offer benefits such as a sunlit shower and natural waterfall cooling system.  Kit Carson probably took a natural shower in a waterfall, but not like this.  There are candlelit couple’s suites, Thai massage sessions, 90-minute facials…and when you’re done, don a robe and walk through the gardens to the saltwater pool for a long relaxing soak.  Kit Carson would have never left Taos if he had discovered this place.

For information on other attractions in Taos

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Riding the Rail Runner Express to Santa Fe

The Rail Runner Express leaving Santa Fe's Railyard, near the Plaza
There are few sounds more romantic than a train whistle as it pulls out of the station starting off on a journey.  Unless, of course, you’re riding the Rail Runner Express.   This unusual 96-mile- long railroad runs between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, NM.  The trains are sleek looking silver diesel engines with comfortable double-decker cars and a bright red roadrunner (New Mexico’s state bird) painted on the side.   Much like the roadrunner in the old Looney Tune cartoons, the train makes the same distinctive sound.  Just as the engine leaves the station, it goes: “Beep beep.”

It’s just one of several funny things about this 10-year-old railway that has transformed the way to get to Santa Fe.  Although it’s often confused with AMTRAK, the Rail Runner is its own separate railroad, and only goes from Belen (a few miles south of Albuquerque) to the Railyard Plaza in Santa Fe, just a few minutes stroll from the historic downtown plaza.  It was built in 2006 primarily as a commuter railroad to move people around northern New Mexico and to transport workers who couldn’t afford to live in ritzy Santa Fe from the suburbs to downtown. 
Art is everywhere in Santa Fe's 250 art galleries

But the train has also made Santa Fe a superb car-free, weekend destination.  Although Santa Fe’s airport is small with limited flights, Albuquerque’s International Sunport is served by eight major airlines with 5 million passengers a year.  If you pre-buy a Rail Runner Express ticket online (only $9 for adults, $4.50 for seniors), there is a free shuttle from the Sunport airport that will take you directly to the railroad station in downtown Albuquerque.  Here you can hop the train, and in 90 minutes (traveling at speeds up to 79 miles an hour) be within walking distance of most of Santa Fe’s beautiful sights.  But leave your camera in its case during the rail journey.  Although the scenery is beautiful, conductors and PA announcements will explain that since the railroad passes through the Sandia and Kewa Pueblos, riders are asked to not take any photos.    

There has been a hotel here since 1607 (photo by La Fonda) 
Once in Santa Fe, you can wheel your luggage to dozens of nearby downtown hotels, or hop the Santa Fe Pickup, a free shuttle bus with a bright red pickup truck painted on the side that meets every train and stops at major attractions in town, from the galleries on Canyon Road to Museum Hill, with buses coming every 15 minutes or so.  There is absolutely no reason to hassle with your own car in Santa Fe, paying $18 a night parking, while trying to negotiate the maze of twisting 400-year-old roads.  All of the city’s charms are walkable.  And it’s also a historic delight to arrive in town by rail since the railroads played such an important role in Santa Fe’s style and development.

Meet the Harvey Girls 

Historic photo of La Fonda in the 1920s
The perfect hotel to roll to from a train is La Fonda, the grandest of Santa Fe’s old historic hotels.  There has been an inn of some sort on this corner of the Santa Fe Plaza since 1607.  The current La Fonda (Spanish for “the inn”) was designed in 1922 by architect Isaac Hamilton Rapp, called the “creator of Santa Fe style.”  Rapp blended the adobe square architecture of the indigenous Pueblo Indians with a romanticized view of Spanish colonial design, creating a fanciful combination of an earth-colored adobe building with verandas, hand-carved wood beams, and cathedral ceilings, decorated with brilliant Navajo rugs and pottery.   When the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad (AT&SF) acquired the hotel in 1925, they brought in influential Southwest architects Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter and John Gaw Meem, who expanded on “Santa Fe style” with larger windows, individually painted furniture, stained glass skylights, terracotta tile floors, wrought iron bannisters and hammered tin chandeliers – all of which can still be seen in the hotel today.    It was Meem who helped write the 1957 city ordinance that makes Santa Fe “the city different.” 

The Harvey Girls
The ordinance, still in effect, says that no building in the historic district can be taller than the Basilica (five stories) and all new buildings have to be built in the Spanish Pueblo Revival or Territorial Revival style – in other words, Santa Fe style.  Because of this, Santa Fe was the first city in the U.S. to be declared a UNESCO city of Folk Arts, Crafts and Design, joining Seville, Edinburgh, Buenos Aires and others.   

But the La Fonda has more history to offer than its architecture, thanks to the work of a former New York dishwasher and pot scrubber named Fred Harvey.  Harvey emigrated to the U.S. from England in 1853 and learned the food business from the bottom up.  At this time, railroads didn’t serve food on cars.  Instead, they stopped the train at a roadhouse where a combination of rancid beef, cold beans and day-old coffee was dished out quickly so the train could be on its way. 

The Harvey Girls exhibit in the New Mexico History Museum 
To combat this, Harvey invented the idea of the chain restaurant.  Working with the AT&SF railroad, he built a series of first-class restaurants and gift shops near the tracks where railroad passengers could always count on a consistent experience of top quality food and service.  A distinctive feature of these “Harvey House” restaurants was the wait staff.  Harvey ran ads all over eastern newspapers recruiting "white, young women, 18-30 years of age, of good character, attractive and intelligent.”   The girls had to be single and sign a contract that they would remain unmarried for one year, or forfeit part of their salary.  They could be assigned to work at any of the 84 Harvey Houses in the West, and had a 10 p.m. curfew every night.  Most distinctive of all, their uniform was a starched black dress with a white apron that hid their figure. 

The dining room in La Fonda where the Harvey Girls worked, is still the same. 
At a time where there were limited opportunities for woman, this was quite an adventure – the forerunner of being a flight attendant – and more than 100,000 women eventually worked as Harvey Girls, doing as much as anyone to help tame the “Wild West.”  La Fonda was a Harvey House from 1926 to 1969.

You can see photos of the Harvey Girls and learn more about their individual stories at the nearby New Mexico History Museum, a brilliantly done hodgepodge of artifacts collected from New Mexico’s many heroes and villains.   From Billy the Kid’s spurs to Kid Carson’s tobacco pouch to novelist D.H. Lawrence’s satchel, the museum tells Santa Fe’s amazing 400-year history in a fun continuum, from its days as the principal northern city in Mexico through the lively period of the Old West and the Santa Fe Trail, to its invasion by hippies in the ‘60’s to its emergence today as the third largest art market in the nation with more than 250 art galleries in a two square mile area.   

The Palace of the Governors 
Attached to the museum, is the Palace of the Governors, the oldest continually occupied public building in America -- and a one-time battlefield!  During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the native Pueblo Indians rose up and killed 400 Spanish settlers.  Those Spanish remaining, barricaded themselves in the Palace for a siege, before finally sneaking out and retreating to El Paso.  For the next 12 years, the Palace was under the control of the Pueblo Indians.  Finally in 1692, a Spanish army returned and with the threat of seven cannons, retook the Palace. 

Many of the rooms have been restored to the period when this was the capital for Nuevo Mexico, a huge area that included Texas, Arizona, Utah, California, Nevada and Colorado.  Other rooms tell the story of the building in the 1846 War with Mexico, the Civil War, and the role of the building today, where the outdoor veranda serves as a daily trading post for Native American artists to sell their work.  The program is regulated by the state to allow only 69 Native American artists a day, many of whom come early on cold mornings to get their space.  The artists can change daily, but the jewelry, pottery and art is guaranteed to be authentic Native American work – something not true of many of the gift shops in town.

New Mexico Museum of Art
Another artist who worked in the Palace was its U.S. Governor, Lew Wallace, a former Civil War General appointed to govern the New Mexico territory before it was a state.  Wallace lived in the Palace and at night, wrote his famous novel “Ben Hur” in these rooms – the first of many important writers and artists to call Santa Fe home.

Another, artist Georgia O’Keeffe was attracted here because of Santa Fe’s 325 days of sunshine and the soft, dry desert light.   There is a museum devoted to her life and art down the block.  Several of her paintings can also be viewed in the majestic New Mexico Museum of Art, another classic Santa Fe style building designed by Isaac Rupp in 1917.  A $25 CulturePass will get you in the history and art museums, as well as the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and Museum of International Folk Art, both on Museum Hill and easily accessible by the free Santa Fe Pickup.  Altogether, there are 17 museums in Santa Fe…enough to keep anyone busy.
The old homes on Canyon Road have been converted to art galleries, making it one of the prettiest walks in America.

But the real fun of Santa Fe on a pedestrian weekend is just wandering around the neighborhoods and shops.  Every street in Santa Fe is a work of art.  Every gateway beckons, every garden is gorgeous, every blue door or shutter is a photo.   The old roads don’t follow a grid pattern, and part of the fun is getting lost and discovering new homes, churches and businesses on the back streets.  Canyon Road (ten minutes from La Fonda) was the original road to Mexico, and most of the old adobe homes along a two-mile stretch have been converted to art galleries.  While the art might seem to be beyond your price range, don’t be intimidated.  Duck in the galleries, talk to the artists, and you might be surprised at how affordable some of it is.  

Don’t be surprised if you see locals like Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Game of Thrones author George Martin, Julia Roberts and Gene Hackman also walking along.  Certainly, Santa Fe is ground zero for serious Southwest shopping with an incredible number of Native American jewelry boutiques intermingled with 400 restaurants, many serving New Mexican cuisine with tasty green chile from nearby Hatch, NM – arguably the best in the world.   Eat as much as you like, but don’t forget you have to wheel and carry everything you buy back to the Rail Runner!

IF YOU GO:  The La Fonda hotel offers historic walking tours at 10 a.m. for $14. 

Santa Fe is even more beautiful in the evening when the rooftops are covered with farolitos, Spanish for paper lanterns. 
Don't be afraid of getting lost.  Wandering around the backstreets of Santa Fe is one of the best experiences.
The 400 years of history can be found on every block of Santa Fe in the historic district.
Every gateway beckons you to enter -- many lead to galleries with some of the most impressive art in America.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Keep San Luis Looney

The San Luis Valley of southern Colorado is the largest alpine valley in the world.  Covering an area the size of Massachusetts, this flat, sandy valley floor receives less rainfall than the Sahara. There are only 40,000 humans living here, making it one of the most isolated, quietest and darkest places on the planet.  And you know what happens when things get quiet and dark.  They also get strange. 

UFO Watchtower
San Luis has attracted more UFO sightings than nearby Roswell, NM.  It’s well known for unexplained cattle mutilations.  Many believe the little San Luis Valley town of Crestone sits on a deposit of quartz crystals, making it a vortex to other dimensions.  There are 30 religious shrines in Crestone, more per capita than any place on earth.  And then there are the alligators, the sand dunes, and of course, don’t forget legalized marijuana.  All of which make the San Luis Valley a little looney.  And the people here like it that way.

Here’s a quick tour to some of the quirky must see stops in San Luis.

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

Great Sand Dunes
On the eastern side of the valley, at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, are 50- square-miles of soft, curving, and dramatic wind-sculptured sand dunes.  They are the highest inland sand dunes in North America, rising to more than 750 feet.  Pink, cream, brown, tan or gold – depending on the angle of the sun – they are shifting mountains of sand. 

Each day, the winds go to work on them.  A strong wind can set the whole 50 square mile dune surface moving, creating ripples, building the sand into elegantly shaped crescents or adding onto the loose masses called climbing dunes.  But sooner or later, reverse winds blow down from the mountains and the dunes are returned to near their original shape.  Scientists think they’ve been here 440,000 years.  Maybe.  No one really knows for sure.  But photos taken in 1927 show that the main dunes have undergone very little change in the past 80 years. 

Along the first ridge
There are many activities in the park, but everyone’s first choice is hiking the dunes.  There are no trails here – they wouldn’t last an afternoon – so visitors can go anywhere they want.  But first, to get to the dunes you have to cross shallow Medano Creek, which flows between the dunes and the Visitor Center.  It’s best to just take off your shoes and wade across the soft, water-cooled sand creek, but be sure to wear shoes into the dunes.  In mid-summer, the sand can reach 140 degrees F.

Due to shadows, the dunes appear deceptively steep.  The pure physics of the sand says that it can’t be piled at an angle steeper than 34 degrees.  Seventy percent of the grains of sand are .2 to .3 millimeters in diameter – the width of a human hair.  Stacked any steeper than 34 degrees, and they simply give way to gravity and cascade down.  But because of shadows, you’ll swear differently – especially as every step you take up, you slide back down halfway.  Not to mention, the dunes are at 7,500 feet above sea level.

For decades, people have been trying to slide down the dunes on snow skies, on homemade cardboard sleds and aboard flying saucers made for snow.  Unfortunately, they don’t work.  But there are specially designed sand boards and sand sleds that do work and are available outside the park at the Oasis store.  The dunes can be dangerous.  Blowing sand can be fatal to cameras, and can sting exposed skin and eyes.  And of course, it’s a terrible place to be in a lightning storm, so observe caution. 

The highest dune in North America, Star Dune, is located opposite the Visitors Center and takes about six hours to hike to and return.  Most people can easily make it to the top of the first ridge and back in two hours, and that’s more than enough view to give you a good taste.


The UFO Watch Tower and Museum
The dunes – or at least the darkness, lack of light pollution and the quiet they bring to the area – may have also attracted UFOs.  Local resident Judy Messoline thought so.  She built the world’s only UFO Watchtower in the town of Hooper, near the park’s entrance.

It’s really just a wood deck surrounded by strange UFO art.  There’s a “campground,” or at least a place to park overnight, for a fee.  There are lots of signs featuring ET.   A small museum details the history of the strange number of astral sightings and cattle mutilations that have taken place in the San Luis Valley, some dating back to the 1700s.  In theory, the tower is as good a place to park and look for UFOs as any.   Judy claims that 88 UFOs have been sighted from the tower since it went up in 2000.  Of course, her autobiography is titled, “The Crazy Lady Down the Road.”


An injured gator being given first aid
Literally just down the road in the town of Hooper are the biggest alligators in the West, along with a collection of rattlesnakes, pythons, snapping turtles, and, oh, about 350,000 Tilapia fish.  Welcome to the Colorado Gators Reptile Park, one of the state’s craziest and most fun roadside attractions.  It started in 1974 when Erwin and Lynne Young decided to use the valley’s geothermal waters (the water stays at a constant 87 degrees) to farm Tilapia, a tasty perch fish that needs warm waters.  Fish in fish farms die pretty regularly, and to deal with all the dead fish, they imported 100 baby alligators in 1987. 

Flash forward, and today, the farm makes more money showing off the exotic animals than from selling fish.  Many people have donated alligator pets that became too large, and the park has become
a sanctuary for reptiles, including Mr. Bo Mangles, an albino alligator, and Morris, a Hollywood gator that appeared in dozens of films including Happy Gilmore.  There are crocodiles, three types of rattlesnakes, tortoises to pet, and you can hold a two-foot-long baby alligator (then have the gator bite and leave bite-holes on your “certificate of bravery.”  

Where most places have signs proclaiming how many months they have gone without an accident, at the Colorado Gators, their safety record sign is measured in hours.  Maintaining dozens and dozens of gators in no easy task, and these gators are not pets.  Ask the staff to show you bite marks.   You’ll see the staff feeding them, petting them (the gators snap back), holding open their jaws for demonstrations – and at special events, wrestling them.  This is one of the few places in the world where you can take alligator wrestling class. 

Two dollars buys you a bucket of gator chow, or bring a fishing rod and you can catch and release Tilapia and catfish (or buy them for $3 a pound).  If you catch a carp, you get to feed it to a gator.


One of the larger ashrams of Crestone
About 30 minutes up the road is Crestone, a small town of 150 people at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains that is very much like walking into an episode of the “X-Files.” Crestone has more ashrams, stupas, Catholic retreats and spiritual centers per capita than any place in the world.  There are 30 of them here, scattered in the mountains with spectacular views.    Many locals believe that Crestone holds an energy vortex and is perhaps a portal to other dimensions.  At any rate, something strange is going on here, as witnessed by the steady stream of pilgrims and religious retreats held in the town.

You can learn about this, and the artists who live in the area, at the Crestone Historical Museum and Welcome Center.  Coming in May 2016 is Crestone Brewing Company, a restaurant and brewery that will make it well worth driving 12 miles off the main highway to see this little artist community, and its colorful ashrams.


The boyhood home of Indiana Jones.
This is just the start.  The San Luis Valley is also home to a fort once commanded by Kit Carson, spectacular hiking trails, waterfalls, the hometown of prize fighter Jack Demsey, and the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, the highest and longest steam train in North America.  According to movies, Indiana Jones grew up alongside this railroad, and you stay in the B&B that now occupies the house used as Indy’s boyhood home in the movies.  Accommodations are most plentiful in Alamosa and Monte Vista, but there are beautiful ranch accommodations across the valley as well.