Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Denver to Vail – the Slow Way

I-70 heading west.  It is exactly 100 miles from Denver to Vail  Photo:  Stevie Crecelius
Every month, almost a million vehicles travel the 100 miles on Interstate 70 between Denver and Vail, Colorado.  They zoom past gorgeous Rocky Mountain scenery at speeds up to 75 mph, burrow through the highest auto tunnel in North America, and switch back their way over two-mile-high Vail Pass.

Main Street Georgetown
But those in the know, slow down and stop in four delightful and historic towns along the way.  The Interstate highway bypasses these villages with nothing but a sign, but if you take time to visit, you’ll discover an operating steam locomotive that still chugs over a 100-foot-high trestle, old gold mines and gold mills, hundreds of historic Victorian buildings, tranquil river walks, zip lines that hurl you off a cliff, breweries, fine dining, river rafting through sheer canyon walls, and some of best riverside shopping in Colorado.

But be careful.  With all the delights along the way, you may never make it to Vail.  Heading from Denver, here’s where to make a detour.


An old water wheel along Clear Creek in Idaho Springs
This is the first real mountain town from Denver, and because of that, it’s become the Mile High City’s adrenaline capital.  You can jump off rock cliffs on terrifying zip lines or scream through rapids in Clear Creek Canyon.  Clear Creek offers more rapids per mile than any other commercially rafted river in Colorado.  There are a staggering 18 companies in town offering wet suits and rafting trips.  You can rent ATVs, horses, or mountain bikes and explore dozens of trails, one of which is affectionately called the “Oh My God Road!” You’ll find out why when you see the drop-offs without guard rails.

Colorado’s first major gold strike was discovered in Idaho Springs and today the town’s historic main street is lined with Victorian buildings that have been converted to bars, breweries, restaurants and mountain gift shops.   Beau Jo’s Pizza is a town institution.  For more than 40 years, they’ve been dishing out a hearty pie of what they call “Colorado style” pizza, which means each one weighs 3-5 pounds.  Go mountain climbing before you eat the pizza.  Down the block, the Buffalo Bar is where to stop for Colorado buffalo or lamb burgers.  Buffalo is the leanest of red meats and has less calories than chicken.  That’s also the home for the new and stylish Westbound & Down Brewery.  Try a CPA (a Colorado Pale Ale). 

The Argo Gold Mill processed $100 million of gold.

At the other end of Main Street, Tommyknockers Brewery has been turning out award-winning brews for 20 years, including winning 17 medals at Denver’s prestigious Great American Beer Festival.

Tommyknockers were mythical two-foot-high creatures who lived in mines and caused mischief.  If you have the nerve, you can enter the real Phoenix Gold Mine, a place that looks straight out of a Lone Ranger movie.   Put on a hard hat and follow a vein of gold through a twisting, dark and damp tunnel, just hoping that the creaking 100-year-old wood beams hold up for at least one more hour.  Right in town, the Argo Gold Mill processed more than $100 million of gold in its day.  Today, it’s a steampunk’s dream of mining equipment, shafts, belts, wood ladders and stairs.  After the tour, they’ll teach you the fine art of gold panning.    

Georgetown (mile marker 228) -- the Silver Queen
Georgetown looks like a Colorado Christmas Card, something you would never suspect from the I-70.
When John Denver was looking for the most picturesque town in Colorado for his holiday film, “The Christmas Gift,” he picked Georgetown.  Ironically, millions of people zoom by this pretty village on I-70, or just stop at the gas stations at the exit, never knowing that just a mile away there are 200 Victorian buildings and one of America’s most beautiful main streets. 

The Georgetown Loop crosses Devil's Gate Bridge
It was silver that made the Georgetown rich and led to elaborate mansions and beautiful homes painted a rainbow of colors.  But it was the still-standing steeples here and there that preserved the town.  Not the churches.  The steeples are the remnants of volunteer fire companies, of which Georgetown had the best in Colorado.  Most mountain mining towns were made of wood and burned to the ground at one point or another.  Georgetown never had a major fire, and so the gorgeous main street and dozens of homes were all preserved and today, along with neighboring Silver Plume, are part of a National Historic District.

There are Western book stores, rock shops, railroad stores, galleries, Native American artworks, cute little restaurants – and of course, the Western staple – saloons.  But the most fun is to walk or bike the backstreets, past one colorful Victorian home after another. You can tour the 1867 Hamill House, the home of a former Colorado governor, or stop in to see the Hotel de Paris, one of the West’s most opulent hotels that served French champagne and oysters in the 1870s.

The steeples around Georgetown are old fire departments that kept it safe.
Of all the railroad engineer feats in Colorado, one of the greatest – and scariest – is the Devil’s Gate Bridge, the 100-foot-high narrow trestle that allowed the railroad to corkscrew around and literally crossover itself, just like a Lionel toy train set, climbing 600 feet in elevation in just four miles.  The feat became known as the Georgetown Loop, and today it offers a short – but thrilling – steam locomotive ride to Silver Plume, once a booming mining metropolis, but now more of a ghost town with dirt streets and old and empty false front buildings.

The steam train sends huge plumes of smoke 100 feet in the air as it chugs up the steep climb though stands of aspen, sending people scurrying from side-to-side of the open gondola cars for photos of the ever-changing scenery.  The train lets go with a whistle every time it crosses the stream, and that’s the moment to have your video going.  The sound of that whistle echoing off the mountains will be one that haunts you for a long time.

Silverthorne (Mile Marker 205)  -- A River Runs Through It

The Outlets of Silverthorne are beside pretty Blue River
Few places have changed more than Silverthorne.  Before 1967, there was nothing here but a gas station and a makeshift construction camp for workers building Dillon Dam.  Today, Silverthorne will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2017 as a town that has now grown to 4,000 souls and offers one of the most beautiful shopping experiences in the nation – the Outlets at Silverthorne.  There are more than 50 brands here, offering savings of up to 70 percent on Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, Columbia, Calvin Kline, Eddie Bauer and Levis.  But it’s the setting that makes it special.  The shopping is split into three villages on both sides of the meandering Blue River, which flows right through the center of Silverthorne.  Bridges connect the shopping villages, which also have underpasses beneath the roads.

You can continue on the paved bike and walking trail beside the Blue River for miles, passing upscale restaurants near the river bank like Blue Sauce, heading to what will be the new Silverthorne Performing Arts Center, a cultural epicenter for all of Summit County.  The new space will have two theatres for music concerts, Broadway shows, lectures and other events, as well as outdoor space that can be used for summer concerts.  

The Gore Range rises above Silverthorne with gorgeous views in all directions
Not only is the river beautiful, it is designated as a Gold Medallion Fishing Stream, a honor reserved for only a few of the thousands of miles of waterways in Colorado.

Just down the road, past a field of grazing yaks, is Summit Sky Ranch, a new 21st century development of 240 single-family homes designed to fit into the landscape, rather than altering the landscape to accommodate the architecture.  Unique to the area, this will be a “dark sky community,” with lower light levels so as to make it easier to see the stars that blanket the Rocky Mountain sky above.   

Silverthorne has sweeping views of Lake Dillon.
A state-of-the-art observatory will have a 20-inch refactor telescope that can be enjoyed by all through live stream to the Aspen House community center.  The Blue River Valley of Silverthorne has very little ambient light, which is one way of saying, there’s nothing out here but mountains.  It can be dark, which makes the night sky all that more amazing.

Ironically in Colorado, which was filled with gold and silver mines, Silverthorne’s name has nothing to do with the shiny metal.  It was named after a local, Judge Marshall Silverthorn.  Someone added the “e” along the way.

Frisco (Mile Marker 201) 

Every corner of Frisco is decorated with flowers
Frisco was founded in 1870, so it’s been around a lot longer than Silverthorne.  Sort of.  Though it was a mining town and in its heyday had two railroads, a slew of saloons, shops and hotels, the depression hit Frisco hard.  By 1930, there were only 18 people left in town.  Frisco didn’t even get indoor plumbing until 1950.  But then in the 1960’s, Colorado’s ski industry was born with Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone and Copper Mountain all just a short drive away.  The former Ghost Town of Frisco boomed again with white gold.

Today, there are 2,800 full-time residents and 34 bars and restaurants.  From I-70, Frisco looks like a uninviting roadside collection of box stores and fast food, but if get off the highway and drive a mile to the historic downtown, you’ll be rewarded with one of the prettiest and most historic main streets in Colorado.  

Bread + Salt is the place for breakfast.
The Frisco Historic Park has relocated a dozen buildings, including an old jail, schoolhouse, ranch house, trapper’s cabin, chapel and others, and built them into a beautiful park on Main Street surrounded by Aspen trees.  Don’t miss the model railroad of Frisco in the 1800s; you can run the tiny engine and cars around the miniature village for a quarter.

Across the street, Prosit is a Bavarian beer hall with 30 European beers and a slew of sausages, including pheasant, buffalo, elk, and wild boar, all with sauerkraut, shredded cheese, peppers and every type of mustard.  Backcountry Brewery has an outdoor beer garden, while Bread + Salt is the town’s casual breakfast place, surrounded by aspens and flower boxes.

Frisco’s main attraction these days is the Frisco Marina, which sits on the shores of 3,300-acre Lake Dillon.  

The Marina is right in the center of Frisco
There are 25 miles of shoreline surrounded by mountain views, as well kayak and paddleboat rentals, sailboat regattas, boat tours, paddleboards, canoes, fishing pole rentals, sailing lessons and waterside dining.  Or rent a bike and pedal around the lake on paved, off-road trails.  Of course, the lake sits at 9,000 feet above sea level, so the sailing season is short….early June to mid-September.  When the snow starts (which can be mid-September!) Frisco’s Adventure Park, and the Nordic Center have multi-lane tubing hills, with a lift to take you and your tube back up the mountain.  There’s cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and skating. 

And, of course, if you’re really desperate to get to Vail, it’s just 30 minutes farther on down the highway.

IF YOU GO:   Town of Frisco 

Prosit on Frisco's main street is the place for buffalo and elk sausage and European beers.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Ten Ways to Explore New France in Old Quebec

Old Quebec from the walls of the Citadel 
 It took just 15 minutes in a battle in 1759 to end the empire of New France, but it’s taken the 257 ensuing years to create the marvelous concoction that replaced it – the wonderful walled, multi-cultural city of Vieux Quebec.  Old Quebec is the most European-looking town in America, a twisting maze of cobblestone streets lined with colorful umbrellas and outdoor cafes, century-old stone buildings with bright red roofs and overflowing flower boxes, cute little shops selling local cheeses and maple syrup, and everywhere, cannons.  

The gates are not historic, but were added to keep the walls intact

There are 4.6 kilometers of preserved cannon-studded stone walls circling the old town, which can only be breached by entering through four medieval-looking gates.  Once inside, you are in an UNESCO World Heritage Site fairy tale, an 18th Century European village with the fantastic castle-like Chateau Frontenauc – the most photographed hotel in the world – hovering over the town center.

In Old Quebec, every conversation begins with “Bonjour!”  Horse-drawn carriages clip-clop up the street, waiters carrying huge platters of beer and food shuffle from table to table and everywhere there is color, from parks filled with flower beds to historic flags flapping in the breeze to gaily painted wood shutters and doors.  

Pretty Rue Saint Anne is lined with historic buildings.

It is a far different place than the nearly abandoned and bombed out ruin of a smoldering town that the British marched into on September 13, 1759.   And yet, much of Quebec is still the same, because in Old Quebec, you are never more than a step or two from its 400-year-old history.

The battle lasted only 15 minutes, but you can spend days exploring the stories around it and discovering the crazy cultural mix that transformed New France into Old Quebec.  Here are 10 places to start.

The Plains of Abraham
Frenchman Jacques Cartier started it all by sailing up the Saint Lawrence River in 1534 and claiming all he saw (basically all of eastern Canada)  to be New France.  No one seemed impressed.  It was 74 years before anyone came again.  This time, in 1608, Samuel de Champlain sailed up the Saint Lawrence and for defensive purposes, at the river’s narrowest spot, protected by a sheer cliff, he founded Quebec City.  For 150 years, the town, surrounded by stone walls, prospered and did well with fur and lumber trade. 

But then Quebec got caught up in the first real world war, a global conflict between France and England that extended to America, where it was called the French & Indian War.  In 1759 a British fleet arrived at Quebec and lobbed 36,000 heavy cannonballs and 6,000 bombs into the town, destroying much it and setting the rest on fire. 

But still the French held out.  In a last ditch desperate attempt, British General James Wolfe led 4,500 crack troops on a daring night raid, climbing the “unclimbable” cliffs protecting Quebec to gain the open fields outside the city walls.  French General Marquis de Montcalm felt he must push the British back into the river, and in a military move still debated, he led 4,500 poorly trained French militia and regulars outside the walls to attack.   The British redcoats were arrayed in two lines – the first “thin red line” of history.  They held their fire until the French were 40 yards away, then delivered two devastating blasts of musketry.  The first French line of troops disintegrated into dead and wounded.  The rest were routed, the British took the city and that’s why Queen Elizabeth is currently on the $20 Canadian bill. 

The museum features a sound and light show re-creating the battle.
Today, the battlefield is a far cry from blood and smoke and serves as the lungs of Quebec – a huge, beautiful park filled with bike trails, picnic spots, and, of course, cannons.  The Plains of Abraham Museum offers “Battles 1759-1760,” a multimedia exhibition where cannon balls appear to come flying at you off the screen and chilling first person accounts tell the story of the tragedy inflicted on soldiers and civilians.  

It’s somewhat ironical the bloodiest battlefield of Quebec is now where the city relaxes with concerts and recreation, but the fighting is not quite over.   Plans to re-enact the famous conflict on its 250th anniversary in 2009 were cancelled when people still upset over the outcome threatened to disrupt it.

Fort Museum    
The best of 1960s and 21st Century technologies combine to tell the story of Quebec’s battles at this museum, where a gigantic 60-year-old diorama filled with hundreds of toy soldiers has been updated with modern computer graphics and sound effects.  Little ships move, bombs explode and there’s enough battle noise to please anyone in this retelling of the 1759 battle, and the later attack on Quebec in 1775 by the Americans, led by (of all people) the famous American traitor, Benedict Arnold.  It’s old school tourism, but it holds your attention, and provides a graphic backstory of why there are so many cannons around town.

Dozens of cannons line the 4 kilometers of walls. 

No trip to Quebec is complete without walking the walls, and the best way is with a National Park walking tour.  For some reason, all the guides of military sites seem to be young millennial aged girls with limited interest in the fighting, but charming accents and attitudes.  No worries, there was never any fighting on the walls anyway.  Our guide began by asking, “How many of you are Americans?”  Half the group tentatively raised our hands.  “Well, these walls were built to keep you out.  And until today, they worked.”  The joke is not lost on contemporary Americans who realize that in the 19th century, we were the enemy and Canadians were forced to go to great lengths building walls to keep Americans out.

The 4 kilometers of walls are indeed an incredible feat, comparable to any of the walled cities in Europe. And the tour by the French Canadian guides is delightful and filled with fun.  You’ll forget the dates, but always remember a sweet French accent saying, “So as you can see, the walls were built on the side of the city of which the cliff was not.”

Tip: the guards enter the middle of the field, which is the best place to watch
Fed up with threats from America, in the 19th Century the now British Canadians finally finished the Citadelle, an impregnable “fort within a fort” -- the “Gibraltar of America” -- a place that was so powerful, it was never attacked.  Today, the star-shaped Vauban fortifications offer a look at 300 years of military architecture.  The highlight of the visit here in summer is the daily changing of the guard.  This is an active fort and the Royal 22nd Regiment is still stationed here.  The colorful, if a tad long, changing of the guard ceremony involves dozens of troops marching while a regimental band plays and officers yell orders.  

The Regimental Mascot Batisse 

Look for troops who seem to be shorter than the others.  They are women.  Some 10 percent of the 
regiment are women, and women participate in the changing of the guard, even as officers.

This is the only French regiment in Canada and all orders to it must be given in French.  Even Queen Elizabeth must give orders in French.  The Queen gave the regiment a Persian goat in 1955 to act as mascot and now the third generation of the goat, always named Batisse, is at every changing of the guard ceremony, posing for photos.  Don’t tell anyone, but there are actually three goats named Batisse.  The guides seem quite jealous of the goats.  “Each goat has to work only once every three days and the rest of the time they get to hang out with their girlfriends,” our guide said.

The views from the Citadel over Quebec are the best in the city, but you’ll have to take them fast.  This is a working fort and they don’t allow lingering.

The streets of old town

Many of the streets in old town are pedestrian. 
There are two Quebecs, the upper and lower town (the one on top of the cliff and the one below it, which has been greatly increased in modern times with landfill).  Both are fantastic.  The upper town has a maze of streets, some closed to traffic, and a beautiful wood terrace lined with gardens and cannons overlooking the Saint Lawrence River.  With the towering Chateau Frontenac as a beacon, it’s impossible to get lost, so the town is best explored by wandering aimlessly, ducking down this alley or taking that street to poke into shops selling maple syrup, Canadian art, Native American handcrafts, fur hats, and wool fashions.  Every third building is a colorful café or bar.  Rue Saint-Jean is a fun place at night, offering folk singers who do a mixture of songs in French and English. Paillard bakery is a favorite lunch stop with locals for sandwiches and pizza.   Craft beer has found Quebec with more than 70 breweries in the province creating 400+ different beers.  Maudite, Dieu du Ciel, and La Fin du Monde breweries are popular and widely available.  Rue Saint-Anne is a pedestrian street filled with local artists, portraitists and caricaturists showing off their works.  Rue Saint-Jean is closed to traffic on summer evenings and is lined with trendy cafes.

La Petit Champlain has 45 shops and restaurants.

The lower town is the oldest area of Quebec, especially at Place Royal, the oldest and most unchanged square of the city that looks much like it would have when Benedict Arnold and the American army attacked in 1775, just a few blocks away.  It was here in 1608 that Samuel de Champlain started the first permanent settlement in New France.  The Place Royal Museum has dioramas and a 3D movie to help you visualize the history that took place here. 

A bit livelier, is the Quartier Petit Champlain, the incredibly picturesque portion of the lower town where centuries old stone buildings now house 45 shops and restaurants, much of it terraced on the steep pedestrian path leading to the upper town.  There’s an 1879 funicular connecting the upper and lower towns for those that don’t do well on hills, but the climb is not that bad and is lined with shops and restaurants, so you’ll be missing a lot if you don’t walk.  The lower town specializes in handicraft boutiques selling jewelry, leather, fur, wool clothing, and decorative arts.
Flowers and cobblestones line the pedestrian streets in old town.

Both towns are home to incredibly talented street buskers who perform on stages sanctioned by the city.  From acrobats jumping through fire rings to Broadway quality singers belting out tunes from Phantom of the Opera, Quebec is like a three ring circus, and you are never far from free top quality entertainment.  Visually, the city is stunning with modern murals, outdoor sculptures and art works blending with 18th century stone architecture and cobblestones (don’t even attempt to walk in Quebec in anything but flat, comfortable shoes!).  

There are museums in Quebec covering everything from art to artillery, with historic houses, century old churches, monuments and an aquarium thrown in.  Of interest to seeing how New France became Vieux Quebec are the four partners of the Museum of Civilization, an organization dedicated to preserving the history and culture of the various people who have called Quebec home.  
A diorama of the famous 1759 battle in the Museum of Civilization

The modern Museum of Civilization is the city’s most popular museum, with a wide range of changing exhibitions.  There are artifacts from Cartier to Champlain, battle dioramas, and exhibits on the first peoples of America. 

The Musee de l’Amerique francophone will be a bit unusual to most U.S. visitors, who are probably unfamiliar with the word “francophone,” which means “someone who speaks French, especially in a country where there are two or more languages.”

The museums traces the history of French culture throughout North America, from the Mississippi and New Orleans to the Arcadians in Louisiana to many other little known influences.

For the right person, this could be a unique and once-in-a-lifetime experience.  The Hotel-Dieu de Quebec monastery was built in 1639 by the Augustinian Sisters, who made this the first hospital in America north of Mexico. Today, it is a 65-room boutique hotel, restaurant, museum and holistic wellness center that lets you experience what it was like to stay and live in a monastery.  Don’t even ask about Wi-Fi – you can’t even have an electric hairdryer or shaver.  The authentic rooms (or “cells” as they were called) are simple, clean and comfortable, with a sink and mirror, historic furniture, shutters and shared bath.  The 32 modern rooms have a contemporary look with private baths. 

But your room is just the beginning of the experience. There are packages that include workshops, lectures, concerts, meals and daily activities all designed to increase spirituality and holistic health in an authentic setting.  This is not the place to stay if you’re going to be out closing the bars on Rue Saint Jean, but for those looking for health, introspection and non-domination spirituality, look no farther.

If you’re not up to that, guided tours tell the story of the Sisters and with 40,000 objects, trace the history of medicine and the first hospital in New France.  There’s a bullet extractor used in the famous 1759 battle, and all sorts of horrific implements from early medicine.  In keeping with the program, you must be quiet during the tour and walk softly in the historic parts of the building.  

TheNew France Festival, Fêtes de la NouvelleFrance
Dance demonstrations, food, drink and music at the festival

Scheduled next for August 9-13, 2017, this festival is a must for anyone interested in history.  It’s also a hoot.  Staged in at the Artillery Park under the walls of the city, this is a massive celebration of all things 17th and 18th Century in New France with more than 400 programs and events, including a parade and fireworks.  Hundreds of people dress like 18th century soldiers, traders, common people, nobles, bar wenches and craftsmen.  You can rent costumes and join the fun, or at the very least, get a tri-corner hat, a tankard of ale and a turkey leg and enjoy the show.  Soldiers guard the gates, colonial bands play, Native Americans offer chants and there are craftsmen working their 18th century magic in a long line of booths selling leather goods, jewelry, muskets and pottery. 

Grab a tankard of ale and join in the fun.
Unlike so many historical re-enactments where the participants exhibit the three “O’s” (old, overweight and odd), here the costumed crowds are young and sexy, the beer is flowing, and there’s any number of delicious local delicacies to nibble on, from lobster rolls to local cheese fondue.  There are folk singers, buskers, corn-eating contests, colonial dance programs (even without a costume, you can learn the dances), military marching bands, gun firing demonstrations, and special tours of the fortifications.  There’s also a serious side with seminars and programs about the empire of New France.  

Roving costumed educators will tell you how there were only 60,000 Europeans in New France in 1759 versus 2 million people in the British colonies to the south.  Though New France was overwhelmed in war, the joie de vivre of the French people have kept the culture alive, and continue to celebrate it at this colorful festival.

New France didn’t exist during the Middle Ages and Renaissance period, but to make up for that, New York architect Bruce Price incorporated architectural styles from both periods into his masterpiece hotel, Chateau Frontenac.  Opened in 1893 (and expanded with five wings and a tower), the 611-room hotel is allegedly the most photographed hostelry in the world.  Who could doubt it?  It’s almost impossible to take a photo of Quebec without capturing this mystical castle in the center with its many fantastic green copper towers and turrets. 

The name comes from Louis de Baude, Count of Frontenac, who was the governor of New France from 1672-1698.  His coat-of-arms is on the entry arch to the hotel.  Under it have passed every celebrity to visit Quebec, from Princess Grace of Monaco and Celine Dion to Paul McCartney and Leonardo DiCaprio.  U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill held two of their few World War II meetings in the hotel in August 1943 and September 1944. 

The Chateau Frontenac looks like a castle over the European town of Quebec

Staying at the hotel is the ultimate Quebec experience.  There are 2,000 windows, 1.2 kilometers of corridors and it’s not unusual for the hotel to dish out 2,000 gourmet meals a day.  While the rooms have modern amenities in keeping with being one of the finest hotels in the world, the public spaces, lobby, 1608 Bar, and the rows of hotel shops are dripping with atmosphere and history. 

And then there are the views.  The hotel is built atop Dufferin Terrace, which is where Champlain built Quebec’s first fort in 1620.  Today, walking along the wide wood boardwalk terrace lined with cannons, there are sweeping views of the Saint Lawrence River in one direction and of the towering Chateau Frontenac in the other.  Had Montcalm won the famous battle in 1759, it’s hard to imagine how Quebec could have turned out any lovelier or more beautiful … or more French.

The friendly people of Quebec love visitors and enjoy discussing their amazing history and French culture.
IF YOU GO:     Everything you need is at the Quebec Region Tourism Office

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 Booking.com.  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