Monday, March 6, 2017

Traveling With Mark Twain in Hawaii

Waikiki Beach was the Royal Coconut Grove when Twain arrived in 1866.
In 1866, Mark Twain was virtually unknown without a single published book.  He had bright red hair and he talked and gestured in such an animated way that people meeting him for the first time often thought he was drunk.  And then he got one of the greatest jobs in history.

The Sacramento Union, the best newspaper on the West Coast, sent him to the Sandwich Islands (as Hawaii was then called) and agreed to pay $20 for every letter or story he sent back.  Though Samuel Clemens, writing as Mark Twain, would go on to become America’s most famous writer and the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and would travel extensively around the world, he never forget Hawaii.  He called it “the loveliest stream of islands that lies anchored in any ocean.”

Though he was only in Hawaii for four months in 1866 and never returned, much later in his life he wrote, “No alien land in all the world has any deep strong charm for me but that one, no other land could so longingly and so beseechingly haunt me, sleeping and waking, through half a lifetime, as that one has done…. For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surfbeat is in my ear; I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud wrack;…in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago.”

Rainbow Falls on the Big Island is just one of many places Twain visited that are much the same today.
So when my brother and I decided to spend two weeks exploring the Hawaiian Islands, who better to be our guide than Mark Twain?  Armed with editions of Twain’s two travel books on the subject “Letters from Hawaii” and “Roughing It,” we decided to follow his route and see how much we could return to the Sandwich Islands of 1866, when it was still an independent kingdom and the most isolated population center on earth.


Twain arrived in Honolulu on March 18, 1866 after a ten day voyage and set out to explore the settlement of then 15,000.  “The further I traveled through the town the better I liked it.  Every step revealed a new contrast -- disclosed something I was unaccustomed to…I saw luxurious banks and thickets of flowers fresh as a meadow after a rain, and glowing with the richest dyes…I saw huge-bodied, wide-spreading forest trees, with strange names and stranger appearance – trees that cast a shadow like a thundercloud….I saw long-haired, saddle-colored Sandwich Island maidens…gazing indolently at whatever or whoever happened along.”

The porch of the Moana Surfrider hotel, opened in 1901. 
Much like Mark Twain, we arrived in Honolulu after what seemed like a ten-day trip, although it was really just a seven-hour flight and five-hour delay.   After negotiating the maze of Waikiki streets, we checked in, had a drink and walked out at midnight into a light mist of rain.   And into a Hawaii not too far different from Twain’s.  Oh, of course, Honolulu is a now sprawling city of 400,000, with 8 million more tourists thrown in.  But the shock of arriving from the mainland in winter was the same.  Here there were flowers – everywhere – in January, with palm trees swaying overhead and huge banyan trees covering a city block.  The temperature, even at midnight, was balmy and on every corner there were woman looking at us, perhaps not “indolently,” but at least sizing us up to see if we were potential customers.  

Waikiki is known for boasting a large collection of streetwalkers.  They were all colors, races and sizes, and beautifully dressed.  And strangely, they were working the territory in front of the Moana Surfrider, perhaps the most gorgeous and expensive of Waikiki hotels, and one of the oldest, dating back to 1901.  On this street, Kalakaua Ave, which has the same look and feel of Rodeo Drive, with many of the same stores, it is an odd sight to see prostitutes on every corner.  Their target is rich Asian men, so two old, pale and poorly dressed Americans didn’t cause much excitement, but one did ask my brother if he wanted a massage. 

The sunsets on Waikiki have not changed since Mark Twain's visit. 
The Waikiki of Twain’s day was a village of white cottages.  It was the royal coconut grove and one-time home of King Kamehameha I, the king that united all of Hawaii by winning a famous battle here in 1795.  It was also here on the thin sliver of Waikiki Beach that Mark Twain tried surfing, and first introduced the sport to the world.  “In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf- bathing. Each …. would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell! It did not seem that a lightning express-train could shoot along at a more hair-lifting speed. I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me.”

The statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the most famous of all Hawaiian surfers on Waikiki. 
Today, of course, they are still surfing at Waikiki and the beach is home to the ultimate surfing tribute, a statue of the king of the board, Duke Kahanamoku.  But the real excitement of surfing in winter is on the north shore of the island – a place that would have been inaccessible to Mark Twain except by boat because in 1866, no road penetrated Oahu’s central spine of mountains. 

Breakers on Banzai-Pipeline Beach are so close to the shore you can capture them with cellphones. 
Today, it’s a drive of an hour or so by tunnels and highway to Sunset and Banzai-Pipeline Beaches.  Both are known for their flat reefs that cause waves to break when they hit shallow depths, creating a huge curling tube of water that surfers can actually ride down the center.   In winter, these can be the deadliest of beaches with waves averaging nine feet, and reaching even 14-20 feet high, with the constant danger of surfers being hurled into the coral below. 

The incredible thing when visiting is that the main road is literally at the edge of the beach.  You just pull over for free parking, and in less than a minute you can walk right up to the gigantic breaking waves and be so close that you can actually photograph a surfer in curl … with a cell phone!   Of course, the beach is lined with professional photographers with two-foot long telephotos and some of the top surfing photos come from here, but you don’t need one to feel part of the action.  You can buy cold coconuts at the beach, or it’s a short drive to Hale’iwa, an old hippie surfing town that is also home to the most famous of all North Shore stops:  Matsumoto’s Shave Ice. 

The North Shore is a laid back look at an older, less commercially developed Hawaii.

Diamond Head

This 700-foot-high extinct crater looms over Honolulu and has fascinated every visitor from Mark Twain to the TV show Hawaii Five-O.  Twain rented a broken-down horse named Oahu and struggled to the top, but now people think nothing of walking from Waikiki and climbing to the summit at dawn, taking a $10 cab ride back to their hotel.  It’s an interesting hike, with tunnels and curving staircases cut through rock.  

Of course the view from the top of Diamond Head includes thousands of modern buildings, but nature hasn't changed.
The summit was converted to an army lookout point in World War II.  Of course the view today includes hundreds upon hundreds of modern hotels, apartments and office buildings, but nothing much has changed along the shoreline or in the steep mountain crags, so much of the view is the same as Mark Twain described it:  “Impressed by the profound silence and repose that rested over the beautiful landscape…I gave voice to my thought.  I said:  What a picture is here slumbering…How strong the rugged outlines of the dead volcano stand out against the clear sky! What a snowy fringe marks the bursting of the surf over the long, curved reef! How calmly the dim city sleeps yonder in the plain! How soft the shadows lie upon the stately mountains that border the dream-haunted Manoa Valley!  How….at this point the horse called Oahu deliberately sat down in the sand.  Sat down to listen, I suppose….I stopped apostrophizing and convinced him that I was not a man to allow contempt of court on the part of a horse.” 
Mark Twain in 1867

On his way back to town, Twain noticed a beautiful island woman and thinking to impress her, he galloped by like a cavalier.  She called to his friend Brown, who was bringing up the rear and spoke to him.    Twain waited and when Brown caught up, he asked what she had said.  Brown laughed. “She thought from the slouchy way you rode and the way you drawled out your words, that you was drunk!  She said, ‘Why don’t you take the poor creature home, Mr. Brown?  It makes me nervous to see him galloping that horse and hanging on that way, and he so drunk.’ “


Twain’s next stop was Maui.  He wrote famously, “I went to Maui to stay a week and remained five.  I had a jolly time. I would not have fooled away any of it writing letters under any consideration whatever… I never spent so pleasant a month before, or bade any place good-bye so regretfully.”

Big Beach on Maui
Most people feel the same way.  Twain based in Lahaina, so we did too.  In the 1800s, this large whaling town could have 400 ships in harbor at a time, and seemingly just as many bars, saloons and brothels.  One of the surviving buildings from the era is the sturdily built town jail.  Today, Front Street, Lahaina is a wacky mix of tourist shops, historic buildings with balconies, restaurants, galleries, stone churches and bars, with an old fort and picturesque harbor that offers bobbing boats and classic mountain and sea views. 

Lahaina at sunset from the Pier
Perhaps the two most familiar landmarks – the giant banyan tree that covers an entire city block and the historic balconied Pioneer Hotel where writer Jack London once stayed, both came after Twain’s visit,  But there are a dozen or so buildings from his time, and no matter how many Subway sandwich shops and pizza joints invade, Lahaina still has the look of an old whaling town.  Have a local Haleakala IPA from the Maui Brewing Company on the balcony of Captain Jack’s Island Grill, and you can drift with the swaying overhead palm trees back to a different time.

Captain Jack's looking towards the Pioneer Hotel, where Jack London stayed and wrote some of his stories. 
By 1866, the missionaries had arrived in Lahaina, and were in steady conflict with the sailors, the native Hawaiians and Mark Twain, who loved needling them.  He complained that the missionaries had come to make the native people “permanently miserable by telling them how beautiful and how blissful a place heaven is, and how nearly impossible it is to get there.”   He wrote, “How sad it is to think of the multitudes who have gone to their graves in this beautiful island and never knew there was a hell.”

Lahaina is a weird mix of tourist shops and upscale galleries and historic buildings with a whaling port town feel thrown in.

One of Mark Twain’s permanent gifts to Maui was popularizing the idea of watching sunrise from the 10,023-foot summit of the extinct volcano Haleakala, “the house of the sun.”   Twain camped on the top and at dawn had the not uncommon experience of being in bright sunshine, while all below him was blanketed with clouds.  “It was the sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed, and I think the memory of it will remain with me always,” he wrote.  

Hiking above the clouds on the summit of Haleakala.
Today, the ritual, which involves driving twisting roads in the dark and freezing on the summit until the sun comes up, has become so popular that as of Feb. 1, 2017, the National Park Service requires permits and only cars with permits are allowed on the summit at dawn. No matter.  The summit view is fantastic at any time, and since the volcano is covered with hundreds of microclimates, there are always constantly swirling clouds and light formations.  Dress warm.

The Big Island of Hawaii

With its active volcano, waterfalls, and historic sites, Twain liked the island of Hawaii above all else.  He sailed from Honolulu and wrote, “We landed at Kailua (pronounced Ki-loo-ah), a little collection of native grass houses reposing under tall coconut trees – the sleepiest, quietest, Sundayest looking place you can imagine.  Ye weary ones that are sick of the labor and care… and sigh for a land where ye may fold your tired hands and slumber your lives peacefully away, pack up your carpet sacks and go to Kailua!  A week there ought to cure the saddest of you.”

The buildings of Kailua line one side of the street, the ocean the other.
I liked Kailua best of all myself.  The historic town consists of a half moon bay with the sea on one side, where towering waves crash against a rock wall breakwater every minute or so, sending a spray water splashing over the sidewalk.  On the other side, is a South Pacific paradise of historic buildings sprinkled with new ones made to look old with shutters, balconies, bars, live music, ABC liquor stores, towering palm trees and an assortment of Hawaiian tourists shops.

The current Hawaiian State Flag was the national flag in 1866 when Twain visited. 
Of course, it’s touristy.  There’s a steady stream of cars, convertibles, motorcycles and people, with drifts of a live singer doing John Denver or a tourism shop playing Iz Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a song, by the way, that you’ll probably hear more than a hundred times.  The official Youtube page for the song has 261 million views.  I suppose there are people who hate it, but to me, never has a song captured a place better.  Even Mark Twain, a hundred years before the song was recorded, wrote, “Why did not Captain Cook have taste enough to call his great discovery the Rainbow Islands?  These charming spectacles are present to you at every turn; they are as common in all the islands as fogs and wind in San Francisco.”

The parks along the sea in downtown Kailua look directly west and are perfect for sunsets.
Captain Cook was killed on Hawaii, a fact that fascinated Twain, and he spent a great deal of time visiting the site of the murder, and also the site where Cook was “cooked.”  Twain had no great respect for Captain Cook, who he thought had pretended to be a god and got what he deserved.  He delighted in the fact that when the British demanded the return of Captain Cook’s body, the natives could sheepishly only produce nine pounds of it… the rest having been eaten.  The monument to Cook that Twain visited is now underwater.  Not a good sign for global warming.

Wood carvings and a giant stone wall are the attractions at Pu"uhonua o Honauuau, City of Refuge
The big island is filled with sights visited by Twain that have changed little if at all.  You can walk by the massive black lava walls of Pu’uhonua o Honauuau, the City of Refuge, which is now a National Park.  The earth’s largest volcano, Mauna Loa, is still 13,677 feet high and consumes half the island, while the planet’s youngest and most active volcano, Kilauea, is still spewing gas, smoke and ash, as it did when Twain climbed down into it.  

Looking down into the crater.  Photo:  Donald Grant
You can have the same view of Halema’uma’u Crater from the Volcano House, that he enjoyed.  The current restaurant is new, but the location of the park’s only hotel is the same.  He wrote, “The surprise of finding a good hotel in such an outlandish spot startled me considerably more than the volcano did.”  Not only is the drop off Kilauea caldera steep, but so are the restaurant prices.  But at least stop in Uncle George’s Lounge for a Kona Brewing Co. IPA and the splendid view.  You might even want to stand by the fireplace – at 4,000 feet, it can be chilly up here.

The Waipi'o Valley can't have changed much since Mark Twain was here.
Mark Twain also rode through the Waipi’o Valley, which is just as inaccessible today as in 1866, and rode up and down all of the Kona Coast, writing, “Kona to me will always be a happy memory.”

But his happiest memory of Hawaii appears to be the women, which he mentions over and over, most often when he happens upon them swimming or dancing what he called, the “hula hula.”  But being Mark Twain, he was always a gentlemen.  “At noon I observed a bevy of nude native young ladies bathing in the sea, and went and sad down on their clothes to keep them from being stolen.”

Mark Twain never forgot his visit to Hawaii, and unfortunately, was never able to return.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

George Washington’s New York

Fraunces Tavern is the oldest establishment in New York serving food and drink and a favorite of George Washington
George Washington was not really a New Yorker.  He was born, raised and died in Virginia.  He spent much of his public life, as both a president and a general, in his favorite city of Philadelphia. But New York?  Not so much. 

It’s hard to blame him.  He fought six battles trying to defend New York, and lost them all, but one.  When he finally retreated from New York, he wanted to burn the city to the ground, but Congress stopped him.  Officially, at least.  No one really knows who started the fire on September 21, 1776, but George was not disappointed when hundreds of houses in New York did in fact go up in flames.

Despite all this, George Washington probably did have some very fond memories of the city.  It was in New York that he was sworn in as President and spent 17 months, before the capital was moved to Philadelphia.  And it was here that the Revolutionary War officially ended in 1783, with a triumphal march by the Continental army down the Broad-way, stopping from tavern to tavern to drink 13 toasts at each one in celebration of the new country.  

George Washington portrait by John Trumbull in NY Historical Society

Because New York was so small at the time of the Revolution, most of the sites associated with George Washington are within a short walk of each other.  You can have a drink and a meal at his favorite tavern; see the pew he sat in at his church; view the gravesite of his trusted chief of staff (and current pop star) Alexander Hamilton; stand on the spot where he was sworn in as President, and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, passing almost directly over the spot where he retreated after the Battle of Brooklyn, saving the army in what has been called the most magnificent military retreat in history.

As George might have done himself, it’s best to begin the tour with a drink.   

When Samuel Fraunces opened his tavern here in 1762, there were already 217 taverns in New York to serve just 13,000 people.  Today, it is the only colonial tavern to survive and the oldest establishment serving food and drinks in New York. 

Taverns at the time were a combination of an inn where you could stay and a public house where you could get a drink and meal.  Both offerings were pretty dreadful.  People shared beds and sat at simple communal tables, often arranged around a fireplace, with a mishmash of different flatware and glasses.  Taverns were expensive because patrons had to pay not only for food and drink, but also for the candles used.

The Tallmadge Room in Fraunces Tavern today
The average colonial of the day drank a staggering four gallons of hard liquor and 14 gallons of beer or cider a year, and since pipe smoking was common, the room would be filled with smoke, gambling, gossip and politics.  Taverns were hotbeds of radical ideas, and because Samuel Fraunces (or Black Sam, as he was called by friends) was a revolutionary, his tavern was home to the Sons of Liberty and other rebels.

When the British captured New York in 1776 and occupied it for seven years, they forced Samuel to seek safer ground and his son-in-law, a Tory, took over the tavern.  But on Nov. 25, 1783, the day the war officially ended, the British departed, General Washington marched in, and he and 185 friends gathered at Fraunces Tavern for a celebration dinner.  In New York, Nov. 25 was known as “Evacuation Day,” and was an official holiday for more than 100 years.

A private dining room in Franuces Tavern as it would have looked at the time of George Washington
George had promised his wife Martha he would be home in Mount Vernon for Christmas, so after eight days of celebration in New York, it was time for one last farewell luncheon party – the last time, as far as any of them knew, that Washington and his army officers would ever see each other.  Washington fully intended to retire to his home and become a farmer, far from public life.

For the last meal, the tavern laid out an impressive spread of cold meats, but the atmosphere was so sad, no one touched their food.  The best known account, written by Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge, and now on display in the restaurant’s museum, described the scene as General Washington entered the room.

“His emotions were too strong to be concealed which seemed to be reciprocated by every officer present. After partaking of a slight refreshment in almost breathless silence, the General filled his glass with wine and turning to the officers said, ‘With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you….I cannot come to each of you, but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.’

General Knox being nearest to him, turned to the Commander-in-chief who, suffused in tears, was incapable of utterance, but grasped his hand when they embraced each other in silence. In the same affectionate manner, every officer in the room marched up and parted with his general in chief. Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed and fondly hope I may never be called to witness again.”
Good thing he wasn’t at any Hillary parties the night of the election.
You can see the actual room where this emotional farewell took place upstairs in the Fraunces Tavern Museum.  This is a gem of a museum.  In Boston or Philadelphia it would be a huge attraction, but somehow in the overwhelming opportunities of New York, it gets lost.  You might find, as I did on a recent Friday afternoon in December, that you have all two floors of it to yourself.

The Porterhouse Brewing Company in Fraunces Tavern

The Long Room, where the dinner took place, has been reconstructed as it might have looked on that afternoon.  It is a typical colonial dining room, with wood table and chairs, candles and framed prints, and actually not that different from the one you can dine in downstairs.  

But the rest of the museum is a kick.  There’s one of Martha’s silk shoes, the last letter from spy Nathan Hale (who was hung in 1776 and has a statue nearby at City Hall), and a wild assortment of trinkets and mementos from the Revolution and those who have preserved its history.  

The collection of illustrations by John Ward Dunsmore fill the walls of the museum
Currently, for the first time, there are 47 paintings of the Revolution by master illustrator John Ward Dunsmore.  This is the only time the paintings have all been together and they chronicle the entire war. He worked for a calendar company, and these paintings will be familiar to anyone who has ever had any interest in the colonial period.

George was no stranger to taverns or liquor.  He liked wine, beer, and cider and was at one point the largest manufacturer of whiskey in the nation.  Three of his dogs were called Tipsy, Tippler and Drunkard.

The small bar in Franuces Tavern connects to Porterhouse Brewing
After the museum, the restaurant is a bit eclectic, with offerings from jambalaya to lobster tortellini, but for those desiring authentic, there are beef and chicken pot pies, Scotch eggs and something called George Washington’s Horseback (bacon, dates and almonds).  

The atmosphere?  It could not be better.  The main dining area (the Tallmadge Room, named after the Colonel) has a gorgeous room of wood tables lit by candles.  There is a maze of corridors that lead to private dining areas and a bar with stuffed chairs, a roaring fireplace, and enough wood and prints to make George feel at home. 

Cask conditioned IPA in Porterhouse Brewing Co.

The biggest surprise, is the Porterhouse Brewing Company, which has taken over half the main floor and has 140 craft beers to try, including a range of craft beers all brewed in Ireland.  It’s all wood, mirrors and brass with brightly lit bottles and little nooks carved out for private gatherings around communal tables.  Other than the no smoking laws, it’s pretty certain that the Sons of Liberty could still gather here and talk about The Donald pretty much in the same way they once did about George III.

The cobblestone Stone Street is lined with taverns and restaurants

Neighborhood Walks with George in Lower Manhattan

The great thing about Fraunces Tavern is that it is in the heart of Lower Manhattan.  Just a short musket shot away is Stone Street, the first paved street in New York.  Now closed to traffic as a historic district, the petty cobblestone way is lined with taverns and restaurants and evokes a feel for, if not colonial New York, at least the old New York of Godfather II.  In summer, the two-block area is filled with outdoor umbrellas and is one of nicest places to dine in the city.

A block in the other direction takes you to Battery Park, which in George’s time was an island and fortress with 100 cannon.  Today it’s been connected to the mainland and has one of New York’s oldest standing forts  – (from a different war, Castle Clinton from the War of 1812) – and two emotional memorials. 
The Sphere by Fritz Koenig

The Sphere designed by Fritz Koenig was a monument to world peace that stood in the plaza in front of the original World Trade Center. In the 9-11 attacks, it was buried under tons of rubble, torn apart, bent and scraped, but it was dug up, reassembled and now sits in Battery Park as a testament to New York’s resiliency.

Nearby, the Merchant Marine Memorial is truly eerie. Commemorating the 7,000 merchant marines who died in World War II, it depicts a sinking ship and drowning sailor with his arms stretched out of the sea. Depending on the tide, you see half of his body or just his arm and neck reaching out for help.

The Merchant Marine Memorial in Battery Park

New York’s famous Broadway starts at the intersection of Battery Park and Bowling Green (a small green triangle where George could have enjoyed the passion of the day – outdoor lawn bowling).  Here you’ll find the 7,000-pound bronze Charging Bull sculpture by Arturo Di Modica that has become the symbol of a bull market on Wall Street. Rub its nose for luck, and continue up Broadway to the beautiful Trinity Church, where 

Alexander Hamilton is buried.
The first Trinity Church was destroyed in the fire that George didn’t set in 1776; the current church dates to 1846.  At first Hamilton was not allowed to be buried in the quiet churchyard, where gravestones date back to 1680.  The church strongly disapproved of dueling and did not want to be seen as sanctioning it.  

Alexander Hamilton's Grave at Trinity Church

Ironically, Hamilton’s son was killed in a duel three years before, and is thought to be buried in the same graveyard, but because of the stain of dueling, his grave was unmarked.  Hamilton lingered for several days after his famous duel with Vice President Arron Burr and was able to plead in person from his deathbed with Reverend Benjamin Moore, rector of Trinity, and finally was allowed to be buried at the church.  Today, thanks to the hit musical, his grave is a popular site for selfies.

From the church, cross Broadway and head down Wall Street and you’ll soon see George Washington’s statue on the steps of the Federal Hall National Monument.  The statue is approximately where George was inaugurated as president (although at the time, he was inside another building that stood here.  The statue is the same height and street location as where he stood). 

Anywhere else in the nation – or the world – Federal Hall would be famous. In New York, the 1842 modified version of the Parthenon is overshadowed by, well, everything else.  But climb the steps and go in – the rotunda is amazing, it’s free, there’s a lot of history and (always important in New York) there are clean, free public restrooms.  There are exhibits on the inauguration and the Revolution in New York, and a there’s a fascinating “All George” gift shop offering everything from Christmas ornaments to bookmarks featuring his familiar face.

The statue of Washington on the spot where he was inaugurated facing NY Stock Exchange
One of the most iconic photos in New York is to frame the statue of George at Federal Hall with the famous gigantic flag that hangs on the New York Stock Exchange across the street. If you look closely, you’ll see that the stock exchange is on Broad Street, not Wall Street. Less well known is that yet another of New York’s terrorist attacks took place here in 1920 when 31 people were killed by a bomb placed in a horse and carriage. The building across the street from Federal Hall still has pot marks from the explosion.
St. Paul's is the oldest church in New York

Back to the Broad-way, it’s three blocks to St. Paul’s Chapel, known as “the little chapel that stood.”  Built in 1766, the chapel survived not only the great fire of 1776, but also the attack on Sept. 11, that brought down the two twin towers of the World Trade Center, located directly across the street.  

St. Paul’s was not damaged and became a place of refuge for the firefighters, police officers, and other first responders working through the devastation.

St. Paul’s was George Washington’s church in New York.  You can see a replica of George’s modest pew box, where he prayed after the inauguration.  The churchyard is particularly moving.  George certainly walked through the gravestones here, because this was the main entrance to the church in his day.  It is a truly a spectacular sight to see gravestones from the 1700s with Santiago Calatrava’s new World Trade Center Oculus Pavilion directly across the street.

Santiago Calatrava's Oculus Pavilion from the graveyard of St. Paul's
Finally, from the front of the church on Broadway, head to the ramp that is the pedestrian walkway over the Brooklyn Bridge crossing the East River.  George had entered New York in the spring of 1776 as the hero who driven the British out of Boston.  But then the Empire struck back, sending the largest armada of ships and men the world had ever seen to that point. 

Washington tried to defend all the potential landing points, but the British outmaneuvered him and put 30,000 redcoats on Long Island.  Then they conducted a secret night march around Washington’s flank, and in what became the Battle of Brooklyn, the largest battle of the Revolution, they badly beat him and almost destroyed the American army.  Only a valiant last stand by Maryland troops at the Old Stone House saved the day.

The Old Stone House in Brooklyn was the scene of severe fighting in 1776.
Near the Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn, in Washington Park, the Old Stone House Building is now a museum.  It is a reconstruction of the 1699 Vechte-Cortelyou House in the exact location where the battle took place.  The museum has models and exhibits of the battle, but it takes a lot of imagination to picture this place in 1776. 

Diorama of the Battle of Brooklyn depicts the fighting around the Old Stone House

Easier is to look down at the East River from the Bridge.  With the victorious British to his front, and the river to his rear, Washington had only one option – somehow he had to retreat and ferry his men across the East River without the British knowing it.  The embarkation point was the little shore-side park, Fulton Ferry Landing, just to the north of the Bridge on the Brooklyn side.  

Keeping fires on the front line burning as a disguise, and in a providentially thick fog, Washington managed to extract his entire army of 9,000 men back to Manhattan to give them a chance to fight another day.    

Emanuel Leutze's painting of George Washington Crossing the Delaware hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of New York,  
A retreat may not be the most glorious of military maneuvers, but if George Washington had not managed to retreat from New York, there almost certainly would be no United States of America.  And for that, New Yorkers…..and George Washington… were always grateful.   

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 Sauce on the Blue.  This gorgeous eatery has huge picture windows looking out onto the river, an outdoor patio, and offers wonderful Italian classics like Spaghetti Bolognese and New York Style pizza to more contemporary dishes like Penne Gorgonzola.  It will be the perfect place to dine before heading down the block 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.