Saturday, December 22, 2012

Indianapolis is the Most Walkable -- and Drinkable -- City in the Midwest

Soldier & Sailor Monument
A lot of people were surprised when “Indiana-no-place,” was selected to host 2012 Super Bowl XLVI.   They were even more surprised when Indy hit it out of the ballpark, staging one of the best Super Bowls and greatest parties the world has known.  More than a million people celebrated on the streets of Indy, while the Super Bowl was watched by 111 million others across the U.S. - the largest audience in television history.

Well, no one should have been surprised.  The year before, Indiana swept the Great American Beer Festival, winning more prestigious beer medals than any other state.  Good beer makes anything possible.  But people who have never been to Indianapolis and assume it is just another dying, dull, rust and corn-belt Midwest city could not be more mistaken.  Indy is amazing, and getting better by the day. 

Indy’s very walkable downtown is green (with 350 acres of parks, rivers, tree-lined boulevards and canals); European (with impressive monuments and murals); trendy (with 300 restaurants and a national farm-to-table reputation); and artistic (with a unique pedestrian path that stretches across a state park, from a downtown zoo past world class history, art, and sports museums). 

And did I mention beer?  Locals Sun King and Upland lead a team of 64 Indiana breweries, and craft beer is supported by nearly every restaurant and bar in town.  It is the cleanest city you will ever see, with horizon-to-horizon vistas of green trees, while armadas of white clouds float overhead in majestic Midwestern corn-blue skies. 

Best of all are the people.  Eventually, Indy will be filled with hipster transplants and become the new Austin, Seattle, Portland or Denver, but right now Indy is home-base to a young, unpretentious crowd of locals who make no secret of the fact that they like good food (and lots of it), enjoy live music, partying, beer and fun.  Today, bikers and joggers are few and far between, but an enlightened city leadership is building miles of new bike trails (including the most innovative urban bike path in the nation).  With a new bike sharing program coming, Indy will soon lead the Midwest for their appreciation of the outdoors, health and recreation. 

City Layout

The downtown was designed in 1820 by Alexander Ralston, an assistant to Pierre L’Enfant, the19th Century “genius” who brought us endless traffic congestion and confusion in Washington D.C.   Indy uses the same city plan, a center circle with spokes of streets that radiate out, criss-crossing with traditional north-south streets, making the downtown area hopelessly confusing to a first time visitor.  But no worries.  It’s small enough, there are ample maps and signage everywhere, and once you learn a few high landmarks that poke up into the sky along the horizon, you can get anywhere. 

Indy is not Paris, and there are plenty of boring blocks for every great one.  But it is a wonderful city to stretch your legs, and from any downtown hotel you can soon be strolling beside a canal, river, park or monument.   Some things to do:

Bike The Indianapolis Cultural Trail   

This brand new, $63 million, 8-mile, circular bike trail links every major downtown attraction and neighborhood and is a great way to see the city.  Indy was planned in the 1800s with streets wide enough to turn a horse-drawn wagon.  In the 20th Century, those wide streets were converted to one-way traffic, making it even easier to get out of town.  The result was that everyone fled to live in the suburbs and downtown Indy was a ghost town after five.  Today, enlightened city fathers have taken back one full lane of major downtown streets and turned them into bike paths.  Creative signage and patterns on the path make the Cultural Bike Path easy to follow.  Since the city is as flat as a cornfield, it’s easy to zip around by bike.  A bike share program is coming soon, but until then, there are convenient bike rentals at the City Market, an old 1821 gem of a brick warehouse.  With a huge open hall, iron railings along the second floor and lit by skylights, City Market is filled with stalls selling a variety of food and is a favorite lunch spot for locals.  There’s an excellent tap room on the second floor with 20 local beers; ask for a free Indiana Beer Passport.  It’s a guide to the state’s breweries and beers with room to add your own tasting notes.
City Market

See the Monuments 
Young farm boys from Indiana have been cannon fodder for America since the Civil War, volunteering – and dying – in astonishing numbers.   Indiana’s casualty rate in war is double the national average.  Some 75% of the Indiana men eligible for the army volunteered to fight in the Civil War, the second highest per capita rate of any state in the country.  

In tribute to these men, Indy has built more war monuments that any other city, and is second only to Washington DC in the total number of war memorials.   Unlike many decaying city war memorials, the ones in Indy are huge, impressive, and kept in immaculate condition.  The museums that go with them are a tad hokey and underfed, but the monuments are something else.  Leading is the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, a 284-foot tower that is the heart of the city, from which all spokes lead out.  You can climb 330 steps to the top or take a reasonably priced elevator for $2.  Everything about the monument is colossal.   This monument, nearly as high as the Statue of Liberty, honors soldiers of the Civil War and Spanish American War.  You can walk around its huge statues of soldiers and civilians or sit by its fountains many times and see something new each visit.  The Civil War museum in the basement could use some love, but buffs will enjoy it.

The Indiana War Memorial is a few blocks away and is a big, solid chunk of a memorial, with a basement military museum covering all wars from the Revolution on.  Indy’s truly horrifying war museum is also here, honoring the USS Indianapolis, the WWII ship immortalized in Jaws.  The ship was on a secret mission to deliver parts for the atomic bomb when it was sunk by a Japanese submarine.  No one knew it had gone down and there was no attempt to rescue survivors.  More than 900 men went into the water in the dark of night with nothing but lifejackets.  Only 300 survived – many of those lost were eaten by swarms of sharks that surrounded the survivors and forced them into ever increasingly smaller circles.  If you have trouble visualizing the horror of that, the museum has paintings to help.

Eat and Drink Indy Style

People in Indy like to eat…and why not?  This area that has always appreciated farm-to-table, local restaurants having long traditions with local farms. Portions can be outrageous, particularly anything with pork (pork tenderloin sandwiches are the city’s signature dish).  Some classics not to miss: 


The Rathskeller is a rambling, huge, authentic old German restaurant with a long beer hall lined with dead animal heads and an outdoor beer garden filled with live bands.  Their wienershictizel is as good as any in Germany, and the portion was the size of a deflated basketball.  Their pretzels are just as large and tasty.  When there’s a band, the outdoor bar is filled with hundreds of young people.

St. Elmo Steak House is where all the celebrities who were in town for the Super Bowl had dinner. It’s a dark wood, clubby, men’s steak house, with a maze of different rooms and floors. They’re all cozy and Old World, particularly the main bar and the upstairs bar.  St. Elmo is known for their spicy shrimp cocktail; if you can’t afford dinner, at least stop in for one of those.

St. Elmo's shrimp cocktail
Black Market is a gastro pub on the edge of downtown with a wonderful beer selection and a farm-to-table menu that changes regularly, depending on what’s fresh.  If there is perch on the menu, get it.  I’m not sure exactly what perch is (other than the most moist and delicious white fish I’ve ever eaten), but the room is hip and the beer list extensive, and you could transplant this restaurant to New York or San Francisco without missing a beat.
The Slippery Noodle Inn is Indiana’s oldest bar and a former hangout of gangster (and local hero) John Dillinger.  Dillinger allegedly shot holes in the back bar.  There are slugs in the bricks, and the bar staff will show them to you if you ask.  Although Dillinger was gunned down by the FBI in Chicago, he’s buried in Indy at the Crown Hill Cemetery. The Slippery Noodle is a downtown institution with live blues bands and a good late night stop.

Walk White River State Park

In 1834, Indy built the Central Canal to the White River with the hope that it would provide power and transportation to turn the young city into an industrial giant.  Fortunately, the canal silted up and was a complete failure.  Indy never became a manufacturing center like Detroit or Pittsburgh.   

Today, the canal has gone through a renaissance and is lined with pedestrian and bike paths.  It’s like the San Antonio Riverwalk, but without the bars and restaurants.  That’s too bad – maybe the bars will come someday, but it’s still a very pleasant walk, and the canal is connected to a beautiful 250-acre park that runs to the river.  Other trails wind along the White River with gorgeous skyline views in the background.  In this natural area, you can walk from city’s fine zoo to a minor-league baseball stadium or to a series of impressive museums. 

The zoo has a series of biomes that showcase everything from lions to dolphins.  It’s right downtown, which makes it unusual.  The Eiteljorg Museum is one of the nation’s finest museums of Native American and Western art.  It’s gorgeous, with big paintings by big name Western artists like Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Remington.  But while the paintings are big, the museum is just right -- small and manageable.

Next, door, the Indiana State Museum is a hodgepodge of natural and cultural history, but the big news is the Star Wars exhibit is coming here from May to September 2013, filled with costumes, artifacts and original models from the movies. 

Indiana Historical Society
There’s a NCAA Hall of Champions (for those who have forgiven the NCAA for the shameful way they treated Penn State) but for a truly bizarre experience, walk along the canal to the Indiana Historical Society.  The museum believes in the concept of living history and has hired actors to re-create scenes from the state’s past.  For their Prohibition exhibit, you enter a jail cell, where an attractive woman actor tells you she has just been arrested for “soliciting.”  Not that type of soliciting – she was trying to sell moonshine.  If role-playing with an attractive woman in a jail cell is your type of thing, the museum is a bargain at $6.50.  Hard to say what kids think of it, but you also encounter a policeman who takes your mug shot and a stern bible-pounding woman who will give you a hard time about drinking.  All in all, it was fun and I will never forget that Indiana did away with prohibition long before the U.S. government did. 

Visit a Museum

The Indianapolis Art Museum is a few miles from downtown, but worth the trip.  It’s one of the top 10 in the nation in terms of its collection, and it’s located on 100 acres of land that was formerly the estate of pharmaceutical king J.K. Lilly Jr.  That means there’s lots of money behind the museum, and it shows. There’s a bit of everything here, including an outdoor sculpture park, and lots of familiar paintings by big name artists.

Tour the Raceway

The Indy 500 is the biggest one-day sporting event in the world, drawing 400,000 people.  It’s a good thing/bad thing for Indy.  Certainly, if you like auto racing, this is the ultimate bucket list destination, and there’s plenty at the 2.5 mile track to see year-round including a racing hall of fame with many of the winning cars, expensive rides in race cars and pace cars around the track, and other tours and racing events.  However, if you have little interest in auto racing, the Indy 500 tends to overshadow everything else about this up and coming city, which has far more to offer than a racetrack.   It’s very easy to have an enjoyable weekend in Indy without ever going near anything to do with auto racing, except maybe having a beer or two with racing names.

IF YOU GO:   Most people will see Indy on a convention or sporting event.  They have an excellent set up with great hotels, restaurants and attractions all within walking distance.  It would also make a good add-on to a Kentucky Bourbon Trail trip.  Indy is two hours from Louisville and three hours from Lexington, so it makes a nice loop.  For info: .


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Walking and Drinking Beer in Williamsburg

The Governor's Palace -- in early morning you'll see baby and horse carraiges.
One of the greatest walks in America is an early morning stroll down the Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg, Virginia.  By noon, DOG Street (as the locals call it) will be swarming with tourists and shoppers, but if you come early in the day, you can have this time portal to Colonial Virginia all to yourself. Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it the most historic avenue in America. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson knew the street well, and would feel right at home today, walking along its brick sidewalks past familiar white taverns with swinging pub signs. 

Popular Chowding's Tavern on DOG Street
DOG Street stretches for a mile, from the first Capitol building in Virginia built in 1701 to the College of William and Mary, the second oldest college in the U.S. after Harvard. Along the way, there are 88 buildings that are more than 250 years old.  Another 400 buildings have been re-constructed to their original colonial designs, creating a full-scale city that is frozen in time.  In Williamsburg, it is always the 1770s, a period when this was the capital of Virginia and the wealthiest and most beautiful British outpost in the New World.
But make no mistake, Williamsburg is not a fenced off historic theme park.  This is a living and working town.  Cars are not allowed in the historic center, where all the streets are dirt, but many normal residents live in the historic zone and anyone is free to walk around the village any time they like.  On your early morning stroll you might share the street with local joggers and moms pushing babies or you might have to pause to let a horse-drawn carriage pass by.  If a backyard garden looks inviting, push open the white picket fence gate and walk on in.  None of the streets or gardens is off limits, and you are free to wander anywhere you like.
More than 90 artisans and living history educators work in the town as craftsman --  silversmiths, printers, cabinetmakers, bakers, bricklayers and shopkeepers.   They make Williamsburg the largest living history museum on earth.  On your early morning walk you’ll encounter many of these 18th century commuters heading to work -- women in long skirts and straw hats, or gentlemen in knee breeches and stockings, who tip their tri-corner hat and offer a pleasant, “Good day to you sir.”
Feeling hungry?  Stop by the bakery behind the Raleigh Tavern for a fresh gingerbread snap and a cup of tea.  But, if you talk to the shopkeeper, you’ll soon learn, tea in 1770s Williamsburg comes with a price.  While the streets and gardens appear to be peaceful, Williamsburg in 1770 is actually sitting on a powder keg -- a town of diverse people, struggling to get along.  Revolution is in the air.  The atmosphere in Williamsburg makes today’s red and blue states seem quite calm.  People are outraged at a new tax on tea.  While the Royal Governor lives in an opulent palace at one end of the street, half of the town’s 5,000 residents are enslaved African Americans living in poverty.  As you walk along, you will share the brick sidewalks with tradesmen, Native Americans, indentured servants, farmers, soldiers, slaves, rebels and loyalists…all with different stories they are eager to tell you. 
Williamsburg, of course, is not an actual re-creation of what an 18th Century town looked like.  In 1770, Williamsburg had no trees, the streets were muddy and filthy, and it’s hard to imagine the smells of people who rarely bathed or changed clothes.  If you want to see the 18th Century, travel to India.  But neither is this a Disney-like theme park.  Rather than a re-creation, Williamsburg is more a celebration of 18th Century ideas and craftsmanship, especially those ideas that led to radical new views of freedom and liberty.   And they serve beer.... at four of the most beautiful pubs and taverns you can imagine.
Even the outhouses are pretty in Williamsburg.
Many people know Williamsburg from visits there when they were growing up, but it is definitely worth a repeat visit as an adult.
How Williamsburg Was Frozen in Time
From 1699 to 1780, Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia and one of the most important cities in all the 13 original colonies.  But at the height of the Revolutionary War, fearing a British invasion, the capital was moved to a more defensible and central location in Richmond.  This made Williamsburg a backwater, and for the next 150 years, it reverted to a sleepy college town of little importance. 
As modernization crept in, a local minister, the Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin, began to fear that historic buildings once known to Washington and Jefferson would be torn down in the name of progress. So in 1926, he convinced John D. Rockefeller Jr., one of the richest men in the world, that Williamsburg was worth saving.  Rockefeller embraced the project, and over the next 30 years, he literally purchased much of the town and hired a team of architects, archeologists and historians to preserve, restore and rebuild Williamsburg to its colonial glory.

Today, the 301-acre colonial district is part museum and part living city.  The historic center is operated by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.  Although you can walk around the town for free, you need to purchase a pass from the Foundation to enter the buildings and participate in many of the programs.
The pass allows you to enter 225 period rooms, from the grand Governor's Palace, the most elegant abode in the colonies, to the Public Goal, where 15 members of Blackbeard's pirate crew were once jailed.  You can tour the Capitol, where in 1776 Virginia delegates voted for independence from England two months before the other 12 colonies did so in Philadelphia, or you can enter a colonial hospital and talk to a doctor to hear about the latest medical practices, like putting blood-sucking leeches on a patient to “bleed” them back to good health.
The Governor's Palace.
In the buildings, and in three world-class museums, there are more than 60,000 colonial items to view, including famous period paintings, clothing, furniture, and weapons. 
But most important, the pass allows you to interact with the town’s craftsmen, who are busy about their daily life in shops, the same way they would have been 250 years ago.  Printers are setting type to produce a newspaper, soldiers are standing guard at the Magazine, silversmiths are hammering out jewelry, while gunsmiths work on decorating their long rifles. 
In the shops along DOG Street, you will meet craftsmen who make everything from bricks and barrels to hats and wigs, the same way they did centuries ago.  And you’ll hear about their troubles and the fear that the colonies are about to go to war with England.
But Williamsburg is a living city too.  With or without the pass, you can wander the pretty streets and back alleys or stroll through the 26 elaborate gardens overflowing with flowers, all authentically researched to have been in the colonies in 1770.    It’s also free to poke around the dozens of shops in town selling some tourist stuff, but an amazing amount of authentic colonial items, from brass candlesticks to birdhouses, 18th Century china to silver rings and bracelets. 
 And then there are the taverns. Colonial Williamsburg operates four historic taverns, each with its own character.  Chowning’s Tavern opened in 1766 and served a lower clientele than the other taverns, so today it features hearty sandwiches, Brunswick stew, oysters, clams and chicken pot pie.  Sit in their outdoor beer garden and sip a local Loose Cannon ale, or dine indoors by candlelight and afterwards enjoy “gambols,” colonial games that includes singing, music and games of chance and skill. 

At the other end of town is Christiana Campbell’s Tavern, George Washington’s favorite.  He dined here 10 times in a two-month period.  It’s a grand Old World setting, with wooden floors and tables, dining by flickering candlelight with roving balladeers, and a menu of Southern seafood, made from scratch to 18th Century recipes.

An area of modern shops and restaurants called Market Square (made to look old, of course) sits in the middle of DOG Street and offers more conventional dining.  The cheese shop has hundreds of cheeses and wine and drinks and is a good place to stock up.
But the best advice is go when no one else is going.  Go in off or shoulder seasons, be there early in the morning, at twilight or even in the dark (the streets are lit by mini-torches in winter and it’s a great thing to see).  It’s great before Christmas when all the homes are decorated with colonial bunting and wreathes. 
If you go:    For information,   It’s most enjoyable to stay right in the town in one of the hotels operated by Colonial Williamsburg, which can be expensive, or at one of the few cheaper ones that are within walking distance.  There’s free two hour parking in town, but they do ticket. You can park free at the Colonial Williamsburg main entrance, about a half mile walk away.  There’s free buses, but only during tourist hours.    If you arrive late in the afternoon, you don’t need the pass for that day, but for a full day or two visit, definitely purchase the pass for at least one day.  Get the daily schedule – there’s music, political demonstrations, fife and drum and all sorts of activities.  I went to an auction that was quite amusing. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Walking and Drinking Beer on a Las Vegas Showgirl Backstage Tour

Jubilee backstage tours are led by showgirls three days a week.
There’s no greater icon for Las Vegas than a statuesque showgirl, sparkling with jewels, her head covered with ostrich plumes, her outstretched arms shimmering with diamond cuffs as she stands motionless and nude, a celebration of the beauty of the female form.

But times change.

Where once every casino on the Strip had an elaborate showgirl production, today it is all Cirque du Soleil, Broadway musicals, Celine and Donny & Marie.  When the Folies Bergere  closed in 2008 after a run of 49.5 years, that left Glitter Gulch with just one last showgirl production.

Ah, but what a production it is.  Jubilee! is pure Vegas – the longest running show in town, and second longest in the world.  For 31 years, this $50 million, over-the-top spectacle of 85 dancers wearing 1,000 different costumes has exploded on a stage half the size of an American football field.  Literally exploded.  Each show uses five pounds of explosives and 1,000 pounds of dry ice.
But no special effect can top the showgirls – the 60 beauties who wear 10,000 pounds of rhinestones, 8,000 miles of sequins, 4,000 pounds of feathers…and not much else.
One of the great ways to enjoy the show is on a backstage tour, held three days a week.  Led by one of the showgirls, the tour takes you into their dressing rooms and behind the show’s staggering 75 different curtains and backdrops to see what it takes to put on this swirling sea of color.
Laura the tour guide
Our tour guide, Laura, is a former ballet dancer who has been with Jubilee! for five years.  She’s perky, tall and model-thin and joins the tour wearing a g-string, fishnet stockings and a short little sparkling black jacket and bowler hat.   While she’s certainly the most glamorous thing in our group of twenty, older, sweating and overweight tourists, we soon learn there is really very little glamour in being a showgirl.

Jubilee! is performed twice a night, six days a week, 52 weeks a year.  And there is only one cast with no understudies.  That means each dancer must perform every show. When dancers are injured, sick or on vacation, the other cast members must fill in.  Laura is a “swing” dancer, so for certain production numbers, she has to know the moves and routines of all the other hoofers so she can fill in for anyone missing. This requires her to memorize 45 different dance routines and costume changes and be able to perform any one of them at the drop of a hat.

Into the Dressing Rooms
After standing on the main stage to see the immense size of it, the tour group descends two stories below to the cramped dressing rooms.  Here we learn that the spectacle you see on stage is dwarfed by the excitement that goes on behind the curtain.  Laura has 11 costume changes in the show.  Each change requires that she go up and down two flights of stairs in three inch heels, often wearing a 20 pound costume with a headdress that can stick out three-feet on each side, all the while avoiding all the other 85 dancers (and the 75 stage hands pulling curtains and pushing sets).  She does 1,500 stairs a night.  “There’s no need for the dancers to work out or exercise,” she says.  “We get all the exercise we need just being in the show.”
There are 65 dancersin the show, 40 of them are nude dancers.
It’s hard to imagine the chaos that goes on in these cramped quarters.  Some of the headdresses are so huge that they are held up by pulleys twenty feet in the air and lowered on to the girl’s head just before going on stage.  The headdresses alone can weigh 25 pounds and feature hundreds of feathers from ostrich, pheasant, and even vultures – all individually attached to a football-like helmet designed to fit snugly on a showgirl’s head.  There are no chinstraps. 
It takes balance and incredible strength to hold the headdress up, move gracefully across stage, avoid hitting the other girls, and get back to the dressing room, where you have three minutes to change and do it all over again.

Designed by Bob Mackie and Pete Menafee, the costumes are all different, and many of them are 30 years old.  They are valued at up to $50,000 apiece. 
 Keeping the costumes in shape requires three costume shops, where a team of specialists are constantly sewing, wiring, and cleaning.  As you walk through the shops filled with feathers and sequins, the most memorable thing is that the mirrors are bedecked with personal photos, just like any office desk in the world.  “This is where we spend most of our lives, and we’re like a family,” Laura says.  Dancers must be 18, but there is no older age limit and the oldest male dancer was 51 and a grandfather.  “As long as you look good and feel good wearing a g-string, you’re in,” Laura says. 
To stand out on such a huge stage requires real presence.  Women dancers must be at least 5 feet 8 inches tall for the “short” end of the line, and 5 feet 10 inches for the “tall” end.  The 25 males dancers have to be 6 feet tall.
The History of Nude Dancing in Las Vegas
When Las Vegas introduced showgirls in 1959, the law was that for them to be nude, they could not move.  That led to the iconic image of showgirls just standing still.  Today, that has loosened up and all of the showgirls are dancers and athletes.  Forty of them in Jubilee! are topless; the other covered dancers, of which Laura is one, are called “Bluebells,” after a Miss Blue Bell, one of the early dressers.  But it is the nude dancers that steal the show, and consequently they make more money, are the featured dancers, and have the best costumes. 
“When I saw the costumes, I knew I had to try them,” Laura says, so she “swings” or fills-in for the nude dancers when required.  She holds up a bra that is little more than a ribbon outline of sparking diamonds, the key pieces missing.  “It doesn’t look like much, but I’d feel naked without it!” she laughs.
In addition to the dressing rooms, the backstage tour visits some of the elaborate sets that are stored below stage and whisked up by 11 elevators.  The show’s set pieces include the sinking of the Titanic, a Samson and Delilah number in which a gigantic temple crashes to the ground, and homage to Hollywood. 

Two floors underground, you can see the 30-foot model of the Titanic, or the ship’s enormous boiler rooms, or the huge metal cages, where Laura, as a slave girl, dances in the Samson number.   Some 100,000 pounds of sets are moved up and down to the stage in seconds – and all by hand.  Whereas modern shows like Phantom of the Opera are computer and machine controlled, the “Old School” Jubilee! production is done by hand with 75 stage hands pulling ropes, shoving props, and placing explosives by hand.

Each girl must do their own makeup – and to be visible on a huge stage, the makeup is heavy.  Since their own hair is not part of the show, the girls wrap their heads in a pantyhose cap so they can easily slip into headdresses and wigs. The pantyhose cap may not be the most glamorous look  behind the stage, but once they get into their costumes, dance past the curtain, and shimmer into the spotlight – you are seeing some of the hardest working, most athletic, talented and beautiful dancers in the business.

If you go:    Jubilee! is a unique and wildly expensive show to produce.  When it closes, the world will never see its likes again, so see it soon. The backstage tours are available Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at 11 a.m.; cost is $17 per person ($12 if you also purchase a Jubilee! show ticket)., 702-967-4938.

Walking and Drinking Beer in Las Vegas

Las Vegas has the most liberal drinking laws in the world.  You can drink anywhere, any time. Buy a beer at a liquor store (there's more than a dozen on the strip) and you can walk around drinking from the glass bottle, and take your beer into a casino or anywhere you like.  The ABC Store (direct from Hawaii) has a good selection of single beers.  There are deals along the strip for $1.99 Bud Lights and other cheap beers and for frozen drinks, but to get a craft beer requires a search and will run you $7 to $8.  Las Vegas is not cheap anymore.  There's a craft beer booth on the second level of New York casino with 24 beers; the New York casino also has a decent but crowded Irish pub down below.
Venice has fountains and gondolas
To walk the main part of the Strip from Luxor to Wynn is about four miles, but it will seem like 20 with the craziness of the people, the lights, noise, non-stop traffic and shows.  Still, it's one of the most fascinating walks in the world.  All of the large, free shows that begin at dusk are worth seeing.  In order of spectacle they provide, the best are:  The Pirate Ship battle at Treasure Island, the volcano at Mirage, the gondolas floating by at Venice (the inside shopping center is worth a look), the plaza at Ceaser's Palace, and the dancing fountains at Bellagio. 

It was 108 degrees the day I was there (in early June), but it was not as frightfully hot as it would seem.  There's plenty of casinos to duck into, there's usually shade, and it is a dry desert heat.  There is a monorail, but it is not located on the strip, so it requires walking the lenght of the casino to find a stop, and the casinos are designed so there is no straight line through them. 
Ceaser's Palace has cool fountains -- when it's 108 degrees.
A better public transportation is the Deuce bus, which runs up and down the Strip.  It's $5 for a two hour period or better, pay the $7 for a 24-hour pass.  The Deuce is a good way to get from the Strip to the Fremont Street Experice, a section of Old Las Vegas that now has zipliners racing overhead, a canapony of several million lights, free bands, and the biggest crowds in town.  Fremont Street is too far to walk from the Strip, but worth the journey -- at least once -- just to experience its craziness.  Get on the Deuce, grab a seat on the upper deck (the bus is air conditioned, new and very cool), and it's a great (but slow) ride up the Strip to Fremont Street.
Fremont Street Experience

Aria Resort & Casino
Where to stay:   The new “showgirl” of the Las Vegas Strip is Aria Resort & Casino, a 4,000-room, AAA Five Diamond beauty that opened in 2009.  It’s fun to see an “Old School” show like Jubilee!, but you want to stay in the 21st Century – and this place is it.  All of the guestrooms feature floor-to-ceiling windows and the most technological advanced rooms in Las Vegas.  One “Good Night” turns off the lights, shuts the curtains, and turns on the privacy notification.  The lobby and public areas mix water, wood and stone, including a relaxing 270-foot long waterfall as you enter.  The curvilinear steel and glass towers were designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli (architects of some of the most monumental buildings in the world including the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Canary Wharf Tower in London and New York’s World Financial Center).  This resort -- and the attached Crystals shopping center and three outdoor pools – are a whole new contemporary look for Las Vegas, but in keeping with the same elegant shapes and classic beauty of the city’s famous showgirls.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Dresden is a “New” Mini-Prague

Dresden today has been rebuilt into a gorgeous, Baroque city.
They say that no one is building a city like Prague anymore, but that’s not quite true.  Most of the gorgeous Baroque, “Old Europe” city you see in the heart of Dresden, Germany today is brand new, even though it appears to look centuries old. 
From Medieval-looking back alleys to grand cathedrals, from an impressive Baroque opera house to beautiful bridges, from huge squares lined with colorful cafes to a river teeming with nine steamboats, central Dresden ranks for sheer beauty with any of the great cities of Europe.  While the historic center is smaller than Prague, street for street, Dresden has the same feeling.  Located midway between Berlin and Prague (just two hours from each city by train) it makes a romantic stopover city, but one that many North Americans have yet to discover.

Dresden after the bombing
Of course, the reason everything in Dresden is new is because the city was completely destroyed in World War II in one of the most horrific bombing raids the world has ever known.  At the outbreak of the War, Dresden was a university town, renowned for its architecture, art treasures, history and beauty.  Because of its celebrated status as one of the most elegant cities of Europe and because there were no military targets here, Dresden escaped bombing for almost the entire war.  Through the London Blitz, the D-Day landings at Normandy and the Battle for Berlin, life in Dresden was fairly normal.  But all that changed on the night of Feb. 13, 1945. 
British Lancaster bomber
Allied Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris had devised a plan to destroy the will of the German people to fight by leveling their cities.  Dresden, with its medieval wood buildings on narrow streets, gave Harris the target he was looking for to experiment with firestorms.

Just two months before the end of the war, some 244 British Lancaster bombers dropped 800 tons of bombs on central Dresden, including 10-ton mega bombs called “blockbusters.”  Each of these bombs literally blew the roof off an entire block of buildings.  With the roofs gone, the city had no protection when the second wave of 529 Lancasters filled the skies some hours later, dropping 1,800 hundred tons of phosphorescent “sticky” fire bombs that fell on the exposed buildings and began fires wherever they stuck. 
Dresden today.
A third wave of 311 U.S. “Flying Fortresses” came the next morning, when fire crews and survivors were on the street.   This third wave of bombs created a draught that united individual fires into one huge firestorm that swept across 75% of Dresden, using up so much oxygen that city dwellers were suffocated, even in their underground bomb shelters.  The horror of that night was captured by American author Kurt Vonnegut, who was a prisoner of war in Dresden and wrote about it in his classic novel, Slaughterhouse Five. 

When the bombing finally stopped, 25,000 civilians were dead and Dresden was an inferno – so completely, utterly destroyed that many questioned if it should, or even could, ever be rebuilt.  Ironically, the railroad through the city, the alleged target justifying the bombing raid, was hardly damaged. 
The Oper House in Dresden.

In the Cold War, Dresden was part of East Germany and there was little money for restoration so the city center remained in piles of rubble… or worse, much of the city was bulldozed and rebuilt with cheap, ugly cinderblock. 

The Frauenkirche church was rebuilt in 2005
But with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany in 1990, millions of Euros poured in to the city and Dresden’s entire center was restored to its old beauty.  The results are simply incredible.  Dresden’s city center is once again an Old World marvel of towers and turrets, squares and arches, murals, churches, statues and theatres.  As you sit in a café sipping a beer, surrounded by a beautiful Baroque city teeming with young people and tourists, it’s impossible to believe this is the same bombed out ruin pictured in the postcards in every shop.  But look closely at all the “old” buildings.  The white stone used in them is new, but the black squares used here and there are bits of old stone salvaged from the ruins and put back in place, as if building a giant jigsaw puzzle. 

The Parade of Nobles
Other old things remain.  The Parade of Nobles, an amazing block-long mural of 24,000 tiles, is all original.  The ceramic tiles, depicting 700 years of Saxon history and clothing, were already fired twice when they were created, so the temperatures of the firebombing didn’t hurt them:  in fact, the firebombing temperatures were actually cooler than their original firing.

The city’s visitor center has walking tour brochures in all languages, and it’s possible to take guided tours by foot, by horse-drawn carriage or by boat along the Elbe River.   You could see the center in a day, but it’s even more magical at night when the buildings are illuminated.  Dresden also makes an excellent base for a series of day-trip adventures in the surrounding countryside. 
Munzgasse is lined with outdoor cafes
With 40 museums, there’s shortage of things to see; some of the “must do” Dresden experiences include:

·                   Have a beer in an outdoor cafe in the Newmarkt Square beside the Frauenkirche church with its towering bell-shaped dome.  The church dome was destroyed in the bombing in 1945 and lay in a pile of rubble for decades, a somber anti-war symbol.  But in 2005, at a cost of $100 million Euros, the church was completely rebuilt and today is an architectural marvel, inside and out, and a symbol of Dresden’s re-birth. 

·                   Walk through the Zwinger  Palace – a Baroque masterpiece with fountains, gardens and some of Germany’s grandest museums.  Once part of the fortifications, the palace was built by the city’s hero, Augustus the Strong (1670-1733), the famous king of Saxon who, according to legend, fathered 365 children and could bend a horseshoe by hand.  There are four art museums in the palace – the most famous is The Green Vault, which is a treasure-house of amber, precious stones and art objects (and requires advance reservations).
Zwinger Palace is filled with museums

·          Walk along the Parade of Nobles, a street-long mural of tiles depicting 700 years of Saxon royalty, uniforms and weapons. 
·                   Stroll the Balcony of Europe, the city’s old ramparts looking down on the Elbe River.  There are bike and walking paths along both sides of the river with gorgeous city views.

Steam-driven side-wheel paddle boats go up the Elbe River
·                  Have another beer on Munzgasse – a lively block of outdoor beer gardens and restaurants.  Or climb down into an old stone cellar for dinner at Sophienkeller, which is bit touristy, but fun with costumed staff carrying liters of beer as they re-create the days of August the Strong in a medieval setting of wooden tables and military shields.

The Elbe River from Saxon Switzerland National Park
Ride a river steamboat.  Dresden’s collection of nine operating steam paddleboats is the largest in the world.  The beautiful, sleek boats (some of them more than 100 years old) dock side-by-side in Dresden and sail 80 km up and down the river to 14 villages.  You can take a short excursion by boat one-way, and bike or walk back on paths that line the river. There are boats that travel to dream riverside biergartens in cute towns, like SchillerGarten, or you can sail 20 miles by steamboat to Saxon Switzerland National Park.  Trails from the dock in the village of Kurort Rathen climb steeply for a pleasant 45 minute hike to Bastei Bridge, which offers sweeping views of the Elbe River and unusual rock formations.

If you have a car, visit nearby Fortress Konigstein – the largest fortress in Europe occupying the top of a rock butte.  Surrounded by 200 foot cliffs and built into the rock, the fortress has fantastic views, rampart walks, canons and of course, another biergarden.

For complete information on Dresden, visit:

Monday, February 20, 2012

Biking and Drinking Beer in Berlin

Gendarmenmarkt, the prettiest square in Berlin (photo: Visit Berlin)
The best way to see Berlin is by bicycle. For one thing, the city of 3.4 million people is huge – 9 times the size of Paris – and, like any capital city, there are long distances to be covered between monuments and historic buildings.
But the best reason to see Berlin by bicycle is because that’s how Berliners see it. This is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in Europe and there are bicycles everywhere: riding side-by-side with cars and trolleys on the main thoroughfares, bouncing on the cobblestone backstreets of Mitte and zipping along on bike paths that line the Spree River – the heart and soul of Berlin.

Spree River
 Most of the “must see” attractions are on or near the Spree, which meanders and twists west to east the entire width of Berlin. Use the Spree as your bicycle highway, and you can easily pedal the flat city from the Scholss Chalottenburg to Checkpoint Charlie, with stops at beer gardens along the way.

There are great parks, wonderful tree-lined shopping boulevards, amazing architecture, and everywhere, history. This city is fixated on its history, and no wonder. The events that led to World War II in Europe all started in Berlin. By the time the war came back and ended in Berlin in April 1945, one seventh of the world had seen fighting, 60 million people were dead, 50 million injured, and 80,000 towns and cities had been destroyed.

Among the destroyed cities was Berlin. More bombs were dropped on Berlin than any other city in World War II. Some 612,000 homes and one fifth of all buildings were destroyed. An army of 900,000 Russian soldiers eventually took the city, but by that time, one million people had been killed in the Battle for Berlin, including 125,000 civilians. And the horror was not over a long shot. In the vast sea of rubble that had been a city, the conquering soldiers of the Russian army raped 110,000 Berlin women.

Russians capture Berlin
 Stare carefully at any pre-World War II stone building in Berlin and you’ll see scars from machine gun bullets, tank shells and bombs. Human scars are harder to find. But there’s no forgetting. Every tourist postcard rack is filled with images of Berlin as a destroyed city, Russian soldiers waving flags from the top of bombed out buildings.

With the war’s end, Berlin’s nightmare kept going. Ahead were occupation and the Berlin Wall, which for 28 years ran a twisting 96-miles through the center of the city, cutting apart families and friends. No city can match a history like this, and there are museums, historic markers, and old bits of the wall, books and posters everywhere to remind you.

But of course, that’s exactly what young Germans don’t want. They’ve had enough of the war, Nazis, and East and West Berlin, and they’ve built and inhabit a wonderfully new, hip and chic city of cafes, restaurants and fashion…and, of course beer. You could live comfortably for a long time on delicious street vendor sausages that sell for one Euro, washed down with 3 Euro half liters of beer. All of this makes Berlin one of the cheapest and most fascinating European cities to visit.

Orientation & Bike Rentals

One of the least expensive and easiest places to stay is by the Zoo and beautiful Tiergarten Park. The central train station used to be here, but a new station has made this area kind of a backwater – it’s still easy to get connections everywhere, but much cheaper to stay here. There is direct bus service or S-Bhan service from the airports for 2 Euros (booths at the airport with English speaking guides will sell you the tickets and tell you where to catch the bus or train).

Brandenburger Tor (gate)  credit:  Visit Berlin
 The Zoo station has all three public transportations: the U-Bhan (the underground subway system) the S-Bhan (the streetcars and light rail) and DB national railway. Buy a daily pass from an easy to use machine with English instructions and your ticket is good on all of them.

Lots of inexpensive hotels are in the Zoo area along Kurfurstendamm (Ku’damm for short), which is one of Berlin’s main, tree-lined shopping boulevards. We booked the pleasant enough Hotel Boulevard am Kurfuerstendamm (with a rooftop bier garden) through Expedia for $65 Euros.

Fat Tire Bike Tours also has an outlet at the Zoo station (and at Alexanderplatz). They rent big, comfortable cruiser bikes, useful for hopping tram lines. You can take one of their organized bike tours of the city or just rent a bike and go off on your own for 12 Euros a day.

Around the Zoo: Walking Ku’damm

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
 It’s impossible to see all of Berlin, but in a couple of days of walking and biking around, here are some highlights. Kurfurstendamm was the main shopping street of West Berlin when the city was divided. Ironically, the shopping is now better in what was East Berlin, but Ku’damm is a still a great strolling avenue. Visit The KaDeWe, the largest department store in Europe, which has more than 2,000 employees. The 7th floor is like the Harrod’s food stalls and is devoted to every imaginable delicacy that can be eaten, including 1,800 different cheeses and 1,400 breads. The displays of food alone are worth a visit, but there are counters where you can sit and dine on everything from seafood to specialty meats, although it’s not cheap.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church hovers over Ku’damm as a grim reminder of the War. The tower was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1943, but the ruins were left standing as a memorial. Photos in the museum show the sheer, utter destruction of Berlin, making it all the more unbelievable when you exit on to the same street now and see it filled with cafes and handsome people busy shopping and living well.

Biking Berlin from the Zoo
Hop on a bike at the zoo station and it’s a pleasant three-mile ride along the Spree to Schloss Charlottenburg. Built in 1695, this is one of the major palaces of Europe and a one-time home of Frederick the Great (1712-1786), a name that will pop up all over Berlin. It was this Frederick who made the city one of the grandest on the Continent. There are better palaces in nearby Potsdam, but the grounds, gardens and lakes here are lovely to bike around.

Schloss Charlottenburg
 Back on the bike path, you can follow the Spree all the way to the Reichstag. The most important building in the city, it was built in 1894, destroyed in 1933 (its arson was used by Hitler to seize power), and rebuilt in 1990s with an amazing new dome to become the official seat of the German parliament – the capitol of a reunified Germany. It’s about a 40-minute wait to get through security for a free tour, but well worth it. The outdoor view from the top of the Cupola takes in all of Berlin. Walking up and down the ramp inside the glass dome (you can look straight down into the parliament floor) is one of the top Berlin experiences.

Reichstag interior
 The area around the Reichstag is one of the great places to have a bike because you can zip between top attractions that would take days to walk. Within a short ride you can be at the famous Brandenburger Tor (gate), the great symbol of Berlin that was right in the middle of the BerlinWall. The tree-lined Unter den Linden starts here. This is the most beautiful boulevard in the city. Combined with cross street Friedrichstrabe, it’s the Fifth Ave. of Berlin. The beautiful trees that once lined it were cut down by Hitler and replaced with Nazi flags, but people objected (one of the rare times they stood up to him) so the trees you see here today were replanted by Hitler. There’s a bike lane (never bike on a sidewalk…Berliners will let you know that is verboten) and it’s possible to zip along past cafes, and impressive old buildings now filled with shops.

German History Museum

Along the way are the impressive gates to Humboldt University (Albert Einstein was educated here) and the fantastic German History Museum, a must stop for anyone interested in the rise of Nazi Germany, World War II and the Berlin Wall. The museum covers all German history, so there are suits of armor and Napoleon’s hat (captured at one of one of the many Prussian battles with France) but the mesmerizing exhibits are on how the Nazis came to power. Not to be frivolous, but beer played a role. One of the great attractions of the big mass Nazi rallies was free beer and sausages. About a third of the exhibits have English translations, which is enough to follow the story.

Alte Museum on Museum Island

Mitte, Berlin’s old town with cobblestone streets and attractive squares (Gendarmenmarkt is the most beautiful) is just a few blocks south and fun to bike through (with less cars to compensate for the bumpy cobblestone ride). Unter den Linden also leads to Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most important collections of museums on the planet, led by the Pergamonmuseum, with its great collection of ancient art. Even if you don’t have time for any of them, the layout of the island and the architecture of the museums are worth a journey. Just over the bridge on the other side of the island is Hackescher Markt, one of the most attractive squares for an outdoor café, sausages and a half-liter of bier. We watched a film being made on the bridge of a nude couple dancing, then witnessed a bike do a 180-degree flip when a rider’s front tire got stuck in a tram rail. Watch those rails!

Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
 Heading back to the Zoo, the Tiergarten is one of the great parks of Europe with lakes, biergardens, miles of tree-covered bike trails, statues and monuments, …all making a nice end to the ride.

Berlin After Dark

Mitte outdoor cafe
 Berlin’s famed nightlife is hard to find. For one thing, it allegedly starts very late with clubs opening at midnight. Hip neighborhoods change constantly, and you could walk by clubs in the day and not recognize them. But there are no end to nice neighborhoods lined with outdoor cafes and restaurants: Kreuzberg is the Turkish center (Berlin would be the fourth largest Turkish city in the world) and has a real international flavor. Prenzlauer Berg is an old East German neighborhood with literally dozens and dozens of restaurants built into what had been a neighborhood of uniform, boring, and Communist cinderblock buildings. They are now alive with people, colorful awnings and umbrellas. Mitte has restaurants and galleries built into old buildings and Savigny-Plaz has outdoor cafes surrounding a nice square park. Young Berliners are hip and nicely dressed, and the cafes and bars are always full with people in animated conversations. But it’s quite tame, and if you’re looking for a scene like Amsterdam, well, we couldn’t find it..though we asked enough people.

Most people would see Berlin on a trip around Germany or on a triangle trip with Prague, Vienna or Budapest…all of which are easily accessible by train in a few hours. It certainly ranks with those cities in interest, especially if you’re fascinated by 20th Century history. Another option is to stop in Dresden, a mini-Prague-like city just two hours away, (halfway to Prague) that was also destroyed in World War II and has been rebuilt into amazing destination.

Berlin’s most popular day-trip is Potsdam (a half hour train trip: buy the A, B and C daily transit pass and you can travel there by train or slower tram). In the main station of Potsdam, exit towards the river, turn right and 200 yards down there is a bike rental shop. They’ll give you a map that guides you to one incredible 20 km bike ride past palaces, fountains, gardens and tree-lined lanes of Sanssouci. You’ll also bike to a wonderful pedestrian town of cafes and shops, on to the famous site where Truman, Stalin and Churchill decided the fate of Europe after WWII, over the “spy bridge” where East and West Germany often exchanged prisoners, and along a lakeshore to palaces turned into beirgardens.

A palace in the great park of Sanssouci
 Sanssouci (“Without worries”) is the Versailles of Germany – a UNESCO World Heritage Site of 700 acres filled with a dozen palaces, working windmill, and elaborate gardens and fountains, all with landscaped trees lining the roads. What a bike ride! No traffic, flat paths and something amazing around every corner. It was started as a summer resort by Frederick the Great in 1744. He is once again buried here (after being dug and exploited in a tomb by the Nazis) under a simple stone slab, that always has a fresh potato on it (Frederick introduced the potato to Germany).

Potsdam at twilight
 From the park, it’s an easy pedal to the quaint pedestrian streets of Potsdam. Walk your bike (or get stern glances from locals) past beautiful shops, flowers and cafes to the Dutch Quarter, a centuries old street with red tile roofs. The Allies chose Potsdam as the place to meet after the war, and it was here that Europe was divided into East and West. Fittingly, Potsdam was right on the line. The Glienicker Bridge was one of the most famous dividing lines, and a place glorified in Cold War novels where spies were often exchanged. Bike over this, and follow the lakeshore back to town.