Monday, December 14, 2015

St. Augustine -- The Town Built to Fight Pirates

Castillo de San Marcos -- oldest fortress in the U.S.
In 2015, St. Augustine, Florida, did something that no other town in North America has ever done.  They celebrated their 450th birthday.  But surviving as America’s oldest city hasn’t been easy.  St. Augustine has been sacked and burned to the ground.  Three times!  It has been fought over in so many wars that the Spanish, French, British, Confederate, and pirate flags you see flying around town are not just for decoration – they actually represent countries and criminals that at one time or another controlled it.

But what can you expect from a town that was started for one purpose:  to fight pirates.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about St. Augustine is that after surviving centuries of hurricanes and bloody warfare, this little settlement, originally located in the middle of nowhere on the edge of swamps filled with mosquitoes, rattlesnakes and alligators, has grown today into one of the most lovely and beautiful cities in the new world.  
A plaza off of St. George Street

It is a place of incredible charm with cobblestone pedestrian streets lined with quiet plazas and outdoor cafes shaded by palm trees.  There is a European feel, which is highlighted by something very rare in North America – a great stone citadel that sits squarely in the center of the town.  There are cute little shops and art galleries.  Spanish moss hangs from the trees, while a full-size Spanish galleon brimming with canons floats in the harbor.  And of course, there are dozens and dozens of 100 and 200-year-old buildings that have been repurposed into museums, antique stores, pubs with live music, and candlelit restaurants.  But don’t forget, this is St. Augustine.  Which means even the oldest buildings can only date back to 1702.  That’s that last time pirates sacked the city and burned it to the ground.

Pirates & Privateers and Privations

In 1565, Spain had a problem.  Cortez had opened up Mexico and huge treasure ships filled with gold and silver were bound for Europe.  However to get to the gulf stream to carry them across the Atlantic, the treasure fleets had to sail up the treacherous coast of Florida, and as the maps at the time said, “here there be pirates.”  Full blown pirates (outright criminals) and privateers (essentially pirates who had a letter stating they were fighting for one of Spain’s enemies, like England or France) would wait and capture the slow moving treasure ships, or run them up on reefs and salvage the wreckage.

The drawbridge to Castillo de San Marcos
When the French went so far as to build a fort in Florida, Spain had to act.  In 1565, they sent an expedition of 800 men and women under Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles to protect and settle the Florida coast. The French were soon dispatched and with the coast secure, the Spanish laid out the first European grid-style town in the continental United States, a real city with streets and plazas and impressive government buildings – and no food.  

Florida was then a hot, humid, bug and snake-infested swamp, filled with disease with little ground to grow crops.  The early years here were incredibly difficult.  And then there were the pirates.  Nine wood forts were built, and destroyed by pirates. The infamous Sir Francis Drake burned the town in 1586, 34 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
Finally, in 1672, Spain had enough and construction started on the Castillo de San Marcos – the oldest and best preserved stone fort in the continental United States.  Today, the huge diamond-shaped fortress is a National Monument.  

Gun firing demonstration 
You can walk the ramparts along the top of the towering, 28-foot-tall walls, defend the drawbridge, climb out on the bastions for a view of the harbor, and watch cannons being fired by re-enactors in Spanish uniforms. The fort was built of coquina, a soft local stone made of compressed shells.  When the British attacked in 1702, the soft stone absorbed the cannonballs without crumbling, and the fort held out for 50 days.  

Of course, the frustrated British had to settle for capturing the town, which they burned to the ground before sailing off.  But the fort survived that battle and another brutal British bombardment in 1740 and was never captured.

After you’ve seen the 60 cannon built to fight pirates, leave the fort and cross the street to continue the story from the other point of view at the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum. This is the largest and most authentic collection of pirate artifacts ever displayed under one roof.  Of course, there are not a lot pirate artifacts.  Most of the pirates were hung or killed in battle (Blackbeard went down with five bullet holes and 20 sword cuts, and they sliced off his head for good measure). 

So there’s not a lot of genuine artifacts, but you can see Blackbeard’s blunderbuss, one of the three remaining “Jolly Roger” pirate flags, the world’s oldest wanted poster, and Captain Thomas Tew’s original treasure chest – the only known authentic pirate chest in existence. 

Back streets of St. Augustine
The museum does a fun job of detailing the lives of the most outrageous of the scallywags, and kids can fire a cannon, see a Disney-produced special effects show on Blackbeard’s last battle, and stare at the actual sword used by Captain Jack Sparrow in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean.  The sword spins in a special case with dramatic lighting as if it were a priceless relic, and maybe it is. 

Most interesting are the exhibits of real treasure including pieces of gold, gold bars, pearls and silver, recovered from pirate shipwrecks, including Blackbeard’s own flagship, the “Queen Anne’s Revenge.”

St. George Street is home to two pirate shops and pirate walking tours.

The museum is just one of a half dozen pirate adventures.  This is deep pirate country, and if you doubt it, there are not one, but two stores where you can be completely outfitted in your own pirate costume, from tri-corner hats to boots, swords and pistols.  Up to a dozen fully outfitted pirates stroll around town posing for pictures, and there are pirate shows, a pirate sailing tour of the harbor on the Black Raven, and pirate, ghost and graveyard walking tours.  

All of which seems quite natural.   St. George Street, the cobblestone, car-free main street of town, looks like the setting of every pirate movie, with colonial buildings, pubs with wood signs, swaying palm trees, balconies and rustic old lanterns.  Yes, it’s a bit touristy, but much of it is authentic, and it’s certainly beautiful at night with the lanterns glowing and candles flickering in many of the windows.   

Every March, there’s a re-creation of pirate Captain Robert Searle’s 1668 attach on St. Augustine.  Reenactors of pirates and Spanish soldiers fight in the plaza, then all the people of the town and the soldiers flee up St. George Street while the pirates sack the city.  It’s no wonder there’s two pirate stores in town.
St. George Street

A short walk from the pirate museum, you can see how normal people lived at the Colonial Quarter of St. Augustine.  This ‘living history’ museum is fun for kids, where they can see a ship being built, watch a blacksmith at work and learn how to fire a musket.  No matter where you wander in St. Augustine, you’ll hear a lot of muskets and cannons being fired.  There are four attractions that regularly fire off some type of black powder device.  At least at the blacksmith, kids will learn where the expression “strike while the iron is hot” came from (you can only bend iron with a hammer when it is red hot).

St. Augustine is also the North American port of El Galeon, a replica of a typical Spanish galleon. The 170-foot-long, 495-ton El Galeon sails from New York to Puerto Rico, telling the stories of these heavily armed cargo ships that were like full cities under sail, but it is frequently in dock in its main port, St. Augustine  The El Galeon is similar to the San Pelayo, which flagship that first carried Menendez to Florida in 1565.  That ship carried 77 crew, 18 gunners, 317 soldiers, and 26 families, as well as provisions, including cattle. 

El Galeon
Among the crew were several African American sailors.  Spain allowed slavery, but it had nothing to do with race, so blacks and whites could be free or slaves, and if slaves, they could earn their freedom.
The first free black community in the United States was at Fort Mose, just a few miles north of St. Augustine.  At the state park museum, you can learn how many African American slaves under British rule in Georgia to the north escaped to Florida, where under Spanish laws they could be free.  By 1738, a community of 100 former slaves were living here, under the leadership of African-born Captain Francisco Menendez. When a British force tried to capture St. Augustine in 1740, Menendez and the black militia along with 300 Spanish soldiers launched a surprise pre-dawn attack that left 68 British dead.  The English retreated to Georgia and Menendez was a hero….to the Spanish.  To the British?  Well, of course, they considered him a pirate!

Walking and Drinking in St. Augustine

Prince of Wales
This is a five-star town for walking and drinking beer, filled with some great bars, live music, a wonderful brewpub and seafood restaurants in two century old buildings.  It's more subdued than Key West, but has a similar number of bars in the historic district, which is where you want to stay.  There are dozen B&Bs in the area, and a variety of chain motels along Hwy. 1, about 15 minute walk away.

The A1A Ale Works is a good place to start..modern building, but second story views of the bay and five nice craft beers (the Porpoise Point IPA has a grapefruit taste that goes with the view). 

The town excels in British pubs, of which there are three. I really liked the Prince of Wales, which is off the noise of St. George Street on a secluded lane, with Spanish Moss above, a wonderful porch, live folk music, and small but traditional interior with British menu.

Barley Republic 
Across the street the Barley Republic is lively enough place with two stories, live bands and one of the best outdoor patios out front (the bands can play in the patio or inside with the walls up, but you can hear them wherever).  Meehan's Irish Pub is huge on a the bay in an historic house with live music and upstairs is Johnny's Oyster Bar.

For dinner, hard to beat the atmosphere of O.C, White's Seafood & Spirits, which is in a building that dates back to 1790, has a pirate as their logo, and a just gorgeous outdoor courtyard by the bay.

But you can't overstate how many bars there are, many with live music on the rooftop, others with balconies overlooking the streets, all easy walking distance in the historic district.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Rocky Mountain Turns 100

Sprague Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park
The Rocky Mountains of North America are the second longest mountain range in the world, running in a ragged line for 3,000 miles from British Columbia in Canada all the way southeast to the north of Mexico. 

So if you’re going to have the nerve to give just a small section of this long range the grand name of “Rocky Mountain National Park,” well, that better be one special section.

On the trail to Mills Lake
And it is.  The 412 square miles of Rocky Mountain National Park have preserved some of America’s most pristine natural beauty.  America’s fifth most popular national park has 147 lakes, 50 miles of streams, 360 miles of trails and more than 100 peaks that soar 11,000 feet or higher into the Colorado blue sky – many of them with snow year-round.  

There are a thousand elk, as well as moose, bears, beavers and big\horn sheep.  There are waterfalls and wildflowers, and more than a third of the park is tundra – that strange and harsh land above the trees where it is almost always winter.

But as beautiful and tranquil as Rocky Mountain National Park can be, it can also be one of the most congested spots in Colorado.  With limited roads and parking, the popular park has to accommodate more than a million people in just six summer weeks.  That’s more than the population of nearby Denver.  Over the course of a year, 3.2 million people visit the park, sometimes “loving” it a little too much.  On a recent Saturday in August, a mile-long traffic jam was caused by one sleeping bear, who chose to take his afternoon nap within sight of the road.

Elk along Trail Ridge Road
Some 35 invasive plants have moved into the park.  Global warming is causing the glaciers to melt, and although the lakes and streams are crystal clear, the water is not safe to drink because of Giardia.

And yet, arrive early in the day or in off-season, or get out of the car and hike for a bit, and you can have the place to yourself.  Even if you stay in the car, a drive through the park can take you over the highest continuous highway in the world, cruising over the tops of mountains with hundred-mile views in every direction.  Just don’t concentrate on the views too much – there are sheer cliffs with no guardrails on every turn.

In 2015, the park is celebrating its 100th anniversary of being protected forever.  As you picnic by an idyllic stream or hike through a firework display of wildflowers and you want to know who to thank for preserving all this, start with an eccentric Englishwoman named Isabella Bird.

Preserving the Park
There weren’t many globetrotting women explorers in the 1870s, but that didn’t stop Isabella Bird, who became the first woman accepted into the Royal Geographic Society of Great Britain. From early childhood, she suffered from insomnia and nervous headaches.  Her doctor recommended an “outdoor life,” so she set off on a series of adventures that ultimately took her to China, Japan, Vietnam, and India.  Colorado’s dry weather was said to be healthy, so she moved there in 1873. 

Isabella roamed 803 miles across Colorado, climbing mountains and riding a horse like a man (though she threatened to sue a newspaper that said she dressed like one).  Her descriptive letters home about her explorations in Colorado were eventually published into a book that became one of the classics of travel literature:  “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.” 

Dream Lake with Hallet's Peak
One of her favorite areas was northwest of Denver near a valley that had come to be called Estes Park, after local cattle rancher Joel Estes.  “Park” came from the French “parc,” meaning “open space.”

Isabella explored the area around Estes Park with the aid of a colorful local guide, Jim Nugent, also known as “Mountain Man Jim.”  He was a one-eyed desperado who would be shot dead a year later, but he was a good-looking character, and there were rumors that he was more than a guide to Isabella.  She wrote that Jim was the type of man “any woman might love but no sane woman would marry." 

Isabella’s descriptions of climbing Longs Peak, the highest mountain looming above Estes Park, and the beauty of the area captivated the world.  Even in Colorado, which had a mountainous area five times the size of Switzerland, the splendor of Estes Park became world famous. 

Another visitor who settled here was Enos Mills, who became a local guide, climbing Longs Peak more than 300 times.  Enos lobbied that the mountains, lakes and streams here should be preserved for future generations.  He got his wish in 1915, when Rocky Mountain became America’s 10th national park.

Touring the Park Today

With so many experiences (and so many people loving the park) here are some tips on how to enjoy its beauty.

Trail Ridge Road
Drive over the 48-mile-long Trail Ridge Road (the highest continuous highway in the world) and stop at the visitor center two miles above sea level.  Bring a jacket because it can be 30 degrees colder up here than down in Estes Park.  Hike to the top of the ridge to take in a 360-degree view of this moon-like landscape above the trees.  Because of heavy snow, Trail Ridge Road is usually open only from late May until mid-September.  Snow plows start cutting through the 30-foot high piles of snow in April and it can take six weeks to clear the road.

Hike around Sprague Lake.  This is a short, level path around one of the most beautiful lakes in the park.

Sprague Lake
As you get used to the altitude (at 10,000 feet elevation, there’s about 30 percent less oxygen absorbed in your body with each breath) hike to one of the more remote lakes.  The farther you go from the parking lot, the less people you will encounter.  The most popular hike is to climb from Bear Lake to Nymph, Emerald and Dream lakes.  It’s about 4 miles roundtrip, with spectacular views.  This a very popular section of the park, and relatively crowded.  To get away even more, hike a little farther.  Two of the most beautiful lakes are Mills Lake (named after Enos Mills) and the Loch – both about six mile hikes.  Bluebird Lake is known for its wildflowers and is about a 12 mile hike.

The ultimate park experience is to be like Isabella Bird and climb Longs Peak. Climbing a fourteener is serious business and requires being in good shape, having a lot of determination, a high tolerance for crowds, and lots of luck with the weather.  Every year, some 15,000 people attempt to summit the 14,255-foot Longs Peak; since the 1884, 60 have died in that attempt.  

Bear Lake with Longs Peak in background
The first person known to have reached the top was the one-armed explorer John Wesley Powell, who later became the first man to sail a boat through the Grand Canyon.  For the average person, it’s a strenuous, all-day, 16-mile climb that requires starting at 4 a.m. or earlier. As a general rule, you always want to be off the summit and coming down by noon to avoid lightning.  Although Longs doesn’t require any special mountaineering skills or equipment, there’s some bad exposure on the Narrows and the Homestretch parts of the climb, and a fall here could be fatal.  Many people wear helmets to protect against rock falls from above.  Bring four quarts of water as there is no water on the trail. It’s a “long” day, but there’s few better feelings than catching a glimpse of Longs Peak in the distance and knowing you have summited it.

The 1909 Stanley Hotel
Take the Night Ghost Tour at the Stanley Hotel.  In 1903, F.O. Stanley, inventor of the Stanley Steamer automobile, moved to Estes Park for his health, and finding the amenities lacking, built a huge summer home in a magnificent setting overlooking the mountains.  In 1909, it became the Stanley Hotel.  Horror writer Stephen King spent one night in the hotel in 1974, staying in room 217.  Because the hotel was closing for the winter (it didn’t have heat until 1979), King was the only guest.  He wandered the halls alone, and that night had a horrible nightmare about a haunted hotel that quickly turned into the classic horror novel, The Shining.  The Stanley makes a lot of this, continuously looping Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining in every room on closed circuit TV.  On the Night Ghost Tour you will learn that many of the rooms are haunted and the hotel has long been known for ghosts and paranormal activity.  Perhaps.  One thing is for certain, grab a drink and sit on the wicker work rocking chairs on the front porch.  The view over the resort village of Estes Park and the surrounding Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the grandest in the world.
Estes Park from the ruins of an old hotel overlooking the town

If you go:   Estes Park has an assortment of riverside cabins and motels, a delightful downtown with riverside cafes, and is located just a few miles from the entrance to the national park. Of course, the top place to stay is the Stanley, but even if you don’t sleep here, stop by the gift shop to pick up a brass key ring for room 217.  

Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Wild West Weekend in Cheyenne, Wyoming

Frontier Days (the center window is where Tom Horn confessed to murder)
Now that Cheyenne Frontier Days 2015 is over, it’s a wonderful time to spend a weekend in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  

Not that there’s anything wrong with Frontier Days, of course.  This 119-year-old rodeo, the “Daddy of ‘em All,” as they like to say, is a bucket list event – the largest rip-roaring outdoor rodeo in the world.  And if you want to go, start making reservations now for the July 22-31, 2016 event because reservations fill up early.

That’s the challenge.  With 400,000 visitors and big-name concerts every day from Blake Shelton to Aerosmith, the huge extravaganza tends to turn Cheyenne into a 10-day boom town that buries many of the city’s simple pleasures. 

And there are many simple pleasures to enjoy.   

Old West History

Wyoming's slogan is "Forever West"
More than any other single place, Cheyenne is the center of the Old West.  Gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok got married here.  (So did Ernest Hemingway…to his third wife).

Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Luke Short and “Calamity Jane” all called Cheyenne home, and the legendary murderer Tom Horn was hanged here right downtown – the last man hanged in Wyoming (at least legally). 

The famous Deadwood Stage started in Cheyenne, covering the 300 miles to the gold fields in South Dakota in three days of bouncing on rough dirt tracks through outlaw and Indian country. 

Old West history is everywhere in downtown Cheyenne – in the western wear shops, galleries, museums, and architecture.  But make no mistake, Cheyenne knows how to have fun, too.  Wyoming was the last state to ratify prohibition and prostitution was legal until 1938. 

The historic downtown is filled with western shops
Today in compact Cheyenne, there are two outstanding breweries and a dozen bars, several with live music.  Bring the bikes and there are 37 miles of trails, many of them weaving through historic neighborhoods of great old wood mansions.  Wood houses are something you don’t see in nearby Denver; to prevent fires, until WWII all homes in Denver had to be built of brick or stone.  Cheyenne’s tree-lined backstreet neighborhoods of historic wood houses are delightful, especially in the Rainsford Historic District, where there are dozens of homes and mansions all designed by architect George Rainsford.  Rich cattle barons loved his creative porches and roofs with towers covered by decorative “fish scale” shingles. 

Wyoming is an independent place and for everyone you see in a cowboy hat and pickup truck, there will be another in dreadlocks and tattoos.  But at just about two hours from Denver, it is a world away in atmosphere with great beer, food, and Western fun. 

Some Ideas for a Great Western Weekend In Cheyenne

Catch the trolley at Union Depot plaza
Take the Trolley Tour:   Cheyenne’s history is crazy.  Seemingly every third building was a bordello or gambling hall.  On this 90-minute trolley ride you get an overview of some of the more exciting events.

When the railroad was being built across America in 1867, there was nothing here but rolling grasslands.  The chief engineer of the Union Pacific, Maj. General Grenville Dodge, decided this was as far west as the railroad could get before winter, so he picked out a place to build a fort to provide protection against Indians.  Following practices that said no liquor could be sold within four miles of a fort, he laid out a town exactly four miles away. 

Within weeks, the “town” of Cheyenne had 90 saloons and gambling halls, mostly in large portable tents, as well as  400 “ladies of the evening,” 4,000 residents and 23 hangings.  Cheyenne boosters will tell you this is where Cheyenne got its nickname, “Magic City of the Plains,” because the city just sprang up overnight like magic.  But at the time, most people referred to it by an equally descriptive name:  “Hell on Wheels.” 

The Trolley visits lovely neighborhoods like Holliday Park
When the railroad moved west in the spring, Cheyenne should have moved with it, but the Union Pacific built railroad roundhouses here and a substantial city was built around them.  Some 75-100 trains still roll through downtown Cheyenne every day. 

Later, Cheyenne became a cattle town and it was said that because of rich cattle barons, Cheyenne was the wealthiest town in the world on a per capita basis.   Many of the mansions on Cattle Baron Row still survive.  The fort grew into Warren Air Force Base, which today maintains 150 Minuteman II Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.  This is probably as close to 150 atom bombs as you’ll ever get.

You can hop off the history trolley at stops like the State Capitol, the Wyoming State Museum or the Cheyenne Frontier Museum, which are all worth a look, and then hop back on a later trolley.

Shop Downtown Cheyenne: 
Wyoming Home is a gigantic wonderland of western home furnishings
Downtown Cheyenne has the best collection of western stores on the Front Range.  Wrangler is the place for hats, boots and belts; Wyoming Home has western furnishings, rugs, jewelry and gifts; and Just Dandy has women’s western-wear fashions.  There are dozen other western galleries, bookstores and souvenir shops. 

Many people make a trip to Cheyenne just for the SierraTrading Post, where you can save 35-70% on closeouts and overstocks of outdoor apparel and gear from places like North Face, Columbia, Rockport, Kelty, Merril and Timberline.

Drink Downtown Cheyenne
Freedom's Edge
There are two great breweries in the downtown historic district.  Freedom’s Edge Brewing Company has the usual tasting room with roll up walls, patio seating and a fine selection of changing brews.  Try the 1890 IPA, a medium American IPA with citrus and grapefruit flavors.  If the High Noon Chili Ale is on tap, it’s made with Alapeno, Serrano and Habanero peppers for a spicy kick.

The Cheyenne Brewing Company has the best location in town in the 1887 Union Pacific Depot, a National Historic Landmark and one of the finest railroad stations in America.  Like Union Station in Denver, it’s been beautifully restored and today you can sample more than 20 craft beers and dine on high-quality pub food while looking out arched windows at passing trains.

Cheyenne Brewing Company
The historic 1911 Plains Hotel across the plaza has welcomed guests including Harry Truman, Ronald Regan, Ted Kennedy and Richard Nixon.  The bar in the Plains was remodeled recently, and lost some of its character, but still packs plenty of Old West charm.  Combined with the lobby, which is filled with historic Western paintings and sculptures, the Plains is a must stop.  It also features a Capitol Grille restaurant, one of the best in town.

General Western Craziness

Giant Books "are made for talking"
Cheyenne packs any number of eccentric attractions to fill a weekend.  There are 22 gigantic hand-painted cowboy boots around town.  These boots “are made for talking” – each one tells a story about Cheyenne.  Just call 307-316-0067 and enter the number of the boot when prompted to hear tales of gamblers, outlaws, and governors from Cheyenne’s past.

A “Big Boy,” the world’s largest steam locomotive, is parked in Holliday Park, which also has a beautiful lake and bike trails.  The powerful locomotive was designed to pull 3,600-ton coal trains.  There are only eight remaining in the world (one is in Denver, a second is in Cheyenne under restoration).

Another world-record train is on the second floor of the Cheyenne Depot Museum, only this one is much smaller.  Railroad modeler Harry S. Bunk of Clarkson, NE, worked on building an HO model railroad of Colorado mining towns for 30 years.  His layout became one of the most famous in the world, featured in more than 100 model railroad magazine articles, but because it was in his home, hardly anyone had ever seen it in person.  Today, the setup has been relocated and rebuilt in the Depot.  It’s a kick to see model trains pass over the Georgetown Loop and chug into incredibly detailed models of Central City, Black Hawk, and Idaho Springs.
The "Big Boy"

If you want to ride a train, one of the strangest in the world is located 7 miles south of Cheyenne on the Wyoming-Colorado border at the Terry Bison Ranch.  A custom built and very funky private train pulls passengers on standard gauge tracks across rolling grasslands to the middle of a herd of 2,500 buffalo.  There’s also horseback riding and a famous buffalo and steak house restaurant.

The downtown Nelson Museum of the West has an eclectic collection featuring everything from outfits worn by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans to military uniforms, guns, Indian artifacts, saddles and a re-created Cattle Baron’s living room.  If you like what you see, you can decorate your own living room in a similar style at the Wyoming Home down the block.

There’s even a Cowgirls of the West Museum that through clothing, exhibits and historic photos tells the often forgotten story of the contributions cowgirls made in winning the West.

Where to Stay:
The Nagle-Warren 1888 B&B
The Nagle-Warren Mansion 1888 B&B is more like a small inn with 12 luxurious rooms with all the amenities (TV, air, private bath, Wifi) but sharing incredibly beautiful public rooms with ornate staircases, polished wood, and antique furnishings.  The included breakfast is worth a trip alone.  The mansion is literally the biggest home in Cheyenne, purposely built by Nagle to be the biggest (replacing the former biggest home next door that now is El Charrito Mexican Grille).  The U.S. Senator and Congressional Medal of Honor winner Francis E. Warren later bought the mansion and entertained many notable people here, including President Teddy Roosevelt. 

If you go:

Monday, July 6, 2015

A Ramble in the English Countryside

How to Escape London and See
the Cotswolds – the England of Calendars and Picture Books

The Cotswolds features rolling green hills with 100 stone villages
London is magnificent, but it can also be big, noisy and crowded with swarms of international tourists following guides holding up umbrellas.  If you want to see the real England – or at least, the Harry Potter fantasy version of what Shakespeare called “this green and pleasant land,” you need to get to the Cotswolds. 

This postcard-pretty rural area of rolling green hills and honey-colored stone villages lies just 60 miles from Big Ben, but is a world away in atmosphere.  Public footpaths meander over stone walls through fields of contented sheep.  Lazy rivers with names like Windrush flow past country pubs with wood smoke curling from the chimney.  

The Slaughters Country Inn
Of course, there are tour buses here, too.  But the great thing about the Cotswolds is, if you leave the town square on foot, the village soon turns to countryside, and you’ll have the countryside all to yourself.  Small wonder that Madonna, Kate Moss, Hugh Grant, Elizabeth Hurley, Patrick Stewart …and of course, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling – all call the Cotswolds home.  

And you can too, on an easy day break from London.  Here’s how you do it.

Rambling in the Cotswolds

Paddington Station
Leave your bags at your London hotel, throw just the bare essentials in a backpack, wear your best walking shoes, buy a “day return ticket” and catch the train at Paddington Station for Moreton-in-Marsh.  Just 90 minutes away, Moreton has been welcoming travelers to the Cotswolds for 1700 years. 

“Cotswold” is a Saxon word for “hilly shelter for sheep.”  In the Middle Ages, Cotswold sheep were known throughout Europe for their heavy fleece and excellent wool.   Some 20,000 sheep a day could be sold in a single Cotswold market town, and it was the wool industry that brought incredible wealth to the area, as indicated by the gated mansions, elaborate churches and wonderfully carved stone buildings along each town’s main thoroughfare.
Lower Slaughter

When wool was replaced by cotton and the industrial revolution, the sheep industry fell off.  With limited rail connections, the Cotswolds became an isolated farm area, forgotten until the current age of tourism.  Today, 85 percent of the land is still agricultural, but these picturesque limestone hills are also home to nearly 100 pretty villages of stone buildings, all bursting with tea shops, antique stores, inns and of course, pubs.  The entire 2,250 square miles of the Cotswold Hills has been designated an Area of Outstanding National Beauty, sort of an English way of saying “it’s pretty.”

The buildings on the square of Stow-on-the-Wold date to 14-16th century
Moreton is worth a quick poke around and be sure to see The Bell Inn, which allegedly served as the inspiration for The Prancing Pony, the most famous pub in the Middle Earth of J R R Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” 

Then catch one of the hourly buses to Stow-on-the-Wold.  Located just four miles away, Stow is one of England’s best known market towns -- and one of the loveliest.  At 800 feet elevation this is the highest of the Cotswold towns, which makes it a perfect walking center because all footpaths go downhill. 

Stow is an ancient town.  You can find Stone Age and Iron Age burial ruins nearby.  Charles I stayed at the Kings Arms in 1645, just before the battle of Naseby.  Charles lost the battle, and eventually his head, but don’t be put off by that.  Like him, you can still enjoy a pint at the Kings Arms.  Or walk a few blocks to the Porch House, which has been an inn since 947 A.D., making it the oldest inn of England.  Try the fish and chips and a Ploughman’s lunch (ham, cheese, pickle and bread) and wash it down with a pint of local Brakspear bitter.

The Porch House may be England's oldest inn, dating back to 947 AD
Stow’s town square is a storybook village of flowers and handsome yellow-stone buildings from the 14th-16th century.  A highlight of the square is the stock where in medieval days, transgressors where tied up and publicly humiliated as punishment.  When tormenting people in stocks got boring, Stow also offered bear baiting, where wild dogs attack a chained bear.   Time must have hung heavy before cable TV, and in the sleepy Cotswolds, Stow didn’t even have running water until 1958.

The town square is enclosed by buildings because this is where sheep were brought to market.  Narrow alleys leading into the square (one sheep wide) were built for the sheep, not humans, but you can squeeze through them to find backstreet pubs, tea shops and antique stores.  Be sure to stop at the Information Center to pick up a map for a classic four-mile Cotswold walk (mostly downhill) from Stow to Bourton-on-the-Water.

A Classic Cotswolds Ramble

Public footpaths
The map will lead you to a cemetery near 15th century St. Edward’s Church, then guide you to yellow arrows and signs indicating a well-marked Public Footpath.  There are 140,000 miles of historic Public Footpaths in England and Wales that permit you to walk across estates, past palaces, through working farms and across fields of sheep and cows.  “Kissing gates,” a sort of swinging gate that lets humans pass, but not animals, keeps everyone in their place.  On this walk from the heights of Stow, you’ll have sweeping views of the countryside, pass through several large farms, cross streams, hop over stone walls, pass a cricket field, and get a backdoor look at wonderful stone cottages. 

Three miles brings you to the postcard pretty village of Lower Slaughter.  Fortunately, “slaughter” here does not mean there are werewolves on the moors, but rather comes from Old English, meaning “muddy place.”  This is as quaint a village as you can find.  There’s an old mill standing beside the River Eye, which flows quietly through the center of town and is crossed by a series of small bridges. Stop for a pint at the Slaughters Country Inn at their lovely riverside outdoor beer garden.   It’s the perfect place to watch horseback riders cross the river and canter off on bridle paths.  

Lower Slaughter is postcard pretty
The footpath continues another mile along the river, past a cricket field, to Bourton- on-the-Water, perhaps the most touristy of the Cotswold villages, but with good reason – the town is simply gorgeous.  The River Windrush flows quietly through the center of the village and is spanned by five elegant stone pedestrian bridges.  Swans and ducks swim in the stream and there are a number of pubs with pleasant outdoor patios overlooking the water.  Try the Duke of Wellington or the Old Manse Hotel.   There are tourist attractions here – a miniature model of the village, a model railroad and a motorcar museum -- and lots of shops, which of course also means, lots of tourists.  But walk down a side street to admire the flowers and stone buildings, and you’ll have the place to yourself.  Plan on about 3-4 hours for the walk from Stow with sightseeing and stops.
It's easy to follow the footpaths
Dinner in Oxford

Hourly buses make the 20-minute return trip from Bourton to Moreton and the return train to London, the last bus leaving Burton about 7:30 p.m. However, rather than eat dinner in the country, another option is to leave Moreton by train in late afternoon and stop in Oxford enroute to London.  The day return train ticket allows you to get on and off the train as much as you like, as long you’re somewhere along the route.  

The classic university town of Oxford is relatively compact and offers three fantastic pub options for dinner. From the station, it’s an easy walk to the center of town, where pedestrian-friendly streets lead past one architectural gem to another, including Oxford Castle, Christ Church College (a film setting and inspiration for the dining hall in the Harry Potter films) and the famous punts on River Cherwell. There are Harry Potter tours of Oxford in the afternoon and ghost tours in the evening. 

The colorful punts of Oxford
To visit three ultimate classic English pubs, try The Bear, Oxford’s oldest and most charming pub, which dates to 1242.  The walls are covered with 4,500 neckties and the pub has nooks and crannies and an outdoor beer garden.

The King’s Arms dates to 1607 and was used regularly as a film location for the Inspector Morse mysteries.  It specializes in elegant pub grub and is known for its steak and ale pie 

The Eagle and Child is the youngest of the three, dating to only 1650, but has the most famous history.  Not only did J.R.R. Tolkien write The Hobbit here, but it was also a favorite hangout for Lewis Carroll, who wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  Lewis was also a regular at the Lamb and Flag across the street, as was Tony Blair, when he was a student at Oxford.

When you’ve drunk enough history, there are two trains to London every hour, each taking just an hour for the journey.

The color of the Cotswolds
IF YOU GO:    Unfortunately, buses do not operate in the Cotswolds on Sundays.     

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Spirit of Old Vallarta Still Lives on in this “Accidental” International Resort

John Huston
“When I first came here, almost 30 years ago, Vallarta was a fishing village of some 2000 souls. There was one road to the outside world - and it was impassable during the rainy season.”  So wrote American film director John Huston about his first encounter with the sleepy, isolated fishing village he was destined to change into an international mega resort.

In 1962, Huston was one of the world’s top film directors.  He had hit upon a formula that worked perfectly.  In films like The African Queen and The Treasure of Sierra Madre, he placed famous stars in beautiful and remote settings and let the location become a central part of the story.

Now, in 1962, charged with creating the film version of Tennessee Williams’ hit play, Night of the Iguana, he selected as his setting Mismaloya, a curving arc of a beach on the Bay of Banduras, just south of the remote village of Puerto Vallarta. 

And then the chaos began.

Mismaloya had no electricity, no running water, and no roads.  The film crew, equipment and actors had to come to the location every day by boat. 

Richard Burton and Liz Taylor at their homes in PV
And what a crew it was.  Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were the two most popular and highly paid actors in the world.  Both of them were married, but not to each other.  They had fallen in love making Cleopatra (the most expensive movie in history at the time), and their affair thrilled the world.  The Vatican went so far as to condemn it (calling it “erotic vagrancy,”) and a new word was imported from Italy to name the swarm of photographers who chased them – “paparazzi,” Italian for annoying insects. 

Burton was starring in the film with three equally glamourous actresses, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon.  Liz was along just to be close to Burton. 

For her 32nd birthday, Burton bought Liz a gorgeous home in the hills above Puerto Vallarta – then bought himself the house next door, building a bridge between the two.  The press went nuts.

When the publicists and photographers weren’t busy chasing Dick and Liz, they spent their time glorifying the incredible beauty of the location.  Puerto Vallarta was portrayed as paradise – a tiny village at the edge of jungle mountains with whitewashed buildings clinging to the hills, covered with pink bougainvillea and topped with red tile roofs. Quaint cobblestone streets led to lazy, sun-drenched plazas, while palm trees swayed over golden beaches lined with palapas selling fresh fish.  Overhead, squadrons of pelicans floated in the always warm and blue sky.
Puerto Vallarta today is a world famous resort with a population of 250,000

Small wonder that with the encouragement of the Mexican government and local tourism officials, Puerto Vallarta became the “accidental” resort, mushrooming from a village with no roads that was only accessible by air or sea, into today’s city of a quarter million people with a cruise ship dock, spas, five star restaurants and resorts, exquisite art galleries and a huge assortment of adventure travel activities ranging from zip-lining to swimming with dolphins.

But strangely, with all the growth, it is still easy to find the romantic, isolated village of Dick and Liz.  Here’s a few places:

The Backstreets.  

The red tile roofs and cobblestone back streets are little changed.
The quiet cobblestone backstreets of Vallarta’s historic downtown (dubbed the Romantic Zone) still feel like a village with flowers, terraces, gorgeous white villas, red tiled roofs, and views of the Pacific in every direction.  The Lady of Guadalupe Church (the symbol of the city) rings its bell on the quarter hour adding a romantic touch.  Two reasons the area hasn’t changed much – the streets are incredibly steep and walking on cobblestones can be painfully difficult.  If you’re up for it, you can climb 222 steps to the top cross high above the city for a sweeping view of the bay.  

The Lady of Guadalupe Church
Or better, take a two-hour walking tour with Sandra Cesca of Walk Vallarta! On a variety of $30 tours you can see the colonial architecture of Gringo Gulch, visit shops and markets to watch artisans at work, sample local chocolate, cigars and coffee, meet some residents and hear wild tales about Dick and Liz, and their friends and fellow hell raisers who they entertained in Vallarta like Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed.  The romantic Hotel Catedral near the swinging bridges over the Cuale River is a wonderful place to stay.

Drink Cerveza in a Palapa in Yelapa 

Until a few years ago, Yelapa had no outside electricity or roads and even today, most visitors arrive by boat.  Getting there is an adventure.  Hop a bus and travel along the rugged, cliff-lined coast six miles south to Boca de Tomatlan.  This is the “end of the line,” the southernmost town on Bahia de Banderas (the 7th largest bay in the world).  From here, the paved road turns away from the sea and heads into the mountains.  To the west there is 50 miles of coast that is only accessible by water.
Boca de Tomatlan
Boca feels like the “end of the line.”  Jungle palm trees come to the edge of the bay, and the only sounds at the few, quiet waterside restaurants come from birds overhead or waiters snapping open bottles of Pacifico.
All activity centers on the boat dock, where launches holding 6 to 15 passengers leave every hour or so for a string of beachside villages:  Playa Las Animas, Quimixto and -- the farthest out and most popular -- Yelapa.  The trip can get quite rough in heavy seas (prepare to get wet), but as you round a rocky point and get your first view of paradise, Yelapa appears like a dream.   
Yelapa appears like a dream
Verdant, green jungle pours down to a turquoise-colored bay, where on a thin sliver of sand there are a dozen or so palapa restaurants…and nothing else.  Large numbers of people settle in for the day here, snacking on grilled shrimp, fish and beer, while the waves lap up to their feet, but the town is worth exploring.  A jungle river divides the town from the restaurants; you can hike a half-mile into the jungle to the one bridge, or just wade across the knee-high stream. 
There are a couple of general stores in town, and there’s a pleasant hike to a 150-foot high waterfall, but the most fun is just seeing the houses and people who live here, much like they did in Old Vallarta, where it is so quiet you can always hear the birds, the surf and the occasional clip-clop of a local riding a horse. 

Waterfall in Yelapa

Sunset in Sayulita and San Pancho

Sayulita is no longer undiscovered.  For years, this village an hour from Puerto Vallarta survived as an out-of-the-way surfer paradise, accessible by dirt road with a mile-long beach, big breakers, and a string of beachside palapas.  The surfers are still there, along with a wild assortment of hippies and beachcombers.  There are drums at sunset, dreadlocks and bikinis, and the smell of marijuana is sometimes present.

Sayulita this has the feel of a small town
But paved roads have brought shopping, dining and lodging (and the first major wave of tourists) to the town, which consists of a half dozen streets scattered between the beach and a plaza.   There’s still a small town feel though.  Every third person seems to be holding a surfboard, and there are plenty of restaurants on the cobblestone back streets and along the beach. Try the mixed seafood ceviche – shrimp, scallops and octopus cured in lime and fruit juices and served with green pepper, tomatoes and avocado. 
Three kilometers up the coast, Sayulita’s sleepy neighbor, San Pancho, does not exist on maps.  Its official name is San Francisco, but that’s too high-sounding a name for this one cobblestone street town, so they call it by its nickname, “San Pancho.” (Pancho Villa’s real name was Francisco, so all Francisco’s are nicknamed Pancho). This is a quiet place, except for the surf on the beach, which is a curving arc of sand between two rock headlands.   Much of the beach at San Pancho backs up to private houses, which is good in that it will keep away major development.  The center of town has the usual beach palapa restaurants.
The big story in San Pancho is the La Patrona Polo Club Restaurant, Bar, Lounge & CafĂ© – an incredible complex that has a full scale polo field in the center of the village with Saturday night polo games, dressage shows, and an exquisite, multi-story outdoor bar with live music after the matches.   It’s simply amazing in a little town, and it certainly would have attracted John Huston, an avid horseman who was an honorary member of the Mexican cavalry.

An Unforgettable Night Under the Stars

Las Caletas at night is only accessible by sea.
After filming Night of the Iguana, Huston leased land from the Chacala Indians and lived for nearly two decades just south of Boca de Tomatlan in Las Caletas.  Perhaps the prettiest of all Vallarta beaches, it is accessible only by sea.  Today, Vallarta Adventures has the exclusive lease and offers beach visits to Las Caletas by day, or an exciting mystical show and dinner called Rhythms of the Night, a sort of Mexican Cirque du Soleil with traditional native dancing and acrobatics that ends with a chance to dine seaside by flickering candles.  It’s a magical outdoor experience capped by an hour long return boat trip to Vallarta under the stars.  Sailing along the rugged coast, past Mismaloya with the mountains looming against the sea, it’s easy to understand how this isolated stretch of coast became one of the world’s most famous resorts.