Author: Lisa

Key West Beach

Key West – Florida, U.S.A.

The Charm and Color of America’s Last Resort

Dangling at the end of a 113-mile, 42-bridge ocean-skimming highway that tethers 51 of the 822 Florida keys to the mainland, Key West is famously billed as the southernmost point of the continental United States, and enjoys its reputation as an eccentric, wacky, and a large gay community, all living in restored, barefoot and carefree bohemian island town. Its Bahamian-influenced pastel Victorian homes or a tropical melting pot of Caribbean, Latin quaint, white-framed “Conch” cottages. Many American, and U.S. culture, populated by locals eschew cars in favor of bicycles or foot power, (known as “Conches”), writers, artists, retirees, as the island is flat coral-rock and small, easy to navigate by either means. Almost daily (at least in high season), the island’s population is swelled by cruise ship passengers, who descend in the thousands in search of the req­uisite drink at the legendary Sloppy Joe’s on mile-long Duval Street, which starts at the Atlantic Ocean and ends at the Gulf of Mexico.

Those who escape Duval Street’s cavalcade of tourist tchotchke shops can find a more his­torical Key West at Hemingway House, where during a quiet moment you can still sense the aura of the Nobel Prize-winning author, who came to Key West in the 1930s, succumbed to its charm, and spent the next decade writing, drinking, and fishing prolifically. Papa helped put the island on the map as a quintessential party town where the margarita is the national drink and the attitude is anything goes. Soak up the atmosphere at the outdoor picnic tables at Schooner Wharf during the sunset cocktail hour, when patrons, local and tourist alike, contemplate the gorgeous sky, a unique Key West finger painting the color of coral. Those wanting a bit of pagan hoopla with their sunset can head for Mallory Square pier, where the daily sunset-watching ritual is augmented by a cast of jugglers, fire-eaters, and buskers.

For an oasis of civility at the end of a loopy day, book a room at the Gardens Hotel, named for the passion of former owner Peggy Mills, who from 1930 until her death in 1979 chose the living garden as an art form, and as her own private paradise and life’s work. If not for the meandering footpaths of centuries-old bricks from Cuba and Central America (once used as ballast for sea-going galleons), one could get lost in the otherworldly beauty of the bougainvillea, orchids, and ferns blooming beneath a verdant canopy of hardwoods and palms. The restored, two-story, West Indian plantation-style main building (the former home of the original owner, dating from 1870) as well as two similarly styled new buildings hide behind thick walls in the heart of Key West’s historic Old Town district. While salsa and reggae spill out of the bars that line Duval Street just a few steps beyond the front gates, the only music within is the rhythmic splashing of the fountains, the lazy whir of a ceiling fan, and birdsong. This is music to enjoy breakfast by, on the open-air brick porch where Key lime beignets almost steal the show.

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Everglades National Park – Florida, U.S.A.

America’s Big Swamp

Nature lovers and the eco-curious will have a field day in the largest protected wetlands in the United States. The Everglades is a 1.5 million-acre subtropical freshwater marshland and the third largest national park in the lower forty-eight states after Death Valley and Yellowstone. Conveniently located down at Florida’s southern tip, in Miami’s back­yard though atmospherically a million miles from South Beach, this is Florida as it existed before the Spanish explorers—or man in gen­eral—arrived.

Half land and half water, the Everglades is a complex and fragile ecosystem, an endangered home to thousands of animal, bird, and plant species, a land full of tangled mangrove thickets crisscrossed by shallow, labyrinthine channels with names like Shark River, Hells Bay, Graveyard Creek, and Lostman’s River. Wooden walkways, bicycle trails, and airboats (the latter not allowed within the park proper) give a glimpse of the peri­pheral marshland’s flora and fauna, but penetration of the Everglades’ mystery and his­tory is best accomplished by kayak or canoe, ideally in the company of a guide.

Informative naturalists point out the park’s residents—manatees, ibis, egrets, ospreys, bald eagles, alligators, turtles, more than fourteen native species of snakes, and, if you’re exceed­ingly lucky, one of the ten remaining Florida panthers that reside in the park.

Bird-watching can be outstanding when the winter’s migratory guests swell the park’s usual community of 347 species, and plant fanciers have more than 1,000 species to study beyond the ubiquitous saw grass, so common here that the area is often referred to as the “river of grass.” The beautiful, constantly shifting light across the Everglades landscape is quite unlike anything else, underscoring its endangered fragility.

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Swimming with Manatees – Crystal River, Florida, U.S.A.

A Face-to-Face Encounter with Pseudo-Mythical Creatures

Gentle and endearingly playful, with puppy-dog faces attached to 2,000- pound potato-sack bodies that only their mothers could love, manatees (a.k.a. West Indian sea cows or Sirenia, “sirens”) were often mistaken for mermaids by ancient sailors—who presumably liked their mermaids plus-plus Rubenesque. Graceful and wonderfully charismatic, they’re known to nudge and nuzzle their snorkeling visitors, and in recent decades have become a major cause célèbre, with their status on the critically endangered list focusing worldwide attention on them as never before.

The U.S. population of some 3,000 mana­tees lives almost exclusively in the warm-water bays, estuaries, and rivers of Florida’s eastern and western coasts, wintering particularly in Citrus County, in the west-central part of the state. This is the only place in the world where you can have a face-to-face encounter with these gray-blue marine mammals. A number of outfitters in the small city of Crystal River equip visitors with snorkeling equipment (scuba div­ing is not permitted, nor is it necessary in these shallow waters) and provide a boat trip to nearby Kings Bay, where 100 to 250 of the area’s population of about 400 tend to be on hand.

 

Federal laws prohibit certain behavior: snorkelers cannot pursue the animals, for instance, but must wait for the manatees to approach on their own—which they almost always do.

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Kennedy Space Center – Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S.A.

A Window on History, a Glimpse of the Future

Even the most blasé visitors become transfixed with pride and patriotism at Kennedy Space Center, a living monument to America’s indomitable will and technological prowess. Set amid 150,000 acres of marshland and mangrove swamps, this has been the headquar­ters of American rocketry and space exploration since 1950, when Bumper 8 was launched from the Cape. This is where Alan Shepard lifted off in 1961 to became the first American to be sent into space, where the first men left for the moon in July 1969 aboard Apollo 11, and where the crew of the ill-fated Space Shuttle Columbia left the Earth in January 2002. Security is a lot tighter now than before September 11, with more sensitive areas off-limits to the public, but there is still plenty to be seen and experienced through multi-media shows, hands-on experi­ences, and a Q & A with a real live astronaut that leaves adults and kids alike galvanized to strive for excellence. Begin at the Visitors Complex, where the Rocket Garden traces the evolution of America’s space program, featuring eight authentic rockets including a Mercury Atlas, similar to the one used to launch John Glenn into space in 1962. At the other end of the plaza, twin IMAX 3-D theaters with six- story screens and seat-shaking sound systems immerse audiences in the exhilaration of a true journey of discovery, while a mock-up of the space shuttle sits near the launch control center where you can attend talks on current missions.

From the complex, grab a narrated bus tour that passes by the world-famous LC-39 launch pad and on to the Apollo/Saturn V Center to experience a narrated simulation of the Apollo 8 launch and marvel at a 363-foot Saturn V moon rocket, the most powerful ever built. Top off your adrenaline high with a visit to the Astronaut Hall of Fame, 6 miles west, where astronaut wannabes can buckle up in a G-force simulator, a space-station shuttle simulator that flips you 360 degrees, and a simulator that mimics the moon’s light gra­vity—thrill rides that are the only thing the Kennedy Space Center lacks.

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Amelia Island – Florida, U. S. A.

Bypassed by Time, Sweetened by Modern-Day Luxury

On tiny Amelia Island, the past and present coexist in a very unusual way. At its northern end, Fernandina Beach, the island’s only town, revolves lazily around a fifty-block nucleus that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and features some of the nation’s finest exam­ples of Queen Anne, Victorian, and Italianate mansions. In total, more than 450 historic buildings were built here before 1927, tes­timony of the island’s glory days when it played vacation home to wintering socialites with names like Goodyear, Pulitzer, and Car­negie. The cobbled (and aptly named) Centre Street is the island’s most appealing stretch, lined with galleries, bed-and- breakfasts, and turn-of-the- century eateries, and is reason­ably free of tourist kitsch. The wonderfully atmospheric Palace Saloon stands along this street; built in 1878, it bills itself as Florida’s oldest watering hole and is still a perennial favorite with local fishermen and visiting golfers alike. It’s one of the town’s unofficial headquarters during the yearly Shrimp Festival, the island’s biggest and most enjoy­able event.

The 13-mile long island is one of the few places left in Florida where you can still ride horseback on the beach—an exhilarating expe­rience of wind, surf, and ospreys. One of the choicest and most pristine stretches of beach belongs to The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, whose guest rooms all enjoy enviable views and perfect sunrises. Considered by many to be one of the finest resorts in the South, The Ritz- Carlton offers golf, tennis, Southern hospitality, and exceptional dining in its award-winning restaurant, The Grill, proving that Amelia Island is, once again, the ultimate playground for island lovers with cash to spare.

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Winterthur Museum – Winterthur, Delaware, U.S.A.

A Celebration of One Man’s Taste – His Gift to America

Take one relatively modest twelve-room du Pont family home in the lush Brandywine Valley, massively increase its size, add the artistic passion and altruistic vision of its last owner, Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969), and you wind up with the world’s premier museum of 17th- through 19th-century American antiques and decorative arts. Opened officially in 1951, the connoisseur’s obsessive collection of more than 60,000 items (later acquisitions have brought the figure to nearly 85,000) range from silverware to spiral staircases, from furniture to almost 200 period rooms and galleries, most of which you can visit in the company of exceptionally knowl­edgeable guides, on various “theme” tours.

The estate’s garden, however, was H. F. du Pont’s first love: Well before he began to collect, he was a passionate gardener, and today some 60 of the estate’s remaining 979 acres (down from 2,500 at its height in the early 20th century) are given over to magnifi­cent naturalistic gardens planted with native and exotic plants. The gardens are located close to the museum, and are accessible via the Garden Tram. Insatiable garden-lovers should take a trip just across the Pennsyl­vania border to Kennett Square and the Longwood estate’s more formal and refined 1,000-acre gardens, the fancy of H. F.’s cousin Pierre S. du Pont. Overnight visitors can also give Pierre a nod of thanks for the gilded,

Italianate Hotel du Pont, which he opened in 1913 in nearby Wilmington as grand lodging for his family’s visiting business guests. A paean to European craftsmanship, this gra­cious Renaissance palazzo evokes the captains-of-industry era and the du Ponts’ penchant for collecting: More than 700 orig­inal paintings hung throughout the hotel capture the rural beauty of their beloved Brandywine Valley.

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Litchfield Hills and the Mayflower Inn – Connecticut, U.S.A.

Preserved Colonial Architecture and Beauty, a Gift of Nature

The notion that quintessential New England is an endless drive from the urban chaos of New York City is dispelled upon approaching the Litchfield Hills, a bucolic, 1,000-square-mile horse-breeding enclave tucked into the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains in northwestern Connecticut. Unfolding beyond every bend of the area’s meandering roads is a classic Currier and Ives landscape of 18th-and 19th-century saltbox farmhouses, red barns, imposing white clapboard mansions, stone walls, and quiet lakes (including Bantam Lake, the largest natural lake in the state). Charming, picturesque hamlets and towns dot the area, with steepled Congregational churches rising next to tidy, emerald green town squares. Litchfield, Norfolk, and Salisbury are particular standouts in this regard.

Antique hunters should head for Woodbury (known as Connecticut’s antiquing capital) and its quiet and charming neighbors, Kent and New Preston. In nearby Washington, in the vicinity of the slender 5-mile long Lake Waramaug (“good fishing place”), the elegant 1894 Mayflower Inn is justifiably known as one of New England’s most opulent, with spacious interiors filled to the rafters with English and French antiques (and prices to match). The inn began life as a private boys’ school, and sits on grounds crisscrossed with well-groomed trails and streams. Meals are memorable, romantic, and surprisingly unfussy. Expect the freshest and purest of the area’s bounty: think game, freshwater trout, and the season’s tastiest vegetables, as interpreted by the inn’s expert chef. For dessert there are sweet dreams in four-poster featherbeds with Frette linens, and the promise of tomorrow’s sumptuous breakfast. In an area endowed with many gracious country inns, this one’s the tops.

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Mystic Seaport – Mystic, Connecticut, U.S.A.

America’s Maritime Museum

Mystic is one of the Northeast’s most visited tourist destinations, primarily due to Mystic Seaport, the Museum of America and the Sea. America’s leading maritime museum, it houses the largest collection of historic boats and ships in the world. Much of its 17- acre riverfront site is taken up by a re-created coastal village complete with a schoolhouse, church, and dozens of homes, stores, and workshops that bring salty 19th-century mar­itime America to life. A number of fully rigged sailing ships docked here are open for visits, among them the Charles W. Morgan (1841), America’s last surviving wooden whaleship (complete with “blubber room”), and the 1882 Danish vessel Joseph Conrad. The Seaport’s most ambitious exhibit ever, “Voyages: Stories of America and the Sea,” examines our nation’s connection to its oceans, rivers, and lakes. The area’s other major site, the impor­tant Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration, offers more than forty live exhibits of sea life, including more than 4,000 specimens and the 1-acre “Alaska Coast,” one of the world’s largest beluga whale exhibits.

Take to the hills for a sweeping view of the harbor (and crowds), and follow privacy seeking Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart to The Inn at Mystic: The couple honeymooned here in what is now The Inn’s main house, a regal Colonial Revival mansion built in 1904. A new annex has increased the number of rooms, all enjoying the same acclaimed kitchen and lovely views of the Long Island Sound, but hold out for the more atmospheric rooms of the original main house.

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The Mark Twain House – Hartford, Connecticut, U.S.A.

Home and Inspiration for a Beloved American Icon

Literary fans come from around the world to visit the home of one of America’s most famous and beloved authors, Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, a pen name he derived from the term used by Mississippi River pilots to indicate a water depth of two fathoms.

“To us,” Twain said, “our house … had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with. … It was of us, and we were in its confidence, and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benedic­tion.” Twain commissioned his custom-designed High Victorian mansion from the well-known New York architect Edward Tuckerman Potter, and lived here with his wife, Olivia (and, eventually, three daughters), from 1874 to 1891, during which period he penned some of his most acclaimed works, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

The beautifully restored nine­teen-room mansion features decorative work by Louis Comfort Tiffany (it’s one of only two remaining domestic interi­ors of his design in the United States) and an immense collection of nearly 10,000 Victorian-era objects. Guided tours point out personal items that belonged to Twain and his family: his beloved billiards table, where he would spread out his manuscript when editing; the three-ton Paige typesetter, an ill-fated invention in which Twain invested, leading (along with a bad investment in suspenders) to his bankruptcy; the ornately carved 19th-century master bed, purchased during travels in Italy, at whose foot Twain and Olivia would sleep so they could admire the elaborate headboard.

Directly across from the Mark Twain House is a Gothic cottage that once belonged to writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin is regarded as the first international bestseller. Her home, though less ambitious, is also open to the public.

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Essex – Connecticut, U.S.A

The Perfect Small American Town and its Oldest Inn

Essex is a mint-condition one-traffic-light river town where the dignified revolutionary-era spirit still lingers—and there’s not a fast food joint in sight. The town boasts some of the nation’s best examples of early colonial sight. The town boasts some of the nation’s best examples of early colonial and federal architecture, built when the town was famous and prosperous for shipbuilding, a trade that was first established here in 1645, and flourished until the advent of the rail­roads in the mid-1800s. On Main Street and its narrow back roads, white picket fences frame many landmark buildings that even today remain private homes, while others have been turned into antique and specialty stores.

One of the most celebrated buildings in town is the Griswold Inn, the oldest continu­ously operating inn in Connecticut and one of the oldest in America. First opened in 1776 (and the first three-story building constructed in the state), the Griswold’s heart is its famous, must-visit Tap Room, originally the town’s first schoolhouse, built in 1738 and later relocated here from across town. A potbellied stove sits at its center, and its wood-paneled walls are lined with a prodigious collection of maritime memorabilia and original Currier and Ives prints, the largest such collection in private hands today. Much of the inn’s buzz (not to mention Dixieland jazz and banjo music) emanates from here, a perennial magnet for locals, riverboat folks, yachtmen from Long Island Sound, and nostalgia-seeking landlubbers alike.

Overnighters can hang their hats in any of the handsome guest rooms; many guests stay for the weekend just to be first in line for the inn’s well-known Sunday Hunt breakfast, an enormous affair said to have been initiated by the British who commandeered the inn during the War of 1812. Guests come for the table-groaning buffet (the inn’s sausages are made from a historical recipe), but also for the especially inviting camaraderie that envelopes the inn and reflects the key role the Gris has long played in Essex.