Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Highway is Route 61 -- That's the Real South

Sometimes, my Midwestern heritage makes me think about other cultures that are overlooked in New England where I currently live.  There's a wonderful area of the world that runs between Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans, Louisiana that showcases a magnificent part of American history that where I live is all but forgotten.  The fact that it is forgotten where I am is an awful shame.  Route 61 that runs down the side of the Mississippi River Delta is one of those places that is one of a kind and an adventure for sure.  The famous crossroads of blues at the intersection of Route 61 and Route 49 is in Clarksdale, Mississippi.  This is Ground Zero for the world of blues.

Speaking of Ground Zero, this is it.  This Juke Joint style club is a showcase for true blues musicians, and is one of the most popular blues spots in Clarksdale.  That says a lot, since there are blues joints covering almost every square inch of Clarksdale.  It may not look like much, but it's been on several TV shows on both the Food Network and the Travel Channel.  They serve southern style food and blues music.  If you're lucky, you may even get a chance to meet the owner.

That's right, actor Morgan Freeman is one of the owners of this fine establishment. 
There are many other Juke Joints on Route 61  

This is Po' Monkeys, and it's been in one form or another of existence since 1963.  That's right, it looks like a shack.  They do showcase a lot of local talent though, and the food is down home delicious.
Blues is a culture, and the music is it's voice.  The southern comfort food is it's smell and the people who have lived in this area for generations are it's personality.  You can find any number of wonderful Juke Joints, Blues Clubs, and museum's along this historic road.  

I rarely include a map, but this 250 mile or so stretch of road is amazing.  It's like a trip to another country, and a step back in time.  It really helps you put your own life in perspective.

There's a style to this part of the world, and a personality.  There's a laid back feel that makes everyone comfortable.  People seem a little more real.  Food seems to taste a little better.  The weather matters a little less.  Appearances are not the most important thing.  And sports are the most exciting thing around.
The biggest collection of blues items and music probably in the world is in a little town called Oxford.  Have you heard of it?  If not, then you've never heard of Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi.  In that case, you've probably never paid any attention to football.
Oxford is home to such present and past artists at John Grisham and William Faulkner, but to football fans that can't compare to the fact that Eli Manning and his father Archie Manning call this small town home.  Ole Miss has been the training grounds for some of the NFL's most famous athletes, like the Mannings and Brett Favre.  If that doesn't excite the football fan in you, then come on down for the homecoming game and one of the biggest college weekends anywhere in the country, and certainly in the south.
The football homecoming game at Ole Miss is legendary.  It's the busiest weekend of the year in Oxford, and the tailgating is every bit as great as the game.  For college football fans, this is your mecca and it should not be missed.  Book early, because by the time that weekend comes there will be nowhere to stay.
Now, on the other side of life in Oxford, it's that part of New Orleans that you've missed.  You know when you turn on the TV and see all of those travel people in the French Quarter with no crowds?  Forget about it.  Come to Oxford's historic town square area and enjoy the peace that you can't get in the big easy.  
Somewhere between Memphis and New Orleans is a whole world of music, food, architecture, and college sports that is a wonderland to explore.  It would be an awful shame to miss out on it.  There are a lot of places that people want to go to because they're big, bustling and sophisticated.  Many people rush to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York to see the latest and the most chic.  I say come and try out some tradition and real life atmosphere.  Try out some grass roots music and some down home food.  Meet some people who live their life here because they love it.  Share someone's day instead of staring at things on display.  The south is a wonderful one of a kind place, and it doesn't get any more original than along the blues highway, Route 61. 


Chicago is not the Kind of Place I Would Normally Write About, But...

Above is a picture of Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle.  If you've ever done the right thing as a tourist in Chicago, Illinois, you'll know what that is.  It's one of the most beloved exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry.  It's not alone.  There's also a simulated coal mine to explore, a WWII submarine to tour, and many other things from tornadoes to giant hamster wheels to keep everyone in a family entertained.  It's the most extreme museum of it's kind in the western hemisphere.  I didn't know that as a kid.  I just knew that I was damn impressed.
Was this the reason that I decided to mention Chicago in this blog?  No.  The reason that I decided to mention this is because a friend of mine said that I should talk about some of the more unusual things about Chicago.  She was right.  So here it goes.

Now, everyone's heard of something about Chicago.  Most of us remember Millennium Park from the last presidential campaign.  That park is however, the centerpiece of downtown Chicago and host to many notable events.  
Chicago is also famous for it's sports.  It has them all, and they are all world renowned.  Heck, I've gone to see the Bears a number of times.  I've also spent a lot of time watching the Cubs.
Chicago is also famous for it's music and art.  Jazz, Blues, Rock, and many others ring through the streets downtown at night.  Comedy is big there too.  Many legends of comedy have come from Chicago.  The Art Institute keeps the arts alive and well in the city from painting and sculpture to theater.
 Ferris Wheel, Navy Pier
In reality, Navy Pier is just the beginning.  The reason that I've decided to mention Chicago is because of a couple of the little tours that people should really try.  We all know about the big stuff.  It's the little stuff that makes you feel like an insider.

 Chicago Architectural Cruises
There are a few companies that offer what is called architectural tours along the Chicago River.  This is the kind of city that makes something like that interesting.  Chicago was burned down at the turn of the last century, and then it started to make taller and more inventive buildings, until it became a breeding ground for notable skyscrapers.  These tours take you to up to 40 sites and tell you all about the amazing buildings that you're seeing.  The river is a beautiful place lined with parks as well as giant buildings and criss crossed with draw bridges from days past.  It's a fabulous way to spend an afternoon.  
 Wrigley Building , Tribune Tower , Chicago river , Illinois stock photo
This is the Wrigley Building, a stopover on the tour.
 " Corn cob " buildings in Chicago , Illinois stock photo
This is the world renowned Marina Complex.  All of these buildings and so much more are on these little river tours.  They are a great way to spend the afternoon.  It's relaxing and the view is positively indescribable.  It's a little gem of a thing to do in a town that can quickly get out of control with touristy things that everyone else is doing.
 Chicago Pizza Tour
Here's another one to remember.  Chicago Pizza Tours takes you to several of the most notable pizzeria's in the city, and let's you not only taste them all, but also let's you go behind the scenes and see how they're made.  If you're not on a diet, and love pizza, then this tour is for you.  Chicago is famous for Chicago Style Pizza, but a lot of people don't realize that the city is full of different styles of pizza and is ground zero for the true pizza lover.  I don't endorse a tour very often, but this one is great.  
   Pizano's is only one of the amazing places that you'll see how the pizza is made and get a slice of heavenly pizza.  Really, this one is a can't miss if you love pizza.
So, if this is the view that drew you to Chicago, then take the time to appreciate it.  The sports are great, the shopping is magnificent, and the museums are some of the best in the world; it's the view that puts the city over the top.  It's the food that makes you remember not only how it looked, but how it smelled.  Take the time to look at her buildings and taste her most famous food.  Then, and only then have you truly experienced Chicago.
Chicago is one of those places that will stay with you for a lifetime.  I was blessed to grow up near such a wonderful place.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Honduras? Why? Let Me Tell You About Something...

Early evening sunlight over the beach huts at Roatan's Cocoview Resort.  Isn't this beautiful?  This is Roatan, one of the islands of Honduras.  This is an island that boasts being one of the best dive spots in the world.  There are tons of guides and businesses that will help you go diving on this wonderful little island.  There are several wonderful resort hotels, such as Palmetto Bay and Infinity Bay.

The island of Roatan is only three miles wide and is the top of an undersea mountainous coral reef like environment.  The water is crystal clear, the wildlife is amazing to look at under the water, the coral is beautiful and vibrant, and the water runs deep for plenty of fun and investigation.
Diving can be done for under $100 dollars a day if you know what you're doing and where to get all the best deals.
But, why am I writing one of my blogs about something that would take a lot of training to do?  Scuba at this level takes a lot of training and experience.  Do I recommend it?  Sure I do, because it's a fabulous way to look at the world underneath us, which is just as amazing as looking at space.  Is it something that I focus on for my blog?  No.
Here's the thing that anyone should try when visiting Roatan.  They have a unique experience, one that can only happen there.  They have a submarine that you can go in.  I don't mean one of the tourist subs that Hawaii, a lot of the rest of the Caribbean and Mallorca have invested in to take tourists out and show them Nemo swimming around a reef or looking at ship wrecks.  
 thumbs luke  001 Submarine Photos
This is Idabel.  She's got room for two passengers plus the captain to ride, and she goes theoretically to 3,000 feet deep.  So far, the deepest that she's gone is reportedly 2,660 feet, but she's a safe ride.  Karl Stanley, Captain extraordinaire, helped design and build this fabulous underwater vessel, and he takes tourists on the ride of a lifetime to fund his underwater research.  There are a few different dives that can be purchased.  The perk here is that not only do you get to go in a submarine, but you get to dive deep enough that the subs lights need to be used to see the deep water creatures that live in the dark recesses of the ocean.  It's not the usual trip, folks.  You get to do what the researchers do.  You get to see things that most other people will never get to see.
 thumbs may18  005 Animal Life Photos thumbs purple octopus Animal Life Photos thumbs birthday  013 Animal Life Photos thumbs birthday  022 Animal Life Photos
thumbs may18  004 Animal Life Photos thumbs devon  003 Animal Life Photos thumbs white starfish Animal Life Photos thumbs flytrap anemone Animal Life Photos
All of this, and so much more awaits you under the sea.  There are excursions available that go as deep as 2,000 feet.  There's really no where else on Earth that you can get that close up a view of the actual deep sea world as a tourist.  I can't believe that it's been kept so quiet.  It's definitely something that anyone can do and everyone should.
So, if you happen to find yourself in picturesque Roatan off the coast of Honduras, don't forget to check out the Roatan Institute of Deep Sea Exploration, and take part in researching the world undersea that we still know way too little about.  Captain Karl will be happy to introduce you to his world.
  So, wanna get away?  This is the view that will be only the beginning of your undersea adventure.  Even if you are a diver, you'll want to go even deeper in Idabel, and see what you haven't been able to in a dive suit.  You only live once.  Do it right.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Eze, Modern Meets Past

  I don't gush about little towns much, but there's this place in France called Eze.  I saw this on TV years ago, and I've never lost interest in this place.  It's a tiny medieval town not far from Nice on the French Riviera.  I have to give them an A+ for location.
Eze has been around for hundreds of years.  This place has been home to Moors, Christian Crusaders, and it's even belonged to Genoa before.  Now it is a tourist attraction, but I have to mention it, because its a really good one.  The buildings here look like they've all been carved out of caves.  They may have been, for all I know.  There are castle ruins on the tippy top of the town, and beautiful churches to look at that come from medieval times.  The streets are all still made of stone, and there is no room for cars.  You must park outside the village to come in.  There are very few residents in this tiny village.  Most of what you see are shops and restaurants, with some top of the line perfumeries and a fabulous hotel called Chateau Eze.  The view from the hotel alone is worth the trip.
The beautiful little village sits near Nice and Monaco on the coast of France. The area was once ruled by the King of Monaco. There are many activities in the area that are coastal related like boating and the beach.  But there are also some unique things that they do around Eze.  There is paragliding, and spelunking in the caves below the village.  
You will have to go to a tour agency to do these things, but what other time in your life will you paraglide off of a 427 foot high cliff over the French Riviera?  I think it's worth it.
The little cave like shops and restaurants are amazing to look at, much less to visit and shop in.

Even though the merchandise isn't hundreds of years old, the shops look like they are.  The streets are so narrow, you have to walk.  Eze - Tiny street

Not far from the castle ruins is a wonderful botanic garden which would remind most people of something that they would see in Arizona.  It sits high atop a cliff with cactus and a fabulous view of the Mediterranean.  I can't stress how great the view is from this little village.
So, if you want to get a little out of the way while wandering the French Riviera, Eze is a great spot for that.  I do recommend that you don't go there in the high summer season.  The off seasons of Spring and Fall are the best and least crowded times to go.  The main thing is, if you love something kitchy, you like history, and you love a good view--go to Eze.  Let the people of the locals shops, restaurants and hotels treat you like royalty, and relax, stroll and enjoy the view without the interference of cars, buses, taxis, trains, planes, or boats.  Take a glide, climb a cliff, play some golf, or check out the caves below the 427 foot high village.  Just remember, you know it's worth it when your view before you go to bed looks like this:
   Enough said.  Buy a ticket to Nice and rent a car to drive to Eze.


Thursday, August 9, 2012

Just in Case You Want Some Tips on DC

Just returning from my latest fairly local adventure.  My family wanted to see Washington DC, a place that I have been to many times, but hadn't visited in almost 20 years.  So, while we were down there checking out the old and the new, I came across some really good information.
My first tip:  Take the subway.  I cannot stress how awful it is to park a car in downtown DC.  It was awful years ago, and it hasn't gotten any better.  Drive to DC.  It's way better than flying and you will need your car for other things.  However, you have to learn how to use the metro in DC.  They have a pricing system like nothing I've ever seen on a subway system.  The thing is priced like a train, but runs like a subway.  Here's the thing.  There are different prices for each trip, dependent on distance.  There can also be an exit fare, which made no sense to me.  There are also more expensive times, such as rush hours.  Because of this system, there are ticket machines inside the turnstiles in case you don't have the money on your ticket to exit the subway.  It's weird, and if anyone in DC reads this, think about that.  So, your best bet is to spend $35 and get a week pass.  This gives you the freedom to go wherever you want to for a week.  For my money, definitely a deal.
Tip #2:  Smithsonian Museums.  You need to make sure that you have transportation, because one of the most loved museums of the Smithsonian has put most of its best stuff in Virginia.  That's right, the Air and Space Museum isn't the fun it used to be, because the Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center has all the best stuff, and it's in Chantilly, Virginia.  The space shuttle, the Concorde, and the Enola Gay, as well as numerous other historic air vessels are located there.  You can't take the subway, so you need to drive, and watch out because they hit you with a $15 parking fee.  Be aware, you need to go there.  It's magnificent, and worth all the fuss.
Tip #3:  Be careful about making tour reservations for government buildings online.  I booked my tour of the Capitol Building online and when we got there, it wasn't valid.  There are many sites that say that they book tours, but only the government site really does it.  The problem here is that there are other sites claiming to be the government site.  The problem here is miniscule.  When we got to the Capitol Building, there was no problem getting on the very next tour anyway.  It's all a big hassle for nothing.  It damages the ideal of the whole tour, but that quickly passes when you see the magnificence that is the Capitol Building.  The only catch is, if you want to go into the galleries, you must go across the street to the congressional offices and get a pass from your local congressman.  It's easy and barely takes any time, and well worth the effort.
Tip #4:  Do the museums during the day and take on the rest of the town at night.
Any fool who's ever been to DC can tell you that the first thing they learned about the town was where the bad parts are, and most often they learned it the hard way.  So, once you know where the bad areas are, you can avoid them and enjoy nightlife in the city.  If you don't already know, don't go to the northeast section after dark.  One of my favorite things to do is go to the monuments at night--take a walk on the mall.  It's beautiful and perfectly safe.  The Lincoln Memorial is open late and is very photogenic.  
Another one of my favorite spots at night is Chinatown.  I know that in most cities, Chinatown has a somewhat sketchy reputation, but in DC it's a lot of fun and the food is spectacular.  It's easy to find with its own well decorated subway station, and the food is more than just Chinese.  This visit we went to a great hole in the wall restaurant with Burmese food.  It was great.
Here was my favorite nighttime thing to do in DC.  In the summer, which unfortunately is about done for this year, they have movies on the mall.  HBO comes out and sets up free movies right in front of the Smithsonian Castle.  We watched Psycho right on the mall, picnic style.  It was just like being in a small town, but we were in DC.  I can't say enough good things about this program and I hope they keep it forever.
Tip#5:  Don't miss the Old Post Office Pavilion.  This place is old and falling out of favor, but you can still go up in the tower and have some of the best views in town.  It's the only place that you can get an upper level view of DC that's public and it's free.
Tip #6:  Where to eat?  Well, this can be a conundrum.  I spent a whole lot of time trying to find good places that weren't too high priced.  What did I discover?  They aren't on the internet.  My best advice is to ask the people who work at your hotel.  Other advice is as follows:
Eat in Chinatown.
Don't try food courts.
Give up on the waterfront areas.
Don't go to a chain restaurant.
Find a kitchy neighborhood and pick out a restaurant.
Eat at a food truck.
We went to Dupont Circle.  This is an awful place to drive and the metro station tends to close for irrational disasters, but the shopping and the food is great.  They have all kinds of exotic fare, seeing as they are the beginning of Embassy Row.  It's one of my best recommendations.
Tip #7:  Take time to do the unusual.  There's a place called the Hillwood Estate.  This was my unusual event for this trip.  It's way out in the northwest end of the city in a residential neighborhood with no embassies.  It's, for the city, in the middle of nowhere.  It was a great break from all the national buildings and it broke up the trip for us.  We did have to pay to get in, which the Smithsonians do not charge, but it was well worth it.  A hidden gem.  It has the largest collection of Russian artifacts outside of Russia.  I expected to see Faberge Eggs and Kolkova, but what I didn't expect was all of the original portraits of the Tsars.  It was amazing and so were the gardens.  Well worth getting off the beaten path in DC.
My last tip:  Although I recommend getting off the beaten path a little bit, watch out for the tourist traps.  We went to the highly publicized International Spy Museum.  What a trap.  It was foolish, cramped and full of annoying people.  The most entertaining part of the whole place was the replica of a Bond car.  Not worth the time at all.  So, if you've heard about them on TV, or if they have a hyped up website, they probably aren't worth the exorbitant price that you will pay to visit them.
So, to wrap it up, take the subway, make sure you have a car, avoid tourist traps (which can include some tours), ask about restaurants, don't worry about scheduling tours of the Capitol Building, and catch a movie in the park.  Utilize those Smithsonians, don't be afraid to go out at night, and wear sensible shoes.  The walking is so famous that there are souvenirs that say "I walked my feet off in DC". 



Thursday, August 2, 2012

Monasteries in the Clouds

On my travels around the world, I missed this one, but there are the special few who have taken the time and have told me that it was abundantly worth it.  So, while in Greece, I recommend getting out of Athens and off the islands for a little while and visiting a surreal place where the rocks jut straight up out of the ground and have monasteries on top.  This is the Meteora area of Greece in the center of the mainland.
Now, it would be amazing to see one monastery perched on top of the spires of Meteora, but at one time there were at least a dozen.  There are still six that are active and accessible.  That's amazing.  I hear that there are two that everyone should visit.  The first is Moni Megalou Meteorou, or Metamorphosis  .

The other is Moni Agia Triada, or Holy Trinity.

Metamorphosis is the biggest and sits atop a 2,000 foot spire.  It's church is full of frescoes depicting martyrs and their deaths.  There is a collection of skulls and other bones that are displayed for public viewing.  It's an interesting look and the monks view on death and martyrdom.  It is a little graphic, but well worth a look.
Holy Trinity is currently home to only two monks who love to have visitors.  They will show you around personally and show you where all the best views are.  They serve tea and candy and tell stories about the old days when the monastery was far busier.  Although the atmosphere is vastly different than at Metamorphosis, it is harder to get to with narrow steep stairs and it's quite a climb to the top.

Meteora is located in the Thessaly region of Greece.  You can grab a tour bus in Trikala.  It's approximately 5 hours from Athens.  It's a great day trip into the uncommon.  Make sure you bring your camera, but make sure you don't wear anything offensive.  The monks prefer that visitors come dressed conservatively as part of their religious beliefs.  Check ahead for the hours, or you may be surprised to hear that they are closed for one reason of another, and have wasted a trip.  Also, be prepared to climb some steps.  It's not easy getting to most of the monasteries.  Face it, the reason that they're so interesting is because they are perched on top of 2,000 foot spires.
So, be prepared to walk, dress accordingly and spend some time on the road from Athens.  Take your camera and a little cash to get in and have the driving, climbing, and cultural visit of a lifetime with a view that you'll never see again.  Embrace the spires of Meteora, or suspended in the air and take a little walk on the unusual side.
  Don't miss it!