Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Solstice

Here are some thoughts about the year’s coldest season on this, its first day:

I love how it begins with evergreen boughs on mantles, lighted trees in village squares, carols on the radio, and people knowing that life’s greatest joys come from giving rather than receiving.

I love its chilly mornings when fog clings to the surfaces of ponds.

I love sitting outside on those mornings drinking hot black coffee.

I love watching Sarah try to catch snowflakes on her tongue during our winter vacation.

I love driving across California’s High Sierra between snow drifts so deep they soar above cars and turn roadways into tunnels of white.

I love walking through Appalachian forests that are barren of leaves but laden with snow, and therefore have the appearance of black-and-white photos come to life.

And finally, I love that I can spend a whole day outside in Florida without feeling the need to shower every hour.

So for those who curse the cold: Remember that every season brings beauty, so long as we stop to notice it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Great Places To Drink An Adult Beverage

Several weeks ago I was drinking tasteful craft beers on the patio of a small restaurant in the mountains, and found myself thinking how well that moment captured the essence of vacation. What could be better than parking your arse in a nice setting and indulging in an adult beverage without any agenda to get somewhere by a particular time?

I decided to write about great places to do just that, but quickly realized there are so many such places that culling the list to an arbitrary number and assigning first-second-third rankings is a fool’s errand. So instead, I will make this a recurring topic and each time offer up five recommendations in alphabetical order. On this day, here are the five that come to mind.

Hog’s Breath Saloon; Key West, FL

On an island packed with places to imbibe, few feel as genuine and down-to-earth as the Hog’s Breath. Yes, that seems odd when you consider that its logo is known around the world, that it is on Duval Street’s tourist strip, and that the original Hog’s Breath is 800 miles away. But, it is true nonetheless.

This is the place on Duval that draws the most locals. It has bars both indoors and outdoors, though I prefer the latter because when you sit outside on a sunny afternoon sipping a margarita, it feels as close to perfect as you can get -- and it feels equally close to perfect when you sit outside at night downing a beer while the band plays Grateful Dead tunes. And unlike nearby Sloppy Joe’s, the Hog’s Breath does not overhype its history to the point that its present seems like a caricature.

Jack of the Wood Public House; Asheville, NC

I have consumed good, strong beers at this pub on multiple occasions over the past decade, and it is where I was sitting when the idea for this blog was born 11 months ago. Everything about Jack of the Wood screams Old World, from the wooden furnishings to the cozy contours to the earthy visages on its walls. It offers a connoisseur’s menu of single-malt Scotches and specialty bourbons, but even more impressive are its own Green Man Ales, which pour from its taps in styles running the gamut from black stouts to summer-style golds. Musicians, some from as far away as Central Europe, come here to pluck out acoustic tunes that range from Celtic to bluegrass. There is nothing here not to like.

McClure’s Beach, California

Technically, drinking alcohol on McClure’s Beach is not allowed because it is part of Point Reyes National Seashore. But this is a remote spot where you might be the only person for miles, so don’t worry. Just slip a libation into your backpack (a flask of good bourbon should do the trick, as should one of those small bottles of red wine from a grocery store four-pack) and make your way north of San Francisco to the small town of Inverness. Then, drive up the ridges of the Coastal Range on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard until Pierce Point Road turns off to the right.

At the end of Pierce Point Road, a half-mile hiking trail will lead you down chaparral-covered slopes to the Pacific, where the shoreline is backstopped by cliffs as far as you can see. The ocean roars constantly as waves smash against immense rocks and roil in the surf, creating an image that is stunning both visually and auditorily. Sit down and take in the awesome scene while sipping in solitude, and you’ll get a feeling that mere words can not describe. (Don’t go into the water, however -- the riptides here are potentially fatal.)

McSorley’s Ale House, New York City

Abraham Lincoln once drank here. So did John Lennon. Located in the East Village, McSorley’s opened in 1854 and does not appear to have been significantly upgraded since then. Small and dim with sawdust on the floor, this is a place whose wall decorations include newspaper clippings of the stories that announced it was going to start allowing women -- in 1970. McSorley’s has its own brand of ale and serves no others, so when you open your mouth to order, you will be asked one simple question: “Light or dark?” You want authenticity and atmosphere? You got ’em.

The Vegas Strip

I’m not talking about any particular spot on Las Vegas Boulevard. I am talking about Las Vegas Boulevard itself. Here you can get an adult beverage in one place, then depart with your glass in hand and consume it as you mosey down the street -- and when it runs dry, you simply walk into the next place and they will fill that same glass with whatever you order.

Although I try to steer away from touristy areas, in favor of those that “keep it real,” I still find that there is something very appealing about Vegas’s unapologetic over-the-top excess. And I don't even like to gamble! You have to walk the strip before you die, and I recommend you do so wearing flip-flops and drinking a glass of chilled pinot grigio to combat the desert heat. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Still here...

Now that the weather is cooling and Florida is entering what I consider to be its "camping season," this is the month I intended to write a series of posts about its state parks that have especially good campgrounds. However, life has been so busy that I haven't had the time to write it, and this morning we're leaving for MagniolaFest at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park.

After we return home next week, I will check to see if the state parks I was planning to write about still have good availability in their campgrounds between now and early spring. If so, I will write that series and start posting it in the near future. Otherwise, my next post will be about something else.

In the meantime, if you are within "striking distance" of North Florida, and don't have any plans this weekend, and enjoy listening to music in the jam-band/bluegrass/Americana/zydeco/folk categories, consider coming out to MagnoliaFest yourself. There were still tickets available as of yesterday, and if you're unsure about the music I mentioned, you can at least trust me when I say the people watching will be superb.

Now, I'm signing off to finish packing the car!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Autumn Equinox

Some thoughts about autumn on this, its first day:

I love stepping outside on that first morning that fall’s nip is in the air.

I love how changing leaves turn Appalachian mountainsides into fiery palettes of orange, red, and gold.

I love driving winding roads through those mountains, catching glimpse after glimpse of falling leaves as they twirl their way to the ground.

I love cold nights marked by the scent of campfire and the sound of wind in the trees.

I love watching my daughter skip through the pumpkin patch looking for the perfect one to bring home.

I love walking behind her as she trick-or-treats on Halloween night.

I love pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day, and how it sets the ideal tone to start the Christmas season.

I love watching flocks of birds land in Florida at the end of their migration, while others keep flying to points further south.

And last but not least, I love football, especially college games where the fans are loud and the bands are blaring…and most of all, where Auburn is winning and the fight song you keep hearing begins with the line: “War Eagle, fly down the field, ever to conquer, never to yield!”

Friday, September 4, 2009

New York Nexus

With September 11th upon us, it is only fitting to be thinking of New York. If you find yourself there, do not hesitate to do the usual tourist things. Go to the top of Rockefeller Center for a bird’s eye view of the city. Catch a Broadway show. Get your picture taken with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop.

And of course, go to Ground Zero, stand on the sidewalk, look at the pavement on Church Street...and understand that it is the very pavement onto which people leapt hundreds of feet to their deaths on that horrendous morning in 2001.

But then it is time to depart from the usual tourist circuit by making the short walk to my favorite New York City nexus. To do this, you head one block east to Broadway and two blocks south to Wall Street’s western terminus, directly across from Trinity Chapel:

Then, you walk through Trinity’s cemetery and take note of its eroded, centuries-old headstones. Make your way to the cemetery's southern edge and you will find the final resting place of a Founding Father, for there, marked by a modest obelisk, sits the grave of Alexander Hamilton. When we were there, somebody had laid a bouquet at its base:

Right beside Hamilton’s grave is that of Robert Fulton, father of the steam engine. Elsewhere in the cemetery is that of William Bradford, who came to the New World on the Mayflower and became the leader of Plymouth Colony.

Leaving Trinity, you cross Broadway and start down surprisingly nondescript Wall Street. Just one block onto it, with Trinity’s steeple looming behind you, you come to the site where George Washington took the oath of office as America’s first president:

And across the street from that site sits the New York Stock Exchange. We’ve all seen the images of frantic traders on the exchange floor, and we know the atmosphere inside must be noisy and stressful and chaotic. But viewed from outside, the exchange building is a picture of serenity that is dwarfed by much of its surroundings. American flags flying beneath its facade of Corinthian columns give it the appearance of a county courthouse from somewhere in the heartland:

Here, within two city blocks, you will have walked in the footsteps of at least four major historical figures, including the father of our country; visited three of their burial sites; stood at the spot where our republic’s executive branch came into existence; and seen the building where more wealth has been created than at any other spot on the planet. And you will have done it in one of the busiest, most ethnically mixed cities in the world.

Here, you get a sense of the real New York, the one of consequence instead of glitz and glamor. Here, you understand why the city is really significant, and you can feel the pulse of human freedom running from the past to the future, coursing through you in the present. You will know you are alive, and I hope you know what I mean.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In the Southern Highlands

In the Cherokee tongue, the phrase god-a-lu-chee means “wave upon wave of mountains,” and once you know that, it is easy to understand why so many places in Western North Carolina have come to bear the name Cataloochee. In every direction you look, you see long, tall mountains rolling skyward like titanic waves on a mythical sea.

All the Cataloochees I’ve visited are worth experiencing, but the one you won’t find in any guidebook turns out to be the one where you should stay throughout your trip to these mountains. Known simply as Cataloochee Mountain Cabin, it sits in a wooded enclave that is far enough from town that you’re well into the country, yet close enough that getting to town is easy. Pictures do not do it justice, but here is one I took in January 2008:

Pehaps best of all, the cabin seems to be within 30 minutes of everywhere. Hop in the car and it will not take you long to wind up in any of the places mentioned below.

* * * *

Cataloochee Valley: A high altitude valley in the remote eastern reaches of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this was once the site of a thriving pioneer community. Today its most prominent citizens are bears and elk, which are commonly seen in the fields and forest borders during the morning and late afternoon hours. Traces of the old community remain -- including churches, a schoolhouse, and a cemetery -- but nature rules.

Cataloochee Ski Area: Perched high atop Boyd Mountain, the state’s most dependable ski area has opened its season as early as October for three years running. It has 16 trails ranging from beginner’s slopes to expert runs, and also has a freestyle terrain park. Equipment rental rates are very reasonable, as are food and drink prices in the lodge.

Waynesville: This small town has an immaculate Main Street that is lined with a variety of independent shops and restaurants. In my opinion, the most noteworthy merchant is the three-story Mast General Store, which offers everything from cutting-edge outdoor gear to cheap toys from yesteryear.

Downtown Asheville: Some love it for its sidewalk cafes near the Vance Monument, or its smattering of locally owned coffee shops. Others love it for its abundant art galleries, or the smorgasbord of festivals it features throughout each year. Others love it for its Old World pubs and eclectic eateries. But the bottom line is, everybody loves it.

Biltmore Estate: Though it was built more than a century ago, the palatial “summer home” of George Vanderbilt III is still the largest house in America and still privately owned. Today tourists pay to walk through its grand rooms, but no matter how impressive they are, the house is just one speck on this 8,000-acre estate which includes restaurants, a winery, world class gardens, and 80 miles of equestrian paths. Float trips on the French Broad River are available as well.

Ghost Town in the Sky: If you have kids (or think of yourself as one) this western-themed amusement park is the place for you. Ride a chair lift 3,300 feet up and over Buck Mountain to arrive in a world where roller coasters, drop towers, Indian dances, staged shootouts, and hourly bluegrass concerts are the norm.

* * * *

While it is wonderful that Cataloochee Mountain Cabin offers ready access to so many fine places, what should not be overlooked is that it is a fine destination in and of itself. One of its porches has a picnic table and grill, which is wired into the cabin’s gas line so you don’t need to worry about running out of propane while you’re cooking. Its other porch has a bench swing and multiple chairs, and is ideal for relaxing with a book in the clean mountain air. And if that’s not relaxing enough, you can take your book to a hammock in the yard:

The cabin is big enough for families and small groups (our crew of four adults and three kids had more than enough room) but it is also cozy enough and inexpensive enough that it would feel just right for a couple on a romantic getaway. It has three bedrooms, two baths, and a living room whose defining feature is a middle-of-the-room fireplace that separates it from the dining room. Unlike other rentals we’ve stayed in, you are actually allowed to use the fireplace, and you don’t need to buy firewood because the owners have a copious supply waiting for you.

Uphill from the cabin you can walk to one of the best views I’ve ever seen, by taking the first left turn on the gravel road and then the first right you come to next. A minute later you will crest the ridge and find yourself gazing over a wide valley rimmed by mountains. Meanwhile, downhill from the cabin is a pasture with donkeys that will calmly eat from your hands, and a pond where Canada geese like to hang out.

In other words, if you don’t feel like driving to one of the area’s renowned wilderness trails, there is decent enough hiking right here. And if you are here when it snows in the winter, Cataloochee’s sloping driveway (the cabin is situated below the road) makes for the perfect sledding hill.

With a fully equipped kitchen at your disposal, you can stock up on groceries and prepare some of your own meals, which saves money compared to eating every meal out. And with a washer and dryer at your disposal, you can pack fewer clothes and won’t have to be overly cautious about not getting them dirty when you’re in the outdoors.

To top it all off, the owners are accommodating and very easy to work with. Regardless of whether you’ve been to Western North Carolina dozens of times or zero times, you will find that Cataloochee Mountain Cabin is the perfect place to stay. To inquire, go here. And in closing, here is a picture of it in the early fall.

The picture immediately above, and the one of the hammock, are courtesy of the owner.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Best Breakfast Restaurants

Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, yet I rarely eat it because I am always hustling to the office early, thinking only about the mountain of work awaiting me. It just doesn’t feel like there is any time to sit down and eat a meal at the beginning of a workday, and even if I did eat one, thinking about the waiting work would prevent me from enjoying it.

So I tend to savor every minute of breakfast when I am on vacation. I love its freshness. I love its distinct flavors and aromas, and the relaxed feeling of drinking coffee while waiting for it to be served. I love the promise it holds as the beginning of a day on which you can do whatever you want -- a day on which you are liberated from schedules and deadlines.

And here, in alphabetical order, are five of my favorite places in America to eat my favorite meal.

Alexander’s Country Inn; Ashford, WA

Set amidst a dark green forest a mile from Mount Rainier National Park, this historic inn (Theodore Roosevelt once stayed here) has a restaurant which stands out as one of the most memorable culinary gems Erika and I have ever encountered. Its locally focused menu changes with the seasons and features high-end dishes at modest prices. When we were there several years ago I had salmon quiche for breakfast -- which sounds odd, but turned out to be the single best breakfast I have ever eaten, anywhere. As we dined at a window seat, mule deer grazed on the lawn right on the other side of the glass.

And on a side note, if you’re planning on spending the day hiking, Alexander’s will prepare a big boxed lunch for you to take with you when you depart. When we left breakfast, we took one for each of us at a cost of just $5 each. A few hours later we were eating those lunches while sitting above timberline and staring out at glorious alpine peaks.

Café Eleven; St. Augustine, FL

On the outside it looks like a convenience store (which it once was) and on the inside it looks like a funky modern bistro (which it now is). Five miles south of downtown and across the street from the ocean, Café Eleven offers a breakfast menu with five sandwiches, nine entrees, and nine sides, plus a good variety of coffees and teas. Erika is partial to the Praline French Toast and I am partial to the Café Omelet. However, the next time we go I think I’ll have to try The Scramble, which consists of scrambled eggs with cheddar and asiago cheese, peppers, mushrooms, and onions on top of homefries, with a choice of white, wheat or rye toast. And if looking at the décor and layout makes you think this place would be good at night, you are correct, for that is when it transforms into a live music venue serving craft and import beers plus wines from around the globe.

First Watch; Multiple Locations

Typically, I am against recommending chain restaurants to travelers. But there are exceptions to every rule, and in the case of First Watch I would be remiss not to recommend it. I remember when this plucky little chain consisted of just a handful of eateries scattered across the Tampa Bay area, but today it has 75 locations in 11 states reaching as far north as Pennsylvania and as far west as Arizona. That means you don’t have to be in just one place to experience First Watch, and its expansion has been accomplished without any sacrifice in quality.

Menu options that are big on both flavor and health have always been a First Watch trademark (we once saw Derek Jeter eating in one) but that does not mean the menu has no guilty pleasures, for alongside banana-crunch-with-granola pancakes they also offer chocolate chip pancakes. Personally, I favor the Breakfast Scramble -- a croissant topped with scrambled eggs, ham, and melted cheese, topped with hollandaise and served with fresh fruit on the side. No matter what you choose, however, you will leave satisfied and ready to seize the day.

Mud Street Café; Eureka Springs, AR

Situated below street level, in a brick building that was constructed in 1888 -- in a mountaintop town that ranks as the highest in Arkansas -- about 50 feet from an auditorium where concerts have been performed by everybody from John Phillip Sousa to Willie Nelson -- Mud Street Café is certainly unique. It won 16 awards between 1997 and 2007, and has been mentioned in publications as diverse as Southern Living and the San Francisco Chronicle. It offers 19 different coffees and 17 different teas, and whips up everything from scones to muffins to Greek omelets to sour cream blueberry pancakes. A large oak bar centers the dining room, local artwork adorns the walls, and the carpet is Victorian. There is nothing here not to like.

The Old Chickahominy House; Williamsburg, VA

Miss Melinda’s pancakes are 10 inches in diameter. The Virginia ham tastes every bit a salty as one of those blocks that horses lick in their stalls. A beverage called the Special Rebel Cocktail is a combination of tomato juice, hot sauce, and beer. The restaurant occupies a white clapboard building that has three stories, three dining rooms, four dormer windows, and is bookended by a pair of chimneys. And there is an antique shop to boot. And Williamsburg’s history-soaked colonial section is just 1½ miles away. When it comes to The Old Chickahominy House, need I say more?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Real Treasure Isle

There really is a place called Treasure Island, and it really does claim to have pirates in its history. On a recent Thursday evening, we sat there on a fourth floor balcony and watched a blue sky melt to orange under the influence of the setting sun.

The next two days were spent swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.

And walking on the beach.

And doing whatever else we wanted without a care in the world. It was many people’s idea of the perfect long-weekend getaway, and for me it was also a chance to experience Treasure Island the way tourists do, rather than as just one of the many pieces in the urban puzzle where I grew up.

Treasure Island is one of eleven barrier islands lined up just offshore in the most densely populated county in Florida. From pretty much anywhere in Pinellas County (which includes the cities of St. Petersburg and Clearwater) all you have to do is drive west and you will eventually find a bridge that takes you across to one of the islands, most of which are linked together by bridges themselves. Situated in the southern half of this chain, Treasure Island is less than four miles long and most of its hot spots are located north of Central Avenue -- in other words, it’s small enough that if you want to walk everywhere and not get back in the car until your trip is over, you can do just that.

As much fun as you can have parasailing and jet skiing here, in my opinion the biggest outdoor attractions are simply being in the water and waking across the beach to get there. The water’s warmth and tranquility make this a superior destination for swimming, and the beach’s soft sand and third-of-a-mile width are enough to make any beach bum drool.

And there is no shortage of places to wine and dine, with Gators claiming to have the longest waterfront bar on earth and The Floridian serving up very satisfying food at very reasonable prices. But Sloppy Joe’s is our favorite, largely because of this Happy Hour special: a 100-ounce beer for $10, served in a tapped tower with floating ice bags to keep it cold. Happy Hour also offers up a fishbowl margarita the size of four regulars, for just $10 as a well drink or $12 as a top-shelf.

Oh, and Sloppy Joe’s also serves food. And it has live music with a small dance floor, which might have been placed there for inebriated adults, but also attracts kids -- which was great for our party of 35, because having the young ones drawn to the dance floor allowed us to have some “grown up time.” And in case you’re wondering, yes, this Sloppy Joe’s is owned by the same folks who own the one in Key West.

On its northern shore, Treasure Island ends at a strait known as John’s Pass, across which sits the island of Madeira Beach. It is worth heading across the short bridge over the pass, because as soon as you reach the other side you will find John’s Pass Village, an eclectic bunch of shops, restaurants, and ice cream parlors centered around a long boardwalk. Once there you can stop by The Friendly Fisherman to eat seafood, and by King’s to buy $10 boogie boards that will come in very handy when the waves are good.

There are plenty of places to stay on Treasure Island but I give my hands-down recommendation to the South Beach Condo Resort, where we and many of our friends have stayed each of the last two years. Its rates are in the ballpark of your average hotel, despite the fact it is much nicer than your average hotel. And because so many of us rent there for our Beach Weekend, the property managers have given us discounts each time, so keep that in mind if you’re thinking of coming for a family reunion or wedding or anything else that will bring a crowd.

As you may already know, most beach hotels tend to be worn down and weathered as a result of all that salt spray and wind, but at South Beach every unit is clean and spacious. Plus, each one has a full kitchen, a washer/dryer, and an oceanfront balcony. Below are pictures of the one we rented this year: two bedrooms branched off the hallway in the top photo, and at the end of that hallway everything opened up to the living room in the bottom photo.

And finally, what was that I said back at the beginning, about Treasure Island claiming to have pirates in its history? Well, as the story goes, back in the 1800’s the island was bigger and a pirate named John LeVeque stopped here and hid a chest filled with Spanish doubloons and Pieces of Eight. In 1848 he decided to put the dangers of piracy behind him, and so he returned here to recover the loot; however, a hurricane arrived first and split the island in two at the exact spot where the treasure was stashed, washing it away forever. The resulting waterway is the same John’s Pass I mentioned above -- and as you might have guessed, it was named after LeVeque and Treasure Island was named after his missing loot.

How much of that story is true and how much is utter BS, I have no idea. But I do know that regardless of whether you are young or old, married or single, with kids or without them, you are sure to enjoy this place when you come.

Note: The "beer tower" photo was taken by Denise.

Update, 6/27/10: We jut returned from our 2010 Beach Weekend, and I am sad to report that Sloppy Joe's no longer has the 100-ounce beer for $10. But Treasure Island is just as fun without it, and Sloppy Joe's is still a good place to spend Happy Hour, with or without the kids.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Summer Solstice

Those who know me are very aware that I do not like hot weather. However, there are still things I enjoy about summer, and surprisingly, some of them are specific to this sweat-soaked state in which I live. So here are some thoughts on summer’s first day:

I love opening the season with our annual Beach Weekend.

I love Independence Day.

I love that there is one time of year when I am able to prefer chilled white wine over room temperature red wine.

I love when evening breezes carry the sweet scent of orange blossoms across Florida.

I love watching swallow-tailed kites, one of my favorite birds of prey, as they soar in the air and seem to stay up there forever without flapping their wings.

Anywhere that fireflies live, I love watching them illuminate the woods at dusk.

I love the dramatic pulse of Florida’s afternoon storms, when black clouds darken the sky and spew lighting and thunder and unleash torrents of blinding rain – only to blow away and be replaced by sunny skies in less than an hour.

And finally, though this would be true any time of year, I love San Diego.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Tucked Below

“Mommy, Mommy, it’s a baby bat!” Sarah squealed, skipping excitedly from the spot where the critter was roosting to the spot where Erika was standing. Of course, it wasn’t a baby – it’s just that four-year-olds don’t realize how small most bats are, and in Sarah’s mind that tiny furball couldn’t possibly be a grown-up.

Somewhere above us, Smoky Mountain forests were getting sprinkled with rain. Beside us, an underground river was making the same rushing sound as the streams on the surface. We were somewhere few tourists bother to go: Inside the earth rather than on it.

Back in the early 1800’s, settlers in Tennessee noticed that a particular cove was quick to dry out after it rained, so they named it Dry Valley. Because the area around a nearby sinkhole was blessed with eternally cool air, women went there during the summer months to sew.

During one heavy rain in the middle of that century, sawmill workers watched large volumes of water flow into the sinkhole. Because it did not fill up the way they expected, one of the workers decided to scour the hole closely. And what he found there, beneath years of accumulated debris, was a small opening to a large cave.

It turned out that Dry Valley’s dryness was the result of water draining into the cave, and it turned out that the cool air women had enjoyed for so long was the result of silent, continuous drafts escaping from it.

The cave came to be known as Tuckaleechee Caverns, and it was opened to the public in 1953 by two locals who had explored it as kids, Bill Vananda and Harry Myers. They built a gift shop over the sinkhole and piped in that cold air – always 58 degrees – to provide natural AC.

Today, visitors enter Tuckaleechee through the same opening discovered by the sawmill worker, only now they get to do so on a narrow flight of steps. At the bottom, they step into a surreal world of drooping stalactites, pyramiding stalagmites, and wavy flowstones. A path leads in either direction for more than a mile, and along its route the cave is illuminated by electric lighting that is effective but unobtrusive.

What I found most fascinating about Tuckaleechee was the river. It intrigues me that full-blown waterways exist beneath the ground, in netherlands where the sun never shines and foliage never grows. In some spots Tuckaleechee’s river has rapids, in others it flows at a moderate pace, and in one particularly calm spot it has a beach where you are permitted to walk to its edge and dip your hands in, as you can see Sarah doing here:

The river is not the only H2O in the cave, however, for there are several waterfalls here as well. The most noteworthy is Silver Falls, which plummets 200 feet in a pair of cascades. Though only the lower cascade is visible from the path, you are able to see above it into part of the chamber where the upper cascade is located.

Still, for most visitors the highlight of their visit to Tuckaleechee is the cavern known as The Big Room – which is understandable. Located all the way at one end of the path, The Big Room is more than 400 feet long and 300 feet across, with ceilings exceeding 150 feet in height. It is so big, and so devoid of anything you’re used to seeing (such as cars and houses) that you lose your sense of perspective when you’re in it. From the spot where the path ends, we looked across The Big Room to a pair of side-by-side stalagmites that looked much more skinny than tall – only to learn they are each taller than a two-story house, at 22 and 24 feet respectively! Then we looked over the edge to a bulkier stalagmite that looked about the height of an average-sized man – only to have our 6’2” tour guide walk down and stand beside it to show that it’s twice as tall as him.

The entire walk through Tuckaleechee Caverns takes between an hour and an hour-and-a-half. You have to go on a guided tour, and I’m pretty sure insurance issues have something to do with that, but it’s no problem because tours start every half-hour or so and the information shared by the guides enhances your appreciation of the place.

It cost Erika and I $14 apiece, and Sarah was free because she’s under the age of five. I did not notice whether there are discounted rates for schoolchildren or seniors, but even if there aren’t, Tuckaleechee is a good deal for your money and it allows you the satisfaction of knowing you saw something most people never will. More than a million people pass through these parts every year, but an overwhelming majority never stop at the cave because they are headed either to Cades Cove (10 miles away) or the tourist traps of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge (less than 20 miles away).

Do yourself a favor and venture a couple miles off the beaten path to see this place. I guarantee that your trip will be better for having done so. For more information, you may call 865-448-2274 or email

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Head Out to Monterey

Monterey, California is a seaside town that manages to be quaint and sophisticated at the same time, and is inhabited by everybody from artists to anglers and WASPs to Buddhists. In short, it is the kind of microcosm that makes for an ideal vacation destination.

It was very unlike Erika and I to arrive somewhere not having done any research, and not having any real idea what to do while we were there, and not having reserved a place to stay – but that’s exactly what we did when we went to Monterey. It was during our “San Francisco trip,” a phrase I put in quotation marks because we stayed in San Francisco for only two of the trip’s seven nights. The only reason we were even in California is that we decided to go wherever Southwest Airlines was flying for the cheapest fare out of Tampa, and this resulted in us flying into the smallest of the Frisco Bay area’s three international airports.

We wanted to see more than just the city of San Francisco while we were there, and since I was vaguely aware that Monterey is located about an hour to the south, I thought it would be easy to get to. Plus, I knew it hosts a renowned jazz festival every year, so I figured it must be a cool place to check out. And when I looked at the map and realized it sits at the north end of the Big Sur Coastline, which is considered one of the most beautiful stretches of scenery on the entire planet, we decided we had to go.

We got a great deal on lodging because of the simple fact that small inns and bed-and-breakfasts – unlike hotels – rarely get walk-in business. This means that they often give you a significant discount if you show up on a day when they have unreserved rooms that would otherwise sit vacant. We spotted the Merritt House Inn (pictured below) within minutes of driving into town, and when I walked inside and inquired if they had anything available, they knocked 60 percent off the nightly rate without even being asked. We got to spend a couple nights in a large room that had a fireplace, refrigerator, and vaulted ceiling. It overlooked lushly gardened grounds across from the Common Room where complimentary continental breakfasts were served every morning. All that, for less that the price of a cookie cutter room at a Holiday Inn.

One thing that becomes clear soon after you arrive in Monterey is that it is an excellent place to find a good meal. Maybe that is because of the availability of fresh seafood, or the availability of fresh produce from the Salinas Valley, or maybe it’s simply because the people here have good taste and high expectations. At Montrio Bistro, I dined on succulent lamb, Erika reported that the margaritas were superb, and we both agreed it was worth the splurge.

In the northwest part of town, Cannery Row – which was once an industrial strip made famous by the writing of native son John Steinbeck – has been transformed into a tourist-friendly destination comprised of shops, galleries, a blues bar, and all manner of restaurants.

Meanwhile, the Monterey Bay Aquarium appeals to adults and children alike and is home to animals ranging from Giant Pacific Octopus to blackfooted penguin. It offers a host of daily activities ranging from shark feedings to otter training.

If you bring the kids, be sure to take them to the Dennis the Menace Playground. It was built with funds from the comic strip’s creator in the 1950’s, and has been updated several times since. Among its many features are an old steam engine, a climbing wall, a suspension bridge, and a slide that travels all the way down a hillside.

But as neat as the town itself is, you’ll be missing out if you don’t drive south for a day to explore that beautiful coastline I mentioned earlier. When Erika and I did that, our first stop was six miles away at Point Lobos State Reserve, where we watched a harbor seal poke his head above the water in an inlet called Whaler’s Cove. Farther into the reserve, we hiked down to the Pacific and witnessed its crashing waves:

As you continue south on the Pacific Coast Highway, breathtaking views are seen after every twist and turn as mountains rise above oceanfront cliffs. As we neared the Bixby Bridge 15 miles from Point Lobos, I told Erika she might recognize it because it has been the setting for countless movies and car commercials – and lo and behold, when we got there a worker waved us to a stop because they were filming an Audi commercial at that very moment! After we drove across, I took this picture looking back to the north, and even though it was foggy you can still tell how beautiful the coast is:

We stopped at the Big Sur River Inn Restaurant, where we ate lunch surrounded by pristine forest. With our stomachs full, we then moved on to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, about 10 miles from the Bixby Bridge, for our last stop before turning around. While there, we worked off our lunch by walking beneath the redwoods, and Erika took this picture of me appearing very small before one of the ancient giants:

The morning we were to leave town, we decided to take a walk on Old Fisherman’s Wharf before departing. The sky was blue, the air was cool, we saw a sea otter floating on his back – and on the spur of the moment we decided to go whale watching, since there are so many companies on the wharf that will take you for a sail at very reasonable rates. Before long we were standing on a boat with a family from England, a schoolteacher from Canada, and a couple people I only assume were Americans.

The boat carried us past a jetty covered with sea lions, and out into Monterey Bay’s open waters where hundreds of dolphins skipped among the waves on both sides of the bow. We went up and down rolling swells that were big enough to write home about, and eventually a pair of humpback whales came to the surface emitting steam from their blowholes. We got close-up views of their sides and tails, and even though this picture is not as good as the ones in stores, I love it because it’s of the same whale that I saw with my own two eyes:

Just imagine how many memories you’ll be able to make in this place, considering that we arrived not knowing what to do but left with memories that will last a lifetime.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Florida State Parks: Oscar Scherer

A man named Oscar Scherer invented a leather-dyeing process in the 1870’s, and when his daughter passed away in 1955 she deeded the family’s southwest Florida ranch to the state. Today, Oscar Scherer State Park sits three miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, encompassing the ranch property along with adjacent land acquired by the state.

Since I’m recommending Oscar Scherer as a place to visit, it probably seems strange for me to mention that much of it is covered by what I consider Florida’s least appealing kind of terrain: pine flatwoods and scrubby flatwoods. Indistinguishable to the untrained eye, each of these environments is flat as a pool table. Each has pale grass, and each has brush that looks like it belongs in the desert. Trees are so scattered in most flatwoods that you can forget about walking in the shade.

So how does Oscar Scherer make my list? Well, I have always loved seeing wild animals in their natural habitat, and this is an excellent place to do that. It is incredibly easy to spot species ranging from whitetail deer to gopher tortoise to indigo snake while walking through the flatwoods.

This park will always be known as a birdwatcher’s paradise. Bald eagles nest here in winter and sandhill cranes wander the fields. So many varieties of songbirds reside here that the early morning hours sound like a wild symphony when their voices converge.

On a trip earlier this month, my friend Denise took this picture of a pileated woodpecker getting ready to dig his lunch out of an oak:

However, the king of Oscar Scherer’s birds is the scrub jay, a handsome variety rarely seen elsewhere but commonly seen here. My manager at my last job once took a picture of his twelve-year-old son standing on a trail at Oscar Scherer with one of them sitting on his head.

And if you tend to get caught up in how the land looks, there are environments here other than flatwoods. For example, there is the dense, shady hardwood forest that follows South Creek’s gently wending route across the park.

When it comes to recreational opportunities, South Creek offers up fine fishing and paddling. Because it empties into the Gulf of Mexico not far away, it is heavily influenced by the tides and allows fisherman to reel in both freshwater and saltwater species. The park rents canoes for $5 per hour or $25 per day.

15 miles of trails for hiking and biking lace through Oscar Scherer. The flatness makes the hiking easy, but the sandy soil makes the biking a challenge and mountain bikes are recommended.

At the end of the park road is a small lake, with a beach, that’s good for swimming and snorkeling. Not far from that is an informative nature center and a playground the kids are sure to love.

And finally, stretched out along South Creeks’s southern bank in a long narrow loop, is a campground that is often cited as one of Florida’s best for families. Some of the sites are on the small side, but they more than make up for it with the high level of privacy they provide – a gift from the thick foliage of the riverside forest. A playground sits inside the loop near its eastern end.

We camped at Oscar Scherer with some friends in January 2007, and the highlight of that trip will forever be known as Raccoon Theater. Sitting in front of the campfire in a semi-circle, we heard rustling in the underbrush for several minutes, until a pair of raccoons came into view and walked right up to the other side of the fire like they wanted to join us – which they did as soon as they realized they weren’t going to get shooed. Raccoons are known for swiping food, and these were no exception: here’s one of them dining on one of our hot dog buns.

After the coons pilfered our buns, we tossed them marshmallows and smokies, which they gobbled down without a care in the world. Apparently that pair told their friends about our generosity, because the next night we were joined by six or seven of them and the whole scene played out again.

When you’re down this way, Oscar Scherer is a good place to experience Florida in its natural state.

Note: Other than the picture of the raccoon, all of the photographs on this post were taken by Denise (see above for the link to her blog).