Saturday, December 15, 2007

Oak Grove Living Christmas Tree

This is the time of year for many churches across America to erect elaborate scaffolding in the shape of a Christmas tree for their annual Christmas presentations. One of the largest singing Christmas trees is at the Oak Grove Baptist Church in Bel Air, Maryland. The church has performed the Living Christmas Tree 23 years in a row! This unique outreach started in 1985 by music director Ken Tipton with the purpose of reaching the community with the message of Christmas. "This is not just a job, for us it’s a ministry. We do this so we can carry the true message of Christmas, that Jesus Christ came into this world as a baby child to live that through him we to could live," Tipton said in a 1994 interview. That purpose holds true today with the new choir director Steve Poole.

The tree was designed by Bob Wilson, an electrical engineer and member of Oak Grove. It is 37 feet tall and is topped with an eleven foot lighted star illuminated by thousands of lights. The tree has held over 100 singers during the varying themes presented each year. During the 23 years an estimated 200,000 people have attended the event that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. This year the decorations and lighting are by Louise Gentry and Lois Stagnoli. The hundreds of thousands of lights on the tree are controlled in a manner that changes the lighting according to the music. In addition to the choir, that begins practice in July, there are hundreds of behind the scenes people who make the presentation happen. This years presentation was "The Gift" arranged by Lari Goss with drama by Steve Poole. A live praise band accompanies many of the songs. There is no charge for admission; however, tickets are required in order to make certain seating is available. Each approximately 10,000 tickets are distributed to the church and community.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

48 Hours in New York

If you had 48 hours for a family weekend in New York City what would be your top five places to visit?

Before giving the specifics about where we went during our 48 hours, I want to state that my family was impressed with the friendliness and safety we experienced while in New York. We heard plenty of stories of how rough New York could be, everything from three-card Monte games, ripping off tourists, to violent crime in the streets. However, we found just the opposite to be true. We felt very comfortable day and night in New York.

Our first stop was the Statue of Liberty. It is accessible from either Liberty State Park, New Jersey or Battery Park, at the tip of Manhattan. We chose the New Jersey location to take the ferry since we were driving to New York. It turns out that parking is easier and the ferryboats less crowded than those leaving from the New York side. There is no entry fee to the National Park to visit Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty; however, there is a charge for getting to the islands. The only boats allowed to dock at either island are the boats under contract to the National Park Service. Circle Line ferryboats, the current authorized ferryboat operator, will be replaced by Hornblower Yachts, in January 2008.

I recommend reserving your ferryboat tickets online, although you can try your luck in person without a reservation. The best tip for making the most of your visit is to reserve your free monument pass when you purchase your boat ticket. The monument pass get you access inside the statue’s pedestal and observation area. Without this pass you can walk around the island and enjoy the harbor views and looking at the statue from ground level. The pass is marked for a specific block of time when you can arrive at the security area. Don’t be misled by the word “free” associated with the monument pass, these passes are only available when you reserve, or pick up your ferry tickets. There are only 3000 monument passes available each day for the more than 15,000 daily visitors.

Once inside the statue’s pedestal there are excellent interactive exhibits and historical displays. We walked around the catwalk of the original copper torch originally held by Lady Liberty. A fun photo can be taken next to full size copper replica of Liberty’s face. At the top of the pedestal, visitors are directed to look up through a Plexiglas ceiling at the inside structure of the statue. Before 9/11 the tours actually went through the statue and filed up to and past the crown, looking out of the small windows and a fabulous view of the city.

While on the tour be sure to make time to visit the American Family Immigration History Center on Ellis Island. You have the option of getting off the ferryboat, on either the way to, or return, from Liberty Island but not both. Boats from New York normally stop at Ellis Island after the Statue of Liberty tour while boats from New Jersey make the stop before landing at Liberty Island. The History Center has detailed interactive displays, records of millions of people who passed through the island, excellent historical photographs and artifacts. It is estimated that nearly half of Americans today could trace at least one relative who passed through Ellis Island.

The Stage Door tour at Radio City Music Hall was our next stop, after checking into our Times Square hotel. The tour is a great educational experience for anyone interested in architecture, history, famous personalities, or technical wizardry. Meeting a Rockette up close isn’t a bad reason to take the tour either. The grandeur of the 1932 grand opening is evident as you make your way through the labyrinth of hallways and passageways. One of the best views in the house is from a soundproof room inset at the top rear wall of the theater. As we made our way through the one-hour tour, I was amazed at the technical capabilities of the theater. Everything in the theater is big: huge hydraulic systems to lift the stages, a huge stage car to move a 40-piece orchestra around the stage, and an LCD screen larger than a movie theater screen. We previously booked our tour and subsequent show tickets online, so we went from the tour right into the theater and the high kicking Rockettes in their Christmas spectacular. Backstage and show tickets are available through Ticketmaster.

The Empire State Building is almost a pilgrimage for the dedicated King Kong fan. On the 86th floor observation deck, aside from the person in the gorilla costume, the cityscape is breathtaking. I have to give my wife credit for talking me into renting the optional audio tour. With the stoppable audio player we just followed the numbers on the observation deck to synchronize the audio with the view. From Central Park to lower Manhattan, the audio tour identifies places of interest and gives a running narrative from a New Yorker’s perspective. You will see the world’s largest department store as well as Pier 58 where the Titanic was scheduled to dock in 1912. Interesting background stories are interspersed throughout the narrative, like the rivalry between the Chrysler building and the Empire State building owners, on who would have the tallest building. Booking and printing tickets online enabled us to move past the long line of those waiting to buy tickets on site.

We took the subway to the World Trade Center Station. Upon exiting the station we saw that the World Trade Center Memorial Museum has posted several large photographs on a chain link fence overlooking the site. We were there early and had an opportunity to view each of the photographs that document the prelude to 9/11 and the aftermath. Every visitor, particularly Americans, should experience this for themselves. There is no charge for the exhibit, but the lasting emotional imprint is priceless.

Taking in a Broadway show is why many people visit New York. According to the League of American Theater and Producers an estimated 12 million people bought theater tickets for Broadway last year. With the current stagehand strike, this number may be down significantly, depending how long the strike lasts. We took advantage of same day tickets, at up to 50% off, at TKTS outlet in Times Square, currently at the Marriott hotel lobby. There is also another TKTS discount booth at South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan. Not all shows are available for this option and probably not many first run plays are available. We opted for the long running Chicago play and were not disappointed. The theater was smaller than we expected but permitted us to have great seats.

Best tip for the trip: We avoided a 2 hour wait at the Hard Rock Café, Times Square, by presenting my “all access” card and getting the first available table. You can get an all access pass at any Hard Rock Café. Needless to say I was the family hero for the night as we moved to the front of the very busy line.

Let me know your favorite five places to visit so I can start planning our next trip.

Friday, November 9, 2007

New Poster Print by David L. Jennings

This image was taken in the Washington DC Smithsonian Metro station. I was surprised there were not more passengers. The quote - Great achievements begin in the imagination - was inspired by Orison Swett Marden. The poster is available at in 11x14 and 16 x 20.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Enchanted Evening at Hearst Castle

The rich and famous have always fasinated me, particularly after watching the classic 1941 film Citizen Kane. The movie by Orson Welles traces the life of the fictional Charles Foster Kane, whose rise to wealth and power is eerily similar to the real life of William Randolph Hearst. Hearst like the fictional character was a newspaper publisher, movie producer and one time U.S. Congressman. On a recent family vacation to San Francisco I was close enough to make the journey to see the legendary Hearst Castle located atop La Cuesta Encantada, or the Enchanted Hill.
The Castle is located about 200 miles south of San Francisco, and just a bit further if you are driving from Los Angeles. Arriving at the visitor center in San Simeon, I looked to the distant mountain and could clearly see the twin spires of the Spanish styled Casa Grande, Hearst's Castle. The view to the 1600 foot mountain top was like the opening scene in Citizen Kane that depicted the Kane mansion Xanadu built high on a private mountain.
The castle or "ranch" as Hearst often called his estate, is too large to see in one tour, so the California State Parks, operators of the estate, offer five tours, each highlighting a separate area of the house and gardens. Each tour lasts about 1 hour and 45 minutes except for the evening tour which lasts 2 hours and 10 minutes. Cost for all tours, except the evening tour, is $20 for adults and $10 for children ages 6-17. The evening tour costs $30 for adults and $15 for children.
I reserved our tickets online for the evening tour. The bus takes the five mile run up the long winding driveway to the top where we are greeted by the docents. They divide us into small groups for our personally guided tour. The evening tour is a special interpretive experience where we will see people from the Living History Program, dressed in period clothing from the 1940's, renacting what a typical evening may have been like at the estate.
The estate includes the 60,645 square foot main house, Casa Grande, several guesthouses, and two fabulous pools, the Neptune and Roman. Construction began on the massive estate in 1919 when Hearst hired architect Julia Morgan to design his "getaway" residence. Construction continued for nearly three decades, and was never quite finished. By 1947 however, Heart and Morgan had created an estate with 165 rooms located on 127 acres of garderns, terraces and walkways. The main house has thirty-five fireplaces and forty-one bathrooms. The view from the enchanted hill overlooks the Pacific Ocean and vistas that were once his 250,000 acre estate.
Our first stop is the Neptune pool, with a Greco-Roman facade, greek and roman statuary, Greek columns and on this day a very large empty pool. Normally the pool is spring fed with up to 350,000 gallons of crystal clear blue water. However, on this day the pool, designed and built in the 20's and 30's to withstand earthquakes, was being repaired as the result of an earthquake. In 2003 the epicenter of the 6.5 quake was only miles the estate. Even without the water the pool area is a work of art.
Touring the guesthouse Casa del Sol, where such notables as Calvin Coolidge, Winston Churchill, and Charlie Chaplin stayed, we encountered one of the first docents from the Living History Program. She was an elderly woman sitting at a vanity brushing her long hair as if getting ready for bed. She talked with us about life at the estate when Hearst and his companion Marion Davies were in residence. We later learned that she wasn't reciting from a script but was recalling memories from her childhood when her mother worked at the estate.
The museum quality art and furnishings from throughout Europe and the world make every room come to life with a personality of its own. Almost every ceiling was once a part of a church, monastary or castle from Europe or Asia. The main dining room looks like it is right out of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from the Harry Potter movies, although a smaller scale. As it turns out the set designers from the movie reportedly visited Casa Grande to capture the look and size of the Hearst dining table and decor.
My favorite rooms were the library and gothic study. The library is stocked with hundreds of books and collectibles. The gothic study is where Hearst would have private meetings and stay up late reviewing his newspapers, communicating across the country with editors. The room looks like something out of Bruce Wayne's batman mansion. The imported ceiling, dark wood paneling, huge conference table and oil paintings give this study quite the executive look. By this time in the tour, I realized that while Orson Welles may never have visited the estate he was well informed of its contents. The opening narrative for the movie sets the stage for the wealth of the fictional Kane but could equally be a description of Hearst proclivity to collecting: "...a collection of everything so big it can never be catalogued or appraised; enough for ten museums; the loot of the world."
I don't think the tour can be overstated with all the grandeur of the estate and enough stories to fill a tabloid paper for years. Hearst ha so much money was such an avid collector he once asked one of his agents to find a particular piece of art, to travel throughout the world if necessary, to track it down and buy it for his collection. After months of travel throughout Europe and the United States chasing down lead after lead the agent finaly found the coveted piece of art. It was housed in one of Heart's own warehouses where he stored it along with crate after crate of items he bought or had purchased for him.
The final stop on our evening tour was the indoor Roman pool. This pool is ten feet deep from end to end, not for wading obvisously. The pool is modeled after a Roman bath from the early 200th centrury and is surrounded by eight statues of gods and goddesses. The pool, floor, walls and ceiling are covered with thousands of one inch glass tiles inlaid with 24k gold. The blue and clear glass give a shimmering surreal cast to the entire room. The pool is the last stop for the tour and looking back was over too quickly.

As we lined up to get on the bus I glanced into a dimly lit storage room, and for a moment, though I saw an old sled leaning against the wall, partially covered by some old boxes. I hesitated, wanting to see the brand name on the sled, could it be I wondered? Then I shook my head to clear my thoughts, perhaps I had seen too much of Xanadu, or was it the Hearst Castle? The sheer vastness and over the top decor of the estate must have temporarily blurred my distinction between movie fantasy and reality. I look forward to a return trip and a chance to take all five tours.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Cruising with Pirates

Ever take a cruise on the high seas with a boatload of pirates? If not, then Disney Cruise Line has the adventure for you. From the moment we boarded the stylish red bus, at the Orlando International airport, our vacation was everything that was promised in the brochure, and more. Not to sound like a Disney employee or pirate groupie, but we found this cruise to be the overall best for a family vacation.
Disney's customer service, cleanliness and attention to detail are first class. The only problem, which I'm still reminded of, is trying to select which activity to participate in at any given time. Entertainment, sports, games, crafts, movies, pools, the list of choices goes on and on, and that's just the choice onboard. Shore excursions and activities when docked are many. On our four day, three night, cruise there were no hold ups, no disappointments, and the crew was always professional and friendly.

The Ship

Elegance from a bygone age is how I would describe the Disney Wonder, one of two "twin" cruise liners by Disney. From the Beeline Expressway, as we approach the terminal, the black bottomed ship looms large on the horizon. Entering the Pier area of Port Canaveral we are greeted by the impressive $27 million dollar art deco style terminal where we breeze through the check in process. Once through the terminal we walk the gangplank and enter another world. The Atrium opens before us, with a three-story lobby covered with marble, wood, and bronze. There are four glass elevators and a grand staircase sweeping down to a bronze statue of Ariel, the mermaid. Intermingled among the guests are elaborately dressed Disney characters, come to life, to greet the passengers. Children line up with there eyes sparkling and their voices filling the air with excitment and awe. Even the traditional deep sound of the foghorn that signals our departure is replaced with the magical horn sounds playing "When you Wish Upon a Star."
The Food

A different dining experience each night is a refreshing change from the traditional formal seating for diner that is on most cruises. Disney has provided a rotating dining schedule among its three main resturants, Animator's Palette, Triton's, and the colorful Parrot Cay. Each themed restaurant provides a unique dining experience with the same table mates and wait staff each night. In the Animator's Palette, my favorite, the restaurant is decorated in black and white. Black and white pictures, black and white patterns on the walls, black and white flowered columns, you get the picture - black and white. Even the the wait staff is wearing, you guessed it, black and white. As dinner progresses everything in the room that was black and white begins to change very slowly to color. The transition is almost impreceptible and then, before I realized it, the pictures, walls and columns were all in full color. By the end of the meal, even the wait staff's vests changed to color. Triton's is the second of the themed restaurants. It is casually elegant with an under-the-sea, little mermaid decor, with an entire wall made up of thousands of tile pieces depicting King Triton himself. The third dining experience is Parrot Cay, a fun Caribbean style restaurant with brightly colored parrots and fruit baskets everywhere. During our evening we at Parrot Cay we dressed as pirates, along with everyone else, and followed the meal with a giant conga line snaking around the tables.
Naturally, there are plenty of other eating areas throughout the ship, from snack bars to full buffets. There is even an elegant restaurant for a romantic dinner with your partner at Palo's. The meal is served on the highest deck by reservation and while the adults eat the little pirates can take over the clubhouse. If for some reason you would rather dine in your spacious cabin the ship has 24-hour room service.

The Fun

I would start each morning in the Vista Spa, running on a treadmill, looking out over the bow of the ship as it plowed through the open sea. One of the highlights of the spa is its rain forest steam room. Back in the cabin, we would look over the personal navigator, a newsletter left in your cabin each day, listing all the events and opportunities available for that day. This was our planning guide and where I got into trouble. There are so many choices, I would schedule us for a tour of the bridge and then try to catch the kitchen tour, four decks below. Then back up to deck 5 and the Buena Vista Theater for a first run Disney movie. The kids have plenty of their own options to keep them busy having fun all day. They can join the fun at Flounder's Reef nursery, the Oceaneer Club, or for the teen in your family, they can hang out in Aloft. All areas are well controlled and supervised.
Just looking over the rail at the ocean is a wonderful treat, or try a little shuffleboard. In the evening, we entered the large, well appointed, 975-seat Walt Disney Theater, which features Disney on Broadway-style productions. The sets are creative, the actors fantastic, and the music excellent. Below deck there is a piano bar, comedy clubs and even jackpot bingo. I enjoyed the art auction and casual discussions, with very well informed art dealers, during one of the evening activities. The last evening, after dark, deck 9 is overtaken by pirates, with music, a dramatic rescue and finished with spectacular fireworks bursting against a pitch black sky.

The Excursions

Not all the fun is onboard ship. Our first stop was Nassau, Bahamas for a day of touring and shopping. Be sure to sign up for the excrusions to make the most of your visit. We signed up for the snorkel trip and traveled by catamaran to a relatively calm cove. Masks, snorkels and fins were handed out along with a brief demonstration on how to use them. The water was deep, clear, and full of beautiful tropical fish in a variety of colors. At Nassau there is plenty to choose from including regatta racing, dolphin encounters, scuba diving, tours and of course shopping, jewelry is very popular. If you didn't get enough to eat on the ship there are plenty of places to eat, even a Hard Rock Cafe.
One day is reserved for Disney's private island, Castaway Cay. Moored near the dock on the island is the ghots ship, the Flying Dutchman, straight from Hollywood and Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man's Chest movie. Early in the morning the crew of Wonder moves their dining rooms onto the island for all you can eat buffets throughout the day. The beach is laid out with lounge chairs, umbrellas and a place to pick up fins, snorkels and other water accessories. We started the day with a bike ride around the island. We traveled down an abandoned runway, past the "adults only" beach and back. And for fairness Disney even has a beach for kids only, no parents. There are jet skis for rent, banana boat rides, and even para-sailing high over the crystal blue waters.
There is only one negative to this cruise and you can probably guess what it is....leaving. They didn't make us "walk the plank" but as we left we felt just as abandoned. Next time we'l have to go for the seven day cruise.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Not Your Grandparents Vacation - Niagara Falls

My family and I must be some of the last people to see Niagara Falls. Whenever I mentioned we were headed to Niagara I would inevitably hear "oh I remember going there when I was ten" or "I went there forty years ago and it was great." Well I have to say I haven't heard one person say they were disappointed, and neither was our family. Niagara Falls is a wonderful getaway vacation for the family or couple. Niagara is home of America's oldest tourist attraction, the Maid of the Mist, 1846, so the park has had time to get everything perfect. The beauty of the falls is indescribable. The roar of 6 million cubic feet of water pouring over the crest every second is quite a rush.

Taking in all the tourist offerings on both sides of the border is part of the fun. Start with buying the Passport to the Falls ticket package on the American side at the state park entrance. This passport is only $28 (a savings of more than 35% over individual tickets) to the following attractions: The Maid of the Mist®, Cave of the Winds, Discovery Center, Observation Tower, Niagara Adventure Theater, Aquarium of Niagara - and you'll find this a pleasure after walking all day - unlimited rides on the Niagara Scenic Trolley.

In the visitor center, where the passports are sold, is an IMAX movie that traces the history and myth behind the falls. You can watch the movie first to get a sense of the history or wait, as we did, to enjoy the cool theater and comfy seats after a long day of walking. Beyond the visitor entrance stroll down to the waters edge and see the rainbows, hear the roar of the falls and watch the never ending flow of water cascading over the edge. The Maid of the Mist boat ride has carried the rich and famous for over 150 years and is the most popular attraction. The boat can be taken from either the Canadian or American side. Once you don your complimentary yellow raincoat and board the boat you will travel past the American Falls, the Bridal Veil Falls and over to the Canadian Falls, also know as the Horseshoe Falls.
The most amazing site for me was the Cave of the Winds tour and the Hurricane deck. Traveling 175 feet through the rock we emerged at the bottom of the gorge and walked over an intricate set of stairs and decking that is removed every November and rebuilt in the Spring. We were as close as 20 feet from the Bridal Veil Falls and felt the tropical storm-like winds buffeting us around. The more adventurous in our party, not me, you get get soaked from the falling water that hit a rock first and then doused the brave. On the Canadian side there is the Journey Behind the Falls that is awe inspiring. As part of the Passport to the Falls there tickets for the Aquarium of Niagara and Discovery Centers located close to the park. The aquarium has a hometown feel with a friendly and informative staff. The seals have been with the aquarium for decades and thanks to the care of the staff have lived longer than their normal life expectancy in the wild.

After hours there is plenty to see and do in the area. We stayed at the Hilton, on the Canadian side, with an amazing view of the falls and of the evening fireworks scheduled regularly throughout the year. One note on the hotel that kept our girls entertained when it was raining outside, was the three story spiral water slide. I even took a few turns and went back for more.
Within walking distance, for the younger healthier set, is Clifton Hill. The area reminded me of a boardwalk, carnival type of atmosphere (without the beach and boardwalk). We visited a haunted house (scary), video arcades, the Sky Wheel, a giant enclosed Ferris wheel, and many souvenir shops. The area is packed with people, the smell of pretzels, cotton candy and fried food. We did stop at the Hard Rock Cafe, one on each side of the river, and had a giant Sundae and appetizers. One of the more interesting places to visit for an evening or rainy day is Ripley's Believe It or Not. It is like other Ripley's in various vacation sposts around the country and is always educational and fun for everyone. For the gambler the Canadian side has a giant casino with rooms overlooking the falls.
We only touched on a few of the many wonderful attractions in the area but hope to return and enjoy more of this historic area loaded with friendly people.

"Although it was wonderful to see all that water tumbling down, it would be even more wonderful to see all that water tumbling up."
-- Mark Twain

All Photos copyright David L. Jennings

Friday, August 3, 2007

Spice It Up in Old Mesilla

If your travels take you to Las Cruces, New Mexico or El Paso, Texas schedule time to travel to Old Mesilla, New Mexico. It is only a few minutes from Las Cruces and about 45 minutes from El Paso. The food, shops and historic Plaza are well worth the time for the epicurean, shopper or history enthusiast. I recommend eating and touring at La Posta de la Mesilla, in a building compound constructed in the 1840's. A decade later Sam and Roy Bean (of Judge Roy Bean fame) ran a passenger and freight service from the building. After the Civil War, the La Posta compound became an important stop on the Butterfield Stagecoach Line.
Inside La Posta are several shops of fine jewelry, hand made clothing and souvenirs. When I visited here thirty years ago there was a large tank of piranhas that would thrill those waiting for a table. The large tank now holds colorful fish, not to be too disappointed, there is still one large piranha alive in a smaller tank. Next to the aquariums are several large cages with colorful parrots and a young Toucan who is very friendly, he'll come down to have his back rubbed.
Since 1939 La Posta has been preparing and serving great New Mexican style meals. The Tostada Compuesta, a toasted corn tortilla filled with beans, red chili and meat, lettuce and tomatoes originated from their kitchen. Personally, I find the New Mexico style flat enchiladas with red chili sauce and an over easy egg on top unequaled anywhere. Spicy hot or mild fresh chili abounds. The atmosphere is lively, the service first class and the people friendly. Be sure to try the sopapillas with honey as part of the meal or even for dessert.
Located across the street from La Posta and throughout the plaza are jewelry stores, gift shops, clothing sales, other restaurants and a book store, all in historical buildings. The Billy the Kid gift shop always fascinated my wife's grandmother because of the name. Her grandmother's maiden name was Brady and she is the great-great-grand daughter of Sheriff William Brady who was shot and killed by Billy the Kid in Lincoln, New Mexico. To her, having jeans, gift shops and souvenirs named after Billy the Kid is like having Charles Manson post cards, restaurants and bumper stickers celebrating how he killed innocent people.
The Billy the Kid gift shop dates from the 1850's and once housed the capital of Arizona and New Mexico. The building was later the courthouse in which Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang. Perhaps the gift shop and galleries would be better served if they changed their name to the William Brady gift shop and gallery.

Other buildings around the plaza are also of historical significance. The Thunderbird gallery and gift shop is New Mexico's oldest recorded brick building. Constructed around 1860 with burnt bricks from the owners kiln the building is still in good condition. Other occupants have used the building as a town hall, residence and saloon. The gallery and gift store is very interesting and has a lot of Indian jewelry. Further down the street is a bookstore and more souvenir stores. Across the Plaza is the Double Eagle restaurant named for the 1850 ten dollar gold coin. The restaurant is fine dining and has a history of its own related to the treaties with Mexico. There are also plenty of ghost stories associated with the Double Eagle and other historic buildings around the plaza.

Originally built of adobe in 1855. The San Albino church was rebuilt to its present structure in 1906. The church is located on one end of the Plaza. This is a favorite location for local photographers and students from nearby New Mexico State University. As a student, at NMSU over thirty years ago, I remember the challenge of capturing just the right image from the countless photo opportunities around the Plaza. The challenge is still there for the amateur to the professional photographer. I enjoyed recording the images used for this review as much as I did thirty years ago. Another interesting place to visit before you leave is located opposite the church. Established around 1850 the El Patio Cantina has been operated continually by descendants of Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain. Colonel A.J. Fountain was also the lawyer for Billy the Kid when he was being tried just down the street. Old Mesilla Plaza is a great place to spend the day, have lunch or dinner and peruse the shops. This is a definite return trip location.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Are You Going to San Francisco?

If the answer is yes, be sure to bring your camera or journal to capture some memories of a lifetime. There are plenty of sites to see and experiences to enjoy in this city by the bay. San Francisco is one of those notable cities with instant name recognition with unique areas like Fisherman's Wharf, Nob Hill or the world's crookedest street, Lombard street. The city is known for its iconic landmarks like Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, and of course it's cable cars with their distinctive ding ding ring of the bell. You can still ride the historical cable cars first tested and built in 1873 by Andrew Hallidie. Check out the cable car museum for more information. Northern California is rich in history and culture with people immigrating from throughout the world during the 1849 Gold Rush through the 1990's boom giving the city a great diversity. Visitors today can enjoy exotic foods, cultural and artisitc festivals as well as great entertainment, history and architecture. From the moment we arrived at San Francisco International Airport the ease of getting around the city was remarkable. After picking up our luggage, we took the free AirTrain shuttle to the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station. We bought tickets from a clearly marked ticket machine and entered a clean modern rail system. Within 30 minutes, we arrived at our downtown destination, the Powell Street Station. Just above the station, we were welcomed with a large crowd at the Powell and Market cable car turnaround. Art and jewelry vendors were in abundance in the festive environment. We were entertained by a tuxedo singing gentleman with a deep melodious voice as we lined up to buy a transportation pass good for 1, 3, or 7 days. I recommend buying The Muni Passports as soon as you arrive. The pass is good for unlimited rides on the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni), which provides transportation
to all points of interest within San Francisco, as well as unlimited cable car rides. The pass pays for itself after 2 or 3 rides on the cable cars. Once settled into a downtown hotel, more about that in a moment, we took the Powell-Hyde cable car past Chinatown, up and down Nob and Russian Hills past the top of Lombard Street to the end of the line at Aquatic Park near Ghirardelli Square. Both these lines end near Fisherman's Wharf. We thoroughly enjoyed walking up and down Jefferson Street all the way down to the Embarcadero and Pier 39. The area is lively and offers plenty of souvenir shops, eateries, fine restaurants, and of course fresh seafood.
We took the one-hour from Pier 39. This cruise passes the harbor seals lounging on the docks on the way to the Golden Gate Bridge, past Angel Island and around Alcatraz. A running commentary provides interesting facts about the city. Located at Pier 43 1/2 is the Red and White Cruise line that follows the same basic itinerary, except for the passing of the Pier 39 seals. Reservations for both cruises are only $18.00 per adult when booked on line. If you enjoy spontaneity, the tour will cost a few dollars more at the booth.
Whether you like history, architecture or a good crime story Alcatraz is the place to visit. There is no entrance fee to visit Alcatraz Island. However, there is a charge for the ferry service to and from the island provided by a private company. Adult tickets are $24.50. These tickets go fast so I recommend reserving online in advance. Once you arrive on the island and enter the formidable prison there is an opportunity to take the audio cell house tour. This audio program is exceptional. The program has actual prisoners and guards telling their stories as you enter and pass key areas in the cell house. The audio tour starts and stops at your control and is available in several languages. I spent extra time “walking the yard” to get a sense of what the prisoners had to look at out while doing time. What fascinated me were the cells with windows facing San Francisco, or the top bench in the exercise yard, where prisoners could hear the merriment of evening parties and see the occasional fireworks displays during holidays. This must have been torturous for the prisoners so close to civilization and yet locked away. For additional information on schedules, prices, and to purchase tickets in advance (tickets are made available about 60 days in advance) go to the Alcatraz Cruises website.

One of the most fun stops I had was along the Embarcadero, across the street from the Port of San Francisco Ferry building at a small park. My wife and two daughters took turns mugging for the camera with the reproductions of the Yin and Yang Egg Head sculpures, by the late Robert Arneson. The originals, along with others, are placed on the University of California, Davis campus, where Mr. Arneson was professor of art. Another interesting stop for me, particularly because I'm not into upscale clothing, is the Neiman Marcus store located just off Union Square. I was there not for the shopping but to view the beautiful architecture and Rotunda restaurant. The glorious stained glass ceiling is from the original building completed in 1896. In 1981 Neiman Marcus bought the property, had the building demolished, and redesigned by famed architect Phillip Johnson. The large oval stained glass dome depicts a sailing ship representative of the maritime activities of San Francisco. The stained glass dome is comprised of 2,600 stained glass pieces.

Now, about the downtown hotel we stayed it, the Hilton on O’Farrell Street, it was five stars all the way. My inattention to detail was the problem not the hotel. I was hungry after arriving a day late, thanks to United, and being to early to check in, we dropped our luggage off in the lobby and took the elevator to the 46th floor and the Cityscape restaurant. I should have realized that lunch was not going to be inexpensive. The clues I should have picked up on were as follows: it was Sunday brunch, the waiters were dressed eloquently, there were fourteen foot high windows around three sides of the room giving us a sensational view of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks. If that wasn't enough I should have picked up on the peeled and veined shrimp and Alaskan king crab legs on the buffet plus a three piece string ensemble playing softly. After receiving the check, and turning pale, I politely asked my two girls and wife to return to the buffet and eat like we weren’t going to have dinner later, or breakfast and lunch the next day. Even with the high price, the highest I have ever paid for brunch, the experience was one we will never forget. The entire San Francisco Experience ranks as one of the best family vacations we have taken.
While in San Francisco we met friendly and gentle people wherever we went. So if you go, be sure to make some memories, see the sights and ask how much lunch will cost before you order. Wearing flowers in your hair is optional.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Stuck in El Paso

I just returned from El Paso, Texas and an uplanned trip. If you're stuck in El Paso without a plan here are some interesting places to visit and to eat. The good news is that downtown has some wonderful buildings with plenty of interesting history. Like the Dome Bar, once the lobby of the Paso del Norte hotel, now the Camino Real hotel.

Just above the bar is a 25 ft. diameter Tiffany stained glass dome. The hotel was built in 1912 and is a sturdy structure with a modern addition. While I was there the hotel lobby was full of world famous artist paintings and lithographs, to include Picasso and Dali.
The beauty of the historic Paso del Norte, the nearby Plaza Theatre and a few other locations was offset by the overall poor condition of many sections of downtown.
There seemed to be more houses and buildings with broken, boarded or missing windows than there were with windows intact (only a slight exaggeration). The historic Sunset Heights district, once filled with large homes sporting spacious porches, is also deteriorating but still worth a drive through to see the homes. The mansions are now sub-divided into apartments or abandoned altogether. I noticed that El Paso doesn't have much of a tourist trade (no Hard Rock Cafe - a benchmark I use for cities with large tourist populations) to help with development.

Enough of the downside of El Paso. If you're looking for a unique El Paso experience then head for hills (or more appropriately the mountains). Take the Wyler Aerial Tramway at Franklin Mountains State Park. Located on the east side of the mountains the tramway will take you on a swiss gondola over the rugged mountain and rock formations to Ranger Peak and to an altitude of 5,632 feet above sea level. Once on top there is an excellent souviner shop with a variety of interesting books about the southwest along with traditional gift store fare. Outside on the deck you can see for miles and miles encompassing three states and two nations - can you name them? If not you need to go there and see for yourself, if you can identify them correctly then you deserve to go and see them anyway.

When I traveled to El Paso decades ago a person had to go into Mexico to get a good steak and enjoy fancy restaraunts. Those days are gone and El Paso has a variety of world class
resturants. Top of the list for Steaks is the Cattleman's Steak House just outside El Paso in Fabens. The Cattleman's is a large, family-style restaurant on a working ranch with excellent food and atmosphere. On the drive out enjoy miles of desert scenery, tours of the ranch and after dinner watch a spectacular sunset.

In town there is the Great American Land & Cattle Company with 3 locations to choose from. I prefer the more intimate setting of the resturant at 7600 Alabama. If your on the west side of the mountains look for the State line Resturant for the best barbque beef, sausange and fried
If you're looking more for traditional Mexican food nothing beats the historical setting of the Sombras de Pasado (located in El Paso's Lower Valley) was established in 1852. The atmosphere is and layout reminded me of the La Posta de la Mesilla, in New Mexcico. The resurant is adobe and located in a quiet neighborhood. Rumor has it there are still bullet holes in the adobe from Pancho Villa. Barrigos is another Mexican resturant that is a fun place to meet and eat. The large staff serves great Mexican food and has a spirited lively atmosphere.

Breaking from traditional Southwestern fare are a couple of new restaurants worth trying. Salida del Sol at the Butterfield Trail Golf Club, located North of the International Airport, has wonderful views, good food and customer service that is four stars. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner the Salida del Sol is bright and comfortable, and not just for golfers. If you want to golf then the Butterfield Trail Golf Club has all you need for world class golfing in a desert setting that has integrated the natural habitat with beautiful greens and fairways. Management has even brought desert species of birds and other animals back to the desert. Roadrunners are a common sight around the course.
We had breakfast at the club and the huevos rancheros were the best anywhere.

South of the Airport on N. Yarbrough Drive is Michelangelo's Lil' Italy with great food and service. They serve traditional pasta and meat dishes. Be sure to visit the "godfather" room at the top of the stairs.

If you are arriving by plane, and even if you're not, be sure to check out the huge 42-ft tall bronze equestrian statue of Don Juan de Oñate. A ten year effort by sculptor John Houser the rearing horse and rider was unveiled earlier this year. The rider Juan de Oñate y Salazar was a Spanish conquistador and explorer. His explorations in the New World extended from the central U.S. to California. He is best remembered as being the region's colonial governor for what was then New Spain. The original model of this horse is located in the lobby of the airport.

All in all if you ever find yourself stuck in El Paso you should have a great experience and leave well fed. We plan to visit the Plaza Theater for a tour of the historic and restored theater, and maybe take in a show. The zoo is another location that is on our list for El Paso.

Note: All pictures are by the author except for the equestrian statue taken by Bonnie Jones.