Archives for category: travel

What is it about lighthouses that captures the imagination—mine, anyway—and directs it out to sea? Their silent performance of a thankless duty? Their stoic disregard of the extreme marine climate? Their stark but elegant beauty and strong but lean engineering?

Whenever I see one, I immediately start to think about how the beacon might appear to a passing ship or, more appropriately, a boat bound for whatever harbor is nearby. What does the lighthouse look like from a mile or two offshore?

Not much, probably. During the day, details of coastal structures are difficult to make out. A lighthouse may seem immense to someone standing at its base but from afar, even the tallest tower will be dwarfed by the mountains and cliffs that often loom over coastlines.

And at night, all that can be seen is a ray of light.

I can’t recall ever spotting a lighthouse beacon from a boat or ship (truthfully, I’ve spent very little time on water) but I have seen one from afar. A few years ago, we spent a delightful early summer weekend in Bermuda. Our resort was on the southwest coast of the island, facing the North Carolina shore, only a few hundred miles away.

Bermuda is small enough and sufficiently isolated from other places that its night sky is truly dark. Looking out through the sliding glass door of our room early one morning, we detected the motion of a faint beam of light as is it flashed across the horizon.

The source of the light fell well below our view (by several miles, at least), but the sweeping path the ray of light followed was immediately recognizable as that from a lighthouse beacon. It was somehow comforting to see evidence that across the lonely expanse of open ocean lay our home.

Back in the golden days of ship travel, it must have been heartwarming to those returning from a long voyage across the ocean to see a first sign that other people were preparing for the ship’s arrival, that at least one person was waiting up in anticipation.

Nowadays, that comfort is a bit cold. While visiting lighthouses here in Maine (of which there are many, given the state’s craggy shoreline), we have learned that most, if not all, of the facilities are automated. The charming cottages that were once home to lighthouse keepers (and their families, if they were lucky) are now vacant.

Fortunately, there are historical societies and preservation groups such as the American Lighthouse Foundation to tend them and offer tours. And, as we learned at Owl’s Head Lighthouse, the United States Coast Guard still sends someone around to ensure that the lights are in working order so that even if no one is home, someone has left a light on for us.

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As noted on their license plates, the State of Maine is known as Vacationland. And now I know why.

Rachel and I have driven up to Rockport for the weekend (we’re mixing Rachel’s business and our vacation) and have discovered that the Maine coast is just one big family resort. The woods and forests are pristine, the coastline long and scraggly, and the air is clear and fresh. There are also some good restaurants here (lobster, anyone?).

But, most of all, the climate is perfect. Here we are in the middle of August—the summer’s peak, really—and the midday temperature is in the mid-70s. That’s warm enough to wear shorts and a tee shirt with no worry of overheating. It might be as humid as it is at home (that would be due to the proximity of the ocean) but it’s so moderate in temperature that it feels comfortable.

In short, the weather is perfect for spending the entire day outdoors. Anything that can be done outside is at its best when done here: Hiking, boating, swimming, cycling…

…and gardening.

It turns out that there are many lush gardens in Maine. Most of the houses we’ve seen have a plot of vegetables or flowers—or both—in their yards. And a garden center near our hotel is one of the biggest I’ve seen anywhere, with an astonishingly diverse assortment of growing things. Who would have expected it?

Not me. I always thought that with its short growing season and cold, icy winters that Maine would not be ideal for gardening. The climate (I figured) might be suitable for evergreens and chrysanthemums but not tomatoes.

What I failed to consider is that although the growing season may be short, the growing day is long. Sixteen hours of sunlight per day, it appears, more than makes up for the loss of May and September.

When I was growing up in the Central Valley of California, I often eschewed the agricultural aspects of life there. My hometown of Davis is relatively large (if not the largest) compared to other towns in Yolo County and, more significantly, is host to a campus of the University of California, for which both of my parents worked. Yes, UCD is an ag school—it was originally known as the Farm—but for us it represented the intellectual side of life and it was in this direction that I was aligned.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to better appreciate the valley’s agricultural heritage. And since starting a backyard vegetable garden three years ago, my understanding of and appreciation for farming and the industry as a whole has been steadily increasing. So, while visiting my family this weekend (we were long overdue; see October 19, 2012; October 21, 2012; and October 24, 2012 for tales of our last trip), I decided to embrace my inner farm boy and take in a couple of the agrarian attractions that the valley has to offer.

Our first stop this morning—with my brother along—was the Heidrick Ag History Center in Woodland, the seat of Yolo County. Housed in two large warehouse buildings and connected by corridors at each end which create a central courtyard, the agricultural museum tells the story of farming in the valley through an expansive collection of farm equipment and associated lore.

The artifacts span more than a hundred years in age and include manual implements, horse- and mule-drawn plows and wagons as well as tractors and harvesters powered by steam or diesel engines. The steam-driven tractors are particularly impressive. One example has drive-wheels that are eight feet in diameter; its boiler is the size of a small shed and its chimney reaches almost to the ceiling. It must have been a wonder to behold when new.

The east building was chock-full of equipment, all impeccably restored and painted in bright colors. (The tractors would have been fun to climb on, had it been allowed.) The west building had previously housed a collection of antique trucks but its owners (who rented space from the History Center) recently moved it to another facility. Sadly (and inexplicably), I did not take any pictures.

Our second foray took us into the heart of the valley itself. The Yolo Bypass is a narrow but huge (hundreds of thousands of acres) strip of land running north-south between the cities of Davis and Sacramento. Parallel to the Sacramento River and surrounded by levees, the bypass acts as a detention pond for excess river flow that would otherwise flood the valley and its cities. After filling with water, the bypass slowly drains into the river downstream and thence into the delta.

Within the bypass is the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, almost 18,000 acres of protected wetlands which are home to a variety of aquatic and avian species. Wet is the operative word here because even during drought years (of which California is in its third straight), the bypass is periodically flooded, either to support the rice crops that are grown there or, in periodic fallow seasons, to support the wildlife.

In my memories of childhood, the bypass quickly filled and remained full—an inland sea, complete with waves and breakers—every winter. In more recent years (and, given the unreliability of my memory, probably most years), the water levels have been relatively low and the flooded areas distributed among the patchwork of rice fields that make up the bypass.

It rained all day yesterday (not great for visiting but a relief to everyone who lives here) and consequently, the ground was muddy and slippery. We could have parked the car and walked but, feeling lazy on a sunny Sunday morning, decided to drive the auto tour which winds its way along intermediate levees. It was dicey in spots and we could feel the car floating on a layer of muck. But had we chosen to walk, we would have sunk to our ankles, if not deeper.

It was calm and serene despite the fact that Interstate 80 crosses the north edge of the Wildlife Area on an elevated causeway. And lest we think that we were truly in the wilderness, the Sacramento skyline loomed to the east. Both the freeway and the city are good reminders of how California’s population is linked to the agriculture on which its success is largely based.

On this fine summer afternoon, we found ourselves looking for an outdoor activity, one that did not involve manual labor or anything that might be construed as work.  It is not as if we don’t have anything to do—our list of chores is very long and there is never a shortage of things to be done on a Saturday.  But we were in need of some downtime.  So we decided to make a visit to Stonecrop Gardens.

With some dismay, I realized that we have not been here since last fall (see September 16, 2012, part 2).  That means we completely missed spring and what would undoubtedly have been a dazzling display of blossoming trees, daffodils, irises and peonies (luckily, we got to see most of those at home).  On the other hand, while our previous visits have occurred in March, June and September, this is our first trip in July.

We were expecting that in the peak of summer, the colors would be primarily green; there are fewer plants that flower this time of year than in spring and it is much too early (thank goodness!) for fall coloratura.  However, the gardeners and landscape designers at Stonecrop have done an excellent job of diversifying the plantings and we were very happy to find many flowers in bloom.

Most notable is an impressive variety of lilies.  In our neighborhood, the majority of lilies is wild and of the tiger type:  dark orange with darker orange stripes.  In our ornamental garden, we have a bright yellow variety.  Here at Stonecrop, though, the lilies range from pink (both pale and Pepto) to peach to blood red (with yellow stripes) and back to yellow (although a much paler lemon shade, compared to ours).  The petals vary from short and wide to long and narrow (almost spidery in some cases).

Also of note (and as I have noted before) are the leafy groundcovers that fill many of the beds.  In addition to the typical green, we saw purple, yellow and blue (well, bluish) varieties.  And among the green-leafed types, some have variegated leaves with accents of red, yellow or white.

We were happy with the broad spectrum of colors on view.  Even happier were the bees and other pollinators who were busily making their rounds of the beckoning flowers.

We couldn’t visit Saratoga Springs without spending some time at the racetrack.  After all, it is one of the main attractions—if not the main attraction—in town.  The purebred horse trade, which includes polo and horse auctions (see “The Hamptons on the Hoof” in the New York Times for a discussion of the latter), ensures a steady flow of tourists at all income levels and fuels the local economy.

The New York Racing Association has done a great job of making horse racing—and gambling—at Saratoga Springs a wholesome family activity accessible to novices and bookmakers alike.  There are plenty of seating options and many food choices that range between the cheap and casual to the formal and expensive.

What the NYRA has not done is make their pricing structure transparent and straightforward.  Because there are so many variations on seating, they are all priced separately.  And surprisingly, a ticket for a seat will not get a spectator through the entrance gates; admission is an additional charge.  We purchased tickets for our grandstand seats in advance online but had to buy our admission tickets at the will-call window.  The only thing more complicated is the betting but that would take an entire blog to explain (after I figured it out, that is).

We watched—and bet on—the first four races.  The first was a steeplechase on the innermost turf (the track has three concentric ovals, the outermost of which is dirt while the inner two are grass) with four jumps, located at each end of the turns.  The horses were started from a walk without the use of gates (I’m not sure how they handle false starts) and were at full speed by the first jump.  The field was mostly well matched and remained closely grouped for the entire race.  When they encountered each gate, they seemed to flow over it rather than jump.  Our horse, Alajmal, came in second to last.

The second race, a five-furlong sprint on the outer track, was over in a flash (well, 58 seconds).  The horse we picked to win, Pure Sensation, was part of a three-horse group that led the field by several lengths for the duration.  The colt could not hold on, though, and lost to Corfu by half a length.  In the third race (another sprint), the saucily named filly Chase My Tail won handily while our horse, Handshakesnkisses (we chose her for her name) came in last.  According to the race analysis, she was “no factor”.

Easily the most exciting race for us was the fourth.  A friend had asked us to bet $10 on the third horse in the fourth race.  Number 3 turned out to be Miss Valentine.  She (and her jockey) came out of the gate strong and led for most of the race.  After fading in the home stretch, she appeared to be boxed out by the front runners but with a last burst of speed, made a dash for the win.  At the line, it was Miss Valentine, Clear Pasaj (No. 2) and Willet (No. 5), nose to nose.

The race too close to call, we waited—with great anticipation—for the photo finish to be reviewed.  Sadly, Miss Valentine came up short.  The final result was Clear Pasaj with the win, Willet to place (by half a head) and Miss Valentine to show (by another half head).  A disappointing outcome but it was a lot of fun to watch.  Those horses move fast!

A day at the races made for a nice break from gardening but we had had enough of it (and only lost $30).  We left before the fifth race bell and, after stopping at Hattie’s Chicken Shack (highly recommended) for fried chicken (what else?) and hushpuppies (the best I’ve ever eaten), headed for the Thruway south and home.

Yesterday, we drove up to Saratoga Springs, New York, for a quick getaway, a mini-vacation, a brief respite from the everyday.  We haven’t planned much—our idea is to keep it simple—and spent yesterday afternoon walking up and down the main street in town, Broadway, and taking a nap (I never claimed to be the life of the party) before going out for a delicious pasta dinner at Wheatfields (highly recommended).  The heat wave finally broke and we were actually able to eat outdoors.

One of the things we did plan was a visit this morning to the gardens at Yaddo, an artists’ community founded in 1900 by a wealthy couple who, sadly, lost all four of their children.  Without heirs, they decided to convert their estate into a sanctuary where young artists, writers, composers and other promising creative types could work without interruption or concern for such mundane matters as room and board.

Most of the 400-acre property is off-limits to those who have not applied to the organization, been reviewed by its trustees and found qualified for residency.  However, the gardens, which comprise a formal rose garden and more rustic rock garden, are open to the public on a daily basis.  The gardens are tended by the volunteer Yaddo Garden Association, several of whose members were busily at work during our walk-through.

We were a bit late for the roses which probably peaked about a week ago.  Nonetheless, most of the bushes were still in bloom, even if the flowers were becoming a bit ragged.  I am always amazed by the sheer variety of roses whose flowers exist in seemingly infinite combinations of color, size, shape and scent.  My favorites are the more delicate pinks and peaches, especially the clusters of diminutive tea roses.

The rose garden is carved out of a stand of spruces which shield visitors from the unfortunate presence of the Thruway, only several hundred feet to the east.  Unfortunately, the trees are not dense enough to attenuate the constant drone of trucks and automobiles racing by at 70 miles per hour.  One has to use some effort to imagine oneself at the turn of the last century when the surrounding countryside was less populated and much quieter.

The rock garden, located west of the rose garden and divided from it by a classical colonnade, is somewhat more serene and much more shaded (fewer trees were removed to create it, apparently).  The flora here are much more familiar to me (in appearance if not in name) and include an impressive array of hostas, most of which were in full bloom.  The dense canopy of the woods must have protected them from the merciless sun of the last few weeks.

This past Christmas, we sent bottles of Crown Maple Syrup to some of our friends and family.  Rachel had read about the producer, located only an hour north of us, in a food magazine and we thought the syrup would make a nice gift from a Hudson Valley source.

We didn’t get any for ourselves, though, figuring that a visit to the farm would make a fun field trip when the weather turned warmer.  Well, the weather is still cold—it feels more like winter than spring—but the sap has started its annual run.  We looked up the location, programmed it into the GPS/GIS and set off into the woods.

The home of Crown Maple Syrup is Madava Farms in Dover Plains, New York.  After driving north on the Taconic State Parkway, exiting onto a county road and then turning off onto a one-lane dirt road (soft from recent rains), we were expecting to arrive at a small, rustic farm like the one we visited in Vermont two years ago.  However, when we reached Madava Farms’ front gate—with its shiny stainless steel and geometrical design—we started to get the idea that something else was in store.

Instead of a centuries-old farmhouse, we found (at the end of a newly-paved driveway) a large, gleaming retail and production facility that includes a shop, restaurant and tasting room (in addition to the machinery necessary for distilling maple syrup) housed in an attractively-styled wood-framed structure (maple, naturally) reminiscent of an Adirondack hunting lodge.  It also made me think of some of the glitzier wineries in the Napa Valley.

The property is only a year old and was built by a wealthy energy investor.  That the founder is a graduate of the Harvard Business School is readily apparent.  The syrup is well-branded, there are high-end foods and related products (e.g., cookbooks) available for sale, and a variety of activities on-site (tasting, tours, dining, hiking).  Clearly, the business plan is to create a maple-syrup-based experience and not just to sell product.  It is also clear that they are succeeding.

Part of me recoiled from what initially felt like heavy-handed marketing.  But after walking around and observing the operation and its staff, I quickly came to appreciate its quality.  First and foremost, the syrup is very good.  We tasted their dark and medium amber products and both were smooth and clean-tasting.  Further, the syrup is attractively packaged in clear glass bottles that might remind some people of single malt scotch.

Although there was a high risk of pretentiousness on the part of the staff, we did not observe any (even if there is some unrestrained pride; no sin there).  The woman pouring samples in the tasting room was friendly, solicited and answered questions enthusiastically and was very knowledgeable about the production process.

And I have to admit that I am a sucker for architecturally-exposed industrial equipment.  The facility includes holding vats, a UV sanitizer, a reverse-osmosis water extractor, three-stage evaporator and the bottling line, all constructed from stainless steel, connected by precisely arranged and carefully labeled PVC piping and accessed by grated catwalks and viewing platforms.

And that’s just inside the main building.  Outside, the maple trees—which produce the sap from which the syrup is made—are interconnected by a network of small-diameter tubes which feed into larger distribution lines which in turn deliver the sap to distributed collection houses and, finally, into the holding tanks.  The tubes appear to levitate horizontally about four feet above the ground (on closer inspection, I found that they are supported by thin steel wires under high tension, strung between stout trees to carry the loads with very little sag) and are under vacuum pressure to keep the sap running (even when the weather is not conducive) and protect against leaks.

Before leaving, we bought a Maple Stick (puff pastry crisped in the oven with well-caramelized maple syrup) and started to plan a return visit.  Based on the length of the line, we weren’t the only ones enjoying the maple experience.

In Hawaii, we are surrounded by an abundance of tropical plants.  And in this climate, everything grows exuberantly and wildly, both in size and color.  Backyard gardens are lush jungles of succulents and vines and even roadside hedges and highway dividers boast vibrant displays of year-round flowers.  For instance, the main road through Kapalua, near where we are staying, is lined with hibiscus blossoms the size of salad plates.

We’ve had a big dose of local flora but to get a more comprehensive feel for what grows in this warm and hospitable habitat, we decided to visit a formal garden.  So, having fueled ourselves at the Gazebo Restaurant (see March 1, 2013), we headed back to the Upcountry and the Kula Botanical Gardens.

Located along the route to Haleakala National Park (see February 26, 2013, part 2), the garden rises up a west-facing slope of the dormant volcano at an elevation of about 3000 feet (the views of the lowlands and west Maui from the parking lot are phenomenal).  Pathways meander through the eight acres of densely planted beds and at particularly scenic spots, benches, pavilions and gazebos provide comfortable places to sit and contemplate (or simply enjoy) the surroundings.

Although formal in its arrangements of plant families (they provide a helpful map) and carefully tended, the garden has an endearing rustic quality.  It is not overly pristine like some gardens I have toured and that makes it all the more approachable and welcoming.  Almost everything is labeled for those (unlike me) who keep track of scientific names and places of origin.

Eight acres sounds huge but in fact, the Kula Botanical Gardens are just the right size for an hour or two of relaxed strolling, chatting and photographing.  We made an entire circuit of the grounds—oohing and aahing as we came around each bend—before heading back home for an afternoon at the pool.

If you decide to have breakfast at the Gazebo Restaurant in Napili, it doesn’t matter when you arrive; you will wait for at least 30 minutes.  A line starts to form outside at 6:30 am in anticipation of the restaurant’s 7:00 am opening time.

But it’s a pleasant wait as everybody spends the time describing to their friends what they did the day before, discussing what they will order to eat and planning their activities for the remainder of the morning.  There is none of the tension that often pervades such queues and threatens to escalate into hostility—or even violence—when someone appears to cut in ahead of others.

And, even better, there is coffee, a big urn of it on a cart near the restaurant’s shop.  By absolute measures, the coffee is not very good.  It is weak, overheated (almost always the case with electric urns) and served in Styrofoam cups.  You wouldn’t pay much for this coffee so it’s a good thing that it is free.

And yet, standing here with Rachel in the morning tropical sun, watching for whales, feeling the warm breezes on our faces, and contemplating what will no doubt be a delicious breakfast, I’m thinking that this is probably the best coffee in the world.

Several years ago, I fell in love with Hawaiian slack key guitar music.  We had attended a performance of Ballet Tech (formerly, Feld Ballets/NY) at the Joyce Theater in New York City and one of the dances was set to a piece called Moe ‘Uhane, or Dream Slack Key, by Sonny Chillingworth.  It was mesmerizing and beautiful, a melodious evocation of the tranquility and beauty of the islands.

I’m afraid it overshadowed the dance (sorry, Eliot!) but the music stayed with me.  Fortunately, the program for the performance included a reference (thanks, Eliot!) and I was able to track down the CD from which the music came (Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters, issued by Dancing Cat Records).  I purchased it, and then another (Volume 2) and then another.  We shortly had a small collection of traditional Hawaiian music.

When it came time to plan this trip, we checked online to see whether we might find a live concert during our stay.  To our delight, we found George Kahumoku, Jr.’s Slack Key Show, a weekly performance by masters of Hawaiian music.  It takes place every Wednesday evening in the Aloha Pavilion of the Napili Kai Resort, right across the street from where we are staying.

The only downside is that Uncle George (a slack key guitar master) is touring on the mainland.  His sidekicks, Da Ukulele Boyz, are hosting in his absence and their guests tonight are Herb Ohta, Jr. (ukulele) and Jon Yamasato (guitar).  Their background is traditional but they also played some contemporary music.  Along with guitarist Sterling Seaton and the elegant hula dancer Wainani Kealoha (who performed to Hanalei Moon), they put on a tremendous show (and we were able to get autographed CDs as souvenirs).