Archive for November, 2002

Ponce de Leon probably didn’t envision ghost tours, chocolate factories or fine dining and lodging when he claimed Florida for Spain in 1513. Nor is it likely that Pedro Menendez sipped cappuccino and nibbled on a pecan sticky bun when he landed in St. Augustine, Florida, with 700 soldiers and colonists in September of 1565. Yet all these treats and more awaited me as I approached our country’s oldest city.

I entered St. Augustine northbound from highway A1A, crossing the impressive Bridge of Lions. The historic Castillo de San Marcos, completed in 1695, stood along the waterfront to my right and the city’s central plaza and red tile roofs dotted the landscape before me.

Eager to explore, I was delighted to soon find a parking space and began my tour with a stroll along St. George St, lined with shops and historical structures. My first stop was at The Bunnery Cafe, where I admired delicious hot cinnamon rolls and a wide variety of muffins and fresh baked cookies.

I treated myself to a vanilla latte and meandered farther down the quaint pedestrian mall to Kilwin’s Chocolate and Ice Cream, where a young candy maker was busy making homemade fudge in the large front window. The sweet aromas of molten chocolate and sugary confections drifted out the front door and across the sidewalk. Raspberry truffles, nut clusters and almond toffee crunch tempted me to linger, but there was much to explore and I wandered on.

I stopped into a small information center to ask about lodging. Presented with dozens of tempting options, I finally settled on Casa de Solana Bed and Breakfast, named after the original owner, Don Manuel Lorenzo Solana. Located in the Historic Old City area, the Inn is convenient to restaurants, shops, galleries and museums.

Before moving my car to the Inn’s private off-street parking, I crossed the central plaza, passed under a stone archway and walked along Aviles St. I soon arrived at the flower-covered wall of the inn, which I would later find out dates back to the period of British rule in St. Augustine (1763-1783).

I was given The British Suite, on the third and top floor of the original casa. This spacious suite included an antique-filled bedroom, separate sitting room, private bath, whirlpool tub and every imaginable amenity. A wonderful bonus was a private deck with rocking chair, just off the second floor, with easy access down stairs just outside the door to the suite. This provided a perfect setting to listen to the “clip-clop” of horse-drawn carriages passing by on narrow brick-paved streets, while sipping ice tea and enjoying complimentary homemade cookies.

An afternoon reception in the main floor’s common room allowed guests to mingle and share travel tales. The buffet was elegantly set with carafes of wine and platters of hors d’oeuvres. Coffee and cookies were available for those feeling the yearning of a sweet tooth.

Though the popular ghost walking tours offered nightly in this city promised an exciting blend of ghostly legends and local tales, I settled for a quiet evening to enjoy the luxury of the room and fell asleep soundly in one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever encountered while traveling.

As a reward for my early evening, I was awake before dawn. I slipped out of the inn quietly and hurried over to the water, just blocks away, arriving in time to catch the first rays of the sun as they hit the towers of Castillo San Marcos. This historic fort was built in the late 1600’s of coquina stone, a locally quarried soft-shell-rock. Walking north from the fort, I came to the City Gates, built in 1808 at the head of St. George St., also of coquina stone.

I worked my way back to the Inn, arriving at the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine just as morning Mass was starting, where I paused to admire the Spanish Mission architecture and Victorian stained glass windows. Founded as a parish in 1594, the present cathedral was built in 1797 and restored after a fire gutted the church in 1887.

I returned to Casa de Solana, arriving to a delicious morning buffet of hot entrees, fruit, homemade breads, and fresh brewed coffee. After the hearty breakfast, I headed back upstairs, where I relaxed on the private porch, listening to the “clip-clop” of passing horse-drawn carriages.

Opportunities for sight-seeing in St. Augustine are abundant. Just blocks from the inn stands the Spanish colonial structure known as “The Oldest House,” a National Historic Landmark that includes two museums, a picnic area and gardens, as well as an art gallery and gift shop. Admission is discounted for guests of the Inn. A brief stroll leads to Old St. Augustine Village and the nearby Lightner Museum and Flagler College, formerly the Ponce de Leon and Alcazar hotels, built by old magnate Henry M. Flagler in the late 1800’s.

The Spanish Military Hospital, Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse, Nombre de Dios Mission and Florida Heritage Museum all offer additional journeys into St. Augustine’s past. Transportation between these historical sites is easy, either by foot or by enjoying an old-fashioned horse and buggy ride. Trolley and train tours are other ways to explore the city, with unlimited step off and re-boarding privileges included in one ticket fee. A short trip by car will take visitors to explore the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum and St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park, as well as forty-two miles of beaches.

From waterfront dining overlooking Matanzas Bay to British pub fare and Italian seafood and pasta feasts, there’s no shortage of dining options. The charm of Old Florida is reflected in many of the local eateries and hungry customers can easily find everything from quick, easy snacks to relaxed, leisurely meals.

St. Augustine is a city with something for everyone, from fine dining and great shopping to lessons in history or simply a long-awaited chance to relax. Ponce and Pedro were a little too early to have all the exciting choices that St. Augustine offers today. But if you happen to choose now to follow in their footsteps, you’ll be right on time.

St. Augustine Visitor and Convention Bureau
Website: www.visitoldcity.com
Phone: (800) 653-2489

Casa de Solana
Website: www.casadesolana.com
Phone: (888) 796-0980


Read Full Post »

The official scenic historical marker on approach to Acoma “Sky City” Pueblo reads:

Legend describes Acoma as “a place that always was”. Archaeological evidence shows it has been occupied since at least the 13th century. Established on this mesa for defensive purposes, Acoma was settled by inhabitants of nearby pueblos, which had been abandoned. Nearly destroyed by the spanish in 1599, Acoma was quickly reestablished by ancesters of its present occupants.

It looked amazing, mysterious, intriguing. I knew without a doubt that I hadn’t made a mistake when I turned off Interstate 40 and headed south 13 miles, a side trip I’ve never taken on other cross-country trips, but had impulsively decided to take this time. The road was completely deserted, easy to drive and surrounded by vast open space and dramatic rock formations. I stopped several times just to get out of my car and look around quietly. The land stretched out in every direction. All traces of sound from the busy highway had disappeared. I could feel the silence in my chest.

I approached the Visitor Center for information and was told a tour was departing in fifteen minutes. A few other visitors were wandering around, some looking at items in the small gift shop, others watching a short documentary on the Acoma people. There was no option of driving or walking up to the pueblo on my own. The guided tour was the only permitted means of entry. I paid my fee ($10. for adults), as well as an additional cost for a photography permit, which earned me a bright pink pass, tied to my camera, and the right to photograph most areas during the tour. (No photography is allowed at any time inside the cemetary or cathedral, which they make extremely clear, with promises to confiscate cameras and destroy film if the rules are not heeded.)

The bus ride was short and steep, up the side of the mesa. There were about 25 in the tour group, which seemed to materialize from nowhere when they called out the departure notice. We were deposited and left in front of the first of many adobe buildings, where we gathered to follow and listen to the guide. (Well, the rest of the group did…I juggled my camera around and fell behind repeatedly to take pictures. A few others had cameras and permits, also. One other man took photographs and also notes on a small pad of paper. I was reprimanded once for falling behind near the cathedral, but once they realized I wasn’t taking any prohibited pictures, they pretty much left me alone. I did earn a degree of infamy for this, however, and was teased by others in the group several times.

Without question, this was a step through a time machine. I don’t know if it seemed more amazing to ponder the history of this “city in the sky,” which dates back almost 900 years, or to consider that there are people who still live there now, without electricity or running water, just as their ancesters did. Many of those who live there, as well as those who live in more modern communities nearby, keep up the tradition of making clay pottery, which is available for sale on small tables, set up in front of individual houses.

I stopped and spoke with Susan, a kind young woman with a sweet smile, whose table held a variety of wonderful clay pots, most with intricate geometrical designs, a trademark of Acoma pottery. I fell in love with a small vase and was delighted to learn she was the artist and that she makes everything she sells there in her home at the pueblo. She was happy to have a picture taken and proudly held her artwork in her hand for the camera. She carefully wrapped it in bubble wrap and inserted it into a small brown lunch bag, while I rummaged in my purse and pulled out money to pay her. I thanked her wholeheartedly and attempted to catch up with the tour group.

Around every corner of the village was some sort of intriguing sight – round ovens with slabs of stone for doors, V-shaped ladders, marking the entrances to kivas, rooms for family gatherings and religious meetings, vistas off the eastern side to the 400 ft. high “Enchanted Mesa”. The tour took a circular pattern, starting with the San Esteban Del Rey Mission, which was built between 1629 and 1640, as a restitution of peace after three years of battle between the Acoma people and Spanish troops. Considering the sandstone mesa rises 367 feet above the valley, it’s mind-boggling to think that the road that easily brought us up on the tour bus wasn’t there at the time the church was built. All building materials had to be carried by hand or hauled up the slopes. This mission is now a National Historic Landmark, as is the pueblo itself.From the mission building, we wandered down narrow streets of houses, many two and three stories high. (Acoma people often alternated the use of floors according to heating needs, using the lower floor as the kitchen in the winter, in order to have the heat rise. In the summer, the upper floor was used for cooking and the lower floor for storage of grains and other goods, where they could stay cool.)

Toward the end of the alloted time for the visit (approx. an hour), I came across another table of pottery, this one offered by a mother and teenage (I estimated) daughter. They were very kind about answering my questions about the process of making and selling the pottery, life at the pueblo and general culture of the Acoma people. Though camera shy, they gladly allowed me to photograph their table. I thanked them by purchasing two more small items, both made by the daughter: one a small dish, shaped like bird, and the other a “storyteller” doll.

It is interesting to note that the Acoma culture is a matriarchal society. The houses are all owned by the woman in the family and are passed down to the youngest daughter. In the case that only sons are born to a family, property goes to the youngest daughter of the youngest son. I saw only women selling goods within the pueblo itself, although one displayed some items that her husband had made.

Extremely happy with my new treasures, I finished my last purchase, rearranged my camera and purse on my shoulder, and looked around for the rest of the group. Right. What group? What tour guide? What bus? OK, I confess. I ended up walking back to the Visitor Station, which was fortunately less than a mile (and all downhill .)

Acoma Pueblo was absolutely a highlight of this particular cross-country trip.

Read Full Post »

Kingman, AZ

Shortly after crossing Holy Moses Wash, Interstate 40 veered toward the left and began to climb, passing through rock formations on both sides of the road, a dramatic change from the flat, dry Mojave desert. I caught my breath and took a look at the Arizona landscape before me.

Three hundred twenty-five miles from Los Angeles, I pulled into Kingman, AZ, and followed signs into the historic district. Train tracks paralleled the road on my right and with them came the sound of an approaching train. It was late afternoon and the sun cast a golden glow from the west. Yet instead of the silhouettes of joshua trees from earlier in the day, long shadows fell from monuments of the early 1900’s, for I’d now entered Route 66 territory. With just one easy turn off the Interstate, I’d jumped back in time many decades.

The Hotel Brunswick was easy to find, just across from the Kingston Depot, where a long string of boxcars rattled by, the clattering of wheels against the tracks mixing with a loud, repetitive whistle. I parked my car, giving it a pat on the roof for its reliable performance on the first day of my cross-country trip. Hoisting my overnight bag, camera and laptop over my shoulder, I headed inside, where I was greeted at the front desk by the owner of the historic 1909 lodging.

Gerard Guedon adjusted his glasses and checked the computer screen, then gave me the run down on room availability, his native French accent betraying the fact that he is not originally from the Wild, Wild West. I knew I was in for an adventure when he informed me that the hotel’s larger rooms and suites were booked, but that one of the small “Cowboy” (or “Cowgirl”) rooms was available. Having read about these bargain rooms online, I jumped at the chance and, taking a quick look at the room before commiting, gladly booked it for the night. It was a deal I was happy to make. What I gave up in space, I gained in savings. My quaint second-floor room had a small bed, chair, writing table, air-conditioning and direct-dial phone, with a bathroom as large as the room just a few feet down the hall. The cost? Exactly twenty-five dollars. File this under great budget finds.

After getting settled into my room, I strolled downstairs for something to drink. The lobby, restaurant and bar areas were all spacious and soaked with the ambiance of the early 1900’s. I watched others assemble for cocktails or dinner, tall ivory walls and green, pressed tin ceilings as background. Gerard leaned against the antique bar, sporting a white apron and greeting customers who were arriving for Saturday night dinner. No newcomer to hotel management, he has 35 years of experience in the hospitality business and had a friendly welcome waiting for each guest. Listening to conversation, I heard many hometown areas represented – Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, and New England among them.

The hotel restaurant serves a wonderful prime rib buffet, but I was in search of a smaller meal. I took a walk down the street to El Palacio Mexican Restaurant, housed in another historic building and decorated with brightly painted chairs and flowers, strands of chili and an assortment of pottery on the walls. Here I ordered an absolutely perfect green salad, crispy and fresh. Any worries I might have had about not eating enough were quickly extinguished, as a basket of chips landed on the table, accompanied by two types of salsa and a bowl of hot bean dip. Add this to my budget finds of the day, as my bill totaled a mere two dollars and ninety-seven cents, delivered with a complimentary dessert, a warm, cinnamon-coated pastry, dipped in whipped cream.

I settled in for a sound night’s sleep and barely made it to the breakfast buffet in the morning, sliding in just after 9AM. Though other guests had already eaten, Gerard had been kind enough to hold the buffet open for my late arrival. I chose from the selection of bagels, muffins, hard-boiled eggs, cereal, juice and coffee, then grabbed my camera and took off to explore.

As it was Sunday, many regular stores were closed, but the Powerhouse Route 66 Museum and Visitor Center was open, which gave me a chance to get an inside view of the road many call America’s most historic. Upstairs, inside this 90-year old building, I found a great exhibit on the life and photography of Carlos Elmer, whose stunning photographs of Arizona’s beautiful land and scenery have been featured in Arizona Highways. A glass cabinet held a camera, notes and other personal items that belonged to this artist, who captured the atmosphere of the area to the point that viewing his photographs nearly took my breath away.

I made one more stop before leaving, to take a look at Locomotive Park, where steam engine #3759 is displayed, along with a colorful red caboose. This impressive engine made regular trips between Chicago and Los Angeles, stopping regularly at the depot just across from the Hotel Brunswick. In 1957 it was the last steam engine to make the journey to Kingman, at which time the Santa Fe Railroad made a gift of it to the city.

This was a good stop for my first night on the road, with historic accommodations at a bargain price and a glimpse into life along Route 66.

Read Full Post »