Feature Travel Archives

Feature Travel Archives

Horsing Around the Masai Mara in Kenya

British travel writer Richard Powell joins a gonzo riding outfit to trek across Kenya's epic game reserve, camping beneath the stars and hanging onto his horses...

'It's like the Garden of Eden,' our guide says, 'just beautiful...' and we draw up our reins to marvel in silent reverence at the vast landscape, dotted with every wild animal we could have hoped to see.

Across this lush, buzzing vista, buffalo herd around impala, eagles soar above wildebeest and elephants charge fruit trees, while lions wait patiently in the tall savannah grass deciding which to eat for dinner.

Getting to Offbeat Safaris is not easy... it takes days of hard riding to earn a seat at this show. Our journey begins in the capital, Nairobi, where we transfer through gridlock traffic to a domestic airport and board a 12-seat Cessna, heading south-west over the Loita Plains, above the Kikuyu Highlands and past the volcano-studded Great Rift Valley.

An hour later we’re bumping down on a dirt-strip that doubles as a gateway to the reserve and a social hotspot for colourfully-dressed Masai warriors. With no phone signal and no electricity from here on in, it also represents the eye of a needle through which few First-World foibles may pass.

From here, a Land Rover bumps us along remote red dirt roads to a campsite set in a grove of acacia trees. This would be the first of three such sites, and traversing between them for up to six hours a day on horseback will require every inch of riding skill I have.

There's barely time for a cold Kenyan Tusker beer before we're heading out on our first ride when the sun hangs low enough to bring the wildlife out to feed. Here the guides quietly make their assessments about our riding abilities and how closely they need to stick to us, and whether we've been paired with the right horse.

They’re an international bunch; a half-Argentinian, half-Austrian lifer (he started working with Offbeat at 18, and he's still there aged 33), an Australian polo player from Dubai, a British safari guide from Botswana, and a student volunteer and hunter from England. The guests were from the UK, US, Germany, Italy and Australia.

The horses are Abyssinian, thoroughbred and cross-thoroughbreds, reared on the owner's farm, and brought into the reserve via a seven-hour horsebox slog. Mine was a pristinely-turned-out, polo-playing gelding named Blondie, looking decidedly bling with his dash of gold flecks and bright yellow mane. After half an hour of sizing each other up at the beginning, we knew we’d get on fine.

Being confident on your horse could be the most important part of this adventure. Over the next week, we would inch – day-by-day – ever closer to prides of snarling lions, square up to scrappy elephants and push back short-tempered Cape buffalo... any of which could outrun us, if they wanted to.

Being comfortable riding in English tack is important too, as I noticed the countryside Californians in our group had a hard time adjusting to the bolt-upright British saddles at odds with the Western-style 'armchairs' they use back home.

The most accomplished riders tail the lead guide as he opts to take the most daring routes, jumping over felled trees left by head-charging pachyderm and playing chicken with lions which may or may not have eaten that day.

Every two to three days, camp packs up and shifts by truck; with its canvas dining tent, shower, sleeping and toilet tents resembling a well-appointed commune when pitched at each of the three stunning oases.

On every ‘moving’ day, there is an epic ride to reach the next site, which can be up to 50 kilometres away. That's a lot of riding – at high altitude – across challenging terrain, galloping across plains pockmarked with aardvark holes and rocks, and cantering through stone-bed rivers with vertigo-inducing banks.

Along the way, animal burrows are a constant hazard. But if you're lucky enough for the person in front of you to spot one through the dust clouds, avoid it and shout 'HOLE!' in time, you might not fall down it.

Organisers encourage guests to take out medical insurance prior to arrival, but they also have their own public liability insurance and membership to the Flying Doctors organisation, in case of serious injury requiring evacuation.

Nevertheless, there's a lot that can go wrong in the middle of nowhere. The riding sections will undoubtedly push you to your limits of self-preservation, whether you opt to take the easy option and stay back, or throw caution to the wind and try to keep up with the lead guide.

Bullwhips protect guests from animal attacks, with guides normally carrying little else. The Land Rover variant of the trip, for non-riders, encourages guests to get out and walk on the reserve, and here, they are accompanied by a guard carrying a rifle.

The one occasion we went out armed was to a mountain we climbed first by car, then by foot to reach its spectacular peak. Its nooks host several families of cheetah and leopard, which we were warned to be on our guard against, although we didn't see any as we clambered about on its slopes.

We did not have to wait much longer before we did, though...
On our first night at the third campsite, while drinking beers around the fire on the banks of the Mara River, our lead Masai guard, Nati, came over saying he’d spotted a cheetah and asking if we wanted to see it. Several seconds later we were careening around the site in the Land Rover, shining a spotlight until suddenly we caught a flash of markings bolting into a bush.

Nati picked out an impala with the light, leading the cheetah out into the open to its quarry. The kill was artistic and eloquent in its execution and despite the graphic scene, we drove over, clutching our beers on the roof of the car, and sat transfixed to watch it feed.

Other night-time highlights included Masai warriors demonstrating their mating dance around the fire (a hit with the ladies), driving out to party on the plains after dark with James Brown booming from the stereo, and running semi-clothed out of my tent at 4am as an elephant pushed down a nearby tree.

The camp’s 15-strong domestic staff of men from various local tribes went above and beyond to give the safari an extravagant feel...
Returning to my tent after dinner each evening, I would without fail find my riding boots cleaned and polished to perfection and my laundry scrubbed, pressed and folded as if at a top-notch hotel.

The food and drink was impressive too, an array of cuisine cooked up from fresh, imported and locally-produced ingredients... ‘Would you like your steak rare or well-done... with a nice Malbec or a Bloody Mary?’ and ‘Breakfast eggs fried, scrambled or poached?’ Riding for hours from the crack of dawn to emerge over a hill and find the camp’s chef cooking breakfast for you, and baking fresh bread – in the middle of the plains – also ranks, for me, as a new definition of decadence.

Our midday siestas in shady glades after picnic lunches were something to savour too... like falling asleep on the classroom rug after having your fill of milk and biscuits at kindergarten. At the end of the week, it was with some sadness that I watched my fellow guests leave; while I moved on to see the company's guest lodge, another hour’s flight west.

The lodge at Sosian Ranch, the Samburu word for 'Wild Date Palm,' combines the tame with the wild. It's certainly a stark contrast to Masai camping, with its solid stone guest houses, swimming pool and main house that harks back to colonial days with a snooker table, grand piano and library. Whereas the riding trip guests were in their 20s and 30s, the game lodge guests were mainly parents in their 40s and 50s with young children.

I immediately missed the unashamedly gonzo set-up of the anarchic riding outfit, with its unpredictable, scruffy lead guide riding in flip-flops, nights spent dancing around the camp fire and rock-hunting by moonlight on the plains to shore up the Land Rover's wheels after we’d hit a hole… (Cue the Australian guide: “Let’s have a party, then fix the car!”)

For many visitors, Sosian will perhaps be the better-fitting choice, offering a quieter, safer and more luxurious bush experience on its 24,000-acre private working ranch, set on the Laikipia plateau. It’s a beautiful area that offers more than 250 species of birdlife and an abundance of game species with four of the big five species being found there, plus other rarities such as wild dogs, Jackson’s hartebeest and Grevy’s zebra.

Nonetheless, I’d be back on the mad travelling horseback safari circus any day... at least for another few years.

Cross the Masai Mara with Offbeat Safaris on horseback over 7 nights from $5,550/£3,550/€4,400 or 10 nights from $7,700/£4,900/€6,075 per person (Jan-Mar, Jun-Oct & Dec), excluding international flights. Non-riders can take a Land Rover safari from $6,500/£4,050/€5,020. Or stay at Sosian Lodge from $4,500/£2,800/€3,470 per week, per person.

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Photos copyright and courtesy of Richard Powell

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Richard Powell is a freelance journalist who also works for the Press Release Distribution, Media Monitoring and Public Relations firm, Presswire, but does not work with, or for, any of the parties mentioned in this article.

Feature Travel Archives

2008: Quebec City's 400-Year Anniversary

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Quebec City Summer Festival

By Patricia Keegan

Leaving Washington’s humidity and abrasive politics behind, I hopped on a flight to join the Quebec City Summer Festival and its 400th-Anniversary celebration. Several hours later I was in Canada’s charming French city discovering an entirely new, light-hearted perspective.

From early July, for the past 41 years, Quebec City has rocked to the rhythms of an outstanding music festival that reaches out to the world, spotlighting artists from Quebec, as well other countries and cultures. For 11 days the city sizzles with high energy. Over 400 music and street performances transform the oldest fortified city in North America into a gigantic outdoor stage.

This year brings even more excitement with the year-long celebration of Quebec‘s 400th Birthday and some of the world‘s mega stars.

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Framed in the window of my room on the 21st floor of the Quebec Hilton, was the first of many lovely scenes. Along the horizon a string of low lying hills and fields in the distance follow the curve of the St. Lawrence River. Arching above this pleasant landscape was the fragment of a rainbow serving as the backdrop for the Quebec flag flying above the Parliament building. This building is just one of many architecturally magnificent edifices in this unique French city.

Built between 1877 and 1886, it was designed by architect Eugene-Eitenne Tache in the Second Empire style and has four wings that form a large square. To the left, in the far distance, theChateau Frontenac stood in ethereal grace like a fairytale castle.  From my box seat I had a clear view of several stages. Just below I heard the sounds of Yesterday’s Ring, a Quebec rock band, causing a stir among hundreds of people. A roaring line of motorcycles circled the stage. I pulled a chair up to the window and started reading the program when suddenly I was startled by a friendly “Hello” beside me. I saw a man with a big smile on his face, dangling from a rope and waving outside my window. As he was disappearing in mid-air I returned his wave.

With the fading sun reflected in the dome of the outdoor stage it was time to join the festive crowds. Looking up at the Hilton from across the street, I could see a group of 14 men, springing off of a side wall of the hotel, tumbling upside down and performing amazing ballet loops on ropes. Necks craned, the crowd on the street, including me, were mesmerized by the daring feats of these aerial acrobats. Surprises are a part of the festival celebration in the streets.

Along with many, many artists from Canada and France, some internationally known stars will also grace the Festival stages.Paul McCartneyoffered Quebec a free concert on July 20. On August 22, another major artist, Celine Dion, lit the Quebec stage with another free concert.

I was really lucky to be in Quebec for Celine Dion, and the French favorite Charles Aznavour, who attracted a crowd estimated at 100,000 to the historic Plains of Abraham. When the Aznavour concert overflowed, the gates to the open air theater, closed. The crowd swarmed to the hills, gradually turning into fireflies -- flashing pinpoints of red light from the Hydro-Quebec flashing badges. Singer song writer Linda Lamay held the stage for one hour prior to the Aznavour performance. Lamay is a young artist from Quebec whose French songs are mainly about women’s issues, mixing a little humor with depth.

The Plains of Abraham is a spectacular setting which, to be truly appreciated, has to be seen from afar, away from the crowds sprawled on its sweet smelling, grassy banks  When a small figure, the great Charles Azanvour, dressed in black with a head of white hair, appeared at the front of the stage, looking at one of the huge TV screens, I could even see the twinkle in his eyes. The crowd went wild in their greeting. At first it seemed his voice was not carrying, it was too soft. However, as he sang his familiar repertoire, he seemed to gain more and more energy. At one point the receptive audience joined him in his popular, well known songs of love and loss. He soon shed his jacket, did a little dance and joked, calling himself a “museum piece.“

The crowd enjoyed it. He was a star, he was like family, and he gave a lively performance. Aznavour, now 84, came to Quebec over 50 years ago when it was considered a small, backward town.

At an earlier press conference he was asked how he felt about coming back to Quebec.“ I like it.  I like the familiar language, I always feel at home in Quebec.  Nobody had to convince me to come.”

To a question asked about his life as a singer and what it meant to him, he answered, The best job in the world is the one you love.  All aspects of what I do are great, I always think of life’s good moments.  Wherever you are coming from, you do what you can do to enjoy your life.”

When  a reporter asked about future projects, he replied, “I had a lot of projects at 20, but now its more about will I be able to do tomorrow.”

Over his 60-year career Aznavour has appeared in more than 60 movies, composed some 1,000 songs and sold more than 100 million records. His songs have been sung by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and Ray Charles to name just a few. As a direct descendant of Armenian parents, Aznavour has been dubbed the International Ambassador of Armenia.

While in Quebec he received the Order of Canada award making him an honorary officer.  As the medal, representing Canada’s highest civilian honor, was hung around his neck by Quebec’s Governor General, Michaelle Jean,  Aznavour, with tears in his eyes, called the harmony of French and English cultures “impressive, because it shows this is big country, a great country, and a country that moves forward with a strong soul.”  He was introduced to Canada by Edith Piaf in the 1940‘s.

Celine Dion Concert Rocks the Plains of Abraham

Drums rolled, beams of light shot through the night sky, while the energy of a crowd estimated at 250,000 burst into cheers at the first glimpse of the dazzling Celine as she appeared on the stage. Dressed in a white sequined top and gray satin pants, her blond hair tousled just right, she wowed the crowd shouting; “Hello, Happy Birthday, Quebec! Are you ready?”

She stomped across the stage in silver stilettos, singing and pumping the air with her fist. Classy and sexy, Celine flirts with the world, dramatizing her songs while maintaining a sincerity that is both inspirational and unique. I was standing very close to the stage and could see the myriad of expressions crossing her face and could feel the intensity she puts into every word. From my prime location, in a 3-hour concert, I became a Celine fan. It would be a major challenge for any star to top the performance she gave as a gift to Quebec that evening. Her concert featured a galaxy of Quebec stars including Garou, rocker Eric Lapointe, Claude Dubois and Dan Bigras, each one a superstar, each one unique as they sang duets with Celine.

The youngest in a family of 14 children, all musicians, she surprised the audience when she brought family members to the stage to sing a medley of songs and telling the audience, “I want you to know what it was like to be in my family.” She dedicated the songs to her late father. Celine performed a total of 30 songs -- all in French.  They ranged from solos to duets to trios with her guests and spanned rock, pop and blues, several power ballads and lots of traditional Quebec songs.

It was close to midnight when Quebec songstress Ginette Reno appeared on the stage to sing a duet with Celine.  I had never heard or seen Ginette before, but as soon as she opened her mouth and began to sing, I was thrilled with the power and richness of her voice. It was obvious in this duet “Un Peau Plus Heut” that there was a lot of feeling between the two stars.  Celine was in tears at the end of the song as they hugged. I was very touched by the outstanding performance as were many in the audience.  I learned later that Reno was always one of Celine’s role models. When Celine was five years old she jumped up on a table to sing Ginette Reno songs. Evidently, there was a period when they were not close, but they have reunited, and this is the first time they have sung together in concert -- a dream come true for Celine.

Quebecois will tell you how proud they are of Celine, who was born in Charlemange, a small town near Montreal, Quebec. One fan described her as “a talented star who never veered from her values and has always managed to be authentic.”

Now is the Time to Visit Quebec!

For the entire span of 2008, Quebec City will be celebrating the 400th anniversary of establishment of Quebec by French explorer Samuel de Champlain on July 17, 1608. Today everybody in Quebec speaks French with pride in their unique city. This is not a problem as you will always find people who speak English.

Celebration 2008 opened on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2007 and is already half way through the year. Samuel de Champlain named the city Kebec, a word from the Amerindian Indians -- meaning where the river narrows. Champlain worked with the Amerindians who helped the French adapt to the new climate and way of life. Together they built the commerce of the region, harvesting beaver pelts for hats that were sold to France. Little did Champlain know that he was establishing the roots of French civilization in the Americas.  During the 17th- and 18th-centuries Quebec City was the center of New France and its enormous territory. At that time the “empire” covered all of Eastern Canada, and much of the Eastern United States. From its origin as a fur trading post to its present day status as capital of the province, Quebec City has been restored and celebrates its past.

Loews Le Concorde Hotel

Quebec city is home to many appealing hotels, but for a first time visitor Loews  Le Concorde is an excellent choice.  In a prime location next to the historic battlefields of the Plains of Abraham and its park with gardens in full bloom, it is also a comfortable walk to the walls of Old Quebec. The Grand Allee is right on the doorstep. For those interested in the fascinating history of this lovely city, this hotel has an unbeatable central location. Guest rooms are spacious with high quality beddings to insure a comfortable night’s sleep.

L’Astral, a revolving restaurant atop this 25-story building is a major attraction in Quebec both for the view and the cuisine.  From here there is a spectacular view of the silver domed churches, the parliament buildings, the narrow streets filled with colorful awnings, the Chateau Frontenac and the St. Lawrence River filled with sailboats. In the evening the lights create a romantic atmosphere with a similar feeling one gets looking from the window of a plane about to land.

Breakfast, my favorite meal of the day, is served in the spacious bar off the main lobby. It was abundant in wild berries and every item you could possibly desire to make that first meal a celebration of the gift of a new day. The hotel also provides newspapers in English as well as French. The hotel has a most attentive and efficient staff who treat guests with interest and care.

There are many, many restaurants to in Quebec, and while having had the opportunity to sample a few -- which have all been good -- my favorite is Restaurant Toast, a great choice for dinner.  It is open air but with high walls, trees, and a spiral staircase, you can imagine being in a corner of an old castle. With the first bite, you know the preparation is driven bya desire to pleasantly stimulate the palates of its patrons. In this they are successful. Dining with three friends, we were all equally pleased with the entrees, the delightful service, fine wines and heavenly soufflé.

Robert Lepage’s Image Mill of History

Another spectacular presentation in honor of the 400th Anniversary is the amazing creation -- the world’s largest architectural projection ever mounted.  The Image Mill, set up at the city’s old port, is a playful animated show in three dimensions about the past, present and future history of Quebec City.  It presents a mosaic of icons, sounds and ideas organized around four major eras of the city. It includes the age of rivers and exploration, the age of dirt roads and settlement, the age of railways and resource development and the age of air travel and communications.  This is so well constructed, and so intriguing, that I'm sure it will be of interest to other cities as a way to highlight their history in an intriguing and fun way.

A Walk Through the City

An ideal ways to get to know the old city is to take a stroll along the narrow streets lined with stone houses. Occasionally, these buildings, with their pointed, or mansard roofs, have carriage gates that open unto a courtyard.

A special treat for art lovers is a visit to the Musee National de Beaux Arts du Quebec with its current exhibition Le Louvre a Quebec, featuring paintings, sculpture, jewelry, and decorative art objects from the prestigious collections of Le Louvre in Paris. A never before seen event in North America, the exhibit sheds light on the quality and diversity of the collection's relics of Oriental, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan and Roman origin, with over 5000 years of history and civilization. This magnificent exhibit is best appreciated by renting the earphones to learn about the history of each piece

Quebec can boast of its many splendid churches and the strong influence of the church in its early history. The Notre Dame Basilica is well worth a visit. Built on the same site in 1647, it was destroyed twice by fire throughout the centuries. It is the oldest parish in North America. The cathedral is filled with impressive works of art, stained glass windows and many gifts sent from France by Louis XIV.

The Holy Trinity Cathedral, modeled after St. Martin in the Fields in London, house many precious objects donated by King George III.

A short stop in the Musee Bon Pasteur (Good Shepherd Museum) gives a poignant piece of history of the Good Shepherd Sisters of Quebec, who dedicated their lives caring for and educating abandoned women and children in the 19th-century.

The Musee de la Civilization is not to be missed with its interactive exhibits that entertain and teach viewers about fascinating discoveries around the globe. In honor of the 400th-anniversary, the exhibitUrbanology features real and imaginary project models inviting viewers to visualize what the urban lifestyle means to us in the 21st-century.

The walls of Quebec City still stand. The commanding wall was declared an historical monument in 1957 forming a 4.6 kilometer defensive belt around the old city. A sentry path lined with interpretation signposts runs atop the ramparts and gates, allowing the visitor to better understand the evolution of the last fortified city remaining north of Mexico City.

There are many dramatic dimensions to this city on the St. Lawrence River with the amazing architecture of the Chateau Frontenac never far from view. For most the first sight of the Chateau is a breathtaking experience.   Even if you have visited all the Chateaux of the Loire Valley in France, Quebec’s Chateau Frontenac stands alone, like a child’s dream of a majestic, magical castle. The foundation of this world famous hotel was built in 1893 and the structure completed in 1924. During WWII two historic conferences were held here and attended by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, guests of then Canadian Prime Minister MacKenzie King. Even if you don’t spend the night, there are tours through the hotel. Stopping by for lunch to overlook the St. Lawrence offers more time to enjoy delicious ice cream parfait while feeling the pull of centuries of history.

The Place-Royale around the Chateau has been completely restored with boutiques, restaurants, and residences. At the corner of rue Notre Dame is a large mural illustrating Quebec’s 400 years of history called the Mural of Quebecers. The mural is filled with symbols. I was delighted to see a small image of a shamrock on a baby carriage being wheeled along the street. This may have been in honor of the Irish immigrants who helped build the city.

To see the program for the  400th-Anniversary  visit  infofestival.com. Quebec, a city of Festivals, is one great spot to celebrate the exuberance of life.

For more information on Quebec visit quebecregion.com

Getting there: Simple -- Air Canada to Montreal followed by a short flight to Quebec. Air time is about 3 hours.

Feature Travel Archives

Barging in Burgundy

The Quest for the Good Life

By Sheila Gaspers

Spring in Paris, as always, promises to rejuvenate and renew even the most worn and wintered spirit.  I have always found a sense of inner joy when strolling along the Seine, exploring Paris’ endless arrondissements, or getting my shopping fix at Printemps or the Galeries Lafayette. The city comes alive with colorful and fragrant blooms.  For the most observant eye, the shop windows seem to mimic nature, brilliantly dressed with spectacular spring fashions. Paris, the city of lights and love, cannot and should not be ignored or missed.  But every savvy traveler must also remember to find balance amidst the bright lights and big city.  France extends beyond the Paris city limits.  An enchanting, unforgettable escape is only a train ride away.  The journey will lead you to France’s most historic canal system (built in the17th Century) and the entry point of the Burgundy Wine Country. 

In the 1800’s, the Nivernais Canal was the most important commercial gateway connecting Burgundy to Paris via the Seine and Loire Rivers.  Today, the canal is still very critical to the French Economy.  Instead of goods from the farm and forest, tourists are the now the treasured cargo. The glorious French countryside beckons to the resident cosmopolitan and visitor alike.

It is the quest for the “Good Life” that draws all to the fertile valleys and river banks of Central and Southern France.  This “quest “ is where my story begins.

Barging the waterways, now a celebrated pastime, offers a unique and intimate introduction to French Country Living.   France has over 2000 kilometers (1242 miles) of navigable rivers and canals… so mastering the waterway system is not a feat that can be accomplished in one trip. And the journey, as I was soon to learn firsthand, was relaxing and far from boring.

My barging adventure commenced in the small medieval town of Auxerre, a 1.5 hour train ride from Paris.  I left Paris late in the day to arrive in town prior to the next day’s morning embarkation.  I stayed at the beautifully quaint Le Maxime Hotel located on the banks of the Yonne River just a 20 minute walk from the train station.  The hotel was truly charming.  With only 25 rooms, you can expect personalized service at an affordable cost.  Auxerre, the second largest city in Burgundy after Dijon, is known for its art and history. Following the city’s winding cobblestone streets leads to wonderful architectural finds.  Be sure not to miss the Gothic Cathedral and Abbey.

Late Sunday morning, the elegant La Belle Epoquewelcomed passengers.  The barge was docked just outside the hotel along the river bank to allow for easy boarding.  Smiles and champagne flowed as introductions and greetings were exchanged.  With an all British crew, language was not a barrier.

On the canals and rivers, living is “slow and easy.”   The barges, which come in all shapes and sizes – from small to smaller, are like floating country inns outfitted with every possible amenity. Most will comfortably accommodate 8-12 persons. Luxury and comfort are top of mind in terms of design and service. 

Barge travel is quite different from a large cruise ship experience. The barge glides along at a clip of 4-5 knots (less than 5 miles per hour)…not much faster that the ducks paddling alongside. There are usually no more than 2 decks (kitchen, dining and outdoor deck – above, living quarters and storage – below).

The 12-passenger, La Belle Epoque is one of the largest barges operating on the canal. Measuring 38 meters (124 feet) in length and 5 meters (16.4 ft) wide, she features a full indoor salon, outdoor deck, and a small Jacuzzi.

In terms of onboard entertainment, there are no shows, formal lectures, gambling, or dancing.  The barge does offer a DVD player (very limited selection, so bring your favorites) and a small central stereo system in the salon area. Barge trips are booked based on regions of interest (Provence, Burgundy, Upper Loire and Alsace-Lorraine), not specific ports or entertainment value.

It is important to note that each region specializes in certain appellations of wine.  There are over 100 appellations.  Appellation categorization results from a controlled indexing system of the wine based on the grape, vineyard or region of production. There are regional appellations, communal appellations, Premier Crus, and Grand Crus.  This barge trip focused on the Chardonnay grape - Chablis Appellation known as Chablis. (A good website that elaborates on wine appelations is www.terroir-france.com).

Each passenger, when not joining the daily excursion or visiting a local village, often discovers new and forgotten forms of delight and diversion. Many will simply enjoy reading a good book; others test their language skills in friendly conversation, but most simply learn the true meaning of a life of leisure.  Gary, an older insurance executive from Alabama, was our most active passenger.  He was up bright and early each day prepared to bike or hike the canal towpaths which date back to the pre-power days when horses and oxen pulled the boats. He loved to race the barge and was always the winner pacing 3-4 locks ahead of the boat.

The rest of us eased into the day opting to sip our coffee or mimosa on deck taking in the morning sun, landscaped mirrored waters, picturesque footbridges and grazing white Charolais cattle.

Successfully navigating a lock station, which are still manually operated by a resident lockkeeper, was the ultimate bonding ritual for passengers and crew.  Each lockkeeper’s house, family and farm animals were welcomed sights.  The houses are unique -- tiny stone edifices adorned with colorful flower boxes and signature plaques. And, it is not unusual to have a dog, goat, or flock of geese inch up to the barge in search of a breakfast croissant or treat. A fresh basket of muffins, cakes or breads were always offered as a “thank you.”

Excitement brewed as we made each approach. The Captain steered her in steady and safely despite the narrow widths. Ropes were secured and the water levels rose or dropped to keep us on course.

The highlight of any barge trip is, by far, the gourmet food and wine.   The cheese selection alone is mind-boggling.  Some say there is a French cheese for every day of the year. Amidst the hundreds, I managed to find my favorite, Brillat-Savarin, soft triple cream cheese produced from cow's milk.  Even after countless tastings, I was far from satisfied. Learning that Brillat-Savarin pairs perfectly with a glass of chilled Champagne did not help curtail my new food obsession.  Epoisses, said to be created by the Cistercian Monks, is the better known cheese.  This local Burgundy mainstay is also made from cow's milk. But is it is unique in that the cheese is washed in the distilled spirit of crushed grapes giving it a distinctive orange-red color and taste.

Every meal is a personalized gastronomical work of art by a trained chef. You will never go hungry. Breakfast features a buffet of fresh pastries, breads, fruit, cheeses, cold cuts and cereals. Cooked to order eggs or omelets are available upon request. Lunch and dinner showcases the food and wine of the region. All menu ingredients are “fresh & local” purchased in the village markets along the way.

French favorites like Beef Bourginon, Rabbit à la dijonnaise, Burgundy Snails, Duck Confit, and Foie Gras made each evening’s five- course culinary presentation a savory and memorable experience.

When not indulging in fine food and wine, we were whisked by mini bus to visit local vineyards, discover hidden cellars, tour chateaus, churches, sacred ruins, and wander ancient villages.

One of our first stops just outside of Auxerre, was the Caves de Bailly in Saint Bris, a deep underground cellar which was originally a quarry. This impressive cellar is best known for Crémant de Bourgogne, a unique sparkling wine that is made via the ancient champenoise method. Crisp, clean and fruity in taste, Crémant de Bourgogne is now recognized as one of the finest bubbly bruts in France outside of Champagne region. And, at a price of $15 per bottle, it was my best barge buy.

But alas, in Burgundy, no sparkling or white wine is complete without a touch of cassis (blackcurrant liqueur). It was Canon Kir, Mayor of nearby Dijon, who made 'blanc-cassis' the official aperitif of all the town hall receptions. His parties obviously put it on the map worldwide (hence the drink’s recognized name “Kir”).

The afternoon excursion allowed us to explore more of St Bris, an ancient town known for its extensive network of underground passages. Saint Bris was built in such a way that it could house all its inhabitants underground during the time of a siege. We were treated to a wine tasting in the historic Bersan Family Cellars, built under the town’s original 12th Century fortifications.  Hundreds of wine bottles covered in cobwebs and mold reminded us of the rich soil and heritage of the region.

Still vivid in my mind is our journey to the mystical town ofVézelay, a sacred pilgrimage destination, set on a hilltop overlooking the pastoral Burgundy countryside. Vézelay is best known for the Roman Basilica which is said to house a relic of the remains of Saint Mary Magdalene.

It has also has a strong historical association withRichard the Lion-Hearted, St. Francis of Assisi and the Second Crusade.  My visit was touched by faith and emotion, knowing that thousands of pilgrims had traveled over the same cobblestone streets centuries before me.

Clamecy was the final stop of the final barge tour before our transfer back to Paris. The city, an old logging port, is best known for its world-renowned annual floating log competition. A statue of Jean Rouvet, Father of the Flotteurs, stands proudly on the Bethelehem Bridge.

 The days passed too quickly.  How could anyone return to reality?  The cheese withdrawal alone would kill me.

I knew I would be back again very soon.  There was still the Côte de Beaune… the Côte de Nuits… and the Côtes de Provence!  So much wine and so little time! 

I do have tips to share:

-- Choose your barge based on your interests and favorite wine…or you will be disappointed.  If you love wonderful pinot reds…a cruise to Chablis will not be a match.

-- Time of Year and Season can critically impact your overall experience.  Spring is refreshing; Summer can be crowded; Fall can be wet and cold.

-- Explore Theme Barge Trips or Charters. It’s all about the company you keep.  Traveling with friends or those who have a shared interest can enhance the overall barge adventure.

-- Bring along several good books/magazines to read and share. I would also bring along a fun DVD (perhaps…Sideways?) for the night where you just want to relax and sip a good Pinot.

Rates for six-night/seven day cruises range from $4550 to $5490 per person.  Price includes accommodations, open bar/wine, gourmet meals, and local transfers.  Tips are additional (3% of Cruise Cost). Charters are also available.

For more info visit: GoBarging.com or call toll free 877-879-8808.

Feature Travel Archives

Caneel Bay Resort: St. John, US Virgin Islands

St. John’s Earthly Paradise

By Patricia Keegan

Caneel Bay Rosewood Resort occupies a magnificent 170-acre peninsula that has to be one of the most idyllic and picturesque spots in the world. In a class by itself, it seems as close to paradise as one can come on earth, and yet, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

If there is a need for glitzy night clubs or the routine of television and telephones, Caneel Bay is lost in another era. It lies in semi-slumber in total harmony with the tranquil, unspoiled beauty of uncommercialized St. John, the National Park Island of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Caneel’s modern ferry boat churns the lapis water into pure white foam on the 40-minute ride from St. Thomas. You sip complimentary champagne as the truly “virgin” island of St. John draws closer and radiant colors of the flowers come into view. As you step from the boat, you are surrounded by poinsettia, hibiscus and bougainvillea together with coconut palms and African tulip trees, their colors bursting into one great welcoming bouquet.

The ferry drops guests within a few feet of the lobby veranda where a hostess welcomes you with a brief orientation and escorts you to your room.

Guest rooms are situated in discreet, low-profile clusters situated for privacy, and all opening directly on to one of the seven dreamlike, white powdery beaches. Cottages are built in the rich wood of the region with plantation fans, hand-woven fabrics, and simple elegant furnishings under high cathedral ceilings forming a very inviting décor. Bathrooms are spacious and well-equipped with all the extra amenities including Caneel’s own formula of moisturizers and suntan lotion. Each room has a welcoming bottle of the famous Virgin Island’s Cruzan Rum. The seven beaches of Caneel range from long strands of white sand to pocket coves where it seems no one has been before. The waters are so pristine you can see your shadow on the sea floor.

There are many activities to pursue at every hour of the day including diving, snorkeling sailing and hiking. If you run out of reading material there is a little library near the office with an interesting selection of paperbacks. An eleven-court tennis park on the estate attracts tennis enthusiasts either early in the morning or at night when the sun goes down. To absorb and connect with the serenity of Caneel, take a stroll through the tropical gardens under sugar, date and coconut palms with lush green hills in the background and wonderful fragrances drifting on soft trade winds.

Caneel Bay Resort has three restaurants which have contributed to the resort’s reputation as a gourmand’s fantasy in a world class setting The elegant Turtle Bay Estate House is the more formal of the three, where guests can enjoy a classic menu with a lot of originality in a beautifully appointed dining-room This is the place to celebrate the joie de vivre with service and presentation that is both efficient and personable, and guests are treated to Caribbean style warmth, touched with humor. Afternoon tea and evening cocktails are served on the verandah. A welcoming cocktail party hosted by congenial resort manager, Nikolay Hotze, provides guests an opportunity to meet and share stories. It was surprising to meet other guests from Washington DC -- a family of three generations with a beautiful two month-old baby girl.

Breakfast and lunch buffets are also served on this lovely verandah in high season. The Estate House has its own climate controlled wine room with an impressive collection of over 10,000 bottles.

The Beach Terrace, situated along the ocean front, is fabulous for casual dining serving both breakfast and lunch. Here there is an endless buffet where every item you could possibly desire on a Caribbean menu is available -- fresh fruit, tantalizing desserts and luscious chocolate concoctions. Keeping in mind that all meals at Caneel Bay are prepared with health and fitness in mind, one feels free to indulge!

In the evening the Equator Restaurant, the old 18th century Sugar Mill, offers a wonderful setting lit only by candles and moonlight, and filled with the tantalizing aroma of charbroiled steak and lobster. Finding a table near the outer wall of the mill, with its expansive view across the water all the way to the lights of the island of St. Thomas, is finding the perfect environment to enjoy a romantic dinner in the most tranquil setting.

Absorbing the beauty of Caneel without television or telephone, under turquoise, pollution-free skies, leaves little doubt as to why so many celebreties, including Presidents and movie stars, have made it their island retreat. It simply becomes an ongoing romance with Nature.

Managed by Rosewood Resorts since 1993, the property was first opened in the 1930’s by the West Indian Co. Limited. In 1952 Laurence Rockefeller purchased the small resort development and donated it to Jackson Hole Preserve, Inc. This nonprofit, conservation organization was founded and supported by the Rockefeller family. Rockresorts Inc. managed the resort and all profits were devoted to maintenance, operation and improvement of the hotel and to furthering Jackson Hole Preserve’s other conservation activities.

The Rockefellers also recognized the supreme eligibility of the beautiful, unspoiled island of St. John as a National Park, and purchased more than 5,000 acres, over half the island. This property was donated to the federal government, and legislation creating the U.S. Virgin Islands National park was enacted in 1956. The park has remained a sanctuary in which wildlife, natural beauty and historical sights are preserved.

Caneel Bay offers the Modified American Plan (MAP) which includes breakfast, lunch and dinner. Plans are 50% off for children 5 to 12 years old, and there is no charge for children 4 and under.

For more information, please call 340-776-6111 or e-mail caneel@rosewoodhotels.com. For reservations call 888-ROSEWOOD.

Feature Travel Archives

Tribute Meets the Challenge of the Panama Canal

By James Finley

Tuesday, May 13, 10:15 pm

The anticipation, combined with the heat, made it hard to fall asleep. I definitely wasn’t nervous. Anxious may even be overstating it, but a combination of nerves and excitement thinking of the next morning’s events made the previous two days of my adventure at sea in Panama seem like a blur.

There is something offsetting to arrive in a foreign country half awake in the middle of the night. When my sister and I arrived in Panama City at 1:10 am we were both a little out of it. I awoke hastily to complete customs forms and inadvertently messed up by filling out one family form -- for which you need to be husband and wife, not brother and sister.

After traversing customs I noticed the Panama airport was on a par with the finest in the world: LCD screens displaying arrivals and departures, customary horseshoe shaped baggage claim, even the airport bar, with unhappy servers, average food and inflated prices all had an air of familiarity. The scenic skyline of the city in the distance drew immediate comparison to Miami, perhaps only bigger. The roads to the hotel were fully paved, well lit, and clearly marked. We even stopped at a 24 hour grocery store to pick up late night snacks. While Panama is still a developing country, Panama City was unlike any Latin American city I had ever visited.

The hotel was pleasant, the Country Inn in the Balboa district, with central air conditioning. I am hopelessly American when it comes to my ever present desire for cold air and iced drinks. Throughout my travels one of my first stops when I get back to the States is the simple pleasure of a Seven Eleven soda fountain. The hotel is located canal-front with incredible views of the passing ships silhouetted against the lush green landscape, with the Bridge of the Americas cutting across the sky. The size and frequency of the ships is astounding, any hour of the day a floating strip mall cruises past, the global economy never in fuller view.

When we asked our cab driver for a good lunch spot in Old Town, he said Casablanca with no hesitation. Now I know why. We sat in the heart of Bolivar square, in the old town, mesmerized by the classical European architecture of the square, surrounded by a chapel, hotels, restaurants and wine bars. My mom swore she could be in Italy; we all agreed. I drank an Atlas, a Panamanian beer, and wouldn’t have cared if the food ever arrived. When it did I was surprised, impressed and happy -- I went with the waitress’s recommendation. The menu translated “shrimp with hot sauce”, however, what came out were four huge shrimp (heads still on -- a little gross, but I handled it -- in a sweet, delectable garlic sauce that finished with a spicy kick. My food was delicious, as were the chicken and beef skewers the others at the table ordered.

After lunch we walked through Old Town, seeing the presidential palace, national theater, and classic Victorian architecture next to facades of crumbling buildings. For the first time in Panama we saw glimpses of the poverty Latin America often displays, though we witnessed no begging in the streets, nor aggressive roadside vendors.

Returning to the hotel, we waited for the call that would define the trip; our approval to sail through the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal is the most scrutinized waterway in the world, the process of getting a time allotment to cross is exacting. The inspector visited our boat, a 58 ft. sloop. He measured bow to stern, port to starboard, and asked questions about every lever, switch and toilet seat.

Like most Panamanians we encountered, the inspector was very pleasant and helpful, but the Canal process is not a matter to be taken lightly. When we found out we were approved and assigned a time that worked out for all the traveling parties involved, I was relieved. My Mom was thrilled; her months of planning were actually going to work out. She literally jumped around for about 10 minutes shouting “We get to go!” It was Monday night and Tribute, our sailboat, was set to cross the canal at 7:30 am Wednesday morning.

Tuesday consisted of paying the necessary fees in accordance with the ACP (Panama Canal Authority), some relaxing by the pool and a trip to the Miraflores locks and museum. Built in 1914, the canal is an impressive feat of engineering, often dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World. To watch a ship rise 30 feet in 10 minutes is a sight to behold, I also got a preview of my future duties as a line handler.

Every vessel that goes through the canal must take an advisor to oversee the vessel through the canal. The captain still controls the boat, in our case my mom’s husband Neil, though the advisor gives all instructions and ultimately has the final say. To assist in the process, specifically of going through the locks, four line handlers are hired. The line handlers job is to take the ropes (lines) thrown onto the boat in the locks and successfully secure them to the boat, giving it stability as thousands of gallons of water flood the lock allowing the 30 ft. rise or drop. Typically line handlers are experienced, local men. In our case we had three experienced, local guys, and me. No wonder I couldn’t sleep.

Wednesday, May 14, 6:04 pm

The initial disappointment was severe; we were all under the opinion that we would make it through the canal early in the morning. Visions of hot water showers and a meal on terra firma, danced in our heads. Our day got off to an early start; Neil picked up our line handlers at the dock of Playita de Amador at 6:30 am. Our advisor arrived at the boat around 7:30, and all parties were pleased to hear we had been allotted a time of 9:00 am to cross the first set of locks, Miraflores.

The line handlers consisted of Junior, Luis, Tim, and me. Junior and Tim have a combined 50 years of experience working on the canal; Luis was in his first year of canal work though he has crossed the canal as a line handler at least 10 times. The advisor, Rudolfo, attended the US Merchant Marine Academy. He works full time on the canal as a tug boat operator, and on his days off works as an advisor. Only later would I come to realize how valuable Rudlofo’s knowledge of tug boats would be.

I was nervous approaching the first set of locks -- massive concrete structures that look like nautical prisons, especially once you are locked inside by a set of gates forty ft. high. Line handling is grunt work, not much mental prowess involved, though a good arm workout. A line is thrown down from the locks, tied to a line on the boat, and then pulled back up to the lock. The idea is to keep the line taught holding the boat steady as the water floods into the lock. The boat we shared the Miraflores lock with was massive, the Ocean Prelate, a British ship in transit from South Korea. The lock measures roughly 110 feet side to side, the Ocean Prelatemeasured 106. This ship was the size of my high school, thousands and thousands of pounds of grain shoved onto its steel hull, and I was holding a rope making sure Tribute and the Ocean Prelate didn’t high five. My nerves were warranted!

The first set of locks went well, a series of two raising us from Pacific sea level to the Miraflores Lake, and we entered the lake intent on passing the Ocean Prelate. We maintained the highest speed we could in the narrow lake, five knots, passing freighters, tankers, cargo ships and a Panamanian navy ship. We successfully got in front of the Prelate and got into the Pedro Miguel lock for a noon passage. The 200 foot lock was occupied with just us and a tugboat; we tied directly onto the tug on our port side. I didn’t even get to handle a line.

From the Pedro Miguel we crossed the narrowest part of the canal, the Culebra Cut. The Culebra Cut was the hardest section of the canal to build. It was here hundreds of men lost their lives during construction; setbacks were constant due to the steep grade of the surrounding land. Motoring through the cut, we reached a speed of over eight knots, a fine speed for a sailboat of our size. We were able to maintain this speed for sometime, continuing as we entered Gatun Lake. Gatun Lake was the largest man made lake ever built until 1936, and the panorama is astounding. My sister Bonnie said “maybe emerald or teal green, I have never seen water that color before.”

While the depth of the channel is at least 45 feet, we were never more than 50 yards from the jungle lined shore; trees, bushes, swamp grasses, flowers and the occasional floating log. Outside of the buoyed channel Rudolfo pointed out the arbors sin muerto, or the trees that wouldn’t die. Any venture out of the channel would cause disastrous results; the water between the shore and buoys was littered with the arbors sin muerto; trees rooted in the ground, peaking slightly above the water line. Contact with just one root could render Tribute inoperable.

We got into the Banana Channel, a narrow stretch through Gatun Lake where ships larger than 80 ft. cannot enter. At this point Neil wanted a break. He asked me to steer, and I happily obliged. Since we were under power, required throughout the canal regardless of sails, I knew I could handle it, though Banana Channel was the most challenging stretch of water I ever navigated. The course curved left and right, with a particularly hairy right turn, close to 60 degrees, that I was slow to react to. The boat sped ahead at 8.3 knots, and I was headed straight for an island if I didn’t hit the arbors sin muerto first. I kind of freaked out. Prior to this turn I had caressed the wheel and all turns had been smooth. This turn was jerky, the way people drive in video games with no consequences. Serendipitously, the course straightened out and I was able to regain control. We eased back to full speed ahead.

Approaching Gatun locks, we were surrounded by the normal cadre of massive boats; some at anchor while a few motored in neutral. Rudolfo commented that one large Dutch ship, the Belmark, had two tugboats next to it. As we entered the clearing of the anchorage, Rudolfo radioed the lock station, but the return transmission was inaudible. He tried again, same result. He said, “I have a bad feeling he was telling me we would not make passage until the morning.”

Rudolfo’s hearing was correct, as we motored closer to the locks Gatun station informed us there was one more Pacific crossing and there was no room for us. Sure enough, Rudolfo explained, the Belmark would cross with the two tugboats. If the Belmark had one tugboat we would cross as well; with two there was no room for Tribute.

That leaves me here, tied to a mooring point somewhere in the middle of the Panamanian jungle, some 20 miles from the Atlantic and 30 from the Pacific. Our location is beautiful, more lush green landscape with freshwater for swimming. I dove in the water heedless of my sister's warning screams of lurking crocodiles. The fears are real, both Rudlofo and my fellow line handlers confirmed they have seen los crocos in these waters. My swim was quick. Sitting on the boat we can hear the throaty screams of the howler monkeys, a cacophony of birds chirping, and the dull buzz of cicadas and crickets. Within sight of our mooring point are three freighters, surely (fingers crossed) one of which we will share a lock with tomorrow.

Panama has been exceptionally impressive, though there have been reminders of how little control we have and how the way of life is different here. My first reminder came Tuesday when I got into a cab. My mom and sister sat in the back or they might have made us get out. When the driver, Tony, started the van there was no key in the ignition, he simply grabbed an electrical box below the steering column and rubbed some wires together. I chose discretion rather than questioning; at best this was how Tony started his van, at worst, Tony was stealing this van. Those were questions for which I did not want the answers.

The lack of control was cemented today when Rudolfo said, “We are not going through today, tomorrow probably.” Our initial reaction was disappointment, and as Americans regimented to schedules, we were dumbfounded and slightly pissed off. Within a few minutes we realized things were beyond our control, best to enjoy it.

I am not sure who gets my bed tonight, since Junior, Luis, Tim and I are now all bunkmates. I also don’t know what the plan is after dinner, since it may be hard to fall asleep at 7:45 pm; the discussed options have been dvds, charades or cards. The hard part will be handling the language barrier. I do know I have been stuck worse places. Tonight, in this Panamanian jungle, I am listening to howler monkeys, and can watch the sun set against a backdrop of vibrant greenery glowing from the lights of the ocean liners. The disappointment is long gone, the night has been embraced, and I can’t wait to play charades with Junior. Sometimes giving up control is the best idea.

Thursday, May 15, 11:11 am

I have never been stranded on a dessert island -- though I did get lost at Wild World once as a kid – but I can understand the feeling of desperation that must set in. Last night when we were told we would not cross the Gatun locks we were assured of the first north bound passage, probably another early morning with our advisor arriving at 7 am. Advisors do not stay the night with the boat as line handlers do, and we bid farewell to Rudolfo yesterday. Before Rudolfo left the ACP radioed to let us know 7 am wasn’t happening, more likely 11 am. It is now 11:15 am and we were told we should have an advisor by 12:30 pm.

We watch every small motorboat in the harbor in hope of spotting our advisor. Just the thought of our advisor coming aboard and leading us to the Atlantic was a pleasant vision. At this point real plans are in jeopardy; my sister and I are on the red-eye out of Panama City and back to DC tonight at midnight. The drive back to Panama City is at least 90 minutes. Add to that the three hours still left to finish canal transversal and time is becoming precious. We are not yet at a crisis point, though I definitely predict some restless moments ahead.

While waiting we went for a refreshing swim, though it was quickly shut down by the ACP as they sternly told us not to return to the water (los crocos). In the meantime I sit and sweat on the deck. I am through with both Esquire and Vanity Fair; I have no choice but to return to the uber-serious text of Guns, Germs & Steel. I continue to watch each boat with the hopeful eyes of Gilligan escaping his island, minus the dopey hat or a perky Mary Anne to keep me company.

Thursday, May 15, 5:15 pm

We made it, we actually made it. My feelings are a cocktail of relief, exhaustion, excitement and wonder. After dropping off the line handlers at the Panama Yacht Club in Colon (imagine the roughest parts of Baltimore with palm trees), reality set in that I crossed the Panama Canal.

The descent to the Atlantic did not mirror the peaceful journey we took the day before, where a nice boat ride was briefly interrupted by a few locks. The Atlantic passage puts the smaller vessels in front of the large ones, and we shared all three Gatun locks with a US Navy cargo ship, the Cape Knox of Norfolk. Our new advisor, William, a dead ringer for Terrell Owens, explained we would enter the lock before the giant grey ship. Watching the Knox creep into the lock and approach our stern at a snails pace reminded me of a scene from Star Wars. Hans Solo and his Millenium Falcon are captured by Darth Vader; theFalcon is slowly brought into the Empire’s colossal starship. Now imagine Tribute as the Falcon only with no Jedi mind tricks to save us, just me holding a rope.

As the Knox moved closer, the currents in the lock stirred, becoming violent as the Knox drew ever closer. The water threw Tribute about, and my starboard stern line position took the brunt of the punishment. Perhaps a cruel twist of fate, perhaps intentional slight by my fellow line handlers, I later learned my position is generally regarded as the hardest line to handle on smaller vessels descending the canal. My lack of experience, nor particular strength, no doubt aided the turbulence.

The uproar in the locks only grew as we descended; Gatun Locks consists of three consecutive locks with the final opening into the Caribbean Sea. The lower the boats get the choppier the water, as the salt water of the Caribbean merges with the fresh of the locks. Both the second and third lock required me to use every pound on my 190 lb frame, leveraging my body to pull the line ever tighter as the boat dropped with the 30 feet of water. At times my body was almost parallel to the boat, pulling with just my arms, a distant memory of the Pacific locks. Junior once had to assist me, and for the third and final lock I used some science to my advantage and ran my rope through a wench.

By the time the gate opened on the final lock any euphoric feeling was absent, just relief and exhaustion. The exercise was slightly more than an hour; the physical toll was taxing, not to mention the fear of harming my family or Neil’s boat. Once Neil pushed the throttle to full speed, and we were back out on the open water, I realized the accomplishment and allowed some minor mental accolades. As William disembarked the ship (he actually just jumped onto another boat in the middle of the channel -- these dudes are crazy), he made a point to tell me how good I did, and that he would go through with me again. Perhaps it was lip service, but I’m buying it. Later my mom and Neil told me how proud they were, which was nice, though William’s words mean more.

We entered The Flats, where ships anchor as they approach from the Atlantic side and await southern passage through the canal, and I remembered my first encounter with the Grand Canyon. I’ll never forget how shocked I was at the magnitude and vastness of the Canyon, much as I will never forget the amount of and enormity of the ships waiting for southern passage. They were too many to count, huge ships in every direction on the horizon. Oil tankers from Yemen, car carriers from Korea, a rusted out cargo ship from Liberia; the huge ships ubiquitous, the nations of origin like a UN meeting.

The Caribbean water was a turquoise I had seen before and was happy to see again; the wind blew and the sun came through a few clouds. We had made it, I had done my part, and I will never forget it.

Feature Travel Archives

Portugal: Sardine Heaven

The Feast of St. Anthony

By Jacqueline Harmon Butler

Looking out the window of a music store in Lisbon, Portugal, I laughed out loud watching a passing parade of vintage convertible cars progressing along Avenue Liberdade.  They were filled with brides of all sizes, shapes and ages, dressed in all their bridal finery. The storeowner told me they were the Brides of St. Anthony, and it was part of the saint's feast day traditions  He said the city hall traditionally hosts the bridal couples for free if they are poor. 

I was in Lisbon to celebrate the Feast of St. Anthony and had begun the day by attending Mass at his church.  I made my way slowly through the crowd to the front altar and found a golden and crystal reliquary on display.  On closer examination, I noted that some sort of bone was inside. I later found out that this was part of the saint's right forearm.

In the front lobby of the church was a small gift shop, but what really caught my eye was a group of women selling little bread rolls about the size of golf balls.  People were pushing and shoving to make their purchase.  As I watched, I noted that many of the women went back into the church and pressed the bread against a glass covered portrait of the saint. Then I noticed that several women were scribbling little messages on slips of paper, folding them up and sticking them into the frame around the portrait. Naturally, I followed suit and wrote down a special prayer, dutifully folded it up and tucked it into the frame along with my bread ball.

The tradition of 'St. Anthony's Bread' dates back to 1263 when a child drowned in the Brenta River near the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua. The mother went to St. Anthony and promised that if her child were restored to life, she would give to the poor an amount of wheat equal to the weight of her child. Of course her son was saved, and her promise was kept. 'St. Anthony's Bread,' then, is the promise of giving alms in return for a favor asked of God through St. Anthony's intercession.

Music enthusiasts eager to hear fado, the emotion-laden, dramatic music particular to Portugal are likely to find an image of Anthony right behind the fadista (singer) and instrumentalists. Fado came long after Anthony, but its major theme is nostalgia and longing for what is lost and for what has never been gained. Anthony fits right into this scene.

Learning about, and taking part in, these wonderful customs was fun, and I left the church to see what else I could discover about St. Anthony.

To say that Anthony left Portugal behind minimizes his ancestry. The man who became known to many as Anthony of Padua was Portuguese. He was a spiritual seaman, seeking new lands of the soul, just as other Portuguese explorers ventured into unknown waters. He had the broad world view of a discoverer and became a fearless missionary -- traveling first to Morocco and then through southern France and northern Italy on foot.

While in Rimini, on the Adriatic coast of Italy, he encountered difficulty in getting the local population to listen. Somewhat dejected, he went down to the shore, where the river Ariminus runs into the sea, and began to speak to the fishes.

No sooner had he spoken a few words when suddenly a great a multitude of fishes, both small and great, approached the bank on which he stood.  All the fishes kept their heads out of the water, and seemed to be looking attentively on St Anthony's face; all were ranged in perfect order and most peacefully, the smaller ones in front near the bank, then the bigger ones, and last of all, were the water was deeper, the largest.

As he continued speaking, the fish began to open their mouths and bow their heads, endeavoring as much as was in their power to express their reverence. The people of the city, hearing of the miracle, made haste to go and witness it.

I had heard that sardines represented those miraculous fish and were an important part of the festivities, so I thought I'd have some for lunch.  I went into a nice restaurant almost salivating thinking of the tasty fish.  Alas, the mater'd almost sneered as he said they did not serve sardines there.  I tried several other restaurants to no avail.  It wasn't until the guy at the music store directed me down a small street lined with outside tables and a variety of small restaurants that I found them.  They were proudly displayed in all their silvery glory in a refrigerated case.  Needless to say, my luncheon was totally divine!  It turns out that the opening of sardine season coincides with the Feast of St. Anthony, and all over the city people grilled them on every type of device.  The fancy restaurants can't compete, and folks wouldn't pay their prices for this local specialty.

The fame of St. Anthony's miracles has never diminished, and even today he is acknowledged as the greatest miracle worker of the time. He is especially invoked for the recovery of things lost. Also, against starvation, barrenness, patron of amputees, animals, boatmen, Brazil, diocese of Beaumont, domestic animals, the elderly, expectant mothers, faith in the Blessed Sacrament, Ferrazzano, fishermen, harvests, horses, Lisbon, lower animals, mail, mariners, oppressed people, Padua, paupers, Portugal, sailors, sterility, swineherds, Tigua Indians, travel hostesses, travelers, and watermen.

St. Anthony is known as the matchmaker saint and on the Eve of his day, June 13th, girls try various methods of finding out whom they will wed. A favorite way is for a girl to fill her mouth with water and hold it until she hears a boy's name mentioned. The name she hears is sure to be that of her future husband!

Another way to recognize 'the gentleman' is to make an agreement with St. Anthony by a sign or an object that only the two of you know about.

A popular ritual advises:
* Fill a small bowl with water
* Write down the names of those you would like (or think you would like!) to be your perfect partner
* Roll up each piece of paper and put them in the bowl
* Place the bowl under your bed.

The next day, look at the papers -- the name that has opened up the most is your perfect partner!

Single women have been known to buy a small statue of Anthony and place (or bury) it upside down for a week, blackmailing him by placing him upright only after they have found a good husband.

A charming custom of the day is for young men to present a pot of basil to the girls they hope to wed. Within the petals is a verse or message that indicates the young man's passion. Pots of basil are displayed on almost every balcony around the city and are often given as gifts with little verses invoking St. Anthony or of love and affection for the recipient.

I discovered that the entire city celebrates St. Anthony the night of June 12 to 13th, with altars built, parades held and streets decorated, while the air is filled with the delicious smell of sardines being grilled at bonfires lining the street,  especially in the Alfma district of the city.  The biggest parade is the Marchas Populares, along the Avenue Liberade.  Along with a few friends, I found an ideal viewing spot not far from my hotel and watched as countless marchers passed by.  Every neighborhood in Lisbon has it's own contingent with colorful costumes, floats and marching bands.  There is a prize for the best group, but as the parade continued past midnight, my friends and I got hungry and headed to the Alfama district for grilled sardines.  We had been invited to a small neighborhood bar with a patio behind.  There we were treated to beautifully grilled sardines on sliced bread served on paper plates.  We drank sangria from plastic cups and licked our fingers as we reached for another fish.  The bones piled up in the middle of our table and still the fish kept coming.  I was in sardine heaven!  Of all the beautifully prepared meals I had while in Portugal, this midnight snack is still the highlight.

For more information about travel adventures in Portugal, visit www.visitportugal.com

Feature Travel Archives

NEVIS ISLAND - Montpelier and Nisbet Plantation Inns

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Dramatic Beauty Sustains a Dramatic Past

by Patricia Keegan

Nevis, an island paradise in the West Indies is one of the Caribbean’s most beautiful, yet unspoiled, islands within easy reach of Washington DC. Swept with cross breezes and guaranteed to swiftly blow away trailing cobwebs of stress, this small island is home to 10,000 inhabitants on 36 sq. miles. Once admired as the Queen of the Caribs, it has a fascinating history. It became a British colony in 1623 and remained under British rule until both St .Kitts and Nevis achieved independence on September 19, 1983.

Nevis has hosted some of the world’s “larger than life” characters. Alexander Hamilton, the first US Treasury secretary, was born and raised in Nevis, and British war hero, Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, along with his mistress, Lady Hamilton, have all walked across its miniature stage. It is also the ancestral home of Horatio Nelson’s wife, a widow, Frances Herbert Nisbet Nelson -- therein lies the drama!

During the 18th and 19th centuries Nevis flourished as a wealthy island much sought after for its rich natural resources and thriving sugar and cotton mills. Today the island has an up-to-date infrastructure for tourism with a variety of fine accommodations including a lavish, sparkling Four Seasons Hotel, a Robert Trent Jones golf course, and five beautiful restored plantations. Given the choice, it is not easy to decide where to stay. However, we found the combination of two plantations a winning match.

Montpelier House, the perfect setting for a wedding, began that tradition 200 years ago with the nuptials of Horatio Nelson and Frances Herbert Nisbet. The Nisbet Plantation is where Frances, fondly called Fannie, came to live after her marriage to Dr. Joseph Nisbet. Sadly, he became deranged and died within 18 months of marriage, leaving her with an infant son. It was through her uncle, John Richardson Herbert, the governor of the island, that she became acquainted with Lord Nelson, then a young captain of the HMS Boreas who had arrived at the island.

Our visit encompassed a three-day stay in the cool hilltops at Montpelier Plantation, followed by three days enjoying the beach at Nisbet Plantation and Beach Club. It is hard to envision a more delightful duo.

Montpelier Plantation

Upon arrival at the Nevis Airport, My husband and I took a taxi and circumnavigated the eastern coastline of the island, through the capital of Charlestown, and up the steep hillside to Montpelier. My first impression of the uncluttered island was of acres of lush open fields with majestic Mt. Nevis, draped in green velvet and topped with drifting clouds, never out of sight. The capital of Charlestown is home to several excellent museums including the Alexander Hamilton Museum which just celebrated the 250th anniversary of its namesake’s birth, the Horatio Nelson Museum, and theNevis Historical Museum.The Horatio Nelson Museum sets the stage for Nelson’s accomplishments by briefly telling the story of Nevis’s Amerindian history , followed by European dominance and the alliance between slavery and sugar.

Reaching Montpelier, we noticed a weathered plaque on the wall of the original estate recording the 18th century wedding:

“On this site stands Montpelier House
Wherein on the 11th day of March 1787
Horatio Nelson of Immortal Memory
Then Captain of Hms Boreas
Was married to Frances Herbert Nisbet.'

Entering through the open gate of Montpelier Plantation, we saw the famous tree of Bahamas, the backdrop for many a wedding photograph, where the happy, hopeful Fannie Nisbet and Horatio Nelson also tied the knot.

It was impressive to think of Britain’s hero of the seas, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, brilliant strategist, fearless warrior and scandalous lover, holding this strong connection to the tiny island of Nevis. To think that the same man who was instrumental in the fate of England, the hero celebrated by his countrymen when he returned victorious from the Battle of the Nile in 1800, and who died in the Battle of Trafalgar, had probably donned his togs and gone for a dip right here in Nevis.

This timeless, majestic tree is a splendid work of art, gracefully stretching its intricate, sturdy limbs in all directions, creating a complete and symmetrical circle. It serves as the perfect guardian, presiding over the harmony and natural beauty flowering and flourishing all around the lovely plantation.

After a warm greeting from Timothy Hoffman and his family, including his wife Meredith and parents Muffin and Lincoln, we were shown to the poolside bar and there refreshed on a cool rum cocktail. It was also a chance to admire the 60 ft. lap pool where we enjoyed English style afternoon tea each day.

Guest accommodations consist of small uncluttered villas, decorated in white with black trim, with tropical wood furnishings and fresh flowers. The overall simplicity contributes to relaxation while reflecting plantation life. Large windows spanning opposing walls allow fresh breezes to constantly flow through, permitting the radiance and color of the outside environment to become the focus. Each villa has its own deck with distant sea view.

In the stillness of this environment, devoid of TV or radios, the only sound, day or night, is the singing of cheerful birds, cooing of doves and the rustle of leaves caught in the breeze.

Breakfast was something to really look forward to. The veritable feast of fresh fruits, along with a large selection of enticing possibilities, is more than one can imagine for a first meal of the day. After a plate of fresh fruit, I settled, each morning, for the full cholesterol combination of smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, homemade jams, muffins and Greek yogurt. My waitress was very accommodating in bringing steaming milk to make my own café latte.

Served in an open air restaurant surrounded by dense foliage, it is here guests begin to get an idea of the wonderful character of the people of Nevis. On Sunday morning, while lingering over breakfast, my husband and I were reminded of the Sabbath when we heard the rich, deep voices of the staff in the kitchen singing spirituals: How Great Thou Art, Amazing Grace and even Danny Boy. It was an unexpected pleasure to listen to these lovely voices in such peaceful surroundings.

In the evening Montpelier takes on a new energy. Like a theater, it transforms from a lazy, summer day performance into a sophisticated backdrop where guests gather in the shadow of palm trees and soft lights to socialize and enjoy pre-dinner cocktails. A living snapshot emerges in the flash of color from ladies dresses, the scent of perfume, the mild hum of light conversation, tinkling glasses, and, all the while, the eternal Nevis breeze.

Standing, not quite in the center of the activity, yet ever present -- like a fireplace on a cold day, is the old Sugar Mill. It has been perfectly restored, adding immensely to the timeless spirit pervading this setting. There are only four tables in its inner candlelit circle, but dining in the 17th century Sugar Mill is much coveted on the island. The space accommodates up to 12 people for a prix fixe, candlelight dinner, so guests must reserve early to enjoy this unique, romantic experience with its distinct menu. Montpelier is well known for its Caribbean inspired cuisine that focuses on local delicacies, fresh seafood and produce from the Plantation’s own garden. Here again the staff and service is excellent.

The unique architecture of the Great House and the two large rooms that make up the dining area and drawing room is a space filled with antiques and paintings depicting plantation days. I particularly liked the red room, originally used as a bowling room -- a long rectangular space with a curved wood ceiling created from 40 ft. long parallel planks of wood. In one corner is a cozy bar, in another a piano surrounded with comfortable furnishings. Steel accents, remnants of the original gears of the old sugar mill, are used as decorative items.

It is difficult to pry from proprietor Timothy Hoffman any names of celebrities who have partaken of this plantation’s unique sense of peace. All he will say is, “We are visited by celebrities with whom we would all be familiar, but names are kept sealed in privacy.” As leaks would have it, we know that Princess Diana visited Montpelier, and Meryl Streep has also walked across its colorful stage.

For guests who opt out of renting a car, Montpelier has a shuttle service to its own private beach, Pinney Beach, one of the island’s best. Guests place a request for picnic baskets the evening before and are provided with a wonderful convenience as well as a really tasty meal. The resort provides chaise lounge chairs, umbrellas and beach services to guests.

For the purest dose of fortifying serenity, outstanding service, friendly people and superb staff, few places in the Caribbean can compete with Montpelier Plantation.

For more information visit MontpelierNevis.com. Phone: 869-469-3462.

Nisbet Plantation

Our next stop was Nisbet Plantation, the only historic plantation on the island with direct access to the sea. We were here to enjoy the beach experience and to learn more about Fanny Nisbet.

In contrast to the sense of intimacy found amidst the foliage of Montpelier, Nisbet Plantation is wide open with 36 charming cottages set on 30 acres of flat, manicured lawns. To find our cottage, we crossed the expansive lawn, flanked by palm trees that sweep down from the Great House all the way to the beach, and were delighted to discover we had the yellow cottage closest to the sea. Opening the door and entering, we were immediately struck by the quality and attention to detail in its soothing décor of bright, tropical colors of papaya and lime with white wicker furniture and vaulted ceilings. The king-size bed, set on a platform, was itself a bouquet of color with a variety of soft pillows, roll pillows and shams. Jalousie windows and doors on all sides allowed fresh breezes for comfortable sleeping. Our bathroom was spacious with double sinks, abundant closet space, soft lighting and a fine shower. The large terrace with comfortable lounge furnishings had a sweeping view of sparkling sea and brilliant beaches.

Because of hidden rocks, you have to be a bit cautious about running down and jumping into the ocean, but it is possible to navigate a path beyond the stony bottom to smooth sand and plenty of space to swim freely. Most guests with children seemed to enjoy the huge swimming pool right on the beach. This is a great spot for socializing where people get to know each other and share their stories, while parents keep one eye on children playing in the water. Hammocks and beach chairs are placed in shady areas under palm trees inviting guests to relax and enjoy a good book while being cared for by an attentive staff who bring refreshing drinks. There is an open air bar on the beach for snacks, as well as the breakfast dining area where guests celebrate the morning enjoying the casual, open-air buffet breakfast which caters to every imaginable combination possible and includes bountiful tropical fruits and juices.

A refreshing way to break up the day, if not off exploring the island, is to partake of the afternoon tea served on the back porch of the Great House. It consists of finger sandwiches and cake, together with a nice selection of teas.

A gourmet dinner is served in the 18th-century Manor House, the setting where Fannie Nisbet lived with her son during the 18 months of marriage to her first husband. The house has been beautifully restored and is warmly welcoming. After dinner, guests adjourn to the lounge area where Snowflake, an excellent pianist, provides a full evening of entertainment. No one could leave this house after a great meal, good wine, and the comfortable luxury of soft sofas and lively piano without feeling the spirit of Fannie Nisbet. Guests will find images of Fannie which encourage her memory to live on.

For more information visit NisbetPlantation.com or phone 869-469-9325 or 800-742-6008.

A Snippet of Romantic History

Horatio Nelson was apparently quite taken by Fannie’s refinement and resourcefulness in operating a large house, and she was an accomplished musician and fluent in French.

During his first absence to the Mediterranean, she constantly wrote to him, and when he returned home after losing his arm, she nursed him through months of pain. Later he lost an eye. Then he was off again, and now she began to hear rumors about his meanderings with Lady Hamilton with whom he had an intimate friendship that even her husband, Sir William Hamilton, apparently had no objection to. So Nelson persuaded himself that if Hamilton didn’t object, why should his wife. Whether platonic or not, these rumors were enough to set Fannie’s teeth on edge, and so when Horatio returned home to London where they lived, she treated him coolly. This was the turning point when it seems she was labeled a “cold fish” and tabloids of the time sided with her “heroic” husband and his “fabulous” mistress, Lady Hamilton.

Lady Hamilton, or “Emma,” achieved notoriety through her beauty, acting skills and personal vitality, but she is principally remembered as artist George Romney’s muse and for her love affair with Nelson. Emma, nevertheless, was not exactly born to a “silver spoon” existence. She was the daughter of a blacksmith who died when she was two months old. At the age of 21 she was taken from a brothel “into keeping” as the mistress of several men. She met Horatio Nelson in Naples while married to British envoy, Sir William Hamilton. As the wife of the British envoy, she welcomed Nelson in 1793 when he came to gather reinforcements against the French. Five years later, upon setting eyes on Nelson as he returned to Naples from the Battle of the Nile, Emma was reported to have fainted. Nelson, the living legend, had prematurely aged, lost most of his teeth and was afflicted by coughing spells. Still, she nursed him under her husband’s roof and arranged a party of 1,800 guests to celebrate his 40th birthday.

So while both woman nurtured the returning hero, these upheavals in the marriage eventually led to a separation in 1801. Britain’s public believed Fannie was the cause of the breakup. She lived out her life quietly in London where she was visited by her brother-in-law, Earl Nelson, who remained her friend.

Unable to completely recover from the death of her son in August, 1830, Fannie Nisbet Nelson died on May 4, 1831, in London.

However, the verdict on her “coldness” is still the subject of debate as new papers have recently come to light including letters from Fannie to Horatio over many years which show her as a warm and loving wife. One day, a new movie may be made revising history, more likely, the real story may remain forever buried in the limitless dust heap of half truths.

In Nevis, I discovered the Bahamas tree which, like the island, has threads of history woven so deeply into its foundation, with branches going in so many directions that would take years of research to fathom its fascinating flow. Visitors to this island may find themselves both enriched by all the island has to offer, and tempted to become totally immersed in its history.

Feature Travel Archives

Ireland: Escape to Clare Island

A Small Package of Inspiring Ireland in County Mayo

By Patricia Keegan

To really understand the booming economy of Ireland and the burden attached to being dubbed the Celtic Tiger, one only has to land at Dublin’s Airport -- take a stroll through the newspaper kiosk and stop for a coffee. New energy abounds, and the suddenness of its impact is having its effect. Perusing the book shop in search of an Irish author, I was bemused by the titles of hot new paperbacks. Titles such as “The Marriage Bed,” “Hello Laziness -- Why Hard Work Doesn’t Pay,” and “Back from the Brink -- Coping with Stress.”

I was chagrinned; my native land is obviously feeling the pain that accompanies progress. Ireland is the fastest growing economy in all Europe with the highest per capita GNP and second highest income level in Europe. Changes are visible everywhere. Some make you stop to rub your eyes and ask, “Is this the Ireland that was so relaxed for so long?” In a restaurant at the airport I observed a small boy sitting in front of a computer, plugged in with ear phones, sucking his thumb, his bleary eyes glued to the screen. I asked his mother how old he was. Three years old, she said with a proud smile.

Clare Island -- Here We Come!

Setting out to discover Clare Island, my husband and I eagerly anticipate a giant step back in time. The closer one drives to the West Coast of Ireland, the more the serenity becomes palpable. The scenery begins to open up with a long range of mountains, horses grazing and sheep stretching across the landscape for miles. We pass through peaceful villages with small brightly painted row houses lining the narrow streets. We can’t resist the roadside calling us to stop for a cone of whipped ice cream.

To reach Clare Island, we will pass through the lovely town of Westport in County Mayo, and continue westbound some 23 km. to Louisburg and another 7 km. to Roonagh Quay, where the ferry will take us to Clare Island.

As an introduction to Ireland’s friendly towns, Westport is one of Ireland’s prettiest and liveliest on the West Coast. Here we stopped for breakfast at a busy little café with home baked buns, Irish bread, and the irresistible, full Irish (the cholesterol special) breakfast: sausages, black pudding, eggs, bacon, fried tomatoes and rashers. This morning gorge is said to “build fortitude” for the entire day, which, being economical in time and money, gives us every reason to indulge. This modern café also served deliciously frothy cappuccino.

Relaxing for awhile we watched people coming and going, all busy with life, smiling greetings to each other. The café kept filling up and emptying -- men folding up the morning paper and hurrying off to work. Women appeared more relaxed, in groups, toting beautiful, rosy-cheeked children. Outside the sun is shining and the weather looks very promising for the ferry ride. Not expecting to find any bakeries on Clare Island, we purchased some scones and pastries and continued our journey.

We relished our short drive between Westport and Louisburg with the bay on one side and the famousCroagh Patrick pilgrimage mountain on the other. Even though it is still early morning, people are already hiking the mountain. Ireland’s west coast is one of the world’s favored places for hiking and trekking on horseback.

We reach Roonagh Pier, park the car, and find two ferry services leaving around the same time, competing for our business. We picked the Island Princess, the O’Malley ferry, for no other reason than it held the name of the historic kingdom of Clare Island.

It is September, the ocean is a bit choppy, and the deck sways from side to side. I watch my husband standing at the controls talking with the ferry operator, Charles O’Malley, while balancing himself against the rise and fall of the deck. In the distance I can see the outline of Granuaile’s Castle overlooking the harbor. It is named for the island’s heroine; Grace O’Malley, the formidable, female warrior pirate who ruled the area around Clew Bay during the second half of the 16th century.

There was something about the approach to Clare Island that reminded me of the poem Forgotton Ireland, by Martin Howard.

Still south I went and west and south again
Through Wicklow from the morning ‘til the night.
And far from the cities and
The sights of men,
Lived with the sunshine and
The moon’s delight.

I knew the stars, the flowers
And the birds,
The grey and wintry sides of
Many glens,
And did but half remember
Human words In converse with the mountains,
Moors and ferns.

The ferry ride takes about 20 minutes. The majestic Knockmore Mountain overlooking Clew Bay is clouded in a mist, the walls of Granuaile’s castle become clearer, I see a long, sandy beach and some white houses near the dock, but otherwise the island appears as an idyllic picture of tranquility.

Within a two minute walk from the dock, we find our B&B, the Granuaile, which turns out to be a good choice with a quiet, homelike room, and a friendly family, for 40 euros per night. Along a wall adjacent to the white, two story house, a little girl is dancing, singing her heart out. She appears to be totally in tune with the freedom evoked by this island environment. She stops a moment to tell us her name is Laura, daughter of the McCabe family, owners of the Granuaile; then she promptly continues her game. Later, in getting to know Laura, we find the makings of one of Clare Island’s next, great personalities of the 21st century.

Exploring the Island

Clare Island is truly blessed by the Gods. Within its 16 square kilometers is a package that envelops all that makes the larger island of Ireland so dramatically inspiring. In our many walks, we feast our eyes on panoramic pieces of what makes Kerry, Donegal and even the Burren so spectacular -- its uninterrupted terrain that lies open, wild, and unspoiled. This is an island living in the past with a population of 140 and just a few stranded cars, (the small ferries don’t transport autos). The island has three advertised B&B’s, two taxicabs, and a shop that rents bikes. While somehow keeping their island jalopies pieced together and running, (no tags or inspections needed on the island), most have private, modern cars parked at the mainland quay.

There is one small, general store on the west side of the island about a two mile walk from the port. Knowing Ireland’s weather, we didn’t dream of packing sunscreen, and the store was taken unawares also; consequently, I developed a rare Irish sunburn.

The island has one church, but no priest at present. While awaiting the arrival of a new priest, lay people celebrate Sunday mass.

One of the most extraordinary sights on Clare Island is the old Lighthouse which stands at the western tip, 387 feet above the Atlantic. This is no ordinary lighthouse, but a group of white buildings, resembling a hotel, straddling the edge of the steep cliffs at the northwest end of the island. Besides its role as a lighthouse, it was for many years a B&B extraordinaire. Now it stands majestically looking out across the Atlantic, awaiting a new owner. The undulating hills around the lighthouse are blanketed with soft, green grass inviting hiking, picnicking or just lying among the daisies looking at the sky.

Near the Lighthouse, along the northern coastline, is Ballytoughey Loom, a small cottage industry which produces high quality, hand woven goods of natural fibers. The business was founded by Beth Moran, a warm and energetic American woman, married to an Irishman. She has a small shop and a room for spinning and weaving where magnificent rugs, scarves and other items are created. As we visit with Beth, we watch a young woman from France busily weaving a rug. She is an apprentice and says she plans to bring her new skills back to France. When I asked Beth why she liked living on Clare Island, she answered with one word, “Freedom!”

If one can ever literally sense that abstraction called freedom, this area of Clare Island is where it reigns supreme. It’s in the deserted hills, in the soft fragrant breeze, and it rides on the waves of the sea. On this island surrounded by the swirling Atlantic, with the intermittent sound of seagulls, where the winters are rugged and summers unpredictable, one feels released and far from the noise and clamor of a restless world.

Also on this side of the island is the lovely, modern Yoga Center. It is built in wood and owned by a couple, Ciara and Christophe. She is an American woman of Irish descent, and he is French. They have a blonde, three-year-old boy who takes the utmost delight in his freedom; clambering up hills and rolling down with his smudged, sunburned cheeks close to the earth. Visitors to the Yoga Center stay at the Center’s own B& B which serves vegetarian cuisine.

In the evening, after exploring miles of scenic beauty, promontory forts and standing stones, we found our way to the island’s one hotel, the Bayview, the liveliest spot on the island. The Bayview has just 12 guest rooms but is planning on renovation and additions. The atmosphere is friendly, relaxed and casual. During the busy season, or during one of the many festivals held on the island, the bar is crowded. We were surprised on our first evening to find a bagpiper clad in tartan kilt, standing on the hill in front of the hotel heralding visitors. We were even more surprised to learn that he was American.

Clare Island’s festivals range from Irish poets gathering to discuss the ongoing wealth of Ireland’s poetry, to the renowned Match Making Festival in September where singles from Ireland and beyond come to the island to find their “soul mate.”

The festival opens with a cocktail party and lasts from Friday until Sunday, during which time singles meet with each other, first in a structured 4-minute session where they rate the intensity of the attraction on a card. Singles mix and rotate all weekend, marking their cards as they go along. If all goes well, it should be fool-proof. They hand in their cards, which are sorted and matched by the Match Maker, and held in secret until the evening of the Romance Ball. A woman will be matched with the man she was most attracted to, and if he is lucky, it will be the same person that attracted him. According to Donal O’Shea, festival coordinator, and Director of Clare Island Development, there have been a number of successful matches. While strolling down the Champs D’Elyses in Paris, he met a married couple who recognized him and thanked him for helping them find each other.

A Visit to the 14th-Century Cistercian Abbey

Of course the island has its own interesting bachelors. One unique character is Bernie Winters, keeper of the keys to the Abbey. Bernie is tall and lanky with a weathered face, bright eyes and a sharp wit, and he has lived all his life on the island with ancestors going “way back.” He is committed to organic farming without pesticides and without machinery. Bernie tills the soil, mows, and gathers hay by hand. He takes care of his sheep and milks his cows, and as a member of WWOOF, the World Wide Organization of Organic Farmers, Bernie lives a life of ingrained self-sufficiency.

Taking a large key from the pocket of his jean, he unlocks the old wooden door of Ireland’s first Cistercian Abbey built in the 14th century. Standing within the stone walls, it is silent, still, and freezing, but the architecture is spectacular in its grandeur. The abbey was founded by monks from Abbeyknockmoy in Galway. You can see the remains of the nave and the chancel vault. An extensive preservation program has just ended and a few of the medieval wall frescos have been restored.

The frescos strike me as heroic, I can’t even imagine what the island was like in the 14th century, but these markers of time point to the human desire for creating transcendent meaning through artistic symbols. On this tiny island it is amazing to find this treasure that spans centuries.

Bernie invites us back to his house, the oldest cottage on the island, where there is the aromatic and tantalizing fragrance of a stew drifting from the bubbling pot on the stove. This bachelor’s house is clean and neat. He pushes a button on his CD player and we hear the voice of Bob Dylan wailing “the times are a changing.” Bernie’s favorite singers are Dylan and Nancy Griffiths. Over the fireplace hangs a light touch of romance; the Dream Weaver, he tells us, was left by a friend who “came and stayed awhile.”

After a short visit, we leave Bernie to his work. He has to “hop on a spade to survive the winter and prepare for spring.”

The weather outside has quickly changed to gale force winds. Bracing ourselves against the blast, we are literally blown into Mrs. McCabe’s class at St. Patrick’s parish school. Mrs. McCabe, our hostess at the Granuille B&B, is also headmistress of the school. She has invited us to visit her classroom. Ranging from 5 to 8 years of age, they are sitting in a circle on the floor. Looking at their eager little faces is like visiting a radiant flower garden in the sunshine. Laura is waving a welcoming “Hello.”

Flopping down in the circle, I ask them what they want to be when they grow up. They are excited, some are shy, they all talk at once. Under the direction of Mrs. McCabe, they raise their hands. Declan, with shining, large brown eyes, tells us of his dreams of being a fisherman. The girls want to be nurses or teachers. Nobody talks about ever leaving the island. They tell us the news about the new baby sisters and brothers that have recently arrived, bringing new excitement to island families. Exuding innocence and happiness, these children are a joy to behold. They play the penny whistle and take turns reading to us.

We also visit Grade 2 classroom, where students are in the midst of studying the Irish Famine. Their writings on the subject are pinned to the board. They tell us about the findings of archeological digs on the island.

Hats off to headmistress, Mrs. McCabe!

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According to Donal O’Shea, director of Clare Island Development, Clare Island may soon undergo a giant step forward in time. They are currently working on plans for infrastructure development after receiving a 250,000 euro government grant. Some islanders oppose the changes that would affect their quality of life, as it would likely increase tourism beyond 10,000 per year. Islanders commented on one young hooligan who came to the island, stole a car, and crashed it into a tree.

This cherished, little package of spectacular Ireland may be better served by either being allowed to slumber peacefully in the past, or by instituting some kind of screening of everybody who comes aboard the ferry. Perhaps erecting a large sign declaring Clare Island is:

Only for those who respect and revere the island’s beauty, starting with each blade of grass.

At this moment, Clare Island appears vulnerable to invasion by the 21st century. It will take a high degree of sensitivity to the wishes of the islanders to advance, without destroying what is unique and precious about this island.

For more on Clare Island visit www.clareisland.ie .

For car rental, check out Dooley Car Rentals, a friendly, service-oriented company, with all-inclusive weekly rates, including tax and insurance, priced in dollars! They have 15 Irish locations, a wide selection and competitive rates. Tel: 800-331-9301.

For a free vacation planning kit or for more information, contact Tourism Ireland at 800-223-6470, or visit TourismIreland.com.

Feature Travel Archives

Schwaebisch Hall Germany

A Destination Back In Time

By Patricia Keegan

Frankfurt’s bustling Hauptbahnhof stands as one of Europe’s busiest and most efficient rail stations. Each platform is clearly marked, and trains run on time to many enticing capitals throughout Europe. In this, my journey back in time, I will be leaving the modern, fast- paced Frankfurt with a plan to change trains at Stuttgart, continuing on until I reach the small, medieval town of Schwaebisch Hall, in the northeast of Baden-Württemberg.

I boarded the impressive, silver bullet ICI Train, the express inner city rail connection. For part of my trip, I sat at a linen-covered dining car table, savoring a pastry, watching the fields roll by and catching up with the political woes of Germany’s Chancellor Schroeder. Switching trains was no problem, but when I arrived in the small town of Schwaebisch Hall, I was confronted with a challenge: how to get to the Hohenlohe Hotel about two miles distant. In this small town, on a Sunday afternoon, either the taxies were busy or the drivers had decided to spend this quiet, sunny day with family.

After waiting some 20 minutes, I inquired about the lack of taxis from a young man who had just pulled his white van onto the curb. Without hesitation, he invited me to accompany him, his wife and three year-old son, assuring me it was “no trouble” as they were already en route to town. Heading down some steep hills, the car pulled up front of the Hotel Hohenlohe. From this point I could see the Kocher River and glimpse the town, with church steeples and red roof tops climbing ever higher above the river valley.

I was struck with the drama of the town and the gracious, spontaneous attitude of the people. I even wondered if I had stumbled into a time warp far from the crass world of the 21st century. After expressing appreciation to this Schwabisch Hall family, I rolled my suitcase through the surprisingly sterile, modern looking facade of the hotel.

After checking into the Hohenlohe, (named after the Hohenlohe dynasty who, since 1103, have played a significant role in the development of this town), I was given a key to a room downstairs on the 2nd floor. I found myself in a small room, with a tiny bed but generously endowed with two large windows and a French door opening to an expansive roof terrace -- three times as large as the room, with the additional luxury of a table and chairs. This terrace gave me a wide angle view of Schwaebisch Hall, and the view was spectacular. Like spreading wings, I could see, in detail, all the way up and down the Kocher River. In front of me the hills rose steeply beyond the quaint town and, as the church bells chimed six o’clock, I heard them calling for me to come out and explore.

A stop at the hotel’s plush restaurant for what I thought would be a quick refueling, turned into a veritable feast. I enjoyed a hearty meal, high in quality and nicely presented. I was contemplating the salt shaker before me, containing the “white gold” of the Middle Ages, first distilled by my ancestors, the Celts, in Schwaebisch Hall as early as the fifth century, when I heard a woman at a nearby table telling the waiter that she and her friends were “off to see Juan Carlos on the steps.” She was waving her hand in the direction of the church on the hill which was visible through the long panel of windows facing the town.

The waiter informed me that there were two other operas playing on the steps of St. Michaels’ on different evenings -- Die Dreigroshegnoper and Die Comedian Harmonists.

Leaving the hotel on this bright summer evening, I passed a museum with a banner hung across it advertising The Last Judgment by Henry Caro -- a bit eerie for my upbeat momentum, but I made a mental note and hurried on. When I arrived at St. Michael’s Church, the air was filled with music but it was too late to purchase tickets and the area was blocked off. Walking across the wooden bridge of this artistically vibrant town, I paused to look down at the Kocher River and was surprised to see a few Henry Moore sculptures set in precise locations along the banks, flanked by ancient buildings. The Henry Moore, Epoche and Echo exhibit was in full swing with sculptures set around the town and in the Kunsthalle Wuerth Museum. Other sculptors included Barbara Hepworth, Eduardo Paolozzi, Tim Scott and Barry Flanagan.

Schwabisch Hall, with a population of approximately 35,000, is one of Germany’s few remaining cultural treasures not annihilated during WWII. In the 18th century, during the height of its salt production, Hall, as the town was called, had become very prosperous. An Imperial mint was in production, founded by the House of Hohenstaufen.

Today the town is known for Bausparkasse Schwabisch Hall AG, a housing credit company founded in 1944, as well as a center for service industries.

The two oldest churches, St. James and St. Michaels’ were built in the 11th and 12th centuries respectively. The first recorded mention of Hall was in 1037. It became a free imperial city in 1280 and remained as such until the Napoleonic wars in 1802.

The town, with its timber framed buildings, was destroyed by fire three times, in 1360, 1680, and 1728, but today the architecture creates an ambience in which the past is still solidly present. During the Reformation, Josep Brenz, a young theologian and friend of Martin Luther, became the dynamic power behind the religious Reformation and the introduction of Protestantism to Hall. He became pastor of St. Michael’s in 1522 when it was changed to a Lutheran church.

In 1934 the name Hall was officially amended to read Schwabisch Hall.

Setting out to explore the narrow, cobbled streets, each flight of steps I ascended led to more cobbled streets with decorative, timber framed houses. I passed museums and peered into inviting shop windows, promising to return in the morning for further exploration. On the return trip I saw the Globe Theatre, on what appeared to be an island on the river. It is a Shakespearian theatre constructed like its famous namesake in London and accessible by walking across a covered bridge.

Returning to the Hohenlohe, I plunged into its famous swimming pool which is connected to the original salt water mines by underground pipes, creating a solebad – hot, healing salt water. This enormous pool is a great asset to the town residents as well as hotel guests.

At the heart of old town stands the square with magnificent Renaissance buildings, the ornate, baroque City Hall, and the romanesque St. Michael’s Cathedral. The church houses a multitude of precious art works, and is currently running an eclectic exhibit by local contemporary artists. The colorful square, with its architectural mix, stole a place in my heart. It is like a setting for a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale encompassing the vibrancy of the entire town.

Since 1925, professional open-air theater has been performed on the 54 steps of St. Michael’s. While I watched rehearsal forComedian Harmonists on the steps, listening to the music, watching the dancing and absorbing the performers fun-filled enthusiasm, I looked up at the windows of the Goldener Adler Hotel, (The Golden Eagle), and decided I would stay there on the last of my three nights. The bright red geraniums in the windows were an added attraction.

The Adler was erected in 1500 as a patrician house in the gothic style. In the 16th century it became an attractive inn with stained glass windows, hosting guests from the ranks of the nobility. On the sidewalk, next to an outdoor café which daily bakes a memorable rhubarb custard pie, is a model of an old pillory, reminiscent of the system of justice which was customary in medieval times.

Facing St. Michael’s is the reconstructed, baroque Town Hall, the only building damaged during WWII. In this magnificently restored building, I was introduced to the Oberburgermeist, (the mayor), Hermann Josef Pelgrim. In Germany he is called the Lord Mayor. I expected him to come out in a long robe and tri-cornered hat, but was surprised to meet an ebullient, cosmopolitan leader in a business suit who has also lived in Brazil and Chile. He came to office in 1998 and now, in his second term, is striving to make Schwabisch Hall a good investment while keeping up a steady flow of cultural activity. In our brief meeting, he informed me that the key to sustaining and increasing the stream of 70,000 visitors per year is to maintain and promote his town’s cultural strength.

“In this town, which combines past with present, we have a big music school, a library, an arts school, museums, theater, the Goethe Institute. We have a vibrant exchange program with American students, and a Media and Art University of Applied Sciences which includes graphic design, video and filmmaking.”

Schawbisch Hall has one of the lowest crime rates in Germany. He also mentioned that over 100 different nationalities live side by side, “Open minded people from all over the world.”

When the US army was stationed here,” the mayor said, “they brought there own cultural exchange of football and American square dancing.' Schwabisch Hall now has a Mosque built by a Muslim man who won the lottery. Construction has recently been completed on this ultra modern mosque which stands near a Catholic church in a residential area. The Muslims have invited Catholics, Protestants and Jews to meetings in the mosque to try to build bridges of understanding in their culture.

There are three major museums in Schwaebisch Hall. The Kunsthalle Wuerth has paintings and sculpture from the 20th and 21st century and from the collection of art patron Reinhold Wuerth. Visitors can also experience contemporary art in the City Gallery and the Fire Department Museum with over 5,000 exhibits from four centuries telling the story of the town’s battle against fires. Among the most important and impressive in all of Baden Württemberg is Museum Hallisch-Frankisches the Hall Franconian, illustrating the history of this medieval town.

To get a full sense of the unique setting of Schwabisch Hall is to take a drive out through nearby countryside to visit surrounding areas. Vellberg is an idyllic, tiny town with old town walls, gates, towers, flowers gardens and a common garden where people grow their vegetables. It is so quiet here that one can hear only the sound of a breeze rustling the leaves and a bird singing.

On a rounded mountain peak above the Kocher valley stands Gross Comburg, formerly a Benedictine monastery, with Romanesque towers and Baroque architecture, which the Count of Rothenburg-Comburg donated to the Benedictine order in 1078 when it was first established as a monastery. Here you can walk the 500-meter ring wall with covered battlements enclosing the monastery with lookout towers scanning miles of open countryside.

The church is filled with beautifully preserved romanesque works of art. In the 12th century, when the monastery experienced its heyday, Abbot Hartwig donated two precious works of art to the church. One was the Antependium which covers the altar table, the other; the richly adorned wheel-shaped chandelier, produced around 1130, which is 16 feet in diameter. It is believed to be the only chandelier of this style left in the world. With its ring and twelve gate towers, it symbolizes “heavenly Jerusalem” in an apocalyptic vision. This is a “must see” for visitors to the area. In 1947, using many of the buildings of the former monastery, Gross Comburg was set up as the first State Academy for Advanced Teacher Training, and is still active today.

My last day at the Goldener Adler, which allowed me a grand view of the square and all its activities, began with the bustling market -- with farmers selling their vegetables, meats and flowers -- and closed with the opera bursting forth from the steps of St. Michael's.

The atmosphere of this hotel, run by owners Rosmarie and Johann Ganz, is warm and inviting with a personable, efficient staff. Ensuite rooms are large, and the stairs to the third floor are so old they slant sideways. Inscribed on one of the wall on the 3rd floor landing is an artistic inscription, Hier Wohnte Kaiser Karl V,1541-1546. Rosemarie told me that the Kaiser had been one of the procession of nobility who had lodged here. Since 1925 the Adler has been designated an architectural monument.

I enjoyed my box seat for the opera from my large window sill. I didn’t mind having my shutters open all night and getting less than 40 winks when suddenly the bells of St. Michael’s rang at 6 am. The experience was great, I would do it all again.

For information on the Hotel Goldener Adler see www.goldener-adler-sha.de

For information on Hotel Hohenlohe see www.hotel-hohenlohe.de

For more information on Schwaebisch Hall visit www.schwaebischhall.de

Feature Travel Archives

Florida's Most Enticing Feature: Captiva Island

and Tween Waters Inn

By Patricia Keegan

Unique and timeless, Captiva Island has chosen to bypass the high rise condos and dense commercialization that epitomize most of the sunshine state’s attractions.

One of the greatest travel surprises of my varied destinations is Captiva Island. It has managed, despite the siren call to commerce, to maintain a subdued ambience in total harmony with sea, sand and nature. Here one feels an instant connection -- a retreat to nature beyond the intrusion of 21st century hype.

From a flight into Tampa, it’s about a three-hour drive to the causeway separating mainland Fort Myers from Sannibel Island. Captiva and Sannibel Islands lie together, like two peas in a long pod, forming a peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Mexico. Driving along the 12 miles of Sannibel, there is the occasional glimpse of multi-million dollar homes half hidden in tropical gardens. However, once you cross the tiny bridge onto Captiva, everything opens up with long stretches of white sandy beach edged with breaking surf. The very sight made my husband and I sigh spontaneously in universal agreement, “Ah-haa, this is indeed the place to be”!

I had found Captiva Island on an internet search while looking for “best beach in Florida.” Now, checking in at Tween Waters Inn, we wondered if we had stumbled on exactly what we were searching for.

Overlooking the ocean across a narrow, two-lane road, Tween Water lies between the bay and the Gulf. The resort is extensive, colorful and inviting. The landscape is dotted with small, gaily painted cottages, picket fences and rose bushes, with several large hotel-like buildings in the background. As we stepped into the reception area, words of encouragement came from a woman with a booming voice, on a cell phone standing next to her SUV. She was informing someone that she just arrived at Tween Waters, which “looks great and came highly recommended.”

At the reception desk, we were greeted by Don Williams, the low key manager, and Sandee, his assistant, who together create an instant image of what to expect on the entire island of Captiva -- a genuinely warm, friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Sandee supplied us with a folder of nature and entertainment activities, as well as coupons offering generous discounts on everything from scuba diving to dinner at the resort’s Old Captiva Restaurant. We discovered that most of the staff at Tween Waters hail from far off countries like Russia, Poland and the Czech Republic, adding an interesting international touch.

We stayed in the Orchid one of the eleven, restored historic cottages. This is a tiny, exquisite cottage, made for two, with a screened-in porch, luxury bath and kitchenette. The high bed was adorned in a burgundy and gold brocade spread, complimenting the wicker furniture and reflecting the golden glow from the lampshades. For such a small space it was so cozy and beautifully appointed that, for a moment, I wondered why people preferred to luxuriate in, and even risk becoming lost within the halls of million dollar homes. The cottage’s intimacy and simplicity transport you back in time. In fact, the Orchid has a history, having served as family quarters for a defunct WWII Army airfield on the mainland before being transported to the island. Some cottages are named after famous people who have visited the island. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in “Gift from the Sea,” shared the following sentiment about the cottage lifestyle:

“Here I live in a bare seashell cottage… I find I don’t bustle about with unnecessary sweeping and cleaning here… I want the windows open all the time, (and) I shall ask into my shell only those friends with whom I can be completely honest.”

Sure enough, there is lovely cottage christened The Charles Lindbergh. The cottages all have original heart pine floors and fireplaces. Each is unique in its own beauty, yet one of the most outstanding is the Ding Darling Cottage in memory of the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and conservationist who wintered at Tween Waters. The Roosevelt Cottagehas it own original theme -- outdoor rustic. So much quality and originality of design has been invested in these historic cottages that they could verily become the ideal or model for cozy vacation getaways.

All the activities one would expect of a five-star resort are available at Tween Waters, (which has no rating, but is in a three-star category). It has an oversized pool and sundeck, tennis courts, a small, but intimate spa with a wide menu of treatments, and a state-of-the-art fitness center with a multitude of Cybex stations, treadmills, stair masters, and weights.

The resort straddles the narrow island between the Gulf of Mexico and Pine Island Sound, and on the harborside dock you can arrange boat rentals. Trips to the golf course are just 20 minutes away. Since the resort has become a popular spot for weddings, couples are invited to some pampering with a spa session and a sunset cruise -- certain to alleviate pre-nuptial jitters.

Tween Waters Resort is abundant in reasons to vacation here, but for me, the greatest attraction is its location opposite the beach. Every morning before breakfast, my husband and I would cross to this long strip of white sand beach and dive straight into the crystalline Gulf waters. We could jog the length of the beach and not see another soul. One morning we watched a huge barracuda stalking a smaller fish at the waters edge. The victim could move neither left nor right without response from its hunter. Suddenly the barracuda swept toward the beach, and in only inches of water, grabbed its prey in a spray of foam, and disappeared with the fish wriggling in its mouth.

Looking down the beach, the resort’s lineup of hooded blue Cabanas are not only attractive, but also appealing and practical. You can rent a Cabana by the hour or all day for $15. Beneath this breezy raised platform, you can easily become buried in a book and not worry about sunburn.

On the dock and marina side of the resort we quietly observed a sea otter sitting at the helm of a boat with the remains of a fish in its paws. On the pier we watched heron mothers and white headed babies so tame they practically took a handout -- begging for tasty morsels. Manatees lounge in the shallows, motionless except for the occasional breath of air.

In the evening it become our ritual to be on the beach for sunset and then to dine at the Old Captiva House, a restaurant so good we felt little motivation to explore further. The ambience is bright and spacious, overlooking tropical flower gardens. The menu is varied with plenty of enticing choices, but for two nights in a row I had mahi-mahi in a delightful, crunchy roasted pecan sauce while my husband enjoyed fresh grouper. There were other enticing options on the menu, but to the credit of Chef Jason Miller, these were so good we didn’t think anything else could top it. Breakfast offers either a choice from the menu or the complimentary buffet, abundant in its variety of fruits and tantalizing fresh pastries and breads made in Tween Waters very own bakery.

For a truly casual evening, the Crow’s Nest Restaurant and Lounge, located next to the Old Captiva, is the place to be. Here you will find a pub style menu with steaks, and fresh seafood served in a casual atmosphere. It is also the nightspot for Captiva Island locals and guests who enjoy music and entertainment five nights a week.

Exploring the north tip of Captiva, we came to the South Seas Hotel and Resort complex which was badly damaged in last year’s hurricane but is now being restored and scheduled to re-open next year. It is a huge, modern, high rise facility facing the ocean with its own private golf course. We also stopped by Jensen’s Resort and Marina where we discovered some native and colorful characters that add to the charm of the island. We met the owners, three brawny, tanned and carefree brothers -- John, Dave and Jimmy -- who came from Minnesota in the 70’s when their father bought a few acres here, for a “song, sight unseen.” Today, because of their visionary father, instead of suits and ties, they ,enjoy a life of sun and sea, attired in shorts, tee shirts and bandanas.

“We’re not making any money, but we could never live anywhere else,” John tells us with a big grin. From the Jensen pier we took a speedboat with Jeff, an employee and young sailing expert, who spoke of his dream of becoming a life-long protector of Nature. We stopped briefly at tiny North Captiva, an island of luxury homes, to drop off a worker from the Northeast who had just arrived, tools in hand, to repair mansions damaged in the hurricane. On the return trip, we paused to watch a school of dolphins performing a joyful dance in the water.

Another not-to-be-missed attraction on Sanibel Island is the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, one of over 530 refuges in the national Wildlife Refuge System. Each season attracts a different variety of bird life. The refuge has an incredible 291 species of birds, over 50 reptiles, and year round osprey, raccoon, and pelican residents. Alligators can be seen basking in the winter sun, but retreat to cooler, shady spots in the hot summer. One of Darling’s most important contributions to wildlife was the 1934 initiation of the migratory Bird Hunting Stamp, or Duck Stamp. Since then, proceeds from the sale of these stamps have purchased over 4.4 million of wetlands for preservation in the national Wildlife Refuge System.

Perhaps out of reverence for the local natural environment, both the Tween Waters Resort and Captiva Island represent a charmingly spun cocoon which has chosen not to surrender to the Big Mac world.

For more information, call (800) 223-5865 or (239) 472-5161, or visit www.tween-waters.com

Feature Travel Archives

France: Exploring the Chateaux of the Loire Valley

By Patricia E. Keegan

Traveling through France’s ever-changing countryside brings unexpected pleasures. For like no other country in the world -- thanks to the French Impressionists -- we have prior knowledge of its exquisite landscape. The colors of the French landscape evoke memories of the first time I stood in a doorway at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, surrounded by the works of Monet, Renoir, Morisot and Pissarro. Without moving, I looked from one to the other in awe; I felt as though I was being transported to a new plateau of awareness.

Throughout the Loire Valley, a myriad of vivid images unfold, all familiar subjects from the Impressionist era. Along country roads and byways nothing has changed. The barns, the golden fields, the villages look the same as the late 19th century. The passage of time has only measured by the changing light between sunrise and sunset when those great masters, were able to capture the image of an object, as one would see it if they caught just a glimpse. Without detail, but with bold colors, they showed the transient effects of light and color, thereby connecting our souls to the land in an eternally new way.

From Paris to Amboise

From Charles de Gaulle Airport, my husband and I drove our rented Peugeot to Amboise, a small town on the Loire several hours south of Paris. Always endeavoring to travel light, we made do with two carry-on bags and a large manila envelope filled with maps and books -- enough information to comb the countryside from north to south. All we really needed was a good map and the excellent travel guide: French Hotels, Inns and Other Places by British writer Allister Sawaday.

Although the drive was long, especially after a sleepless night crossing the Atlantic, it was worth every mile when we caught sight of our first French chateau (castle), the beautiful chateau of Amboise. Situated high on a bluff overlooking the Loire River, rooftops and graceful bridges, it’s no wonder that this was Catherine de Medici’s favorite home.

A Brief History of the Chateaux of the LoireValley

Exploring the chateaux of the Loire opens our minds to an historic era from 1418 to 1517 when the earliest influences of the French Renaissance began to take root, but didn’t actually flourish until the 16th century. To visit this region and see, first-hand, the breathtaking beauty, the variety of immense structures, the great works of art, the bountiful treasures, and to follow in the footsteps of a string of historic characters including Joan of Arc and Louis XIV, is a giant step toward cultural enrichment.

It was purely by chance that in 1418, during the Hundred Year’s War, the dauphin of France, (the future Charles VII), fleeing from hoards of Burgundians, found a refuge in Bourges, thus beginning the lavish history of the Loire Valley as the location of royal residence. Each king was subsequently attracted by the Loire’s mild climate and sunny days, as they constructed royal chateaux along the river.

When the Hundred Years War ended in 1453, and the model of a nation came to the forefront, members of the House of Valois, returning from the wars in Italy, found that ideas of 'residence' and 'court' were no longer the same. Their castles, until then little more than crude strongholds, had lost their 'raison d’être.' A new era of peace was beginning and, with the invention of artillery, the seemingly impregnable walls were now merely fragile screens.

Charles VIII, Louis XII and Francis I all played roles in assimilating the Italian model in which royal power was no longer measured by armed might, but by elegance, ostentation and pride in culture. The wealthy spent daily life immersed in luxury, outdoing each other in spectacular flamboyance and being noticed. The influence of Italian culture had breached French society. When Charles VIII returned from Naples in 1495, Italian artists followed. Medieval fortresses were opened up and light was finally allowed to enter. Along with the art of living well, gardening became a new art form. The chateaux softened their overpowering magnitude by adding fountains, ornamental waterworks, and sculpted hedges alternating with colorful flowerbeds. All this becomes spectacularly alive for visitors to the Loire Valley today, which has a total of 25 magnificent chateaux.

Amboise -- Burial Site of Leonardo da Vinci

Climbing to the highest turret of the royal chateau of Amboise, and looking across the steep, slanted rooftops to the winding ribbon of the silvery Loire, it’s not hard to see why this was the favorite abode of many kings. It was Charles VIII, from 1483 -1498, who gradually changed Amboise into a dwelling suitable for the tastes and needs of his royal guests. In the following years, arts and letters were held in high esteem. Then tragedy befell the young King Charles, whose health had been fragile since he returned from Italy. He hit his head on a low doorway as he was taking his Queen, Anne of Brittany, to watch a ball game. He died a few hours later. A year later Anne married Louis XII and moved to Paris. Amboise was idle from 1499 -1515 until Francis I succeeded to the throne. Along with a new vibrancy, he brought one of the greatest artistic geniuses of all time, his friend, Leonardo da Vinci. Francis I, with the help of Leonardo, developed the style and grace, not only of Amboise, but also of his other chateaux: Blois, Chambord and Fountainbleau.

Leonardo lived in Amboise for four years where his talents flourished. He organized sumptuous fetes and royal ceremonies that included the baptism of the dauphin and the famous wedding design for Lorenzo de Medici. Although he had only lived in Amboise for four years, his actual residence was in Close-Luce near Amboise. In 1519 he died there, reportedly in the arms of Francis I, who had hastened to his bedside. As requested in his last testament, he was buried in Amboise.

A vist to the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci, in the Chapelle Saint Hubert overlooking city and countryside, feels like an honor. The lovely chapel looks like a miniature cathedral with vivid stained glass windows, a small nave, and fireplaces in each arm of the transept.

Traveling Along the Loire

From Amboise we headed west to the heart of chateau country, our goal was to visit as many as possible in our allotted six days. Opting for the scenic route, we traveled across flat land, through small, quiet villages without a living soul in sight. The character of the village’s starkly simple buildings, with steep slated rooftops, was softened by the splash of color from flower boxes in windows. Our directions took us across wooden bridges and down country lanes until we arrived at Le Moulin de Saint Jean, recommended in Sawaday’s book as a 'deliciously watery home.'

Le Moulin is a restored mill on its own small island, where the old mill wheel churns the water all day long. We met the proprietor, Sue, in the cozy kitchen where she was busily preparing the evening meal. Out appetites were stirred by the tantalizing aroma of baked breads and apple pies wafting around her. A warm, open-hearted English women, Sue, with her partner Andrew, discovered the mill in its unique and charming setting while traveling through France on holiday. It was for sale. They fell in love with the mill and its surroundings and, a few months later, returned bag and baggage from England, bought it and moved in.

Dinner was superb, shared at a long table with eight other guests, ranging from a college professor to a cross-country cyclist, all British. The atmosphere at Le Moulin is relaxed and casual. The house and its six guestrooms exude a welcoming, homelike feeling.

Le Moulin de St Jean offers Bed and Breakfast for 72-84 Euros, no credit cards accepted. Dinner, including aperitif, wine, coffee and dessert is just 25 Euros.

The Spectacular Gardens of Villandry

Taking the helpful suggestions of John, the English professor, we headed towards Villandry, first of the three major chateaux we wanted to visit. The other two, Chenonceau and Chambord, are the most famous and largest of the 25.

Villandry is an elegant Renaissance chateau standing not far from the Loire; the site where King Henry II of England, and Phillip Agustus, King of France, met to discuss their differences on July 4, 1189. A few centuries later it became the property of Jean le Breton, an architect and minister for Francis I. In 1536 the King put Jean le Breton in charge of construction of the royal palaces of Fountainbleau and Chambord, as well as Villandry. At Villandry he set out to build a palace just the opposite of the foreboding feudal castles.

After razing older structures, a new plan was designed in a U-shape around a court of honor facing the Loire Valley. The two large L-shaped wings have typically Renaissance elements. Partially surrounded by a moat, the castle was landscaped with large gardens laid out on three different levels.

At the first sight of Villandry we were transfixed by the size and beauty of the landscaped gardens, set on three terraced levels. Inspired by Italian Renaissance gardens, the French gardens were designed larger with hedges instead of perimetral walls. Convenient avenues run along the flowerbeds where low hedge borders set off the decorative plants. Water is collected on the uppermost terrace, a middle terrace lies on the same plane as the rooms and the upper terrace extends to a wood of tall trees.

Standing on the middle terrace looking across the lush wide expanse of park, we see the ornamental gardens dubbed the 'gardens of love.' The large squares of boxed shrubs and flowers form motifs which symbolize the allegories of love, from the blood-red heart shapes to yellow and orange masks worn at balls. The gardens create their own geometrical motifs with colors provided by the leaves of cabbages, carrots, beets and lettuce. The gnarled branches of apple and pear trees, laden with fruits, define and separate the beds. Strolling through these magnificent gardens, in the bright sunshine, is an exhilarating experience, much like walking through an open-air art museum.

Each day around noontime, we took out our Sawaday guide to look for a place to stay. Stopping at a village pay phone, we sometimes called two or three recommendations and had good luck in finding what we wanted. Following our map and directions in the guide, we discovered more of the lovely French countryside each day. We stopped at village markets, cafes, and a few wineries along the way to enjoy Loire’s famous vintages and conversations with proprietors.

La Fleuray Hotel, near tiny Cangey, seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Sawaday said, 'It was perfect if you had a helicopter or a hot air balloon.' After a few wrong turns, La Fleuray appeared, a handsome, old manor house in the middle of golden fields of hay. Our room, large and fresh, was in the new section of a renovated barn. Decorated in yellow, it seemed to match the outside environment of flowers and fields with horizon views in all directions.

Proprietors Peter and Hazel Newington work as a team, Peter greets guests and Hazel manages the kitchen. The dining room is elegant, the cuisine excellent, and the service by young French students is tres efficient.

La Fleuray Hotel, with 14 rooms, is priced at 68-100 Euros per night. Breakfast is 9 Euros, dinner is 26.

Chenoceau -- Dream Castle Lying Still in the Past

From La Fleuray we traveled to Chenoceau, one of the largest and most beautiful of all the chateaux. It was originally built in 1243 as a defensive fortress surrounded by moats joined to the banks of the river Cher with a swing bridge. Transformed in 1512 to correspond with the latest Renaissance mode, the only part that remains of the medieval section is the tower of the keep set in front of the castle.

Chenoceau was the scene of hunts on horseback, fetes, suppers and intellectual activities, but it was also filled to the brim with betrayal and intrigue. When Francis I visited, he brought Queen Eleanor, his son Henry, Catherine di Medici, his mistress, Anne de Piseleau, lady of Heuilly, and the infamous Diane de Saint Vallier de Poitier, his son’s mistress.

The interior of the castle is sumptuous, and by comparison, light and airy. Standing in Catherine di Medici’s bedroom, you feel the stillness of time passed but seeming to stand for a moment within the four walls of this very private abode. Rooms and boudoirs are intact with rich furnishings. The works of art are stunning throughout the entire castle. The tiny chapel houses a beautiful Carrera marble sculpture of the Virgin and Child. One can visit the gallery with its great paintings by artists; Rubens, Primaticcio, Van Loo, Mignard, Nattier, and many portraits of Louis XIV adorn the walls of the chateau.

Before leaving the castle we took a trip down the spiral staircase to the basement kitchens in which the original cooking area is characterized by a unique, ingenious spit above the stove and long wooden tables for food preparations.

Chateau Chambord -- A Renaissance Masterpiece

Although Cheneceau was my favorite chateau, Chambord stands as one of the loveliest in the Loire Valley, a masterpiece in Renaissance style. The land was the property of the counts of Blois, Champagne, and Chatillon from the 10th century on. This elegant chateau was built by Francis 1, successor to Louis X11, who came to the throne in 1515 at the age of 20, bringing ideas he had garnered from his time spent in northern Italy. As a great patron of the arts and sciences and, as we recall from Amboise, he succeeded in bringing, Leonardo da Vinci with him from Italy. An analysis of the structures found in the archives do not name any of the architects but find the profound influence of Leonardo da Vinci on the design on Chambord

The king’s desire was to fuse the elements of Italian Renaissance architecture with those of the French tradition. As we see from a distance, the building looks arabesque, the upper part of the keep is crowded with dormer windows with Italianate classicizing superstructures, by small towers, pavilions and elegant chimney decorations with columns, salamanders, miniature pediments, and geometric designs in slate applied to give a two color effect similar to that of the Italian monuments.

In 1947, the state began restoration and today the chateau contains furnishings, including tapestries in the room of Louis XIV, and portraits including the portraits of Henry III and Anne of Austria. Other rooms contain objects which belonged to the Duke of Bordeaux, the Comte of Chambord and last legitimate claimant to the throne of France. The ground floor contains an exhibit of the carriages built by Hermes in 1871, which were never used. They were to have served the Comte de Chambord in making his entrance into the capital to accede to the throne

The chateaux of the Loire Valley stand as extraordinary witnesses of times gone by and gems to a glorious epoch.

France -- An Ever-Unfolding Gift for the Senses

Every mile traveled in France’s unspoiled countryside brings something new ahead. Each region has its distinct character and its own cuisine. A quick side trip into Burgundy produced an entirely new landscape with more hills and rich, fertile soil. One evening we traveled down a country road watching the sunset splash the sky with pastel colors while in the foreground fields of sunflowers, 10 feet tall, nodded their robust heads into the roadway. On the opposite side bundles of ripe grapes, heavy on the vine, spilled invitingly across our path.

In Burgundy we discovered small cities steeped in history and culturally vibrant; Beaune, Villazey and Auxerre.

My first encounter with Auxerre was love at first sight. For a busy city its ambience exudes a relaxed balance of business and pleasure. The river Yonne is the dynamic personality of the city. Its geographical position is centered at the meeting point of roads and navigable waterways. During the first century AD, the river Yonne was a blessing for both man and trade, it was crossed by the Agrippian Way linking the Mediterranean and the North Sea.

Today we see the river is busy with pleasure craft, and along its banks there is a winding bike path. Standing on a bridge over the Yonne, looking in all directions, I get a sense of the history of this great city of castles and cathedrals. Saint Etienne, a spectacular cathedral, stands nobly on a hill. Towards the end of the third century invading Germanic tribes caused the majority of Gallic towns to surround themselves with protective walls. Auxerre withdrew to a fortified hill.

The advent of Christianity to Gaul was marked in Auxerre by the construction of the cathedral in the 5th century. The most famous Auxerre bishop was undoubtedly Saint Germain (418-448). A holy man, but also a skilled organizer, he initiated the movement to build monasteries which soon surrounded the city, forming ‘holy walls’ around Auxerre.

Auxerre is the second largest city in Burgundy and hosts major cultural events throughout the year. In 1995 it was awarded the title of ‘City of Art and History'. It is a city, though encountered only briefly, makes the kind of impression that one feels the need to know it well, and find a reason to return to again and again

GETTING THERE -- Air France from Washington Dulles departs at 5:15 pm, arriving in Paris at 6:30 the following morning. The second flight departs Dulles at 10:35 pm arriving in Paris 11:50 the following morning.

FROM PARIS -- The first flight daily departs Charles de Gaulle at 10:30 arriving in Dulles at 4:20 pm the same day. The second flight departs Paris at 1:05 pm, arriving Dulles at 6:55 pm the same day.

Feature Travel Archives

Kerry, Ireland -- Blessed by the Gods

By Patricia Keegan

County Kerry has more drama in every square acre than any of Ireland’s other 32 counties. If I were mother of Ireland, instead of daughter, I would probably say each county has its own particular beauty, declining the notion of having a favorite. Admittedly fickle, for years I loved Donegal, but a multitude of recently built, little white holiday homes have disrupted its former expanse of untamed glory.

On a visit to Northern Ireland one springtime, I toured County Antrim for the first time and was constantly jumping out of the car, chasing across stone walls with my camera, trying to capture images of baby lambs frolicking alongside rippling streams. Antrim is heart-stoppingly beautiful.

Then there is the rugged landscape of proud Connemara -- its storm torn face seems to say, like the kings of old:

‘I, bold Connemara can withstand the savagery of life; never defeated, each challenge adds more beauty to my soul.’

North, South, East or West, there is hardly a place in this tiny island of Ireland that has not been blessed by the gods.

Feasting at the banquet table of landscapes in the Kenmare Bay, Beara Peninsula, and West Cork areas is like finding an infinitesimal corner in this immense world where peace has flourished since ancient times.

Springtime in Tousist

Tousist is a small rural area on the Beara Peninsula. Outside of its distinctive beauty, it has only a post office and a phone booth to mark its existence. We arrived at our rented cottage in the evening.

In Tousist, as Ireland sleeps, the sea spreads like a shimmering satin sheet under a star-studded sky. From the encircling land, dark as the night, comes the sound of animals -- the baa-aa of sheep echo and re-echo against the silence. There is the intermittent bleat --a goat trying to get a word into the conversation. Right next to our doorstep, I hear horses munching on the rich, green pasture. Although hidden behind the bushes, I can feel their presence. Sally, Molly and her 3-day-old foal -- just christened Shola. Since arriving at the farmside cottage, I have found great delight in watching the three horses. Sallie, a dazzling white, solidly strong, Irish draught horse was peering curiously over the fence when we arrived. I went to say hello.

At first she didn’t respond; I waited, she gradually moved closer. I reached out to stroke her nose and immediately sensed the combination of power and calm of her inner world. Her huge eyes looked at me from shining pools of gentleness. This creature of elegant and noble bearing was no ordinary horse -- she seemed to have stepped straight from Celtic mythology. She could have been the reincarnation of Niamh’s white, enchanted steed of the Sidhe, upon which Oisin traveled from the otherworld of Tir Na Nog, (The land of Youth) back to Ireland.

As dawn comes to Tousist, I emerge from dreams to hear the sound of birds singing, and hoof beats like heartbeats thumping rhythmically on the grass outside our window. Sally, Molly and Shola are already awake and on their morning jaunt. With a cup of coffee, I observe from the kitchen window. The young foal Shola is growing stronger each day. Her gangly legs are like long, white stilts holding up a short body. Her ears and both eyes are brown-splashed. An unusual, dappled brown and white coat ends in a puffy black tail. Her cute face has a mischievous look.

Dan and Kathleen, the proud owners, tell us that she is a valuable horse who is destined to be a great jumper. Now, after only five days of life, she lies sleeping in the sun. As she awakens she looks first to the security of her mother, then struggles to her knees until she is standing. Then, as though to confirm her physical boundaries, she stomps a back hoof. Reassured of her balance, she moves closer to Mollie to suckle. Sally hovers nearby. Fascinated by the foal, she would like to play, but as she moves near Shola, Molly is alerted and immediately steers Shola away. Trust comes only after the seventh day when the distance between Mollie and her foal begins to widen. Now Sally is not isolated from the playful baby anymore.

Kenmare -- The Axis of Beauty

The bustling town of Kenmare, with 2,000 inhabitants at the mouth of Kenmare Bay, is situated only 10 miles from Tousist and is one of the prettiest and classiest towns in Ireland. With its busy streets and gaily painted facades, its exudes brightness and optimism. This dynamic town has at least five gourmet restaurants, two silversmiths, arts and crafts shops, pubs offering nightly entertainment and some of the best accommodations one can find in Ireland. The Park Hotel at the top of the main street, like the town, has won numerous awards for originality and excellence. Kenmare sits on a pot of gold at the center of one of Ireland’s most spectacular destinations.

Looking at a map of southwest Ireland, you see two peninsulas jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, the well known Ring of Kerry and, just below, the smaller Beara Peninsula. On this trip my husband and I decided to explore the Beara Peninsula, where we visited caves and reveled in unspoiled, rugged beauty with waves crashing on steep cliffs. The entire area is rich in dolmens, pre-Christian forts, ogham stones, and sacred wells. The first Celtic finds in the Kenmare area date to 1800-2000 BC. It is accepted that Christianity reached Ireland’s southwest before the arrival of St. Patrick, and there are artifacts as evidence in the National Museum. Beara Island, just off the coast, is an idyllic paradise filled with birds, wildflowers and a few houses.

Epiphany on a Mountain in Ardgroom

It is only May, and too cold to swim, but hiking in Kerry is the epitome of being in touch with nature. Springtime in Ireland comes with the vigor of a repressed artist pouring color across the land. Green fields are filled with a profusion of bluebells, the blazing yellow gorse appears on country lanes; it climbs hills and seems to replace the sun when it disappears behind a cloud.

Hiking mountains and visiting sheltered lakes along the dramatic Healy Pass brought me an unexpected surprise. At 6 p.m., the sunlight, like a lantern held in the hand of an angel, began to spotlight perfection. With a sense of being lighter than air, I climbed to the top of a mountain near Ardgoom. Stopping to rest, I sat in the grass looking down on the plains of the valley I had just crossed. In the distance, the central point of the sunrays illuminated a dark, green field filled with grazing sheep and baby lambs. The southwest sky was cloudless. Climbing higher, and finally reaching the top of the mountain, I fell onto the soft grass, exhausted. From there I could see all the features that make this island of Ireland so distinctively beautiful. Pink streaks in the sky were beginning to give hints of sunset.

As I sat there surveying the world, I thought of the Jungian theory of the “Collective Unconscious.” It was as though I was on the threshold of immense wealth, reaching for a connection to some distant memory. This nostalgia was apparently bubbling up from the reservoir accumulated in the long lineage of my Irish ancestry.

A flock of small birds flying in circles and loops seemed to be rejoicing in the advent of spring. On another mountain a far-off lake mirrored the sky. All was at peace. Gradually, I began to feel the joy of intimacy with this land, which has always seemed to speak to me. Now it was telling me: ‘This is your land, the land of your forefathers. You are wrapped in the spirit of this land of Ireland. You may forsake, but it will never forsake you.’

In that moment, had I been some creature in Celtic mythology, I would have sprouted wings and soared. Instead, being a mere mortal, I looked down the other side of the mountain and perceived that the challenge was not over. I was facing a rocky descent with a flowing river at the bottom. Undaunted, with total trust in the land and a new sense of exuberance, I resorted to my skiing experience. After a few slips and slides, I gradually traversed the steep, rocky slope until I reached the bottom. There I stood for a moment, looking back with reverence and awe at my mountain. The scent of the grass, the rippling river, and the dancing wildflowers had all reconnected me with the freedom of childhood and renewed a great sense of belonging.

For those who have always promised themselves a trip to Ireland, the southwest coast, including the Kerry and Beara Penninsulas, have all the attributes of drama and history that make this corner of Ireland choice number one.

Getting There: From Shannon Airport, its a comfortable 3-hour drive to the charms of the Beara Peninsula. Check out Dooley Car Rentals, a friendly, service-oriented company, with all-inclusive weekly rates, including tax and insurance, priced in dollars! They have 15 Irish locations, a wide selection and competitive rates. Tel: 800-331-9301.

Feature Travel Archives

Paris -- Falling in Love Again!

By Patricia Keegan

In our tit for tat with the French, we can change French fries to 'freedom fries,' curtail our imports of French wines and restrain ourselves from visiting France. We can toss our heads and do everything possible to let the French know how we feel about their lack of support for the Iraq war, but can we wrap up the Statue of Liberty and send it back? This statue that brings tears to the eyes of its beholder was created by the French and gifted to America on July 4, 1875. Can we return that symbol of our long alliance and say, like a scorned lover, that we don't want your precious gift anymore. Ironically, the original title of the statue was 'Liberty Enlightening the World.'

One hundred and twenty-eight years later, the world has not reached enlightenment, and we find George Bush and Jacques Chirac at different stages along this ever-elusive path.

So suffice it to say, 'Vive la difference.' History will deliver its own judgement, we will keep this proud statue and, in the meantime, my niece Diana and I, unrestrained, are on our way to Paris to enjoy life.

Le Tour de France: Lance Armstrong Rides to Victory

After landing in Paris we took the convenient Roissey bus into the city. Disembarking at the magnificent Opera House, we headed for the Ambassador Hotel, a member of the Concorde Group (see Hotel Spotlight). Rolling our suitcases along the Boulevard Haussmann, named after the architect of Paris -- admiring its architecture, wrought iron terraces and huge wooden doors -- we were also distracted by the magnetic attraction of the new fall fashion display at the Galleries Lafayette. We promised ourselves a visit later.

Arriving in Paris the day before the final lap of the Tour de France, our overriding goal was to find the best spot to watch American hero Lance Armstrong ride down the Champs Elysees on Sunday afternoon.

The next morning, fighting off jet lag, Diana and I found our way to an excellent spot on the sidewalk at Champs- Elysees, with a clear view down the wide boulevard to the ferris wheel at the Place de la Concorde.

The air was filled with a lively suspense. Spanish fans waving flags and chanting 'Viva Espana' were being shouted down by flag-waving Italians on the other side of the wide avenue. American flags were well represented, even by those who appeared to be French. According to a Le Monde report, Lance Armstrong was asked about the hordes of fans carrying American flags along the route.

'Many times you get next to them, and it's a French person. It's strange, but it happens. I can't complain about that kind of support, it's very much appreciated.'

He had spoken often about the need to repair the strained relationship between the US and France. Armstrong is a winner on two levels, as both a champion cyclist and a valiant survivor of cancer who has brought even more interest to the Tour and who appears to have won the hearts of the French. The most common description you hear is, 'Un grand monsieur,' a class act, and they say if he wins, he deserves it.

Advertisers sailed by on floats, the Smart Car rolled by in every color imaginable. There is a long wait, followed by the loud sputtering of police on motorcycles scanning the crowd on both sides of the avenue. Shortly afterwards they came like a swarm of bees together, riding silently, as though on air, helmets disguising their individuality. They were all there, in a tight group, and in the middle rode the hero, Lance Armstrong, distinguishable in his yellow shirt. The crowd cheered with enthusiasm and in seconds they were gone. But nobody minded waiting to catch another glimpse when they came around again in 20 minutes. The sun beamed down and all seemed right with the world.

Later, festivities continued at the Arc de Triomphe with billowing clouds of play smoke, yellow representing the winner, punctuated by bursts of pinks and blues. Gyrating gymnasts jumping, twirling and dancing to live music. Cyclists showing every imaginable and daring possibility between rider and bicycle. Ah, Paris is the place to be tonight!

Losing the Eiffel Tower

Later that evening, in our hotel hopping enterprise among the Concorde Hotels, (two days in each of their three finest hotels), we moved from The Ambassador to the Lutetia on the Left Bank. (See more in Hotel Spotlight).

Walking into our room at the Lutetia, Diana and I were blown away by the sight of the Eiffel Tower framed in our window. We saw it alight with its post-millennium sparkles, a dancing mass of white stars flowing up and down. Dropping our suitcases in a corner, we decided we couldn't retire for the night until we walked to the Eiffel Tower. It was a greater distance than we had reckoned. Walking in the general direction of the tower, down narrow streets with hardly a person around, we kept losing it behind high buildings. We stopped friendly gendarmes with little round hats to explain our plight. They took maps from back pockets and explained they were only in town for the Tour de France and didn't know Paris. When we finally reached the famous tower, we fell, exhausted, onto the park lawn beneath what looked like a gigantic erector set. We lay there taking time to study the genius of the myriad of interweaving iron, softened by thousands of lights.

The Eiffel Tower was built in 1889 in preparation for the World's Fair. It was designed by Gustave Eiffel who also designed the complex structure of the Statue of Liberty. This world wide symbol of France was not meant to be permanent. Constructed like a large pylor, 300 meters high, with four columns of lattice work, it is separated at the wide base and comes together at the narrow top. Although it is airy and wind resistant, this can also make it quite cold when you wait for the second elevator, half way up, on a cool windy day. On this lovely summer evening we stayed, hypnotized by the lights, until after midnight. Looking around, it could have been late afternoon, we watched people milling about in an aura of great tranquillity. Yes, Paris is the place to be tonight.

George Bush and Mona Lisa

I love Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Mona Lisa, circa 1503. But the first time I saw it was right out of high school when I was too young to fully appreciate it. Standing in front of the world famous painting then, I could only wonder what all the fuss was about.

Years later, having gained some understanding of the difficulty in becoming a good artist, much less great artist, and having traversed life's vicissitudes as a woman, I stood in front of the painting once again, and was stirred deeply, to the point of tears. She seemed to look at me with a mind of her own. How could the artist create anything so enigmatic? Every time I looked back at her, the expression seemed to change. Was she smiling? I actually felt goose bumps. She is virtually alive! I knew now what all the fuss is about.

Da Vinci is said to have loved the painting so much that he had carried it with him everywhere, until eventually in France, he sold it to Francis I.

Looking around, I wondered if anyone else was so touched. Without making any judgements, this time I decided to conduct a few interviews to hear what people thought about the Mona Lisa. So with pen and paper, I approached a few visitors to the Louvre and tried to keep my question simple, asking if the Mona Lisa had lived up to their expectations, or were they disappointed. In conducting these interviews, I received far more information then I had anticipated.

'Much smaller than I expected,' commented a young man from Arizona who was waiting for the crowd to disperse for a better view.

'There are hundreds of paintings in this museum just as good. In fact,' said an Englishman with his wife by his side, 'Many of da Vinci's other paintings are better than this one. Rumors spread, people hear about the Mona Lisa, and they come here to the Louvre just to see this one painting.'

'It's too green, too dark; she is quite pretty, but not that exciting,' his wife interrupts, pulling him along.

'I was expecting something larger,' says a tall, young blonde from Hungary, walking with her girlfriend. Then with a laugh and a swish of ponytail, she adds, 'The Mona Lisa is not sexy, not attractive, and in my opinion the whole painting needs more color.' Her friend agrees, and they move on.

A woman from Texas, Anne, and her teenage son, Derek, stopped by. 'I really like the eyes on this painting, you can stand anywhere in the room and they follow you. She looks like the Madonna. I think you are the only American I have met in Paris,' said Anne.

She continued, 'You know when I told one of my neighbors I was going to Paris, she told me she was boycotting France. Her friends are too. I can't believe what is happening in America. I think we are acting foolishly. We need a different President with a different attitude, we need to study our place in the world and not get into expansionism.'

'Whoops,' I thought, this is not quite the direction I wanted to take with the interview.

Endeavoring to get back on track, Anne looked again at the painting. The crowd was dense, it was becoming hot and sticky in the Louvre, and although she was smiling, she responded a little wearily.

'Actually I think this painting is overrated. I know it's supposed to be great, but I can't see it.'

'I agree with the Dixie Chicks,' said her son, clearly uninterested in talking about the painting. 'But look what happened to them.'

'We are heading toward McCarthyism,' said Anne, animated again. 'We are living in a democracy, but you can't actually speak your mind. Nine eleven was terrible, but now we are going to extremes rounding up innocent people. Ashcroft is too much. It's a scary thing, but I'm glad I came to France.'

Anne and Derek said goodbye and moved on, but just before disappearing in the crowd, she shouted back, 'You probably won't see any more Americans here.'

A young girl, Sima, from Israel, smiled and offered her opinion. 'I don't know much about the painting, it seems well balanced and I like how her eyes follow you,' she said softly.

'How are you enjoying Paris?' I couldn't help asking.

'I love being in Paris. Things are good in Israel right now, (July 31), but all it will take is one explosion, one bomb, and everything will come down again.'

The crowd cleared for a moment and a Japanese girl wearing a wide, flared skirt, swirled next to the painting, while her boyfriend took her photo. 'Now look at her,' said an Englishman at my elbow, pointing his chin at the smiling Japanese girl. 'She thinks she is better than the Mona Lisa.'

'It's the smile that made it so famous, isn't it?' said his wife, continuing to ponder the painting. 'It's the known factor, isn't it?' she went on. 'I don't know what is behind that smile, but I'm English. We noticed those Italian women over there; they all want their photos taken with the Mona Lisa. They probably know more about the painting than we do.'

The Italian ladies group, art aficionados, told me they did not like being with so many other visitors. 'The Mona Lisa is just an emblem for tourists,' said one of them, rolling her eyes. 'I don't know if people come just because of the media attention or because they really like art.' She leaned forward to whisper, 'There are too many tourists here. It doesn't even smell so good. The museum should program the entrance so that people have more time to really see the Mona Lisa.'

'She not only looks serene, she is serene,' said another emphatically. 'It's the way we all want to be,' said another. They all nodded their heads in agreement.

I don't know what Leonardo, the universal genius, who ushered in the art of the High Renaissance, would have to say about all this, but he probably was quite accustomed and oblivious to it all.

Parisian Evenings to Remember

A visit to the famous Moulin Rouge, a magnet for tourists, should not be missed if you enjoy cabaret. The Montmartre cabaret club opened in 1889 and was immortalized by painter Henri deToulouse –Lautrec. A parade of international stars have performed there including Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minelli, and Elton John.

Tonight it's the razzle dazzle of the Ferrie, a troupe with over 100 artists and the 60 dancing Doriss Girls doing the fabulous Can Can. Bursting with infectious energy, it was easy for the audience to get swept up in with the talented, topless dancers decked out in thousands of feathers, sequins, rhinestones and net stockings, and wearing the perfect dancing shoes -- spiked heels. According to a press release, the girls all have to be 5 foot 8 and have astounding figures that will leave the audience spellbound!

The orchestra was fantastic, the audience was attentive and the bottles of champagne, on every table, added to the bubbling exuberance of it all.

Flying Over the Edge

A visit to the Jardin des Tuileries and the amusement park at night offers the child inside an opportunity to burst free and enjoy the frothy side of Paris. The Ferris wheel makes a half turn and stops. I am suspended over Paris. I can see it all -- towers, domes, chimneys, the Obelisk and all the rooftops of Paris. Then I am spun faster and faster, counterclockwise in a rainbow of pastel lights towards the heavens where a sliver of new moon has just appeared. I am spinning to earth again, skimming a carpet of Parisian lights. Around and around, I am spun in circles of light. My heart sings, 'Ah, Paris is the place to be tonight.'

Flinging caution to the wind, Diana and I decide to ride the bumper cars. One glance at the clientele, hyperactive, rowdy boys, should have discouraged me, but we bought two tickets and jumped in. Yes, we laughed, as we dashed and ducked defensively, but the laugh didn't last long. They suddenly descended on us -- the wild boys! We spun and pitched and got clobbered so badly that the Boss came by in his car to break up the melee and free us again for travel.

Walking away, a bit wobbly from that mildly traumatic experience, we watched a girl with a blue balloon, sailing high above us in the swinging chairs. Stretching her arms out, hair sweeping behind, one could sense her delight: she is flying, and she knows it!

We pause awhile to watch the tiny children riding a merry-go-round. One little girl, her bottom lip trembling, holds on with two hands to the head of a huge yellow duck. Another girl, riding a long-necked giraffe, has one hand out catching the wind. We hear screams coming from the Ejector where a crowd is shouting, 'Come on USA.' A couple of young men have just landed and are unfastening their seat belts. They walk toward the crowd, a bit weak-kneed, heads down. Then two brave, young lassies strap themselves in. We headed back to our hotel as they were lifted 30 feet in the air and tumbled upside down.


A Visit to the Palace of Versailles

We took the RER from the Hotel Lutetia to the Royal Palace of Versailles and walked to the main entrance. I had dreamed of it once, but in the dream the beautiful, immense wrought iron gates were closed, I could't get in. Today they're wide open, and the first sight of the palace is breathtaking. It is the most famous garden-palace combination in Europe, possibly the world. It marks the flowering of the era of French baroque. The museum is known as the centerpiece of the empire of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and inside, immortalized, we see his portrait everywhere.

Originally built as a hunting lodge for members of royalty, it lies within 45minutes travel distance from the cultural capital of Paris. It was constructed at the dawn of the 17th century. Around the 1680's, King Louis moved the base of the French monarchy from Paris to Versailles. After the French revolution (1789-1799), which terminated the reign of Louis XVI, all the furnishings and decor were sold and the palace was converted into a museum.

Along with the immense art collection and some original antiques, the Hall of Mirrors made me gasp when I stepped in. The hall remains as it was in royal times. As in the observation and appreciation of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, to really feel the ambience, to get a true sense of the space and the reflections from the mirrors, one would like to be here almost alone. However, even with the crowd of tourists, it was impressive.

Although it was raining outside, from the windows, Diana and I could see and admire the vastness and beauty of the elaborate gardens adorned with a myriad of monuments and graceful sculptures.

Sacre Coeur and the Artists of Montmartre

We moved from the Lutetia to the beautiful Hotel Du Louvre, and were thrilled to find ourselves in a most unique setting, our room was scarlet and our windows overlooked the quadrangle of the Musee Louvre (see Hotel Spotlight). Becoming accustomed to using the Metro, we took it out to Montmartre and walked through its charming, winding streets filled with boutiques, restaurants and art galleries. We climbed the long way up the steps to the white Roman-Byzantine cupolas of the Sacre-Coeur, and as I stood on the top step and looked at the white dome and towers, it reminded me of the Taj Mahal.

The church was built between 1875 and 1914 as atonement for the massacred victims of the 1871 Franco-Prussian War. It was the dream of two Catholic businessmen, Alexandre Legentil and Rohault de Fleury, who made a vow, at the outbreak of the Prussian War, to build a church to honor the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Just as the Sacre Coeur was completed, the Germans invaded and it wasn't consecrated until 1919, after World War I.

The area around the church is also the site of at least 100 working artists, whom some call fake artists. But many are really good at portraiture and have some excellent oil paintings of the church for sale. The artists seemed a little hungry for business this year. One long-haired artist pulled a reluctant golden Spaniel onto his lap, and when I held up my camera for a photo, he shouted gruffly, 'You pay me!' Diana sat for a charcoal portrait, but the result was overworked and unprofessional.

Paris Moonlight, Bridges and La Plage along the Seine

On our last evening in Paris we met Sophie, our Parisian friend, aboard the new, restaurant boat Planet sur Seine, docked at the Invalides Bridge along the Seine. The owner decided that Parisians needed a fun place to go and dine during the month of August, when most have left on holidays. Guests were milling about the bar, in casual elegance, sipping champagne. Oriental rugs were spread across the deck, and the fading light was just beginning to splash shadows along the river. From my deck position, I had a wonderful view of Les Invalides, the most impressively scaled monument of the Rive Gauche. It was built under Louis XIV as a hospital to house 6,000 invalid soldiers. I could see the huge golden dome of the Eglise du Dome, where some of France's greatest soldiers are entombed including Emperor Napoleon I. These historic buildings along the Seine, looked their best in the last hush of evening -- shimmering, regal and magnificent. Standing in that peaceful moment of beauty, I wondered who could resist the magic of Paris, at its best on a sultry, summer evening. Lines from a Wordsworth poem came to me:

Ships, towers, domes, theaters and temples lie open to the fields and to the sky…. Dull would he be of soul who could pass by a sight so touching in its majesty.

The poet was speaking of London, of course, but Paris has a playful magic that London can't replicate.

Just before sunset, we left the ship and set out to explore the ever-lively world of Paris below the bridges. We wanted to find the Paris Plage, a unique, riverfront beach environment, complete with beach sand and palm trees, created a year ago by Bertrand Delanoe, the new mayor

We walked along the right bank from Les Invalides all the way to Notre Dame. As the evening slowly transitioned from light to dark, an even more spectacular view of Paris emerged along the banks of the Seine. We admired the amazing variety of architectural wonders lined up on the opposite bank -- the Musee D'Orsey, the Conciergerie, (the first prison in Paris), the Institute de Paris, the Assemblee Nationale, (currently housing an interesting woman's exhibit:'Mariannes of Today). Palais de Justice, and Sainte Chapelle. At one point we stopped and looked behind us at a spellbinding scene -- the curve of a bridge with several bridges in the background, the historic buildings, the boats and barges moving slowly along the water, all touched by the bright light of a strong, crescent shaped moon.

Further along, after walking beneath a bridge lit up in psychedelic blue, we arrived at La Plage. The scene changed again. A narrow embankment of sand runs alongside a promenade dotted with palm trees. The edge of the river is flanked by flags, flapping like sails in the breeze. There are showers where people can cool off when the sun is hot, without being tempted to jump into the Seine. We see a variety of picnic styles, from a wrapped sandwich, to a white tablecloth spread out with wine glasses. Catching the romantic aura of the night, a gray haired couple spontaneously stop -- pour un baiser. Everything is low key, tranquil, people talk quietly, a few have guitars, another group plays chess. We come to a small crowd standing around a young, svelte, blonde girl. Like a ballet dancer, she is whirling two ropes of fire around her body, in perfect balance, yet dangerous enough to make the crowd flinch before they erupt in applause. Ah, Paris is the place to be tonight.

Our long walk finally ended at the city's most beautiful cathedral, Notre Dame, and at the point of starvation. Considered one of the greatest achievements in Gothic architecture, it is especially inspiring in the evening light. Designed by Maurice de Sully, and built between 1163 and 1345, its massive interior can accommodate over 6000 people.

Almost exhausted, we walked from Ile de la Cite, across the Seine, to the left bank and the St. Germain array of ethnic restaurants. The variety of food possibilities in the window of a Greek restaurant led to our ordering a full banquet of shish kabob consisting of huge salmon chunks, shrimp, tomatoes, onions, aubergine, and potatoes, along with a bottle of French bordeaux.

We danced, and broke plates and wished that we could continue discovering and exploring every corner of Paris. Sophie toasted to our next visit, which could not come soon enough. Diana and I toasted all the great French people we had met, and to all the strangers in the streets who showed the utmost kindness and patience when we asked directions or practiced our meager French language skills. We added a special toast for all those Americans (50% dropoff) who had missed a chance to truly experience the joie de vivre of Paris, and hoped they would feel free to return again in the springtime.

Feature Travel Archives

TOBAGO: Serene, Spectacular, and Spirited

By Patricia Keegan

My five-hour, nonstop flight to from Washington Dulles toTobago on BWIA (Bee Wee) seemed an unusually quick, pleasant and efficient flight. Since developing an addiction to the beauty of the Caribbean 10 years ago, I have experienced trips which seemed to take forever, especially to the more remote, less visited islands. Most connections take you through San Juan, St. Thomas or Barbados, and may include a second or third leg, or even a boat ride. By the time you reach the destination, you’re tired and frustrated with having wasted a vacation day. Having the convenience of BWIA’s non-stop, five-hour flight is a gift to Washingtonians. Our flight in a new 737 was on time, hassle-free, with an above average meal, and so relaxing one could feel the intensity of Washington just drifting away.

Arriving at Tobago’s Crown Point International around 7 p.m., we rented a car and drove directly to Stonehaven Villas (see Hotel Spotlight column). On our way out to explore the island the following morning, I spotted a tiny ant crossing our doorstep carrying a huge chunk of banana leaf. I wondered if everyone received this flag-waving welcome in homage to Tobago’s ecotourism. 

Considered the last undiscovered island in the Caribbean, Tobago is looked on as the serene, little sister of bustling Trinidad, one of the better known islands in the world. Though very near, they are very opposite. Trinidad is densely populated --1.3 million spread over 1883 sq. miles -- with a cosmopolitan population and strong regional influence. Tobago is a largely rural, undeveloped island of just 117 sq. miles with some 50,000 inhabitants. Both islands are proud of a history of commitment to the openness and interests of many creeds and colors. Its population comprises African and East Indians, with significant European, Chinese, Syrian, Lebanese and Carib components. Trinidad and Tobago are one country under one government in Trinidad, an independent republic within the British Commonwealth. With a GDP of over $9.4 billion, its major export is petroleum.

The National Anthem of Trinidad and Tobago has a few descriptive lines about its vision of diversity:

This our native land

We pledge our lives to thee.

Here every creed and race

Find an equal place,

And may God bless our nation.

The national anthem was written to celebrate Trinidad and Tobago’s independence from Great Britain on August 31, 1962, by native composer Patrick Staniclaus Castagne. Trinidad and Tobago became a republic in 1976.

It is possible to drive around Tobago in one day, but to get to know the natural beauty, the friendly people and their island lifestyle requires taking it day-by-day, enjoying all the diverse activities the island offers. One of the major attractions is a tour of the Tobago  Rain Forest Reserve, the oldest forest reserve in the Western Hemisphere. The biologically diverse forest spreads along the island’s spine with ridges rising to 1,890 feet.  Declared a Crown Reserve in 1776, it is great adventure terrain with many rivers and falls, plenty of hiking trails, and fantastic bird watching.

Adventure comes in all forms. My husband and I were driving north to explore the fishing villages of Speyside and Charlottsville, with a plan to stop for lunch at the famous Jemma’s.  Suddenly, as we came around a bend, a man stepped in front of our car and signaled us to pull over.  He acted like a policeman. We hesitated, but we stopped. He said he worked in the forest and needed a ride. We were driving next to the forest and saw no reason not to take him to his workplace. During the drive we saw a small section of the lush and tranquil forest, with an amazing variety of plants, trees, and exotic birds.

There is a real sense of peace emanating from the trees, some have the worn look of centuries. It is rough terrain, however, with deep ruts in the dirt road. The young man, who introduced himself as Horace, never did find his work area but proceeded with his tour anyway. We also might not have found our way out if he hadn’t decided he wanted a roundtrip and then a big tip. Later, we had a good laugh at ourselves and at Horace, the roving entrepreneur, recalling the uncertain moment when he took a knife out of a pocket, looked at us, and then up at a papaya tree. We said, “Yes,” we would like some fruit. To really explore the forest one needs a proper guide and a four-wheel drive jeep.

Heading toward Charlottsville, we found Jemma’s Seaview Kitchen along the main road in Speyside. The tantalizing fragrance of herbs and spices reached us before we even saw the restaurant. This is a hot spot and does such a great business that Jemma’s footprint in the sand keeps growing. We found a table in the restaurant’s treetop overlooking the sea with a strong breeze that felt as though you were aboard a ship. From an immense choice, we selected kingfish with vegetables, potato cakes, yucca, a salad and homemade bread. The service was great, and the food kept coming, served on huge platters to satisfy huge appetites.   Later, I went back into the garden to meet Jemma, sitting under a tree with her two daughters, Sherrere and Neile, busily shelling green peas. All three were the picture of contentment. Jemma Sealey had worked at the Blue Waters Inn, a lovely hotel nearby, and at other hotels on the island since she was a young girl, learning all aspects of guest service. But what she liked best was preparing unique and flavorful dishes to please. About 10 years ago she went into business for herself, opening Jemma’s Seaview Kitchen, now one of the island’s great success stories.

In the search for dream beaches, everybody we asked gave us the name of a different beach and we tried them all. Pigeon Point, where you can take a glassbotton boat out to Nylon Pool and the Buccoo Coral Reef; Castara Bay and Bloody Bay; or Englishman’s Bay, with its blue crystalline waters, which we thoroughly enjoyed.  At this tranquil, secluded beach, snorkelers must be alert to surges that wash up on the beach and steal your snorkeling gear. The reef is just 20 meters offshore with a depth of 10-30 feet and excellent visibility. It was our number one choice for a picnic, snorkeling and a relaxing afternoon. The dream beaches are on the northwest coast from Plymouth to Bloody Bay Outlook. When brochures tell you that Tobago has beautiful beaches, they are not overstating that fact.

Tobago is known for world-class diving with some of the best diving areas located in Speyside. Many deep-sea fish are found much closer to the surface than normal because of the Guyana current which moves slowly up the eastern coast of South America, washing the south and east coasts of Tobago. Fed by the Orinoco River, the water is warm and rich in nutrients, ideally suited to sustain a wide variety of marine life. For the expert diver, an exciting underwater experience is drift diving, where you are taken along with the current and a boat picks you up at the other end. Divers have little difficulty sighting barracudas, dolphins, whale sharks, turtles and porpoises, as well as manta rays. Even in a glass bottom boat the variety is continuous -- butterfly fish, queen and French angels, damsels, spotted moray eels, parrotfish and grunts -- and even rarer species of tarpon and triggerfish are regular residents. Tobago’s underwater visibility regularly reaches 130-150 ft. Below the surface, cliffs form rocky canyons, underwater tunnels, deep and shallow caves, and currents drift past sheer walls and giant rock faces. Here you will find every known species of hard coral, most of the soft corals, as well as the world’s largest known brain coral, 12 ft. high and 16 ft. across. Guides seem to do a good job of advising tourists to avoid stepping on the live coral and asking them to respect Tobago’s one-of-a-kind ecosystem.

As the capital of Tobago, Scarborough is the only large town on the island and it seems unwieldy and untidy until you know your way around and learn how to avoid falling off the sidewalks. There must have been a reason for constructing them so high above street level, but I couldn’t figure it out. Nevertheless, Scarborough is a capital with tremendous potential. Since Trinidad and Tobago have depended mostly on oil revenue, one feels that this little sister has been a bit neglected. With its tremendous potential for attracting tourists, it would be great to see more restaurants, boutiques, art shops, etc, along the waterfront. There sits an investor’s dream waiting for some polish and sparkle.

A trip to Tobago without a visit to the Tobago Museum would be a great loss, for here the heart and history of Tobago come together. Located on a strategic promontory within Fort King George, the small, but densely packed museum, houses a substantial collection of Pre-Columbian Amerindian Artifacts from 2500 BC all the way to 1792. Beautiful clay pottery, animal and human forms document a rich cultural history. Carib hunting gear, spears, and grave remains are displayed. Here you can also see a Joupa, a circular Amerindian house. There is so much interest in this museum that there are plans for a major extension.

One of the great pleasures of Tobago is meeting and talking with the people. A prime example of Tobago friendliness, graciousness and subtle wit is Edward Hernandez, the curator/trustee of the Museum. Hernandez, an artist, takes time to answer questions and  tells wonderful stories about Trinidad and Tobago’s unique history and its rich treasure of folklore and legends.  He mentioned a history book :Tobago: Melancholy Isle,  Vol. 1, the years 1498-1711 and Vol. 2,  1712-1814, by Douglas Archibald.  Written in three volumes, the third volume, which continues from 1814 to the present period, is still waiting to be published. It was completed shortly before the author passed away.

Evenings in Tobago bring out the spirit of the islands. On Saturday night we had three choices for entertainment -- the Buccooneers steel band at Sandy Point Village, a band at Turtle Beach Hotel andSoul Expression at Pelican Park. There was jazz at the Hilton on Sunday.

The  Buccooneers, a 16-piece steel orchestra, were fabulous. Playing again in their home village of Buccoo on Tuesday. they bring out the dance bug and free spirit in even the most reluctant dancer, and they have a following of energetic dancers who are hilarious to watch on the dance floor. With an eclectic variety of tunes, from Frank Sinatra’s My Way to the Merry Widow Waltz, all performed with a ripple of sound that echoes across the island and lifts above the waves. The Buccooneers started as an unsponsored band in the village of Buccoo in 1967. They have played in the U.S. and won many competitions.

On this beautiful, untamed island there are many hotels, villas, and bed and breakfasts to choose from. If you want the very best, my top three recommendations would be Stonehaven Villas, Villa Being, or the new Hilton Hotel. But it is also possible to have comfort while sticking to a modest budget. Moderately priced small hotels and guesthouses are abundant in Tobago.

Almost every month holds a celebration or carnival. From New Year’s Day onwards activities on the island start swinging into full gear, culminating on Carnival Monday two days before Ash Wednesday. The renowned Trinidad Carnival, with its fantasy costumes, floats, steel bands and calypso is imitated in hundreds of cities around the world. Carnival fever brings together all the talent of the islands culminating in a glittering 'theater in the streets.”  When Christian Lent is over, Hindu  Phagwa arrives, with celebrants happily squirting purple dye at each other. In contrast, the quiet beauty and spirituality of Divali, an East Indian Festival held in November, ignites thousands of flames that flicker across the island.

Getting there:  BWIA has one non-stop flight every Thursday from Washington Dulles, returning every Thursday from Tobago, at very reasonable prices:

From Dulles: Flight 705 departs at 2:00 p.m. and arrives in Tobago at 7:45 p.m. (1 hr. time difference).

From Tobago: Flight 704 departs at 8:45 a.m. and arrives at Dulles at 12:45 p.m.

For travelers who prefer a shorter stay, connections to Trinidad on an island hopper are frequent, with connections to Washington on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

For more information call BWIA at (800) 538-2942.

Feature Travel Archives

Germany: Dresden, Leipzig and Weimar

Cultural Capitals

By Patricia Keegan 

Dresden — The Death of Enlightenment

No place on earth tells the tragic tale of man's inhumanity to man more vividly than the city of Dresden. No place on earth stands as a monument to the glorious affirmation of the human potential for good, than the city of Dresden. In this, the 21st century, with violence still considered an option in international conflict, a visit to witness the restoration of Dresden can only inspire and reinforce the more noble side of our human calling.

The saturation bombing of the historic city of Dresden, dubbed "Thunderclap," occurred on February 13 and 14, 1945, just three months before the end of World War II, and after the meeting of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta. Ironically, though the allies knew the outcome of the war, the Royal Air Force and American Flying Fortresses dumped some 650,000 bombs on the non-military, cultural center of Dresden. The phosphorus bombs fed a raging firestorm that sucked oxygen from the air causing suffocation among inhabitants. Temperatures rose to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, melting steel and cooking concrete and stone to dust. 35,000 city dwellers and an unknown number of refugees fleeing east from the Soviets died, perhaps 100,000 total.

In his book, Dresden 1945 -- The Devil's Tinderbox, Alexander McKee says that in the aftermath of this vengeful bombing there was great controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. It set in motion a number of embarrassing questions on the morality of this form of attack. Winston Churchill, who had wholeheartedly supported the raid, said in a memo to the British Chiefs of Staff, "the destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of allied bombing."

The fire burned for days turning the "city of Saxon Kings" to smoldering rubble. Dresden, fondly called the Florence on the Elbe, and a center of cultural wonders, was demolished. The masterful ensemble of baroque architecture, including the famous Zwinger Museum, the Palace, the Opera House and the Frauenkirche were destroyed. The death of Dresden and its cultural treasures was mourned throughout the world.

Ode to Joy

Fifty-six years later, driving through the heart of Dresden on a lovely April evening in search of theKempinski Hotel Taschenbergpalais, (see Hotel Spotlight), nothing had quite prepared me for the sudden impact of this splendid city. I saw narrow streets leading to a large square surrounded by Baroque splendor. Atop the buildings, along the frieze, were towering statues outlined against the evening sky, their hands and faces lifted in a gesture of trust. As we explored further, I glimpsed a golden dome, the gilded Polish Crown of the Zwinger, shining between two buildings. We could see part of the restored Zwinger, which looked as large as the Louvre in Paris. We passed a wire-fenced area where I could see piles of rubble carefully stacked and labeled, large pieces of figures all together, smaller pieces in their own pile.

Slowly, an overwhelming jubilance took hold until I reached a point when I wanted to jump out of the car to celebrate what I was witnessing and all its symbolic meaning. The rising from the ashes, restoration of hope, stones rolled back, fragments made whole again. I felt like Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful. I wanted to be him; I could see him. He would run to the center of the square gathering together an orchestra and filling the entire city with the soaring sounds of Ode to Joy in celebration of the indomitable power of good over evil. I could imagine Benigni smiling, laughing, and bowing many times in honor of all who had lost their lives and in honor of their families, friends and survivors, who, against opposing forces, persisted in restoring Dresden to its cultural heritage. Benigni would bow to all of the women who came with broken hearts, day-by-day, sorting countless piles of left by the bombs. He would praise those who tenderly picked up pieces of angel wings and charred, cracked faces of smiling cherubs, harvesting them in piles, believing that one day, each and every one would find its special place again. Before me was tremendous cause for an exuberant, Benigni-style celebration. But I just stayed where I was, in the car, and silently thanked God for the privilege of seeing Dresden.

Exploring Dresden

Ashes no more, Dresden, its famous skyline almost complete, once the center of Splendor and Enlightenment, shone for us under blue skies and warm sunshine the following day. A sprinkling of tourists added an airy liveliness to the city. Leaving the Kempinski, located across the street from the Zwinger, we took a red and white Stadtrundfahrt bus tour of the city.

The bus was equipped with multi-language headphones and offered a brief history of each building and an overview of bygone days when Dresden was surrounded by moats, walls and ramparts. The city owes its cultural stature to Augustus the Strong (1670 -1733) and his son, Augustus III, (1696-1763), both electors of Saxony and Kings of Poland, who transformed a former modest princely residence into a royal city with a lavish court. In this climate the arts flourished, fueled by the ruler's voracious collecting appetite. During the first half of the 18th century, Dresden became a mecca for artists, craftsmen, architects, and theatrical and musical performers. They came from Paris, Venice, Verona, Bologna, Brussels, and Copenhagen, and from nearby Aussig, Erfurt and Weimar. While Augustus the Strong championed all the arts and industries of his native Saxony, his son devoted himself to the fine arts.

We passed areas that looked new as the guide spoke of the "devastating wound to the city" and pointed out one side of the street that had been destroyed while the other side retained lovely old villas. He pointed to Hitler's villa which, ironically, had not been hit, while his sister's house nearby was bombed. We left the bus near the Blaues Wunder Bridge and took the cable car up a steep hill to the lovely Loschwitz area and the house at Schillerstrasse 19, now a small museum, where Frederick von Schiller finished his play Don Carlos. We walked to the nearby Luisenhof Hotel and had coffee on a wide terrace offering a panoramic view of the city. In the stillness, broken only by birdsong, we looked across this beautiful valley, with the wide ribbon of the Elbe, winding and curving its way along grassy banks, eternally bringing continuity and hope to this wounded city.

Returning to the old city center, we added a new dimension to a growing appreciation of Dresden by visiting the sprawling, baroque Zwinger Palace, which houses five museums. A walk through the awe-inspiring Old Master's Gallery, home to one of the most important collections of art history in the world, is packed with Italian Renaissance, Italian Baroque, Flemish and Dutch masters of the 17th century. These paintings, from all over Europe, flowed into Dresden after Augustus the Strong took the throne in 1670, interrupted only in 1756 by The Seven-Year War. The acquisition of the 100 best paintings from the collection of the Duke of Modena in 1745 and Raphael's Sistine Madonna, are spectacular. For us, the most unforgettable was the very old, but still clear, Titian's Tribute Money painted around 1516, in which the artist summarizes the story of Jesus meeting with the Pharisee. The angle of the head and hands of Jesus, and the contrasting auras of the two men, tells the profound story. This outstanding collection will draw the art enthusiast back again and again.

The Zwinger was badly damaged during the war, and although structurally rebuilt, finer details like the replacement of sculptures are still in progress. Here again, visitors take photos of the array of broken, soot-blackened statues -- heads, arms, and torsos of sculpted stone, gathered together and ready to be cleaned and returned to their special niche in baroque architecture. The Zwinger's graceful, courtyard fountain is framed by an open-air gallery with several charming portals, one accessible by an ancient drawbridge.

Next to the Zwinger is the completely restored Semperoper, (Semper Opera House), which, with or without the sound of music, is a joy to behold. The first opera house on the site opened in 1841, but burned down three decades later. Magnificently rebuilt in 1878, it was completely destroyed by the allied bombing of1945. Completely restored by the craftsmen of Dresden, costing millions to rebuild during the communist era, it opened again in 1985. The Dresden opera has a tradition going back 350 years, and many works by Richard Strauss, Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner premiered here.

A visit to the Albertinum is more than a walk through a museum; it is an experience. The Grunes Gewolbe(Green Vault) is what visitors remember the most. The museum is softly lighted; even the walls seem brushed with gold, just enough light to highlight a sprawling collection of precious stones set in dazzling jewelry collections, ceremonial weapons and miniatures of every kind. With diamonds, rubies, sapphires and garnets dating from the 1700's, its treasures include the world's biggest green diamond of 41 carets and a stunning group of 137 gem-studded figures entitled Court of Delhi on the Birthday of the Great Moghul. Amazing in its detail, this magical creation was fashioned by Johann Melchior Dinglinger, court jeweler to Augustus the Strong. The display is a magnet for wide-eyed children and people like me, who stand mesmerized, noses pressed against the glass.

The Albertinium also houses the New Masters Art Gallery, with renowned 19th- and 20th-century paintings of leading French and German Impressionists.

In seeing Dresden's amazing collections of art and treasures, visitors might wonder how all this could have survived the war. In Dresden 1945, author Alexander McKee refers to a GDR guidebook that offered its own explanation. "Red Army soldiers and Soviet art specialists recovered the treasures of the Dresden collections which had been hidden underground by Nazi leaders… Between 1955 and 1958, in a magnificent act of friendship, the Soviet Union returned a total of some 1.5 million treasures, which it had preserved for mankind, to the German Democratic Republic."

McKee writes that this grand gesture was not unconnected with the East German revolt of 1953, and a need to conciliate the population.

The scaffold-wrapped Frauenkirche, (the Church of Our Lady), is, for many, the most poignant symbol of the destruction of Dresden. The city's famous skyline had always been dominated by the cupola, turrets and enormous dome of the Frauenkirche, Germany's most important Protestant church until its destruction in the bombing of 1945. Finished in 1743, the Frauenkirche was an architectural and engineering masterpiece. Its most outstanding feature was its huge, bell-shaped dome of solid stone, a monumental edifice comparable in importance to Michaelangelo's dome for St. Peter's in Rome. The church's organ was built by famed organ builder Gottfried Silbermann and played by Johann Sebastian Bach. Works such as Mahler's "Eighth Symphony" and Wagner's "Love Feast of the Apostles", were written for the Frauenkirche and performed with 1,300 singers and musicians.

It had been built as a Protestant cathedral, even though King Augustus the Strong was a Catholic convert. His support of the Church's construction made the Frauenkirche an important symbol of religious tolerance. However, the bombing raids of February 13-14, 1945, annihilated the civilized world's growing sense of common cultural values for some time. The ruble of the Frauenkirche lay untouched in the middle of the city for over 45 years, a reminder of the destruction of war.

With the unification of Germany came the decision to reconstruct the church. Beginning in 1992, the pieces were removed, matched to a virtual model for placement, sorted, labeled and stacked on long shelves across the street as reconstruction proceeds. The people of Dresden are looking forward to completion of the Frauenkirche scheduled to coincide with the 800-year anniversary of Dresden in 2006. In the morning light of the 21st century, this could be one of the world's great celebrations, but only if we learn something from the destruction of war and begin to conceive of a world without war.

Leipzig: Mecca of Fun — History of Genius

Leipzig has contributed richly to the intellectual and cultural life of Europe over its 800-year history. It was home to Bach, Wagner, Mendelssohn, and to Goethe, who set Faust here while he studied law at Leipzig University. Since the granting of trade fair privilege by Emperor Maximilian I in 1497, Leipzig's importance as a city of trade fairs has grown steadily. During the communist era such trade fairs provided a key East-West interface that became pivotal in undermining the government.

With the discovery of rich silver mines in the nearby Erzgebirge ( Ore Mountains) in the 16th century, Leipzig's continued prosperity was assured. Today, it's an important business, banking and transport center and considered the most dynamic city in eastern Germany.

Arriving without a Leipzig city map, our first challenge was to find our hotel. The outskirts of the city seemed a bit gray and drab, but as we crossed the Ringstrasse encircling the old city center, a beautifully restored jewel came into view. We found the Seaside Park Hotel, a refurbished art deco hotel, located in the historic center close to all the sights. The old city is compact and pro-pedestrian, a great place to explore on foot. The Seaside Park is a model of efficiency, with elegant, comfortable surroundings and a gracious staff helpful with our unfortunate need for umbrellas. We especially enjoyed the sumptuous buffet breakfasts, offering a wide variety of quality fruits and cereals, homemade breads, jams and fresh juices.

Leipzig's liveliness is palpable, with many options open to enjoy an entertaining evening. This is foremost a vibrant university town, the cabaret capital of Germany, home of the "Laughter Fair" and host to Europe's biggest pub festival, "Honky Tonk," offering a musical journey through pubs, clubs and bars hosting 130 bands. This is also a city of music, arts, books, buildings and parks, and its residents can proudly list the many "firsts" of world history that originated in Leipzig.

We chose to have dinner at the Krystallpalast variety theater followed by an opera at the Opernhaus. The dinner theater is spacious with a warm, casually elegant atmosphere. Taking its lead from the city's cabaret history, Krystallpalast walls are lined with photos of the 20's and 30's dominated by Marlena Dietrich, and entertainers bring the tradition to life in programs that change every two months. Strewn on our table between candles and flowers were several empty test tubes. Managing Director Rudiger Pusch, (Rudi), serenely informed us that somebody would pass by to pick up samples of our blood. This was Dracula night, with spiders and witches dangling from the ceiling; we had to be prepared for anything. The only thing we used the tubes for was sipping red schapps after dinner.

Leipzig has an opera tradition dating from 1693, the third oldest in Europe. The Leipzig Opera held a premiere opening of Falstaff. Although the Opera House itself is disappointing, a communist era, functional style building with little flair, the opera was first class with a superb cast of characters.

East Germany's Pastor of Peace

On a quiet Sunday morning we met our guide, Birgit, at the famous Nikolaikirche, (St. Nicholas Church), where she was a godmother at a baptism. The church was filled with families. At the baptismal font three babies wrapped in bundles of lace waited patiently for the big moment, secure in the arms of their sponsors.

The Nikolaikirche has a history that the babies will be proud of someday. Built in 1165, originally designed in the Romanesque style, in the early 16th-century the Nikolaikirche was enlarged and converted to late Gothic, the lovely classical interior of today. Johann Sebastian Bach was responsible for church services and special festivities as the master organist and choir director from 1723 to 1750.

The pastor conducting the baptisms was another famous man who made a huge contribution to the freedom of East Germans -- Reverand C. Fuhrer. Our first glimpse of this activist and peacemaker was to watch him hustling visitors out of the church and closing the doors in preparation for the next service. A busy man, with white hair, he had an eternally pleasant expression of preoccupied surprise. In a flurry of activitity, he hurried away with his briefcase, but over his shoulder he agreed to meet me for a few minutes a bit later.

Twenty minutes later, he reappeared. As we stood in the middle of the square next to the church, I heard his inspiring story of how his years of peaceful activitism culminated in a climatic showdown with the East German government in October, 1989. It began, he says, during the "Peace Decade" of the 1980's, among young people who started coming to Monday Prayer services. After the prayer meeting, discussions began about the arms race and the proposal to install cruise missiles in Europe. This was a burning issue in West Germany at the time, provoking huge demonstrations. In 1981 a group came from West Germany for a 10-day religious service. St. Nicholas was crowded, he remembers. "Many young people came, some with orange hair. They all wanted to pray and talk about peace and human rights. I announced that St. Nicholas' Church would be open to everyone."

In the autumn of 1983, after a celebration in honor of Martin Luther, a gathering of students with candles stayed outside the church all night. Forty students were arrested and imprisoned. They were beginning to stir up the consciousness of East Germans. By 1985 the Stasi (State Security Police) began using psychological pressure by coming into the church. They went to the Bishop to try to stop Pastor Furher who had become a thorn in the side of the secret police. He was having problems at the prayer meetings; young people were getting into heated arguments with each other. Many wanted to leave the country, others wanted to stay and change the system. He said it was not always easy to maintain a clerical atmosphere in these meetings made up of Christians, communists and unbelievers. Realizing people needed to discuss urgent social problems and to ask God for support and guidance, he would listen, provide spiritual guidance and offer topical and prophetic scripture.

The Decade of Peace continued, non-violent demonstrations were modeled after Martin Luther King and Gandhi. They eventually flowed into the streets and arrests climbed. On May 8, 1989, access to the church was blocked by police determined to stop the Monday Prayers. But the meetings, arrests and detentions continued, the Stasi always present in the church. Word of what was happening in Leipzig spread throughout East Germany and more people came to support the demonstrators.

In September, 1989, Western journalists were in town covering a trade fair. They managed to film Stasi police suppressing demonstrators and ripping apart posters of the peace movement. The film was shown on western television while people continued to be arrested.

On October 7, soldiers and industrial militia police made a show of force as they battered defenseless people who responded peacefully. They were taken away in trucks. Hundreds were locked in stables. The government press said it was high time to put an end to what they called "counter-revolution," if necessary, by armed force.

On October 9, six hundred Stasi and party members filled the church. Pastor Fuhrer conducted the Monday Prayer service as though they were not there. He took special delight in knowing that Stasi members were listening to the gospel. Where else would they hear the Beautitudes? The prayers for peace took place in calmness and concentration and the names of people who supported the call for non-violence were read aloud. Kurt Masur, then conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, now of the New York Philharmonic, was among those supporting the call. Pastor Fuhrer says the solidarity between church, art, music and the gospel became important in the threatening situation of the time. The service ended with the Bishop's blessing and an urgent call for non-violence.

"Then," Pastor Fuhrer says, "the miracle occurred." More than 2,000 people leaving the church were welcomed by tens of thousands outside with candles in their hands. Then the troops, military brigades, and police were drawn into the crowd. They became engaged in conversation and then withdrew peacefully. There were no winners, and none was defeated. It was, says Fuhrer, an evening in the spirit of our Lord Jesus. There was a tremendous feeling of relief. The non-violent movement lasted several more weeks, but the party and ideological dictatorship was now destined to collapse.

As a passionate believer in non-violence, Pastor Furher quotes scriptures. "He dethrones the mighty ones and enthrones the weak ones… You will succeed, not by military power or by your own strength, but by my spirit, says the Lord."

"This is what we experienced," says the Pastor. "There were thousands in the churches. Hundreds of thousands in the streets around the city center, but not a single shattered window. This was an incredible experience of the power of non-violence."

A Visit to Faust's Underworld

During my trip through Germany, I again read Goethe's Faust, which I enjoyed even more than the first time. When Birgit, our guide, took us to Auerbach's Keller, it held special significance, knowing that it was Goethe's favorite place to write. In Part I of his story there is a scene in which Mephistopheles and Faust carouse with students at Auerbach's Keller before they ride off on a barrel. The historic section of the restaurant includes the Goethe room and more humorous satirical scenes from Faust. There is a remarkable display of line drawings from many artists over many generations, each with a fascinating, original interpretation of Faust. What is particularly memorable is the restaurant itself. The quality, presentation and flavor made it one of the top meals of our eight-day trip. A fabulous place to visit -- when your appetite is large!

City of Bach

Before leaving Leipzig we visited Thomaskirche (St. Thomas church), built in 1212 and extended and converted to Gothic style in 1496. In front of the altar was a touching sight of fresh flowers on the tomb of Johann Sebastian Bach. This is also the site of the baptisms of Richard Wagner, Karl Liebknecht and all of Bach's large family.

Since 1212 there has also been a St. Thomas Boys Choir. Under the directorship of choirmaster Johann Sebastian Bach for many years, the structure of Germany's most famous boys choir has remained the same for almost 800 years. The choir performs in St. Thomas on Fridays and Saturdays. Bach was not the city council's first choice for the position of St. Thomas Cantor. He only got the job after Georg Phillip Telemann turned it down. From 1723 until his death in 1750, Bach was responsible for church services and festivals at both St. Nicholas and St. Thomas, as well as musical director for the city and head of the collegium musicum,a group of professional and student musicians.

Since the 19th-century, Leipzig has been the center of comprehensive efforts to explore and interpret the works of Bach. A number of institutions were founded around this effort: the 1900 founding of the New Bach Society, the 1950 founding of the Bach archives, and the 1964 start of the biannual International Bach Competitions.

 

Weimar - Home of the Beaux Spirits of the 18th Century

When I first visited Weimar in 1991, shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, it was like a small weary city, frozen in time, slowly awakening from a bad dream. People were leaning out of their windows watching long lines of cars from the west pouring into their quiet town. Roads were bad, few people spoke English, and we were lucky to find a room for the night. However, its relaxed ambience and reverence for its great cultural legacy dominated small inconveniences. We were rewarded in unexpected ways: every corner we turned we could hear a piano or violin playing classical music, we admired the architecture, the Weimar children, we walked in Goethe's garden, and I fell in love with a bust of poet Friedrich von Schiller, and brought him home.

Today, Weimar is polished, its character is intact, its roads couldn't be better, and its hotels are worth bragging about. The Dorint, a five-star property in Beethoven Platz, is conveniently located within walking distance of all historic sights. The hotel is ultra modern, yet cozy. The buffet breakfasts are a veritable banquet of high quality selections that give you incentive to rise early. Weimar has become a popular destination for cultural travel, and along with some fine hotels, it has outstanding restaurants like the Scharfe Ecke. This is a happy place to spend an evening. The English menu, with dozens of pictured possibilities to choose from assures there can be no mistaken choices. I really enjoy the typical German fare -- sausages, wiener schnitzel, red cabbage, potato soup and home made bread.

Like a gigantic open museum dedicated to art and culture, Weimar immortalizes many of history's beaux spirits, the great intellects and artists who lived there from the 18th to early 19th century. Most notably Goethe, Schiller, Liszt, Nietzshe, Van de Velde, architect of the Bauhaus School of Art and from 1708 to 1717, Johann Sebastian Bach. Art museums, archives and castles are reminders of the spirit of that era as Weimar quietly guides you back through time.

Weimar was first documented in 975, declared a town in 1254, and chartered in 1348. Ruled by the counts of Weimar-Orlamunde from 1247 to 1372, it passed to the Saxon house of Wettin and became the capital of the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in 1815 (until 1918). On February 6, 1919, after the revolution of 1918-1919, the German National Assembly met in the National Theater and drew up the first Constitution for the new Republic. Weimar was chosen because of the seething unrest in Berlin, and so the republic itself borrowed the city's name. Weimar would be known as the birthplace of the first German democracy.

Like the rest of Germany, the weight of history fell heavily on Weimar as it suffered through wars, revolutions, defeat, terror and dictators. But it has also been bountifully blessed. Until 1748, Saxe-Weimar had been ruled by Ernest Augustus, a petty prince, who believed his money and that of his subjects would be well spent by building monumental and lavish edifices and by acquiring paintings and art objects, many of which were housed in Weimar's museums and castles.

Today, as we walk through the streets on a guided tour with Sigrid, our guide, she tells us how important his daughter-in-law, Anna Amalia, was to Weimar's becoming the center of German intellectualism. After the death of her husband in 1758, Anna Amalia, a refined woman with an interest in the arts, assumed the throne. In 1772, the widow, fascinated by the French Enlightenment, invited the poet and publicist, Christopher Martin Wieland, to tutor her son Charles Augustus. Wieland was the first of the 'Big Four' to come to live in Weimar.

Standing in front of the home of Anna Amalia, our guide tells us to imagine that day, in 1775, as a carriage pulls up in front of this very house and in the carriage sits the young poet, Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Anna Amalia grew to love Goethe and encouraged round table intellectual discussions that became famous among writers and artists throughout Germany. Later, young Charles Augustus gave Goethe his small summerhouse in the park as a gift, hoping to entice the great poet to stay in Weimar. Goethe was to remain in Weimar until his death in1832.

Friedrich von Schiller, the Apollo of German Classicism, subsequently came to Weimar to be near Goethe, the Zeus. Schiller, author of the Robbers Wallenstein and Wihelm Tell, was renowned for his mature treatments of the themes of idealism, freedom and heroic achievement. The same idealism can be found in Schiller's Ode to Joy, which Beethoven set to music in the last movement of the 9th symphony.

Just one year after Goethe's arrival in Weimar, Charles Augustus, at Goethe's request, summoned Johann Gottfried Herder to the city. Herder, a philosopher with social and humanistic ideals, completed the quartet of titans. They met regularly to exchange their thoughts on literature, science, and the arts. Through the work of these great artists, Weimar became known as the center of German classicism

Goethe & Schiller

 

Exploring Weimar

The central square in Weimar has park benches where you can sit, relax and enjoy a delicious charbroiled sausage from a street vendor. Opposite the park is the Goethe House, and on the same street, further down, is the house where Schiller lived. Around the corner on quiet, cobbled street is the Franz Liszt College of Music. Passing this school provides a living testimony to the town's vibrant cultural richness; a beautiful aria floats from an open window. People linger awhile to listen.

Behind Goethe's House is a wonderful flower garden perfect for meditation. After touring the house and seeing were Goethe ate, slept and wrote, it is easy imagine the inspiration he derived from this lovely, enclosed garden. Although Goethe's house in the park is smaller, it is there that he worked on some of his universally acknowledged greatest works of world literature.

The Goethe and Schiller Archive is the oldest and largest literary archive in the world, preserving more than 100 handwritten estates of writers, philosophers, musicians and artists from the middle of the 18th to the beginning of the 20th century. Among the treasures are the first drafts of Goethe's Iphigenie, the second part of Faust, a complete manuscript of Schiller's Don Carlos and the diaries of Friedrich Hebbel. Although everything is in German, it is possible to get an English guide to make everything come alive. It is well worth a visit, but hours are limited.

Lovers of Lucas Cranach, the most famous painter of the German Renaissance will find moments of great pleasure when visiting the ground floor of the Belvedere Castle. I was struck again by the beauty and freshness of three paintings by Cranach, one was Christ on the Cross, another shows Christ holding the hand of Mary Magdalene, and the third a portrait of Martin Luther. Lucas died in Weimar in 1553. Martin Luther, whose doctrines would later revolutionize the church, preached here in 1518. Luther's footsteps are large all through the three major areas of Germany in which we traveled.

I will always remember Weimar as a place of inspiration and my first introduction to the depth of Germany's rich culture. Like Dresden and Leipzig, but on a much smaller scale, its music, art, architecture and literary accomplishments are living testimony to the magnitude, and boundless reaches, of human aspiration.

For more information on travel to Germany call 212-661-7200 or visit the website www.german-tourism .deor, vacations in germany

Feature Travel Archives

Hungary: Budapest- A capital city for all the senses

By Dominique Wellington 

A city that graces both sides of a legendary river, crossed by a succession of regal bridges. At night, the lights on the monuments and bridges gleam in the dark like jewels. Grand, tree-lined boulevards and neoclassical buildings from the 19th century. Neighborhoods with winding, narrow, cobblestone streets from medieval times. Antique-filled flea markets, fascinating book stores, inviting cafés with strong coffee and sweet confections, museums and concerts to delight the eye and ear. Paris? No, Budapest.

A name that conjures up an image more exotic and mysterious than any other Western capital. A stop along the fabled Orient Express. Inaccessible behind the Iron Curtain for nearly half a century. A city destroyed many times by invasions and wars - most devastatingly and recently during World War II. And lovingly rebuilt every time by a proud and creative people, who give the place its tremendous warmth and singular charm.

Distinctive Flavor

Budapest offers the sophisticated traveler the familiarity of European culture with a tantalizingly distinctive Hungarian flavor. You see it in the domed baths, originally built by Turks during 150 years of occupation, and in the Eclectic style of turn-of-the-century architecture throughout the city. You taste it in the complex cuisine influenced by the Magyar founders from Central Asia, Turks, Serbs, Austrians and French (see Year of Wine and Gastronomy, p. 12). You hear it in the folk music and unpronounceable language, unlike any other. (In Budapest, though, you will find many who speak English, particularly among the young.)  And you especially feel it in the verve, the humor and the sparkle of the people.

When you visit Hungary, you not only see monuments and reminders of the past, you are actually witnessing history in the making. As it seeks to weave a new richer tapestry of Hungarian culture, the nation is reviving the traditions of the pre-Communist era - some as fundamental as religious instruction, others as frivolous as the glittering New Year's ball. It's exciting to watch a country creating a new future and asserting a new self. 

Hungary - unlike many former Communist bloc nations - did not destroy its Soviet monuments. The Liberation statue on the Citadel - commemorating the defeat of the Nazis - remains where the Communists erected it. Other colossal statues in Socialist Realist style were moved to a fascinating open-air Statue Park Museum (just a cab ride outside Budapest), dedicated exclusively to these relics of Soviet domination. When you return, stop and have a drink and a chuckle at a café that spoofs Communism, called Marxim (a cross between Marxism and Maxim) in Buda, near Moszkva tér whose name also recalls the recent past.

The city known as Budapest is actually three cities: Óbuda, the oldest section, with Celtic and Roman ruins, on the Buda side of the Danube; Buda among the gently rolling hills on the western bank, famous for its historic Castle Hill and beautiful residential area; and bustling Pest with its shopping, government and commercial districts on the flat plain of the east bank.

A City for Walking 

United in 1873, Budapest is ideal for walking. And exploring the city on foot is the best way to burn off all the calories from the delicious food and wine you'll be enjoying. Afterwards, there is no more rejuvenating way to relax than in one of the city's many soothing spas - fed by 80 thermal springs.

Start by strolling along the winding streets on Castle Hill, where the medieval character of Buda has been best preserved. The entire panorama of the two banks of the Danube all the way from Margaret Island - Budapest's green Central Park in the middle of the river - to Gellért Hill and the Castle District has been designated a World Heritage preservation site by UNESCO.

At the top of Castle Hill visit the Royal Palace, which houses the Budapest Historical Museum, Hungarian National Gallery and National Library. The 700-year old Matthias Church with its Gothic spire and multi-colored tiled roof is where the nation's kings were crowned and now the site of organ and choir performances. Be sure to catch sunset at Fisherman's Bastion, with its view of the river, Chain Bridge, Parliament building and Pest spreading out across the horizon.

For a view that takes in sights on both sides of the river, go up Gellért Hill to the Citadel. The hill is home to three famous and historic spas: the Art Nouveau-era Gellért and the 400 year-old Rudas and Rác Baths, the latter two built by the Turks. 

City of Caves

It is a cave on the southeastern side of Gellért Hill which gave the city half of its name. Seeing the hollow in the hill, and the other caves that underlie the Buda Hills, the Magyar conquerors from Asia - with no word of their own for cave - borrowed the Slavic word, 'pest,' from tribes living in the area. They named what is now Gellért Hill 'Pest Hill' - or hill of caves. In 1926 a lovely chapel, known as Rock Chapel, was built inside the hollow of Gellért Hill and can be visited today. The miles of caves under the city are the inactive vents of hot springs, the source of thermal water for all the city's spas. Sections of the labyrinthine cave system may be toured, for example Castle Cave at the corner of Országház and Dárda streets. Many caves have served as wine cellars and air raid shelters.

Antiquity

If you're looking for antiquity, Óbuda (Old Buda) is the place to see excavated ruins of the Roman city of Aquincum. An amphitheater once holding 16,000 seats, discovered under the houses in Királydomb, is considered one of Europe's largest open-air arenas. Relics from the Romans' occupation are on display in the Aquincum Museum.

If you cross the Danube from Buda to Pest on the Margaret Bridge you enter the enchanted oasis of Margaret Island, Budapest's largest park, where no cars are allowed except an occasional taxi. Explore on foot, by rented bicycle or minibus the gardens, medieval church and chapel, game reserve, swimming pools, spa-hotels, tennis stadium and 10,000 trees that make the island in the middle of the river seem miles away from the bustle of a modern city. Originally housing a convent (still being excavated), Margaret Island was turned into a harem by the Turks!

Turn-of-the-Century Pest

Stepping back into the urban action on the Pest side, you can stroll along Andrássy Boulevard, very much like the Champs-Elysées, and admire the mix of neoclassic, Romantic, Art Nouveau and uniquely Hungarian Eclectic style of architecture in the buildings - mostly from the turn of the century.

Outstanding examples include the Opera House, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Post Office Savings Bank, Museum of Applied Arts, St. Stephen's Basilica and, of course, Parliament, which you have seen at sunset from the Buda side across the river. At the end of Andrássy you will find the magnificent Heroes' Square with statues of Hungary's greatest leaders from the founding of the state to the 19th century.

At the National Museum, you will learn about the saga of Hungarian history and see the legendary crown jewels of King Stephen. Although they post-date the sainted Stephen by several centuries, the crown jewels nevertheless have a spectacular history, having been lost, stolen or misappropriated at various times since the Middle Ages. 

After World War II, fleeing Hungarians brought them to the United States for safekeeping. Jimmy Carter returned them to Hungary in 1978.

Worth seeing for both the building itself as well as the exhibits inside is the Museum of Applied Arts, a fantastic combination of traditional folk elements with Art Nouveau, Islamic, Hindu and Persian motifs. The roof is covered with ceramics from the famous Zsolnay factory in Pécs. The spacious white Victorian interior with glass dome overhead seems a complete contrast to the multicolored Oriental exterior. Exhibits include furniture, textiles, metalwork, ceramics, porcelain and glass.

The superb Museum of Ethnography originally served a different purpose. Its designer was the first runner-up in the turn-of-the-century competition for the Parliament building, and it housed the Supreme Court and Chief Prosecutor's Office. Go inside just to admire the frescos on the ceiling and the splendid staircase. 

To make it easy for visitors to see museums and all the city's sights, the 3-day Budapest Card allows the purchaser to travel free on all public transportation, visit most of the city's top museums and provides discounts on guided tours, at selected restaurants and shops. You can buy the Budapest Card in the US or upon your arrival in Hungary at the airport, at hotels, museums, travel agencies and metro stations.

Budapest had the first subway on the European Continent.  That first line is still in operation, along with the modern lines built after World War II.

One area that must be explored on foot is Erzsébet Town, the charming old Jewish quarter. The Byzantine-looking Dohány Street Synagogue was recently restored to its original grandeur. With 3,000 seats, it is Europe's largest synagogue and the world's second largest after New York's Temple Emanu-El.

In the courtyard is the moving Holocaust Memorial in the form of a weeping willow, its metal leaves engraved with the names of victims. Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism, was born nearby. Wander through the courtyards connecting residential buildings, forming a protective cocoon for the quarter. Then stop for pastry or lunch at one of several kosher restaurants and cafés.

Shopping

Give in to the temptation of shopping for antiques, Herend or Zsolnay porcelain, intricate needlework with folk art motifs, fine Hungarian wines and liqueurs, as well as goose liver pate and a variety of paprikas. The most elegant  and popular shopping areas are Váci Street, Petõfi Sándor Street and Vörösmarty Square. For the largest selection of merchandise, check out the many shops along Károly Ring and Kossuth Lajos Street. 

If you want an insider's tip, go south on Váci past Elizabeth Bridge. There you'll find excellent shops and galleries for browsing Éand fewer tourists. At the end of the lower section of Váci, recently converted to pedestrian-only traffic, stop in the splendid and colorful Central Market Hall overflowing with food and folk art stalls. A true sensory experience. On Saturdays, tour buses leave from the Central Market for the Ecseri Flea Market - a shopping and bargaining paradise.

Going Out

Some of Budapest's best restaurants on both sides of the river offer music as well as fine food. Be serenaded while you dine at appropriately named Bel Canto near the Opera House, or by Gypsy violins in Kárpátia Restaurant. Try the Fél 10 jazz club or Café Pardon, where you can hear live music every night. 

Other outstanding restaurants to sample: Légrádi Antiques, above a charming antique shop; Mûvész Restaurant with piano music and dark royal blue walls; Múzeum Restaurant with Art Nouveau tilework and stained glass; Fortuna Restaurant on Castle Hill; legendary Gundel Restaurant in City Park, which has hosted Habsburg weddings, or its less formal sister restaurant next door, Bagolyvár (Owl's Castle), staffed entirely by women and serving home-style Hungarian cuisine. 

You'll also notice a multitude of boats docked on the Pest side of the city. You can take a daytime or evening sightseeing cruise - and drink in the view with a cocktail in hand. Some cruises also include a dinner and dance music.

All year round, there are concerts, opera, operetta, ballet, modern dance and folk dance performances throughout the city. Listen to the works of Hungary's native sons - Ferenc Liszt, Zoltán Kodály, Béla Bartók, Ferenc Lehár - in the land and city that inspired them. And don't be surprised if Budapest, the Pearl of the Danube, inspires you, too.

Feature Travel Archives

St. Vincent and the Grenadines-- An Inviting Discovery in the Caribbean.

The simple, unspoiled glory of the Grenadines, the lesser-known islands in the southernmost part of the Caribbean chain, is an exhilarating gift proffered to each traveler.

By Dominique Wellington 

The simple, unspoiled glory of the Grenadines, the lesser-known islands in the southernmost part of the Caribbean chain, is an exhilarating gift proffered to each traveler. Untold realms of energy and light emanate from a flood of refreshing beauty found at every turn. Upon embarking into this new world, barricades of city life are quickly shed and the power of sea, sun, sky and endless space begin their magic. St. Vincent and the Grenadines may be reached only by boat or small plane (Mustique Airways} coming from the larger islands of Barbados or Grenada. This novel means of transportation adds a sense of adventure.

From the mother and capital of the archipelago, the large volcanic island of St. Vincent, to the second largest, Bequia, to the island of the super wealthy, Mustique, to newly awakenedCanouan, all the way to the beautiful, tiny island of Mayreau, each has its own magnetic beauty.

Bequia -- Island Wonderland

The late afternoon ferry winds its way around Devil’s Point on the west side of Bequia, arriving at the island’s primary hub, Port Elizabeth. We feel the clamor of excitement on the shore below, as cargoes of food and people are unloaded. Pausing at the top of the narrow steps, I examine the face of the island pointed toward the sea. From the top of the rolling, green volcanic hills sloping from azure skies to translucent seas, houses are scattered gracefully. Rimming the edges of the island, barely visible through the palm trees, are small shops, boutique hotels and restaurants. The overall picture is not of a sleepy island lost in its drems, but one of animated tranquility.

Clambering down the steps, we met Alvin, a taxi driver who became our on-call guide. Taxis are small, sturdy trucks able to negotiate hairpin corners and steep hills. Seated comfortably in the back of the open truck, we headed straight up the hills to the Old Fort, a country inn. Climbing higher, the view became more breathtaking until we reached the highest point, bringing us to the gate of the Old Fort.

The Old Fort, built on the ruins of an old French fort dating from 1756, took 10 years of labor and dedication to restore to its original ambience. In 1984 it was opened to guests who discovered one of the most enchanting, small hotels in the world. At this unique country inn set among tropical gardens, the chickens produce the morning breakfast, and every evening a pair of peacocks appear on cue, perched atop the walls of the old sugar mill, preening against the setting sun.

Each of the six guestrooms retain some of the original stone walls, and the combination of exposed ceiling beams and rafters creates a distinctly medieval feel, its simplicity graced with antiques and original paintings. In the open air, lower den of the fort, the Mediterranean-Creole cuisine is excellent. For romantic couples and honeymooners who enjoy great food by candle and firelight, an added attraction is the superb selection of classical music.

Strolling around Bequia is like Alice’s journey through wonderland. People look large while all the structures appear small and quaint. From the popular Frangipani Hotel, where yacht owners from around the world gather at the open air bar and restaurant, all the way to the Plantation House Resort, there is an intriguing walk that ducks under trees along a narrow path at the very edge of the water. The stone walkway extends the length of the waterfront, with sections carved out by people taking shortcuts. This became my artery — a daily walk to lunch at the Frangipani, then a walk past the Gingerbread Restaurant and boutiques, all the way to Maranne’s for homemade frozen yogurt. The water, even in this busy harbor, is clean and inviting. After a busy day, we would later return to watch the sun set from a strategic spot on the deck in front of the lovely Plantation House.

Bequia, island of fishermen and boat builders, has a magnetic appeal to the adventurous visitor, someone who prefers the tropical delights of smaller, more informal islands where beaches are secluded. Bequia has ample four-star and comfortable three-star hotels and budget guesthouses that include breakfast and dinner. Prices range from $150 double, per night, meals included, to a guesthouse single at $40, or a two-bedroom apartment for $340 per week.

Friendship Bay Hotel has a great beach location with a friendly staff, tennis courts, scuba diving, windsurfing, sailing and water skiing. It is ideal for water sports rather than swimming. Bequia’s best beaches are at Lower Bay and Princess Margaret Beach located close to the village center.

Evenings in Bequia are relaxed. You can spend them on a hill reaching for the stars, enjoy a five-course gourmet dinner, or take a walk to the Schooner to participate in the island’s karioke club. This is a guaranteed evening of laughs, even though the talented islanders set quite a high standard is singing ability. Nevertheless, with a group it can be a hilarious evening.

Palm Island — Island of Light

Flying from Bequia, Mustique Airways brought us to Union Island where we were met at the airport. From the airport it’s 10 minutes by cabin cruiser to Palm Island and its Palm Island Beach Club.

My first and lasting impression of this island is the wonderful impact of its radiant light. The soft, clean, white stretch of sand rimmed the island as far as the eye could see. Lines of palm trees followed the path of the beach along the enticingly translucent blue sea. Every sight evokes harmony; nothing blurs the natural beauty.

This tiny paradise island, the size of a handkerchief, is the fruition of a pioneer's dream. John Caldwell developed the former Prune Island from an unwanted, mosquitoed swampland, into Palm, the dream island it is today.

One of the most enjoyable attractions for vacationers at this relaxed, friendly resort is the quality and variety of the food. The atmosphere is non-imposing, and the management is in tune with the guests. The encircling sea is the source of all activity, from scuba diving to wind surfing. Rates: High season, $265-345 per couple; Low season, $245. Phone: (800) 858-4618.

Mayreau -- Exquisite Island of Yesterday

The boat ride from Palm Island to Salt Whistle Bay on the island of Mayreau took just 30 minutes. This half-moon bay, as still as glass with barely a ripple, has to take the prize for the purest, most picturesque and peaceful harbor in the world. Canadian couple Undine and Tom Potter fell in love with this island while sailing in 1977, looking for their own tropical paradise.

They bought a choice piece of land on a peninsula dividing the Atlantic from the Caribbean and opened the Salt Whistle Bay Club in 1980. Beneath the shade of tall palms and ficus trees, this lovely, casual resort features cottages built the island's bluebitch stone. Each cottage has its own private thatched-roof gazebo for meals. With her boundless energy and genuine warmth, being pampered by Undine Potter adds to the feeling of complete relaxation on this island.

Two experiences not to be missed while on Mayreau are a boat trip out to the uninhabited Tobago Cays for a day of snorkeling and a walk across the high hill and down into Mayreau's small village. It’s worth the hike, even in the hot sun. A Catholic Church, a school and a graveyard stand nobly at the pinnacle with a panoramic view of the horizon in all directions. Less than 200 people, many goats and a few sheep live happily here. It has all the charm of a forgotten island where people walk in beauty and survive by the bountiful sea.

Other Grenadine islands I visited briefly include Mustique, Canouan, and Young, all extraordinarily beautiful with their own unique character.

Young, smallest of all, is reached via a causeway from St. Vincent. The atmosphere at the resort is spectacular with excellent service, fantastic homemade breads and carefully selected fruits, vegetables, meats and fresh fish. It’s a joy to anticipate a meal here.

Mustique Island covers 1,400 acres where private homes that are spectacular showcases of international architects in collaboration with Vincentian craftsmen and builders. Island home of the rich and famous, Princess Margaret and many movie stars vacation here. Cotton House, an 18th-century cotton warehouse, was renovated by the late Oliver Messel and is now a lovely hotel with a graceful, somewhat familiar charm and southern belle appeal.

Canouan Island, birthplace of shipbuilding in the Grenadines, has a population of less than 700 and is another gem in the chain. The people here retain a sunny, shy, sweetness but also an avid curiosity about the larger world.

Getting there: American Airlines flies from Washington Dulles to Barbados via San Juan where you connect to St. Vincent, Bequia, Union, Canouan or Mustique via Mustique Airways. (800) 223-0599. LIAT Caribbean Airlines also serves St. Vincent and Union Island from Barbados, Grenada and St. Lucia. (800) 468-0482.


Feature Travel Archives

Cuba - After the Pope's Visit

By Patricia Keegan

Changes in Cuba may be in the embryonic stage, but the impact of Pope John Paul’s visit has beamed a fresh, new light into the hearts of the Cuban people. Yes, more people are attending church, but for the first time, as one Cuban said, he sees signs of Cuban unity as pro- and anti-Castro factions express confidence in the future of their country.

As viewers around the world watched the meeting of Pope John Paul II and President Fidel Castro, they began a week-long immersion into the public dialogue between seemingly disparate ideologies. Nonetheless, the two connected in unimagined ways, and the people of Cuba and the United States will benefit through the Pope’s message and through the intensive media examination of Cuban society.

Pope John Paul connected with the people of Cuba on a human, caring level that was palpable to them. Despite their experience in a dictatorship, they are not a closed or somber populace. The Pope’s visit to Cuba was timely, for although this event had been in the wind for 15 years, it was providential that it should come at this time of immense hardship for the Cuban people.

A globalist who believes that no nation, group or individual can stand securely without moral underpinnings, the Pope told the people of Cuba, and those listening around the world, that we are experiencing a new era in which no nation can live alone.

“As such the Cuban people cannot be deprived of ties with other people which are necessary for economic, social and cultural development, particularly when the isolation provoked indiscriminately affects the population, aggravating the difficulties of the weakest with regard to basic needs like nutrition, health or education. Everyone can and must take steps for a concrete change in this sense. May all nations, especially those who share the same Christian heritage, unite to overcome obstacles, so that the Cuban people, the protagonists of their history, can maintain international relations that favor the common good. In this way they will contribute to overcoming the anguish provoked by poverty, both material and moral.”

In his reference to the almost 40 year U.S. embargo against Cuba, the Pope said, “Restrictive economic measures imposed from outside the country are unjust and ethically unacceptable.”

During NBC’s coverage of the Pope’s visit, a news anchor was heard asking why so many American journalists go to Cuba and seem to love it. The answer is not easy to articulate. Perhaps it is the combination of all attributes of the Cuban personality. They are good conversationalists with a lively oneness, warmth and intelligence. Their literacy rate is 98%. Innocent of material gains, they have developed a generosity of spirit radiating against the backdrop of a stunningly beautiful country. For the observer, it carries its own pathos, because, as the thornbird knows, this innocence will die.

This was my third visit to Cuba, the second in two years, and I was heartened by the indomitable spirit of the Cubans, still hanging on to their last thread of hope for a brighter future, and still working hard at creative survival.

What was disheartening was the increased exploitation of young Cuban girls by the “extranjeros,” men from other countries, luring girls with the reward of the almighty dollar. Prostitution did not exist in Cuba after the revolution, but has been steadily growing in the past few years.

With the two-tiered economy, tourists with dollars and Cubans with pesos, there is great incentive to get dollars. The average monthly salary for a doctor, economist or other professional is just $20. Rent, education and health care are taken care of by the government.

Entrepreneurship is operating at some obvious levels, but only by special license. Free lancers are sometimes ignored, but sometimes clamped down on by the authorities. Some operate successful restaurants in private homes, called “paladares,” where the food is home cooked and served by the family. Courageous car owners, some with beautiful antique cars, others driving old jalopies with cardboard replacing window glass, offer fares much cheaper than tourist taxies, but they could be stopped and asked to produce their license.

The purpose of this visit was to continue to explore the culture and to see if there was new activity in Catholic churches.

A Tradition of Artistic Endeavor

Cuba holds a prominent place in the world of arts, ranging from the National Symphony orchestra to the National Ballet of Cuba to a showcase of museums and galleries, some of the best in Latin America. Havana has almost 40 museums and at least 14 major art galleries with an incredible array of art, sculpture and photo exhibitions. An outstanding museum is the National Arts Museum, home to a collection of both classical and modern art featuring works by Renoir, Picasso, Rodin and other masters. Cuban music, popular all over the world, flows in the Cuban blood, guitars, violins and pianos. You need walk only a few blocks in Havana before encountering an outdoor cafe with a lively trio, or becoming part of the street audience for a salsa band.

I walked to the Museo de la Revolucion, housed in the former presidential Palace, to see the complete exhibition of the revolution, with maps, weaponry, photographs, tanks and warplanes, and the Granma, the 38-foot wooden cruiser that Castro and his small band used in their near-disastrous seven-day crossing from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 to begin the insurrection.

I stopped at a local Papeleria (stationary store) where I met young Jorge, who asked me about Newport, his uncle’s home. As we spoke, I heard church bells ringing and decided to stop in at the church around the corner. Jorge volunteered to come along as my impromptu guide.

The priest was going from pew to pew blessing tiny infants held in their mother’s arms. Several small girls wearing long, lace dresses and white bonnets played among the flowers on the altar. Nobody seemed to mind. The priest talked about what it meant to be baptized. I asked 20 year-old Jorge if he had been baptized.

“No,“ he answered. Then he whispered, “You know, when I was fifteen years old everything was going wrong in my life. I was married, but I felt a deep emptiness and a burning inside of me to know more about God.”

“What did your parents say,” I asked.

“My father loves me, but he doesn’t believe in anything. My mother just works all the time.”

The priest poured holy water on the babies’ heads, blessing them as “children of God, radiating forever in the light and presence of Christ which bring peace.”

As the service ended with a chorus of wailing infants, the serious-faced Jorge asked if I minded waiting while he spoke with the priest. He stood in line at the altar. After speaking with him he returned to tell me that the priest would see him on Monday to talk more. He appeared happy.

Jorge has sugar diabetes and has to inject insulin twice a day. Insulin, like most drugs, is not easily accessible in Cuba, and presents a real challenge to his family.

An Artist’s Life

At the Officina del Historidades de la Ciudad, (office of the city historian), I came upon an exhibition of two wood sculptors, Emilio Penalver and his teacher, Osvaldo Llins. On display were sensitive wood carvings of human figures. A contemplative figure bowed in deep thought. “Meditation” by Llins, seemed to project its own quiet energy, drawing you into his thoughts. Penalver, his protege, was able to capture the delicacy, refinement and supple energy of the ballerina in a piece approximately two feet high.

I was especially fond of his abstract carving of a ballerina who stood on her toes, leaning backward while holding a fine veil, as though in motion, above her torso. An artist standing nearby told me that the figures they create spring from their imagination, without the benefit of models or photos. Some actually look as though they could breathe.

Both artists were kind enough to meet me the next day. Smiling Emilio said, in confidential tones, tinged with irony, “I am a black man with muscles; when people look at my ballerinas and then at me, they can’t believe it’s possible that they are my creations. When they come to see me at work in my studio, they say, ‘This is incredible!’ “

He said the life of an artist in Cuba is not bad. “My wife is a teacher, we have two children, but I work day and night. When I’m working on something particularly exciting, I forget to sleep and eat. I first became interested in ballet as a child. I didn’t know at the time that the music I heard, lying on the floor, was for the ballet. My first experience at a live ballet was a thrilling occasion.”

In describing the inner life of an artist, Emilio says, “I believe the artist must be a free soul finding his own way to the ultimate creation, rising above all else to find individual satisfaction.”

Ups and Downs of Havana

One of my symbolic barometers of economic health in Havana has been the beautiful Hotel Nacional. During its heyday in Batista’s time, this center of activity was the hotel of choice for the wealthy, including the mafia. Movie stars, luminaries, the British Royal family and Winston Churchill all rested noble heads on its crisp linen pillows.

On my first visit in 1992, the Hotel Nacional had just finished a renovation and grand re-opening celebration with fireworks and a visit from Castro. I thought it was destined to be the flagship of Havana. This time, I visited the Nacional from my humble abode at the St. John’s hotel, ($22 per night and just across the street).

Outside, the Nacional is an architectural masterpiece, while inside its refined and polished ambience of mahogany, marble and crystal reflect a lively, bright-faced, efficient staff. Previously, I would take the lift to the ninth floor, climb the spiral staircase, and stand in the cupolas to look across Havana to the sea. It was a spectacular sight at night. But on return visits, I find the sparkle and special feeling are somehow missing. My rooftop view was closed waiting for a new restaurant to open.

Faded Glories

The Spanish colonial architecture of Havana is both stunning and tragic, a constant reminder of the time warp this nation is experiencing. In some areas you see a magnificent house next door to one literally tumbling into disrepair. The lack of consistency is surprising, especially in the more beautiful areas.

The Miramar area is filled with many restored mansions graced with columns and balustrades on lovely tree-lined streets. Some are rented to foreign corporations, and others serve as kindergartens, clinics and clubs. The long blocks of Spanish colonial facades that face the sea along the Malecon appear to be in an early stage of restoration. When this facelift is complete, and repainted in lovely pastels, the ball gown will be in place to welcome the new century.

Havana Viejo (Old Havana), a UNESCO World Historic preservation site, is one of the most intriguing old sections of any city in the world. It reminds me of Barcelona’s old town with its ability to entice you further and further down narrow, cobbled streets into an atmosphere of adventure. Around each corner, a street leads to something unexpected, sometimes a major pot hole, or a dead end, sometimes a lovely art gallery or bookstore or a plaza with craftsmen selling their wares.

Among these pockets of great charm stands the beautiful San Isabel Hotel, originally the Casa de Joaquin Gomez, built in 1835 for a wealthy merchant. If these luxury hotels keep appearing, and a city-wide restoration continues, Havana could become the destination of choice for the rich and famous. The cost to the NBC staff staying at the San Isabel during the Papal visit was $150 per night. It’s a prime example of the city’s potential for elegance and graceful design, but only the rich can stay at these prices.

Up and Coming Varadero

Varadero, Cuba’s tourist mecca, is about 140 kilometers (two hours by car) east of Havana. This coastal resort area is one of the most fabulous in the world. Each five-star hotel seems to outshine the next, but tranquility and relaxation prevail. Spain’s Grupo Sol has four luxury hotels under the Melia trademark. Three of them, the Sol Palmeras, Melia Varadero and Melia Las Americas, are adjacent and take up a mile of prime beachfront. Visitors to any of these properties are full of praise, not only for the service, but for the quality, attention to detail and excellent food. Daily flights from Spain supplement the variety of food which makes their buffets famous.

Aspirations of Young Artists

An evening at either the National Symphony or the Cuban National Ballet opens up another rich, refined dimension of Cuban culture. The Symphony, which first performed in 1960, has a repertoire ranging from 17th-century works to the most contemporary creations, emphasizing Latin American and Cuban composers.

It was my second visit to the Cuban ballet, which for many reasons is heartbreakingly beautiful. Following in the footsteps of the great prima ballerina, Alicia Alonso, many young Cubans become world famous. One of the outstanding students I saw last year, Rosario, is now dancing in Switzerland. The skill and discipline of these non-professionals is bringing deserved recognition in Europe and other parts of the world.

These young faces, so delicate and earnest in expression, mask many obstacles including the quality of the musical accompaniment. On both my visits, they danced to scratchy music from 1950’s era equipment. There were tense moments when the music faltered, throwing the dancer’s timing off. Once again, I witnessed the Cuban spirit at work as the ballerinas ignored all the annoyances and concentrated on the perfection of the art over which they had control.

What about Cuba’s Future?

Many who visit Cuba for the first time are appalled by the state of the old buildings and the overall feeling of poverty. But the glass is half full. Shabby, worn out and neglected though it may look, its wealth lies in an industrious, well-educated, creative populace. Combine that with a release from both self imposed and U.S. imposed bondage, and the world would see a real winner. I think of Professor Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” who saw much more in Eliza than her unkempt facade. I look forward to Havana’s gradual transformation into a beautiful, independent, capital city.

A Papal Legacy

The purpose of the Papal visit was one of reconciliation. Christians throughout the world know what that means. The essence of reconciliation is forgiveness, and that is always difficult. The Cubans who left during the Revolution have to look, not only at what they have suffered and lost, but what their relatives who stayed have suffered.

This is about love. The struggle for sovereignty, the central focus of Cuba’s survival throughout history, until this day, must be acknowledged. Terrible things have happened to innocent people. By lifting the Helms/Burton embargo against Cuba, the U.S. Congress has the power to make life more livable for the Cuban people.

If the embargo was enacted to change the political situation by stressing the system and burdening the people, it has not worked. Periods of near starvation have not lead to any sign of a popular movement to overthrow Fidel Castro.

This is a situation where not one drop of blood should be shed. An uprising against the government could bring bloodshed. It is a primitive, archaic method of changing a system and not worthy of the American people.

We are neighbors, and in this world of post Cold War enlightenment, isolating Cuba is an anomaly. Our reconciliation with Vietnam and our booming business with China, a communist country, make our policy of punishing Cuba and those who trade with her somewhat of a mystery. Ordinary citizens of America and Cuba want both governments to show flexibility so that Pope John Paul II’s call to reconciliation can begin. This is what Christian solidarity is all about.

Feature Travel Archives

Ghana:The New Gateway To Africa

By Pamela Pimm

Ghana, situated between the Cote d'Ivoire and Togo on the West Coast of Africa, is one of the Continent's most beautiful countries. From its picturesque, coastal location to its wide range of attractions and amenities, Ghana is a varied and compact microcosm of Africa that appeals to all travelers. For those seeking a rich and vibrant culture, sun-drenched beaches with pristine swimming, ancient European castles, lush tropical forests, colorful festivals celebrating the chieftaincy, mouth-watering seafood and Africa's friendliest people, Ghana is a wonderful find.
The exuberant Ghanaian hospitality — expressed heartily in the traditional greeting 'Akwaaba,' or Welcome — will warm you. English-speaking travelers will feel right at home in Ghana, English is the official language.

Formerly called the Gold Coast by Europeans who came initially in search of gold, and later for slaves, Ghana derives its post-independence name from an ancient, powerful kingdom. The splendor of the past remains alive today in the religious royalty of the village chiefs, the magnificent works of art in bronze, wood and stone, and the life rhythms of the village, marketplace and fishing port.

The southern part of Ghana is much as you1d expect of West Africa, lush jungle, banana plantations and bone-white beaches, punctuated by the string of 500-year old European forts and castles that line the former Gold Coast. But real surprises begin as you travel north, for instance to the game-rich savannah of Mole National Park, a setting that evokes East Africa, or to the deeply Muslim Burkina Faso border region, where mood and architecture have unexpected overtones of North Africa. 

Fortunately, Ghana lacks the trappings associated with mass tourism. But even though you're off the tourist treadmill, there are exciting off-the-beaten-track possibilities. There are at least five national parks and reserves suited for equipped independent travelers. Though Ghana lacks a singularly renown tourist attraction, it offers memorable highlights: swimming below a gorgeous waterfall in the eastern highlands, getting closer to a wild elephant than in East Africa, climbing to the roof of one of the surreal mosques that dot the northwest, taking a dugout canoe through papyrus swamps to the stilted village of Mzulezu, or watching colorful mona monkeys play between the houses of Baobeng village.

Outstanding in the African community for its economic and political achievements, Ghana is a natural gateway to West Africa. After a decade of reforms, Ghana has established a remarkable record of economic growth, expanding export industries, a growing stock market and rapidly increasing private investment opportunities. Ghana has received a strong endorsement of economic health from the Consultative Group for Ghana, with representatives of 11 developed countries and multilateral institutions, including the IMF, the World Bank and the UN Development Program (UNDP). With a stable political climate and an average annual GDP growth rate of nearly 5% over the past 10 years, Ghana is poised to lead Africa into a new period of stability and economic prosperity. 

Trailblazing of this sort is not new for Ghana. The former Gold Coast was the first country in Africa to have extended contact with Europeans, one of the first to be formally colonized, and in 1957 it became the first to be granted independence in the post-war era. Less prestigiously, Ghana also became one of the first African countries to slide into post-independence chaos and, while it never plummeted to the depths reached by, say, Liberia or Rwanda, the modern visitor will find it difficult to reconcile accounts of Ghana ten years ago with the vibrant country they see today.

A Country of Natural Wealth

Ghana is endowed with abundant natural wealth, including vast agricultural, mining and human resources. Along with its growing manufacturing sector, agriculture remains a key sector of the economy. It employs 60% of the Ghanaian workforce and makes up almost 44% of the country's GDP. Cocoa is the second-largest export, and new exports such as wood products, textiles, jewelry, pineapples, tuna fish and cotton are diversifying Ghana's agricultural export profile. 

In addition to agricultural wealth, Ghana is rich in mineral resources. Gold has replaced cocoa as the country's primary export, with diamonds, aluminum and bauxite accounting for a large part of the country's exports. The mining industry was liberalized in 1987, and strategic investors such as de Beers, Lonrho, and others from the U.S., Canada, Australia, South Africa and Britain have taken advantage of the business opportunities. 

Ghana's industrious, well-educated workforce is one of their most valuable resources. There is a strong primary, secondary and higher education infrastructure, and literacy rates average 53 percent, one of the highest in the continent. 

The Historical Monuments of Ghana's Gold Coast

A trip to Ghana would not be complete without a visit to Cape Coast, the capital city of Ghana's legendary central region. Located one and a half hours west of Accra, the Ghanaian capital, Cape Coast is the heart of Ghana's rich historical past. It offers a unique view of Ghana as the former center of European colonial activity on Africa1s west coast. Three of the region's most prominent fortifications, Cape Coast, Elmina Castles and Fort St. Jago — all officially designated as World Heritage Sites by the UN — record the horror of millions of Africans who were captured, enslaved and shipped to the plantations of the Americas and the Caribbean. 

Cape Coast Castle was constructed as a small trading lodge in the 16th century, then altered and enlarged to become a substantial fort by 1627. It was captured by the Swedes but became a British possession in 1664. Cape Coast Castle, through which millions of slaves were shipped to the Caribbean and the U.S., was the seat of British colonial administration until 1877 when government offices moved to Christiansborg Castle in Accra. 

The cannons still face seaward, stirring the imagination to scenes of exploration, discovery and great tragedy. The Museum of West African History, currently under development in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution, brings into sharp focus the role that these great structures played in the meeting of two cultures. As you wander the ramparts of Cape Coast Castle in the salt air, the view is a visual feast. Traditional customs — the mending of nets and launching of painted fishing canoes, continue side-by-side with the new — impromptu soccer games and the hustle and bustle of business. Cape Coast Castle is alive with the human spirit.

Ten kilometers west on a promontory visible from a great distance, Elmina Castle is the earliest known European structure in the tropics. Built in 1482 by the Portuguese, the castle was taken by the Dutch in 1637, who retained control for 274 years. The vast fortification contains the first Catholic church in sub-Sahara Africa. The Castle's damp, unlit dungeons served as horrific holding areas for the human cargo of the slave trade. 

Fort St. Jago is within walking distance, the point from which the Dutch launched their successful attack on Elmina Castle. St. Jago was not used for trading activities; it provided military protection to Elmina Castle. St. Jago offers an excellent view of the Castle, the Atlantic Ocean, and the buzz of activity in Elmina's fishing harbor. 

Along with guided tours, cultural and theatrical performances are staged in Cape Coast and Elmina Castles. Among these are re-enactments of the horrors of the slave trade as well as a solemn, touching portrayal of the final journey of Africans as they walked onto hellish ships that transported them to the Americas. 

The physical and symbolic messages of these monuments foster an emotional response among visitors. But Ghanaians want visitors to remember their history, not only for the lessons it teaches, but also to absorb the Ghanaian spirit of hope and hard work. 

Within short distances are Kakum National Park, a tropical forest with a thriving wildlife population, tranquil white beaches lined with coconut palms, the whimsical Posuban Shrines of the Fante warriors, bustling Kotokuraba Market, the fabled festivals of the Sacred Stools, and a host of craft villages untouched by time.

The Natural Environment

Kakum National Park, a tropical forest enclave, is a haven for the casual visitor, birdwatcher, amateur botanist and ecotourist alike. Thirty kilometers north of Cape Coast, it offers rare plant species in a spectacular environment where trees tower 50 meters. After viewing exhibits at the Visitor's Center, the drama of the jungle comes alive as park guides discuss the complex ecosystem, traditional forest medicines, and daily village life. Ground level flora may be familiar houseplants, and the forest contains some 550 butterfly species. 

Much wildlife thrives well overhead in the forest canopy. Trails provide self-guided hiking opportunities to sight over 200 bird species: parrots, bee-eaters, blue plantain-eaters, hornbills, and kingfishers. Dense vegetation provides cover for globally endangered species such as the forest elephant and bongo, the largest forest antelope, as well as various types of monkeys. Viewing chances are increased by allowing time to sit quietly in the forest, staying at one of the free-standing camps, or by taking advantage of canopy walkways, viewing stations and blinds. 

Kakum National Park is a conservation priority area, and with light cotton clothing, long trousers, sturdy footwear, a water bottle, snacks, binoculars and a camera, the wonders of this vanishing leafy-green world are open for exploration. 

Ghanaian Craft Villages

The famous 'Kente' cloth of kings is woven in the Central Region. Whether visiting the weaving villages or trying to choose among the dynamic patterns sold in the market, visitors soon discover that the bright colors of this national cloth are the symbol of a proud Africa. 
Craft villages display the skill and dexterity of the craftspeople who produce works of art. Master artisans in Ajumako Owane specialize in carved royal regalia such as stools, linguist staffs, walking sticks, swords of state, and clan totems. Winneba, located on the main highway halfway between Accra and Cape Coast, is well-known for ceramics. Wooden handicrafts in the form of fish, animals, fruits and vegetables are carved and painted in Enyan Maim, and unglazed black and terra cotta pots are produced at Gomoa Otsew Jukwa. 

If you choose to spend several nights at one of the comfortable hotels or guest houses in the Cape Coast/Elmina area, you will have more time to follow the winding roads that lead to the rural craft villages. If you are lucky, a village may be celebrating by an evening fire with drumming, singing and dancing.

Posuban Shrines

Many villages have these traditional Fante military fortresses which also serve as the abode for war gods of the clan and a citadel of strength in times of war. In addition to their interesting history, Posuban shrines are fanciful buildings, lavishly decorated with folk art emblems and an array of life-size statues. It is customary to present libation to the ancestors, usually in the form of peppermint schnapps or a token fee to the local chief.

Festivals

Culture comes alive in the annual colorful festivals, serving to purify the ancestral 'stool' (sacred piece of furniture), cleanse communities of evil, venerate the ancestors, and supplicate the deities for prosperity and unity. 

The central region hosts the Pan-African Historical Theatre Festival (Panafest), a major biannual event designed as a cultural forum for Africans, people of African descent, and friends of the Continent. The castle courtyards provide a dramatic setting for traditional and modern performances held as part of this grand occasion. Exhibitions, workshops, audio-visual presentations, colorful durbars of the chiefs, and other social and recreational events fill the Panafest schedule held in December of even-numbered years. 

Opportunities to view drumming, dancing, firing of musketry, performance of war dances by Asafo (traditional militia) companies, and the processions and sitting-in-state of chiefs in full regalia abound at other major festivals. Chiefs, adorned in rich kente cloth and bedecked in gold, are paraded through town in 'palanquins' shaded by large, colorful parasols. 

The new year begins in the town of Elmina with Edina Buronya, a native version of Christmas commemorating a period of purification and remembering of the dead (first Thursday). A game hunt, testing bravery and strength between two traditional warrior groups, is the centerpiece of Aboakyir in Winneba (first Saturday in May), with the catch presented to the chiefs. The regatta of canoes and solemn net casting ceremony, part of Bakatue in Elmina, which celebrates the beginning of the fishing season (first Tuesday in July), is also awe inspiring. 

Recreational Activities

Beach lovers can truly relax along the expansive coastline. With 12 hours of sunshine practically guaranteed year round, and a surf that varies seasonally from calm to sizeable waves, Ghana's beaches have something for everyone. Brenu Beach near Elmina is a long stretch of palm-fringed virgin beach perfect for swimming, picnics, or leisurely strolls. Winneba Beach, nearer Accra, has developed hotel and restaurant facilities, and Gomoa Feteh Beach, just off the main highway, is a lovely and undisturbed locale with a mild surf. 

Recreation is not limited to traditional sea and sand activities. Local travel agents arrange sport fishing for barracuda and other game fish using indigenous canoes. Other seaworthy boats provide a dramatic view of the castles from the ocean. The shoreline is a major wintering ground for coastal birds. Local watercraft can be hired to cruise the natural environment of estuaries, lagoons, and mangrove swamps. 

At local markets, Batik-clad women with babies strapped on their backs skillfully balance loaded baskets on their heads, defying gravity. In the endless wave of buyers and sellers, one hears voices everywhere engaged in bargaining for foodstuffs, textiles, and a colorful array of goods. In the evening, the beat of Ghanaian music in outdoor restaurants and local nightclubs is irresistible.

Ancient Ashanti: Kingdom of Gold, Pomp and Pageantry 

Kumasi

capitol of the ancient Kingdom of Asante, lies in the midst of gold, history and culture. Founded in 1695 by King Osei Tutu, the city of Kumasi and its environs are replete with forts, museums, churches and the best in culture, pomp and pageantry. The region is also home to the UK and US listed gold mining company, Ashanti Goldfields, located at Obuasi, 50 km. south of Kumasi.

Abundant attractions in the region include both the natural environment heritage and historical/cultural heritage. 

The area teams with forest reserves, bird and wildlife sanctuaries, parks and geological formations. Historical sites in Kumasi include the Manhyia Palace Museum, Prempeh II Jubilee Museum, the Center for National Culture and the Kumasi Fort and Museum
The Okomfo Anokye Sword is also located in Kumasi. Legend has it that the sword was driven into the ground by the Chief Priest of the Asante Kingdom, Okomfo Anokye, and no mortal strength has been able to uproot it since the 17th century. 

A multitude of artisans work in the area producing Kente cloth, pottery, wood carving, adinkra cloth, beads, brass items, gold and silver jewelry and handwoven garments. 

Hotels are plentiful and prices are lower than in the capital, Accra.

Among Ghana's other regional attractions is Nsuleso, a lakeside village on stilts in the Western Region where life goes on in the center of Lake Tadane. The excursion from Beyin involves a walk through the reeds at the lake's edge and a trip in a dugout canoe to the village. They welcome visitors every day except Thursday, a sacred day. The western region is famous for some of the best beaches in Ghana, far less developed and more secluded. 

Lake Volta, the centerpiece of a natural resource haven with waterfalls, boating excursions and world-class game fishing on the Volta River estuary lies in the Eastern Region. Often referred to as 'the undiscovered tourist haven of Ghana,' the region offers dramatic landscapes, rivers, lakes and both Christian missionary and Ashanti Empire religious historical sites. 

The Northern Region, with 16 different ethnic groups, is an agricultural region with over 70% of its two million population employed in agriculture. Spectacular Mole National Park is here, offering savannah and riverine forests with more than 90 mammal species including elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, antelopes and primates and about 300 bird species. 

The region's Larabanga Mosque is the largest of the ancient Sudanic style mosques in Ghana. Damba, originally celebrated by Muslims to mark the birth of Mohammed on the 12th day of the third month of the lunar calendar, has taken a traditional rather than Islamic tone. The festival is full of pageantry and showmanship and is celebrated by most ethnic groups in northern Ghana.

Guides and Getting There

'Guide to Ghana'(1998, Bradt Publications, UK, and Globe Pequot Press, USA) is an excellent, comprehensive guide by Philip Briggs, an African specialist. He thoroughly covers all geographical areas, as well as background information, planning, health and safety, maps and photos and further reading. He finds Ghana difficult to flaw, and recommends the country without reservation to even the most nervous first-time traveler for being amiable, affordable and as hassle-free as any country in Africa. 

Ghana Airways started twice-weekly, (Sunday and Wednesday), direct service on July 5th between BWI and Accra, opening the carrier's 13-city African route structure to Washington area travelers. BWI-Accra fares start at about $800 round trip. (800) 404-4262. All major European carriers connect to Ghana from their European gateways, particularly from London. Intercity travel within Ghana is excellent, whether by air, road or rail.

Feature Travel Archives

Eastern France: Franche- Comte's --unspoiled pleasures.

By Julian Moore 

I wish to create a place of silence, of prayer, of peace and interior joy.' The architect Le Corbusier's wish is manifest in the white purity of his Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut in Ronchamp, perched on a hill in the southern Vosges mountains of eastern France. It's a perfect introduction to Franche-Comté's natural, unspoiled pleasures.

Belfort, on the aptly named Savoureuse River, has the oldest grocery store in France: opened in 1825, Chez Perello is fragrant with spices, its goods displayed in neat wooden compartments. A 168-step climb up the rose-pink cathedral tower offers a bird's-eye perspective of the medieval town nestling beneath its protective citadel, with 17th-century fortifications by Vauban. The Lion of Belfort, carved in stone on the citadel, celebrates the city's successful stand against the Prussians in 1870, when Franche-Comté remained resolutely French.

At the confluence of the Rhône-Rhine Canal and the Allan and Lizier rivers, with the Doubs on its southern outskirts, Montbéliard is crowned by the ruins of its 15th-century château. At the Musée Peugeot, as well as vintage models in period decor, there are Pike's Peak race winners and the Pope's glass 'Papamobile'.

tranquil reflections
The calm waters of the Doubs meander through lush wooded hills and emerald meadows as you cruise from Montbéliard to Besançon. Built on seven hills around a horseshoe bend of the river, Besançon was always a strategic town caught in a constant tug-of-war between France and Germany; it finally became French in 1678 when Louis XIV made it the capital of Franche-Comté. Its hilltop Citadelle, circled by Vauban's rampart walk, contains several museums, including a most moving Musée de la Résistance et de la Déportation.
The Musée Gustave Courbet, in the 18th-century house where the great pre-impressionist painter was born, overlooks the Loue River in Ornans; a short walk away you can see the spot where he painted Miroir d'Ornans, showing the quayside houses reflected in the tranquil mirror of the river.

Farther down the Loue at Port-Lesney, I woke to the cooing of turtledoves and a tinkling fountain at the Château de Germigny, recently converted into a luxury hotel. Nearby, at Arc-et-Senans, the Royal Saltworks are visible proof of 18th-century avant-garde architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux's theory that 'beauty brings goodness.' A feeling of well-being pervades this oldest visitable factory in France, and its neoclassical buildings have the perfect symmetry of a sundial.
Louis Pasteur's childhood home on the Cuisance River at Arbois is just as he left it, complete with the laboratory in which he worked each summer; his vineyard, on the Jura slopes, is now a stop on the Route des Vins. Arbois's celebrated vin jaune, a sweet golden nectar, can be tasted at the Jura Wine Institute in the Château Pécaud.

caves and country cooking
The Rhône-Rhine Canal joins the Doubs at Dole, Pasteur's birthplace. A dramatic medieval backdrop rises above the modern marina and the Tanners' Canal where Pasteur's father worked, with beautiful tile-roofed and turreted stone houses clustered around the 16th-century church. Deep in a nearby cliff, the Grottes d'Osselle are thrilling, well-lit caves with fantastic rock formations, walkable for a mile-and-a-half round trip.

The valley of the river Saône is dotted with sleepy villages like Scey-sur-Saône and Ray-sur-Saône. At Champlitte's Musee Albert Demard, with its remarkable presentation of folk arts and implements, Jean-Christophe Demard showed me far-from-folksy scenic replicas of rural life in the time of his father, who organized the collection. 'It's not just about objects', he emphasized, 'it's about the people behind them.'

No place could be more like the France of 50 years ago than Pesmes. Its rue des Châteaux has six of them, four inhabited by the same families since the 12th century. The Château des Forges, beautifully converted by its architect owners, was once a cannonball factory for Louis XVI. At a cozy auberge on the river Ognon, the patronne served sumptuous country cooking: Fougerolles cherries with local charcuterie including Morteau sausage, a vast platter of the region's famed cheeses-Comté, Morbier, Mont d'Or, Mamirolle-and a light red Côtes du Jura. An earthier moment of peace and interior joy is hard to find.

For more information on Eastern France, call the France On Call Hotline at (202) 659-7779 or visit the web site at: www.francetourism.com