Archive | Travel

Northern England O !

November 1, 2012

N.Yorkshire Moors

We returned to the royal throne of kings, the sceptered isle, after three decades to find that even in late October its cities and historic towns were overwhelmed with tourists. And so many from The Orient!  Our England is always the countryside, the counties, the gardens, the foliage, the farms, the fells and dales and moors, the sheep and ravens. The North.

We bolted out of Manchester straight up the M6 to Lancaster and the row house where we lived on St. Mary’s Parade in front of the Castle. Not much has changed in this gritty county town but the University which was muddy roads and two colleges in 1968 is now vast, unrecognizable with a –GASP—huge sports complex and 20,000 students, half foreign born.  The manager of the Horse and Carriage Hotel where we stayed on St. George’s Quay was however the son of the pub masters in Lonsdale College where we spent much time.


St. Mary’s Parade

Waking to what the locals call “filthy” weather where the black clouds seem a few feet from your head we remembered why we left years ago; continuing north to the Lake District. Then the preternatural gloom lifted, gloriously revealing a perfect autumn day in the high fells with Cumbrian mountains cloaked in muted colors reflected in the still lakes. The sky with its swiftly changing clouds and fluorescent surreal lighting sets this landscape apart from all the others in the world.  Right out of a Pre-Raph painting.

Grasmere, Ambleside, Hawkshead, Coniston, Keswick all have a few too many tea shoppes and Beatrix Potter outlets but commerce cannot ever ruin the staggering natural beauty that lured the poets and painters. We made the pilgrimage to Brantwood John Ruskin’s estate on Coniston Water which we tried to save from the wrecking ball and the University of Texas, successfully so it seems. The English off handed indifferent attempt at commercialism and being (depressingly) children friendly was much appreciated.

At Brantwood

Since The Toffs still rule the roost in old Albion where snobbery and class consciousness are as profound as ever, fancy restaurants are the costly alternatives to chippies. At The Samling on Windermere localism was at its self-conscious height and for 50 quid sans vin one et Morecambe Bay Crab, Cartmel Valley Quail and Salt Marsh Lamb. We didn’t make it this time to Sharrow Bay or Dungeon Ghyll or Miller Howe for there was too much to see and we wanted to move on.

We headed from Penrith to the North Riding of Yorkshire past Barnard Castle and Bowes Museum, both dark and dingy decades ago but now fully restored, then stopped at Eggleston Abbey where the first look at the expanse of North Yorkshire was breathtaking. This is why you come to England. Gorgeous countryside with picturesque ruins of castles and abbeys. Dreamlike, resonant.

The city of York a casualty of demographics, local and foreign, crowded, traffic clogged, ugly and dirty and so different from the beautiful walled town we remember. We attended a long Evensong in the choir of York Minster looking for carved gargoyles under the seats then repaired to The Hole in the Wall for local bitter and steak and ale pie. The option was a free bottle of plonk with two orders from the grill. So WC!

Castle Howard

It was a profound relief to escape just fifteen miles north to the Vanbrugh masterpiece Castle Howard the setting for all those films about the fictional Flyte family from Waugh’s novel Brideshead.  As in 1972 we sat on the great lawn, strolled the thousand acres of Capability Brown’s landscape genius and searched for Hawksmoor’s Temple of the Four Winds, still Gothically untended, blackened and crumbling.

Castle Howard

A quarter million visit annually but apparently not in late October and we had the house to ourselves with workmen who were setting up the outdoor stages and tents for a family celebration the following week. The Castle is inhabited by Simon Howard, his wife Victoria Barnsley, head of Harper Collins UK, and their children Octavia and Martin. According to The Telegraph they expended 250K pounds to entertain guests on the grounds, 200 seated, 200 for a buffet (can hardly imagine the social jockeying here.)

North Yorkshire

Since we had booked no rooms in advance and having sworn off B&Bs forever (shudder) we searched for local hotels. At the quintessential Yorks village Pickering we were advised to try The Feathers in Helmsley. Now that was jolly good luck. Located in Ryedale at the end of the North Yorkshire Moors National Park and in the very centre of the medieval market square it was perfect, especially since our stay coincided with the weekly farmer’s market and the opening season of pheasant hunting. Local squires in Wellies and green tweeds and shotguns at the ready congregated on the square in the morning and in the pubs after a day’s shooting. Up Carlton Bank were the best views of the heather moors with a staggering number of pheasant families, alas with some casualties along the road that the hounds missed that morning.


Close by was Rielvaux Abbey at the valley on the edge of the moors where 900 years ago the first French Cistercian abbey in northern England was established. Monks and geese still walked the grounds of the ruins in the light fog. What more is there to say? Land of abbeys and castles and glorious ruins!


Off we went to Lincoln for a night at the Queen Charlotte Hotel, dark and forbidding with a loud local wedding party — very Breughelesque.  Finally the object of our quest, Cambridge. Cambridge. For thirty years we dreamed about our magical year reading Roger Fry’s papers in the King’s College Library with Quentin Bell who was also sifting through the papers of his teacher. Well in 2012 we were just another tourist, grabbing a beer at the absolutely mobbed Eagle where once we had supped with Sir Geoffrey Elton and now ……..oh never mind. One couldn’t visit old haunts since colleges were closed for half term graduation ceremonies. Punting has become a common activity for the plebes.

Actors in Oxford


Well at least Oxford didn’t have as many memories beyond the drinks in the digs of Richard Cobb at Bailliol or the annual stay at Lawrence Stone’s house in Woodstock. The bloody city was, however, like Cambridge, so swarming with people it was distracting and irritating, a year round tourist trap jumping with film companies and noisy hordes………oh dear.

We chose to stay inWoodstock in the Oxfordshire part of the Cotswolds which reach into six counties with beautiful villages in that honey colored Jurassic limestone. Each county jealously guards its piece of the pie like little chauvinistic principalities.   The Bear an inn in the old part of the town was a good choice and you could see Blenheim out the back door.  Though we were tempted to see another Vanbrugh masterpiece. where the 11th Duke of Marlborough still lives, the tour buses approaching at seven in the morning for a day on the grounds was discouraging.

Thence to Chipping Norton deemed a Set with residents like that creepy phone hacking journalist Rebekah whatever her name, the Prime Minister and other self made millionaires is an an upper crust town where the local tea shops offer excellent coffee and no bacon butties but fresh spinach and goat cheese eggs.

The Feathers

We raced past Stratford on Avon so quaint those years ago and now a logistics nightmare driving straight to Warwick Castle which had become more Disney than Disneyland, a theme park for thousands of children in Halloween mode, the worst single example of ersatz commercialism in England, tacky, over the top, absurd. We fled.

Then the weather let us down completely and the dark skies glowered for the last three days so no hope of seeing the Shropshire and Cheshire countryside which vanished in the mist. Burton on the Wold was barely visible in the white fog which lifted a wee bit at Moreton-le-Marsh an ancient market town with wonderful 18th century townhouses now housing fine shops. We bought some Wensleydale cheese and chutney for lunch then viewed the  Celia Lendis Gallery with Steve Mitchell’s paintings far more sophisticated than anything in River North and furniture stores to rival Manifeso.

Helmsley Hunters


Inching closer to Manchester we stayed in Shrewsbury in despair at having utterly mistaken that it was Ludlow and the Feathers where we wished to visit not this dowdy old town with the Prince Rupert Hotel right out of a 50s Tyrone Power flic.Oh well Chester was like Lancaster and Cambridge– largely unrecognizable. Located on the Welsh border and undecided whether to drive to Conway Castle we settled for thousand year old  Chester Cathedral and a walk along the roman walls then had lunch at the Chester Grosvenor a respite from the shoppers and the loud live music outside.

 Royal Lytham St.Anne’s Golf Course the site of  British Opens and a private club did not allow entrance to the clubhouse because of our friend’s sneakers and athletic pants.

Located near St.Anne’s a windy Irish Sea “resort” town, really a mini Blackpool or Morecambe with the early Beatles melancholia of lost working class lives, silted over sands on the beach, eternal fish and chips and bitters.

Lakeland Fells


England always resonates with us as with every literate person on the planet, because of its language and literature. One cannot imagine life without the Written English Word from Beowulf  to James Herriot from Thirsk, Yorks. We took Churchills’s  African Journal from 1908 along for reading on the long uncomfortable flight (never again to coach seating) and was overwhelmed by the beauty of his prose.

Love the Times, the Telegraph with their judicious blend of news and gossip, not to mention the Court Circulars.The big story was the dead entertainer Jimmy Savile’s purported pedophilia, rather ghoulish finger pointing at the BBC who Penn State like knew and did not tell.

Downton Abbey not as popular as in America though we saw upcoming episodes due here next year. A hundred years ago those Howards and Marlboroughs employed over 1/3rd of the English population so the life of service hits rather too close to home in England.

Piers Morgan a “transatlantic chatshow host” who has hung himself with his book The Insider revealing knowledge of hacking apparently.

Conrad Black the “tricky Teflon coated fraudster” unable to escape the “fragrant” extravagant wife and looking flabby and truculent, determined to return to the House of Lords, which is silly anyway.

Premier of the Bond flic with Chester lad Daniel Craig sour and churlish with the fans.

The Middleton family’s Party Pieces doing 007 theme parties and a general Hands Off Kate and Wills in the press.

The hard working royals helicoptering all over the counties all the time as in Charles at a Shropshire art gallery amused that his wife bought a painting of a chicken (yes, she loves them!) and quipping that he simply cannot control her.

Some Photos


St.John’s GradBuskers


Temple of the Four Winds


Portrait of Simon Howard


St. Oswald’s Church

Herdwick Sheep



J.Atkinson’s, Lancaster


Chester Cathedral

Rob at Horse & Wagon



Ruskin at Brantwood


Golfing in Gaylord


August 1, 2012



Treetops in Gaylord

The relentless heat propelled us 350 miles north to Gaylord, Michigan, 20 degrees cooler, into absolutely beautiful countryside. Accompanied by The Golfer we quickly discovered that golf courses are among the most stunning landscaped settings in the civilized world. Disregarding those sandy depressions called bunkers there we were amidst rolling moraines, undulating greens, wide expanses of bright green fairways, blue spruce, purple Scots thistles, wildflowers and wild turkeys.

The destination was Treetops Golf Resort,  3,500 acres of five championship courses, and 81 holes to anguish over, a golfer’s paradise. The word had spread. On this gorgeous weekend there were hundreds and hundreds of men (spotted two women) on the courses, in the clubhouses, in the bars and eateries on the site, so many in fact that one caused to remark it was like a golf factory.

Much has to do with the reputation of the proprietor Rick Smith who has a mammoth reputation as a golf instructor. He is the architect of three of the courses including The Signature we played with the greens all going downhill on the front nine and uphill on the back. Though the elevation of the terrain is only 1,300 feet it is cannily designed to seem far steeper. In the winter Treetops becomes a ski resort northern Michigan being right in the snow belt.

Restaurant in Gaylord

No doubt we have been spoiled by the word resort, recalling the American Club in Kohler or Eagle Ridge in Galena so the spare rather tired Inn and Lodge at Treetops were a real disappointment. A smart hotel chain would swoop this property up with the Fazio and Jones and Par 3 courses and create a destination resort. As it is the hotel/motel is a men’s club for golfers who want to pop a few beers and catch a few winks before the next round.

Speaking of tired, well there’s dear old Gaylord.  We remember it as a posh, vibrant little village 30 years ago before the wholesale desertion of small towns and the appearance of Best Buy, addiction counselors and psychics. It still retains some Alpine Village motifs from the 50s with Tyrolean style buildings such as the Sugar Bowl, circa 1919, now a Greek restaurant. We were assured the best place in town was Bennethum’s Northern Inn, a lot of cedar and fatty chain fare with hefty wine and beer prices.

Signature Course

We longed for more sophisticated places like Petoskey (no, not Traverse City). By the by, Tribune writer J.B. Noel claims that Petoskey hasn’t changed much since Hemingway went there as a child. Yoicks.  Hem would turn over in his grave to see that the fresh green wilderness has become a sea of malls and condos. In the summer the entire Lake Michigan coast is a rumble of tourists roaming the streets looking for their next meal. They say Wisconsin the fattest state but hard to imagine fatter women anywhere than in Michigan. Actually amazing. Why does rural America breed potato ladies? The guys look OK.

Steppenwolf ‘s Three Sisters

What were they thinking? Chekov’s Three Sisters, the current production at Steppenwolf, is another one of those impossible conceits that show a desire to be different at all costs. Lionized playwright Tracy Letts rewrote the language of the 19th century Russian master of ponderous phrases and philosophical musings for characters who blurt “Life sucks”, “I’m pissed off” and …you get the idea. OK fine we get it but why dress them in 19th century costume and direct them with ritualized melodramatic gestures and phrasing? It doesn’t connect with the audience who tried to make sense of it. Some just fell asleep.

Steppenwolf Intermission

It is the reverse mode, but ultimately the same attempt at newness as Branagh’s Shakespearean flics that retain the Bard’s language and place his characters in anachronistic settings such as Coriolanus in Croatia or Hamlet in 21st century New Yawk. Spare us!

For Art’s Sake

We see the LA Museum of Contemporary Art will be using freelance curators after the Jeffrey Deitch Debacle. Whatever the case do try and remember that most contemporary art is not about heightening experience but creating portable collectibles, like new gold. Of course manufacturing big reputations is essential in all this process. For the 99% who don’t amass portable collectible objects it’s pretty much bollocks though to be fair  it does give tourists something to do after lunch and shopping.

So much collecting is like peasants hording potatoes in the 30 Year’s War. A hedge against disaster which is on everyone’s mind these days.

There still however plenty of room for modest proposals and unpretentious art to enhance our lives and the spaces we inhabit. This is where the colorful, impasto rich paintings of Tom O’Gormancome in. His current show Dublin

Oscar Tatosian and Brian White

Tenement drew a large crowd at Kiki’s  including Oscar Tatosian, Brian White, Cynthia Olsen, John Buck (remember the great star of 80s real estate?), Tom Gorman, Bob O’Neill et. al.

Cancer Charities

The Lynn Sage Cancer Cancer Research Foundation threw its third annual Summer Soiree at Roka Akor on Clark on a blistering hot night so no wonder most of the young ladies worse minimal couture . Proceeds went to Northwestern’s Lurie Cancer Center and the crowd was overflowing. It was however such a relief to escape the wilting sushi  to the superb Naha across the street.  Hear there is a French restaurant from the group set to open grace a Dieu – there is currently no good Gallic fare in Chicago.

Entre nous we are always a tad insulted by some PR staff who treat the media like gate crashers. We really don’t need those free pink designer cocktail, dears. We actually are interested in covering important charities.

We see the Sun Times is media sponsor for some American Cancer Society and Service Club events. There used to be a dividing line between charities and media but not anymore apparently. Oh well, times and ethics change.

Lynn Sage Foundation Board

Then there is the sudden shutdown of Y-Me breast cancer organization which prompted a call by Sen. Ira Silverstein for the state’s attorney general to investigate the charity. “Given the size of the organization, the number of people involved and the importance of their work, I think there should be some accountability,” he said. He was among the more than 20,000 people who participated in the May 13th walk which did not do as well as in previous years. Some said it was a public reaction to the Susan Komen brouhaha.


We hope you are reading Caitlin Rodwell’s field journal from Namibia at scientistatwork/nytimes for updates about Paula the outcast elephant mother and her baby Bruce. It is actually amazing there is any wildlife left in Africa considering the poaching and the destruction of the environment.  At the annual Newberry book sale we bought Wildflower by Mark Seal, about conservationist and filmmaker extraordinaire Joan Root who was murdered in Kenya/Tanzania as were other Western ecologists Dian Fossey, Joy Adamson, and George Adamson. Little hope for our eles so it seems.

Sooooooo comical to witness the pushing and shoving of book-seeking  bargain hunters in full crazy mode at this annual sale. We also bought the Memoirs of the Duc de Saint Simon, the Rise and Fall of the British Aristocracy by David Cannadine, some old Kenya settler memoirs and a book about the English Lake District.

Getting and Spending we lay waste our powers.

Wordsworth knew the score. The current administration is the biggest spender in world history with federal outlay 25.2% of our GNP. The trillion dollar stimulus package – well we suppose it got us some fresh tarmac and plants on the North Avenue exit from Lake Shore Drive, but really!!!! Stanford’s John Taylor rightly notes that the short term stimulus package and temporary tax rebates (and what about that preposterous cash for clunkers nonsense?) caused much of our economic misery with short-term Band Aids.

Bundler update: See Kevin Conlon is at it again; there’s the  Cubs’ Laura Ricketts, a host of LGBT bundlers  including Andrew Tobias and Fred Eychaner, Les Coney,  Charles Lewis, Penny Pritzker who has bundled somewhere between 200 and 500 thousand pas beaucoup. Desiree Rogers is taking a pass on bundling but is helping others bundle. According to Money mag we’re the top for numbers of millionaires (40% of global total) followed by Japan,China, GB and Germany. About 20%  have inherited their wealth here. So there.

Black Crowned Night Heron

Local News

Next time you’re on Montrose which could be the cutest street in Chicago pop into Nick Spencer’s Jolly Posh for some Heinz Beans and other British foodstuffs. Then go on a few block west to Alapash Home at 1944 West for Marco Chavarry’s circular terrariums. We frequent Elena at KE Salon which outperforms the downtown hair joints hands down – the ones that charge you an extra $45 to clip two hairs and another $45 to dry it after laying down $100 for a couple of blond streaks.

What happened to the Carleton Club in the Ritz? We were to go to lunch there last week with Marie Tyler only to find it was moved in to a back room off the café in the lobby. We did order lunch in the café presided over by the divine Pierre but we miss the greenery, the foliage and multileveled design of the space which today suffers from the inexplicable hotel redesign mania of  the past few years where everything became beige and stripped to essentials.

Trattoria Trullo on Lincoln Square is a fine place for Puglian cuisine with its light touch. The eggplant dishes are like clouds not the leaden parm fare we’re used to. Also love the old photos of Bari, the Adriatic farmers and the land where so many of our ancestors here originated. Bella.

See Stella Foster is about to leave the media spotlight. When we departed Spotlight those years ago the change from being loudly pursued to total silence was instantaneous.  In fact the very next day we were turned away from the opening of Planet Hollywood by the very person who had thrown us a grand party for Spotlight.

Gail and Jonathon at Parrish benefit

Thanks to Lincoln Park for protecting the black crowned night heron, and endangered species in Illinois. Walkers gladly forgo a few hundred yards of fenced in path for our feathered friends.

The Parrish Art Museum in Southampton held a swell summer soiree for the new museum, which looks like an elongated Long Island barn. But no one throws a party like the East Enders south of the highway.





Maryland, Monticello


July 10, 2010

Blue RIdge Mountains

Apologies for the delay in posting but travelling east in the summer inferno of 2012 was enervating to say the least. The single most unforgettable image of the excursion was the alarming 115 on the car’s temperature gauge en route from D.C. to Richmond, Virginia. Sans blague.

We drove from Chicago to Baltimore, cutting the trip in half at Morgantown, West Virginia whose forlorn Lakeview Golf Resort had no soap in the room, scarce grass on the greens, and very drunk patrons in the Legends Tiki Bar. The lone waitress was also looped and spilled balsamic on our white shorts. The next day the high rolling country of Western Maryland, with hills up to 3,000 feet, and the Crepe Myrtle’s perpetual fuchsia, made for a stunning ride –the first of many in this part of the country.




Cumberland, Maryland, named for the county in the English Lake District where the first settlers originated,(there’s also a Westmorland County) was the second largest city in the state at the turn of the 20th century and now has 22,000 souls in the middle of nowhere. Hard Times are here amidst  the pre- WWI civic buildings now with boarded up antique shops or coffee houses with bluegrass concert posters (all current) and aging hippies serving Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee at four bucks a pop.

The mid Atlantic states seem like one vast American history theme park with an emphasis on Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields and monuments.  Twenty years ago we fought Disney’s efforts to build an artificial history theme park at Manassas but it appears local authorities have done it themselves by designating every downtown or  battlefield historic landmarks.

Chainsaw Art

Antietam National Battlefield saw the bloodiest battle of the Civil War where McClellan and Longstreet condemned to death 23,000 men  running head first into one another with muskets blasting; the confrontation which commenced at little Dunker Church, still standing, gave the Union the upper hand in the Civil War much to the chagrin of visitors in long beards  and overalls – and their motorcycle mates. Melancholy acre after melancholy acre of wooden fences over acres and acres of rolling field — all this memento mori not our cuppa. Besides has history ever taught any country a preventive lesson? Ha!

Baltimore! The beginning of the south. Our boat tour of the Inner Harbor revealed the best waterfront renovation we’ve ever seen and that includes Boston’s. A busy working seaport with trawlers unloading a million tons of raw cane sugar to Domino’s and Fort McHenry where Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics for the Star Spangled Banner when the English bombarded the fort in 1814. Then there are the new Ritz Carlton condos and other fancy residential developments close by the retired destroyers and oil tankers. Can’t imagine what……oh well. And yes, before Ellis Island Baltimore was the point of entry for immigrants since the end of the 17th century, our’s included.

Inner Harbor

We headed straight for crab shacks in years past on Chesapeake hols. No more. Alas, local crab fishing in season only a memory with the terribly polluted waters of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the largest estuary in North America which covers six states. Crabs are now imported from Texas and Louisiana because pollution from farms, waste water facilities, power plants is killing the bay. The beautiful Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michael’s on the eastern shore of the state was non committal about the source of the crab cakes so we drove to Tighlman Island which is another social and cultural world completely from the manicured neighbor across the wee bridge.

New York

Viand on Madison

Amtrak cancelled the Baltimore-New York train at the last minute so hopped a bus which rolled through the New Jersey industrial wasteland and stalled in the smoke filled Lincoln Tunnel. Flash of remembrance why we left the crowded East coast. The Fitzpatrick Hotel at Grand Central did have soap and sober tourists and was celtically delightful, a touch of ye old Europe with screaming soccer fans in the Wheel tapper bar.An Irish lass reminded us we should be thankful for the 100 degree/100% humidity compared with the great rainy skies of old Eire and the prospect of ruined crops this year. Something to think about. It is after all summer in the States.

Class of Nineteen Sixty

We boarded the LIRR to Rockville Center to see classmates had not seen in 50 years. Yup half a century. They looked happy and prosperous and within minutes we were back in St. Albans, Queens talking about the nuns at St. Pascal’s. New Yorkers are wry and sophisticated and instantly recognizable anywhere. Something to do with the worldly attitude and candor.

Early Sunday morning we walked from 44th to say hello to the Met on 86th. By then it was too hot to even walk up the long steps so went two blocks farther to say another hello to 1040 Fifth Avenue, once the home of Jacqueline Kennedy. All the blather about the comedy shtick writer Nora Ephron as the quintessential New Yorker…. not our New York.  It was always Jackie.

Ten Forty Fifth

Why Bloomberg, the best mayor in America, from his aeries on the Upper East, Southampton or Wellington, Florida permits tacky, dirty street fairs is beyond us. And in front of the Waldorf! Perhaps like us all he figures summer is just for the visiting hicks whose young have a penchant for falling asleep on the sidewalks.

The Central Park Zoo still there with the same old seals and extravagantly long queues since you seems to need a ticket for anything and everything in 2012 which has four times the population of 1960.  The world has changed no matter where you go it the same. No tickie. No shirtie.




Sigh! Alas! Fifteen years ago we drove up the 760 foot hill on a cool autumnal day to see Monticello atop the Piedmont Hills in Charlottesville, Virginia. After a pint or two at the Michie Tavern where Jefferson’s guests stayed farther down the hill we strolled into the Palladian house and moseyed around the plantation, marveling at the gardens , learning about horticulture, dismayed by the slave’s quarters. Using imagination we entered the spirit of the 18th century, intoxicating, and vowed to return one day to the home of the kindred spirit who could not live without books or wine.

Terrace farming Monticello

That day came this week but all was different. Very different indeed. We had to wait our turn in the hot crowds which at ten minute intervals were shuttled up to the house where children herded us into roped confines until our 9.20 slot opened. We always always loathed guided tours and balked then learned you could not even see the bloody house without the guided tour so we paid the 24 bucks and joined 25 annoyed strangers in our time slot time to see the tiny rooms (yes, Monticello is very small–and for a family of 14!)  for four minutes per room of infantile commentary about Jefferson’s favorite ice cream, commodes etc. Besides all the thousands and thousands continuously stomping on 200 year old floor boards is a preservationist’s nightmare.

There is now a Visitor’s Center, an Education Center with “interactive” exhibits, a theatre, a welcome pavilion, a museum, an information kiosk, a discovery room, a shop – all geared for grammar school or middle school children. On the same trip to Monticello those fifteen or twenty years ago we saw also visited Mount Vernon, Washington’s much grander estate, and had same ghastly experience a year or two ago with the same plethora of educational claptrap in our bafflingly child -centered society.

Powhatan Interior

Jamestown and Williamsburg

In any event we had never visited the first English settlement (given that Roanoke Island disappeared several years before) in America, Jamestown where in May of 1607 104 men and boys disembarked on the James River inlet and declared the land of the Powhatan Indians a colony of King James. What a mellow beautiful sight it must have been after four months on a wooden ship the Susan Constant with miniscule quarters in cavernous depths. What unthinkable courage they must have had – or maybe they were just escaping religious persecution and indentured slavery.


Hard not to hear the cliché “hallowed ground” reverberate on land that was settled years before Plymouth and the Mayflower in 1620. Virginia, named for the Virgin Queen, is where America really begins. An early morning drive down Old Colonial Road is the best approach to the national park with its 50 states memorial and the Powhatan Village replica await after you’ve run through the mandatory brand new educational exhibition building.

Thence to Williamsburg which from 1699 to 1780 was the seat of English power in the colonies. It was too scorching to walk the whole  Historic Area so we missed the Governor’s Palace three looooong blocks away from the parking lot but the 18th century buildings were perfectly restored and now house shoppes like Talbot’s or Williams Sonoma and other all the recognizable brands. Dinner at the Shield’s Tavern was however rather wonderful — beef in ale, meat pasties .pork shank and crab-like cakes with mace eaten in cool dark rooms with only candlelight. Now that’s the idea!!

In Virginia

At least we could still drive unfettered and uneducated through the mountains, Nothing much can ruin Nature and we blessed whatever Roosevelt was responsible for the 100 miles of the Shenandoah National Park’s scenic drive where the Blue Ridge Mountains rise to 3600 feet and really are blue. These are the hills that Jefferson saw from Monticello and regretted there was no body of water in the view.

Front Royal at the northern end of the park has a Stonewall Jackson Restaurant if you can believe it with the Confederate quote “If this Valley is lost, Virginia is lost”. This is backwoods Maryland a big theater in the Civil War and it may not be Mississippi but it is still the South, no doubt about it.

Outside the hospitality of Baltimore friends we were forced to stay in lodgings— avoid the Comfort Inn,  the even worse Clarion;  for the identical cost if not cheaper the Courtyard by Marriott or the Crowne Plaza far far better. The Hiltons are always booked solid so cannot comment. From Hagerstown we headed back north, a grueling 12 hour drive on the Penn Turnpike (the Ho Chi Minh Trail) and Ohio Turnpike, death defying driving on narrow lanes always under construction.

Kingsmill in Virginia

Shocking headlines all over the country about Chicago’s violent crimes rise of 38% in one year.  When asked where we’re from we say Illinois never mentioning Chicago which unleashes commentary, still today, about Al Capone, crime, murder. Some things never change. Washington Post’s George Wills comments that the Merchandise Mart looks like a gigantic architectural Stonehenge and laments Rahm’s “roughneck reputation and stevedore’s profanity”. Christ – why doesn’t he just stop swearing? His ideas and actions fine, especially the 7 billion infrastructure privatization so why let style get in the way?

A propose of which this is our blog and we’re allowed a wee rant, no? American productivity was  great from 1973-2009 but median wages didn’t come close to matching the gains and today America today is a slow growth entitlement society. FDR style handouts do not address the problem of dynamic growth essential for our economy. Pathetic. If anything it impedes progress. OK that’s it.

Back to travel wrap up, one is getting the decided feeling that there really is no real travel anymore in  homogeneous America—maybe not in the whole world for that matter. Travel is simply the much needed psychological necessity of moving about in a static world…not so much what you’re seeing but the fact you’re seeing it and far from home. It is refreshing but addictive as a drug – as soon as you get home you want to move again. And yes, there’s a Birkenstock shoe store, a thousand bucks a night hotel and 12 flights a week to Easter Island. No wonder we  have to go to Mars.







Sarasota and South

March 25, 2012

On Sarasota Bay

The gigantic oaks on Sarasota Bay spewed unprecedented yellow clouds of pollen, months early. Worst allergy season and hottest March on record. What’s happening? We laughed at Al Gore, maybe because he was Al Gore, but is this global warming or is it just the usual cyclical weather changes since recorded time? No one seems to know.

Perennial sunshine in perpetually blue skies, endless blue water under arching white bridges linking island after island, pink and peach stucco buildings, yellow hibiscus and yellow butterflies. A month in Florida promised heaven. Island fever. Must move here pronto. The tropics, land of millions of cranes, osprey, bald eagles, pelicans, an infinite variety of sea gulls, vultures, yes them too, roseate spoonbills, massing outside one’s window. 

Florida, land of beautiful flowers, has lured the white man since the 16th century. The Seminole and Colusa have never forgiven us. Five hundred years after Ponce de Leon set foot the primordial swampland has almost 20 million residents, quadrupled in numbers since 1960. Over 2/3rds were not born here. Then there are the 80 million tourists every year, so at any one time about 27 million people inhabit the 4th most populous state which ranks 26th in size. The bloody place is crowded.

LA caliber traffic jams, oceans of trailer parks, revolting monotonous strip malls with all the usual big box suspects, and development after development, gated community after gated community, golf course after golf course. The ultimate development is Lakewood Ranch near Sarasota a master planned community, a new suburb wholly created from scratch since 1995 with everything included– schools, polo grounds, hospitals, 20 churches, recreational “wilderness” areas, the Ritz Carlton golf course and a downtown like a movie set.

Irresistible urge to re-read Brave New World , the bizarre vision of a writer horrified at commercialism and planned communities. Aldous Huxley’s turgid black comedy of a soma-drugged society didn’t age well however and failed to be anything but a curiosity from the 1930s.

Speaking of communities, if you know of a child anywhere from 8 to 18 who does not fit into the academic mold and who has some athletic talent look into the IMG Academies in Bradenton which combines academics with sports. Beautiful campus and facilities for tennis, (the Willliams sisters were students) baseball, basketball, soccer, lacrosse and of course golf, golf, now the focus of neuroscientists.

Quick tour of crowded Cancun-like Siesta Key voted #1 best beach in the world and only one of five in Florida allowing booze though that is soon to change after a drunk driver killed a local. Big local news item as was the trial of two Brits murdered last year when they strayed into the Newtown projects in Sarasota.

The Gulf Coast attracts Midwesterners, working class Brits escaping their roots and joining cricket clubs, Ontarians, and now thousands of Czechs. This area was settled in the 18th century by Scots but it was the indefatigable social engine Berthe Palmer who put it on the map creating a land development company and extending the railroad to Sarasota and Venice. But the real reason to visit is the Ringling Museum of Art.

John Ringling brought his circus here for winter headquarters in 1927 and built a Venetian Gothic mansion Ca’D’ Zan on 66 acres of Asian banyan trees and rose gardens. He bequeathed to the city of Sarasota a truly grand museum with a staggering collection of great Western European paintings, Titian, Veronese, even the rare Piero di Cosimo’s The Building of a Palace. French, Flemish, Rubens and more Rubens including 75 engravings, English masters, Lawrence and Reynolds, a Breughel and El Greco for God’s sake, five early Duchamps which were a revelation (he couldn’t really paint which is probably why he chose the other absurdist path) and the Astor mansion’s salon and library. When the Age of Innocence homes were being torn down in the 20s John Ringling bought their contents as well.

St. Armand’s Circle, once tony now T-shirt shoppes and Aussies selling blue “surrealistic” glossy paintings and Kilwins ice cream. It has undergone a startling change since 2007 when we were last here. The Age of Optimism and Plenty has passed. Empty storefronts signal the new reality.

Fifth annual Chill Out on Palm Avenue in Sarasota could have been Rush Street … tanned guys in pony tails and Hawaiian shirts, not the sockless loafers and Pink shirts of the Palm Beach uniform (Wilbur Ross should put his socks on and wear dark suits). And the girls in ubiquitous S&M bondage stilettos, with black tights and décolleté. No pastel Lily Pulitzer look anyway.

Florida has prairie, marshes, wetlands, a fabulous and unique ecosystem. At the Myakka River State Park a few miles down the road, a refuge. True wilderness or as much as one can expect today with scores of black alligators and blue herons, sand hill cranes and white egrets; when we pass by in the tour boat powered by a 1975 Cadillac engine on the freshwater lake one lone gator scout swam out to assess the danger, hissing and rattling. We didn’t see any of the wisely covert 2,000 resident feral hogs or the bobcats, wild turkeys and foxes but were warned that 300 local black vultures love rubber and might eat our tires. These fat fellows arrived after a massive fish kill two years ago and decided to stay, so stuffed with fish they could not fly away. Myakka River was only three feet deep in this drought year, and can rise to 15 in normal times.

St. Petersburg along the restored lakefront still rather patrician with the 1924 Vinoy Hotel a vestige of Old Florida before the Depression when Florida collapsed not to revive until the post War years. And then there’s the new Dali Museum. Yes however incongruous the city bid for the honor to house the Morse Reynolds collection of the strangely awful paintings of the surrealist poseur. We happily forewent the $25 admission fee and strayed around the grounds and lobby– would pay that much not to look at Dali. The HOK + Beck Group located the building above the flood plane with reinforced 18” thick concrete walls protecting the contents from Category 5 hurricanes and 165mph winds.

March is Seagrass Awareness Month in Florida. Like everything else from the world before man, it is in danger of disappearing– like the white sands of Venice which are eroding at a record rate. My God the Mexican iguanas are eating the leaves the Miami Blue butterflies lay their eggs on. Those damned Burmese pythons, pets released into the swamps are devouring many species in the Everglades and beyond.

Florida being invaded by alien species is nothing new of course but it is always threatened, mostly as we know from utterly mindless development of recent decades. Now late in the day many in the state are trying to manage the wilderness that remains.

Fifth Avenue Naples, our first time, very art-glassy and Italian bistro-y. Manicured concrete, manicured greenery, manicured everything. A bit like Oak Brook or Naperville with fine weather, though must say just a cursory glance since we quickly drove through it, anxious to board the Everglades Excursion bus at the docks for a long tour to the largest national park in the country. For some reason we remembered from our youth glass bottomed boats and clear blue waters with gorgeous fish but maybe we were thinking about the Caribbean and it got mixed up in the forge of memory.

Clear blue waters is the farthest thing from the muddy brown rivers and streams meandering in an infinite maze, a labyrinth in a million acres. If you got lost in the mangroves your body would be found years later half eaten by alligators or panthers or wild boar or whatever else are in this true wilderness.

A local lad acting and sounding like a Cajun cowboy (they overdo the Central Casting role a bit to impress the slickers) took us on an hour’s 30 mph joyride in a rickety plastic skiff through the narrow maze screeching through the shallow waters. He seemed to enjoy our terror but we gave him the requested tip anyway. Back on the bus through the dry prairie grasses we visited the Big Cypress Swamp with a few little alligators, and as it Myakka with the other animals hiding from view. Everglades City which was as bleak as can be imagined. The other Florida. Poor non coastal Florida of the past, a village after gas warfare or the A bomb. The driver said that 2/3rd of the men in the town had been involved in the drug trade and were arrested when the Feds cleaned things up a few years ago.

Sanibel rather Malthusian. The Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge takes up half of the island thanks to the Pulitzer cartoonist foreseeing the future from the 1930s preserved the northern half of the island for a bird refuge and created a moat and drawbridge to keep the visitors away. We rented a bicycle under the 90 degree sun and braved heatstroke until we fell off in Ding’s preserve and lost our camera. That was it – no Captiva to see Rauschenberg’s fish shack and 35 acre estate. Next time, maybe.

We read Barbara Rinella was Cleopatra in Bonita Springs, and that Leslie Hindman sponsored a lecture series at the Von Liebing Art Center on art appraisals. RED is all over the place, the play of the season temporarily replacing Hello Dolly; some Noel Coward always trotted out in southwest Florida, there are opera and symphonies and Charo, Lucie Arnaz, Debbie Reynolds, Tony Bennett and some of the Opryland commercial confections. (Shocker to see that place on the ride home).

Back at the rented manse on Sarasota Bay we discovered several 1959 American Horizon collections. PG Wodehouse’s “My World and What Happened To It” about the scourge of second sons, knuts, “a group of ornamental young men whom the ravens fed.” Such divine affectation from Long Island. Loved George Plimpton’s interview with Hemingway in 1958 Havana with the writer’s irritated replies and annoyed disdain at the exhausting and unanswerable questions. Hem always wrote at first light (he quotes himself amusingly) till he reached about 500 words then spent the rest of the day being a celebrity with famous friends and disdaining tourists.

On the 1,200 mile drive back to Chicago stayed the night in run down Chattanooga, Tennessee one place that hasn’t changed in 50 years and probably should have though entre nous it was rather refreshing after the rich dessert of Florida.

Everglades City

Sunset on the Bay