Exploring the Desert: Hiking Through America’s Southwestern Landscapes

A road trip through southern Nevada and southern California was in store for my mother, brother, and me this past summer.  I planned our itinerary and driving routes with specific emphasis on experiencing a variety of landscapes.  Famous for sprawling metropolises, a mirage of interstates, and pop culture, this area of America also offers pristine natural surroundings and plenty of outdoor activities.  Take advantage of a hike if you are headed west this fall!  Temperatures cooling down and summer crowds subsiding makes autumn an ideal time for exploring the desert.

Your trip will be most successful here by planning ahead, researching available trails, and creating a feasible driving outline.  Note that most rental car companies only allow drivers over 25 years old.  (My mother was our only legal driver; despite a few instances of hyperventilation on 18-lane Los Angeles freeways, I am proud of her stamina.)  Enjoy!

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Keystone Thrust Trail

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area; Las Vegas, Nevada

Found midway on the area’s one-way 13-mile scenic loop road, this is an awesome hike to experience several fascinating desert landscapes.  The Keystone Thrust is an amazing geological feature that exposes both the Pacific and North American continental plates.  Vivid rock colors and textures are on full display from centuries of tectonic plate movement.  The most common type of rock featured is Aztec sandstone, the foundation of the area’s dramatic mountain vistas.  The expansive valley, filled with interesting stones and brush less than 2 feet high, seems to stretch endlessly to the horizon.  The trail winds up a gradual ascent with stunning scenery in all directions.  The Las Vegas skyline can also be seen in the distance on a clear day.  Red Rock Canyon is located approximately 30 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip and is easily accessible from the city.  Red Rock Canyon’s official website provides ample information for visitors – http://www.redrockcanyonlv.org.


 Desert View Trail

Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness; Palm Springs, California

Mount San Jacinto majestically rises above the desert floor reminiscent of an ancient Egyptian sphinx.  The enormous land mass is plainly visible from Palm Springs and surrounding areas.  A hiker’s dream awaits in the pristine 14,000-acre wilderness atop the mountain.  A forty-degree temperature drop is a glorious respite from the desert heat.  The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway transports guests along Chino Canyon to the 8,516 feet-elevated Mountain Station, which houses a few shops, restaurants, theatres, and observation decks.  From there, endless trails are readily accessible.  The Desert View Trail loops through the wilderness and offers five “notches” with jaw-dropping vistas of the San Jacinto mountain range, Palm Springs, and the wide Coachella Valley far below.  Towering trees, huge rocks, and vivid greenery contribute to Mount San Jacinto’s common reference as “an island in the sky”.  Visit www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=636 for seasonal hikes and further state park information.


Painted Canyon Hike

Mecca, California

This unique hike is well off the beaten path, but worth every second once found.  Located near the small town of Mecca east of Palm Springs, the last four and a half miles of Painted Canyon’s access road is total sand.  A reliable vehicle is a necessity to find this hike’s trailhead!  The Painted Canyon trail is also desert sand, which makes for a memorable hiking experience.  Stones positioned in the shape of arrows in the sand guide hikers along the way.  Towering red rocks occupy both sides of the trail, with some passages so narrow one must turn sideways to pass through!  How the earth formed these natural passes and crevices is amazing.  Ladders installed by the Palm Springs Hiking Association make steep sections more manageable.  The end reward is a sweeping view of the Coachella Valley with the Salton Sea in the distance.  Find more details about Painted Canyon’s location at www.hiking-in-ps.com/mecca-hills-painted-canyon-ladder-canyon-hike.


Razor Point Trail and Beach Trail

Torrey Pines State Reserve; San Diego, California

Between San Diego and Del Mar, Torrey Pines State Reserve offers several hiking trails winding along dramatic sandstone cliffs with views of the Pacific Ocean.  The spot is named for the distinct pines dotting the ocean in this area of the state.  1,500 acres of land are protected here with several species of seabirds using the lagoons and beaches as a refuge.  There is a nominal fee for the reserve’s numerous parking lots, which are located at sea level and at higher elevations for cliff access.  The Razor Point Trail’s highlight is the Yucca Point Overlook with views of extensive sage brush, native yucca flowers, and striking sandstone erosion.  A descent of 300 feet is found on the Beach Trail, offering access to the Pacific waters.  A recommended plan is to park at the reserve’s northern entrance, take advantage of a cliffside trail, descend to the beach, and walk back to the parking lot with the waves hitting your feet.  This unique location is a pleasant break from the busyness of southern California’s coastal communities.  Next door is the famous PGA-related Torrey Pines Golf Course for any golf enthusiasts who may be traveling through the area.  Trail maps and area information are located at torreypine.org.


Catalina Garden to Sky Trail

Avalon, California

Catalina Island is shrouded with intrigue because of its history as an escape for celebrities and locals alike.  Getting to the most famous of California’s Channel Islands is half the fun.  Located approximately 25 miles from Los Angeles’ coastline, Catalina is only accessible by ferry.  The island’s appearance on the horizon from the morning fog signals an awesome experience for a traveler.  Avalon, Catalina’s principle town, is likened to those along the Mediterranean Sea because of its interesting architecture, structures built into the steep cliffs, and large harbor filled with boats of all shapes and sizes.  The Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Gardens is located at the opposite end of Avalon Valley from Avalon.  Chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. worked to conserve Catalina in the early 20th century and a large, aggregate stone memorial was built here in his honor.  Access is included to the Garden to Sky Trail, which winds through Catalina’s hills and culminates with a 360-degree view of the island and deep blue ocean waters.  Visit Catalina’s official visitor site for more information – www.visitcatalinaisland.com.




Jazz It Up This Summer by Experiencing the Crescent City!

Hanging moss.  Iron balconies.  Jazz.  Mouth-watering cooking.  Southern charm.  All significant parts of American cultural lore.  Ever wonder where these and more facets of American heritage derived?  Take one step into New Orleans and your traveling life will never be the same.  The Crescent City, nicknamed for its strategic location on a large bend of the mighty Mississippi River, is a dream come true for those seeking experiences outside of the norm.  New Orleans is a fascinating melting pot of food, history, and music – a city unlike any other in the world.  Remarkably resilient after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans is alive and vibrant as ever.

The French Quarter is the heart of the Crescent City and defines its eclectic blend of cultures through architecture, eateries, shops, and historic structures.   Established in 1718 by French explorers, the Quarter has been an essential part of New Orleans since its beginnings.  The characteristic iron railings, over-hanging plants, and small, intimate streets add to the Quarter’s charm.  Jackson Square is a communal gathering place.  It is easily recognizable by gardens and a large sculpture of Andrew Jackson on horseback in the center with the river’s edge a stone’s throw away.  The St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo, and the Presbytère nearby are filled with historic items and are open to the public.


Live music seems to be on every corner – amateur jazz musicians blowing horns, playing drums, and singing their hearts out is a thrill to experience.  Hang around the Quarter for an afternoon and a spontaneous parade will inevitably march by.  Lively processions for Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, funerals, and other occasions often sweep passerby on the streets into the fun.

Take a walk down infamous Bourbon Street to take in the tawdry bars and houses of ill repute.  Bourbon Street is energetic any time of the day, but beads thrown from balconies and loud music pouring into the street are more frequent after the sun sets.  The window advertisements and lighted signs are a sight to behold themselves.

No visit would be complete without a stop at Café Du Monde, located on Decatur Street next to the river.  This quaint spot is constantly teeming with patrons anxious to try the Café’s famous beignets (French doughnuts covered in powdered sugar) and coffee laced with chicory.  Guests wearing darker clothes will be light-heartedly pointed out by the wait staff as wearing the wrong color; it is quite a feat to not make a mess from the ever-present powdered sugar on the tables and floors!

The jazz brunch at the Court of Two Sisters on Royal Street is not to be missed.  The French town house-style building itself dates from the early 1800s and was originally intended as an upscale residence.  White tablecloths, large mirrors, and shiny tiled floors flank an enormous buffet filled with Creole and Cajun delicacies.  A huge array of salads, breads, fresh fruits and vegetables, a carving station, and desserts are available to taste.  The turtle soup with sherry, sweet potato salad, and buttermilk biscuits are highly recommended.  Guests are seated either inside or outside in the courtyard where jazz music from live musicians wafts through the air.


(On a personal note, my grandmother dined at the Court of Two Sisters in January 1954.  She was visiting New Orleans to support the West Virginia University Mountaineers playing in the Sugar Bowl against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.  Her picture was taken while sitting in the restaurant’s courtyard by a newspaper photographer.)

The Place d’ Armes Hotel on St. Ann Street is highly recommended for an overnight stay in the Quarter.  Once a school building in the 1700s, this significant structure has been beautifully restored with exposed brick-walled guest rooms and a breakfast area.  The pool and brick courtyard offers a quiet respite from the busyness in Jackson Square down the street.  Check it out  – www.placedarmes.com.

Besides the French Quarter, other city districts are just as unique.  The Garden District’s beautiful mansions are best seen riding the streetcar on St. Charles Avenue.  A past era of southern hospitality surrounds this area of town, with stunning porches just beckoning for mint juleps to be sipped on.  The majestic live oak trees and hanging moss throughout Audubon Park are worth seeing, located at the end of this particular streetcar route.  Browsing Magazine Street’s shops makes for a delightful afternoon walk.  And don’t miss the St. James Cheese Company on Prytania Street.  You will marvel at the impressive collection of cheeses and scrumptious lunch items (and it’s not a bad place to escape the Louisiana heat either!).


The National World War II Museum is also a fabulous stop.  The gigantic multi-building complex transports guests into various war settings with a huge collection of memorabilia, recollections, and audio/video exhibits.  The 4-D film Beyond All Boundaries superbly conveys the terrifying global atmosphere in the early 1940s.  Another pavilion displays several aircrafts used during the war – guests can brave four-story tall catwalks for a glimpse in various cockpits.  An exhibit highlighting Nazi propaganda tactics is on seasonal display loaned from the United States Holocaust Museum.

A plethora of excursions outside of New Orleans are at travelers’ fingertips.  Numerous sprawling plantations located on the Great River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge are open for outings.  Guided bus trips throughout districts affected by Hurricane Katrina point out the city’s ongoing recovery efforts.  Also, trips into the bayous are popular in hopes of wildlife encounters.  Alligators, snakes, turtles, birds, and other creatures are often spotted amidst the thick swamp foliage.  Two recommended tour companies offering a variety of sightseeing options are Jean LaFitte Swamp Tours (www.jeanlafitteswamptour.com) and Cajun Encounters (www.cajunencounters.com).

The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is the gateway to the Crescent City for most Americans.  Flights leaving from Charleston’s Yeager Airport lead here with typically one layover.  A short taxi or Uber ride is ideal for transportation into town.  Come prepared for heat; Louisiana summers are infamously stifling!  Step out of your comfort zone this summer and visit a place steeped in culture like no other!  New Orleans earns a spot on every traveler’s bucket list and fills up the senses without disappointment.

The Hills are Alive: Experience Mountain Bliss at the Trapp Family Lodge This Winter

“I go to the hills when my heart is lonely.”  This text written by Oscar Hammerstein II for the title song in The Sound of Music likely brings to mind Julie Andrews twirling around on her famous mountaintop in the 1965 film.  While many have heard the lyric countless times in passing, the concept lies deep in who I am as a person.  And as a traveler.

I do go to the hills to fill up my heart.  I’ve been drawn to mountains my entire life.  Being privileged to experience many landscapes known for mountains and hills, one holds a special place in my heart.  Nestled in the Green Mountains of Vermont, the village of Stowe is straight out of a storybook.  Little Stowe lies 30 miles from Burlington International Airport in a vast valley formed by Mount Mansfield and the Worcester Mountain Range.  The picturesque white steeple of Stowe Community Church rises above the quaint streets, which are lined with boutiques and pill box houses strung with real greenery in wintertime.  Driving out of town on Mountain Road, the calzones and garlic knots at Piecasso are to die for.  (Check them out at www.piecasso.com.)

Image result for stowe vermont winter

Branching off to the left from Mountain Road, Trapp Hill Road leads travelers to an alpine paradise.  Perched on a mountainside overlooking the vast valley below, the Trapp Family Lodge is one of New England’s greatest treasures.  The resort sits on 2,500 acres of wilderness sporting a European lodge, villas, guest houses, large meadows, a fitness center with indoor and outdoor pools, various dining options, and seemingly endless cross country ski trails.  The Main Dining Room serves a traditional Austrian breakfast each morning.  A highlight is the fitness center’s outdoor hot tub with mountains looming in the background (I relaxed in this on a day that’s temperature peaked at 15 degrees Fahrenheit – what a thrill!).  A visit to the Trapp Family Lodge is equally delightful in summer or winter, but the property is most famous for cross country skiing.

In 1968, the Trapp Cross Country Ski Center opened to the public.  It was the first of its kind in the United States and is “considered the foremost cross country ski touring center in America today”, according to the lodge’s official website.  The ski trails crisscrossing Trapp Mountain are expertly groomed to such a degree that often skiers glide along through the woods without much assistance from ski poles.  Lessons are offered for beginners and experienced skiers alike.


The Sugar Road Trail forges deep into the forest passing the Trapp’s Sugar House, where maple syrup is harvested from surrounding tapped trees.  After arriving at Picnic Knoll, a variety of ski trails branch off in all directions across the mountains. The Slayton Pasture Cabin, a rustic winter respite high in the hills with a roaring fire and delicious soups, sandwiches, and desserts, welcomes skiers from the cold.  The trip from here back to the Lodge is mostly downhill, which makes the journey totally worthwhile.  (Racing through the trees with the only sound being the snow falling is an experience I’ll never forget.)



Besides being one of the premiere ski resorts in the country, the history surrounding the Trapp Family Lodge has become known across the globe.  Captain Georg and Maria von Trapp escaped Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938 and fled to America in search of a new life.  The family was musical and, having established their own singing group two years before, began touring the country as the Trapp Family Singers.  After searching for a place to permanently settle, Georg and Maria happened upon alpine property high in the mountains above Stowe.  The magnificent mountain vistas reminded the family of their abandoned Austrian estate in Salzburg.  Guest rooms were added to the family’s home and it opened for public lodging in 1948 after Georg’s death, with Maria taking full charge of operations.  The original lodge tragically burned to the ground in December of 1980 and the current structure opened in 1983.  Maria remained at the helm until her death in 1987.  Sam von Trapp, son of Georg and Maria’s youngest son Johannes, operates the lodge today.  Several members of the von Trapp family, including Georg and Maria, are buried in the family cemetery located a stone’s throw away from the Lodge.

Image result for the von trapp family

The von Trapp family’s story was immortalized in The Sound of Music, the last collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.  The musical premiered on Broadway in 1959; six years later, the Academy Award-winning film adaptation catapulted the family’s story to international fame.  The Sound of Music is shown in the Lodge for guests, along with a variety of other films each week.  History talks, a documentary detailing the von Trapp family’s story (with footage of Maria von Trapp returning to Salzburg in the 1980s), and weekly musical events are also regularly scheduled.

Image result for the sound of music stills

Visit the Trapp Family Lodge for mountain vistas, top-notch outdoor activities, and lessons in the history of one of the most celebrated families of our time.  All Lodge amenities, activities, and offerings are detailed on the resort’s website – www.trappfamily.com.  Go to the hills – your heart will fill up!


Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I took some hikes recently in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park and just had to share some of my pictures!  Didn’t want to stay in Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg to avoid the traffic (still hit a lot of it in the park).  I stayed at the Tremont Resort (nice little place) in nearby Townsend.  Enjoy!

I am a staunch supporter of our National Parks System, largely in existence today from the efforts of President Teddy Roosevelt.  National treasures!


CLINGMAN’S DOME – This is the highest point in the park at 6,643 feet.  I went early – arrived at the summit around 7:30 AM.  The sunrise was gorgeous with mountains in their full splendor.  After parking, a half mile steep hike on a paved trail is the only way to the observation tower.  The 38 degree temperature and almost overpowering winds made for a VERY brisk morning!










GREGORY BALD HIKE – This was accessible near the Cade’s Cove Visitor Center.  A bald is a unique term to Appalachia, meaning a high, grassy meadow (my favorite).  The views were gorgeous.  The hardest hike I ever did – 11 miles round trip, over six hours.  I was totally exhausted, but I’m so glad I did it.  Next time, I will pack more food.  Unforgettable.












Visit https://www.nps.gov/grsm/index.htm – the official Great Smoky Mountain website – for more information on visitor centers, hikes, maps, and seasonal activities.

Forty-Five Years of Learning: The Educational Aspect of Walt Disney World

It was a day in late spring.  I was riding in a stroller, occupied with some character figurines in my lap.  There was energy in the atmosphere I remember to this day, a sense of excitement amidst the crowds of people around me and music wafting through the air.  We eventually rounded a street corner and instantly my three year-old fantasies became tangible.  The towering castle in the distance beamed with flags flapping atop turrets, an open portcullis gate, and enormous stone foundations.  My senses rushed with such joyous fervor I couldn’t help but reach out toward the castle, audibly identifying it as Cinderella’s when asked to whom it belonged.


And so began my lifelong love affair with the Walt Disney Company’s theme parks.  The same image I encountered at the end of Magic Kingdom’s Main Street USA in 1996 still captivates me and millions of guests who trickle into the park on a yearly basis.  Disney’s Parks and Resorts Division is home to the company’s greatest number of employees, boasting vacation destinations across the world.  The Walt Disney World Resort, located in Orlando, Florida, is the largest single site employer in the United States encompassing four theme parks, two water parks, and twenty-eight resorts.  It is the most visited vacation destination on the planet.

More commonly known as Disney World today, the Walt Disney World Resort celebrates its 45th anniversary this fall.  Walt Disney desired to expand upon his success of Disneyland in Anaheim, California (debuting in July 1955).  He began work on the “Florida Project” in the early 1960s.  Walt envisioned a community of tomorrow with futuristic, technological advances.  An enormous construction venture ensued on newly purchased land outside of Orlando.  On October 1st, 1971, the resort opened to the public with televised, star-studded opening ceremonies later in the month.  Walt unfortunately did not live to see the project’s completion; his brother Roy subsequently dedicated the property in Walt’s honor.


Beyond the famous attractions and large crowds of all ages (just look around –  immediately you will see Disney appeals to every generation), I am fascinated how many learning opportunities exist in the parks each time I visit.  If one takes their time delving deep into the vast knowledge contained within, countless instances of fascinating education result.  Walt’s interest in learning still exists through his company’s innovative approaches to travel and entertainment.  The following are just a sample of educational opportunities scattered throughout Walt Disney World.

The intricate frescoes inside the walls of Cinderella’s Castle harken to artwork in countless European cathedrals and fortresses.  The architecture in Fantasyland alone makes one feel as if they are walking through alpine villages.  The forty-four American presidents moving and conversing inside Magic Kingdom’s Hall of Presidents calls for multiple double-takes.  Listening to the narration aboard the Walt Disney World Railroad throw riders back to when railroads were new commodities and how they raced across the country.



The American Adventure, located in Epcot’s America Pavilion, fabulously tells the story of the United States with Audio-Animatronic Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain narrating.  Les Halles Boulangerie & Patisserie is a culinary-lover’s dream (I race inside for my favorite, the perfect crème brulee).  Taking in the extraordinary films on enormous screens highlighting Canada, France, and China are Epcot musts.  Also, teaching guests about agricultural innovation at home and abroad by displaying various techniques is the focus of Living with the Land.



The Great Movie Ride, housed in the replicated Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood Studios, is a fantastic chance to expose younger generations to quintessential motion pictures of legendary Hollywood and the movie industry’s evolution.  (This attraction was recently refurbished with Turner Classic Movies’ Robert Osborne at the helm.)  Also, Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream educates visitors on Walt’s vision, creativity, quest for success, and lifelong passion of learning (the fifteen-minute film hosted by Julie Andrews is particularly superb).


Animal Kingdom’s Pangani Exploration Trail and Maharajah Jungle Trek teach guests about lifestyles of hippopotamuses, gorillas, tigers, exotic birds, and reptiles.  Rafiki’s Planet Watch highlights Animal Kingdom’s conservation efforts.  And the Kilimanjaro Safari is not to be missed for the nature enthusiast, scientist, and animal lover alike.


Disney’s resorts also promote educational experiences across the generations.  Learn about life on the savanna through the animals, artwork, and food at the thatch-roofed Animal Kingdom Lodge.  Observe exotic plants and island culture wandering through the Polynesian’s tropical oasis.  The spectacular exposed-beam architecture of Wilderness Lodge is reminiscent of historic national park lodges in the American West.  You can explore Cajun New Orleans and the storied antebellum South at Port Orleans.  Resorts offer a plethora of programs reflecting the culture on which each property is based.  Check with individual front desks for weekly programs and events.


The experiences I have gained from privileged, frequent visits to Disney destinations are unrivaled.  Walt Disney World in particular has provided me a number of life skills I now claim.  Through Disney, I learned how to accomplish travel components at an early age – how to navigate airports and transportation systems, how to acquire reservations via telephone and online, how to book hotel stays, how to keep track of travel documents, and how to independently explore.  I’ve gained knowledge in positively handling customers, consumers, and the public largely from observing Disney park employees (Disney’s customer service is difficult to surpass).  My love of learning has roots in experiencing Disney’s attractions highlighting the arts, languages, sciences, and history.  The opportunities to travel in Disney fashion have shaped my outlook on traveling in general and crafted my adventurous desire to experience the world.

Walt Disney World’s official website is the recommended place to browse information on theme parks, resorts, dining reservations, special fall offers and more – disneyworld.disney.go.com.  Making reservations and asking questions can be accomplished online or by calling 407-939-5277, speaking to helpful Disney travel representatives.  Disney’s Magical Express, a free coach bus transportation service available to resort guests, is based at Orlando International Airport.  Head toward the main terminal’s Ground Transportation area on side B for boarding (and peek inside the Disney Store along the way!).


Disney has acquired the reputation of being a sole output for entertainment.  But underneath the famous pixie dust and fantasies, Walt Disney’s vision lives on through educational outlets in his company.  His quote, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things because we’re curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths”, stands as a testament to this vision of today.  Consider some learning apart from being entertained on your next visit to a Disney park – your mind will be simultaneously stimulated and thrilled!


*For West Virginia travelers:  Walt Disney World is accessed best through flights from Charleston’s Yeager Airport to Orlando International Airport, with one typical layover in between.  Flights are also available to Orlando Sanford International Airport, with different options of transportation to and from the Disney parks.             

Miami – America’s Latin Melting Pot

When I visited Miami this past spring, I imagined an urban, centralized city with the beach as its main attraction.  Couldn’t have been further from the truth.  Miami has deep multicultural roots which can be easily experienced within a plethora of neighborhoods and districts.  Flying into Miami International Airport is a treat – downtown Miami, the sprawling Biscayne Bay, and South Beach (looking like no more than a strip of sand across the bay) are on full display.


South Beach is Miami’s best-known location and likely the most vibrant.  The area is separated from the downtown area by Biscayne Bay (which was a surprise to me) and is a long, skinny parcel of land running parallel to the mainland.  South Beach has the largest number of Art Deco-style buildings in the world.  Many were historical hotels now converted into restaurants, clubs, and office buildings.  Seeing the architecture throws you back to glamorous, mid-20th century America with fancy cars, bathing beauties, and Latin rumba bands.

The Art Deco Welcome Center on Ocean Drive is a convenient location to get oriented.  Stretching from 22nd Street all the way down the coastline to South Pointe Park, Ocean Drive runs along the world-famous white sand and blue waters of Miami Beach.  Luxury hotels dot the shore with expansive ocean-front properties sporting pools, cabanas, and boardwalks.  Along Ocean Drive, many former hotels are eateries and nightclubs pulsing with music so loud your whole being shakes as you walk by.  The sidewalk is an adventure in itself; the restaurant seating areas have taken over the pedestrian zones so passersby wander through each unique place, getting a feel for each’s character and specialties.  http://www.miamiandbeaches.com/visitor-information/art-deco-welcome-center–miami-design-preservation-league/102632


Two places are noteworthy in South Beach if you are an I LOVE LUCY fan (which I am a devout one).  The Clay Hotel, located on nearby Espanola Way, was built in 1925 and is supposedly where Desi Arnaz first introduced the rumba to the United States after fleeing to Miami during the 1930s Cuban revolution.  Also, the Eden Roc Hotel – one of the premier hotels personifying Miami Beach in the 1950s – is where the I LOVE LUCY crew arrived to film two season six episodes in 1956.



Miami’s Little Havana district pays homage to the many Cubans who sought refuge here after Fidel Castro’s regime took over the Caribbean country.  You can see native Cubans assemble for daily games of dominoes in Maximo Gomez Park.  Little Havana is mainly situated around 8th Avenue, which sports ethnic cigar stores, Cuban restaurants, and authentic food markets.  I had an underlying feeling of sadness walking through this area.  The Cubans are desperately trying to keep their culture alive after their homeland fell to Communism.  The Freedom Tower (located downtown) served as Miami’s version of Ellis Island during 1962-1974.  Thousands of Cubans arrived on ships and watercraft seeking freedom in this time period, giving Miami a large part of its ethnic atmosphere today.  The Freedom Tower is now a museum open to the general public.  https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/american_latino_heritage/Freedom_Tower.html


Located down the coastline, the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami’s glamorous Coconut Grove neighborhood is a must.  Built between 1914 and 1916 in grand Italian Renaissance style, Vizcaya was conceived by millionaire agriculturist James Deering who loved history and culture.  He built the villa, opulent gardens, and servant’s quarters along acres of waterfront property.  The villa’s colonnades, red tile roof, rooms filled with 15th-19th century European treasures, over-the-top opulence, and fabulous ocean views make Vizcaya totally superb.  The property was damaged by several hurricanes, but has made a remarkable recovery.  Vizcaya hosted the 1994 Summit of the Americas and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Look it up – vizcaya.org


Miami is more than waves and sand (which are top-notch to say the least).  The city thrives on multiculturalism and appreciation for different nationalities.  Visit to see for yourself one of America’s greatest cities with a personality all its own.  Besides the city sights, Miami also is home to the Port of Miami – the “Cruise Capitol of the World” and “Cargo Gateway to the Americas”.  Millions of passengers and countless loads of freight funnel through the harbor every day.  Also, Miami is an excellent starting point for venturing south into the Florida Keys by car (which could be another whole writing itself).

Viva la Miami!

Visit the city’s official website for more information: http://www.miamigov.com/home/

Culinary Thrills in NYC’s Chinatown

Food tours have become one of my favorite experiences in larger cities.  I don’t consider myself a “foodie”, but highly enjoy cooking and trying new foods in my spare time.  I discovered their existence via a tasting tour of New York City’s Chelsea Market several years ago.  Food tours are designed for guests to partake in various tastes unique to local culture.  They are a fantastic way to learn why certain foods are identifiable to specific locations, how select foods are prepared, and a locale’s gastronomic history.

On a recent visit to the Big Apple, my mother and I took the eye-opening “Tastes of Chinatown” tour through New York Food Tours.  Candy, the Chinese-American tour guide, has resided in the United States since 1994.  Since coming to America to pursue a collegiate education, Candy has led tours in New York City for several years and had a profound grasp on daily life in Chinatown.  She explained Manhattan’s ethnic neighborhoods, once distinct areas based on ethnicity of immigrants and common languages, have slowly dissolved into multicultural areas since the early 20th century.  Chinatown, however, is an exception.  The culture remains concentrated around Canal Street and the Manhattan Bridge because of the Chinese language’s sharp contrast to English and the tourism factor.

This specific tour focused on Chinatown foods that reflected a variety of cooking styles based on various geographic regions in China.  This concept is remarkably similar to American culinary sectors (New England clam chowder, southern fried chicken, New Orleans po’ boys, etc.).  Certain areas in China are known for regional specialties, spices, and cooking styles.  Americans are mostly familiar with Cantonese-style Chinese food, which originates in southern China and is more commercialized on an international level.  It also uses less spicy ingredients, providing the consumer with milder tastes.

We made several stops inside Chinatown establishments an average tourist might miss if he or she even blinked.

  • The Chinese dumplings at Tasty Dumpling on Mulberry Street can be filled with meats or vegetables; they are commonly eaten as appetizers to larger meals with optional soy sauce.
  • Bayard Street’s New Beef King specializes in Chinese jerky, a delicacy of semi-dried pork or beef cut into strips and marinated in a variety of spices. While American jerky is typically dry and difficult to bite into, the Chinese prefer theirs moister and “juicier” according to Candy.
  • The Chinese pancakes with green onions at Bayard Street’s Deluxe Green Bo Restaurant are delicious and come with a sweet sauce to pour on top. These resemble larger versions of American hash browns, which are eaten for breakfast or a snack.
  • We visited two places for drinks. The Chinese are famous for tea, so naturally we stopped in the famous Ten Ren’s Tea Time on Mott Street for black, green, and fruit tea samplings.  (I had visited this establishment during past visits to the Big Apple.  It was here I discovered Chinese tea with “bubbles”, which are tapioca-jellied balls at the bottom of the glass.)  We also stopped in Mango Mango Dessert on Bayard Street for an authentic mango smoothie.  Since southern China is tropical in climate, many fruits are plentiful and used in foods and drinks.
  • The melon cakes at Golden Fung Wong Bakery were unlike anything I ever tasted. Candy pointed out the difference between bread-based European pastries and rice flour-based, extremely soft Chinese sweets.  This melon cake was about the size of my palm and was the softest baked good I ever felt.  A very thin layer of pastry surrounds a light filling of winter melon and almond paste for this delicacy.  This is quite mild compared to baked goods as Americans know them.
  • Samplings “snacks” at Aji Ichiban right down the street from the bakery was an adventure in itself. This store’s walls are lined with little drawers filled with dried food snacks – fruits, candies, spices, and surprisingly meats (pork, beef, and seafood).  Each could be sampled from a little dish on top of each drawer.  I don’t recall ever having so many new tastes in my mouth at one time – my taste buds were overwhelmed!  We purchased some dried plums, which were delicious.
  • We stopped for a bowl of noodles with barbequed ribs and Chinese greens at Mott Street’s Big Wong quick service restaurant. Candy said places such as this were much more concerned with the quality of food than the service, which I found humorous.  Indeed, the place is lively with abrupt servers and silverware only upon request after failed attempts using chop-sticks.
  • Lastly, we had a quick sample platter of dim-sum at Nom Wa Tea Parlor on Doyers Street. This little place dates back to 1920 and is reportedly the first to serve dim-sum (bite-sized portions of appetizer-like food).  Ours looked like dumplings we had earlier, filled with meats and vegetables with soy sauce.

Most Chinatown restaurants, markets, and stores are on the street level with multitudes of apartments and fire-escapes above.  Just as fascinating as each establishment is simply taking a walk down the streets.  Chinese businessmen in suits, busy shop owners tidying their street-side offerings, children scurrying about, and gawking tourists coexist in this frenzied and exciting area.

Manhattan’s Chinatown is home to the largest number of Chinese individuals in United States.  Rather than whizzing by it on top of a double-decker bus or underneath on the Metro, walk the streets and venture beyond the touristy gift shops to learn its deep history.  It will give Americans living proof that the United States is truly a “melting pot” of cultures, blended together through various ethnicities and cultural experiences.  And, in my opinion, there is no other place in the country that embodies this trait better than the Big Apple.

For West Virginia travelers:  New York City is accessible from West Virginia by air, train, and car.  The most direct option for travel are flights to LaGuardia International Airport available from Charleston’s Yeager Airport with typically one-stop layovers in Washington D.C., Charlotte, or Philadelphia. Use the Canal Street station to access Manhattan’s Chinatown via the Metro or hail a famous yellow taxicab.

Visit New York Food Tours on the web at foodtoursofny.com for more information on food tours in multiple areas of the city.


Busy storefronts below various architectural apartment buildings make turning around each street corner an adventure in Chinatown.


Nom Wa Tea Parlor on Doyers Street has specialized in serving Chinese dim-sum since 1920.  Dim-sum are small portions of food that resemble dumplings, filled with meats and vegetables with optional sauces.


Large containers of loose leaf teas line the walls of Ten Ren’s Tea Time on Mott Street.  Customers can learn about tea history as well as purchase herbal, black, green, and fruit teas.  Tea samples are available throughout the shop.


Ever wondered what authentic Chinese pastries look like?  Wander inside the Golden Fung Wang Bakery on Mott Street and splurge.  The melon cake in particular will give your taste buds a brand new sensation.


Step inside the Aji Ichiban snack shop to take an adventure; dried fruits, candies, and meats are the specialty here.  So many exotic flavors are present that it is nearly impossible to find familiar American tastes here.  Aji Ichiban is located on Mott Street near several other establishments mentioned in this article.

Tour Guide Candy and I standing inside Big Wong Restaurant on Mott Street.