CardHub Lists Best Credit Cards, Tips for Travel

CardHub is offering tips to get more bang for your buck when you travel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
CardHub is offering tips to get more bang for your buck when you travel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

American households are reaping a boon from lower energy costs in recent months, with dramatically reduced prices at the pump expected to save the typical family roughly $750 over the course of 2015 and airfare finally starting to reflect reduced jet fuel costs, according to CardHub. That’s freeing up cash to spend on travel.

But there are more ways to save money while traveling. Another important financial tailwind – historically valuable credit card rewards – have actually grown even more lucrative in the past year, according to CardHub’s latest Credit Card Landscape Report, with sign-up bonuses worth up to $625 and various other perks available to people who have above-average credit standing.

In the interest of helping folks take full advantage of plastic this winter travel season, CardHub compared more than 1,000 credit card offers (some of which originate from CardHub advertising partners) in order to identify the most rewarding travel deals. You can find our best in class selections below, followed by CardHub’s money-saving travel tips.

Best Initial Bonus 

Citi ThankYou® Premier CardApply Now 269 reviews

Spending $3,000 during the first 3 months you have this card will score you 50,000 bonus points, which can be redeemed for a $625 statement credit applicable to travel-related charges that post to your account. On an ongoing basis, this card provides 3 points per $1 spent on travel and gas, 2 points per $1 on dining and entertainment, and 1 point per $1 on everything else. Its $95 annual fee doesn’t kick in until the second year either.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® CardApply Now 2,319 reviews

Spending at least $4,000 during the first three months your account is open will trigger a 40,000-point rewards bonus, which can be redeemed for $500 in travel accommodations booked through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards Program or a $400 statement credit.

This card does not charge an annual fee during the first year ($95 thereafter) and does not assess foreign transaction fees for purchases processed abroad. For more information, check out ourfull review of the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.

All-Around 

Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ Credit Card 2,365 reviews

Perhaps the best rewards credit card on the market, Arrival Plus offers a 40,000-mile rewards bonus – redeemable for $400 in travel expenses – in return for spending $3,000 during the first three months your account is open. You’ll also earn the miles-equivalent of 2% cash back on all other purchases and receive a 5% rebate on miles redeemed for travel.

This card does not charge a foreign transaction fee and its $89 annual fee is waived for the first year. Check out our Barclaycard Arrival Plus Review to learn more.

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit CardApply Now 1,451 reviews

Spending $3,000 in the first 3 months will get you 40,000 bonus points, which can be redeemed for a $400 statement credit attributable to any travel-related expenses. The ongoing reward rate is 2 miles per $1 spent, with no limits or expiration dates. This card charges a $59 annual fee, beginning in the second year and does not assess foreign transaction fees for purchases processed abroad.

For a more in-depth look at this offer, check out CardHub editor’s review of the Capital One Venture Card.

Airline Rewards 

Frontier Airlines Credit Card 137 reviews

Spending $500 or more with this card during the first 90 days that you have it will get you 40,000 bonus miles, which can be redeemed for 2 round-trip domestic flights.

You’ll also earn 2 miles per $1 spent on FlyFrontier.com and 1 mile/$1 on all other purchases. There is a $69 annual fee.

PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express® Credit Card 212 reviews

In addition to a $200 initial bonus for spending at least $2,500 during the first three months, this card provides you with 5 points per $1 spent on all airfare and 1 point per $1 on everything else.

It does not have an annual fee, but you might have to pay a one-time $15 to join an eligible association, if you don’t initially meet PenFed’s eligibility requirements.

Hotel Rewards

Club Carlson℠ Premier Rewards Visa Signature® CardApply Now 56 reviews

You may not have heard of Club Carlson, but it represents a number well-known hotel brands such as Radisson, Park Plaza, and Country Inn & Suites. This eponymous card Club offers 50,000 bonus points with your first purchase and an additional 35,000 points for spending at least $2,500 within 90 days.

You can redeem your 85,000 total bonus points for up to 9 free hotel nights and your 40,000 annual bonus points for up to 4 more nights, depending on the category of hotel you select. There is a $75 annual fee and a 3% foreign transaction fee.

IHG® Rewards Club Select Credit CardApply Now 149 reviews

You’ll get 60,000 bonus points in return for spending at least $1,000 during the first three months you have the IHG Credit Card. That bounty is redeemable for up to 12 free nights, as IHG offers rewards nights for as low as 5,000 points through its PointBreaks program.

IHG card users also receive one additional free night each year on their account anniversary and an annual 10% point rebate (up to 100,000), in addition to 5 points per $1 spent at IHG hotel chains, 2 points per $1 spent at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants, and 1 point/$1 on everything else.

This card does not have a first-year annual fee ($49 thereafter) and does not charge a foreign transaction fee. Hotels operating under the IHG umbrella include the Holiday Inn family of hotels and Crowne Plaza.

More details about this offer can be found in our IHG Credit Card Review. You can also learn more IHG Rewards Club in general by checking out our IHG Rewards Program Review.

Hilton HHonors® Surpass℠ Credit Card 145 reviews

Charging $3,000 to this card over the first three months you have it will trigger a 60,000-point initial bonus – redeemable for up to 12 free hotel nights, depending on how your hotel of choice is classified. Unfortunately, this offer comes with a $75 annual fee as well as a 2.7% foreign transaction fee, making it best suited to domestic travel.

You can learn more about Surpass and how it compares to Hilton’s other rewards cards in our in-depth HHonors card comparison. Additional details about Hilton’s rewards program more generally can be found in our full HHonors Program review.

Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American ExpressApply Now 279 reviews

You’ll earn a 25,000 points bonus after if you can manage to charge $3,000 to this card in the first 3 months your account is open. This bounty will score you 8 free hotel nights, depending on your hotel choice. The card has no annual fee in the first year, but will charge $95 after.

Road Trip Rewards 

PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature® Credit Card 933 reviews

This Pentagon Federal Credit Union offering provides 5 points per $1 spent on gas (at any station, as long as you fill up at the pump), 3 points per $1 spent on supermarket purchases, and 1 point per $1 on everything else. Signing up for the card will get you a $100 bonus for spending $1,500 in the first 90 days the account is opened. The Platinum Rewards Card doesn’t have an annual fee and no fee for foreign transactions, but you might have to pay a one-time $15 fee to join an eligible association, if you don’t initially meet PenFed’s eligibility requirements.

Blue Cash Preferred® from American ExpressApply Now 1,017 reviews

This Amex offers 6% cash back on groceries (up to $6,000 per year), 3% on gas and department store purchases and 1% on everything else – making it a great card for everyday spending as well as road trips.

While this card does charge a $75 annual fee and a 2.7% foreign transaction fee, you also get a $150 initial rewards bonus for spending at least $1,000 during the first three months.

Finance Travel By Reducing The Cost Of Existing Debt 

Chase Slate®Apply Now 1,571 reviews

If you have existing credit card debt (or you will after your impending winter vacation), transferring what you owe to the Slate Card could save you more than $1,000 in finance charges and help you reach debt freedom way earlier than you would otherwise. Just make sure to use our Balance Transfer Calculator to determine how much you’ll need to pay each month in order to be debt free by the time Slate’s 15-month 0% intro term gives way to high regular rates.

What really sets Slate apart from the balance transfer pack, however, is its lack of fees. More specifically, Slate charges neither an annual fee nor a balance transfer fee – which itself will save you hundreds. New applicants will also benefit from Slate’s new credit score tracking feature.

Get the full scoop on Slate from CardHub’s comprehensive review.

Finance Travel With 0% On New Purchases 

Citi® Diamond Preferred® CardApply Now 646 reviews

This card offers the longest 0% purchase APR on the market, at 21 months. So, if you won’t be able to pay off the cost of your coming trip in a single month, this is a great option to consider. All you have to do is use our calculator to see what monthly payments you’ll have to make in order to be balance-free by the time regular rates take effect.

It’s also important to note that this card probably isn’t your best bet when it comes to balance transfers, despite its near two-year interest-free term. That’s because it charges a 3% balance transfer fee. For the average consumer, who owes roughly $7,350, that fee alone would amount to $220.

Money-Saving Winter Travel Tips

Picking the right credit card can go a long way to saving you a bundle of money on a winter getaway. But there’s even more to vacation credit card use than applying for one of the offers listed above. There are certainly more ways to save as well. Here are some tips:

General Advice

  1. Use Plastic Whenever Possible:Credit cards provide a lot of value through initial rewards bonuses and 0% financing deals, but they also offer $0 fraud liability guarantees, the lowest possible currency conversion rates, and complementary rental car insurance coverage. It’s therefore a good idea to use plastic for the majority of your travel expenses.
  2. Choose Your Credit Card Wisely:Consumers who are interested in a new credit card mainly for quick rewards score should obviously concentrate on initial bonus offers, while people who prize the simplicity of having the same card in their wallet for a long time will want to check out those with ongoing rewards. Folks worried about incurring finance charges will find that a 0% offer has the potential to save them far more than even a great rewards card.
  3. Think Outside the Box:The most obvious vacation destinations and types of accommodations are naturally going to be the most popular and therefore the hardest to book on a budget. As a result, you may want to consider taking a mid-week flight, going to a small town, renting a house rather than booking rooms in an expensive hotel (especially if you’re traveling with a big group), and leveraging free resources like public transportation and destinations known for natural beauty.
  4. Mix Business with Pleasure:If you can find a way to squeeze in a few meetings around your trip, certain aspects of it may be tax deductible. While your travel must technically be “for business” and only your own business-related expenses are deductible, you’re allowed to tack a few recreational days onto either end of a business trip and you can certainly brainstorm ways to include your family under the business umbrella even if they aren’t employees (e.g. piling everyone into a rental car that would ordinarily be just for you).
  5. Comparison Shop:Comparing the prices of different air carriers, hotel chains, and vacation packages will enable you to identify best possible deals. You might even be able to score a more attractive price than what’s listed online by telling the sales representative that you’ll book immediately if they can beat a specific competitor’s offer.
  6. Maximize Your Credit Score:All of the Best Travel Credit Cards for 2015 require above-average credit for approval and therefore clearly illustrate the value of the best possible credit score. So, if your credit standing needs some work, make sure to have an open credit card that’s in good standing (look into opening a secured credit card if not), pay your monthly bill on time without fail, and you’ll see positive information flow into your credit reports on a monthly basis. This will either devalue negative information already in there or fill out a currently thin file.
  7. Tell Card Issuers You’re Leaving:Credit and debit card companies may suspend your account if a bunch of transactions suddenly originate from outside your normal spending area. You can prevent the resulting hassle by simply telling your issuer where and when you’ll be traveling. This is especially important if you’re headed out of the country, but it could come into play for long domestic trips as well.

International Travelers

  1. Take Advantage of the Dollar’s Strength:While weaker than both the Euro and the British Pound, the U.S. Dollar currently has a considerable advantage over the Swiss Franc, the Australian Dollar and the Japanese Yen. Selectively choosing your vacation destination is thus a distinct money-saving proposition.
  2. Use Your Credit Card for Currency Conversion:Visa and MasterCard offer exchange rates that are 3.66% lower than those offered by the average major bank and 6.90% lower than what Travelex charges, according to CardHub’s Currency Exchange Study.
  3. Avoid Foreign Transaction Fees:Around 90% of credit cards charge a premium to process transactions outside of the United States. You don’t have to be physically abroad to incur such a surcharge – which is known as a foreign transaction fee and can range from 2-4%, depending on the card. Rather, they apply whenever you make a purchase through a foreign-based merchant. As long as you have a no foreign transaction fee credit card, you won’t have to worry about these pesky fees.
  4. Take a Low-Fee Debit Card:You won’t be able to use a credit card for everything when abroad, so the best approach is to take a Visa or MasterCard debit card that has low fees for international ATM withdrawals so you can take out cash as needed and benefit from low card network exchange rates.
  5. No Need To Favor Chip Cards Yet:The international community is moving increasingly toward a chip-based credit card infrastructure complete with automated machines at places like train kiosks and parking garages that may not accept U.S. magnetic stripe cards. You might take that as a reason to get one of the chip-based cards now being marketed to U.S. consumers, but most of them are chip-and-signature cards while automated machines only accept chip-and-PIN (you can read more about the differencehere). Most international merchants still accept magnetic stripe cards anyway.
  6. Pay in the Native Currency:This doesn’t apply to domestic travelers, but those of you traveling abroad should make sure to only sign receipts expressed in the local currency. Foreign merchants sometimes offer to convert prices into U.S. dollars in order to charge a high conversion rate and line their pockets.

 

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How to Spend a Perfect Day in Athens, Greece

View of Acropolis Hill at night, from Acropolis Hill Hotel's roof garden © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
View of Acropolis Hill at night, from Acropolis Hill Hotel’s roof garden © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate

If you only have a single day to spend in Athens, resist the temptation to rush to the Acropolis Hill and the New Acropolis Museum first – these most popular sites in the city which birthed democracy and Western Civilization, are overrun by 9 am with tour groups (though you can visit as early as 8 am), creating a line of people like ants and a cacophony of sound like a noisy schoolyard. Instead, here is an itinerary that gives you the full span of history and culture and gives you time to really appreciate the marvels on display.

The stunning life-size bronze of an African boy jockey on a racehorse, one of only five bronzes to survive the ages, on view at the National Archeology Museum in Athens © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The stunning life-size bronze of an African boy jockey on a racehorse, one of only five bronzes to survive the ages, on view at the National Archeology Museum in Athens © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

9:15 am: Start the day at the National Archaeology Museum, a 10-15 minute walk from the Omonia Metro Station (1.2E, about $1.50 a ride, or 4E for a full day of travel).Take a guided tour (50E for up to five people – we were lucky enough to have Andromache as our guide, Andromache.vl@gmail.com) – otherwise, you will be awed by what you see, but not understand their importance or context, even with the good labels and explanations in English. This is a spectacular museum that is not to be missed – only place where you will see archaeology representative of all regions of Greece over all its eons and periods (even surpassing the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, and what a marvel to see the items in context): beginning with the Neolithic period, 6500-3300 BC (and what extraordinary pieces! including gold objects and stunning clay figures that showed a devotion to Mother Earth, Gaia, and hinted at the matriarchy that preceded a patriarchal religion and society).

The famous Mask of Agamemnon is thrilling to see "in the flesh" at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The famous Mask of Agamemnon is thrilling to see “in the flesh” at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You will be able to see the Golden Mask of King Agamemnon, excavated by Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae in 1876, (which we learn is actually centuries older than Agamemnon’s reign, but they keep the name for “marketing” purposes), spectacular gold ornaments and funeral objects that suggest a belief in an afterlife, There are two of only five full-scale bronzes left in the world – one, a national symbol of a standing god (Zeus or Poseidon, it isn’t clear because the tool that he would have held, a lightening bolt or a trident, perhaps, has been lost to time) was saved because as it was being taken to Rome by boat to be melted down for weapons, the boat sank and was found in 1926 by fisherman, plus a bronze statue of an African boy on a racing horse that was saved by being shipwrecked, made during the time of Alexander the Great, when the expansion of Greek’s empire brought exotic themes into the art (Alexander was also the first person to have a portrait in a statue). You also see a vase with the first sentence (or rather, the oldest known sentence) written in Greek language: “Now I belong to the man who is the best dancer.” (I think to myself, what pressure on a person to write the first sentence to go down in history! Or, for that matter, the inventor of the “space” between words, which had not existed in Greek.).

Also, there is an astonishing special exhibit,” The Antikythera Mechanism,” about an astrological clock invented in 150-100 BC – centuries before Columbus used an astrolobe to explore the globe – that could predict planetary events 19 years ahead. The Mechanism, made with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker (how did they get the parts so thin and flat?), was found in 1900-1, in the wreck of a ship sunk off Antikythera.  Seven large fragments and 75 minor pieces have survived. “Their exact position and the original structure of the Mechanism are still a matter of intense investigation,” though an extraordinary video suggests how the machine, containing at least 30 gearwheels as well as dials, scales, axles and pointers, was put together. The notes say that the Greek astronomical inscriptions on the surface of the Mechanism refer to astronomical and calendar calculations, while the inscriptions on its metal protective plates contain instructions for its use. The Mechanism was protected by a wooden case, which had a bronze plaque on the front and the back side.

“The Antikythera Mechanism is the earliest preserved portable astronomical calculator. It displayed the positions of the Sun, the Moon and most probably the five planets known in antiquity, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. It was used to predict solar and lunar eclipses, it kept an accurate calendar of many years, and displayed the date of Pan-Hellenic games that took place at Nemea, at Isthmia, at Delphi, at Dodona and at Olympia.

“Its construction dates to the second half of the 2nd century BC. Its technology, which recalls the successors of Archimedes and the school of Poseidonius on the island of Rhodes, was the result of the development of philosophy and of exact sciences that took place in Greece until this era, and also draws on knowledge of the Hellenistic Age (celestial parameters, mechanical design and use of epicyclic gearing). The Mechanism bears witness to the astronomical, mathematical andmechanical ingenuity of ancient Greeks in Late Hellenistic period.”

It was the computer, the cell phone and the calculator of its day, and makes you realize that in every age, it only takes one genius to transform the world.

(National Archaeology Museum, 44 Palision St., www.namuseum.gr)

View of Acropolis through Hadrian's Gate, once the entrance to Athens. © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
View of Acropolis through Hadrian’s Gate, once the entrance to Athens. © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

11:30 am: From the National Archaeology Museum, hop back on the metro (the stations are beautiful, and each one features an exhibit of archaeological discoveries excavated when they dug the metro, but you are repeatedly warned to watch out for pickpockets, and we personally know several people who were in fact pick-pocketed) to the Acropolis stop, and walk  through Hadrian’s Gate (the original entrance to Athens), to the Temple of Olympic Zeus, one of the largest temples in Greece.

12:15 pm Walking through the Plaka, we stop for lunch under an umbrella, beside an arbor – relaxing and checking WiFi (just about all the tavernas have free WiFi. Greece offers exceptional value now – not only is the dollar strong against the Euro, but prices in Greece have been cut with the economic downturn, to make them more affordable. Our lunch cost less than 30E for 3 people, or about $10.

1:15 pm We walk past The Library of Hadrian (a gift of the Roman Emperor supporting education and exercise in Athens) and the Roman Agora (a commercial marketplace) in order to have enough time in the Ancient Agora – an exceptionally important site, where you will stand over the first House of Parliament, literally the birthplace of democracy.

You need to allocate at least one hour at the Ancient Agora in order to have time to visit a superb museum, housed in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, a 2nd C BC building that was restored in 1952-56 by the American School of Classical Studies to exhibit the artifacts collected at the site (it was renovated in 2003-4). Here you will see how citizens (a minimum of 6000 were necessary) could vote to “ostracize” a politician accused of corruption. (Pericles, who we regard today as marshalling the Golden Age of Greece, received 43 of these “votes” recorded by scratching the name into a broken piece of pottery; to avoid prosecution, which could have resulted in being exiled for 10 years, Plutarch suggests that Pericles started the Peloponnesian War).

A lottery "machine" for selecting jurors, on display at the museum at the Ancient Agora. © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A lottery “machine” for selecting jurors, on display at the museum at the Ancient Agora. © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You also see the lottery system used to pick jurors (they paid 1/3 drachma to buy a strip in which to write their names, and if selected, would receive a drachma’s pay), and the devices used to record their verdict. Also, there are a collection of small cups used by prisoners to take hemlock – one of the cups could well have been used by Socrates, who was sentenced to death for teaching the heresy of denying 12 gods at a time when paganism was the official religion (he supported the idea of a single spirit, which gets me thinking that he might have been influenced by the Jewish community that was already established in Athens at the time – in fact, we visit the site where signs, etched in marble, announced the Jewish synagogue, near where the House of Parliament stood. The original artifacts are at the museum, but not on display).

Then walk down the street lined with statues of Giants (in Greek tradition, Titans were first, then the Giants, then the Olympian gods), to a headless torso of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who respected and admired Athenian culture and enhanced it with his Library and other institutions, but threw Christians to the lions (and wasn’t so great for Jews, either). The homage paid to him by Athenians was shown in the decoration on his breastplate, depicting the goddess Athena standing on a wolf suckling the twins, Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. But the headless statue was contemptuously thrown into the sewage ditch by early Christians (who also defiled the Parthenon and most of the statues denoting devotion to paganism), and only discovered in the sewer when they excavated.

The Hadrian Statue stands near the Bouleuterion, or Council House, where the 500 representatives of the 10 tribes met, would have been – in essence, the first House of Parliament.

Above, on a hillside, is the beautiful Temple of Hephaistos (5th C BC) but just to the side is believed to have been a synagogue, serving a Jewish community that had existed in Athens at least since 3 rd C BC and possibly as early as 6th C BC. This is based on finding etched marble – in essence, a sign for the synagogue, which comes from the Greek words “synagein,” which means “to bring together” and the same root word as “agora” which means “a place of assembly.”

The Agora was the political center for Athens, and because it was a gathering place, also became a commercial center. It was there that courts were held (but capital crimes were tried outside its boundary, so the blood on a murderers’ hands not pollute the public space).

2:30 pm: Walk around the Acropolis Hill up Apostolou Pavlou, a beautiful wide cobblestone boulevard, lined with crafts people, street musicians (and virtually no cars), where you also see ruins of early neighborhoods, as well as peer into contemporary neighborhoods.

For the moment, we bypass the entrance to Acropolis Hill and the Parthenon (though you can buy your ticket, 12E, which gives free entry to the New Acropolis Museum and four other important archaeological sites, which can be used for one visit each over the course of four days), and head straight to the New Acropolis Museum. The entrance to the Museum is on another marvelous cobblestone pedestrian boulevard, Dionysiou Areopagitou.

3 pm: The New Acropolis Museum: Here at the museum, you will get the best orientation to what you will see at the Acropolis – it is a modern museum that opened in 2009, displaying in the most magnificent fashion the most incredible statues and art gathered (saved, preserved and conserved) from the Acropolis. On the top floor, from which you see the Acropolis just in front of you through a wall of windows, the statues and art are arranged exactly in the same way as they would have been on the Parthenon itself – indeed, the room is the same size and proportion as the Parthenon, with columns spaced just as they would have been in marble. The presentation is exquisite.

Here, there is a superb video (presented in Greek and in English) that explains the history of the Acropolis, the artwork, and really prepares you for what you will see with a context. I watched the film in both Greek (English subtitles) and English (Greek subtitles), to absorb it all.

The second floor has statues and figures that are breathtaking – imagine, such features and dynamism in marble 2000 years before Europe’s Renaissance. Here we also see a “portrait” in marble of Alexander the Great – significant because he is the first person to have a likeness of himself in a statue.

We stop at the Museum’s gorgeous café, sitting outside on a rooftop restaurant just beneath the Acropolis, getting a pick-me-up with freddo cappuccino, freddo espresso and a double espresso (coffee and cocktails can be as expensive as a meal). The cafe is fabulous for lunch, as well.

Spend 2 1/2-3 hours going through the museum.

Parthenon, on Acropolis Hill, at the closing hour © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Parthenon, on Acropolis Hill, at the closing hour © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

6 pm: Now walk back up Dionysiou Areopagitou to enter the Acropolis. This late in the afternoon is a magical time, when the city has cooled down and there are a fraction of the number of people who visit in droves during the morning hours. Now, it is so peaceful, you can linger, stroll around, read the markers, even get photos without hordes of people standing in front. We sit on a promontory that offers an amazing view of the city laid out in front of you, waiting for the sun to get lower and the colors to get more golden, and then go around shooting photos again, the colors of the stone columns becoming gold and orange. We even momentarily catch the Parthenon with no one else in front of it. For that instance, you feel as if the Parthenon is yours alone, as if you hold Western Civilization in your hands. I am struck by a bit of sadness, too, when I realize that the Parthenon is but a scabby skeleton of what it was (now that you have seen the video and the art in the museum), and what has been stripped away and lost forever. But the Greek Government is working to restore the Parthenon – a process that has been going on since Greece became an independent country, in 1821. After various false tries because of inadequate technology and knowledge in restoration, the government is working to replace the fabulous statuaries with replicas in just the exact places, leaving the originals in the museum where they are properly cared for.

(There is also a vigorous campaign to recover the artwork looted from the Acropolis by Lord Elgin when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire two centuries ago, and is pointedly made the villain in the museum’s video history of the Parthenon. Since 1816, the marble statues and reliefs taken by Elgin have been prize exhibits of the British Museum.  Meanwhile, the Greeks had to make do with the leftovers, housed in a ramshackle museum built in 1874, that is still on the Hill.  The Greeks built the New Acropolis Museum expressly as an argument that the Elgin marbles should be returned to Athens from the British Museum because there is finally a proper place to house and display them.)

What gets my eye is the Erechtheion, built about 420 BC, an Ionic temple that on one side, is supported with the six Caryatids- stunning statues of women– five of the originals are at the New Acropolis Museum (the sixth was one of the many artworks taken from the Acropolis by the British Lord Elgin).

The city of Athens sprawls out in front of you from the Acropolis Hill © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The city of Athens sprawls out in front of you from the Acropolis Hill © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

People wait here until the light is best – you only have a 10-minute window or so when the light is great and before the guards shoo you out

We leave finally when we are pushed out at around 7:30 pm by the guards – and get to watch the nightly formality as a contingent of soldiers come to secure the Acropolis). We come down to where people are on a rocky hill, with an incredible view of the sunset. We climb up, too, to take in the view.

Our perfect day is far from over, though.

Cocktails at the Hedrion Hotel's Rooftop Garden Bar, with a splendid view of the Acropolis © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Cocktails at the Hedrion Hotel’s Rooftop Garden Bar, with a splendid view of the Acropolis © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

8 pm: We walk down the Dionysiou Areopagitou (I use this wonderful boulevard as much as possible), cutting over to Rovertou Gali to the go to the Roof Garden Bar at the Hotel Herodion, with a stunning view of the Acropolis, lighted at night, a short walk after our late-afternoon visit, and a stone’s throw from the New Acropolis Museum (we can look through its windows at late-museum goers; the museum is open until 8 pm normally and until 10 pm on Friday nights). The Herodion’s bar offers a selection of imaginative cocktails. We enjoyed “Wisecrack Fizz,” with Pisco Barsol, st. Germain elderflower liqueur, fresh grapefruit juice, fresh lemon juice, and soda; a Hellas Fashioned, made with Metaxa 5, sugar, angostura bitters and rose water (one of the clever inventions of ‘Lefty’ the bartender), and 3 Cardinalsa, made with Midori, Frangelico, elderflower syrup, frsh lime juice and fresh orange juice, another of “Lefty’s” creations. the hotel also has a very fine restaurant (Hotel Herodion, 4 Rovertou Galli, Acropolis, Herodian.gr).

Nightlife in Athens © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Nightlife in Athens © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

9:15 pm We get a couple of suggestions for our dinner, which gives us another wonderful excuse to walk through the Plaka to the Monastiraki district.

Thanassou restaurant is packed with people – we notice they are not tourists, but local people, enjoying the souvlaki and gyros. This part of the Monastiraki district is a little outside the most popular tourist area – in fact, restaurants and bistros and clever bars and coffee houses are opening throughout the district taking over where shops – like fabric stores – have been shuttered. The chicken souvlaki, served on pita, with yogurt, onions and tomatoes and french fries, is well done (about $12).

Acropolis Hill Hotel

By now, it is nearly midnight and I walk back to the Dionysiou Areopagitou toward my hotel, the Acropolis Hill Hotel, enjoying the street musicians virtually all along the way,

The new Acropolis Hill Hotel, which opened in the fall of 2010, is an “urban chic” luxury boutique hotel (at three-star hotel prices), nestled in the serene green, upscale residential area of Filopappou, virtually under the sacred rock of the Acropolis and a 15-minute walk from the Plaka. From the roof garden, it offers a lovely view of the Acropolis. It also has an outdoor swimming pool (in season), a lovely breakfast room where an ample buffet is served daily (including freshly prepared eggs, bacon and sausage; a selection of cereals, breads, cheeses, yogurt and fresh fruits), and a lobby lounge, plus free WiFi. My room also has a balcony, refrigerator, and flat screen TV with a selection of programming (7 Mousson Street, Gr 11 742, Filoppapou, info@acropolishill.gr, www.acropolishill.gr.)

The Acropolis Hill Hotel is one of five hotels in the Tour Hotel Group group:

The Arion Athens Hotel offers a wonderful from the roof top garden, free Wifi  (18, Agio Dimitriou St., 105 54 Athens, www.arionhotel.gr, arion@tourhotel.gr).

Achilleas Hotel is a totally renovated hotel right in the heart of Athens commercial and business center, a two minute walk from Syntagma Square, a location next to the Acropolis Museums, Parliament, Emou shopping Street and the Syntagma metro station. It offers suite rooms ideal for families (Lekka 21 Str., 105 62 Athens, Greece, www.achilleashotel.gr, achilleas@tourhotel.gr).

For a different experience, the Kalamaki Beach Hotel is a resort-style property in the Peloponnese in a verdant area next to the emerald waters of the Saronic Gulf. It offers a swimming pool, tennis courts and children’s playground (www.kalomakibeach.gr).

(For more information, visit Tour Hotel Group, www.tourhotel.gr.)

If you have more time in Athens, here are some recommendations:

Take a walking tour such as Context Travel‘s “Acropolis Seminar” and Context Travel’s “Daily Life in Ancient Athens which together give a very comprehensive understanding of ancient Greece in a very intimate setting so that the guides can be very responsive to your interests and questions (info@contexttravel.com, www.contexttravel.com/city/athens (story to follow).

See Athens with a Native: “This is My Athens”  program offered through the official city of Athens visitors’ website  pairs visitors with a local Athenian volunteer who goes beyond the traditional guidebook sights to take you to local neighborhoods. You get matched with a volunteer by filling out a form at http://myathens.thisisathens.org/default.php?pname=homepage2&la=2 . For more info: http://myathens.thisisathens.org/ (story to follow)

The Jewish Museum of Greece offers fascinating exhibit where you can learn about Europe’s oldest Jewish settlement, 39 Nikis St., 105 57 Athens, Greece, info@jewishmuseum.gr, www.jewishmuseum.gr (hours are Monday-Friday, 9-2:30 pm, Sundays, 10-2 pm).

This is an exceptional time to visit Greece – the dollar is strong against the Euro and prices in Greece have been reduced. I had expected to see the kind of blight and deprivation that the US experienced as a result of the financial crisis of 2008, but apart from some graffiti (“We are artists, not vandals,” one proclaims), and some closed shops, the city is absolutely magnificent, vibrant and bustling, with many chic, new enterprises opening, and the people are welcoming and good natured.

Great planning tools are at www.thisisathens.org.

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures. See our newest travel site at www.tidbitts.com/karen-rubin/where-in-the-world.

 

The Athens War Museum – A Walk Through the Pantheon of Ancient Military History

The Athens War Museum is a must-see for military history aficionados featuring four floors with artifacts from 3000 years of warfare, from the ancient times of Alexander the Great through to World War II (photo by Tim Campbell)
The Athens War Museum is a must-see for military history aficionados featuring four floors with artifacts from 3000 years of warfare, from the ancient times of Alexander the Great through to World War II (photo by Tim Campbell)

By Tim Campbell

About a half mile from Syntagma Square, the heartbeat of Athens, Greece, sits the giant Athens War Museum, covering 3000 years of military history. This must-visit museum for military history aficionados and militaria fans features four floors of ancient warfare, ranging from the ancient times of Alexander the Great right through to World War II.

Torn by millennia of conflict, Greece has witnessed innumerable battles. Battles it has won and lost against nation states like Macedonia, the Ottoman Empire, Italy and Germany. Funded by grants from the Greek armed forces and generous donations from individuals and companies, the Athens War Museum is loved by all visitors with even the slightest interest in military history and warfare.

My guide during my recent visit, Brigadier General Panagiotis Kaperonis, is a 37-year veteran of the Greek Army. Now 55 years old, Brigadier General Kaperonis was educated at the world famous Gordonstoun Academy in Scotland, and also spent time training at Fort Benning near Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Gordonstoun Academy is where Prince Charles went to school.

Designed by scientists, and headed by Professor Thoukidides Valentis, the Athens war museum was built in 1975 and opened that year by the then Greek Minister of Defense, Constantine Tsatsos. This year the museum celebrates its 40th anniversary.

This bastion of all things military covers approximately 40,000 square feet, with four floors and a parking garage. An outside area, open to the public, is crammed with First and Second World War artillery and aircraft. The striking outdoor exhibition space displays Army, Navy and Air force militaria, including a helicopter, fighter jets, eighteenth century cannons, and several generations of artillery.

All the outdoor exhibits are being restored by professionals. When one is completed and returned to the museum, another departs. Each unit takes approximately two to three months for full restoration, the cost supported by grants from the Greek armed forces, depending on which military division the piece is from.

Inside, as we move from floor to floor, Brig.Gen. Kaperonis describes the various wars and battles that his Hellenic nation has been involved with over the centuries. He told me, “The lower floor is understandably the most popular with overseas visitors because it showcases the exploits of Greece’s most famous son and greatest legend, Alexander the Great”.

The lower floor contains many copies of priceless relics, the originals being stored in the National Museum next to the Acropolis. There are however, some rare original pieces, such as ancient Greek headgear, displayed in glass cases. These are at least two thousand years old, and some even older. The bronze Corinthian, Hoplite, and Spartan helmets were worn by soldiers dating from the Fifth century B.C.

Other interesting artifacts from the period of Alexander the Great include a crossbow and flamethrower. The crossbows were converted into giant-sized military hardware and fired at the enemy, no doubt bringing down several soldiers with each strike of their huge and formidable bolts.

Naval Ship from the time of Alexander the Great. (Photo by Tim Campbell)
Naval Ship from the time of Alexander the Great. (Photo by Tim Campbell)

During sea battles, the crossbow arrows were set alight with pitch and fired at oncoming vessels. Another surprising weapon was the flamethrower. Pitch was set alight in a bronze barrel and blown by bellows against the enemy by ramming an end spike into the opposing ship. Pushing the bellows that blew air into the tube and through holes in the end, allowed the flames to set fire to the enemy’s wooden vessels. One wonders how many ships delivering the flame were accidentally set on fire!

Setting advancing ships on fire with these ancient flamethrowers was a tactic that made Alexander the Great victorious at sea on many occasions. His soldiers would also convert flamethrowers into hand held units that were used to set fire to masses of infantry and buildings. Models of these crossbows and flamethrowers, and the rock hurling catapults, can be seen in glass cases on the ground floor.

Other artifacts from the Persian, Peloponnesian, and Spartan wars can be viewed under glass covers. The underground floor also houses many prehistoric relics found during archaeological excavations in the city. Dating back to the Neolithic period, the priceless pieces of flint, obsidian and bone are housed in special cases to protect them from today’s temperatures and dust.

Many other pieces date back to the Bronze Age, featuring items from the Minoan, Cycladic and Mycenaean civilizations. However, many of these are copies of the originals from the National museum at the Acropolis. Despite this, I thought this museum would be practically a religious experience for followers of Homer’s Odyssey!

The main floor with the entrance has a dual purpose. Showcases displaying World War II uniforms and glass cases are packed full of medals, ribbons and emblems detailing various Greek armed forces over the centuries. The small arms hardware galleries are set up in various parts of the rectangular main floor with models of artillery and transport used in World War II. This is also where entry tickets are purchased.

A central atrium on the first floor exhibits statues of famous Greek figures from centuries of Greek history. These sculptures of Generals and mythical characters really bring this central atrium to life. The atrium’s marvelous open air design encourages visitors to wander and take the time to view each statue. Informational plaques describe each protagonist’s place in Greece’s volatile history.

American Gatling gun used during WW1. (Photo by Tim Campbell)
American Gatling gun used during WW1. (Photo by Tim Campbell)

The first floor features hardware from World War One and the Balkan Wars. Comprised of small arms and models, these exhibits give the viewer a sense of the portability of the pieces. The lighter mortars and cannon, along with howitzers and 75mm guns, proved to be indispensible artillery in the mountain battles between the Greeks and their attackers.  These portable pieces allowed the armies to move around and above their invaders in the mountains, and fire down upon them with devastating effect.

The second (top) floor features hardware from the Second World War and scale models of various battles and naval vessels. Visitors from the U.K. will recognise the British uniforms and the numerous samples of British military hardware. As one of Greece’s staunchest allies over the centuries Britain has helped provide the Hellenic armies with funds and equipment, as well as uniforms for the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

Many of the pieces on display from WW2 were from captured enemy positions. They include German machine guns and Italian mortars and rifles. The WW1 items such as the rifles, artillery and Mauser machine guns were purchased from the Austrian Hungarian Empire but not with money or traded, they were bought with tons of tobacco grown in Greece.

Greece was devastated during the Second World War. As well as having the majority of Greek Jews being exterminated, the country suffered heavily losing 400,000 of its 4 million then inhabitants, almost 1 in 10 of the entire population. Many Greeks went overseas to both the USA and the UK, helping the war effort by returning funds and weapons to Greece from abroad.

While occupied by the Nazis, Greek partisans fought their battles mainly in the mountains until liberated by the Russians in October 1944. Scale models of some of these World War II battles can be seen in glass cases, the main feature being a replica of the famous Metaxas line of 19 forts across the north of Greece. The small arms display features Lee Enfield rifles, German Mauser guns, Italian mortars and other handguns and rifles.

WWII field gun used by the Greek Army. (Photo by Tim Campbell)
WWII field gun used by the Greek Army. (Photo by Tim Campbell)

On display in the exterior exhibition are both jet aircraft and helicopters from the Air Force, and Navy sonar equipment. Anti tank weaponry can be seen outside as well as 16th century cannons, 75mm howitzers, rapid fire pom-pom guns, aircraft bombs and missiles. Brig.Gen. Kaperonis gave me detailed information on the items explaining his love of the infantry and how important the artillery was to them. He told me “Without the artillery the infantry cannot be effective, and vice versa”.

The Athens war museum is a highlight for any military veteran, and entry to the museum is only three Euros. To be able to see this much historical hardware through the centuries of Greek history for the price of an ice cream is great value.

People with a military background or anyone who just enjoys looking at original military equipment, can feast their eyes on this original collection found nowhere else in the world. It is an unforgettable experience for any trip to Athens.

Athens War Museum, Rizari 2, Athens. Open 9am to 6pm, closed on Mondays. Smoking is not allowed and there are no facilities to purchase food or drinks. The website for more information is www.warmuseum.gr/english/ and the telephone number of the museum is 210-7252974. If you’d like to meet Brigadier General Kaperonis or arrange a personal tour, contact info@warmuseum.gr.

Beats of North Beach, Rolling Museums, Urban Oasis: San Francisco’s Cultural Highlights Where You Least Expect

San Francisco's historic ferry building lit up to commemorate the 1915 World's Fair. The city has hosted many fairs which has resulted in a cultural legacy and shaped its landscape © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
San Francisco’s historic ferry building lit up to commemorate the 1915 World’s Fair. The city has hosted many fairs which has resulted in a cultural legacy and shaped its landscape © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

North Beach & the Beat Museum

I arrived at the Green Tortoise Hostel in the bright sun of the afternoon and didn’t think anything about the neighborhood – it seemed busy. I actually had missed that little item about “adult entertainment clubs” in the welcome letter they sent. So when I arrived back in the evening, there were the giant neon signs that turn a neighborhood into a living canvas.

North Beach is a colorful neighborhood, especially at night.© 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
North Beach is a colorful neighborhood, especially at night.© 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

I went out exploring, finding lovely restaurants, beautiful street artwork and discover what a culturally rich, vibrant neighborhood North Beach is – San Francisco‘s Little Italy (lovely Italian restaurants, including the Fior d’Italia, which claims to be America’s oldest Italian Restaurant, dating from 1908 (2237 Mason St, fior.com) and the stomping grounds of the Beat Generation.

This was the neighborhood where poet Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac lived – and just a block up from the Green Tortoise is the Beat Museum.

“The Beat Museum is dedicated to spreading the spirit of The Beat Generation, which we define as tolerance, compassion and having the courage to live your individual truth.

“The Beats, as in beaten down and beatific, were a collective of writers, artists and thinkers that congregated in 1950s San Francisco.”

The Beat Museum, in North Beach section of San Francisco, where Alan Ginsburg used to live © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Beat Museum, in North Beach section of San Francisco, where Alan Ginsburg used to live © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Beat Museum is home to an extensive collection of Beat memorabilia, including original manuscripts and first editions, letters, personal effects and cultural ephemera, originally colleced by Jerry Cimano, who made his money in Corporate American and first opened the Beat Museum in 2003 in Monterey.

The museum was moved to North Beach, – “the epicenter for Beat activity during the 1950s” – in 2006.

“We are dedicated to carrying on the Beat’s legacy by exposing their work to new audiences, encouraging journeys—both interior and exterior—and being a resource on how one person’s perspective can have meaning to many.”

Even if you don’t visit the museum (which is behind a curtain), it is marvelous fun to peruse the shop crammed with books and items associated with the Beats, even an old car.

The Beat Museum, 540 Broadway (at Columbus Ave.), San Francisco, CA 94133 (museum entrance is $8/Adults, $5/Students/Seniors), 800-KEROUAC (800-537-6822), www.kerouac.com, email info [a] kerouac.com, follow on Twitter @KerouacDotCom and The Beat Museum on Facebook.

Golden Gate Park: An Urban Oasis for the Soul

By my third day in San Francisco, I am more comfortable getting around on public transportation, and I’ve set my sights on visiting Golden Gate Park. My smart-phone app offers a few alternatives, so I ask the Hotel Whitcomb’s concierge, who recommends taking the 71 Bus to 9th Avenue, and then, because I also want to ride the cable car again, taking the same bus back to Powell Street & Hyde, where the cable car begins its route.

The 71 Bus proves to be a great sightseeing tour – going along Haight, through the famous Haight-Asbury district. What a trip!

Bus #71 goes right through San Francisco's Haight-Asbury district. What a trip! © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Bus #71 goes right through San Francisco’s Haight-Asbury district. What a trip! © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Gorgeous Victorians line the boulevard – then you come to the center of Haight Ashbury – a riot of 1980s color, fonts and patterns; clever shop names (Love n Haight); head shops, music shops, famous record store. I’m surprised by how beautiful this section of San Francisco is.

The bus driver is so helpful to me and sensing my enthusiasm, and gives me some tips on seeing the park. She tells me where to get off, suggests where to go (as does another passenger who looks right at home in Haight-Asbury), while another rider offers his own suggestions – namely, it’s easy to get lost and stay on the path.

Golden Gate Park is an enchanting oasis in the midst of a bustling city. And if it calls to mind New York’s Central Park or Philadelphia’s Fairmont Park, there is a connection to those parks’ designer, Frederick Law Olmstead, who prepared one of the early designs, according to a historic marker.

Hayes Valley was the only location that was sheltered from the extreme conditions of the coast. He also was adamant that City Park should not resemble the popular English-style ‘pleasure garden’ but should be planted with native and other Mediterranean style species that could thrive in an environment with little water. (How prescient – now that California has had to impose water restrictions for the four-year drought).

Olmstead was not the designer but was a mentor to William Hammond Hall, the engineer chosen to survey and design the park. Hall began difficult task of taming the ever-changing sand dunes that dominated most of the area (hard to believe when you see this lush vast space now) – doing research, experimentation, trial and error and applying precedents from Europe. He was close to succeeding when he was forced to retire and chose his successor as Park Superintendent, John McLaren, to finish Golden Gate Park.

“In the beginning, three-quarters of the park was covered in ocean dunes, but were soon blanketed with various tree plantings. By 1875, the area bloomed with close to 60,000 trees, such as the Blue Gum Eucalyptus and the Monterey Pine. Four years later, 155,000 trees were placed over 1,000 acres of land. In 1903, the Dutch Windmills found their home at the western end of the park with an initial duty to pump water and life throughout the park.”

Hall designed the roads and pathways with curves and bends “to discourage fast horse-and-buggy drivers, and to shelter visitors from the wind. Walkways were kept away from roads, and low spots (dells) were planted with shrubbery and plants to attract birds and small wildlife to delight visitors.” The effect is magical.

Golden Gate Park is San Francisco’s largest park – 3 miles long and half-mile wide, spanning 1,013 acres (making it larger than Central Park) – and is one of the most visited in the country.

Golden Gate Park is an oasis in San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Golden Gate Park is an oasis in San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

It is not just an oasis of forests and lush gardens, ponds and lakes, and even wildlife (there is actually a paddock with bison next to Spreckels Lake), but is the city’s cultural heart, where some of its most important museums and attractions are located. These basically grew up over time: the Japanese Tea Garden that is so enchanting originally was part of the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894. The San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum was planned as early as the 1890s, but planting did not begin until 1937 due to lack of funding. The De Young Museum was first built in 1921 and has since undergone complete renovation, re-opening in 2005.

The art museum is just across a huge plaza from the California Academy of Sciences. Other attractions in the park include a carousel, playground and children’s quarter.

The Gold Gate Pavilion on Stow Lake opened in 1981.© 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Gold Gate Pavilion on Stow Lake opened in 1981.© 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

I find my way to Stow Lake and begin to stroll around it and am immediately overwhelmed seeing a waterfall. This is Strawberry Hill –a picturesque island in the middle of Stow Lake – and the sight of the Gold Gate Pavilion, a Japanese Pavilion that opened 1981. They are all the more picturesque with the paddle boats and row boats.

I come to a stone bridge that takes me onto Strawberry Hill so I can walk to the pavilion and up to the waterfall.

There are bike rentals, Segway tours, and you can easily spend a full day or many days here and because there is so much to do inside, it is a great place regardless of weather.

Plan your visit: www.golden-gate-park.com.

SF’s Public Transit: More than a Great Way to Get Around

I get back on the #71 Bus (you can use your ticket for a free return if you get back on before the time stamped), getting another splendid tour of Haight-Asbury, on my way to Powell & Market, for another cable car ride. Even this ordinary bus provides a sensational sightseeing experience (and you get to chat up with local people).

You absolutely shouldn’t rent a car in San Francisco (the traffic and road ways are difficult, especially with the streetcars and cable cars; also you can spend an hour looking for parking and spots are mostly limited to two hours on the street at $1 an hour).

But the public transit system in San Francisco is more than clever, it is fun, and figuring it out (like Tokyo’s subway system), feels like a triumph.

San Francisco's street cars, vintage 1930s and 1940s, come from all over the world  © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
San Francisco’s street cars, vintage 1930s and 1940s, come from all over the world © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There are these marvelous, colorful streetcars from the 1930s and 1940s that were purchased from around the world, not to mention the cable cars which are more than tourist rides but real transportation (San Francisco is the only city that still has cable cars on its streets), plus regular buses and even a subway.

Indeed, the streetcars and cablecars are quite literally “San Francisco’s Museums in Motion”: “No other city in the world can match San Francisco in offering such extensive regular transit service with two types of vintage vehicles.”

“The Cable Cars, invented here in 1873, dominated the city’s transit scene for more than 30 years, but were almost extinguished by the 1906 earthquake and fire. They soldiered on through two world wars as a quaint relic (even then), survived misguid3ed politicians in the late 1940s, were wounded in a follow-up assault in the 1950s, but endured it all to become a worldwide symbol of San Francisco. Their history is a fascinating amalgam of technology, politics and passion.” (see www.streetcar.org).

San Francisco's cable cars are literally "rolling museums." San Francisco is the only city where cable cars are still used on city streets. © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
San Francisco’s cable cars are literally “rolling museums.” San Francisco is the only city where cable cars are still used on city streets. © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

What is so fascinating to me is that the cable cars are completely mechanical, run by huge winding wheels at a central powerhouse (which you can see at the Cable Car Museum), that pull a steel cable at a constant 9 mph through a trench beneath the tracks. The car latches onto the cable with a grip that works like a giant pair of pliers. (Cable Car Museum, 1201 Mason Street, San Francisco, CA 94108, 415-474-1887, www.cablecarmuseum.org). (See: A day in San Francisco touring its past: Plucky cable car exemplifies its grit).

In 1888, electric streetcars became practical, and could travel two to five times faster than the cable cars. They run on tracks like cable cars, but generally draw electric power from overhead wire. The first streetcars came to San Francisco in 1892 and following the 1906 earthquake, replaced cable cars as the main transit mode on all but the steepest hills (where the cable cars still proved most effective). From a peak of 50 lines that operated in the late 1920s, streetcar service waned, and by 1982, the last five lines went into a subway beneath Market Street. But neighborhood and business leaders mounted the Historic Trolley Festival in 1983, bringing vintage streetcars from around the world to run on Market Street, and the F line became permanent in 1995.

The best way to appreciate san Francisco's neighborhoods is to ride the cable cars and street cars© 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The best way to appreciate san Francisco’s neighborhoods is to ride the cable cars and street cars© 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The city acquired the popular 1930s and 1940s cars from cities around the world and the cars have the names of the cities they come from (Milan, Italy; St. Louis). It is marvelous to see the different street cars.

My last ride on the cable car ($6 one-way), on the Powell-Hyde line, proves the best. By luck, experience and speed, I get to the position standing on the running board at the very front of the car – which lets me hold my camera steady while I hold on with the other hand. The views are spectacular (there is a stop just above Lombard/Crooked Street).

The city maps mark out the different routes for the various transit systems – but it takes a bit of familiarization to feel comfortable. So start out with the concierge to give you directions and use googlemaps on smart phone, and soon enough, you figure it out (the app even tells you when the next bus is coming).

You can buy various tickets – for a day or multi-day – which can pay off, at the Visitors Center.

Mission District

Dining at Hog & Rocks, San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Dining at Hog & Rocks, San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

I get an all-too-brief glimpse of Mission District when we go to dinner at “Hogs & Rocks,” which bills itself as San Francisco’s first ham and oyster bar. It is a delightful bistro/tapas-style restaurant that invites conversation over sharing small plates of the most unusual food, flavor and texture combinations created by rising star Chef Robin Song. For example, bone marrow prepared with dried fig, rhubarb, onion on toast, as well as “large plates” like a delectable heritage pork (potato puree, cabbage, horseradish and mustard).

Hog & Rocks, 3431 19th Street @ Mission, San Francisco, CA 94110, 415.550.8627 – drink@hogandrocks.com, www.hogandrocks.com.

The San Francisco Travel Association is the official tourism marketing organization for the City and County of San Francisco. For information on reservations, activities and more, visit www.sanfrancisco.travel or call 415-391-2000. The Visitor Information Center is located at 900 Market St. in Hallidie Plaza, lower level, near the Powell Street cable car turnaround.

See also:

Walking tour tells story of San Francisco’s improbable rise as a great city and slideshow

Green Tortoise Hostel – Living the San Francisco Vibe

A Day in San Francisco Revisiting the Past: Plucky Cable Car Epitomizes City’s Grit, Determination, Innovation

On the Waterfront: A Day Spent Immersed in San Francisco’s Maritime Tradition

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin,www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

 

On the Waterfront: A Day Spent Immersed in San Francisco’s Maritime Tradition

Biking along San Francisco's waterfront brings you to a fabulous overlook for an iconic view of the Golden Gate Bridge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking along San Francisco’s waterfront brings you to a fabulous overlook for an iconic view of the Golden Gate Bridge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I have two big wishes for my visit to San Francisco (yes, I know they are cliches): to see, really see, the Golden Gate Bridge and to ride the cable car. I get to achieve that in a day oriented around San Francisco’s maritime heritage.

I walk from the Green Tortoise Hostel in North Beach, a colorful district which retains its “Beat” Generation and Little Italy roots, down toward Fisherman’s Wharf, to the Bay City Bike rental shop. (which happens to be just where the Powell & Mason cable car starts).

The best way to experience this relatively flat (though not entirely flat) waterfront area is on a bike, which offers those incomparable views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and all the bustle of Fisherman’s Wharf, the Marina district, and the Presidio (San Francisco’s original Spanish center), at a perfect pace and from a perfect perch to really enjoy all that is about you, and with the freedom to stop and really look around.

I pick up my rental bike at Bay City Bike’s shop at 501 Bay Street (right beside where the Powell-Mason cable car starts). It is a very fine shop with new equipment (in fact, my helmet has just come out of the box). The bikes come equipped with a pouch, water holder, a handy map on the handlebars, bike lock and helmet. Before you set off, they give you a wonderful orientation to the route and what you can expect (where the hills are, where to turn off to Alexandria Road to go down to Sausalito). You can even purchase a ferry ticket at the shop, but since I am not sure I will be taking the ferry, or ride back (which means riding back up a steep hill for 2 miles from Sausalito), I decide to wait (you can purchase a ticket at the ferry (you can purchase a ticket at a kiosk or pay onboard).

It is one of the most delightful bike rides you can take anywhere- almost entirely on dedicated bike path (but it is also exceptionally popular, so expect many other bikers and walkers).

Biking along San Francisco's waterfront brings you to a fabulous overlook for an iconic view of the Golden Gate Bridge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking along San Francisco’s waterfront brings you to a fabulous overlook for an iconic view of the Golden Gate Bridge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

It’s just a couple of blocks from the rental shop onto the bike path that takes you through Fisherman’s Wharf, and the National Maritime Historic District, passed Ghirardelli Square, the Marina District, through Fort Mason (that’s an uphill climb, but what a view!), along the water through the Presidio/Crissy Field to an overlook that gives you a breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge in its full glory, and then over the 1.7-mile span of the Golden Gate Bridge itself, where there are dedicated paths on either side (only one side is open at a time, and there are specific hours).

Going over the bridge makes it my own – no longer a photo image. I love being on it, looking at the historic plaques (it is the same exhilarating feeling as riding over the Brooklyn Bridge).

It's fairly slow going on the path over the Golden Gate Bridge, but that's okay © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
It’s fairly slow going on the path over the Golden Gate Bridge, but that’s okay © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking in Sausalito© 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking in Sausalito© 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Golden Gate Bridge, which opened on May 28, 1937 at a cost of $35 million. I could never understand why it was called “Golden Gate” when it is red, nor (as I learn) was it named “golden’ for the 1849 Gold Rush, which put San Francisco on the map. Rather, it was named for the strait that connects San Francisco Bay with the Pacific Ocean. I learn later at the National Historical Park Visitor Center that the strait acquired the name “Golden Gate” from James C. Fremont, who wrote, “To this Gate I gave the name of “Chrysopylae”, or “Golden Gate”; for the same reasons that the harbor of Byzantium was called Chrysoceras, or Golden Horn.”

Indeed, the only real reason that San Francisco became a city at all was this proximity to the Pacific, and most of the waterfront area was created on the skeletons of the hundreds of wrecked ships, abandoned as passengers and crew raced to the gold fields, and with landfill blasted from the hills.

From the bridge, you ride down for two miles (you can veer off to go to the Bay Area Discovery Museum) into the charming village of Sausalito. (I decide then and there the ferry is the best option back.)

It takes me about 2-2 1/2 hours to ride the eight miles to Sausalito (I stop often for photos), where it is delightful to stroll around, visit the exquisite galleries (the Kokopelli Gallery is my favorite) and eateries.

If you choose, you can continue biking 8 miles further to Tiburon – or if you choose to ride back from Sausalito (I am cautioned) – but there is that steep two mile ride up to the Bridge.

Or, you can do what most people do and take the ferry boat back from Sausalito. There are two ferries and I take the one that goes back to Fisherman’s Wharf.

San Francisco has a rich maritime tradition © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
San Francisco has a rich maritime tradition © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The 30-minute ferry boat ride is a fun sightseeing tour in itself – it stops at Angel Island, a state park now which used to be an important entry point for immigrants and had a role in the Civil War and World War II) to pick up the bikers and hikers; and gives you great views of Alcatraz Island and of course, San Francisco’s skyline. (The ticket is $11.50 and well worth it – you can buy the ticket at the bike rental shop, or at a kiosk or pay onboard.)

Bay City Bike has five locations in San Francisco, a selection of equipment, including e-bikes, and a variety of guided and self-guided tours (Explore the City, Golden Gate Park, Marin Headlands-Muir Woods).

Bay City Bike Rentals and Tours, 501 Bay Street (at Fisherman’s Wharf), 415-827-2453, www.baycitybike.com (opens daily at 8 am).

Palace of Fine Arts

I get off the ferry at Fisherman’s Wharf and continue my bike ride back through the historic district, back along the marina, back to the Palace of Fine Arts which I had passed before.

From a distance, it is an interesting but not memorable structure that seems out of place to its surroundings. But when you get close, you realize it is not a singular building at all, but these giant, amazing colonnades winging a rotunda, decorated with stunning reliefs and statues, overlooking a pond.

Bernard Maybeck's Beaux Arts masterpiece, the rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts is a remnant of the 1915 world's fair © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Bernard Maybeck’s Beaux Arts masterpiece, the rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts is a remnant of the 1915 world’s fair © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

In fact, the “palace of fine arts” isn’t a palace at all, but rather, what’s left of an exposition building that dates from the 1915 World’s Fair (the reason that 1915 is in lights on the Ferry Building, marking the centennial of the exposition).

Bernard Maybeck, the architect of the Palace of Fine Arts, designed it in the Beaux Arts style, modeled after the ruins of Roman Parthenon. “He believed that all great cities have ruins,” I am told inside the exposition building where the California Historical Society (calhist.org) has an excellent exhibit underway, “City Rising,” about the fair.

These columns were built for the exposition, but because they were only intended to last the two years of the fair, were only constructed of plaster, faux travertine and chicken wire. There are even a couple of the original statues that were saved, pocked with holes, where you can see they are more like props for a movie set.

Just about everything was taken down from the fair – indeed, the entire Marina district of homes was put up where the fair grounds were (the fair was built on landfill). But no one had the heart to tear down the columns. By the 1960s, they were coming apart, and in 1965, a Marina District resident funded a project to replace them with stone columns.

You absolutely forget where you are when you stand at the base of these towering columns.

Bernard Maybeck's Beaux Arts masterpiece, the rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts is a remnant of the 1915 world's fair © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Bernard Maybeck’s Beaux Arts masterpiece, the rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts is a remnant of the 1915 world’s fair © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The colonnade and rotunda are just outside the exposition building where inside is a fascinating exhibit presented by the California Historical Society, “City Rising.” The exhibit, on through Jan 10, 2016, is about San Francisco and the 1915 World’s Fair (the Panama-Pacific International Exposition): “a critical event that shaped the San Francisco we know today: a city undaunted by tragedy, audaciously innovative, and rising to meet the challenges of the day.” (Another exhibit is at the California Historical Society, 678 Mission St., through Dec. 6, 2015, ppie100.org).

The hall is also a great respite – with sitting areas, restroom, cafe. (Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon Street).

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park Visitors Center

Definitely take time to visit the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park Visitors Center, which offers fascinating exhibits and artifacts, superb videos that trace the maritime history of San Francisco (a perfect complement to Fern Hill Walking Tours’ Classic San Francisco and the Cable Car Museum).

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park is located on the edge of San Francisco Bay in the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood and can be visited year-round.

Begin at the Visitor Center, located at 499 Jefferson Street at the corner of Hyde Street. Park Rangers are available to help you plan your visit (415-447-5000).

Visit the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park's collection of floating historic ships. © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com \
Visit the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park’s collection of floating historic ships. © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
\

From the Visitor Center, cross Jefferson Street to Hyde Street Pier and visit the park’s collection of floating historic ships. Here, you can also see magnificent views of the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge.

From Hyde Street Pier, take a short stroll across the park to the ship-shaped Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building (this is being restored now but will house additional exhibits).

There is also the famous Ghirardelli Square, where the chocolate company is located (and offers tours).

Fisherman’s Wharf – despite Cannery Row (a nod to John Steinbeck and the brick structure’s earliest origins as a cannery, then warehouses, today shops and cafes) – is more or less a theme-park re-creation, with shops and restaurants and such, but it is wonderful fun to wander around.

Hard Rock Cafe San Francisco

The Hard Rock Cafe, right on Fisherman’s Wharf at the entrance of Pier 39. is a wonderfully entertaining dining experience, offering a fun, lively atmosphere, tasty “all-American” food, hand-crafted beverages, amidst a museum-quality collection of Rock legend memorabilia. Each of the Hard Rock Cafes likes to feature music of its own area, and here, in San Francisco, the Grateful Dead is in the spotlight, and instead of sports on TV screens, there are music videos playing.

Hard Rock Cafe San Francisco, right at Pier 39 on Fisherman's Wharf is a festive place to dine © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Hard Rock Cafe San Francisco, right at Pier 39 on Fisherman’s Wharf is a festive place to dine © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

I take a “tour” to more closely inspect the memorabilia decorating the walls: BB King’s Electric Guitar; the Beatles’ Derby Hats, Carlos Santa’s electric guitar, a painting of Jerry Garcia by Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship; Janis Joplin’s cape; Jimi Hendrix’ jacket; an autographed black hat of Michael Jackson; an autographed guitar from Journey, a San Francisco-bred band inducted into the Bay Area Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and James Taylor’s guitar. The most expensive single item I’m told is an autographed electric guitar given to Jason Becker, a guitar virtuoso who was diagnosed with Lou Gehring’s disease, by Eddie Van Halen (estimated to be worth between $20,000-$30,000).

What is surprising for a place that is so much a part of a tourist destination is the quality of the food. The menu has all the fun, comfort items foundational to American pub fare, and the preparations and quality of the ingredients are excellent.

We start with (what else?) the Jumbo Combo, a collection of its most popular appetizers: Signature Wings, Onion Rings, Tupelo Chicken Tenders, Spinach Artichoke Dip with Parmesan flatbread and bruschetta (particularly delicious, this is toasted artisan bread topped with herb cream cheese and marinated Roma tomatoes and fresh basil, served with a drizzle of basil oil and shaved Parmesan).

For the main, I go with the Cowboy Rib Eye, a 28-day aged 16-oz bone-in rib eye steak, perfectly prepared.

There are a variety of smokehouse favorites – hickory-smoked ribs, barbecue chicken, and a combo, a grilled Norwegian Salmon – sufficient variety to satisfy any palette or diet.The Hard Rock Cafe isn’t just a tourist place, the fine dining, fun atmosphere and beautiful setting brings you back over and over.

The location at Pier 39 also is near some of the most breathtaking views of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco Bay, and the gorgeous city skyline. We leave the restaurant just in time to take in a magnificent sunset from the skyway just outside, to the Golden Gate Bridge

Get to the restaurant early and enjoy the Sea Lion Center (sealioncenter.org) and the Aquarium of the Bay (aquariumofthebay.com) just next door.

(Hard Rock Cafe San Francisco, Pier 39-Beach & Embarcadero Streets, SF 94133, 415-956-2013, hardrock.com).

See also:

Walking tour tells story of San Francisco’s improbable rise as a great city and slideshow

Green Tortoise Hostel – Living the San Francisco Vibe

A Day in San Francisco Revisiting the Past: Plucky Cable Car Epitomizes City’s Grit, Determination, Innovation

 

_____________________

© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin,www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

A Day in San Francisco Revisiting the Past: Plucky Cable Car Epitomizes City’s Grit, Determination, Innovation

More than a sightseeing attraction for tourists, San Francisco's cable cars are intrinsic to what makes the city go © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
More than a sightseeing attraction for tourists, San Francisco’s cable cars are intrinsic to what makes the city go © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

A day devoted to exploring San Francisco’s past, and how this improbable city came to be began with Hudson Bell’s Fern Hill Walking Tours’ Classic San Francisco, which offered a brilliant orientation to the city. We end the tour with a ride on the California cable car line. Just a couple of blocks where Bell’s walking tour ends, back at Nob Hill, is the Cable Car Museum.

Even more than the Golden Gate Bridge, I believe, the cable car defines San Francisco – it is fact, the only city where cable cars still operate as more than just a tourist ride and an essential part of mass transit system. But as I soon learn, the cable cars survive in spite of repeated attempts to replace them altogether. It is quite literally the Little Train that Could – a technology that was invented here in the 19th century which still proves the best to tackle San Francisco’s hills. The cable car is what made San Francisco livable.

Watch as the wheels and gears pull San Francisco's cable cars throughout the city at the San Francisco Cable Car Museum © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Watch as the wheels and gears pull San Francisco’s cable cars throughout the city at the San Francisco Cable Car Museum © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Located in the historic Washington/ Mason cable car barn and powerhouse, the Cable Car Museum, which opened in 1974, is so much more than a museum. It lets you look at the actual workings of all four cable-car lines – gigantic wheels, gears and pulleys and cables, moving underground constantly at 9 mph from this central powerhouse. You even get to look under the street to see the “sheavers” doing their painstaking work.

The deck overlooks the huge engines and winding wheels that pull the cables. Downstairs is a viewing area of the large sheaves and cable line entering the building through the channel under the street.

You can see the marvelous mechanical devices – grips, track, cable, brake mechanisms, tools – detailed models, and a large collection of historic photographs.

You sit in an open car to watch a fantastic video (apparently, produced by GE in the 1980s, when the cable cars were saved from being completely removed), that explains how the cable cars work and the history.

You get a healthy respect watching how the engineer drives San Francisco's cable cars. San Francisco's cable cars are intrinsic to the city's persona. Invented in San Francisco, it is the only city that still uses the cable cars, which are still the best way to climb its hills © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
You get a healthy respect watching how the engineer drives San Francisco’s cable cars.
San Francisco’s cable cars are intrinsic to the city’s persona. Invented in San Francisco, it is the only city that still uses the cable cars, which are still the best way to climb its hills © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You come away with extraordinary respect and admiration for the cable car engineers – how physical, all the things they have to watch, since they are in essence driving in traffic and have to be careful of cars and pedestrians in the way. Most interesting of all is how the engineer literally let’s go and the car is in free fall as it goes around turns or crosses over the cable for another line.

These aren’t simple, archaic machines at all – It is an ingenious, completely mechanical system: four cable lines, each a closed loop, occasionally crossing each other; sheaving machines that change the cable direction; hundreds of smaller sheaves are under the streets (like pulleys). The huge winding wheels we see here at the powerhouse pull a steel cable at a constant 9 mph through a trench beneath the tracks. The car latches onto the cable with a grip that works like a giant pair of pliers.

The video shows how the engineer drives the cable car, gripping and releasing the cable, how the cable car is actually in free fall when it turns the corner or crosses another cable.

Considering all that stress on the cables of lifting those cars, full of passengers, up those steep hills, don’t the cables fray and break? The cables are actually totally replaced every few months.

My admiration for the invention – and the engineering and how the people who operate them – skyrockets.

More than a sightseeing attraction for tourists, San Francisco's cable cars are intrinsic to what makes the city go © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
More than a sightseeing attraction for tourists, San Francisco’s cable cars are intrinsic to what makes the city go © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The cable car was invented in San Francisco by Andrew Smith Hallidie. Hallidie’s father was an inventor who had a patent in Great Britain for “wire rope” cable. Hallidie immigrated to the U.S. in 1852 during the Gold Rush. He began using cable in a system he had developed to haul ore from mines and in building suspension bridges.

The story goes that he got the idea for a steam engine powered, cable-driven – rail system in 1869, after witnessing horses being whipped while they struggled on the wet cobblestones to pull a horse car up Jackson Street; the horses slipped and were dragged to their death.

Hallidie entered into a partnership to form the Clay Street Hill Railroad, which began construction of a cable line on Clay Street in May of 1873. tested the first cable car at 4 o’clock in the morning, August 2nd, 1873, on Clay Street, in San Francisco.

There was a move to replace the cable cars, but after the 1906 earthquake and fire, there was too much to be replaced, so the system was restored.

After the 1906 earthquake and fire, there was a move to replace cable cars with the electric streetcar, perfected in1888 by Frank Sprague. Street cars had become the vehicle of choice for city transit – requiring only required half the investment to build and maintain, and could reach more areas and was quicker. But the cable cars were still able to traverse the steep hills better, so some of the lines were rebuilt. However, as the streetcars improved, even those lines were in jeopardy.

By 1947, the lower operational costs of buses prompted Mayor Lapham to declare, “the city should get rid of all cable car lines as soon as possible.”

Hold on! Riding the San Francisco cable car is a real ride © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Hold on! Riding the San Francisco cable car is a trip! © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

But that idea met with huge community opposition. Friedel Klussmann founded the Citizens’ Committee to Save the Cable Cars. There was an international outcry to save the cable cars, which just about everyone appreciated defined the city.

“It would be like Paris without the Eiffel Tower, New York without the Statue of Liberty, London without Big Ben,” an international newspaper screamed.

But by the 1970s, the system was deteriorated. The system was shut down from 1982-4 to be completely rehabilitated. reopening in 1984 in time for the Democratic National Convention that was held in the city. San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein (now US Senator) cut the ribbon.

San Francisco is now only place that operates cable car on streets.

The museum houses three antique cable cars from the 1870s. The Sutter Street Railway No. 46 grip car & No. 54 trailer and the only surviving car from the first cable car company, the Clay Street Hill Railroad No. 8 grip car.

The museum also offers a vivid exhibit with historic photos and commentary of the Great Earthquake of 1906 – you really appreciate the devastation, which makes how San Francisco came back from that all the more remarkable:

At 5:12 am, the equivalent of 6 million tons of TNT – that’s 12,000 times the impact of the 1945 atomic bomb of Hiroshima – struck. The city shook for 40 seconds, then a 10-second pause and 25 seconds more. It left a 200 mile long, 20-40 mile-wide path of destruction along the San Andreas Fault, from Salinas Valley to Fort Bragg.

But that wasn’t the worst – fire broke out April 18, burning for three days. All the water mains, from Crystal Spring reservoir into the city, were broken, so the firefighters had nothing to fight with. The three days of fire caused six times the devastation of London’s 1666 fire.

City Hall was in ruins. The Palace Hotel burned late on April 18 (from which the opera singer Enrico Caruso fled, to the St. Francis where he had breakfast).Russian, Nob and Telegraph Hills burned down to bare earth. The Wharf, North Beach, financial district were desolated. The district known as “South of the Slot” (because of the Market Street cable car slots down the street) burned block after block of tenement and industrial buildings.

The Mission District burned to 20 th & Church streets, where, miraculously, water was available.

But many of the cable car lines that survived the earthquake and fire fell victim to modern rebuilding, with the construction of electric trolley lines – the electric streetcar.

When you consider the strain on hoisting these cable cars up and down the hills, I can only imagine the wear and tear and what would happen if any snapped at any point. I learn that the cables that pull the cable cars around day in and day out are completely replaced every few months.

There is a fun gift shop and a small cafe inside (across the street from the cable car museum is a great cafe to get refreshment).

Free admission! Open daily (except 4 holidays), 10-6 April 1-Sept. 30, 10-5, Oct 1-Mar 31.

Cable Car Museum, 1201 Mason Street, San Francisco, CA 94108, 415-474-1887, www.cablecarmuseum.org.

Riding the Cable Car

The visit to the Cable Car Museum only enhances my appreciation for the cable car, and during my visit, I take about four different rides.

The Powell & Hyde route is supposed to offer the steepest hills, and I take that from Market Street to Fisherman’s Wharf. (It has a stop right above the famous Crooked Street /Lombard.)

Riding on the outside, standing on the running board and holding on with one hand as you try to take photos with the other! Disney doesn’t have a ride to compare.

It is quite thrilling, especially when the cable car comes within inches of the returning cable car (wave to the people!), or traffic that buzzes along side. The views are fantastic.

I’m impressed with all the gears the engineer operates, the physical effort it takes, and how he has to watch out for pedestrians, cars that drive into the lane, the riders hanging off (like me), the riders who want to get on, watch the traffic lights and the signs painted into the streets.

Riding the San Francisco cable car © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Riding the San Francisco cable car © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Returning, I gauge the long line to get back on, so go over to the Powell & Mason line, at Bay Street.

I’ve calculated just right and for my last ride, I am in the exactly right position: riding outside, in the front, so I can rest my camera and hold on with one hand.

Half the seats are outside, and you face out, not front.

People hail the cable car along the route – if they can get on – and it’s not just tourists who use the cars but locals. The California line tends to get fewer tourists and more commuters.

Historic John’s Grill

A perfect way to cap off our sojourn into San Francisco’s history is dining at Historic John’s Grill, located toward the Market Street end of the Powell Street  Cable Car ride, just up from the ferry building in Union Square (it’s also walking distance of the theater district, museums, shops and the city’s historic hotels, the Westin St. Francis and The Drake).

John’s Grill has been a San Francisco institution since 1908 – just after the earthquake – a favorite of politicians, detectives, journalists and generations of San Franciscans.  The interior is a masterpiece of original period furnishings, with wood-paneled walls and its historic photographs reflect a colorful century of San Francisco’s history. The restaurant also is the home of the Maltese Falcon,  the precious statue made famous by detective novelist Dashiell Hammett, who worked next door and would frequent the restaurant. Hammett used the restaurant as a setting in his famous Sam Spade stories: “Sam Spade went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, sliced tomatoes … and  was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when…”

There is a whole atmosphere to John’s Grill – there’s live jazz nightly from 6:30 to 9:30 pm on the second floor, but the music fills the main floor restaurant also. (The third floor of the townhouse is a banquet room accommodating 100).

John's Grill has a permanent exhibit to writer Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon. Hammett, a frequent guest, incorporated John's Grill into the Sam Spade story © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
John’s Grill has a permanent exhibit to writer Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon. Hammett, a frequent guest, incorporated John’s Grill into the Sam Spade story © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You must go up to the second floor where there is a sort of “museum” to the Maltese Falcon – actually more of an exhibit case, with the statue, copies of Hammett’s books. (John’s Grill is the headquarters of the Dashiell Hammett Society of San Francisco, founded in 1977 by William F. Nolan, a biographer of Hammett, and Jack Kaplan, a director of Pinkerton’s. they created the “Maltese Falcon Room” and guide “Hammett Walks” around the city).

A steakhouse that evokes the machismo of Sam Spade, everything we ordered was fantastic (the rib eye steak was perfection with a peppery accent, as was the Jumbo Prawns Dijonnaise, sauteed with mushrooms, wine, garlic and dijon cream; broiled seabass in a roasted garlic beurre blanc; and a seafood cannelloni- crepes filled with crab, shrimp, baby spinach, cheese, mushrooms with a sherry cream sauce.

The restaurant is known for its Chicken Jerusalem (sauteed with artichokes, mushrooms and creamy white wine sauce) and Oysters Wellington (prepared with creamed spinach, smoked bacon, baked in a puff pastry and served on a bed of sherry cream) .

We start the meal with a selection of appetizers – fresh oysters, Maine lobster ravioli, Moules a la mariniere (mussles with garlic in an herbed light cream broth).

Historic John´s Grill, 63 Ellis Street, San Francisco 94102, Tel: (415) 986-0069, email john@johnsgrill.com, www.johnsgrill.com

Historic Hotel Whitcomb

Hotel Whitcomb is the perfect accommodation for this sojourn through San Francisco’s history – it is, indeed, one of the Historic Hotels of America members in San Francisco (historichotels.org).

For several years following the earthquake of 1906, it served as the City Hall (1912-1915) – (“City Hall” used to be etched in stone above the entrance) – and has been a  hotel since 1916.

Tiffany leaded glass decorates the bar at the historic Hotel Whitcomb, which opened in 1916 after serving as the City Hall © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Tiffany leaded glass decorates the bar at the historic Hotel Whitcomb, which opened in 1916 after serving as the City Hall © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

When you walk through the front doors of the landmark Hotel Whitcomb from bustling Market Street, you find yourself in an elegant boutique hotel with high cathedral ceilings and lovely interiors of early 19th century and Edwardian architecture.

The opulent lobby features Austrian crystal chandeliers, Tiffany stained glass domes above the front desk and also in the piano bar, polished Italian marble columns and floors, Janesero wood paneling, polished brass fixtures, and fresh flowers accentuates the hotel’s Victorian style that is remarkably calming. 1940s music is playing.

The landmark Hotel Whitcomb is an elegant boutique hotel with high cathedral ceilings and  lovely interiors of early 19th century © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The landmark Hotel Whitcomb is an elegant boutique hotel with high cathedral ceilings and lovely interiors of early 19th century © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Located on Market Street, across from the Orpheum Theater, the hotel is surrounded by trendy Soma and Hayes Valley restaurants, shops and attractions, walking distance to many of San Francisco’s historic sites, steps away from Civic Center, the theater district, or ride the cable car to Union Square, the financial district, Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, and The Moscone Center.

The hotel’s 460 beautifully-appointed guestrooms and 12 parlor suites deliver a luxurious hospitality experience with modern amenities and good value. The Penthouse Governor’s Suite offers marvelous views of San Francisco.

Other conveniences: there is a Starbuck’s Coffee right in the lobby, a fitness center, an internet cafe, a business center, high speed wireless internet (free), a gorgeous ballroom to accommodate meetings and weddings, and a lovely dining room.

There is also a very interesting Asian art museum and gallery, plus “Hall of History” with display cases of artifacts and memorabilia from the hotel’s and the city’s past.

Hotel Whitcomb 1231 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103, 415-626-8000, Email: sales@hotelwhitcomb.com, hotelwhitcomb.com.

See also:

Walking tour tells story of San Francisco’s improbable rise as a great city and slideshow

_____________________

© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin,www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

 

Walking Tour Tells Story of San Francisco’s Improbable Rise as a Great City

We cap off the Fern Hill Walking Tour with a ride on the California cable car - even when the city wanted to replace them with street cars, the cable cars remained the best to tackle San Francisco's hills © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
We cap off the Fern Hill Walking Tour with a ride on the California cable car – even when the city wanted to replace them with street cars, the cable cars remained the best to tackle San Francisco’s hills © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

San Francisco is an improbable  city. Its high, rolling hills rising straight up from the water should have discouraged settlement. Walking up, up , up and around these hills you see just how outrageous it was for anyone to contemplate building homes in such concentration here. Just driving is like a theme park roller coaster ride. And the cable car is better than any theme park ride.

Any practical real estate developer would have shunned such an uninhabitable place, more desert wasteland than anything else. But the city burst into being – a demonstration of what money, ingenuity, grit and determination can achieve.

It has proved an incubator of innovation and creativity – the cable car, the fortune cookie, denim jeans, television (attributed to Philo T. Farnsworth in 1927), the city even birthed Rube Goldberg – the same ingredients that foreshadowed Silicon Valley.

San Francisco is fascinating and perplexing, but where to start? For the visitor, this isn’t an easy place to uncover once you get passed the most obvious attractions of the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf and have a ride on the cable car.

I appreciate all of this after a most pleasant walking tour with Hudson Bell, the proprietor of Fern Hill Walking Tours.

I walk up to Huntington Park on Nob Hill from the Hotel Whitcomb (appropriately, a historic hotel that in fact served as City Hall after the earthquake, and a member of Historic Hotels of America), for my journey back through San Francisco’s history with Hudson Bell who has a new company, Fern Hill Walking Tours.

“Up” is the operative word because most of the mile is straight up San Francisco’s legendary hills.

San Francisco's hills make it an improbable place to build a city © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
San Francisco’s hills make it an improbable place to build a city © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

When we meet by the fountain in the park, which is surrounded by elderly people doing Tai Chi, Hudson lays out the itinerary for his “Classic San Francisco” tour. It ambitiously traverses Nob Hill, Chinatown, Russian Hill, Jackson Square, North Beach, Telegraph Hill, The Embarcadero, and the Financial District  – in other words, we will get to experience a large portion of this vibrant city. His route highlights San Francisco’s oldest neighborhoods while telling the story of the city’s transformation from a tiny Mexican trading post to “the Emporium of the Pacific”.

During the four hours (with a lunch break), we cover five miles, and lest San Francisco’s hills seem a barrier to a walking tour, Bell strategically hops on San Francisco’s distinctive public transportation (he provides a transit pass), which is a treat in itself. I appreciated the tour as a newbie, rather intimidated by how to tackle San Francisco, but it also is most satisfying to seasoned San Francisco travelers and even locals. Indeed, by the end, I feel completely comfortable continuing my exploration of the city, even unraveling the mystery of its public transportation. In fact, I had no sense of time at all – the time really flew by.

Hudson Bell of Fern Hill Walking Tours, in front of the Fairmont Hotel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Hudson Bell of Fern Hill Walking Tours, in front of the Fairmont Hotel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Great Depression-era murals inside San Francisco's Coit Tower on Telegragh Hill © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Great Depression-era murals inside San Francisco’s Coit Tower on Telegragh Hill © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Bell is a seasoned guide – working for others for three years – and brings a distinctive approach to his own company than most of the other scripted and pre-packaged tour companies. I love the way his storytelling unfolds as we come to a particular building or site, summoning the spirits of the people associated with places and events (Mark Twain, William Tecumsah Sherman) and the various movers and shakers of the city whose names now emblazon streets and towering structures, and especially, how he will distinguish between historic facts – Bell is the historian for the Nob Hill Association as well as working on a book about Fern Hill (the neighborhood’s original name) – popular legends, and myths that are more dubious.

Bell brings you to “streets” that are quite literally hidden, more walking paths than actual streets © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Bell brings you to “streets” that are quite literally hidden, more walking paths than actual streets © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
San Francisco was largely a manufactured city © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
San Francisco was largely a manufactured city © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Bell brings you to places you might not have thought to go – points out structures that you wouldn’t have appreciated, brings you to “streets” that are quite literally hidden, more walking paths than actual streets. The structures hold the stories of the people who built them, lived or worked in them, where events took place.

His commentary inspires more questions from me, and he is like a patient parent trying to quench my curiosity.

His itinerary is brilliantly laid out logistically, weaving together the different neighborhoods. He brings me to places I never would have thought to visit because of my limited time – like Coit Tower  (atop Telegraph Hill, it seemed too much trouble, but Bell cleverly hops a bus to the top, and then I saw what was inside! and the walk down brings you to small “streets” that are really walking paths).

Hudson pulls out a map from 1854 that shows Nob Hill (Fern Hill in those days where we are standing and points out that it was not only one of the oldest neighborhoods in San Francisco but was the westernmost part of the city after the Gold Rush of 1849 (the first house was built that year by Benjamin Brooks, from New York). That flat part we see today (Fisherman’s Wharf and the Marina District) – simply did not exist. The flat part is man-made from landfill, atop a virtual armada of sunken ships, abandoned when passengers and crew raced to the gold fields to seek their own fortunes, combined with rock and grit blasted from the hills, to such an extent, houses collapsed.

Originally, the Bay area was home to the Ohlone Indians, the first Europeans were Spaniards who settled the Presidio and Mission in the 1700s (my biggest regret of my all-too-short visit to San Francisco was not seeing the Old Mission). It was a base for military and for Catholic missionaries intent on converting the Indians. French and British traders came in the 1830s. Yerba Buena (as San Francisco was first known), was a trading post with 300 people.

It hastily became a US territory in 1847 after Mexico’s defeat in the Mexican-American War. Coincidentally (or was more like insider trading, I wonder), gold was discovered in 1848.

In 1849, after the find had been validated, the population exploded, from 700 to 20,000 in just months.

By the 1870s, Nob Hill (nob means “dirt”) became the popular neighborhood for the wealthy.

All around the park are the buildings – monuments, really – to the early founders who built their mansions and the city with their own fortunes from mining, railroads, shipping and finance – quite literally the stuff of America’s emergence as a global industrial power.

Just across the street from Huntington Park where we are standing is the gargantuan mansion of James Flood, who made his fortune in the Nevada silver mines (it reminds you of  Vanderbilt’s Newport “cottage,” The Breakers) – in fact, this was his “cottage” rather than his main home. it was one of the last built before the earthquake (one of the few built of stone, rather than wood), and one of the few that survived the three days of fire that consumed the city after the earthquake. These days it is the Pacific Union Club.

San Francisco's opulent Fairmont Hotel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
San Francisco’s opulent Fairmont Hotel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Across the street from James Flood’s mansion, is the Fairmont Hotel, built by Fair’s daughters, it was nearing completing when the earthquake hit. The structure survived, but the interior had to be completely redone and for this, they turned to the first woman architect and engineer, Julia Morgan, who was innovative in using reinforced concrete to withstand earthquake (she also designed Hearst Castle). The hotel opened in 1907.

Fairmont Hotels are luxurious but this makes New York’s Plaza, The Pierre and Waldorf=Astoria look like poor cousins in comparison. What is more, it is actually tasteful. The artwork and artistry, architectural features and interior design are simply breathtaking. But one of the reasons Hudson brings me here is to point out a wall of historical photos and plaques that tell the story of the city’s movers and shakers. (And in 1945, the hotel was the site for negotiations establishing the United Nations; President Harry Truman signed the United Nations Charter in the Garden room in 1945).

Among the hotel’s attractions was the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, a historic tiki bar opened in 1945. It features a bandstand on a barge that floats in a former swimming pool, a dining area built from parts of an old sailing ship, and artificial thunderstorms (it is no longer open to the public but there is a photo of it).

We walk passed the “Cirque” room, a cocktail room reserved for special occasions, with stunning murals of circus performers on gold, and passed the hotel’s garden where they grow herbs for their restaurants.

He brings me to a hidden garden to look at the view and imagine the city 100 years ago. He points out the Presidential Suite where so many presidents, including Obama had stayed.

The Fairmont is just across the street from another San Francisco landmark: the Mark Hopkins Hotel, built on the site of the “crazy” opulent mansion (because his wife wanted to outdo the rest). The hotel was built on the site in 1923 and is famous for the Top of the Mark, opened in 1930, the highest place in San Francisco to get a drink (but not the first rooftop bar).

Across from the Mark Hopkins, Hudson points out four townhomes because they were built by Willis Polk, a key architect after the earthquake (he also redesigned the Flood Building).

Grace Church, San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Grace Church, San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Before we leave Nob Hill, he brings me into the Grace Church, on the other side of the park – a monumental building, but now on closer examination, they look familiar and  I see the golden doors match the Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” on the Baptistry of San Giovanni in Florence, Italy. It’s not a coincidence – Hudson tells me that two copies were made in 1942 when it was feared the Nazis would destroy them.

Inside, the church -the third largest cathedral in the US – is decorated with magnificent murals and stained glass.

Walking around, he points out the stones outside the church which predate the earthquake and fire.

Chinatown: Home of the Fortune Cookie 

Our next stop is Chinatown – one of the few times we see literal gaggles of tourists. It is to Bell’s credit that he does not pass up Chinatown, probably one of the most touristic attractions in the city, because you would miss so much of the story, but he offers what I think is a more interesting take on this part of the city.

Chinatown is the original part of the city, is the oldest Chinatown in the US and second in population to New York City’s.

He points out the Tin How Temple, the oldest traditional Chinese temple in US, dating from 1850.

The last traditional fortune cookie factory, in San Francisco's Chinatown where the fortune cookie originated © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The last traditional fortune cookie factory, in San Francisco’s Chinatown where the fortune cookie originated © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

This is an exceptionally popular area for tours – the tiny street is jammed with groups, all headed to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie factory, “the last place to see old-style preparation of fortune cookies,” he says, “they even have ‘adult’ fortune cookies.” The sweet smell fills the alley. All of us line up for our turn to enter the tiny, narrow shop for a quick peek to see how a woman takes the freshly baked thin cookies and fills with a fortune and folds it. You can only take a picture if you pay 50c or buy something (a bag of cookies is $1, a bottle of water is a $1 – well worth it)  only get a few minutes because of the line of people wanting to come in – pass around a sample of the cookie from the “rejects.”

Hudson tells me there are many fortune cookie “creation” myths – but the one he feels most credible is that they were created for the World’s Fair held in Golden Gate Park, by the Chinese who adapted a traditional Japanese cookie by putting a fortune inside.

We go through Jackson Square where the oldest building building in the city stands– “a freak survivor of earthquake/fire,” and to the section of the city that was so popular with writers. We go by the building which housed the “Golden Eva” newspaper where Mark Twain worked, undergoing renovation.

Nearby is the Bank Lucas Turner & Co., the city’s oldest commercial building, built in 1853 by William Tecumseh Sherman (who became the famous Civil War General).  It’s now the 472 Gallery. Hudson points out how brick buildings used to have iron windows which proved fatal in a fire, and how they have been retrofitted to survive an earthquake.

Old and new stand side by side in San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Old and new stand side by side in San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We walk across Balance Street – a tiny little stump street that I would not have noticed at all, except that Bell points out that it was probably named for a ship that was sunk – very possibly under the street today – one of hundreds of sunken ships that provided landfill to expand the city.

We walk down Pacific Street – infamous for being the place where so many sailors were shanghaied to be crew for ships.

He takes me through Russian Hill – named for the Russian traders and the Russian American Company. At one time, the only thing here was a graveyard with headstones etched with Cyrillic letters. He points out some marvelous homes.

Here you appreciate how impossible this city would be to build homes – it must have taken a fortune to cut streets through rolling hills.

He explains that in 1847, when the area became a US territory, the “mayor” hired Jaspar O’Farrell to survey and create a street plan of what he expected to happen over time. The grid did not take into account San Francisco’s hills.  But after the 1849 Gold Rush, there was a literal rush to build, and it was funded by the newly minted millionaires.

He takes me on “streets” that are really cobblestone walking paths lined with gardens – to get a feel of what “old San Francisco” was like.

We come down to the edge of North Beach, where Hudson stops at a delightful Mediterranean restaurant, North Beach Gyros (415-655-9665, 701 Union Street, www.northbeachgyrosf.com) for lunch.

Telegraph Hill

Checking his app for the bus schedule (this is the trick of offering such a marvelous walking tour of San Francisco), we have but a few minutes wait before we hop the bus up to Telegraph Hill (others are huffing and puffing to get up there), to visit Coit Tower. This affords probably the most spectacular, 360-degree view of the city, but what is inside is what captures my attention: Depression-era WPA-sponsored artists created spectacular murals depicting the full spectrum of San Francisco’s everyday life in the 1930s.

Coit Tower, San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Coit Tower, San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Walking down Filbert Street from Coit Tower, San Francisco© 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Walking down Filbert Street from Coit Tower, San Francisco© 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

This is Telegraph Hill. It was from here that a signal man would see a ship with flag of country and had a pole with flags and signals so someone down in Merchant’s Exchange would know what ship was coming. Later, there was a telegraph to send the message.

When a mail ship came in, the entire town would turn out as if it were a holiday. But when container shipping became the norm, the shipping business moved to Oakland.

Today, San Francisco has revitalized its dock to accommodate massive cruise ships, and there are two in port today.

We walk down from Telegraph Hill on Filbert Street (steep, twisting staircase, no cars) – one of the most magical walks, with a public garden on the sides. He takes me down one “street” that is still a boardwalk.

He points out where the hill was literally blasted apart for the material for landfill.

“San Francisco is the worst place in Bay to found a city but was a great launching place to the gold fields,” Bell says. “None of vegetation we see today [like palm trees and lush flowering gardens] is native. As beautiful as it is, William Tecumseh Sherman said of Yberra Buena in 1847, the year after California became a US territory, that it was a hell hole. Parts of Nob Hill would fluctuate by 15 feet a day because of wind and sand.” (I ask where he got that from and he said by reading newspapers from the 1850s. I’m impressed.)

At the bottom of Filbert is Levi’s Plaza, named for Levi-Strauss company (which has its headquarters right there on the waterfront) – it was here that the company made famous for denim jeans began.

Here, we wait for a street car. San Francisco may be famous for its cable cars, but it is also the last city to run street cars. And, like everything else, it does it with flare – using colorful cars from the 1930s and 40s, painted to look like the city they came from (they even have the city’s name on them, like Milan, Italy and St. Louis).

San FranaciscoWe get off at the Ferry Building – the original gateway to the city (like Ellis Island and Grand Central rolled into one). Passengers came into Oakland and ferried to San Francisco before the Golden Gate and Bay bridges were built. “They were the first commuters. This was most passed through gateway in the world.” It was designed by Arthur Brown Jr. and is the largest structure built over water.

We cap off the Fern Hill Walking Tour with a ride on the California cable car © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
We cap off the Fern Hill Walking Tour with a ride on the California cable car © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Bell has another surprise for me: at Powell & Market Street, we get on the famous cable car, a perfect cap to this marvelous tour through San Francisco’s history (this, Bell says, is an added treat, subject to time considerations and how long the wait).

“Classic San Francisco” is offered Monday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday (10 a.m.-2 p.m.), geared for people 13 and up ($48/adult, $38/teen – well worth it).

Another program that Bell offers is “Parks to Pacific,” a five-hour tour  that celebrates San Francisco’s transformation from sand-duned wasteland to city of world-renowned parks and recreation. On this journey, you’ll be park hopping from downtown to the Pacific Ocean, plus experiencing many singular neighborhoods in-between. While the tour can be variable, the route generally includes Pacific Heights, The Golden Gate, The Presidio, Lincoln Park, Ocean Beach, Golden Gate Park, Lands End and the Sutro Bath Ruins.

Hudson Bell, Fern Hill Walking Tours, San Francisco, www.fernhilltours.com, hudson@fernhilltours.com, 415-305-7248.

Next: San Francisco History Day itinerary continues:

Fern Hill Walking Tour

Cable Car Museum

Cable Car Ride

Historic John’s Grill

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin,www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

 

Green Tortoise Hostel – Living the San Francisco Vibe

The Green Tortoise Hostel in hip North Beach district captures the San Francisco vibe © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Green Tortoise Hostel in hip North Beach district captures the San Francisco vibe © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is rare to stay in an accommodation that makes you smile constantly or that imbues you so completely with the spirit of a place. That’s the Green Tortoise Hostel, in the North Beach section of San Francisco.

There is no better way to immerse yourself in San Francisco ‘vibe’ – it literally embodies the spirit of San Francisco.

From the outside, the Green Tortoise Hostel is a modest wood-framed Victorian building that somehow escaped destruction of the earthquake and fire.

The North Beach District where the Green Tortoise Hostel is a lively neighborhood © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The North Beach District where the Green Tortoise Hostel is a lively neighborhood © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Don’t be discouraged by the glass door that looks pretty institutional, or the sign that tells you the door is locked after 7:30 pm and you have to be buzzed in or the steep staircase to the lobby floor or the warning “no visitors!”. Once you present you enter the lobby area, the trepidation fades away and you feel like you are part of something special.

I am immediately pleased by the beautiful architectural features that hint at the glorious past of this building.

The North Beach District where the Green Tortoise Hostel is a lively neighborhood © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The North Beach District where the Green Tortoise Hostel is a lively neighborhood © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Hostels always have a special personality and this one is particularly special. A sign on the “ballroom” (apparently, once a restaurant) invites you to partake in free vegetarian dinner on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights (Pasta Primavera, Mexican taco night, and Curry, rice and salad; come at 5 pm if you want to help cook, dinner is 7-ish), and a day-by-day list of activities: free sangria, pool tournaments, pub crawls, $5 dinner nights, dinner crawls (Sunday: 4 North Beach restaurants, $9.95), and outings to popular San Francisco events like the San Francisco Beer Olympics), and even tours (Saturday: Redwoods & Pt. Reyes bus trip, $40).

I get my key (handing over a $20 cash deposit; I can rent a towel for $1), walk through the lobby, through the computer/lounge area where there is a pleasant sitting area (they even have drink holders in the chair), and climb another set of steps to a narrow, labyrinthian set of hallways.

I’ve booked a “standard private room” (you can also book a shared room). It is small but not claustrophobic – clean, a queen-sized bed (very comfortable), a sink, a flat-screen tv (but only accesses a video library). It is most pleasant. (The rate, $131 was comparable or less than Air BnB.)

The main difference with an actual hotel is that you don’t have a private bathroom – this is European style. But that isn’t really a problem, either. There are five bathrooms on the floor – each clean and comfortable, one person at a time.

Hanging out in the ballroom at the Green Tortoise Hostel, in San Francisco's North Beach district © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Hanging out in the ballroom at the Green Tortoise Hostel, in San Francisco’s North Beach district © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Enjoying breakfast in the ballroom of the Green Tortoise Hostel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Enjoying breakfast in the ballroom of the Green Tortoise Hostel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The biggest surprise is on the main floor: The Ballroom. You can see how this was once a very grand place –the stained glass, the intricate moldings in the ceiling which may have been gilded at one point but now is coated in peeling brown paint. It used to be a restaurant and hotel, I am told and has been a hostel since the 1970s. Now, it is charmingly faded from that glory (though not decrepit, with colorful new carpeting and such), as you would imagine if the proletariat overtook the bourgeoisie.

The ballroom is where you can help yourself to free breakfast every morning 7:30- 10:00 am—bagels, cream cheese, jams, fresh fruit, make your own eggs, organic oatmeal, coffee, tea, hot chocolate and OJ (you wash your own plastic dish when you are finished). There is also a refrigerator where guests can keep their food, or take from “shared” items.

During the day, people can hang out in the ballroom, like a giant lounge – there is a small stage and some musical instruments. The ballroom is open until 2 am.

Green Tortoise Hostel has beautiful architectural features that evoke its historyin San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Green Tortoise Hostel has beautiful architectural features that evoke its historyin San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There are more surprises here: the hostel offers a sauna (dry) on the second floor accommodating up to six people at a time –you can check it out for 1 hour (free).

They have an arrangement with Dylan’s Bike Rental to rent for $21 for 24-hours (a discount from the $30 rate), and the hostel provides a bike storage room, as well as lockers where you can stow your stuff.

Before I arrived, I received a confirmation letter describing the place quite honestly saying:

  • We are a comfortable backpackers hostel in North Beach with European style accommodations made up of shared and private rooms.
  • Our median age of guest is between 20-30 years of age, but we welcome all ages.
  • Our hostel is about community and creating a social experience. Our guests are made up of travelers from around the globe.
  • We promote ourselves as a PARTY hostel, so we welcome all guests to participate in our nightly events.
  • All our bathrooms are shared along the corridors, but private use (no en-suite bathrooms in the rooms in any of our buildings).
  • Our reception is on the 2nd floor and there is no elevator, only stairs to all the rooms (rooms are on 3rd and 4th floors).
  • Unlike traditional hotels, we do not provide sheet changes daily.
  • We are in a vibrant neighborhood full of beat generation history, cafes, bars and restaurants.
  • There are several Adult Entertainment clubs on the next block and the area can be noisy on the weekends and in peak season.

All of this proves absolutely true, and just adds to the experience.

San Francisco's colorful North Beach neighborhood, just outside the door of the Green Tortoise Hostel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
San Francisco’s colorful North Beach neighborhood, just outside the door of the Green Tortoise Hostel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The owners of the hostel (who also own a hostel in Seattle) also operate Green Tortoise Adventure Travel, offering trips as short as a day trip to Muir Woods & Wine Country, to as long as a month, via a specially outfitted 36–passenger coach that converts from seats in the daytime to sleepers at night (a rolling hostel). The trips are designed around “appreciation of nature, tolerance, cooperation and self direction.” There are itineraries to Baja, Pyramids and Playas, the Yucatan, Yosemite, a National Parks loop, Alaska (415-956-7500, 800-867-8647, www.greentortoise.com).

They also book Alcatraz tours (which actually get booked up weeks in advance) and other sightseeing trips.

Green Tortoise Hostel San Francisco, 494 Broadway St, San Francisco 94133, 415-834-1000, 800 867 8647, www.greentortoise.com, email hostel@greentortoise.com, www.facebook.com/sanfranciscohostel.

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin,www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Crane’s Beachhouse Hotel is Tranquil Oasis in Delray Beach on Florida’s East Coast

Crane's Beachhoue has a quirky, colorful, Key West feel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Crane’s BeachHouse has a quirky, colorful, Key West feel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate

Delray Beach, amid Florida’s Palm Beach coast, is its own world. You feel it as you drive in on Atlantic Avenue, coming off I-95. You drive through the drab and ordinary and all of a sudden, you seem to pass through some invisible border and immediately recognize you are in a very different place – the demarcation is the streetscape where palm trees lining the avenue are wrapped in red or white lights. Come further in – the restaurants and shops emit bright, colorful lights. The streets are crowded with people; outdoor tables are filled. There is the sound of conversation and music. There is an excitement, an energy, a vibe.

The energy and excitement picks up as you get to the central part of Atlantic Avenue, and then you go over the bridge over the Intercoastal, and there is quiet as you near the beach. This is still Delray Beach, but it is the quiet neighborhood end of the Avenue.

Just before you get to the end of the avenue, at the beach, you turn onto Gleason Avenue and soon you come to a garden oasis, another world within this world, a true hideaway.

This is Crane’s BeachHouse Hotel & Tiki Bar, as perfect and special as a hotel can be within one of the most special places you can visit.

It is quite remarkable to be so near to all the activity Delray Beach offers, and yet feel so far away, in some tranquil, tropical retreat.

Meandering paths take you through lush gardens at Crane's Beachhouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Meandering paths take you through lush gardens at Crane’s BeachHouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You can’t really see the hotel from the street, which is hidden by a gate and tall palm trees. You can’t even see the whole property when you are inside, it is so lushly landscaped, with meandering stone paths that, like a Japanese garden, make you feel the place is at once larger than it is, and yet so intimate. There are all these pleasant sitting areas nestled amid tall palms and thick bushes, colorful flowers, waterfalls and fountains with their trickling sound. It is so Zen.

But the overall atmosphere is of old Key West – laid back, cheeky, colorful, whimsical and fun. there are colorfully painted markers that tell you how many miles from here to Key West, and such; and as you walk the paths, you come upon murals and artwork wherever you look. At night, lighting creates its own atmosphere.

Crane's Beachhouse has a quirky, colorful, Key West feel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Crane’s BeachHouse has a quirky, colorful, Key West feel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Crane’s is family owned and operated by Michael and Karen Crane (the place is named for the family and not the bird, but the bird is the hotel’s mascot), who took over a 1960s hotel and turned it into a garden oasis (I am quite sure it would be unrecognizable today from what it was then). Crane’s is a true boutique hotel, in both size and the personable service (a concierge is available from 9 am to 9 pm). There are just 27 rooms, including a selection of suites and the newest innovation, four villas that are really complete apartments where, for the brief time you are there, you can fantasize about this being home.

The newly opened four ultra-luxurious villas – converting four one-bedroom suites – add a new dimension of luxury, elegance and sophistication to the playful, laid-back atmosphere.

My villa, Room 26, on the second floor, still has that smell of being freshly decorated, and is breathtaking when I walk in.

The Luxury Villas feature a private patio (first floor unit) or balcony (second floor unit), handcrafted furnishings and artisan materials. There is a 60 inch flat-screen Smart TV and DVD player with complimentary access to Netflix, and a second large flat-screen TV in the bedroom. There is free WiFi, private voice mail and docking and charging station for mobile devices.

The bed is exceptionally comfortable, bedecked with fine linens; plush waffle-weave cotton robes and slippers are at the ready.

The spa-inspired bathroom has a shower with river-rock floor and Cali Tarocco Sicilian Red Orange amenities.

There is a well-appointed, modern stainless-steel kitchen, completely outfitted with microwave, coffee-maker, dishwasher and all the cutlery and utensils. There is also an “honor” gourmet basket with snacks and the refrigerator is stocked with beer (extra charge).

The spacious living room has a sofa bed, so each unit sleeps four.  

Another special amenity provided to Villa guests is the complimentary use of two bikes (Crane’s also has an arrangement with nearby bicycle rental place for other guests, and there are bike racks on site.) Villa guests also have access to complimentary yoga mats, and beach chairs, and designated parking spot.

Crane's Beachhouse, Delray Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Crane’s BeachHouse, Delray Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

“Crane’s BeachHouse Hotel is proud to partner with Carrie Leigh Designs, a full service licensed interior design firm based in Delray Beach. This dramatic conversion of four suites into four dazzling luxury villas will be the first phase of a major multi-year remodeling project that will strengthen and solidify our brand as the coolest place to stay in Delray Beach,” said Cathy Balestriere, general manager.

The $500,000 renovation also included the renovation of three additional units.

Other accommodations include a luxury studio, with a queen-sized bed; and one and two-bedroom suites (children under 18 stay free in the room with parents).

Crane’s serves a pleasant  continental breakfast under a Tiki hut beside one of the fountains – a selection of breads, muffins, bagels, cereals, fresh fruit and yogurt, quiches and sausage, juice, plus freshly brewed coffee – where it is delightful to meet and chat with other guests. Breakfast is served from 9 am to 11 am, but if you are an early riser, they will deliver breakfast to you the night before.

Also, the hotel serves afternoon refreshments that change seasonally. This time of year  a DIY trail mix snack bar is provided guests in the afternoon.

There are two tropical, heated saline swimming pools – one a free form with a waterfall, lounge chairs placed on sand, and a Tiki hut; the other, more suitable for lap swimming, and more lounge chairs on sand, another fountain, and Tiki bar, where there is live music Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Crane's BeachHouse is filled with original art, Delray Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Crane’s BeachHouse is filled with original art © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The original artwork which decorates the rooms and the property is stunning and so connected to the Delray Beach art scene.

The poolside Tiki Bar offers an array of tropical drinks, wines and domestic and imported beer, with a music-filled happy hour from 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday in season, and on Friday and Saturday the rest of the year.

Other features include an “outdoor living room” for private functions.

One of the pools at Crane's BeachHouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
One of the pools at Crane’s BeachHouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There is in-suite and poolside spa and massage services. There isn’t a fitness room, but Crane’s has an arrangement with nearby  gym for $15/day.

A tiny office that doubles as a gift shop is where you can also access DVD’s, CD’s, game units, board games, a literary library. Also, Crane’s offers a repertoire of on-site entertainment, special events and activities.

Both sophisticated and playful, Crane’s Beachhouse is ideal for a couples getaway, friends traveling together, a family gathering, a destination wedding.

Bustling Atlantic Avenue, Delray Beach's main street, is a short walk from Crane's BeachHouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Bustling Atlantic Avenue, Delray Beach’s main street, is a short walk from Crane’s BeachHouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

What I loved best is that it is off the bustling main street (which is what is so appealing about Delray Beach), around the corner from the hullaballoo of Atlantic Avenue, in the quieter part of Atlantic Avenue and just a block from the beach, yet still a pleasant walk over the drawbridge to the vibrant downtown where there are gorgeous galleries and shops, marvelous restaurants and live-music venues (a major advantage not having to drive; the hotel provides free parking).

A block to the east of Crane’s is Delray Beach – dare I say the prettiest beach on Florida’s East Coast. There aren’t buildings on the beach side of the street, so it is a broad expanse.

The Bucket List Experience

In keeping with its boutique orientation and personalized service, Crane’s Beachhouse offers “The Bucket List Experience” – essentially customized packages that enable guests to fulfill their wish list of experiences.

Tranquil setting at Crane's BeachHouse, Delray Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Tranquil setting at Crane’s BeachHouse, Delray Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

“We are providing a service that is basically a concierge, travel agent and personal assistant all rolled into one. We have researched the coolest, most thrilling, exciting, life-affirming, local attractions in South Florida and have come up with a pretty awesome list of 50+ items that should be on everyone’s Bucket List,” said Balestriere.

Crane’s always has some interesting special or package that change throughout the year. Presently, the hotel is offering  a “Non-Refundable Hot Deal” that runs through April on select dates.

Other packages and deals are listed at the website, particularly summer offerings that include special rates for educators; a romance package; a Family Fun Package.

Pets are welcome (a fee applies and you must inform front office of any pets prior to arrival to guarantee availability of pet-friendly accommodations).

Crane’s BeachHouse has received the coveted TripAdvisor® Certificate of Excellence Award 2013, and has been named to the prestigious Expedia Insiders Select List listing “the world’s best hotels.” Crane’s BeachHouse Hotel is a repeated recipient of the Florida Superior Small Lodging Association’s Donal A. Dermody White Glove Award for housekeeping excellence and exceptional service.

Crane’s BeachHouse, 82 Gleason Street, Delray Beach, Florida 33483, 561-278-1700, 866-372-7263, cranesbeachhouse.com

 

 

Erie Canal Cruises, Gems Along Mohawk Round Out Stay at Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA

Excitement entering Lock 18 on the Erie Canal, on the cruise from Gems Along the Mohawk © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Excitement entering Lock 18 on the Erie Canal, on the cruise from Gems Along the Mohawk © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

I’ve already had some extraordinary experiences during my all-too-brief stay at the Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA, a camping resort that prides itself on “edutainment”. I’ve tried my hand at mining for Herkimer Diamonds in the quarry – these magnificent quartz crystals that almost pop out of their rocky prison as if cut and polished by Mother Nature. I’ve done sluicing and had the delight in finding gemstones, diamonds and fossils, and explored the massive retail store and museum with its fine display of rocks, gemstones and fossils – including the large Herkimer diamond cluster in the shape of a cross that was discovered the morning of September 11, 2001, and the skull of a triceratops. And I’ve enjoyed the special atmosphere of a campground – or rather, a camping resort – the peaceful sounds of the flowing West Canada Creek, the smells of campfires, and the giggles of kids riding bikes passed my creekside cabin, themed for dinosaurs.

But there is more to do: the Herkimer KOA is but seven miles away from the Erie Canal, that marvel of human ingenuity and engineering which helped unify the fledgling nation and propel it into the Industrial Revolution. There, Dr. Renee Shevat, who owns the Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA, has turned a building that used to warehouse buoys into a gigantic indoor “mall” showcasing artists, artisans, writers, and companies, in a most pleasant environment (come on Saturdays, when there are free tastings), a marina where you can take a delightful 90-minute narrated cruise on the Erie Canal, climaxed with going through a lock that lifts (or drops) the boat 20 feet, and an excellent restaurant, the Waterfront Grille, with a lovely setting on the canal.

Cruising the Erie Canal

Captain Jerry Gertz welcomes passengers aboard the Lil Diamond II for the 90-minute narrated Erie Canal cruise © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Captain Jerry Gertz welcomes passengers aboard the Lil Diamond II for the 90-minute narrated Erie Canal cruise © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Captain Jerry Gertz delivers a delightful narration (part on tape, but he interjects and takes questions) which is interesting, engaging, and very entertaining, delivered with wonderful humor. The climax of the 90-minute cruise comes when you go through Lock 18.

Along the way, he points out interesting sights and fascinating (and I mean fascinating) details about the history and the remarkable engineering of the Erie Canal, and why the Erie Canal was so crucial to opening the West, unifying the fledgling nation, making New York the Empire State and New York City the financial capital of the world. Captain Jerry came to the Erie Canal in his “retirement” – after operating one of the largest tour boat companies in Florida.

I am surprised to learn that the peak use of the Erie Canal (this is actually the third “incarnation” of the canal – the first was Governor DeWitt Clinton’s Ditch, built 1817-1825 despite enormous skepticism and opposition and was so successful, it had to be enlarged just 10 years later and this, the third, is the Barge Canal) was not in the 1920s but in the 1950s, when over 5 million tons of cargo came through. And the canal’s undoing wasn’t even the Transcontinental Railroad (though that helped), but Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway (and volume on the canal tracks with fuel prices), which did not close down, as the Erie Canal did, from November to April, and even more devastating, the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which could carry much larger ships.

Since the 1980s, the Erie Canal has been “re-purposed” from commercial use to almost entirely recreational. And while people like Dr. Shevat and her husband who grew up in the 1950s near the canal would have never thought to boat on it – it was regarded as little better than a sewer with the pollution and smell – now it is this bucolic place, with the canal towns finding new life and new quaint housing cropping up along the canal, and the original towpath used by boys leading mules to pull the boats, is now a multi-use path extending almost the entire 363-mile length, from Buffalo to Albany (30% of the trail still needs to be completed; when it is completed, it will be longest multi-use trailway in US, and then can be combined with the Hudson Greenway down to New York City.).

Approaching Lock 18 on the Erie Canal, on the cruise from Gems Along the Mohawk © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Approaching Lock 18 on the Erie Canal, on the cruise from Gems Along the Mohawk © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Today’s Barge Canal extends 524 miles with 57 locks, each lock chamber made 328 feet long, 45 ft wide (and using the same century-old motors, manufactured by General Electric). This canal was completed in 1918 at a cost of $151 million (would cost $2.5-$3 billion in today’s dollars), but it could not be built today because of environmental restrictions (while the earlier canals probably could not be built either because of environmental and labor protections).

“The Erie Canal was the most important economic, transportation structure; only the Intercontinental railway had the same impact,” he tells us. “It was more than trade – it was about religion (7th Day Adventist), women’s suffrage, abolition. The underground railroad used the canal.

“It was the Internet of its day – the first attempt at networking and globalization,” he declares.

For the original 13 states to prosper, he tells us, they needed to open the West in order to tap those natural resources, such as lumber, as well as access to the inland waterways like the Mississippi River. “But the Appalachians were hard to get over. The route was impossible to cross –they couldn’t blast mountains then – they only had black powder.”

President Madison, a Jeffersonian, didn’t see the benefit to the nation of such a canal, so it was left o New York State to finance the project on its own.

“DeWitt Clinton worked tirelessly.” There was tremendous skepticism – no one actually had the technical expertise to build such a canal. But a “New York Memorial” speech Clinton delivered as a State Senator ignited the Legislature which authorized $7 million in bonding.

Of the three men overseeing construction, only one had any engineering background. They had to invent new methods and tools – the breakthrough was inventing hydraulic cement that hardens under water.

Now where to build? DeWitt Clinton realizes that $7 million may not be enough money to finish the project, so he has the construction start where it is easiest – in soft, flat farmland – and in the middle of the state, in Rome, and tells them to dig east and west from there. “It starts in the middle of nowhere, goes nowhere, so the state would have to give them more money.” Captain Jerry relates.

The original canal was built by 350 workers who were being paid 80c/day – they carved the ditch 40 feet wide and just four feet deep, 363 miles, from Albany-Buffalo, 83 locks, which take a boat the 565 feet difference in elevation. In the first year, was a huge success, as the cost of commerce dropped from $125/ton; one year after canal opened, to $5/ton to transport.

By now, we have cruised to Lock 18, which Captain Jerry says is still powered by the original GE motors from 1912 (the earlier canals were not motorized, but were opened and closed manually). The lock will lower us 20 feet, emptying 2.5 million gallons of water in just 7 1/2 minutes (and reversing the process when we return).

As we pass Fort Herkimer Church, the second oldest surviving church, dating from 1767, Captain Jerry tells the story of General Herkimer - probably the most important Revolutionary War hero few have heard of © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
As we pass Fort Herkimer Church, the second oldest surviving church, dating from 1767, Captain Jerry tells the story of General Herkimer – probably the most important Revolutionary War hero few have heard of © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

As we pass Fort Herkimer Church, which he says is the second oldest surviving church, dating from 1767, Captain Jerry also tells the story of General Herkimer – probably the most important Revolutionary War hero few have heard of:

General George Washington commissioned Herkimer as a general but he had no army. But when Herkimer learned that the British had taken Fort Stanwix in July 1777, he gathered up a militia formed mainly of German immigrants to gather at Fort Dayton (now Herkimer, New York), to begin the 40-mile westward march to the besieged Stanwix.

Herkimer was betrayed by Molly Brant, who sent word of their march to her brother, Joseph Brant, the Mohawk leader.

On August 6, Herkimer and his men were ambushed by a group of Loyalists and Mohawk Indians at a bloody battle that came to be known as the Battle of Oriskany, during which Herkimer was mortally wounded – he died 10 days later.

it is one of bloodiest encounters of War – 400 were killed in just 6 hours.

But the British blockading Fort Stanwix believed reinforcements were on their way and retreat – giving the Patriots their first victory of sorts. And the British General John Burgoyne went on to a major defeat at Saratoga (at the hands of General Benedict Arnold), turning the tide of the war for the Patriots.

“Herkimer was one of saviors of American Revolution,” Captain Jerry says, no doubt introducing most of us to a historic figure we had never heard of before.

Near here, is the Herkimer Homestead, which during the Revolutionary War consisted of 7 building on 3000 acres. The Historic Herkimer House, a 1762 mansion, can be visited in Little Falls. And you can easily reach the Fort Herkimer Church, on Rte. 5S.

Captain Jerry Gertz gives over the wheel to a young passenger  © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Captain Jerry Gertz gives over the wheel to a young passenger © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

This day we are on a small, 36-passenger boat, the Lil Diamond II (he even lets a couple of the kids drive it for awhile), but he also has a large boat, the Lil Diamond III, that is utilized by groups (including weddings).

($19/adults, $12/3-10; reservations recommended, departs 1 & 3 pm daily, mid-May through mid-October, rain or shine. Erie Canal Cruises, 315-717-0077, www.eriecanalcruises.com.)

Gems Along the Mohawk

Gems Along the Mohawk is one of the most interesting shops you will ever encounter.

It serves as a Visitor Center for travelers coming off of I-90 (it is directly across from the ramp at Exit 30), and staff cheerfully greet guests and provide travel information (and rest rooms) for weary travelers. It offers a wonderful restaurant with stunning views of the canal, and a marina from which you can take the 90-minute Erie Canal Cruise.

But it is so much more. The shop is a showcase for New York and the Mohawk Valley producers – actually 70 different merchants whose items are displayed, like Mele jewelry boxes (based in Utica since 1912, which you have probably seen in major department stores), and Salida Tea (check out the collection of Red Rose figurines and the giant porcelain tea set); Also, Jim Parker Folk Art. And it also heralds the region’s legacy companies, like Revere Copper Products, started by Paul Revere, 1801), and Remington Arms (200 years old, the same company as produced the iconic typewriter and other items like sewing machines and even a bridge – you can even visit the Remington Museum nearby); HM Quakenbush, founded in 1871 in Ilion, which is America’s largest and oldest manufacturer of nutcrackers; Beech Nut, founded in 1931 in Amsterdam, the baby-food company

“This is what created Mohawk Valley,” Melody Milewski, General Manager, tells me as she gives me a tour.

“We don’t just take anybody,” she says. “All the associates want to show their story, their connection to the Mohawk Valley.”

Come on Saturdays and Sundays, and you can enjoy tastings (and free coffee and tea) at about 17 of the 70 shops.

But when you peruse the shop, it is astonishing how much you learn.

Gems Along the Mohawk, an unusual shop showcasing local artisans and producers, features a children's play area themed for the Wizard of Oz © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Gems Along the Mohawk, an unusual shop showcasing local artisans and producers, features a children’s play area themed for the Wizard of Oz © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

NYS-HerkimerKOA_071015_225(c) Karen RubinThe kids can play in an area devoted to the Wizard of Oz. Why the Wizard of Oz, I ask? The famous author, L. Frank Baum, lived not far from here (you can visit the All Things Oz Museum, in Chittenango), but his mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, had an even greater connection and for the first time, I learn that she was instrumental in the Women’s Rights movement. She had connections to the Oneida women and incorporated their ideas of a woman’s right to property and child custody and selecting the chief at a time when women had rights to none of these. (I take this basic knowledge with me to Seneca Falls, to the Women’s Rights National Park, and to Fort Stanwix which picks up on the themes of the “clash of cultures” between Europeans and Indians).

Indeed, the Mohawk Valley was The West, a vast wilderness. James Fennimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans: was set in part in Glens Falls). This was the land of the Mohawk, the Oneida and the 6 Nations.

The shop features a bookstore stocked by Ganesvoort House Books (who also operates a bed-and-breakfast in Little Falls), which offers books about Gage, and the native American influence on Women’s Rights movement, “Sisters in Spirit,” by Sally Roesch Wagner as well as scores of other local writers.

This is all news to me. Just walking around introduces me to people and places I had never heard of before – like Fort Stanwix which I will later visit in Rome, when I take the 400-mile Cycle the Erie Canal tour (I will get to camp out at the Fort, where Melody says she participated in excavations before the National Park Service rebuilt it.)

Gems Along the Mohawk (800 Mohawk Street, Herkimer NY 11350, 315-717-0077, 866-716-GEMS, info@gemsalongthemohawk.com, www.gemsalongthemohawk.com).

Waterfront Grille

Today, cruising the Erie Canal and dining at the Waterfront Grille, we see a bucolic scene, but when Dr. Renee Shevat and her husband, Sam, were growing up, during the peak of commercial traffic on the Erie Canal, it was a noxious sewer.

The canal has gone through a major re-purposing – it carries very little commercial traffic but is almost exclusively used for recreation – and so have the canal towns the grew up because of the canal, then went into a tailspin with its decline.

The complex that is now a retail store, visitors center, restaurant and marina was originally a terminal building for tending buoys for the Barge Canal, before Dr. Shevat convinced the state to let her build a private enterprise on the canal, which is part of the Heritage Corridor.

Dr. Renee Shevat has put her PhD in finance and strategic planning to good use in developing four business units for the Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA, mining attraction, Gems Over the Mohawk and retailing Herkimer Diamonds worldwide © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Dr. Renee Shevat has put her PhD in finance and strategic planning to good use in developing four business units for the Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA, mining attraction, Gems Over the Mohawk and retailing Herkimer Diamonds worldwide © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Dr. Shevat, who has her PhD in finance and strategic planning, and was the vice president of a college (with ambition of becoming a president someday) utilized all of her skills and experience when she took over running the campground and mining attraction from her father – developing four distinct business units.

She also clearly has not left her academic credentials behind, but manages to incorporate “edutainment” into every aspect of the experience – and not just for the young campers, but for the adult campers and the young people who work as counselors, as well.

“I like making science fun,” she says. The activities that are offered daily incorporate gemology, paleontology, robotics, geology. Many of the lodges are themed around science – solar powered lodges, dinosaurs, a fossil pit, an astronomy lodge (with a real computer-operated telescope for the exclusive use of that cabin), and a robotics lodge.

“I don’t want them just to have a summer job but a resume,” she says of her counselors. “I encourage them to do projects.” So Blair and Josh, both student teachers, created the catalog of gems and fossils and a curriculum to teach their colleagues, and counselors will be helping campers build a robot and a crystal radio.

That philosophy was genesis of Professor Gadget’s Lodge.

The Robotics Lodge was designed by the 2013-2014 graduating senior class of engineers from Binghamton University’s Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science. At the Herkimer Diamond Mines, there are K-12 projects and programs offered throughout the year, but this was the first project at the collegiate level, giving students a the opportunity to design a commercial project from the ground up.

This process involved five interdisciplinary projects which were completed by two teams of 12 students. Each project allowed not only for the education of the students who created it, but also for the continued education of KOA guests. Campers of all ages learn about motors, motion sensors, battery power, chain machines, vectors and inertia.

A Rube Goldberg-like sculpture, designed by Binghamton University grad students, decorates the Professor Gadget's Robotics Lodge at Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A Rube Goldberg-like sculpture, designed by Binghamton University grad students, decorates the Professor Gadget’s Robotics Lodge at Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

When you walk by the lodge, the first thing you notice is the 6’ tall weatherproof case engineered by Danielle Brogna, which contains a prototype of a Rube Goldberg rolling ball sculpture. Inside, the lodge utilizes an innovative and interactive lighting system designed and programmed by computer engineering major Elan Ashendorf; a mechanical lift system and hammock which lets guests practice their own engineering skills, and has robotic display boxes lining the wall.

“What is special about this project,” says Shevat, “is that each student was allowed the freedom to design to their strengths, which they believed would be enjoyed by many campers.

“The partnership with Binghamton University and campers, as consumer consultants, was very rewarding. And, yes, we would do it again with another scientific theme!.”

Also, during the season, the KOA offers a Rock and Gem Camp for about 100 kids (26 had to be turned away for the first camp) as well as Geology weekends for Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts (conferring a Geology badge).

“Diamonds and the Erie Canal – two unique attractions – I want to be the centerpiece for dinner conversation: ‘Do you remember when we….?’” Dr. Shevat says.

The Herkimer Diamond KOA is open April through October (peak season rates apply July and August.) Weekends have special themes.

Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA was recognized as KOA’s “Kampground of the Year” on the North American continent in 2010. I would rate the Herkimer Diamond KOA 5 diamonds – and then some.

Herkimer Diamond KOA, 4626 State Route 28, Herkimer, NY 13350, 315-891-7355, E-mail: hdmkoa@ntcnet.com, www.herkimerdiamond.com; mining info at 315-717-0175, diamonds@ntcnet.com. Erie Canal Cruises, 315-717-0077, www.eriecanalcruises.com; Gems Along the Mohawk, 315-717-0077, www.gemsalongthemohawk.com; Waterfront Grille, 315-717-0700, www.waterfrontgrille.net

More to Explore

There is much to do in the area:

Cooperstown (half hour away)

Howe Caverns (1 hour away)

Remington Gun Museum (on Catherine Street off Route 5S, Ilion, NY 13357, 315-895-3200, 800-243-9700, www.remington.com).

Fort Herkimer Church, on 5S

Historic Herkimer Mansion

Fort Stanwix, Rome

Erie Canal Museum (318 Erie Boulevard East Syracuse, NY 13202, eriecanalmuseum.org

All Things Oz Museum, which opened in 2011 and is run by volunteers, is the house where L. Frank Baum, who wrote “The Wizard of Oz,” was born in 1856. The museum claims to have over 1000 Baum- and Oz-related items in its collection (219 Genesee St., Chittenango, NY, Wed-Sun., 315-333-2286, $5.)

I get to experience many of these sites when I continue my travels, biking 400-miles on the Erie Canal Trail, along with 600 others in the 17th annual Cycle the Erie Buffalo-Albany bike tour (ptny.org).

See also:

Diamond Mining, Robotics, Erie Canal Cruises Top List of Special Experiences at Herkimer KOA Camping Resort

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin,www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

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