Letter from Abroad: A Grand Concert at La Scala in Milan, Italy

Seeing a performance at the famed La Scala theater in Milan, Italy, is a grand experience that transports you back to the Belle Epoque. Designed by Giuseppe Piermarini, the theater opened in 1778 (photo by Leiberman-Nemett)
Seeing a performance at the famed La Scala theater in Milan, Italy, is a grand experience that transports you back to the Belle Epoque. Designed by Giuseppe Piermarini, the theater opened in 1778 (photo by Leiberman-Nemett)

By Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Nemett

Seeing a performance at the famed La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy, transports you back to the Belle Epoque.

After collecting our tickets in the box office, we began the night with a perfect Negroni and aperitivo snack in the bar of Ristorante Teatro alla Scala. With about ten minutes until curtain, we walked through the ornate grand foyer adorned with marble columns and tall narrow mirrors lining the walls. We entered the theater itself just early enough to first glimpse the orchestra through the open doors of the palci, the balcony boxes lining the horseshoe auditorium.

The demographic of the crowd skewed older than some opera houses in the United States with most of the audience in their 50s to 80s. Everyone was dressed as you would expect at La Scala: men in jackets and women in dresses.

We walked to our seats in the front right side of the Orchestra. Though we were fairly close to the stage, the sound didn’t feel as full as we imagined it could have. During intermission we were able to move up to one of the balcony boxes, where the sound was significantly richer than in the orchestra section.

First glimpse the orchestra through the open doors of the palci, the balcony boxes lining the horseshoe auditorium (photo by Leiberman-Nemett)
First glimpse the orchestra through the open doors of the palci, the balcony boxes lining the horseshoe auditorium (photo by Leiberman-Nemett)

The amazing acoustics in the gallery is only one aspect of the experience sitting in the balcony boxes of La Scala. We were lucky that the show we saw did not have a sold out house so we were the only 2 in our box and actually got to sit at the front with a great side view of the orchestra. Hundreds of burgundy jacquard-wallpapered cubes line the horseshoe of the 6 rows of boxes. It felt like an elaborate film set with each box its own scene. Sitting in a closed room with only a few others (or in our case just one companion), you are simultaneously watching hundreds of little boxed narratives in the panorama of the audience, while realizing you are within the same composition of boxes and one of these stories yourself. Hundreds of moments all within their own world, theater-goers hang out of the boxes with arms draped around the cushioned ledges, all watching and listening to their shared soundtrack.

The Teatro alla Scala was founded under the auspices of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, to replace the Royal Ducal Theatre, which was destroyed by fire on February  26 1776, which until then was the home of opera in Milan. The cost of building the new theatre was borne by the owners of the boxes at the Ducal in exchange for possession of the land on which stood the church of Santa Maria alla Scala (hence the name) and for renewed ownership of their boxes. The theater was designed by the great neoclassical architect Giuseppe Piermarini  (1734-1808) and opened in 1778.

What is not widely known is that you can visit La Scala’s museum. The current exhibition is “Riccardo Muti: The years at La Scala” (on through October 16). The museum is open daily except on: Christmas, New Year’s and Easter Sunday and certain holidays..  It is open from 9 am to 12.30 pm (last entrance at noon) and from 1.30 pm to 5.30 pm (last entrance at 5 pm). The auditorium can be seen from the boxes excepted when rehearsals or performances are in progress. (Information: Tel +39 02 88 79 74 73).

La Scala’s program includes not only opera, but also symphony concerts, academy concerts, ballet, programming for children, and other cultural events. The programming is also not only the famous Italian composers. Though Verdi and Puccini frequent the lineup (or the season), upcoming performances at La Scala include Benjamin Britton’s Turn of the Screw (Sept 14 – Oct 17, 2016), George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (Nov 13-23, 2016), Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Sept 2 – 25, 2016) and Marriage of Figaro (Oct 26-Nov 27, 2016).

You can see the schedule and purchase your tickets in advance online. Ufficio Stampa Teatro alla Scala, Via Filodrammatici 2 – 20121 Milano, tel. +39 02 8879 2412, fax +39 02 8879 2331, www.teatroallascala.org.

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.comwww.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  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

 

Grand, Historic Loews Don CeSar, St. Pete Beach’s Famed ‘Pink Lady’, is Classic Beach Resort

Loews Don CeSar (the "Pink Lady") in the golden light of the setting sun on St. Pete Beach © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Loews Don CeSar (the “Pink Lady”) in the golden light of the setting sun on St. Pete Beach © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin

In urgent need of some R&R? Cure it with a two-night/three day stay at Loews Don CeSar, not just a grand historic hotel, but a true beach resort with all the amenities and activities for a luxurious, pampered stay. Better yet, for a complete vacation, plan a seven-day stay and balance out days relaxing on white-powder sand beach and lounging around glorious pools, spa treatments and yoga, with visits to the myriad cultural and scenic attractions close by, in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa.

From the moment you cross the threshold, walk down the stairs into the lobby, a feeling of peace and tranquility sweeps over you.

The Don Cesar has been welcoming guests since 1927. But as in so many of these grand historic hotels, they are living links to the past, and are in essence timeless.

Sophistication and casual elegance evoking the Gatsby Era at the Loews Don CeSar © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sophistication and casual elegance evoking the Gatsby Era at the Loews Don CeSar © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

It may seem cliché, but you step through the lobby and you are in the world of those who came before: F. Scott Fitzgerald (remembered with a nightly Fitzgerald Reception at the fine dining restaurant, when you can experience a cocktail and a nibble), Clarence Darrow, Lou Gehrig, even Al Capone.

You feel their presence. But the hotel has a unique personality, a character of its own – you can’t help but think of the stories these walls hold.

The Don CeSar exudes casual elegance and Southern Charm – ceiling fans, a beautiful courtyard garden that leads to the pool area and beyond, the white-sand beach and the Gulf of Mexico. Elegant, yet casual (not stuffy or stiff), comfortable, welcoming, and one of the most beautiful hotels anywhere.

Gracious, That’s the word to describe the experience.

Wendy Hessinger leads "Yoga on the Beach" © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Wendy Hessinger leads “Yoga on the Beach” © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

A classic beach resort with activities offered throughout the day. Checking in, I am given an “Activities” schedule with a long list, day by day, of activities, all included in the $25/day resort fee: Yoga on the beach (9am), kayaking and paddleboarding (8-10 am), aqua fitness, sunset yoga, daily history tour of the hotel, Sea Life tour, Kidding Around Yoga, Kidz Kraze, Restorative Yoga, Star Gazers (that’s just Monday’s Schedule). The activity schedule changes through the week: Body Toning Tuesday, Legs, Bums and Tums; Noodling Around (Kid and Parent Aqua Fitness), Zumba, Beach Yoga Sunset; Drive in Movie on the weekend.

There are activities for the children as well: included in the resort fee is a half-day at Camp CeSar activities program. There are also aqua fitness programs for kids and families, educational talks. Kids Night Out are also available Friday and Saturday nights (6-10 pm).

Some special activities are offered by reservation and for a fee, such as Culinary Kids, Pint Size Picasso, and Waterside Music Makers.

There is a free shuttle service (available 9-5) that takes you into downtown St. Petersburg (here’s where you can easily balance the beach with the extraordinary cultural attractions of St. Petersburg).

The concierge can arrange for golf or tennis at the nearby Isla del Sol country club.

Of course, there is the beach with the most beautiful white-powder sand, the texture of talc, and two pools, heated to a perfect temperature.

Tranquil setting at Loews Don CeSar © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Tranquil setting at Loews Don CeSar © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The pool area is gorgeous – with lush tropical gardens, tall palm trees sheltering, opening up to the beach and Gulf beyond.

It is frankly hard to pull yourself away from the pool – two actually, both heated, both large enough for lap swimming. My favorite of the two is set off a little, tends to be quieter, and situated with the most magnificent view (I just get this wonderful feng shui feeling here). It is one of the prettiest pools anywhere, with the Pink Palace as a backdrop on one side, and palm trees and the Gulf on the other side.

There is iced, fruited water available and even magazines at the pool – plush robes in your room to wear to the pool.

This is in every way pampered luxury –you are quite literally fawned over by a genuinely friendly and helpful staff.

There is a game area with billiards, ping pong tables, chess, and other games – under shelter in case of a rain shower, you can still be outside.

Loews Don CeSar pool © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Loews Don CeSar pool © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There are a variety of shops to take care of immediate needs – a small general/convenience store, an Ice Cream shop (actually where the original entrance to the hotel was located, which still has the original flooring) where you can also get a bagel, muffin or cereal for breakfast, lovely clothes shops and sports stuff in case you forgot something.

In the evening, there is nightly live music in the lobby lounge/bar, laid out to be extremely comfortable and casual. (We are told that the Don CeSar has a signature drink, Old Smokey: take old cigar box and barrel-aged bourbon that spends two weeks behind the bar; then hose in cherry wood smoke, let it sit so the Bourbon is infused with cherry smoke, then the open box and chill with a snowball ice cube.)

After being awed watching the sunset from the beach, I stroll into the Maritana Grille for the Gatsby Reception. The bartender this evening is serving a Harvey Wallbanger and a nibble (seared pork belly with maple and sherry vinegrette).  The Harvey Walbanger is a classic cocktail consisting of Vodka Galliano, orange juice that goes back to the 1950s; concocted by Donato “Duke” Antone who owned Duke’s Backwatch Bar in Hollywood on the Sunset Strip. Duke, who also invented the Rusty Nail and the White Russian, named it after a surfer named Tom Harvey.

The fine-dining restaurant – a beautiful seaside motif with large fish aquarium – has a varied American menu. On this evening, it was featuring  Venison, Long Island Duckling, Snapper, and offered a wine tasting menu ($65, $95 with wine pairing).

A Grand Hotel With History

A couple enjoys the nightly Gatsby Reception at the Maritana Grille where the bartender this evening is serving a Harvey Wallbanger © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A couple enjoys the nightly Gatsby Reception at the Maritana Grille where the bartender this evening is serving a Harvey Wallbanger © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Don CeSar was a founding member of Historic Hotels of America in 1989, which began with just 32 members and now has 260 members in 44 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico (HistoricHotels.org).

HHA hotels are invariably my favorite places to stay anywhere I go. They tend to manifest the charm and high standard of hospitality (an old fashioned sensibility and refinement) of bygone days, as well as a deep connection and sense of place. Each of the HHA members has its unique personality and character.

The Don CeSar was awarded HHA’s “Historic Hotel of the Year” in 2015 in the 201-400 room category

This largely reflects the acquisition and management of the Don since 2003 by Loews Hotels, which owns the Don with Prudential Insurance. The new owners invested millions in renovations and new facilities – opening the stunning 11,000 square foot Spa Oceania in 2008, the only beachfront luxury spa on the Gold Coast of Florida. Multi-million dollar investments included the meeting spaces, the Maritana Grille, its fine-dining restaurant, the Lobby, Lobby Bar and Sea Porch restaurant, and guestroom redesign.

The sense of responsibility to care for these entities is powerful – you can’t rest on laurels or prior reputation and the fact of the matter is that age does take its toll, as does the need to cater to new generations of guests. There is the constant push-pull of progress and preservation. As is the protectiveness of patrons. When they renovated the lobby, changing out dark wood colors and carpets and bronze-and-crystal chandeliers for a white wood paneling reminiscent of Southern plantation-style cool elegance, light floors, brighter colors and modern blue-and-clear glass chandeliers people were up in arms that they were disposing of “history” – except that the bronze chandeliers only dated back to the 1986 renovation.

“People were upset because they felt they were discarding history,” said Jeffrey Abbaticchio, Director of Public Relations. “We have to give much more attention to preserving the charm and character of hotel.”

It exposes the special challenge of caretaking for a historic hotel, especially one that means that much and has been so much a part of a local community.

That is the balance that modern hoteliers have to strike but there is the clear recognition of their responsibility as caretakers and their respect for these unique entities.

“We have to give much more attention to preserving the charm and character of hotel.”

Historic hotels like The Don CeSar typically have their tales of survival – dramatic snatches from the wrecking ball (indeed, the Renaissance Vinoy in St. Petersburg, which opened in 1927, also became a VA hospital and has a similar tale of being saved just moments from being demolished, in 1972).

This is the case of the Don CeSar – long known locally as “The Don” and “The Pink Palace.” It surprised me to learn how in its 80 year history, it only spent about half of that as a hotel, and from the beginning, struggled to survive – the Great Depression, World War II, economic recessions.

You speak of these kinds of properties as “The” – as in “The Don” – and as if they are people, with their own biography, rather than structures or institutions. They have personality and character. Unique. Authentic. They are closely connected to their community, which in fact, rallied to “Save the Don” from the wrecking ball in the 1970s, after being shuttered and closed for four years, a blight on the neighborhood.

The Don’s struggles began not long after coming into being, the fruition of a dream of its founder, Thomas Rowe, I learn from Susan Quinn, a long-time concierge at The Don CeSar who conducts history tours of the hotel.

Born in Boston in 1872 and orphaned at age 4, Rowe was sent to live with grandparents in Ireland, returning to the United States to become a real estate speculator in Florida, during the early boom of the 1920-6 years. Partnering with a local attorney, Walter Fuller, e turned a $21,000 investment into $1,050,000, and then sought to fulfill a longtime dream in building a lavish hotel.

Tthe Loews Don CeSar, a historic resort © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Loews Don CeSar, a historic resort © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

He patterned his “Pink Lady” (as “The Don” continues to be known) after the Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki Beach, styled as a kind of Mediterranean palace. An opera lover, he named the Don CeSar after a character in one of his favorite operas, “Maritana,” written by a Scottsman (today, its fine-dining restaurant is named the Maritana Grill). He planned for construction costs to be $450,000, but instead, the hotel cost $1.2 million to build – wiping out his resources, so that he had to mortgage to raise the $250,000 needed to furnish the property so it could open.

He devised an ingenious system though, because he had spent $100,000 to buy 80 acres surrounding the hotel, and turned to developing small Mediterranean-style homes on property just south – you could buy the lot for $5000 and build the house on it for $5000 more.

A view of the Loews Don CeSar pool and grounds © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A view of the Loews Don CeSar pool and grounds © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

He opened The Don CeSar in 1928, immediately drawing an “A” List of celebrities and important people: F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda (today, the Maritana offers a 5:30 pm Fitzgerald Reception, featuring a cocktail and nibble), famed attorney Clarence Darrow, baseball great Lou Gehrig and Al Capone.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, Rowe devised an ingenious method of staying afloat: he offered for the home owners who had taken mortgages from him to cash out at a fraction of the amount owed in order to accumulate the cash he needed to make it through the Depression. And another thing: when the hotel would otherwise be low-occupancy in spring, he leased it out to the New York Yankees for spring training, at $8/day including breakfast.

Rowe, who came to St. Petersburg for his health and to speculate when he was in his 40s, lived in the hotel (his wife, a university-educated woman, stayed in Virginia, because she didn’t want to live in a backwater). In May 1940, he suffered a heart attack and insisted on staying in the hotel. Legend has it he intended to will the hotel to his employees, and he wrote a new will, but it was not witnessed, so his wife inherited the property. She appointed her lawyer to take charge of the corporation, who brought in his own management team. Then Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, and World War II hit.

Instead of the hotel’s 300 rooms being totally occupied for the season, all but 100 room reservations canceled, and the government went after her for taxes stemming from her husband’s refinancing scheme. Her attorney sought to negotiate a deal with the Navy to take the Don CeSar for officer’s housing, but the Army wanted it for a hospital, and used eminent domain to take it over, purchasing the building for the assessed value of $450,000. The army disposed of everything, even the hotel register with its famous signatures. The property later became an Air Force Convalescent Center (actually becoming a model for dealing with the condition now known as PTSD), and then a Veterans Administration regional office, from 1945 to 1969.

By 1969, the VA abandoned the hotel – set up a chain-link fence around and a guard – and it deteriorated terribly, a blight on the community.

In 1971, local residents and former employees formed a “Save the Don” committee to prevent the hotel from being demolished. June Hurley Young, realizing that locals had never known the Don as a fine hotel, wrote an article that was finally published in a paper under the headline, “Pink Elephant or Sleeping Beauty”. It  came to the attention of  William Bowman, a Flying Tiger during war, who was building new hotels in the area. He purchased the decrepit property in 1972, just two weeks before the hotel had a date with the wrecking ball.

“It cost $3.5 million to fix up –he  replaced every window, waterproofed, added air conditioning so the hotel could stay open year round,” Owen said.

The Don CeSar reopened on November 24, 1973. The following year, the Pink Palace was admitted to the National Register of Historic American Places.

1973 was the year of the Oil Embargo and a recession. It wasn’t long before the Don CeSar was foreclosed but continued to operate. It changed hands several times until in 2000, it was taken over by Prudential Insurance.

Finally, in 2003, the Don CeSar became a Loews Hotel, which owns 15% and manages the luxury property, and brought it up to the standards of today’s luxury travelers.

(Both Rowe and Bowman are honored in a display case that has their picture and their history with the hotel. A new eatery, the Rowe Bar, is an indoor/outdoor bar which will serve different Juleps, different nonalcoholic “-ades” (lemonade, etc), communal bowls of cocktails, have fire pits and overlook the sand dune.

Don CeSar has 277 rooms. They may be a tad smaller than we have become accustomed to (because people didn’t come to a resort to spend time in their hotel room), but have every amenity imaginable – plus robes, mini-bar, Keurig coffee maker, safe, ironing board, a flashlight, lush mattress and bed linens, flat screen TV and free WiFi, even the shampoo has the perfect scent.

The Don CeSar is pet-friendly and offers pet menus (Bow Wow beef; Chow chow mein),  pet room service and pet massage, in room.

The Don CeSar now has a second property, the Loews Beachhouse Suites, located just about a quarter mile up from the Don CeSar (finishing up a renovation by mid-February), which is also a pink building on the beach. A free shuttle van is offered between the two Loews properties, so Beachhouse guests have the use of the Don CeSar’s facilities.

An Idyllic Place for Destination Weddings 

The sun seems to melt into a space beyond the water © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The sun seems to melt into a space beyond the water © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The ambiance, services and facilities at the Don CeSar are so magical, it is no wonder how popular the luxury resort has been for destination weddings. The hotel hosts some 425 wedding-related events a year, and accommodates weddings as large as 300. There are four people on staff just to help coordinate destination weddings, and an event company, Cheers, on call to handle elaborate events.

The planners can organize everything from releasing doves to special transportation.

“What’s popular lately are Indian weddings – people arrive by horse, do henna. We just hired an executive chef from India (most recently he was at The Breakers) so we can provide authentic Indian food,” Jeff said.

The fifth floor, with its enormous picture windows that look out to St. Petersburg and down the St. Pete Beach coast, and which once was a massive open dining room that could sit 1400 at a time for dinner, has been turned into a series of meeting and function rooms ideal for weddings, conferences and events (38,000 square feet of function space). Indeed, during our stay there were wedding and conferences underway.

A Complete Vacation 

Each morning of my stay, I go down to the beach for 9 am beach yoga with Wendy Hessinger, and then aqua fitness which Wendy also conducts (an interesting routine using noodles). She also conducts sunset yoga on some days.

But there is so much going on in the area to round out your stay: take advantage of the free ride into St. Petersburg (about 20 minutes)  which goes to the Sundial, a centrally located entertainment center with movies, excellent restaurants, and walkable to just about anything you want to get to (or you can hop on the Downtown Looper trolley, to take around the downtown)  and enjoy an enormous selection of cultural attractions  (Dali Museum, Chihuly Gallery, Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg Museum of History, Florida Holocaust Museum, emerging arts districts, among the highlights. They are currently rebuilding the famous Pier, which is due to reopen in 2018.)

Or just hop a delightful trolley-style bus to Passa-Grill, a tiny charming village with a block-long “downtown” at Historic 8th Street ” (truly “Old Florida”) where the locals go to the beach, fish, look out to see dolphins and manatees, watch the sunset and hang out at waterside watering holes like the Paradise Grill. At Passa-Grill you can go out for deep sea fishing or take a tour boat to Shell Island. Or continue on to Fort de Soto where you can visit a Civil War-era fort.

Another popular activity is taking a sailing cruise to see dolphins or the sunset cruise. The Don CeSar has an arrangement with Dolphin Landings which offers two-hour cruises.

Winter, the plucky dolphin and star of "Dolphin Tale" with her prosthetic tail at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, one of the major attractions near the Don Cesar © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Winter, the plucky dolphin and star of “Dolphin Tale” with her prosthetic tail at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, one of the major attractions near the Don CeSar © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Clearwater Marine Aquarium is just about 30 minutes away to the north, in Clearwater Beach (you can take the trolley bus to get there, switching at 75th Avenue). For shopping, go to John’s Pass (150 shops and restaurants in a small area), reached by the trolley bus, midway between St. Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach.

Or plan a day trip to the Ringling Museum and historic mansion in Sarasota nearby.

Busch Gardens Tampa theme park (one of the best zoos with great roller coasters and entertainment) is less than an hour away (The Don CeSar has a partnership with Busch Gardens and offers a package that includes tickets, but you need a car or the hotel can arrange transportation).

Another idea is to split your stay between a beach holiday here at the Don CeSar and a theme park holiday in Orlando, staying at the Loews Portofino at Universal Orlando, another favorite hotel (which manages to create a resort atmosphere in Universal Studios theme park with sensational pool that creates a beach effect).

(For more vacation planning information, Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater: 8200 Bryan Dairy Road, Suite 200, Largo, FL 33777, 727-464-7200, 877-352-3224 www.visitstpeteclearwater.com.) 

But frankly, it is hard to pull yourself away from the Don CeSar

The St. Pete beach is absolutely magnificent – and one thing I notice is that the buildings are set well back from the beach and are low level for the most part, not blocking – peaceful. One day as I walk, I come upon a beach-volleyball regional tournament.

A Great Blue Heron appreciating the sunset on Don Cesar’s beach © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A Great Blue Heron appreciating the sunset on Don CeSar’s beach © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The beach is also the place to go for the sunset – get out there 20 minutes before because you would be amazed at how fast the most brilliant colors come and go as the sun seems to dash to the horizon, seeming to melt into a slot just beyond the water’s edge.

The Loews Don CeSar is ideal for couples, gal getaways, destination weddings, honeymoons, family getaways, family reunions, any special occasion, pre-baby getaway, or just about any excuse to have a holiday.

Loews Don CeSar Hotel, 3400 Gulf Boulevard, St. Pete Beach, Florida, 33706, 727-360-1881, reservations, 800-282-1116, www.loewshotels.com/don-CeSar.

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com , 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 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

 

Just Ahead National Parks App Voted Among Top 5 Best New Travel Apps

Just aheadJust Ahead (http://www.justahead.com/), an award-winning smartphone app for road tripping through national parks, was recently voted a top five Best New Travel App by USA Today 10 Best readers. USA Today’s 10Best.com provides users with original, unbiased and experiential travel coverage of top attractions, things to see and do, and restaurants for top destinations in the US and around the world.

This distinction wraps up Just Ahead’s first full year of producing distinctive GPS-guided smartphone audio tours of this country’s most dramatic landscapes. To date, Just Ahead has concentrated on narrations on the lore and not-to-miss features of national parks in the West. It has produced 13 audio tours covering 15 national parks and monuments, and is gearing up to extend its coverage nationwide. Scheduled for early 2016 release are Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, Petrified Forest National Park and Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, and South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills, and Badlands National Park.

In addition to the USA Today honor, Just Ahead has been named Best Travel App by the North American Travel Journalists Association and Best App by the editors of Sunset magazine.

The Just Ahead mobile app turns an Apple or Android smartphone into a hands-free audio guide to the most beautiful places on earth by delivering professionally written and narrated audio tours to vacationers who want an informed travel experience as they drive.

Just Ahead utilizes GPS technology to know exactly where drivers are on the road, and delivers stories and maps relevant to their exact location. The groundbreaking app points out not-to-miss features while also helping drivers avoid getting lost. It suggests directions and tells drivers why they should turn or not, what they should do after a turn, and the best direction to take if there are multiple route options.

A satisfied user had this to say about the app and tour guide, “LOVE this idea! It’s like you went into my brain and pulled out something I never even knew that I wanted but now can’t think to live without.”

Just Ahead guides are currently available for the following National Parks: Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Zion & Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands & Arches, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Rocky Mountain. Many additional park and road-trip guides are in production.

The Just Ahead app is a free download available through the Apple App Store (iPhone) or Google Play (Android), and each destination guide is available as an in-app purchase. Guides range from $7.99 to $9.99 and include a free trial and free guide updates.

Just Ahead’s award-winning audio guides work without an Internet connection or phone service and use a smartphone’s GPS to deliver hands-free, customized audio tours based on a vehicle’s location. The guides and built-in maps also provide helpful suggested directions, and offer more points of interest and stories than any other GPS audio travel app. Ideal for families, Just Ahead’s audio guides help create shared experiences, conversations, and memories that will last a lifetime. The Just Ahead app is a free download, and each destination guide is available as an in-app purchase that includes free guide updates.

For more information, visit www.justahead.com.

 

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Bubble Chairs, Great Snowmaking Give Okemo Mountain Resort an Edge

It's 3 degrees but we're happy as clams inside the Quantum Four bubble chair on Okemo Mountain, Vermont © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
It’s 3 degrees but we’re happy as clams inside the Quantum Four bubble chair on Okemo Mountain, Vermont © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin

I always bump up my skiing at Okemo Mountain Resort, in southern Vermont. This time was the first time I really felt “the flow” – the fluid motion of putting the various elements of skiing together – the bicycle pedal motion of weighting and unweighting, the pushing knees together, shoulders square, standing up.

Okemo Mountain Resort's bubble chairs are a fabulous feature © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Okemo Mountain Resort’s bubble chairs are a fabulous feature © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

It has a lot to do with the quality of snowmaking and grooming – an art as much as a science, with a dollop of luck because of weather conditions. But it also has to do with the design of the trails, scenic to be sure with gorgeous views, but also wide enough to be forgiving, long enough to get some really good practice in before you have to get back on the lift, and relatively few crosses so you’re not overwhelmed by advanced skiers and snowboarders barreling past. Also, the excellent signage and superb trail maintenance eliminate as much as possible the anxieties that accompany you as you are trying to progress in your technique. And everything is done to make skiers and snowboarders as comfortable as possible – excellent lift system, detachables (best invention in skiing, followed by shaped skis), and now, two of the major chair lifts to the top (Quantum Four, new this year, and Sunburst Six) have bubbles – an innovation that turns your chair into a capsule against the cold and precipitation (including snowmaking).

This was particularly appreciated (a godsend, really), on the day it was 3 degrees (before the wind chill factored in, making it feel like sub-zero). When we left, the temperature rose to a balmy 15 degrees (really, it felt wonderful), under Blue Bird cloudless skies. The feeling of good cheer and utter euphoria made it feel downright balmy.

Remarkably, the Okemo snowmakers opened 20 trails in just 8 days time and by the time we left, 42 trails of its 121 (18 miles worth) were open, offering amazingly great conditions.

Great trails and snowmaking enable you to bump up your skiing at Okemo Mountain, Vermont © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Great trails and snowmaking enable you to bump up your skiing at Okemo Mountain, Vermont © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We love the trails here – especially Sapphire, a wide, scenic, well-groomed blue trail that starts from the top of Sunburst Six (a six-pack bubble chair!), linking to Upper and Lower Arrow so the trail is long enough to really practice your skiing by the time you get back to the Sunburst Six.

We also love Blue Moon, an intermediate trail which connects to Lower Limelight and into the Jackson Gore area to the Quantum Four detachable quad bubble chair.

The design of the trails affords excellent movement around the three summits. Getting back to our comfy condo at the Adams House at Jackson Gore, we took the breathtakingly beautiful (but still a green and aptly named) Sweet Solitude into Roundhouse Run to Blue Moon.

Everything at Okemo, on the mountain and off, is really guest-oriented. This is not something to be taken for granted. The experience of really being cared for starts in the rental shop – the fellows (like elves) actually measured our feet before they gave us our boots (Diabello brand is absolutely my favorite, and I have never skied so well as when the boot fits properly), and were so helpful. and if you found your boot or skis or boards not the best fit, they happily exchanged them.

This warm and welcoming atmosphere continues with the lift operators who are invariably cheery and helpful. Bubbly, even (appropriate for the bubble chairs).

Stopping off for some sustenance at the Waffle Cabin on the trail at Okemo © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Stopping off for some sustenance at the Waffle Cabin on the trail at Okemo © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The on-mountain amenities – the lodges and eateries – are also absolutely marvelous. We love the Waffle Cabin that you come upon as you ski down Lower Arrow (there’s another near the base of the Coleman Brook Express Quad chair) – Dave couldn’t resist even in frigid weather. The Sugar House Lodge has an amazing Thai noodle station as well as Smokey Jo’s Grille (BBQ) and more traditional fare at a cafe. Up at the top of the Sunburst Six bubble chair, we sought comfort from the frigid temperature at the Summit Lodge.

The Epic restaurant at the Solitude base is an attraction itself: on Saturday nights, they arrange to bring diners up by snowcat for a five-course gourmet dinner (there is very limited seating, at 7 and 7:30 pm, and you need to make advanced reservations, 800-228-1600

For guests at Jackson Gore Inn – a luxury ski in/out resort within the resort – the pampering goes even further – you can check your skis right at the base, or in lockers (verboten to bring them into the guest rooms).

There is every amenity imaginable at Jackson Gore, including indoor pools, fitness center and classes, hot tubs, racquetball court, children’s splash features, and spa services  in the Spring House;  ice skating rink pavilion at the Ice House, fine-dining restaurant at Coleman Tavern and Siena, casual dining, indoor/outdoor pool and indoor and outdoor hot tubs and fitness center.

It's 3 degrees but enjoying the hot tub at Adams House condo at Jackson Gore, Okemo Mountain © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
It’s 3 degrees but enjoying the hot tub at Adams House condo at Jackson Gore, Okemo Mountain © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There we were on our first night (when it was single digits temp), in the indoor/outdoor pool (that means you enter the pool from inside, but swim outside in a really gigantic pool kept to 80 degrees; and enjoyed the steaming hot tubs. The next day, we took advantage of the hot tubs right outside our condo at Adams House at Jackson Gore, where we had a superb two-bedroom condo with completely outfitted kitchen, dining area and living room (fireplace too), massive bathrooms (3 altogether), laundry machines, three flatscreen TVs, WiFi. Simply heavenly.

And the newest attraction at Okemo, the four-season Timber Ripper Mountain Coaster – a scenic and exhilarating ride through forest and along the contours of the mountain at Jackson Gore. You ride over 4,800 feet of rollers, banking loops and a twister section at speeds up to 25 mph. It looks like a combination of theme-park roller coaster and bobsled run. Really formidable!

There is also snow tubing in a four-lane park located just off the Stargazer carpet in the courtyard of Jackson Gore, and snowcat excursions (Tuesday,Saturday and Holidays at 5 and 7 pm, $40 or $50 to ride “shotgun”). and kids’ 20-minute snowmobile tours ($39).

Each year, the experience at Okemo, known for being one of the friendliest, most welcoming ski destinations anywhere, gets better and better. This year, they have introduced RFID card, replacing a lift ticket, so you just keep the card in your pocket and stand in front of the reader which opens the gate. It really moves the lift line faster. You can pre-purchase the card and keep adding to it.

This year, Okemo has also expanded SouthFace Village, its newest on-mountain community. The Sunshine Quad, a new fixed-grip Leitner-Poma chairlift, connects the Village Center at SouthFace Village to the South Face Express Quad and provides access to the new Suncatcher trail.

Jackson Gore Inn is a luxury resort-within-the-resort with ski in/out convenience © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Jackson Gore Inn is a luxury resort-within-the-resort with ski in/out convenience © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Snowmaking also gets better and better (and has been crucial this season). This year, Okemo expanded snowmaking on White Lightning and Rolling Thunder at Jackson Gore, increasing  coverage to 98 percent of its trails. Okemo also added a new Prinoth 500 horsepower grooming machine to its fleet (you can really feel the difference!). And, in partnership with Snow Park Technologies, enhanced the Tomahawk trail “for more flow and originality” with jumps and hits.

Okemo also has a variety of terrain parks. The Homeward Bound terrain park was renamed Robbins’ Nest, with jumps, hips and features to recognize the contributions of Okemo’s first Snowboarding Program Director Gordon Robbins.

Okemo’s Penguin Playground Day Care accommodates kids from six months to four years old, and also offers Kids Night Out and Kids Night out with evening child care. Okemo, which was one of the early pioneers of cleverly themed children’s learning and activity programs (Snow Stars!), accommodates children as young as 3.

Sweet Solitude, Okemo Mountain, Vermont © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sweet Solitude, Okemo Mountain, Vermont © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Okemo is as big as you would want a mountain to be – 667 skiable acres (46 miles worth) across five mountain areas, a vertical drop of 2,200 feet (the highest in Southern Vermont), plenty terrain parks scattered around the mountains, accommodating all levels of ability, a learning area served by magic carpet and superb ski and ride schools – and yet feels so homey. Okemo skiers are passionate about the place.

It also offers the Okemo Valley Nordic Center on its golf course, with 22 km of Nordic track and skating lanes, plus 13 km of dedicated snowshoe trails, plus tree skiing and terrain that winds through meadows and hillsides, rental equipment and lessons (802-228-1396 for info).

Okemo Mountain Resort, Vermont
Okemo Mountain Resort, Vermont

The town of Ludlow, while remaining sweetly unpretentious, now has several wonderful restaurants: Harry’s Cafe, an Okemo tradition for 27 years (but recently relocated just across Rte 103 from the Jackson Gore access road), boasts “everything from scratch – handcut and homemade” and a “fusion” menu of various ethnic culinary traditions, and one of the few restaurants serving until 10 pm (reservations recommended, 802-228-2996, 68 Rte 100 North, www.harryscafe.com); The Downtown Grocery, for “casual fine dining” housed in a repurposed Victorian house and serving eclectic (even eccentric) creations (the Bangs Island Mussels and Baby Arugula salad were outstanding) by Chef Rogan Lechthaler “as creative in the kitchen as he is adept on skis”, who prides himself on homemade pastas (even ketchup), fresh sourced and sustainable seafood and cures (41 South Depot, 802-228-7566, www.thedowntowngrocery.com); and MoJo Cafe, a combination Tex-Mex-New Orleans hip cafe with a distinct “Austin weird” vibe (106 Main Street, 802-228-6656, www.mojocafevt.com).

Okemo Mountain Resort, 77 Okemo Ridge Road, Ludlow, VT 05149, 800-78-OKEMO, 24-Hour SnowPhone, 802-228-5222, www.okemo.com (see deals, like 4th Night Free).

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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

_____________________

© 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

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