Monthly Archives: November 2011

New York Christmas

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree will be illuminated tonight, and I wish I was there.  Sure it’s crowded and cold, but it’s also a notable thrill as the traditional Norway Spruce’s 30,000 lights and Swarovski crystal star defy the night.  This is The Center’s 79th celebration, the first occurring in 1933 with 700 lights and done mainly to lift spirits during The Depression.  The always soaring tree, a long row of nutcrackers, and the ice rink filled to capacity with 150 ice skaters, some in formal attire, make the crowd reluctant to leave with the holiday scene made even more perfect if snow is lightly falling.

However, this is only one among many holiday delights during a New York Christmas.  The spectacular Lincoln Center tree is traditionally topped with a Wedgewood starburst and resplendent with close to 100 oversized blue and white Wedgewood ornaments designed to honor the arts.

There are probably another 2 dozen tree lighting ceremonies in Manhattan alone.

Some of the annual trees are stunningly original.  For example, The American Museum of Natural History’s annual holiday gift is an Origami Tree.  OrigamiUSA members begin folding the approximately 500 paper ornaments as early as July to decorate this 13-feet tall tree-extravaganza that doesn’t need lights to dazzle.  The Cathedral of St. John the Divine’s Peace Tree contains 1,000 paper cranes and other peace symbols.

The most artful tree, however, brightens the Metropolitan Museum’s Medieval Sculpture Hall.  This annual wonder is laden with 18th century Neapolitan angels which are large enough to be clearly seen from a distance.  Nestled below the celestial beauties is a one-of-a-kind, wraparound Baroque Crèche, a dramatic diorama depicting Bethlehem on one very special day.

But a Manhattan Christmas is more than glittering trees.  The world’s largest menorah, a 32-feet tall, 400 pound structure, gets lit to inaugurate Hanukkah beginning on December 4 this year on the corner of 5th Avenue and 59th Street.

Seasonal window displays in Manhattan dazzle like nowhere else.  On any wish list would be Bergdorf-Goodman, Saks, Lord and Taylor, Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany’s, Barney’s, and, especially, Macy’s flagship store’s animated window scenes that seem inspired by the dreams of everyone’s childhood.

Smaller pleasures include the Morgan Library’s “A Christmas Carol”, Charles Dickens original manuscript currently on display in a special exhibit that’s part of a celebration of Dickens 200th birthday.

Bah, humbug!  Another small wonder, perhaps my favorite New York Christmas treat, was the annual train exhibit at The Station at Citigroup Center.  Between 1987 and 2009, this historic, one-of-a-kind model railroad delighted me with its nostalgic New York State re-creation of 1945-55.  Alas, it has moved north to Railroads on Parade in Pottersville.

However, The Empire State Building’s top floors continue to sport Christmas red and green, there’s still a seasonal light show inside Grand Central Station as its Main Concourse becomes a kaleidoscope of colors every half hour from 11 am to 9 pm, and the Rockettes continue to kick up their holiday heels in “Magical Journey” until January 2nd.

And these are just the main attractions.  Among other New York seasonal pleasures are unexpected carolers, myriad lofty trees fronting business towers, and small shop windows lovingly decorated.

Happy Holidays, wherever you are.



Australia, Part 18

In September, 2007, Ruth and I were again on a plane to Sydney, Australia.  This, our 6th trip Down Under, looked like a winner.  We were going to take the Indian Pacific train 2,698 miles across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth and join a wildflower tour of Western Australia.

But first we had to survive 14 hours in coach where the woman behind me, to put it nicely, really filled her seat.  To make sure that I was as uncomfortable as she was, she periodically kicked my seat.  The highlight of the trip was an Australian film called Ten Canoes about primitive Aboriginal life.  The lowlight was the leg bruise that Ruth sustained when she had difficulty climbing out to the aisle.

On our way from the airport into Sydney, Ruth complained about leg pain.  Despite it, we had an almost perfect couple of days in one of our favorite cities with several A+ experiences.

We took the ferry to Darling Harbor and spent hours in the then one-year-old Wildlife World, an attempt to bring Australia’s unique animals, birds, reptiles, and insects into an urban setting where especially children could see them.  In September, 2011, it was renamed Wild Life Sydney, and the place has its critics. “It has over 6,000 animals crammed into it with 130 all Australian species,” one carps.

I thought it was great.  We watched a white bellied sea eagle demo done by an Aboriginal man named Leon who told stories about laughing kookaburras and Dreamtime, got a bunch of boys up to attempt a native dance, and played a didgeridoo.  After that, I found myself staring at a koala close enough to touch if there hadn’t been a wire barrier.  I learned, among other things, that a baby koala’s first meal is its mom’s droppings so it can get used to the bacteria needed to digest eucalyptus leaves.  Bon apetit.  I watched a cassowary for way too long because the sign said it was the world’s most dangerous animal.  It can lash out with its powerful legs and kill.  Its droppings seed 150 tree species.  Uncomfortably close, I studied a funnel-web spider, the planet’s most deadly.

We went to the National Opal Collection, said to be Australia’s leading supplier of opals.  In addition to a retail showroom, it offered a museum worthy collection of opal-related artifacts on loan for the Australian Museum including Eric the opalized pliosaur.

The day before we were to leave on the cross-continent train, Ruth’s leg hurt so badly that we stepped into a pharmacy where the lady in charge scared us to death.  She looked at Ruth’s leg and warned of possible Deep Vein Thrombosis. We went straight to the nearest hospital where for only $100 Australian dollars and the loss of a few hours we learned that she had only a bruise.

The next morning after doing laundry we headed to Central Station to meet Robert and Lynette for yet another grand Australian adventure.


Art Nouveau Riga

Riga, Latvia, is one of the finest cities in Europe and a largely undiscovered destination among  travelers.  During two weeks in the Baltic countries, Ruth and I ran into only a couple of Brits on business and no Americans.  We spent most of our Baltic time in Riga and left wishing for even more.

Riga’s Central Market fills four ex-dirigible hangars and spills out into surrounding streets.  It’s so ethnically interesting that I failed to take notes for fear I’d miss something as we wandered around looking at purely Latvian food, drink, and wares.

Riga’s art museums are as good as any in the world.  There’s a degree of sameness in subject and execution to Latvian art, but this country’s distinct character and the genuine competence of its artists are abundantly displayed in the Latvian National Museum of Art where the man in the gift shop told me that Janis Rozentals and Vilhelms Purvitis, both unfamiliar to me, were the 2 most famous Latvian artists.  When I mentioned the only Latvian painter I knew, Marcus Rothkowitz, the name drew a blank stare as did the artist’s American name–Mark Rothko.  Perhaps he had never heard of him because Rothko came to the US from Daugavpils at the age of 10.

Old Town Riga is a compact, walkable neighborhood of still-used churches, cobblestones,  buildings from many eras, and a joy to wander.  We saw evidence everywhere, not just in Old Town, that Latvians are preserving their heritage–the Orthodox Cathedral’s gold domes are being restored, Old Town’s Bourse has just opened as an art museum, Riga’s Doma, the largest place of worship in the 3 Baltic nations, is covered with scaffolding, and Sigulda’s castles are being restored.

Old Town’s upscale, exceptional Hotel Neiburgs and its reasonably priced street corner restaurant are in an Art Nouveau building, which is not unusual in Riga. There are 800 of these, mostly in a ring around Old Town.  It’s a miracle that so many Art Nouveau gems have survived.  Konstantins Peksens was the architect of 200 of them, and his apartment has just been re-furnished in the period and turned into a fine museum where Günta, who has family in Seattle, gave Ruth an Art Nouveau chapeau to wear during our tour.

I’ve written about Riga’s 2 most unusual museums (the Kremlin’s car collection and the unforgettable,no matter how hard I try, Paul Stradin) in previous blogs.  Others worth visiting display the history of photography in Latvia, its unique decorative arts (leather book covers, amber jewelry, etc.), and the National History Museum just upstairs from the Presidential Office on a castle site.

We learned from Zane in a visitor info office that a Tater Festival was scheduled for the upcoming Sunday at the Latvian Ethnographic Open-air Museum.  The Museum proved to be a vast expanse of forest and hill on a huge lake.  Buildings from all over Latvia, including its oldest church and many thatched homes and barns, have been moved here.  The festival, full name Martin’s Day and Potato Festival, was a bit like our Thanksgiving mixed with Halloween.  “The participants play folk games, dance and sing to ward off evil spirits,” says What to do in Riga?.

Then there’s the Opera House, a branch of Helsinki’s legendary Stockmann’s Department Store, The House of Blackheads, an abundance of well-tended parks. Riga is both sensational and inexhaustible.


Oahu + Disney

I just found out from my son-in-law Stanley, a pilot for Alaska Airlines, that there’s a new resort  on Oahu called the Aulani.  It opened its doors on August 29, 2011, in Ko Olina 20 miles west of Honolulu.  When we explored Oahu for the first time, Ruth and I were told there was nothing much for tourists on this Island’s west side, so, of course, we went there to confirm that this was true.  This should now read…nothing much until August 29, 2011.

In Hawaiian, Oahu means “The Gathering Place” and few spots in the world are so well named.  In addition to a steady stream of visitors, Oahu is home to more than 75% of Hawaii’s population; and, yes, it can seem overdeveloped.   But the same might be said of Italy.

Oahu consistently draws satisfied vacationers because there is so very much to see and do.  One of the most popular attractions in the world is on this island.  The Pacific National Monument that includes the USS Arizona can be visited free of charge if you get there early and are very patient.  You can’t personally reserve in advance.   The other popular Pearl Harbor sites include The Battleship Missouri, the “Mighty Mo” forever in the history books as the place where the treaty ending World War II was signed, the USS Bowfin, the Pacific Aviation Museum, and Pearl Harbor itself.  These are non-profit operations that charge admission fees, so visit websites and plan ahead as much as possible to maximize your experience, which will be unforgettable.

The Polynesian Cultural Center, said to be Hawaii’s number one paid visitor attraction when we were there, will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2013.  The Center was rather  expensive to get in.  We were offered a deluxe package that we declined, meaning no luau.  Of course, for our money we did gain entry to seven Oceania villages, handicrafts, and live demonstrations.  One show included a canoe pageant with posing Pacific Island youths in full native regalia who were studying at Brigham Young University—Hawaii.   It was, all in all, worthwhile, but it consistently felt like an obligation rather than an irrepressible thrill.

For a quieter, cooler native experience, step inside the original Bishop Museum on Bernice Street in Kalihi and gaze in amazement at King Kamehameha’s cloak, an ‘ahu’ula.  Sixty thousand mamo birds contributed 6 to 8 feathers each to make its yellow munificence.  Elsewhere in this culturally rich repository were interesting displays about the Chinese, Puerto Rican, Portuguese, and Filipino contributions to multi-ethnic Hawaii.  We stepped outside and took a small-group tour, an introduction to native plants, and went to Hawaiian Hall for an authentic hula show.

Downtown Honolulu is home to the royal Iolani Palace, the official residence of King Kalakaua and Queen Lili’uokalani, the last monarchs of the Kingdom of Hawai’i from 1882-1893.  This Queen’s trial and unpopular imprisonment both occurred in this building.  The palace tour included the groomed grounds, definitely fit for a monarch, where we stood under the kukui (candlenut) tree planted by Franklin Roosevelt in 1934.  He returned in 1944 to see how it was doing.  1944!

Another home worth visiting is fit for a Duke, Doris that is, a woman who wasn’t royalty but probably would have been had she been born anywhere but in the United States.  Her Shangri La at Black Point was completed in 1938.  Doris’ bedroom was modeled on the Taj Mahal, and over time she bought 3,500 works of Islamic art, one of the most comprehensive collections in the United States.   Book early.

This is just a few of the tourist gems that await Oahu visitors that now include an $800 million dollar Disney resort.  “Don’t expect a theme park,” its ads warn, even though it has a lazy river, water slides, etc.  Do expect family fun, it ensures, in a place dedicated to Hawaiian art and culture with 4 restaurants and thoughtful amenities, like a teen spa.

A lot of Alaskans keep Alaska Airlines busy this time of year by heading for Hawaii. Maybe we’ll join them.


Astoria, Oregon

Invited to tour its Coast Guard facility, I went to Astoria, Oregon, two days ago and found it virtually unchanged.  One of the downsides of travel is going to a much-loved destination and finding places like the Urban Cafe gone forever.  Both Astoria and Urban continue to thrive.

Often called “Little San Francisco” because of its natural bay side setting, Astoria once meant deserted canneries, vacancy signs, out-of-business businesses, and untended houses. But the bicentennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition a few years ago resulted in a $90 million investment that sparked a Renaissance.

The Corps of Discovery wintered at Fort Clatsop, a mere five miles from present day Astoria. The Fort Clatsop National Memorial and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center across the Astoria-Megler, Astoria’s “Bridge to the World,” are 2 major reasons to come here.

At 4.2 miles, the A-M is the longest three-span truss bridge in the world and an engineering beauty that withstands 150 mile per hour winds and a nine-miles-per-hour river.  At its highest, it soars 200 feet above the Columbia.

Astoria’s riverfront has now had two major rebirths.  A 1922 fire destroyed most of its disreputable downtown where wooden streets were built out over the bay.  The Post Office and Courthouse survived because they were on solid ground.

Astoria’s working class roots meant ethnic and class conflict.  Anti-Chinese organizations sprang up, Klan members tormented Catholics and outsiders, and early Socialists, Bolsheviks, and Communists found voice.  Rowdy bars gave Astoria the sobriquet “wettest town in the west.”  A sin or salvation tussle went on for years before blue-collar fishing, cannery, and timber jobs waned and Astoria practically went out-of-business.

The great Columbia River Maritime Museum was part of its revival.  One of my favorite displays here, Graveyard of the Pacific, shows the location of lost vessels.  Another, Crossing the Bar, explains why so many ships founder.  At its mouth, the 1,243-mile-long Columbia collides with often fog shrouded ocean swells atop underwater sand bars that constantly change.  Specially trained bar pilots must guide ships through the resulting 17 mile danger zone even though 5 to 6 million cubic yards of deposit are removed each year.  These brave pilots defy gravity by literally jumping from ship to ship with swells surge below them.

There are fifty-five properties on the National Register in Astoria, the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies. It was founded in 1811, a mere five years after Lewis and Clark vacated, when John Jacob Astor’s fur company arrived and established a fort.

Old Astoria is best represented by Flavel House, the Hotel Elliott, and the Liberty Theater.  Flavel House was built by Astoria’s first millionaire, Captain George Flavel, who was one of the first Bar Pilots.  The recently renovated Hotel Elliott, a 32 room boutique beauty with “wonderful beds”, is on the National Trust for Historic Preservation and in the middle of Astoria’s historic district.  The almost ninety-year-old Liberty Theater has been transformed into a performing arts center and vibrant community resource.

Most visitors come for Fort Clatsop, the area’s premier attraction, but they often overlook an equally interesting and accessible historic landmark, Fort Stevens, the only enclosed Civil War earthen fort on the West Coast.  It was manned by troops beginning in 1864.

During WWII, a Japanese submarine lobbed nine high velocity shells onto the Oregon Coast.  They fell near Fort Stevens on June 21, 1942, the first attack on a primary military objective in the continental United States.  Unlike 9-11, there were no casualties and no damage.  This is just one of the fascinating bits of information learned at the Fort Stevens Military Museum that displays memorabilia from the Civil War to WWII.

Another notable landmark is the concrete Astoria Column, site of the first cable television broadcast in the United States.  Railroad tycoons and descendants of John Jacob Astor contributed to the project that resulted in its construction.  A monolith inspired by Trajan’s Column in Rome, its 164 steps wind up to an impossibly beautiful view of ocean, bay, mountain, and town. The Column is decorated with a frieze that shows Northwest historical scenes.

Astoria is one of the truly great time-warp town’s of the American Northwest.