Monthly Archives: November 2013

Hotels, the Inside Story


Hotels are on my mind for 3 reasons today.    I just finished a funny, profane, very educational book about them called Heads in Beds.  Ruth and I saw a terrific exhibit called Grand Hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia, 2 months ago that I just got around to reading about.  We’ve stayed in some great accommodations during 2013.  And, of course, some barked.

Heads in Beds‘ subtitle is “A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality”, a perfect description of the book.  Jacob Tomsky earned a brainy but useless degree in philosophy and couldn’t find a job.  He became a valet parking attendant at a hotel in New Orleans and quickly moved inside to the front desk.  I may never valet park again after reading his experiences.  Over ten years in The Big Easy and its polar opposite, New York City, he learned the business.  Jacob entertainingly shares his knowledge and advice with us.  Bellmen, for example, do better financially than a lot of other hotel employees.  Those tips add up rapidly and Jacob talks about frequently turning wads of ones into hundred-dollar bills.  He tells readers how to avoid paying for a hotel room when you’ve passed the specified cancellation time.  Some of what I read truly disgusted me, but I appreciated a frank insider’s report.

Jacob explained that the word hotel once only meant French government buildings.   In fact, it still does, but by 1765 the word also began to be used for places where overnight accommodations were offered.  In the United States, new President George Washington made a tour and found public houses gross.  Staying in taverns and inns, he complained about our new nation’s ways of accommodating travelers.   In 1794, a 137 room hotel, the first really grand one, opened on Broadway in lower Manhattan.

Grand Hotel, the exhibit we saw in Canada, has since closed and is not traveling.  It had the subtitle “Redesigning Modern Life” and approached hotels historical development with 4 themes:  travel, design, social impact, and cultural influence.   The world’s first inns were known as caravanserais and developed along The Silk Road connecting Europe and Asia.  Many were elaborate structures that provided hospitals, baths, libraries, shoemakers, mosques, etc. and looked like castles from the distance.  After World War II the U.S. State Department was developing its Marshall Plan and wanted to help the economies of war-ravaged Europe.  It appealed to anti-Communist Conrad Hilton, who had been hoping to expand internationally, to build western-style accommodations in places like Egypt. Hilton International happened.  The Tehran Hilton opened in 1965.   Since this excellent exhibit has closed, I’ll tell more about it in later blogs.

This year we had some outstanding accommodations:  the Hilton Hotel on The Strip in Las Vegas, the Castle Hotel in Huntly, Scotland, Club Quarters in Philadelphia, etc.  We also stayed in some that should be condemned.  The Comfort Inn in Oxford, Mississippi, comes to mind.  Now that I’ve read, and laughed at, Heads in Beds, I will be able to reduce the # of awful rooms in 2014.


Ailsa Crag and the Russian War Memorial


Not knowing what it was, I checked the map and learned that it was Ailsa Crag (see picture).  It rose out of the Irish Sea like a science fiction movie visual effect off the coast of Scotland south of Arran Island.  I flashed on Jurassic Park as John stopped so we could take photos.  Then I forgot about it.

Until this morning.  I glanced at the front page of the Sunday New York Times and there it was, Ailsa Crag.  The headline announced “For Sale: Craggy Isle Where Rocks Are the Stars”.  The article told me some pretty interesting things about this uninhabited, ex-volcano.

For more than a century its granite has been quarried to make curling stones, those circular, slow-moving tea kettle looking discs that Olympic athletes wearing slider shoes sweep madly ahead of with brooms.  My interest in this sport lasts for, oh, I supposed my record is 5 minutes before I seek something more entertaining, like counting white cars on a parking lot.

Ailsa Crag is owned by the 8th Marquess, who offered it for sale 2 years ago.  The asking price has reportedly been reduced again by £1,000,000 if you’re interested in having your very own bird sanctuary.  The quarry closed in 1969 according to the New York Times so this 1,100 elevation, 220 acre rock is now home to no people but thousands of breeding gannets and puffins.  Gannets are those huge white birds that fold in their wings and dive head first into the sea for fish.   Puffins are those cute seabirds with orange feet and beaks who like a diet of sand eels.

Rhona Martin, curling champ, won an Olympic gold medal in 2002, the 1st in 18 years for Britain, at the winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.   That’s why 2,000 tons of granite were removed from Ailsa in summer, 2013, to make curling stones for the upcoming games in Sochi, Russia.

If seeing The Ailsa Crag surrounded by morning fog wasn’t strange enough, John and I stopped a bit further down the road at what looked like a monument.  Ailsa was still in view.  We were hoping that signage would provide information about that mysterious rock out there.  Instead, it was a Russian memorial.   During the 1905-06 Russo-Japanese War, said to be the first great conflict of the 20th century, the Russian ship Varyag was heroic in the Battle of Chemulpo Bay.  This cruiser was the 2nd of 5 Russian ships with the name Varyag.  In 1917 she was sent to Great Britain for an overhaul. However, she was commandeered by the British (!) and sold for scrap to Germany in 1920.  While being towed in the Firth of Clyde near Ailsa, she ran aground on some rocks, sank 5 years later, and was never recovered.   A memorial Russian anchor remains in Scotland within site of the place where granite for curling stones is quarried.  Weird, huh?


Texas A & M, Aggieland


“Howdy!” shouted Shannen, education major and proud Aggie from Garland, Texas, as she welcomed us to Texas A & M.   Ruth & I and about 20 others were about to get a walking tour of the campus in College Station.

You have to really want to do this.  I consulted locals and we located the Koldus Parking Garage, which is hard to get to, walked across the plaza to the Student Center, and turned left.   But we soon discovered that we should have gone right and into the lobby of Rudder Tower.  This was a worthwhile practice run because we had to return at 11 am the next day for Shannen’s tour.

Texas Agricultural and Mechanical was established in 1876 as a public institution.  The College Station campus currently has about 40,000 students. According to Shannen, 2,200 of them are men and women in all 4 branches of the military.  Many of them will have earned commissions in the US Armed Forces by graduation.  She compared Texas A & M to West Point but it’s more like The Citadel.   Texas A&M is one of 6 educational institutions that is offering Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) via a senior military college (SMC).   It’s the largest of the 6.  Men and women in uniform are a definite presence on campus, and our walk included the Corps of Cadets Quadrangle, the Aggie Code of Honor, etc.  The Fightin’ Texas Aggies is the world’s largest precision military marching band.

As we toured, prospective students and their parents  learned far more about Texas A & M traditions–the Roll Call for the Absent, the Century Tree under which engagements occur, etc.–than about academic achievement.   “Once an Aggie, always an Aggie” was chanted more than once.

We did pass Evans Library and learn that it’s one of 5 on campus and that the University Writing Center offers help with research papers.   Shannen told us that the College of Architecture, Visual Arts, works with Pixar, and she boasted that A & M’s College of Engineering ranks top in the nation without specifying which particular college.  She boasted that the Department of Oceanography based in Galveston was the oldest in the nation.  Scripps might challenge that assertion.  I researched and found that among engineering schools Texas A & M is ranked #3 for Biological/Agricultural by US News and World Report, but it’s not in the top 10 for other engineering programs.  Hmmmmm.

That it’s #9 in AP’s top 25 in college football rankings, however, is no surprise.  Our tour ended in front of Kyle Field near the 12th man sculpture where Shannen got emotional as she told us that she was not a big football fan until coming to Texas A & M and getting caught up in the Aggie spirit. We also saw the graves of Reveilles 1 through 4.   Reveille is the school’s official mascot, and the current “First Lady of A & M” is the 8th dog to achieve this huge honor.  The buried pooches have their own scoreboard.

I talked after the tour to the only man on it who was a Texas A & M graduate, and he vigorously confirmed that being an Aggie has been a huge professional benefit.


I Remember Monaco and Laugh


I recently read an Associated Press article by Michelle Locke about Monaco that made me laugh, and then it made me remember.  I laughed because it was called  “Monaco doesn’t have to cost a lot”.  Monaco was one of the most $$$$ destinations I’ve ever visited.   Yet I remember it was also one of the most memorable.

Michelle Locke focused on what’s free.  Monaco-Ville, the old town, sits on a promontory.  At 11:55 am daily the changing of the guard occurs in front of its Prince’s Palace.  Nearby is the Cathedral where Princess Grace, who was actress Grace Kelly before marrying Monaco royalty, is buried.  She made 12 films before marrying a Grimaldi, and most of them have become classics–High Noon, To Catch a Thief, etc.  The famous Monte Carlo Casino is free for those content to just visit the lobby and not enter the gaming rooms. Michelle recommended strolling the St. Martin and Japanese Gardens and walking the Grand Prix race course including the famous hairpin turn at the Fairmont Hotel.

The Gardens are spectacular.  I especially remember St. Martin with its great view of the Mediterranean.  It’s adjacent to the Oceanographic Museum that will cost an adult €14 to enter but is worth it.

Luckily Ruth and I were traveling with French family and had a car, so we were able to visit 2 notable attractions near Monaco–Eze and Fragonard. Eze is a medieval village perched on a mountain top with, again, unforgettable Mediterranean views.  At the top is an excellent small garden containing exotic tropical plants.  I hear that Eze has become overrun by tourists since I was there and many of them are irritated when they walk a long way to the top and find out that it costs €6 to enter the garden.

We also visited the Fragonard Parfumerie in Grasse that offers a free guided factory tour.  I appreciated the chance to see how scents, soaps, etc. are created, and the smell was incredible.  Fragonard and Eze are about 20 minutes by car from Monaco via Moyenne Cornische, which is highway N17 to Nice.

My favorite activity in Monaco was simply walking around staring at its opulence.  I spent far too much time, for example, gaping  at the enormous yachts in the harbor and wondering what it must be like to be rich enough to live in the world’s most densely populated and expensive country.   Since no one has trouble paying their electric bill, lights are left on all over town, one square mile, all night.  I had trouble going to sleep because I couldn’t stop staring out of the window at the impossibly affluent, once-in-a lifetime view.

But the place of choice in Monaco to see wealth on parade remains the casino. Almost all of the comments about it on TripAdvisor mention luxury vehicles. Terry Roomes says it best when he dubs them ultra flash cars. Those who decide they MUST see where James Bond gambled have to pay a bit to enter.   Those not properly dressed and without a passport are turned away. Men must wear jacket and tie and women in jeans, tee shirts, and/or tennis shoes will invoke disdain and not get in.   Gamblers must limit visits to 30 minutes or less.  A passport is needed because citizens of Monaco are banned.

I can’t find the answer to this question.  After leaving the Monte Carlo Casino, I noticed a humble door under its grand staircase and edged close enough to see that it was a pawn shop.  Is it still there?


Arkansas’ Common State Capitol


One display in the Arkansas State Capitol described it as uncluttered.  That struck me as accurate.  It’s a very traditional neoclassical building almost to the point of dullness.  “… a common style found in monumental architecture of the early 20th century,” one brochure explained.   The building’s 2nd architect, Cass Gilbert, sought and received permission from the architect of Mississippi’s Capitol to copy his dome.  No one noticed for a generation.

This isn’t to say that Arkansas’ Capitol was erected on the cheap like Michigan’s.  Quite the opposite.  It took 16 years to build and cost $1,000,000 more than Michigan’s Victorian fantasy.   Placed on the site of an old state penitentiary and employing prison labor during construction, the Arkansas Capitol, which is about a mile west of downtown Little Rock, has plain but impressive Alabama marble staircases.  Some construction money also went for 6 bronze Tiffany vault doors.

Ruth and I visited on a Saturday afternoon when the Capitol was cemetery quiet.   The rotunda was undergoing work.  Plastic sheeting made it invisible.  However, its massive 4,000 pound Mitchell-Vance chandelier had been lowered to the first floor.  To see one of these dome-filling fixtures up close was far more interesting than the meager displays for tourists.  A man in the office who was watching a football game on his mobile device and clearly didn’t like answering questions told us to grab a self-guided tour brochure.

The only other visitors were upstairs.  Because some friendly students were setting up the Old Supreme Court Chamber that hadn’t been used for cases since 1958 for a meeting, we were able to see its very traditional decor. They were placing candles at each place for some law school rite.  The legislative chambers were understandably locked.

Also upstairs were a couple of modest displays that mentioned past governors.  I was struck by how many of them had become nationally known–Winthrop Rockefeller, Orval Faubus, Mike Huckabee, Bill Clinton–and I wondered why this was true of a State without a large national profile like Michigan.

To get a guided tour during the week one must contact a Visitor Services Specialist at 501-682-5080.  Walk-ins “will be scheduled for the next available guided tour,” I read.   Being Saturday, there was no one to ask if that meant Ruth & I would likely experience a guided, same-day tour on Monday.   I surfed later for other visitors’ reactions to Arkansas’ State Capitol and found mostly favorable comments on TripAdvisor.  Boyd B noted that you better like steps and observed that the ASC had more marble than the Acropolis.

Later I looked through “A Walk on the Hill”, a self-guided tour booklet, and noted that only 2 pages were about the building.  The rest were about 14 outside monuments, 41 trees, and Downtown attractions.   I had noticed the trees when I tried to take an exterior photo and could never find a shot that didn’t include them.  They seemed to hide the building as if to spare it embarrassment.  It’s not the Arkansas State Capitol wasn’t monumental, it was just common.