Monday, January 25, 2016

Swim with the Manatees



            For a wildlife adventure that you’ll remember forever, head to western Florida.  Swimming with the manatees is one of the Southeast’s greatest outdoor experiences.  During the winter, over 400 of these docile creatures migrate to the headwaters of Crystal River where they enjoy the constant 72 degree water.   Unlike ersatz dolphin encounters where nearly domesticated animals are corralled into an enclosure to engage with swimmers, these manatees are really wild.  They’re free to approach people or swim away.  Amazingly though they seem to want interaction and routinely come up to swimmers.  Crystal River is one of only a few places where you can legally engage with manatees in their natural habitat. 

            Manatees have no known predators. Most fatalities are caused by run-ins with boats or loss of habitat.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulates swimming with manatees and the establishment of sanctuaries for them. Florida began passing laws to protect manatees beginning in 1893.  They’ve been on the endangered species list since 1967.  Concerned guests on our tour asked questions about the creature’s welfare and environment.  Guides explained the regulations that make it a safe activity for both the swimmers and sea life. We were instructed to not chase them, crowd them or make loud disturbances in the water.  They are gentle and curious, our guides said.    
       
     My husband and I began our tour early in the morning with the winter temperature hovering around 45 degrees.  Swimming seemed like the last thing I wanted to do.  Coffee seemed like the first thing.  Fortunately River Ventures had it waiting along with hot chocolate when we checked in to get oriented and fitted for wetsuits and snorkels.  At the dock, a blanket of steam laid ethereally upon the warmer river.  We mustered our courage, pulled on our masks and slipped into the clear water.  I consider myself a good swimmer and not fearful but when I put my masked face underwater and saw SUV-sized creatures lolling nearby, I gasped.  These West Indian manatees are between 1,000-3,000 pounds and 10-13 feet long.  Their wrinkled, whiskered heads are massive.  Their blubbery bodies are huge.  Despite being told that they are gentle, I was intimidated at first.  I had expected to see just a few if we were lucky but they were plentiful and easy to see. The underwater world of dappled light and graceful movements soon calmed me though.  It was easy to glide along with just a flick of my flippers and mosey behind one as it slowly searched for aquatic plants to eat.  I drifted alongside as it surfaced to breathe: an explosive exhale and then a languid dive down again.  One rolled over and looked down at me expectantly.  I rubbed its rough belly lightly.  Floating was easy.  I wasn’t cold. There was no wake, no discernable tide, no waves.   We swam for hours in amazement.

            The nearby town of Cedar Key smells like seafood and still resembles an old Florida fishing village.  On the beach we stopped to speak to a man who was fixing a brick wall that had been
damaged in a close call with a hurricane.   Just this morning, he told us, he’d picked up his dinner on this beach.  He’d dug Quahog clams at low tide and hung a large conch upside down to remove the meat which he beat to tenderized before cooking.  He also regaled us with stories about his fascinating profession as a bee pollinator, taking his hives across the state to pollinate orange groves.  At the popular Island Hotel Restaurant we ordered their specialties:  succulent crab bisque and palm salad.  The hotel takes special pride in having invented that salad which was unexpectedly sweet with fruit and dates along with the fresh hearts of palm.

            The town also prides itself on its slow pace.  This is the old Florida “before the traffic, deadlines and demands occupied your life and swallowed your lifestyle” their website touts.  People are unhurried and friendly.  At the marina, a local sailor invited us for a sunset cruise and told us about his life living at the marina.  He was so proud of his new cedar and mahogany sailboat.  Until the tourist season, he planned to cruise around and fish.  As we sailed towards the setting sun, he waved at another marina family coming back into port.  They held up a string of fresh catch for him to admire.  “Looks like tonight’s dinner,” he said hopefully. “People are so laid back here,” I observed.  “Maybe they’re just bored,” he quipped.  If so, it’s a welcome boredom away from the hustle and bustle of the Disney-esque Florida where people rush madly to stand in long lines.  Here, the pace is leisurely, like a manatee ambling through the warm water and rolling onto its back for a gentle scratch. 
           
           
If You Go;
The manatee tour:  www.riverventures.com
The town of Crystal Riverwww.crystalriverfl.org


Manatee photo credits:  River Ventures 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Travel Resources for This Year's Adventures

               


        You’ve booked flights on Expedia.  You’ve relied on Tripadvisor. As you look ahead to what fun and excitement you can cook up this year, take some some tips from my toolbox.         

        Just have time for a daytrip or short weekend?  Check out www.skiway.netGo “on an astonishing journey into the past, where historic figures appear on stage…you question them... the audiences are always a part of the show...and the shows are FREE!” at Greenville’s Chautauqua.  Kick up your heels Myrtle Beach’s “Square and Round Dancers’ Fun in the Sun”.  At “iMagine Upstate Festival” in Greenville six stages “include a maker-space, robotics battle, live science demonstration, drone flight experience and an augmented reality experience.”  At Florence’s Pecan Festival you can “Run Like a Nut”. There’s ice skating in town squares, steeplechases in Camden, championship rodeos in Blythewood and festivals and runs galore.  All at our doorstep.


       Scenic drives are a wonderful way to spend a vacation and each state has routes designed to appeal to traveler’s interests.  Among the several listed at www.visitflorida.com is the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail. To the tune of Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home”, you can drive to “a collection of springs, fishing villages and Class III rapids” over the 207 miles from northern Florida to the Gulf of Mexico. Georgia does a particularly good job of marketing driving tours that are arranged to highlight presidential, civil war or plantation history. They’re at www.ExploreGeorgia.com.   

        Photos from a gigantic twig sculpture, Coral Castle, the world’s biggest cherry pie, a ten-acre whirligig farm, a house-size chest of drawers and other oddities fill our family albums.  Find these crazy pit stops on one of my favorite websites:  www.roadsideamerica.com.  It will remind you that the journey is the destination.

       
Let a soundtrack guide you to your next trip.   Start at www.musicfestivaljunkies.com where you’ll see hundreds of worldwide music festivals listed.  How about Serbia’s Exit Festival that takes place in a17th century Petrovaradin fortress? Or the Jam Cruise out of Miami: a “one of a kind music and vacation experience featuring 5 days of music aboard a luxurious cruise ship”?
Eschew the chain hotel for a more authentic experience. www.vrbo.com has been a great resource for us. On a girl’s trip to Chicago we stayed in a huge loft with a gourmet kitchen. In Amsterdam, friends joined us in a two bedroom apartment overlooking a canal. The friendly owners in Puerto Rico recommended restaurants near their lovely pied-รก-terre. Often the cost is less than multiple hotel rooms if you’re with a group or if you’re staying a week or more. With Charleston being such a popular destination, it would be easy to take part in house swapping. Check out www.lovehomeswap.com and consider trading for a 3-bedroom apartment with a view of the Eiffel Tower or penthouse on the sea in Tuscany. Annie and her family had a “fantastic experience” trading their Sullivan’s Island house for a rural farm in Tuscany. “He even let us drink his wine and olive oil” as they toured the countryside from Pisa to Cinque Terre. Here’s a website I’ll be exploring this year: www.glampinghub.com. It offers unique properties worldwide including barns, treehouses, caves and cabins ranging from rustic to luxurious. How does a vineyard yurt in Barcelona sound? It’s only $88 per night. Or a treehouse near Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii. You can even stay for free if you’re willing to couch surf which involves staying with locals in their homes (or hosting travelers in yours) Sign up at www.couchsurfing.com, a network of 10 million interesting locals in over 230 countries. 

    
    Travelling has joined the emerging sharing economy.  On
www.vayable.com locals in cities around the world share authentic experiences with travelers.  A photography walking tour in Paris, a food crawl in Rome, a tour of Cuenca, Ecuador for those considering retirement there are all examples on their extensive website. On www.eatwith.com and www.travelingspoon.com vetted chefs host small pop-up dinners in their homes.  While in Bali, Meryl and her family spent 3 hours in a family compound preparing multiple dishes from scratch with their Indonesian hosts, using only ingredients grown nearby.  “We shredded coconut with a little bark grater while two little ladies cooked over a fire all night.  We ground spices into pastes for the sauces.”  It was one of their most memorable experiences, especially the delicious corn fritters.

      For active vacations, check out bicycling trips at www.backroads.com, or horseback riding at www.hiddentrails.com. The independent travel sites www.bootsnall.com or www.gonomad.com and www.travelsignposts.com have extensive compilations of first-hand experiences that stray from the beaten path.
      Armchair travelling, I love it. I can spend hours reading reviews and imagining trips. If you’re like me and enjoy the planning almost as much as the going, these resources will launch you on your next adventure.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Roaming the Rooms at Snowbird Mountain Lodge


            My cozy room came with earplugs.  Floors creaked beneath me.  Footsteps pattered above.  I didn’t mind.  I had lots more rooms.  Steps away was the massive living room/lobby lined with books, games and a blazing fireplace.  Sunny porches adorned with fancifully painted totems were outside; hammock swayed on verandas.  A smiling Buddha statue and fluttering prayer flags invited serenity along the walking path.  Further on was a thriving garden and clucking chickens, a firepit stocked with wood and s’more fixings, and overlooks situated perfectly to watch the sunrise or sunset.  I spent an afternoon reading in a scenic gazebo, nestled in an upholstered banquette, warmed by the push-button fireplace.  Charmed guests wrote “My heart slows down and I have time to reflect…” and “the very essence of relaxing vacation, this is at least our 15th time here…” 
         Snowbird Mountain Lodge is on the Register of National Historic Places and was built by Arthur Wolfe, a Chicago travel agent (1922-42) who brought adventurous groups to the Great Smoky Mountains.  Like the poet Joyce Kilmer, Arthur Wolfe had never seen a “poem as lovely as a tree” and relished bringing visitors to the 3,600 acre old- growth forest established in Kilmer’s memory in 1936.  But getting there was an arduous ordeal by train and bus over unpaved roads.  Arthur envisioned a lodge where travelers could shake off the road dust.  So he determinedly built one above Robbinsville, North Carolina, opening The Snowbird Lodge in 1941.  It’s had nine owners since, mostly former guests so impressed that they bought the place.  Elmer and Gladys Smith bought it from Arthur in 1953.  They added an ice maker which was such a sensation that schoolchildren came to see it on fieldtrips.   They also added events and hikes which continue to be a big part of the lodge’s attraction today.  Robert Rankin, the current owner since 1996, says, “All of us have been caretakers of the Lodge, preserving it for future guests so they will be able to enjoy her special
treasures as we do everyday.”  Robert and his retrievers are welcoming hosts, offering trail maps or complimentary mountain bikes, fly rods, canoes or kayaks.  In addition to the 15 smaller rooms in the Main Lodge, there are six premium rooms in the Chestnut Lodge and the secluded Wolfe Cottage with private hot tubs and fireplaces for the numerous honeymooners and anniversary celebrants.  Over half of the guests are repeat customers.  One young couple had come on the suggestion of their parents who’d vacationed there as a young couple themselves.
 

            There is plenty to do nearby but Snowbird also offers many optional activities at no extra charge.  There are naturalist-guided hikes, yoga, music and art workshops, birding, fly fishing and paddle sports and a variety of culinary and holiday events.  I joined about a dozen guests on hikes led by Kathy and Joel Zachry.  The information about the flora, birds, history and wildlife enriched the trip tremendously.  They also gave informal talks each night on their specialty:  bears.  I was surprised to learn that there are two bears per square mile in the Smoky Mountains and that “They have very little interest in eating us…of course there are always exceptions to that,” Joel said. 
        
    On a ten mile hike, I chatted with chef Frank Davi.  He’s responsible for each guests’ three daily meals including a picnic lunch and a four-course wine dinner.  “I grew up in a garden family,” he said and cooked in a pizzeria before going to culinary school.  His father was a pastry chef and his Sicilian grandmothers, who didn’t get along except in the kitchen, nurtured his love of cooking.  He fondly recalled making maccaruna (a hollow pasta) with them. “My job as a kid was to grab the pasta as it’s made and put it to dry over broomsticks.”  Today his signature dishes are “anything with my grandmother’s tomato sauce.”  As we gingerly hiked the rocky trail, he enthused about “playing with colors in the kitchen” and described how to roast beets.  “Let the beet be the star of the show, keep it simple.”  Later I admired the vibrant beets artfully arranged with grilled squash, sliced mozzarella, mascarpone and Tasso ham in a salad with fresh pesto.  It preceded the main course of fresh trout, a lodge favorite.  “I was not prepared for such a great meal tucked back here in the hills,” wrote a recent visitor.
At Snowbird there’s time to relax completely, eat sublimely, and reconsider trees through a poet’s eyes:

“…A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.”

If You Go:

Snowbird Mountain Lodge is open February through November yearly.
Joyce Kilmer, poet
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest









Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Jacksonville Beach: What Has Endured



             Elizabeth Stark came to what she called the “perfect paradise” of Mayport, Florida in 1914.  There were too many gray-haired people in the rest of the state to suit her she quipped.  Ambitious and savvy, she and her husband bought all the land they could:   hundreds of coastal acres.  It was christened Wonderwood.  They built a 1,000 foot fishing pier and several houses.  They raised polo horses and grew figs. She anointed herself the Queen of a cast of eccentric characters that included mobsters, movie stars, industrialists and treasure hunters that took advantage of the new rail lines  It endures today as a picturesque car ferry.  Wonderwood became a symbol of the developing South and Elizabeth its defender.  When World War I broke out, she famously protected her bulwark by assembling a stalwart troop of armed Girl Scouts on horseback that patrolled the beaches.  “Although we never had any spies arrested, we kept a lot of them on the move,” she boasted in her memoir. 
making their way South.  Previously the only way to easily reach Mayport was by shooting a gun in the air to call a rowboat ferry which began in 1874 to carry farmers, merchants and travelers across the St. John’s River.
            But time in her paradise was curtailed by the government. In 1940 the Marines evicted the Starks, raised Wonderwood and built an officer’s club.  President Roosevelt insisted that Mayport become a military base. An officer “followed me out on the street and told me to leave and never put my foot on the property again,” she wrote.  Unbowed, she found “a suitable shack” on the beach to live in which reminded her of the Girl Scout “hun hunters”. She claimed she was happy. 
            Meanwhile, along the nearby coast, hotels were springing up to meet the growing demand:  The Continental, The Atlantic Beach Hotel, Perking House and the Palmetto Lodge.  The Spanish-Mediterranean designed Casa Marina was built in 1924. Every one of those hotels except the Casa Marina burned to the ground, victims of the lethal combination of heart pine floors, lanterns and candles.  It was fire proof, constructed of stucco, concrete and tile.  It had the beach’s first sprinkler system.  So it endured.  Its tenacity is reminiscent of Elizabeth Stark’s.  She could have been its muse.
        
    Like Wonderwood, the Casa Marina and its ocean-side dancing are a symbol of the glamour of the golden age.  In the 1920’s the hotel hosted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Rockefellers and President Truman.  Jean Harlow and Al Capone were rumored to have been guests.  Machine Gun Kelly came to dine.  Spenser Tracy and Katherine Hepburn may have rendezvoused there. Weekly rates were $25 including three meals per day. Along the 40 miles of beach, women swam in shoes and rented woolen bathing suits that weighed up to 25 pounds when wet.  Just up the beach a Red Cross life-saving station was established in 1915.  It is now the oldest continuing operating
volunteer corps in the country. But then the military cut it all short just as it had for the Starks.  It appropriated the hotel for military housing during World War II.  A succession of owners and businesses followed until 1991.  Then it was boarded up for eleven years until being elegantly renovated and reborn as one of the 240 Historic Inns of America.
       

The unique Spanish-Mediterranean architecture remains but the hotel has been remodeled into 18 two-room suites and 5 rooms. An attic has been transformed into a stylish rooftop martini bar with unparalleled views of the coastline and a lively, cosmopolitan scene.  The ocean-side courtyard where brunch the dining room attracts a full house for Executive Chef Aaron Webb’s “new beach” cuisine: a combination of local and Southern tastes.  The crowning glory is his whole roasted red snapper which is seasoned and slow roasted while poised in an upright, swimming position.  It’s so photogenic; diners often want the chef to pose with it for snapshots.
            Steps outside the hotel are the other attractions of Jacksonville Beach:  the boardwalk with its souvenir shops and fast food, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird Lounge.  There’s a popular quarter-mile-long fishing pier. There are surfers and swimmers, jet skis and boaters.  Mark Vandeloo, General Manager of the Casa Marina, “took a huge interest in the hotel as I met the people who walked in the door. They had fond memories or a story of its history and what it meant to them.”  He considers
himself the guardian of the hotel’s history which is artfully depicted in vintage photographs that line the hallways.  But he also looks towards the future.  “Hopefully in another 90 years, people will visit and tell their story ….. about the great experience they had.”
More photos are  here

If You Go:
Jacksonville Beachhttp://www.jacksonvillebeach.org/
Casa Marina:  www.casamarinahotel.com


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Art on the Beach to Benefit Charleston Pro Bono Services

Poster Image by John M. Hoffman
            For sixteen years the popular fundraiser Art on the Beach & Chefs in the Kitchen has drawn hundreds of visitors to Sullivan’s Island for an afternoon house tour replete with over twenty-five artists selling their creations, live music and tasty treats from chefs and food purveyors.  On Sunday, Nov. 8 several architecturally significant houses, artists’ studios and an historic battery will be part of the tour benefiting Charleston Pro Bono Services which provides free legal aid to over 800 people in our community each year.  With so many situations requiring a lawyer, Charleston Pro Bono Services ensures that the doors of justice are open to all, regardless of income.  They match low income clients with attorneys to help solve problems ranging from custody to contractual issues to paternity. 
            Typical of their cases is “David” who, when he approached the agency, was living in a camper after losing his job due to years of severe bad health.  The Social Security Administration had already denied his claim twice but with the help of a volunteer attorney from Charleston Pro Bono, David received a favorable decision that provided a monthly income.  Another client, “Mr. Morris”, came seeking visitation of his son.  Since he was not married to the mother of the child, SC law had awarded the mother full custody.  With the help of a volunteer attorney, Mr.  Morris is now able to visit his son weekly.  Volunteer lawyers also helped “Ms. Betty” who was being harassed by a usurious loan company who had taken advantage of her poor mental health.  With the help she received, the loans were resolved.  Another client, Mrs. Guerrero needed a spelling error on her son’s birth certificate corrected.  The error had created an avalanche of problems with school enrollment and obtaining a passport.  After the resolution she said, “When the lawyers from this office helped us to correct the birth certificate then I was able to get a passport and everything was resolved. So I’m very grateful to the attorneys who helped us so much.”  What may be a routine case for the volunteer lawyers is often critically important to the hundreds of clients who seek aid each year since the complexities of the legal system can often be confusing and frustrating.
      Over thirty artists are scheduled to be on site during the tour to talk to patrons about and sell their creations ranging from wearable art to paintings.  Many artists come every year including jewelry maker Marion Berry who said after last year, “Totally enjoyed being an artist at this event. Had a great time meeting everyone that came by and shopped with me.” The celebrated poster artist this year is John Michael Hoffman whose impressionistic paintings are full of vigor, vitality and texture. He will be meeting people at Sandpiper Gallery that day.
The VIP party bus will be a
 lively addition. 
            During the event, patrons can drive or bicycle around Sullivan’s Island using a map provided with their tickets.  A new option this year offers a VIP ticket with party bus transportation.   Tickets for Art on the Beach and Chefs in the Kitchen are $40 in advance, $45 the day of the tour or VIP tickets for $100 which includes lively, comfortable transportation with libations and commemorative gifts. Tickets may be purchased on line at http://www.charlestonprobono.org, at Sandpiper Gallery on Sullivan’s Island or at the ticket booth at Battery Gadsden (1917 I’On) on Nov. 8 starting at noon.  Sponsors include Jerry and Cheryl Kaynard, Mt. Pleasant Urgent Care, RPWB law firm, Lucky Dog Publications, Lowcountry Sun Publications, Herlong and Associates, Pratt-Thomas Walker and area restaurants  and food purveyors including the Old Village Post House, The Granary, Bull’s Bay Saltworks,  Palmetto Brewery, Lowcountry Olive Oil and the Americano.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Riches of Cherokee, North Carolina


      In 1813, the brave Cherokee leader Junaluska became a hero. He regretted it forever. Over a hundred Native Americans were recruited by him to join Andrew Jackson’s fight against the Creek Indians. Junaluska swam across the Tallapoosa River, took the Creek’s canoes and helped win the battle. Then he made the fateful move that sealed his people’s future. He saved Andrew Jackson’s life. “If I had known that Jackson would drive us from our homes, I would have killed him that day…” he later said. By then he’d survived the Trail of Tears, a 2,200 forced march from North Carolina to Oklahoma and two escapes that finally ended when he walked all the way home. His lineage continues near Cherokee, N.C. where many geographic places bear his name.   
       Faye Junaluska perpetuates the Cherokee culture through her work as a weaver, teacher. Surrounded by beautiful displays at the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual in Cherokee, NC she told me the story of her childhood. She and her siblings learned the Cherokee craft of basket weaving from their mother Emma Taylor. “You have to go into the woods, find your tree,” she explained. “It must be a white oak ten to twelve years old. You have to take the whole tree down, split the trunk, quarter it into sections, split it into strips, scrape it and dye it using the leaves, roots and bark of walnut or butternut trees and digging the bloodroot and yellow root plants”. It’s hard, frustrating work. “Making baskets with grandma, I threw many across the floor,” she remembered. Now her blistered, calloused hands work competently. The shelves of the art center contain a multitude of authentic, museum-quality creations that provide an antidote to the world of anonymous, disposable souvenirs.
      At the Cherokee Museum nearby, I was greeted by the striking appearance of Jerry Wolfe.His long grey braid, cowboy hat, weathered face and beaded bolo necktie attracted me.  In 2013 he was named the Cherokee nation’s “Most Beloved Man”. It was the first time since 1801 that the title had been bestowed. He was recognized by museum archivist Bo Taylor who said, “Jerry embodies everything a beloved man should embody. He’s a veteran, a warrior. Being a veteran carries a lot of weight in our culture. He’s a man who gets out and does - and he does for others. He’s selfless.”  “You might call me an active man,” Jerry demurred. I followed him to the museum’s centerpiece, a life-size statue of a young, muscular warrior in ceremonial dress wearing an antlered helmet and loincloth and holding aloft a burning ember. “That’s me,” Jerry said. His body was cast by the artist decades ago. He stood beside his younger version for a photo, a telescope of history. Interactive displays tell the story of the Cherokees from 12,000 years ago to the present by combining computer-generated imagery, special effects, and audio with an extensive artifact collection. It’s done so well that Van Romans of Walt Disney Imagineering said “The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is revolutionary in its ability to tell stories and should be a model to other museums that are struggling to engage their audience in their message.”

       I spent the night at the incongruous Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort where Ahinawake Littledave showed me around the massive 21-story building.  “There are many things to do here,” she said pointing out a state- of-the-art 3,000 seat performance hall being set up for Jay Leno, the miles of gaming tables, clanging slot machines, sedate poker rooms, various table games and  ten on-site food and restaurant choices.  As a full service resort, the property features a spa, shops, live entertainment and swimming pools. Ms. Littledave
touted the various ways that the resort helps the community by using it as a training ground for tribal members aspiring to become managers and the twice yearly profit sharing checks that all Cherokees receive as well as scholarship, educational and health funds.  An extensive collection of Cherokee art adorns the building.  A rooftop garden spills into 7 waterfalls representing the 7 clans.  Since the casino opened in 1997, “It’s a different way of life,” she noted.  The occupancy rate runs about 95%, drawing people from all over the Southeast hoping to win big jackpots like the $200,000 winner Ms. Littledave saw or to qualify for the World Poker Tour.
       Whether you win jackpots or not, the enrichment from stopping here is invaluable. Despite the tragic and moving history, Cherokee wisdom and humor seem to endure as in this adage: “When the white man discovered this country, Indians were running it. No taxes, no debt, women did all the work. White man thought he could improve on a system like this.” Cherokee, North Carolina has lots of stories to tell.

If You Go:

Museum of the Cherokee Indian: www.cherokeemuseum.org

Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual: www.quallaartsandcrafts.com

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort: https://www.caesars.com/harrahs-cherokee

Originally published in The Island EyeThe Island ConnectionLowcountry Senior Sun, and the Lowcountry Sun.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Big City Buzz in Charlotte

           
     
 


 In 1941, sick and confined to bed, unable to stand at an easel and paint, it seemed Henri Matisse’s artistic life was over. Critics had labeled him the “wild beast” for his startlingly bold colors.  Now he was a broken man.  But Matisse was not bowed.  He began each day with poetry which he compared to oxygen, “just as when you leap out of bed you fill your lungs with fresh air.” From his bed he began “painting with scissors”, cutting out huge color-saturated shapes and arranging them with the help of his assistants and grandchildren until they filled his room. “You see, as I am obliged to remain often in bed…I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk… There are leaves, fruits, a bird.”  He continued to create for 13 more years, pushing his art further than ever.  He called it his “grace period”. He even attached a piece of chalk to a long pole and drew the faces of his grandchildren on the ceiling so he could look up at them while he went to sleep.  “I am deeply contented, happy,” he said.
           Christopher Lawing, Vice President for Programming and Research for the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, enthusiastically recounted this inspiring story as we toured the light-filled galleries where 80 framed prints of these collages are on display through Sept. 7 as part of the exhibition The Art Books of Henri Matisse.  Jazz is the most famous with its imagery drawn from the circus and music halls.  It’s considered one of the greatest illustrated books of the 20th century. Christopher pointed out Matisse’s masterful use of positive and negative space, how he “riffed on philodendron” and his preoccupation with color and light that fueled his intense joie de vivre.  (A two minute narrated video of the exhibit is here.)  Mario Botta, the museum’s architect also “curated light” in the diminutive building where soaring windows frame skyscrapers. Christopher explained that critics responded with shock, amazement and occasional laughter to Matisse’s work, but “we need artists to shock and awe to move us forward.”  We speculated together on which contemporary artists were moving us forward now.   I left inspired, full of new ideas.


           Charlotte is a big city full of the vitality and creative energy, where history combines with modernity.  The Dunhill Hotel is a stellar example.  Built in 1929, the ten-story hotel has been fully restored.  The independent hotel is an Historic Inn of America.  Its refined architecture with neo-classical embellishments adds character to Charlotte’s modern big-city shape. But it is decidedly a 21st century luxury hotel with all the modern conveniences in its 60 well-appointed guest rooms.  As downtown Charlotte pulses and hums around it, the Dunhill is a quiet, elegant oasis right in its center.  We parked our car upon arrival and never needed it again.  Within walking distance are many attractions:  the Mint Museum, the McColl Center for Art, Discovery Place, the Blumenthal Performing Arts center, the Bank of America Stadium, the Time Warner Arena, Spirit Square, the Levine Museum and others. The Dunhill offers a package with the Bechtler with discounts and amenities. 
The exhibit was a perfect introduction to
           
  In 2014 the hotel challenged Chris Coleman to come aboard and create a fresh, new Southern concept that would put its restaurant The Asbury on the A list for discerning culinary travelers.  A devout locavore, Chris sources from about 40 local farmers, fishermen and food artisans. His inspirations are the bounty of the region, his grandmother and his sense of humor.  “I like to mix it up a little.” He tops deviled eggs with cheeky fried cornichon,  He decorates plates with colorful nasturtiums and serves a cast iron skillet of Maw Maw’s biscuits with sass-worthy Bacon-Onion. “When the world seems crazy and nothing much seems to make sense anymore, turn to Bacon Jam.  It makes comfort foods comfortable…Watch your cares magically melt away.” 
          
  Creative sparks were also flying up the street at 5 Church where the hostess Mercury Arteaga explained, “I love this restaurant; It’s more of a museum.”  The entire book Art of War was inscribed on the ceiling!  Sea-creature-inspired light fixtures, undulating sculptures and ironic murals gave the space a funky, lively vibe as a young crowd toasted brunch with mimosas and ate sunny-side egg pizzas.  Word on the street is that this restaurant is opening on Market Street in Charleston. Outside the windows teams of crazily speeding bicyclists were racing a course through cordoned off streets.  The big city buzz was electrifying.
            I’ll return to Charlotte again, perhaps for a girlfriends’ get-away, NASCAR, a Panthers or Hornets game, concerts or culture.  A few days in a big city of skyscrapers and vitality is like a Red Bull for the mind and Charlotte is only 3 ½ hours away. In a cab after a long night out that included Margaret Cho at the Comedy Zone followed by late night blues at the Double Door, we were happily satiated by our big-city experience. 
             
If You Go:
The Dunhill Hotel:  www.DunhillHotel.com
The Bechtler Museum of Modern Artwww.bechtler.org
5 Church Restaurant:  www.5church.com