Are you coming to Albuquerque?

So you’re scheduled for a conference or business trip to Albuquerque. Or your husband’s mother’s brother’s wife’s daughter-in-law lives there and just begged you to come visit. You’re thinking, what the heck is there to do in Albuquerque? Why would anyone want to have a business conference there? Why would anyone want to LIVE there? Isn’t that in the desert? Isn’t it awfully hot? Isn’t it true that not even Bugs Bunny could not find Albuquerque in the enormous flat mound of dust and tumbleweeds that is the southwest?

Well, I’m here to reassure you that Albuquerque isn’t that terrible after all. There are a few (though not a huge amount) of interesting things to do, the landscape is pretty impressive, especially if you haven’t been to the desert before, the heat is really not that bad, it’s too high for scorpions and tarantulas, and the southwest feel is truly unique to this part of the country. There is a native american influence on culture and art (though we just call them “indians” around here, despite the non-politically correct stares that that word attracts on the east coast, it’s what pretty much everybody uses here, even the native americans themselves), and also a lot of mexican/hispanic influence. There is a three-way mix of cultures (hispanic, white, and native american) which has forged a unique culture niche in New Mexico. Weather is usually great here, with clear blue skies almost every day. The sun is very strong, partially because of the altitude. If you’re out in the afternoon in the summertime and you’re too hot, step into the shade and you’ll notice a temperature difference you won’t find in most other climates. Make sure you wear sunscreen, and remember that even when it’s scorching during the day, the evening is going to be cool (there is no moisture in the air to hold the heat in after the sun goes down) so be prepared with a light sweater even if it seems like a crazy idea during the day. If you come in the winter, though, it WILL be cold. I know it’s the desert, but we have four seasons. So don’t expect eternal heat, though it’s no blizzard region.

Albuquerque is high desert, with some low, brushy vegetation, wide open spaces, and dramatic mountains as a backdrop. Albuquerque’s altitude is around a mile (5,200 feet), so if you’re coming from sea level, you may feel a difference, though it’s generally not too bad at this height. If you get a little sleepy during meetings you can blame it on the altitude! I would wait a day or two, though, before heading up on top of the mountains, just in case, if that is on your itinerary. The Sandia mountains are named so because Sandia means “watermelon” in Spanish, and the mountains, being on the east side of the city, turn a bright pink during the sunset when the weather is right (and the weather is most of the time right). If you’re interested in the mountains you can take the Tramway up to the top and look out over the whole city. You also see the barrenness of the landscape surrounding the city (Some find this depressing, but I think it’s interesting) and the starkness of the mountainsides. Sandia Peak, which is where the tram takes you, is around 10,600 feet. If you’re not used to going up on top of mountains, remember that it’s going to be a lot cooler up there than it is at the bottom. But the view of Albuquerque is fantastic. One thing that is interesting to see is the Rio Grande river which runs through the city – if you don’t see it immediately from up there, you can recognize it from the line of green through the otherwise brown scenery – full of trees and vegetation growing around the banks of the river. The Rio Grande itself it’s actually that grand, though (not here anyway)…it’s pretty shallow and pretty muddy. But it is much-needed water for this area. Unfortunately it’s a little pricey to take the tram up to the top of the mountain, but if you haven’t been in a lot of high places, it will probably be worth it. Your other option is to drive up to the peak. If you like scenic twisty drives, this one is for you. The most direct path goes up the “back” of the mountain (on the east side, away from the city) but there is also a dirt road which climbs up the west side, which starts on Tramway road and is a little more adventurous, but very cool. I don’t recommend it in a rental car, however. There are lots of hiking opportunities on this side of the mountain, and even some short hikes to small caves that you may find interesting. Specifics for hikes can be found in a local trail book – they often change so I won’t recommend something specific here.

Let’s not forget that Santa Fe is just one hour’s drive through the vast-seeming desert. There are more than rumors that in the next few years a commuter railroad (already operating in and around Albuquerque) will eventually go to Santa Fe from Albuquerque, hopefully with a connection direct to the airport. That would make the hour-long jaunt up north absolutely simple for business travelers, for example, which now can only be done with a rental car or expensive shuttle service. Santa Fe is another true cultural center for the area, and the capital of the state. The plaza and shops are similar to old town in Albuquerque, but nothing can feel quite like Santa Fe. Both there and in Albuquerque’s old town, the shops are not lined up on the street but are attached and inter-woven with courtyards and cute alleyways, so make sure you wander of the street a little bit if you want to see everything. The layout is like this because the shops are in old adobe houses, inter-connected for families and with connecting courtyards and corridors. There is also the Santa Fe opera a little bit north of town, if you are into that kind of thing. It is very famous, though, and you should look into buying tickets early if you interested in going there. The Santa Fe Opera House is unique because it is basically an outdoor setting, and you see the sun set as you watch an evening show. Of course, the almost constantly clear weather of the New Mexico desert allows for this. Near the opera house you can find the outdoor Santa Fe flea market, which has imports from all over the world, and also native american work, local artists, local tastes, and lots of southwest jewelry (almost all silver, mostly turquoise and amber if you like those). But this, like all of Santa Fe, is a tourist area – don’t look for used items in the flea market, and watch out for ridiculous prices. It’s very interesting to look around, but a bit pricey for spending. Be especially wary of native american pottery – make sure it’s authentic if that’s what you’re after, even if they advertise it as “indian pottery” it may be made in Indonesia or something. And half-price sales are common so don’t fall for it, they just double the prices first. Still, you may find good souvenirs here if you are careful with your money.

Also in Santa Fe’s downtown (plaza area) you will find two Spanish churches (Cathedral of St. Francis and a smaller one whose name I don’t remember but is interesting because it has a “miracle” spiral staircase, built with no supports by an unknown wandering craftsman) and an art museum which is also nice and pretty unique. However, the museum is not very big so I recommend buying a ticket both for the special exhibit at the time, and the regular museum, since the special exhibit space is almost the same size as the rest of the museum. They have some interesting collections, but also because of the size, much of their collection is not on display so ask what is being shown before getting too excited about seeing works of Georgia O’Keefe or Ansel Adams. There is a separate Georgia O’Keefe museum if you are into that, but I haven’t personally been there so I can’t make much of a recommendation. If you ask around about how to get there, a drive out to Chimayo may be interesting. It is a small town famous for native american weaving and for a small church with “healing dirt”. In truth, there’s not a lot there, but the drive is scenic, the church is pretty interesting (not your typical “empty” cathedral), and there is an excellent New Mexican restaurant and Bed and Breakfast there called Rancho de Chimayo, where you can have authentic meals sitting outside and on a weekend, hearing southwest music as well.

A note on Interstate highway traveling in New Mexico – you may think the drive is boring when there is “nothing” all the way to the horizon, but I still enjoy that “boring” drive if I look around me. Get over that “why do people want to live here” feeling and realize, you’re not forced to stay here, but take a look at how beautiful it really is. If you like storms (they are one of my favorite things), and you’re lucky enough to be here in the rainy season, you’ll notice in this flat land you can see the weather all around you, weather often so far away it is starkly different from where you are. You see it pouring on one horizon, blazing sun on the other, and black with lightning directly ahead of you. Be prepared for pretty sudden weather changes, both in and out of town, as cloud systems blow across the flat ground pretty readily. Just out of town, if you look to the west you’ll see three gentle, extremely worn-down peaks on the horizon, remnants of old volcanoes. West of Albuquerque there is even a huge lava field near a town called “Malpais”, which means “bad country” in Spanish. Though I haven’t seen it, my Albuquerque-native friends have highly recommended that if you haven’t seen a lava run before. It’s about a half-hour drive east on Interstate 40. Also, especially if you are not from a “wide open and flat spaces” kind of area (for example, anywhere on the east coast), take notice of how you can see the highway stretching for miles and miles ahead of you. This especially dramatic when you come over the crest of a hill and see the highway stretch the next horizon. Again, some find this depressing, but just seeing it one time can be awe-inspiring.

So what is there to do in town? Well, you have the typical entertainments – games, bars, and even a small amusement park. But the unique things to see are the old town plaza and shops and the hot air Balloon Fiesta in October. The Old Town shops I mentioned are pretty similar to what you will see in Santa Fe – a central plaza which is historically the “center of town” from when the town was a much smaller settlement, and lots of intertwined, hidden and not hidden shops of all kinds. In general, Santa Fe shops are a bit more expensive since it is a little more “fashionable” for tourists there, so you might want to consider your shopping in Albuquerque instead (this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t LOOK in Santa Fe!). The most famous event in Albuquerque out of the whole year is the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. It is a hot air balloon extravaganza, one of the biggest in the world. And people really do come from all over the world to participate. Obviously, you are just lucky if you are in Albuquerque the first two weeks of October, and the rest of the year this doesn’t apply as an activity, but I’ll talk about it anyway in case you want to schedule your trip (or are forced to come here) in that time period. Here’s the story with the balloon fiesta – some people just plain like hot air balloons. If this is you, you are going to LOVE it. There are more than 300 balloons ascending in one morning at times, and it is an impressive sight. They also have evening shows with entertainment and balloon glows (balloons on the ground lighting up with their torches), and special days for unique shaped balloons. If you can’t think of anything more boring or bothersome than getting up at 4:30 to watch balloons fly into the air, here is my advice: no matter how bad you think it will be, it is worth seeing once. Go once. Because this is something rare, and you may actually be impressed by all the colors in the sky. But keep a close watch on the weather to avoid disappointment and hate in the event of a balloon-less windy or rainy morning. Don’t go if the weather is bad.

Surprisingly, Albuquerque has a very nice botanical garden, despite being nestled in a dry, dusty climate. There are a nice variety of flowers and a butterfly garden ( a greenhouse like structure with plants that butterflies like and of course, lot and lots of butterflies fluttering all around you). A cute space lined with ivy is clearly the set for many weddings. There is a pond with the usual pond ducks and geese. There is also a great “children’s garden” which I am sure will amuse you as much as any child. That was my favorite part. When you go the botanical gardens you can buy a ticket for the three attractions of the zoo, aquarium, and gardens, which can all be seen in one day. They are all nestled closely together. The aquarium is small but nice, the zoo has very nice habitats for the zoos I have seen, and the price for all three is pretty reasonable. These are all nice places to go if you start to feel sick from the brownness of everything (a common sickness for people from greener climates after a couple of days here). You’ll notice that not only the ground and the mountains are brown, but so are the buildings, the light poles, and the highway bridges. It’s a celebration of the tradition of adobe houses here. Many of the houses, especially in Santa Fe, are still made of real adobe (thick walls made of mud, meant to keep the houses cool in very hot weather), while others are just imitation, tan-colored stucco walls made to look like adobe. It takes a while to get used to this look, but when you adjust you start to see the beauty of these homes and buildings (for some really nice example of non-residential adobe edifaces, see the University of New Mexico campus – it doesn’t have your typical college buildings). The university campus is complete with several museums, but I have never been to any of those so I can’t vouch for whether or not they are interesting. Central to campus, though, is the duck pond, which yes, is just a pond but must be one of the greenest places in the city aside from the botanical gardens and is a nice place to spend the afternoon if you need to relax and read a book or some papers.

Last, make sure that while you are in New Mexico you don’t miss out on the unique New Mexican cuisine. They say that the state question is “red or green?” because that’s what they ask you at restaurants to find out with kind of chile (which is actually a chile pepper sauce) you want on your dish. And they ask you all the time because they put chile on EVERYTHING. You can even get McDonald’s hamburgers complete with green chile. It can be pretty spicy, so be careful, but do give it a try. New Mexican dishes are similar to Mexican dishes, but in my opinion less greasy, with lots of chile piled over whatever you have. Also, try some guacamole and chips. It’s more pricey than salsa at a restaurant because avocados are not cheap, but it’s so worth it. And I’m pretty sure the homestyle, chunky guac you will find around here is better than the packaged “guacamole soup” (when it is more like a liquid and less like mashed avocados) they serve up in imitation mexican restaurants and other places outside the southwest. Last, if you’re at a decent new Mexican restaurant they will serve you sopapillas with every meal, which is like a puffy, fried dessert bread that you eat with honey.

So, it’s not so bad, is it? Give us a try. If nothing else, it is worth it to see the desert once and soak in some strong sun, and have taste of the southwest atmosphere and food. Enjoy!

The Backyard of Portugal

The real treasure of Portugal is sitting in a cafe, drinking coffee, or a beer, or eating an ice cream. I was lucky enough to spend some weeks in Portugal, touring not the big cities but the tiniest ones in the country side, complete with crazy bus drivers navigating tiny yet extremely twisty and windy country roads, and luckily for me I was accompanied by a fantastic group of Portuguese-speaking yet English-speaking Portuguese-American immigrants, which probably made touring the poorer, friendliest villages a bit easier than for the average traveller. But this is where the life is…the small towns of hard-working, honest people who take care of even the unusual wandering foreigner passing by. I was there in the summer, and it was forbiddingly hot in the afternoons, but those are excellent times for napping if you’re not on a tight schedule…and believe me, nobody in Portugal is anyway. We planned to go somewhere as a group at 5 and the bus arrives at 7:30… what happens between 5 and 7:30, you ask? Why, you sit in a cafe and drink coffee. Or a beer. And maybe have a chocolate. Obviously, life isn’t like this everyday for any of us, here or there, but it’s also not that common for a foreign traveler to kick back and enjoy that either. Try something new… instead of filling your itinerary with endless museums, monuments, and even cute restaurants and views, (and I know all those things are great too!), try to have a very loose schedule – taking chances – meeting people – finding out not everybody hates you if you can hardly speak in their language – bargaining with gypsies in a marketplace – watching the news or a football (soccer) game in the local bar and trying to figure out what is going on there. Any number of less-walked tours through the less-understood aspects of a culture. Sitting in a cafe and drinking beer — think you can do that at home? You can’t. You can’t drink in the air, the smell of that different culture, another people, and an altogether deeper history than what you are used to. I guess you can try to have this experience in any foreign place, but for me it was in Portugal. I recommend finding your way deep into what I call the “backyard” of the country … out in the long rolling greens, in the small villages of tightly-packed aged houses and shops, in a fantastically ornate ancient church, in the tiniest cafe you have ever seen.

If you’re lucky in the countryside you’ll happen upon the festival of a saint. That is something to see. Music from a local (or neighboring) march-style band, announces the celebration in a parade with the townspeople and perhaps a mock-up of the celebrated saint. But the most important part is probably the food. So much food…tables filled with fish (REAL sardines cooked whole… make sure someone teaches you the art of dissecting them for the best tasting experience), pork (perhaps from a whole pig roast, perhaps not) and hopefully some flavorful local sausage. Nobody is being conservative about filling themselves, and nobody is charging an admission fee. With that comes the wine…my favorite is the red wine from the countryside with special hard round breads cooked on a stone. After that, if you are even luckier there will be a band with some traditional music and you’ll have the chance to dance wildly with someone who doesn’t know a word of the language you speak. My favorite experience out of the feasts I attended was watching a four-person band with three accordians and one drum. The sound was unbelievable and seeing how captivated I was, a little old man who through signs explained that he would prefer to dance with me if his old legs weren’t so weak, invited me for a beer instead (also with hand motions). Something else to try are the salty beans which they put in brine and you eat with beer like peanuts – these appear at festivals like candy at the bars but also sometimes in cafes.

Like everywhere in Europe, the country is filled with history, and even small villages have revered historic churches and other buildings. More personal elements of history, like a statue that people have hugged for centuries in order to bring them luck in love, ancient laundry basins built around natural springs, and an old blacksmith’s shop catch my attention because I am not looking for famous landmarks these days.

Another interesting thing to see are the markets… in the village where I stayed they had one each sunday, full of delicious food cooked outdoors, fresh fruits and vegetables (and chickens or ducks!), and thousands of items of clothing, shoes, and other household items, new and used, for the bargaining. Granted, bargaining is tough when you don’t know the language and they know you are foreign, but give it a try anyway… even at top price you won’t pay nearly as much for things there as you would here, and they are certainly “cooler” since they are european and carry the sweet memory of buying in a foreign, almost magical place, perhaps even from the gypsies that move from market to market.

But it’s museums, landmarks, and cathedrals you want, or even glitzy European shopping, they’ve got it too. Even the countryside is covered with such attractions. One famous city is Fatima. It’s a religious place, but interesting for anyone to see, whether or not you are religious. There is an enormous church, and the tourism of the whole town centers around the story that Mary performed a miracle there… three shepherd children supposedly saw Mary there over a period of several months. For Catholics this place should be very sacred, but for me, it was just very interesting to see the story and the effects that it has in history. In general, though, cathedrals abound in Portugal (like much of the rest of Europe), and if you’re not just interested in churches but want to “see the sights”, in the bigger cities in the countryside you find thousands of shops, including sellers in the streets, and glitzier cafes. Late in the evening these are the places to find european style nightclubs and the crazier scene. You can be there till morning as many of the clubs are open all night.

Another famous city is Coimbra, home of the oldest university in country. This ancient yet still perfectly functioning university is incredible if you like to see old places of learning, full of history. This the Cambridge of Portugal. Try to get inside the library for a tour if you can … the oldest rooms are no longer in common use but are breathtaking to see. And you will hear about the very old procedure for evaluating and graduating degree candidates that still takes place in the same intimidating meeting room as it has for centuries. My favorite part of the university in Coimbra was a tile on the wall with a portrait of a fox that the students all touch before taking their exams in the year’s end. It is worn by the many hands that have touched it briefly over hundreds of years.

Last, don’t forget to sample the all-important selection of wines and port wines while you are in the country they are named after! If you are in the countryside like I suggest, you have the perfect opportunity to see the beautiful orchards and vineyards, tour wineries, and taste some of the best wines in the world! Plus, you can buy bottles to take home of fantastic wines for astonishingly low prices. I bought a bottle of the best wine they have had in the last decade (corresponding to the best grape crop) for about ten euros (that’s less than fifteen dollars). And if you’re lucky, accompanying your wine tasting you will find some of the delicious appetizers that are typical in a formal Portuguese meal, for example bits of sausage and other meats, olives (I can’t say enough about how fantastic the olives are), fried pieces of cod, and excellent home-baked bread.

Now let’s face it, even if your aim is the countryside, when you show up (and leave) Portugal, it’s going to be through the airport in Lisbon (Lisboa!), so you might as well have a look at the big city. One plus is that lots of people speak english there, so especially if you are shopping or buying professional services, or staying in a hotel, you probably won’t be stranded without being able to communicate. Of course, being stranded and unable to communicate is my personal idea of adventure. But, this may be a good time to get adjusted to hearing a foreign language all the time with a little bit of safety net. Lisbon is beautiful, though. Try to get someplace high (this is not very difficult – well, it’s difficult if you have to walk up the steep hills, but you certainly don’t have to go very far) and get a good view of the city, then the river. If you want to cheat, take one of the old-fashioned trolley car (running on cables that adorn most of the streets!) up the hill instead of putting up your own effort. If you have a couple of hours free, go to the Castilho (an old castle/fort which you should be able to find by looking up and around you in the center of the city, but ask any fellow, better-prepared tourist and they’ll know where it is) because it offers nice garden scenery, real castle walls and a fantastic view of the river and bridge. My only other suggestion is to get to a cafe and enjoy watching the people stroll by as you have an espresso, then a “fino” (draft beer).

As I keep saying, I strongly suggest that after a day or two in the city you take a wilder tour through the countryside, and if you get lonely (though you shouldn’t, if you make any effort to interact with the locals, and the breathtaking landscape should be company enough), take a crazy bus ride to a nearby city to soak in the “civilization”, feed the pigeons, and spend the night dancing. I hope you enjoy your time in this friendliest country that I have visited.

My View of Newport, Rhode Island

My first visit to Newport, Rhode Island was as a young, 24-year-old who was in love and engaged to be married. I drove there from Washington, D.C. to meet my fiance and stay at his parents’ home for Christmas. We decided to take a drive down along the beach, and even got out of the car for a short stroll. Having grown up in Colorado, I was shocked at the cold, bitterness of the wind as it swept across Aquidneck Island; but the Atlantic Ocean was blue and beautiful, and Newport was all decked out for the Christmas holiday. My future in-laws’ home was a 100-year-old former villa turned bed and breakfast. It was cozy and wonderful. We stayed five days before driving back to D.C. and getting married on New Year’s Day.

After moving to California with the Navy, the next time we went to Newport was for my sister-in-law’s wedding. We stayed again at the beautiful home of my in laws, but this time it was summer, and we were able to see more of what makes Newport tick. Newport is a summer resort that began as a place for summer cottages of the rich and famous back during the early part of the 20th century. Of course, the term “cottages” is subjective, as today many of those same cottages are giant mansions that are used as museums and theaters. People were drawn to Newport because of the mild summer climate that offered warm temperatures, as well as cool ocean breezes. Newport also might seem cold in the winter, but its snowfall is one of the lowest in New England. My first visit to Newport in the summer was delightful. We drove to nearby Portsmouth and had lunch at a local harbor pub. Later that evening, we went for a walk on the beach. Tourists were everywhere, but we did not mind.

My next visit to Newport was as a new resident. The Navy brought us there to live for six months; just long enough to give birth to our third child. Life was crazy then and our six months was from November to May, with most of that time finding us at about the 4 degree Fahrenheit mark on the thermometer. We also received several feet of snow. That year – the one time we made our home in Newport – all snowfall records were broken. Go figure.

Many more years went by and we did visit Newport one other time, for yet another wedding, but most of our married life seemed to be taking place in California. Yet, my husband finally got out of the Navy after twelve years and decided he wanted to be back on the East Coast. While we waited hopefully for a job to open up in Maine, we moved in with the beloved in laws with the big house in Newport. Of course, while their house seemed large when it was just me and my husband, it quickly shrunk when we added our three children, two dogs, and two cats. We spent 9-weeks that summer in Newport, but it was a time I would not trade for anything. We took our children to a Vacation Bible school at a local church, we took boat rides along the coast, we visited local farms and nurseries, we visited nearby attractions, such as Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, and of course, we spent a lot of time at the beach. There were tense times, as two families tried to reside together, but we all got along wonderfully.

Now, again, many years later, we still live in Maine and the in laws still live in scenic Newport. As the in laws are getting older and like to spend much of their time in Florida, we are often asked to go to Newport to house sit their many cats. It is always a treat to go back. Newport, Rhode Island is now like a second home to me. We like to take long strolls along the Cliff Walk that winds along the coast behind many of the famous mansions. We like to visit the eclectic restaurants down town, and we love to shop in the stores along the Brick Alley. Newport is home to so many attractions and visitors will enjoy eating, shopping, seeing the sights and going to the beach; but there is nothing like spending time in Newport as a resident. It has a charm that cannot be matched.

Vicksburg: A Great Trip For the Civil War Enthusiast

Although many people have heard of the famous battlefield of Gettysburg, few realize that another turning point in the American Civil War was happening at the same time, in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The siege that had rocked the citizens for months finally came to a grueling end on July 4th, 1863, just one day after the Battle of Gettysburg ended. If you are a Civil War enthusiast or just a fan of the enigmatic beauty of the “Deep South,” Vicksburg is a great choice for a vacation. The biggest attraction is Vicksburg National Military Park, which should certainly satisfy any historian’s lust for the past.

What exactly happened in 1863? When Union forces attacked, all became chaos. Many of the citizens of Vicksburg, hungry and afraid, found themselves with barely enough protection from the elements; many became ill and died, or perished from starvation. This great, proud Southern city witnessed much death and heartache. If you’re interested in going back in time to 1863, Vicksburg National Military Park is the place to start. Before leaving, you might want to do some research on the monuments and memorials you will be seeing; many Civil War buffs like to know the history behind the regiments whose monuments are standing in the park. Consider taking papers or pamphlets along, and telling the rest of the family about what you are seeing as you go along.

You can’t visit the park without noticing the Illinois State Memorial; it is a huge, mausoleum-like building with all the marble solemnity of an ancient Roman tomb. I find it interesting to note that this Union regimental monument was built using Georgia rock. The Illinois memorial names those who fought for the state; their names can be found on plaques located throughout the monument. You’ll also want to look for the Texas State Memorial; finished just four decades ago, it almost looks like an ancient plaza, with steps and standing columns. It was made of granite, and the statues of Southern soldiers are particularly worth a photo stop.

If you still haven’t had your fill of Civil War history, you might want to drop by the Vicksburg National Cemetery to get a sense of the lives that were taken during the war. Sadly, thousands of Union men buried here have no form of identification and remain nameless. If you walk through the cemetery you will be struck by the countless tiny white stones, marching across the manicured grass. A monument here and there reminds visitors of what happened at or near a particular spot. You may notice that Vicksburg’s National Cemetery gate resembles that of Gettysburg National Cemetery. Of course, Southern soldiers are buried in Vicksburg also, at a place called Soldiers’ Rest.

If you like gunboats or anything pertaining to the water, you should love the U.S.S. Cairo museum. For years after its sinking, the Cairo stayed put on the bottom of the river until it was rescued, partially destroyed, and rescued again by determined workers. The bare bones of the boat can still be seen; it’s a skeleton of its former self, but still a great piece of history. The museum also showcases interesting items that are worth a look.

Many homes have survived from the Victorian era to show us what life was like for wealthy citizens before the siege began. One of these homes is called Anchuca Mansion. The oldest part of the house came about in 1830, but other additions were built in the next decade. The siege does not appear to have harmed this handsome old mansion, and it stands tall as a reminder of Vicksburg’s past. Anchuca Mansion is also an inn. For the right price, you can pass the time in Vicksburg from a wonderfully detailed Victorian suite. You’ll recognize the house by its huge white front columns and delicate balcony jutting from the second floor.

Another beautiful Victorian home is the Balfour house, constructed before the Civil War. This is truly the kind of house that comes to mind when you think “antebellum.” It is a multi-story brick home with white trim and stately white balconies. During the siege of Vicksburg, the home belonged to the wealthy Balfour family; if you look carefully, you can still see evidence of the siege by the chips in the walls. Planters Hall, built in 1834, is known for its fancy decorated entrance and black wrought-iron second story balcony. Cobb House, constructed in the early 1860s, may not have the architectural uniqueness of many of Vicksburg’s homes, but it does have significance; it was a war barracks, taken over by General Slocum. Originally, it was a religious school known as St. Catherine’s.

By Lacie R. Schaeffer

Booking an Early Ski or Snowboard Getaway

By Christina VanGinkel

Snowboard season is almost here. Each fall, it seems like it is a million days away, then before I know it I hear my son talking about the local mountain making snow to build up its base for the real snow that will be falling before too long. In our neck of the woods, which happens to be the very most northern part of Wisconsin and the beautiful Upper Michigan, the projected week for the opening of almost every mountain around us is the week of Thanksgiving. This is just the projected date though, and it often does not happen until the week or even two weeks later, (though occasionally before) all depending on how well the weather cooperates. In addition, when they do open, they often only open for a day or two, then close to groom for a few days, sometimes only staying open on the weekends themselves the first few weeks. Yet we heard last week that in a few spots around Colorado, a few runs and lifts were already open for business. This is a good example of the different schedules for skiing or snowboarding that you can find in different areas of the country.

Depending on where you live, these differences in time frames for opening runs, means that you might be able to plan a weekend getaway within driving distance, or it might mean a flight cross country. Of course, if you are willing, you can fly to somewhere at almost any time of the year and find snow worthy of skiing or snowboarding on, but the average person looking for a few days on the slopes cannot afford trips such as those that will get you to the majority of those hot spots.

So what is a traveler to do at this time of year that would like to get away for some early slope time? The best thing to do is actually get on the phone and call up the resort you are interested in visiting to see what their schedule is as far as runs and lifts that they have open. Some areas, such as those out west, can give you concrete information for the current and upcoming schedule for the next few weeks, while others, such as many that you will find across the Midwest, can only provide you with information relevant for the immediate future. As an example, a couple of years ago, the mountain closest to our home was open over the week of Thanksgiving, but then had to close the first week of December due to rain! The season did not get off to a steady start that year until the week of Christmas.

If you plan to visit an area where such occurrences are more common than some might imagine, avoid booking airline tickets in advance unless you can change the travel dates without too much of a hassle and overly excessive charges. You should also have a personal schedule that can be changed around, and lodging that understands that you might be cancelling at the last minute and needing to rebook a week or two later for the same reasons.

If you are just dying to get on the slopes and you do not have the ability to change your travel dates on the whim of the weather, picking a resort that is already well established with snow even early in the season is going to be your safest bet. This will hold true even if the overall cost is a bit higher than a similar resort in an area of the country where the weather likes to remind everyone that Mother Nature does what she wants to when she feels like it. The benefits though, are that many of these same resorts offer early bird specials to customers for some of these very reasons, so bargains on lift tickets, lodging, and even nighttime entertainment can be found.

If playing games with travel dates is just not your idea of fun at all, then you might want to hold off all together on such a vacation and travel later in the season. Do keep in mind that discounted prices can be a great reason to take that ski or snowboard vacation now and not in the throes of winter a couple of months from now though.

New York’s American Museum of Natural History

By J.L. Soto

Located on Central Park West at 79th Street in New York is one of the premier museums in the world, the American Museum of Natural History. How impressive is it? To start it is so full of diverse displays and exhibits that it takes more than a one-day visit to properly view everything. If time is short and the children are in tow then make a beeline for the prehistoric exhibits.

Its exhaustive prehistoric fossil collections displayed in a continuous loop on the fourth floor are its most popular exhibits. Its dramatic displays of over 600 dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures like mammoths, giant megalodon shark jaws and dimetrodons will surely leave an impression with any first-time visitor, young or old. I know because I’ve seen the wowed reaction in people many times, even with those who aren’t interested in dinosaurs. The dinosaurs are separated into two wings solely devoted to their groupings, the saurichian or lizard-hipped dinosaurs (represented by the long-necked sauropods) and the ornithischian or the bird-hipped dinosaurs (these include the infamous tyrannosaurus rex). Intermixed with the dinosaurs are fossils of other prehistoric reptiles like the flying reptiles and marine reptiles. After going through the dinosaurs, visitors will walk through the ancient mammals section, which is where the mammoth skeletons and others are found. These are also popular with visitors though they’re not as famous.

Surely the highlight of any visit is seeing the actual remains of these long-gone giants, but there is more. Entire wings on other floors are devoted to current animal species, environments and cultures from several continents. Let’s work our way down to the third floor which is devoted to current reptiles, primates, New York birds and animals, North American birds, and contains the upper level of the African mammals exhibit hall. Additionally, visitors will find exhibits based on Eastern Woodlands and Plains Indians as well as the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples.
The highlights of the second floor are the first level of the Akeley Hall of African mammals. The statues of the elephant herd in the middle of the hall provides a good rest spot for the weary and gives a good vantage point of the other taxidermy displays. Nearby the hall is a wing of Asian mammals, though not as large the Akeley Hall the animal displays are just as magnificent. The rest of the floor features exhibit halls on African, Asian and Central and South American people.

The ground floor of the museum has the next most impressive exhibits (after the fourth floor). Inside the main entrance, visitors get their first look at the museum’s lauded dinosaur displays. In the center of the large room as visitors pay their entrance fees, they are greeted by the sight of a skeletal long-necked sauropod rearing up on her hind legs in defense of her child against a nearby carnivorous theropod. The exhibits open to the public on this floor are incredibly diverse and range from animals to minerals. Visitors come face to face with a majestic life-size blue whale displayed at The Milstein Hall of Ocean Life where other marine life is shown. Other exhibits found on the ground floor feature North American mammals and forests, human biology and Northwest Coast Indians. Another popular area is the Guggenheim Hall of Minerals and the Morgan Memorial Hall of Gems where nearly every kind of rock and precious stone can be found in a kaleidoscope of colors and all kinds of sizes. The nearby Ross Hall of Meteorites is also popular especially with kids and space buffs.

Speaking of space, adjoining the museum is the Rose Center For Earth and Space and home to the world-famous Hayden Planetarium. This architectural wonder features a clear-glass cube building and inside is an immense sphere adorned with planets from our solar system. A spiraling walkway with handrails detailing the universe’s history, leads visitors into the sphere, which is actually the remodeled Hayden Planetarium with spectacular cosmos-themed shows.

Admission to the museum and the Rose Center is by donation. Anyone wanting to visit the planetarium or the museum’s IMAX films and special temporary exhibits has to pay a fee. It is possible to just pay the suggested donation of a few dollars and skip the extras though the cashiers have to be told at the beginning that all that is wanted is general access to the museum, otherwise visitors will probably wind up paying for the IMAX films and have even less time to devote to the museum. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. and it can be reached by the city’s subway and bus systems. For more information call 212-769-5100.

Madrid: Fun and Beauty in the Desert by Rich Carriero

The bus ride from San Sebastian wove its way down out of the green foothills of the Pyrenees. As the bus entered the interior of Spain the landscape changed dramatically. Instead of the forests and hills, the mild Atlantic climate and seabreezes from the Bay of Biscay, we entered a country of brown and red with large wind worn rocks and mountains hammered by the sun. The outside temperature rose steadily from a comfortable 75 degrees to a scorching 95. The ride was long and exhausting and we arrived around sunset. The bus terminal was underground and was connected to the metro system. The metro reminded me of New York’s subway system as the stifling heat was trapped by the tunnels and baked everyone as they waited for the trains. I found my way on the metro to Calle de las Huertas, the busy street near which my hostel was located. It was night as I left the metro tunnel and made my way through the streets seeking my accomodations. The air was hot and dry and filled with an incredible volume of sights, sounds and smells. I had never been so completely immersed in the Spanish language. Hundreds of people milled about; they were thin dark skinned people dressed in the height of European fashion. Eateries, cafes and bars emanated all manner of smells: acrid cigarette and cigar smoke, irresistable smells of seafood, spices, wine, roasted meats. The desert evening air blew pleasantly through the city, which was a relief after the hot sunshine. After getting these first glimpses of the Spanish capital I was excited to drop my bags and check out the city. In a week’s stay I would not be disappointed by Madrid. While I had already experienced two wonderful Spanish cities in Santander and San Sebastian, Madrid was truly an explosion of life.

My hostel, Posada de Colon, was a very busy place. I bunked in a large room with 6 other guys. Most of my roommates were Americans coming from Boston, New York and California but there were others from Australia, Italy and France. Over the 8 days of my stay I would come to meet many interesting people. One of my roommates was Patrick, a dark haired Argentinian who relocated to Australia as an infant and spoke with a thick Aussie accent, was a skilled mountain biker and daily rode out into the desert heat for his rigorous training. Matt and Steve were Americans on their first trip in Europe. They came straight from Boston and though they wore the clothes and grooming of seasoned businessmen on holiday, at heart they were both rollicking frat boys looking for a good time. Everyone was a stranger and everyone was excited to be in Madrid. It reminded me of freshman year in college when no one knows anyone else and everyone makes fast friends. We all bonded instantly and would venture out into the nonstop party of Madrid’s nightlife.

My hostel, while crowded, was well equipped with computers, bathrooms and showers, washing machines and dryers. The kitchen and courtyard were places of nonstop activity where the dozens of guests would come together to eat, drink, play cards and socialize with one another. The balcony of our room overlooked the nonstop activity of Calle Cruellas. a narrow street parallel to las Huertas that was lined with hotels and cafes. On any given night people would hang out, play music or drink wine from a nearby bar. The day I arrived Real Madrid won a major soccer match and all week green and white clad fans roamed the streets chanting fight songs and living it up in the streets around the hostel. Posada de Colon was ideally situated near the heart of Madrid. Several large plazas lined with cafes and wine shops were mere minutes away including Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s answer Time Square or Piccadilly Circus. Several Metro stations could be reached on foot very quickly.

After a day of relaxing, taking in Madrid’s cafes, restaurants, bars and nightclubs, my first priority was to visit the city’s famous art museums. The big 3 in Madrid- are disparate collection of museums housing ancient and contemporary works from Spain, Europe and indeed everywhere else. My first stop was the Reina Sofia, a contemporary art museum known predominately for its collection of spanish exhibits. I visited this museum early, before crowds of tourists arrived. The exhibits that I saw were a wonderful collection of colorful and passionate work. Everywhere were the finest works of Picasso. I could not take my eyes off of the Guernica, a work which I had seen in books, but I was completely unprepared for its power when seen in person. The monochromatic masterpiece is much larger than I suspected. The exaggeration of the human form conveys the horror and hysteria of the Guernica massacre. The stark blacks, whites and greys came to life before my eyes. It was some time before I walked away from the great painting. In the Reina Sofia there were many other Picasso works as well as paintings by Joan Miro and Salvadore Dali. The art which I saw that day rivals anything I have seen in any art museum.

The following day I visited the Museu del Prado. The Prado specializes in older works from the Renaissance through the 18th century. The Prado’s collection of religious artwork is unparalelled and reflects the deep influence of Catholocism on Spanish culture. My favorite works were those by Francisco de Goya, who is considered by many to be the greatest Spanish painter in history. Goya’s 3rd of May contains many elements of the impressionism movement although it was painted a half century before impressionism’s acceptance. The Prado also houses works by Velasquez, Titian, El Greco and other ancient masters. Outside of the Prado is an extensive botanical garden which I visited to escape the heat which is a constant feature of Madrid’s arid climate.

Later in the week I visited Madrid’s third major art museum the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. The Thyssen is very different from the Prado and the Reina-Sofia in that it does not specialize in any category of art. Rather the exhibits are an immense private collection sold to the Spanish government. The collection spans centuries and decades, serving as an art history lesson to the untrained eye. The collection contains lesser known pieces by Van Gogh, Monet, Miro and Dali. I was amused and somewhat homesick to see an American exhibit of 18th and 19th century landscape painting, depicting forests, waterfalls and mountains of the American frontier. The Thyssen rounds out Madrid’s incredible exhibitions of art, but there was much more still to see.

A regular destination during my stay in Madrid was the Plaza Mayor. The plaza is surrounded by a red palace dating back to the 16th century. Nine of Madrid’s oldest and most important streets intersect at the plaza and can be seen through the large archways which serve as Plaza Mayor’s entrances. In the center is a statue of King Phillip II, one of Spain’s most famous monarchs. The Plaza Mayor is a popular tourist spot and is always filled with people. Several cafes and restaurants are located inside the plaza as well as numerous shops selling souvenirs. Another feature of the plaza is the presence of street performers who dress up as statues and move in slow, eerie movements, thanking those who drop a coin into their cup. The Madrid tourist information center is located in the Plaza Mayor and has computers that visitors can use free of charge for 15 minutes.

Only yards away from the Plaza Mayor is the Puerta del Sol, the largest and most popular tourist destination. The Puerta del Sol serves as the heart of the city with the most important thoroughfares extending from the plaza to the various districts of the city. Thousands of people can be found in the large plaza day and night. Giant billboards and neon signs shine down upon visitors. In the center is a fountain and equestrian statue of King Charles III. During the day Puerta del Sol was a regular sight as I travelled along Madrid’s streets admiring their architecture and window shopping. At night the plaza was a place for meeting up with friends and a cool place to hang out.

Madrid is a city with so many things to do and see. In addition to art and architecture the city has many gorgeous parks which are cool sanctuaries from the heat. The parks are always filled with people playing games or relaxing. The Casa de Campo is largest park in Madrid. On the outskirts of the city, Casa de Campo is filled with wooded paths, picnic tables and a very large lake. The lake is always studded with kayaks and rowboats. Nearby is the Palacio Real, or Royal Palace, an immense palace with extensive grounds. The palace houses the royal armory. Adjacent to the palace is the Cathedral de Almudena, a white cathedral of impressive size built for the Spanish royal family. Most of the buildings in Madrid were all built between the 16th and 20th centuries. In fact the city has only been the capital of Spain for the past few centuries, the medieval capital of Toledo has much older palaces. This modern character does not take away from Madrid’s appeal, however, as the city is incredibly fashionable and beautiful in a more renaissance style.

The nightlife in Madrid is incredible. Most days during the summer people flock to the clubs and bars of Madrid. Bourbon Cafe on Calle Jeronimo is bar with a New Orleans theme. There are extensive wooden dance floors and a DJ playing contemporary American and European hip hop and dance music. Palacio Guaviria, on the other hand is a huge club near Puerta del Sol with many different rooms each with different themed music. The classic decor of Palacio Guaviria is set by plush curtains, chairs and sofas with chandeliers. Palacio is always filled with hundreds of people enjoying cocktails and dancing. In Madrid tourists and locals have no problem getting along and everyone focuses on having a good time. Everywhere my friends and I went we had a great time. After a week immersed in the irresistable culture of Madrid I found it hard to part company with the city and my new friends.

Northwest Arkansas Craft Fairs

By Brandi M. Seals

Northwest Arkansas is known for many things. It is home to Wal-Mart, Tyson and JB Hunt. Its population is growing at a surprisingly rapid rate. And, Northwest Arkansas is famous for its arts and crafts fairs.

The arts and crafts fairs are held twice a year; once in the spring and once in the fall. They pack them all into two weekends a year. This weekend just happens to be one of those weekends. The area is full of craft fairs. There are several to choose from and they are in a variety of locations.

If you will be in the area any time between today and Sunday, you have an opportunity to check out what local crafters have for sale. Pick up some knick knacks for your home or grab up a quilt to give to your new niece or nephew. There is something for everyone at the numerous craft fairs taking place this weekend.

When you go to a craft fair, you need to be prepared to face a crowd. These things stay busy all day. You will also want to make sure you have cash on hand. I have yet to see a vender accept a credit card though a couple of venders have been known to take checks. Do not keep yourself from getting something you want, have cash on hand to make purchases.

Most people I know prefer to leave the kids at home as it can be hard to keep track of little ones in crowds. Plus, they do not seem to be as entertained by the quilt display as you are.

If you will be in Northwest Arkansas this weekend, be sure to check out one of these craft fairs. Otherwise, plan to come next spring and see what you can find.

Ole’ Applegate
Highway 72 West
Bentonville AR, 72712

Dates: 10/18/2006 – 10/22/2006

The Autumn Fair is at two locations:

Ole’ Applegate Farm – 1 mile west of Bentonville on Hwy. 72 (Admission $3)

Clarion Hotel & Convention Center – 211 Southeast Walton Blvd. (Free Admission)

Contact: 888-404-7478

Bella Vista Arts & Crafts Festival
Bella Vista AR, 72714

Dates: 10/19/2006 – 10/21/2006

Bella Vista Arts and Crafts Festival Location:

Off US Highway. 71 at Highway 279 and 340

Features:
350 exhibitors
Food
Music, Dance, and Kids’ Activities

Contact: 479-855-2064

Bella Vista Wishing Spring Art and Craft Gallery
East of Highway 71 on County Road 40
Bella Vista AR, 72714

Dates: March – December

10am-5pm Monday through Saturday

Features:
350 exhibitors

Contact: 479-273-1798

Frisco Station Mall Spring Arts & Crafts Festival
100 N Dixieland Road
Dixieland Mall
Rogers AR, 72756

Dates: 10/20/2006 – 10/22/2006

9am to 9pm Daily
9am to 5pm Sunday

Features:
Indoor Craft Fair
250 exhibitors
Free admission and parking

Contact: 479-872-9917

Jones Center Fall Arts & Crafts Fest.
922 East Emma
Jones Center for Families
Springdale AR, 72765
Intersection of Hwy 265 and Emma Ave., Springdale

Dates: 10/19/2006 – 10/21/2006

9am to 8pm Daily
9am to 6pm Sunday

Features:
100 exhibitors
Indoor craft fair
Handicap accessible
live music and televised football game
Free admission and parking

Contact: 479-751-9313

Ozark Regional Arts & Crafts Fest

Ozark Regional Arts and Crafts Fest is at two locations:

Embassy Suites
3303 Pinnacle Hills Parkway
Rogers, Arkansas
I540 to exit 83 in Rogers

Dates: 10/20/2006 – 10/21/2006

9am to 9pm

Features:
Free admission and parking
600 exhibitors

Holiday Inn Convention Center and NWA Convention Center
HWY 412
Springdale, Arkansas
I540 to exit 72 in Springdale

Dates: 10/20/2006 – 10/21/2006

9am to 8pm

Features:
200-250 exhibitors
Indoor craft fair
Handicap accessible
Free parking and admission.

Contact: 479-756-6954

Sharp’s Show of War Eagle
11690 Sellers Place Rd.
Hindsville AR, 72738

Dates: 10/19/2006 – 10/22/2006

Features:
Food
Abundant parking
Located near War Eagle Mill

Contact: 479-789-5683

The War Eagle Fair

11036 High Sky Rd.
Off Highway 303
Hindsville AR, 72738

Dates: 10/19/2006 – 10/22/2006

Features:
300 exhibitors

Contact: 479-789-5398

War Eagle Mill Antique Crafts Show
11045 War Eagle Rd.
War Eagle, Arkansas

Dates: 10/19/2006 – 10/22/2006

8am – 5:30pm

Features:
Live music
Food vendors

Contact: 479-789-5343

Rogers Antique Show

Location:
Rogers Activity Center
315 W. Olive St.
Rogers, AR

Dates: 10/19/2006 – 10/21/2006

9am to 5pm Daily
9am to 4pm Saturday

Features:
Over 20 antique dealers
Large selection of collectibles

Contact: 479-273-2284

A Brief Guide to Dining in Alexandria, VA

by Justin Goff

From time to time, visitors to Washington, DC will find themselves swept a few miles down the Potomac, disgorged by their tour buses in Old Town Alexandria for an afternoon. Likewise, business travelers occasionally find they have booked rooms near the King Street Metro Station, a growing neighborhood only two Metro stops away from Reagan National Airport and a short, scenic Metro ride from the Pentagon and from downtown DC.

While few travelers make Alexandria their primary destination, most learn to make the most of the time they spend here, taking advantage of our quaint little oasis from the hustle and bustle of the Beltway. Visitors shop, visit our historic buildings and musems, and enjoy street performances on Old Town’s fair-like waterfront.

Most importantly, however, visitors eat. Alexandria has a well-earned reputation as one of the best places for a meal inside the Beltway, offering a bewildering array of choices, from boardwalk fries and burgers to French haute cuisine. This article highlights just a few of the best bets for newcomers to the Alexandria culinary scene.

First, a word about Alexandria’s culinary geography: the closer you get to the water, or the closer you get to King Street, the more expensive everything gets. For the most part, then, the cheapest eats are to be found inland and on the side streets, or (literally) on the other side of the Metro tracks, to the west and north. This article presents a few choices from each price range and each area, but is in no way comprehensive or complete–even Alexandria natives can’t possibly eat everything the city has to offer, and exploring new restaurants is a local pastime that can’t be beat!

Visitors seeking low-fuss American fare generally do best to stick nearer to the Metro line, in the Upper King Street neighborhood. This area features a branch of the locally-famous Five Guys Burgers and Fries (near the intersection of King and Fayette, link), a no-frills Boardwalk-style lunch counter specializing, as you might have guessed, in juicy burgers and thick-cut peanut-oil fries (and, besides hot dogs, not much else). Waits can get long in the evenings and on weekends, so unless you call ahead, don’t plan on treating Five Guys as fast food. Do plan on Five Guys for a late-night snack–their generous french fries are sure to keep you till morning.

The Upper King Street area also offers several options for sit-down American dining. The Tiffany Tavern (on King Street, link) is a regional bluegrass mecca, featuring live performances or open mikes nearly every night of the week. The food isn’t spectacular–think East Coast diner food plus bar fare, slightly overpriced–but the casual atmosphere is a big draw for business travellers looking to unwind after a long day’s work. Across the street, you can find the Rock-It Grill, the Tiffany Tavern’s 1950s-style doppelganger, with worse music but better food. The Rock-It is also even more informal than the Tiffany Tavern, featuring karaoke, billiards, and–most importantly–specials almost every night of the week.

At the higher end of simple American cuisine, the Upper King Street neighborhood offers Joe Theismann’s (yes, that Joe Theismann’s) Restaurant (link), a slightly classier TGIFriday’s clone with an unobtrusive sports-bar theme. Theismann’s strong suit is undoubtedly its sandwiches and fries–the blackened chicken sandwich is particularly good.

As you move further down King Street, the dining options become a bit more culturally diverse. Sultan Kabob (Henry and Cameron, one block north of King) offers simple, affordable Persian cuisine with a heft dash of almost oppressive hospitality. Twin Asian eateries Asian Cafe and Non La (King Street) offer, you guessed it, pan-Asian cuisine, with the latter displaying a particular Vietnamese twist. (Non La also offers half-off entrees on Sundays.) The Austin Grill (link), a quirky DC-area tex-mex chain, can be found at the corner of King St. and Columbus. And even authentic Irish lunch-counter fare is available at Eamon’s, which bills itself as a classic Dublin chipper (i.e., fish, more fish, and chips), though its fare is a little overpriced for anyone less than desperate for a fish-and-chips fix.

The Middle King Street area also features three of Alexandria’s true local gems. Murphy’s Pub (King Stree) is as authentic an Irish pub as you can find this side of the Atlantic–dark wood decor, hearty entrees, and good beer. Stick to the Irish classics here–meat pies, stews–and possibly some American bar food standbys. Taverna Cretekou (King Street, link) offers upscale Greek cuisine in a festive setting, including patio seating straight out of the Old World. Alongside familiar standards like roast lamb and spanikopita you can find a number of lesser-known Greek and Classical dishes–here, everything is worth a try. Finally, King Street Blues (oddly enough, located just off of King Street, on St. Asaph) offers the best of American Southern fare, with a distinct Creole-Cajun flair (link), served up in a quirky, narrow, three-story bar and dining room steeped in New Orleans style.

For its part, Lower King Street offers some of the very best and very worst (or at least most overpriced) of Alexandria dining. Here, the best bets and the best deals are found a block or two off of King. Near City Hall, just down the street from the Old Town Alexandria Visitor’s Center, rabid anglophiles can treat themselves to pasties or an afternoon tea at The British Collection Company (South Royal), a cozy little tearoom and specialty shop featuring an array of British breakfasts and lunches. The teas are second to none. The Union Street Public House (Union Street) also has a certain British flair, though Americanized, offering upscale pub food, steaks, and a variety of craft beers in an elegant, Gilded-Age-themed dining room and bar, where the hospitality is second to none.

Two blocks on the other side of King Street, you can find side-by-side two of Old Town’s best and most overlooked restaurants–Queen Street is, after all, two blocks out of most tourists’ ways. Momo is a miniature hole-in-the-wall sushi bar offering consistently superb fish and a number of creative house concoctions. But be advised: Momo seats about 12, with its biggest table seating 4, so it’s a poor choice for large parties, and you will want to have a back up plan in case there’s a wait.

Just next door, the whimsically-named Bilbo Baggins (link) boasts Alexandria’s largest and most eclectic beer and wine lists, as well as an inspired, crowd-pleasing menu of innovative, hearty American fare, served in a rustic dining room by an enthusiastic staff. Not only is Bilbo Baggins a venerable icon of Alexandria dining, it is one of those rare icons that meets and even exceeds expectations: this is a dining experience not to be missed.

Finally, the waterfront area of King Street does offer at least one solid and consistent value in the Fish Market, one block off the water on King. The Fish Market is iconic Tidewater/Down East seafood at its finest: simple, fresh, and usually fried. Everything is very good, but the crab imperial is especially addictive. Street-side outdoor seating also offers an Old-Country-Style view of the King Street waterfront’s festival air. If you’re only in Alexandria for an evening and you want a flavor of what life is like on the “Fun Side of the Potomac,” the Fish Market is the place to be.

County Limerick: A Whimsical Irish Retreat

If you were to ask me to name the place in Ireland that sounds most whimsical, most intriguing, and the most fun, I would have to say County Limerick. Not only is the natural beauty and architecture stunning, but the age and mystery of its landscape adds considerably to its appeal. Some of the best sights you will see are in Adare; among them is the stately Victorian home known as Finnitterstown House. For the right price, you can actually rent this rustic lodge for a certain amount of time; just check their website. Finnitterstown’s setting is pure Ireland; huge open fields and peaceful willows that provide a perfect place to soak in County Limerick’s beauty.

The cottages of Adare are a wonderful sight; the simple architecture will pluck you out of the 21st century and plop you down firmly in centuries past. Many people think of these small thatched homes when they think of Ireland, and Adare’s collection of historical homes certainly won’t disappoint you. Like Finnitterstown, you also stay at some of these cottages periodically. Adare is home to an old crumbling fortress known appropriately as Adare Castle. It dates from medieval times, and though time has not been kind to its walls, it still provides an eerie historical sight. Many are hopeful that the castle will soon be repaired and revitalized to provide a greater experience for locals and travelers alike.

Adare Manor is not to be missed. If you have a picture in your mind of a cold stone castle with sharp turrets, high imposing walls, and gothic architecture, this is the place. Now a great stop for comfortable lodging, Adare Manor is a terrific place from which to enjoy the beauty of Limerick. This hotel was actually named one of the “Great Hotels of the World.” If golf is your thing, you’ll find it mentioned quite a bit here; the attached golf course is truly a wonder, resembling a cluster of manmade lakes and adding to the manor’s intrigue. Adare Manor had its origins in the mid-19th century and is one of the most popular stays in this region of Ireland.

If you like old churches and monasteries, Adare is the place for you. The Black Abbey can be found in the village, and is a great religious attraction. Originally begun in the early 14th century, it has been renovated and is ready to receive a steady stream of tourists. Inside you will find simple but elegant pews, wall coverings, and huge arched doorways that bring the cathedrals of Europe to mind. Unfortunately, the Franciscan Friary of Adare is contrasted sharply; the opposite of Black Abbey’s relative strength, the Friary is old and crumbling, covered with vegetation. It was begun in the 1400s. Despite its poor condition, a walk through the Friary gives you a sense of adventure; the beautiful stone arches and walls rising above the carpet of grass look like something out of a medieval tale.

Still haven’t had your fill of castles? Try Fanningstown Castle. Though not located in Adare, it can be found in County Limerick and it should be easy to get transportation. Like most old castles, it had its birth pangs in the times when Englishmen tried to fortify their foreign lands. In this case, the Fitzgerald family was responsible for Fanningstown’s origins. Over the years as it changed and grew, it became an icon of the region. There was actually a Fanning family connected with the castle, thus giving it the name it now holds. Fanningstown Castle is now an inn of sorts and offers many quiet places to sit and relax. Since this *is* Ireland, it will probably rain considerably during your visit, so it’s nice to know there are places like Fanningstown where you can relax until the weather relents.

For a castle that seems unhindered by the passing of centuries, don’t forget to check out King John’s Castle. The huge round towers and soaring walls seem to fit our fantasies of medieval fortresses. It was built in the 13th century and completed throughout the 14th, but it doesn’t look a day over two hundred! If you like stunning views, remember to see the River Shannon meandering lazily beside the castle. The fortress itself is not the only attraction: You can also see ruins of medieval homes, old walls and fortifications, and much more.

By Lacie R. Schaeffer