A Beautiful Golden Isle: St. Simons Island, Georgia

Whether you want a vacation full of “fun and sun” or a historical area for an educational trip, Georgia’s east coast and St. Simons Island will provide your wish. Easily accessible from I-95, St. Simons will be a great mini vacation or a whole week of relaxation, whatever you want your vacation to be. The Golden Isles are found near Brunswick, Georgia.

To reach St. Simons, you will be passing the Marshes of Glynn, immortalized in the poem by the same name by Sidney Lanier. Take in the scenery, it’s incredible. The first time I saw this area, I had remembered to slip a copy of the poem into my purse and pulling off to read it while seeing the marshes was educational and a wonderful moment in that vacation.

Plan to spend at least two days here to see everything that the island has to offer. Allow yourself some beach time, too, because St. Simons is surrounded by water and oceanfront to the Atlantic. There is a pier for walking or fishing and sand to enjoy and relax. All the while you will be able to see the beautiful St. Simons Lighthouse from most points on the island. It is a United States Coast Guard property and is still in operation.

There are some fabulous restaurants here so be sure to do your homework before your trip so that you have an idea about where you would like to eat. The area by the ocean is a great spot for shopping, too. If you are into antiques, this is a place you won’t want to miss, along with nearby Brunswick.

If you are interested in the historical areas of St. Simons, there are numerous places to plan to visit. One of the first things you will probably notice is the fact that there is an abundance of Spanish moss here and it is beautiful on the ancient oaks.

One highlight of a tour will be Fort Frederica. This former military base and fort offers a nice walk around the grounds while learning some of the history of the area. There is a small visitor center where you can find out more about the fort and surrounding town. The foundations of the colonial (British) homes and businesses are visible.

A lovely church dating back to the late 1800s is Christ Church Frederica. Be sure to note the exquisite stained glass and there is a walking path across from the church. The old cemetery is often open and available for a stroll as well.

Still another historical spot is the Bloody Marsh Battlefield area. British soldiers gave the Spanish a serious defeat here in 1742.

Other things to see while visiting St. Simons include Gascoigne Bluff, a narrated trolley tour of the island, and some of the grand old homes that remain from Victorian days. If you dare, sign up for a lantern lit ghost tour with a guide. Look for the various “tree spirits” around the island. They are faces carved right into trees and represent sailors lost at sea.

If you still have time to have more fun, check out one of the nature tours, marsh tours, (watch for those Georgia gators!) or other tours that will offer things such as dolphin watching.

A Visitor’s Guide to The Brandywine River Museum

If you are an art lover and plan to be in the Philadelphia area during the holiday season, you should make it a point to visit The Brandywine River Museum in nearby Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

The Brandywine River Museum is best known for its vast collection of works by the famous Wyeth family. Original paintings by NC Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth have a permanent home at this unique museum. At various times throughout the year, the Wyeth family home and NC Wyeth’s personal art studio are also open for tours (transportation is provided by a shuttle bus from the museum and an additional fee is required).

During the holiday season, the museum is also very well known for its special holiday display, dubbed “A Brandywine Christmas”. Handmade “critter” ornaments adorn the trees in the lobby and are on display in glass cases throughout the museum (look for the handmade Noah’s Ark display– it is incredible).

Another big attraction is Ann Wyeth McCoy’s antique doll collection and the Victorian dollhouses, which are only on display during the holiday season. Upstairs, an O-gauge model train display features over 2000 feet of track and a bunch of moving trains that cruise through a miniature village. Your whole family will be delighted by this awesome train display, which also features a real live conductor who can answer questions about the display.

What not to miss:

The museum has a vast array of wonderful displays year round. Besides the awesome view of the nearby river, this unique museum (it’s actually an old gristmill) features a large collection of works by many Brandywine Valley artists– most notably the Wyeths– but also Horace Pippin, George Weymouth, and NC Wyeth’s mentor, Howard Pyle. During the holiday season, many holiday-themed paintings and illustrations are also on display (in 2005, Clement C. Moore’s “The Night before Christmas” is being featured).

Some of NC Wyeth’s most famous paintings can be viewed here. Look for his “Treasure Island” illustrations and “Old Kris”, his famous Christmas portrait. The Andrew Wyeth collection is not to be missed. Many of Wyeth’s famous “Helga” paintings are part of the collection, as well as his most recent works. Jamie Wyeth’s “Portrait of Pig” is often on display, as is his famous painting of Andy Warhol. The Wyeth collection rotates throughout the year, so check the museum’s website for up to date information on what is on display.

On your way out, be sure to check out the museum gift shop. You can find wonderful gifts and toys for children, as well as books, calendars, postcards and more. There is also a museum restaurant, which is open most days from 10 AM until 3 ;00 PM– it features light fare like soups, sandwiches and salads and local wines.

If you’re going:

The Brandywine River Museum is located on Route 1 in Chadds Ford, PA. The museum is open every day from 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM (it’s closed on Christmas day). Parking is free at the museum parking lot. Plan to get there early if you visit during “A Brandywine Christmas”, though– the lines can get very long. You can contact The Brandywine River Museum at 610-388- 2700 for more information and current admission pricing.

Frank Lloyd Wright Tours in Oak Park, IL

If you’re an architecture buff, then you are no doubt familiar with many of the works of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Wright designed both commercial buildings and residential houses, and is perhaps most famous for the distinctive prairie-style homes he built in his hometown of Oak Park, Illinois.  Today, you can take a walking tour that will show you 15 of Wright’s 25 works in Oak Park.  Though many of the homes are private residences, you can occasionally see the insides of these structures at special times designated by the owners.  Here are the ones that should definitely be on your “can’t miss” list.

Wright Home and Studio  
Wright and his family lived in this home on Chicago Avenue for 20 years.  It’s a beautiful structure that has been remarkably well-preserved over the years.  Of particular interest in this home are the octagonal library and Wright’s studio where he worked on many of his most famous designs.  Guided tours are offered on a limited basis on both weekdays and weekends.  The actual tour hours vary according to the season, so it’s best to phone ahead or check the official website (www.wrightplus.org) for current times and admission fees. 

Moore House
The Nathan G. Moore house is one of the most breathtaking of Wright’s Oak Park works.  This home is located on Forest Avenue, and is part of the 15-home walking tour.  It is a massive Tudor-style structure that looks quite different from the architect’s other Oak Park homes while nevertheless stands out as being a distinctive Wright piece.  This is one of the private residences that occasionally offers inside tours.

Heurtley House
The Heurtley House is not very far away from the Moore House, and is on the same walking tour.  This brick house, with its long line of casement windows on the second floor, really typifies the low prairie-style home that is so closely associated with Wright’s name these days.

Gale House
The Walter H. Gale House, located on Chicago Avenue, was built in the Queen Anne style (with a turret and everything), and is yet another reminder of how versatile an architect Wright was.  This house is significant because it was Wright’s first independent project after he left the famous Chicago architectural firm Adler & Sullivan. 

Unity Temple
This church is on Lake Street in the heart of Oak Park, and was built in 1908 as a replacement of the original temple that was destroyed by lightning.  Unity Temple, which is distinguished by its concrete exterior and cube-like design, is still actively used for worship to this day.  Both self-guided and group tours are offered at varying times seven days per week, so you should be able to see the inside of the structure no matter which day you visit.

Although there are many other Wright structures in Oak Park, these are the big ones, and as such, they are generally easy to get to and easy to find.  In addition, all of these homes are clearly visible from the street, so even if you encounter inclement weather, you ought to still be able to enjoy the sight of these Wright homes from the comfort of your car.

Winter in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

By Christina VanGinkel

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a winter wonderland for those looking for a vacation spot to enjoy snow activities. Opportunities abound for skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and downhill and cross country skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, and any other snow related activity you can think of. While modern day amenities abound in the many small towns scattered across what is affectionately known as the UP, so are there many glimpses into the past for those looking for a quiet escape.

The ski resorts are advanced enough to provide the skiers and snowboarders challenging trails on quality-groomed runs, yet are quaint enough to not feel as if you have to fight the crowds as you do at many of the larger ski resorts out west. Some top ski resorts to check out include:

Norway Mountain, Norway Michigan (My son’s favorite hill, as they have the best terrain park in his opinion, and listen to what the snowboarders using it have to say!)
Pine Mountain, Iron Mountain Michigan (Home to one of the largest artificial man made ski jumps in the world, which hosts a major competition, the Continental Ski Jumping Tournament, every year which draws ski jumpers from all over the world!)
Indianhead Resort, Wakefield Michigan
Big Powderhorn Mountain, Bessemer Michigan
Blackjack Ski Resort, also in Bessemer Michigan
Ski Brule, Iron River Michigan

All offer a wide variety of runs, terrain parks, pipes, cross-country trails, dining, and all around good winter fun!

If snowmobiling is more your idea of fun, there is hardly a hotel in the UP that does not offer trail guides, along with information on where to rent equipment, if you come without your own. Many hotels even offer direct access to the trails, so after arriving and getting your gear stowed, you will not have to get back into your vehicle until it is time to head back home. If watching snowmobiles race is more your thing, be sure to check out the annual International 500 Snowmobile Race, in Sault Ste Marie, or one of several other races that are run across the area throughout the winter months.

Ice fishing and tournaments are a time-honored tradition among Yoopers and long time visitors to this area. Be sure to check with the DNR as to ice conditions before heading out though, no matter the time of year, but as long as the ice conditions are good, be prepared to catch your daily limit on nearly any lake you fish. Many resorts cater to ice fishers, and will not only welcome you, but also provide you with everything from bait, to an ice shack, and even cleaning services for your catch.

Dog sledding is also making a strong comeback in the area in recent years, and if you would like to see what this sport is all about without heading all the way north to Alaska, be sure to check out the U.P. 200 and Midnight Run. It offers a unique look at this centuries old sport and is sure to be a big hit with the young and old alike.

If you are looking for a spot to escape to this winter, be sure to check out what is considered by many to be the Midwest’s best kept secret when it comes to winter wonderlands!

What to See When Visiting Gettysburg

In my last blog I covered some of the basics of visiting Gettysburg, Pennsylvania such as the tours, shopping, eating, and a little bit of history. This time I will talk about some of the specific areas where you will be stopping. If you have not seen the movie Gettysburg with Jeff Daniels and Martin Sheen, it may be a good introduction to some of the places you will be seeing.

I usually plan to drive to Cavalry Field first because it is outside of town and more difficult to find. This is where George Custer’s people clashed with J.E.B. Stuart’s boys in gray. It is a quiet part of the battlefield because it is so detached. The tour buses don’t go here and few tourists are usually here, unlike other places on the field. I have been known to grab a takeout lunch in town and enjoy it surrounded by the solitude of Cavalry Field.

Perhaps one of the most well known places on the battlefield is Devil’s Den. Over the past few years, the bus tours have stopped going here so be sure to know how to get here on your own. The place is totally incredible with the huge boulders.

Also in the area of Devil’s Den you will find the Bloody Wheatfield and Triangular Field. And overlooking the Den is Little Round Top, a place made more infamous by the movie I mentioned. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain defended an area near this spot for the Union by having to resort to a bayonet charge. A monument to him is here as well as many other monuments that are found here and all over the battlefield.

Nearby is Big Round Top. This is actually more like a mountain climb and it is a self guided tour if you wish to see the battlefield from up there. The only time I tried it, my legs ached like fire for days, so proceed with caution when deciding.

If you are starting the tour with a narrated bus trip or an auto tour tape, you will start at McPherson’s Woods where General John Reynolds was killed and near where the first shots were fired. At the other end of your tour, the last part, you will see the National Cemetery where Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was presented.

What else will you be seeing while exploring this historical town? One of my own favorite spots is where Pickett’s Charge happened. The thought of thousands of people marching across that open field and into the gunfire and cannon fire is very sobering and it is usually one of the busiest spots on the battlefield.

Other places not to miss:

1. The fabulous museums found in Gettysburg
2. Spangler’s Spring and Culp’s Hill. (This is part of the “three hour” auto tour as opposed to the “two hour” version.
3. The supposedly haunted Sachs Bridge. (Although many places all around town are reported to be haunted!)
4. Jennie Wade House. Found beside the Holiday Inn Battlefield. This is where the only civilian death occurred during the battle. Jennie was baking bread when a bullet killed her.
5. 11th Corps Line
6. Oak Ridge and the Eternal Light Peace Memorial.
7. Evergreen Cemetery. Found beside the National Cemetery. This is the cemetery that was already in operation during the battle. Jennie Wade is buried here.

Visiting a Part of History: Gettysburg, PA

I visit the hallowed battlefields of Gettysburg as often as possible and I never come away disappointed. There is “something” that remains and I have heard many people say the same. Maybe it is simply a feeling of realization about what happened there, but there is a draw to go back that can not be easily shoved aside.

Gettysburg is located in Adams County, Pennsylvania, just minutes from the Maryland state line. The severe battle that took place here in July of 1863 was one of the bloodiest Americans have ever seen. Visitors are taken back into the past with countless markers and monuments that are found in town and the surrounding territory.

The first thing I would definitely recommend is to plan for at least two days in Gettysburg. I have done day trips in the past and there simply isn’t enough time to see everything in a day. If you are not familiar with the area, it may be a good idea for you to take a guided tour the morning of your first day there. That way you will have a little history of the battle and can still drive around on your own for the rest of your visit. You will also be able to buy an auto tour cassette or CD at the visitor center.

In fact, the visitor center should be your first stop. They are currently in the process of building a new structure and changing location, but there are signs pointing to the visitor center at various strategic places throughout town. While there, or later in the day you may want to catch a bus to visit the Gettysburg home of Ike and Mamie Eisenhower. It is a very short drive, but everyone needs to go there by bus. No private vehicles are allowed on the grounds.

As you enter the lovely town of Gettysburg, start looking at the buildings. If a building was standing during those first three days of July in 1863 and thus witnessed the battle, many of them have a plaque on the home or other building reading “Civil War Building.” There are also a few trees around town that are called “Witness Trees” having been standing during the battle.

There are various hotels from which to choose when visiting Gettysburg. Many are found in the main part of town but some are also a couple miles outside of town on Rt. 30 also called York Street. The variety of hotels will fit into any budget from the smaller motels to a Hampton Inn on Route 30. If you are traveling with a pet, as I often travel with a feisty feline “fur child” as well as my human daughter, I have stayed each time at the Holiday Inn Battlefield and they have accommodated pet owners very well.

Be prepared for some great shopping and eating here, too. From antiques to Civil War related items, there are many stores and shops in town if you want to do some shopping. Restaurants are found all around town, too. I have had some very memorable meals in Gettysburg.

Watch for my next blog that will cover some of the great places to see in Gettysburg from Devil’s Den to Pickett’s Charge and everything in between.

Family Travel Trips

By Christina VanGinkel

I have amassed some tips to make traveling with family members this holiday season, or any season for that matter, more enjoyable, or at least more bearable; Pick those that apply to your family, and tuck away the others just in case they might someday apply:

Make detailed plans for any trip that is going to take you further than two hours away from your home. Book hotel rooms, research restaurants, and attractions. Purchase tickets to shows or attractions ahead of time that may be sold out.

Always take an emergency credit card with you, as there are places that cash, or traveler’s checks, just will not work namely hotels and car rental agencies.

Make sure everyone has at least one form of identification on them at all times, no matter their age. If you have a young child that does not yet know their name, address, and phone number, now is a good time to start working with them, but do not depend on anyone’s knowledge to identify themselves. Accidents can and do happen, so all family members, young and old, need some form of personal identification on their body at all times.

If you will be traveling out of the country, make copies of everything pertinent, such as birth certificates and travel visas, in case of loss or theft.

Assign everyone a travel buddy, and always take your travel buddy with to places such as gas station bathrooms.

Make sure everyone brings with one thing that can occupy his or her time. A book, video game, headphones, whatever they want. Once they have something picked out, tell them to pick one more thing, especially for long trips. Boredom is the fastest way to ruin a trip, yet you cannot always be occupied doing travel related things. You need backups.

In the same element of the tip before this one, ‘They’re looking at me’, or touching me, or staring at me, or they stuck their tongues out, they are drooling, should all be dealt with immediately, or before you even leave to begin the trip. Tell your children, preschooler through teens, what you expect from them including respect for each other, common decency, etc. If they listen or not will depend a lot on how they act normally, but a friendly reminder is not going to hurt. Bribery with items such as small toys, treats, etc, will often work no matter the child’s age, and even if you normally forgo things like this, I honestly believe that extended travel is the perfect time to introduce your kids to them.

If you are going to a destination that someone you know has been too, and you value their honesty, ask them if they have any tips to share with you. Maybe they know a restaurant there that serves a great menu at reasonable prices, or a hotel to avoid from their own personal experience.

If you are staying with friends or relatives, ask hem specifically what you can contribute, any rules they may have, etc., and then respect these rules. For example, if they do not want you bringing a pet along, do not ask why not just do not bring them. Arrange to board them. Be safe, and have fun.

Some World Heritage Sites in Kyoto, Japan

When tourists head to the sprawling city of Kyoto, they usually have a short list of temples that they want to see.  Included at the top of everyone’s list are such mainstays as Kiyomizu Temple (kiyomizu dera) and the Golden Pavilion (kinkakuji).  These are definitely worthy destinations that you should make every effort to see, especially if you have a limited amount of time to spend in the city.  However, if you have an extra day or merely want to explore some temples that are slightly off the beaten path (they are still very popular with tourists, but tend to be a bit less crowded), then be sure to visit the places listed below.

The Silver Pavilion
Unlike the Golden Pavilion, which is actually covered in gold leaf, there is no descriptive rationale to the name given the Silver Pavilion (ginkakuji).  In other words, there is not the least bit of silver on it.  Instead, it is a rather simple wooden structure that is surrounded by beautiful grounds that include a pond and a sand garden.  Despite this simplicity, or perhaps because of it, walking around the grounds of the Silver Pavilion is an excellent way to spend an hour soaking in the atmosphere of 15th-century Japan.

The Moss Temple
The proper name of this temple is saiho-ji, and it has been around since the year 1339.  I would venture to say, however, that most tourists to not visit this place in order to see the actual temple.  Rather, the biggest draw is the expansive carpet of green moss that covers the temple grounds.  There are 120 different types of moss growing there, and the effect of seeing all that lush greenery — particularly in Japan, a country not known for open spaces —  is simply amazing.  In addition to the moss, the grounds feature a pond in the shape of the kanji character for the word “heart”.  

Ryoanji Temple
To cap off your hectic day of sightseeing, spend an hour or two contemplating life while viewing the rock garden at Ryoanji Temple. It is believed that this rectangular garden, consisting of 15 large rocks dispersed in groups across a bed of small white pebbles, was designed back in the 1470s.  What makes this particular Zen rock garden famous is the fact that you can only see 14 of the 15 large rocks at one time, no matter what your particular vantage point.  You’ll be able to see the fifteenth rock once you achieve enlightenment through meditation.  To help you along on this process, there are benches set up in front of the garden where you can sit down and enjoy the silence.  

In addition to the rock garden, the large pond on the temple grounds is worthy of your time.  You can walk around the perimeter of the pond and view the beautiful lotus flowers that cover its surface.  You will also be able to see the numerous koi fish that inhabit the waters.  All in all, you will come away from the Ryoanji Temple with a lasting feeling of serenity and peacefullness.

Article written by The Fire Pit.