Tall Ships

Before the days of steam engines, the world relied on manpower, wind, and water to get things done. Wooden ships with tall masts sailed the seas under yards of canvass sails. Journeys were long and dangerous; many perished in battles, pirate attacks, and storms that battered the ship and sent all hands into an unforgiving sea.

Though today, wood and rope have been replaced by steel, and sexton by GPS,  it is still felt that only by matching hands against the elements under sail does a seaman truly learn about the sea.

When in Portland, Maine recently, the “tall ships,” a collection of sailing vessels from around the world sailed into Portland harbor. Ships large and small, including a replica of a Spanish galleon, provided tours and sailing opportunities to throngs of visitors, while pirates roamed the streets, flags flapped in the breeze, and music filled the air.

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Since the festival extended into Monday, I had the opportunity to board the USS barque Eagle, the Coast Guard sailing training ship. Gleaming in polished wood, and brass and strung with miles of cabling,  yards of canvass sails, and baggywinkle (see the link), it is a magnificent vessel of a former time, preserved for today.

All aboard Matey!

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Fogged In

It is foggy in Portland, Maine. The clouds have touched the ground and everything is shrouded in a hazy mist of white. The fog horn on the bay warns of approaching land, not discernible with the naked eye. Like the whistle of a night train in the distance, it is a soothing sound.

It is said in many places that if you do not like the weather, wait 10 minutes. I have to agree with my daughter that no place I have been is that more true than here. Perched as it is on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, the weather changes as prevailing winds push clouds and potential storms that back up and collide with one another instantly altering the forecast. One minute the sun is shining and the next you can be fogged in or it can be pouring down rain.

This happened when we tried to go for a whale watch recently. We awoke to a steady rain, which tapered off to reveal blue sky and bright sunshine. As we headed for the boat however, skies turned cloudy, and once underway misty fog threatened to obscure cottages lining the rocky shore, yet not before getting a magnificent view of the tall ships in the harbor.

Heading out to sea, we passed through several cloud banks. The boat pushed through gentle swells that rocked and rolled enough to affect many without “sea legs.” Though I could not see much due to the fog I enjoyed the fresh, salty air and the wind against my face and in my hair.  At one moment, a halo of pinkish clouds formed almost a rainbow of bright in an otherwise dull gray sky. A lovely vision.

We did not find any whales this day, just a few seals and one enormous sunfish, so the trip was disappointing in that respect. Yet, for me, spending several hours on a boat on the open sea was enjoyable, if a bit long due to the absence of what we came out to see. Now to decide, do I try to go again (you get a “no whales” free trip guarantee)?

I don’t have to think too hard about that. This may be my last visit to this area of the country, so if the sun shines I will spend the morning on the water.

 

Down on the Farm

As I have mentioned, life with my grandchildren is a whirlwind of activity. In addition to the Children’s Museum, library, trampoline and bouncy house places, parks, playgrounds, and the beach, there are butterfly parades at the local Audubon Society and trips to “the farm.”

Agricultural tourism is BIG in Maine. Every place, small or large, seems to have a special event, view, tour, or self-guided option. Thus we found ourselves at Pineland Farms, not once but twice in one week.

Pineland Farms, New Gloucester, MainePineland Farms, a large working farm in New Gloucester, Maine, a community nestled among the rolling hills a little outside Portland, offers the public a chance to discover, learn, and explore rural life.

Though the farm is open for self-guided tours any day, Friday mornings gives children and their parents (grandparents) an opportunity to collect eggs in the hen house, milk a cow, see a baby calf, or hoe the garden or sample its goodness (in season), all under the guidance and tutelage of the farm educators. Among other things, children are fascinated to learn where milk comes from (when they squeeze the teat) and having a big animal gently take hay from their outstretched hand.

The day we went a new born calf was a popular attraction.

Hours old calf, Pineland Farms, New Gloucester, MaineAfter tromping through the barns and around the farm, you’ll be hungry so visit The Market and cafe in the Welcome Center, where you can enjoy a farm fresh lunch or take home some farm fresh goodness (fresh baked bread, honey, local jams and jellies, maple syrup, cheese, etc.) many of which are made at or from ingredients grown on the farm. If open, you can visit the creamery and see how cheese is made.

Equestrian Center, Pineland Farms, New Gloucester, MaineOn the lovely, winding way back to Portland,the equestrian center is open for visitors to tour the stalls and see the horses or watch riders put their mounts through their paces. Wander across the street and and you’ll find a flock of sheep.

If you have any energy left over (or plan another trip), nature trails offer opportunities to watch for birds, fox and other forest creatures, or just enjoy the babbling brook, fields, ponds, and forests as you walk. Trails are open year round  for hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing. Fish in the pond in warm weather or go ice skating or take a long run down the sledding hill (bring your sled) in winter.

We returned to the farm again on Saturday for the annual Sheep Shearing Festival where we watched sheep being sheared the old fashioned way, by hand, and using those new-fangled clippers. Australian shepherds herded a small flock all to the tune of whistles and prompts by their shepherd. For young and old alike, it was fascinating to watch the dogs in action.

In addition to the working farm demonstrations, there were crafters available to let help you experience carding wool and spinning it into yarn and making a sheep “doll” by using needles to felt the raw wool into the appropriate shape, then take it home with you. You could purchase hand woven wool socks, hats, scarves, and mittens (not unwelcome on this blustery spring day), hold and pet a rabbit, and for the little ones “shear” their own shaving cream sheep, along with other craft activities.

Once again, a farm fresh lunch at The Market and cafe was welcome before we all headed home exhausted, yet content from our day in the country fresh air.

More about Pineland Farms: The site of a former “School for the Mentally Incompetent,” the old administration building and dormitories offer a natural setting for conferences. And if you like, you can stay in one of several original farm houses on the property.

Portland

Traveling to and from Mexico, I take advantage of having my bags already packed and visit my daughter and family. This year that meant a trip to Portland — Maine, not Oregon.

Portland is a beautiful, historic, sea faring city, “Down East” as the natives call it, which means it is in the southern part of the state on the East Coast of the US, yet still just about as far north as one can get without being in Canada.

Blue Bear, Casco Bay, Portland, MaineIf you have never visited the East Coast of the US, especially in these northern climes, it is a rugged landscape, and the people are a rugged lot. They have an independent streak and are passionate about the environment. Many of the original “organic” or “all natural” companies had their origins in Maine.

It is a land of outdoor beauty and adventures — rocky shorelines with views of sailboats and fishing trawlers; rolling hills covered in maple trees that give up their sweet nectar in the spring and go out in a blaze of color in the fall; snowy winters for skiing, skating, sledding, ice fishing, or sitting around a warm fire.

Portland itself is quaint as only towns with 200+ years of history can be. Everything is historic from the wharf along the Fore River that leads to the sea, to the fishing boats, the brick streets, and the grand Customs House. Stroll along the waterfront or wander around downtown and you will find quaint shops, filled with souvenirs, antiques, handmade pottery, clothing, but also the necessities. It’s a small town, boutique atmosphere. If you want a shopping mall though, you will not find one; you will have to drive 20 minutes to the next town.

Lobster toys, Portland, MaineThere is plenty to do in Portland. Visit the Children’s Museum with your favorite little ones; they never run out of things to experience. Head to the Railroad Museum and ride the train along Casco Bay. Go whale watching. Walk the historic wharf area and purchase the catch of the day right from the boat. Or indulge in killer dark chocolate sorbet from Gorgeous Gelato, one of many ice cream and gelato shops competing for your taste buds.

Speaking of taste buds, Portland is a foodie’s heaven. Though chain restaurants can be found, local restaurants offering delicacies from cultures around the world, creatively transform the tiny spaces of the historic buildings into a feast for the eyes and palate.

The arts are alive and well in Portland, with dance, theater, puppet shows, and groups centered around activities like swing dancing. The library is not just a quiet repository for books but a center of community activities with concerts and visiting performers.

I wish I had more time to spend in Portland, and I especially wish I could have been there during the summer when the whale boats are running, the water is warm, and the town is humming. Perhaps I will visit again and have a chance to explore more.

Stay tuned.

Beach Personalities

As I turn west and trade coastal communities for mountains, I reflect on the beaches I leave behind.

One thing I learned on this trip is that not all beaches are created equal. Each is unique in its own way —

some are smooth,                                             some are littered with shells,

some are wild, untamed,                                 and others are urban retreats.

Some slope gently into the water while others drop steeply behind large (protected by law) dunes. Each has its own personality.

Though I have been on many beaches in my days, exhibiting all of the qualities listed above, I was totally unprepared for what I found at New Smyrna Beach.

A speed limit!

img_8086-qprI was told by many that New Smyrna Beach  was the “prettiest beach” on the East Coast of Florida, because of its relatively shell-free white sand and tidal pools for the little ones to splash in. Now maybe I did not visit the best part of the beach; it does stretch for miles, but when I got there, I found condos built on seawalls almost at the water’s edge, and in their shadow, a very shallow beach area with a “speedway” taking up two-thirds of the available space.

OK, so the speed is only 10 mph, but when it is between  the beach goer and the water, that is about 10 mph too fast in my opinion.

No traffic beach area, New Smyrna Beach , FloridaThankfully, every mile or two a section of the beach is declared “traffic free.” Be sure to look for the “traffic free” signs.

Or do as I did — drive to the far end of the barrier island into the northern section of Canaveral National Seashore and find miles and miles and miles and miles of beach with only foot traffic allowed.

Misty walk, Canaveral National SeashoreWhat’s your beach personality?

 

Charleston Chew

I am not a big city bear. I enjoy a day trip to the city, walking amidst the tall buildings, window shopping, people watching, visiting museums and grand big city parks — even riding the subway can be fun. But I hate the chaos of traffic and trying to find a parking spot, especially in a big city that I am unfamiliar with, and even more so when I am the driver, navigator, and sole crash avoider.

Charleston, South Carolina signBeing on the Atlantic coast and reluctant to leave the water behind, I thought I’d take a chance on the city life and make like a Southern belle for a few hours in Charleston, South Carolina. After all, Charleston represents the founding of our nation, Southern charm, and more history than you can imagine.

The plan was to head downtown, take in some history, photograph antebellum homes for the folks back home, have a little dinner in a quaint local establishment in a 200+ year old neighborhood and then head to Asheville and the mountains.

Having avoided Savannah and taken a more direct secondary highway into the state, I missed the official welcome center so I had no state map. Just outside the city I came upon a tourist information center so I stopped to get a map. Being a private tourism office, they make their money from referrals to hotels and restaurants in Charleston; the agent had no state maps and she was not too pleased with my plan to just visit the city for a few hours and hit the road again. (Let’s just say she did not offer a stellar example of Southern hospitality.)

Olde Market, Charleston, South CarolinaThough I asked for directions to the historic area where I could see the antebellum homes and such, she directed me to the Olde Market area — “200 years old and lots of arts and crafts.” OK I am up for that.

Basket vendor, Olde Market, Charleston, South Carolina Niche hotel and horse drawn carriage, Charleston, South CarolinaAfter navigating into the heart of the old city port area, where streets are twisted and narrow, one way and dead ended, driving around for 1/2 hour, dodging people, cars, and horse drawn carriages to find a parking spot, I found the olde market — a succession of 8 – 10 or more brick buildings with open ends and half walls filled with vendors. They have indeed stood here as a place to vend goods (originally from the ships in port and the plantations outside town) for 200 years.

The area was originally a warehouse district, though now the warehouses sport major chain and niche hotels, pubs, and restaurants for the tourists.

Baskets, Charleston, South CarolinaSince I was expecting “arts and crafts,” I was not prepared for the flea market atmosphere — a few handmade basket vendors (a Charleston specialty) and hand sewn bonnets, aprons, and household items, but stalls were mostly filled with 21st century junk “as seen on TV” or you’d find at K-mart. After walking through 3 buildings and literally finding nothing worth even pausing to look at (except the baskets – tourist priced), I bought a handmade lemonade and bolted back to my car. Following my own intuition and with the help of the lemonade vendor, I managed to make my way to White Point Gardens at the water’s edge.

This delightful couple blocks of green space, though under reconstruction in spots, offered a respite from the traffic and chaos. Walking around the area, I discovered the kind of historical homes, large and small, that I was looking for, towering live oaks dripping in Spanish moss, old brick and cobblestone streets, sections of the old city wall, gates offering glimpses of 200 year old courtyards and formal gardens, pavilions, statues, and more historical markers than you could count. Horse drawn carriages were everywhere, telling of the history of certain houses and residents (I guess taking the tour was the “seeing the antebellum houses” the tourism maven had in mind.)

Enjoy this photo tour of the area south of Broad.

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Fort Sumter, Charleston, South CarolinaBeing a coastal city, a seawall and promenade, 6-feet high and wide enough for 4 people to walk abreast protects the homes from the sea (and served dual duty as a battery in times past (the canons now sit in the park.) From the top, you get a view of Fort Sumter where the Star Spangled Banner was penned. (Never realized this historic fort was so small.)

For some reason, my foot hurt, making it really painful to walk (I learned later I had cracked a metatarsal bone; don’t ask me how) so I departed without finding a local historic establishment for dinner and set my sites on the drive home — via Asheville, North Carolina, and through the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains.

I have decided that a solo meander is not conducive to big city exploration. Charleston is a charming Southern city, worthy of a couple days or a long weekend of exploration where one can ferret out the historical gems and quaint restaurants. Visit with a friend, spend the money and stay in the heart of the city, and act like a tourist — take the horse drawn tours, visit the market, go to the fort, walk the old streets and live the history of America.

One last ocean sunrise

Edisto Beach, South Carolina

Well, the day had to come, one last day to walk the beach at sunrise before turning west and heading toward the heartland. I shall miss arriving in the darkness, a faint glow on the horizon, and watching it grow to a rosy glow that gets brighter and brighter until that golden orb peaks over the horizon and quickly explodes into a streak of color and a million diamonds sparkling on the waves.

Here I share with you the best of the last great sunrise over the ocean, at least for this trip.

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Only at the beach do you have this kind of unobstructed view of the magic moment the day begins. Ah what a glorious sight!

Lighthouses

Take a good look at these lighthouse photos. What do you notice?

Having visited many lighthouses in many locations, I have noticed that each is unique — each a different height, made of different materials, with different paint patterns — but not being a navigator, the real purpose of each light’s unique style and paint job never really crossed my mind.

Tybee Island Lighthouse station signWhen I visited the Tybee Island Light Station and Museum, near Savannah, Georgia, I learned the real and really quite obvious reason for those unique patterns — called a day mark, they are a way to identify which lighthouse is which when you see them by day.

Tybee Island offers a rare opportunity to view a working lighthouse and see how the keeper, his assistants, and their families lived from the late 1700s until the light was automated well into the 20th century.

Climb the 178 steps to the top and think about doing that several times a day to keep the oil lamp burning. Look into the 1st order Fresnel lens (large enough for 4 people to stand inside) which magnifies the light of a single 1000 watt bulb and focuses it into a beam that can be seen 18 miles out to sea.

From the outdoor observation deck at the top, you get a good view of the Fort Screven battery, below, built as a protection for nearby Savannah,as well as the beach, ocean, and nearby coastal cities.

Fort Screven battery from top of Tybee Island lighthouseDon’t leave without lunch at the North Beach Bar and Grill between the lighthouse and the beach. The smells emanating from the kitchen make your mouth water and the coastal Americana decor is a delightful beach break.

Jekyll but no Hyde

A few miles up the road from St. Augustine, the landscape changes from endless miles of sandy beaches to wilder salt marshes, estuaries, and individual barrier islands. No longer do beach cities and development extend to the waves lapping at the shore.

The Atlantic coast of Georgia (USA) is filled with inlets, outlets, and barrier islands. It is a magical place of winding estuaries and tall marsh grasses that glow in the sun lending the nickname, the Golden Isles. Due to bad weather and limited time to meander and explore, I had to make like a dragonfly and zip through this area, lightly touching down from time to time. Here are a few of the highlights.

img_8314-qprSt. George Island (can you see the English connection in that name?) is the site of the Kinglsey Plantation, a national historic site depicting life on a Southern plantation. Since the idea of Southern plantations has a negative connotation, due to the Civil War, I recommend visiting and learning more about this era of American history.

The part the history books don’t tell is that under Spanish rule, slavery was outlawed. (In fact, Ft. Mose, just north of St. Augustine, was a settlement of Africans – freemen and former slaves.) But, when the British and later the Americans took over, land owners were actively recruited but were not granted tracts of  land to work agriculturally unless they had a certain number of slaves for every acre. Yeah, I know, shocking isn’t it?

Jekyll Island, once the winter playground of the rich and famous, this island is home to “cottages” built by people with names like JP Morgan, Vanderbilt, Goodyear, and Pulitzer that are bigger than the houses, even McMansions, of most people today. A group of these millionaires, bought the island from the family of the original plantation owner and created an exclusive club for the rich and famous. Many historic moments occurred here such as the first meeting of the Federal Reserve and the first transcontinental telephone call.

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Today, anyone, for a small fee, can drive to the island, tour the historic district and get a sense of the opulence of the Victorian era. You can rent a cottage or a room in the turn of the 20th century inn, or if just a day tripper, wander through the public rooms viewing vintage photographs, grab a bite in the Bistro, or dine in luxury in the historic dining room. Rent a bicycle and pedal through the historic area; head to the beach and on your way you will discover ruins of the original plantation house, the old cemetery and enjoy scenic vistas and byways.

img_8345-qprBe sure to stop at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center where nestlings are monitored and injured sea turtles are rescued, rehabilitated, and if possible, released back into the wild. There is a nice interactive exhibit hall with live animals. Your admission fees support the work they do to preserve these magnificent creatures, some of whom are threatened and endangered.

Skidaway Island is the home of a large state park that provides access to the salt marshes and estuaries. The campground is located on a large hammock on the intercoastal waterway, a brackish water river system that extends most of the way down the eastern seaboard, separating the mainland from the barrier islands, offshore, which serve to protect the land mass from storm surges.

These barrier islands afford opportunities to enjoy unspoiled beaches, paddle quiet backwaters and estuaries, hike, bird watch, and get away from it all in many ways. I could spend months or years exploring them all, but alas I do not have the time. I look forward to another opportunity to travel this way, stay longer and explore deeper.

“Toto, we’re not at the beach anymore”

Blue Bear needs a directionI followed the signs toward Myrtle Beach but somewhere around Charleston have to take a left turn.

As I leave the ocean and  beach behind, I will miss the smell of the salt air, the cry of the sea birds, and most of all the beauty of the sunrise accompanied by the music of the waves, whether soothing or stormy.

The interior of our country is filled with beautiful, majestic, serene, and exciting places and I enjoy all the variety, yet being at the ocean shore at sunrise is pretty hard to beat (though the shores of  the Great Lakes come close.)

The salt marshes of Georgia, the antebellum vibe of Charleston, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Smokey Mountain National Park await. Adventure on.