May 30, 2016

Exploring Mexico, New York

Travelers venture near and far but many have never visited the
great places near home.  It is the same all over the world.  Many times I have asked the receptionist at a hotel to suggest local places to visit and they respond with, “I hear “such-and-such” is great but I have never been there.” The same is true locally.  I do many presentations and am amazed how few people have explored places near their home – or even in their hometown.

For such a small community, Mexico, NY,  has some wonderful places to visit. Within walking distance there are three interesting places to visit.  The beautiful high school is home to "La Guerre d'Independence," an impressive scenic wall mural that depicts America's War of Independence. The historic mural was made in France and is purported to be the only place where the complete mural is on display. The White House in Washington and Fraunces Tavern in NYC have some of the panels. 

The Star Clark Tin Shop and Underground Museum on Main Street
was a pivotal stop on the Underground Railroad.  Starr Clark aided runaway slaves and planned their onward movement from the tin shop. Clark saw to that they had housing either in his Tin Shop, his home, or in the homes of other local antislavery families. He also arranged schedules for forwarding "the goods" and provided transportation to the next station. Helping runaways was illegal so records are hard to find
but in one well-documented case a runaway named George was aided by Clark on his way to freedom in Canada. Mexico was also instrumental in helping Jerry McHenry make his way to Canada in what became a “cause celebre.”  Just a short walk from the Tin Shop is the Mexico Museum dedicated to preserving the history of Mexico.  There are changing displays. 

Mexico was the sometime home of Audrey Munson, considered to be “America’s First Supermodel.” New Haven has a newly erected sign designating her burial site in their cemetery. Munson posed for about 100 statues currently in New York City and many elsewhere.  A new book, “The Curse of Beauty,” relates the life and times of Munson. It recently hit the bookshelves. It is an interesting read and has all the elements needed for a great movie. 

The Town of Mexico has the only free park on Lake Ontario. Mexico Point Park has a small beach with lifeguards, picnic tables, grills, and unique life-size hand-carved statues of people associated with the park.  There are two short trails; one has an accompanying brochure describing aspects of the trail.  The other trail leads to an historic marker designating the burial site of Silas
Towne, Mexico’s Paul Revere.  Towne warned the colonists at Fort Stanwix that the British, with a contingent of Native Americans, were on the way to attack the fort.  Fort Stanwix was readied and withstood the assault which was instrumental in the thwarting the British plan to conquer New York and the rest of the colonies.  The park is home to the unique Casey’s Cottage, a carriage house that was turned into an 11th century manor house.  The hand caved walls, ceilings, and beams are of special note.  Mexico Point Park hosts weddings and a variety of events. 

May 23, 2016

Ten things to do in Louisville

Louisville, Kentucky’s largest city is home to several iconic sites. It
is home to the Mohammed Ali Center and where the Louisville slugger is made. The city likes to be called the “Bourbon Capital of the World” but there are also beautiful parks, historical sites, and more. 

1. The River: Louisville owes its existence to the Ohio River.  Enjoy a scenic cruise on the Belle of Louisville or the Spirit of Jefferson. Landlubbers can relax in the city’s 85-acre Waterfront Park the site of many events. There is an overlook near 26th Street where people can see barges and other boats go through the McAlpine Lock and Dam.
2. Churchill Downs: Every May the Louisville Marching Band plays the derby’s signature song and 1000s of spectators join in singing, “My Old Kentucky Home,” before the beginning of the “Run for the Roses.” Daily tours of Churchill Downs are available and the adjacent Kentucky Derby Museum celebrates all aspects of racing.  Try their signature drink – a Mint Julep.
3. The Mohammad Ali Center: The tour of the center starts on
the third floor with a five-screen multimedia presentation called “If You Can Dream.” It provides an overview of Ali’s life and explains his six core principles: confidence, conviction, dedication, respect, giving, and spirituality. It preserves the legacy of Mohammed Ali and inspires people to release the greatness within.
4. Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory: The museum details the history of the famous “slugger” bat.  It is a mix of exhibits. You can have your fast ball clocked. On view is the Louisville Slugger used by Joe DiMaggio to set his 56-game hitting streak. A film, “The Heart of the Game” gives insight to the game. 
5. Old Louisville: Old Louisville is home to one of the largest historic preservation districts in the nation. It has the country’s greatest collection of preserved Victorian architecture. For an illustrated brochure call Old Louisville Information Center (502) 635-5244. The perimeter is so large that five tours are suggested. 
6. Bourbon: Visit the Evan Williams Bourbon Museum situated
on the site of their first commercial distiller. Videos, dioramas, and displays explain the history of bourbon distilling that started in 1783. By law bourbon must be aged in new white oak barrels and distilled from USA-grown corn. Pick up a passport and follow the Bourbon Trail.
7. The Frazier History Museum: The Frazier details 1000 years of history. Their vast collection includes a rifle owned by George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt’s “Big Stick.” The “The Lewis and Clark Expedition” has many interactive and hands-on exhibits. There are daily historical presentations and live demonstrations. 
8. Art: The Speed Art Museum has a collection of art covering more than 6,000 years of man’s creativity. Explore the cultural diversity of Asia at the Asia Institute Crane House. There is plenty of street art including “Kentucky’s Rushmore” depicting Mohammad Ali, Abraham Lincoln, Colonel Sanders, and Secretariat. 
9. Parks: In 1891 Frederick Olmstead, famed for designing
Central Park, designed Louisville’s park system based on his concept of parks connected to tree-lined parkways instead of freestanding parks. A 100-mile trail system that connects parks, neighborhoods and attractions. 

10. And More: There are plenty of diversions: golf courses, amusement parks, theaters, karting, and festivals.  Try Louisville’s signature dishes: the open-face Hot Brown Sandwich created at the Brown Hotel.  End a meal with a piece of the decadent Derby Pie, a tart made of walnuts and chocolate chips.  

May 9, 2016

Exploring Downtown Mahattan

Visiting NYC can be costly so I welcome any way to save money.  Hotels are especially expensive but luckily we had points that allowed us to stay at the Holiday Inn Express Wall Street for free. The hotel had a great location but the rooms are small – very small.  

From the hotel we walked to South Street Seaport’s TKTS kiosk for half-price Broadway show tickets (the line is shorter than at the Times Square TKTS kiosk). On the way we noticed a bright red Downtown Connection van which said it was free. The van runs every 10 minutes from South Street Seaport to Battery Park and up the West Side to near City Hall from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. 

There are plenty of places to visit along the route. We took the van
to Warren and Church St. where we walked a short distance to the African Burial Ground which has been advertised on a New York TV promo. It is part of the National Park Service.  The National Monument is free and basically outdoors.  From the 1690s until 1794, both free and enslaved Africans were buried in a 6.6-acre area in Lower Manhattan, outside the boundaries of the settlement of New Amsterdam, later known as New York. Lost to history due to landfill and
development, the grounds were rediscovered in 1991 as a consequence of the planned construction of a federal office building. We walked through the 24-foot Ancestral Libation Monument that led down past small waterfalls to the Circle of Diaspora where various symbols of peace are etched on the wall.  There are seven mounds that are the final burial site for 419 remains that were unearthed in the 90s. We were near City Hall so we walked through the gardens to a place where there was a view of the Brooklyn Bridge (you can walk across if you want) and happened on some street entertainment.  

Our next stop was the National Museum of the American Indian.  It
is an adjunct of the Smithsonian so it is free.  It is housed in the historic Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House which is architecturally interesting - inside and out.  I thought it was going to focus on NYS native population but it covers 12,000 years of Native American art and artifacts. I have always been fascinated by “quipus” also known as talking knots.  Tying knots in strings was the way Incas kept records; some people think it was actually a writing method.  Regardless, they are interesting and not many have survived. 

 We also visited Fraunces Tavern & Museum, the oldest building in NYC and where George Washington said farewell to his troops. The lobby of Mexico High School has the complete mural called “La Guerre d’Independence.” The woodblocks to make the mural depicting the American Revolution were made in France.  I knew Fraunces Travel and the White House had some of the panels but the only complete mural is in Mexico, New York.  When I asked the docent where the mural was located he said there was no such thing at the museum!  There
is. It had been cut up and applied as wallpaper in the Clinton Room. I guess technically it can be called wallpaper. They didn’t know it was part of a mural.

We didn’t have enough time to visit the many other interesting places in Downtown Manhattan so we added it to our “gotta’ do” list.

May 2, 2016

Touring NYC and Radio City

When I was 10, on my first trip to NYC, my parents took me to Radio City Music. I was brought to tears when the organs came out the side walls and the orchestra rose up from the floor.  To me it was magical.  Radio City’s two Wurlitzer Organs are the only two of its kind in the world.  Interestingly, the organ players crawl through a tiny door to get to their stools without
being noticed. I have been to Radio City several times since my first visit.  On a recent visit to The Big Apple John and I made good use of our New York City Explorer Pass.  The discount pass saved us money on attractions and I liked that we could build our own pass selecting the places we wanted to visit; the pass is good for a year.  The Radio City Back Door Tour is one of the things I have always wanted to do – so we used our NYC Explorer Pass. We had a 20-minute wait before our tour started but no problem. Tickets are picked up a Radio City Sweet and Gift Shop. We loaded up on our favorite candies.  

The tour started in the Art Deco main lobby with a history of the building which was built in 1929 when the stock market crashed.  The area was known as the “speakeasy belt” so John D. Rockefeller’s plan was to gentrify the area and provide jobs.  The guide pointed out unique aspects in the 60-foot high Grand Foyer such as the carpet that features abstract designs of musical instruments and the massive “The Fountain of Youth” mural. The impressive theater
was designed to bring to mind a sunset.  There is no bad seat in the house as there are no pillars.  It is the largest indoor theater in the world with seating for 6000 people. The original stage is amazing; it can be raised and lowered plus the center portion can be rotated with a push of the button.  The ladies’ powder room still retains the elegance of an earlier day when people dressed in their finest to go to Radio City. The highlight of the tour was meeting one of the Rockettes. Rockettes must be physically fit because there are times when they do four shows a day. They must be at least 18 years old and between five-six and five-ten. About 500 try out each year for the 80 positions.  The Rockette I met has been one for 15 years.

We also used our Explorer Pass for Circle Line’s “Best of New
York City” for which we paid a $5 upgrade.  It was worth it.  We had never completely circled Manhattan Island. The boat went up the East River and down the Hudson past the Statue of Liberty. There are 20 bridges that connect Manhattan Island to the mainland. Some of the bridges are lift bridges and
some swing bridges.  We had to wait for the northbound train to go over one of the bridges before it could be lifted.  Dave, our tour guide, was one of the best guides we have ever had.  He obviously had a theater background so not only did we learn a lot of interesting facts it was fun. We also used our pass to take the hop-on hop-off tour; a “must-do” when visiting any city. There are several routes to choose from. 

Apr 25, 2016

Kentucky Derby Time

The most exciting Kentucky Derby for those of us who live in
Upstate New York was in 2003 when Funny Cide from Sackets Harbor “Ran for the Roses.” He was the first New York bred horse to win the Derby.  After Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby the excitement continued when he went on to win the Preakness Stake. Excitement reached a fever pitch when Funny Cide ran in the Belmont Stakes. A win at Belmont would mean Funny Cide would earn the coveted Triple Crown. Alas, Funny Cide came in third but his name is in a place of honor at Churchill Downs with all the other Kentucky Derby winners. 

The gleaming white Churchill Downs has an elegant look and in front of the main entrance is a larger than life statue to Barbaro, winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby. On a visit to Louisville, Kentucky, John and I went to the Kentucky Derby Museum and toured Churchill Downs.  There are several tours: the Barnyard and Backside Van Tour was booked several days ahead but we were able to get tickets for Behind the Scenes
Walking Tour. The tour included the betting windows, the statue of jockey Pat Day (the all-time leading rider at Churchill Down), and the viewing areas.  The view of the race track was impressive.  I tried to imagine 170,000 people standing while the Louisville Marching Band played the derby’s signature song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” and most of the people singing along. Most likely visitors will not see many race horses but there is a paddock with two horses including a “resident thoroughbred,” Twinspired. The race is called “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports.” There are many events leading up to race day which is always the first Saturday in May.  

The Kentucky Derby Museum has everything a race aficionado dreams of from jockey racing silks to a 360-projection of “The Greatest Race,” to a simulated horse race where visitors can try their skill as a jockey. When the race is televised they always show ladies in their extravagant derby hats.  The hats have their own dedicated section in the museum. After the race there is a contest for the most “outrageous” hats. About 25 hats are selected to be on display for a year. 

John and I had lunch at the Derby Café and imbibed on the
traditional derby cocktail – a Mint Julep made with mint and, of course, Kentucky bourbon. Each year almost 120,000 Mint Juleps are served over the two-day period of Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby weekend. The café also offers another specialty cocktail – the “Donerail: The Longest Shot.” It is served in a souvenir hand-blown shot glass. The drink pays homage to the 1913 Derby Winner who had the biggest long shot victory in the history of the Derby. With odds at 91-1, a $2 ticket paid out $184.90, which is what this unique cocktail costs. We passed on that Derby tradition and decided on another Kentucky specialty. Kentucky Burgoo, the state’s official dish, a mixture of at least three meats and plenty of vegetables; and, we ended with Derby Pie, a decadent chocolate and walnut tart in a pie shell. 

There are many other great places to visit in Louisville. While in Louisville we visited: The Mohammed Ali Museum, the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, the Frazier, and the Evan Bourbon Experience. 

Best Beach in Asia - Ngapali

 When I see the many articles listing the “Top Ten Beaches” it
seemed to me that sooner later every great beach would make the list so I knew Ngapali Beach in Myanmar would be discovered; it finally made CNN’s list of “Best Beaches” in February 2016. John and I have been to Ngapali Beach nine times, staying each year at Amazing Resort. Ngapali Beach is truly a wonderful beach on the Bay of Bengal. For us it is

perfect: soft sand, warm water, no annoying vendors, and virtually devoid of tourists. We could leave our things on our beach lounge and knew it would still be there when we returned.  There are no jet skis, recreational boats, standup paddle boarding, and other beach activities found at more “popular” beaches. We especially loved Amazing Resort because it reflected Myanmar culture, all rooms have a view of the Bay of Bengal, the staff is “amazing,” and it was the only hotel on “our”
section of the two-mile beach even though are were hotels on other sections of the beach. But, things are changing.  There are now a couple hotels on “our” section of the beach including a slick Hilton which could be anywhere in the world as there is little to make guests feel that they are in Myanmar; and, they are located at the far end of the beach where there are many rocks so they don’t have a beach.  Even though there are now a couple other hotels on “our” section of the beach and more being built they have not had any impact on Amazing Ngapali – yet. 

All of Myanmar has seen a dramatic increase in tourism, especially from the United States and Europe, has had its impact on all of Myanmar.  I was surprised to learn there is now a water sports center offering scuba diving and other tours in Ngapali. We booked Ngapali’s Water and Sport Center’s “Land and Sea” tour. It was very professional and well organized. An air-conditioned van with a driver and a guide, Mr. Ko Ko, picked us up at the hotel and off we went.  One thing I notice is that the roads have been improved; and, now Ngapali has a stop light.

Our first stop was the market in the nearby city of Thandwe.
Markets in Asia are not what most Western people think of. There are many outdoor stalls that sell everything from clothing to fish to spices and more. In Myanmar things are still done the old fashioned way – that will change soon.  We stopped at a weaving factory where the young ladies were making bamboo placemats and longyis, the wrap-around cloth that serves as clothing for men and women. The looms are hand and foot operated. A weaver can make one ten-yard longyi each day. 

We also stopped at a monastery where two venerable, mummified monks are on display. The story is they said they were “going to sleep” and they still are I guess. They say their hair and nails still grown. My favorite part of the tours was the hour-ride on the serene Thann Ba Yar River to the Bay of Bengal where we boarded the dive boat and joined two divers. They said the diving was great. The water is protected by the navy. After lunch we boated to Lone Thar fishing village and then back to the hotel. It was a great day. 

Apr 12, 2016

Pandaw Kindat Cruise - Mandalay to Bagan

John and I are not fond of tour groups but a cruise accomplishes the
same thing better without changing hotels. We flew Air Asia from Bangkok to Mandalay and stayed at the Amazing Hotel Mandalay which has a good central location. The Pandaw people picked us up at the hotel and transported us to the Pandaw Kindat.  We chose a Pandaw cruise because the ships are built by the same company, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, which had hundreds of ships that plied the river during their British colonial days when their fleet numbered in the hundreds.  When the Japanese attacked during WW II they sank all their ships but now are building new ones in the same style but with all the modern amenities. 

The seven-day cruise was a wonderful mix of touring the historical sites, visiting handicraft shops (In Myanmar things are made and done the old-fashioned way) and free time to lounge in the sun, read, or just watch life along the river.  The staff was amazing, anticipating every need, and attending to every detail including cleaning our shoes after every shore trip.  The meals were gourmet.

Myanmar is called, “The Golden Land” for good reason; there are
many temples, pagodas, and Buddha statues adorned with gold. In Mandalay we visited Mahamuni Pagoda where the faithful have adorned the Buddha with so much gold leaf that the statue is now many times its original size.  To meet the need for gold leaf pounders using sledge hammers pound the gold into the thinnest foil. They
work from sunrise to sunset with a break for lunch for about $6 a day. After visiting a beautiful teak monastery in a horse and cart we took a small boat on Taungthaman Lake to watch the sun set on U Bein, the world’s longest teak bridge.  I noticed that one of the crew
members who came along was the boat’s bartender. Jokingly I said, “You know it is going to be a great tour when you bring your bartender along.  It was no joke; he served us Sunset Cocktails while we were sitting in our boat watching the sun set. Unforgettable. 

Every day was an adventure. Normally I am not a fan of going to workshops but in Myanmar they still make products the old-fashioned way and not to just show tourists.  One day we stopped at a small pottery-making village where we could see the entire process from breaking up the hard clay to firing the pot in an earthen kiln. Myanmar people are very friendly so when they offered some of their locally brewed tea we were quick to accept.  It was sweet and delicious. 

We visited all the famous historical sites between Mandalay and Bagan. Bagan, with over 3000 temples, is the crown jewel of Myanmar. Part of the fun was getting to the sites.  Yes, we sometime took a bus but I rode an ox cart to the Mingun Bell, crossed a small
river to see ancient Ava, and we toured a village market in a tuk-tuk stopping at a school on the way back. On board we were entertained by traditional Myanmar dancing, singing, puppetry, and other cultural presentations. In retrospect I realized the cruise was very value-laden because the cruise included accommodations, tours admission fees, tour guides, various mean of transportation, and the wonderful meals and free-flowing libations.