March 30, 2015

The fantasy village of Portmeirion, Wales

It’s not often you find a retreat where many diverse interests can all be satisfied on site.  But the fantasy Italianate village of Portmeirion qualifies.  Located in a remote corner of northern Wales on Cardigan Bay in the Irish Sea, it is about a five-hour drive or four-hour train ride from central London.  More . . .

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image ©2015 Carole Terwilliger Meyers

Portmeirion in Wales

March 27, 2015

Paradors of Spain offer unique lodging

Spread throughout the varied countryside, Spain’s government-operated paradors operate inside converted historical buildings that are often in remote, scenic areas. Accommodations are comfortable and sometimes elegant, with original museum-quality art on the walls and antiques among the furnishings, and the house restaurants present dishes representative of the region’s cuisine. Children are welcome in all paradors. Considering the quality level, prices are surprisingly reasonable.  more . . .

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image ©2015 Carole Terwilliger Meyers

cliff-top Parador de Ronda in Ronda, Spain

March 25, 2015

Don't miss a dip in the Gellert Thermal Baths in Budapest, Hungary

After enduring a 24-hour-plus journey from San Francisco to Budapest, I checked into my hotel, then quickly hopped into a cab to reach the famous Gellert thermal baths before they closed.

Once there, I was overwhelmed by the size and beauty of this art nouveau gem.  Japanese tourists waiting in line were as confused as I, studying the "menu" of options but presciently requesting a safe for their valuables.  Before my husband was siphoned off to the men's side, we agreed to meet later in the outdoor pools, and the adventure was on.

An unfriendly attendant . . .   More . . .

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image ©2015 Carole Terwilliger Meyers 

outside pool at Gellert Baths in Budapest, Hungary

March 23, 2015

Things to Do: Harlem Gospel Tour, NYC

I took this tour many years ago.  It might have a changed a bit since then, but the overall experience is the same.

Harlem Gospel Tour  690 8th Ave., NYC 10019, (800) 660-2166, (212) 391-0900.  A new day is dawning in Harlem.  The place is hot.  Especially with Europeans.  However, most out-of-towners don’t get there on the famous A train.  Instead, thousands of tourists--mostly Europeans--head uptown each week on various organized tours.  Because I am interested in attending a Gospel church service, I choose the “Harlem on Sunday” tour. 

The chaos of boarding behind us, our bus heads up the West Side into the high street numbers beyond 110th Street, where Harlem officially begins.  The border is obvious--the green stops and the graffiti starts.  Though this is the English-speaking tour, everyone except me and my companion are foreigners.  They hail from Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland (home of the original Haarlem), and Japan.  Our charming guide, Mahalia, a young Haitian woman with a dry sense of humor, fills us in on Harlem’s history, telling us that until the 1830s it was a little village buried deep in the north country of Manhattan.  Then, speculation turned it from an extension of Central Park into a concrete jungle.

In Harlem Heights we get off the bus to view Alexander Hamilton’s meticulously kept house and run into some notorious local color--an African-American panhandler who is not happy that our tour guide has brought us into the ‘hood and hurls expletives her way.  He is obviously on something, but she handles it well.  With our attention drawn to his ill behavior, we almost miss the reality beneath this cliché--the many other peaceful neighborhood people, most decked out in their Sunday best. 

We get back on the bus and travel through the attractive, well-maintained neighborhoods of Sugar Hill and Morningside Heights, passing the beautiful gothic City College campus, which is second only to U.C. Berkeley in number of faculty members who are Nobel Prize winners.

Paradise Baptist Church in Harlem on Harlem Gospel Tour in NYC

Our destination among the approximately 400 churches in Harlem is the Paradise Baptist Church, a small church with lots of heart.  We file into the modest assembly hall furnished with movie-theatre-style folding seats spattered with dried paint.  A bulletin board tells about the church’s progress in paying off its mortgage, and I assume hosting groups like ours helps toward that goal.  Most of the women are dressed in white, which is traditional for church officials and ushers on certain Sundays when they are being honored, and the men are spiffily dressed in black suits.  After a rousing song, everyone in the congregation circulates to greet the other worshipers, including us.  The hugs and handshakes are so sincerely warm that I feel they are truly glad we are here.  The only awkwardness seems to be with the French, who naturally want to do a second air-kiss on the cheek. 

There is more singing, and we sway to the rhythm, making offerings in the basket passed around as the choir--some of whom have positively angelic faces--sings “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”  This is followed by a long, drawn-out rendition of “I’ll Be All Right” that just about brings down the roof.  Several teens in our group jump up to the beat only to be pulled back down by their parents.  Anyone who was dozing is awake now.  A member of the congregation is overcome and collapses.  One of those women in white, this one with a nurse’s cap, comes to her aid along with other members of the congregation.  (Two nurses are always in attendance at these emotional services.)  Due to time restraints, we are ushered out before the sermon starts, as sermons can go on for several hours here.

Apollo Theatre in Harlem on Harlem Gospel Tour in NYC

After stops to stroll through a leafy neighborhood, walk along wide 125th Street in front of the world-famous Apollo Theatre (which is open selling t-shirts and other souvenirs from the lobby), and make a pit stop in an ever-reliable McDonald’s, we return to mid-town. 

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images ©2015 Carole Terwilliger Meyers

March 20, 2015

Things to Do: Circle Line boat tour, NYC

Circle Line  (212) 563-3200.  Tours depart from Pier 83 on West 42nd St. Reservations not needed.  The absolutely best way to see Manhattan’s famous skyline must surely be by boat.  The well-established Circle Line has been doing this for more than 60 years, and has it down pat.  From the tour options, I chose the 2½-hour full circle cruise.  While your tired tootsies get a break, the boat completely circles the entire island of Manhattan--past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, around the southern end past Battery Park and Wall Street, under the Brooklyn Bridge, past Roosevelt Island and Gracie Mansion, past Harlem on one side and Yankee Stadium on the other (where we witnessed the aftermath of an automobile accident and a resulting traffic jam that makes me very thankful I am on a car-less vacation), around the amazingly park-like northern end of the island, where a small bridge opens up especially for our boat, then down past Grant’s tomb and back to the dock.  For the best views and picture-taking opportunities, sit on the port side--the left side as you face forward heading south. 

Among the tidbits culled from the oration is that NYC was the country’s first capital and that in those early days George Washington hung out on Wall Street.  We also learn the “only thing” free in NYC is the original Staten Island Ferry; it once cost a nickel, but collecting the fare was so hard that the officials threw in the towel and made it free.

lower Manhattan skyline from Circle Line boat

Statue of Liberty from Circle Line boat

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images ©2015 Carole Terwilliger Meyers

March 18, 2015

Sights to See: Lower East Side Tenement Museum, NYC

Lower East Side Tenement Museum  103 Orchard St./Broome St., (877) 975-3786.  Tours daily 10am-5:30pm; reservations advised.  $25, 65+ & students $20; suitable for age 8+.  Once there were 23 factories just on this block, which was also the most densely populated block in the city.  Now a National Historic Landmark, the tenement building that houses the museum was, between 1863 and 1935, home to 7,000 people from more than 20 countries.  First it was Germans, who were replaced by Europeans and Jews, then Italians, then Chinese.  Then, in 1935, they were all evicted because the landlord didn’t want to comply with new fire code laws.  Typical tenement design was five floors, four apartments on each floor, and store front property on the bottom floor.  Before your tour you can view a 30-minute film on immigration, the Lower East Side, and the museum. 

exterior of Lower East Side Tenement Museum in NYC

Baldizzi kitchen at Lower East Side Tenement Museum in NYC

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images courtesy of museum 

March 16, 2015

Sights to See: The Jewish Museum, NYC

The Jewish Museum  1109 Fifth Ave./E. 92nd St., (212) 423-3200.  Thur-F 11am-5:45pm, Thur to 8pm, closed W.  $15, 65+ $12, students 19+ $7.50, Sat free.  Housed inside an exquisite 1908 French Renaissance mansion, this small museum holds the largest collection of Judaica in the U.S.  A new cafe, Russ & Daughters at the Jewish Museum, will open in summer of 2015.

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images courtesy of museum 

exterior of The Jewish Museum in NYC

Nicole Eisenman’s “Seder," in Masterpieces & Curiosities show at The Jewsish Museum in NYC
Nicole Eisenman’s “Seder," in Masterpieces & Curiosities show

March 13, 2015

Things to Do: Central Park Bike Tours, NYC

I took this tour many years ago.  It might have a changed a bit since then, but the overall experience is the same.

After downing a quick New York breakfast of bacon, eggs, and coffee at a nearby coffee shop, we dash around the corner to the meeting spot for our bike tour of Central Park.  There we meet Sebastien, a young Frenchman who has lived here about six months and is our guide.  (Someone told me that in NYC, where everyone is from some other place, anyone who stays a year is an official New Yorker.)  Sebastien sits on a folding chair by Columbus Circle, which is roaring with traffic, and calmly smokes a pipe  as his group--which includes just my husband and me and two stewardesses from Belgium--gathers.

bike tour of Central Park in NYC

After picking up our bikes from a nearby underground garage, we peddle off into lush, green Central Park.  Completely man-made, the park dates back to 1857.  At that time it was literally a pig sty and was described by a journalist of the times as a “pestilential spot where miasmatic odors taint every breath of air.” The founding idea was to build a municipal park where poorer residents could escape for a time the squalidness of city life.  Frederick Law Olmsted--who later consulted on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, which was patterned after Central Park--was appointed chief architect of the park’s design.  Now the park is home to more than 180 species of bird and is particularly pleasant for biking because it is closed to traffic daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m. and all day on weekends. 

We stop at various locations--the Gothic dairy building, where cows were kept until the turn of the century; the Conservatory Water pond, where model yachts race on summer Saturdays (we purchase drinks here and sit for a while, chatting, while pigeons accurately target us from above); Strawberry Fields, a teardrop-shaped grove maintained by Yoko Ono in memory of her assassinated husband, John Lennon.  Along the way, Sebastien points out architecturally impressive penthouses occupied by Al Pacino, Woody Allen, and Madonna.  We ride around the Reservoir, then park our bikes at the Shakespeare Garden and follow a path leading to Belvedere Castle--a model of a Scottish castle now serving as a children’s learning center. 

Throughout our route we are sharing the paths with in-line skaters, walkers, moms and dads pushing strollers, and even a film crew.  For almost as far as we can see it is green grass and trees, punctuated with color by assorted blooming flowers. 

A major embellishment to this tour is running into David.  A Hassidic Jew, he is dressed traditionally in black and sports the distinctive sideburn locks of the sect.  He initiates conversation when we stop and wants to know where we are all from and what we are doing.  When I ask him what his name is, he answers, “Peace.  Love.  Yellow.  Rainbow.  Water.  Full.  I want to feel full.”  Baffled, we all look at each other, thinking he is probably another sad victim of city life.  But just in time he cheerfully continues, “My other name is David.” He seems genuinely interested when I tell him my son’s name is also David.   We continue chatting with him, learning that he is retired from the diamond business and now is just taking life easy, hanging out in the park and meeting new people.  We pedal on, chalking up David as one of those inexplicable characters who give New York its, well, character.

Sebastien says the actual tour route varies with the group.  “Germans like to go and not stop,” he says.  “For elderly people and kids, we slow it down.  It’s o.k.  We wait for them.”

Later, when we tell some resident New Yorker friends about this tour, they are very interested and want to take it, too.  I suggest they just rent some bikes since they know the park, but they say they rarely spend time in Central Park and that we actually know more about it now than they do.  They want the tour guide, too.
Central Park Bike Tours, 203 W. 58th St., 212-541-8759

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image ©2015 Carole Terwilliger Meye

March 11, 2015

A memorable stay in the Blue Moon Hotel in NYC

As our cab drove from the airport into NYC, the sun reflected just so in the glass side of a tall building as to register golden—bringing to mind the promise to immigrants of streets paved with gold.  This seemed a prescient sight, since we were about to be dropped off on the Lower East Side at a restored eight-story brick tenement building that opened in 2006 as the Blue Moon Hotel.

Once a densely populated slum, this cutting edge, hip neighborhood . . .  More . . .

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Duke Ellington Room at Blue Moon Hotel in NYC
Duke Ellington Room at Blue Moon Hotel in NYC
image ©2015 Carole Terwilliger Meyers

March 9, 2015

Kramer's Seinfeld Reality Tour in NYC

the Real Kenny Kramer in front on the famous restaurant in NYCTo celebrate a high-numbered wedding anniversary, which here will remain unnamed, my husband and I planned a visit to New York City.  And, being “Seinfeld” freaks, to make it really special we decided to do something, instead of nothing, and signed up for “Kramer’s Reality Tour.”

When I called to make the reservation, I got Kenny Kramer himself, who by now everyone must know is the real Kramer who the TV Kramer is modeled after.  He informed me that the tour was booked up but . . .  More . . .

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image copyright unknown

March 6, 2015

Sights to See: Aoshima Island ("Cat Island"), Japan

On Aoshima Island in southern Japan, cats outnumber people by six to one.  More . . .

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posting tip from Barbara Carlson
image courtesy of Reuters free use

March 4, 2015

Things to Do: Center for Jewish History, NYC

Center for Jewish History  15 West 16th St./5th Ave., 1 blk. from Union Square, (212) 294-8301.  Open hours.  Free.  A small gallery displays a collection related to Jewish history, culture, and languages.  The center also offers genealogy services, public lectures, films, and music programs.  The Yeshiva University Museum is also at this site; check website for hours and admission fees. 

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March 2, 2015

Guest Post: Buddhist Water-Blessing Ceremony in Cambodia

Honeymoon in Cambodia: An Inside Peek Into a Buddhist Water Blessing Ceremony
guest post by Suzanne Flores

During our honeymoon in Cambodia, my husband and I had the rare opportunity to experience a traditional Cambodian Buddhist water blessing, a sacred ritual for cleansing and good luck that dates back to ancient times.  While the ceremony is not exclusively meant for newlyweds, it’s an ideal experience for honeymooners seeking a unique and “out-of-the-box” way to bless this important commitment…as long as being splashed with (a lot of) water is not a deal breaker!   More . . . 

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image courtesy of Suzanne Flores