Spain Leaves its Mark at St. Augustine

Castillo de San Marcos fort in St. Augustine

Castillo de San Marcos fort in St. Augustine

When I was a young kid growing up in Bradenton FL, one of the most exciting annual events was a parade honoring Hernando de Soto, who’d landed in the area in 1539. I didn’t care about that, of course. For me, it was the men dressed up as Spanish conquistadores who tossed coin-shaped chocolates wrapped in gold foil to families lined up along the road. We then moved to Tallahassee, where, like all fourth graders across the country, I learned about state history. One of my favorite stories was of Ponce de León, said to have come to Florida in search of the fountain of youth. But although he didn’t find it (and may not have even been looking for it), I was proud of the fact that if it indeed existed, it might be in my own home state. I remember thinking, “I hope someone finds it!”

Of course, the Spanish legacy in Florida is more enduring than parades and childhood fantasies, none more so than St. Augustine, which claims to be the oldest city in the US. Although Ponce de León claimed La Florida for Spain after his arrival in 1513 in hopes that the region might contain some of the riches found in Spain’s other American colonies, Florida turned out to have none of those. It did, however, offer a strategic location for Spanish ships plying the waters between the Americas and Europe.

dscn1204The town of St. Augustine was founded in 1565, 42 years before the English colony at Jamestown VA and 53 years before the pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. The Spaniards were hopeful that St. Augustine could serve as a potential outpost for turning a profit in agriculture, fisheries, naval stores and ship building. For protection against British colonies, St. Augustine’s Castillo de San Marcos was built in the 1670s and today is the oldest masonry and only extant 17th-century fort in North America. It was constructed of a porous limestone called coquina, which it turns out was perfect for cannon warfare because rather than shattering, the coquina walls absorbed cannonballs, kind of like a bb gun’s bullets might be swallowed by thick Styrofoam. Spain managed to rule over Florida from 1565 to 1821, except for 20 years when the British flag flew over the region from 1763 to 1784. In 1821, Florida was purchased by the United States.

In St. Augustine is also an attraction called Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, which recreates the settlement founded by Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565. There’s even a spring there, said to have quenched Ponce de León’s thirst and instrumental in St. Augustine’s founding and location. Tourists have been visiting the spring since 1868, drinking its waters in hopes of eternal youth. If you want, you can even buy a bottle of the spring water with “Fountain of Youth” written on it. I’m not sure whether it works, but both of my Floridian grandmothers could have visited what is touted as Florida’s oldest tourist attraction and drunk from the spring. One lived to 97 and the other to 99. On the other hand, Ponce de León only made it to 47.

And sadly, Florida’s fresh water is under siege, with pollution, increased population and rising sea levels all playing a part in its demise. Hope may spring eternal, but the Fountain of Youth’s days may be numbered.

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A Slice of Paradise in Chile

DSCN0104There are some places that no matter how long you stay, it’s never long enough. And so I daydream about the Andean lakes region, which straddles both sides of the Chilean and Argentinean border and is blessed with 5,000-foot peaks, dozens of lakes, snow-capped volcanoes and rushing streams and waterfalls. While the lakes region is hardly undiscovered, it remains widely unknown.

DSCN0042-2Tourism came to the area 100 years ago, promoted by a Swiss man who touted it for its combination overland/boat trip between Chile andDSCN0208 Argentina. Today, you can take a series of bus and boat rides from Puerto Varas in Chile to Bariloche in Argentina, on a circuit known as the Cruce de Lagos (Lakes Crossing). Most people do the trip in two days, with an overnight stay at Puella, which offers horseback riding, fly Horseback riding in Peullafishing, kayaking, ziplines and trekking. Although it’s a year-round destination, peak season is during Chile’s summer (December-February), when there’s daylight from 5:30am to 10:30pm. But probably the prettiest months are in autumn (April and May).


Mt. Osorno is a 8,700-foot symmetrical cone-shaped volcano that’s dubbed Mt. Fuji

It’s a magical landscape, which ranges from dense forests rising from sparkling lakes to emerald-green verdant pastures dotted with grazing cattle and sheep and alpine-style farmhouses. A temperate rainforest, the region receives lots of rain, with about 160 rainy days and 125 inches of rainfall a year. That translates into a lush countryside that’s tropical with ferns and bamboo but also alpine, almost like it’s a Swiss-Olympic Peninsula-Hawaiian hybrid.

DSCN0126But it’s the sky’s remarkable clarity I remember most. On days when the sky is clear, it’s so blue it seems digitally enhanced. And on cloudless nights, the stars are so many and so distinct they take your breath away.



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Mesa Verde Vertigo

DSCN0009I’m sure Star Trek fans would choose differently, but if I had a time machine I would go back in time rather than leap forward into the future. Perhaps it’s because my imagination is limited by what I can imagine. And when I see an ancient place, or even just an abandoned farmhouse, I can’t help but wonder about the people who lived there, their dreams and their disappointments and what for them constituted daily life.

And so I wonder about the Ancestral Pueblo natives who inhabited what we now call Mesa Verde (“Green Table” in Spanish), constructing elaborate stone communities and cliff dwellings in the sheltered outcroppings of canyon walls. A national park and World Heritage Site, it’s a powerful reminder of a people who called this area home from about about 600 to 1300 AD. Some of the cliff dwellings are precariously situated; many require athleticism just to reach. It wasn’t unusual for several generations to live together. Excavations reveal much about what they ate, what they made, what they may have traded with other people. But much about them remains a mystery.

DSCN0004No one knows, for example, exactly why they left, whether it was drought, war, famine or simply the human desire to pick up and move on. But having lived here for some 700 years, the Ancestral Pueblo people must have felt the close presence of past generations who had come before, wondering too, perhaps, about their lives, dreams and disappointments.

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Hotel Reviews in Forbes Travel Guide

Imperial Hotel

Imperial Hotel

I don’t even want to think about how many hotel rooms I’ve stayed in and/or inspected during my decades writing guide books. With time, it becomes hard to come up with yet another way to describe a Japanese business hotel or nondescript motel, so when a property stands out in some way–even a bad way–the writing is much easier. Like the Japanese hotel with hallway carpeting so outrageously colorful I suggested it might be worth springing for a room on the more subdued executive floor. Or the hotel elevator with such psychedelic wallpaper that I surmised it might give some guests a flashback.

But then there are hotels like the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, and the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi, which stand out for other reasons, including great rooms, impeccable service and great locactions. I’ve covered both hotels for years in my Frommer’s guides. Recently, I also wrote reviews of the Imperial and the spa at the Four Seasons for Forbes Travel Guide.


Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi

What I find most interesting about the Imperial is its long history, first built in 1890 to accommodate foreign visitors and redesigned in 1923 by Frank Lloyd Wright. Regrettably, the entire hotel was demolished and rebuilt in 1970, with a 31-story tower added in 1983. Now you have to go to the architectural museum Meiji Mura, located outside Nagoya, to see the facade and lobby of Wright’s handsome brick hotel. But the Imperial has a great location, near the Imperial Palace and Ginza and across from leafy Hibiya Park. And although it’s a rather large hotel, with more than 1,000 rooms, its staff is one of the best around. The lobby can buzz with groups and activity, but the concierge does a great job answering questions, making dinner reservations and helping wayward souls.

In contrast, the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi is an intimate property, with only 57 rooms and a spa that offers a traditional hot-spring bath and two treatment rooms with a surprising number of options. Its location is also superb, between Tokyo Station and Ginza.

You can’t go wrong staying at either hotel. In fact, Tokyo has so many great hotels, I wish I could try all of them.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel at Meiji Mura

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel at Meiji Mura

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A Fan of Fans

The warm summer months are almost upon us, which reminds me of the first time I saw a Japanese woman cooling herself with a fan, and instantly I knew: I want one of those!

Fans for sale at Oriental Bazaar in Tokyo

Fans for sale at Oriental Bazaar in Tokyo

Over the years I’ve acquired a modest collection of Japanese fans, some of them purchased in souvenir shops, some given to me as presents, some passed out free by companies as advertisements. While I appreciated their practicality and their beauty, it wasn’t until I visited the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts that I also grew to appreciate the work and skill that goes into crafting the slats of wood that form the ribs, producing the paper, and painting the designs that grace the very best.

No one knows exactly how the idea of fans originated (though my money is on a middle-aged woman experiencing her first hot flash), but the Chinese were using flat, rigid fans by the 2nd century B.C. and exported their invention to Japan some time around the 7th century, whereupon the Japanese improved on the concept by inventing the folding fan. Before long, folding fans, made of cypress ribs covered with parchment, evolved from being merely functional to becoming an essential accessory, the rage of the Heian court (794-1192). As the centuries passed, they also assumed an importance in Shinto religious ceremonies, dances, the tea ceremony, and theatrical arts.

Today, Japanese fans range from inexpensive souvenirs to handmade, exquisitely crafted folding fans that can cost well over $500. For me, however, fans remain mostly a means to stay cool (I don’t use much air conditioning at home), and I keep my collection handy to pass out to visiting friends. I also keep one in my purse, and when I pull it out to fan myself in line at the post office, at an outdoor concert, or a baseball game, someone will invariably turn to me and say: “I wish I had one of those!”


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A Hakodate Stopover

Commodore Perry in Hakodate

Commodore Perry in Hakodate

More than a quarter of a century ago, it used to be a long haul to travel from Tokyo to Hakodate, long considered the gateway to Hokkaido. After traveling the better part of a day by train to the tip of Honshu island, you then had to board a ferry for the 4-hour journey onward to Hakodate. I always thought the ferry was a fun change from the usual train travel, though there were also times when all I wanted was to get to Hakodate as quickly as possible and settle into my hotel. Then, in 1988, the Seikan Tunnel opened for business, with an underwater rail line between Honshu and Hokkaido cutting travel time from Tokyo to Hakodate to about six hours.

Now, of course, 1988 seems quaintly ancient. Last month the Hokkaido Shinkansen made its debut, linking Tokyo and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station in just a little more than four hours. Heck, you could almost do Hakodate on a day trip! But while the Hokkaido Shinkansen is good news for Hokkaido, I’m not so sure it’s great for Hakodate. For one thing, Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station is not actually in Hakodate itself but rather a 20-minute train ride away. Furthermore, the Hokkaido Shinkansen will eventually be extended all the way to Sapporo, with an expected completion sometime around 2030.  In other words, long gone are the days when Hakodate was about as far as you could get in a day’s journey from Tokyo. Bypassed by the Shinkansen, it is also no longer the gateway to Hokkaido. My guess is that many visitors will literally pass it by. And that’s a shame, because Hakodate is a great stopover destination.

Motomachi, Hakodate

Motomachi, Hakodate

In addition to a famous nighttime attraction and an early morning must-see, Hakodate boasts historic districts I love to explore. Indeed, with its old-fashioned streetcars, waterfront brick warehouses now housing restaurants and shops, and broad sloping streets lined with turn-of-the-20th-century Western-style clapboard homes, former embassies and churches, Hakodate retains the atmosphere of a frontier port town. Maybe that’s why more than 60 movies have been filmed here in as many years. For young Japanese, Hakodate is irresistibly romantic.

One of the most romantic spots is atop Mount Hakodate, 1,100 feet high and accessible from the city center in just three minutes via cable car. Although the view of Hakodate’s lights shimmering like jewels on black velvet is impressive, what I most like about the experience is the camaraderie among viewers and the collective oohs and ahs of arriving newcomers (take note: it’s chilly at the top, even in August).

The next morning I always get up early to walk through the morning market, convenientlyDSCN0178 located right next to Hakodate Station and famous for its huge crabs. Motomachi, with its churches, former administrative buildings, and vintage homes, is another great place for a stroll, as is the nearby warehouse district with its shopping and dining opportunities. If time permits, you might also wish to take in the Museum of Northern Peoples with its Ainu artifacts; Goryokaku, a park famous for its cherry trees and 150-year-old star-shaped fort; and the hot-spring baths in Yunokawa. There’s also the Seikan Ferry Memorial Mashu-maru, which chronicles the history of ferry transportation between Honshu and Hokkaido from 1908 to 1988.

Although traveling by train is unquestionably faster, I sometimes miss the days of the ferry, when unpredictable weather patterns, vistas of open seas, and passenger rooms filled with families, noisy tour groups, and business travelers made getting to Hokkaido as much of an adventure as being there. But for romantics who still like traveling the old-fashioned way, there is still ferry service between Aomori and Hakodate. If possible, therefore, I suggest arriving in Hokkaido by ferry. Save the futuristic-looking bullet train for the trip back.

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Florida History Museum in Need of an Update

IMG_1214I enjoy visiting history museums because I like history and I find it a relatively painless way to learn about the past and how it influences today. So it was a given that I would stop by the Museum of Florida History during a long weekend in Tallahassee, especially because I’d spent much of my childhood living in Florida, including fourth grade, when students learn about their state’s history.

So I was looking forward to a refresher course on some of the things I’d learned as a child or remembered–Ponce de Leon and his search for the Fountain of Youth, Seminole Indians and the Trail of Tears, oranges, the Everglades, 1950s tourism, the beaches and Florida’s phenomenal growth throughout the 1900s that brought Northerners, including my parents’ families, to the Sunshine State.

What I found was a museum that concentrated largely on the Spanish presence in the region, admittedly a long time, from 1513 when Ponce de Leon claimed it for Spain to 1763 and again from 1783 to 1821, due mostly to Florida’s location as a safeguard for ships sailing between Central and South America and Spain. St. Augustine, of course, is Florida’s most obvious relic from those times, constructed as a military town to protect Spain’s fleet carrying mostly silver.

A Tin Can Camper, popular among tourists in the early 1900s

A Tin Can Camper, popular among tourists in the early 1900s

I also learned about the mastodons and other big mammals that died out or were hunted to extinction, about the estimated 350,000 to one million Native Americans who were living here when Ponce de Leon arrived but whose numbers dwindled due to hostilities, disease brought by settlers and captivity as slaves. The museum chronicles Florida’s Confederate role during the Civil War, its rise as the world’s largest producer of citrus, and the waves of tourists following the construction of roads and the completion of Henry Flagler’s railway all the way to Key West in 1912. I also enjoyed the display case of tourist souvenirs from the early 1900s.

But it wasn’t so much what was in the museum as what was conspicuously missing. The museum ends shortly after World War II, thereby missing out on more 70 years of recent history. While there were mentions of the forced removal of the Seminoles, there was no mention of the heartbreaking Trail of Tears. The Everglades, quite possibly Florida’s most impressive physical sight, doesn’t merit more than a passing comment. Neither does Florida’s beaches, its cities like Miami and Orlando, or its nearly 500 native species, such as gators, manatees or the Florida panther.

And the museum certainly doesn’t talk about climate change and how that might affect what is already a water-logged state. Maybe that’s due to Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, who, according to this article in the New Yorker, forbade state workers to discuss climate change or even use those words. Leonard Pitts, a columnist for the Miami Herald, wrote an open letter to Scott on March 15, 2016, about a study that projects as many as 13 million Americans, nearly half of them living in Florida, will be forced to flee or deal with seawater floods by 2100.

So it was with interest that I noticed a map in the Museum of Florida History showing the state’s landmass as it stands today, compared to how it looked more than 12,000 years ago. Back then, the sea level was more than 100 feet lower due to the last Ice Age, making Florida almost twice as large as it is now.

No doubt that map will eventually have to be revised, showing a shrinking shoreline no matter what you call it, at which time it might also be a good idea to bring Florida’s history museum into the 21st century.


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Cherry Blossoms in Japan’s North

DSCN2363There are lots of countries that celebrate spring, but I’ve never been in a country that embraces it so heartily as in Japan. The changing seasons find expression in about everything in Japan, influencing its cuisine, the kimono, artwork gracing a room, haiku and festivals.

The cherry blossom season, which begins in Okinawa and then Kyushu and subsequently races northeast in a glorious fanfare of pink and white flowers, has a tremendous following in Japan, with famous viewing spots throughout the country. But although Kyoto and other destinations are rightfully famous, there are many spots in northern Japan that are equally stunning yet fail to draw international crowds.

This advertorial I wrote for the Japan National Tourism Organization which appeared in the February/March 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveler aims to change that. In any case, international tourism to Japan has increased faster than anyone expected: almost 20 million in 2015 (the goal was 20 million by 2020), more than one million of them from the U.S.

National Geo Ad Feb:Mar 2016 cherry blossoms

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Austin TX Then and Now

The Texas State Capitol is taller than the US Capitol in Washington, D.C.Except, perhaps, for the newcomers who have just moved here (give them a year), everyone in Austin complains about how fast and how much the city is growing. That’s not a new phenomenon, however, as I’m reminded by an article I wrote about Austin that was published in the Chicago Tribune (Jan. 9, 1983), Miami Herald (Oct. 30, 1983) and Los Angeles Times (January 22, 1984).

Here’s a link to the Chicago Tribune archives for my “Laid-back Austin occupies a special place deep in the heart of hearts of Texans.”  When I wrote it, 357,200 people lived in Austin. Now there are an estimated 843,000; it’s reportedly the fastest-growing large city in the U.S.

Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum

Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum

Having seen many of Austin’s sights on previous trips, on a recent visit I decided to spend an afternoon at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum to learn more about Texas (actually, I knew almost nothing). The first thing I learned is that Texas wants us to pay for our knowledge–$12 for an adult interested in Texas history, compared with $7 for the Oklahoma History Center, $8 for the Kansas Museum of History and free admission to the Missouri History Museum.

In my three hours at the museum, I also learned that newcomers have been pouring into Texas a lot longer than it’s been a state, much to the chagrin of the people who came before them. Native Americans, of course, were the first, followed by the French and Spanish.

But it was after 1821, when Mexico won its independence from Spain and included

The Texas history museum has three floors of displays

The Texas history museum has three floors of displays

Texas as part of its new country, that the population really took off. In a move Mexico surely later regretted, it allowed U.S. colonists to settle in Texas, where they were given land for ranging and farming. Already by the late 1820s Anglo immigrants in Texas outnumbered Mexicans and residents of Spanish descent. By 1835, there were 30,000 Anglo Americans here, 3,500 Tejanos (who had lived here more than a century), about 14,000 Indians and 5,000 African slaves. So although the majority Anglos were either invited here or living illegally, they chafed under their Mexican hosts and fought for independence in the Texas Revolution (1935-1936), after which the Republic of Texas flew its own flag, drafted its own constitution and grew by leaps and bounds.

Texas became the 28th state in 1845 and by 1847 it had a population of 142,000. But astonishingly, by 1860 the population had swelled to 600,000, mostly because of the cotton industry fueled by slavery. So it’s no surprise that Texas, which produced more cotton than any other state, joined the Confederate States of America. After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan found a tremendous following in Texas, gaining a majority in the Texas House of Representatives after the 1922 elections and controlling many city governments (Dallas alone had 13,000 members). To the museum’s credit, it doesn’t gloss over the state’s unsavory past.

Other major events in Texas history include the cattle drives from 1866 to 1890 and that biggest one of all–the discovery of oil at the turn of the 20th century and the explosion of boom towns (Beaumont alone grew from 9,000 residents in January 1901 to 30,000 by March that same year).

But best of all, naturally, is awesome Austin City Limits, which opened in 1974 and is the longest-running music program in TV history. A small theater shows highlights. I felt like I was seeing my life flash before my eyes as I watched Willie Nelson (who starred in the 1974 pilot show), Tom Waits, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Foo Fighters and the many other musicians who have provided music to my personal melodramas over the decades.

IMG_1195Back in 1983, I began my story with a scene from the Texas Chili Parlor (“Woe to the preppie who should mistakenly wander into this Texas saloon”), and I’m happy to report that although much has changed in Austin, that establishment is as casual and laid-back as ever. In fact, I would list food as one of the main draws for newcomers relocating to the capital. Time was short, but in addition to the Texas Chili Parlor, my travel companion and I had gut-busting Mexican fare at Polvos, split lasagna and a bottle of red wine at classy Vespaio’s, enjoyed burgers and creek views at Ino’z Brew and Chew in Wimberley, and ate what’s probably the best ribs I’ve ever had at Smitty’s Market in Lockhart.

In any case, this is how I ended my article all those years ago:

“Austin is the only place in Texas,”  said one man who sat in front of his homemade cabin, pulling absent-mindedly at his long beard.

I waited patiently for him to continue, but he didn’t. As far as he was concerned, that was all that needed to be said.


Smitty’s Market

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Lawrence Magazine Features Me

It’s always nice to get recognition in your hometown, especially if most people you know never read anything you write (unless, of course, they happen to be traveling to Japan….).

This short article appeared in the winter edition of Lawrence Magazine, ironically, photonot long after my spectacular bicycle crash in which I broke my left arm and several fingers in my right hand, thereby rendering me incapable of hefting a suitcase, not to mention typing.

After surgeries in October and November (metal plate and eight screws in my arm; two screws in my right-hand little finger, which had only 15% of the remaining middle joint intact and required a bone graft from my hand) I am much better, since almost anything would be better than not being able to dress yourself, wash your own hair or cut your own food. Indeed, my left arm is now out of its sling and I can remove my finger brace to type, but there are several months of therapy in my future. Someday I’ll be on the road again.

Lawrence Magazine, Winter 2015


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