My Favorite Cuban Town Blasted by Hurricane Matthew

A main street in Baracoa

A main street in Baracoa

Baracoa was established in 1511 as Spain’s first settlement in Cuba, but then it languished in obscurity for the next several centuries, isolated and reachable only on foot or by boat. Located on Cuba’s far eastern coast, it became accessible only in the 1960s, when a winding road that threads over mountains and through woods finally made its way here. Tourists, of course, soon followed, prompting many families to open rooms in their homes as casa particulars (the Cuban version of a B&B) to accommodate them. With its brightly-colored buildings, laid-back street life and lack of fancy hotels and pretension or even any tourist sights, it’s the kind of seaside village that would be overrun by backpackers if it were located, say, in Thailand. Still, it gets its fair share of young travelers in peak season, which normally begins in November. After Hurricane Matthew plowed through this week, however, there’s a lot to be done cleaning up debris and repairing roofs and walls. Some families lost their homes entirely. Unlike in Haiti, however, people had time and the means to evacuate, so that not a single life was lost.

I went to Baracoa in May, chosen as an antidote to the big cities of Havana and Santiagoimg_1458 and to picture-perfect, tourist-mobbed Trinidad. Of those four cities, Baracoa was my favorite. I loved spending time in the town’s shady plazas, where townspeople gathered and visited and from which I could observe the steady parade of pedestrians, children in school uniform, motorcycles, bici-taxis (pedicabs) and horse-drawn carriages. There were very few cars and even fewer taxis. One of the things I love most about travel is seeing how other people live and–if, by some miracle–partaking in it; Baracoa, like most villages, is a fast-track to observing and participating in daily life.

img_1528Most Baracoan homes are one- and two-story, lining both sides of dusty streets and with doors and windows flung open wide to catch any breeze. Most have backyard courtyards and rooftops for hanging laundry, growing produce or hanging out. From the roof of my casa particular, I could look out over the neighborhood and watch barefoot teenagers playing soccer in the street, dogs slinking down alleys, boys tending pet pigeons kept in rooftop cages, horses pulling carts full of fruit to sell, and buff young men working out in a courtyard makeshift gym.

On Sunday, my travel companion and I hired a taxi, an orange-colored 1952 Chevrolet that was a far cry from the polished classics cruising for tourists in Havana, to take us to Managua Beach about 10 miles west of town. But first, of course, we dropped off his sister at Duaba Rio, on the riverbank where her friends were gathering for a party; they insisted we later join them. After continuing on the bumpiest and most bone-rattling one-hour ride of my life to Managua Beach, we swam a little, read a little and ate lunch at a table brought down to the beach just for us. But what I most wanted was to join that party. Our taxi driver, whom we’d hired for the day, found a roadside restaurant where we bought beer and rum (we didn’t want to show up empty-handed) and drove us back to the river, where we were met by about 20 people in full swing of having fun, including children of all ages, young couples and an older woman who was a mother, aunt or grandmother to most of them. There was a big pot of stew, beer aplenty and pulsating music blaring from a boombox. Soon everyone was dancing, including us, though we looked ridiculously inept compared to the Cubans, who can make dance look like a close approximation to vertical sex.


A man and his horse outside Baracoa

After the taxi driver drove us back to our casa particular, we asked him to wait while we retrieved from our room a coloring book for his niece, eye shadow for his sister and Ibuprofen for his aunt, whose feet were terribly swollen from diabetes. People in Cuba make out with only the basics, and when they don’t have the basics they improvise (the owner of our casa particular cut aluminum strips from a beer can to repair the stripped threads of our shower’s faucet). Life is hard, and it seems like everyone we met wants more. But though Cubans are very poor, they’re all in it together.

These two girls asked to take a picture of me, so I asked to take a picture of them

These two girls asked to take a picture of me, so I asked to take a picture of them

So though I worry how the Baracoans are faring after Hurricane Matthew leveled more than a few buildings and made the road leading to town impassable, I also know that strong family ties and ingenuity will help get them through. They’re used to being separate and doing things for themselves; Baracoa’s history and vibe makes it different from every other place in Cuba. That river party reminded me that you don’t have to have money to enjoy life with people you love or to show generosity with strangers. When it comes right down to it, it’s the vision of life most of us strive for.


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Colonia del Sacramento Preserves its Past in Uruguay

Colonia del Sacramento is one of those small towns with such a photogenic historic center and a welcoming, laid-back atmosphere, you feel instantly at home. Soon you find yourself imagining living there.

img_0831With a history stretching back more than 330 years and a well-preserved Barrio Histórico that’s been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995, Colonia owes its existence to its strategic location on the Uruguayan side of the wide Río de la Plata. Just a 75-minute ferry ride from Argentina’s Buenos Aires or a two-hour bus ride from Uruguay’s capital of Montevideo, the tidy town is an obvious top choice for a side trip from either capital. With its ancient architecture and right mix of museums, artisan shops, restaurants and sidewalk cafes, the town makes for a stress-free day or two of relaxation and exploration.

Although many travelers make the trip to Colonia just for the day, my travel companion and I opted to spend the night, which allowed time to walk virtually every cobbled street of the historic district, visit several museums and kick back at outdoor cafes and restaurants, giving us a more intimate connection to the city. If we had had more time, two nights would have been even better.

History of Colonia del Sacramento

Portuguese founded Nova Colonia do Santisimo Sacramento in 1680, at a tip of a small peninsula on the opposite side of the Río de la Plata from Buenos Aires, which had been founded a century earlier by the Spanish. This did not sit well with the Spaniards, who promptly attacked the new settlement and threw the Portuguese out. Although a treaty signed in Lisbon restored the town to Portugal shortly thereafter, Colonia’s turbulent beginnings were just a shadow of more to come.

During the War of Spanish Succession in 1704-05, Colonia was attacked again by the Spanish and razed to the ground. It was returned to the Portuguese yet again in 1715, when it grew to more than 1,000 inhabitants and became a thriving commercial center. But a tug of war over Colonia continued over the next century, when it changed hands another seven times, mostly between Portugal and Spain but falling also to Brazil from 1822 to 1828, after which it became part of Uruguay.

Unsurprisingly, war and time destroyed some of Colonia’s earliest structures, including most of its fortifications and some houses. But otherwise the historic district remains remarkably intact, surrounded on three sides by the river and made up mostly of modest one-story buildings that reflect a fusion of Portuguese and Spanish colonial styles and are strung together along narrow cobblestone streets that spill open onto plazas rooted in the town’s founding. One of the most delightful things about Colonia is that you can walk virtually everywhere.

Impressions of Barrio Histórico

img_0865It was a slightly cool, sun-drenched winter’s afternoon when we arrived in Colonia’s historic district, which lent brilliance to the deep-blue sky, gaily painted homes and huge bougainvillea bursting forth in colors of fuchsia and deep orange. Narrow cobblestone lanes, which follow the contours of the land, are in some cases so ancient, uneven and roughly hewn that some of them are almost impossible to walk upon with any sense of decorum.

Nonetheless, we made our way to the wide Plaza de Armas Manual Lobo, shaded by

Friends gather for yerba mate tea and conversation

Friends gather for yerba mate tea and conversation

sycamores and anchored by the Basilica del Santisimo Sacramento, first erected when the town was founded but restored in the mid-1800s after being destroyed by lightning. Without any plan or direction, we wandered down lanes leading to the river, through a square noisy with brightly colored parakeets chirping from palm trees, and to the old wharf, where young locals meet to talk and share yerba mate tea in traditional cups. We saw dogs sleeping in shadows, gathering on grassy patches for play and socialization, and hanging out at open-air cafes hoping for a handout, making me envious of their carefree lifestyle.img_0881

It wasn’t long until we discovered the old city gate and Colonia’s most famous landmark, a lighthouse erected in 1857. To get the lay of the land, we climbed the many circular stairs to the lighthouse top, where we were rewarded with views over the old town, church spires and the never-ending Río de la Plata. At the base of the lighthouse are the ruins of the Convento de San Franciso, destroyed by fire in 1704. World travelers turned artisans, some with dreadlocks and tattoos, laid out their wares on tables beside the convent ruins; from one of them I bought a bracelet fashioned from black and neon-green fishing line. The smell of pot wafted faintly through the air. If I were a young traveler peddling wares, this would be as fine a spot as any for settling in while contemplating my next move.

There’s a definite hip vibe to old Colonia, from art galleries tucked away in courtyards toimg_0870 restaurants inhabiting rustic buildings and serving innovative cuisine, but one of the things I found most captivating about the old town were the many old vehicles left standing on its cobbled streets or plazas, as though they were conceptual pieces of art. We saw old VW bugs, a Chevrolet Bel Aire, jeeps, old Ford trucks and more, making the old picturesque town even more picturesquely old fashioned.

“Oh, my father put his old car out on the street,” a shopkeeper said ruefully when I remarked about the abundance of old cars. “I told him he shouldn’t do it, but now there are even more cars. People keep adding to them.”

Personally, I think the vintage cars are a nice touch, as though the streets of Colonia are awaiting a film crew or simply never caught up to the 21st century. In any case, they’re much more interesting than those huge painted cows, bears and other city mascots so popular around the world.

img_0876More Things to Do in Colonia

Surprising for a town this size but not considering its long history, Colonia has more than its fair share of museums relating to its architecture and past. Most comprehensive is the Municipal Museum, housed in an attractive stone building first erected in 1795 and rebuilt by the Spanish in 1835. Displays relate the town’s many wars between the Portuguese and Spanish, along with local archaeological, geological, religious and cultural artifacts. Colonial-era furniture, dinosaur fossils, military costumes and an array of mounted local birds and other animals are spread throughout several floors.

We also toured Nacarello’s House, dating from 1790 and simplistic with its couple of smallimg_0880 rooms and Portuguese furnishings of the time. Other museums include the Portuguese Museum in an 18th-century stone building and with an impressive display of maps; a Spanish Museum, first constructed in 1720 and rebuilt in 1840; and the Indigenous Museum with items belonging to the Charrua and other indigenous tribes of the area. An 1880 rambling building that variously housed a glue and soap factory, a laundry for wool, and a tannery is now the Centro Cultural Bastion del Carmen, with art exhibits, musical and theatrical events and good views of sunsets from its park-like grounds.

But while Colonia del Sacramento is largely a sleepy little town when not bombarded by tourists, the bird that woke me up during the night seemed to be single-handedly trying to rouse everyone to action. Its call was the same as I’d heard in Buenos Aires, so when I visited the Municipal Museum and wondered which of the many birds in the natural history display might be the culprit, I mimicked the sound for the bemused women at the admission desk.

“Whoo Whoo! Whoo Whoo!” I gave it my best shot.

“It’s an owl,” they agreed.

I conceded that that’s what it sounded like, but in the middle of Buenos Aires? What struck me was that the hoot of the Colonia owl differed slightly from its counterpart in Buenos Aires, which puzzled me until a fanatic birder I know confirmed that birds can acquire different accents according to where they live. But of course! The Colonia owl sounded gentler, less strident than the owl over in Buenos Aires, as though it, too, knew it had a good thing going.

[For a slightly longer version of this article, see my published feature in


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A Face in the Crowd

My first morning in Japan took place more than three decades ago, but I remember it vividly because of an unexpected act of kindness. Shouldering my backpack, I was making my way from my Tokyo hotel to Shinagawa Station, a sea of people streaming past me on their way to work. A soft, wet snow was falling from the gray sky.

Meiji Dori/Omotesando Dori intersection in Harajuku

Meiji Dori/Omotesando Dori intersection in Harajuku

Suddenly, a woman appeared at my side and fell in sync with my stride, holding her umbrella aloft to shelter me from the cold snow. We walked like that all the way to the station, where, to my surprise, she whipped a towel from her bag and proceeded to dry my wet hair. My Japanese back then was limited to phrases like “Where’s the bathroom?” so all I could manage was a polite arigato. But my guardian angel’s job wasn’t over yet. She helped me find the Yamanote Line bound for Tokyo Station, and, finally satisfied, sent me on my way.

Over the years I have been the recipient of so many acts of kindness I have to wonder whether it’s because people in Japan are so nice or whether it’s because I’m so inept (if I didn’t get lost so often, I wouldn’t need so much help!). Strangers have gone out of their way to deliver me to my destination, made telephone calls on my behalf, helped me choose meals from indecipherable menus, and showered me with small gifts.

But no one stands out in my memory as much as that woman who took me under wing that very first day. I was excited to be in a new foreign country, nervous about finding my way, tired from the long flight, and feeling just a tad lonely in the sea of unfamiliar faces. Of course, she didn’t know any of these things when she stepped up to help. I was just a face in the crowd, but when she left me, I no longer felt quite the stranger in a very strange land. Over the years, I’ve tried to pass it forward.

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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, “Maybe I can find 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 landed 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 turned out to be the perfect choice 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 ruled over Florida from 1565 to 1821, except for 20 years (1763-1784) when the British flag flew over the region. In 1821, Florida was purchased by the United States.

In addition to the fort, St. Augustine has another long-time attraction, 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 fresh-water spring here, said to have quenched Ponce de León’s thirst. Tourists have been visiting the spring since 1868, drinking its waters in hope 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 it’s possible both of my Floridian grandmothers could have visited what is touted as Florida’s oldest tourist attraction. One lived to 97 and the other to 99. On the other hand, Ponce de León made it only to 47. Sadly, Florida’s natural springs are under siege, with pollution, increased population and rising sea levels all playing a part in their 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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