Our Mountain Getaway

In the early 1970s, my parents purchased a small, three-bedroom house a few blocks from the downtown section of a sleepy little hamlet in the north Georgia mountains.  They intended to use the house as a vacation spot for their family, relatives, and close friends.  The house was about seventy years old and had been abandoned and neglected for quite a long time. As a skilled electrician and carpenter, my father was able to take what was an almost uninhabitable shack and, with the help of family and friends, turn it into a comfortable summer cabin. With all her characteristic love and gentle kindness, my mother turned the cabin into a second home.  When my parents first bought the house, there were two large oak trees growing in the front yard, so they decided to call the place “Twin Oaks.”  Even though one of the trees had to come down several years later, the name had already become so associated with the house that they decided to keep using it. 

Over the years, Twin Oaks provided four generations with a great place to escape and relax, to enjoy the beauty of the Georgia mountains, and to have SO much fun.  My sister and I continued to maintain the house and property as best we could after our parents could no longer make the trips to the mountain getaway.  Unfortunately, a house like this one was never intended to last for a very long time, and as a new century approached, Twin Oaks began to suffer from wear and tear and too many cold winters. In the fall of 2015 my wife and I, as the current owners, decided to demolish our little mountain vacation house and build something new in its place. I wrote a post in December of that year about our decision titled Letting It Go. We had some apprehension at the time, and it was not an easy decision to make. But, there was no doubt that we loved the location and wanted to continue having a place of our own for family and friends.

We contracted with a builder who is also a family member to construct a three-bedroom, two bath house, which was completed in December, 2016.  The wood frame house with a rock foundation is built basically on the same footprint as the original house.  It is still conveniently located within walking distance of the ever-expanding and vibrant downtown area.  However, this house came with a few significant upgrades: central heat and air, modern kitchen appliances, wireless Internet, and DISH TV.  It can be enjoyed year-round and doesn’t have to be “put to bed” for the winter. For over four decades, Twin Oaks was a place to create wonderful memories.  That tradition continues with a new house — Twin Oaks 2! 

Twin Oaks 2
Twin Oaks 2

Deciding Where To Stay

A significant part of the expense of traveling is the cost of lodging, especially if you are in a large city or a popular destination.  It really is worth the time and effort to find a place that suits your needs and fulfills your expectations.  Sometimes hotels are the best option, especially if you are staying for only a night or two.  There are times when the hotel itself may be what attracted you in the first place, which was the case when my wife and I decided to spend our most recent anniversary weekend at the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta.  We looked forward to having dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, hanging out in the bar, and relaxing in a plush bed covered in sheets that, in retrospect, must have been imported from Turkey.  We also stayed in an over-the-top place when we visited Carmel, California.  The name would suggest a cheesy roadside motor lodge, but our room at Tickle Pink Inn had a small balcony looking out over the rocky cliffs of the Pacific and was equipped with a canopy bed and word-burning fireplace.  It was incredible, even for the one night we were there.  We don’t usually splurge like that, but in both cases, the experience was worth the extra money.  And, the experience is what we’re really after when we travel.

If your travels take you to major cultural centers, such as large cities or places of historical significance, then I suggest skipping the hotels and seeking out accommodations that will permit you to be immersed in the locale.  This option is especially preferable if you plan to stay for more than two nights.  It would appear that more travelers are embracing this idea with the rapid rise in popularity of Airbnb, VRBO, and many other agencies that provide listings of homes, apartments, villas, condos, and cabins for rent.  If you want a taste of what it is like to live in a particular place, then staying in a neighborhood or borough or barrio among the people who do actually live there is the best choice, especially if you are in an area where the language and customs are quite different from your own.  Shopping in local markets, eating in nearby cafes, strolling the streets and the parks, and taking in the local entertainment affords you the opportunity to get more integrated with the surroundings, to embrace your temporary milieu.

On our recent trip to Paris, my wife and I stayed in a lovely studio apartment in Le Marais, a trendy historic district that spreads across parts of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements.  The area was in terrible shape by the 1950s but was revitalized in the 1960s and is now the section of the city known for a high concentration of Jewish residents and also of gay and lesbian Parisians. It also hosts some of the most popular small, independent clothing and fashion shops in Paris.  We found out about this particular apartment from a friend in the states who had stayed there the previous summer and loved it.  So did we.  Our fourth-floor room was tucked away in a collection of early twentieth-century buildings between a busy thoroughfare and a side street about two blocks from the right bank of the Seine River.  The first floors of several of the buildings housed offices that looked out to a lovely courtyard, and the whole complex was somewhat secured by combination-code locked gates.  One of the entrances was less than fifty yards from a Metro station, which was most convenient.  Our apartment had a fair-sized bathroom and a small kitchen in addition to a spacious (by European standards) bedroom/sitting area.  It was accessible by a circular wooden staircase that wound its way around an elevator shaft with a car just large enough for two people with healthy BMI frames — it was tiny by American standards but typical for Paris.  The only times we used the elevator were to haul our luggage up when we arrived and back down when we departed.

Apartment complex courtyard
Apartment complex courtyard

We walked to one of the local markets as soon as we got settled into our apartment and bought all the provisions we would need for the five days we were staying in Paris.  That grocery shopping experience alone is worth another blog entry — a human comedy.  We walked to local bistros several nights that were quaint and wonderful.  We had breakfast almost every morning at a little bakery just a quick walk down the street.  The chocolate-banana pastries were like edible heaven.  We were within easy walking distance of the Seine, Notre Dame, and several museums, including the Picasso Museum and the Bastille.  On our last morning in Paris we strolled down to the Seine and walked up and down the banks of the river.  Other than the shopkeepers and other people who provided us with assistance, I don’t think we ever heard a single word of English while we were in the neighborhood where we were staying, which is such an important part of the experience of traveling to a foreign country.  From the window of our room we could hear people talking and laughing at the café four floors below our windows.  We could hear children playing on the sidewalks.  We could hear people going to and coming home from work or school.  For a brief time, we almost felt like Parisians — well, a little.  Do yourself a favor.  On your next trip, find a place to stay in a great neighborhood and soak up the atmosphere you find there.

Views from our windows in Paris

Galveston Beach Deserves Better Press

Being a lover of the seashore and all things beach-related, I take every opportunity to dig my toes in the sand and soak up the salt and sun.  We try to make a trip to the beach at least once a year if possible.  I even play the sounds of waves on my computer at work for background noise.  It’s better than music sometimes.  For a good portion of my life, the highlight of my summers was a trip to Florida, usually to Daytona Beach, for a family vacation.  I have also visited beaches in Alabama, South Carolina, California, and southern England.  I know people who drive 24 hours from Texas just to spend a couple of weeks on the beach in Daytona, passing by numerous other locations along the Gulf to get there.  They say that Texas beaches are dirty and run-down.  They claim there’s no entertainment.  Specifically, they are talking about Galveston Island.

This summer, my wife and I were invited to spend a week at Galveston Island with some close family who live in Kansas.  We don’t get to see them very often and really enjoy spending time with them.  The plan involved them driving down to the Gulf in a couple of vehicles, loaded down with everything we could possibly need for a week at the beach.  We flew into Houston, rented a car, and made the short trip down to meet them at a large, rambling house on the beach we had all rented for the week.  I was expecting to be underwhelmed when we got there; however, I was pleasantly surprised to find Galveston’s beaches full of life with plenty of attractions.  There are water parks, an impressive amusement park on a huge pier, gardens, theaters, historic areas, some good restaurants, and more.  The beaches are clean, the waves are better than the Florida Gulf, and the house was perfect for our group of ten people, which included two children under the age of three!

Galveston Beach
Galveston Beach

The house was separated from the beach by a lawn and a some grassy dunes, but the sand was easily accessible by a raised, wooden walkway.  There was plenty of beach area to set up a permanent tent canopy for relief from the mid-day sun.  The porch looking out to the ocean extended the entire width of the house.  There was a large kitchen/eating area, numerous bedrooms, three bathrooms, two televisions on either end of the house set far enough apart to avoid any bleed-over effect.  It was such a relaxing place that was well maintained and nicely furnished.  We had a wonderful time with people we love in a setting that was just perfect.

Before heading back to Houston to the airport, we drove around the more developed area of the beach.  The hotels and condos looked very nice.  Most were probably built after Hurricane Ike devastated the area in 2008.   There are even a few resorts on the far east section of the island and what looks like a residential community development that is just getting started.  The old downtown section of Galveston is full of character typical of a port town.  There are even a few structures that predate the huge storm of 1900,  America’s worst-recorded hurricane disaster, that brought a massive surge across the island killing at least 8,000 people. Now there is a substantial sea wall that serves as the foundation for the major highway that runs along the beach, which helps protect the town from surges.  The highway separates the hotels from the beach, but it is a necessary barrier in case of storms.  For those who still think Galveston is not such a great destination, I suspect they are thinking of an older Galveston that doesn’t exist anymore.  The place has reinvented itself, and it is definitely worth considering.  Galveston is too far away from us for regular beach trips, but if this opportunity came open again, I would definitely want to go back.

We’ll Always Have Paris

My wife and I recently took another one of those “trips-of-a-lifetime,” to a place neither one of us had ever visited: Paris.  After we had been married for a couple of years we began planning a trip to Paris for our fifth wedding anniversary; however, we changed jobs and moved to a new place.  We had to start over banking vacation time, plus we needed a year or two to get adjusted in our new location.  So we postponed the Paris trip but continued to keep it on our short list.  Then an opportunity presented itself to us last year when the president of the college where we both work announced that he would be giving an organ recital (he is a highly-acclaimed concert organist) at Westminster Abbey in London.  We decided right then that we would be in London for the event, which was scheduled for a Sunday afternoon, and then we would head over to Paris to enjoy the rest of the week as tourists.  We spent the better part of a year making arrangements: learning as much as we could about the city, finding accommodations, deciding what we wanted to see and do, purchasing tickets, arranging transportation, and booking flights.

We have never flown first or business class, except once when we were upgraded on our flight back from Jamaica last December.  For the trans-Atlantic journey to Europe though, we decided to cash in all of my wife’s Delta Sky Miles and splurge on first class, where the seats completely recline to a vertical position.  I have a difficult time sleeping upright in the typical less-than-comfortable seats on a plane, and we really needed to sleep during the overnight flight to London.  What a luxury first class was for this trip, going both ways.  With a little bit of help from a half-dose of Dramamine, I slept pretty well flying over Iceland and the north Atlantic.  I really wish we could fly first class all the time, but alas, we are travelers on a budget.  And, I’m not complaining because our budget allows us to go places that the majority of Americans only dream about or see in movies.  I am grateful.

Paris exceeded all our expectations.  It is a beautiful city with so much history, character, personality, and charm.  In London and Rome, we were never too impressed with the food, but in Paris, every meal was amazing and delicious.  The bistros and cafes are usually small, but each has its own signature appeal.  You can’t walk a hundred yards in the center of Paris without passing some place to eat.  We had breakfast every morning at a bakery just down the street from our apartment.  The pastries were so delicate, and the banana-chocolate one was to die for!  Every night we tried something different for dinner and were never disappointed.  I ate escargot for the first time and was surprised how similar it was to fresh clams.  Swimming in salty pesto, it was truly a delicacy.

Eiffel Tower and River Seine
Eiffel Tower and River Seine

Writing about our trip to Paris will certainly take more than one post.  At this point, suffice it to say that this is one of those places where it is almost impossible to take a bad photograph.  I took this shot with my cell phone, standing on the platform on the Pont de Bir Hakeim, one of many bridges that cross the River Seine that bisects the city.  I think it is one of the best places to get a good view of the Eiffel Tower and the Seine.  The tower is so tall and commanding that you really have to be a little distance away to appreciate its magnificence.  Paris is filled with scenes that present themselves to the visitor and beg to be recorded in a photograph.  It is an irresistible city on so many levels.  I look forward to many more traveling adventures, and we are already making plans for future trips.  Still, it will be difficult to top our week in the City of Love.  If we never get to return to Europe, and I certainly hope we do return someday, I will look back on this time with such fond memories and shamelessly steal Rick’s line from Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris.”

 

Everything’s Included; No Problem

I have been on one cruise in my life.  When my sons were much younger, their mother and I signed up with a group of families we knew and booked a vacation on the Disney Cruise Lines for four nights in the Caribbean, dropping in on the Bahamas along the way.  It was a great trip, and Disney knows how to entertain adults and children almost equally.  I especially liked the all-inclusive nature of the experience, where food, most drinks, and all entertainment were part of the package — no need to carry around cash or credit cards.  Unfortunately, it was shortly after we came in from the sea and returned home that I realized something wasn’t quite right in my head (yes, the jokes could go on forever).  I stayed on that damned boat for an additional two weeks, or in other words, it took that long for me to regain my land legs, as my doctor diagnosed it.  The feeling was similar to the sense of motion when riding on a fast elevator . . .  without the elevator.  After about two weeks it began to diminish until it completely vanished, but I was miserable in the interim.  Most doctors refer to this problem as Mal de debarquement (disembarkment) syndrome.  It was bad enough that I will never get on a ship again.  It happens after I fly also, but inconsistently and not with symptoms as severe as those following the Disney cruise.

My wife loves cruises and went on several before we met.  In recent years, we have been searching for resorts that would offer the similar all-inclusive package without having to set sail to get it.  We heard from a colleague at work about the all-inclusive resorts at Jamaica, specifically at Montego Bay.  After a bit of research, we decided on the Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall Resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica.  The Zilara is an adult-only resort and is actually a recent addition to the older but expanded and renovated Rose Hall Ziva, formerly owned and operated by Ritz Carlton.  The two complexes are directly adjacent to one another with shared restaurants and retailers.  All meals, room service, alcohol, gym privileges, and many amenities are included in the price of the room.  The rooms are very upscale, with bath tubs, fancy showers, large balconies and way-above-average balcony furniture.  The view from our room was fantastic.

Hyatt Montego Bay Jamaica
View from our balcony

Obviously, the options are limited at a land resort.  There are no ports-of-call, the entertainment is not very extensive, and the food is not as plentiful.  But, the rooms are vastly more spacious than a ship cabin, there are no rough seas, and my head did not spin, even though I drank enough alcohol to practically send it into orbit.  We were introduced to a drink called a Dirty Banana (I like to call it a Nasty Nanna) that became a good friend.  We did decide to pay a little extra for a couples’ massage in a cabana located only a few yards from the lapping waves of the shores.  It was heaven.  In short, the Zalara met up to, if not exceeded, our expectations for what an all-inclusive resort should be, and we would definitely consider returning at some point in the future.

Jamaican Rum
All in all, it was a pretty good vacation

Letting It Go

Sometime around 1970, my father received an invitation from his uncle to take our family to a house that he and his family owned on the outskirts of the small town of Blue Ridge in the north Georgia mountains.  We all fell in love with the area and began taking short vacations there, along with my mother’s sister’s family, including the cousins that my sister and I grew up with.  Soon thereafter, my great uncle helped my parents find a small vacant house for sale located just a few blocks from the quaint downtown of Blue Ridge.  Dating back to the turn of the century, the house had been vacant for years and was in rather rough shape, but my father was an electrician by trade and a very good carpenter.  With his uncle’s help, Dad was able to make the little house habitable again.

Typical of my father’s utilitarian style, the house was restored with very baseline interior finishes: pine sheet paneling, unpainted molding, and linoleum square tile partially covered in large carpet pieces salvaged from our primary home.  My mother, her mother, and her sister all tried to do what they could to add some charm to the interior on a very limited budget.  Dad filled the three main rooms with furniture that friends and family had thrown out, making the minor repairs necessary to make them functional.  The rooms served as living quarters and bedrooms, with enough beds and pull-out sofas to sleep up to fourteen people.  He added a second bathroom, purchased the lowest-end appliances for the kitchen, and installed space heaters discarded by our home church.  He added a propane tank behind the house that he found for free — a tank designed to be buried in the ground with the typical metal column rising from the middle to enclose and provide access to the meter and valves.  Of course, he mounted the tank above ground.  I joke here about my father’s minimalist approach with this vacation house affectionately, with the full realization that purchasing and maintaining a second home was an amazing accomplishment for a lower-middle-class family like ours.  If nothing else, Dad was remarkably resourceful.

Mountain Vacation House
Family Mountain Vacation House

Over the course of the next forty years, my parents shared the use of this vacation home with extended family and close friends.  My sister and I and my sons, my cousins, and now my wife all have wonderful memories of such happy, peaceful times spent at this little sanctuary.  As my parents’ generation aged, they could no longer maintain the place, so the responsibility was left to my sister and me.  Now, the house belongs to my wife and me, and my sister and my cousins still take a vacation or two every year to the house, as do we.

Regrettably, I was not blessed with my father’s skills.  My wife and I have done some painting, and family members have graciously chipped in to do some minor repairs, but we have also spent quite a bit of money in recent years trying to keep the house from collapsing.  Due to poor foundations, settling, and just general old age, the house has become even less “tight” than it was in the past.  It has suffered from damage from ground hogs in the crawl space beneath and other rodents in the walls and ceilings.  Mice started to find their way inside several years ago, but the most disturbing invasion was evidenced this past fall when my wife and I found a three-foot-long snake skin that had been left behind in the kitchen.  In a state of temporary despair, I sat on the edge of one of the beds and told my wife, “I’m done.”  She wasn’t exactly sure what I meant!  We had a lengthy discussion and came to the difficult decision to finally give up on attempting to salvage the unsalvageable.  We are going to demolish the house and build something new in its place.

We spent our weekend sitting on the front porch rockers using our iPads to look for house plans.  My wife found a charming cottage plan, and we have taken the first steps toward this big change.  My sister and cousins are understandably saddened by the impending loss of a house that holds so many happy memories for all of us.  So are we.  But, they do understand why this is really our only alternative.  By this time next year, we hope to have a new place for the family to retreat and continue to enjoy the many opportunities for relaxation and entertainment that this area provides.  The town of Blue Ridge has drastically changed from the sleepy (if not dying) little village it was when my parents bought the vacation home so many years ago.  I will save for another post my thoughts about the changes we have seen over the decades in Blue Ridge.

It is never easy to let go of anchors from the past, especially when they are so concretely identified with people we have loved dearly who are no longer with us.  As cliche as it sounds, this vacation house was truly a home to our families and close friends.  We hate to see it go.  We are fortunate to have very good photographic and video-graphic records of the house, happy times, and the people who enriched our lives there.  We look forward to a new, modern structure to enjoy for many years to come, but there is a definite sense of loss as we say goodbye to this special house forever.

Daytona Revisited

Several months back I wrote an entry about my memories of vacations at Daytona Beach, Florida.  I wondered if going back now, in my mid-fifties with my second wife and no kiddies, would provide me with some sense of nostalgia about vacations past.  Oddly enough, an opportunity came out of the blue a few weeks ago for my wife and me to take a long weekend trip to Daytona.  We are fortunate enough at this stage of our lives to be able to afford better accommodations than I could ever have enjoyed in previous decades.  There aren’t any real five-star resorts in Daytona, but there are a few four-star places that are a cut above the rest, and we found a nice one at the small beach community on the south end of the area called Daytona Shores.  In fact, the resort is simply called The Shores, and it was surprisingly comfortable if not luxurious, with several amenities you wouldn’t find elsewhere in Daytona.

My wife had never been to this beach, and she was curious to see my old haunts — the places I have told her about over the years.  Some of the places, like the old apartments and hotels my family stayed in through the years, are no longer there.  They are either replaced by other buildings or remain vacant lots ready for development.  I was wondering if the highly-commercial, dare I say cheesy, atmosphere of Daytona was going to be over the top for her.  Not at all.  She loved it, and we were talking the whole time we were there about how to make long weekend trips work, returning to The Shores. The Boardwalk at Daytona has changed so much over the years, with an outdoor mall, new and extravagant rides, and huge hotels towering over the beach.  However, some of the old arcades that my sons spent many hours and dollars in are still there, dirty and hot and smelly as ever.  And of course, the ancient bandshell is still intact, where we heard a couple of bands playing.  A real blast from the past was going in the salt water taffy store that has been in operation at the same location since before my wife and I were born.  We filled up a plastic bag of taffy and both bought an ice cream cone — it was like tasting memories.

Sunset at Daytona Beach Boardwalk from the pier