Monday, December 12, 2011

San Diego: Maritime Museum, Gaslamps, and the Day of the Dead

If you're a fan of zoos, San Diego's certainly warrants the hype, but there are plenty of other attractions in this remarkably walkable city that should not be missed.  From any of the downtown hotels, it's a short walk to Harbor Drive, where you can stroll along the stunning bay and enjoy the view of Coronado Island and the graceful bridge that arches over the water and connects it to the mainland.  But it's not just the view, because there's plenty to do along the Harbor front that will make for an interesting day in a beautiful setting. 

Start at the Maritime Museum and enjoy a terrific collection of historic ships and other vessels.   What makes the Museum so interesting is the opportunity to explore each boat.  The Star of India, once a commercial vessel, was launched in 1863 and is the oldest ship in the world with a regular sailing schedule.  The woodwork on the boat is stunning and the exhibits help you develop a sense of what it would have been like to live and work aboard a cargo ship more than a century ago.  Equally impressive is the HMS Surprise, a replica of a Royal Navy frigate, that was used in the popular film Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World.  Exhibits aboard describe warfare at sea in the days when ships were powered by wind and guided by the captain's skill.

The Medea is a 1904 steam yacht that offers a glimpse of the lifestyle of the elite at the dawn of the century.  Finished with oak and teak, along with authentic furnishings, the ship is a terrific example of floating elegance.  Also worth a stroll is the Berkeley, a 1898 steam ferry that houses a fine collection of commercial fishing artifacts.  The Museum has two submarines which you can explore, the Dolphin and Foxtrot B-29.  The Dolphin is the world's deepest diving submarine, setting a record in 1968 that still stands.  The B-29 is a Russian submarine, over 300 feet in length, and you'll need a bit of flexibility to negotiate your way through narrow circular passageways.  The subs can seem very confining, and one can only imagine the hardships caused by weeks at sea.  Service on the Russian sub was no doubt a bit problematic given that there were only two showers aboard for a crew of over seventy men.

Well worth the additional expense is a tour of the Bay aboard the Pilot, a 1914 vessel.  The knowledgeable docents aboard will give you a great history of San Diego and the views of the City from the water are spectacular. 

When leaving the Maritime Museum, walk along the bay to the U.S.S. Midway, the longest serving aircraft carrier in the history of the Navy.  Decommissioned in 1992, it has operated as a museum since 2004 and has greeted more than five million visitors.  The sheer size of the vessel is staggering, and a self-guided tour will take you through what is truly a floating city.  Details of life on board are interesting, including a walk through the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th decks to view areas where sailors would live aboard, including the sick bay, the mess deck, and the laundry.  The Hanger Deck gives you a great idea of how the ship would ready itself for battle, and the Roof displays several types of aircraft.  Docents are available to explain how jets take off and land on deck, and docents also conduct tours of the multi-level bridge.  To grasp the size of the Midway, bear in mind that it had a crew of over 4,500 and was over one thousand feet in length. 

We don't often tout restaurants in our blog, but I'll make an exception for the Fish Market.  Good friends took me there for dinner and I'd gladly repeat the experience.  Perched right on the edge of the Bay, the views are stunning and the food superb.  Not only is there a fish market inside the building--no surprise given the restaurant's name--but there is a sushi bar, an oyster bar, and a multi-level dining area that serves the freshest of seafood.  While I enjoyed dinner there, it would certainly make a great lunch stop after a tour of the Midway.

Farther along the Bay is the fun shopping development of Seaport Village.  Watch for sea lions as you amble along the waterfront.  The Village is a series of colorful shops connected by brick walkways and interspersed with lively fountains and well-tended greenery.  From the Village, it is a several block walk to the historic Gaslamp Quarter, home to an array of restaurants and bars catering to every taste imaginable.  Many of the buildings in the Quarter have striking facades and give you a sense of what the entire City would have looked like a century ago. 

Two other districts in San Diego are worth a visit.  The first is Little Italy, a several block stretch of bars, restaurants, and speciality shops all with an Italian theme, and just a long walk or short cab ride from any downtown hotel.  The second is Old Town, where San Diego was originally based until the City's business community decided to relocate to the waterfront.  With a central plaza closed to traffic, Old Town houses a nice collection of restaurants, museums, and shops and conveys an image of what the City was like when originally founded.  I was fortunate to visit during the Dia de los Muertos, a three-day Mexican celebration that honors those who have died.  Many people had their faces colorfully painted as part of the festival, and the small Old Town cemetery was brightly and poignantly decorated.  Particularly haunting were the colorful, carefully arranged decorations atop the grave site of a young girl.

San Diego has justly earned its place as a top tourist destination.  Don't forget the zoo, but plan your trip to encompass and enjoy everything else that this terrific city has to offer.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Greenbrier Resort

Adding a few days at The Greenbrier to one's travel agenda would not be a bad idea, not by a long shot.  We found the resort tranquil, restful, and of historical interest.  First hosting visitors in 1778, The Greenbrier became a favorite of early Presidents and is viewed as the first winter White House.  Its popularity soared when it became a favorite retreat of Dwight Eisenhower's, who loved golfing the scenic course that occupies a particularly beautiful stretch of the resorts 6500 acres.
The front and gardens

The lovely rear gardens  All the grounds were well kept and beautiful 

 A slow carriage ride, accompanied by the clip-clop of the horses' hooves, is a special way to enjoy the incredible scenery, perched in the stunning glory of the Allegheny mountains. 

The original White Sulphur spring

Artist colony

The cottages for those traveling with a pet.

View of the valley

Meandering through the property in a horse drawn carriage at sunset, very romantic.

This is the original spring

The winter White House

Romantic sunset.  All we needed was the champagne!

As cold war tensions heightened in the post WWII era, Eisenhower--then President--played a key role in the development of a top-secret bunker constructed beneath the Greenbrier.  While erecting a new wing for the resort, workers clandestinely labored to build a bunker large enough to serve as a relocation facility for members of Congress and their families in the event of a nuclear attack.  The bunker held meeting rooms, a medical facility, a dining hall, dormitories, and two large auditoriums which could function as Congressional chambers for the House and Senate.   A tour of the bunker, for which reservations must be made in advance, is well worth the ninety minutes it takes.  Our guide, a native of the area, noted that the locals all knew that something was up, despite the top secret nature of the project.  She explained that one of the shelter's mammoth steel blast doors had sat at the railroad yard for several days.  Everyone knew that the Greenbrier had little use for a twenty-ton steel door!
The bar

Cocktails in the bar

Seating area near the bar.  The hotel has been faithfully restored to the original designs by Dorthy Draper.

The resort eventually fell on hard times, but a successful West Virginia businessman acquired the facility and totally upgraded and remodeled it.  Today, there are several grand meeting rooms, cottages and modern hotel accommodations, top-notch restaurants, shops, and an upscale casino.  This was our first visit to the Greenbrier, but I suspect that it will not be the last!

Formal Dining room, food was wonderful!


Another lobby

Coming up:  San Diego