Move Over Miss Scarlett – I’ve Met your Match!

About a decade ago a friend with the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau told me about Marlsgate Plantation, located in the small cotton farming community of Scott, Arkansas about 20 minutes to the east of the capitol city. “The gentleman of the manor, David, is quite a character,” she said, going on to explain this venue would only be appropriate for the right kind of group. “You most certainly wouldn’t want to take the senior Sunday school class from the First Baptist Church there, if you know what I mean.” As a Southerner, I knew exactly what she meant. Besides that, our Arkansas visits at that time focused primarily on the Clintons, leaving little room for any other local characters. I filed the information away for another time and tour.

I attended a convention in Little Rock a couple weeks ago, my first time there in many years. I remembered Marlsgate and looked with interest at the meeting schedule to see if one of our social events might take us there. Nothing. I called a friend with the state tourism office just to make sure. “Oh boy, that David is a real character. No, we’re not doing anything at his house this time, but your fall group might be just right for him.” Renee helped me set up a driver on my free afternoon so I could go out and see for myself.

Marlsgate was built in 1833, though renovated, modernized and improved upon over the years. The gentleman of the house, David Garner, is a character, indeed—a fact evidenced before I even walked through the front door. He’s small in stature, but has a personality that’s larger than life, immediately making me feel completely welcome to be there. This gentleman is the very epitome of the Old South, with the house, art, antiques and definitely the personality to back it up.

I’ve been in countless Antebellum houses in my lifetime from private homes to museums, but I’ve never witnessed anything quite like Marlsgate. To say the collection is museum-quality is an understatement. Mr. Garner an only child and his people hailed from a number of prominent Mississippi plantations. As his ancestors passed and their collections were split up or liquidated, David had the rare opportunity of picking and choosing only the very best for Marlsgate. His exquisite taste and exhaustive attention to details are evident at every turn both inside and out.

Whenever I’m out with a group of Sports Leisure travelers, I’m honored to be with some of the hippest people on the planet. Your world view is so very different from that of your same-aged counterparts in other regions of the nation. I’ll not speculate on all the reasons why—certainly I don’t understand them all myself. I just know you’re different, and I mean that in the very best way. You’re open-minded . . . always eager to try, see and taste new things. You travel in search of experiences you’ll long remember, things that are unlike anything you know back home. This is why my Southern tours usually include the opportunity for you to meet one or more of my kinsmen—“cousins” who can help you understand their life and times through the eyes of a local.

I’m eager to introduce you all to my newest cousin on my October tour to Arkansas as we spend an evening on the plantation complete with dinner and libations. Are you the right traveler for this character? Come along and see!

My Night at the Bordello

There’s a first for everything. For me, it happened on Valentine’s Day in Arkansas’ “wild west,” Located within seeing distance of the Oklahoma state line, for much of the 19th century Ft. Smith was a rough-and-tumble gateway for thousands who were headed West . . . whether by force or by choice. Cowboys, gold-seekers, bootleggers, bank robbers, murderers, Yankees and Rebels alike, and tragically Native Americans nearing the end of their long Trail of Tears came here, left their imprint, then moved on. Lawlessness was a matter of course for a town located at the western boundary of civility. Rob or even kill a man in the morning. Disappear into “Indian Territory” by high noon. Men the likes of Judge Isaac Parker tried to legislate many a man’s carnal inclinations, often using the gallows to make his judgments swift and clear. But there was one carnal instinct even the notorious “Hanging Judge” could not tame.

Some call it the oldest profession on earth. Indeed, prostitution was legal in Ft. Smith into the early 20th century. At its height, the community boasted a “Bordello Row” with seven establishments serving the needs of their male guests, locals and visitors alike. At a time when the average man earned a wage of $3 per week, a night of pleasure would cost you about a dollar . . . unless you elected to patronize Miss Laura’s Social Club. Come for a “visit,” pay $3. Coming for the night would cost you $5. Miss Laura’s guests were gentlemen of means.

A great fire, so-called progress and eventually the law took its course on Bordello Row. By the 1970s, only one house remained: Miss Laura’s. Deserted and unloved, she stood at the brink of condemnation and demolition when a succession of local saviors held off the wrecking ball feeling this piece of local architectural history, if a bit off-color, was worthy of preservation. They saved the building, but Carolyn Joyce saved its soul.

Google Carolyn Joyce and you’ll find no shortage of hits. By anyone’s estimation, she’s the First Lady of Arkansas Tourism. Just over 20 years ago when a failed restaurant left the old bordello again vacant, Carolyn had a vision. Why shouldn’t Miss Laura’s Social Club once again welcome the traveler in need of service? Of course, the “service” would be a bit different this time around. In short order, the building was reborn as the Ft. Smith Welcome Center. That Carolyn would take on the persona of Miss Laura for the grand opening was a given. That she’d still be doing it over two decades later was a surprise to all.

It was late when I arrived on a cold Valentine’s Night. Our appointment had been scheduled for hours prior, but Miss Laura left the light on for me. I entered the bordello to find her resplendent in her custom-made finery, welcoming me on the bottom step of a grand staircase, assuring me “her girls” were eagerly waiting just above. Then she began to spin a tale—the history of the place—which sounded like fiction, but was indeed fact as evidenced by numerous photographs and written records, many of which were on display. Before long I was thrilled to at last enjoy my introduction to one of her girls, as well as a self-proclaimed “doctor” who was peddling his miracle-working tonic for 25-cents a bottle (or the special discounted price of three for a dollar).

Curious to know what happened next? Sorry—I don’t kiss and tell. But you’re invited to visit Miss Laura’s Social Club for yourself on my Arkansas tour in October. Visit the Clinton Library in Little Rock, the magnificant new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s gift to the world), take a steaming mineral bath in Hot Springs and follow the trail of Will Rogers through eastern Oklahoma. When we hit Ft. Smith, I’ll make sure Miss Laura leaves the light on for you, too!

Postscript: Mine was only a visit. I didn’t stay for the night. When I returned to my hotel, a Valentine and bag of chocolate kisses were on my pillow. The message on the card read, “With love from Miss Laura.” And you know what? I’m certain she meant every word.

In the Eye of the Beholder

 

I had the wonderful opportunity of visiting New Zealand for the first time back in February. Despite the fact I was traveling with my laptop computer and a brand new iPhone, I was unable to connect for days on end. Call it a combination of different systems in use on the other side of the world and my own status of Technological Neanderthal. Whatever the case, when I was at last able to log on in the capital city of Wellington, I went crazy!

The first e-mail I opened was from KVIE, Sacramento’s PBS station. They were trying a new fund raising tool called Bidding for Good—basically an online auction. I saw my artist friend and fellow KVIE volunteer Gayle Rappaport-Weiland had donated an art party for eight with instruction and all supplies included. On a whim I bid, then lost my connection, something I would not regain until I was once again stateside. Imagine my excitement when the first e-mail I opened was again from KVIE. I won!

It was a challenge finding a date that worked for Gayle, my seven eager friends and me, but at last invitations went out and RSVPs starting coming in. It was only then that my eager anticipation shifted to dread. I’ve painted a lot in my life . . . always walls . . . usually holding a roller. How on earth could I master the subtle art of watercolor and create a masterpiece in just two short hours? Sure, this was Gayle’s promise to all participants, but was it really possible for me?

I invited everyone to lunch before we began, complimented by a liberal ration of champagne for all. I could tell I was not the only one in the room with a bit of anxiety over what lay ahead. Thankfully, the bubbly began to do the trick and temper our various fears. At last it was time to start. At each place was a blank piece of heavy, textured paper, a pencil, four brushes, wax, a cup of water, toilet paper and our “palate” (paper plate) with just four dabs of paint. Gayle’s instructions were simple: “Do what I tell you to do, exactly the way I tell you to do it, then LAY DOWN YOUR BRUSH.” She also demonstrated each technique before we had a hand at it.

And you know what? She was right. It was easy. More than that, it was FUN. And best of all, each of us actually produced a masterpiece that clearly looked like a birch tree in the forest. But oh, what art critics we all became! “I like my clouds, sky and horizon, but my foreground never quite reached its full potential.” “My water is a little murky, but check out my evergreens!”

And my favorite, “You have the best bark. You even mastered a knothole.”

“Actually, that’s where I spilled some paint and tried to cover it up.”

“Oh . . . well, it looks like a knothole to me . . . or maybe an owl.”

I don’t think any of us will be quitting our day jobs anytime soon, but I think it’s also safe to say the next paintbrush one of us picks up just may be to apply something other than latex wall paint!

Thanks to Gayle for a wonderful afternoon, and for her charitable donation of the party to support KVIE. If you’re looking for a party or team-building activity for workmates or a special group of friends, I could not recommend Gayle more highly. Check out her classes, art and upcoming shows online at www.grappaport.com.

Postscript: If you’re wondering what role toilet paper fills in the subtle art form of watercolor, you’ll just have to ask me . . . privately, please.

 

The First Saturday of May – A Long, but Great Day!

Show me ten people with a “bucket list,” and I’ll bet you two-to-one that seeing “the two most exciting minutes in sports” is high on the list for at least eight of them. Even for those who don’t consider themselves sports fans, this writer among them, there’s just something about the Kentucky Derby that makes people want to see and experience it first hand. What is it? The hats? The mint juleps? The thoroughbreds who run like the wind? The wagering? The chance to feel like a king (or queen) for a day at an event frequented by actual royalty, movie stars, professional athletes and other society elites? I suppose it’s all these things and more. Who knows . . . maybe it’s that some really like horse racing!

I’ve just returned from my 7th Derby, and my 6th with a group. It was as always a wonderful day, one filled with memories of wins and almost-wins. In the end, I finished $50 up, the best I’ve ever done! I had won three and lost three in the six races prior to the Derby, and was $177 down. In the Derby (the 11th of 13 races on the first Saturday in May,) I bet on Bodemeister to Show. In horse racing, horses don’t come in first, second and third. Rather, they Win, Place and Show. By betting on a horse to Show, I get a payout if he’s one of the first three horses to cross the finish line. It’s a conservative way to play, but it works for me. My horse came in second, and I came home with $50 of Churchill Downs’ money. They say over $100 million was bet that day, all in cash. And ours is a country supposedly in financial crisis. Amazing.

I’ll assume everyone has seen this race on television. Truthfully, for most, this is the best way to enjoy it, right there in the comfort of your home. It’s a long, potentially hot day. The actual temperature this year was in the mid-80s, but in the South they factor in the humidity to get the Heat Index which topped out at 104. Our seats were hard bleachers without backs in the direct sun (or pouring rain or sleet as has been the case in past years). Drinks were overpriced and watered-down. Food was expensive and mediocre. The crowd was overwhelming—this year a record 165,000, all of whom tried to leave at precisely the same moment.

But . . .

It’s also the greatest race in the world. It is where Triple Crown winners are born. It’s where you sing “My Old Kentucky Home” and cry . . . the words just do that to you. It’s where you wear a hat that cost you more than your first car and don’t care. It’s where you drink mint juleps and love them, even through you don’t particularly like bourbon. It’s where you bet and cheer and loose, then bet, cheer and win, loving the one as much as the other, and not remembering or caring which was which at the end of the day.

The Kentucky Derby is not for the faint of heart, but it’s the experience of a lifetime. Is it on your “bucket list”? Our 2013 dates are May 2-8. Call or write me with any questions, or to place your name on the Priority Notification List! We will begin to take reservations late this summer.

Amazing Krakow

Krakow, Poland is absolutely AMAZING. Today was the kind of day the visitors bureau prays for–about 70 degrees, a light breeze, and a blindingly blue sky with big, white fluffy clouds passing by every now and them. I’ve witnessed architectural treasures today the likes of which I’ve never seen before, and I’ve seen a lot of Europe. After previously visiting largely bombed and rebuilt Gdansk and Warsaw, I can only say thank God that somehow, someway WWII passed over this city’s built environment. (The people, of course, were not so lucky, but the buildings survived.) There are over 130 Catholic churches here–all historic and all with a “first and only” to brag about: The largest bell, the oldest altar, the most gold in Europe. My mind blurred with all the accolades. We visited a number of churches today on our tour. The Franciscan sanctuary was pointed out, but we did not go inside. At tour’s end, we had a few hours of free time before dinner, and I headed to “my” church hoping for an afternoon mass. Well, I got it . . .

When I arrived, there was a big crowd standing outside. All at once, without any invitation I saw or heard, all raced inside and had a seat, me with them. It was only then that I noticed everyone was in a suit or dress, and everyone had a gift on their lap. Before I could react, everyone stood and the bride came down the aisle. In this way I attended my first Polish wedding and mass. As Toot would say, they were VERY married when it was over. The ceremony lasted 1:30. When it came the time in the mass to have communion, I decided to go forward as there will be no time for church tomorrow. I was mortified to see a camera was trained on the wedding guests as they received the host! The entire thing was being filmed! Oh well–I was the uninvited guest. What can I say? At the first kiss, the organ and choir broke out in the “Hallelujah Chorus” (thankfully in English) from a high loft in the rear. The bride left to the traditional wedding march, followed by a flawless rendition of “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” Afterwards, everyone filed out to greet the new couple outside. I hung back to take pictures. Then, before I knew it, a new crowd came pouring in. I narrowly escaped before attending my second Polish wedding mass!

The church was amazing–dating to the late 1400s. (This in itself was interesting to me for St. Francis and Clare only lived in the 1200s. I had no idea the movement had come this far in less than two centuries!) But what really commanded my attention was the stained glass, which was Art Nouveau, clearly installed at a later time. I took lots of pictures, of course. In a cloistered garden, I happened upon a statue of Francis with the strangest bunny sitting next to him. He looks like a fanciful Easter bunny. His body was a roundish stone about twice the size of a basketball, with a face, ears and paws in bronze. I’ve never seen my good saint represented with this animal before. Francis said to love all creation, even this little critter. There must be a story there. One of the side altars was to a friar who was exterminated at Auschwitz. The story goes that three prisoners escaped the Germans, so 10 men were rounded up to be killed in retaliation. One man cried out, “My wife, my children, what will they do without me?” Hearing the cry, friar Raymond Kolbe offered to take his place. He was later sainted for this selfless act. We visit Auschwitz in the morning. I dread this visit, but it must be done. Tomorrow we shall walk upon hallowed ground. I can only imagine what emotions will be unleashed at the sight of the famous, if erroneous entry sign, “Arbeit macht frei”–Work makes you free.

Happy Anniversary to Us!

happy_birthdayI just can’t let the day slip away without casting a spotlight on this important week.  Thirty years ago on June 7, a wise-for-his-years (or at least he thought he was) 17-year-old in Georgia escorted his first tour, almost fulfilling his adolescent dream of growing
up and becoming Julie the Cruise Director of “Love Boat” fame. Over the next decade, the hobby became a part-time job, then full-time, then a career. Now, it’s safe to say doing what I’m doing is my passion, as is doing it right here, right now, for all my
beloved Sacramento travelers.

Passions need a place to hang their hat. Thankfully, two years prior to my launch into the industry, Mark Hoffmann opened the doors (so to speak—his first “office” was his apartment on Fulton Avenue) of Sports Travel, later Sports Leisure Travel, and for the
past decade Sports Leisure Vacations. Our first trip was a casino overnighter that left Sacramento on June 8, 1979 and returned on the 9th. We’re 32 years old this week!

And speaking of June 9, it was on this day in 1955 that a bouncing bundle of baby joy was brought forth into the world in Omaha, Nebraska. His name was and remains Mark Alan Hoffmann. Thank you for your dream, Mark. We are all better because of it!

Great Scot!

In the world of social media, I’ve learned a “shout out” is appropriate to acknowledge a friend, when a good deed is done or when someone is worthy of attention. To this end, I’d like to offer at shout out to Carol, Beverly, Sue, Loraine, Amylou, Phyllis, Kitty, Maggie, Barbara & Eric, Susan & Wayne, Jim & Shirley, Hal & Bea, Bill & Beverly, Gail & Fred, Jim & Lora and the combined staffs of Sports Leisure Vacations and All West Coachlines, especially Diane, Kristin and Ken. They’ve earned it! They deserve it!

On Friday, February 18, this group of eager Sports Leisure travelers gathered at Sacramento International Airport to embark on the highly anticipated tour to Long Beach to take part in the 18th Annual Scottish Festival held aboard and around the venerable Queen Mary. I was excited to be the tour director. In fact, I cut my winter sabbatical short to get back here in time to take this trip. As Sports Leisure’s resident Scotsman, I even purchased a new kilt for the trip (bringing my total to four, one for each day of the tour).

A beautiful full moon shined down upon us as we all motored to the airport in the pre-dawn hours. Then it happened—that little thing that that only occurs at Central Valley airports built in the middle of endless rice paddies in the wintertime: The fog rolled in. No, “rolled in” is too kind and gentle a verb to use in this case. It stormed in like Sherman marching through Georgia. Immediately every flight was delayed, but surprisingly only one was cancelled. You guessed it: our flight to LAX would not operate.

This was the Friday morning of a holiday weekend. Even before the cancellation, seeing the writing on the wall, my office staff and I were looking at our options. In short, there were none. Every flight from Sacramento, Oakland or San Francisco to LA, Burbank, Long Beach, Ontario, Orange County or San Diego was sold out both Friday and Saturday. Either the tour would be cancelled or we’d have to drive.

Less than an hour later, our beautiful All West motorcoach—a familiar old friend, SuperCoach II—pulled up in front of the airport. Thus our 8-hour drive to the south began. Despite pelting rain and driving winds, our savior behind the wheel, Mr. Ken Sanders, got us there safely and just in time for our evening activities.

Despite fowl weather reports, the weekend was beautiful for the most part—just a couple of isolated showers. The Festival went off without a hitch. We enjoyed numerous outdoor activities under the southern California sun including a Venetian gondola ride and an ocean cruise. By trip’s end, the weather was so perfect we could have never imagined our next challenge . . .

Our plane originated in Hartford, CT that morning in the middle of a blizzard, then landed in Milwaukee during terrible storms. She finally and unceremoniously landed in San Diego to take us home nearly three hours late. So there will be no Shout Out to Southwest Airlines today!

I often say “travel is an inexact science.” Air travel is especially so, as proven by our misadventures this past weekend. But I have to ask why these great people signed up for the trip to begin with? Was it to fly back and forth and be on time? Or was it to spend relaxed time in the company of a great group of travelers, leaving the worries to someone else, perhaps enjoying a few surprises along the way? If the latter, I hope their expectations were met. We were even blessed with a beautiful rainbow as we began our ascent over the Grapevine, seemingly telling us everything was going to be OK. In addition to the shout out, I offer my sincere thanks to all my travelers for your patience, cooperation, great attitude and kind words expressed throughout our adventure.

I have just one more question for you: Where shall we go next?

In Memoriam…

I am not a current events junkie. I have to force myself to watch the news on television or read a paper. I learn of current events in sound bites while doing cardio at the gym or by scanning the front page of a paper. I never allow myself to go past the headlines. If it isn’t important enough to make it to the front page, it’s not that important, right?

KVIE often airs specials by Doctors Andrew Weil and Wayne Dyer. If one is a guru for the body, the other is likewise for the spirit. Their approaches to total health are quite different, but one thing they agree on is the public media in America. With all due respect to the First Amendment, much of the news we get in this country is distorted, sensationalized and extremely negative. The doctors ask why we would want to pollute our bodies with bad news, and advise against a daily intake. I couldn’t agree more!

It is in this spirit that I picked up the paper when arriving at the office at 5:50 a.m. this morning. My daily scan didn’t make it past the fold. In fact, I didn’t even take the rubber band off. The news that screamed out at me from the upper left corner of the front page was the passing of Elizabeth Edwards in her 61st year of life.

I did not know Ms. Edwards, but I think I would have liked her. Like many, I learned about her during her former husband’s presidential runs . . . his rise and demise. My interest was heightened because they were from North Carolina, so we were likely cousins.

It’s easy to like a person when everything is going well, when they are enjoying a flattering national spotlight. We think we really know them through titles and images presented by the mass media. College Sweetheart-Turned-Wife. Devoted Mother. Active Volunteer. Respected Lawyer. Christian. All that is so sweet. It’s fun being a Fair Weather Friend. But the true test of a man or woman is how they react to adversity. What do they and we do when the titles change to Cheated Wife? Cancer Patient? Divorcee? I was intrigued enough by this question to go beyond the headlines. My mother says you never really know a person until they are tested. This is where the rubber hits the road. For some reason, I wanted to really know Elizabeth Edwards.

It turns out I did really know her after all. Whenever I saw her in print media or on television, she exhibited the same positive qualities following the fall of the Edwards Empire as she did before. Even in long interviews, like the one where Larry King pelted her with tough questions for an hour, she always kept her composure. She never said anything bad about John. She only spoke of herself, her kids and especially her dreams for the future, most notably a body that was cancer-free. In the South, they call this Class, and she had a lion’s share of it.

Mary Elizabeth Anania Edwards was a true lady. The world was a better place because of her, and we are all better for having known her. I’m glad we got to walk this path together, if only for awhile. Godspeed . . .

Thanksgiving Eve?!?!?!

Take the Thanksgiving Train to LAWhat is it that’s so special about Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve? Both are clearly descended from the event one day later, yet they have grown in popularity to become holidays in their own right not just in America, but all around the world. Some consider the Eve to be more popular and celebratory than the Day itself. Even I have fallen prey to the wiles of a good Eve. For example, nowadays I only go to church on December 24th, never the 25th, and New Year’s parties are always on the Eve, leaving the following day free for those who enjoy watching the big game on TV, hangover recuperation or both! Personally, I usually reserve New Year’s Day to clean out my closet.

So why is it that Thanksgiving Eve doesn’t enjoy the same revered place in American culture? Can it not be equally festive? Why is this singular wintertime Eve not also known as a time for good food, drink and fellowship? I think it is past time that lovers of Thanksgiving Eve (and anyone else simply looking for a good reason to celebrate) should rise up and do something about this terrible disparity in the calendar. Won’t you join me?

This year, Thanksgiving Eve is November 24. On that date, “Take The Thanksgiving Train to LA” takes rail for the last time. On this very special journey, we charter the historic Silver Lariat, the beautifully restored lounge car from the pre-Amtrak California Zephyr, and make tracks from Oakland to Van Nuys (just short of LA). The all-day trip includes three meals served hot and fresh from the microscopic gallery tucked in below the observation dome. The hosted bar is open all day for “adult beverages” from Bloody Marys in the morning to evening cocktails. A host of attendants are there to attend to your every need including owner/restorer Burt Hermey. If I do say so myself, it’s a great way to spend an Eve.

Upon arrival in Southern California, we sleep well for two nights in the 4-Diamond Hilton Hotel in Glendale. On Thanksgiving Day, the transportation theme continues with a visit to Long Beach for a ride on a real Venetian gondola in the canals of the Naples neighborhood, followed by the lavish Champagne Holiday Brunch and ship’s tour aboard the venerable Queen Mary. (Want to sleep on the ship? Check out “Anchors Away” in February!) On the day after Thanksgiving, we wrap up the trip with a ride aboard the new LA subway to Hollywood for a guided tour of everything both classic and new in Tinsel Town. A flight from Burbank Airport returns you safely to Sacramento.

Only a couple spaces remain on this exciting adventure. Call the office at (916) 361-2051 or toll-free at 1-800-951-5556 and make your reservation today!  You can also learn more about our Thanksgiving trip to LA by clicking here.