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.

Sailing on the Bay

It was a glorious weekend in San Francisco. The weather was clear and sunny in the 70’s, with lisps of fog here and there but not thick enough to obscure the sun. It was a busy weekend: Fleet Day, the next round of America’s Cup Sailing Races, the first playoff games for the San Francisco Giants, a 49er football game, the annual Italian Heritage Parade (formerly known in its pre-politically correct days as the annual Columbus Day Parade), and a huge music festival in Golden Gate Park. Not to mention all the other activities which go along with San Francisco just being San Francisco.

After the Fleet Day Parade of Ships and its annual air show with the Blue Angels (the elite US Naval flying team), the stage was set for the next round of the America’s Cup Racing on the bay. San Francisco has turned out to be a perfect venue for the races which started this past August and will continue next summer. The race course runs between Crissy Field, near the foot of the Golden Gate, to Fort Mason. The finish line is equidistant between the two in the small harbor that is home to the Golden Gate and St. Francis Yacht Clubs. The extreme end of the small protective jetty that nearly encircles the docks serves as the finish line.

Because the course covers so much area of public access, there is plenty of room to view the racing along the waterfront but the only reserved seats are bleacher-style near the starting line. That means the far edge of the course remains obscure but there is live “play-by-play” commentary from onsite announcers and large television screens so those paying the premium for a seat don’t miss a bit of the action. The adjacent “village” is a nice complement to the seating area and offers food, vendors, port-a-potties and additional screens to watch the racing live with a glass of Napa Valley wine in the shade of cool tents.

The best place to view the races, however, is from the water. The entire north side of the race course is San Francisco Bay and vessels of all shapes and sizes were out in full force to watch the races, which generally last about 1½ to 2 hours. Many charter vessels, including the boats of Hornblower Yachts and the historic USS Potomac, bobbed in the bay while passengers observed the sleek 45-foot catamarans racing at twice the speed of the wind. Of course, because they are unique venues with captive audiences, costs for passage on these vessels can be high. A luncheon cruise on one of the Hornblower Yachts started at around $175 per person. I settled for a blanket on a rock along the jetty with my binoculars and a sandwich from an Italian deli.

The next round of racing will be from July until the championship races in mid-September on boats that will be nearly twice the length as the boats raced this year. Sports Leisure will be looking at several options to give our customers a taste of the racing, most likely from on the water on board a comfortable luncheon cruise. Keep your eye on future newsletters and for more information about the races visit www.americascup.com.

We Can’t Wait to Introduce you to Moloka’i

“Yeah, I see the van from my desk. You guys just turned right. We are here on the corner. See you in an hour. You have to go all the way to the airport to get your car and then get back.” That was Julie-Ann Bicoy, the Director of the Molokai Visitors Association. Mark and I met her this past spring in NYC at the NY Times Travel Show and after Mark interviewed her, I promptly recorded another interview over the top of it. So, two weeks ago I found myself out in the Pacific Ocean on the small island of Molokai, The Friendly Isle, to meet with Julie again.

We were greeted with kukui nut leis, a warm smile, and jeers about our navigational skills. As for the hour we lost finding the place, who cares? We were on island time!

And what an island! The place just oozes charm and REAL Hawaii. There are no flagship designer stores such as Prada, Gucci, or Luis Vuitton as in Waikiki. There are no sprawling mega resorts that you’d expect to find on Maui. There are real people, real life, and a real down home “hang loose” kind of feeling. The “downtown” has a real working man’s feel to it. It is only about three or four blocks long with a post office, a few local eateries (fried rice with bacon and Portugese Sausage anyone?), and a general store or two. Nothing fancy….but that is what makes this place so special.

So, you may ask, what is there to do? Answer? About anything you wish if you are creative. Molokai has an entirely different approach to tourism. Where on the other islands you are barraged with hawkers trying to sell you a luau with a discounted snorkeling package, here they simply ask…what do you WANT to do? When we were asked, we really had no answer.

Looking around Julie’s office I spied a sign about a lady that makes culinary sea salt. Julie just nodded and said that she would call Nancy and let her know we were coming. That’s it…that simple. So, off we went to see Nancy and visit her salt farm. She personally took us around and explained the process by which sea salt is harvested and allowed us to taste salt that “rolls the tongue”. It was just Mark and I, no set itinerary, no charge, just Nancy sharing with us her passion. Perfect.

Molokai is probably best known for Father Damien and the leper colony, Kaulapapa. This town still exists but to respect the privacy of those still living there, tourists are not permitted in without special invitation. However, a short drive takes you to a paved walking path where you can look out over the small settlement. Interpretative signs explain the history and story of Father Damien and his incredible work with a group of people that had simply been cast away by society because of their unfortunate illness. The place has a definite feeling; the sadness of the history, yet optimism. Today, the disease is now treatable and no longer requires patients to be quarantined. I don’t know if it is the sheer natural beauty seen from this vantage point, but all seemed right with the world as I stood there looking out over the town and over the ocean.

Our last mission was to find a place to stay on Molokai. It was easy enough to narrow down the hotel. There’s one. Yep, one. It’s called the Hotel Molokai, and a gentleman named Michael Drew runs the place. Michael’s story is very fitting of the vibe of Molokai. He worked for years in Southern California in the hotel industry. He got the opportunity to come and run this hotel in Molokai with the understanding it would only be for one year. One year has turned into five and he shows no signs of leaving. It’s obvious he loves the place and takes great pride in his hotel.

He has begun, individually and personally, to remodel each of the A-framed buildings that make up the hotel compound. Let me tell you a little more about the hotel. It has a rustic charm that is befitting of the island. The rooms are open air (no A/C). Who needs it when there is constant tradewind? Though on the small side, rooms are nicely appointed with new flat screen TVs. Again, who needs a TV when you can hang out at the seaside restaurant that is only steps away from your room while you take in the sunset over a mai tai? It would make for a memorable ending to any trip.

As I sit here under the fluorescent lights of the office I am looking at my new tan and missing the islands. Sports Leisure has been going to Hawaii for years and we pride ourselves on being able to offer new, different experiences that would interest those that have visited the islands before. Well, this trip will be unlike anything we have offered for quite a while. We will give you the option to add two days to visit Oahu and take in Doris Duke’s home, Shangri-La, plus visit the newly revamped Valor in the Pacific Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

Then it’s off to luxurious Maui and trust me, there is a lot more to Maui than golf courses and day spas…but there will be time for that too if you should desire. We will explore the interior of the island and learn about the burgeoning agricultural business (How about a stop at a lily pad farm?), see a homegrown performance called U’lalena, depicting the history of the island through music and dance; and there has to be a stop for Ululani’s Hawaiian shave ice! Lastly, “camping” at the Hotel Molokai for one night rounds out the perfect Hawaiian vacation. Leave the tent at home and come along with us as we “rough it” in paradise! It’s Hawaii the way it used to be, and you can’t find it with any other tour company.

Watch for details in our catalog in August. The trip will take place next spring. Maui and Molokai. Who knew there was so much to discover?

You can checkout an episode of The Travel Guys which featured Moloka’i by clicking here!

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.

Reflections on Southeast Asia

Today’s post includes quite a few photos, which you can find at the bottom of the post.  Enjoy!

Today is February 9, 2012 and Sports Leisure’s 3rd Asia tour has come to an end.  As I am tackling a mountain of laundry, I have been reading over my journal from our Southeast Asia adventure and decided to write a blog so that everyone can share in our amazing experience from the comfort of your armchair.  Five different countries in 19 days, trans-Pacific flights on Singapore Airlines, and 14 days in the comfort and luxury of Holland America’s ms Zaandam…it really was the trip of a lifetime.  I’ll be heading back to Asia soon.  Perhaps after reading this you’ll consider joining our next adventure.

We began with a direct flight from SFO to Hong Kong on Singapore Airlines. These folks have their act together!  Though we flew coach, I was treated better than any first class domestic flight with other airlines.  Instead of two choices for entrées (the obligatory beef or chicken) we had menus that included a European/ Continental style offering along with an Asian and Indian selection.  Before we touched down in Hong Kong I had the dim sum for breakfast and was thoroughly impressed.  The in-flight service was impeccable and the range of television shows and movies offered through the personal entertainment systems at each seat made the time pass much quicker.  I’ve tasted the champagne of airline service and it will be hard to go back to wine now.  

What a time to be in Hong Kong!  It happened to be the eve of Chinese New Years and this is the year of the Dragon.  The Dragon is considered to be the most powerful of all the animal signs in the in Eastern zodiac so this year was a special celebration.  There was electricity in the air.

As a tour director, one of the best parts of the job is being able to share in a traveler’s excitement.  Mary Vrablick turned to me as we were walking around Victoria’s Peak and exclaimed with her eyes sparkling,”I can’t believe I am actually in China!”.  I remember that same feeling the first time I stepped off the plane in Beijing during my year of study abroad.  It’s one thing to see images on TV, but to be physically standing there is exhilarating.

After a tour of the city and boarding the ship I decided to take a walk along the Kowloon waterfront which is situated directly across the water from Hong Kong (it is all the HK metro area…much the way the East River separates Brooklyn from Manhattan).   The buildings were all decked out in flashing neon lights.  Have you ever seen a lighted dragon slink down a skyscraper?  I have and it is a pretty awesome sight as you can see by the picture.

After a relaxing day at sea, our first port-of-call was Halong Bay (the Bay of the Descended Dragon).  This place is pure magic.  If you’ve ever seen postcards of those magnificent, sheer limestone rock formations jutting straight up from the sea…that’s where we were.   Some of us even walked through the Thien Cung Caves which runs through the center of one of these mountains.  Loraine Messecar who is 86 years old took my arm and step-by-step (all 300+ of them) made it through…and now I must brag…we weren’t even the last ones to the boat!  Go Loraine!

 Next stop, Sanya, Hainan Island in China.  This is China’s Hawaii.   I spent a good bit of time here while I lived in Beijing from 2007-2008.  I didn’t even recognize the place.  We docked on a brand new man-made island that had a series of new condo towers still under construction.  In true Chinese fashion, the towers were not complete or ready for occupation but the lights displays had been installed and were fantastic.  Neons shimmered up the sides and gave us quite a show directly next to our ship.   Several of our folks checked out a Chinese minority village on their shore excursions while others went to Macau known as China’s version of Las Vegas.  It’s really more like Vegas on steroids as Steve Wynn and other Western big time gaming enterprises have built properties there that dwarf those in Las Vegas.

Central and Southern Vietnam were our next two stops.  First we visited Nha Trang a small coastal resort town.  The weather was still cool enough to need long-sleeved shirts and the town hadn’t really opened for the tourist season yet which was fine by me.   I was able to walk through the center of the small town and really get a sense for how these folks lived.  While still rustic, it was obvious that there had been an influx of money there as new ocean front homes were being built or were recently completed.  Vietnam is experiencing quite an economic boon and along with China is one of the major Asian economic dragons driving the region’s growth.

As we entered into Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon as it is known to us) our guide explained that in ten years the skyline would resemble Singapore’s because of the many construction projects already on the docket.  Elizabeth Fleming and I went on a culinary themed excursion and visited markets where chefs answered questions about the different ingredients and collected everything we needed for the meal we would make. Yes, we cooked our own meal. It was so much fun.  We had freshly made shrimp and crab spring rolls, tomato and egg soup, and a white fish with a caramel sauce cooked in traditional clay pots.   I ate every bite….and helped with Elizabeth’s too.  Thank goodness there is a very nice, well-equipped fitness center on the ship.   With all the good food in the dining room and the buffet I can only hope that I didn’t do too much damage to the waistline…wishful thinking at its best!

Cambodia offered a real eye-opening experience.  Many of our folks went on a shore excursion that took them to a pagoda, a small fishing village, and to the town market. Though Cambodia is still among the poorest countries in Southeast Asia several of the folks reported that this was their favorite stop.  There was a genuine quality to the way things were presented to us.  They knew their lot in life yet were happy, proud, and optimistic.  China has begun to invest in the creation of roads and America has begun to invest in schools.  They know they have a long road ahead of them, but generation by generation their situation will improve.  It was nice to see….nice to be reminded of our good fortune in America.  Regardless of our current economic situation, trust me; it could be a lot worse.   I look forward to visiting the country again to see its continued progress.  

Our next stop, Thailand, is a country that I know well having spent six weeks backpacking the entire country in 2004.   Thailand is an anomaly in this region.  It is the only country that was never invaded and colonized by European colonial powers.   The royal family is very much revered by the people and enjoys a 1,400 year history.

The story goes that when the French approached from the East and the British approached from the west the king told them that he could live without both his left and right arms and legs.   The colonial powers divided up the lands to the east and west yet left what is now known as Thailand, originally known as Siam, untouched.  This is the reason they avoided colonization and why there is such a vibrant culture here.  Because there was never a religion imposed upon the people the practice of Buddhism is very strong here.

Outside most businesses and at the corners of most city blocks there are spirit houses that look like doll houses on a pedestal.  Inside there are small figurines in them that embody different Gods which provide health, happiness, wealth, and protection.  Offerings of incense, flowers, fruits, meats, even soda and beer are left and people can be seen stopping the pace of their hectic day to bow their heads and say a prayer.  Regardless of your religious beliefs there is a definite feeling or emotion that lingers around these places.

We stayed here for two full days of touring.  The shore excursions ranged from spending a day touring the bustling mega-city of Bangkok, to visiting the country side, to feeding tigers or riding elephants.  Yes, you read that correctly and here are the pictures to prove it!  That’s Sarah Smith on a elephant. Hey Judi, watch those fingers!  That tiger cub is cute but looks hungry!

One last stop in Thailand at the island of Koh Samui slowed the pace down a bit.  This town is a very popular tourist spot for Europeans and Russians escaping the cold winters. I did not join an organized excursion but took a tender to shore and walked all over the little town.  It’s very accessible and there are many nice restaurants and shops.

I love Thai food and had fresh squeezed mandarin orange juice and pad thai (a very popular fried rice noodle dish with fresh seafood).  I took it to-go and enjoyed it by the water as I watched the fisherman coming back with their catch.  If ever there was a place to simple escape to and forget it all, this is it!

As I woke up on the last day of the cruise and looked out my window I realized we had already docked in Singapore.  I had never visited Singapore before but just the sight of it made me impatient to get ashore.  The joke is that Singapore is a “fine” city.  This has a double meaning.  It is a fine city in the sense that it is absolutely beautiful, clean, compact and easily accessible.  The other meaning is that anything you do wrong here, you will be fined for.  Singapore has very strict laws.  There is a $50 fine for chewing gum, not flushing a public toilet, or smoking in public.  This may seem severe, but it has the civilizing effect of keeping things clean and beautiful.  The citizens take a lot of pride in their city, as they should.  It is truly a world class city on par with NYC, London, or Paris.  I fell in love with the place and will definitely, without a doubt return.

After a very simple disembarkation and customs process we met our local guide, Faridah.  I had arranged for us to have a two day extension and we stayed at the beautiful Mandarin Marina Hotel.  It was located one block from the water front and connected to a shopping mall so last minute gifts or a McDonald’s hamburger was within easy reach.

The first evening I took some of our group around the block to an outdoor night food court called Glutton’s Bay…and it was gluttonous!  There were all kinds of local foods available such as fried noodles, satays (chicken, beef, or lamb grilled on skewers), and rotisserie chicken wings.  I must admit that I enjoyed two dinners that night.  I ate once when I went to scout out the place before taking the group and then ate again with the group.  After waddling back to the hotel, I fell into the most comfortable hotel bed I have ever slept in…and this time it wasn’t rocking with the rhythm of the ocean.

In two short days we saw temples (both Chinese and Hindu), the National Orchid Garden where over 60,000 plants were on display, and visited a museum that explained the history of the Singapore river.  We followed in the footsteps of Sir Stamford Raffles who claimed it for the British in 1819, and took a bumboat ride to see the amazing architecture from a different view before having a delicious pan-Asian meal featuring dishes from all the countries we had just visited.

That brings us the end of our trip which coincidentally was the final day of the Chinese New Year.  As I sit here now, I can’t believe that less than 48 hours ago I was halfway around the world…immersed in a completely different culture.   We are very fortunate to have the ability and means to travel and learn about the world we live in.  I’d like to thank the folks that came along with me for letting me share in their adventure.  I will begin planning Sports Leisure’s next Asian vacation.  Any ideas?  Feel free to send them to me at Chris@sportsleisure.com, give me a call at the office or chat with me in person when I see you on a day trip or extended tour.  So until then, safe travels!

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.

A Day with the Fighting Irish, Weather or Not!

College football is one sport I’ve never been a huge fan of. No special reason. I’m not a big fan of professional football either. Perhaps the fact that colleges basically serve as a free minor league for football is something that doesn’t seem quite right to me. The landscape is littered with college football players who didn’t become academic scholars. Or even close. Such is the way of the world in college football. But as I discovered this past weekend, there is a side to college football I truly enjoy.

Last Thursday, Chris Galloway and I took a group of 35 to Chicago for a “sports weekend” with celebrity guest host Kelly Brothers of KCRA-TV and KFBK Radio. The idea had been Kelly’s – a 4 day trip including both a Cubs game and the Notre Dame football home opener at South Bend. Throw in some sightseeing and great food (Harry Carey’s and Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket – a Route 66 landmark – it just doesn’t get any better!) and we were all in for a real treat.

On Friday, we watched the Cubs and the Pirates, two teams that were playing only for personal glory, inside the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. It was a hot, humid day, but we were seated behind third base, in the shade. Overall, a great day to soak up the old ballpark.

Saturday morning, we arose early for an 8am bus departure to South Bend, arriving around 11am eastern time. By the time we arrived, thousands had already set up camp around the outside of the stadium. Tailgating? Practically mandatory. Kickoff was still 4 ½ hours away, but the campus was teaming with activity.

First stop, the bookstore. It’s the best souvenir spot on campus and our gang supported the local economy in a big way. Just about everyone getting back on the coach clutched a bag in their hands, some were large bags. Next up, a tailgate party fit for a football fan. Italian beef (a Chicago favorite), southern fried chicken and all the trimmings. Unfortunately, we didn’t make a clean connection with our “beer wagon,” which was in a different parking lot, until we were on our way into the stadium. Best laid plans…

Kelly led a walking tour of the campus, which was filling up rapidly with fans. We paid homage to “Touchdown Jesus,” a massive mosaic on the side of the library. The nickname comes from the fact that the artwork can be seen from inside the football stadium, and Jesus has his arms outstretched over his head, as a football referee would pose signaling a touchdown. A bit irreverent, but it works.

This being the first game of the season, lots of parents were on hand to proudly root for their child’s new alma mater. Kelly, being a Notre Dame grad, was in his element, as he showed us around. A highlight was the story of his dorm, Zahm; and the obvious nickname for its residents (Zahmbies, what else). To say there was excitement in the air is an understatement.

As game time neared, the players, attired in coat and tie, marched to the stadium; followed by the band, after a pre-game concert. Once inside, it was obvious the excitement had come right through the gates with us. Professional sports have a certain aura surrounding them. College sports do also, but it’s a different vibe.

Fan’s investment in pro sports teams is in dollars and years of rooting for their favorite teams. College is different. The investment in college teams often comes from the heart and soul. Alumni who spent some of the best years of their lives working towards a degree have a tie to their school’s sports teams that borders on the fanatic.

As the game began, the stadium announcer informed us they were tracking thunderstorms 100 miles from the stadium, but expected no problems with the weather. Famous last words.

By the end of the first quarter, the storm clouds had begun to gather. Notre Dame, after an initial burst of energy, found itself down 16-0 to South Florida, a team they expected to beat handily. The stadium felt like the air had been pumped out. When your team is getting their collective hats handed to them, it’s hard to maintain your level of pre-game enthusiasm. Then came the announcement. Due to a major wave of thunderstorms headed our direction, the decision was made to suspend play at halftime.

The rains came, as advertised. The fans, many disgruntled by the delay (Don’t they play football in all kinds of weather?), grew impatient. Some left. But at least 85% of those gathered remained on the concourses for what became a two hour delay. When play resumed, the Fighting Irish lived up to their name, marching down the field to score. Perhaps the second half would be different from the first.

But Mother Nature wasn’t done. Another thunderstorm approached and with only 4 minutes to go, a second suspension was announced. This time, with the game seemingly out of reach for the hometown boys (23-13), most headed for their vehicles, hoping to beat the raindrops. BIG raindrops. Buckets of raindrops.

Our gang returned to the coach, the last few arriving as the skies opened up. We had called it a day. (The game did resume again after a 40 minute delay and ended up 23-20, in favor of South Florida.)

Some fans were upset, some confused, some were on the back side of a lot of drinking earlier. (Tailgating has to stop when the game starts, and no alcohol is sold inside the stadium, which certainly helps dry out the imbibing fans.) And if you didn’t know “the rest of the story,” you might have wondered why a football game had been stopped twice for thunderstorms.

Think back just a few weeks. At the Indiana State Fair, severe thunderstorms brought high winds, but the show went on. Unfortunately, the winds caused a stage to collapse, killing 7 people. Now think back to last fall. You might have missed the story about the Notre Dame Student Manager who was video-taping a practice at the stadium when lightening and thunder came. The young man, Declan Sullivan, was killed by a lightening strike, an event that deeply troubled the Notre Dame leadership, because they had not provided a safe environment for a young man in their charge. They were humbled.

So when the word came that 80,000 people were in the path of a potentially life-threatening wind and rain storm, those in charge of one of our country’s most venerable schools did the right thing. They acted with an abundance of caution and suspended play, getting people out of the elements.

It was an unpopular but well thought out decision. A football game is not worth anyone’s life or limb. Yes, a wonderfully exciting day had come to a less than glorious conclusion.  But the day was a success. I think the folks who went with us had a good time and got to experience a college campus on game day. Not just any college campus, Notre Dame. Thanks to a few thoughtful, caring school officials, we’ll all live to tell about it. Sometimes good decisions are not easy or popular. Even when they seem insignificant 24 hours later. Which I think is the point.

I’ll attend another college football game someday. I had a great time. The people at ND were super, Kelly was a terrific host. Next time though, let’s leave the thunderstorms behind.

 

The Wonders of Cape Cod

The name Cape Cod conjures up images of gray shingled homes with white trim, succulent seafood meals and the Kennedy clan in pressed Oxford button-down shirts. There’s a definite ring to it…and for good reason. The Cape (as those in the know call it) while close in geographical proximity to Boston, is many miles away in attitude. Where deadlines and business appointments fill the days in the big city, out on the Cape, time slows. Time really doesn’t matter.

I have just returned from a four day scouting trip in preparation for our upcoming Islands, Ferries and Towns of Old Cape Cod tour in September. As I sit here in the office under unflattering fluorescent lights, I wish that for just one minute I could be back on board one of the ferry boats making my way across the calm waters to an island getaway. Folks, we have got an amazing trip scheduled, and we have already begun to make minor tweaks and changes in the hopes of being able to offer this trip again in the Summer of 2012. I’m definitely signing up to be the tour director.

I’ll share a little of what I saw and experienced during my time last week. Leaving Boston behind, I made my way to Provincetown (P-Town to the locals) out on the far eastern tip of the Cape. This is an awesome little community. Being the home of and playground for a large gay and lesbian population has helped to foster a live-and-let-live open-mindedness. There are smiles all around and stress is checked at the dock. If you know me at all, you know that I love seafood…you also know I am a human garbage disposal and can easily put away the groceries. It is here that I began my lobster quest at one of the same restaurants (The Lobster Pot, if you’re taking notes) where our group will have the pleasure of dining. That poor lobster didn’t stand a chance. I’m already looking forward to September and Round 2!

Next, I visited Martha’s Vineyard. This is a slightly larger Island with 5 small villages on it. Mark and I were so taken with the charms of the Vineyard that we had a brainstorm and began working on a way to include a stay on the island in our Summer 2012 tour. I have included pictures of The Kelley House, which would be our prospective hotel. After a delicious Lobster Roll Sandwich for lunch we were off to check out the other island of Nantucket. Cobble stone streets lead the way from the dock to the center town where shops and restaurants galore await you. Again, we began to devise a plan to stay on the island and after meeting with a hotel manager, it seems as though this too is a solid possibility for the 2012 itinerary. Those details are still very much in the air so stay tuned for more information.

Okay, so I have officially teased you. Our 2011 travelers that will be joining Mark and me for the September trip are in store for a wonderfully relaxing vacation. Say goodbye to the dog days of Sacramento summer and lose yourself on The Cape. Who knows, today is Mark’s birthday so maybe we can talk him into making a down payment of one of the smaller mansions on the islands so that Sports Leisure can open its Cape Cod offices. If not, I’ll definitely be there in September 2011 and, with any luck, the Summer of 2012. Are you coming with me?

For those of you interested, our 2011 trip to Cape Cod can be found here.  To add your name to the priority list for our 2012 departures, drop us an email on the contact page.  If you just can’t get enough of Cape Cod (and really, who can?), then please check out our Travel Guys episode on this fantastic destination!

Penguins? On a plane?!?

There we were, 32 wonderful Sports Leisure Travelers waiting to board our airplane to San Diego for an extended weekend, the “Luxury in La Jolla” trip.
There were odd noises coming from two crates covered with blankets in the front row of the plane. We all assumed they were dogs or cats but an odd noise bellowed from the crates. To our amazement there were two VIP passengers traveling with us, Pete and Pat penguin from Sea World San Diego. They were in Sacramento visiting the capital with a few of their trainers promoting conservation and were returning home.
As we boarded the plane their two crates occupied the bulk head seats. As the trainers got them all nestled in they lightly sprayed them with water to keep them cool. As people boarded the plane there were odd noises coming from the crate that was a sound between a cat and a donkey. Boy did the flight attendant get some looks.
Once we were at cruise altitude the flight attendants came by with peanuts and pretzels, unfortunately they were out of anchovies.
As Pete and Pat conversed back and forth, the plane listened with curiosity. To our amazement one of the trainers got on the microphone and told us the captain has given permission for Pete and Pat to come out of their crates and walk the aisles of the airplane. As they waddled up and down the aisles there were giggles and smiles among us all. We had the opportunity to see them up close as well as learn all about where they live in the wild and at Sea World.
What a wonderful way for us to start our trip. We went from penguins, to hot fudge sundaes, to brunch at the hotel Del to shopping in La Jolla to dining in Old Town and all the wonderful things in between.
Of course, we can’t promise penguins on every Sports Leisure flight, but we always try to go above and beyond. To my “shy and quiet” group of 32 passenger thanks for a wonderful trip.
Look forward to making more memories with you. Your “shy and quiet” tour director RoseMarie Holt.

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