Monday, December 11, 2017

A Visitor's Guide to Gunston Hall

George Mason is one of those men who somehow history has forgotten. Not in his native Virginia but in the rest of the country. He had a very significant part in the history of the creation of the United States and yet it is one event, one choice he made, in that history that has kept him from being a household word. If this sounds intriguing, please take the time to visit Gunston Hall and get to know this very interesting man.

Gunston Hall was built in the mid-18th century in the Georgian style. It sits on a 60 foot bluff above the Potomac River and at its peak was second only to the Washington Estate at Mount Vernon. Your visit here begins with a 10-minute film to familiarize you with the man who built this home, George Mason.

There is a small museum in the visitor center that will give you some insight into life at the time of the Masons occupation and shows you some of the amazing things that they possessed. George and his first wife Ann raised a large family here and it is very much a family home.

House tours take place every half hour and when I visited in October 2014 the furniture was out of the house, photography was allowed inside. This allows you to take pictures of the fabulous carvings that were done by William Buckland and William Sears in the formal rooms of the house. Both of these men were indentured servants. The work is comparable to that of Grinling Gibbons in this writer’s opinion.


The tour is guided on the first floor and you are then allowed to view the bedrooms on the second floor. Several outbuildings including a kitchen are located close to the house and you are encouraged to walk through the massive grounds. The burying ground is open to visitors as well as a schoolhouse that was used to teach the nine surviving Mason children.

On the Potomac River side of the house, there is a garden which now does not include flowing plants.  Boxwoods and terraced grounds are impressive none the less but plans for new and extensive gardens have received funding so you may get to see them.  If you want to walk down to the river, there are trails for that as well.

Special events are held on average quarterly. The weekend I visited, Halloween was being celebrated. Children could have their face painted, make a mask, paint a pumpkin and hear stories being told at the schoolhouse. Some spooky surprises were also provided. The house tour was included in the entrance and everyone seemed to be taking advantage of it.

In addition to the special events, there are many things offered at Gunston Hall including things like Hearth Cooking Classes and special architecture tours just to name two. See their website for additional dates and times.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Have a Jane Austen moment in Bath, England

If you love the Regency Period of England history, a visit to Bath with all its Jane Austen connections and Georgian architecture is a must. Two things transformed Bath from a quiet market town into a magnet for the rich and famous, the hot mineral waters and Richard "Beau" Nash. Beau arrived in Bath in 1704 and set the stage for the development of the city into a fashionable place to see and been seen.

His love of gambling was the trigger that fueled his desire to get the idle rich to help support his passion. He began as the aid to the Master of ceremonies and when death opened the door he was the natural successor. He became in time the "King of Bath". He set the fashion in Bath and during his reign at the head of the Social Season he was the arbitrator of both behavior and fashion. If you wanted to make a splash in Bath you had to win the approval of the Beau", losing his support caused the unfortunate to be ostracized and this was social suicide. Eventually it was his gambling that was his downfall but his reign lasted 40 years and he left a significant mark on the city of Bath.

The current Assembly Rooms designed by John Woods were constructed in 1769 with the grand opening on September 30, 1771. They replaced the Lower Assembly Rooms of Beau Nash's day. Today the rooms are administered by the National Trust. The Assembly Rooms are free to visit, what you pay to visit is the costumes. The Assembly Rooms themselves can be rented out as a venue for meetings or a wedding reception.

The Assembly Room that you see today is the one that is featured in Jane Austen's novels. You may choose to take a head phone tour; it adds a great deal of information and sets the correct mood for your visit. If you enjoy becoming part of a historic venue then the headphone tour is a must. The tour begins in the Tea Room. This was where at 9 p.m. in the evening all the guest who had been invited to attend would congregate. Some came to dance, some to play cards but all came to be seen. If you didn't have an invitation to the Assembly then your consequence was considerably lowered in the eyes of all the people who really mattered in Bath. The magnificent chandeliers that adorn the room are the originals that were installed in 1771.

"In the evening, I hope you honored my toilette and ball with a thought; I dressed myself as well as I could, and had all my finery much admired at home. By nine o'clock my uncle, aunt, and I entered the rooms, and linked Miss Winstone on to us. Before tea it was rather a dull affair; but then the before tea did not last long, for there was only one dance, danced by four couple. Think of four couple, surrounded by about an hundred people, dancing in the Upper Rooms at Bath." Jane Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra.

The Octagon Room is where the gentlemen would retire for a game of cards and to get away from the dancing and the woman. There are portraits around the upper level of the room one of them is a Gainsborough of Captain William Wade. On the lower level of the room there are four marble fireplaces.

The ballroom hosted up to 1000 people at these dances. You can still imagine the ghosts of Georgian men and women performing the minuet and dancing the country dances. The room is 105 feet long, 42 feet wide and 42 feet high. With all the crystal chandeliers it is breathtaking. Dancing began at 6 p.m. with the minuet, at 8 p.m. there would be lively country dances, at 9 p.m. everyone went to the tea room and all music stopped at 11 p.m. even if it was in the middle of a song.


Visiting the Assembly Rooms is as close as most people will ever get to feeling and understanding the social restrictions and the life of the "beau monde" in the time of Jane Austen. It is worth visiting just for its magnificent architecture.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Daytrips from Vancouver

Visitors to Vancouver have many options when it comes to things to do in the city. It is one of my favorite places to visit. However, getting away for a daytrip is an option and there are several really good destinations!! 

Victoria
Ideally, you would want to spend more than one day visiting Victoria but it can be done in a day trip if that is all you have. There is a ferry that can take you to Victoria but you need a car to get to the ferry terminal in Tsawwassen. When you arrive on Vancouver Island, you are in Swartz Bay about 20 miles from Victoria.

A more expensive but much easier option is to take a float plane from Vancouver Harbor right to Victoria's Inner Harbor. This places you right in the middle of the action and you are within walking distance of most of the things that you would want to do.

The Fairmont Empress Hotel is a popular destination for visitors and having high tea there is on the top of most people's list. This may require reservations so be sure to give them a call if this is something you really want to do.

For families, Royal British Columbia Museum is an easy walk away and you can enjoy the exhibits and purchase tickets for the National Geographic IMAX Theater. Walking along the harbor and a visit to the Parliament building are also popular with visitors. The last float plane heads back to Vancouver at 5:50 p.m. allowing you to have quite a full day.

Whale watch
Though this isn't a specific location, it is an excellent choice for a half day trip. There are several different options depending on what you will feel most comfortable with. If you are into fast boats and a lot of bouncing around the open or semi-covered Zodiac type of boats will be for you. If you prefer a more comfortable ride then the more traditional boat is a better choice. You can sit comfortably inside until you got to areas of interest. You then climb up on the deck for picture taking. It was one of the most exciting things I have ever done. You will see sea lions, porpoise and hopefully the Orcas. Trips can take from 3-5 hours. 

Whistler
Whistler one of the premier ski locations in North America, It is beautiful enough to warrant a visit during any season. Located about an hour from Vancouver it will be a quiet and uneventful ride northeast.

If you are not going to ski in Whistler then the main attraction is the hiking. Visit the Whistler Activity Guides Bureau, they will have information on the best trails. If you are not up for hiking the Whistler Gondola can whisk up from the center of town to the Roundhouse Lodge. Keep your eyes open for bears roaming below you. The views from the top are spectacular. When you return if you have time, visit the Whistler Museum and Archives Society to learn about the history of Whistler and skiing in the area.

Those who want something really exciting to do can consider taking one of the 2.5 hour Ziptrek Eco Tours. Zip-lines of varying length and heights are certain to get your adrenalin pumping. You can fly like an eagle solo or tandem and you will have pictures and memories to last a lifetime.

Plan to have dinner in Whistler before heading back to Vancouver. The town has many celebrated restaurants and you almost can't make a bad choice. Wildflower at the Fairmont Hotel is a perennial favorite as is Rim Rock Cafe.


Whether you choose Whistler, Victoria or a whale watch, any of these daytrips are sure to add an element of culture, nature or excitement to your day.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Best Uruguay travel websites

When you want to research your travels to Uruguay the best Uruguay travel websites will help you to find the information to plan the perfect vacation.

Uruguay is a small country in South America. It is often referred to as the heart shaped country because of its shape. It is bordered by Brazil and Argentina and the Atlantic Ocean. The capital city is Montevideo and the majority of the population of the country live in or near the city. Many wonderful beaches are located in Uruguay, some are very quiet and others are filled with music and excitement. So no matter what you are looking for in a vacation, arts, music, relaxing or great food you will find it all in Uruguay. 


Welcome Uruguay is a commercial website that is almost too busy to look at, there is a lot going on. Things are moving and the advertising is pretty blatant but in the midst of all this there is plenty of useful information.

Across the top right below the pictures are three very thin and hard to see buttons, Littoral, Center and The Beaches. Clicking on the link brings up some more choices, with Littoral one of the choices Carmelo which is a city in the province of Colonia.

When you get to the new page there is an overview of the city in the center and there is a list of links on the left side which will give you further information. Some of the options are Tourist Services, Tours, Photo Gallery and Where to sleep. If you click on Tourist Services, you get the name of a car rental agency and other travel services.

On the left side below the links that apply to Carmelo there is a section called Topics. It has a section for Hot Springs and another is Wines of Uruguay. If you click on Hot Springs it brings up an article and a map with the locations of the Hot Springs.

This is just one small section of a very detailed website. It is easy to navigate and while the front page could be improved the rest of the site is much easier to see and understand.
Given the scarcity of websites to help you plan your trip to Uruguay,

Discover Uruguay is a ray of sunshine. The site covers a lot of ground from lodging and transportation to actually making those reservations. The activities section has a great list of things you can do but there are no clickable links to take you to more information. So while you now know that there are casinos to enjoy where they are and how to get there is not provided. But at least you can take that information and go looking other places. Discover Uruguay is another commercial site that sells tours but you can use them to send you in the right direction.

Uruguay Natural is the official tourism site of Uruguay. It is hard to believe that the official website for the country does not make it to the first five pages of a Google search of Uruguay, but its’ true. What you notice first in the banner is the social media site icons, they really catch your eye. I guess on a site that features travel to your country that isn’t what you want people to notice first but it is what caught my eye.

The pictures on the homepage don’t change and the choices along the top are Home, Places to Go, Things to See and Information. If you scroll down past the first massive photo you get six choices of Places to See. Sorry but the design of this website is just poor and made me want to go someplace else almost immediately. I suggest you do find another place for your research because what is available on this site is very superficial and not of much use except in a very general way. This is probably the worst official website I have ever come across.


What is quite obvious at this point is that planning a trip to Uruguay is not going to be easy using just one website. You will need to use these to send you looking for more specific information. You can also use all the old standbys like Trip Advisor, National Geographic, Frommer, Fodor, and Lonely Planet. Uruguay is a fascinating country and all the effort will be worth it in the end.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Best tours of Halifax, Nova Scotia

Halifax is a city that deserves to be toured. No matter how you arrive there, by plane, by car or by cruise ship, you will want to take one of the many tours that are offered to enhance your visit.

Hop on Hop off Double Decker
These authentic London style red double-decker buses allow the visitor to take a full tour which goes to all the most important historic sites and then get off and back on when they are ready These buses run during the warm weather and services ends in mid-October. The tour has fifteen stops and you will receive a map with your ticket. Some of the stops include The Citadel, Pier 21 where the cruise ships come in and the Museum of Natural History.
What isn't included on this tour is Fairview Lawn Cemetery where the Titanic victims are buried.

Deluxe City Tour
This three-hour tour is offer twice daily at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. from June 1st until October 15th. If you are visiting on a cruise at a later date they will have made arrangement for the tours to be available through the cruise lines. Tour buses are trolleys that look like the original San Francisco trolleys. Tours are guided and your kilted tour guide will provide an interesting and informative running narrative as you travel through the streets of Halifax.

This tour visits the Citadel for a photo opportunity but does not allow enough time for a visit. The trolley parks outside of Fairview Lawn Cemetery. The tour includes a guided tour through the graves of the Titanic victims and the fascinating stories that the graves hide. There are many photo opportunities on this tour be sure to bring along your camera.

Private Limo Tour
If you have a limited amount of time to spend in Halifax this may be the perfect choice. They will do a custom tour to your specifications. All the fun of being chauffeured around and none of the formality.

Historic Halifax Walking Tour
If you prefer to do it on your own you can visit Halifax Tourism Website and get a copy of their suggested two to three-hour walking tour. It will take you through the downtown area and even the Citadel. The city is hilly and you will need to have a certain amount of stamina to attempt this walk but the effort will be well worth it.

Harbor Hopper Tour
If you enjoy the Duck Tours that are so popular in many American Cities then the Harbor Hopper will provide much of the same thrill. You will spend fifty-five minutes driving through the streets of Halifax enjoying the narrated tour and then off into the harbor for a unique view of the Halifax and Dartmouth skylines. Be on the lookout for the green frog that decorates the side.


No matter how you choose to tour, Halifax is sure to delight and intrigue. Most tours are available only during the summer months so plan your trip accordingly.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Comfort Inn Clarion, PA

I am sure you may have noticed that I tend to be very brand loyal when it comes to hotels and my usual choices are Marriott, Holiday Inn or Omni. However, there are times when one of these hotels isn't available or is so over priced that I have to try to find an alternative, this was one of those cases. The Comfort Inn in Clarion was well located and well priced and therefore I decided after considerable research on Trip Advisor to give it a try. I wasn't disappointed. 


The hotel is two-story and you enter through the lobby, the rooms are not accessible directly from the exterior. The lobby is not exceptional about the lobby but you will immediately see the pool and spa which is directly ahead of you as you enter. Across from the desk, coffee is available and in the hall is an ice machine.

This hotel hs smoking rooms and that is one reason I usually am not a big fan of Choice Hotels. If you want to be away from them, be sure to make your preference known. The first room assigned to us would have been too close to the smoking section to be comfortable. It is also important to note that there is no elevator so if your room is on the second floor, you will need to carry your luggage up the stairs. We opted for first floor and got room 106. It is located right next door to the breakfast room.

Did I mention that breakfast is included? It is and is quite an adequate spread. Scrambled and boiled eggs, sausage, two kinds of bagels, three choices of cold cereal and make your own oatmeal, two kinds of bread to toast, English muffins, Danish and mini muffins, yogurt, fruit cocktail (the canned variety) and make your own waffles which can be had with strawberries and cream or syrup. The one problem is a small breakfast room with only 5 tables and a few bar seats. The room could hold a couple more tables and it would be a good idea to add them. People were walking out in disgust or standing around making those eating feel uncomfortable.

The room

The king room was spacious. The bed had modern bedding with a white duvet and coverlet in a neutral color. It had five pillows which while not feather or down were what most people prefer however, the mattress was soft. A flat screen TV sits on the dresser across from the TV. There are 70 channels available including HBO. Sound proofing was good and we were not disturbed by any noise.

The room also has a sofa which converts into a bed. There is a large desk working area. As you enter the room there is a closet with an ironing board and iron and a luggage rack. There is also a bar area with a small sink, microwave and fridge. The coffeepot is located on the desk which seems a bit odd but at least there was a coffee pot.

Location

One thing that this hotel has going for it is its location. It is less than a mile off of the interstate and adjacent to a small mall. In the mall there is a K-Mart and several other stores and also a very good steak restaurant. It is nice to be able to walk out to dinner and leave the car parked at the hotel.

Condition

Overall the hotel was in good shape. The room was clean with only a little bit of mold located on the caulking behind the tub in the bathroom. The sink was also cracked as were a few of the floor tiles and there was rust on the frame of the door. The closet door was very difficult to close once it was opened so it only got opened once. The wooden furniture had its share of nicks, scratches and gouges but the carpet looked in good condition as did the bedding. The air conditioner worked great and kept us very comfortable.

Staff

The woman at the desk was very helpful and gave us a coupon to use at the steakhouse which got us a 10 percent discount. She also made sure we had a room away from the smoking area which I really appreciated.


The all-important question, would I stay at the Comfort Inn again? Yes I would. The location is convenient and the overall condition and amenities are good. There are a few small details that could be better but we slept well and at the end of the day, that is what is the most important. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

An evening entertainment at Circa 21 Dinner Theater

If you happen to be in Rock Island, Il and are looking for an evening of entertainment, Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse is the place to come. You will get to enjoy a delicious pre-show dinner, be serenaded by your waitstaff and follow that with a very entertaining show. 

The spacing in the theater is excellent, The tables to dining and viewing have plenty of space between them and are on levels. You don't feel as if you are sharing you meal with your neighbors. 

The building that houses the theater is historic and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the original details are still visible. Of particular interest is the head of the Indian Chief Blackhawk. Constructed in 1921, it was known as the Fort Armstrong Theatre for 55 years 

Originally a Vaudeville and silent movie house, by the 1970’s had fallen into disrepair. The building was rescued by Denny Hitchcox who saved it from being razed and turned into a parking lot. The playhouse celebrated its 37th season in 2013 so as you can imagine, there are thousands of grateful patrons.

While the original auditorium could hold over 1500 people, the theater now seats 344. Six or seven main stage shows are offered per year and subscriptions are available. Dinner is a buffet with plenty of delicious choices. The buffet is set up on the first level near the stage on the right hand side. You can order alcoholic drinks which are not included in the ticket price.

Dessert is served separately and should be ordered early enough so that it can be delivered at the appropriate time. You have a choice of having it after the pre-show or during intermission. We ordered the strawberry shortcake for intermission and it was both huge and delicious.

The wait-staff, known as “bootleggers”, do a warm up show. It is amazing to see your waiter or waitress dancing and singing their heart out and they all have great voices.

The quality of the show was excellent. Not quite Broadway but better than most local theater. The people that perform here have to audition and many of them have had extensive experience on Broadway and around the country. If you are going to be in the Quad-Cities, be sure to check what is playing at the playhouse and book your tickets in advance at their website so that you are not disappointed.