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Friday, December 29, 2006


Just wanted to wish everyone a Happy and Healthy 2007.

I've enjoyed switching from the website to the blog. It gives me a lot more freedom, and that's good! More people are using the link on the left to TATravel, my travel search engine, and I'm glad it's doing a good job for you. One of my wishes for the new year is that more of you would comment right on the post rather than through email because we would become more of a "community," and it does feel really good when you've said you've visited, or read, or eaten at a particular restaurant. The variety of opinions and suggestions enhances all our experiences.

Thanks again for joining me and Rob on our travels. This sure is a lot of fun!


Remember Fannie Flagg, the red-haired stand-up comedienne from the 1960s? She had the familiar southern drawl, soft spoken but hysterically funny. I liked her pointed humor then. She co-hosted Candid Camera with Alan Funt, and she was a Match Game regular. She wrote Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. The book then became the terrific 1991 movie, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Flagg was nominated for an Oscar for her screenplay. She’s written other novels since then, and for our ride down to Myrtle Beach, I picked up the audio book of Fannie Flagg’s Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven. It is absolutely the best audio tape we’ve heard thus far!

BTW, I thought it was amusing to learn that her real name is Patricia Neal, a name, of course, that she couldn’t use professionally. Wonder if her mom was a fan.

Anyway, not only is this a great story, sentimental, funny, and serious all at once, but also Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven is a philosophical exploration into the way we live our lives. Why do some people ride the roller coaster so well? The novel is infused with a palpable southern charm and a small town feeling that is big enough to touch the entire world.

Brilliantly read by Cassandra Campbell who captured the essence of the sad and happy characters and bounces between emotions and events, Fannie Flagg’s tale is refreshingly sweet without being maudlin. It’s not a “chick book.” Rob enjoyed it as much as I. We kept looking at each other as characters disclosed their less attractive sides—and then we’d laugh! We recognized everyone, and some of them were us!

Our heroine, Elner Shimfissle, falls out of her fig tree, thereby launching herself into a wild adventure. She has touched so many diverse people in her long life that the reaction to her accident coming from every segment of the local population astounds the reader. A Bible-toting neighbor, a truck driver Elner knew since he was a boy, her nervous niece Norma and Norma’s gentle husband Mackie, many, many friends, and some very unexpected and unusual characters make their way into this story and are touched by Elner’s way of maneuvering through life’s surreal moments.

Very funny, often touching, I Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven is a mystery-comedy tackling many of the contemporary issues we face. And then some.

Fannie Flagg and her optimistic octogenarian character deals with one of the most difficult questions we ask ourselves: What’s it all about, anyway? And, by golly, they find an answer. Read it and smile. I wonder why it wasn’t made into a movie.


Finding the neighborhood gem of a restaurant hidden away where only the locals know is exactly what happened to us in the Ballston section of Arlington, Virginia in a terrific Italian restaurant, Tutto Bene.

Tutto Bene has a unique history. This Italian restaurant has been owned since 1988 by a Bolivian family, and the staff is latino. Tutto Bene has become a home away from home for Bolivian expatriats and features a Bolivian menu alongside its Italian menu. Indeed, locals flock for those missed specialties that are particularly good at Tutto Bene, and on weekends there are lines outside the door.

Tutto Bene is Zagats rated and listed as one of the top 52 restaurants in the DC area.

Allison and Don brought us here as it is one of their favorite restaurants, and we notice a steady flow of customers who seem very familiar and comfortable here. Definitely a neighborhood favorite, Tutto Bene is primarily decorated in burgundy and black, giving it a formal and classic touch. Paintings and photographys of Italy adorn the walls, and there is a friendly, warm atmosphere. Rob and I feel right at home.

Dinner is excellent. We begin with a crisp Caesar salad, fresh and plentiful with just enough dressing to add a subtle flavor to the romaine. Then I choose a marvelous lasagna, spicy and with a sauce that adds to the flavor rather than drowns it. Rob, as is his nature, orders the combination platter allowing him to taste a light canneloni, gnocchi, those tiny, lovely cheese dumplings, and manicotti, filled with a delicate creamy cheese. Allison selects ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta and served in a rich white sauce. Don joins me with lasagna but with sausage. We are all pleased with our selections, and we eat leisurely, enjoying the ambiance and the excellent company. We've spent a wonderful afternoon at the newly re-opened National Portrait Gallery, and dinner conversation centers on our impressions.

We initially choose to pass on dessert, but our waiter tempts us mercilessly, and we order the Creme Brulee. (notice how often that is our dessert of choice!) It is different from others we've had though, with a thicker custard and a thicker crisp, sugary topping. But a lovely ending to a scrumptious dinner.

Visit Tutto Bene's website for more photos as well as for directions. I guarantee you'll be happy.

Sunday, December 24, 2006


After visiting Kykuit, I noted that wealthy, powerful men build homes with views of expansive lawns and water. Let me modify that. Wealthy women do too. Witness Edith Wharton’s home in the Berkshires where she wrote several of her most famous novels including Ethan Frome and Age of Innocence.

The Mount, Wharton’s home for about ten years beginning in 1902 until her divorce and expatriation to France in 1913, sat on 120 acres in beautiful Lenox, Mass. Today, 49 of those acres belong to the Edith Wharton Trust, an organization dedicated to restoring Wharton’s summer “cottage” to its original splendor.

What makes a visit here so worthwhile is Wharton herself. She broke the mold of dependent Victorian women by taking a full hand in designing both the elegant house where she shunned the Gilded Age’s excess to bring a European-inspired simplicity and symmetry to the design and the elaborate gardens which she envisioned as extensions of the home’s living space. While she worked with an architect and landscaper from Boston, Wharton is recognized as the guiding spirit behind the ambitious project. Her book, The Decoration of Houses, presented Wharton’s theories of design, and it is still in print and consulted more than a century later. She was a believer in symmetry, and if you look at my photos, you will notice how strictly she held that standard—even at the entryway to her home.

Edith Wharton bought the property with money earned by writing, and she thrived as a writer in this magnificent retreat producing short stories, three works of nonfiction, and six novels including The House of Mirth. She once wrote after receiving a check for her writing, “Many thanks for the cheque for $2,191.84 which, even to the 81 cents, is welcome to an author in the last throes of house-building.” I guess even the rich....

Don’t balk at the $16.00 entrance fee. It’s $16.00 well spent. We received a magnificent catalogue (which would easily cost $10.00 or more at other sites) filled with information about Wharton, the house and gardens, and the restoration work done, in progress, and contemplated by The Edith Wharton Trust. Newly completed is Edith Wharton’s library, the permanent home of her 2,700 book collection begun in her childhood and continuing until just before her death.

To begin our journey, Rob and I walked past the entrance into the huge stables. There we viewed an intelligent, informative video on Edith Wharton’s life, works, and home at The Mount. We learned about her background, childhood, and marriage, which, when it dissolved, caused her leave the house and relocate to France for the rest of her life.

We walked the quarter mile from the stables to the Mansion. It looked like a mansion to me although we were assured by the docents that in her day, Edith Wharton’s “cottage” was small and reserved. If you’ve ever been to Newport where the other socialites of her day built their “cottages,” you’ll know that’s true!

Rob and I took two tours of the Mansion, both included in the admission. The first, an hour long tour of Wharton’s beautiful gardens, was spectacular because we were the only two people on the tour, a reward, in part, of retirees’ ability to travel on weekdays. The volunteer guide was well versed in the types and habits of the garden rooms and paths as well as how the restorative work was done on the walks and walls. She indicated the differences in the land since Wharton’s time and how her views out to the water were different.

If you notice the stairs in this photos, you’ll see they are cut into the earth and are made of grass.

Interestingly, in trying to recreate the size of one huge arbor (pictured below), they relied on photographs taken at the time of one particular visitor. By looking at his photos in different areas of the house, researchers were able to establish his height. Then, going back to the proposed arbor, they were able to establish its dimensions. As we listened to stories such as this one, we came to understand the puzzles that had to be solved before restoration could even begin.

On the second tour, the tour of the mansion, we were joined by a visiting group of Red Hatters. The house is exquisite, a stunning stylistic mixture of 18th century French and English sources. Yet, it is 100% American in its conveniences and plumbing! The combinations are seamless; the result is worth seeing with the guide who explained, once again, the painstaking research to recreate in as many ways possible, the home as well as the spirit of the home. Modern day designers put their own touches and approaches to work in each room’s decoration, relying on photographs as well as the information in Wharton’s The Decoration of Houses. For instance, Wharton shunned color descriptions such as jonquil yellow or willow green. She wrote of her attraction to black for staircase railings. At the Mount, the railings are black and the walls are a neutral tint, thus adding a dramatic effect Wharton sought. The designers paid close attention to detail. In the dining room, for instance, there is a cushion near Wharton’s chair for her favorite dog.

My favorite room was the library with its beautifully carved bookcases, shelves filled with exquisitely bound volumes that, in themselves, create an intellectual autobiography. Although Wharton wrote her own books in bed in the mornings, there is a wonderful desk in the library, parquet floors, and floor to ceiling windows to allow for adequate lighting. It’s a glorious room—a room to envy.

I add that there is a European bistro, the Terrace Café, but it was closed when we were there. There are lectures throughout the season (June to Aug.), and a variety of other special events. Famous writers appear—In Aug., 2006 former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky (who I've seen at the Dodge Poetry Festival) appeared as part of an annual poetry series. Visit the Mount’s website for information and some stunning photographs.

The Mount, as well as the entire Lenox area, is an exciting place for a book lover.

Friday, December 22, 2006


Just wanted to keep you as up-to-date as I can on security measures at the airports. Most countries now prohibit or strictly limit the size of containers with gels, liquids, aerosols, and pastes that you may take in your carry-on luggage. Empty containers that could contain liquids are prohibited as well. Here are some examples:

Hair gel
Hair spray
Suntan lotion
Other items of similar consistency

So, don’t pack or carry empty containers.
Limit all liquids, gels, aerosols, and pastes to a maximum container size of 2.4 oz/100ml.
Place all such items in a quart-size, clear plastic, zip-top bag.
Remove your quart-size bag from your carry-on and place in the provided bin as you approach the checkpoint.

To get through the checkpoint more quickly
Leave lighters at home
Leave pocket-knives, files, scissors, and any sharp objects at home or put them in your checked baggage.
Be ready to take off your shoes and put belts, cell phones, and metal objects in your carry on.
Have acceptable ID and your boarding pass ready to show.

Also, check with the individual airline to check on carry-on and checked baggage requirements.

For instance, Rob and I are flying on Delta in Jan. Our carry-on must weigh less than 40 lbs, not exceed 45 inches when we total length plus width plus height, fits easily into their unit (approx. 22x14x9), fits into an overhead bin or underneath the seat in front. Our checked luggage allowance is two bags each with each bag weighing 50 pounds or less and not exceeding 62 inches when length, width, and height are totaled.

Airlines are not all the same, and when you have connecting flights, you should check both airlines.

A very important place to check is TSA’s website for real particulars about prescription meds (even saline solution). You can print a list of permitted and prohibited items. For instance, you cannot wear gel inserts in your shoes, but you can send them in your checked luggage.

We live in a world where these annoying restrictions are, unfortunately, necessary. The best way to maneuver through is to be aware and to be prepared.

Thursday, December 21, 2006


One of the most fascinating museums I’ve ever seen has one of the most uninviting names—the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Ft. Eustis, Virginia. But never judge a book by its cover.

Ft. Eustis, is just eleven miles south of Williamsburg and the home of the Army’s Transportation branch whose mottos is “Nothing Happens Until Something Moves.” Located on six acres, the museum depicts the history of Army transportation from horse-drawn wagons right to the kinds of amazing vehicles one associates with science fiction.

Inside the main 50,000 sq. ft. building, I followed a path featuring dioramas, models, photographs, walls of citations, and many different examples of the creative ways the Army has transported, supplied, and supported soldiers and materiel since the rudimentary Conestoga wagons and ships used in the Revolutionary War.

Ft. Eustis, as you know from our tour there in the July issue, is the home of the Army’s Transportation School, and we would not have thought to visit had Michael not been posted there for training. Just goes, once again, to show there are hidden treasures in unlikely places.

It’s easy to discount the importance of the Transportation Corps or to ignore it altogether. Yet after reading Guns of August (see Sept., 2006), I learned that the very beginning of WWI centered on transportation timing and lead to Germany’s feeling that it had 15 days before all the countries could move enough men and materiel to respond to her attack.

To the museum—In the building exhibit we learned not only of development but also of the Army’s continually evolving philosophy.

We begin with the Conestoga wagons that accompanied the Revolutionary War troops. Just consider fulfilling the basic needs of troops who marched from the Lake George area in New York’s Adirondack Mountains or from New England to participate in the battles around New York City. They crossed the Adirondacks, traipsed through the Hudson Valley, crossed rivers in summer and winter, and needed to be armed, not only personally but also with cannon, needed to be fed, and needed to be clothed. Livestock traveled with them. Everything had to be coordinated. Wagons had to be maintained and repaired. It was a daunting task.

By the time of the Civil War, the railroad had entered service. By WWI, the Army Transport Service was officially established. The expanding need for jeeps and ships during WWII instigated the formation of the Transportation Corps. Hence, it is one of the newest branches of our service, but ironically in existence before our country gained independence. There are exhibits depicting the inclusion of air and armored vehicles as well as all-terrain vehicles—for jungles, for snow, and for sand.

The Army continues to develop experimental vehicles as well, always seeking to make its Transportation Corps more efficient in serving the needs of its soldiers. Some of those innovations become crossovers to the civilian population, and we all know several examples including the ubiquitous Jeep and Humvee.

Outside the museum building are a series of outdoor exhibits illustrating even more strongly the expansive variety of skills needed by its personnel to fulfill the responsibilities of the Transportation Corps. In the Railyard, the Cargo Yard, the Aviation Pavilion, and the Marine Park, I viewed trains, hovercraft, helicopters, landing craft, amphibious vehicles, tug boats, patrol boats—all artifacts actually used by men and women trained by the Corps.

The entire museum is a learning experience. There are pamphlets to describe the various displays. There are videos, newsreels, photographs, dioramas, and scenes of the conditions in which members of the Transportation Corps operate.

This is not a museum glorifying war. It is a place to see beyond the public image of the Army and the soldier into the reality of the work and effort that goes into protecting our country and keeping it whole and free. For me it was an eye-opening experience.

As I’ve been writing, the Williamsburg area is a whole lot more than Colonial Williamsburg. Try it; you’ll like it.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Asters Redux

Back in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Rob and I head once again to Asters for a quiet, vaguely romantic dinner for two. Asters’ ambiance remains a lure with its black and light colored décor and subtle candlelight at each table. The staff is friendly, and the service excellent and intent on making the Asters experience a good one. This is a great place to remember.

This time Rob and I sit in the bigger dining room. There’s a lovely fireplace there, and this night it is lighted. The room is warm and comfortable.

We pass on the appetizers though the selection from the raw bar is tempting. We tried entrees different from our first visit, and were equally enthralled.
Rob has a yellow fin tuna, sauteed in garlic and lemon-caper sauce. It is served with carmelized onions, mashed potatoes and string beans. Absolutely perfect.
I order lamb chops, and am given three. They are char-grilled with carmelized leeks and roasted red pepper. They are served with twice-baked potatoes, string beans, and English mint sauce. It is the kind of dish over which one lingers, enjoying each morsel.
The ambiance, the lighting, and the wonderful meal causes us to relax and delight in each aroused sense.

Yes, this time we do sit back and order dessert and coffee—our reason for skipping the appetizers. Our selection—the same—crème brulee, the top a sweet crust of raw sugar. This luscious dessert is topped with the sweetest strawberry and mango slices. This is telling and important when reflecting about Asters. It’s the little extra touches that make the difference. If you’re intrigued by the little extra touches a good restaurant can offer, take the same advice we gave to the couple sharing the hotel’s spa with us when they asked for an excellent local restaurant—try Asters.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


A Single Pebble John Hersey

I just finished an interesting book that you may want to consider adding to your “to read” list. It’s John Hersey’s A Single Pebble. You might remember Hersey’s much more famous book, Hiroshima.

A Single Pebble takes you to China. A 23 year old American engineer, almost fresh out of school, travels the Yangtze River, the one the Chinese call “the Great,” to help his company decide if they want to convince the Chinese government to build a big power project, a dam, in one of the river’s gorges.

The book consists of recollections of the trip after a half century of reflection, and it is, in its own way, a reflection of western thought when it collides with a vastly different culture. That same culture clash is going on today—perhaps it is always occurring in some way—and reading A Single Pebble prompts me to begin my own reflection.

While I’ve never traveled to China, I’ve read, as we all have, of its ancient culture and its traditional ways. So had the young American, the westerner armed with new ideas that could spare the workers the agony and pain of doing things the way they have been done since time immemorial. He expects to be welcomed by people ready to move eagerly toward new, modern methods. Instead he is up against resistance as solid as the gorges’ walls and as strong as the river he seeks to tame. He is baffled at their tenacious hold on the ancient ways.

“How could I span a gap of a thousand years—a millennium in a day? These people on the junk could be said to be living in the era between Charlemagne and William the Conqueror, in the time of serfs and villains, before the Crusades, before Western printing and gunpowder, long, long before Chaucer and Giotto and Thomas Aquinas and Dante. And they were satisfied (or so I thought) to exist in Dark Ages, while I lived in a time of enlightenment and was not satisfied.”

When he emerges from the river at the end of his journey, as Huck does from the Mississippi, he is a different person. He questions whether Progress is always something that builds or whether it destroys as well.

A Single Pebble introduces us to an array of unforgettable characters: the owner of the junk on which our protagonist travels; his wife, Su-ling, who knows the histories and the names of the rocks, the rapids, and the gorges; the enigmatic cook; and most importantly, the head tracker, Old Pebble, who guides the junk through the dangers of the Yangtze just as over past centuries head trackers had done before him, singing the same songs, bowing to the same superstitions and traditions.

With your imagination going full tilt, you will see the pictures Hersey’s words create, and you will begin to question the meaning of time, the power of superstition or tradition, the process of life, and the meaning of progress. You will witness winning against incredible odds and you will read of being humble before the victories of the past.

In addition, as I did, you will probably recognize a certain arrogance in the young man. But the lack of understanding is not one-sided, and neither is the culture clash. It works both ways. I am left with the question of whether we can ever truly understand one another.

BTW, the dam suggested in this 1956 book is, according to The Discovery Channel, slated to be completed in 2010!

This is an interesting book, fast reading and fewer than 200 pages. You might want to give it a try.

Thursday, November 30, 2006


Every winery seeks to satisfy its visitors in a way that leads to wine sales. Visit a dozen wineries, and you’ll be treated to a dozen different touring experiences. More often than not you’ll be satisfied, but visit the Williamsburg Winery in Williamsburg, Virginia and you’ll be thrilled, leaving far more educated about wine. Our tour of the Williamsburg Winery was one of the most interesting and comprehensive winery tours we’ve taken.

We began at the winery’s beautiful website where several tours are proffered. We chose the Tour and Tasting with Lunch which combines the $7.00 wine tasting tour with lunch at the winery’s Gabriel Archer Tavern overlooking the vineyards. That $22.00 tour is offered only online. We made the right choice!

The tour begins with a nicely produced 10-minute video replete with quotations about wine: the Roman philosopher Horace (65 BC – 8 BC), Thomas Jefferson, and The Bible with words of wisdom about the benefits, enjoyment or unwanted consequences of becoming too familiar with wine. The video also includes a history of wine in Virginia as well as the history of these vineyards.

I get a kick out of Virginia. In 1609, the House of Burgesses passed a law requiring the planting of ten vines for every cultivated acre. After all, Virginia was settled to make money for the Virginia Company. But it was tough to buck that lucrative money crop, tobacco.

Again in 1769 the Encouragement for Making Wine Act was passed. Still trying to buck tobacco? It didn’t work. Wine didn’t make inroads in Virginia until the 1970s, and boy, has it exploded since then!

Following the video, our very knowledgeable guide takes us down into the cellars, explaining the differences between American and French oak casks, the cask preparation, timing of cask aging, number of bottles yielded per cask, and any number of other pertinent facts. All this interesting information helps us understand the differences between oak casks and the towering, shiny, stainless steel tanks in which some wines, but not all, spend time.

We move through the wine cellars and are introduced to the room of reserve wines, learning what the term means. There is also a tour and tasting of the reserve cellar but reservations are a must.

Then to the tasting room. We receive brochures describing the wines presented. Each wine offered is accompanied by our guide’s explanation of what to look for in the taste. If she uses a term someone does not understand, as I do not when she mentions a wine quality as “buttery,” she immediately and completely explains. I actually recognize the buttery quality in the John Adlum Chardonnay I taste.

We try seven wines in five categories: Winemaker’s Blends, Varietals, Premium Varietals, and Reserve Wines. No rush. All questions answered.

Other tourists depart, but Rob and I stayed to chat with our excellent guide, discussing several wine topics as well as Rob’s own winemaking. We end up tasting a syrah that had not been part of the tour’s selections, and it is quite wonderful. When we leave, we carry with us several bottles of wine and a set of Steady Sticks, two holders for our wine glasses that stick right in the ground. They’ll work wonders when we go on our picnics to hear the Sunday night concerts at West Point.

This is one of the nicest wine tours we’ve taken, and if you’re visiting the Williamsburg area, think about taking it too.


What a lovely building is the Gabriel Archer Tavern. It’s small with a patio under the crepe myrtle in the front. There’s a main room with wooden tables, and a back, glass-enclosed seating area overlooking the flourishing grapes, their vines entwined on supports and lined up neatly in rows. This is the venue for the Lunch included in our wine tasting tour. Great choice.

We each had another, more leisurely glass of wine. I tried and was mightily pleased by the Andrewes Merlot while Rob and Michael tried and enjoyed the Cabernet Sauvignon. You can imagine our contented smiles.

Lunch was lovely and leisurely. There was a specific menu included in the tour, but none of us felt deprived. Presentation was excellent, and the feeling of familiar surroundings was enhanced when our waiter’s wife and almost brand new baby sat next to us. I have to include the menu so you can get an idea of how nicely lunch complemented the tour.


All platters served with Gabriel Archer Salad of Mixed Baby Greens with House-made vinaigrette.

Ham, Turkey, Granny Smith Apples Havarti & Cheddar Roast Turkey and Smoked Gouda with Cranberry
ChutneyRoast Beef and Brie with Horseradish Sauce
Prosciutto, Provolone and Cappicola HamVine Ripened Tomato & Mozzarella with Basil Pesto MayonnaiseGrilled Chicken Wrap with Feta, Oven Roasted Tomatoes, Arugula & Pesto Mayonnaise

~ Lunch includes one glass of wine from the following selections ~
Governor’s WhitePlantation BlushJames River WhiteTwo Shilling RedJohn Adlum ChardonnayJ. Andrewes MerlotArundell Cabernet Sauvignon

Also included Cookies

Coffee, Tea and Water served upon request

Price and Menu Subject to Change without notice. Additional Charge for selecting items off our Expanded Menu.

We agreed that we’d return to Gabriel Archer Tavern if we had the opportunity. Michael, in fact, said he’d probably drive over from Newport News to purchase wine, and if he had a guest, the winery would be an excellent stop.


I just finished the seventh book in Alexander McCall Smith’s magnificent series, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Its title—In the Company of Cheerful Ladies. Absolutely delightful, and another book to recommend as travel companion. The final book of the series, Blue Shoes and Happiness, is still on the NYTimes bestseller list, and the Quality Paperback Bookclub is offering it as well. As for me, I dread, once again, that I am coming to the end of the series, and I hope Smith decides to continue the saga of Precious Ramotswe, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and Grace Makutsi.

It’s not giving too much away to say I enjoy the continuing company of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s two young apprentices, and in this episode, Charlie, the elder of the two, gets a little more attention. But I won’t tell you why or how. Mma Makutsi continues to grow in depth, and she is becoming a very proficient assistant detective. But I won’t tell you how she proves herself. Two new characters who, I believe, can feature prominently in future books (please, Mr. Smith!) are also introduced, but I CAN’T tell you who they are or how they intertwine with my fictional friends.

The problems in In the Company of Cheerful Ladies are a bit more personal than in previous books. Precious, herself, faces a moral dilemma that makes her very unhappy and dredges up incidents she rather forget. A personal problem with potentially dire consequences raises its ugly head, and we take a peek at the Precious’ inner being, the one that exists beneath her usually composed and controlled exterior. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, a man normally involved with problems of auto engines rather than human beings, suddenly gets a rude awakening that he must deal with immediately, and he is at a loss. These are intriguing twists, and they highlight how well the reader gets to know the characters. Smith has imbued them with realistic qualities.

The friendship between Precious and Grace continues to grow. Through the narrator, they are warmly and humorously critical of some of each other’s endearing but nonetheless, faults. Additionally, and humorously to the series’ readers, Grace has finally come to enjoy bush tea. There’s a satisfaction in seeing Grace come into her own, first with the Kalahari Typing School for Men, the new apartment, and some special additions in this book. She is a young woman, with her 97%, who seeks to improve her life and goes about it with intelligence and determination. I like the honesty she reveals when she returns to Bobonong and comments about her new recognition of its poverty and shabbiness, a result, she admits, of living in the city. You can’t go home again.

There are always poignant and perceptive comments comparing the New Botswana to the old Botswana, and in this book there are more examples of prejudices that exist. These comments, often coming at reflective moments, add to the integrity of the book and build its universality. They could be made about any society at any time.

Here’s an example of that universal quality as the narrator comments on the friendship between Mma Ramotswe and Mma Potokwane, the matron of the orphan farm.

“The two women had known one another for many years, and had moved into that most comfortable of territories, that of an old friendship that could be picked up and put down at will without damage. Sometimes several months would go by without the two seeing one another, and this would make no difference. A conversation left unfinished at the beginning of the hot season could be resumed after the rains; a question asked in January might be answered in June, or even later, or indeed not at all. There was no need for formality or caution, and the faults of each were known to the other.”

This is a lovely description of friendship, and I think it’s wonderful that the author, a man, has this kind of insight into women’s relationships.

There’s also, in this novel, a bit of “six degrees of separation.” Again, I can’t say how, but you will see it, and you will smile. The ending of the book simply makes you want more. I will wait a bit before reading Blue Shoes and Happiness. I just don’t want the series to end.


Let me begin by saying each Time Share Resort is different. They’re built, owned and managed by different companies, and each offers an assortment of amenities and schedules. Everything I say here refers only to A Place at the Beach—Windy Hill. Online there are user reviews of each resort, and it’s a good idea to check them out. We went to Myrtle Beach on a Time Share exchange. I try to keep you informed about these time share trips because I think that for people with flexibility in traveling, this is an excellent way and comfortable way to vacation.

We are in a two bedroom unit in A Place at the Beach, Windy Hill. That’s actually in North Myrtle Beach. North Myrtle Beach has plenty to do, but it’s not as frenetic as Myrtle Beach. In October there’s not too much difference, but the difference must be huge during the summer. Reviews online for A Place at the Beach (henceforth APB) noted the unit was relatively small, and it is, but it’s fine for us. The suite, two bedrooms, two baths, a full and fully stocked kitchen, dinette, and living room with a convertible sofa and easy chair, balcony with table and chairs overlooking the ocean, and televisions in the master bedroom and living room. The balcony of every unit in APB is oceanview. With the convertible sofa, it is possible to have six people, but I think four adults is the maximum.

The suite is decorated in yellows, greens and blues with a seaside motif. It’s cheerful, colorful, and immaculately clean. I get a kick over the fabric on the couch and chair; it’s seaside pattern does highlight management’s attention to detail.

This is not one of the newer resorts here where everyday brings new construction, so APB is up against some stiff competition. RCI gives APB a “hospitality” rating, meaning that vacationers here rate the resort highly and that the management does a good job maintaining it and servicing the guests. We agree.

When we checked in, we received a warm greeting and lots of info and hints on how to get the most enjoyment from our stay. There was a discount card for local attractions. We also received an activities sheet for the week. Rob and I tend to skip planned activities. In addition to onsite activities, there are golf outings, and evening trips to shows and dinner theaters. So far, each time share we’ve visited has plans for its guests—if they wish.

As this is not a hotel and at this level in the RCI hierarchy, there is no daily maid service, but once during the week there is a linen/towel exchange. A “starter” kit is provided with soaps, toilet paper, paper towels, coffee filters, dish washer detergent, a scrubby, and garbage bags. There is plenty of anything we need to make the week comfortable, and more can be purchased at the front desk. As we are only two, what we are given suffices. We bought aluminum foil and use it for everything, and our quick trip to Food Lion sets us up for the week.

It takes no time to settle in and make APB our cozy home. In the suite there is a binder filled with pertinent information: entertainment opportunities, houses of worship, restaurants, etc. We’ve always found these books helpful.

We also have ID bracelets to use by the pool and Jacuzzi. The beach is practically at the back door, just over the bordering sand dune. No, it’s not luxurious. Nor is it on the RCI level of our own time shares. By the time we began searching for accommodations, the selections were limited, and there are people who would object to that. Our absolute requirement is a balcony overlooking the ocean where we can sit, watch the sun rise, listen to the surf, and cozily, comfortably, sip something liquid—coffee in the AM and then…. We would not hesitate to return, and we were very comfortable and “at home” at A Place at the Beach—Windy Hill.


I must admit to a fascination with Margaret Truman’s mystery novels. If you’ve read David McCullough’s biography of President Truman, Truman, you know Margaret as a beloved, pampered first daughter whose talents were nurtured, often publicly. Makes me wary. Her mystery novels, however, all called Murder at (location), acknowledge that there is talent!

Each book revolves around a Washington DC locale, and for those familiar with DC, the ping of recognition brings added delight.

Additionally, Margaret’s experience and insight into the machinations of DC politicos gives her license to sling a bit of sarcasm-laced mud, often jibing the sanctimonious and absurd “inside the beltway” thinking. She loves to lampoon the over-inflated self-proclaimed important. Watching her deflate adds fun to the books.

Murder at Union Station brings us right into the location, describing its marble grandeur. Prior to air travel, this is the place from which presidents and other important personages boarded trains for their travel. The presidential waiting room is now BSmith’s restaurant, and it is deliciously described in the novel. Description is Truman’s strength, not only in setting but also in character.

Meet Geoff Lowe, powerful senator staff member who believes in trickle-down importance. What he will do to achieve political objectives may be heinous but not necessarily surprising. There’s Chet Fletcher, political advisor to the President. Here’s a man on the opposite side of the aisle but no less a potential villain. He’s almost out there to dispassionately field test his academic theories on politics.

Toss in a lonely, alcoholic DC cop, Bret Mullin, looking for a connection and involved with solving crimes almost despite himself; Tim Stripling, a former CIA agent “consulting” on a secret per diem basis, Louis Russo, a reputed Mafioso living in Israel under the Witness Protection Program, and Richard Marienthal, a young, frustrated writer dying to show his successful lawyer father that he has the right stuff, and you’re well into a plot that twists, turns, and drops hints not only about the crime but also about the dirty underside of Washington politics.

The title is the only hint I will give you to the plot. Reading as the solution materializes will keep you guessing. Suspense is another Margaret Truman strength.

This is a quick, enjoyable read that will probably lead you to explore Truman’s list of murders a bit more thoroughly. If you do, I recommend Murder at the Kennedy Center.


Lock the deadbolt on your room—when you’re inside or when you’re leaving. Even someone relatively unpracticed (as was Rob at Myrtle Beach) can use a credit card to gain entry. In your hotel room, use that bar that crossed over the door.

Always have a Plan B and probably a Plan C. Look what happened to our planned “beach” vacation when the weather became unseasonably cold. Google your destination and see what else there is to do. Make sure to include some indoor places too. It saves a lot of frustration and disappointment if your plans include some flexibility.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


I'm changing the format a little this month since we just got back from a week at North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I wrote in diary form, and that way I could give more of an overview. South Carolina has beautiful beaches, interesting and historical cities and towns, a climate that tantalizes Northerners (and judging from license plates, mid-westerners and Canadians), and a friendliness and graciousness that cannot be expressed in words.

Monday, October 30, 2006


Day 1 Oct. 21, 2006

With a twelve hour drive down to Myrtle Beach, Rob and I are up at 4AM and out of the house shortly after 5, full travel mugs in their places in the console. Five o’clock is hardly to my liking, but being retired, I hardly ever get up before the sun anymore.

Over the mountains (goodbye mountains, we’re heading toward flat, flat lowlands), down Rt. 287, New Jersey Turnpike and Rt. 95 past some places we’d like to see on the way back, past Smithfields, North Carolina where we stopped last year at the Ava Gardner Museum (the billboards along 95 make me marvel at her exquisite beauty), and we turn off 95 to Rt. 40 and head toward Wilmington, NC, a city we plan to visit before returning home, and then down Rt. 17 South (there must be a Rt. 17 everywhere we go) to North Myrtle Beach.

We stop at the South Carolina Welcome Center filled with every kind of brochure imaginable, but more importantly, a woman well-versed in everything South Carolinian who answers our questions about a place for dancing and some day trips (as the forecast is not 100% in our favor). We leave with plenty of “reading material.”

Check in at A Place at the Beach—Windy Hill is easy. More on this site in a separate post since I want to review it for you. First impressions are good.

Rob and I plan our evening—dining out at a seafood buffet (they proliferate in this area), shopping for the week at Food Lion, unpacking (so all chores are completed by Sunday morning), and, if our eyes are still open, some time on the balcony listening to the night surf tuck in the shore.

Just a point about these seafood buffets. They each have a name, for instance Bennetts where we went tonight, and then “Calabash Seafood.” Here’s our question. What does Calabash mean? I found an answer in some of the literature we picked up. Calabash, North Carolina is just north of here. People cooked (mostly fried) the fresh seafood on the pier as it came off the fishing boats. Everyone joined in and ate, thus creating a buffet of sorts. Create a place for tourists, and just spread the culture. They love it!

DAY 2 OCTOBER 22, 2006

Day 2 Sunday, Oct. 22

I thought we’d left a light on in the hallway, but it was the light coming through the balcony door. Guess we needed some catch-up after the long drive. We enjoyed some leisurely coffee and breakfast and watched the walkers on the beach. Time to get up and go.

Over at Barefoot Landing, on the Intracoastal Waterway, a place of shops, restaurants, entertainment venues, and local attractions including the Alabama Theatre where we saw the show One last year and Alligator Adventure Outpost, we remember seeing a wild alligator from one of the wooden walkway bridges. Today we see a swan and other birds, probably gloomy at the threatening weather. We pop in and out of a few shops, and we meet some interesting people. One is a retired soldier and one is a retired Air Force officer. The flyer, now 75, suffered cancer as a result of being in Bimini during hydrogen bomb tests. He spoke through a voice box, but he did not speak of his problems; we spoke of politics, South Carolina weather, and a fellow he flew with from Newburgh, New York. With him we also met two young, handsome and identically attired identical twins from Mexico. When the airman asked what they did, they each gave a different answer. Hmmmmm…. Rob and I love to engage in these conversations with strangers. It’s one of the joys of travel.

We want tickets to two shows this week, Le Grande Cirque and Legends. Myrtle Beach has great entertainment possibilities, but more on these later, and we bought two hoodies just in case it remains damp and cool.

So how cool is it? Too cool for the ocean although we do sit on the beach.

We raise our eyes, and just offshore are dolphins (we know the difference since our shark encounter in the Bahamas in February). First three or four, then another group following and then another and another. We watch the groups frolic by, leaping and struttin’ their stuff for about twenty-five minutes. Fascinating! How nice of them to make our day.

OK, travel sometimes involves adventure. Try this one. We return from a great rib dinner at Logan’s Roadhouse about 8:15 PM to find Rob has no key and I haven’t taken my pocketbook—no key, no cell. The office is closed. We ride down in the elevator and spot a notice warning guests NOT to leave without a key—especially after 8 PM and all day Sunday because the office is closed and even if we call the emergency number, a locksmith must be called and paid for. Hmmmm It’s night time; it’s Sunday. Pay phones are anachronisms in 2006. We walk around the building to see if there are lights so we can ask someone to lend us a phone. Hmmmm Then Rob, that cagey alien, says he has one possibility. Obviously he didn’t lock the dead bolt…perhaps with a credit card…hmmmm Ten seconds and we’re inside! After 35 years, you’d think I would have witnessed all his talents. But breaking and entering????

It’s time for a toast to Rob with some celebratory bourbon in plastic cups which are taken down to the Jacuzzi.

DAY 3 OCTOBER 23, 2006

Day 3 October 23, 2006

How great to wake up, look off the balcony and see sunlight sparkling like jewels on the ocean’s surface. To hear the gentle surf lapping at the shore and to see early morning walkers in everything from shorts and t-shirts to sweatsuits bring a smile that starts the day off perfectly. None of those early-morning grumps.

At every timeshare we’ve visited, there’s always an “owner’s breakfast.” We opt to skip ours and head over to one for Sheraton Time Sales. They bribed us with tickets to two shows we want to see while we are down here (more on that under Travel Tips).

We get back to A Place at the Beach about 11:30, have an early lunch of doggy-bagged ribs from last night at Logan’s Roadhouse, change into bathing suits, grab the beach gear—including hoodies, and figure if it is too cold to sit on the beach, we’ll leave the chairs and walk. We’re trying to do 10,000 steps a day—about five miles.

Unfortunately it is unseasonably cold here this week, so only boogie boarding kids are in the water. Fortunately the air temperature is perfect, and Rob and I walk past bushes of butterflies along our dune path to the beach where we settle into our beach chairs and begin soaking in the wonderfully warm rays. The beach—virtually empty. Especially NO KIDS! Some fishermen and other sun seekers and walkers make up the population. There’s something magnificent about a beach after Labor Day. It’s a place of peace.

Later I pick up my book, Isabel Allende’s Zorro which I know I’ll recommend next month, and I get back into Don Diego’s childhood—trying not to picture a young Guy Williams.

Between our books and people watching, we share a warm, restful early afternoon, and then we join the walkers. We find the water, at ankle depth, pleasantly warm, and we head up the beach. Post Labor Day beaches are friendly places, and people say hello as we pass. There’s always a smile. Everyone is happy to be here, even if it is unseasonably cool.

When we return from our walk and pick up our books again, we’re both overwhelmed with contentment, and when we leave the beach, we stop for half an hour in the Jacuzzi, as if we need additional relaxation!

Dinner is a snafu. When we arrive all set for a lovely, romantic dinner at The Melting Pot, and our waiter, Steven, describes the menu, he adds that enjoying the different courses takes a leisurely hour and a half or more. Oops, then we’ll miss the theater. We re-schedule our reservations for Wednesday and find a Chilis for frajitas. Talk about a comedown, and a chain restaurant at that.

The show as beyond great! Called The Grande Cirque, it played at the beautiful Palace Theater in Broadway at the Beach, a big, glitzy complex of clubs, restaurants, and shops. It’s neon bright, loud, and I bet in summer jam-packed. But tonight, a cool night, the folks at the Palace are treated to a troupe of forty Chinese acrobats whose dexterity, flexibility, balance, and death-defying acts fill the theater with oohs, ahhs, and enthusiastic applause. This is an integrated show where the spectacular lighting and music combine with the human element to leave the audience in awed breathlessness.

The tumbling performances mesmerize. The balancing acts make us marvel at the way a trained and tuned human body can contort. The Chinese YoYo and Plates acts take the breath away. All the while we are entertained by a mime and then by a troupe of acrobatic dogs—no kidding!

After the performance, two young Chinese YoYo artists came out to demonstrate. They practice three to four hours daily to hone their skills. That number is so exhausting, Rob and I retire to the Jacuzzi to relax!


Day 4 Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Inland there was a frost last night. Here at the beach, it’s just COLD! You can’t fight the temperatures which won’t get back to the 70s until the weekend. (After we’ve gone) But there’s plenty to do here. Gotta travel with a Plan B.

First a walk on the beach. We wear shorts and hoodies, but boy are the Southerners bundled up. The surf fishermen are layered, booted, and woolen-capped. South Carolina surf fishing in 50˚ weather must be analogous to New York ice fishing!

It really is too cold for the beach, so we hop in the car and head to The Belle Amie Winery where Belle, the dog, is reputed to play catch with visitors (get that Robyn and Pam and Anne?). This photo is about as ambitious as Belle got!

This is a great little winery, its vines a mere eight years old having had the first two plantings decimated by hurricanes. We did a tasting of ten very nice wines, and I picked some special tea towels for myself and Mike.

Then we head a bit further north to Calabash, North Carolina to check out real Calabash seafood since we now know the origin of the term. We drive through several areas along the Calabash River. Sometimes we stop to shop, and then we dine along the river at Captain Nance’s where the fishing boats moored outside bring in some of the day’s menu selections. We aren’t sure whether to eat there or at a neighboring restaurant, so we ask some people with NC tags on their car, and they tell us they frequent Captain Nance’s everytime they’re passing through. How right they are! Unpretentious, full of warm, southern hospitality, serving good, simple food. In Calabash it’s fried, and Captain Nance’s is full of people. Don't forget to use their homemade cocktail sauce. While they don’t have a website, if you google Captain Nance’s, you will get a NYTimes review that backs up my own feelings about the restaurant!

By the time we stop at Barefoot Landing for some Maggie Moo’s ice cream and a look around a shop we found last year, The Peace Frog, we are ready for A Place at the Beach where, braving the 46˚ temperatures, we head for the Jacuzzi, bourbon in hand.

DAY 5 OCTOBER 25, 2006

Day 5 Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The temperatures dipped to 36˚ overnight, and the morning people walk the beach in ski parkas! We walk in knit pants and hoodies. We do our half hour and end up in a sweat—meaning perspiration. Rob begins picking up shells. Wonder what he has in mind. The walk is good. People greet us as we pass, and we stop so Rob and a stranger can discuss the nature and type of birds flying overhead although neither has his binoculars with him.

A lazy afternoon and then to The Melting Pot, the fondue restaurant we left on Monday evening. I will write this up separately because it is so excellent and so worth going back to when we have enough time. (2 ⅓ hours) It is also soooo different from La Buena Mesa, a restaurant in Gramercy Park we used to frequent in the 70s when fondue was very in.

Then on to another terrific show—Legends—where we are treated to five enthusiastic performances of star impersonators including an Elvis Presley who perspired profusely enough to toss out those famous, sweaty scarves. And the ladies loved getting them! In addition to Elvis, Rod Stewart—who looked and sounded so much like the real thing it was hard to tell the difference—did a “Maggie” that was absolutely first rate. Whitney Houston appeared, and a shimmering Donna Summer mesmerized us with “Last Dance” on heels so high it was hard to believe she could walk. Tom Jones, who couldn’t quite perspire enough to flick sweat off his face, could sing and gyrate in very familiar ways.

The accompanying band was great as were the “GoGo” dancers. Two big screens were filled with images displaying a mixture of the real star and the impersonator, in case the appreciative audience had any doubt (or was too young) about the talent of the performers.

Legends is thoroughly entertaining. There is a revolving list of stars, so the show, supposedly, is never the same.

Surprisingly, when we got home, we were too tired for the Jacuzzi. Too bad.

Sunday, October 29, 2006


Day 6 Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006

Nice day today even if we did get up to the alarm clock. We are heading down to Georgetown, the third oldest city in South Carolina, and there are some interesting places along the way. Depending on how things progress, we want to leave as much time as possible to see as much as possible.

Georgetown, named after George, Prince of Wales to become King George II, is a pretty place and reputed to be the possible site of the first European settlement in North America in 1526. We went to the Visitor’s Center and then took The Swamp Fox Tour around the historic district, and that was most informative. (Remember, my contemporaries, the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion of Walt Disney fame?) In the historic district, markers in blue or beige indicate whether the homes were built before the Revolution or before the Civil War. Some of these homes are still owned by descendants of the original builders—planters who used this area to relax after the hectic social season in Charleston.

Two stories:

1. The planters, in their moments of relaxation where they drank Planter’s Punch (really), would get so drunk they had to be tied on their horses to get home. Hence the expression “to tie one on.” I love that.

2. The kitchens of these houses were detached for fire safety, and when the tantalizing aromas of the food being carried to the main house began to attract dogs that yelped and begged to be fed, the servants began carrying balls of fried dough to throw at the hungry animals—to hush them up. Hence, hush puppies! Cool!

After the tour, Rob and I had a great lunch at the River Room Restaurant on the Harbor Walk, which we walked end to end. Notice the sign we passed. I’ll write about the River Room separately because it was so spectacular.

Before we left Georgetown, we drove all over the small city. We even met this witch! Guess she was sightseeing too.

On the way home, we drove to Pawley’s Island of hammock fame. Beautiful. Long piers jut out through the marshes where birds wing in and out. The island seems crowded with beach houses, but it has a very tropical air with palms and hibiscus-type plants abounding. Birdsong fills the air. It’s a lovely place.

We also drove through Murrill’s Inlet, another waterfront community with homes and docks lining the shore. Lots of tempting restaurants too. We’ll have to do some research and return.

Dinner tonight is subs from Jersey Mike’s. We’re both tired, and not going out tonight gives us time to hit that blessed Jacuzzi. Trust me—the Jacuzzi in the dark of the night against the background music of the invisible, rhythmic pounding of the surf is just grand.

DAY 7 OCTOBER 27, 2006

Day 7-- October 27, 2006

It’s pouring. It’s a great day to continue with Zorro.

In the afternoon we decide to go to the movies. Flags of our Fathers is playing, and we want to see it. Wonderful! Clint Eastwood does it again. He has a way of looking beyond the superficial and getting to the way people really are. He sure is a long way from Rowdy Yates.

We’d planned to take two days to get back to Warwick so we could make some stops along the way, but it’s supposed to continue raining tomorrow. Better to get up early and head home. It has been a nice week. We’ll be back. We really like South Carolina, Sybil.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


Country Grill & Smokehouse
1215 George Washington Memorial Parkway
Yorktown, Virginia 23693

Whenever Rob and I cross the Mason Dixon Line, we’re looking for ribs and barbecue. Without hesitation, Michael suggests The Country Grill and Smokehouse, a frequent stop of his in Virginia.

Here’s another big, roomy restaurant with ample outside and inside seating. We choose to go inside. It’s frequented by noisy and happy people. We love the atmosphere, and we’re ready to join the fun.

We are seated at a bare, wooden table, and our cheerful waiter, Ricky, greets us with a smile and a big, white, shiny sheet of butcher paper which he jauntily flips before us as if it were fine table linen. Then he sets our table. Smack in the middle of the table he places a basket of warm corn muffins and butter. Nice beginning, don’t ya think?

Each of us chooses a BBQ Platter, big meaty portions accompanied by two sides.

Michael orders the Smoked Beef Brisket, “slow cooked and grilled for 14 hours in the pit, hand sliced and tender as a grandma’s hug.” It’s a mouth watering description, and its arrival does not belie it. Michael's platter includes mashed potatoes and gravy, and Pit Roasted Vegetables. I taste his brisket, and we both roll our eyes and agree it is delicious. Not too dry, and extraordinarily tender. It’s not the brisket from a New York deli. It’s BARBECUE.

Rob chooses the Pulled Pork Shoulder,” hickory smoked and slow cooked, pulled off the bone and heaped on a plate”. His sides, barbecue beans and grilled vegetables, please him mightily. The pork, shredded into thin strips, gets Rob’s usual bath of barbecue sauce. The restaurant has many barbecue sauce selections, and Rob uses ALL of them, but mostly the Southwest Texas—“assorted dried chili peppers, cumin, coriander, Mexican oregano and tomato.” (How’d you like that mix, Iris?) Timid as always with that hot stuff, I try the pork sans sauce and love the taste.

Neither Rob’s nor Michael’s choices make me think I have selected incorrectly by ordering ½ rack of The Grill’s Famous Pork Ribs. I chose traditional St. Louis style ribs. Wonderful. Meaty. Delicious. They have a nice, spicy flavor and enough sauce for me to keep my hands off those bottles on the table.

The barbecue beans come in a thick, rich, tangy sauce loaded with chunks of meat. My red potato salad, pleasingly light on the mayo but made even more tasty with pieces of chopped celery, is special. Rob and Michael agreed that the ribs are excellent.

Ricky had warned us to leave room for dessert, but, frankly, that is impossible.

If you’re in the area, but not in Yorktown, there are Country Grill & Smokehouses in Hampton, VA and in Newport News, VA.