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Friday, September 19, 2008


Cruising the Panama Canal is an absolute must! Here’s a perfect example of an engineering marvel and the extraordinary result of man’s persistence in overcoming monumental challenges. Charles I of Spain first proposed a canal through the Isthmus of Panama in 1534. Three centuries passed before it was attempted, and it was not until 1914 that the Panama Canal was completed at a cost of $387 million dollars. With this information in mind as we traveled through the locks we kept its wonders in perspective and felt it imperative to observe every phase of the operation.

In the evening prior to entering The Panama Canal, PBS documentaries and other information were available in our stateroom so we might truly appreciate experiencing this engineering marvel. The information was extremely helpful as the canal’s history and building is fraught with disease, disaster, international ramifications, and more than 27,000 deaths before ultimate triumph. Movie clips and photographs amply illustrate the dynamic scope of this undertaking, and the visuals are stunning. To truly appreciate the Panama Canal, it is necessary to forget that it is the 21st century and to imagine it is 100 years ago. With the photographs, that is easy to do.

The toll for our ship, the Coral Princess, to navigate the locks is a whopping $245,600. In addition to factoring in her net tonnage, Princess Cruise Lines pays the premium toll so her passengers get to experience the entire crossing. We begin early in the morning for the seven hour experience, and we can observe everything that happens. The lowest toll ever paid, by the way, was 36¢ paid in 1928 for a swim-through. Most ships average $35,000 based on net tonnage.
Sometime in the night, the crew prepared seating on the bow of the ship, and during the voyage cruisers who really got up early so as not to miss anything were generous in sharing their view. They made sure that those in the rear were able to go up to the front and take photos. Those taking pictures did so quickly and then cleared the improvised aisle for the next person. It was a wonderful and, sadly, unusual experience to have such consideration. It’s a shame I find it so unusual I am commenting on it. Anyway, the canal pilots board the Coral Princess around 5:15 AM as we approach the first set of locks, the Gatun locks. We are connected to eight “mules,” diesel-electric locomotives that guide us through and keep the ship centered.

As you can see in the photos, there is virtually no wiggle room here, and as ships get bigger, there’s talk of adding new, wider locks. Once through the lock, the mules release and we move on.

One view that really added to our amazement and perspective was watching a cargo ship move in the other direction. Many of the crew lounged on deck waving to us, but we could clearly see the water levels change and the ship smoothly readjust to the next level.

It was also intriguing to move to the stern and view the ships coming into the locks behind us, and, in fact, the line of ships waiting to enter. In 2005, more than 14,000 ships made this crossing, most of them commercial vessels. Many of the ships wait in line just as we might at a crowded Thruway tollbooth.

We crossed Gatun Lake, which at the time it was built between 1907 and 1913 was the largest man-made lake in the world. Rain filters down from Panama’s rain forests to fill the lake. The water is used in the locks and then flows out to the oceans.

After navigating Gatun Lake, we re-attach to mules at the single lock at Pedro Miguel, and later to the Miraflores Locks where we are lowered, in two stages, to sea level on the Pacific Ocean side. We are guided by tugboat toward the Bridge of Americas and then out to the Gulf of Panama.

A trip through the Canal is 6,000 miles from New York to San Francisco, less than half the 14,000 miles traveling the old way all the way to the tip of South America and rounding the treacherous Cape Horn. As expensive as the tolls seen, think of today’s oil crisis. Had the Canal not been built, think how much more expensive many of the goods carried by the cargo container ships might be.

There are many good books about the Canal, one by David McCullough which is now on my “to read” list, and some good documentaries, including the PBS presentation. Traveling through the Panama Canal is a bit like traveling through history. I highly recommend this excursion.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mark Twain's House

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. Ernest Hemingway, no slouch of a writer himself, said this, and the thoughtful reader of Mark Twain sees his greatness. Why not visit his home for the opportunity to gain more insight? Carol and Anne were up for it, so on a lovely Aug. day, we took a ride to Hartford, CT and Mark Twain’s home at Nook Farm.

Twain’s home is conveniently located just a few blocks off the I 84, and there are signs on the highway and on the city blocks to direct drivers to the parking lot. In Twain’s day, the home was in the country, removed from Hartford, the most prosperous city in America at the time. Things have changed, however, and even the river that ran through the property is now underground. Still, the view from the famous porch that appears in any movie or documentary (Ken Burns’ for PBS, for instance) or from the glass sunroom or from the third floor billiard room allows us to imagine the verdant scenes Twain enjoyed.

We arrived just in time to book two tours of the home, one leaving almost immediately—the 45 minute Servant’s Wing ($3.00) and the hour long House Tour ($14.00).

Twain’s simple instruction to his architect was to build a red house. And that’s exactly what he got. His architect had primarily designed churches, and Twain’s house shows many “churchy” touches. It’s dark and heavy inside—allowing Twain to skimp on the interior, finding ways to “suggest” more expensive decorations than he could afford. For instance, he hired Louis Comfort Tiffany’s design company for the interior, but the stenciled wall designs are paint rather than the mother of pearl they suggest.

On the Servants’ Wing tour we learned that Twain had several long-time servants. The most important was George Griffin, his butler. Some suggest that George is the basis of Jim, the runaway slave who becomes a wise, father figure to Huck. At any rate, though married and with his own home in Hartford, Griffin maintained a room in the Twain household and was with Twain for 18 years. His butler’s pantry is spectacular, and his management of the household affairs led him to become Twain’s friend and confidant. Twain wrote of Griffin and a visit they took to New York City.

"A white man and a negro walking together was a new spectacle to them. The glance embarrassed George but not me, for the companionship was proper; in some ways, he was my equal, in some others my superior; and besides, deep down in my interior I know that the difference between any two of those poor, transient things called human beings was but microscopic, trivial, a mere difference between worms."

Another long-time servant, Kate Leary, wrote a book about her 30 year tenure with the Clemens family, and that’s another addition to my “to read” list. Should be interesting.

There were quick turnovers for most of the Clemens’ servants. Sam and Livy were party people and threw dinner parties frequently with elaborate menus requiring long hard hours for their staff. George stayed overnight on those occasions, but the kitchen staff just tired! On the House Tour we saw the dining room with its faux leather wall paper (the Clemens could not afford the real leather wall paper popular in their day) where the parties and conversations occurred. Then the women withdrew to the drawing room, and Twain and his cronies puffed cigars and talked in his library—Twain is reputed to have smoked 20 per day—or drank and played billiards on the third floor—he was such an avid billiard player that his writing desk in that room was angled so he would not look at the table and be lured from his work.

We loved looking at the titles in the Clemens’ library—beautifully bound classics from America and England, books in foreign languages, etc. Books that made us smile. His personal copies are kept in a separate library maintained for scholars and available by appointment. He was a voracious reader, but he was also a margin writer, commenting, applauding or criticizing in the margins! Those books are too valuable to leave on public shelves. He never wrote a negative comment in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s books; they were neighbors. He did not enjoy Jane Austen, however, and those margins are filled with negative and sometimes awful comments. I’d like to go back and browse through those books.

The library has an ornately carved wooden fireplace mantle and wall complete with coat of arms. Not Clemens’ coat of arms. Clemens visited a Scottish castle, saw the fireplace and bought it. When he got it home, it was too tall for the room. The top section was removed and placed above the doorway to the dining room. Voilá.

Are you beginning to see the eccentricities inherent in Sam Clemens and his home?

Upstairs is the master bedroom and a most unusual bed. The Clemens family bought it in Venice. It was reputed to be a valuable antique, and they paid a handsome sum for it. Turned out it was not an antique and Clemens had been swindled! He and Livy used the bed anyway, but they slept against the footboard. He explained that since he had paid so much for the bed, he might as well be able to look at the carvings on that ornate headboard and enjoy them!!!! The children were able to take off and play with the wooden cherubs on the bedposts as long as they replaced them after the game.

We had a wonderful guide, Matt, whose enthusiastically animated presentation of Sam Clemens as a man rather than as an icon made this trip even more worthwhile.

We had lunch in the Museum’s café, and I recommend that as well as their expansive gift shop filled with Twainabilia (is there such a word?). I picked out some items including a Mark Twain for President bumper sticker with his picture and this quote: “It’s better to be popular than right.”


Waterwheel Café
150 Water Street
Milford, PA 18337
(570) 296-2383

Milford, Pennsylvania is a charming town and a great place for day tripping. We recently went on our first letterboxing jaunt there, collecting The Milford Series and seeing some places in Milford we probably would have missed without the letterboxing incentive.

Beside the old grist mill in Milford’s historic district, my friends and I stopped for lunch in the unique Waterwheel Cafe. The building is listed in the National Registry of Historic places. That immediately makes this an interesting stop.

Situated in the Grist Mill building beside “the old mill stream,” we had views of the stream and the woods beyond. We’d toured the grist mill earlier and were pretty much amazed that the mill operated until 1955. Today the wheels still turn, and the water flows through, but the business of grinding or producing power is long gone. Still, if you’ve never actually seen the way a mill works or the size of a waterwheel with its various grinding stones, you will be impressed as you walk up three flights of stairs to the top.

We discussed our visit over a lovely lunch. On this Saturday, the restaurant’s indoor and outdoor seating areas were full of patrons.

The Waterwheel’s luncheon menu is interesting and eclectic borrowing from Asian dishes and ingredients as well as offering vegetarian selections and a very tempting array of sandwich combinations, all at reasonable prices.

Included in our luncheon selections was a homemade creamy squash soup, A Vietnamese Rice Noodle Salad with Carrots and Cucumbers, Pesto Pizza with Ricotta, Black Olives & Sundried Tomatoes, Fresh Roasted Turkey & Brie with Sliced Tomato & Lettuce served on Brick-Oven Italian Bread, and “Vegetable Don” Several Fresh Vegetables Stirfried with Ginger & Garlic served over Steamed Short-Grain Brown Rice. Intriguing, yes? Yes. And each one of us was totally satisfied.

The service too was friendly and competent. The Waterwheel is also open for breakfast and dinner, and if you hit it on a Thursday, you’ll be treated to a Blues Jam session. Sounds like something I’d like to experience. If you get there, let us know.


I’ve been using a great mapping program, This is the perfect traveling companion. It will give you directions—walking, taxi (including estimated cost), mass transit, etc.—when you fill in your starting point and destination.

If you choose the “itinerary” option filling in several locations, it will map them all for you and give you a map of the tour you’ve created. Additionally, you can look at your tour and find out other attractions, restaurants, etc. along the way! Fantastic.

There’s a feature to view "user suggested itineraries" as well as other tours. Today I found a list of prime viewer spots for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as well as an itinerary covering Museum Mile in NYC.

Not enough good news? You can use your cell phone or PDA to ask for and receive directions on the spot! Just look at the site and follow directions! (Ha Ha)

HopStop covers New York City, Boston, Chicago, the Metro North area (in Beta), New Jersey, Washington D.C., Long Island, and San Francisco. If you’re traveling to any of these cities, make sure you try HopStop and add the url to your favorites menu on your computer so you can come back time and again. It will make getting around so much easier--another way to make travel more enjoyable.