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Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Acapulco has a mystical quality born of movies and movie stars. I picture luxurious homes nestled in the mountains surrounding a gloriously magnificent bay where Hollywood’s yachts and Mexican fishing boats mingle. Acapulco was the escape of Johnny Weissmuller, John Wayne, and many other stars. I picture exciting nightlife filled with the beat of Mariachi music, colorful clothing, and exotic food and drink. I envision the famed Acapulco cliff divers, flying in graceful arches out over the craggy and dangerous cliffs to cut the water cleanly and beautifully. I hear the amazed gasps of onlookers. That is the Acapulco we see as the next stop on our Panama Canal Cruise. Acapulco puts my senses into magnificent overload.

As Hualtulco was championed as the Acapulco of 20 years ago, I love the exciting air of the Acapulco of today. Nothing here disappoints, and though Acapulco is often derided as too touristy, I say again that I am a tourist and I want to see, particularly on a first visit, how a destination earns its reputation.

We book a motor coach tour where Carmen, our terrific and knowledgeable guide, gives us insight into her beloved city. For two years Carmen spent two hours daily studying English because, she says, that is the way to break into Acapulco’s economy. She speaks beautifully. She boasts that there is no welfare in Mexico.

We begin with a drive through the city, looking at the city’s squares, dominate images in any Mexican city. The square is where people congregate, dance, meet on Sundays after church, and enjoy themselves. We drive along the beachfront where fresh fish is sold daily by Acapulco’s fishermen, and we travel Costera Miguel Aleman to Puerto Marques Bay. The views are stunning. The water is the deepest blue with ribbons of breaking surf. The cliffs rising through the waves glint in the sunlight, and form patterns of bronze or lush green above the blue. Breathtaking! We stop at La Quebrada to watch the famed Acapulco cliff divers.

These young men, who are unionized as cliff divers, traditionally learn their skills from their families and begin as young children. The height of the highest dive is 130 ft., and because of the risks, a diver can make that dive no more than once weekly. This is a show to behold.

The divers walk down the stairway to a patio overhang. Leaving their sandals behind, they dive into the water and swim across the inlet to the cliffs. Barefoot, they climb up the steep cliffs until each reaches his rocky perch.

I gasp as some find their centers and fling themselves from the cliffs, their beautiful bodies arching, their arms spread wide and high, their toes as pointed as great danseurs. Their bronze bodies contrast with the rocks and the water, and we viewers are awed by the beauty and the daring.

Then other men leave their stone parapets, reaching out and then

somersaulting to jackknife toward the water, stretching to their final, clean, entry to the water where we view small, white, momentary, bubbly circles.

The lone man who makes the 130 ft. dive stretches his muscles, prays and crosses himself at a stone altar before his attempt. He literally flings himself from the precipice, gliding through the air away from the cliffs until he allows his body to cut through the air into the water. You will see from my photos the heights from which he dives.

As if we haven’t seen enough, our tour then takes us to The Mayan Palace Hotel for lunch and for some time to enjoy the facilities. This magnificent Mayan themed 5-star hotel captures the beauty and freedom of the ocean and reflects, dramatically, the history of a people. From the beach the views of the mountains are stunning. The hotel captures the Mayan architecture. It is lush and open with vibrant flowers of all kinds and hues. Walking past several pools, we come to the most extraordinary mile-long pool which winds its way along the beach. It is landscaped, edged with lounges and nicely spaced ladders to enter and exit. Glorious. Rob and I spend the rest of our time there and swim much of its length. What a fantastic way to enjoy our day.

We even learn that the Mayan Palace is a timeshare as well, and we can come back through RCI. That’s a thought worth considering although this winter we are off to Cancun—on the Caribbean side--for a few weeks.


Huck's Lowcountry Table
1130 Ocean Blvd.
Isle of Palms, SC 29451
The email address for Isle of Palms’ Huck’s Lowcountry Table is, the philosophy of owner/chef J.J Kern who defines food as “a beautiful woven tapestry of all the fabrics from cultures and communities around the world. Some of the strongest fibers…come from right here in the community of Charleston, SC.” In this charming restaurant we found the reality of this tapestry—warmth, comfort, and an excellent dining experience.

We had a chance to chat with J.J. who described his use of local produce to bring authentic Lowcountry flavors to his innovative and interesting dishes. We asked our friendly and excellent server, Danielle, to recommend dishes exemplifying South Carolina cuisine, and the result was a glorious meal.

With our drinks, we savored a honey and citrus bread served with butter flavored with peppers and pimento. It was going to be a hard act to follow, but Rob, Wendy F., and I shared some starters: Cornmeal Dusted Fried Calamari served with a pickle-tomato relish and She Crab Spoonbread. We hadn’t a clue about this dish, but it was wonderful. The calamari was done perfectly, lightly fried and still tender and tasty. Huck’s is a relax-and-enjoy restaurant. We had only just begun.

Once again we took Danielle’s advice. For her entrĂ©e, Wendy chose the Pan Seared Scallops. They were plump, juicy, and done to perfection. They were served with a butternut squash puree, rainbow chard, and warm molasses bacon vinaigrette. Doesn’t that make your mouth water? It should!

Rob, probably because it was our first night back in the South, went for the Southern staple (for him, anyway)—Buttermilk Fried Chicken served with sweet potatoes and sausage gravy. The chicken was peppery, crispy, and light. Look at this photo. Doesn’t this dish look beyond wonderful? It was.

I selected Crispy Seared Crabcakes. Incredibly tasty though very different from the crabcakes we love in MD. These had a smoother, softer texture, and a peppery flavor as opposed to Maryland’s scrumptious lump crab cakes. Huck’s crabcake coating was superbly crispy—a charming combination of flavor and texture. They were served with creamed Carolina Gold rice and spinach, and Old Bay shallot aioli. The Carolina Gold rice, however, stole the show. This rice was creamy, fluffy, and slightly salty. A delicious and unusual treat that was different enough to prompt googling.

Carolina Gold rice is an heirloom rice once a commercial staple grain grown in coastal South Carolina. There is even a Carolina Gold Rice Foundation which began in the 1980s to revitalize this crop, and Carolina Gold rice is making a comeback. According to the foundation, “Carolina Gold rice differs from other long grain rices in its chameleon starch quality, which will produce classic fluffy long grain, creamy risotto or sticky Asian-style rice depending on how it is cooked.” It was a treat for me and obviously very “South Carolinian.”

As you can see, this was a full dinner, and we opted for coffee but no dessert. BUT the ice cream at Huck’s is homemade, and Danielle cajoled us into sharing butter pecan. WOW! This ice cream had a unique texture. It was slightly grainy and very light. What melted in our mouths were the true flavors of real butter and many, many pecans. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a butter pecan ice cream like this. Absolutely terrific.

J.J. Kern is an artist. His warm and friendly restaurant and his thoughtful approach to the food he proudly serves make Huck’s Lowcountry Table a must-stop if you’re lucky enough to vacation on the Isle of Palms.


My book of the year is Mary Ann Shaffer's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. This novel is exciting, and it’s honest-to-goodness literature; it has all the hallmarks of a great book. The most inviting element of Guernsey… is its form. It is epistolary--a series of letters. Through these letters the reader enters a private world and reads personal thoughts. It’s a way for Shaffer to develop individual characters without the usual description; the characters literally develop themselves, and we get to know their most intimate thoughts. Combine these revelations with an intriguing plot, and you’re taken on an emotional ride as each new event is uncovered.

The story begins on Jan.8, 1946 immediately following the end of World War II when people in England are trying to rebuild their lives after years of war, bombings, and deprivation. That's true in busy London where our main character lived through the bombing and destruction. It's also true on the quiet Channel Islands occupied by the Germans during the war. There people are trying to find--or remember--what life is like on a small island isolated from the mainland's hectic life. It’s not easy re-defining the meaning of "normal." This dichotomy of lifestyles suggests a close look at life's values.

One of the strongest aspects of the novel is the diversity of character. As in any society, the range of personalities, values, and reactions to events is diverse. How people react to war, occupation, and material shortages reveals personality traits that may remain hidden in a better world. The characters’ letters reveal their reactions. Through the people on Guernsey and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society we gain familiarity and insight. So does our main character, Juliet Ashton.

Juliet Ashton is a young, weary London writer whose home, belongings, and sense of normalcy have been bombed into oblivion. Trying to write a book as a transition from a wartime columnist attempting to bring some humor into a humorless situation to a recognized author rebuilding a shattered emotional life and adjusting to a blitzkrieg-free post war environment, Juliet begins to find some sense to the world through a casual correspondence with a Guernsey Island inhabitant, Dawsey Adams.

Juliet's relationship widens through letters to other members of Guernsey's Literary and Potato Pie Society, people also desperate for news of the world after years of Nazi occupation. Their letters reveal the pains and joys of life lived under dire circumstances. The letters reflect their resilience, and this novel becomes praise for the human spirit.

But don't think this is a serious, no-nonsense book. It's not! There is plenty of lol funny stuff going on, and there's burgeoning affection and confliction as well. Juliet is aggressively courted by super-wealthy, wheeler-dealer, suave Markham Reynolds who inundates her with flowers, wines and dines her in a way that her war-rationed mentality finds gloriously stimulating, and brings her into international society. Very tempting for a girl who delights over real eggs and real sugar for icing!

The key is--This book is delightful, real, vivid, exciting, and, to my absolute pleasure, a piece of real literature! The characters will become your friends, and you will yearn to visit the Channel Islands (although the inhabitants will hardly enjoy becoming a tourist spot). Start the New Year right, and treat yourself to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Friday, December 26, 2008


I have to bring you back to Sept. to pick up at Massanutten, VA. We had such a great time there, and if you've never driven through the rural Virginia countryside, you're missing some great beauty. We stayed at the Massanutten Resort in McGaheysville VA, (a timeshare and member of RCI) but we also did some driving and took in some great local sights....

I left you last month after Rob beat my sister, brother-in-law, cousins, and me on the resort's fantastic miniature golf course. We went into Harrisonburg for dinner, but we spent the rest of the evening enjoying each other's company and catching up.

The next morning, Robyn, Rita and I met at the Woodstone Recreation Center Pool for water aerobics, and Rob headed back to the treadmill. Each morning there is an hour long water aerobics class, and it is quite a workout. Our instructor had us moving the entire time, and while it never was boring, it was not just fun and games; it was a workout. We jogged, stretched, balanced, used noodles and bicycled around the pool and used, for much of the hour, water weights. Those weights are an amazing addition to the workout, and by the time we were done, I really felt it in my shoulders. They provided the resistance exercises that are so necessary in a good workout. There were about 15 people in the class including a few men.
After the class we relaxed those muscles in the big hot tub--at 105 degrees--the same as at home. Rita and Robyn and another woman from the class were initially reluctant to enter at that temperature, but being an old hand at this, I got in and they followed. Another "classmate" demurred and just talked with us from the side. After our stay in the hottub, we three got back in the pool to cool down. What a great morning!!

We parted, went back to our suites, showered and changed, and met again for an afternoon drive through the Virginia countryside. In some fields the cornstalks were still standing while in others they had already been cut down in preparation for the winter. But the grass was still very green, and the dark brown Virginia cows were, for the most part, lying down, a sign of rain. Indeed, rain was forecast and the cloudy day foretold of the rain to come.

Our first stop was the indoor Mennonite Market at Dayton, a year round establishment filled with all kinds of possibilities. The Mennonites appear to mix more with the outside world. I saw cars and trucks in addition to the horsedrawn carriages. In addition to the homegrown produce and meats in the market, there were what seemed to be strange additions. For instance, this area of Virginia, still several hours from Blacksburg, was definitely Hokie territory, and the number of Virginia Tech items rivaled the college's own book store in downtown Blacksburg. On the other hand there were few UVA items. Other booths sold jewelry, lace, furniture, food, and there was one interesting store that specialized in handcrafted goods from third world countries offering everything from area rugs from Pakistan selling for several thousand dollars to attractive nut bowls made from recycled newspaper. We all made purchases, and then Rob and I stopped for lunch at Hank's Smokehouse--an outlet of our favorite restaurant in the area--and enjoyed marvelous pork BBQ and brisket sandwiches.

When we left the Dayton Mennonite Market, Rita guided us along the winding country roads and up and down the beautiful hills past farmers' stands with their tables loaded with vegetables and bright orange pumpkins of every size and shape, horses in their pastures, and in one place two young bucks. It was a wonderful ride. Virginia has so many older homes, some dating back several centuries. There are old towns and many spots marked for their Civil War fame with signs explaining the area's Civil War significance. We crossed over rivers and headed to a special park in Mt. Solon, VA.--Natural Chimneys, a remnant of the time when much of Virginia lay at the bottom of a prehistoric ocean.

With rain threatening we weren't too anxious to take a long hike, but the gatekeeper assured us that the chimneys were just a bit off the parking lot. There were people camping and a roadie setting up for a weekend music festival. Before us to the side of a big open field stood the chimneys, towering 120 ft. above us--tall, stately and foreboding. Much of the surface was covered with thick, green vines. From one angle, they look like chimneys; from another angle they look like the turrets of a long-forgotten fortress. Tree shoots protruded from every ledge or protrusion. Far away at the tops of the chimneys trees grew. There was a kind of grotesqueness about them that was not diminished by the guard rails, the keep out signs and the snake warnings. There was no need to tell me twice. I would admire the chimneys from a distance.

It is very important to have an idea of the chimneys' history in order to appreciate them. Let your imagination run a bit and think back to those primordial seas gradually receding as the earth thrust upward during the Appalachian Revolution. Then imagine the volcanic activity causing the layer of strata we observed six feet from the base of the chimneys. is the power of imagination thrusting the observer back through time that makes this a powerful experience. It is the current green field and eerie, forbidding peacefulness that emphasizes the tumult of the past.

In the evening we celebrated Bill's birthday in Robyn and Neal's suite, feasting on some of our purchases at Drayton including banana chips and then organic spinach spaghetti. Robyn made an unbelievable carrot cake, Bill's favorite, and the lovely day eased into a perfect evening.

THE LANDMARK INN is a place to remember

Rt. 94
Warwick, New York 10990
845 986-5444

Thursday nights are great because my two golfing buddies, Mary and Beth, and I play year-round. In good weather we play a round of golf, repair to the 19th hole, and then Rob and Mike join us for dinner; once the weather turns colder, we “play around” and just meet for dinner at Warwick, New York’s Landmark Inn, and it’s a weekly delight. We skip restaurant seating and head for the bar which has a regular Thursday night crowd. It’s hellos all around and lots of hugging and kissing—as if we hadn’t seen each other in years! Warm and friendly and happy.

The Landmark Inn is a 227 year old Inn retaining the charm befitting its age. Walk along the covered porchway and enter into a dark wood paneled entryway with floors of wide planks. It’s pleasant and welcoming, dark and warm. We like the bar for its informality and its ambiance, but the restaurant is terrific. The food is excellent, and we’re able to order from either the bar menu or the restaurant menu.

Good food and good service are the order of the evening. There’s a popcorn popper. Just grab a big bowl and fill it. Order your drinks and begin. Don’t hurry; you’ll never be rushed, and if the kitchen can fulfill your wish, it will. This is a comfort food place, and there’s a steady flow of customers throughout the evening.

This evening, amazingly, all five of us order the same item--a scrumptious, juicy, huge, cheeseburger (we differ on types of cheese and degrees of done-ness). Each of us asks for it in a different way, from still mooing to medium, and each receives exactly as requested. These burgers are too big for a mundane hamburger roll. They come on super-sized Kaiser rolls. I ask if we can have sweet potato fries rather than french fries, and that’s what we get—but not those crisp overdone sweet potato fries. These are wedges, lightly done on the outside but still soft and very sweet potato-y on the inside. No piddly portion here. We receive a stack of potatoes, a huge half sour pickle, lettuce, tomato and purple onion slices.

The Landmark’s hamburgers spoil you. You’re loath to order one elsewhere because the chances are it won’t measure up to this gastronomical extravaganza.

Our group isn’t usually so similar. We’ve had marvelous cannelloni, crab cakes, chicken breasts with melted provolone, a spectacular turkey club with potato salad, half of which usually accompanies me home, and a host of other choices. The menu is varied, and no one leaves hungry. It’s a compliment to the chef that we’ve settled into a comfortable repetition.

Coffee rounds out the evening, and after two enjoyable hours, we part. There’s always someone else to take our table, yet it is never too noisy nor too crowded.

If you happen to be in the Warwick area, this is a place you might wish to try. You won’t be disappointed. Make sure you look through both menus before you decide between the bar and the restaurant. Either way, enjoy.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

MANHUNT-You Know the Ending, but You're Caught Up in the Suspense

Manhunt, the 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, a New York Times Bestseller by James L. Swanson is a moment-by-moment account of the spectacular hunt for John Wilkes Booth following his audacious assassination—the first presidential assassination—of Abraham Lincoln. This non-fiction, thoroughly researched account reads as exciting as fiction, and amazingly the reader, who already knows how it all ends, sits in suspenseful anticipation! This history is an exciting and entertaining read.

I particularly wanted to read this book since I learned from our Charleston, SC visit in October that Lincoln had been invited to attend a re-dedication ceremony at Ft. Sumter on April 14, 1865 but declined. He went to the theater instead. Had he accepted, the history of our country would have been altered.

Swanson secures our interest by reminding us of Lincoln’s second inauguration on March 4, 1865 at which time John Wilkes Booth, consumed with hatred, was in the crowd. Fast forward to April 3, 1965 when Richmond fell, and Booth saw his time to act against Lincoln quickly disappearing. A previous kidnapping plot evolves into assassination.

From this point, Swanson keeps his reader in blow-by-blow touch with the movements and emotions of this historical drama, and he is able to build the suspense as Booth collects his co-conspirators, prepares his plans, executes them, and daringly escapes. He eludes search parties for 12 days, and the account is fascinating.

As Booth had hoped to kill the entire cabinet and the Vice President as well as the President, we follow those plans through Booth's co-conspirators' actions. Sometimes the details are graphic and in the book’s epilogue are accompanied by photographs of the aftermath—for instance the disfiguring knife wounds on Secretary of State William Seward. We follow Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s uncompromising search for everyone connected with Lincoln’s assassination as well as with the botched assassination attempts. We follow his suspension of laws, his belief in quick and final justice, and his attempts to prevent John Wilkes Booth any inkling of fame.

Equally and sometimes even more intriguing are the never-changing human reactions: the actress who wants history to remember her and cradles Lincoln's head in her lap so he will bleed all over her soon-to-be famous gown, the surreptitious cutting of a lock of his hair as a relic, the attempts to move Lincoln so that he will not be remembered as dying on the floor of a theater, Booth's overwhelming desire to see newspapers so he can read the “reviews” of his deed, etc.

This human element gives Manhunt its power and brings history and the people involved alive. In fact, Booth’s “celebrity” is so contemporary and his audacity so self-righteous that one can easily see some of today’s stars--Sean Penn, Jane Fonda or Michael Moore, who use their celebrity to embrace enemies like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, transported back to the 1800s. It is the unchanging human nature that sends chills as one reads the account of this manhunt. The greed for the reward money when the manhunt is over astounds. Even Andrew Johnson’s presidential commutation of sentences seems incredible though very contemporary.

Revisionist history is not new. Swanson, in his epilogue, traces the care with which Booth’s image has systematically been altered over the years, and in restoring Washington DC’s Ford’s Theater (after many less prestigious reincarnations), the tours detail Booth’s path to the President’s box—a box in which no President who attends the theater sits.

This IS a vacation book. It amazes, clarifies, and unless you’re a Civil War scholar, I’m sure it will answer questions you never thought you had. The biggest problem might be trying to put it down.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


You know I’ve enjoyed my train travels. Here’s some news from Amtrak that is worth checking out. Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass is now available for purchase in the U.S. It used to be available only to travelers who lived outside this country.

The passes are available for 15, 20, and 45 days of travel. The 15-day pass offers eight travel segments for only $389. The 30-day offers 12 segments for $579, and the 45-day pass offers 18 segments for $749.

A segment of travel occurs each time a passenger boards a train or connecting Amtrak Thruway bus. You must begin your travel within 180 days of pass purchase, and you must have a ticket and reservation for each train you board.

You can really plan some great vacations, and once you get past the older tracks and tunnels in the east, you enter a world of domed cars and some spectacular sightseeing. Check out the possibilities.