Long Time Gone…

Take Vacations

As I feared (and as evidenced by the length of time since my last post), it has proven somewhat difficult to balance graduate school, travel, and blogging.  Since something had to give, blogging ended up on the chopping block…much to my dismay.  I have continued to travel and have several more trips on the string; writing about them, however, has been harder to balance with my academic and research workload.  That said, I hope to do better than I have recently (that won’t take much effort) and post a bit more often.  I have added a couple of countries to my “Been There” list—The Netherlands and Monaco—and have also visited new cities in countries I had previously explored—Aachen, Barssel, Bremen, Cologne, and Wiesmoor (Germany); Nice and Marseille (France); and Rome (Italy).  I have traveled fairly extensively within the United States as well, returning to previously covered territory as well as breaking new ground.  I am particularly focused on the country’s National Parks at this time and have plans to visit several more this summer.  As always, my bucket list and travel dreams far exceed my budget, energy, and time but, for now, I will keep traveling whenever the opportunity arises!

Big Ben…or whatever it’s called!

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As a long-time Disney devotee (the early movies, anyway), it is not surprising that my initial perception of London was pretty heavily influenced by such classics as Mary Poppins and Peter Pan. And, since Big Ben plays a prominent role in the opening scenes of both of those movies, it stands to reason that the illustrious clock tower would be at the top of my London landmarks bucket list!

Big Ben, as you may know, is actually the name of the bell within the tower and—here is a little-known trivia fact for you—that isn’t even its official name! Big Ben’s moniker (talking about the bell itself) is The Great Bell. The tower that is usually referred to as Big Ben is actually called the Elizabeth Tower. Formerly referred to simply as the Clock Tower, it was renamed in 2012 to honor Queen Elizabeth II on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee (sixty years on the throne). For ease of reference, in this post I will refer to the tower and its clock as Big Ben. Situated  at the north end of the Palace of Westminster in London, Big Ben chimes every fifteen minutes. It is likely the most recognizable landmark in London and quite possibly the most photographed. Sadly, overseas visitors cannot tour Big Ben, and residents of the UK must contact their local MP or a Member of the House of Lords to arrange for a visit. After climbing to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Duomo in Florence, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, I was pretty bummed not to get to climb to the top of the tower. But, I did get to hear the chimes and I managed to get a photo in a phone booth with Big Ben in the background…sort of. All in all, I was pumped to actually see the famous fellow!

A few fun Big Ben facts for you…

  • Each dial is seven meters (just short of twenty-three feet) in diameter.
  • The minute hands are 4.2 meters (13′ 9″) long and weigh about 100kg (about 220 lbs.), including counterweights.
  • The numbers are approximately 60cm (just short of two feet) long.
  • There are 312 pieces of glass in each clock dial.
  • A special light above the clock’s faces is illuminated when parliament is in session.
  • Big Ben’s timekeeping is strictly regulated by a stack of coins placed on the huge pendulum.
  • Big Ben has rarely stopped. Even after a bomb destroyed the Commons chamber during the Second World War, the clock tower survived and Big Ben continued to strike the hours.
  • The chimes of Big Ben were first broadcast by the BBC on 31 December 1923, a tradition that continues to this day.
  • The latin words under the clock face read DOMINE SALVAM FAC REGINAM NOSTRAM VICTORIAM PRIMAM, which means “O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First.”

 

April 19, 1995…The Day Life Changed Forever in Oklahoma City

Alfred P. Murrah Building - OKC

Alfred P. Murrah Building – OKC

 

That Wednesday twenty years ago started like any other. I arrived at school in Northwest Oklahoma City ready to face a classroom full of fourth graders, just as I did every day. A morning field trip had been planned, and fourth grade students from all over the district would be converging upon the Civic Center to attend a musical performance—what performance, I now have no idea. Arrival in downtown was scheduled for 9:00 a.m. but, for reasons unknown, the buses were late arriving and by the time we got everyone loaded and departed from the school it was right at 9 o’clock. As we traveled toward downtown along Memorial Road, the kids were excitedly laughing and talking, glad to escape the confines of the classroom. About five or so minutes into our journey a call came across the bus radio: “Stop immediately. There has been a major explosion in downtown Oklahoma City.” Not everyone heard the announcement and as the driver guided the bus to the side of the road, several students began inquiring as to why we were stopping. Again the dispatcher’s voice crackled through on the radio, interrupting the hubbub and demanding that we halt immediately—repeating that there had been a major explosion in downtown. Oklahoma City is known for its extremely flat terrain, which enables one to see for miles. Though we were still a good distance from downtown, we could clearly see thick, black smoke billowing toward the sky in the distance. One of my students—an especially precocious kiddo named Andrew—piped up shrilly. “Do you think it was a bomb?” Without even pausing to reflect I responded, “I’m sure it wasn’t a bomb, Andrew. It was probably a gas leak or a pipeline explosion.” I cannot even express how remote the possibility of a bomb explosion seemed to me at that time…such a reality never crossed my mind! After all, this was America—and the Heartland at that! Such things happened in other places! Needless to say, the field trip was shelved and we returned to school. We were horrified to learn that this was no small explosion, but rather had blown a large portion of a huge building to smithereens! My immediate concern was the safety of my husband, whose job often took him into the downtown area, and I rushed out to my car to call him. (I had a cell phone at that time, but it was hard-mounted in my car.) Miraculously, I was able to get through to him and learn that he was safe—something I was not able to do again as the cell phone towers were completely jammed making it impossible to get through to anyone. The day passed as if a slow motion nightmare—attempting to conceal the awful truth from our students while conducting the daily routines in as normal a fashion as possible, then slipping off on our breaks to gaze with horror at the carnage playing out before our eyes live and wall-to-wall on televisions stashed around the school building. Those of us on the school bus that morning were some of the few in the city who did not actually feel the impact of the explosion—I have been told that the tires likely absorbed the force. My husband thought an airplane had crashed outside of his office; my sister was convinced someone was breaking into her house; others feared an earthquake. My husband spent that first night on the scene as part of the heavy equipment response team—something he is not likely to ever forget. All told, 168 people lost their lives, almost 700 more were injured, and countless others suffered the loss of family members and friends. One of my students lost his uncle (his body was never found) and a college classmate of ours was among the victims. Possibly the most sobering effect this senseless act of cowardice and evil had on me was the loss of innocence and naivete that I had always possessed—a sense of peace and security here in America. But, I am so thankful that the buses were delayed that morning and we didn’t find ourselves mere blocks from the bomb site with hundreds of children!

The people of Oklahoma City are strong and resilient, and they soldiered on in the face of tragedy. On the former site of the Murrah Federal Building, you can now visit a Memorial to the victims of the bombing. It includes a large reflecting pool flanked by two large gates—one inscribed with the time 9:01, the other with 9:03. The pool itself  is representative of the moment of the blast. Nearby is a field of bronze and stone chairs—one for each person lost, arranged according to what floor of the building they were on. The smaller chairs represent the 19 children who were killed; the larger chairs are symbolic of the adult victims. Amazingly, one tree survived the explosion and its aftermath and still stands, known as “the survivor tree.” Part of the original building remains as a testament to the enormity of destruction. Visitors can also visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum.

Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial

Oklahoma City National Memorial – Field of Chairs

 

The People of Ireland…

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I found the people of Ireland to be charming, though initially a bit reticent and more than a little suspicious of Americans. One of the high points of my visit was a half-hour chat I had with our bus driver during the ride from Wicklow town to the airport in Dublin. We talked of horses, his desire to visit Texas and Kentucky, Irish independence, American history (he knew more about that than most Americans do), the EU, and the value of the euro. He was extremely knowledgeable and a delight to converse with. (I have been kicking myself ever since for not snapping a pic before leaving him!) And then there was Anne…the owner of the B&B in Wicklow where we stayed. Shocked by the size of our suitcases, she had a mild panic attack upon our arrival. She recovered fairly quickly when it became apparent that we intended to treat her home with the same care and respect we would exercise in our own home. (How people travel for two full weeks through three different countries, participating in every type of activity imaginable…and pack everything in a rucksack is beyond me. But, I digress…) There is something special about staying in a personal residence—particularly when welcomed in by someone to whom you are a perfect stranger! We (my niece and I) shared a cozy bed and bath on the upper floor overlooking a beautiful garden that was lovingly tended by Anne herself. It afforded every possible comfort and was the perfect home-away-from-home during the week we spent there. Our hostess graciously offered to do our laundry and was quite persistent about it, so we indulged her once…and greatly appreciated her efforts!

There is much more reminiscing I could do about our visit to Ireland, but I will save that for a later post. Suffice it to say, the time we spent on the Emerald Isle was memorable in so many ways and I truly long to return sooner than later…

When I think of Ireland…

 

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On this rainy April day I find my thoughts turning to Ireland, and a number of adjectives immediately spring to mind…picturesque, bold, verdant, lush, untamed, timeless. Did I mention green?? Its incredibly varied landscape was both unexpected and spectacular! Ireland is truly one of the most beautiful and fascinating countries I have ever visited. While much of Western society seems to have melded into a uniformity of sorts, the Irish have managed to retain their own independent culture and unique appeal—not to mention identity and superstitions. (Truly, I half expected to see leprechauns lurking among the Celtic crosses and Druids gliding through the monastic ruins!) Below are but a few of the thousands of photos I took during my seven day visit. Everywhere you look in Ireland there is another gorgeous landscape to amaze the senses!

 

Where to Stay in Charleston…The French Quarter Inn

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If you are looking to indulge in a relaxing, luxurious boutique hotel experience, look no further than the French Quarter Inn in Charleston, SC. From the moment we walked in the door, hotel staff went above and beyond to make our stay a true pleasure in every way. The hotel is conveniently located a few steps from Charleston’s most popular tourist attractions, yet is quiet and secluded.

We were celebrating our 20th anniversary and decided to spring for the Luxury King Balcony Suite. The spacious bedroom included a king-size bed with premium bedding, an armoire, desk, clock radio/docking station, mini-fridge, and in-room safe—not to mention, an incredible view. We had access to high-speed internet both in our room and in the hotel common areas. Each time we returned to our room after it had been serviced by housekeeping, soft music was playing. Turn-down service was provided as well—complete with a chocolate treat!

We had a full living room with a fireplace (a little warm for June, but aesthetically pleasing, nonetheless), flat screen TV, and private balcony access. The sofa included a pullout bed, and there was a blu-ray DVD player.

The large bathroom was fully stocked with plenty of fluffy towels, luxury spa products, waffle weave robes, and even a super fancy toilet paper receptacle!

I spent quite a lot of time sitting on our balcony. We were on the third floor overlooking a quiet street and a picturesque garden with beautiful wrought-iron gates and charming statuary.

A continental breakfast was served daily in an area adjacent to the hotel lobby. Selections included fresh fruit, pastries, cereal, boiled eggs, coffee, milk, a variety of juices, and more. We ate there several times and enjoyed the gorgeous weather each morning in the outdoor terrace dining area. There is an evening wine and cheese reception, and freshly baked cookies and milk are offered each evening in the lobby area. 24-hour coffee service is provided, as well as all-day availability of flavored iced teas and snacks.

The concierge arranged for our transportation to and from the airport and we never entered or left the hotel without a doorman opening the door for us and inquiring after our needs and comfort. We decided to extend our stay by one day, but our suite was not available so we were moved to a Traditional King Room. Honestly, the only difference was size! Though smaller than the suite, the traditional room was roomy and every bit as comfortable and commodious! We were 100% pleased with our stay at the French Quarter Inn and can’t wait to return on our next visit to Charleston!

Where to Eat in Charleston, South Carolina…

Restaurants along Meeting Street

Restaurants along Market Street

As I have mentioned in the past, Charleston and Savannah run a pretty close race in the food department as each city offers excellent cuisine with broad appeal. I don’t know about you, but I am always eager to sample the regional favorites whenever I visit somewhere new—or old! Since I am a lover of seafood, low country cooking is right up my alley. Reviews of the following restaurants and eateries are based on my personal experience alone and are listed alphabetically rather than by preference. Always interested to hear your opinions and receive your recommendations!

Charleston Crab House:

We ate lunch here not once, but twice! Shrimp is one of my top two favorite foods so that, of course, is what I ordered. It was delicious, but…hubby’s Alaskan crab legs blew my shrimp out of the water! When we returned for the second time, you better believe I ordered crab legs! (I had fried green tomatoes for an appetizer and they were scrumptious!)

Dixie Supply Bakery and Cafe:

I had heard about this storefront-turned-restaurant with a reputation for serving the best grits in Charleston (TripAdvisor reviews and a feature on Diners and Dives), so we decided to give it a whirl. Turns out, it was right around the corner from our hotel. The location leaves a bit to be desired—next door to a convenience store with most of the seating outside in the parking lot—but the food was delicious! We were early enough to snag an inside seat and the grits really were the best I had ever tasted…and that is saying something since I am a bit of a grits snob!

(The) Fudgery of Charleston:

We hit the ground running our first day in Charleston and covered a lot of the historic district right away. After all of that walking around, we were in need of some nourishment, so we stopped by The Fudgery, which is (too) conveniently located on Market Street adjacent to City Market and near our hotel. We each ordered a Mocha Java Chiller…with real mocha fudge mixed in! Mmmm, mmmm, good! Oh, and we had to sample the fudge. Good thing we had plenty of opportunities to walk off those calories!

Hall’s Chophouse:

We celebrated our anniversary at Hall’s Chophouse on King Street. The food was tasty and the service was amazing. The wait staff was extremely attentive, changing out our silverware between courses and making sure our glasses were always full. We started with She-Crab Soup—a Charleston signature dish—and also enjoyed a colossal shrimp cocktail. I chose Prime Rib for my main course and hubby ordered a Bone-In Rib Eye. The side of Lobster Mac and Cheese we ordered was so huge, we barely put a dent in it. The owner was actually working the door as we were leaving and engaged us in five or ten minutes of interesting conversation. All in all, a lovely dining experience.

Hank’s Seafood:

We selected Hank’s for our last evening meal (supper, to us Southerners) in Charleston. The food was not quite on par with Magnolias (see below), but good nonetheless. The atmosphere was a bit more formal that we expected—tiny tables with linen tablecloths and waiters in white jackets! I ate coarse-ground grits one last time and loved every delicious bite!

Magnolias:

This was my favorite eating experience during our time in Charleston, hands down! The restaurant is informally elegant and the service was superb. I ordered the Shellfish Over Grits (are you noticing a pattern here?) with sauteed shrimp, sea scallops and lobster, creamy white grits, lobster butter sauce, and fried spinach. The hubby chose Grilled Tuna and Arugula Salad with feta cheese, cherry tomatoes, and citrus-agave vinaigrette dressing. No taste bud-tempting meal is complete without equally tantalizing desserts, so we went for the Southern Pecan Pie and vanilla bean ice cream. Truly a palette-pleasing evening!

Mercato Italian Restaurant:

After a full day of sightseeing, we chose Mercato mainly because there was no wait. As it turned out, it was a fortuitous choice. The decor was warm and inviting, the ambiance low-key and relaxing. We had recently returned from Italy where we discovered what pizza is supposed to taste like, so all American-Italian restaurants were laboring under a not insignificant handicap by comparison. Despite that fact, we were satisfied with the quality and taste of our food at Mercato and were pleased to note that the crust was thin and crisp and the ingredients fresh and authentic!

Poogan’s Porch:

We enjoyed brunch at Poogan’s Porch on Queen Street one morning during our visit. The converted Victorian mansion makes a charming restaurant, and the Southern-style home-cooking is creative, at the very least. I passed on the Sunrise Shrimp and Grits (blue crab gravy, peppers, onions, sausage, poached eggs) and went for Ike’s Down Home Breakfast (two eggs, scrambled; grits; and applewood-smoked bacon), which was quite good.

Sticky Fingers:

The hubby is a barbeque connoisseur so we decided to give this place a go on the recommendation of our tour guide. I have had better barbeque (no big surprise since we hail from the Lone Star State) and I have had worse. At least they have a wide (and personalized) selection of sauces!

And, of course, no vacation is complete without Ice Cream!

Stay tuned for my upcoming post on where to stay in Charleston…