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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Glories of Christmases Long, Long Ago

Christmas itself is a time capsule, with a crumpled old green bow on it.

Like...the ornament I bought from Charleston in 2002, the first time I had shrimp and grits (as opposed to the ornament I bought in 2005, which was the first time I liked shrimp and grits). The Christmas plates and canisters that my mother-in-law gave me one year, without any hints or suggestions (see, Mom, I told you I liked them!). The wreath I made with my friend Mary Jane, who could wrestle pine cones onto a wire form like no one's business.

It's why it's the most wonderful time of the year (assuming you like Charleston, Christmas plates, and my friend Mary Jane).

But I'm not interested in talking about recent history here. I'm talking about Christmases *long*, *long* ago. Like the song. Like this blog--historic.

In Pennsylvania, during the 18th and 19th century, Santa was not exactly a fat jolly giggling man but a frightening, evil, masochistic man (or woman) who was looking for free liquor and an excuse to hit young children. I know, I sounds like your Uncle Dave after his football team loses. But hang with me here.

In the wild and unchartered pre-Santa Claus days (Thomas Nast didn't do his first Santa cartoons until 1863; see them at, a mischievous and occassionally belligerent Christmas elf made his rounds of rural children. Dressed in patched and baggy clothes, often the clothes of the opposite gender (not that there's anything wrong with that), the Pennsylvania Dutch Belsnickel rewarded good children with fruit and cakes, while the bad children were punished with whips from the Belsnickel's lash.

As a "gut Dutchie" from Pennsylvania, I grew up with stories of the Belsnickel. Or Bellschniggle. Or Belsh Nichel. We Dutchies aren't much for spelling. Apparently, all of the names stem from the German "Peltz Nicel," meaning "Nicholas in furs," which referred to the bearskin coat or skunk-skin cap that often accessorized the Belsnickel's disguise. When he didn't wear a cap, he wore a tall pointy hood, probably to keep him warm in the Pennsylvania winter.

The December 26, 1826 issue of the Pottstown LaFayette Aurora described the Belsnickel as "a mischievous hobgoblin that makes his presence known to the people once a year by his cunning tricks of fairyism. Christmas is the time for his sporting revelry, and he then gives full scope to his permitted privileges in every sharpe that his roving image can suggest."

Again, a little bit like Uncle Dave.

I have loved Belsnickels since I was a little girl. Maybe because I was a good student, and I would have killed to see the bad kids hit with a stick while I feasted on nuts and oranges. Maybe because I've always wanted a fur hat of my own, or at least a fur muff that I could wear when I went skating like a scene from Currier &Ives. (Full disclosure: I can't ice skate. I just like the costumes).

Boyertown, Pennsylvania has a craft show each November called "The Belsnickel Craft Show." Oddly enough, there are very few Belsnickels there. (Check out the attached link: . For the record, that's an honest-to-goodness, full-blown Thomas Nast Santa Claus there on the right. Not a Belsnickel at all. Someone should really tell the show promoters).

But once, years and years ago, I managed to find a humorless chalkware Belsnickel amongst the crocheted pot holders and funny looking wooden things. I bought him and brought him home, where he could glare at me from a side table.

He looked lonely there, so I bought a couple more, finding them at Christmas stores, in catalogs, at yard sales. I amassed my own little army of angry, arm-folded villains.

This is only about a quarter of my collection. It grows a little each year, and moves around the house: some on the side table, some on a dresser. Some I hide in the bathroom to scare my husband when he steps out of the shower.

There are Belsnickels made of papier mache. Belsnickels made of chalkware, poured in old chocolate molds. Some are--don't tell--some kind of resin concoction. I have two cast iron ones, too...the scariest thing about them is the damage that they do when they fall off a dresser and on to my toes (which is why they're typically the ones that I hide in the bathroom).

They're my favorite part of the time capsule that is Christmas. They remind me of my childhood, and of my family's origins in Germany, and of my many happy years as a credit-card-carrying member of the "Ladies for Economic Recovery" club. They remind me that you can travel across time as easily as you can travel to grandmother's house.

Sometimes more easily; especially when the road to grandmother's house is covered with 20" of snow.

Merry Christmas! From my time to yours!!

PS--The Belsnickels featured above are rural Belsnickels. Meet their urban hip-hop brethren in my next blog, New Year, Old Tricks.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Root of the Problem...

Many people have asked me just how I've gotten this way. And I don't just mean psychiatrists, either. Normal, concerned individuals have asked: Why do you love historic destinations so much? Do the old portraits make you feel pretty by comparison? Do you think mustiness is a treasured perfume? Are you just against hotel chains on principle?

The answers, of course, are yes, no, and yes. But there is a deeper reason.

I love old buildings, old portraits, and old furniture because of this:

Yes, that's the childhood home. It's been in our family since the 1700's, when my great great great great great grandfather bought it from Thomas Penn. Apparently young Thomas inherited his Pop's stake in Penn's Woods (along with his brothers) when William passed in 1720.

My brother owns the house now, and--to assert that it was his house and not Dad's anymore--he just removed the plaster and re-pointed the house in June. When I was a kid, the house was white plaster with black shutters. I was afraid that the hidden stone would be ugly (Why would someone have covered it with plaster? I asked my brother more than once as he planned the project). I was wrong, obviously. The stone is beautiful.

The inside is even better: the house boasts
  • drawers built into the front windowsills (so the lady of the house could pay the help without actually having to stand on the porch with those lowly ne'er do wells)
  • hand graining (if you look closely at the wood grain in some rooms you can find rabbits and ducks and other little critters), and
  • a fireplace built with a stone from every county in Pennsylvania (my great great grandfather got around quite a bit while his wife was in Europe. Ahem).

My room was in the "back" of the house, facing the driveway and the old barn. I wallpapered it myself around 1979, and I rearranged the furniture as often as I used to apply pimple cream.

And that's why I am the way that I am.

Please tip your docent on the way out.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Smile and Say "Trees"

At the risk of going all stand-up comedian on you, I have to ask: What is the deal with tree lightings?

I mean, HTG is all about spiked hot chocolate. And I love a cute cashmere scarf as much as the next girl (assuming that the next girl is one who really really likes cashmere scarves).

But standing in the cold for an hour, waiting for a tree to go from a dark silhouette to a dark silhouette with little lights on it?

Frankly, I've found you can get the same effect by standing in front of said tree with your eyes closed for about 30 seconds, and then opening them.

Ooooh. Aaaaah. *applause and laughter and squeals of delight*.

Now where's that hot chocolate?

Having said that, I did go to the annual tree lighting at the Physick Estate in Cape May, NJ. I did it not for the spiked HC, but for the free house tour that they offered as part of the festivities. (Full disclosure: I was in the house's dining room when the docent cried that the tree lighting was in 2 minutes. I looked at her with pity and said "I'm exactly where I want to be." She laughed and said "You couldn't get me to stand outside in that cold for nothing." Which I thought wasn't very Victorian, as well as not being very good grammar).

Cape May does trees exceptionally well. Many of the bed and breakfast owners put decorated trees on their porches, so that you can enjoy them without craning your neck to peek in the lace curtains at night. Which HTG has done. And she has been caught doing it.

And she has not been offered spiked hot chocolate afterwards.

But, for those of you who like the tree lightings, here is a before:

and an after:

Hand me the butterscotch schnapps.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Too Cool for School?

HTG hates Washington, DC.

It has nothing to do with the Redskins, or whatever political party is in office (well, sometimes it's the political party in office). It's more the stupid layout of the city--the circles, the non-parallel roads, the inexplicable one-way streets. Pierre Charles L'Enfant, a French-born American architect laid the city out in 1791. Presumably while he was drunk.

It's enough to make me say "Freedom Fries" next time I'm in the McDonald's drive through.

So, when I had a recent event there I freaked out a couple of days before and decided to spend the night to avoid the morning traffic.

I made an online reservation for the Helix Hotel ( The website said it was off of Logan Circle, so it was convenient (the capital is actually walkable from this location, but I had piles and piles of crap to take with me for the meetings with the 18-year-old legislative assistants who actually run our country and write our legislation).

I was driving towards Barrack's house when I realized that I hadn't eaten dinner (bear with me--I promise this story is going somewhere. And not just in a slow-moving circle, like the DC beltway itself).

When I called the hotel to see if they had room service, Austin Powers picked up.Yes, that Austin Powers. He sounded drunk, too. "Hi, baybee, and welcome to the groovy Hotel Helix," he said.

Uh oh.

I frantically pounded the "O" button, and finally reached a person...who thankfully did not talk like Greg Brady in the episode where he wants to prove that he's a swinging grown up dude with blue glasses and a fringed suede vest, mamma. The live human informed me that there was room service available until 11.

I was worried, of course. I'm not that cool. I don't like any of Mike Meyers' movies. I was the fat kid in the swinging 60's (really the early 70's), the one with ugly printed blouses and home sewn corduroy pants.

I was not Hotel Helix material. Not 40 years ago. And probably not now, either.

The lobby was dark, and mostly empty, and I could barely see when I walked in the lobby. Luckily, there were two strips of purple neon behind the front desk, or I would  have stumbled around in my granny shoes trying to feel my way for 30 minutes or more. As my myopic eyes adjusted, I saw that the staff at the front desk was cool looking, with quirky glasses, and the kind of attention to detail that suggests they were junior stylists. Or gay. Either one is quite intimidating when I'm not looking my best.

To be fair, the staff was very very nice. They seemed sympathetic at the amount of brochures and annual reports I was balancing on my suitcase. They were pleasant as they reminded me that they would need my car keys to valet my car (who would leave their car keys in the ignition in DC?)

Most importantly, they didn't make fun of me, at least not until I was safely on the elevator. I strained my ears listening for their clucking, but heard nothing as the mirrored elevator doors closed behind me. I tried not to look at my bedraggled reflection in the doors.
It didn't really matter. Had I primped for an hour, and pulled out my most stylish heels, the cool factor of this hotel would still have been way beyond me.

I ended up in one of 178 newly decorated guest rooms (in addition to them, there are 12 specialty rooms--including some with bunk beds and another 18 suites that cost as much as my mortgage). My room had a desk and television and sofa in one part of the el-shaped room, with the king-sized bed in the other part, gauzily hidden behind drawn curtains. It made the room feel even larger than it was.

Behind the bed there was a full-scale mural of a man surfing, and the bed was covered with a very cozy looking sheepskin throw.

I kicked off my shoes and started to explore. The bathroom was quite small, but in the hallway leading to it (I guess technically the suite was U-shaped), there was a very cool bright orange frigidaire that served as the mini bar. Above that, a reproduction of Andy Warhol's 1964 print, Jackie. I was starting to get it: the hotel was like our former first lady...elegant and refined, but portrayed with a bit of wit. Okay, Austin, I'm a little slow. In addition to being uncool.

I loved the artwork over my desk...a numbered photograph of Ken in his pajama bottoms chasing Barbie in his pajama top. My own Ken doll was not with me that evening, but I thought the photo was funny and I felt myself relaxing a little bit as I laughed.

As I hung up my banker pinstripes in the closet, I saw the best part of the room: two freshly laundered bathrobes--each available for purchase at the front desk--one in a wild zebra print and one in a sexy leopard. I loved them both...especially the way they stood in stark contrast to my Congress-ready suits.

A couple of minutes later, eating the nice crispy calamari from room service, I started to think that maybe I could fit in here. I could cut my hair with manicure scissors, and move in to a funky place like this. I could walk downstairs to the cool  lounge, and talk to the hipsters drinking neon-colored drinks out of martini glasses.

Or I could slip into the leopard print robe, snuggle up under the white sheepskin throw, and try to work on my English accent. It's a start anyway, baybee.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Scariest House in America

Historic travel girl has been in some pretty scary houses in her time. The house she grew up in, where the cabinet doors were always open in the morning and sometimes the piano played at night (Seriously. It's Halloween, folks, not April Fool's). Then there was the second place my husband and I renovated, where a young guest said he didn't want to visit us any more because there was a mad little boy in the back bedroom and he didn't want to see him again. (It was just as well, as I thought that said young guest was a brat, and I was already trying to figure out how to never invite his parents again. Thanks, mad little ghost boy).

The third place we renovated, and then rented out, wasn't scary to me, but I did receive a call from my cleaner in 2008 to tell me that our departing guests felt a departed guest and her "female presence" in the yellow bedroom. The cleaner then asked me what I wanted her to do (???!!!). I told her to run the vaccuum cleaner extra long in that room--if something/someone was in there, and she/it wasn't paying rent, it/she needed to go. I'm not sure if our cleaner did this or not...but I have looked diligently for a presence, and the only presence I felt in the room was after my husband had a seriously gassy night.

But despite a long history of houses that make your arm hairs stand up, I must admit that the scariest house I ever visited was....*frightening pause here in the background music*....the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose ( *clap of thunder* *photo turns to black and white then back to color then back to black and white again*.

Enough with the fancy visual effects. Here's the story on the house.

In 1884, Sarah L. Winchester began building a home. She had plenty of money to do it, as she was a widow and the sole heir to the Winchester gun fortune. Somehow, maybe it was all the sawdust from the building project (lord knows that can make me batty after a week or two), or the opium that they used to prescribe back then, but the widow Winchester got the idea that the ghosts of all of the Indians that had been killed by her family's guns were conspiring to haunt her.

If that's not nutty enough, she then got the idea that she could build a house that was so confusing, so messed up, and so utterly ridiculous that even the most persistent ghost would hang it up and go float around in an uncomplicated two-bedroom flat in town...just because it was easier to get around.

AND...get this woman a case of multi-vitamin valium, stat...some fortune teller told her that she would die as soon as she finished building the house. And Miss Sarah believed her.

So, wacky widow Winchester set the boys to building. They kept going for another 38 years.

What would a contractor do for 38 years? Well, if it's one of the contractors that I've worked with, they might spend half of that time smoking on the porch and waiting for the kitchen cabinets to be delivered from Home Depot. But her contractors were more savvy. They built staircases that went nowhere (they literally disappear into the ceiling). They put in doors that opened directly to the outside, where you would plunge to your death if you snuck off the tour and decided to explore things on your own. They made teeny-tiny rooms that no one could even stand in.

They weren't lazy. During that 38 years, they built or installed: 1,257 windows, 950 doors, 47 fireplaces, 40 staircases, 52 skylights, 6 kitchens, and 2 ballrooms. I guess the lady wasn't much for dancing.

The tour of the house is as fascinating as it is frightening: there are 160 rooms, and it doesn't take long before you're completely turned around and you have no idea where you came from. It is very easy to lose your bearings and get completely lost.

But be careful and stay with the group ...because if you're lost, imagine how lost and angry the ghosts must be. *lightning crackle* Bwaaa haaa haaaa.......

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Travels with Grandma: She's old and she doesn't know what she's doing

I didn't expect to write another blog about Grandma this soon, but she's coming home from Texas on Saturday (the lady is a travelin' fool) and she's on my mind.

We went to Winterthur together ( in the fall a couple of years ago. It was just me, the hub, and Grandma.

Winterthur is the Delaware country estate (although it's not really in the country anymore) of Henry Francis duPont (1880-1969).

You may have heard of the duPonts, and their problems with mental illness (like John? The one who killed the Olympic wrestler about ten years ago? Yup: he's from the clan). That sort of thing often comes with scads of money, which is why I'm so glad that I'm not in that position. Although scads of money would buy quite a bit of psychotherapy. And a really good lawyer, if needed.

Anyway, speaking of mental illness, Henry Francis was a little nutty in his own way. Right after he marries Ruth Wales in 1916, he gets a hankering for American antiques. A lot of antiques. There were/are 85,000 items that were either used or made from 1640 to 1860 in the house. And not just little things, like a china bowl here or a spinning wheel there. He buys, like, whole rooms. Seriously. For instance, one day he learns that some history hating developer (yes, they were around even back then) is tearing down an old house in Chestertown, Maryland, so HFdP buys the house and then reconstructs the living room in his own house (he more than doubled the size of his house during his lifetime. You can't even see the whole house on one tour--you have to take about four different tours to see all the rooms). So he's got the paneling, the window surrounds, and an amazing fireplace that were made in the 1700's all in his growing estate.

This is what else money can do: HFdP fell for some Chinese, hand-painted wallpaper from the 1700's, so he built a room just so he could wallpaper it and show off his latest acquisition. HTG generally starts with the room, and then I buy stuff to put inside it. That always made sense to me, but I guess things are different when you only buy things if you can use a 20% off coupon from Bed, Bath and Beyond (

Henry Francis didn't even live in most of the rooms; he considered them a museum from the get-go. I'm sure that wasn't a lot of fun for his two daughters, but there was plenty of room to play around in even without access to Daddy's "museum" rooms.

One place I'm sure they hung out was the mansion's gorgeous grounds ( As I said, we went in the fall, and the dropping leaves were still pretty colors as we walked around the fountains and bricked patios. It was the end of the day, and everyone was gone.

As we're walking through the gardens, Grandma decides to pick a flower and stick it in her hair. Now, there are tons of signs everywhere that say "Do not pick the flowers". Tons. In fact, she had tried to pick a flower earlier in our walk, and I had stopped her (I'm a little weird about following directions). Besides, I have seen some of these historic home museum security guys, and they're big knots of anger in a uniform--furious because they lost out on that neat mall cop job. They are just the type to whack a little Italian lady with a karate chop to the neck, then take her tiny lifeless body to the pokey like some kind of prize.

So I tell her, " can't pick the flowers. What are you going to do if someone catches you?"

She looked right at me and said, "I'll tell them that I'm old and I don't know what I'm doing." She said it so seriously, as if she had been plotting this out for some time now. She pulled the age card on me, and I had nothing to come back with.

Our entire family uses that excuse all the time now, whether the speaker is seven or seventy. And Grandma always laughs when she hears us, because she knows that she owns that phrase. She sounds a little crazy when she laughs like that.

Crazy like the duPonts. Maybe it was something in the water up there.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Travels with Grandma: Falling for George

My hub's grandmother turned 95 in August (that's her right there, next to my husband. He's not seven feet tall; she's just really really short).

It's a big deal, turning 95. Many of Grandma's friends and family members celebrated this landmark by showering her with gift certificates to CVS, Walgreen's, Giant Supermarket, Carrabba's and Cracker Barrel. Which only proves that, once you've hit your mid-90's, folks think that your entire life revolves around taking medicine and trying to choke down another meal.

In the case of our Grandma, however, life is more than medicating and masticating. Grandma loves to travel. And the hub and I like to help her.

We've been taking her on smallish vacations since she was a young pup of 83. Places we could drive to--like Annapolis (MD), Harper's Ferry (WV), St. Mary's on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Winterthur Estate (DE), and Luray Caverns (VA), where Grandma kept asking us if it was one of the seven wonders of the world. It is a pretty cool feeling to show someone in her 80's something that's more impressive than almost anything she's ever seen.

Now, if you're looking at that list and saying "Gee, HTG, that sounds like a list of places you and the hub would like to go anyway", well, you are insane. Totally bananas. Keep your crazy thoughts to yourself, please. And, anyway, the people who buy Grandma gift certificates to restaurants expect her to take them with her when she uses it. So don't you try to make me feel bad.

ANYWAY, last year we went to Mount Vernon, Geo Washington's snazzy digs. It was pret-ty, pret-ty nice, with a cool view of the Potomac River (who doesn't love a president who loves the water?). Over one million people tramp through that house every year, more than any other president's house, save the White House, which isn't so much the president's house as it is a really nice rental.

Here's the thing about Mount Vernon that I loved the most: it had fallen into ruin in the mid-1800's under the unwatchful eye of George's great-great nephew John Augustine Washington, Jr. (Note to my own nephews, who are presently in line to inherit our vast real estate holdings: if you let my beautiful house fall into disrepair, I will haunt you from every rafter and torment you from every corner).

Enter Ann Pamela Cunningham in 1853, who got her bustle in a tussle over the fact that such an important site in our national history was so poorly cared for. Ann Pamela called on her rich friends and raised enough money to buy the estate (although records indicate that even then John Augustine was doubtful that a woman could handle it properly. As if he could. Sheesh.)

Ann Pamela and her friends, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, bought the property and set about restoring it. They still own it today, and take care of it for the American people. They do a great job; as you can see from the photos, it's simply beautiful.

I suggest you swing by if you're close to DC. And take your grandmother.

One other note: if history makes you hungry, plan to stop at Dixie Bones BBQ in nearby Woodbridge, VA (13440 Occoquan Road, Don't let the strip mall location put you off: the pulled pork will have you singing Sweet Home Alabama after two bites.

The meat comes dry and there are three amazing sauces to customize your dining experience. Get the platter and plunk down two quarters (there's George again, in profile!) to upgrade to cornbread instead of a roll. It's the best 45 cents you'll ever spend (yes, you'll get a nickel change). Put that nickel towards a slice of pie for $3.95; sweet potato is the special on Saturdays.

It's pretty good eats, by George!!! (You knew I'd have to say that at some point, didn't you?)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Adaptive Reuse is Hard to Refuse

Historic travel girl loves things that used to be other things. Like flip flops that used to be school bus tires. And shoppers with long handles Macgyvered from old license plates and toothpaste caps.

In fact, when historic travel girl was really just a girl, she found a blacksmith (not easy to do before the Internet, folks) who agreed to take discarded door hinges from our renovated barn and turn them into wall sconces. I gave them to my dad for Christmas. He still has them.

All of this is to say that I love love love hotels that weren't hotels originally.

So I figured I would adore the Union Station Hotel ( in Nashville, TN. I checked in late one Thursday night, exhausted from the long day of work and the short flight from BWI. Even in my bleary-eyed state, I was knocked out by the impressive lobby, and its 65 foot barrel-vaulted ceiling. Trust me, folks, this is a serious neck-cricking opportunity.

As you've probably deduced, Union Station used to be a train station. And the Wyndham Group, which has run the hotel since 2007, keeps some of the coolest features of its original use. Like the train schedule, posted behind the check in desk. I noticed right away that said schedule included The Dixie Flyer and it's scheduled stop in Nashville. So, even though I was bone tired, I found myself humming the Randy Newman song (

Today, the hotel/railroad station has 125 rooms, although a lot of them are more like suites (mine had two rooms, and--since I was traveling for work, justincasemybossisreading--I didn't request a special room). The other rooms were nice, too, fitted into the old offices in the upper floors of the station.

You'll like the location of the hotel--just a short walk from Second Avenue and the honky tonks that line its historic streets. And you'll like the staff, who have no problem taking time from their duties to show you where the alligator ponds used to be in the lobby, or tell you about the time Al Capone came through on his way to the Georgia penitentiary (note: it would be a better story if he fed one of the FBI agents to the alligators, but I think his trip was pretty run-of-the-mill).

All in all, I went to Union Station a bedraggled business traveler. I left a happy historic travel girl once again. See why I love things that used to be other things?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

One year later: no one likes Ike

It was a year ago on September 13 that Hurricane Ike barreled towards Galveston, Texas. By Friday afternoon, the stately commercial buildings on the Strand and lovely Victorians on the island's East End were already underwater.

Now, a year later, many of the island's historic homes and buildings have been restored. Judging from the waterlines posted around the town, the Strand and East End took on about nine feet of water. That saltwater unfortunately killed many of the island's 100-year-old live oak trees.

Every tragedy has an upside. The upside is that the island's homes are showcased better than ever. They pop out of the landscape like strongly built doll houses...full of charming details and the proud owners who restored them.

Galveston is no stranger to storms. On September 8, 1900, over 8,000 people were killed in a horrible hurricane. That tragedy remains the largest loss of life in a natural disaster in the United States.

But this storm was different. This storm happened in the era of YouTube and daily blog updates (the Galveston Daily News at continues to monitor hurricane recovery in well written and insightful blogs). This storm also happened while Mr. Haines' movie class at Ball High School was in session. The class was studying black and white silent films until the school was closed and the island was evacuated on Wednesday.

When school returned in November, the students thought they would continue their studies. Instead, Mr. Haines handed out the video cameras, dried off the mic, and told the students to go out and tell the story of the storm. He told them to tell their stories. Tell the island's stories.

The resulting film and documentary ( is not just a great piece of film-making (it really is nicely edited and well produced). It's a beautifully crafted tribute to the people who--just like their ancesters in 1900--dug out from the mud, rebuilt and refurbished, and continued to go on with their lives. It is at times funny, at times sad...but it is always sincere and honest. The storytellers did not turn off their cameras as their mothers cried, picking their way through waterlogged photos and dreams. In fact, the storytellers moved closer to the story, showing their own neighborhoods (or lack thereof--several of the students completely lost their homes, some to the point where they weren't even sure where they used to be). They shared their stories, their grief, and their recovery...and they've made their stories a part of the island's rich and varied history.
I saw the film on September 13, 2009...exactly one year after the storm. It was screened in the Grand Opera House, a stunning example of the Victorian grandeur that still covers the island. When the movie was over, the entire audience stood and applauded the young filmmakers.

I think they also were applauding themselves. Because everyone in that theater had survived as well.

I'm proud of Galveston and the huge efforts that have been undertaken in the last 12 months. If your travels take you anywhere close to Houston, I suggest you swing by and check it out.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Laissez les bon temps rouller!

I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't visit New Orleans until November last year. Me and the hub decided to go there over Thanksgiving, and I have to say, I would swap out turkey for gumbo any time.

We stayed in the French Quarter, at the Hotel St. Marie ( on Toulouse Street (here's the view from our balcony). It was raining off and on the entire time, which they say is typical in the city. I liked it; it lended a nice and shiny dreariness to the streets and old buildings.

New Orleans is a great place to walk, and we dashed between porches, balconies and overhangs, following the straightforward paths set out in Walking Tours of Old New Orleans by Stanley Clisby Arthur. It's a great book, which deserves to be read on the plane for the details of the buildings and tales about the previous owners, then used as a guide for walking through the best areas.
You can't talk about New Orleans without talking about food: po'boys, macque choux, jambalaya. And we ate as much as we could, convincing ourselves that it was an American right during Thanksgiving. And New Orleans needed the money.
We made sure we went Coop's Place (1109 Decatur Street,, a tiny bar that we heard about from Clarence Hill, owner of Clarence's Taste of New Orleans in Edgewood, Maryland ( He used to work at Coop's, and he gave us a list of things to try (jambalaya with rabbit was at the top of the list), as well as the name of a waitress there. Turns out, she was the only waitress there, and she didn't seem particularly impressed that we knew Clarence ("Oh, Clarence. I just saw him six months ago," she said, as if our carried greeting would have been more welcome if she hadn't seen him in years.) We weren't particularly impressed with Coop's either--the bathrooms were too dirty and the jambalaya too smoky for us. But don't take my word for it--people love it. I might have gotten the wrong dish. Or the wrong waitress.
We got dessert at Cafe du Mond, although neither of us drinks coffee. We were in town, and it just seemed like we had to go. The beignets were good, and the people watching was even better.
Our favorite place of the weekend was a tourist trap: the Gumbo Shop on St. Peter Street. It was in a great old building, pleasantly run-down, with murals on the walls and great high ceilings. We loved the gumbo, of course, but also liked the fried alligator, and wished we had made a meal of just that. We went there for our last foodie experience, too...a big take out box of bread pudding, which was still warm when we got back to our hotel room.
It may have been touristy, but that's what they say New Orleans needs...more tourists. Best of luck to them as they continue to rebuild from the storm. It's a crappy anniversary to celebrate, but New Orleans will use any excuse for a party.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Whoopie! A Trip to Lancaster's Newest Adaptive Reuse Hotel

I spent the last two days in the new Marriott on Penn Square, in lovely downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania ( ).

First, I should tell you that I like Lancaster. Sure, I can get surly when stuck behind a slow moving buggy, and I'm trying to get to a 9:00 meeting. But generally, I like the plain people and their fancy desserts. I'm a big fan of whoopie pies, for example, and began thinking about them as soon as I got details on my meeting.

But Lancaster city is a little different than Lancaster County. It is a city, after all, and although it has some beautiful buildings, they are hard to enjoy when you're clutching your purse and running from a pack of laughing teenagers.

I didn't see the teenagers, but I felt them lurking around the corners as I pulled into the parking garage at 10:00pm, walked to the nearest stairs, and found myself dumped into a very dark section of Duke Street. There were no street lights at all, and I was soon running to the better lit part of the block, hauling my little weekender bag behind me.

I ended up walking (read: sprinting) around most of the block, and felt a little more comfortable as I closed in on Annie Bailey's, the little Irish Pub next to the hotel. That section of the street, even though it was just a half a block away from the garage, felt much safer...which is the effect that top-shelf whiskeys often have on Historic Travel Girl.

I finally found myself in the lobby of the Marriott, checking in to the new "luxury hotel." It had a nice boutique hotel feel, even though the lobby was huge (the hotel is in the old Watt and Shand building, which took up almost an entire city block). But the purple chairs and chic sofas didn't feel like standard Marriott, and the bar inside the front door had a pretty hip vibe for a town full of Amish people.

My room--which I was told was an executive suite, although it looked like the other rooms I visited during my time there--was larger than usual, and furnished with Marriott's latest color scheme of crisp white bedding with splashes of warm gold. The bath was their latest, too, with the tailored looking wallpaper, modern mirror and sconces, and granite counter.

And the nice Bath and Body Works travel sizes, that I immediately hid in my suitcase, hoping that the cleaning staff would replace them with a full set the next day (they did). As the lady in the commercial says...I haven't bought that stuff in years.

Outside of my own room, my favorite part of the hotel was the small balcony area on the second and third floors, which overlooked the facade of an 18th century brick home. The bowed wall on the building was gorgeous (and those bowed window panes were probably more expensive than my last kitchen remodel), and the crew did a nice job restoring the woodwork and copper roofing. I heard rumors during my stay that Marriott plans to turn the building into suites. That "building within a building" look reminded me of my last visit to the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, except those buildings were fake, and this baby was the real thing. Kudos to Marriott for spending the extra money to save it, and work it into the plan. It's a nice addition to the view outside many of the windows, where you can really appreciate the detailed plasterwork on the walls of the old department store.

Marriott also honored the past with an archeological exhibit on the first floor. It's close to the convention center (which I didn't get to see), as well as to the entrance to the parking garage, which is what I used when I checked out, instead of the scary sidewalk. It's really a nice set up, if only they invested in a few signs to tell you how to take advantage of it on the way in, and not just on the way out.

So, two days after my check-in, I returned home. All in all, it was an above average stay. I'd give it an extra star if they just added whoopie pies to the room service menu.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Historic Hotels by the Sea

It's hot in Baltimore. Fry-an-egg on the sidewalk, bake-cookies-in-your-car hot. The kind of hot where historic travel girl likes to sit in her office, and daydream about...the ocean. Or the Gulf. Or any body of water bigger than the water cooler right outside her door.So, this morning I thought I'd daydream about some of the best historic hotels I've visited on the water.

The Hotel Del Coronado (or Hotel Del, as the locals like to call it) was the inspiration for Oz in Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz series, and it is as magical and fanciful as the Emerald City (the residents are somewhat taller). Just looking at the red spires against the blue sky makes me feel like Marilyn Monroe...even if I don't Like It Hot (hey, some do, some don't).

Congress Hall in Cape May is as stately as the Del is whimsical. With its seeming thousands of white columns lining its tall porches, Congress Hall makes me feel small, and my problems feel smaller. A nice lemondrop martini from their chic bar doesn't hurt, either.

Because historic travel girl's budget doesn't always allow for the constantly dropping dollar, it's nice to find a bit of European elegance in nearby British Columbia. The Fairmont Empress is refined without being snooty, and the view of the Inner Harbor is sparkling and perfect. Just like the mimosas at breakfast.

Gumbo tastes good, even on a hot day. And it tastes the best at the Hotel Galvez, right on the Gulf of Mexico in Galveston, Texas. Last time I stayed was Mardi Gras 2007, and I could watch the parade on Seawall right from my hotel room. If I had thought ahead, I could have ordered gumbo as well. The Galvez has a new spa this year...that might even trump the gumbo for me.

Sigh. Back to work.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Eating My Way Across Galveston, TX, Part One

Look, historic travel girl loves to stay in old houses. But do I want to subsist on a diet of Victorian-era excesses...with exotic new dishes and lots of courses? Uhh...YES!!!

Luckily, Galveston does not disappoint the hungry historic traveler. Here are just a few of the options (there are tons more--coming soon!)

Yaga's Cafe and Bar. 2314 The Strand, . Now, if you're thinking this is some hippy dippy place where the staff all wears flip-flops and the kids congregate like're right. But in the best way.

Yaga's is laid-back and casual, but the food is great and the prices seem made for a college student's budget. I like the seafood taquitos...lightly fried, filled with fresh pink shrimp, and with two lick-the-plate sauces. The wait staff is always friendly (they actually played with my three-year-old nephew when we took him there), and it's cool to sit in a window seat and look out at all the beautiful cast-iron buildings that line the Strand like sentries to the past.

La King's Confectionery. 2323 The Strand, . The inside here is as cool as the outside, and both are as cool as a black-and-white shake (that's East Coast lingo for a chocolate shake made with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup). It's 1950 inside, from the mile-long candy counter, to the sweetheart ice cream parlor chairs and tables, to the well-kept waiter with their little black bow ties. And the ice cream and candy is su-weet.

Mosquito Cafe. 628 14th Street, . Moving off the Strand, and into the gorgeous East End Historic district, you have to check out this spot. It's a survivor of the 1900 storm, as well as a 1980's biker clientele, not to mention Hurricane Ike in 2008. The Mosquito has come out better than ever...with fresh, interesting meals and fabu desserts. I like the quiche of the day, followed up with a piece of lemon cake; the historic hubby opts for the curry chicken salad and anything chocolate (although he's been known to eat a scone as well...and he loves them).

Speaking of scones, homemade vegetable scones are the base for the amazing Mosquito Benedict, a gastronomic skyscraper stacked with asparagus, grilled shrimp, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, and...oh yes...perfectly poached eggs and a dripping of Hollandaise sauce. You get two of bring a friend (or go on the weekend, when breakfast is served all day, and you can count it as a late breakfast, early lunch).

These three happy historic haunts serve awesome food with a side of architecture. But there are lots more places on the Isle...stay tuned for future posts.