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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ain't Life Grand

If you're going to name your hotel The Grand, you'd better make sure that you live up to the name.

To the Musser family, current owners of The Grand Hotel in Mackinac've got nothing to worry about. Your little place fits the bill to a "t".

The Grand Hotel ( is located on Mackinac Island. It sits on top of a great hill (you could call it a grand hill, I suppose) on the East Bluff of the island.

The Grand was built in 1887, and even then it was a tony place, with rooms renting from $3-5 a night.

1919 was a big year, because young W. Stewart Woodfill was hired as a desk clerk. He wasn't just good at checking people in, he was also good at checking accounts, because he purchases the hotel in 1933. (Now THAT'S an American dream).

In 1951, Dan Musser joined the staff. He would be named president of the hotel (it's a pretty darn grand hotel that needs its own president) in 1960, and then he purchases it in 1979.

Today, Dan Musser III is president. I hope he's counting his pennies. I'm not sure that you can buy this place on a clerk's salary anymore.

This *isn't* the Grand Hotel. It's a private residence on the western bluff of the island. They call it the "Baby Grand." I have a feeling they're a fun group of people to drink with at sunset.

Here *are* some photos of the Real Grand Hotel. (They're all grand except one).

(Note: this is not the face of someone who just played a "grand" game of bocce. As I recall, I kicked his butt).

There are 2500 geraniums planted in 260 window boxes along the 660 feet porch. (That's more numbers than this English major has thought about in a long, long time).

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Quick Detour

Last blog, I told you about our new bed and breakfast in old St. Augustine.

And then I climbed into a virtual hole on the internet and haven't been heard from since.

At least, I'm sure that's what it looks like to you. But, in fact, I've been writing about the new venture over at I hope you'll swing by and check it out.

In the meantime, I will continue to post updates on this site. In fact, I just found some great photos from my last trip that I never got online. I'll be posting them in the next day or two.

In between cleaning 15 bathrooms, of course.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Our New Baby

So, netties, yesterday I told you that the hub and I finally stopped yapping about buying a bed and breakfast and we actually did it. Finally.

Today I'd like to tell you a little more about our new baby. And by new baby, I mean ancient baby, because the building dates back to the 1700's. Which is older than any building that we've ever owned before.

The building that now makes up the Bayfront Marin House is actually several buildings that stretch all the way from Marine Street to Avenida Menendez (that's a whole block, folks). The oldest building is in the back, a colonial structure at 47 Marine Street. It dates from the Second Spanish Period. The first recorded notice of a house on the property is in the Roque map of 1788, which shows a wooden building. Francisco Marin, one of the members of the Minorcan colony who had taken refuge in St. Augustine acquired the house and the lot in the 1780's.

Although it was built 200 years later, the building clearly shows the original owner's knowledge of the early regulations for building that were laid out by the King of Spain in 1573. It stated that in hot climates, the streets should be narrow and "all town houses are to be so planned that they can serve as a defense or fortress against those who might attempt to create disturbances or occupy the town."

Ready for any kind of disturbance, the house is built right to the street line, with masonry walls extending north and south from the facade, as if it was enclosing a compound. Entry is not from the street (too easy for ne'er-do-wells to just walk in, I suppose), but instead through a door on the south side. This door is now the entrance to our aptly named Francisco Marin room, a guest room that still shows off some of the original coquina walls (please note: the electric fireplace is for modern ambiance, not historical accuracy. I don't believe Senor Marin had an electric fireplace during his ownership). Here's a picture of the room, in case you'd like to request it when you come visit:

This room is one of my favorites, not just because it's the oldest, but because the horse and carriage tours still go by it on Marine Street. You can close your eyes, sink back in a pillow, and imagine you're an 18th century princess. One who had the foresight to install air conditioning, of course.

But back to the Bayfront Marin House. Almost a century after Francisco Marin bought his little piece of the American dream, Captain Henry Belknap decided to purchase a little Victorian Cottage that is now the front of the Bayfront Marin House (it's the King George and Marie Antoinette rooms, which face the bay). Here are those two rooms (please note: I had nothing to do with the decorating. I was lucky enough to purchase the inn at the END of its restoration for once, rather than the beginning. So any compliments truly belong to the old owners, the Graubards).

After Captain Henry moved in, he must have decided he needed a little bit more room for when his family came to visit, so he purchased a cottage owned by Andrew Burgess in 1893. It was located just north of the Marin House, but the good cap'n moved it to his property and just attached it to the back of his own home. We named Room #3, the Hopkins Cottage, after him.

Soon after marrying these two houses together, Captain Henry bought the remodeled coquina Marin house (the one I mentioned first in this blog) and began to make wooden additions to it. So he combined the three structures--ranging in period from the colonial era to the Flagler period--to make the rambling structure that we now know as the Bayfront Marin House.

Alas, Captain Henry died in 1909, and it was sold to John Campbell. Mr. Campbell turned the big building into apartments, running it until Beulah Robinson Lewis of Virginia bought the place in 1932. Beaulah's family owned it until 1988, when the guy we bought it from bought it with a partner. He opened the Bayfront Marin House Bed and Breakfast in July 2003.

Then, on September 1, the hub and I got the big set of master keys to the place. Which makes me feel pretty important as I walk around the grounds. Or maybe more like Schneider on One Day at a Time. To be honest, it depends on the day.

And the rest, as they say, will be history.

I'll be sure to tell you how it goes!!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Historic Travel Girl Does Something Truly Historic (For Her and the Hub, Anyway)

Okay, netties, so in my last blog I plugged a bed and breakfast in Saint Augustine, the Bayfront Marin House. Here's a picture of it, with all of its great porches and happy looking yellow umbrellas.

You may have thought that it was just a random reference yesterday, just me suggesting an obscure but beautiful place to stay in one of the most beautiful cities in America. After all, I do that a lot.

But this time, it was more than that. This time, it was a carefully calculated marketing ploy designed to make you want to stay at this particular bed and breakfast.

Why would I care where you stay when you come to Saint Augustine?

Because the hub and I just bought the place.

Yes, after 14 years of talking about our five year plan to own a bed and breakfast, we finally bit the bullet/took the leap/lost our senses and Did It.

(insert fist-pumping and wild jumping and unintelligible yelling here)

Ho-ly crap. You would think that I would be used to the idea by now, after 14 years of yammering on about it endlessly to my friends, but in fact, I still don't even feel like it's ours. I'm on the weekend shift at the bnb, and my job is to wander the courtyard and say hello to the guests, and thank them for staying with us. Tough stuff, I know. And absolutely critical for the future of this lovely place (note: that's sarcasm. I have never felt so useless).

Still, when I can't find a parking space and I get there 10 minutes late, I'm always worried that someone on the staff will yell at me.

I guess I'm not really owner material. I'm more late-night-shift, on call to unstop-up the overflowing toilets material.

But, speaking of material, this new gig is going to give me plenty to write about in this little blog. And technically it all fits into my mission of helping the hapless traveler find a cool historic place to visit.

It also supports my other mission--which is to pay the massive mortgage every month.

So, netties, welcome me to Saint Augustine. Prepare to hear lots of insider insight on what to do and what to see in America's oldest city. Not to mention where to stay...which is, of course, the Bayfront Marin House. In case you're interested, we're running New Owner Specials through the end of September!!!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Happy Birthday to the Oldest City

Today marks the third day of festivities for St. Augustine, Florida's 445th birthday celebration. (Note: if you haven't made your reservations yet for the big bash in 2015, you might want to book a room at

St. Augustine was officially declared a city on September 8, 1565 by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles. That makes it the nation's oldest city.

It also makes it the nation's most European city. The hub and I started coming here a couple of years ago, when the Euro was so strong that we could no longer afford to buy a Toblerone bar in Charles de Gaulle airport. Saint Augustine, on the other hand, was very affordable. At one of our favorite restaurants--The Columbia--you can get two great entrees and a pitcher of sangria for around $55. It's just like being in Spain, although the traffic is about 400 times better.

Speaking of food, there's a long history of great eats in this town. Long before the Pilgrims sucked up to the generous Indians in Plymouth Rock for a free meal, the Timucuan Indians had already invited the Spanish settlers of St. Augustine over for a dinner. Today, the last day of the birthday shenanigans, the St. Augustinites celebrate that tradition with a 16th century cooking contest.

In fact, I'm headed over there now. I'm not sure what 16th century food was like, but I'm hoping that there will be birthday cake at the end of the buffet.

Friday, September 3, 2010

She Knew You Way Back When

As some of you may know, the hub and I restored a house in Galveston Texas a couple of years ago. (And by "restored", I mean we bought a house in good shape, watched it fill up with nine feet of water during Hurricane Ike, and then "restored" it to its original good shape. With a couple of upgrades like a new kitchen and awesome draperies).

Earlier this week, I got a call from Marschall Runge, of North Carolina, whose mother grew up in the house. He just happened to see the house and wanted to see if there was any way they could walk through it (we rent the house and have a sign in the front yard advertising that fact and telling folks how to reach us).

It just so happened I was in Texas this week. While they were there. Which gave me the magical opportunity to walk through the house with people who knew it "way back when."

Gretchen Herrmann Runge is a beautiful woman, with striking white hair and a face that lights up when she has the chance to share a story. She lived in the house in the 30s, and moved out in 1947 when she married. She said those nuptials in my living room, facing the bay windows. The room had a window seat then (the hub and I have talked about putting one there!).

The reception was in the room that's now the library/downstairs bedroom. "We didn't want a lot of people," she told me. And I laughed, because I said the same thing when I got married. I think the reason that a lot of brides and grooms are nervous is because they don't know half the people in the room.

Gretchen also told me that the fireplace tiles in all of the fireplaces downstairs (there are three) had all been replaced since she lived in the house (there are two tiles in the dining room that show signs of the zodiac--those are the only original ones, she said). This may not be an interesting detail to my readers, but it was huge for me. After Hurricane Ike, many of these floor tiles cracked as the water seeped out of the house. I was heart-broken that they had been destroyed on my watch, so I haven't replaced them. Now that I know they're imposters of the originals anyway, I feel much better about tearing them out. But that's a job for another day.

Mrs. Runge's father, George Herrmann, sounds like quite a card, as they used to say. He called the house "The Herrmanntage", like Andrew Jackson's Hermitage in Nashville.

George was married to a woman named Anna. I didn't know Anna, of course, but in 1981, when the house was on Galveston's Tour of Homes, Anna was quoted in the tour's guide book: "The house is home to my children," she said (one of those children was my new friend Gretchen!). "At Christmas they were laughing about the time I came home to find them sliding down the steps on my cookie sheets. I sat down on the last step and used my shoe on was a happy home."

I have a copy of the guide book in our kitchen, so that guests can see the "before" pictures of the house (it was the Renovation in Progress in 1981, then was back on the tour in 1999 as a finished piece). I've always showed visitors that quote because it cracks me up.

Mrs. Runge did not remember the beatings on the bottom of the stairs, but she laughed when I showed her the quote. She also told me that the newel post at the bottom of the stairs was original, but the shade is not. "The original shade had a cyclamen on it," she remembered. "My mother gave it to one of the granddaughters."

Gretchen was a lady who paid attention to details. Here are just some of the other things she remembered about the house:

Her family bought the house in 1933 from Mabel and Violet Keiller, the daughters of the previous owner, Dr. Keillor, who passed away in 1931. There is a state historical marker in front of the house about Dr. Keillor, even though Gretchen's sons--Marshall and Val, who accompanied her on the trip this week, along with additional family members--said they always thought that Gretchen's father, Dr. Herrmann, was a more impressive doctor. (Dr. Herrmann was  a cardiologist at UTMB, and was a pioneer in the field. He stayed at UTMB--and at 1409 Market Street--until 1973, when he entered private practice with his son in Del Rio).

While I'm on a doctor's visit: a quick note about Dr. Keillor: Gretchen says he had tuberculosis (there is no mention of that on the historical marker, so that was news to me. Note to self: wash hands). The doc had an incinerator in the house that he used to burn things that he touched. Gretchen's parents finally took it out a few years after they moved in.

When Gretchen was a girl, the upstairs master bedroom and bathroom were actually two separate bedrooms (which explains why there is a fireplace in the bathroom--it used to be a bedroom. Another suspicion of ours confirmed). They were separated by pocket doors, and the kids slept in the front room, and her mother slept in the second room. Her father, who apparently snored, was banished to a bedroom down the hallway (now our pink room).

There was a back staircase that led from a small covered downstairs porch (now part of our kitchen) to the upstairs bathroom. It was for the help to use. Gretchen says her family always had one or two people working for them, coming in every day except Saturday to help her mother with the meals and cleaning. She says that during the Depression she suspected that they came more for the free food than for the small amount of money her family paid them.

She says she was particularly close to an African American woman named Serena, who was just a tiny thing (she held her open palm about shoulder height as she told me that). I should point out here that Gretchen wasn't that tall herself.

Speaking of that staircase that isn't there anymore, Gretchen said that her mother loved ferns and had a whole bunch of them hanging on the first floor of the porch (underneath the staircase that led upstairs). They had a cat, too, named Susquehanna, that liked to hang out there. (We have an orange cat that is not ours but hangs out there anyway. We call him Sunset. He may be a descendent of Susquehanna for all I know). The two photos at the left show what the downstairs porch looks like today.

By the time Gretchen moved out of the house, her parents had decided to enclose the small front porch upstairs (the house has a lot of porches) and turn it into a bathroom (it's since been turned back into a porch. And the cycle continues...) She said the paper boy liked to throw the paper on that upstairs porch, and her Dad just went out there to read it every morning.

Gretchen told me that in the forty years her parents owned the house, they never had water in it. That makes me feel good, and makes me hopeful that Ike truly was a 100 year storm. Of course, they did have water from above: after a strong storm, the ceilings in the living room and library collapsed. They had been incredibly ornate ceilings, made of Italian plaster.

The ceilings may not have lasted, but a lot of the other details have. And that's something of a miracle in itself. Much of the woodwork in the home is intact, and a lot of it is rare curly pine. When we bought the house, one of the Realtors told us that another couple had looked at it (allegedly--I seldom believe anything that Realtors say) and the wife said she would lighten the place up by painting the woodwork. He said he escorted them out of the house right then (allegedly).

After surviving this unnamed couple, much of the woodwork was torn out of the house by the gorillas that ServPro employed to clean the house after the storm. They just threw it on the sidewalk like it was  just another wet disposable item from the house. Thank goodness our friends (who stayed on the island during the storm, a little adventure they have sworn that they will never ever do again) walked by and yelled at the gorillas, then carried all of the wood back into the house (well, everything except the pile that another neighbor STOLE and MADE INTO BOOKCASES. And yes, he told me about the bookcases himself).

Anyway, according to Gretchen, a lot of the house is intact. And that made me happy.

I know a lot of times my blogs go to the snarky side. There is no snark here--other than the references to the bookcase bozo--and it's because I truly felt lucky that I was in town on the right day so that I could meet this wonderful, story-filled woman.

Thank you, Gretchen! It was wonderful talking to you!!!

(Shown in the photo: Gretchen Herrmann Runge, on the right. Then, from the right, it's Val (who works at UTMB), John Runge (Gretchen's Grandson, who was on his way to college in Austin) Marschall and Susan Runge (Gretchen's son and daughter-in-law).

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Star Drugstore: A Lot of Firsts, and a Good Place for Seconds!

I had lunch today at the Star Drug Store in Galveston (

It's a great little historic place. They claim to be the oldest drug store in Texas, and it's a pretty sincere and non-falutin' place, so I'm inclined to believe that their research is correct.

The history doesn't end there: the porcelain Coca-Cola sign is one of the oldest around, too, and it's been beautifully restored (as has the entire building). Star was also the first lunch counter to be integrated on the island, by George Clampitt back in the 50's.

Speaking of integration, I quickly integrated a bacon, lettuce, and avocado sandwich into my hungry belly this afternoon. The hub had today's special, an italian sub on great french bread. My sandwich came with a side of dill potato salad, which was warm and seemed a little more like mashed potatoes. But it was GOOD, once I stopped expecting crispy cold potato pieces.

Star serves homemade ice cream (made just up the street in Santa Fe). We actually wanted to order some, but our waitress never returned to take our order. We took that as a judgement, like we didn't need ice cream, and we headed out without dessert. Luckily, Galveston only had about 30 other little places that were more than happy to add to our calorie count for the day.

But bad waitressing aside, I love the Star Drug Store. I love all of the stuff for sale in the display cases around the dining area, and I love the little list of historic tidbits that's printed on the back of their ice cream menu (like, the hilarious David Schwimmer movie Breast Man featured a quick glimpse of the Star's exterior, as well as a shot of the phone booth that used to be in front of the building. How did I miss that movie on the Oscar list?)

And I love the cute pink t-shirts that they sell for just $15. I got mine a little big, to hide that ice cream belly fat.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Serial Killing Gardener: Back to School Edition

There are those gardeners who are trainable. They make mistakes, they learn from them, they improve. They are in a constant state of evolution to a higher-functioning mind. And a better looking garden.

I'm so not one of them.

Case in point: as I write this, the heat is still sweltering. The corn in my county looks like fields of pineapples, and the grass sounds like a bowl full of Rice Krispies when I walk through the yard.

And what did I buy two weeks ago? A beautiful planter to put on the little patio outside of our cellar entrance. Salvia splendens, a bright red flower, really perked up the outside of our basement apartment.

How many plants do I have now that I'm a cellar dweller? Uh...just the one. The Salvia splendens. Which is now just a plastic pot filled with shriveled crackly dead things. Not so splendens anymore.

Why do I do this every year? Why do I fall for the marketing at the big box stores, luring me to buy the bright bushy red flowers? Why don't I remember to water these damn things once I buy them?

After all, I know that it gets hot in summer. My birthday is in July, and for 40-some years now, I have never worn a sweater to blow out the candles on my cake (there are those wags who will say that those candles are at least partially responsible for global warming, but there is no real evidence of that). And I know that plants put underneath porches (like this one) seldom (read: never) get any rain, even when it's a big storm.

And yet, no matter where I'm living, I buy beautiful outdoor flowers, only to see them die.

I am a serial plant killer.

The kids are getting ready to go back to school, and I'm ready to learn something myself. I'm moving to Florida later this week, and it's hot there all year. As I pack up the last of my clothing (and throw out most of my socks!), I've vowed to learn something this year: when I get to Florida, I'm not going to buy plants that I will forget to water. In fact, I may not buy any plants at all once I get there.

I'll let you know how that goes.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Work Stay of the Day

Last week was my company's strategic planning session.

We strategically used the facilities at the Mount Washington Conference Center, strategically located in Mount Washington, just a few minutes from downtown Baltimore.

Mount Washington is a cute little area, lined with serious looking Victorians and well cut lawns. Of course, you'll only see that if you go there during the day because Mount Washington is the darkest neighborhood in the city. As I mentioned to my boss last week, as we stumbled through the parking lot looking for the pedestrian exit, Mount Washington is like Iowa on a cloudy night.

When the sun came up the next day, I had a great view of this building:

The Mount Washington Octagon was built in 1855, under the direction of the Reverend Elias Heiner of the German Reformed Church. It was used until 1861 as the Mt. Washington Female Academy.

After the Civil War the college failed and the building was bought by the Sisters of Mercy, who opened Mount St. Agnes College.

My father-in-law remembers hazing freshman in the building's steep parking lot when he was a senior at Loyola High School. (They made the froshs take their school jackets off and tie them around their waists like skirts. Oooh. Nasty.)

In 1971, Mt. St. Agnes merged with Loyola College and moved from the Mt. Washington site. USF and G then bought the property, and did a bunch of renovation to the Octagon. Today, Hopkins owns the place.

They have not added any lights since the original building was finished in 1855, as far as I could tell.

Incidentally, the building was never a private home. This is historic fact even though someone on our management team--someone who acts as if s/he knows such things--confidently told one of our directors during the second morning that "Yes, it was private originally." Really, if anyone is going to answer those kinds of questions, it should be Historic Travel Girl. Non-historic senior management dude/dudette should stick to answering questions about tax codes and annualized earnings. Or whatever it is that s/he really does know about.

I srategically kept my mouth shut.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Photo of the Day: Mackinac Island

I'm not a photographer. I don't understand light, F-Stops are as confusing (and useless) as video games to me, and composition always has and always will mean writing.

The most artsy thing I do when taking a photo is to put the subject off-center.

But some days, the PhotoGods shine on you and give you a shot that captures the feeling of your vacation.

I know this isn't an award winner. But when I look at it, it takes me right back to Mackinac Island. And that's a winner in my book.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Trying Anything Once

They say that nothing is perfect. But imagine, for a moment, that the second that a particular activity was imperfect, it would be banned forever.

This no tolerance policy would change our world forever.

Sushi restaurants would close, of course. Most hair stylists would be out of business (at the very least, they would never give a perm or try to dye anyone's hair red again). And...let's be honest here, would almost certainly be a thing of the past.

But apparently, one bad experience is all it took on Mackinac Island in the Michigan Straits. According to local legend, in 1898 one of the residents drove his nice new horseless carriage into someone's lilac bush or something, and the town big wigs said That's Enough. No more cars in Mackinac.

And they've stuck to it. For 112 years now.

If you want to get around, you have to take a horse (they rent them for $38/hr at Cindy's) or you can bike, walk, or whistle for a horse and carriage.

It changes the environment considerably, and I'm not just talking about the smell of equine waste, either.

When horses are the only means of transportation, you have to slow down. Whether you want to or not.

Case in point: the hub and I were in Mackinac (said Mackinaw, just fyi) a couple of years ago.

One day, around 12:15, we decided we wanted to go to a restaurant a couple of miles away. We went up to the bell captain, and asked him to call us a horse. "Where are you going?" he asked amicably. (Everyone in Mackinac, for the record, is persistently amicable.)

"Woods," we said, referring to a restaurant owned by the Grand Hotel in the middle of the woods.

The bell captain looked at his watch. "I don't know," he said dubiously (yet amicably). "They close at two."

Confused, and slightly less than amicable, I said, "And???"

He amicably explained that it was over 80 degrees that day (it was about 81), so the horses were on "walking orders." It would take a horse at least 25 minutes to get us, then 30 minutes to get us to the restaurant. That would be approximately 1:10, assuming everything went perfectly. And the restaurant closed at 1:30.

Now, had we been in Baltimore, that little vein in my forehead would have been throbbing at full mast. I would have said something that questioned the bell captain's intelligence, or his ability to read a digital watch, or mentioned that his mother smelled like horse butt.

As it was, I said, "Okay. We'll walk into town." I may have even sounded amicable myself.

All of this is simply more evidence that a stay on Mackinac is truly life changing. Not to mention personality shifting.

Two weeks ago we decided to spend another couple of days on the island. It was a chance to get out of the cellar, and perhaps our last chance to relax before taking over the hotel. (Speaking of hotels, we stayed in the beloved Grand for the first few days of our stay. I'm new to the whole hotel ownership thing, but I think we can write our stay off as research. Or something like that).

Mackinac was as beautiful, and serene, and soul washing as I remembered. (This is rush hour in Mackinac's downtown. These are the carriages that are used to move people--but there are plenty of flatbed wagons, too, carrying boxes of vegetables and cases of wine to the hotels around  town. It looks just like the wild wild west).

There have been one or two cars on Mackinac since 1898. Like the one that Christopher Reeve drove in the 1980 movie "Somewhere in Time." (See more about this in my upcoming blog on the Grand Hotel).

But other than that, and an ambulance or two since then, the town elders have stuck to their guns and kept their resolve to keep horseless carriages off the island.

Thanks, guys. I needed that.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Grandma Knows What She's Doing

Mike's Grandmother turned 96 yesterday.

If you haven't met her in my blog yet, please check out my favorite post about her here.

Incidentally, she is still trading on the phrase "I'm old and I don't know what I'm doing." But she knows. Oh, she knows.

What she's doing right now, for the record, is living with Mike's parents. Yes...these are the same parents that the hub and I are having dinner with. Every night. While we live in their basement like rebellious teenagers in the 1970's (do teens still want to convert the rec room into a bedroom?)

A few weeks ago I promised some background as to why we have become cellar dwellers (besides just loving the dark and hating the hassles of homeownership). The short story is that we've bought a house in St. Augustine (yes, that St. Augustine), and the appraiser decided that it needed a bunch of work before we could settle. So, we're currently painting the house (yes, we're painting it...the seller refused to), and living with Mike's parents while it's being done. We hope to settle on it by the end of the month.

We painted a discarded door in the new colors...I hope they will look okay in a larger scale. Mike still isn't sure if he likes them...but I love them.

This door was taken from Mike's parents house. I think they took it out of the basement as they prepared for us to move in. I don't see any missing doors, though, so I could be wrong.

With me and the hub hanging downstairs, and Grandma living in the guest room, Mike's folks are officially at 100% occupancy. Which is pretty good for Baldwin, Maryland this time of year--because it's definitely low tourist season in Harford County. (That little bit of hotel-speak will become more evident in the next few weeks as Mike and I embark on our Next Big Venture. Which involves buying a hotel. But that's another blog for another time.)

Anyway, all of this is to say HAPPY BIRTHDAY GRANDMA. For the record, I think that you're young, and that you always know EXACTLY what you are doing.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

For Better or For Worse

We interrupted the first weekend of living with our in-laws to attend a wedding in Newton, New Jersey. (Why are they living with their in-laws, you may ask? Tune in next week for the whole unbelievable story).

Back to this story: we had this out-of-town wedding for two people that I had only met once. The hub thought we should go (he is big on doing The Right Thing even when it is also The Hardest Thing), despite the fact that we had been packing boxes until two A-M the entire week, getting ready to move.

So I agreed to go.

Have you ever noticed that the trips that you don't want to take are often some of the best ones?

For some reason, HTG thought that Newton sounded like northern Jersey. That's the Jersey that everyone thinks about when they make fun of the Garden State. They picture barges of trash and loud-mouthed girls with orange tans and overly white French manicures. They think that every street corner has strip clubs full of guys that look like Tony Soprano. (Note to New Jersey's tourism board: you can send my check to "Cellar Dweller in Baldwin, of her In-Laws").

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised when our trip took us to central New Jersey, through some of the prettiest country roads I've seen for quite some time. This is why they call it the Garden State.

Newton is in Sussex County, a county which famously had more cows than people until the 1950's or so. Its original name was Tockhockonetcong, but the surveyors in 1715 thought that wouldn't look too good on a t-shirt (nor would it fit on the map they were drawing), so they opted for the more marketable Newton. Today, Newton sits on the Tockhockonetcong River; if you can say it, you must be a native. Or drunk. When I've had one too many, I've found that everything I try and say comes out as "Tockhockonetcong."

You can learn more about the town's history at

We arrived at the Yellow Frame Presbyterian Church in Newton a little early. My husband informed me that--even though the invitation said that the wedding started at 3:00--it wasn't going to start until 3:30 because "it's a Chilean thing." (The bride is from Chile). So we hung out in the parking lot and took a couple of pictures, while I listened carefully for music that would suggest the whole "Chilean thing" was just a rumor. I hate going to weddings late.

While we lingered, I noticed that there was a large fan--the kind we used to keep the cows cool--in the front window of the church. I began to suspect that the chapel was so historic that it didn't have air conditioning. (As much as I love old buildings, I do not love old buildings without a/c or heat. Really, I'm a historic traveler, people, not a re-enactor).

The church was a Queen Anne structure, my favorite architectural style. That meant that there were lots of great details everywhere--from the hardware (see left) to the stained glass above the unsightly cow fan. And there was a wall full of photos of the church's ministers over the years, going back to 1750.

Speaking of details, the bride and groom thought of them all--including cute paper fans that their ushers handed to all of the guests as they entered the church. Between the historic church, and the flapping fans, the whole day had a nice old-fashioned feel.

After the wedding was over (in a record 23 minutes--if that's a Chilean thing too, I may love Chilean weddings as much as I love Chilean wine), the hub and I lingered a bit longer, checking out the historic cemetery across the parking lot, as well as some of the other picturesque areas around the grounds. (Note to self: plant more cosmos next year. And get a mailbox).

Remember how I said that your worst fears can create your best memories? Later that afternoon, we were treated to an open bar (a good resource for newly married couples as well as those married for years and years), unusual appetizers like Chilean meat and corn pie...which was exactly what it sounded like. When the bride came by to say hello (which is when I spoke to her for the second time in my life), she said it was her favorite dish as a child. I'm no child, but I could see it cracking my top ten pretty easily.

After the appetizers, we enjoyed a Chilean sea bass that was worthy of a fancy restaurant with a $100 tab. It was, as I told the groom, like a great anniversary dinner.

After the eating and the greeting, the hub and I slipped away (pre-cake) to start the long drive back home, driving away from one of the prettiest parts of New Jersey as the sun went down and the deer came out. The drive reminded me of why I happen to love the state--from their juicy red tomatoes to their gorgeous Victorian structures to their juicy, gorgeous call girls.

Oh, and it reminded me that I wanted to wish Charles and Magaly a happy happy union: may you love each other no matter what-through thick waists and thin hair, for better and for worse, while living with your in-laws or living out your dreams. I hope your marriage lasts as long as the Yellow Frame Church you were married in.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Organic Truths in Washington DC

Despite popular theories, I am not Amish.

I grew up in an Amish area. I was not allowed to travel more than 5 miles from home. And I worked hard as a kid. I envied those cushy sweatshop jobs in China. The ones where the kids got to be kids for two or three hours a day.

But that all that doesn't mean that I am Amish.

My love of the plain people and their fancy desserts is well documented.

My dislike of Washington, DC is equally well documented.

But what would happen if you combined the two?

I found out last week when I visited Nora's (, a trendy organic joint at 2132 Florida Avenue.

Now, I wasn't looking for a trendy organic joint (as I write that, I realize it sounds like something else entirely). I was meeting a friend who was in town for a seminar, and all I wanted was a restaurant that:

1. Was right off of New York Avenue. I wasn't driving through a traffic circle this time.
2. Had valet parking. (See above: once I found the place, I wanted to be done. I wasn't driving through a traffic circle this time).
3. Had entrees under 50 bills.

Nora's should put all of that on their website.

Even without those critical optimizing keywords, the restaurant was 90% full on a Thursday night.

My friend was waiting at the bar when I arrived (which tells you something about her--which is that she likes her vodka tonics--and something about me--because I was late, having forgotten that even without the circles, the city has plenty of annoying stop lights which seem just long enough to let three cars drive through). Anyway, in the time it took me to write that parenthetical bit of useless information, my friend had chatted up a local gentleman who said the restaurant was his favorite. Well, he was a local in the past, but still liked to hit the old neighborhood to enjoy a good meal (while enjoying the pretty women at the bar as well).

In addition to checking out my friend (whose motto is Better Men in 2010, if you would like to submit an application), this gentleman also was nice enough to check out the menu. He thought the chicken curry sounded good...and my friend thought so as well. That's what she ordered. I think she liked it, although it's sometimes hard to tell with her.

I went with the Amish veal. Why? Because the idea of something Amish in this city of stupid traffic circles and unvarnished frivolity made me laugh. And the rest room had cool murals of Amish people (at least I think that was the artist's inspiration...the gal above looks Mennonite to me, and so does the quilt). Artistic license aside, I fell for the marketing of the dish and was pleasantly surprised when it came out.

The meal was far from Amish--the plate was a little pretty for that, and the portions a little small. But it was tasty, and the mashed potatoes underneath were a great surprise.

Because it was a girls' dinner, we goaded each other into getting dessert (the rule here is that when you eat with girls you are honor and duty bound to get dessert. It makes up for any dinners with men where you cannot--even if you did not like your dinner and are as hungry as a horse--you cannot order anything indulgent after the main course.)

My dinner companion went for some chocolate concoction that practically gave me a migraine just from the proximity to all that cocoa.

I opted for a dessert that made my chocoholic friend's nose turn up--rhubarb pie. I know that not everyone is a fan of rhubarb, but--being the good Pennsylvania Dutch girl that I am--nothing makes me happier than a dessert that's more tart than sweet. And the fact that everything was organic was just icing on the cake...or a sweet lattice topping on the pie, as it were.

In fact, it was so good, I would even consider braving another drive to DC to have it again.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Well, Shucks!!!

Good morning, fellow travelers!!!

I woke up to thunderstorms in Galveston Texas, which dampened my otherwise vacation-happy heart. I'm mostly upset because we've been working on a 3-day roof project here since March of this year. Even translating that timeframe to the contractor's calendar, he is Over Due.

But then...the skies parted...the sun shone down...the angels sang Hallelujah! Why??? Because this silly blog, which I'm almost certain borders on complete un-helpfulness to my fellow travelers, and may in fact be full of dangerous advice, was just named one of the 50 Best Travel blogs by (motto: You will get a great job if you just sign up for One More Class).

If you're skeptical (which doesn't hurt my feelings: I'm a bit skeptical myself), you can check out the link here:

Well, real deal or not, it's nice to feel loved.

Anyhoo, I'm mostly posting this update because I would not want any new viewers to first see the blog about my demented (male) friend dressing up as a bride and waving to the trolley passengers in historic Cape May, New Jersey. Now, if you like that kind of thing, it's the post directly below this.

But if you don't, I thought I'd list some of my favorite posts from the last couple of months.

Since I'm in Galveston, Texas, I'm thinking a lot about the post I wrote about the cool tree carvings that are popping up all over the Historic East End. The residents who lost huge old trees in the salty surge from Ike are turning them into amazing art. If that's more your kind of thing, you can read about it here: (Note: sometime in 2008 I wrote a blog about eating my way across Galveston. For some reason, I titled it Part One. I've never written a Part Two. But I'm in G-town for the week, and I've already pigged out a couple of times, so check back later this week for a possible update).

St. Augustine, Florida, is the Oldest City in the country. While I loved the ancient fort, and the stately buildings from the 18th century, and the chocolate covered rice crispy treats at Kilwin's Chocolates, I *adored* the opium-fueled architecture of the Villa Zorayda. So much so that I wrote two blogs about it. You can see them both here: and

Last summerI stayed at the best hotel in Nashville, Tennessee (it's not the Gaylord, even though I get a big kick out of the trout stream that flows through the middle of their lobby). If you're headed to Nashville sometime soon, you can see my recommendations at

I'm not always writing about travel. I like the history that's around me too (and no, I'm not talking about the historic dust clusters underneath my Eastlake-style bed). In December I wrote a love letter to those angry looking Santas that the Pennsylvania Dutch love, the Belsnickels. I have a big collection of them myself, and I documented them here:

And, finally, I sometimes write about personal stuff, especially if it has some kind of a historic bent to it. Like the blogs about the hub's grandmother, who is now 96 and counting (can't get much more historic than that). My favorite travelog starring Grandma is when we visited Mount Vernon: . This year, I also wrote (too many) blogs about the saga of selling our Victorian house in Cape May, New Jersey. My favorite blog, March Sadness, is here: .

Frankly, I'm not sure why anyone would want to read any of these. But I know for a fact that you'll appreciate them more than the one I just wrote about the ugliest bride that Cape May will ever see.

If you did stop by today, and you're new to my blog, please let me know. And tell me what you think think is the least crappy of my postings.

Monday, June 14, 2010

What's in a Name?

Okay, a few months ago I promised that I wouldn't write any more blogs about our house in Cape May.

Technically, however, the house is no longer our house. So I'm really just writing about A house in Cape May. Not MY house.

This weekend, it became painfully obvious that it wasn't my house anymore.

When the hub and I first bought the house, it was occasionally called the Wedding Cake Cottage. Why? I guess because it was white and had a bunch of gingerbread, and someone thought the name was cute.

I'm so not into cute.

In fact, as we spent time in Cape May over the past nine years, we often joked about the "cuteness" of the Wedding Cake Cottage. As the Cape May trolley would drive past our home, you see, we would hear the tour guide tell people that that was the name of the house.

(Note: those same tour guides will tell you that whenever there are three or more houses that look alike, they were built by some generous father for his three/four/five daughters. I often wonder if tour guides 100 years from now will say that as they drive through the suburban neighborhoods that surround Baltimore. "And these 30 identical houses were built by a very fertile father for his 30 daughters." For the record, usually when houses look alike they were built by a hotel or railroad to house their employees. But that's not as romantic.)

Anyway, we called the house the Sayre House, after the first recorded owner.

And we joked about having one of our friends dress up in an old bridal gown and wave to the trolley as it drove by.

Did I mention that our first choice for this role was Birdman? (Yes, the same  Birdman that I explained had no renovation skills but did his part by making us laugh. You can see his fan page here.)

So, this weekend, before we went to Cape May, my husband called Bird and asked if he was still into dressing up like a bride.

Was he ever into it.

See for yourself:

The good natured groom is Big Guy. He drew the short stick (not that I'm saying Birdman has a short stick...I really wouldn't know one way or the other), but seemed to get into it himself after a little while and a lot of beer.

Kiddies, look at your Uncle Big Guy. This is why we don't want you to drink.

The wedding was well documented, as most weddings are.

The couple got happier as the day went on, as most couples do.

And ultimately, the pairing ended in divorce, as most pairings do. (Even though they looked so darn happy as they took the plunge):

I don't know whose idea it was to jump in the pool. But it was hot. And all that waving to the trolleys made it even hotter. Of course, nothing was hotter than Birdman himself. Even the pool couldn't cool that hotness down.

By the way, both the Birdman and the Big Guy are happily married men. They're married to (sometimes) happily married women.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.