Friday, August 31, 2007

Nice to see Historic Attractions doing well

Here's an update about Jamestown's 400th year celebration. I'm a big fan but "Living History" has taken it's lumps lately so it's nice to see them do well.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Open Wide and say aaaaaaaaahhhhhh

Are you kidding me? At least he wore a latex glove for protection...
This is my buddy Jim doing what he does best. Defying Death. He is so attuned to the hundreds of gators here that it's eerie. I'll pass on the hand feeding of 12 foot gators, thank you very much. I'm brave... but really.
The St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park in St. Augustine, Florida is a sheer delight. One of the finest animal sites I have ever visited. They hold the rare distinction of exhibiting every known species of the 23 crocodilians in existence. They even have white albino alligators and the ferocious saltwater crocodile, Maximo weighing in at 1250 pounds and stretching to over 15 feet.
Of course, my favorite shows are the feedings but they also have fantastic birds including a great vulture display and a world famous rookery where you can take photographs of nesting birds only inches away. Giant Galapagos tortoises, monkeys and emus. The list goes on and on. I appreciate that they continuously upgrade and improve this already wonderful place. The St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park is one of my favorite stops in St. Augustine. This is a can't miss in Florida.

Scenic boat cruises of St. Augustine

The Scenic Cruise aboard the Victory III in St. Augustine, Florida is a nice way to see the City from the water. The Usina Family has been providing this narrated service for four generations. During the trip around the Matanzas Bay you see the the Castillo de San Marcos, Mission of Nombre de Dios Cross, The Lighthouse and the Bridge of Lions restoration project in full swing. Snacks and drinks are available on board and the ship is stable and stays in the intercoastal waters for about 90 minutes. Make sure to talk to the Captain who is always one of the Usina Family. A nice tradition in the Oldest City.

We miss you Otto C. Lightner

Yes, he is actually buried right out in front of the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, Florida. Otto C. Lightner was a collector of collections and left behind a wonderful legacy inside these walls. Housed in this historic building, built in 1887, are three floors of splendors from America's Gilded Age. Cut Glass, Art Glass and Stained Glass by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Paintings, sculptures and furniture. Victoriana, musical instruments and oddities.
I love the music room filled with self-playing instruments from a bygone era. Don't miss the sauna rooms preserved from when this building was Henry Flagler's Alcazar Hotel at the turn of the 19th Century. Another favorite is the area where the worlds largest indoor swimming pool existed at the back of the building. Now it houses antique shops and a wonderful lunch spot called the Cafe Alcazar featuring the masterful guitar playing of Richard Kuncicky. The Lightner Museum is a wonderful glimpse into America's past. Make sure to pay your respects to Mr. Lightner, too.

Old St. Augustine

I live and work in St. Augustine, Florida. The oldest, continuously occupied, European-settled City in the United States. (whew!) The town was founded by the Spanish in 1565 and the local joke is that by the time the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, St. Augustine was already up for urban renewal. It's a little, big town with lots of charm.

We're celebrating our 442nd birthday (Sept. 8th)this week with lots of festivities, including recreations of the landing of Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles to establish the town, the first thanksgiving feast, 16th century entertainment, arts, crafts and the "changing of the guard". Should be lots of fun. (I even get to dress up in period clothing!)

I've lived in St. Augustine over ten years now and always enjoy the festivities, activities and interesting people in our town. You never get bored here! I'm lucky to work for Historic Tours of America and participate in Old Town Trolley Tours, The Old Jail, The Florida Heritage Museum and Ghosts & Gravestones on their behalf. Through Trusted Tours and Attractions, I get to visit great attractions and sites here and elsewhere. St. Augustine is certainly worth a visit if you enjoy unique history, great beaches and eclectic, talented people. See you soon.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Rock

Say "Alcatraz" and most people know what you mean. This prison in the bay of San Francisco, California is well-known. Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and the Birdman were guests. They say no one ever escaped. I was lucky enough to take the evening tour.
The boat was eager with anticipation as we approached The Rock. After debarking, we took a narrated walk with a Ranger to the top of the island to explore.
The audio headset tour was excellent and included the sights and sounds of this historic prison. We had plenty of time to explore and the evening light made it even more creepy. This place is filled with history and atmosphere. A visit to Alcatraz is exciting and thankfully you can escape at the end.


I love to eat and drink. It is a passion with me. Taking the Local Tastes of North Beach Tour in San Francisco, California was a must. I was impressed.
North Beach is the "Little Italy" of the City. On this walking tour we tasted espresso that was freshly roasted and bread right out of the oven, after visiting the kitchen to watch them make it. Next were fresh deli meats, olive oil and cheeses from local artisans followed by chocolate from one of the top ten chocolatiers in America. We visited the church where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were married and the Purple Onion café where Bill Cosby and Phyllis Diller got their start.
The journey was wonderful and filled with San Francisco insider information. You felt like a native on this tour. Tom was very helpful and friendly, offering sightseeing and restaurant suggestions throughout the tour. Eating your way through North Beach is fantastic and he also does a Chinatown tour. Mmmmmmmmmm. Feed me.

Among Giants

I'm told that larger trees exist. Hard to imagine.
I didn't know what to expect as we traveled by bus on the Muir Woods- Sausalito tour in San Francisco, California. We arrived at a plain parking lot with a simple entrance to the Muir Woods National Monument. The driver told us to return in about 90 minutes for the trip to Sausalito. I almost missed the bus.
Once you walk down the path and leave the crowds behind you are transported to a primitive world of light and shadow. The Redwoods jut up out of the black soil and compete with each other for sunlight. Every now and then, a human, standing and staring at the majesty of this forest. Massive, splendid and rare.
A small creek dances down the middle of the paths and plays background music for us. Lush ferns carpet the ground while chipmunks scamper in and out. Light filters through thick branches to show the way. I almost missed the bus.
All the way to Sausalito my mind kept returning to Muir Woods. I couldn't stop thinking about it. That night I dreamed of sacred places and spiritual journeys. That night I slept in Muir Woods.

Mr. Toad

It’s fun when the owner/operator does the tour. I’m sure I just got lucky, but I really enjoyed the local perspective of a third generation San Franciscan. That is what Mr. Toads Tours offers in San Francisco, California. Local knowledge.
The reproduction 1918 Packard vehicle seats about 8 people and is very fun to ride in as we honked at passersby! They have a small fleet of these vintage cars that run on propane. A big part of the charm is that we could see areas that larger vehicles couldn't explore. We went behind Coit tower, up into Russian Hill and really explored the neighborhoods. It's great for small groups. It was personal and geared to the audience’s interests instead of a canned presentation on a pre-planned route. It’s the type of tour you can take more than once. I really enjoyed it. Ribbit...

Blue and Gold forever

Blue and Gold were my high school colors so naturally I noticed the Blue and Gold Fleet sightseeing cruise in San Francisco, California.
I was surprised when the professional narration on this comfortable ship turned out to be a themed show featuring Captain Nemo. It was well done and not too much.
Not only do you get a great view of the City from the water but you go under the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz. The crew was friendly and efficient and there was plenty of good seating. A really nice way to get on the water is the Blue and Gold Fleet. Go team!


The S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien is a “Liberty” Ship memorial is docked at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, California and served as a Merchant marine Cargo vessel during WWII. These smaller, faster ships were often sunk trying to deliver there goods and the Jeremiah O’Brien is in great shape. Merchant Marine volunteers are posted around the ship to answer question on this self-guided tour. They do offer guided tours for groups of ten of more.

She is still sea worthy and takes occasional cruises in the Bay. On the 50th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion she sailed back to France for the ceremonies and is one of only two Liberty ships still in existence. Hundreds of volunteers keep her ship shape. It’s worth the effort to seek out this ship and remember the stories of WWII.

Pier 39 is fine

Pier 39 is a two-level, themed, waterfront entertainment complex is a major attraction near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. It includes 14 restaurants, 110 shops, the Aquarium, an Arcade, live performances of music and buskers, a permanent musical, a beautiful carousel, a Turbo thrill ride and a sea lion viewing area.
While I was there it was packed with people. A great blues singer sat at the entrance while a permanent stage featured an excellent juggler at the back. The Sea lion viewing area was filled and the place was hopping.
You could spend a day just exploring this area. Lots of activity, variety and fun. Pier 39 is a ball.

Hop on, Hop off

Pier 39 and the Fisherman’s Wharf area in San Francisco, California are very popular so it’s nice to have a hop on/off trolley here. The one hour narrated tour has three stops -Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square and Union Square.
The trolleys are neat and well-maintained with lots of shiny brass. Our driver/guide was friendly and interesting and threw in some personal observations from a local’s perspective.
Many people seemed to use this trolley for transportation and it offers a good familiarization of the city and its main points of interest. Sure beats walking up some of those steep hills!

The Wine Country

The locals say that the Central Coast of California near Monterey and Paso Robles is the next big thing in wine but for now Napa and Sonoma dominate the market. The Wine Country Tour from San Francisco, California is a full day overview of wine making in both places.
We visited three wineries by bus after stopping first at the Napa visitor’s center. Kirkland Ranch, Madonna and Viansa wineries were on the list with lunch on our own in downtown Sonoma. We tasted at each winery and toured at Madonna to learn the wine making process. They allowed for a good amount of free time and lunch in Sonoma was excellent at the Swiss Hotel restaurant (a suggestion from the driver). This was a light, fun day in the wine country and offers a great introduction to the process.

A Deluxe City Tour

I went on the Grayline Deluxe City tour to get an overview of San Francisco, California. I'm glad I did. We were on a large bus and navigated the narrow streets downtown before venturing out to stops at Twin Peaks, the Golden Gate Bridge and the park near the Bridge.
The narration was funny and interesting. We learned that City Hall was on a roller system to stabilize it during earthquakes. On that subject our driver said that folks who live here just get used to the idea of earthquakes.
The views were terrific and the stops were just long enough to give us a break from the bus. A good way to become acquainted with the city and see the sites. Dwayne our driver was a hoot.

Segway Johnny

This tour is a blast! The Electric Tour Company in San Francisco, California does it right.
I had never ridden a Segway before, along with most of the people in our group. A 45 minute training session fixed that and we were off. The tour starts near Fisherman’s wharf and travels toward the Golden Gate Bridge along the bay. There is lots of riding with some narration, which worked out well.

The staff at Electric tours is fantastic! They are funny, articulate and genuine. You feel welcomed and reassured no matter what your skills. The equipment is in great shape and the route is safe. The pre-tour safety session includes a short film and personal instruction until everyone feels comfortable. We then eased into the tour with lots of practice. Several stops included a nice café where you can grab a drink or snack. The experience is about three hours including 45 minutes of training. They also do a Sausalito tour and a Night tour. A great way to tour.

If you're going to San Francisco

It's my first visit to San Francisco, California and I'm already stoked. This town has an energy to it. They combine retro and modern in interesting ways. Old cable cars and streetcars beside the Trans America Pyramid Building. Very Cool.
The food is amazing! Fresh, fresh, fresh. They have also maintained their neighborhoods. Chinatown, North Beach, Russian Hill, everywhere local culture is preserved.
Lots to explore here I can tell. So, I'll just dig right in.

The Coastal Highway

The California Coastal Highway between Los Angeles and San Francisco is spectacular. I don't think I have driven a more beautiful or challenging stretch of road as between Cambria and Monterey.

Soaring mountains on one side and plunging cliffs to the sea on the other. Rockslides are not uncommon and twice I was delayed by crews clearing boulders. This route is not for the weak of heart! You need to be alert and steady on this narrow road that often twists and turns thousands of feet above the ocean with no guardrails.

Some folks like to take 17 mile drive near Carmel in addition to the coastal highway but realize that they charge $8 to enter. (The 45 minute route is organized into about 20 stops and provides a more manicured version of the coastal highway.)

I was surprised at how many hiking trails are available on this stretch and many scenic pull-overs. This is not the fastest route since speeds can slow to 15 miles per hour in some places and rarely top 40. The rewards are worth it if you’re not in a hurry and can explore the coast and all it has to offer. Make sure to gas up since towns are few and far between here. This is a great driving experience.

A Repeating Mystery

The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California just south of San Francisco, is an enigma wrapped in a conundrum surrounded by a mystery. It's bizarre and beautiful.

The story goes like this: Sarah Winchester outlived her husband, who made a fortune selling firearms. Soon she was told by a spiritualist that she was cursed because of the terrible loss of life these repeating firearms represented. So she did the only thing that made sense...she began construction in 1884 and never stopped 24/7/365 for thirty-eight years to appease the angry ghosts.

What emerged after her death was a 160 room mansion filled with modern conveniences and strange architectural designs. Tiffany stained glass, gold and silver chandeliers and three elevators are a tribute to wealth, taste and style while stairs that lead nowhere, doors that open into walls and repetitive patterns of windows stop you in your tracks. What is going on here? Only Sarah Winchester knew. My creepiest moment was in the Blue Seance room where we stood silently together looking for an exit. There seemed to be no knobs or means of opening the doors from the inside. Finally, our guide revealed the hidden latch and we were free. But for just a moment, I felt like I was back there with Sarah, calling the spirits forward and trying to figure out what to build next.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Over the Bounding Main

My feet left the deck as I clutched at the rail for balance. "Hold on" ordered the Captain as he spun the wheel into the whitecaps looming ahead of us. My breakfast slammed against my stomach and I vowed not to lose it. Swallowing hard, I braced myself against the wind when "thar she blows!" snapped my head to the right.
A plume of sea water was followed by a huge speckled back gliding above the water followed by the classic tail of a Gray Whale. Sweet...
Despite the challenging conditions, I really enjoyed Chris' Whale Watch on Monterey Bay south of San Francisco, California. The boat is basic with plenty of room to walk around and the Captain knew where to find whales. We were treated to constant sightings and even watched one whale breach many times and slap the water with his flipper. Monterey Bay sits over one of the deepest marine trenches in the World which attracts huge quantities of wildlife. Even Blue whales and Orcas can be spotted here seasonally.
Make sure to spend some time on the dock at Fisherman's Wharf, too. Seals and Sea Lions are everywhere. The fresh fish and clam chowder there have been featured on the Food Network. This is a special place and a great way to spend the day enjoying marine life at it's best.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Make your way to Monterey

The Monterey Bay Aquarium south of San Francisco, California is one of the best Aquariums I have visited. The layout is beautiful and encourages you to explore. The views of Monterey Bay are spectacular and the outdoor and indoor spaces blend so well that you move easily from one to the other.

The exhibits are wonderful! (I'm a sucker for Jellyfish.) I enjoyed the Kelp Forest, the Splash Zone, Sharks and Rays and the Outer Bay. They have one of the best Kids areas I've seen with lots of chances to get close and touch sea creatures. You can spend a whole day exploring here. Lots of feedings and presentations, too.

The biggest challenge is parking. Be prepared to hunt for a spot and grab any space you see near Cannery Row. The walk is worth it. Check the website for parking suggestions to ease the search. They also run a free trolley during the summer.

The real attraction here is Monterey Bay itself and the great views from the decks at the Aquarium allow you to spot many local inhabitants. This Aquarium is a real delight. Don't miss it.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Beacon in the Darkness

What is it about lighthouses that draws us closer? Safety, security, comfort? Shelter from the storm...refuge?

The Pigeon Point Lighthouse south of San Francisco, California is such a place. Jutting out into the Pacific Ocean on a point of land, this lighthouse was built in 1872. (The original Fresnel, first order Lens weighs 8,000 pounds!)
It's still a Coast Guard navigational aid today.
The tower is closed for renovation but the grounds are open to view exhibits, snap photos, take a tour and stand on the decks overlooking the waves crashing against the rocks. They even have a 50 person hostel. Since this is close to Elephant Seal territory it's a great spot to overnight on the coast. You can't miss it!

Trapped in the Jaws

Ano Nuevo Reserve south of San Francisco, California is home to Elephant Seal breeding grounds. You can take a tour to see them in season.
Just offshore, Ano Nuevo Island is where a dramatic spectacle takes place. This is one of the few places that Great White Sharks have been observed going air born chasing their prey...seals and sea lions.
The tranquility of the beach is shattered when these animals try to run the gauntlet at sea. Great Whites up to 20 feet long, weighing nearly two tons tear through the water in search of a meal. It's explosive. The area is highly protected and regulated as you might imagine.
It brought back memories for me of a time in 1975 when I sat in a dark movie theater and saw the girl swimming and heard the theme music: Ba...dum, Ba...dum, bum, bum ,bum, bum, bum, bum...we need a bigger boat.