Category Archives: Travel

Cherry Blossom Time in DC

Throughout the DC area, the blooming of the cherry trees in our nation’s capital is a much-discussed topic beginning in late February or so.  Will the bloom coincide with the actual Cherry Blossom Festival?  Usually not, but there is always hope.  Over 3,000 trees, a gift from Tokyo during the Taft administration in 1912, border the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial.  At their fleeting, elusive peak, they are a truly remarkable sight. 

It’s a sight I can’t recall seeing at close range during the nearly seventeen years we’ve lived in Northern Virginia.  My husband says we were there once pushing our new baby in a stroller, but I have no recollection of the visit and no photos to prove it.  Our daughter certainly has no memory of it.  Once, on our way to Atlanta for Easter, she and I saw the pink fluffy trees as our plane followed the line of the Potomac on takeoff.  In the spring of 2008 we were at the Tidal Basin, with our daughter and puppy, about ten days too late, as the photo below shows.  001 This past weekend, the trees were at peak bloom.  After a winter that threatened never to end, the weather was almost unbelievably perfect.  Sunny, warm, slightly breezy.  Not hot.  The ideal time to go blossom watching.  Ideal, at least, in a less populated world.  When I suggested a jaunt into DC, our daughter was enthusiastic.  But my husband groaned as though he were suffering grievous injury.  He had taxes to finish, yard work to do, work emails to face.  Traffic would be beyond horrendous.  And it was our first chance all year to relax in the comfort of our back terrace.  

I didn’t press the matter.  I agreed with his traffic prediction.  We live eighteen miles from DC.  Once, when we drove in during the early hours of Thanksgiving morning, it took us a mere twenty minutes.  More typically, it means creeping along for an hour or more on I-66 or the George Washington Parkway.  The Metro should be the obvious choice, but parking at the station, especially during cherry blossom season, is problematic at best.  Better to stay home. 

Around mid-morning we were all in the car, about to run some necessary errands, when H suggested a sudden change in plans: he could drop D and me off on the Arlington side of the river.  Maybe he’d been thinking about what a wonderful, understanding wife I am and how I didn’t protest when he flew off to Aruba over Valentine’s Day.  “I know what the trees look like,” he said, “but since you two like to look at pretty stuff, I’ll drive you.  We’ve gotta go right now, though, because the traffic will be really bad this afternoon.” 

My daughter and I didn’t need further persuasion.  I dashed back inside to get Kiko.  Walking through a beautiful landscape is not quite complete for me without my little dog.  (H and D, however, disagree.  They have a lower tolerance for Kiko’s habit of constantly pausing to smell every twig and blade of grass.)  Kiko had just settled down to nap.  He was lying on the playroom floor looking pathetic, his front paws tucked up under him, like this. 


The dog appeared stunned when I popped back so quickly and asked his favorite question, Wanna take a ride?   It took him a moment, but he roused himself and stretched.  Oh yes, he’d gladly take a ride.    

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My husband dropped us off just before the Arlington Memorial Bridge.  He headed to Crystal City where he could take care of errands and avoid the crowds of cars and pedestrians.   

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And then, there they were, those justifiably famous cherry trees.  They resemble puffs of pale pink cotton candy sprinkled among the white marble monuments.  Or paper trees in the magic crystal kit my daughter discovered in her Easter basket one year.  Almost too pretty to be real, especially when set against a baby blue sky and reflected in the water.  Worth enduring the slow-moving throngs.  Perhaps even more often than every seventeen years.      

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Casa Marina in Key West: Flagler’s House by the Sea




Casa Marina, one of Key West’s loveliest resorts, combines the best of old and new.  It’s located in a quiet section of the island’s south shore, a fifteen minute walk to the heart of Duval Street.  Like several of Florida’s grandest old hotels, Casa Marina owes its existence to Henry Flagler.  Flagler, a truly self-made man who dropped out of school at age fourteen to work in a grain store, became a partner in Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller and a wizard who worked his magic in railroads and hotels.  Nearly all Florida tourism, and much of Florida as we know it today, in fact, owes a huge debt to Flagler.  

Honeymooning with his second wife in St. Augustine in 1883, he was enchanted by the area’s beauty but dismayed by its lack of decent hotels and infrastructure.  He built the city’s first major hotel,  the Ponce de Leon (now Flagler College), bought a local railroad line and soon began extending it south towards Miami.  Along the way he built more hotels, including two in Palm Beach:  the enormous Royal Poinciana and The Palm Beach Inn (later renamed The Breakers).  Flagler’s own mansion, Whitehall, built in Palm Beach in 1902, is now the Flagler Museum.

Before long, Flagler set his sights on extending his Florida East Coast Railroad over open water to Key West, which was then the state’s largest city and a busy port.  By 1905, construction had begun on his Overseas Railroad, a project so unlikely that it was often referred to as “Flagler’s Folly.”  The extension was beset with countless construction difficulties and devastating weather events, including two hurricanes.  Flagler persevered, and the Overseas Railroad was completed in January of 1912, when Flagler was in his 80s and a much-admired figure.  He was greeted with great fanfare by cheering crowds when he arrived in Key West in his own private railcar.  He died a year and a half later, from injuries sustained in a fall on the stairs at Whitehall. 



Flagler planned Casa Marina to be the southernmost pearl in his string of luxurious Florida hotels.  He enlisted his favorite architects, Carrere and Hastings, whose designs had included the New York Public Library, the Hotel Ponce de Leon and his own home, Whitehall.  Flagler died before construction began, but the architects held true to his vision for his “House by the Sea.” When the hotel opened on New Year’s Eve of 1920, it became Key West’s swankiest destination.  The arrival of President Warren G. Harding a few days later further enhanced its reputation as the place to be.   

Flagler’s original building was extended with flanking wings during the 70s and 80s.  While these don’t measure up to the quality and style of the central older section, a recent renovation has eliminated many of the less attractive features of earlier piecemeal restorations.  The resort may be now, more than ever since it’s 1920 opening, attuned to Flagler’s concept.  Its Spanish Colonial style is classic and stately rather than opulent.  This is no garishly gilded palace plopped down in an unlikely beach setting.  Its creamy white exterior gives it the look of a well-planned, red tile-roofed sandcastle.  On the water side, a deep, high-ceilinged arcade offers a gracious welcome.  



The crest above the center door that leads out toward the beach is said to represent Flagler’s Key to Sunshine.  If you want to avoid warm, sunny weather, by all means stay away from Key West. 


The arcade looks out to the Atlantic. 


A water walk bordered by reflecting pools and palm trees leads to the beach and separates the resort’s two large swimming pools. 



Talented sand artists create seasonal masterpieces at the Casa Marina.  While we were there, Bumble the Abominable from Rudolf set the star atop the Christmas tree.  In the words of Yukon Cornelius, “Looky what he can do!”



This sandcastle that could have been lifted from of a Maxfield Parrish painting served as marriage proposal. We hope Jessica said yes. 


Casa Marina has one of the largest private beaches in Key West. 


Beside the hotel’s main entrance off Reynolds Street stands a Seward Johnson bronze of a bellman taking a cigarette break. 


Upon our return from Duval Street on New Year’s Eve, our daughter adorned the bellman with a celebratory tiara. 


Can we go back yet?  Seems like it’s time. 

Hemingway Havens in Key West

Our family is unintentionally following Hemingway’s footsteps in our recent vacations.  Last year in Paris, our favorite café looked toward the author’s first French bare-bones apartment on Place Contrescarpe.  During our winter trip to Key West, we found ourselves firmly in Hemingway country again. 

The writer and his second wife Pauline arrived in Key West from Paris via Havana in 1928.  They hadn’t planned to linger, but the new car that Pauline’s wealthy uncle had bought for them was late in arriving.  The couple moved into an apartment above the Ford dealership while they waited for their car.  During the three weeks they spent there, Hemingway finished A Farewell to Arms, and both he and Pauline fell in love with Key West.


In 1931, they decided to settle on the island.  Pauline’s generous Uncle Gus (doesn’t everyone need an Uncle Gus?) purchased a spacious and beautiful but dilapidated home for them.  The Spanish Colonial style villa on Whitehead Street dates from 1851.  It was built by Asa Tift, owner of a shipwreck salvaging operation.   (The nearby Key West Shipwreck Museum tells the story of the city’s lucrative salvage industry.) The Hemingways renovated the home extensively and lived there with their two young sons until 1940.   


Deep, airy porches and tall windows provide shade and ventilation in the tropical climate. 


Hemingway’s large swimming pool is as well-known as his house.  The pool, the very first in Key West and within 100 miles, dates from 1937-38.  At the time, Hemingway was in Spain reporting on the Spanish Civil War.  Pauline supervised the construction, a mammoth and hugely expensive operation that involved digging through solid coral.  During the 1930s, when Key West lacked a city-wide system of fresh water, the pool was filled with salt water piped in from the water table.  It took several days to fill, and because the salt water was prone to algae growth, the pool had to be regularly drained and refilled, a laborious process. 



These days the most well-known residents of the Hemingway property are the fifty or so pampered polydactyl cats that roam the grounds and lounge on the furniture. A typical cat has five toes on each front paw and four on each back paw.  Polydactyls have six or more on each front paw and may have additional toes on each back paw.  The Key West felines are said to be descendants of Snow White, a polydactyl cat given to Hemingway by a ship captain.  Polydactyls were popular as ship cats because sailors considered them to bring good luck. 

At feeding time at the Hemingway house, the cats head to the garden terrace in droves, providing a good opportunity to see their wide variety of toes.  Some appear to be wearing mittens because of an additional toe. 


In the pavement near the garden, concrete proof of extra toes.


This tabby struck me as macho tough guy (perhaps in the Hemingway mold) but my daughter found him to be a sweetheart. 


This cat has claimed a comfy spot on the hassock of a chair in Hemingway’s writing studio above the garage. 


Another signature Key West attraction associated with Hemingway is Sloppy Joe’s Bar, originally owned and operated by Joe Russell, who became a close friend and fishing buddy of the author.  Hemingway began patronizing Russell’s speakeasy during Prohibition.  In the photo above, preparations are underway for the New Year’s Eve midnight conch drop. 


When Joe Russell’s bar officially opened on Greene Street in 1933, it was known as the Blind Pig.  With the addition of a small dance floor, it became the Silver Slipper.  Hemingway, who had frequented a bar in Havana known as Sloppy Joe’s, was instrumental in the final name change.  A rent increase that Russell refused to pay prompted a sudden change of location in 1937 to its current spot on Duval Street.  Russell and his customers were said to have carried drinks and furniture down the street to a vacant bar in the middle of the night, with service never ceasing.  The original building above, which dates from 1851, first housed an ice house and morgue.  It became Captain Tony’s Saloon in 1958.  A young Jimmy Buffet played there often in the 70s.  (The bar and its owner Tony Tarracino, a former Key West mayor, are the subject of Buffet’s song The Last Mango in Paris.)


The outdoor courtyard of the Blue Heaven Restaurant and Bar on Thomas Street marks the location of the boxing ring where Hemingway refereed matches. Originally located in the back yard of the author’s home, it was moved when the pool was built.  During high season, the wait will be long to eat outside under the old trees of the merrily lighted courtyard.  We waited, and it was worth it.  Live music, a friendly, celebratory atmosphere, wandering roosters and cats, great seafood and Key Lime pie make a meal at Blue Heaven one of the quintessential Key West experiences. 


A Random Ramble through Key West’s Old Town

Roam just about anywhere in Key West’s historic district, and you’ll pass one appealing building after another.  Here are some that caught my eye. 


The Southernmost House, a yellow brick mansion trimmed in pastel candy colors, was built 1896 by the daughter of Key West’s first millionaire.  It’s now a beautifully restored luxury inn.  “Southernmost” is an adjective that runs rampant in Key West.  In addition to the Southernmost House, local resorts include The Southernmost Hotel and Southernmost on the Beach.  The Southernmost Point (in the Continental U.S., 90 miles to Cuba) is nearby, marked by a painted concrete buoy.  You’ll know you’re close when you see the line of tourists waiting to be photographed by it.   


The first St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was built in 1831.  Fire and hurricanes destroyed it and two later incarnations.  The current church, a hybrid Gothic-Art Deco confection painted pristine white, was completed in 1919.  Inside, you’ll find beautiful stained glass windows and an oasis of calm in one of the busiest sections of Duval Street


The Strand, also on Duval Street, opened in the 1920s as a movie palace.  No longer a theatre, it’s been home to a nightclub and Ripley’s Believe it or Not.  It was featured in the 1993 movie Matinee, set in Key West and starring John Goodman.  While the façade, which resembles a fondant-covered petit-four, remains essentially unchanged, the period interior no longer exists.  The building now houses a Walgreen’s drug store.   


Like St. Paul’s Church, the Key West lighthouse has been rebuilt several times.  Located on Whitehead Street across from the Hemingway House, the current building was completed in 1849.  The lighthouse remained in use until 1969. 


The adjacent keeper’s house, seen from the lighthouse tower, dates from 1887. 



Two more views from the lighthouse.  The second photo looks toward the Atlantic, where a gargantuan cruise ship is docked. 


The Orchid Key Inn, built in the 50s, is now a stylishly updated small hotel.


The red brick Custom House, built in 1891, is now home to the Key West Museum of Art and History. 


The Bourbon Street Pub glittered with thousands of holiday lights during our stay.  On New Year’s Eve, we were among those who packed Duval Street to watch the pub’s Annual Shoe Drop.  At midnight, the drag queen Sushi descends from the balcony in a gigantic red high-heeled pump. Had it been entirely up to us, my husband and I would most likely have avoided the crowd.  But last year in San Francisco, as we joined the throng for a phenomenal fireworks display, our daughter discovered her taste for a high decibel New Year’s Eve among the boisterous multitudes.   



Each time we passed the aptly named La Te Da, we had the disorienting feeling of being in a Provincetown magically transported to a balmy, tropical setting.  This hotel/restaurant/entertainment complex reminds us of several in that old Cape Cod town, including the Crown & Anchor and The Waterford.  (For P-Town posts, see here and here.)  La Te Da’s main building is a charming white frame house that could belong to a chic grandmother.  The atmosphere is homey, gracious and inviting.  On our final night in Key West, after a delicious dinner at La Te Da’s airy covered porch, we stopped by the piano bar to hear two talented teenagers put a new spin on classic cabaret tunes.  I kept expecting to bump into Bobby Wetherbee, Leslie Jordan or Hedda Lettuce. 


The contrast between the morning of January 1, 2015 and the night before could hardly have been more extreme.  As I walked down Duval Street around 8:30 AM on New Year’s Day, all was hushed and serene.  I was reminded of Edward Hopper’s paintings of small town Main Streets deserted in the early light of Sunday morning.  Not many hours after the oversize champagne bottle on the balcony of La Te Da had popped its cork and rained down confetti on a lively crowd singing Auld Lang Syne, the complex appeared blanketed in shadowy sleep. 


An unnaturally quiet Duval Street, on the first morning of 2015. 

The Old Homes of Key West

Spring break approaches, and I have yet to complete my intended posts from our winter break three months ago in Key West. (For previous Key West posts, see here, here,  and here.)  I’m going to try to get them out before Easter.  Here goes. 

Among my reasons for wanting to visit this southernmost spot in the U.S. has always been its architecture.  I loved what I’d seen of this small city in photos, its narrow streets jam-packed with a fanciful variety of frame houses, from tiny shotgun homes to grand mansions.  Key West’s densely constructed historic district is one of the largest in the country.  It did not disappoint.  I found it a great pleasure to wander the picturesque streets in the January warmth, gazing at unique, quirky homes.  Most have shady, inviting porches and small gardens lushly planted with exotic, often supersized foliage. I only wish I could have had Kiko by my side.  I think he would have loved the atmosphere.  What follows are some of my favorite Key West homes, all privately owned and meticulously maintained. 











Key West: The Drive from Miami

It did appear that our luck was improving.  Like the majority of customers renting cars at the Miami Airport, we’d reserved a Mustang convertible.  I’d half-expected to find a blatantly un-fun vehicle, some sensible mid-sized sedan, parked in the numbered spot.  But there it was, a silver Mustang soft-top.  Our daughter was happily agog; we hadn’t told her the details.  She’s wanted to drive a convertible since she was five and sat behind the wheel of a red Cadillac with her American Girl doll at the DC car show.  Ten years later, in possession of a learner’s permit and the actual ability to drive, she was all the more certain she preferred a roofless ride.    


Our drive began on a promising note.  The car seemed to be in good working order.  We cruised the streets of Miami at a pleasant pace for a few miles before realizing we were heading north.  Once we found the highway toward Key West, all progress ceased.  Traffic was backed up and at a standstill.  The sunshine, which had felt wonderfully warm and welcoming a block or two back, now beat down with aggressive intensity.  We were beginning to glimpse the enormity of our error.

For a while, as we inched along, we clung to flimsy shreds of hope.  It was shortly after noon.  Maybe we were simply caught in the lunch rush.  Or maybe the traffic was horrendous because we were leaving the city.  Miami congestion, that’s all.  Yet time ticked by, with little movement and less view, thanks to the gargantuan RVs with cheery names like Sunseeker and American Spirit that hemmed us in.  We put the top up.  No need to add the further discomfort of sunburn to our misery.

As our snail’s pace took us every so slowly toward Key Largo, it was apparent that we had made a monumental rookie mistake.  We had opted to drive to Key West beginning at noon in Miami on the first Saturday after Christmas.  How could we have been so naïve?  It was the height of the high season.  Could our timing have been worse?

We should have known.  From our annual Cape Cod trip we’ve learned a thing or two about the need for careful timing when heading out to the tip of a narrow strip of land reached by a single road.  We know better than to try to cross the Sagamore Bridge to the Cape on a summer Saturday beginning any time after 8 AM.  And we never leave the Cape any later than 6 AM.  We know.  Oh, my goodness, do we know.   

You’d think we might have applied the same principle to our Key West destination and flown from Miami.  But it was too late now.

As our super slo-mo highway purgatory persisted, the mood inside the sporty Mustang became increasingly grim.  My apologies for suggesting Key West in the first place did nothing to help matters. 

Also, we were getting hungry.  Except for a tiny package of airline pretzels each, we hadn’t eaten since the night before.  My husband finds it absurd when overly fed Americans claim to be “starving.”  One of his signature comments is:  The body can go several weeks without food.  He’s one of those perpetually lean people capable, when it’s convenient, of consuming mass quantities without gaining an ounce.  Yet there are times when he’s oblivious to food.  He may return from work at 7:45 and realize he hasn’t had a bite since breakfast.

Now, if we were off on some endurance adventure, perhaps if we were contestants on Survivor or The Great Race, (and my husband and daughter would excel at such competitions), we would expect a significant level of deprivation and discomfort.  But we were attempting a vacation, not an exercise in hardship and fortitude.  Even H conceded that a little snack would be a great pleasure.

But we were hesitant to stop, for fear of falling further behind schedule.  Most shops and restaurants were located on the northbound side of the road, from which it would likely be difficult to get back into the line of bumper-to-bumper southbound traffic.  We drove on.  And on. 

Around 4:00, somewhere not far from Marathon, we spotted a promising grocery and delicatessen on the southbound side.  This would have to do. 

Grateful for the odd jumble of miscellaneous snacks we’d assembled, we were soon back on the road.  The sun was no longer  intense, so we put the top back down.  For a while, it didn’t matter that we were still creeping along. 

And then, the strangest thing happened.  The pace of traffic began to pick up.  Before long, we were moving at a typical highway speed.  The scene was just as I had pictured it in my mind’s eye:  an improbably thin line of road crossing a wide expanse of gray-blue sea.  We zipped along the famous Seven-Mile Bridge, the wind very much in our hair.  Especially in mine, as I had taken my daughter’s place in the back seat. 

The ocean view is made more interesting by the sections of Henry Flagler’s original railway bridge, completed in 1912, that run alongside the current roadway.  Some stretches look more or less intact, others sprout small trees and appear close to ruin.  There are ragged gaps where the old bridge has crumbled away completely.  Lines of birds, tall and small, keep serene watch along the isolated sections.

We were approaching Key West as the setting sun painted the sky in dramatic bands of pink and blue.  We wouldn’t see the sun drop into the Atlantic that evening.  What we’d thought might be a three and a half hour drive had stretched to over six hours.  It would be dark when we arrived, but at least we’d be there.   


The next morning, D would get a chance to try out her dream car. 

Key West: Getting There Was Not Half the Fun


You’ve probably heard what a life-enhancing pleasure it is to drive from Miami down to the Keys.  That Route 1A drive is a perennial bucket list favorite.  You know the comments.  You may have heard them uttered with a breathless urgency and a firm shoulder grip for sincerity:  You have to do the drive.  To really experience the Keys, you simply must!

And it always sounded wonderful.  That the Keys are reachable by road strikes me as a near miracle.  Yes, I could see our family cruising along that narrow ribbon, the Overseas Highway.  We’d shoot South, South, South, warm wind in our hair, the glistening blue Atlantic stretching out around us.  We’d drive until we could go no further, and then we’d look across the water toward Cuba.  Yes, we must do that drive.   But first we had to get to Miami.

Our trip began inauspiciously.  We were running a tad behind schedule when we arrived at Dulles Airport.  The agent at the counter eyed us pointedly, looking as though we’d slighted him in some malicious way.  He rolled his eyes, sighed mournfully and scolded:  You better hurry if you want to make your flight.  My husband, who travels frequently and was certain we had more than enough time, was silently indignant.  Of course, when we reached the gate, we had plenty of time.  There’s always ample time, it seems, to wait at the gate for boarding. 

The flight to Miami was, thankfully, uneventful.  At baggage claim, my bag and H’s were among the first to plop onto the carousel.  We waited, and waited, but there was no sign of our daughter’s suitcase.  You know the thought process:  No need to worry; it will appear soon.  Let’s be patient.  Then suddenly, patience is serving no purpose.  There’s clearly a problem.  Everyone else from our flight has picked up their bags and moved on. 

We moved on to the lost luggage counter.  After some investigation, the agent told us that D’s bag seemed to be on its way to Los Angeles.  Or somewhere else.  Definitely somewhere besides Miami.  My husband suspected foul play on the part of that snippy Dulles ticket agent.  He imagined the man’s spiteful thoughts:  This will teach you to be on time!  I’ll send your daughter’s blue paisley roller bag on the ride of its life!  And you, Sir, are responsible!

D’s bag would be tracked down and retrieved, the luggage lady assured us.  And it would be delivered to our hotel.  D was crestfallen, of course.  She’d packed her suitcase so carefully.  Each item had been thoughtfully, painstakingly chosen.  It had taken all day and had been accompanied by much hand-wringing and stress.  I understand.  Every time I pack, this thought loop runs through my mind:  Is it really worth it?  Can’t we just stay home? I don’t have room for all these shoes! Should we pack rain jackets, or just hope for the best?  I can’t take it.  I think I’m getting sick. 

As we packed, D and I had discussed the dreaded “what if” of a lost bag.  It had happened to H during a Caribbean vacation.  He’d worn the same long-sleeved white T-shirt for several days straight, prompting comments by some of the staff at the resort.  When his bag finally appeared, it had apparently gone on its own adventure to Managua.  We knew a missing bag was a real possibility.  D had packed essentials and a minimal change of clothes in her carry-on. But still.  All those well-considered fashion choices, all lost, at least temporarily.  I would have been equally disappointed when I was a few days away from turning sixteen. 

There was nothing more to be done, so we headed to pick up our rental car, located in an area that seemed many miles from baggage claim.  The queue at Avis stretched from one end of the enormous rental car center to the other.  This couldn’t be the line for those with reservations, could it?  Oh, yes, it was, we were quickly told by those already waiting.  Surely the queue would move quickly, H reasoned.  How long does it take to pick up a rental car once the paperwork has been completed online?  Three minutes, max! 

Apparently, for many it’s a complicated process that requires fifteen to twenty minutes of heated conversation and problematic inquiries.  From our fixed viewpoint in the queue, we took to timing the interactions between customer and agent.  H, speedily efficient in all things, was incredulous.  What in the world was going on?  What kinds of questions were people asking?  Can you explain, in detail, how to drive a car?  How does one refill the gas tank?  Where are these so-called gas stations located?  What is insurance?  Would you please review again the rules of the road?  And where is the road?  Judging from the frequent arm motions, extensive directions were being given and repeatedly misunderstood.

Other rental car agencies had no lines.  This was because they had no available cars, we learned.

An hour later, we had reached the velvet ropes that indicate the expected start of the line. When at last we approached the counter, I began timing.  H was right.  Two and half minutes later, we were on our way to pick up our car.  Surely, things were about to get better.     


At Long Last, Key West


For the past several years, during family discussions of possible destinations for an after-Christmas trip, I’ve suggested Key West.  For one reason or another, H and D were not particularly enthusiastic.  Something changed this last December.  Maybe they just wanted to shut me up, but they agreed it was time to check out Key West.

None of us had been there.  Our sole Florida experience as a family had involved a stressful middle-of-the-night arrival at the Miami airport in an effort to beat a snowstorm on our way to Aruba.  It had not been pleasant.

I’ve always liked the idea of Key West.  I like remote, end-of-the-world places where the land terminates dramatically in an expanse of sea:  Mont St. Michel in Normandy, St. David’s in Wales, the aptly named Land’s End in Cornwall, and of course,  the outer tip of Cape Cod.  Such spots have a touch of the other-worldly, the surreal. Perhaps because of the play of light on water, colors of foliage, skies and sunsets tend to be invested with an unusual intensity.


There was another reason I’ve wanted to see Key West.  My grandparents, who made their home on a farm in central Kentucky, had visited the Keys in the 1950s.  Grandaddy did most of his traveling via the pages of National Geographic, which he read in his big rocking chair by the kitchen window.  I can still hear the squeak of the old chair’s springs.  While my grandmother flew at least once to Atlanta to visit my parents and me, I don’t think Grandaddy ever set foot on a plane.  My grandparents weren’t frequent travelers, but they made a few big road trips over the years.  They went to Michigan, Maine and Virginia, but it was Key West that made the strongest impression on my grandfather.


I wish I could have asked him about it. What made him like the place so much?  Of course there were no photos from the trip; my grandparents weren’t camera people.   The flat seascape couldn’t have been more unlike the inland rolling hills of Kentucky.  If I saw it myself, maybe I’d know. I might walk some of the same narrow streets Grandaddy had traversed some sixty years prior.  Maybe I’d watch the sun dip into the Atlantic from a spot where he and my grandmother had once stood.  I’d be in a place that was completely new to me, but not entirely, because I would see it in part through my grandfather’s eyes.  Seems to me like a pretty good reason to travel.



London, Revisited, Part IV: Saint Paul’s

I was looking forward to showing my daughter Saint Paul’s Cathedral, which I’d studied repeatedly in various art history courses.  D was familiar with it from her preschool years when Mary Poppins was a revered staple in our video library.   In those days, I tended to remind her, too often, that the “Feed the Birds Church” was a real, famous, enormous church in London.  Sometimes I’d show her pictures of it in my architecture books.  And if my husband were in on the viewing, he’d explain how young Michael’s tuppence, used for bread crumbs for the birds, instead of deposited into Mr. Banks’ bank could, in theory, have caused a run on the bank.  No doubt D would have preferred fewer teachable moments while she watched her movie, but that’s a burden some only children must bear. 

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St. Paul’s stands atop Ludgate Hill, the highest point in London.  A church dedicated to St. Paul the Apostle and prolific New Testament author had existed on the spot since the sixth century.  The current church replaced a large medieval basilica built in the Romanesque and Gothic styles.  Like much of the City of London, it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.  At the time of the fire, a young Christopher Wren had been involved in updating Old St. Paul’s.  A network of wooden scaffolding was in place as the stone walls were being repaired.  Had the scaffolding not caught fire and ignited the wooden roof beams, portions of the medieval church might have been salvageable.  After the destruction, Wren was hired to design a grand new cathedral.  Wren rebuilt over fifty London churches, but St. Paul’s is his crowning glory, a masterpiece of the English Baroque style.   

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The highly sculptural west front of St. Paul’s, with its double temple front and twin towers. 

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Feed the birds, tuppence a bag. 

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Wren’s monumental dome drew on Italian Renaissance forerunners by Michelangelo, Brunelleschi and Bramante.

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From its earliest days, St. Paul’s has been a distinctly urban church.  Considering its location in the densely crowded City, the heart of London’s commercial district since ancient times, it could hardly be otherwise.  Seventeenth-century images of Old St Paul’s show the hilltop basilica closely surrounded by haphazardly constructed smaller buildings.  The warren of wooden homes and shops that encroached upon one another made suppressing the four-day Great Fire particularly difficult. 

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That St. Paul’s continues to be hemmed in on all sides by ordinary office buildings is therefore not surprising.  But, I wonder, do they have to be so emphatically ugly and insinuatingly pushy?  A wave of fresh disappointment hits me every time I approach the great church from a street like the one pictured above. 

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The British flair for the sweeping, spectacular vista is nowhere in evidence around St. Paul’s.  Above, a view from the Millennium bridge. 

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The Millennium Bridge and St. Paul’s from across the Thames. 

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St. Paul’s looks down on the life of the city, as it has since its completion in 1708.  Above, in Bankside near the Tate Modern, a Shrek in a silver track suit amuses pedestrians by hovering in mid-air.  Despite the labyrinth of buildings that crowd the base of the Cathedral, the dome still towers well above newer, less distinguished neighbors.  Let futuristic skyscrapers such as “The Shard” and “The Gherkin” continue to pop up, as long as they don’t blot out the vision of that iconic dome.   

London, Revisited, Part III

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As we proceeded with our walk through the heart of London, I maintained my role as a somewhat muddled and conflicted tour guide.  It was with relief that I found the lacy, Gothic-style towers of Parliament and all the buildings of Westminster Palace in their expected spots, keeping watch over the Thames.  Their honey-colored stone gleamed warmly in the sunlight; I had never seen them looking so pristine.  The last traces of Industrial Revolution coal-dust grime were blasted away in 1994.  

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Although reduced in number and usage, classic examples of the red telephone box still punctuate the streets of London.  That they tend to be surrounded by international tourists snapping photos with their phones strikes me as an interesting irony,  further proof that our twenty-first century world is nothing if not meta.   

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The ever-present London Eye grew larger as we made our way down the Victoria Embankment alongside the river.  Perhaps because I was distracted by the giant Ferris wheel, I completely missed one of my favorite London statues, that of the formidable Boadicea driving her chariot into battle against the Romans.  Back home, when I looked for her on Google maps, I found her exactly where she should have been, on the Embankment near Westminster Pier.  It was dismaying to realize I had walked blindly past the Warrior Queen. 

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When we paused to rest on one of the Embankment’s sphinx-armed benches, our daughter noticed that our sunglasses reflected double rings of the London Eye.  

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When in London, one is gifted (or afflicted), with London eyes. 

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From the Embankment, we approached Trafalgar Square.  Since its completion in 1724, the neoclassical Church of Saint Martin-in-the Fields has anchored a corner of  the square.  James Gibbs’ design, with a tall, graceful steeple resembling a multi-layer wedding cake, continues to influence the building of Protestant churches throughout the U.S.  I regret that we didn’t squeeze in a visit to the café in the church’s roomy, atmospheric crypt.  It’s a great place to refuel and revive after wandering the halls of the National Gallery across the square. 

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This photo from 1982 shows the church from the steps of the National Gallery. 

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On the day of our visit, Trafalgar Square and the steps leading to the Gallery were awash in a teeming tide of humanity.  I had hoped to show my daughter some of my favorite paintings, but the crowds made me lose heart.  Spring break in London, as in Paris, has its drawbacks.  It seemed futile even to try to elbow our way over to one of the grand lions that guard Lord Nelson’s column.  Somewhat appropriately, in the waning afternoon light, the National Gallery takes on a grim, fortress-like aspect in the photo above. 


On a less hectic day in the summer of 1982, Lord Nelson’s lions, and the Gallery itself, were more accessible. 

We decided to flee the area.  But a quick departure was impossible  due to the press of the crowd.  Had I never been in London during the week before Easter?   Maybe not.  During my year in the U.K., I returned home once, and that was for Easter.  Maybe the city’s always as congested at this time of the season.  Better to assume that’s the case than to think it’s been spoiled recently. 

I know I’m not alone in occasionally wishing myself nearly alone (with a hand-picked group of family and friends) to experience the marvels of the world’s great cities.  As we made our way back, slowly, toward Grosvenor Square and our hotel, I considered the advantages of conducting future British travel from the serenity of the sofa via PBS and Netflix.  Under the expert guidance of, say, earnest young Endeavor Morse, or Benedict Cumberbatch’s otherworldly Sherlock, or the bright-eyed, sensibly shoed Miss Marple, one may witness matters of life and death set amidst notable U. K. monuments, without ever battling a crowd.  The older I get, the more tempting that sounds.