Typical house featured on the Key West historic home tour.

Typical house featured on the Key West historic home tour.

Toured 5 historic homes courtesy of the Old Island Restoration Foundation.  Great event held 4 times a year (Dec, Jan, Feb & March) to promote preservation and restoration in Key West.

Tarpon Anyone?

Only in the Florida Keys . . .

The first time I heard about hand feeding Tarpon I was with a Nat Geo crew helping film some crocs in my South Florida neighborhood. Today I found the quaint feeding spot quite by accident.

We were looking for a good lunch stop in the middle Keys and decided to try the Hungry Tarpon. Don’t be put off by the shabby-chic exterior appearance, this is vintage Keys.

They have a great outdoor dining area on the water, but since the weather was a bit chilly for me, we opted to dine inside the small restaurant. The grilled Mahi sandwich and conch fritters were both good.

Outside the restaurant there is a festive variety of colorful, touristy booths selling everything from souvenirs to sunglasses. Next to the outdoor dining and bar is Robbie’s – just the spot if you want to hand feed some Tarpon.

As a girl growing up in the Tarpon capital of Florida (Tampa) this was a new concept and not for me (I remember the aforementioned Nat Geo reporter ending up with a bloody hand).

Today’s human guests seemed quite cheerful hanging over the edge of the deck with their buckets of fish . . . . . although I think the local pelicans were getting the best bargain in town.


Fences bordering the Gettysburg Battlefield.

Fences bordering the Gettysburg Battlefield.

2013 is the 150-year anniversary of the Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.    Located in Pennsylvania, the Gettysburg National Military Park is a good stopping off point for anyone travelling through the eastern U.S.  You won’t be sorry.  We packed in some serious history in an overnight and half-day visit on our way to New York.

After a long day of driving we arrived in Gettysburg. I wanted to stay in a historic property to make it even more meaningful, so we lodged at The Brickhouse Inn* (1898 and 1830, are the dates of the two adjacent houses that make up the Inn; we stayed in the 1898 main house). Having been forewarned our room (appropriately named “New York”) was on the third floor (with no elevator) we were prepared with a small overnight bag. The Inn was lovely and very comfortable.  For those like us, on a quick time schedule, we had read a personally guided tour would be ideal and we booked a guide through the Inn manager.

After a day in the car, we wanted to stretch our legs, so we took a quick walk through the charming, historic town and explored up and down the streets. Historic markers are well-placed and easy to follow. Good news for my husband, pretty much all the stores were closed.

The Inn manager suggested for dinner we try the nearby Dobbin House Tavern, built-in 1776. We ate by candlelight in the cozy basement. We honestly felt transported back a few centuries – the atmosphere was lively and with tables tightly packed together, we soon found ourselves chatting with our neighboring diners.  Food was just OK (I had crab cakes), but the atmosphere was definitely worth the effort. This building also served as a “station” on the famous “Underground Railroad”.  There is also a more upscale restaurant, not in the basement, on the property.  We hit Kilwin’s for ice cream on the way back to the Inn.

Breakfast at the Inn, on the outside terrace, was delightful and delicious, a great way to start the busy day.   This morning at 9 a.m. our guide met us at the Inn for our private tour of the Gettysburg National Military Park. Guides go with you in your car.  Our battlefield guide was a moolighting high school history teacher. The three-hour tour followed the three days of the battle, as well as pointing out all the monuments to the various state and local groups that fought. He really put the drama of the battle in perspective, but it was still hard to imagine the horror that took place in this now peaceful and tranquil area of rural Pennsylvania. He must’ve picked up on my Southern origins, as well as my husband’s Yankee background, and I felt like he did a good job explaining the battle from both Union and Confederate perspectives. We learned a lot, and realize every American should see this important historical site.  What took us so long?

*Due to the anniversary celebrations, accommodations in the area are hard to come by for summer 2013 – so be sure to make arrangements in advance.  If you do schedule a private tour you should plan to tip the guide.

Step Back to 1861
Your choice, lunch or dinner at the 1861 Farmhouse Restaurant & Winery is a delightful experience.  Located in beautiful Valle Crucis, owners Steve and Alison have worked hard to combine a gourmet dining experience with local country flair and Southern-style.

Built the year the Civil War started, the home belonged to Henry Taylor, one of the four founding families of Valle Crucis. He made the brick himself in his own brickyard, and used lumber from his land that was hand-sawn locally. Henry Taylor, who was married to Emaline Mast, may be better known for building the Mast General Store in 1882. After running the store he eventually sold a partial, and then full interest to W.W. Mast. The home was the first in the area to have indoor plumbing and a telephone, and also served as the local Post Office for many years.

The property remained a private home for the Taylor family until 1988, and in 2004 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Steve and Alison opened its doors to the public in 2011, after two years of extensive restoration work to remove decades of material covering up the original beauty of the home.

From their famous trout to their wonderfully yummy banana pudding, the varied menu* has something for every taste; a gift shop and winery round out their offerings. Check their website of current days and times, since they vary throughout different times of the year: www.1861farmhouse.com

*Priced reasonably with eager service.

Note: In 2014, the owners of the mast Farm Inn took over management of this restaurant and the name was changed to Over Yonder. Food, service and history remain the same.

Advent Calendar on the Lake, Lucerne.

Advent Calendar on the Lake, Lucerne.

Last night we followed the Belgian tradition of leaving our shoes outside our door to see what ‘Santa’ would bring us on the morning of December 6th. This morning we woke up to find a special gift of a very large chocolate Santa for each of us!

We arrived in Basel, Switzerland’s third largest city, early in the morning after traveling through eight locks during the night. Guides we had today all talked about Art Basel and Art Basel in Miami (going on right now); we also saw ample evidence of the big pharma companies based here, most prominently Novartis. After an orientation tour of the city, we visited the beautiful Rathaus (Town Hall) built over a 400-year period beginning in 1501. Basel is also home to the largest Swiss Xmas Market nestled into the plaza on Barfusserplatz. Today was very cold and threatening to rain and we didn’t get much time in the market; but since it is much smaller and more compact than many we’ve seen, we managed to cover all the bases.

This afternoon we drove towards the Alps and the beautiful city of Luzern. It was nostalgic to see the Old Swiss House (a copy used to be at Tampa’s Busch Gardens) and interesting to visit the lion monument and another beautiful Town Hall. The lake, of course, is so picturesque and even the dark clouds didn’t diminish the beauty of the surrounding scenery with its snow-capped mountains. It was a perfect jigsaw puzzle picture. We walked across the (rebuilt) historic wooden covered bridge that stretches across the lake, watched graceful swans, and paid a visit to the very small, but pretty, Xmas Market located between Franziskanerplatz & Hirschengraben.

The Swiss have a less-is-more philosophy when it comes to Christmas decorations and often the trees were unadorned or very sparsely decorated. Although there are many beautiful shops and department stores, the holiday markets here were the most disappointing of the trip (but we’ve seen so much it is not important). One of my favorite sites in Lucerne was a building that had been turned into a giant, colorful Advent Calendar. Hanging street lights didn’t have the variety we’d seen in other cities, but were still elegant and featured large crowns or lit stars; and since we were in town until dark we did get to see all the city lights! We concluded our Swiss odyssey with a wonderful hot chocolate in a local café.

For our last evening on the cozy River Princess, we said goodbye to new friends, wishing everyone a Wonderful Christmas Season, Happy, Healthy New Year & to All a Good Night!

Whimsey at it's best.

whimsy at its best.

Bon Jour!  Well if yesterday was the most dismal, today was the most glorious!
We had sun and NO rain, despite predictions to the contrary.

I have a new favorite: Strasbourg has, hands-down, the best Christmas decorations I have ever seen; creative, colorful, humorous and bountiful are just a few adjectives to describe them.

We started the day with a canal cruise into Petite France, a very historic area with wonderful, half-timbered houses, cobble streets and willow trees along the canals. Strasbourg is considered the “Crossroads of Europe” and houses the 46-nation Conseil De L’Europe (including Russia) and is also the seat of the 27 member European Union Parliament.

Shortly after leaving the quay we saw many of these beautiful modern government buildings – such a contrast for what was about to come.

Once off, we did a short walk to the Place de Cathédrale and the majestic Notre Dame. At this point we took off on our own Xmas Market adventure. There are 12 markets in Strasbourg and we saw at least 6 (maybe a couple more, I lost track). The amazing thing about this city is the incredible decorations on all the buildings; beautiful creations on all the windows and entries, one building better than the next. From street-to-street we were constantly delighted with the variety and ingenuity of the displays.

And the Christmas lights of each street were gorgeous, elegant designs – each street different. Photos don’t really begin to capture the total scope and incredible ambiance. Overall, the holiday feeling here is lush, colorful and fun. White bears, santas, stars, ribbons, multi-colored balls and twig designs are used liberally; lights are still all white. It makes a glorious impact in a very charming setting.

We started with the market around the main cathedral and then visited the Place du Chateau, with its ice rink for adults as well as a small one for the tiniest skaters. During our journey, we found a St. Nicholas chatting with visitors and enjoyed window shopping. We then wandered over to the Swiss Village in Place Gutenberg and stayed in that area for lunch at restaurant Au Gutenberg for delicious quiche and tarte.

Once fortified, we took off towards the Place Kléber to see the Great Xmas Tree & Share Village for local charities. The tree was the tallest we’d ever seen; I tried to take a picture looking up from the base but it was impossible, and from a distance you can see it was casting its own shadow. Around the square were dozens and dozens of flocked firs and when you got close, you could hear the lovely sound of small birds singing; I guess they have found a safe place to hang out for these chilly days.

We also saw the specialty markets in the Place Benjamin-Zix/Place de Meuniers featuring flavours of Alsace. In addition to the markets we ducked in and out of a few of the terrific shops along the way; we could do some serious damage to the bank accounts here. We finished our market visits with Christkindelsmarik in Place Broglie, site of the original local market, since 1570. It was large and festive, with lots of goodies, colorful lights and for the first time, we saw Christmas trees for sale. It was about €70 for the smallest size tree we would buy for our home and they did not have larger trees. We also bought a dark chocolate Bredle Cake to taste-test later (and it was so light and delicious – a real surprise).

If you want to really get into the Christmas spirit – you have to put Strasbourg on your list.

Petite France at it's Xmas best.

Petite France in full holiday mode.

One of the small Xmas Markets scattered in the center of Heidelberg.

One of the small Xmas Markets scattered in the center of Heidelberg.

Today had to be our dreariest day. Originally we were going to take a bus from Speyer to Heidelberg, but the low water levels have resulted in the need for a longer trip (2 hours) and later, another 2 hour trip to Strasbourg and our new home, the River Princess. It has rained all day.

Heidelberg is a beautiful city, much of it untouched during the war. It was terrific to see the Heidelberg Castle and reacquaint myself with the fascinating and complex history of the German/English royal family. Fortunately, the rain broke for a few minutes and we were able to see the beautiful views from the Castle looking across the rooftops of the city and across the Neckar River. It reminded me of the views in Florence.

We lunched at the historic (1592) Ritter Hotel and then checked out a few of the central markets, and watched the kids skating on the ice rink. The little ones were so cute pushing around their little ‘training penguins’!

The Christmas markets here are scattered through the squares, but all in a central area and easy to get around from one to the next. Due to time and weather conditions, hard to know if we found them all, but we sure tried.

I would’ve loved to have more time to discover (and photograph) this charming spot on a better day. While at the castle, I did partake of the local legend and placed my foot in the impression of the knight’s footstep left in the stone of the terrace. It is said if you do this you will return to Heidelberg and also live a happy life. So, here’s to returning!

Finally, into France and back on board ship – this time the Uniworld River Princess. The ship is decorated in a beautiful Art Deco style and is very nice. Our room is a bit smaller on this ship – but we managed to efficiently stow everything and were soon off to a wonderful dinner.

PS – News Bulletin: we hear the big bomb of Koblenz has been successfully defused and removed!

Drosselgasse alley in Rudesheim.

Drosselgasse alley in Rudesheim.

Rudesheim was my favorite spot so far. A small medieval town, our visit was enhanced by the fact we were there on a Saturday and stayed after dark so we got the full effect of a festive, very crowded scene with a lively street-fair ambiance. It must be the custom for groups to all wear matching hats and it was fun to see the different types of Christmas-themed hats including: cowgirl, Christmas trees and, of course, funky elf caps.

We had lunch at the Schloss Restaurant located on the famous Drosselgasse, a very narrow alley with dozens of shops, restaurants and wine bars. During lunch we had some local beer and Riesling and listened as a band played a wide variety of international music – oddly enough, even Hava Nagila (Rudesheim is known for a very international Xmas Market). Once out in the street our group made a quick visit to Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Museum. We almost didn’t go, but it was worth the short investment in time to see the incredible mechanical instruments in action, all housed in the 16th century home of a medieval knight. Then we were back out with the crowds to visit the shops and market stalls including the well-known Kathe Wohlfahrt store (one of several throughout Germany) to do some serious shopping for German-made Christmas items. Entertainers were singing Christmas music from a stage set up near the chairlift and even the weather cooperated by giving up a reprieve from the rain.

Eventually we had to get back to the bus and travel a bit more up the Rhine, crossing by ferry to return to our ship.

I think Uniworld has done a good job under the circumstances getting us to all our planned markets. Tomorrow we will change ships to finish the trip. Even though we will have to pack and move, and have had to use a bus to get around today, they’ve also done a great job of getting us down the Rhine to see the castles on a smaller boat, as well as given us complementary lunches, drinks and cash credits. I have been impressed by the calm, thoughtful and efficient staff. A few people did take the pre-cruise option to cancel – and as a result the two of us are traveling with 118 very nice people!

Mainz Market in the center of town.

Mainz Market in the center of town.

Another re-built city on the Rhine, Mainz is most famous as the home of Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the movable-type printing press in 1456. We started our brief time here with a visit to the Gutenberg Museum. We watched a demonstration of the printing process on a replica of the early hand press. Most significantly, we saw one the few remaining (maybe there are 46 of 180)original Gutenberg Bibles – simply beautiful. We learned that the Bibles were all customized at the direction of their owners and so no two are alike.

The ride to Mainz from Boppard was beautiful along the Rhine, even thought it was still raining. On the way, we drove along the river and saw more castles and many slopes with vineyards, mostly for Riesling in this region.

Dodging rain showers, we checked out the colorful Xmas Market held in the town’s main market square in front of the thousand-year-old cathedral. I would’ve loved to see it fully lit up, since there were lights strung everywhere. Two features were the large ‘Pyramid’ on one side of the square and the life-sized manger on another.

We are getting to these towns by bus, since the low water has made the Rhine unnavigable for riverboats. Barges are only able the get down the river with about ¼ of their normal load. From our bus, we could see the exposed rocks and sandbars in this section of the river. When we left Mainz we crossed the Rhine by bridge and continued our trip back in the direction of Boppard, to Rudesheim.


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