Sunday, May 22, 2005

Quiet Seclusion in the Caribbean

Puerto Rico and the surrounding islands Culebra and Vieques have been in our crosshairs for some time and a recent visit confirmed some of the advertised beauty of the area. Our trip needed to include free diving, snorkeling, lots quiet time on the beaches reading and of course sightseeing.

We arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico at around 8:00 PM and decided to stay at the Best Western, which is literally part of the airport, so it’s well positioned and convenient for travelers. The following morning we took a taxi for the 45-minute journey to Fajardo for the ferry to Culebra.

I was fascinated to watch the kinds of items the locals were taking on board that included everything imaginable from chairs and tables, food, clothes, etc. Since most items are brought in from the mainland, it was easy to see why the locals made the most of their visit to the "Big Island" (Puerto Rico). By the way, the cost for walk-on passengers was about $7.00 each for the one hour and twenty minutes ride to Dewey, the only town on Culebra.

When we docked at Culebra, our driver met us with our rental car-- a "Thing". For those who don’t know what this is, it’s a Jeep-like vehicle built on a VW bug chassis—in the ‘70s! We drove the driver back to his home and then took off for our rental cottage. A FWD is highly recommended on the island because of the potholes and terrain, and we should have rented a regular Jeep because the Thing was difficult to drive, had no shock absorbers, and a difficult clutch.

It is easy to see why Conde Nast rated Flamenco Beach one of the top ten beaches in the world. It’s truly a beautiful wide sandy beach that ranks up there with anything I’ve seen. It also has the advantage of being only beach on Culebra that has refreshments and toilets. We saw the island in its entirety but as it’s roughly seven by four miles, that didn’t take too long. We enjoyed several days visiting every beach and hiked to Resaca on the Atlantic side. We found the best snorkeling and shore diving at Carlos Rosario, which is a 35-minute hike from the parking lot at Flamenco beach.

Photo: L to R Flamenco Beach, San Cristobal Fort, & ferry arriving at Dewey

Heading back home, we caught the first ferry out in the morning so that we could spend the whole day in Puerto Rico. What a delight! The old town is full of cobbled streets with elegant buildings painted the most beautiful pastels. Row after row of spectacular shops and there, in full view was the magnificent San Cristobal Fort. We walked around the perimeter of the fort and noticed the abundance of cats in every color imaginable running in and around the fort. The old town of Puerto Rico reminded us of similar towns and villages in Spain and Italy. It is well worth a visit!

Altogether we had a fantastic week of relaxation on Culebra even if the cockerels woke us early every morning.

General Info Ferry Timetable Club Seabourne Hotel

Monday, May 16, 2005

Dancing the Maypole

Dancing the maypole has been a tradition in Europe for many centuries. Perhaps it originated from the Roman ritual of celebrating the beginning of Spring and “wearing of the green.” During this time, flowers of the season used with garlands of green were used to adorn the pagan festival that included dancing, drinking and much merry making.

The tradition of Spring festivals continued for centuries and took on many different forms. During the Middle Ages, the custom of recognizing the onset of Spring played an important part of village life in England. Men from the village cut down a young tree, usually a birch because of their tall, straight stature. The tree would be stripped of all limbs, placed in a hole on the village green, and painted green and white. Then young couples from the village decorated the pole using spring flowers and the Hawthorn bush (Crataegus oxacantha), which was believed to hold mystical powers. On May Day, the couples came together to kiss and dance around the maypole, which they believed to be a fertility symbol. After the dance, some couples went into the surrounding woods where a ‘minister’ performed a ‘marriage.’ The offspring of such a union were called Merry-begats and were not formally recognized by their natural fathers, but were instead considered gifts from God.

It was not until the early 1800s that the maypole as we know it today came into existence. The pole was still painted green and white, but now ribbons or streamers were anchored atop the pole. Special attention was given to the length of the ribbons used in the ceremony to ensure the dancers had enough to weave the intricate patterns created as the dancers performed the ritual dance. Music played as the gentlemen dropped to one knee as their partners skipped past, swooping in, under and around other dancers. As s result of the dance movements, the ribbons made a colorful, plaited design on the maypole. At the end of the celebrations a May Queen was appointed.

Perhaps the first evidence the tradition of dancing the may pole in America can be seen in May of 1622. William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony (1620-1647) writes that a settler called Thomas Morton erected a may pole “…they also set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing aboute it many days together, inviting the Indian women, for their consorts, dancing and frisking together, (like so many fairies, or furies rather,) and worse practises.” Morton later returned to England and Mr. John Indecott, arrived who “…caused that Maypole to be cut downe, and rebuked them for their profannes, and admonished them…”

Seen in this photograph circa 1908, ladies only perform the ceremonial dance in their beautiful white or off white dresses. The photograph was kindly supplied by the Colorado College, Special Collections Dept.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Extraordinary Places…Close to London

After living in the United States for over 20 years and following numerous requests from friends asking, “…I’ve done all the usual tourist spots in England and now I’m looking for something different…” I decided to write Extraordinary Places…Close to London.

The book includes 50 destinations chosen for their historical interest and natural beauty. Each chapter includes the usual travel information about where to stay, eat and how to get there, but what you’ll find different about this book is I introduce the traveler to the history of the village by telling a unique story about its past. These stories include tales of kings and queens, witches and ghosts and bring the village alive to all, whether you’re an armchair traveler or plan to actually visit.

Following is a summary of the chapter about Leeds Castle.

Leeds Castle is reputed to be the loveliest castle in the world. Surrounded by lakes and streams, it sits majestically in spectacular grounds.

The first castle on this spot was built by a Saxon lord called Ledian (Leed) during the reign of Ethelbert, King of Kent, in 857. The strategic location of the castle was not lost on the Norman conquerors who began building a stone structure in 1119. In 1287, the castle was given to King Edward 1st and Queen Eleanor of Castile.

King Henry VIII, perhaps England’s most famous king, loved the castle and spent time beautifying the grounds and building new additions such as the Maiden’s Tower. No doubt most if not all his six wives spent time at Leeds Castle but it is assumed that at least Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn enjoyed its comforts.

The six wives of Henry made a sorrowful chapter in the history of England. He was known to be a hard and ruthless man who treated people harshly, especially some of his wives. His first marriage to Catherine of Aragon lasted over 20 years and although she produced several children, most died prematurely or were stillborn. Only one child, Mary, survived. It appears from records that although Henry had been a relatively good husband, he had several mistresses during his marriage to Catherine. He became frustrated with the lack of a male heir to the throne of England and argued with the Pope for an annulment of the marriage. The rift between Rome and the king turned into the Reformation and the establishment of the Church of England. Henry turned his attention to a young woman called Anne Boleyn, who was lady in waiting to the queen.

Anne Boleyn was thrilled the king favored her above the other ladies in waiting. Her sister Mary had been the king’s mistress for some time and it was said that she had given him an illegitimate son. Now it was Anne who caught the king’s eye. She was very different from Catherine of Aragon and had a black hair, swarthy skin and eyes so dark people said she used them as a weapon.

Anne took full advantage of her new position and flaunted her family and friends at court, many of whom were given special privileges by the king. In an attempt to discredit Anne, some members at court said she had a sixth finger on her left hand, several ugly moles on her body and even a goiter in her neck. However, none of this appears to have bothered Anne as she dressed in an exquisite gown made of gold fabric and trimmed in fur as she traveled up the Thames to the waiting king. The procession began at Greenwich with hundreds of barges that were decorated with flowers and had banners streaming from the masts. On September 7, 1533 Anne gave birth to Elizabeth who would become a powerful and long-lived queen.

Place to stay: Ramada Hotel & Resort Maidstone, Hollingbourne, Kent, (0.9 miles)

Place to eat: The Fairfax Hall at the castle houses a self-serve restaurant and the adjacent Terrace Room with table service provides lunches and afternoon tea.

How to get there: Travel southeast out of London on the M20 to Maidstone and follow the brown and white tourist signs to the castle.

Read the whole chapter >>

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