Los Angeles Times: Florida's Cedar Key
L.A. Jewish Journal: Red Sea Holiday
New York Times: The First Frontier
Unlocking the charm of Gulf's Cedar Key
Vast, wild marshlands and an island of indolence prove to be fine nesting grounds for waterfowl and artists -- and tourists who appreciate both.
By Michal Strutin
Special to The Los Angeles Times
October 20, 2002
Cedar Key, Fla. -- "We came to Cedar Key from Tampa with an Audubon tour," said Connie Crane, an artist staffing the counter at the Cedar Keyhole gallery cooperative. "I saw a cat lying in the middle of the street nursing her kittens, and I said, 'Oh, that's the kind of town I want to live in.' " And now she does.
The former New Yorker is one of the painters, potters and photographers who have made this Florida city something of an artists' colony. A growing number of tourists has found it too, drawn by the quaint, off-the-clock town and the nearby national wildlife refuges and vast salt marshes teeming with fish and fowl.
Cedar Key is not the sort of place you stumble on. It's an island in the Gulf of Mexico, 20 miles from the nearest major highway and about 60 miles from the nearest airport, in Gainesville. It lies at the southern end of the Big Bend, where the state's panhandle makes a long arc down to the Florida peninsula.
In a state bursting with tourism, the Big Bend is one of the least visited areas, known for timber and cattle, not theme parks and golf resorts. But those who do venture here are rewarded with a taste of old Florida: Sinuous, watery channels part low marsh grasses undulating in the sea breeze, giving the landscape the look of a sensual jigsaw puzzle. more...
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RED SEA HOLIDAY
Unwinding in the port city of Eilat.
By Michal Strutin
May 18, 2001
NOBODY TAKES Eilat too seriously — which is a good thing. Poised on the cusp of the Red Sea, this resort city at the southern tip of Israel is where Israelis and others go to unwind. During the short, cold days of winter, northern Europeans by the planeload come to soak up the guaranteed sunshine.
Although Eilat is also a port, its resort attractions have caused a building boom. Bright white hotels in every conceivable style have sprung up like mushrooms after a rain — although with an average of less than two inches precipitation per year, there’s little chance of rain in Eilat. As a result, the city has expanded: north into the Aravah Valley and up the lower slopes of the Eilat Mountains, which stand in garnet-colored ranks along the city’s western edge. The focus, however, is still the narrow curve of the Red Sea.
A broad, busy promenade swings along part of Eilat’s shoreline. Here tourists lounge in cafes, children clamor for rides on the Ferris wheel, street vendors sell T-shirts and tchotchkes, and tony shops display upscale goods. Beyond the bustle, the Eilat area offers a wealth of natural beauty and human history.
Where sea and sand meet are beaches, aqua waters and vivid coral reefs. At the city’s back, the rugged Eilat Mountains are a desert tapestry of sculpted canyons and scenic panoramas. The sweep of the Aravah Valley provides shelter for wolves, gazelles and hyenas, as well as ostriches and countless other birds. In fact, the Eilat area is a birder’s dream. One of the world’s greatest flyways, the Aravah sees more than a half-billion birds fly along its length during spring migration. more...
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THE FIRST FRONTIER
In the Blue Ridge Mountains, a culture Daniel Boone
helped start continues to flourish
By Michal Strutin
April 26, 1998
STRAIGHT ROADS don't exist in North Carolina's high country. The mountains don't allow it. The road through Pisgah National Forest in northwestern North Carolina follows one rippling trout stream, then another along languid, linked curves. Groves of hemlock and rhododendron shade the highway, the dense foliage broken by homes clinging to the cliffs of the southern Appalachians. (That's ap-pah-LACH-ins, the correct pronunciation around there.) Side roads into ''hollers'' that narrowly part the mountains are named for the families that settled there, and families with those surnames, Scotch-Irish names for the most part, live there still.
For decades, the hills and hollows of the Appalachians kept this region out of America's mainstream and sustained an indigenous culture illuminated by expertly crafted pottery and woodwork, intricate bluegrass-tinged music and, yes, moonshine madness. But the area around the historic towns of Boone and Blowing Rock, about 85 miles due west of Winston-Salem just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, has not hidden in the past. There, quaint and contemporary mix.
Turning west off Route 321-421 one breezy day last summer, I followed the main highway through Boone and Blowing Rock onto Route 194, a curving, graceful road that glides by old barns, porches filled with flowers and rockers, ''enhanced'' trailers and sections of the Watauga River. Soon, the terrain opened onto Valle Crucis, a village next to Boone that is partly a State Historic District. It dates from the 1880's, when the valley's streams formed a cross; since then, the streams have been altered by flooding.
At the village center is the Mast General Store, built in 1882 and on the National Register of Historic Places. Before work, folks stop by for coffee (a nickel a cup) around the pot-bellied stove, or later, pick up mail from the tiny post office. Posted inside, around the front door, are notices of events from the 1950's as well as next week's community concert. A checkerboard lies on a table between two stove-side chairs: one set of pieces cola bottle tops, the other ginger ale.
The Mast Store bills itself as having everything from cradles to coffins, and I saw both on the second floor. Time-polished wooden cabinets match the floors of the store's five rooms, which are filled with Brillo and cake mix, enamelware and wash tubs, mouth harps and hoes. I found cheesecloth, homemade oatmeal bread, hand-churned butter and a few other things I didn't know I wanted.
On summer Saturdays, silversmiths, basket weavers and other artisans take turns exhibiting their skills on the Mast's back porch. Down the road are crafts shops, clothing stores and a couple of inns, including the historic Mast Farm Inn. Once the homestead of cousins of the store's owners, this bed-and-breakfast echoes the late 1880's -- but with modern conveniences. There are nine rooms in the main house and four cottages, one originally the blacksmith shop, another the loom house, a log cabin built in 1812. A spring house and gardens, which nonguests can walk through, complete the homestead.
More authentic is Hickory Ridge Homestead, a living-history museum with cabins and outbuildings just east of Route 321 on the south side of Boone that presents mountain life of the late 1700's. No bigger than a medium-size suburban living room, the Tatum cabin must have been a tight squeeze for the Tatums and their 13 children, even with its sleeping loft. When I visited, a weaver who said she grew up near Boone in a Gaelic-speaking home, sat at a spinning wheel playing out yarn and explaining how mothers worked at their wheels in the evening, ''spinning yarns'' for the children.
Another presenter demonstrated how the straight aim of the American sharpshooter's rifle was a match for the faster-loading scatter-shot muskets of the British redcoats. On the day I was there, the sound of the guns got the attention of visiting schoolchildren, and one boy asked whether the deerskin-clad presenter ever had to shoot a bear, which are plentiful in Appalachian forests. In his best mountain twang, he answered: ''I've never been in those circumstances. But we can dream, can't we?''
Hickory Ridge also presents the play ''Horn in the West,'' the Revolutionary War story of how Daniel Boone, for whom the town was named, and mountaineers fought off redcoats. Boone and Davy Crockett loom large in this first frontier, where North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia meet.
Next to Hickory Ridge, the Daniel Boone Native Gardens shows why the southern Appalachians are among the world's most botanically diverse places. The iron gates were forged in the 1960's by Daniel Boone 6th, a direct descendant of the pioneer, and inside, quiet ''rooms'' are full of mountain laurel, mountain ash, ferns, trillium, pink shell azaleas, flame azaleas and dogwood -- accompanied by the sound of a stream.
Also on the south side of Boone is the small, quirky Appalachian Cultural Museum, in University Hall off Route 321. Novel exhibits show how the madly jumbled mountains were born, how Indian history evolved, even how moonshine is made. One exhibit displays self-portraits of North Carolinians in a wide range of artistic styles, from expressionist to caricature.
After visiting the museum, I backtracked to the historic center of Boone for lunch at the Caribbean Cafe: authentic jerk chicken with coconut rice, black beans, fried plantain and a choice of hot sauces, and more than three dozen beers to cool the fires.
The cafe attracts students and professors from Appalachian State University, a few blocks away. King Street, bordering the university, is the main artery through Boone's historic section, and is lined with restaurants, a blues club and natural food stores.
In summer, the university's annual Appalachian Summer Festival draws people from across the country. The festival offers a month of dance and theater, symphony and jazz concerts, workshops and art exhibits. The 1998 season includes Willie Nelson (Aug. 1), the pianist Andre Watts (July 25), the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (July 16), and the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra (July 11).
A HALF-DOZEN miles south of Boone, off Route 321, is Blowing Rock, a mountain resort dating from the 1880's. Blowing Rock takes its name from a dramatic rock formation atop John's River Gorge, long a tourist stop with the requisite lovelorn Indian princess legend.
Between the towns lies Tweetsie Railroad, a relaxed amusement park with a narrow-gauge train, gold panning, a petting zoo and shows of old-time music and fast-footed clogging.
Another popular attraction is Art in the Park, one of the nation's oldest juried art festivals, with exhibits this year on May 16, June 13, July 18, Aug. 15, Sept. 12 and Oct. 3 -- all Saturdays. The event has outgrown the park on Main Street and now fills a nearby parking lot. The crafts are exceptional: hand-carved wooden bowls, fused glass in colorful, edgy patterns, jewelry by master silversmiths. Many skilled potters live nearby and some show their wares at the festival.
Expressions Gallery on Main Street also carries a sampling of the creations. The gallery is wedged between a variety of antiques stores, espresso bars and upscale boutiques, including Appalachian Rustic Furnishings, offering handwoven blankets and peeled-log beds.
My favorite store is Trading Roots, owned by a woman trained in anthropology and committed to searching out high-quality goods hand-crafted without exploitation. A Guatemalan women's cooperative made the store's furniture, and there were Hidalgo pottery from Mexico, shell belts and sarongs from Bali and stylish shirts from Sumatra.
Off Main Street lie restaurants and the Inn at Ragged Gardens, a lovely turn-of-the-century manse of a bed-and-breakfast, full of stonework and polished wood. Next door is Crippen's, which serves innovative dishes like grilled grouper with coconut-curry sauce and wilted spinach.
Although restaurants and lodgings seem to outnumber Blowing Rock citizenry, the town works hard to maintain its scenic grace. Rustic stairways lead from the center of town to a path around Mayview Lake and Annie Cannon Gardens, starting point for the Glen Burney Trail, which winds 1.6 miles through verdant woods along a stream embellished by waterfalls.
Beyond the town limits, two places in the highlands stand out: Moses H. Cone Memorial Park and Grandfather Mountain. Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, the 3,600-acre Cone Park offers cool refuge on 25 miles of shaded carriage lanes that meander down to Bass Lake, a one-acre basin surrounded by a walkway and a fringe of trees. The historic 22-room manor house, built in 1908, interprets Appalachian culture and, on the broad porch, tinsmiths, potters and other members of the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild show visitors how they create Appalachian crafts.
Just southwest of Blowing Rock, Grandfather Mountain is so full of natural diversity and rare species it has been designated a United Nations International Biosphere Reserve, one of only 324. It is, at 5,964 feet, the highest peak of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Its 4,000 acres are covered by natural gardens of rhododendron and azaleas, trails that lead to dizzying views by way of ropes and ladders, and forests full of bird song.
Grandfather Mountain is also the site of the annual Highland Games the second weekend in July, when Scottish dancing, piping, drumming and athletics make it clear who settled this corner of the country.
A few 'hollers' in the hills
The easiest way to learn about the attractions, events, restaurants and lodgings in the Boone and Blowing Rock area is to contact these groups:
Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce, Post Office Box 406, Blowing Rock, N.C. 28605; (800) 295-7851. Its Web site, www.blowingrock.com/ northcarolina, has a calendar of events.
Boone Convention and Visitors Bureau, 208 West Howard Street, Boone, N.C. 28607; (800) 852-9506; www.boonechamber.com.
What to see and do
Mast General Store, Highway 194, Valle Crucis, N.C. 28691, is open Monday to Saturday 7 A.M. to 6:30 P.M., and Sunday 1 to 6 P.M.; (704) 963-6511.
Information on Moses H. Cone Memorial Park and other Blue Ridge Parkway highlights is available by calling the parkway automated information line at (828) 298-0398. Ask specifically for the Cone Park brochure. The crafts center in the manor house is open 9 A.M. to 6 P.M. daily; (828) 295-7938.
The Appalachian Summer Festival runs July 5 to Aug. 1 at Applachian State University. Tickets: $7 to $25; (800) 841-2787 or (828) 262-4046.
Hickory Ridge Homestead, Post Office Box 295, Boone, N.C. 28607, is open Saturday 9 A.M. to 4 P.M. and Sunday 1 to 4 P.M. until June 19, then Tuesday to Sunday 1 to 8:30 P.M. From late June through mid-August, the play ''Horn in the West,'' is performed at 8:30 P.M. daily except Monday. Tickets, $12, and $6 for children, includes the $2 admission fee to the museum. Reservations and information: (828) 264-2120.
Daniel Boone Native Gardens, Horn in the West Drive, Post Office Box 2885, Boone. N.C. 28607, is open 9 A.M. to 6 P.M. May through October. Admission: $2; (828) 264-6390.
Admission to Grandfather Mountain, costs $10 and $5 for children 4 to 12. For brochures, maps and a calendar of events, call (800) 468-7325 or see www.grandfather.com. For information on Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, July 9 to 12, including concerts, dancing and competitions, call (828) 733-1333; adult tickets are $8 to $20.
Where to Eat
Caribbean Cafe, 489B West King Street, Boone, serves burgers, pasta and dishes like jerk chicken, grilled salmon tomatillo and beefsteak with rum butter. Dinner for two with beer, about $25; (828) 265-2233.
The menu at Crippen's Country Inn and Restaurant, 239 Sunset Drive, Blowing Rock, changes daily, but has included grilled chicken with polenta, lobster with cognac butter, and pecan-and-goat-cheese-crusted rack of lamb with merlot sauce. Dinner for two with wine is about $80; (828) 295-3487.
The Riverwood, 7179 Valley Boulevard (Highway 321), just north of Blowing Rock, serves such entrees as roast half duckling with peppered peach-ginger glaze, baked trout with apple-almond-basil stuffing and vegetarian dishes like grilled seasonal vegetables with a sauce from sundried tomatoes, Kalamata olives and capers. Dinner for two with wine, $60; (704) 295-4162.
Where to Stay
The Inn at Ragged Gardens, Box 1927, 203 Sunset Drive, Blowing Rock, N.C. 28605, is a seven-room bed-and-breakfast, but will grow to 12 by July. Rooms are furnished with antiques, all but one have Jacuzzis. No smoking. Rates: $140 or $150 a night. Contact: (828) 295-9703.
The Mast Farm Inn, Box 704, Valle Crucis, N.C. 28691, has nine rooms and four cottages. Rates: $100 to $195. The restaurant offers upscale versions of down-home favorites, like sauteed shrimp with white cheddar grits. Dinner for two, about $60, but you must supply your own wine; (888) 963-5857.
Originally published in the New York Times. Printed with permission.
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