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New England: Charming lighthouses, salty ports, postcard church steeples brim with history and culture

August 1, 2014 at 11:44 pm

New England foliage photo 800 x 600What does the paintbrush of your imagination create on your New England canvas? Forests coated with fall colors?  Gleaming white church steeples?  Wood covered bridges?  Such a journey takes on a myriad of hues and complexities as simple as a pinkish sunset and as rugged as a bike race along the Atlantic coastline.

Whether you are planning a family getaway or couples vacation, there’s no place like New England that brings out your inner history and culture geek. Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are the anchor states where you can literally taste the foods of early settlers and relive the experiences of explorers as you tromp overgrown trails.  And on a practical level, with the exception of Boston, the cities and towns of New England are easily drivable with clear signage and smooth roads.  For Boston, the best thing you can do is leave your car at the hotel and take public transportation to wherever you want to go in the city.

How long to stay?  You can zip through New England in one week, but select what you want to see wisely.  A ten-day or two-week stay affords you more time to immerse yourself in a single state and try a host of different activities.

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If you want to pick the most adorable state, I recommend Vermont. You would think the word “charming” was invented here. Crayola red barns, fields of grain, maple trees, and dozens of bed and breakfast inns pindot the landscape.  I also want to note that the Trapp Family Lodge, owned by the offspring depicted in The Sound of Music, provides a rare opportunity to experience the region and learn more about the musical clan.

With little traffic to speak of, you must take advantage of a clear day and rent a bicycle to meander through the quaint towns.  If time affords, you may want to visit Killington for some skiing in the winter and hiking in the summer to the top of Mt. Killington at 4,241 feet.

You can take in farm tours such as the one at Carman Book Farm in Swanton, to see how maple syrup is made in a sugarhouse the old fashioned way.  You can go to the Simon Pearce Restaurant for gourmet eats and go shopping at the Simon Pearce glass gallery on the premises while watching glass blowers at work.8 - Marshall Point Light_0

Adjacent to Vermont is New Hampshire, known for its literary heroes such as Robert Frost and the contemporary Dan Brown of Da Vinci Code fame.  In mountainous New Hampshire, known as the “granite” state for its many granite rock quarries, be sure to get your hiking shoes ready.  Hit the White Mountain National Forest Historic Trail, a 100-mile scenic route laced with historic sites, rivers, and wetlands.  On tap are many small towns and villages that look so quintessential New England you’ll want to whip out your drawing pad.  Be sure to visit the historic Shaker Village in Canterbury to see how this early Christian sect lived, worked, and educated its children.

Next, a visit to Maine certainly means a trek to Freeport where you’ll find a plethora of outlets for everything from designer shoes to kitchenware. There’s more than shopping in Maine, for you must be sure to drive to Bar Harbor’s Acadia National Park to lock in some picturesque views of the water and lush forests.  Activities such as rafting, fly-fishing and even spring skiing are available to the adventurer. Maine is especially proud of its warbler migration and guided moose safaris. All this running around should work up giant appetites for seafood. Remember, this is where the Maine in Maine lobster comes from.  In New England, particularly in Maine, you can eat seafood morning, noon, and night with seafood in every dish from soups to desserts.  Your camera roll of Maine will be filled with images of its islands, beaches, fishing villages, clambakes, wind-jammer cruises, and more. 1gooseberry+beach3_credit+Discover+Newport_36f90b48-fc76-4900-b738-a05694491393-prv

In Rhode Island, the country’s teeniest state, take your crew to big and small museums, and go on tours of the many grand Newport mansions.  You must say hello to the famous Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art in Providence and tennis fans can visit Newport’s International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum.

You can take the frenzied pace of the city a notch down in Cape Cod.  This tourist’s seaport features a litany of water excursions, so jump on a boat ride on the waters of the Atlantic or leisurely wander the genteel streets.  The sunset no less than spectacular, and noshing on a lobster roll as the sky turns orange is as close to heaven as you can get.  The islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket with its myriad of quilted inns and romantic restaurants are only a ferry ride away.

In the spring or summer or fall, the glories of New England pretty much leaves you breathless.  The scenery, history, outdoor doings, museums, signature foods, arts and crafts galleries make for a phenomenal journey that has turned many a vacationer into a resident.

For information about visiting New England, please visit California Tours site:  USA Vacation Packages or call 415-393-4214 today!

Kathy Chin Leong is an award-winning travel journalist who has trekked the world. Her work can be found in National Geographic Books, Sunset Magazine, and many others.

The Deep South is home to America’s music

August 5, 2013 at 11:18 pm

It’s argued that the nation’s music began in the Mississippi River corridor, with jazz emerging from New Orleans and the blues migrating from the Delta into the streets of Memphis where it found its own and evolved into rock ’n’ roll, rhythm and blues and soul. In the rural areas another sound emerged, immigrated from the Old World and evolving as well into bluegrass, rockabilly and country.

Almost all of these distinct American styles can trace their ancestry to the Deep South.

In New Orleans, slaves and later freed African Americans congregated in Congo Square, playing drums and dancing. Their indigenous music would merge with church hymns, spirituals and classical instruments in an exciting new sound called jazz. Views differentiate on who started the lively new music, but most likely it was Buddy Bolden, Nick LaRocca, who recorded the first jazz record and Jelly Roll Morton, who proclaimed, “It is evidently known, beyond contradiction, that New Orleans is the cradle of jazz, and I myself happen to be the inventor in the year 1902.”

Jazz music - saxophone player

Jazz music – saxophone player

Jazz migrated northward with bands like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong and the sound filtrated to the East Coast and became a national and now international sensation.

About the same time African Americans were performing a style of music taken from the cotton fields of the Mississippi River Delta, hard luck stories and hopes sung while working. W.C. Handy heard this rhythmic sound while passing through and published a song based on his recollection. He would later become the “Father of the Blues,” publishing many more like it.

As people began demanding more “blues,” talent from the Mississippi Delta began pouring into Memphis and Chicago to earn money performing. Memphis’s Beale Street was the heart of the Southern action, and soon the place where record producers would start capturing this unique sound on vinyl.

Whether the blues originated distinctly in Mississippi is arguable, but as Steve Cheseborough writes in “Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues,” “Mississippians have always made up a large proportion of all blues singers and an overwhelming proportion of the finest blues singers.”

Ground Zero Blues Club - Photo Credit Chere Coen

Ground Zero Blues Club – Photo Credit Chere Coen

Today, New Orleans continues to celebrate its jazz heritage with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and all types of jazz performed live in venues throughout the city. Pick up Cheseborough’s guide and visit the dozens of blues markers, museums and blues juke joints throughout Mississippi, such as B.B. King’s Museum and Ground Zero Blues Club. There are several of these well-developed markers outside of Mississippi as well, including Graceland, home to Elvis Presley; Ferriday, La., home to Jerry Lee Lewis; and several on and near Beale Street in Memphis.

Speaking of King Elvis, the most popular pop star in American history was born in Tupelo, Miss., earning his fame at the Louisiana Hayride radio show in Shreveport and recording his first hit at Sun Studios in Memphis, both of which are open for tours. Of course all fans will want to visit his Memphis home, Graceland, with its mansion, auto museum, private planes and special exhibits.

Sun Studio in Memphis - Photo Credit Chere Coen

Sun Studios in Memphis – Photo Credit Chere Coen

Visitors who take in the Smithsonian’s Rock and Soul Museum in Memphis will receive an interactive history of the many cultural elements leading to the formation of blues, rock, soul, rhythm and blues and country.

Graceland, home of Elvis Presley. Photo Credit Chere Coen

Graceland, home of Elvis Presley. Photo Credit Chere Coen

As Americans embraced rock ’n’ roll and country, however, a town east of Memphis began recording this widely popular new sound. Many people know Muscle Shoals, Alabama, for its inclusion in the Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song, “Sweet Home Alabama.” The small town is the site of numerous studios where recording rock greats performed — The Osmonds, Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Candi Stanton, Ottis Redding, and the list goes on and on. Visitors can tour FAME Studios and others and stand in the spot where Aretha Franklin recorded “I Never Loved a Man” or Rod Stewart sang “Tonight’s the Night.”

As with all Southern travel, everything relates to food, and nothing tastes better listening to America’s music than Deep South cooking.

Of course, Nashville is the heart of the nation’s country music industry, but a little too far north to be considered Deep South. And that’s the topic of another blog. Stay tuned.

If you are interested in visiting the southern states, check out our New Orleans Vacation Package and Nashville & Memphis Vacation Package and start planning your next vacation!

Cheré Coen is a Lafayette, La., travel writer and author, but a native of New Orleans. Her latest book is “Exploring Cajun Country: A Tour of Historic Acadiana.” Follow her at WeirdSouth.blogspot.com

Lafayette — Heart of Cajun Country & so much more

June 6, 2013 at 11:48 pm

Lafayette, the heart of Cajun Country in South Louisiana, has been buzzing for several years now. Known for its vibrant Cajun and zydeco music, the town’s musicians have garnered international nods and raked up a few Grammys. Its culinary scene, once strictly a Cajun food mecca, has expanded and evolved, one of the reasons Lafayette was named “Best for Food” by Rand McNally’s 2011 “Best of the Road” contest and the 2012 “Tastiest Town in the South” by Southern Living magazine.

Boiled crawfish with corn - a favorite Cajun dish

Boiled crawfish with corn – a favorite Cajun dish

The Lafayette Utilities System installed a citywide fiber optics service that’s been making headlines everywhere, attracting national companies and film professionals — Harry Potter’s 3-D effects were created here. And this past year Lafayette was named best in job growth and low unemployment and one of 20 finalists in the Mayor’s Challenge by Blumberg Philanthropies, picked from more than 300 cities nationwide.

Ask people who live in Lafayette, however, and they’ll tell you it’s the people who make it so special. Lafayette is rich in culture, history, food and fun and all of that stems from its residents. Here people work hard but at the end of the day love to eat good food, listen to great music and dance the night away. Or as they say in Cajun Country, “pass a good time” or “laissez les bon temps roullez” or “let the good times roll.”

So if you’re headed to Lafayette, be sure and bring your dance shoes. On any given night live music can be found in a variety of styles at a host of music venues, from roots rock at the Blue Moon Saloon and Guest House to traditional Cajun and zydeco at restaurants with dance floors, such as Randol’s. There’s even a week of music classes, jam sessions and culinary instruction at the annual spring Dewey Balfa Cajun and Creole Heritage Week, for those who want to learn everything there is to know about Cajun and Creole culture — and join in the fun.

Blue Moon Saloon - credit Blue Moon Saloon & Guest House

Blue Moon Saloon – credit Blue Moon Saloon & Guest House

Every spring and fall Lafayette is home to world-renown festivals and free concert series are held in “parcs” in downtown Lafayette. Festival International de Louisiane takes over downtown streets with several stages of music, arts and crafts and of course that delectable cuisine on the last weekend of April. It’s one of the world’s largest free outdoor music events, bringing in musicians from all over the Francophone world. In October, Festivals Acadiens et Crèoles offers both traditional and modern Cajun and zydeco music on several stages in Girard Park, along with Louisiana crafts, food and cultural lectures. Lafayette Mardi Gras celebrations range from the family-friendly parades and balls in town to the unique rural Courir de Mardi Gras celebrations, where participants ride horseback begging for ingredients to a gumbo. The annual courirs hail back to medieval times.

The accordion is one of the main instruments used in zydeco music

The accordion is one of the main instruments used in zydeco music

Lafayette’s historic sites explain area history of Cajun and Creole settlers, who created an American heritage like no other. Visitors may stroll back in time at Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park, and the historic Acadian Village. Both sites offer live music and special events year-round.

Attractions include the Zoo of Acadiana, the Children’s Museum of Acadiana, the Lafayette Science Museum and plenty of outdoors activities, from hunting and fishing to biking along established trails and canoeing and kayaking in nearby bayous and Lake Martin. There are several state parks nearby, including Lake Fausse Point, the Louisiana Arboretum, Chicot State Park and St. Martinville’s Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site. All are fun destinations for those touring or sightseeing.

Louisiana Bayou - Lake Martin

Louisiana Bayou – Lake Martin

And because the Cajun culture is still vibrant in Lafayette and surrounding areas, it’s possible to hear French being spoken. There are weekly French tables throughout “Acadiana” where people gather for conversation and community and visitors are always welcome. And for those who want to bring their instruments, there are numerous jam sessions held monthly in the area as well, from the monthly Second Saturday ArtWalk to regular sessions at the Scott Welcome Center. Age is never a consideration, not is the ability to sing in French.

Lafayette lies about two hours west of New Orleans and just south of Interstate 10. Known as “coastal South,” the weather is often hot and humid in the summer but fall and spring are gorgeous times to visit, with flowers blooming for months. Winters are practically non-existent. Because it’s almost a subtropical zone, rain showers are likely throughout most of the year, sometimes violent. Be prepared for sunshine one minute and thunderclaps the next.

If you are interested in visiting southern states, check out our Charleston Vacation Packages and start planning your next vacation!

Cheré Coen is a Lafayette, La., travel writer and author, but a native of New Orleans. Her latest book is “Exploring Cajun Country: A Tour of Historic Acadiana.” Follow her at WeirdSouth.blogspot.com

Nashville

June 6, 2013 at 11:42 pm

Nashville is a great mid-South city rich in history, bursting with Southern hospitality and food and humming with a vibrant musical heritage.

The town began with the settlement of Fort Nashborough, named for Revolutionary War hero Gen. Francis Nash. The city later became Nashville, home to President Andrew Jackson. And after it rebounded from the Civil War, Nashville developed itself as a hub of collegiate education, giving it the nickname as “Athens of the South.”

Nashville Parthenon

Nashville Parthenon

But most people know Nashville as the heart of the nation’s country music industry, which is why it’s nicknamed “Music City.”

Whether you’re traveling to Nashville to tour the historic sites, enjoy the family friendly activities or learn more about country music, the city has it all.

Start with accommodations. The Hermitage Hotel, built in 1908 as Nashville’s first million-dollar hotel and named for Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage estate, is a grand downtown landmark, from its breathtaking lobby to the outstanding customer service. The hotel is centrally located and offers dining options as well.

Inside view of the Ryman Auditorium

Inside view of the Ryman Auditorium

Visitors to Nashville should start with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to receive an excellent overview of the city’s music industry. The museum includes rhinestone costumes, original instruments, Elvis’ car and much more. Here visitors can pick up a tour to the Historic RCA Studio B, where numerous stars recorded 35,000 songs, including Elvis’ “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Once you hear some of the recordings made at Studio B you’ll see why it’s nicknamed “the Home of a Thousand Hits.”

Opryland Garden Conservatory Atrium - credit Gaylord Opryland Resort

Opryland Garden Conservatory Atrium – credit Gaylord Opryland Resort

The Grand Ole Opry began in Nashville in 1925 by an insurance company looking to advertise its policies with a “WSM Barn Dance” (WSM being the company’s motto, “We Shield Millions). The show became immensely popular and was renamed the Grand Ole Opry in 1927, quickly becoming one of radio’s longest shows, later moving into television. The Opry performed within the Ryman Auditorium for nearly 31 years before relocating to a larger space at Opryland Resort and Convention Center.

Since the move, the Ryman has been lovingly restored, is open for daytime tours and is used as a performing space, with the Opry returning on special occasions. The Grand Ole Opry can still be heard regularly at Opryland at its sparkling new Grand Ole Opry House. The resort offers almost 3,000 rooms and nine acres (yes, that’s acres!) of indoor gardens and waterfalls and is a great place to stay, especially for families.

Nashville Symphony Photo credit: Nashville Symphony

Nashville Symphony
Photo credit: Nashville Symphony

Other places to visit include:

  • The Nashville Symphony’s new $123 million Schermerhorn concert hall with its almost 2,000 seats on three levels, a massive custom-built organ, a choral loft that can accommodate 146 chorus members and soundproof windows letting in soft, natural light.
  • The Parthenon in Centennial Park is the world’s only exact replica of the Greek temple to honor goddess Athena, built for the Tennessee Exposition in 1897.
  • The 1830 Hermitage was the home of America’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson, and includes home, horse-drawn wagon and seasonal walking tours.
  • The Frist Center for the Visual Arts occupies a renovated 1933 post office and the building is as much an exhibit as the changing art displays.
  • For kids, there’s the Adventure Science Center and the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere.

For more information on Nashville, visit the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau

If you are interested in visiting southern states, check out our Nashville & Memphis Vacation Package and start planning your next vacation!

Web sites
The Hermitage Hotel

Country Music Hall of Fame

Grand Ole Opry

The Ryman Auditorium

Gaylord Opryland Resort

Schermerhorn Symphony Center

The Frist Center

Adventure Science Center

Nashville Zoo at Grassmere

Cheré Coen is a Lafayette, La., travel writer and author. Her latest book is “Exploring Cajun Country: A Tour of Historic Acadiana.” Follow her at WeirdSouth.blogspot.com.