Fyllis Hockman

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Forty pairs of eyes scan the countryside looking for movement, any movement. With binoculars and cameras at the ready, we hoped for a bear or a moose but were willing to settle for some Dall sheep high up the mountain. Not a passenger aboard the bus maintained a semblance of composure. We scurried like kids from one side to the other, eager to be the first to announce the next sighting. Such was my introduction to the Tundra Wilderness Tour, a 6-8 hour excursion into Denali National Park, one of the highlights of my Gray Line Adventure Tour through southern Alaska. Denali National Park is larger than the state of Massachusetts and tenderly watched over by Mt. McKinley (called Mt. Denali — “the high one” — by the locals), at over 20,000 feet the highest mountain in North America.

On an African safari, the goal is to spot the Big Five — lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, cape buffalo. In Alaska, the concept is the same — just the names are different: moose, bear, wolf, caribou and Dall sheep. But when we initially stopped to see a rabbit — okay, our guide called it a Snoeshoe Hare — I thought, “This is not a good sign.” And in truth, you can’t always accurately decipher what you see in the distance: snow fills are mistaken for sheep; large boulders for bears. Hopes rise and are dashed and the guide takes refuge in another Snowshoe Hare.
But this is a tour for the long haul — and you’re not likely to be disappointed. And even more impressive, our driver/guide John Miller, with infectious enthusiasm, kept up a constant patter covering vegetation, history, animal lore, Alaskan peccadilloes, personal experiences and other tantalizing tidbits for almost seven hours. The fact that it was still interesting by that seventh hour is even more of a phenomenal accomplishment. The running commentary that accompanied John’s driving along narrow, winding roads clutching the mountainside while he rapidly gazed right and left for any movement that might indicate animal activity was an heroic act of multi-tasking I didn’t want to think too much about.
And there was always something to see — over the course of the tour, we saw numerous Dall sheep, occasional moose, caribou (AKA reindeer), the ubiquitous Snowshoe hares, of course, and other native wildlife. And should the animals play hard to get for a period of time, just lifting your eyes to the proverbial snow-capped mountains in the distance is enough to keep you enthralled until the next native creature reveals itself.

Because the bus is so big, the sound of recognition travels like a wave from front to back — and there’s always a risk the animal the front has viewed is gone by the time the back of the bus catches up. But never fear. On the off-chance you miss the mama moose and her calf or the Dall sheep straddling a steep slope, it will magically appear on the TV screens lowered above the seats in the bus. Close-up images from the driver’s video camera are reflected on the drop-down screens. I was torn between resenting seeing my ”in the wild” Alaskan wildlife resembling a Discovery Channel documentary and feeling grateful I could see them at all — and close up at that.
But, in truth, I was in it for the bears. Earlier in the trip, I had discovered that we were there too early in the year (June instead of July) for the running of the salmon and, therefore, too early for the bears to gather around the streams just waiting for those happily spawning salmon to fly into their mouths. My own mouth had been watering at the very thought of watching such a spectacle.
So once in Denali, I hoped at least to finally get my chance to see bears. John kept re-assuring us we would certainly see grizzlies, but by hour number six, when only a glimpse of brown had been seen once in the far distance, he finally, guiltily, sorrowfully, very apologetically acknowledged that maybe we wouldn’t this trip.

And then suddenly, the cry went out — waves of wows traveled along the bus — as a momma and two bear cubs came into view. “Hallelujah,” cried one excited passenger; “Thank goodness, we paid $5000 to see that critter,” noted another. John admitted he was getting quite nervous — only 20 times in 18 seasons had he not seen a bear. It was far away and it clearly wasn’t catching any fish, but I did feel some sense of vindication.

At the end of the trip, John played back the video that captured the highlights of our bus trip from hare to bear and all the other denizens of Denali in between: the many Dall sheep, mama moose with twins, caribou, golden eagle, ground squirrels, ptarmigans (the state bird) and, of course, the bears. We just missed Alaska’s Big Five by one wolf. Not surprisingly, like the ubiquitous gift shop at the end of every museum tour, the video was for sale.

But Denali was only one stop on the Gray Line Escorted Alaska Explorer Tour. There were also glaciers and mountains and gold mining history and native cultures and whale watching tours and frontier towns and back country plus a myriad of experiences I’ve had nowhere else. In the process, I learned to appreciate not only America’s Last Frontier but the hardy, independent-minded people who inhabit it. Still next time, I want to see more bears.

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I told myself ahead of time I would not stare. Even though the bare breasts hung low and large, my eyes instead went to the large, intricate metal jewelry adorning their necks, wrists and ankles. I was believed that what might have been an embarrassing focus became only a gloss-over glance.

Viewing a live nude show in Vegas? Not quite. Instead, this was my introduction to the beautiful bodies and gentle lifestyle of the Himba people, the last remaining tribe in Namibia, on the southwest coast of Africa, to cling savagely to its native identity dating back over 500 years.

Although most of the country’s 12 separate ethnic groups have retained their own language, food and beliefs, many have been converted to Christianity and, while still very poor, have become somewhat Westernized. Not so the Himbas. Clad in very little clothing, breasts exposed, their bodies covered daily through a lengthy ritual with red ocher pigment mixed with animal fat, the Himbas maintain a primitive culture. There are no stores in the village, no satellite dishes, and no outhouses. Using the woods that border their village as their toilet, it was clearly the largest bathroom facility I had ever seen. On the other hand, the men don’t have to worry about remembering to put the seat down.

Unlike other tribes, the more isolated and economically self-sustaining Himbas were able to resist the influence of missionaries who wanted them to cover their bodies, change their gods, upgrade their stick, mud and dung huts, and modernize their nomadic lifestyle. They are similar perhaps to the more well-known Masai tribes in Kenya in their ability to maintain ancient customs.

Bhavi related the story that several years ago, one of the Himba leaders was invited to Germany, a country that once controlled Namibia in the early 1900’s, to talk about the German atrocities that occurred there in 1904. Though urged to wear modern clothes, he refused to sacrifice his traditional attire.

Commenting on the matriarchal society of the Himba, in which the women do most of the work inside and outside the household, our guide pointed out: “The women call the shots but they make the men feel they’re in charge.” Somehow this did not seem like such an alien concept to the men on our tour…

Several of the women in the small village, made up of circular huts that might, depending upon the time of day, house as many chickens or calves as they do people, gathered in a circle to tell stories and sell their wares. Through a local interpreter/guide, I queried the female elder of the tribe about whether the young girls object to the daily ocher ritual or might want to dress in a more modern fashion: “They do not want to change,” she adamantly assured me. “They are happy continuing their traditions.” Nonetheless, the local guide shyly indicated that that’s not always true.
The guide further explained that in reality the Himbas are slowly being forced to alter their lifestyle due to lack of pasture for their cattle, encroachment upon their land by more modern-leaning tribes, and other Western influences. Not surprisingly, this is something they do not want to accept. I then asked my captive audience if the Himbas were under any pressure from the government to change. The response: “Because we are a self-sustaining society — we tend our own goats and cattle and grow our own food — there is nothing external that can force us to change. Even people coming with electricity and other forms of modernization — even if they come with cattle prods to move a stubborn herd — we will resist.” She was pretty convincing. The local guide looked skeptical.
The Himbas were only one of several different tribespeople we met with and in every other case, the mere mention of President Obama brought exuberant thumbs up and high fives. When I alluded to him in front of the lovely group of Himba women, however, I was greeted with blank stares.

Those of you who wish a closer look at Himba culture without traveling to Namibia should rent the feature film, “Babies,” which came out, appropriately, in time for last Mother’s Day. It follows toddlers from four countries, including one from a Himba community in Namibia.

Namibia is not only known for its interesting two-legged inhabitants; its four-legged creatures are equally intriguing. Although Etosha National Park is the premiere game-viewing area, we had seen quite a few animals, including ostrich, oryx, kudo, springbok, giraffe, zebra, baboon, jackal and elephant, during a previous stop at the Palmwag Concession southwest of the park.

By the time we got to Etosha, we were all pretty much of one mind: if it’s not a lion, cheetah or a rhino, don’t bother telling us. But Etosha, home to 114 species of wildlife, didn’t disappoint. Within 10 minutes of entering the park, we saw a lion. Okay, it was more than 350 yards away, but Bhavi said it was a lion and we believed him.

After that, however, it was downhill. When we next stopped miles later, it was for a rabbit. I thought, “Wow, he’s getting desperate!” But my cynicism was short-lived. Soon we arrived at a watering hole giving sustenance to a whole family of lions — a large-maned dad, a sleek-looking mom and a number of cuddly cubs, while nearby a lioness neighbor was feasting on a dead rhino. Hanging out at a safe distance were dozens of thirsty springboks, zebras and jackals just hoping the lions would tire of the watering hole and leave. They just stood there — lusting — and Bhavi predicted that none would get to drink that day.
The intimidation was palpable — until one very brave little warthog approached the far end of the waterhole; eventually, a couple of zebras and springboks followed suit. I could just imagine the thought process: “Well, if he could do it, I may as well try.”
At that point, I could have returned to our lodge and been very happy with the day’s outing — and it was only 9 o’clock in the morning! But in truth, animal viewing in Etosha can be somewhat sporadic.
If the goal of your trip is a safari, go to Tanzania, Kenya or Botswana; but if you’re seeking sheer diversity of experience extending from unique topography — the highest sand dunes in the world — to indigenous culture to a fair amount of animal viewing, Namibia should be at the top of anyone’s Big Five (to keep with safari terminology) list!
For more information, log onto oattravel.com or call (800) 955-1925.

Photo credits: Bruce Genderson for the rhino and the village.
Victor Block for the elephants and the Himba woman

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They say it’s hard to walk in another’s footsteps, but those were exactly the instructions we received when trekking along the ridge of an approximately 350-foot-high sand dune in Namibia. The old mountain-climbing adage applies here, as well: “The slower you go up the mountain, the faster you get there.”

The country is located on the southwest coast of Africa and is named after The Namib, a 1200-mile-long stretch of real estate where scorching desert in stunning contrast overlaps frigid sea, and water, wind, sand and sun play off each other to create a unique visual landscape that challenges the most versatile of photographers. The desert, home to the highest sand dunes in the world, parallels the Skeleton Coast, so named in honor of the many wrecked ships and sailors’ lives lost over centuries. The latter also is home to hundreds of thousands of seals but despite their close proximity, rarely do the seals climb the dunes…
Our sunrise ascent of the dunes, rust in color, smooth in texture, mountainous in size, and other-worldly in nature, was part of many such excursions on our Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) tour, where the daily mantra of our guide, Bhavi, focused on “learning and discovery.” But more on that later.

First, from the summit we watched the early sunlight dancing on the dunes to the tune of orange, pink, tan, yellow and gray-colored notes. Later, flying in a small plane above a wider panorama, the dunes more resembled frothy peaks of pink meringue covering the countryside, and the sensuous gradations, indentations and undulations created by the shadows playing off those soft swirls of desert icing added as much to this visual feast as has the sweet geology of time.

My fellow travelers on the tour, all OAT veterans and intrepid adventurers, came to Namibia in part because it was virgin tourist territory. Mary Jo McDonald of Madison, Wisconsin touted the trip as “Exactly what I expected. It was full of adventure, exposure to under-developed areas with wildlife different from my other trips.” And she added: “I came primarily to see the dunes and they didn’t disappoint. I loved climbing them at sunrise and seeing them in such terrific light.”

The first thing you notice upon arrival at the Cape Cross Fur Seal Reserve, one of about 25 colonies along the Skeleton Coast and the only one accessible to the public, is a slightly pungent acrid odor. That greeting is followed by a modest barking sound, the level of which increases greatly as you approach further. As the general din breaks down into honking, wheezing, coughing, whining, braying, cackling, and bleating, and the small black dots begin to take shape as they lumber across the rocks, I wondered: “How can so many of the same species make so many different sounds?”

What first seemed like just a clamor of sounds then take on a more emotional content: The racket emanating from the mass of slippery humanity below? Sorrowful, belligerent, questioning, anxious, soulful. As I pondered their fierce existence — frigid waters, rocky shore, crowded conditions — I thought, “No wonder their cries are so mournful…”

The throngs of thousands are animated. Some seals brave the rough waters of the Atlantic, others settle for sunbathing; mothers tend to their pups, teens engage in rough `n tumble frolic, a bull or two seem to have what appears to be some words with each other. While I was mesmerized by the sea lions, the birdwatcher next to me was trying to determine whether it was a ruddy turnstone or an orange-legged ruff running along the surf. Avid birdwatchers are a species all to their own.
I felt like a Peeping Tom overlooking massive gray communities of seals and stones merging together in a surreal setting. Outside one large boulder condo unit, a fiery male ferociously defends his territory. A little further away, some parents and their children are out for a stroll — albeit a somewhat bumpy one. Down another (decidedly) rocky road, a handsome young stud seemingly flirts with several females at once. Hmmm — perhaps not so different a social venue than our own.

Our OAT guide, who didn’t shy away from controversial topics — a very unusual trait among tour guides — told us that clubbing of the young is still used as a means of depleting the number of seals, seen by fisherman as a threat to their livelihood. As evidence builds that it’s more the humans than the seals that are responsible for the lower fish supply, it is hoped that the practice of culling will recede. Another “learning and discovery” moment.

But there is a lot more to recommend this unusual country than just its western coastline; the culture of its people and its wildlife offer visitors a whole other dimension to appreciate. More of that in Namibia Part II.

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When the couple, there for their 20th visit, commented that it was the first time they had taken the house tour — one of the staples of the Mohonk Mountain House experience — I asked what they had been doing all those years. Liz and Dan Gleason from Haddon Heights, NJ, replied: “There’s just so much to do all the time, you just can’t fit it all in. Every year, there’s a new surprise. This year, it’s the Smiley family parlor.”

And therein lie two of the greatest pleasures at this glorious old resort in New Paltz, NY — activities to keep you busy all day (but only if desired) and the connection to the Smiley family, who has owned and operated the resort for over 140 years. That connection reverberates throughout the property, which has been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. First bought in 1869 by twins Albert and Alfred Smiley, the 10-room tavern that sat on 300 acres of lake and farm area has been expanded to encompass 265 rooms in connected buildings spanning a sixth of a mile, while the property now extends to 2200 acres.

Their most recent nod to architectural modernity came in 2005 when they added an ecologically sensitive, geothermally heated spa wing and the first and only — and long overdue (at least to my way of thinking…) — cocktail lounge. The structural expansion prior to that? 1902. This leaves you very unprepared for the grandiose creation greeting you as you drive up. The mammoth building sitting atop a hill more resembles a haunted house than a mountain resort. All jutting angles and balustrades, widows, peaks and turrets, circular, angular and pointed wood, stone and rock cliffs result in a hodge-podge of architectural styles for which eclectic is an understatement. It’s an imposing mish-mosh of disparate styles, all tacked one upon the other, without thought to form or aesthetic. You don’t know whether you’ve arrived at a world-class hotel (which it is), Rapunzel’s castle or the Addams Family abode; you do know that it’s wonderful.

A walk through its many halls presents a similar adventure. A labyrinth of hallways, stairways, cubicles and cubby halls features a surprise at every turn: an aquarium, library, billiard room, activity center. The life-size stuffed Basset Hound and Russell Terrier in front of the gift shop were so real I was sure I heard them bark. A Rogue’s Gallery of famous people and family members who contributed to the long history of Mohonk features pictures of Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Carnegies who vacationed here along with several presidents and other heads of state. Around every corner, a rocking chair, lounge chair, or settee looking out on yet another beautiful view. Long porches and outdoor alcoves everywhere lined with more rocking chairs, many facing the lake caressed by canoes, rowboats, kayaks and paddle boats beckoning for attention. The whole idea is to get guests to look at, get out in and enjoy the surrounding nature. Or not. Sitting also is good.
Some resorts boast multiple restaurants and swimming pools — at Mohonk, it’s rocking chairs and gazebos. Thus many a guest can be found sitting in any one of 138 gazebos spread throughout the property — the Smileys put them in areas they identified as beautiful locations, which accounts for their large number — either reading a book or just staring out at the lake or mountain before them. Or equally entranced by flower-laden, canopied pathways interconnected by wooden bridges, trellised walkways, green bushes and rock outcroppings. The connection with nature is all-encompassing. Be prepared: there are so many places — gazebos, benches, chairs, hidden nooks, alcoves, both indoors and out — enticing you to just sit and read that you should carry a book with you at all times (or, if you’re under 18, your iPod).

Sitting on our balcony — there we had to make due with yet another rocking chair, which are the only things that outnumber the gazebos — overlooking the views was so peaceful we had to force ourselves to get up and start undertaking the myriad of activities awaiting us. As an incentive to get moving, the map of the building lists 58 different destinations — and those are just indoors! We’ll talk about the outdoor options later.

Just as the current structure is essentially unchanged since 1902, the same goes for the initial mission of the resort, as first espoused by Albert Smiley: it remains dedicated to a renewal of the mind, body and spirit in a beautiful natural setting. That vision still permeates the property, embodying an old-world ambience that adds charm and character that no modern-day hotel complex can come close to matching.
You want to do some hiking, rock-climbing or caving? You’re in the right place. Want to ride a snowmobile, a Jet Ski or watch TV – you’re not. Mohonk is all about tranquility. And simplicity. This is not the kind of place where they bring you umbrella drinks by the pool. That same Quaker philosophy also limits any raucous nightlife options. In lieu of the usual resort band and dancing, there may be a lecture on the Geology and Paleontology of the Hudson Valley. Seems like a fair trade-off… Okay, there actually is a TV located in one of the meeting rooms but a guest survey taken five years ago in which 97% of respondents said they didn’t want them in the rooms probably assures that there won’t be many more making an appearance. And the 15-20 local Smileys still involved in day-to-day operations probably also guaranty that the same ideal will continue. But make no mistake: this is no out-dated, out-of-touch, old-fashioned resort experience; I predict an exciting, activity-laden, fun-filled time to which, like the Gleasons, you’ll want to return to year-after-year.

Now, about those other activities? There’s swimming, inside and out, fitness center and spa, boating, fishing, yoga, guided nature tours, croquet, golf, tennis and, in winter, ice skating, snowshoeing and tubing. Eighty-five miles of carriage roads and trails are available for hiking, running, biking, horseback riding and cross-country skiing. Strolling the grounds is an activity in itself, past fish ponds, a putting green, stables, a Barn Museum chock-full of fascinating antiques and historic memorabilia, and extensive award-winning gardens. Some are laid out in a well-marked precisely structured design, an interesting antidote to the resort’s chaotic architectural structure; other less manicured foliage spill out over more trellised walkways and, yes, more gazebos, leading around, through, between, beneath and beyond an intricate maze — literally — of evergreen trees.
Rates start at $500 per room, double occupancy. Three meals daily plus afternoon tea and cookies are also included in the room rates, as is a Kids’ Club providing as many hour-by-hour activities for children ages 2-12 as for adults. Although there’s an additional charge for some of the usual suspects (horseback riding, carriage rides, spa treatments), all those other activities are complimentary.

Mohonk is also well-known for its more than 40 theme weekends throughout the year from Mystery Weekends to Rock `n Roll to Culinary to Hiking to Yoga and so much more. If you have an interest, they probably have a weekend.

For more information, call 1/800-772-6646 or visit www.mohonk.com.

Their bodies were sleek and graceful, the skin soft to the touch, their demeanor welcoming even if a bit skeptical. Still, they were more used to this than I was. But I spread my arms out as instructed and flapped them in the water. Annie and DeeDee, my dolphin snorkeling companions, then swam under my outstretched limbs, and as I grasped on to their dorsal fins, they took me on a wild water-park ride, the likes of which I’ll never forget. Such is one of the many highlights at the Dolphin Academy, one of several up-front-and-personal animal encounters available at the Sea Aquarium on the Caribbean island of Curacao.

Now I don’t usually like watching animals perform tricks that are alien to their DNA for the amusement of tourists, but at the Dolphin Academy, the residents are treated with such loving care, I swam alongside them with minimal guilt. According to trainer Yvette, the dolphins are the first priority. “They are on a very light work schedule and every day, it varies. Like humans, they react better when their life is not all that predictable. And if for any reason they don’t want to perform — perhaps they’re preoccupied with a personal family situation (I didn’t pursue that) — the program is called off.”

And once I found out that both Annie and DeeDee were pregnant, I chose to think of our swim together as a pre-natal exercise program. Prior to the snorkel, Yvette instructed us on how to proceed: be patient; let them come to you; stroke them along their flanks. She taught us how to encourage the dolphin to come alongside and then free dive in unison. Annie and I shared a number of shallow dives together, and in parting she gave me a kiss. Okay, so she did it because she got a fish, but still I thought she was actually smiling at me at the time — and in recent Sarah Palin tradition, I’m pretty sure she winked.
Dafne Greeven, a dive instructor from The Hague, Netherlands, said she had seen dolphin in the ocean, but had never interacted with them. “Most animal encounters are much more commercial,” she observed. “Snorkeling with them was a very special, personal experience. It was wonderful to see how well they treat the dolphins here and encourage us to be relaxed so that the dolphins will be.”

The snorkel exercise is one of six interactive programs conducted at the Academy. Other options include standing with, swimming with and diving with — plus two multi-day programs where participants actually work alongside the trainers. The Dolphin Academy, like the other animal encounter offerings at the Sea Aquarium, is one of the very few — if not the only — such program in the world. And it was only the start of my very personal connection with sea life in Curacao. My next encounter took me even further underwater — my first dive. I again received basic information on how to use the equipment. There were so many hoses, gadgets and gauges — and the many things that could go wrong with any of them — that the simple act of when and how to breathe took on a life of its own. The equipment was more intimidating than the sharks I was later to encounter. It reminded me of the fine print that comes with a bottle of aspirin: if you were to actually read it you would never take the pill.
But I now know why divers are as fanatic as they are. When you snorkel, you’re an observer; when you dive, you’re part of the experience. I was surrounded by dozens of fish of multiple hues, plus sting rays, grouper and tarpon. And I was feeding them all squiggly little sardines while at the same time making meaningful eye contact. Well, meaningful to me anyway. Since the experience was billed as the only place in the world where first-time divers can swim with and feed fish, huge loggerhead turtles, and sharks, I wasn’t really surprised to find those turtles and sharks behind a Plexiglas shield and fed through small holes in the glass. Still. the shark didn’t look any less menacing for being behind protective covering.
Back on land, my next animal rendezvous was of a more playful nature. I got to meet and greet Corey, the sea lion. Again, there are multiple ways to interact. There’s a land option where you get to spend some personal time, a snorkel program, and an open ocean get-together involving a dive along a reef with the sea lions in their native habitat. You may notice a pattern here but it is the only dive of its kind in the world. I learned the difference between sea lions and seals and watched Corey do a seal imitation as he flopped along on his belly. Sea lions are much more genteel when they move — they walk on all fours. Using flippers, of course, but still… Corey had a bit to say during our tete-a-tete, but his vocalization, unfortunately, resembled a very loud, deep belch that tended to continue long after it was socially acceptable to do so. But still he was very cute — and, like Annie, very affectionate. Yup, I got another kiss. Between the two, I got more action that weekend than I remember occurring at the height of my dating career.
A visit to a nearby ostrich farm left me less enamored with animals in captivity. I found it a little sad — not to mention ironic — that they were pushing ostrich meat in the restaurant because it’s low in cholesterol; and even more disturbed to discover that most of the young end up on the menu.

Ostriches are a lot more aggressive than dolphins. In an effort to illustrate the warning dance they do when provoked, our guide Alexander poked and prodded one male ostrich in a very threatening way that made me very uncomfortable, along with the ostrich. Clearly a philosophy very much at odds with the approach adopted by the Dolphin Academy which emphasizes the well-being of the dolphin over that of entertaining the consumer.
Let’s just say ostriches are not nearly as endearing as dolphins and sea lions. And while I chose not to partake of their meat in the restaurant, I did feel a little guilty at lunch following the dolphin swim eating a fried fish sandwich.

There are, of course, other more mundane opportunities to interact with animals on the island, in addition to the excellent diving and snorkeling for which the island is known. These include horseback riding, a butterfly farm, viewing bats hanging out in caves, lots of bird and lizards, and if you are so tempted, a visit to Jaanchie Restaurant. Here an iquana, a relative of whom I had just seen scurrying across my path on a hike, showed up instead in a stew. According to chef and owner, Jaanchie, it may “taste like chicken but it acts like Viagra.” Ha! At least the iguana had more to tempt some to eat it than the ostrich meat.

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The year is 1645. The most virulent strain of the Bubonic Plague has immobilized Edinburgh, Scotland, claiming the lives of more than half the city’s population. The area hardest hit: Mary King’s Close on High Street, a busy thoroughfare and lively 17th century street of pubs, shops and residences. Unspeakable suffering is the order of the day.
The place, the time, the horror have been resurrected as Edinburgh’s major new attraction, which opened mid-April. Archaeologically and historically accurate, the alleys you walk upon, the rooms you visit, the stories you hear are real. This is not a recreation; it is a resurrection of what already existed so many centuries ago.
Beneath the City Chambers on Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile, lies Mary King’s Close, a series of closes (narrow, winding side streets with multi-level apartment houses looming on either side) which have been hidden for many years. In 1753, the houses at the top of the buildings were knocked down to make way for the new building, now called the City Chambers. Part of the lower sections were used as the foundation, leaving below a number of dark and mysterious underground alleyways steeped in mystery — and misery.
The newly opened exhibit breathes new life into this underground world dominated by death. Reconstructed as it was then – though without any contagious aspects – Mary King’s Close provides an amazing insight into a period of history with which many are totally unfamiliar – and it’s been preserved in an authentic environment and historically accurate depiction that defies most “commercial” historical reproductions.

906aa800“Our aim is to reveal the very real history connected to this intriguing place.   From the newly discovered documentary and archaeological evidence found, we are able, for the first time, to trace the real lives and accurately interpret the living conditions of the real people who lived in these Closes throughout the centuries,” explains Dr. Dominic Tweddle, chief executive of the Continuum Group, the company which developed the site.
It is eerie meandering up and down along dark, circuitous unpaved passageways, beaten down earth floors (good walking shoes are a must; wheelchair accessible it is not) – past room after room, each with its own story to tell – a projection of people who lived in the Close in the mid-16th-19th centuries. I almost feel an intruder, the subtle lighting enhancing the effects of a shadowy past. But the journey is a fascinating one.
The inhabitants — ranging from those gracing a grand 16th century townhouse to plague victims of the 17th century to the third-generation saw makers who departed in 1902 — are not composites of might-have-beens; the lives recounted are based on real people gleaned from primary documentation (written at the time) and preserved in the Scottish Office of Records and its archives.
The one-hour tour begins with a multi-media presentation illustrating the Closes in the context of the City Chambers and surrounding areas. Shaking heads and small cries of amazement greet the 3-D model of what we are about to experience. The intricacies of the exhibit’s intertwining closes and the rooms that inhabit them provide perspective that we might not otherwise have when walking up and down and across the darkly lit streets below.
Lighting conveys the supernatural nature of the attraction as much as does the narrative. Only “practicals” – original methods of lighting the dwellings – are used, re-creating the actual lighting conditions of the 17th-18th centuries. Candle light illuminates one room, while the glow of firelight casts its spell in another. A single low-watt light bulb brings others into hazy focus.

8ac96e00The dark hallways are lit by lantern-like “bowats,” providing only as much light as was necessary to light the streets at night. The lighting levels in each room are just enough to highlight its architectural features, furniture or inhabitants – no more or less than was available to the tenants at the time. The concept of atmospheric lighting takes on a whole new dimension.
There’s no getting around it — it IS dark – and torches are available to visitors upon request.
Rounding one curve reveals a large window, lit by a gloomy, greenish, unhealthy light. A doctor emerges, tending to bed-ridden figures, covered with sores, boils and diseased skin. It’s the home of John Craig, a grave-digger who has already succumbed to the “visitation of the pestilence,” his body awaiting “collection.”

8b2cf840Other family members, in different stages of the deadly malady, remain wracked with pain. By the door there is bread, ale and coal delivered to the quarantined family. The townspeople want to ensure the afflicted stay in their homes, so the healthy have good reason to give generously.
Repellant odors arising from the family chamber pot of vomit provide a little more “reality” than even today’s network TV has prepared me for.
And therein lies the tragedy of Mary King’s Close – much of its history parallels that of the plague. The epidemic struck its residents fiercely; as the deaths rose, the bodies accumulated outside to be carried away by those designated to perform the loathsome task. Mary King’s Close was a pariah in the neighborhood – and ultimately fell victim to its own diseased fate. It disappeared, as well.
Myth, up to now, had it that the Close was “enclosed,” with its inhabitants buried alive in the process, so as not to contaminate the rest of the town — a ghastly blight on Edinburgh’s history. New research reveals a less grisly story: that the term “enclosed” refers instead to its quarantine status rather than its demise.
With more than two dozen stops along the tour path – each accompanied by an intriguing bit of personal history – I become intimately acquainted with the residents who lived there.
Mary King moved here with her four children in 1629 after her husband died. Her living room is recreated with items listed in her actual will – which is on exhibit upstairs: among them, six gowns and six ruffs, 10 spools of embroidery thread, three stools, two gold rings and two chamber pots.
While listening to the story of another early dweller, the narration is interrupted by a scream from across the way. We quickly run to see what happened. The widow Allison Rough, murder weapon in hand, is standing over her son-in-law Alexander Cant, a prominent Burgess of Edinburgh, whose body lay on the floor – the dowry agreement over which they have been fighting still in his hand. Events leading up to the murder, as well as its aftermath, are wound into a true-to-life rendition of Allison’s memorable life.
Similar stories, some enthralling, others bizarre – all authenticated by original documentation – abound as we wend our way around the windy, up-and-down corridors. Shifts in lighting reflect the various circumstances. Not to mention the assorted ghosts (the only residents not authenticated by original documentation) who are said to inhabit the property.
Edinburgh native Jennifer West is awed by this backyard discovery. “This really brings to life all the stories I’ve heard over the years about this part of the city’s history. It’s hard to grasp that these underground chambers were once bustling street-side shops.”
One of the most important — and saddest — among a multitude of rooms that witnessed much sadness is one in which 8-year-old Annie died of the plague in 1645.  A Japanese psychic, visiting in 1992, could barely enter the room because of all the misery she felt there. As she turned away, she claimed to feel a tug at her leg. Annie, in rags with long dirty hair, was standing by the window, crying because she had lost her family, her dog and her doll. The psychic brought Annie a doll to comfort her – and people from around the world have been leaving trinkets and toys ever since. Keychains, jewelry, dolls, stuffed animals line the walls as a shrine to the sad little child who has long since passed away. ”What a sad story,” laments 10-year-old Harriet Peterson, visiting from London. She slowly adds the small stuffed teddy bear she is hugging to the other offerings.
There was a lot of life lived within these buildings – and a lot of lives lost. As one of the most fascinating and unique walks – literally — through history I’ve yet to tread, the unsettling stories, the ethereal lighting, the serpentine alleyways remain with me, even as I explore the many other, more predictable sites of Historic Edinburgh.
Mary King’s Close is open daily, with tours at 20-minute intervals. Price are adults, $11; children 5-15, $8; seniors and students, $9.50. Visit www.realmarykingsclose.com.

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I watch the kettle-cooked potato chips George Bush eats on Air Force One bubble up in the pot. I sip coffee that was specially blended to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge’s specifications. And these are just two of the many treats I witness being made, up-close-and-personal — although they aren’t all so well-connected.

Welcome to York, Pennsylvania – The Factory Tour Capital of the World. Although there are other factory enclaves nationwide, York’s claim is justified. York, adjacent to the oft-visited Amish Country in southeastern Pennsylvania, is home to a number of industries, including Pfaltzgraff Pottery, Harley Davidson and others, many family owned and farm-originated, that conduct tours in which participants almost feel part of the assembly lines.

These are not your look-down-from-a-catwalk type tours. They’re the watch-out-for-the-forklifts and don’t-slip-on-the-wet-clay kinds of tours. You’re on the shop floors of production facilities – where the fashion requirements range from closed-toe shoes to hairnets and safety goggles.

Martin’s Potato Chips for the President

We are met at Martin’s Potato Chip Co. by tour guide Blair Norris, who works in the warehouse when not entertaining visitors. An average day at the factory starts with 2-3 trailer trucks, each full of 30,000-45,000 pounds of potatoes. There’s symmetry to the way the men, dolled up in hairnets, do their own private dance through 10 separate processing steps. Strange-looking machines go up, down and sideways, taking the potatoes from mud-covered to munchable. Ninety-two-year-old Grandma Martin, whose farm recipe inspired the company 60 years ago, still sells her chips at the Farmer’s Market.

46480ba0Blair proudly relates the story of how the kettle-cooked chips ended up on Air Force One (it’s all in who you know), after which they became a perennial favorite of Bill Clinton’s. First rejected by George, rumor has it, he changed his mind after tasting them. I’m with Hillary, though – she prefers the butter-flavored air popped popcorn. The bag they gave me to take home was gone before I ever got there. There’s a picture of Air Force One in the gift shop, with a note of appreciation from the Presidential Pilot.

Trading in our hairnets for safety glasses and earphones – you can’t hear the guide without them due to the loud rumbling of machines – we enter the work-a-day world of pottery making. Pfaltzgraff was started in York in 1811 by German immigrants, and currently is headed by a fifth-generation Pfaltzgraff family member, making it the oldest continually operating pottery maker in the U.S. Liquid clay, poured into giant troughs, is transformed into solid form. The chunks are then dried, sponged, pressed, molded, decorated, trimmed, glazed and ultimately handled by 32 artisans in their journey from clay to casserole.

I was heartened to hear that for the past few years, the workers rotate jobs every half-hour to prevent carpal tunnel and shoulder problems. This seemed to be the norm among the factories we visited.

Naylor’s Winery For Fun Tasting

Many of us have gone the wine-tour route before – and the Naylor’s Winery version is not startlingly different. But the story is a nice one – and the tastings – well, they’re worth the time spent listening.  Again – family owned; Dick Naylor is our guide. The process is very hands-on: Dick eschews the impersonal, automated approach to wine growing and bottling. The grapes are handpicked and the bottles filled and labeled by hand. Mom often helps with the labeling, and, recently, when a customer was recounting the benefits of wine with dinner, she was quick to add: “And sometimes with Jeopardy, too!”

Producing 40 varieties of the tasty grape-based beverage, Dick appreciates his orchard – especially his recent harvest. “This is a great growing area, and last year was ideal for wine. Good elevation, good soil and good weather,” he notes. Word to wine aficionados: Remember 2001!

The wine tasting is rough, as usual, as we are forced to savor six different vintages, ranging from a dry Pinot Gris to a tender Cabernet to a scrumptious port-like dessert wine. Each wine comes with a tale of its own: its vintage, its idiosyncrasies and what it’s most happy being served with. I felt a very personal connection to the three bottles I bought to take home.

Sparky & Clarke’s Coffee Roastery To Wake Up Again

Another beverage, another tour. At Sparky & Clarke’s Coffee Roastery, a micro-brewery for coffee, there are even more varieties to sample. With 45 variations on a cup of joe, including international flavors with exotic names like Ethiopian Harrah, Yemen Moca, and Tanzanian Peabody, ordering is no easy task. Check out what’s being prepared in the industrial roaster, which you can see through the back glass wall.

At first glance, the coffee shop resembles a storefront with a couple of counter seats and a few small tables. Then I notice the upholstered couches and comfy armchairs, the homey coffee table and light stand, the games of checkers and chess waiting to be played – and did I mention the fireplace?

I am in a living room, which somehow makes the smells and the tastes of the rich-flavored coffees seem really home-roasted – which, of course, they are. In addition to the environmentally friendly, high-end organic coffees of unending variety, there is also an assortment of teas. And for the non-coffee drinker? Hot chocolate made with renowned Ghirardelli. The white chocolate raspberry is addicting.

As with all tours, I am amazed at how much goes into the production of any item. The number of steps and processes involved behind the scenes could never be imagined by the person at the retail counter.

When was the last time you pondered, over morning coffee, how the taste of that particular blend came to be? Well, since you ask, it’s determined by the original bean, its geographical region, the climate, the weather, how and when harvested, how processed through the roaster and, finally, how brewed. Sparky & Clarke’s has ruined me for Starbucks.

Oh, yes, about our Director of Homeland Security. His coffee of choice is part decaf/part caffeinated. Called American Defender – what else? – and created by owner Scott Dempwolf, the blend is shipped regularly to the Governor’s Mansion, where the state’s First Lady still resides.

Wolfgang Candy Factory For Sweet Dreams

As I enter Da’s Sweeten Haus Center, home to the Wolfgang Candy Factory, I feel almost physically assaulted by the intense smell of chocolate. Upon recovering, I spy a large three-tiered window display of every imaginable ingredient that ever made it on top of, inside or mixed into a piece of candy: nuts, banana chips, coconut, raisins, rice krispies, sunflower seeds…well, you get the idea.
The family ownership here extends to fathers, sons, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles. I guess if you’re making chocolate, everyone wants a “piece” of the action. Once again, we’re re-introduced to hairnets – but this time with a twist. My husband gets to sport one covering his beard.

First, the different shapes of the chocolate centers are molded in cornstarch. Oohs and ahhs abound with each mention of cashew turtles, coconut clusters or vanilla buttercreams. We carefully negotiate around huge vats of caramel syrup and nougat as we keep an eye out for samples. I can feel my face break out just watching hundreds of peanut butter mounds get drenched in chocolate as they pass through a wide, low chocolate waterfall. And then wind around for a double dousing.

Twelve-year-old Shawn Nealon of Nazareth, PA is getting quite an education. “It’s so neat to see how different candies are made,” says the home-schooled youngster. “Not a lot of kids get to see that.” Any chance he was influenced by the many chocolate delicacies he got to taste along the way?

Harley Davidson Assembly Plant: Samples, Please

Attention all men and boys! And female motorcycle enthusiasts! And just about everyone in the universe! There isn’t a soul who doesn’t sigh with envy when I mention the Harley Davidson Assembly Plant, a resident of York since 1973.  Former minister Karl Fetterman, who clearly still loves his job after 10 years, is our tour guide for the intimate one-million-sq.-ft. area. From frame to finish, somewhere between 850 and 1250 individual parts coalesce into a single cycle. It takes 2 ½ hours to build a Harley Softail.  Oil tanks, gas tanks, handlebars, suspension systems, exhaust pipes, kickstands — each part is made separately by a team of employees, computers and robots. It takes an hour to polish a gas tank by hand; a robot can do it in 7 ½ minutes.

The men and women who work there look as though they were hired right off their own Harleys. Says Karl, with apparent pride: “There are 3200 employees here, any one of whom would probably know how to build an entire bike.” My one complaint: it was the only tour that didn’t give me a sample to take home!  For more information, call York County Convention and Visitors Bureau at 888/858-YORK (9675) or check out their web site.

Factory Tours Around the Nation

York, Pennsylvania rightly claims the title “Factory tour capital of the world.”  Other towns and areas also offer manufacturing tours that may be more limited in number, but also can teach and entertain. When planning a trip, check out factories in the area that open their doors to the public.  Here’s a brief checklist of enticing tours from coast to coast. Among edibles, and drinkables, that visitors to Massachusetts may see made are cranberry products, potato chips and beer.  A bit more unusual is a stop at the National Braille Press in Boston, to watch how books for the blind are produced.  For more information call 800/227-MASS (6277).

Bourbon is king in Kentucky, so it’s no surprise that several distilleries are on many an itinerary.  But don’t overlook visits to plants where goods from candy to cars, and pottery to pulled-glass are made.  For more information call 800/225-8747.

Factory tours in Ohio combine the usual with some pleasant surprises.  The first category includes plants that make potato chips, candy and other familiar products.  Less familiar is Warther Carvings, where cutlery is hand-crafted and a collection of carved wooden trains, cars and other miniatures is on display.  Those seeking something really different enjoy Winesburg Carriage, where Amish workers make horse-and-buggy carriages.  For more information call 800/BUCKEYE (282-5393).