Life is a celebration . . .

Note: The news earlier this week of the death of Ed Lowe, renowned Dallas restaurateur, came as a shock, not only to his family and friends, but also to those who loved the family dining spot on Lovers Lane. I couldn’t help thinking of the last time I visited there. It turned out to be a much better experience than I had hoped, thanks entirely to the staff of Celebration Restaurant. Although I sent a note to the restaurant at the time, I’ll share the whole story here. I think Ed Lowe would like it, just as I am certain that his spirit lives on at his restaurant with every meal that is served.

There may be no better way to celebrate a special occasion than with a family group sitting around a table laden with good food. And, sometimes, going out is better than cooking at home.

So, it was with high expectations that I chose a place we had not visited for years, but known for decades, as the perfect surprise for a special birthday luncheon. It represented, in some ways, a trip down memory lane.WP_20180311_14_17_57_Pro (3)Celebration Restaurant on Lovers Lane in Dallas is known as the city’s first true “farm to table” enterprise. It has been serving up good food and good times for 46 years in a location not far from Love Field. It still exists in the same sprawling Bluffview neighborhood home where it originally opened. It has been expanded over the years, and now includes not only an outdoor patio, but also an adjacent retail market.

It’s homey in all the best ways.

Tables are set in rooms of varying sizes. There are private rooms available to accommodate groups large or small. The atmosphere isn’t trendy, but rather as familiar as a visit to Grandma’s house.

The food is much the same: No sushi, fusion or “nouvelle” anything here; just good honest beef, pork, chicken, fish and a choice of freshly prepared sides. The veggies, which vary by season, are served in family style bowls, a choice of three for each table. Every meal carries a choice of starters — soup, salad or fresh fruit; and desserts are too good to miss, even though ordering them reaches the borders of glut.

The concept was unique in the mid-70’s when Celebration opened. Now, after nearly five decades, it is still unique in a market that prides itself on its growing roster of award-winning chefs and innovative eateries.

Celebration is low key and pleasant. Children are welcomed, but the children’s menu contains “adult” food. Portions are reasonable rather than “super-sized,” but seconds on most entrees are available, and cheerily served. No one ever leaves hungry.

On our recent visit, there was a slight glitch with the reservations — some of our party arrived a bit early only to find that there was no record of our request for a large group. On a Sunday, the restaurant was already filled to overflowing. I learned of the problem when I arrived with my husband, the honored “birthday boy,” at the appointed hour. Needless to say, I was upset. We did not want to wait for two hours, and we did not want to go elsewhere. It seemed as impossible situation.

However, with only a few words exchanged and a delay of just a few minutes, we were made welcome at a table hastily set on the patio. Luckily, it was a pleasant, early spring day in Dallas, and overhead heaters warmed our bodies. The pleasant views of  fountain, fireplace and greenery warmed our spirits, as did the friendly smiles and attentive bustling of the servers.

I could go on about the impeccable service, the variety of the food, the courtesy of management. But I won’t. Suffice it to say that Celebration Restaurant is an example of the way it ought to be. There is no doubt that Ed Lowe’s visionary eatery is still in business after all these years because it consistently “gets it right!”

Would that it will continue in that tradition.

 

More thoughts about Cuba

Note: Today is Election Day; the midterm elections in the United States have been much in my mind over the last week as I attempted to gather my thoughts about my recent short visit to Havana. On my way to vote this morning, I remembered how one young Cuban attempted to explain his country’s elections. They are very different from ours. This CGTN America explanation of the recent Cuban election (and an overall view of the electoral process in Cuba) is an interesting overview. CGTN is one of many international news channels run by China Media Group.

“It’s complicated.”

I can’t count the number of times we heard that phrase during our 12 hours in Havana.

Since returning from this eye-opening trip two weeks ago, I have been talking about it frequently, thinking about it constantly, trying to organize my experience into an orderly patchwork quilt of impressions.

It isn’t anywhere near complete.

The pervasive reality is that Cuba is at a crossroads, buffeted by winds not of its making. Change is in the air, even though there is no consensus about the direction of that change, or about how and when it will manifest to create a new climate for the country and its 11.5 million people.

We asked a lot of questions. We were, in many ways, surprised by the answers, even more surprised that those we met were open about their views and willing to answer all our questions.

They were eager to speak with Americans. We were eager to listen.

But, it’s complicated.

We wanted a capsule view of what daily life is like in Cuba. We didn’t get that. What we realized is that individual lifestyles vary within Cuba just as they do in the United States. Somehow, I had not expected that. I was hoping my impressions of Cuba would be easier to sort through. I expected a sort of sameness from this Communist country. That is not at all the case.

Much of the city is beautiful, if old and somewhat unkempt. Other areas are modern. City squares and broad avenues boast art and sculpture, color and design. There are parks, and people flock to them. It’s a city made for walking; however, old cobblestones, narrow streets and many people can make it difficult. There are construction cranes, scaffolds and workers everywhere; and much of the work involves modernizing historic buildings.

The cadence of life

Fidel Castro, we learned, is still very much a force of daily life, even though he died two years ago, November 25, 2016. It was eight years earlier that he resigned as president, ceding the reins of power to his brother Raul. Now, Raul has stepped down and there is a new president, elected just last year. He had no opposition.

Fidel posters and other reminders of the revolution are still everywhere. Fidel — yes, first name only — is spoken of as a sort of  kindly uncle by some who were born after the revolution and grew up in his shadow. His presence was — and still is — pervasive. We heard alternately that he was a “tough” man, and the “savior” of his country. But his name is spoken with a mixture of awe and fondness.

We were told that he enriched the lives of farmers and city dwellers alike. We were told that he cared about the poor people, and that Cuban citizens would not be as well off today had it not been for the influence of Fidel Castro. We were told that although they are poor, the Cuban people have health and family, food, shelter and education because of Fidel.

We were told that Fidel did not seek power for himself; and it has been written that he did not want a “cult of personality” to surround his memory.

His ashes are entombed in a simple, but impressive 10-foot-tall boulder in Santiago, in a cemetery that he shares with the first president of Cuba, along with other well-known citizens. It is at the eastern end of the island near his family home, and there is a metal plaque that reads simply “Fidel.”

However, Cuban citizens, tourists and world leaders alike visit the site regularly, sometimes as many as 4,000 a day. Every 30 minutes, there is a military ceremony, a changing of the guard, that honors both Fidel Castro and 19th-Century Cuban patriot and revolutionary Jose Marti.

The reality of Cuba today

Young people we met recount the history of their country accurately and easily. Events from two or three decades before their births seem very real to them. They also speak of Cuba’s earlier history with pride, and most argue that, despite its imperfections, life is better today than it was prior to Fidel, even though those we met did not live through their country’s revolution.

Some older citizens were perhaps a bit more guarded in their responses to our questions, but still quite forthcoming about their lives.

Cuba is a poor country, as they freely acknowledge, but a proud one. Food, shelter, medical care and education are provided. Family is important. Material wealth, they claim, is not. Crime is almost non-existent; drug use is low, but punishment can be stiff.

Tourist trade in Cuba is big business. Today, we were told, Americans constitute the majority of foreign visitors. Surprised? We were! Everyone we met was welcoming — helpful and congenial, often greeting us with smiles and wishes for a good day.

One older woman asked, in Spanish, if I was American. When I answered yes, she took my hand and thanked me for coming.

It’s complicated.

Reuters reported this week that Cuba’s economic growth forecast has been lowered to just one percent for the year, and that austerity measures are to be instituted. Lower than expected revenues from tourism are partially responsible, but so is a decline in GDP income from sugar and mining. Trade uncertainties exist between Cuba and Venezuela, and economic growth is uncertain.

Additional observations and insights

English is taught in school to even the youngest children. We neglected to ask about other languages. There is no obvious language barrier.

News is filtered, according to our guides, even though it may not be directly censored. “We hear only bad news about the United States,” said one. Another told us of a relative who lives in Houston, and of how he would like to visit. Although it is not prohibited, he added, visas and monetary regulations make travel cumbersome, expensive and unlikely. Still, he said, he hopes one day to be able to travel beyond Cuba’s borders.

Cubans have cell phones, but they may often be without toilet paper. They enjoy afternoon mojitos , but they may have to do without water, for both drinking and other household use. A trip by bus between Havana and the eastern end of the island can take 20 hours.100_1303 (2)

“We do not have cars,” explained our guide when we asked about finding parking places in crowded Havana. And those vintage American cars: They are not often privately owned, said our driver. There are many ways to get around, though.

In fact, the red Thunderbird that we enjoyed during our afternoon tour is normally a taxi and will be out of service next month for repairs. That, unfortunately, means that our driver will be out of a job until the refurbishment is completed. He is not worried; his basic needs will be taken care of as always.

The state provides for those basic needs, but shelves are often devoid of even routine products to meet those needs. Rationing of food staples is a way of life. Foreign goods are rare, said another person: “What we buy is produced here in Cuba.

A number of products are exported. Rum, cigars, coffee and sugar, for sure; we guessed at the rest — citrus fruits, rice, corn and beans; fish and shellfish. However, the trade deficit is significant.

We encountered only one small street market, and a single flower seller.  But we did not have a lot of time to explore.

There are few luxury goods in Cuba. Even though smart phones are common, widespread internet is not.

The Cuban people are not exactly isolated from the rest of the world, but they are definitely not affected in any obvious way by the culture of a country only 90 miles away. Cuban culture is unique; in my short experience, it is totally different from anyplace else on the globe.

Life moves at a different pace in Havana.

Our day in the city brought us many new insights, and a lot more questions. We left with the conviction that the “cultural exchange and understanding” requirements are in place for a very good reason. Indeed, that may be the best part of the Cuban experience for Americans. Maybe it should be a worldwide travel requirement. If you’re interested in visiting Cuba on your own, there is a wealth of information available to help you plan a trip. Will we be returning? Perhaps.

But it’s complicated.

 

 

 

Cuba: The ‘after’ story

Cuba is enigmatic – especially for Americans, whose contact with the island nation so close to US shores has been forbidden for so long. But even other nationalities are eager to see this tiny Communist country that has been embroiled in turmoil for at least the past six decades.

Read my account of how this trip came about.

As our shipload of 2,000 plus passengers departed from Key West, the excitement was palpable.

Havana lay just to the southeast. A reasonably swift vessel could make the 90-mile passage comfortably in about six hours. However, in order to adhere to a set schedule that would allow an entire day in Havana, the captain of Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas slowed ship engines almost to idle. Crossing the Strait separating Florida and Cuba would take more than 14 hours. We departed Key West at 5 p.m., with no chance to enjoy either Mallory Square’s street performers or the famed sunset.

Then, even though we were on deck at first light the following morning, we did not catch a sunrise view of el Morro Castle or the lighthouse at the harbor entrance except in shadow. Our first real daylight view was of decaying warehouse structures lining the dock on our vessel’s starboard side.

It was a shock.

First thoughts about Havana

Old Havana lies just beyond what was once a thriving commercial seaport, according to our map, but out of view. We could not yet see the Plaza de San Francisco,first laid out in the 16th Century, nor its impressive fountain and ancient basilica dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. We saw a few spires, glimpsed brightly-painted buildings and followed dock workers and delivery vans as the morning dawned.

On the street, old buses, small vehicles, and horse-drawn wagons rambled along the uneven stones. We did not yet see the gleaming vintage automobiles we expected.

Our impression was of a city waking up and readying itself for the day; however, there seemed to be no urgency in the movements. We had been told that commerce progresses in Havana on “Cuban time.” We wondered if the onslaught of visitors was a welcome occurrence now that cruise ships call regularly in Havana.

The transition was immediate. We had been transported overnight back across decades to a place that we did not recognize. even from the pictures we had seen.

 

In all the magazine stories I had read about contemporary Cuba, I had never, to my knowledge, seen a picture that depicted age and disrepair in such a graphic manner. Was this the effect of being cut off from the rest of the world for so long, I wondered?

In the distance, above other roofs, two impressive gold-clad onion domes caught our attention and drew our wonder in the thin early morning light. We learned later that 100_1143they are atop the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. It was built under the aegis of Fidel Castro, as a lasting monument to Russian-Cuban friendship, according to his memoirs, and was consecrated October 19, 2008, with Raul Castro in attendance.

Across the harbor, we gazed at the impressive bulk of the white marble Christ of Havana statue, the work of Cuban artist Hilma Madera. It was commissioned in 1953 IMG_3930and inaugurated in 1958, facing east, looking over the city with one arm raised in blessing upon the land and people. Incidentally, only two weeks later, Fidel Castro brought the tide of revolution to Havana. The history of Cuba was forever altered.

The 67 huge blocks of Carrara marble used to form the sculpture, the same type of stone that also graces tombstones in Havana’s sprawling Colon Cemetery, had been personally blessed by Pope Pius XII before leaving Italy.

Stepping onto Cuban soil . . .

The ship was quickly and efficiently cleared by officials. Eager passengers began to make their way to the modern interior of the Terminal Sierra Maestra. 100_1198 (2)Heat and humidity settled upon us, but Cuban officials in the bright and airy non-air-conditioned space seemed not to notice.

We had been cautioned not to snap photographs inside the port building. Functionally laid out, the terminal is designed to process visitors efficiently, not as a space to linger, to shop or to socialize. There were no cautionary signs, but we obeyed the rules as smartly-uniformed customs and immigration officials and currency exchange personnel quickly dispatched us onto by-now bustling city streets or to waiting tour buses.

If only we could shed our preconceptions, I mused—about people and places and cultures—as easily as we shed our clothes in a tropical island setting. I thought about those preconceptions as I disembarked in Cuba. The carefree ambience of Cuba was nowhere to be seen. Somehow, I felt very American at that moment, and was mildly disappointed that there were no welcoming musicians or souvenir-sellers. 

At first glance, Cuba was not at all what I had expected.

Cuba demystified

Despite the relative ease with which an American can now visit Cuba, it is not at all routine. A visa is required, a relatively simple procedure, but it comes at a cost of $75 per person when processed by the cruise line. There are rules and specific guidelines for filling out the forms, depending on the specific category of authorized travel. Visiting Cuba simply as a “tourist” is still not a valid option for Americans. Travel as a journalist, for humanitarian, agricultural or educational purposes, and for specific other reasons is allowed, but there are strings attached.

Participation in some sort of cultural exchange is a requirement, under “people-to-people” guidelines that are well-defined and controlled. Half and full-day tours of many types can be booked through the cruise line; third-party excursions are available. We chose the latter; two separate excursions from two different sanctioned companies. We also built in a few hours of time on our own with thoughts of a museum visit or a leisurely lunch or dinner.

Discovering Havana on foot

We first strolled through Old Havana on our way to meet up with a designated guide. Our planned walking tour promised a sampling of traditional “street food.” We stopped for a morning coffee at an outdoor café where the menu surprise was espresso delivered with a cigar on the side. We opted to forego the cigar, ordering tall iced coffees instead. Served with ice cream, they were cooling and delicious on a morning already steamy with tropical heat! Service was prompt and cordial, and prices were reasonable.

This was no ordinary tour, and the conversation was as satisfying as the food samples.

 

Our group of six enjoyed typical fried treats, akin in some ways to warm American jelly-filled doughnuts, followed by pizza slices, chocolate-covered ice cream on a stick, cooling fresh fruit cocktails, and roasted ears of corn dripping with melted butter!

Our young guide, Marcos, 100_1329 a history student at University, was knowledgeable and informative, even leading us to a local B&B to see typical tourist accommodations and meet the proprietors. He gave an impromptu history lesson, answered all the questions we asked, and our time with him concluded over shared beers at a delightful local establishment on another old city square.

Walking through La Habana Vieja is quite an experience!

. . . and from the backseat of a convertible

A bit later in the day, we embarked on our second scheduled Havana experience. We had booked three hours with a car, driver and guide for a tour that would take us to many of the various neighborhoods that comprise Havana, a city that is now home to more than two million people.

Yes, the car was vintage American, a 1958 Thunderbird convertible; bright red, shiny and impressive despite its age, still with its original engine. And Florida plates!wp_20181018_14_45_59_pro1.jpgIt was a whirlwind excursion; we saw ancient forts, business and residential districts, numerous monuments and families out to enjoy the city’s parks and playgrounds. We drove past massive art galleries, the national opera house, expensive hotels, stark Russian apartment buildings, modern steel and glass office buildings, and residential areas crowded with nondescript apartments. We drove the five-mile length of the Malecon, a broad avenue and seawall bordering the bay and frequented, perhaps equally, by fishermen and lovers, according to our guide.

We returned once again to Old Havana, circling el Capitolio, completed in 1929 as the seat of government. Following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the “House of the People”100_1286 had no real purpose, and today it is home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences. Its dome has been under repair for the past several years, but the building and its adjacent statuary are still impressive.

We both walked and drove past La Floridita, the bar that served Ernest Hemingway’s 100_1307 (2)favored daiquiri. The stool he occupied when he drank there is said to be cordoned off with a velvet rope.

So much to see and do

We also drove past former mansions and beautiful seaside estates, remnants of an age when Havana was the playground of the rich and famous; when what was characterized as “the good life” was also rife with mafia activity. Some storied nightclubs and bars from Havana’s glory days still exist, and overnight visitors have the opportunity to drink and dine in the outdoor atmosphere of the fabled Tropicana Club and former casino.

We sipped Mojitos from a street vendor at the site of el Morro, were awed by the view of the city from hilltop site of the looming Christ statue, and were mesmerized

 

by the park that has preserved remnants of the military exploits on Cuban soil, including missiles and wing pieces of American planes.

Revolution Square and those bigger than life likenesses of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara will be forever etched in memory. So, too, will the sight of the American flag

 

waving from its pole on the grounds of an embassy now staffed only by a skeleton force of diplomats. An August 28, 2018, U.S. State Department advisory once again recommended “Increased Caution” for American travelers to Cuba, following the illnesses and purported “attacks” on embassy personnel.

Toward the end of the afternoon, we visited Havana’s “forest,” a sprawling domain of greenery that winds along what is, sadly, a polluted river. Families still picnic by the river, however. Amid the overhanging boughs and grassy expanse, we sipped icy Pina Coladas, savoring a day filled with new insights and a wealth of lasting impressions, before our classic red Thunderbird returned us to the cruise ship terminal.

100_1523

The takeaway:

Cuba is a sensory experience. We sailed away that evening in deepening twilight, with100_1563 an overwhelming sense that we had barely scratched the surface of Havana, let alone the country, during our brief encounter. The next morning at breakfast onboard, our table-mates agreed that it will take some time to process the total experience. Now, after a full week to consider, my husband and I are still attempting to digest all that we saw and did during our 12-hour stay in Havana. It was not long enough. And, although not my preferred way to visit a country for the first time, it was a delicious and uniquely palatable first taste.

Its people are charming, proud, gregarious, curious, talkative, hopeful, guarded and resigned — all at the same time. Cuba cannot be easily dismissed, even after such a short stay.

Do I want to return? As yet, I have not decided. For now it is enough to report that a cruise ship call in Cuba is unlike a port visit to any other nation on earth.

It changes a person.

I have many more thoughts to share: Look for additional insights and photos Wednesday, October 31.

 

 

 

 

 

The travel bug and what to do about it

It’s a recurring malady. I take a trip and come home. It’s nice to be home. But then I see an ad, watch a movie, flip through my photos, talk to a friend, read a new travel blog, hear a newscast about lower air fares — and I’m off again, at least in my mind.

The planning begins anew, and I find myself putting together itineraries, daydreaming about places, reading up on cultures, sampling recipes — all those things that make planning a trip so much fun.

Invariably, I book another trip.

On the spur of the moment . . .

This is by way of saying that we were recently off again — my husband and I — this time on a short trip, but one that took us — for the briefest of stays — to a place we’ve been wanting to visit for some time now: Havana, Cuba.

It was a last-minute excursion, another “too-good-to-resist” deal, this time for a five-day cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas, booked scarcely 30 days in advance.  It took only a glance at each other and a quick nod to make the final arrangements. It’s all about spontaneity, after all, isn’t it?

And this time, that happened, including a low introductory fare offered by Sun Country Airlines for new DFW-Tampa service. After flying with them on this inaugural route, we hope they like DFW as much as we like them; we were pleased by more than just the low fares, and would certainly consider flying with this Minneapolis-based airline to other sunny destinations!

When the details fall easily into place, it seems like destiny.

Details and more details

A visa is required for travel to Cuba, at a fee, of course. Forms stating the purpose of the trip must be filled out in duplicate by each person; approved categories of travel include “Support for the Cuban People” cultural exchange tours.

Last year, it was possible to qualify under a “People to People”category and simply spend time walking the streets of Havana, enchanted by old cars, local rum and cigars, music and dancing, dining out or searching for evidence of Ernest Hemingway.

Not so anymore.

Today, once again, visitors must participate in some sort of organized tour or program, or make arrangements before leaving home for well-choreographed and documented personal encounters with Cuban citizens. Records — including a daily journal — are to be kept for a period of five years, and there are restrictions, both on how and where Americans go and how they spend their money.

Reliable sources say that there is little chance of being checked, but the requirements are in place, and could be enforced. Still, in 2017, more than 600,000 Americans visited this island nation that has been essentially off limits since 1960. And 2018 promises to attract even more Americans, now that’s it’s possible to fly via scheduled airline directly from the United States to Havana.

U.S. government rules pertaining to Cuba travel are fluid. They were altered more than once even as the Obama administration first made it easier, then once again imposed additional restrictions on individual travel. Today it’s still impossible to go as a casual tourist, but it is relatively easy to book a flight or to arrive via cruise ship. American credit cards, with some exceptions, do not work, and currency must be exchanged for the local equivalent of the dollar, the CUC. Cubans still use the Peso, and the dual monetary system can be confusing.

It’s not as easy as crossing the border to either Canada or Mexico. But  the impediments did not dampen my enthusiasm.

Havana — Street Food and Vintage Cars

Planning for the journey could not have been more fun. We made contact with fellow travelers via the internet, and even booked a street food tour with another couple, along with their teenage daughter and Spanish exchange student. What fun to think about “fast food” in Havana!

The trip itinerary includes Key West, a much-loved destination since our days aboard our own cruising yacht. Returning to a well-known old eatery for a leisurely “back home” breakfast, snacking on conch fritters at a familiar beach bar and listening to a local musician at another casual waterside cafe are good enough reason to look forward to a quick stop in a favorite city.

A stroll to the “Southernmost Point” seemed in order to remember the times we previously posed there, looking towards Cuba and anticipating the day we could depart under our own power for the quick crossing. Traversing the 90 miles to dock in Havana would have been easy. Sadly, it was not to be.

This time, Key West was to become the jumping off point to Havana adventure, but with a big ship to take us there.

We were eager to experience it all!

A total of 12 hours in a foreign country might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this trip seemed to offer a perfect sampler — the best possible way to evaluate if, how and when we would return. Or, alternatively, to conclude that a single sip is enough, and then to turn our sights toward other shores and begin planning for other trips. Either way, I knew from the beginning that the trip would hold some special memories and result in plenty of stories to tell.

Read my initial impressions of Cuba in The After Story on Sunday, October 28.

Time-tripping: A new perspective

My husband and I took a journey [this past week], a trip into our past.

The miles were few; and the travel time far less, because of a new highway, than it had been 30-some years ago when we made the trip regularly. We recognized some scenes along the way, and when we turned into the little town square for a drive through our memories, it looked pretty much the same, only slightly more forlorn now than then. The same shuttered buildings still seemed in danger of falling inward during the next big storm.

This is not a thriving, bustling population center. It is a very small, simple, rural area adjacent to a lake which, for the past several years at least, has faced debilitating effects of the drought and the economy. People here, from the looks of it, are not yet feeling the benefits of a recovery. And, on a rainy day in February, in Texas, there are no fragrant blossoms or green leaves to signal the promise of spring.

Experiencing life in the rear-view mirror

But we drove on. We had returned only once before, in more than 20 years, to see the retreat we had owned for more than a decade beginning in 1981. We had spent many a happy, sunny, activity-filled day there when our son was young. I have trouble, even today, calling it a “lake house.” It had floor, walls and roof. It had a kitchen, and a bath, one bedroom, and another small sleeping area. It was filled with mismatched furniture and cabinetry. We applied gallons of white paint to freshen its old walls. It had air conditioning only in one room. We added a screened activity porch, floored with cast-off multicolored tile, and graced by one banging screen door.

Oh, the times we had there in the one large room with a view of the water. We laughed; we cooked and read and played board games on the floor as a family of three. We watched mourning doves hatch in their nest outside our window, and we shuddered when a swarm of bees made a home for a night in the same tree. We did much the same — laughing, cooking, talking and playing, indoors and out, in and out of the water, on and off the boat — when we invited a crowd.

In the summer, we all cooled off under an outdoor shower plumbed to the trunk of a big tree, before putting hot dogs and burgers on the grill. On July 4th, we spread IMG_0679blankets on the lawn, and watched fireworks explode over the water.  It was a place for all seasons, and during the heat of summer we occasionally slept in hammocks and deck chairs.  Occasionally the allure of the place meant we packed up our sweaters and boots, and brought lots of hot chocolate just so we could watch migrating ducks and angry skies. In the winter, we slept soundly under warm quilts, lulled by the sound of lapping waves.

We loved the place. Our son — and our dog — learned to swim at “Camp Swampee.” Our son learned to sail, and to steer the motorboat. He learned to love fishing, and to dissect frogs, and to chase butterflies. He learned which snakes to avoid, and to watch for spiders under rocks. He learned to occupy himself alone in the great outdoors. He learned to steer the truck down the long, straight, bumpy road to the compound. We all learned to deal with the Texas heat during the searing days and to marvel at the star-filled sky at night.

We learned that the alternative to our day-to-day busy lives in the city, filled with school and jobs, meetings and friends, planned activities and regular schedules, is a cadence of life far different. We had “lake neighbors” who were equally happy to trade busy everyday lives for weekend peace and simplicity.

Our son grew up. We moved on and we moved away, but we carried with us a peculiar nostalgia for that place and time, across the miles and over the years.

Some journeys teach unexpected lessons

So, given opportunity and no set schedule, we set out to visit the past.

But it’s not there.IMG_0674IMG_0678IMG_0670IMG_0676It was almost a physical pain: My husband and I exchanged glances, without speaking. We, both of us, took slow steps onto the lot, walking with a hesitant, measured pace to where our house once stood.

Grass has begun to grow, and falling leaves camouflage bare ground. The dock still stands, but just barely. And, because of the lake level, it would be impossible to pull a boat into the sling under the shaky roof.

The shock was not so much that the building was gone. It had been old and worn when we owned it. The surprise is, rather, that what still shapes the way we are and think and feel in numerous, important ways has no physical presence in this world. We have left no lasting impression on that particular spot of earth.

We move on through life; we learn from each experience, sometimes in graphic, poignant and unexpected ways.

As we strolled back to our car, the lesson we both have learned:

Savor the present time

Note: This story was originally published on February 10, 2013 on Yahoo Contributor Network. That creative virtual magazine was taken down several years ago, but I ran across this post recently, and thought it worthy of a reprint. Except for a few minor revisions, it is as originally written. 

We think often of the good times we had on that little slice of earth on the shores of Cedar Creek Lake, and remember the place fondly, even though it no longer exists.  Perhaps, now that more than five years have passed since our last visit, we will take another ride to see if someone else has built a new home on the site.

In a way, I hope so. The lake and its lakeside communities have changed now, populated with full-time residents, and much grander weekend and summer homes. Perhaps the spot is enjoying a new incarnation with another family.

Somehow, though, in our minds it will remain frozen in time just as we knew it.

 

It’s the people, not the places . . .

It’s good to get away, and sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter where the journey takes us; it’s the break from routine that’s important.

This time, though, it was all about the place. My husband and I, as those who know us (and those of you who read the previous post) know, spent the better part of a summer in Alaska 13 years ago. We traveled the Marine Highway of Southeast Alaska and numerous watery byways that led us to out-of-the-way villages and secluded coves. We went north to Skagway and Haines, west to Glacier Bay and Sitka, spent delightful days in Hoonah and Petersburg and bobbed gently “on the hook” with only stars and lapping waves for company. We visited Juneau, the capital, several times, and we had good times in Ketchikan, Alaska’s “first city.”

At the end of August we returned to the 49th state, arriving in Anchorage on a Friday evening to spend a few hours prior to embarking the next day on a seven-day voyage aboard Golden Princess. The trip would take us past impressive Hubbard Glacier and into Glacier Bay before visiting Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan on a journey slated to end in Vancouver, British Columbia, the following Saturday morning.

It was not a trip we spent a lot of time planning. It was, in fact, a snap decision, made with a “why not” attitude, but with low expectations. We sandwiched it in between short trips to other destinations during August.

Some initial observations:

What we experienced surprised us. We were less than enamored by Anchorage, home to fully 40 percent, if not more, of Alaska’s residents. But, to be fair, we spent only a few hours there and during our brief visit we encountered delightful people. The city, however, is not pretty, apart from its surroundings.

Our appreciation for the spectacular natural beauty of Alaska emerged fully intact. Looking down on the Anchorage area from our airplane and seeing snow-capped distant peaks towering above the clouds was duly impressive. The water and the coastal vistas are incredible and the vast land seems to extend forever.

And the flowers — before I visited Alaska, I would not have believed there were flowers in what I considered a cold and desolate place. How wrong I was. They were — and still are — everywhere. Wild flowers and flowers in public parks; flowers on window sills and in shops, flowers filling huge municipal planters; flowers in airports and on the docks. Wildflowers along the highway. Gorgeous, colorful flowers. Everywhere!

On Saturday, we boarded a bus for the short drive to Whittier, a year-round deep-water port at the head of Prince William Sound. The trip allowed us a glimpse of white Beluga whales in the waters of Turnagain Arm and a herd of Dall sheep navigating a craggy bluff on the other side of the highway.

It’s exciting, to be sure, to wear jackets and knit caps in August, even if we did have to don rain gear as well. We visited the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center to see wood bison and musk ox, wolves and porcupines, bear and moose, deer and foxes.

We continued on through the engineering marvel of a tunnel that gives the only land access to Whittier. It is shared (on a one-way basis) by passenger vehicles, buses, trucks and the train!

A floating city . . .

Once aboard, we began to settle in to the life of a floating city with 2,600 other people — not difficult, actually, with the wealth of activities and the pleasant mix of public and private spaces. Every day seems a celebration on board a modern cruise ship.

What we knew we would miss was the feeling of being close to the water — the sound of the waves, the experience of cold fingers and blasts of wind as we dropped anchor or secured the lines of our vessel to the metal cleats of well-worn wooden docks. We missed the camaraderie we felt with fishing boat captains as they put away their gear after a long day; and we missed the hot coffee and good conversation that was always available in cluttered dockmasters’ offices.

We also missed seeing whale spouts and fish jumping just above the swells, gulls and eagles trailing fishing boats and circling above small docks, the occasional family of sea otters looking for refuge in a marina, and eye-level contact with those splashing waves and floating chunks of ice. Looking down on the water from a deck 70 or more feet above it, or searching for native wildlife through binoculars and behind protective glass has nowhere near the same effect.

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What we enjoyed was the companionship of other passengers, especially our delightful dinner tablemates, talking with fellow travelers from not only other states, but from Australia and New Zealand, from Germany and England, from Mexico and from Asia. We appreciated the perfectly prepared fresh fish and seafood that was offered at every meal, the smiling service of bartenders and waiters, the helpfulness of the crew, the variety of outdoor deck space from which to view changing vistas of glaciers and icebergs, mountains and clouds.

We were blessed with sunshine for at least a part of every day, somewhat unusual for this part of Alaska.

We also appreciated having the assistance of other eyes to help spot whales and otters, eagles, bears, seals and porpoises. And, yes, we did spot some, although we yearned to see more! The ship reverberated with a chorus of delight for each occurrence. We were thrilled once again to visit Glacier Bay. The naturalists and Park Rangers who came aboard were interesting and knowledgeable. It was a learning experience, and it was good to have their input.

We heard the “thunder” of glaciers as they calved, and realized anew that listening to the natural sounds of Alaska is mesmerizing.

‘Tis the season . . .

We could have done without the proliferation of t-shirt and key chain shops, furriers and jewelry stores, harborside kiosks and lines of tour buses and waiting guides. But then we realized that they were very much a part of port life 13 years ago as well.

As Alaska residents acknowledge, the season is short and it’s tourism that turns the wheels of commerce in the ports of Southeast Alaska. Life after October settles back into familiar patterns and the majesty of the land becomes once again the personal domain of those who call Alaska home.

Travel is enlightening in many ways. But it’s not the places; it’s the people one meets.

We sought out those people on this trip. And we were rewarded tenfold! Friendly residents are more than willing to talk about their lives, their cities, their families and their experiences. As always, we were fascinated to learn about daily life as it is lived outside the pages of guidebooks.

We always asked for local recommendations for food. In Anchorage, we were directed to a popular local brew pub, and were immediately befriended by a local resident only too willing to share his views on everything from oil drilling to recreational cannabis, from the Northern Lights to politics. The next morning we had cafe au lait and warm croissants at the charming Paris Cafe, a short stroll from our hotel.

In Skagway, there was a wait at “the best place in town to eat,” but the wait was worth it — and we were notified by text message when our table was ready. Skagway may be small and remote, but there’s no shortage of technology! WP_20180821_12_44_28_ProWe were rewarded with perfectly prepared fish, crispy chips and superb local brew.

We took a short bus ride to White Pass, following the path traversed by miners with gold fever, and snapped photos at the border between the United States and Canada, “Gateway to the Klondike.” We walked around Skagway for just a short time before retreating back to our ship as it began to rain. Skagway has changed little, but with four cruise ships in town, it was crowded!

That afternoon, before slipping lines and heading south to Juneau, a program by “real Alaskan” Steve Hites, one of the 1,057 full-time Skagway residents, was a highlight of the trip. Accompanied by guitar and harmonica, the 64-year-old songwriter, storyteller and tour operator charmed listeners with a 40-minute history of “his” Alaska, and the small town he knows so well.

In Juneau and Ketchikan, once again we asked for local food tips and were given the names of two eateries slightly beyond the tourist mainstream. At both, The Flight Deck in Juneau, and again in Ketchikan at The Dirty Dungee, we devoured fresh-caught Dungeness crab, and couldn’t have been happier!

About traveling to Alaska . . .

My heartfelt advice to anyone considering an Alaska cruise?

GO!

My husband and I realize that we were privileged to be able to experience the state as we did — on our own — and that trip will remain in our hearts as a unique experience.

We remember how small we felt while on our boat, especially one morning in Juneau as we awoke to the presence of a massive cruise ship snuggled against the dock directly in front of our vessel.

101_0747As luck would have it, on this trip Golden Princess occupied that slip, and we wondered if the private yacht owners felt as dwarfed as we had that long ago morning.

The allure of Alaska has not diminished for us. We shared the excitement of first-time visitors on this cruise. And we understand clearly the sentiments of those who return again and again. There are many ways to travel to this unique state, from “big-ship” cruises to private vessels, land-sea combos, fly-in fishing or sightseeing trips and active expedition cruises. The Alaska State Ferry runs north from Bellingham, Wash., year round, the the Al-Can Highway provides an unparalleled opportunity for those who love road trips. There are summer work opportunities for college students, and the tourist industry brings part-time residents every season. There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for visiting Alaska.

Absolutely, go to experience the place — the stunning scenery with majestic peaks and pristine water, the wilderness, the waterfalls and the icy blue glaciers. Look for wildlife, of course, and marvel when you spot a whale or a group of bears on shore, eagles in the trees, or otters in the sea. Eat your fill of freshly-caught fish and seafood. Snap Selfies. Take tours. Buy trinkets.

But go especially to meet the people! Dinner companions often become lasting friends. At the very least, casual encounters with shopkeepers, restaurant servers, tour guides, ship’s staff, and the people you stop to talk with on the street linger as lasting reminders of the trip  even when memories of specific sights begin to fade.

Cruising is invariably a pleasure, no matter what the ports.  And Alaska still lives up to its moniker as the American “last frontier.” It’s a big adventure!

So, yes, go to Alaska!   

Will we return? Perhaps not. But we would not hesitate to do so. It’s that good!