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Vacations, Day Trips and Getaways

Vacations, Day Trips and Getaways

Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: A Lot about Alaska PDF Print Email

Written by Adrienne Smith

Oct. 8, 2014: After a week touring around Alaska by car, the time had come to board our boat for a cruise around its shores and into inland waters. What this meant was essentially seven days of glacier viewing. Now I like glaciers as much as the next person, especially when they're big and blue, but after a while, tedium sets in.

Add to this that my husband-companion is a theme talker. He is not one to skip merrily from topic to topic, e.g., world affairs, Jennifer Anniston's love life, the meaning of human existence, or the changing demographics of our village. No, he is a single-topic guy. We've had the year of Ben Franklin, another of the Fund Directors' Guide, and, lately, bridge, more precisely, the intimate details of each hand he has played. As a non-bridge player, and sensing that I was on the verge of committing acts I might regret while incarcerated, I decided to fill the hoped-for void with pithy information about Alaska, gleaned from Wikipedia and the like. And it worked like a charm, beleaguered wives out there.

Alaska is quite unusual. Although it is the least densely populated of all the U.S. states, it is also the geographically largest. Texas, California, and Montana, the next three largest states, would fit handily within its borders, and it is larger than the 22 smallest states combined. Moreover, it has a longer coastline than all the other states put together. It is also the fourth smallest state by population, after North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.

It is home to more than 100,000 of the aforementioned glaciers (all of which I must have seen), half of the world's total. As a result of glacial action, it has more than three million lakes, although I have no idea who counted them.

Now some trick factoids. Alaska is the only non-contiguous state on the North American continent. Note the word "continent," you Hawaii-sayers. And if you asked what states were the northern-, eastern-, and westernmost in the Union, you'd probably give credit to Alaska for north and west and Maine for east. But no, because the antimeridian (the 180-degree longitude separating the Western Hemisphere from the Eastern Hemisphere) divides the Aleutian Islands, which belong to Alaska, part of the Aleutian Islands lies west of the antimeridian into the Eastern Hemisphere and is therefore the most eastern locale in the States.

On a weird note, the capital, Juneau, which is only one-tenth the size of the far more bustling Anchorage, cannot be reached by road or rail. Those wishing to venture there must take a ferry or fly in, making it the only state capital so limited.

Privately held land in Alaska is hard to come by, as the federal government owns almost two-thirds of it, followed by state and native corporation ownership, leaving only about 1% for private development.

Other things you may or may not know about Alaska follow. It is home to the world's most perfectly shaped volcano, COBE atop Mount Shishaldin. The second most powerful earthquake in history, registering 9.2 on the Richter scale, occurred on Good Friday of 1964, east of Anchorage. About 15% of the population is Native American. It is one of the least religious states in the country. It has the largest number of pilots per capita in the nation. The moose is the official state land mammal, while the king salmon is its state fish. It has the lowest state tax burden of the 50 states. And, gasp, it has a lot of social problems, including high levels of drug abuse and rape.

Add to this, you can make your own Eskimo ice cream by mixing reindeer fat, seal oil, dried fish meat, and berries. Delicious!

One final item--the Anchorage Airport is somewhat infelicitously named the Ted Stevens International Airport, in honor of the late, long-serving AK senator. I say "late" because, alas, he died in an airplane crash.

Perhaps you've had enough at this point and don't want to hear about the Exxon Valdez oil dump or Sarah Palin. Or maybe you do. In any event, you're sure to dazzle if you incorporate these details into your daily conversations.

Pictured here: An Alaskan glacier.

Photo by Adrienne Smith

John Corry: Expanded Yale Art Gallery Boasts Fine American Paintings PDF Print Email

Written by John A. Corry

Sep. 24, 2014: Three years ago, I visited New Haven to view the Yale Center for British Art and its collection of fine British paintings, the largest outside the United Kingdom.

Earlier this year a good friend urged me to return to New Haven, this time to see the collection, especially the American paintings, across the street in the Yale University Art Gallery, whose recent renovation had expanded its size by two thirds.

Accordingly, one Sunday last month three of us took the easy drive up the Merritt Parkway to find out what we had been missing. We were not disappointed; Yale has a first-rate collection, particularly of American paintings.

The museum began its life in 1831, when it acquired a series of Revolutionary War paintings by Connecticut artist John Trumbull. Larger copies of four of them, the Declaration of Independence, the Surrender of General Burgoyne, the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, and the Resignation of General Washington, hang in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Hung here in the Yale Gallery together with his paintings of the battles of Bunker Hill, Quebec, Trenton, and Princeton, they were a thrilling sight, especially to a history buff like me.

Near these paintings is a Trumbull painting of Washington standing by his horse at the Battle of Trenton. When the Charleston city fathers who had commissioned it rejected it because it was not "matter of fact enough," he sent them another, which I saw in Charleston last February. With the city spires in the background and the horse's rump prominently displayed, it is known as "Trumbull's Revenge."

The gallery is a mecca for devotees of nineteenth-century American landscapes. Perhaps the largest is Albert Bierstadt's depiction of Yosemite and its Glacier Point Trail. The other end of the country is represented by Frederic Church's view across a small lake of northern Maine's Mt. Katahdin.

Yale's collection also boasts another Bierstadt and two lovely Church volcano paintings of Ecuador's Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. There is a tranquil Fitz Henry Lane view of a Maine inlet where a large schooner lies beneath a lighthouse and two Martin Johnson Heade pictures of Massachusetts coastal meadows. Other works include landscapes by Sanford Robinson Gifford, Eastman Johnson, and John Frederick Kensett.

We also viewed three Civil War-era paintings by Winslow Homer: the nostalgic Old Mill depicts four homespun-clad women walking to work after being summoned by a bell on the mill's rooftop; In Front of Yorktown shows three Union soldiers quietly sitting in the woods by a campfire; and the third shows two women engaged in an informal game of croquet, which was becoming widely popular among women, who realized that it was one sport in which they could compete with men. Also displayed are a landscape, a portrait of a lady, and a still life, all by Sargent.

The American collection also boasts nine paintings by late nineteenth-century artist Thomas Eakins. Two are portraits of young women, one his fiancée; two others of men rowing on the nearby Schuylkill River; and another of men shooting in the river's marshes. Also displayed is a dark, haunting Eakins portrait of a Civil War Medal of Honor veteran. (This work, together with three others by Eakins and two by Homer, had been bequeathed to Yale by alumnus Stephen Clark, whose brother's gallery in Williamstown I visited earlier last month.)

Equally striking is Eakins's full-length portrait of an eminent professor and surgeon instructing his class on an operation he is about to perform. (The same picture is the focal point of a larger work, The Agnew Clinic, which shows the class viewing the patient on the operating table. That painting, owned by the University of Pennsylvania, was preceded by Eakins's The Gross Clinic, which the university several years ago tried to sell to two non-Philadelphia museums. The public outrage that it might leave the city led, instead, to its purchase by two local institutions.)

We spent so long in these galleries that we had little time to spend with more modern paintings, but I noted three fine Edward Hopper works (also Stephen Clark bequests) hanging on one wall. In another gallery we saw Van Gogh's The Night Café and three lovely Monets.

The museum also displays five works by Degas, three Cézannes, and paintings by Manet, Renoir, Seurat, and Pissarro. There are works by earlier artists, including Titian, Ghirlandaio, Van Dyck, Rubens, and Holbein, and a double portrait of a husband and wife by Hals, a gift more than a century ago of early Renaissance art forms that make up the core of a collection that led New York Times critic Holland Cotter to praise it as "one of the finest ensembles of 13th- and 14th-century Italian painting in any museum, anywhere."

For those interested in other areas, there is much more to explore: modern and contemporary art and rooms of antiquities and pre-Columbian, African, and Indo-Pacific items. And it is all just an hour-and-a-half drive from Bronxville.

John Corry: Bigger and Better in the Berkshires; The New Clark Art Museum PDF Print Email

Aug. 20, 2014: Less than three hours from Bronxville is a beautifully expanded museum whose bucolic surroundings complement its lovely landscapes and other fine paintings.

In the late 1940s, Singer Sewing Machine heir Sterling Clark was determining how to dispose of his large art collection. His concern that it might be destroyed in a nuclear war led him to forsake his native Manhattan in favor of a more isolated setting. Persuaded by Williams College President Baxter and influenced by the fact that his grandfather and father had been college trustees, he chose Williamstown in the Berkshires of northwestern Massachusetts.

In 1955, a year before Clark's death, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute opened its doors to the public. On trips to visit our daughter at Middlebury, Emily and I would break our journeys to enjoy its collections of Impressionists (more than 20 Renoirs), Winslow Homers, and other paintings.

As the years passed, through purchases and bequests, the Clark expanded its collections. By 2000, it became clear that it needed to make major renovations. The next year, the trustees adopted a master plan that would substantially reconfigure the Clark's 140-acre campus.

Carried out in two phases, it involved a new visitors center with rooms for special exhibitions and a substantial renovation of the original museum building that added more than 2,200 square feet of gallery space. Also included is the expansion of a building added in 1973, it will reopen next year as the Manton Center and will house a collection of more than 200 English paintings, drawings, and prints, including many works by Constable and Turner, that was donated to the Clark in 2007.

The new complex's architects moved the museum's entrance, previously facing South Street, to its other end so that visitors approach it against an open background of green lawns, meadows, and wooded slopes. Thus, when the Clark reopened last month after being closed for three years, there was special acclaim for its setting. The Architectural Record called it "breathtaking" and a "seamless integration of indoor and outdoor space." The full page New York Times review carried the headline "A Place of Serene Excitement, Inside and Out."

Earlier this month, two friends and I drove to Williamstown. After lunch at the nearby Williams Inn and purchasing our tickets at the new visitors center, we walked the several-hundred-foot-long glass-enclosed passageway to the museum building.

Our first stop was a large gallery containing the Clark's large collection of paintings by Winslow Homer and a number of lovely landscapes by 19th-century American artist George Inness, most of which were given to the Clark only last year. (Another gallery shows paintings by Sargent and other late 19th-century artists).

We next visited the largest gallery, which displays the majority of the Clark's many Renoirs and eight Monets, including one of his series of Rheims Cathedral. The effect of seeing them all together in one room is, itself, impressive. Other paintings by Renoir, as well as by Pissarro and Manet, are in an adjoining gallery. Elsewhere are several works by Degas, including a statue of a young ballet dancer, and a charming pastel by Cassatt.

The Clark Museum owns a small but especially lovely group of paintings by Renaissance masters including Piero della Francesca, Ghirlandaio, and Perugino. Others of its twenty galleries contain works by such artists as Corot, Gainsborough, Gauguin, and Goya. Scattered among the rooms are pieces of sculpture, as well as items of porcelain, glassware, and silver.

The total effect of experiencing the new Clark is overwhelming. I do have one complaint: it appears that nowhere in the museum building is a spot to sit and enjoy a soft drink, coffee, or tea, or to get a cup of ice water. The closest location is on the lower level of the visitors center, and this small café will only be open from July 1 to October 13.

The problem will worsen next year after the opening of the Manton Center with its many English pictures and gallery space to show them. Since the Manton will be reachable via a bridge from museum gallery 18, providing a refreshment station there would ameliorate the problem. Otherwise visitors, many of whom appeared to be elderly, who would like to take a short break will continue to be forced to trek to and from the visitors center in order to spend a relaxed two or three hours enjoying the Clark's many treasures.

For art lovers who have more time, the Berkshires boast other treasures, including Edith Wharton's Lenox home, The Mount, Stockbridge's Norman Rockwell Museum, and the home and studio of Lincoln sculptor Daniel Chester French. But visiting the Clark alone is well worth the trip.

Pictured here: John A. Corry

Photo by N. Bower

Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: Trying Telephone Troubles PDF Print Email

August 20, 2014:  As I think I have made abundantly clear by now, I love to travel.  But there are times when this dedication and passion are sorely tried.  Airport delays, missing baggage with an irreplaceable, admittedly hideous, outfit or my beloved teddy (bear), hotel rooms next to clanging elevators or adult frat parties, all of these happily very occasional occurrences can provoke existential questioning.

But recently I reached almost the apex of personal agony in attempting, of all things, to reserve seats for my husband and myself on an Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Newark.

I don’t want to boast, but I’m a Platinum Level flier on United Airlines, and my husband is a Gold member by virtue of my attainment of one million miles on said airline.   I’m a bit tongue-in-cheek about boasting as I’ve discovered that there are a huge number of business travelers out there who hold that status and higher.  Moreover, I expected some sort of amazing payoff when I hit my millionth, say, a free trip around the world first class.  Instead, I got a very nice card and a certificate saying I’d flown the requisite amount, and that was about it.

Back to the drama of the seats.  Because I will be departing on United, and, despite the fact that United and Air Canada are part of the Star Alliance, I could not obtain my return seats on AC through United.  In addition, Air Canada’s web site was not at all interested in my United reservation numbers. 

Next  step, a call to Air Canada.  Ha!  I had to dial its number repeatedly, inflaming my finger tip, before I got by a busy signal.  An eerie, recorded message then told me I would have to wait 35-40 minutes to speak to an alleged human being.  Forget that!

I then called United on my magical Platinum number and spoke instantly to an agent, who provided me with a set of Air Canada reservation numbers for my flight.  Relief!

I should have known better.  On my return to the Air Canada web site, I diligently entered said numbers, only to be told that, for any of a variety of reasons, I was ineligible to book online.  Come on!

So, at several times when I had almost nothing better to do, I called AC’s reservation number with the same squeal of busy signals, interminable waits, and final abandonment, due to the intervention of life.

But today was the day!  I was going to tough it out no matter what.  28 calls before I was connected.  25 minutes of waiting, which I whiled away playing Candy Crush, and then, sweetly, the ringing indicating I was being connected to an agent.  Ah, bliss!

But fate was unkind.  I was unceremoniously disconnected before the exchange of a single word.

In my fury, I brought to bear every internet skill I possess.  First, I tweeted a pretty nasty note at Air Canada, which the millions will be free to read.  Then, I searched online to see if I were the first person so irritated.  No, indeed!  AC has quite a reputation out there.  Next, I searched for numbers that might do an end run around AC’s main telephone reservation number.  First, and quite curiously, I found a free service that would call for me and provide AC with my number to call at their “leisure.”  I filled in the required information and waited and waited, finally noticing that this service was calling the same number that I had had such poor luck with.  So, back to the internet.  And there it was, an anonymous person providing a number that he claimed had a less than two-minute wait.

 With trembling hands, I dialed.  One second later, I was connected.  Ten seconds further on a most human voice asked how she could help me.  And by the end of a minute, I had my seats.  Strange stuff!

My big decision now is whether to propagate this magical number out to the world on Twitter or to keep it my selfish secret.  Not that I’m planning to fly on Air Canada any time again soon!

Finally, in the ultimate irony, a few minutes after my success, I got the callback from Air Canada.  Another human voice.  Rejoice!

Pictured here:  The author’s ticket on Air Canada.

Photo by Adrienne Smith


Adrienne Smith, the Constant Traveler: Making It to Machu Picchu PDF Print Email

Jun. 4, 2014:  Let me begin by urging you to follow your lifelong dreams, the earlier the better. I could call the collection a bucket list, but that has rather dark implications. Top dream of mine, a trip to Machu Picchu in Peru.

My younger brother went there long ago, and the stunning picture he took and gave to my parents served as a constant reproach every time I eyed it. But somehow, the altitude, my lack of Spanish, and the expense of the trip justified delay.

Finally, in April, the stars aligned.

To ensure that the excursion would be as comfortable as possible, I signed up with Orient Express, now infelicitously renamed Belmond, to spend eight days in Peru, including an overnight at the Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel perched right next to the famed site. Belmond has made a heavy investment in the region, building or renovating deluxe hotels in Cusco and the Sacred Valley as well as the Lodge, and top-drawer railroad cars, decorated to the hilt and serving gourmet food, which wend their way from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, sitting at the base of the road up to Machu Picchu

My choice of travel company proved to be both fortunate and unlucky, as I came down with a nasty cold just before my departure. Idiotically lacking travel insurance and reluctant to see all my money go down the drain, I soldiered on, arriving in Lima quite the worse for wear.

However, the pacing of the trip allowed me to acclimate in a reasonably gentle way before arriving at Machu Picchu's almost 8,000-foot elevation on the fifth day of my journey. 

After checking in to the ultra-glam Lodge, my guide took me for a first view of the ruins, and what a view it was! You see nothing from the hotel itself, nothing as you walk 10 minutes in on a dirt path, and then, suddenly, there Machu Picchu is in all its lush, layered glory, surrounded by steep, perfectly shaped Andean fingers. A complete wow and probably the most amazing sight I've ever seen!

My guide, Carlos, urged me up enormously spaced stone steps as I coughed, snorted, and gasped and was otherwise fairly repulsive. With each gain in altitude, the view became ever more stunning. And, despite the large number of fellow tourists, the area was so spread out that I was able to feel spiritually in touch with the mystical effect of the place.

So many contradictory surmises about Machu Picchu exist that it's hard to know where to begin. The conventional story is that a young Yale lecturer, Hiram Bingham, stumbled onto the spot in 1911 while looking for something else, the Lost City of the Incas. As the story goes, the site was concealed by jungle overgrowth so that its precious archeological contents had been left virtually intact. Fine. But it seems that two different Europeans may have visited the place more than 50 years before and that the area, far from being hidden, was actually being farmed by local Peruvians and serviced by a road that took Mr. Bingham a mere hour and a half to travel.

Bingham returned the next year, accompanied by a team from the National Geographic magazine, which dedicated a whole issue to the ruins in 1913. The Peruvian government allowed Bingham to remove thousands of artifacts and to ship them to Yale, on the subsequently forgotten condition that they be returned to the country when an adequate repository was constructed. In recent years, lawsuits have resulted in the return of most to a museum in Cusco.

As to the Inca themselves, they are shrouded in mystery because, inter alia, they had no written language. Machu Picchu was constructed sometime around 1450 and was abandoned for unknown reasons one hundred years later. The Spanish Conquistadors never seem to have known of its existence, which was a lucky break, as they destroyed or mutilated most sites they found. Machu Picchu has been viewed alternatively as a religious spot, complete with human sacrifice (virgins, of course), a summer palace for Incan royalty, a way station for pilgrims, and, more simply, a securely located city for Incan citizens. The virgin sacrifice idea is out now, as skeletons unearthed there have been found to be 50-50 male-female. The jury is still out on other hypotheses.

What is most notable is the skill with which the city was constructed. The spot lies between two geological fault lines and, given the steepness of the terrain and the heavy annual rainfall, subject to frequent earth and rock slides. A mudslide stranded 2,500 tourists in 2010, requiring helicopter evacuation, and an early 2014 rockfall blocked the precipitous road from the train arrival point in Aguas Calientes to the site. 

The integrity of the building, and the reason for its endurance for over 650 years, is due to remarkably well-conceived engineering. Terracing helps to prevent soil erosion. Sixty percent of the construction lies in foundation work underground, complete with an advanced drainage system. And the stones of the structures are exquisitely carved to fit each other, obviating the need for mortar, which would have degraded over the centuries, collapsing the buildings. In other words, a marvel, and worthy of being both a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

If only I had possessed more lung power, been ten years younger, and an unmentionable number of pounds lighter, I would have taken some of the even more fabulous trails, but this was not to be. So my advice to you is go, go soon, go young, go healthy. Just go!

Pictured here:  Adrienne Smith atop Machu Picchu.

Photo by Carlos, the author's guide

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