A Caribbean Heaven — Les Saintes, Guadeloupe

A Caribbean Heaven — Les Saintes, Guadeloupe

Day… ? It is the surest sign of an outstanding cruise that after a few days of exquisite pampering aboard the Silver Whisper, I have blissfully lost track of time. The ship is slowly entering the tranquil bay that will be today’s anchorage. In the clear morning light, an ethereal rainbow arches from the verdant hilltop of a pristine islet. We have reached Les Saintes, the best kept secret of the Guadeloupe Archipelago.

Europe in the Caribbean

A perfect rainbow welcomes us to Les Saintes.

Guadeloupe is the southernmost of the Leeward Islands. As an Overseas Department of France, it is also the largest European Union territory in North America. Its archipelago consists of six small inhabited islands and a number of islets and outcroppings. Even by Caribbean standards, it is blessed with more than its fair share of stunning beaches, soaring mountains and spectacular snorkeling spots. Yet, while popular with French sun seekers, Guadeloupe has virtually escaped the attention of international tourists.

Le Bourg retains the atmosphere of a French seaside village.

Thanks to this oversight, the twin islands of Les Saintes (Terre-de-Haut and Terre-de-Bas, separated by a narrow channel), although a mere 20-minute high-speed ferry ride from the main islands of the archipelago, have retained an unspoiled, off-the-beaten tracks atmosphere. This is immediately obvious as our ship’s tender eases toward the small dock in the center of what looks like the quintessential French seashore village. Aptly named Le Bourg (The Village), it centers around a pedestrian main street lined with sun-washed, red-roofed houses and cafés along a sparkling turquoise harbor.

The Best of Les Saintes

Brown pelicans nest along the rocky coastline.

The coast of Terre-de-Bas features dramatic rock formations.

With a handful of fellow passengers, I transfer aboard a local motorboat for a morning on the water. Soon, we are zipping by hidden coves with perfect white sand beaches and secluded beach-front bungalows. Then the coastline becomes rocky, humans disappear and pelicans take pride of place. 

We head toward Terre-de-Bas. The island is dominated by a mountainous massif that shelters a protected forest as well as a couple of hamlets and hilltop villas. The coast of the nine square kilometer (three and a half square mile) island is lined with cliffs and rocky points that seem to be favorite anchorages for a few adventurous yatchies. We exchange polite waves and continue on, back toward Terre-de-Haut. After giving a passing look at a notable blowhole spraying out of a jagged rock face, we continue on to the high point of our morning: The Pain de Sucre.

Underwater Magic

Le Pain de Sucre is renowned for its exceptional snorkeling.

Named for the 50 meter (165 foot) high Sugar Loaf volcanic hill that rises just off the beach, the area is renowned for its calm, crystal clear waters and exceptional seabed. Although rocky, it has been colonized into a remarkable water garden by fine coral formations and a variety of sponges. Multicolor sea fans and sabella sway in the current, while bright butterfly fish, angel fish, groupers, blue sturgeonfish and many other wander by. This is one of the best snorkeling experiences I’ve had in years.

Lunch With Goats

A palm grove surrounds Pompierre Bay.

The horseshoe-shaped Baie de Pompierre is held in high esteem among discriminating beach-goers. Since it is located just one and a half kilometer (about one mile) northeast of Le Bourg, I decide to check it out. Along the way I stop by a food truck for a bokit, a local specialty that consists of a piece of fried dough about the size of a pita, stuffed full of meat or fish and fresh vegetable, and sprinkled with a peppery sauce. I opt for Poulet-Crudités (chicken and chopped veggies) and continue on to the unruly palm grove that shields the beach from the sea. Pompierre is indeed worth its hype: a golden strand of fine sand bordering a shimmering cove protected from the harsher wave by Les Roches Percées, a lacy reef forming a narrow inlet. There is even a tiny island to swim to in the middle of it.

The rocky coastline conceals sandy coves.

I resist the temptation and sit at the edge of the trees to turn my attention to my bokit, which immediately catches the interest of one of the friendly little goats who seem to inhabit the grove. I lose the battle of wills and agree to share the remains of my sandwich with the determined nanny goat.  She makes short work of it, brown paper wrapper included. An efficient way to deal with litter. She moves on after that as I regretfully leaves this small corner of Eden. I am have one more destination in mind before returning to the ship.

Napoleon Didn’t Sleep Here

The Fort Napoleon terrace offers panoramic view of the island.

It’s another 10-minute uphill walk to Fort Napoléon. Built on a high bluff in 1867 to replace an earlier fortified lookout, the fort was named in honor of the then ruler of France, Napoleon III (nephew of the famous Emperor). The monarch never visited there, nor did the fort ever served in battle. It was was instead used as a penitentiary in the late 19th century and again during World War II. It is now a museum dedicated to Les Saintes’ history, culture, and environment. It is surrounded by a botanical garden of local succulent plants, and home to a colony of iguanas. While the fort may have been of strategic importance during colonial times, today it is mainly its spectacular panoramic view that makes it worth the climb.

An idyllic morning on Terre-de-Haut.

By the time I return the ship, the tiny island has made my list of places to revisit for a proper stay. Now, this being written in a time of Coronavirus, I have make a pact with my best snorkeling buddy: when we can finally escape the twilight zone of confinement, and as soon as it is prudent to once again fly off to far flung places, Les Saintes will be our first destination.

 

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Located on the main island of Guadeloupe, Pointe-à-Pitre International Airport has daily non-stop flights from Paris, France, as well as regular flights from a few European Union countries and U.S. East Coast cities (most notably Miami). From Pointe-à-Pitre, there is regular ferry service throughout the day to Le Bourg.
  • Getting around — There are very few four-wheeled vehicles operating on this small, hilly island. Most visitors do their exploring on foot, or opt to rent a scooter.
  • Silversea Cruises is recognized as a leader in the ultra-luxury cruise line industry, offering guests large ship amenities and an all-inclusive business model aboard its intimate, all suite vessels. Including the Silver Whisper, it consists of a fleet of 11 ships featuring itineraries that encompass all seven continents.
  • At the time of this writing, due to the on-going Coronavirus pandemic, Silversea have suspended all their current voyages. However, conditions permitting, they are planning to resume operations in June 2020. Consult their website above for the latest information.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Katavi

Iles des Saintes

A Caribbean Escape – Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

A Caribbean Escape – Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

After a serene day of cruising the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, the Silver Whisper glides into San Juan, Puerto Rico, just as the setting sun is sprinkling coppery hues onto the medieval El Morro (the Promontory) fortress.

A Photographer’s Treat

The vivid La Perla neighborhood stretches along the northern shore of the city.

As the ship makes its graceful way toward the entrance channel to the inner harbor, we are treated to a unique panoramic view of La Perla, the colorful historical shanty town wedged between the ancient city wall and the sea. Established in the late nineteenth century, when the development of Old San Juan pushed its most disadvantaged population outside the fortifications, it stretches for almost half a mile (750 meters) like a vivid puzzle along the rocky coast, from the edge of El Morro to the massive Castillo San Cristobal.

Sailing past the mighty El Morro.

After an exciting, slow motion photoshoot of the iconic El Morro showcased from every imaginable angle, we berth at the cruise terminal of the Old San Juan Piers, an easy walk away from all the major attractions of the historic city. We’ll be here for the next 24 hours, and I am looking forward to a day of roaming around the ancient Spanish colonial town.

 

The crew of a Brazilian Navy ship stands at attention.

The next morning, we get an unexpected wakeup call courtesy of the Brazilian Navy. One of their ships is easing toward the far side of our pier, before coming to a stop right alongside the Silver Whisper. From our private veranda, I have an eye-level view of the entire crew in their gleaming white uniforms, standing at perfect attention on the deck. Meanwhile, at the stern, the ship’s band is enthusiastically belting out a medley of the spirited tunes for which their country is famous. This is one of these serendipitous moments that reinforces my passion for far-flung travels.

A Spanish Heritage

The streets remain steeped in Old World charm.

Shoehorned onto an islet that guards the entrance to its harbor, San Juan is the second-oldest European-founded settlement in the Americas*. Established by Spanish explorers in 1521, a whole century before the Mayflower laid anchor in present day Massachusetts, Old San Juan, as the colonial town is known today, remains an historical jewel steeped in Old World charm.  Although Puerto Rico came under control of the United States at the conclusion of the Spanish-American war in 1898, and the modern city that radiates from the waterfront is firmly planted into the present, the centuries of Spanish rule have left their indelible imprint on Old San Juan. 

The Raices fountain honors the various ethnicities Puerto Rico’s heritage.

Within minutes of stepping off the ship, I start my journey back in time with a stroll along the broad Paseo de la Princesa. The shaded nineteenth century, sea-level esplanade stretches just below the city wall, to end at the waterfront with the magnificent Raices (or roots) fountain. Designed by architect Miguel Carlo, the fountain was completed in 1992 to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of Spain’s “discovery” of the New World. It consists of a collection of statues honoring Puerto Rico’s mixed African, Spanish and Taino/Amerindian heritage.

The Oldest Cathedral in the New World

The Cathedral and Basilica of St.John the Baptist.

Soon, I come upon the elegant Neoclassical Catedral Metropolitana Basilica de San Juan Bautista (or Metropolitan Cathedral and Basilica of St.John the Baptist). Completed in 1540 as the seat of the first catholic bishop in the New World, it is the first cathedral church in the Americas. It is also home to the tomb of the Spanish explorer and founder of the original settlement, Juan Ponce de León. From here, every winding lane seems to lead to El Morro.

 

An Impregnable Medieval Fortress

The colossal walls of El Morro are dotted with domed garitas.

Perched atop of the 140-foot (43-meter) promontory at the northwestern tip of the islet of Old San Juan, the sprawling Castillo San Felipe del Morro, named in honor of King Philip II of Spain (1527 – 1598), was started in 1539 to guard the entrance to San Juan Bay and defend the port city from seaborne invasions. Its expansion continued in stages until 1790, growing from a bastion mounted with a cannon to a mighty six-level fortress. Vast barracks, storerooms, and dungeons are enclosed within its colossal outer walls dotted with garitas, the domed sentry boxes that have become the iconic symbol of Puerto Rico.

Land access to El Morro was protected by a a vast field-of-fire.

In its over 400 years as a military site, El Morro withstood countless attacks and was never defeated by sea. It was only taken once, in 1598, in a land assault led by the British forces of the Earl of Cumberland. It was this attack that prompted the construction of the Castillo de San Cristóbal at the opposite end of the bluff. No longer in use as a military site, the fortress is now a National Park and Museum. Its vast, open grassy lawn, once a “field-of-fire” for its redoubtable cannons is now a favorite destination for family outings and kite flying

The Castillo de San Cristóbal

The shanty town of La Perla rises from the ocean.

Leaving El Morro behind, I take Norzagaray Street, the boulevard that now follows the top of the city wall to the Castillo de San Cristóbal. It offers a spectacular view of the colonial era Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery and the colorful neighborhood of La Perla.

The multi-tiered Castillo is the largest fortress built by the Spanish in the Western Hemisphere.

The Castillo is the largest fortress built by the Spanish in the Western Hemisphere. Completed in 1785, it covers 27 acres (11 hectares) and soars to almost 150 feet (46 meters) above the water. Designed to guard agains land assault from the east, it is a tiered network of fortifications that would force invaders to face several defensive barriers before the fort could be breached. It is from here that the first shot of the Spanish-American War was fired in 1898. Access is much more peaceful today, and the ramparts offer glorious views of city, the piers and the ubiquitous El Morro.

Wandering the backstreets reveals ancient cloistered courtyards.

From the Castillo, it’s a leisurely stroll back down to the pier, through the narrow back streets of the colonial town. I drift in and out of artisan shops and stumble into my most memorably experience of the day: I strike a conversation with a charming craftswoman who creates original jewelry from local beach glass. I step in, intent on picking up one of her delicate pieces to commemorate the day, and end up sitting on her stoop with the artist, Idalia Velazquez, sharing life experiences and thoughts on random subjects over a cup of coffee, as though we were long-lost friends.

 

It’s back to the ship after that. Tonight we set sails for the Leeward Islands.

One last glance at El Morro.

 Good to Know

  • *In case you are wondering: The first permanent settlement in the New World was Isabella on the island of Hispaniola (in present-day Dominican Republic). Built in 1493 by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage, it was promptly decimated by disease and hunger. Columbus and his remaining men then built another town, which became Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic capital.
  • Silversea Cruises (Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, Executive Chairman) is recognized as a leader in the ultra-luxury cruise line industry, offering guests large ship amenities and an all-inclusive business model aboard its intimate, all suite vessels. Including the Silver Whisper, it consists of a fleet of 11 ships featuring itineraries that encompass all seven continents.
  • At the time of this writing, due to the on-going Coronavirus pandemic, Silversea have suspended all their current voyages. However, conditions permitting, they are planning to resume operations in May 2020. Consult their website above for the latest information.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Old San Juan

A Late Fall Caribbean Escape

A Late Fall Caribbean Escape

It begins on a June morning, when I wake up to the unwelcome news that my long anticipated cruise around Cuba has vanished from my fall travel calendar. Overnight, the United States government has imposed new restrictions on travel to the island, including a ban of all cruise ship travel between the two countries. The three ports-of-call circumnavigation of Cuba and multiple related on shore experiences had been the deciding factor for a close friend and I to book this late-fall, two-weeks Caribbean itinerary. What to do?

Silversea Saves the Day

Passed this first moment of consternation, my friend wisely suggests that we table any further thought – let alone decision – on the matter until “we hear from Silversea.” While this would  be my first sailing experience with the Monaco-based luxury cruise line, she is a long-time fan. She has grown to trust the unfailing attention they commit delighting their guests. She is convinced that they will soon propose a satisfactory alternative solution.

Silversea does no disappoint. Within a couple of weeks, along with the courteous option to cancel our cruise for a full refund, a new much altered but intriguing new itinerary is proposed: a mosaic of islands stretched along the Caribbean Sea. They are a varied lot, shaped by their historic British, French, and US influence respectively. And most enticingly for me, they represent many of the prized snorkeling destinations of the region. Count me in!

All Aboard

The Observation Lounge

We board the Silver Whisper in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on a sunny November afternoon. Check-in is seamless, and in no time we are greeted by Satish, our very own white-gloved butler who assures us that he will be taking excellent care of us throughout our stay. He begins by offering to unpack our luggage, which is being delivered as we speak. We decline the unpacking, but we do allow him to uncork for us the welcome bottle of French Champagne chilling in its silver ice bucket.

Sleeping area of our Veranda Suite.

It’s time to engage in what my friend calls “attitude adjustment.” We have a couple hours to settle at leisure into our elegant, 26 square-meter (285 square-foot) Veranda Suite before we are required to show up at the lounge designated for the safety drill that marks the start of every cruise. Our sitting area, with its love seat and barrel arm chair arranged around an oval marble-top coffee table, and facing the built-in writing desk and 40-inch flat panel television, opens through floor-to ceiling glass sliding doors onto a 6 square-meter (60 square-foot) teak veranda with its own sitting arrangement. At the rear of the stateroom, the sleeping area, which can be isolated by a thick opaque draw-drape, features two well spaced twin beds and bedside tables and reading lamps.

View from our private deck.

With unpacking our first order of business, we take turns moving into the walk-in closet. It is thoughtfully appointed, and spacious enough to easily accommodate the two-week wardrobe of two women. At the rear, the granite-tiled bathroom with its separate tub and walk-in shower, double-sink vanity topped by a wall-to-wall mirror, its lush terry robes and generous supply of Bvlgari toiletries suggests exquisite indulgence down to the smallest detail.

The Hedonistic Pleasures of a Day at Sea

The Bar retains an intimate atmosphere.

Our itinerary begins with a day at sea, the perfect opportunity to check out the many pleasures of the Silver Whisper. Built at the prestigious high-end cruise vessel and mega yatch Mariotti Shipyard in Genoa, Italy, the ship entered service in 2000. It then went through an extensive refit in 2018 to ensure that it remains technically up to the minute, and continues to offer its guests the latest amenities and comforts. Yet it also retains the timeless grace of the legendary cruise ships of old. And with a total passenger capacity of 382 and a crew of 295, it offers one of the highest crew-to-passenger ratio in the luxury cruise industry. In addition to its 194 guest suites distributed along six decks, the ship features four restaurants ranging from casual dining to haute cuisine, a designer boutique that would be right at home on Rome’s Via Condotti and a state-of-the-art amphitheater. Add an intimate bar, a panoramic glassed-in observation lounge, a superb spa, a fully equipped gym and vast pool deck to give the Silver Whisper all the glamour of a European multi-starred resort.

Breakfast on the deck of La Terrazza

With a blank slate for the day ahead, I indulge in a leisurely breakfast on the deck of La Terrazza. When we dined here last night, from a menu of succulent farm-to-table-inspired Italian specialties, the softly lit restaurant felt cozily serene. This morning, with the Caribbean sun streaming through the curved outer glass wall, and open air deck as well as dinning room seating options, it is a cheerful, lively place and an invitation to linger over the generous cornucopia of its breakfast buffet offerings. I opt for a deck table and order a-la-carte instead, to better focus my attention on the infinite shades of blue of the undulating sea all around.

Caribbean sunset at sea.

The day gently glides by after that. I lull away hours by the pool with a book, while my friend is off to the spa. We reconnect at tea-time in the observation lounge over a decadent spread of dainty finger sandwiches, pastries and freshly baked scones against a discrete background of live classical piano music. Back in our suite, I revel in one of my favorite moments of the day: watching from the privacy the veranda the blood-orange sun dip into the darkening sea. Then it’s time to dress for dinner at the gourmet Le Restaurant.

We pass the Mega One Triton shipwreck on the way to our snorketing destination.

The Call of the Deep

In the early hours of the following day, we dock on Grand Turk Island, a sleepy, sun-drenched sliver of land 11 kilometer (7 mile) long by 1,5 kilometer (1 mile) wide, all shimmering white sand and swaying palm trees. And it is a favorite destination for divers drawn to its famous 2200 meter (7000 foot) deep coral walls that drops down a mere 300 meters out to sea. But it is equally appealing to snorkelers for its abundant marine life. A catamaran awaits right next to the self-contained cruise center to take me on a sail around the island, ending at the Boaby Rock Point with a colorful snorkeling experience.

The sun is getting low on the horizon by the time I return to the ship, salt-encrusted and exhilarated. Tonight we are sailing toward Puerto Rico.

 

Good to Know

  •  Silversea Cruises (Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, Executive Chairman) is recognized as a leader in the ultra-luxury cruise line industry, offering guests large ship amenities and an all-inclusive business model aboard its intimate, all suite vessels. Including the Silver Whisper, it consists of a fleet of 11 ships featuring itineraries that encompass all seven continents.
  • At the time of this writing, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Silversea have suspended all its current voyages. However, conditions permitting, they are planning to resume operations in May 2020. Consult their website above for the latest information.

Location, location, location!

Grand Turk

A Virginia Grande Dame Reborn

A Virginia Grande Dame Reborn

When Sir Bernard Ashley (widower of noted British designer Laura Ashley) purchased Villa Crawford in 1991, the 80-year old once grand Italianate mansion at the eastern edge of Charlottesville, Virginia had become a decaying “senile ruin.” His vision was to turn it into a world-class property where guests would feel they were staying at a private manor house. Fast-forward three years and a $25-million major restoration and expansion effort later, and voila, Villa Crawford had recovered its original opulence as the Historic North Wing of the newly minted 48 guest-room Keswick Hall.

Your Great Uncle’s Country Mansion

Virginia - Keswick Drive

A broad circular drive leads to the front entrance.

I turn off a country road onto the shaded private lane that winds its way to the crest of a gently rolling hill where Keswick Hall, set in its 600 acres (243 hectares) of pristine countryside, reveals itself in all its regal grace. Between its two wings, a vast circular drive leads to a formal, triple-arched entrance that seems better suited for luxury vintage motorcars than my compact rental. I feel rather shabby myself in my jeans and walking shoes, dusty from a day of roaming the back roads of central Virginia from boutique wineries to historic presidential estates. But before I have time to fret over sartorial propriety the doorman is already on hand to welcome me by name, like a long expected friend of the family. My luggage is out the trunk and my car whisked away by the time I step into the central Great Hall.

Virginia - Keswick Main Hall

The main hall has a warm, lived-in charm.

The restoration is so successful that I can’t detect any difference between the original structure and the more recent one. In spite of their imposing proportions, the sumptuous public areas decorated with interesting antiques and mellow oriental rugs manage to exude the warm, lived-in charm of “your great uncle’s country mansion” that Sir Bernard had envisioned. Or rather, my own family tree lacking such lofty branches, a medley of what Downton Abbey and PBS have led me to imagine it ought to be.

Virginia - Keswick hallway nook.

Hallway nooks showcase antique pieces.

Fresh seasonal flowers arranged with artful simplicity hint at having been brought from the garden on a whim. On both sides of the room, long hallways lead into both wings of the mansion. They are lined with nooks showcasing fine antique pieces, pedestals with marble statues, oil paintings and gilded mirrors arranged with the randomness of a private collection.

Virginia - Keswick billiard room.

The billiard room in the North Wing.

The Villa Reborn

In the North wing, the original features of the Villa Crawford’s pubic rooms such as fireplaces, wainscoting and paneling have been restored, and in the dining room, lounge and billiard room, recreated with antique and contemporary furniture. A bar has been added, made of beveled wood panels to blend seamlessly into the period décor, as do the assorted occasional tables that serve as cocktail tables, surrounded by slipper and lyre back chairs.

The South Wing

Viriginia - Keswick Room Four

My room in the South Wing

My own first-floor corner room (Number Four) is in the far corner of the new wing. It is an inviting light-filled retreat of understated elegance decorated in a neutral palette with jade green accents and a mix of antique and period-inspired furniture. French doors open onto a large corner terrace furnished with a wrought iron settee and matching chairs arranged around a round table. It is the perfect place to relax after a day of touring and enjoy the lovely bucolic views of the estate.

 

Cuisine with a Southern Accent

Virginia - Keswick Fawcett.

Fawcett’s dining room.

A proud recipient of the AAA Four Diamonds Award for a decade, Fosset’s offers classic continental cuisine with Southern accents, and a spectacular view of the manicured landscape of the golf course and the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond through its entire wall of floor to ceiling windows. I enjoy breakfasts as well as dinners here, my selections for both leaning toward the more Virginian dishes on the menu. Ginger pancakes with a subtle hint of molasses, vanilla and ginger, topped with dried fruit compote could easily become a breakfast addiction.

Virginia - Fawcett sticky pudding.

Fawcett’s sticky toffee pudding.

A particularly memorable dinner main course is crab cakes served on a coulis of green tomatoes, sweet peas and mint with an innovative Brussels sprout slaw, an original combination of textures and flavors. And for a decadent ending, I indulge in sticky toffee pudding, served with brown sugar and bourbon ice cream and a Piloncillo sugar wafer.

 

Indulgence for All

Virginia - Keswick Horizon

The Horizon Pool reflects the north facade of the mansion.

The Keswick staff is remarkably attentive and unfailingly helpful. In addition to its flawless hospitably, the property also offers activities to indulge the most varied interests, from the billiard room in Villa Crawford to an in-house spa, a croquet pitch overlooking the Southwest Mountains, a spectacular Peter Dye 18-holes golf course, nature walk and bird watching trails, aquatic center and tennis courts. It even has its own courtside vineyard. But for me, the ultimate luxury is the Horizon Pool, the adults only, heated saltwater infinity pool that reflects the north façade of the mansion. Best of all, it is open around the clock

Good to Know

 

  • Keswick Hall and Club is at 701 Club Drive, Keswick, VA, 22947, U.S.A. Keswick Hall, keswick.com, email: reservations@keswick.com, or call: +1 434-979-3440.
  • Keswick Hall is located in the eastern outskirts of Charlottesville, Virginia, a two-hour drive from Washington D.C. and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. It is a 10-minute drive from Jefferson’s Monticello, the most visited attraction in the area.
  • The 48-room property includes one master suite, two one-bedroom suites and six junior suites. It employs a core staff of 160 that increases to 220 at the height of the season.
  • The property is owned and managed by Historic Hotels of Albemarle, part of the Riverstone Group LLC of Richmond, VA, a subsidiary of Bill Goodwin’s CCA Industries.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Keswick Hall

Charlottesville, Virginia – Antebellum Charm and Contemporary Culture

Charlottesville, Virginia – Antebellum Charm and Contemporary Culture

Imagine a gracious historic small town set against a serene backdrop of rolling hills and vineyards in Central Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, home to a thriving artists’ community and a vibrant cultural life, all within a two-and-a-half hour’s drive from Washington D.C. Welcome to Charlottesville!

The Mark of Jefferson

Virginia - Charlottesville Downtown Mall

Charlottesville Downtown Mall

The city bears to this day the mark imparted upon it two centuries ago by its most illustrious citizen, Thomas Jefferson, one of the leading figures of the American Revolution and the man who penned the Declaration of Independence. In addition to his Monticello “Little Mountain” home, he founded and designed the University of Virginia. Both of these neoclassical (or Jeffersonian style) masterpieces are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Today, Monticello attracts half a million visitors annually and the University of Virginia, with its yearly enrollment of over 23,000 students, contributes significantly to the cultural vitality of the area.

Virginia - Charlottesville, Freedom of Expression Wall.

Freedom of Expression Wall at Downtown Mall.

The once Main Street is now Downtown Mall, an eight-block pedestrian walkway lined with restored historic buildings. Café terraces, restaurants and pubs mingle with antique shops, art galleries, fashion boutiques and several movie and live performance theatres. This favorite spot for tourists and locals alike includes a Freedom of Expression Wall where passersby can pen (in chalk) what’s on their mind. The wall is erased each night to give others an opportunity to express themselves.

Among the vineyards

Virginia - Monticello Wine Trail.

Vineyards of the Monticello Wine Trail.

Jefferson also made a significant, albeit posthumous, impact on the landscape of the area when he attempted to establish vineyards on land adjoining Monticello in 1774, only to have his efforts thwarted by the Revolutionary War. Fast-forward two centuries and a handful of determined growers inspired by his vision developed the Central Virginia Vineyard. Today Virginia has over 2,000 acres of vineyards, half of it around Charlottesville. Over 25 of these mainly boutique wineries form the Monticello Wine Trail and welcome visitors in their tasting rooms. The well-mapped itinerary meanders along some of the loveliest back roads of the greater Charlottesville area. One of the oldest, Jefferson Vineyard, is within a stone throw of Monticello, on the very land where Jefferson made his own winegrowing attempt.

The Artisan Trail

Virginia - Artisant Trail

Potter’s studio on the Artisan Trail.

Central Virginia has been home to artisans and artists since early settlers brought their traditions of craftsmanship to these parts. Over time, they have developed into a thriving artistic community of potters, weavers, painters, woodcarvers and other artists of varying medias. Their creations can be admired and purchased in individual studios scattered along the scenic back roads of well as in downtown galleries.

 

All the Presidents Homes

In addition to Thomas Jefferson, the Charlottesville area was also home to two more of America’s Founding Fathers, James Monroe and James Madison, who were to become President of the United States. Their respective homes Monticello, Ash-Lawn Highland and Montpelier are now open to visitors.

Virginia - Charlottesville, Monticello.

Jefferson’s Monticello.

Monticello. In its manicured hilltop setting, Jefferson’s palatial “essay in architecture” feels more like a museum than a home. The extensive guided visit through carefully curated exhibits expresses the importance of the residence as the core of Jefferson’s world and focuses on the renaissance man as well the political giant.

 

Virginia - Montpelier

James and Dolley Madison’s Montpelier.

Ash-Lawn Highland. Nearby Ash-Lawn Highland, the estate of James Monroe has retained the unassuming atmosphere of a working plantation. The refurbished house, filled with the Monroes’ American and French furnishings (acquired when Monroe was Ambassador to France), is representative of the family’s private life.

 

Virginia - Montpelier, Library.

The view from James Madison’s library in Montpelier.

Montpelier. A 40-minute drive from Charlottesville, in a 2,750 acre (1,113 hectare) estate of serene farmland, meadows and paddocks, James Madison’s Montpelier has been recently restored to its original neoclassical grace. The newly reconstituted interiors offer an insight into the lives and accomplishments of James and Dolley Madison. Especially telling for me is the second floor library where Madison is said to have spend several months studying past forms of governments, and pondering the guiding principles for a representative democracy that was to become the American Constitution.

 

 

Good to Know

  • Charlottesville is located in Central Virginia, 70 miles (110 kilometers) northwest of Richmond, and 115 miles (185 kilometers) southwest of Washington, D.C. With its wealth of attraction within a 20-mile (32 kilometer) radius of the city, a car is necessary to get around.
  • Monticello is at 931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville, Virginia. monticello.org. It is open for guided visits seven days a week year-round excluding Christmas Day. Tours are every hour. The number of visitors per tour is limited. Advanced purchase of tickets is recommended.
  • Ash-Lawn Highland is adjacent to Monticello at 2050 James Monroe Parkway, Charlottesville, Virginia. ashlawnhighland.org. It is open seven days a week year-round excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Days.
  • Montpelier is on Route 20 at 11350 Constitution Highway, in Orange, Virginia, 25 minutes north of Charlottesville. montpelier.org. It is opened seven days a week year-round excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas Days and the first two weeks in January.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Charlottesville

Far off the cruising lanes of Alaska

Far off the cruising lanes of Alaska

I was less than enthusiastic when the opportunity for an Alaska cruise arose. Actually, I turned it down first the time around. Nothing against Alaska, which I understood to be a place of great natural splendors; I bristled at the idea of boarding a floating hotel in Seattle or Vancouver and being whisked at a vast rate of knots for a weeklong northbound marathon of coastal highlights. However, Alaska didn’t give up. One year later it came calling again, and this time it had an offer I couldn’t resist: The Island Spirit.

CATCHING THE ISLAND SPIRIT

Petersburg Alaska, fisherman's art.

Petersburg Alaska, fisherman’s art.

I board the Island Spirit in Peterburg, a small fishing port still solidly anchored to its Norwegian roots, wedged on the Northern tip of Mitkof Island, in the Alexander Archiplago of Southern Alaska. The unassuming blue vessel barely stands out among the jumble of working fishing boats in the tiny harbor. But the powerful 128 foot (39 meter) long ship, once a rugged oilrig supply vessel painstakingly repurposed by his owner and captain Jeff Behrens, is just the right size to squeeze its way into narrow fjords and idyllic anchorages inaccessible to larger vessels. On board, it’s all casual comfort and thoughtful amenities: viewing decks on both passenger levels plus a rooftop “terrace”, large sliding windows everywhere and good binoculars always within easy reach. And Captain Jeff is a man with a passion for the pristine wilderness of Southern Alaska. He and his enthusiastic crew of eight clearly can’t wait to share it with us, the 16 passengers on this early June voyage.

Alaska Frederick Sound.

Dusk on Frederick Sound

We leave Petersburg on the evening tide, sailing up Frederick Sound at a leisurely 10 knots per hour (that’s 11.5 mile or 18.5 kilometer for us landlubbers). Within minutes, any hint of human encroachment disappears. All that’s left is unspoiled Alaska immensity. Distant snowy peaks sparkle in the clear dusk light. Within two hours, we’ve reached Portage Bay, our anchorage for the night.

Alaska Inside Passage Cruise

Early morning whale sighting.

 

 

The next morning we get underway at 7:00 AM. I am still hovering at the edge of consciousness, lulled by the gentle rocking of the ship, when Captain Jeff’s announces over the ship’s public address system: “whales at eleven o’clock”. We all emerge from our cabins, most of us with anoraks hastily thrown over pajamas, to congregate just a few feet a way on the bow viewing deck.

 

WHAT’S WITH FORD’S TERROR?

Alaska Inside Passage Ford's Terror.

The Island Spirit anchors for the night in Ford’s Terror.

Today’s destination is Ford’s Terror, a cove protected from the outside world by a passage so narrow that the Island Spirit is said to be the only commercial passenger vessel in the area small enough to navigate it. Additionally, fierce currents make the canyon unmanageable at any time but slack tide (the moment when currents stand still while the tide turns). The cove is named for a late nineteenth century sailor who didn’t follow this wise procedure when he tried to row a dinghy through the twisting gorge and was trapped in its roiling waters for several harrowing hours. We wait in Tracy Arm, a narrow fjord framed by towering granite cliffs, for the timing to be just right before engaging into the passage.

Alaska Inside Passage Grizzly.

Alaska Grizzly in Ford’s Terror.

We emerge into an oblong cove rimmed with dramatic slopes of black pines forests streaked by thundering waterfalls. Above the tree line, snowy mountaintops gleam against the cloudless cerulean sky. As we finish our dinner, First Mate Andy announces that a grizzly bear is grazing at the water’s edge. We don our life vests and rush en masse toward the awaiting skiff.

The weather is still radiant the next morning and wildlife viewing stunning. A flush of colorful harlequin ducks take flight just in front of the skiff, a marten peers at us from behind a rock and a black bear sow and her three tiny cubs scamper as we approach while bald eagles soar above. I muse that, should Captain Jeff decide to remain in Ford’s Terror for a week, I would happily forgo the remainder of the itinerary. But we are off again on the afternoon slack tide.

A mile-long wall of ice

Alaska Inner Passage glacier calving;

Dawnes Glacier calving

The next morning is all gloom and mist. Ice floes get increasingly larger as we head up Endicott Arm to Dawes Glacier. Then the ship slows to a crawl and we are staring slack-jawed at an approaching mile-long wall of jagged ice about 20 stories high. Captain Jeff inches the ship forward to a mere 600 feet (200 meters) from the glacier. We spend the rest of the morning listening intently for the next gunshot sound of cracking ice, followed by huge slabs of ice sliding into the sea. Crew members hand out cups of hot cocoa to ward off the chill.

Pulling into Juneau that evening is a bit of a downer. The entire waterfront is lined with city block-sized cruise ships pouring throngs of tourists onto the streets of the state capital. Churlish of me I admit, but I opt to forgo joining them for an after dinner stroll. I am in a better mood the next morning, when I discover that most of the behemoths have vanished during the night.

Totem Poles and Icons

Alaska Inside Passage Tenakee Spring.

Tenakee Spring (Population 129)

The small Juneau State Museum with its superb collection of objects from Alaska’s many native populations is well worth a visit. Still, I am glad when we sail again toward Chichagof Island and anchor off Tenakee Springs (population 129) where Main Street is a stretch of gravel road lined with small wooden homes.

The next day we stop at the tiny settlement of Baranof Warm Springs (seasonal population 30). Here, Main Street is a simple boardwalk leading up a hill to hot spring pools located right where we enjoy a soak with a view next to a roaring waterfall.

Alaska Sitka Russian Orthodox Icons

Saint Michael’s Cathedral is a treasure trove of Russian Orthodox Icons

Our final destination is Sitka, a bustling fishing port with a varied cultural heritage as the home of the native Tlingit people for over 10,000 years as well as the nineteenth century capital of Russian America. This allows me to enjoy in the course my last Alaskan afternoon a striking open air display of Tlingit totem poles and, in the onion-domed Saint Michael’s cathedral, the richest collection of Russian orthodox icons I have ever seen.

Never did nine days in the slow lane flee so quickly.

GOOD TO KNOW

With comfortable accommodations for a maximum of 32 passengers, the Island Spirit offers an opportunity to explore at leisure the narrowest fjords of the Inside Passage of Alaska from May to September. Its small size enables it to sail in close proximity to glaciers, waterfalls and other natural wonders. Owner and captain Jeff Behrens adjusts the itinerary in real time to take full advantage of frequent wildlife sightings, including whales, porpoises and sea lions.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Petersburg, Alaska