Archive for March, 2009

Where were you when the lights went out?

March 27, 2009
Wessel and Diane showcasing Earth Hour equipment

Wessel and Diane gear up for Earth Hour

The so-called Earth Hour is tomorrow, when people around the world are encouraged to show their support for international action on climate change by turning off their lights at 8:30 p.m. of whatever their local time is.

I’m not a big fan of sweeping gestures, which is what I think this is, although I do respect the World Wildlife Fund, which started the action in Australia in 2007. This year, organizers say, the results of Earth Hour will influence world leaders when they meet at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December to negotiate a global climate agreement. I have my doubts.

The lights of the Eiffel Tower will be turned off for one hour

The Eiffel Tower plans to get in the game

Not one to miss a marketing opportunity, the travel industry is all over this. Fairmont and Marriott hotels are among those participating, they’ve made sure to let us know in press releases. So is the Eiffel Tower, Christ statue in Rio de Janeiro, Sydney’s Opera House, Table Mountain in Cape Town, the CN Tower in Toronto, and Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Casino. Also, cities including Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, and San Francisco are among those in some 74 countries participating, more than double the number of countries that took part in 2008. OK, let’s take Las Vegas. Are you kidding me?

One Earth Hour equals 60 Earth Minutes

One Earth Hour equals 60 Earth Minutes

Joel Makower, executive editor of GreenBiz.com and a green guru, wrote that he, too, was unimpressed with the one hour, calling it a feel-good measure and a “media event in search of actual content. Case in point: The action section of the Earth Hour website contains a wealth of information about how to stage an Earth Hour event, but absolutely nothing — nothing! about how to address climate change the other 8,759 hours of the year.” Good points by Joel, who suggests we use the hour by replacing old-fashioned light bulbs with more energy-efficient models.

So, will Earth Day matter to anyone but the people promoting the fact that they’re participating in it? We shall see. Or rather not see.

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Little Jack’s big adventure in Maine

March 25, 2009

From Di’s eyes: This warms my heart and makes me wish I had known either of my grandfathers.

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published Feb. 15, 2009, in the Boston Globe)

A grassy lawn is a great place for 5-year old Jack Tuttle to get bike-riding lessons

A grassy lawn is a great place for 5-year old Jack Tuttle to get bike-riding lessons

WHO: Barry Solar, 67, of Boston, and his grandson Jack Tuttle, 5, of Brookline, Mass.

WHERE: Round Pond, Maine.

WHEN: One week in August.

WHY: “My wife and I took Jack there [the summer before] just for a weekend. He really liked it. He called it his vacation.”

JUST THE GUYS: Solar and his wife, Judith, had planned to take Jack together. But when she had to work at the last minute, it became a grandfather-grandson outing.

ON THE WATERFRONT: “I’d rented a townhouse in a complex called Spinnaker Landing. It’s on several acres on a peninsula. We were right on the water. At high tide if you looked down from the bedrooms you saw water. It’s right on a working harbor with a lot of lobster fishing.”

SUMMER SCHOOL: Solar had some important things to teach Jack: rock skipping and bike riding. “Every day I showed him how to skip rocks. We’d go down to the little rocky beach.” In a large grassy area near their townhouse, he helped Jack cycle without training wheels. “I do a lot of biking and I’m encouraging him to learn how to ride a two-wheeler. I had to keep saying, pedal, pedal. He couldn’t believe he could ride.”

NIGHT LIFE: Almost nightly, they’d eat at the Anchor Inn Restaurant. “It’s right on the water, with a screen porch. It’s fabulous,” Solar said. “[On the earlier trip] Jack fell in love with this waitress, named Paige. She still works there, and they hugged when they saw each other. We always sat at her table. She would let Jack help write up the check on the computer. After dinner, Jack, who can’t see stars in Brookline, loved finding the Big Dipper from the parking lot.”

BEFRIENDED: They toured the Damariscotta region daily, taking in sights on land and at sea. “One day we took the Maine Eastern Railroad from Wiscasset to the end of line in Rockland. Jack started talking to a boy his age and they played all day.” The same thing happened on a boat tour. With Hardy Boat Cruises out of New Harbor, they motored to Eastern Egg Rock to view puffins. “You think they’re going to be huge from the pictures, but they’re very small,” Solar said.

One of Jack’s favorite stops was Granite Hall Store

One of Jack’s favorite stops was Granite Hall Store

FROM THE OLD DAYS: One of Jack’s favorite stops, remembered from the previous summer, was Granite Hall Store in Round Pond. “We went a couple times,” Solar said. “It’s a really old store and has candy and toys and gifts, and on the side there’s an ice cream shop.”

This Alamo is worth remembering

March 23, 2009

Remember the Alamo?

I’ve done enough grumbling about rental car agencies that it’s a relief to have something nice to say for a change. A couple days after I got home from a trip to Florida, I realized my credit card was missing. I remembered throwing it on the seat of my rental car after getting gas on the way to return the car, and that’s the last time I’d seen it. 

I called Alamo Rent A Car at Tampa International Airport, where I’d turned in my car two days earlier, to see if the card had been returned. I assumed absolutely nothing would come of the call, until, that is, I spoke with Wini McKee, a customer service rep who organizes the lost-and-found department. Wini said no one had turned in the card, as I expected, but then she went above and beyond to track the car using my reservation number, call the people who were then renting it (!), and ask if they had found the card. They had! They were turning the car in the next day and said they would turn in the card. Wini mailed my credit card back to me immediately.

A little aside. When my card was turned in, Wini had initially forgotten I was the one she had talked to about it. So she called me to say my card had been found. Which is to say, even I hadn’t known it was lost, Wini would have tracked me down to say it had been found.

Some of this is about Alamo’s policy, not just Wini’s. But it takes conscientious employees to follow a company’s policy. Wini has worked at the company for 15 years, and in Tampa for about five, around when Alamo decided to have a bona-fide lost-and-found. Before, “it was a complete disaster,” said Wini, who ably whipped things into shape. Some of the items she’s reunited with their owners: wallets filled with cash, digital cameras, glasses, retainers, and hearing aids. “I find that most customers are honest and will report things found in the cars.”

Thanks to Wini, Alamo, and their honest customers for inspiring me to write a positive car-rental story for once.

If you licked this plate clean, it would disappear

March 19, 2009
Candies for the eye

Here's the plate I broke. Oops.

What happens when you break a plate at a fancy-schmancy restaurant? You eat it! To get rid of the evidence? No, because you can.  So, while I didn’t eat my plate at Herons, I could have.

Herons is the four-star, four-diamond restaurant at the five-star, five-diamond hotel The Umstead, in Cary, N.C. (near Durham, where I live). I know what you’re thinking. Diane, you are not a fancy-schmancy gal. You write about farms and you pack ham-and-cheese sandwiches to take on day trips. Yes, yes, all true.

But because I’m a Travel Writer, I get invited to all sorts of events and dinners. Usually, I pass. That’s either because I don’t need to go there for my work or, if I do want to write about a place, I go anonymously and pay my own way.

Premier King Lake View Room at The Umstead

One of Umstead's deluxe rooms, with a view of the lake behind it

But I made an exception to eat at Herons and tour the luxurious and totally gorgeous hotel and spa. Since the place opened in 2007, it’s gotten nothing but raves.

I was with a group of writers and editors much more sophisticated than myself, which was a good thing so I could watch which forks they used.

I should have photographed every stage of the glorious five-course meal, but because I was so exhausted from two days of schmoozing and speaking at the NC Governor’s Conference on Tourism, and because the food was spell-binding, I plumb forgot. (I also would have looked like a countrified idgit snapping away when every dish arrived, so it’s just as well.)

The meal was compliments of Herons and its brand-new, award-winning chef Scott Crawford, who came from the Georgian Room at the over-the-top Cloister resort at Sea Island, Ga. (though he’s so fresh-faced he looks more like he just graduated from the University of Georgia).

200903_34b_herons

The main dining room at Herons

So, from soup to nuts: 1) Amuse bouche, natch. 2) Malted parsnip soup, vanilla poached lobster, tangerine, almonds. 3) Roast quail, foie gras (yes, I felt guilty), date butter, apple marmalade, bacon sauce. 4) Kobe beef, oyster mushroom, potato puree, balsamic barbecue jus. 5) Tar Heel Mud Pie: dark chocolate, peanut butter wafer, salted caramel ice cream, from playful and superb pastry chef Daniel Benjamin. All courses came with wine pairings from sommelier Justin Tilley, who also looks about 22 and is ridiculously knowledgeable.

Just when it was safe to roll myself  home, Daniel brought us a few bonbons on plates. They had a more sophisticated name, which of course I’d never heard before and can’t recall now. The plates were adorned with glass medallions with our names in them (!) and a doodad design. As I examined mine, I broke it! I guess those Y workouts are working out.

A dessert plate or is it a plate dessert?

Is it a dessert plate or a plate dessert?

Then someone more in the know informed us: it was all hard candy! Yep, a plate of candy. The Herons’ media rep, the amazing Jennifer Noble Kelly, gave me her intact one to take home and show Wessel, hence the reason for Jen’s name in my plate o’ goodies in the photo.

I walked out of the four-star restaurant, five-star hotel, to-go box in hand, feeling more like a Gomer than a globe-trotter. Wessel was equally excited to see the candy/glass plate. I guess we were meant for each other. After all, he’s the one who makes my ham-and-cheese sandwiches.

Dutch dilemma? It’s all in a name

March 16, 2009
Wessel is a citizen of the Netherlands

All Dutch citizens carry passports from “the Netherlands,” not “Holland”

Don’t mention Holland to my Dutch family unless you mean it or you’ll get this smarty-pants answer:  I’m not from Holland.

Wait, how can a Dutch citizen not be from Holland?

Because the Netherlands has an identity crisis.

Yes, the country is officially, legally, and historically named the Netherlands. Or, in Dutch, Nederland, as in “low country.” Hence the NL country abbreviation you see on car stickers. The country is bordered by Belgium, Germany, and the North Sea. To the west, across the water, is England. (And, for the record, the Netherlands is not part of Scandinavia, as some people mistakenly think.)

So what’s with the name Holland?

Well, two things, one official and one not. 
The provinces of North and South Holland are in the west of the Netherlands

The provinces of North and South Holland are in the west of the Netherlands

The Netherlands has 12 provinces. Two of those are North Holland and South Holland on the west coast. Until 1840, they were one province, called Holland. Their residents were, and still are, Hollanders. The country’s largest and most well-known cities are in Holland — Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague.

So, Holland has always been the most powerful and populated part of the Netherlands. But it’s only a part of the country. (This conundrum has similarities with the whole United Kingdom / England / Great Britain thing, which we won’t even get into here, will we?)

Dutch guilder that was in use before introduction of the euro in 2002

Dutch guilder that was in use before introduction of the euro in 2002

As you can guess, my Dutch family members are not from those provinces, therefore they’re not from the official Holland. They’re from the province of Drenthe, in the northeast, which is more rural and has the country’s lowest population density. (Americans, think Nebraska with canals.)

Holland is used as the commercial name for The Netherlands

Much to the Koks’ dismay, “Holland” is used on most Dutch souvenirs

Making matters even worse for them, the name Holland has, unofficially, been used interchangeably with the Netherlands for many years now. Many Dutch people from all provinces say they’re from Holland. Even the country’s tourism website, run by The Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions, is called Holland.com. Personally, I’ve met several non-Hollanders who refer to their country as Holland.

So, while my famiy’s provincial sensitivity is understandable, I do think they’re fighting a losing battle, and one that does not appear to have all that many soldiers these days. But, as a family member through marriage, I feel compelled to join in and fight the good fight, too. I hereby dedicate this blog post to the Familie Kok and their fellow non-Hollanders. Lang Leve Nederland!

The biggest buzz I’ve ever had

March 12, 2009
200902_11_bees

The bees start to gather in our tree

A most amazing thing happened to me two days ago while I was staying at our little condo on Indian Rocks Beach, Fla. I was sitting outside having lunch before heading out to visit my quite ill mother when I heard a strange humming sound. I looked around and saw a huge swarm of bees heading up our little street. They were in a pack, but flying every which way.  A few neighbors came out to watch.

At a certain point I decided to go inside and watch through the window. The swarm came closer, then proceeded to cluster on a fairly thin branch of an oak tree a few feet from our front door! In a few seconds (seconds!) they had formed a tight blob o’ bees, with just a few flying around. A BIG blob!

People were walking under the tree for a look, but I wasn’t so brave/stupid. I peered outside, then went in to make a few calls seeking information. Because, what did it all mean? Plus, we had monthlong renters coming the very next day. What if they were bee-phobic or even allergic?!

A swarm of bees has settled down

The swarm settles in. But for how long?

I called town hall and the county extension service, which handles all things of the natural world. (In rural areas, extension agents work closely with farmers.) Long story short: I learned from a city public service worker and an extension agent that my new neighbors were likely honey bees, but beekeepers weren’t interested in coming to fetch them because of the influx of nasty African bees. If they didn’t leave they would need to be exterminated. (Noooo!) But likely they were migrating to a new home, and would move on in a day or two to keep looking for suitable holes to snuggle up in. Later I found some great information  about honey bee swarms online.

A big blob of bees is hanging from a branch

Is this a blob o' bees or what? Any guesses as to how many bees are here?

The bees pretty much kept to themselves, though I did keep the front door closed. Their pulsating, wiggling mass fascinated me, and I begin to feel quite honored that they’d planted themselves in our tree. I know enough about bees to know how incredibly well-run their colonies are. Plus, what woman doesn’t have fantasies of being a queen bee with a few thousand workers and drones serving her?

Each time I came and went, I checked on the bees. Their natural powers transfixed me, and I felt protected by them. (Yeah, yeah, I got carried away.) The next day I came home from Mom’s around lunchtime to clean up the condo to make it ready for our renters, whose surname happens to be BEEchey. (Coincidence? Hmmmmm…)

The queen and her army is off to another destination

The queen and her troops are off to another destination. Bye-bye, honey bees!

Indeed the bees were still there. I’d already alerted the property manager and tried to contact the Beecheys, to no avail. As I put my key in the front door I heard a buzzing sound and looked up. They were dispersing! In a few seconds the swarm was off, soaring over neighbors’ homes, flying to their next destination. I watched them go, and wondered about the few stragglers who stayed in the tree.

I like to think queen waited for me to return so they could say goodbye. Some would say that absolutely she did and others would say hogwash.  I do know this much: that was one major buzz!

Sunsets: solar energy for the eyes

March 6, 2009

There are fans and critics of daylight saving time, which starts THIS weekend in the United States (go here to see DST rules worldwide), but I think we can agree that pretty much everyone loves a good sunset.  Here are a few of our favorites, all taken by Wessel:

The sky is on fire over Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Sky is on fire over the lesser-known side of Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Midnight sun as seen on the Lofoten, Norway

The ever-blazing midnight sun as seen on Norway's Lofoten islands in June

Sunset over marshy area connecten with Lake Gaston, VA

Diane's favorite colors combine in this stunning show near Lake Gaston, Va.

Heron during a PS sunset experience in Florida

A heron poses in the afterglow of a sunset over Cayo Costa State Park, Fla.

Roxy outshines her celestial competitor

Roxy outshines her celestial backdrop at Indian Rocks Beach, Fla.

Jeepers, peepers, it’s springtime down South

March 5, 2009
The peepers in this pool relished the soaking rain on a mild day

The peepers in this pool (they're hiding) relished the rain on a mild day

Listen…. do you hear them? Peepers! Here in North Carolina, their wonderful spring anthem is being played in a vernal pond near you. Or a ditch, or a retention basin. Peepers aren’t picky. The spring peeper, a brownish frog up to one inch long with an x-marking on its back, can belt out some tunes.

This marshy area in coastal NC is the ideal podium for a peeper concert

This marshy area in coastal NC was the ideal podium for a peeper concert

When thousands of them are calling in unison (looking for love, of course), the sound can be deafening. Up close it can even hurt your ears. According to my research, you can hear large groups of peepers up to a mile away! (The audio link in this posting is the best I’ve found online.)

Here's a cousin of the spring peeper doing its part of the spring chorus

Here's a (larger) cousin of the peeper playing its part in the spring chorus

I’ve heard many a peeper parade, but I’ve never actually seen one of the petite performers. The other week, at Eno River State Park, Wessel and I attempted to view a peeper show up close and personal only to be greeted with complete silence. We had to walk up a ways to hear another peeper ensemble at a different venue. This time we kept our distance and enjoyed the show. We stood in the sunshine, closed our eyes, breathed deeply, and soaked in the coming season. Fear not, my friends in the north, the peepers are on their way. Enjoy the show!

Visiting where the eagles have landed

March 3, 2009

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published Feb. 1, 2009, in the Boston Globe)

Betty Gilman (right) and her daughter, Julianne, and son, Lou, at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.

From left, Julianne, Lou, and Betty Gilman at Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.

WHO: Betty Gilman, 56, her son, Lou, 23, and daughter, Julianne, 17, of Burlington, Mass.

WHERE: Alaska.

WHEN: 10 days in July.

WHY: Years ago Gilman learned about the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, which protects the world’s largest concentration of bald eagles. “I promised myself I would see those beautiful creatures in person.”

FROM THE INSIDE: “I started learning a lot about the state,” said Gilman, who had never been on a cruise but realized that traveling the Inside Passage would be the best way to see the sights. She chose a Celebrity Millennium tour because it allowed plenty of time off the boat and included a trip to the preserve. While Gilman was fulfilling one of her dreams, it was with a touch of sadness. “My husband died two years ago and I realized that life is too short,” she said. “So we went to Italy last year and Alaska this year, two of the places I’ve always wanted to go. And I wanted to show my children, the world is at your feet.”

Julianne, Betty center, and Lou with the the Mendenhall Glacier in the background

Julianne, Betty, and Lou pose in front of the Mendenhall Glacier

CATCH, YOU CAN: They left from Vancouver, B.C., and first docked in Ketchikan. “It was a nice little place, and they all fish up there. The guide took us to spots where the salmon were jumping right out of water and eagles were just looking at them.” Just outside of Juneau, where they docked the second night, they visited Mendenhall Glacier. “You can just walk right up to it.” They were even more impressed by the Hubbard Glacier on the Inside Passage. “You cruise right up to it, and it’s making snap, crackle, and pop noises and pieces were constantly popping off.”

Bald eagles in the Chilkat Valley

Bald eagles in the Chilkat Valley

A THREE-HOUR TOUR: From their stop in Skagway, the Gilmans caught a boat to Haines, where the preserve has a visitors center, and then hopped a bus to the Chilkat Valley. “The skies just opened up and it was gorgeous. We had a three-hour tour with a Tlingit native on a boat along the Chilkat River. The eagles were flying and swooping and gazing at you from onshore. The natural beauty of this valley is just indescribable.”

The Ruth Glacier is like a huge river of ice

The Ruth Glacier is like a huge river of ice

PEAK EXPERIENCE: After traveling by boat for a week, the family took a three-day bus tour of Denali National Park. A highlight was taking a single-prop airplane tour out of Talkeetna to Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet, the tallest mountain in North America. “We flew among all these peaks, alongside cliffs, through the clouds, and 400 feet above the Ruth Glacier, which is like a huge river of ice, with all these crevasses. We were dipping in and out, having a ball.”