Archive for May, 2013

Fans of family entertainment flock to Branson

May 20, 2013

I was surprised by how many of my East Coast friends had never heard of Branson, Missouri, one of the country’s top tourism draws. I described it to them as “G-rated Vegas without the gambling,” but now that I’ve been, I need to amend that add “with a generous scoop of Christianity and patriotism.”

Photo ExploreBranson.com

A walkway runs along Lake Taneycomo in Branson [Photo ExploreBranson.com]

If you like family-friendly variety shows and if you don’t need a drink during said show, and if you are Christian and patriotic, you’ll love Branson. I was there for a travel writers’ conference last weekend and toured around a bit. Truthfully, I felt a bit like a donkey out of water, so to speak. But that’s OK. I appreciated Branson for what it offered its fans, of which there are many. (The fairly remote Ozark Mountains town of just 10,500 hosts more than 7.5 million tourists a year and generates nearly $3 billion in annual tourism revenue. Wow.) And I admired its resilience after a tornado destroyed many buildings just last year, including the Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel, where I stayed. There was nary a sign of distress at the Hilton, one of the nicest I’ve stayed in.

Branson Airport

Branson Airport

The two-room Branson Airport, serviced by Southwest, is totally cute, with hillbilly décor befitting its locale. Tourists visit two areas – “the strip,” Highway 76, where the show theaters are, and downtown. In town, Main and Commercial streets are home to several “flea market” type shops and the famous Dick’s 5 and 10 (loved the linoleum and the merchandise). A block away on the waterfront is the newish Branson Landing development, an outdoor mall anchored by Bass Pro Shops White River Outpost. A walkway runs along Lake Taneycomo (which connects to Table Rock Lake), and the view is lovely. The main fountain area is a favorite gathering place for visitors. I also recommend Waxy O’Shea’s, where I had a most delicious Mother’s IPA, brewed up the road in Springfield, Mo.

Mother’s IPA is brewed up the road in Springfield, Mo.

Mother’s IPA is brewed up the road in Springfield, Mo.

The tourism folks took my group on a few side trips, including to Silver Dollar City, a longtime amusement park now boasting a giant wooden roller coaster called Outlaw Run. Also wild is the Powder Keg coaster, which launches passengers from zero to 53 miles-per-hour in 2.8 seconds. I had no idea that was its “thing,” and when I watched it from standing still to screaming speed, my jaw dropped.

We writers broke up into groups and toured different spots. I checked out Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, developed by the Bass Pro folks. This is nature lite, and quite manufactured at that, but it’s well done and I’m guessing introduces people to the great outdoors who might not otherwise venture out. Visitors can explore the 6-mile paved loop by foot, bike or guided tram, and only the tram will take you to the Elk and Bison pasture. I cycled, and it was quite pleasant. The chapel was particularly nice – I’m sure many people get married there.

Cycling at Dogwood Canyon Nature Park

Cycling at Dogwood Canyon Nature Park

Some of my writer friends on that trip went on to the Branson Zipline, which they described as soft adventure, but any zipline is too much for me, so I passed. Others went fishing with the Bass Pro folks. That sounded cool, but, again, not my thing. I wish I’d had time to kayak. Folks at Kayak Branson told me they were considering a kayak station right from Branson Landing, which would be wonderfully convenient. Another writer friend loved her tour of Christian-focused College of the Ozarks, aka “Hard Work U.,” where students work instead of pay tuition. They make their own everything, including clothing, furniture, and butter, and even run a hotel. Interesting! I wish I’d had the chance to see it. All the writers toured the Titanic Museum Attraction, fascinating in that inside the half-scale replica you feel you’re on the Titanic.

After my visit, I’m now very curious to see “We Always Lie to Strangers,” a new documentary billed as “a story of family, community, music and tradition set against the backdrop of Branson.” The film also explores how conservative Branson will change (or not) as the country becomes more socially liberal. Interesting points to ponder about this  intriguing place to visit.

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Southport: A ‘Safe Haven’ for ‘Under the Dome’

May 12, 2013

One of the loveliest waterfront towns on the entire East Coast is Southport, North  Carolina. It’s also a popular place for shooting films. One, “Safe Haven,” just came out on DVD. Another, the TV series “Under the Dome,” debuts this summer. Here’s a story I wrote about Southport, which ran May 12 in “The Boston Globe.” 

By Diane Daniel

The Southport Yacht Basin, where the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic Ocean, is home to several seafood restaurants

The Southport Yacht Basin is home to several seafood restaurants

With maps in hand, Nina Walsh and Mary Koehler gazed up at Moore Street Market, a popular cafe housed in a historic wood-frame building in picture-perfect Southport, N.C., on the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

“When we saw the movie, there it was, and I thought, hey, I ate lunch at that store!” Koehler said. The friends, both living in nearby Leland, with Walsh a recent transplant from Swampscott, Mass., had made a return trip to Southport after seeing the romantic thriller “Safe Haven,” based on the book of the same name by syrupy scribe Nicholas Sparks.

“They told us about this tour in the Visitor’s Center,” said Walsh, waving a “Safe Haven Filming Locations” pamphlet. “Everyone walking in the door was asking about the movie.”

The river pilots' tower has been redone to look like Station WYBS for the filming of "Under the Dome"

The river pilots’ tower is “Station WYBS” for the filming of “Under the Dome”

Because nearby Wilmington houses the largest film production facility east of Los Angeles, Hollywood is old hat in these parts. Southport’s credits include the 1986 film “Crimes of the Heart,” the TV series “Matlock,” and the just-out HBO movie “Mary and Martha.” The highest-profile show to be filmed here is still in production — the Stephen King science-fiction series “Under the Dome,” set to premiere on CBS June 24.

Waterfront Park, overlooking the Cape Fear River, is a popular spot for relaxing

Waterfront Park, overlooking the Cape Fear River, is a popular spot for relaxing

But “Safe Haven,” released May 7 on DVD, stands out as the one anointed for red-carpet treatment because the town itself plays a leading role. If you’ve seen the sentimental film, in which “Katie” (Julianne Hough) winds up on the Carolina coast after fleeing a dangerous Boston cop and then falls for local shop owner “Alex” (Josh Duhamel), you’ll likely agree that Southport steals the show. With a few exceptions, everything depicted in “Safe Haven” exists — a picturesque harbor, small retail shops dotting a lively downtown, streets lined with Victorian homes, stately oaks draped with Spanish moss, and bustling waterfront seafood restaurants. And, yes, the town of 2,900 residents really does host an exuberant July 4th parade — officially the North Carolina Fourth of July Festival — which attracts upwards of 50,000 visitors. Last year’s parade was even reenacted a month later for the filming, using townspeople as extras.

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Woodson’s Mill in Virginia keeps tradition alive

May 1, 2013
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Diane cycles in the Tye River valley in rural Nelson County

While we were exploring the Brew Ridge Trail south of Charlottesville, Va., for a magazine article, we took a day off to bicycle. Lina created one of her trademark custom loops using Google maps and our collection of trusted DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteers. We did a 42-mile loop around rural Nelson County, and the scenery was just gorgeous. Lina mostly kept us in valleys and along rivers, though we did have a few challenging climbs and some long stretches on dirt roads (surprise!).

Woodson’s Mill in Lowesville, VA

Woodson’s Mill in Lowesville, VA

One of the many delightful sights we happened upon was Woodson’s Mill in Lowesville, a village that used to be an important stop along the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway. The building was so impressive that I stopped to take a look, and of course Lina snapped several photos. The gate was locked, so we didn’t poke around. Later, I was delighted to read on the mill’s website that it has been owned by only a small handful of families since its construction in 1794 and is operational! Read the full history here.

More info from the website: The late J. Gill Brockenbrough Jr. purchased the property in the early 1980s and started a massive restoration effort there. The mill served as the backdrop to son Will Brockenbrough’s childhood and formed his appreciation for history, architecture, and historic preservation. Will and his wife, Sarah, reopened the mill and now run it. How wonderful!

All-natural flours and meals are made at Woodson’s Mill

All-natural flours and meals are made at Woodson’s Mill (photo by Woodson’s Mill, LLC)

They make all-natural flours and meals in small batches, by hand, with stone-ground grains. All the power for grinding comes from the Piney River’s water, which runs the Mill’s overshot wheel and hand-dressed millstones, making the entire process renewable and sustainable.

And now, for the best part: Woodson’s Mill is open May 25 through October 26 on Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. If you can’t go then, contact the owners to see if you can make an appointment for a different time. Or, if you can’t make it to the Mill Store, their products are available online and at regional retailers.

What a happy story, and it’s not over yet!