icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

People, Places, Stuff

Lotusland, CA

To drive the back roads of Montecito--a quiet, polished little community immediately east of Santa Barbara--is to wonder what’s behind the walls screening estates owned by the reclusive rich and famous. Oprah Winfrey lives there; JFK and Jackie honeymooned at San Ysidro Ranch at the edge of town and scads of who’s whos have checked in at the historic Biltmore Hotel, now a Four Seasons, on the Montecito coast.

Recently, I discovered that there’s a way to experience the Montecito lifestyle by touring Lotusland, an estate and garden created by the opera singer Ganna Walska. You have to book a tour in advance; groups are small to preserve the quiet residential character of the neighborhood; and tickets don’t come cheap at $35 per person. But for those of us in the hoi polloi who yearn for a peek through Montecito gates, touring Lotusland is a golden opportunity.

The estate dates back to the late 19th century, the pink Mediterranean Revival style mansion to 1919 when then owners engaged Biltmore architect Reginald Johnson to design it. But Walska, who bought the property in 1941, put the deepest stamp on the place by creating its remarkable gardens featuring everything from topiary dinosaurs to Boojum cacti (or Fouquieria columnar, native to the Baja peninsula in Mexico).

Beside being a passionate plant collector, Walska was a character. Born in Poland--with the far less glamorous name Hanna Puacz--she grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, then studied voice in Paris. Her real talent, though, seems to have been finding rich husbands--5 of them in a row, followed by an impecunious guru 20 years her junior, for whom she bought the estate, originally called Tibetland. When they divorced Walska turned her attention to her garden, expanded and now managed by the Ganna Walska Lotusland Foundation.

It takes a good two hours to see the whole thing, beginning with an Australian garden set in an old eucalyptus grove, featuring plants from down under equally at home in the Santa Barbara climate. A mature Japanese garden follows, with a pond and small Shinto shrine; then dense enclaves of bromeliads, ferns, succulents, aloes and cacti, all dramatic and showy, to suit Madame Walska’s nature. She preferred large, unusual, tropical specimens, not pretty flowers, though there‘s a colorful horticultural clock and nothing can stop springtime azaleas in the Japanese garden.

Lotusland’s stars are towering, thick-trunked bottle trees (Brachychiton, native to Queensland, Australian); a massive old Monterey pine; and rare, cone-bearing cycads, including Encephalartos woodii, thought to be among the oldest plants on earth, a delicacy for dinosaurs, now extinct in the wild.

The house is closed to visitors, but when I was there in April the pavilion next door had a special display of opera costumes, hats and jewelry owned by the remarkable Madame Walska. It’s fun to imagine her presiding over a cocktail party on the lawn in a bedizened evening gown, maybe crooning a few bars from La Traviata. Read More 
Be the first to comment

What Do You Get When You Cross a Cow with a Buffalo?

To look into the Grand Canyon--with its extraordinary mesas and buttes and age-old layers of rock--is to believe almost anything. If a river can do that, anything is possible.

That said, I was pretty sure I was hallucinating when I saw a buffalo on the North Rim. In Yellowstone, sure, you see buffalo, but not at the Grand Canyon. My brother and I had just climbed off Powell Plateau, a chunk of canyon country about half the size of Manhattan that cracked off the North Rim. Just a tenth of the people who visit the popular South Rim of the Grand Canyon make the 4.5-hour trip around the Big Ditch to see it from the north, which is only open from mid-May to mid-October. Fewer still know about Powell Plateau, reached by a maze of dirt roads west of the North Rim Lodge and visitor center.

We’d left our car at the end of one of them, Swamp Road, and hiked across a saddle leading to Powell Plateau where we camped, explored and spent a blissful afternoon on a rock ledge with a 180 degree view of the canyon and river 8,000 feet below. But when the weather turned ugly we knew we needed to get off the exposed plateau fast which is why were both sweaty, tired and light-headed by the time we made it back to the car. Thunder cracked, daytime darkness descended and the rain was coming down in sheets, turning Swamp Road into a quagmire mined by mud traps and running water.

That’s when I saw it--a buffalo standing in the middle of the road as if he owned it, unfazed by the storm, without the least inclination to give way, about as out-of-place as a camel. Amazed, we stopped, looked and wondered, then carefully went around, knowing that only fools mess with buffalo.

Of course, the first thing we asked when we finally reached the national park visitor center was what it was doing on the North Rim. A story in itself. Turns out that a hundred years ago a rancher named Charles “Buffalo” Jones crossed a bison with a cow, hoping to produce a meatier creature he called a cattelo. The experiment failed, but a herd of the cross-breeds persisted in the House Rock Valley east of the national park, managed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department which tries to limit their numbers by selling fall hunt permits for $1,000 and up. It’s big game. We‘re talking 1,400 to 2,500 pounds for a bull. But they‘re no sitting ducks, hard to track, fast, nimble and intolerant, with no predators on the North Rim, except for sportsmen.

Hunting worked for a while, but lately the beasts have strayed into the national park where they wallow in clearings and trample sensitive areas around seeps and springs. Officials wouldn’t mind rounding them up--the way they did with burros in the Grand Canyon--and herding them back to House Rock, but have not been able to reach an agreement with Arizona Game and Fish which considers them free-roaming wildlife like bighorn sheep and mule deer.

So for the meanwhile you might run into a buffalo on North Rim back roads, and I mean that literally. Read More 
Be the first to comment

French Pilgrimage

Sometimes, casting around for the next destination, I find it between two covers. When the book is deeply-felt, closely-researched and beautifully-written, there can be no better inspiration for a trip, no better guide; in rare instances a satisfaction as complete as taking the journey.

I have never been to Conques, nestled in the uplands of south-central France, but I feel as if I have thanks to Little Saint, an exquisitely tender book by Hannah Green about the medieval hamlet and its patroness, St. Foy.

In the 4th century A.D. she converted to Christianity at the age of 12 and held firm even when her own father turned her in to Roman authorities. Afterward, the girl saint’s reliquary in the abbey church brought a steady stream of pilgrims who, as Green put it, “pray for her help, again and again in their devotion renewing her life, this eternal girl-child, daughter becoming woman, who held within herself the promise of all that is good and beautiful and healing."

Green and her husband, the artist Jack Wesley, discovered Conques in 1975, shortly after the publication of her first book, The House of the Dead--reading it was “like falling in love,” wrote critic Richard Ellman in the New York Times. But Green was a painfully slow writer who died in 2000, leaving Little Saint behind to be published posthumously.

The book unlocks the town, with its narrow streets and half-timbered houses in the Aveyron, a part of France famous for blue cheese but otherwise not especially favored by tourists. French people on the way from Paris to the Riviera zoom across the region on a remarkable new highway suspension bridge, the Millau Viaduct, designed by Norman Foster; others sightsee on the gorge of the River Tarn or hike in the Massif Central à la Travels with Donkey in the Cevennes, by Robert Louis Stevenson (but that’s another posting).

For those who find their way to Conques, Little Saint describes sites and diversions: dinner at the 17th century Hotel Sainte Foy, a bike ride past vineyards, springs and prehistoric standing stones in the surrounding countryside and, above all, a visit to the Abbey Church of St. Foy with its treasury museum and beguiling tympanum depicting the Last Judgment where St. Foy prays for sinners and the devil tries to tip the scales of justice his way.

Every place has a meaning, from Minnesota’s Mall of America to St. Foy’s Conques. Let us all stop for a moment to praise the books that tell use what it is. Read More 
Be the first to comment

Beijing Ivory Tower

First time visitors to Beijing spend their time visiting the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, then take a day trip to the Great Wall. Of course, with a population of 20 million and massive urban sprawl now encompassed by a half dozen ring roads, there’s much more to see in Beijing. One site usually passed by on the obligatory trip to the Summer Palace is the Peking University, China’s Harvard or Yale, occupying a beautiful, leafy-green campus in the city’s far northwest corner.

Opened in 1898, during a brief period of Western-style reform cut short by a coup d’etat that gave the power behind the Peacock Throne to ultra-conservative Dowager Empress Cixi, its past is brief compared to that of the nearby Summer Palace. But the university--Beida, for short--played a signal role in the tumultuous modern history of China, breeding dissidents who fought for modernization in the May Fourth Movement of 1919 and the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square; others helped to launch the Cultural Revolution which began as an ideological cleansing of the Communist Party before it spun out of control. To tour the campus now is to remember the country’s wild ride through the 20th century, from fabled Oriental empire to revolutionary Peoples Republic built by Mao.
Start by taking the Metro from central Beijing to Wudaokou Station in Haidian, home to Tsinghua, Renmin and other smaller universities that make the district the Cambridge, Mass., of China. Wide Chengfu Road goes west from there past student-friendly cafes and apartment complexes, bookshops and movie theaters, finally dead-ending at the walled campus of Beida. Apart from its fascinating past and current educational importance, Beida is one of the loveliest places in the capital, a quiet oasis with trees labeled in the nomenclature of Linnaeus and ornate Ming-style architecture.
Walk northwest from the gate, past intriguingly-named buildings--for instance, the Research Center for Deng Xiaoping’s Theory at the College of Marxism--to Weiming Lake, circumscribed by a network of paths and overlooked by Boya tower, a replica of the capital city’s oldest and tallest pagoda built in the Tongzhou District across town. The lake is decorated with pillars and fish sculptures removed from the ruins of the nearby Old Summer Palace, Yuanmingyuan, looted by English and French soldiers.
On the south side of the lake it isn’t hard to find tomb of journalist Edgar Snow, marked by a tablet that calls him “a friend of the Chinese people from America.” He earned that epithet by writing, among other books, “Red Star Over China,” one of the first accounts of the nascent Communist movement and its long battle with the Nationalists before and after the Second World War.
Walkways lead from there to Beida’s west entrance, a striking, classical Chinese red gate guarded by stone lions, Qing Dynasty gardens, the traditional courtyard-style China Center for Economic Research and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology, built by the American physician and philanthropist in 1986 to house the university’s extensive collection of artifacts and train students in museum management. Its galleries are open to the public, displaying bronze, jade, ceramic and bone artifacts, some almost 300,000 years old.
America’s contributions have continued since Snow and Sackler with partnerships between Beida and U.S. universities. Completed this year near the Art and Archaeology Museum, the new Stamford Center at Peking University serves as a headquarter for 7 foreign study programs in fields ranging from medicine to sustainable development.
There’s even a conference center hotel on campus, Shaoyuan Guest House where no-frills doubles cost under $50--not a bad choice for travelers who want to stay in a Chinese ivory tower. Read More 
Be the first to comment

A Tale of Two Swimming Pools

Among the many blandishments of Santa Barbara are two remarkable beachfront swimming pools that book-end the town’s long, lush stretch of Pacific Coast. One, the Coral Casino on East Beach, is the very private province of the California Riviera rich and elite; the other, Los Banos del Mar on West Beach, has been a glorious public facility, operated by the city, since it opened in 1937.
In town recently--and as constant about swimming as about travel--I went looking for a place to do laps. I stopped first at the Coral Casino just across Channel Drive from the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel, a Spanish Colonial beauty shaded by tall Monterey cypresses that opened in 1927. Marked by a graceful white Art Deco tower, the 51-meter pool--famously one meter longer than Olympic size--became a haunt for movie stars like Lana Turner and Clark Gable when it was added to the hotel in the mid 1930’s. It overlooks Bonnymede Shores where surfers challenge roiling breakers and chat up pretty co-eds at work on their tans between classes at UC Santa Barbara.
By the front door I looked yearningly at the pool’s glistening water, wide lap lanes, Jacuzzi and cabanas where waiters were delivering drinks. But you have to be a hotel guest or club member to enter and the front desk clerk wouldn’t even let me take a picture. I stopped a nice lady with plenty of jewelry on her way in who told me she paid big bucks for membership although she didn’t even swim.
Then, leaving behind the land of BMW’s, I drove along the waterfront to West Beach where I found Los Banos del Mar near the harbor at the foot of Castillo Street. Honestly, it’s almost as gorgeous as the Coral Casino and arguably more historic. The first swimming facility on the site opened 1901 with segregated steam-heated pools for men and women.
Now there‘s one big 50-meter pool with 7 lap lanes, heated to 80 degrees and open year round. The young woman at the front desk said I could do laps there for $5 and invited me to stay on for an afternoon pool party. The women’s locker room was immaculate, the pool deck surrounded by tall palms with an adjacent weight room for the most dedicated members of the Santa Barbara Swim Club, which makes Los Banos del Mar its home.
I dove right in. The water was delightful and the lanes so long that there’s never a traffic problem. Aquatic bliss for populists, grace à the bountiful and charming city of Santa Barbara. Read More 
Be the first to comment

New Zealand Sheep Show

I don’t sleep easily at night. Not because I have a guilty conscience, but because odd, unconnected travel memories keep coming to mind as soon as I close my eyes. By and large, these aren’t recollections of unforgettable, red-letter sites on the order of the Great Wall of China and St. Peter’s in Rome. They are sudden, serendipitous flashbacks to nutty things I’ve seen and done in my travels like getting my haircut in Beijing and having my hiking boots stolen on a trek through Morocco’s Anti-Atlas Mountains.
One night recently I was all at once in the audience at the Agrodome in Rotorua, New Zealand, known for its geothermic hot springs. I knew I wasn’t dreaming because I’d been to the lakeside town before while taking a marvelous 6-day train tour of the North Island on KiwiRail. And, kitschy though it sounds, no one who goes to Rotorua can afford to miss the Agrodome’s Sheep Show.
I almost did. I mean, I like wool sweaters. But sheep? Besides, I’d already seen plenty of the beasts crossing the luxuriant grasslands of New Zealand by train.
Fortunately, the show was included in a Rotorua bus tour that was part of the KiwiRail package. Lots of things were. Traveling in New Zealand is a good deal, the way it was in the U.S. 50 years ago.
From the moment the curtain rose at the Agrodome I was hooked. There were live demonstrations of sheering, milking and feeding. Nimble, intelligent sheep dogs were put through their paces, commanded by a whistle. Then the rams came on, one at a time like Miss America contestants, each taking its appointed place on stage. There were Merinos, Drysdales, Romneys, not to mention an English Leicester named Winston who bore a striking resemblance to Harpo Marx.
Sheep were introduced to New Zealand by Captain Cook in 1773. By 1980 there were about 70 million of them there, though the population is now more like 40 million: one sheep for every 12 Kiwis, to put it in context.
But since seeing the Sheep Show, I think of them as individuals. I think of Winston’s goggle-eyes, horizontal ears and woolly coat, somewhat bedraggled at the hem. And at a restaurant I’d rather put a steak knife through my heart than order a lamb chop. Read More 
Be the first to comment