All posts in art and cultural travel

Exploring Florida — The weirdest state in the union

When people think of Florida, the standard attractions come to mind: Disney, pretty beaches, rich Latin culture, etc. Travel blogger at OneWeirdGlobe.com, and guidebook author, Chris Backe, is working on his latest travel book, “What the Florida” and, like his other work, this look at Florida is anything but standard.

WATCH our interview with Chris to learn about the strange and unknown attractions that are worth a look-see if you’re visiting the Sunshine State.

You’ve been busy exploring the unexplored sites and attractions of Florida for your new book. Tell us how this came about?

Florida has a long history of being the weirdest state. Maybe it has something to do with the type of people it attracts, or maybe it’s just the hot weather that makes everyone a little nuts! Florida attracted a unique crowd of people, and as the reputation of the state grew, they chose to open plenty of quirky roadside attractions. Some of them are still open today, like the Weeki Wachee mermaids that entertain and delight. Others have been re-opened, like Ted Smallwood’s Store in Chokoloskee — a general store first established in the early 20th century.

As for me, I started blogging about the offbeat side of things in 2011 while living in South Korea. I had been exploring the country every weekend for three years… and was beginning to get a little bored. I began seeking out the places even the locals hadn’t heard about. A couple of years on, I had gotten into the habit of discovering the offbeat everywhere I went. When my wife and I decided to spend the winter in Florida, it was only natural to find the weird places… and boy there were tons!

What are some of the weird and exotic things to do and see in Florida?

Solomon's Castle in Ona

Solomon’s Castle in Ona

One of my favorite places is Solomon’s Castle in Ona, Florida. Imagine a guy that bought some land in Florida, only to realize it was partially located on a swamp. Undeterred, he proceeded to build a castle out of aluminum printing plates discarded by a local newspaper. In time, he added dozens of stained glass pieces, metal sculptures, and many other pieces of art. It’s a rapid-fire tour full of puns, and a whole lot of fun.

Another cool place is the American Space Museum in Titusville. This is the same town as the much more famous Kennedy Space Center, where all the rockets launch from. The American Space Museum is a more behind-the-scenes look at the many people involved in making the space program a success. There are some wonderful pieces of history here, and many of them are available for kids to touch and play with.

Where do you recommend travelers of varying tastes and demographics stay?

I don’t really get into hotels in the book since there are so many tastes and things to consider. For places to go, the 90-plus places in the book are aimed at a general population, with dozens of places that are kid-friendly and family-friendly.

Millennials
National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee – once a month this place of serious science opens its doors to a public tour. Inside is one seriously huge magnet, a dozen Guinness World Records, and a cryogenics lab you can peek inside.

Young Families
Tallahassee Automobile and Collectibles Museum in Tallahassee – a great look at the cars of the past to the generations of today.

Couples
World Erotic Art Museum in Miami – a “not safe for work” look at erotica across the world and the centuries.

Boomers
Burger Beast Museum in Miami – a surprising look back at the history of hamburgers and restaurants.

American Space Museum in Titusville

American Space Museum in Titusville

Adventure/thrill Seekers
Key West Shipwreck Museum – get in the spirit of the past with a kitschy tour showing the treasures and wrecking industry. I’d also recommend the Kennedy Space Center in Titusville for an exceptional launch simulator with all the warnings you’d expect from an awesome roller coaster ride.

Are there any timely events coming up over the summer that folks should know about and maybe check out?

June has a couple of fun pirate festivals — see the Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival in Fort Walton Beach or the Cocoa Beach Pirate Festival in Cocoa Beach. For a wackier time, check out the Celebrity Mascot Games in Orlando and see professional sports mascots compete in crazy games for charity.

For July, get to Key West for the Key Lime Festival. Lots of pies and cocktails. Also in Key West is the Hemingway Days Festival — whether you look like the famous author or just appreciate his work, there’s a lot going on.

Feeling far away without leaving US soil

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

Although in many ways, there couldn’t be a better time for international travel — The US dollar is kicking it, and once costly European destinations, like Paris, are very affordable. Despite these golden opportunities, many travel-lovers are skittish about traveling to Europe after a spate of terror attacks.  If you are among this cohort, we’ve got some local destination alternatives that may satiate your appetite for some far off culture, color, and cuisine.

In a recent interview, Jessica Norah, part of a travel blogging duo at Independent Travel Cats, tells us how we can experience a bit of Europe and Asia right here in the US.

WATCH our interview with Jessica Norah, IndependentTravelCats.com

Tell us about your blog, independenttravelcats.com, and the type of readers you attract?

Independent Travel Cats is a travel blog about international travel for independent travels, with a focus on couples travel, history, and mid to luxury range travelers. I attract readers who really want to know a lot of information about a destination as I write very detailed posts. Our readers are sophisticated and tend to have more disposable income than the “average” reader. I also co-run another travel blog with my husband, Laurence Norah called Finding the Universe, which is more focused on travel photography and adventure travel.

Many people would love to travel abroad this year, particularly since the dollar is so strong. But terrorism looms large and families are hesitant about leaving the US.  Can you give us some domestic alternatives to Europe and Asia that offer the feel, flavor, and flair of far reaching destinations?

The U.S. has some obvious more “exotic” locations like Hawaii which has wonderful beaches, volcano parks, and tropical plants. You also have Alaska where you can see glaciers, whales and polar bears. Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, is another place where it is easy to feel like you are in a foreign country.

In terms of places that feel like Europe. You can also take a “trip to Denmark” by spending a weekend in the little town of Solvang, California. It was founded by a group of Danes as a Danish colony and much of the architecture is Danish. You can eat Danish food, buy Danish dress, and appreciate the Danish history and architecture here.

For a taste of Spain, consider St. Augustine in Florida, it is the oldest city in the country and still has a lot of its Spanish colonial architecture. Or head to New Mexico. Santa Fe has a strong Spanish heritage as does the Old Town of Albuquerque. The central Plaza area of Santa Fe still retains a very European vibe and the city has some of the oldest architecture in the country.

For a taste of Germany, consider Hermann, Missouri or Leavenworth, Washington. Or join in on a Oktoberfest celebration held throughout the country.

Looking for a castle or stately home, plan a visit to the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, Monticello in Virginia, Hearst Castle in California, or Stan Hwet Hall in Ohio. There is also a Tuscan style castle winery called Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley.

Looking for a long rail trip but don’t want to head to Europe, you can book an epic train journey on Amtrak and go across the entire country, discovering new places along the way.

Can’t fly to Switzerland, visit Vail, Aspen, Mammoth Lakes, and Tahoe all have great skiing and snowboarding.

Want to go on safari, The Wilds in central Ohio is a private, non-profit safari park where visitors can see rhinos, giraffes, camels, and other animals in open air enclosures in jeeps.

Experience the desert at the Great Sands Dunes National Park in Colorado.

For a good taste of Asia, you’ll want to head to larger cities like New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. They all have large Asian American communities and you can find areas like Chinatown and Japantown in these cities where you can eat Asian food, buy Asia products, and be in an atmosphere that can transport you to China or Japan.

For those willing to visit our northern neighbor, Canada has retained more of a European connection than the U.S. and places like Vancouver and Montreal have a strong Euro vibe. This year happens to be Canada’s 150th anniversary so visitors can expect many special events and festivities for an unforgettable stay.

If you were to suggest some exotic vacation destinations in the US specifically for couples, what would you suggest?

It depends on the couple of course, but I’d recommend winter holiday lovers head to Vail or Aspen Colorado, beach and tropical vacation lovers head to Hawaii, art lovers to Santa Fe, city trippers to NYC or San Francisco, and those looking for a bit of Tuscany head to Napa Valley.

Families?

Hawaii is always a great destination for families. Hearst Castle is a fun family-friendly visitor attraction, large cities like NYC have tons of family-friendly activities, and there are also safari parks in Ohio and California.

Boomers?

Maybe an Alaska cruises, a trip to Santa Fe, wine tasting in Napa Valley or Sonoma, or a weekend in Solvang for a taste of Denmark.

Any special hints or tips for making these trips extra special or for getting a better deal?

Go some place that you are excited to visit, not to a place that feels like a second choice. Also, remember that exotic just means some place different so don’t just consider places that feel like Europe or Asia, but places where you’ll experience new things. Sometimes these places are much closer to home than we expect. As with any trip, plan ahead well in advance and book early for best deals.

Revisiting India with Louise Nicholson

A lot has changed since 2015 when we last caught up with author and India travel expert, Louise Nicholson. We recently interviewed Louise to revisit the wonders of this exotic far east destination. The most notable change is the drastic improvement in the country’s transportation infrastructure and hospitality amenities that have expanded the possibilities in an already expansive country. Read our Q&A and watch our interview with Louise below to learn more.

WATCH our interview with Louise Nicholson

Give us an update on what you’ve been doing? 

I’ve been spreading my wings!  Just done a fabulous new tour through Central India seeing a string of star sites and staying in great hotels that make this a new take for the first time visitor, and without tourist traps of the familiar Delhi-Agra-Jaipur itinerary.  And about to do a new tour to Ladakh in the stunning high Himalayas, seeing painted monasteries and staying lakeside on the Tibetan plateau in pristine mountain beauty – my stunner for July.  Also, working with museum trips, institutions, and lots of private trips for families.

When we talked in 2015, you gave us an overview of your top 5 destinations in India: Mumbai, Rajasthan (Vlarspur, Jodhpur, Nagaur), Tamil Nadu, Ajanta and Ellora and Sikkim. Anything new to report? 

My top favorite India destinations do change as places become more accessible thanks to India’s manic road-building and improvements in local accommodation.  So, while Mumbai, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Ajanta/Ellora are still up there, Sikkim’s formerly great hotel in the west has unfortunately plummeted in admin and staff.  I’d replace it with the newly more accessible glories of Central India’s early cities – where you can wander Champaner, Mandu and Chanderi’s stunning medieval buildings in beautiful rural settings with few tourists.  This region has additional options to visit India’s tribal belt villages and markets as well as see sophisticated weavers making exquisite traditional textiles thanks to great NGO leadership – such as Rewa and Women Weave at Maheshwar and LemonTree and Chanderiyaan at Chanderi.

What’s hot in India now?

  1. An increasing number of heritage hotels in off-beat places – for instance, there’s a beautiful mansion on the fringes of Kolkata, a fantastic multi-layered and complex city, so you could do a few city days and then a few in this rural idyll.
  2. Pondicherry.  The revival of the French colonial area began more than two decades ago and continues to be done with great taste thanks to the local conservation body INTACH.  There are now lots of beautiful historic buildings to stay in large and small, such as Palais de Mahe, and lots of stand-alone bars and restaurants, as well as boutiques stocking India’s superb young fashion designers – which I just don’t understand why they are not available globally.  The only downside of Pondicherry is there is no beach of quality, but Indian beaches rarely come up to US east/west coast standards.
  3. Ahmedabad city in the west.  Really buzzy with its old city heritage walks, the Calico museum of textiles, the LD Lalbhai museum of historic art, great Gujarati food found at House of MG’s rooftop restaurant, buildings by Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn.  And a newly opened (Jan 2017) gorgeous historic mansion renovated by Rahol Malhotra and containing the collection of another Lalbhai, Kasturbhai Lalbai, which has both historic and very good contemporary collections, a real treat.

 Anything that we need to me mindful of as we plan a trip to India?

My motto is ‘Less is more’, meaning the fewer places you go the longer you have in each and therefore the more you will get out of your whole trip.  India is not about manically ticking off places from the Taj Mahal to seeing a tiger; it is about getting down on the ground to see the sites, sure, but also to walk old cities, stay in a nature reserve for three days, encounter locals, visit markets, experience the contemporary such as going to the movies or hanging out in a cafe with locals or arranging a spice shopping outing and then a cooking demonstration.

Movies like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel idealize India as a place for expats to set down roots.  What’s your honest take on that consideration?

Well!  As you may imagine many of my friends and clients have asked me to set up my own Marigold Hotel in India!  Seriously, though, India is a very good place to select one place – very carefully – and put down roots for, say, six months or a year.  You would get to know the local people from mango sellers to schoolchildren, you would feel the rhythm of the seasons, share in the festivals, and also be able to contribute your skills and get a lot of fulfillment.  But choose carefully: a city may suit some, a village others.  But it is not a breeze.  India is simultaneously very welcoming and fairly tough.  You would have to be quite self-sufficient emotionally and self-starting in finding something to occupy your days, as Judy Dench and the other actors in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel showed us very clearly!

Why Palm Beach County, FL needs a cultural concierge

Known the world over for fabulous beaches, exciting nightlife and upscale living, Palm Beach County, FL, also boasts a tremendous array of cultural attractions. ExpertFlyer goes One-on-One with Bama Lutes Deal, the first cultural concierge, to learn about the finer things in Palm Beach County.

WATCH our video interview with Bama Lutes Deal, cultural concierge.

 

Why did Palm Beach County decide to establish a Cultural Concierge?

Palm Beach County is Florida’s Cultural Capital™, with more cultural venues and events per capita than any destination south of Atlanta.  With so many museums, art galleries, performance halls and other cultural venues, visitors to The Palm Beaches have 42,000 cultural offerings to choose from.  With so much for tourists to experience, the Cultural Council decided to bring in a cultural expert who could curate events and help travelers plan the cultural aspects of their visits to The Palm Beaches. The goal is to showcase our vibrant cultural landscape and help travelers fell more like locals, to help them find authentic local experiences that reflect their own tastes and interests. Continue reading →

San Diego — The birthplace of California

As part of our series on historical getaways, we’ve gone West to San Diego!  Most people think La Jolla Cove, the San Diego Zoo or  Balboa Park when they hear San Diego, but the city has a long interesting history and attractions that define it as the Plymouth Rock of the west coast.  We interviewed Robert Arends of the San Diego Tourism Authority, who shares some unique stories and places to visit, particularly if you’re a history buff.

WATCH our interview with Robert Arends, San Diego Tourism Authority

Why is San Diego considered the birthplace of California?

On September 28, 1542 Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer sailing for Spain, anchored his flagship San Salvador on Point Loma near the entrance to San Diego Bay. On this historic day, Cabrillo became the first European to set foot on the West Coast of the United States. And the San Salvador became the first recorded European vessel to sail along California and survey its coastline; sailing north in search of new trade routes. The San Salvador is the ship that discovered San Diego and of the (future) State of California.

San Diego made history again this past Labor Day weekend.  Tell us about the Maritime Museum of San Diego’s maiden voyage celebration of the first full-scale working replica of the San Salvador. Can tourists board the vessel throughout the year?

Designing the San Salvador

Designing the San Salvador

Yes, the Maritime Museum of San Diego hosted a big annual Festival of Sail – the largest Tall Ship festival on the West Coast – over Labor Day weekend and a full-scale working replica of the San Salvador, the “Mayflower of the West” made her public debut as the star attraction. For the first time ever, visitors got to walk her decks, marvel at her rigging and step back into time to the Age of Discovery [15th-18th century] with exhibits on the ship’s historic significance – akin to the Mayflower as the origin symbol ship of New England.

On September 10, the San Salvador will make her inaugural voyage up the California coast for the Pacific Heritage Tour, where visitors can sail aboard one of 3 passenger legs. She will also make ports of call stops in Oxnard, Monterey, and Morro Bay.

Upon its return to San Diego, visitors will be able to board the San Salvador year-round as part of the Maritime Museum’s permanent collection.

What are some other attractions that history buffs will enjoy?

  • Cabrillo National Monument on Point Loma, San Diego’s only national park. Features the film “In Search of Cabrillo,” an exhibit hall presenting Cabrillo’s life and times, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, tidepools to explore, a whale watching overlook, an original WWII gun battery and old military radio station exhibit.
  • Juniper Serra Museum on Presidio Hill, marking the spot where a group of Spanish soldiers and Franciscan friars established Mission San Diego de Alcala in 1769, over 225 years AFTER Cabrillo’s discovery of San Diego. This was the first mission in California’s string of 21 famous missions and the state’s first church.
  • Old Town State Historic Park, San Diego’s first downtown which sprang up around Presidio Hill. Features a historic plaza, several adobe buildings and Old West architecture that brings to life San Diego’s Hispanic heritage from the early to late 1800s.
  • Mission San Diego de Alcala, established in 1774. It was relocated from Presidio Hill to nearby Mission Valley so it could be closer to the San Diego River, the region’s primary water source. Features a museum of original artifacts, a chapel, beautiful gardens and an excavation site believed to be part of the monastery.
  • Mission Trails Regional Park, one of the largest urban parks in the U.S. covering 6,800 acres. Features the Old Mission Dam, hiking up Cowles Mountain (the highest peak in City of San Diego at over 1,500 feet), boating and camping, a state-of-the-art visitor center and popular rock climbing at Mission Gorge.

So, when the history lessons are over, where do you recommend tourists visit to relax, unwind and take in some pretty vistas?

San Diego’s 70 miles of beaches, including scenic La Jolla which is pretty as a postcard! And Mt. Soledad in La Jolla, where visitors can enjoy 360-degree views of San Diego. There’s also the iconic 200-foot tall California Tower in Balboa Park, part of the Museum of Man. Interesting bit of trivia: the tower is topped by a San Salvador ship weathervane. I also recommend taking a fun harbor excursion with Flagship or Hornblower to see San Diego Bay and the coastline just as Cabrillo did!

Any upcoming special events, festivals or other attractions coming up this fall?

Cabrillo Festival on Sept, 30-Oct. 1, featuring a re-enactment of Cabrillo’s historic landing on Point Loma at Ballast Point on Naval Base Point Loma. The event is FREE, family friendly and features cultural demonstrations, folk dances, art vendors and food booths bringing to life traditions of local Native Americans (Kumeyaay tribe), Mexican, Portuguese and Spanish cultures.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Myers Valley Inkopah Gorge  20100320

San Salvador Petroglyphs | Photo: (c)Ted Walton

There was a discovery in San Diego’s East County of a petroglyph rock depicting Spanish ships that is believed to be the only remaining first-person documentation of Cabrillo’s arrival in San Diego in 1542 (see attached photos); recorded by the indigenous Kumeyaay tribes of San Diego County who have lived here for more than 12,000 years. The petroglyphs are believed to be the oldest graphic representation of a recorded event in U.S. history.

The Maritime Museum has a replica of this amazing find.

To plan a trip to San Diego and learn more about our fascinating history and attractions, visit SanDiego.org