Thursday, September 27, 2012

No Crowds visits some Connecticut museums

Laura Sanderson Healy is back on the road exploring some Connecticut museums that are long on interest and short on crowds. First up is the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport.

Visiting museums in Connecticut can be great fun thanks to the vast array of historical collections, art galleries and noble edifices across the Nutmeg State. Three on the list for my husband, daughter and me were the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, and the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford.  

  A stroll from Bridgeport’s Metro North rail station and the Port Jefferson Ferry, The Barnum Museum was founded in 1891 as The Barnum Institute of Science and History. Usually the ornate structure boasts a huge stash of art and artifacts pertaining to Bridgeport’s most celebrated son, the outrageous impresario and circus showman P. T. Barnum. The museum building was closed by 2010 tornado damage, but that has not stopped it from exhibiting its peculiar treasures – the show must go on! Out loaded oddities from the 25,000 that found emergency storage are shown two days a week -- free -- at the back of the Barnum in the People’s United Bank Gallery. While the museum undergoes restoration and conservation. the exhibition “Recovery in Action” shows its wares in their “disaster mode,” including the Baroque furnishings from Barnum’s home, the midget Tom Thumb’s 1865 miniature carriage, Ulysses S. Grant’s personal items, and ephemera about the Swedish protégée of Barnum’s, singer Jenny Lind.  It may not be the Greatest Show on Earth, but it possesses a fiery chutzpah in showing off some wonderful stuff against all odds.

There is also the worthy “virtual” Barnum Museum that offers on-line exhibitions such as “Heroes of the Home Front” in honor of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War and the main exhibits, “Phineas Taylor Barnum,” “Humbugs and Curiosities,” “Jumbo the Elephant,” and “Egyptian Exhibit: Pa-Ib”. A wide range of lectures and seminars swirl around the Barnum, including “Mummy Dearest,” looking into past peoples’ lives.

The Barnum Museum, 820 Main Street, Bridgeport, Connecticut
Hours 11-3 Thursday and Friday

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hadrian's Wall in Four Easy Steps

I once met a journalist in London who was about to retire. She had been at the forefront of world events over a long career. “So what are you going to do next?” I asked her expecting a reply about consulting and board membership. “Walk Hadrian’s Wall” was her response.

And boom - the idea was planted. It sounded so iconic. Hike across England along a wall marking the northern edge of the Roman Empire. But not the kind of thing one would do by oneself. So I mentioned this cool idea to a good friend who was (conveniently) 5,000 miles away in North Carolina.

Step Number 1 – Just mention Hadrian’s Wall to one keen hiker and watch what happens

Before I could say ‘lets think about this a little more’ there were 10 keen Carolinians, mostly from the mountains, mostly lawyers who were all packed and ready to go.

Now what?

Step Number 2 – Get support

 You could organize a walk by yourself. But you don’t need to and, I would argue, you don’t want to. There are several companies that can help you organize your walk providing everything from itinerary planning to accommodation booking and luggage transfers.  We used Hadrian’s Wall Ltd run by Gary and Stacey Reed whose passion for the region, local knowledge and organizational skills turned our experience into something much more than a walk along a wall. From the company’s extensive range of services, we chose the 7 Nights Part Guided group option that included a custom itinerary, an orientation meeting on arrival, top of the line B&B accommodation, baggage transfers and 2 days of guided walking with Gary. It was an article in the Observer by Jane Dunford that convinced me that we had to hike with Gary and you can read that article here. And yes, he was every bit as good as his press.

Step Number 3 – Take your time

There are several ways to trek Hadrian’s Wall. You could focus on how quickly you can do the distance but then you will probably miss the full experience. Hadrian’s Wall Path is really an 84-mile encounter with the Roman Empire filled with some of the most important archeological sites in Europe such as the Roman Vindolanda fort. Go too fast and you miss the chance to revel in the history. If you are short on time or don’t want to walk too far each day, go for the middle bit considered by many to be the best of the wall. Our group did a wonderful 47 mile stretch from Carlisle to Chester Fort near Hexam which allowed us to walk a reasonable 8 to 10 miles a day (with the prevailing winds to our back – this is important), enjoy the landscape, explore the antiquities and meet the  people.

Step Number 4 – Meet people

I am a city mouse so my natural instinct is to be wary of strangers. But I learned something on this trek from the gregarious Carolinians and thanks to them, we did meet just about everyone.

From the young barkeep at the Hallmark Hotel in Carlisle who was so chuffed (UK slang for a state of delighted satisfaction) to have made his first American friends, to the ‘Miss Marple’ pair of ladies we kept bumping into on the trail to innkeepers Dee and Gary at the marvelous Battlesteads in Wark, we made so many new friends and exchanged countless stories.  In the pantheon of great walks, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Monday, September 17, 2012


Laura Sanderson Healy reports on a 'pioneering' road trip in the California desert with Mama Jane and nephew Benjamin

Looking over the photographs I took on a recent trip to the former Western movie set called Pioneertown, California, I realize it is the perfect No Crowds destination if you happen to be visiting either the stunning Joshua Tree National Park in the High Desert or the well-attended Palm Springs and its neighboring desert city resorts. Pioneertown is the perfect antidote whether you’ve been hiking, pool lounging or hitting the parterres of the El Paseo shops in Palm Desert.

There was nobody around the “Mane Street” when we visited, though a few storefronts were open (a pottery, a saddle store) and a lone horse stared at us from his dusty paddock. You can swing through saloon doors while admiring the Ghost Town effect of it all. Pioneertown was built in 1946 and Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were among its investors; both movies and television shows were shot here, where the authentic homes were lived in by actors. There are 350 residents today and there is a tiny post office on the unpaved street, selling Stars of the West stamps.

The real draw of this off the beaten track locale is Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a vibrant bar/restaurant/music club founded in 1982 that boasts a talent list from the Arctic Monkies to Vampire Weekend to Gram Rabbit:. I was bound and determined to make a pilgrimage to this indie rock paradise, even if just for lunch, which proved to be delicious (barbecued pork sandwich plate and a Sioux City Sarsparilla soft drink).  Pappy and Harriet’s location was once a façade for a cantina when filming was going on, and after that, according to its website, it served as an “outlaw biker burrito bar” until it was closed down.

My fellow travelers were my 86 year old mother and my 7 year old nephew, and we had a fine time playing pool in the saloon at Pappy and Harriet’s and promenading down the street. Things really get popping when they have festival days, but that might be a bit crowded.

To reach Pioneertown, take Pioneertown Road at California State Route 62 in the town of Yucca Valley and go four miles until you reach Pappy and Harriet’s. You’ll be traveling a meandering California Scenic Drive past cactus and tumbleweed.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Night at the Museum

On August 28th 2012, we went to bed in the 21st century but woke up in the 18th. How? By staying at the Petit Hotel Labottiere in Bordeaux, France. The Petit Hotel Labottiere is many things: a private museum, an historic monument, an upscale bed and breakfast and the life’s work of a family.  Best of all, it offers a totally unique travel experience. I know ‘unique’ is an overused word but this is the real deal.

The story goes like this. Back in the 1960s, Liliane and Michel Korber purchased an elegant 18th century hotel particulier that had fallen on hard times and spent the next 30 years bringing it back to life. They then decided to share this passion for the Age of the Enlightenment with like-minded travelers by creating two period rooms in an outbuilding of the property.

When we arrived, hot and dusty from a long drive from Spain, we were greeted by Daniel, the charming and urbane son of the proprietors who helped us settle in to our rooms, which were also charming – a bit like a Boucher tableau with modern cons, and some thoughtful treats in the little fridge courtesy of our hosts. (Caveat emptor. If you are looking for the standard luxury boutique experience, this ain’t it. It is more like staying at someone’s house who is very concerned about your comfort but it hasn’t been ‘designed’.) We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening enjoying the elegant streets and sights of handsome Bordeaux, a city with over 350 classified buildings, lovely restaurants and of course, lovely wine.

But our time travelling adventures really began the next morning when we awoke, threw open the heavy wooden shutters with ancient hardware and saw our breakfast waiting for us in the mansion courtyard.  Rich, gorgeous, abundant – I felt like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette – but much happier. Throwing my Paleo Diet to the wind, I ate heroically, from another century. I ate it all.

After breakfast, we were given a sublime private tour of the mansion by Daniel. I have taken countless tours of countless mansions all over the world. Reader, this was something else. Here we have a son explaining both his parent’s life  – their choices, decisions, acquisitions and the same for the life of the original owner – an 18th bachelor property developer whose aesthetic aspirations live today thanks to the Korbers. This tour is a great time travelling experience. It is great social history. If your favorite thing to do is to imagine the past, I think you will love it too.

Petit Hotel Labottiere
14 rue Francis Martin
33000 Bordeaux
Tel: 00 33 556 484 410