June 4, 2012
Even when you find affordable airfare to a great destination, the cost of lodgings—sometimes averaging over $200 a night—can be a deal-breaker. For that reason, I’ve resorted to every scheme I can think of to hold down the price of accommodations, including bunking with friends and apartment swaps. One of the best approaches I’ve found is renting a room in a college dorm when students are on summer vacation.
That’s how I once took a budget getaway up the Hudson River from New York, staying in a dorm room at Marymount College overlooking Tarrytown for $25 a night, clean sheets and towels included. I had fun touring the Rockefeller estate Kykuit and walking the old Croton Aqueduct Trail. But the best part was feeling like a freshman again.
Another college room I rented put me in the heart of literary Bloomsbury, though by comparison with my lodgings at Marymount, the University of London’s John Adams Hall seemed rather worse for the wear. My $35 room there was at the end of a dark hall with a narrow single bed, empty bookshelves and a bulletin board. That was 20 years ago, but the university still rents rooms during summer vacation in six student residences for as little as $90 a night.
It’s not as easy at it once was to find deals on campus like these, though USA Today reports that it’s still possible by getting a list of colleges in the place you want to visit and contacting their housing departments directly; even if vacation dorm rental isn’t part of the program, they’re sometimes willing to consider it in order to raise money.
One extremely attractive option is the little-known UC Santa Barbara Family Vacation Center, headquartered in a dorm with roomy suites on the university’s stunning, waterfront campus in striking distance of state park beaches, Santa Barbara cultural institutions and the Santa Ynez wine country. Actually, frequent UCSB vacationers are happy to stay put because the price ($965 per person for a week, $455 for a 4-night mini-week) includes meals, internet, housekeeping and recreation (tennis, yoga, hiking, mountain biking, infant and toddler care, kids camp), not to mention the good company of other family vacationers, many of whom return year after year.
The Summer Vacation Center has been attracting UCSB grads and their families for 40 years, but you don’t have to be an alum to take part. You do have to plan ahead, however, because reservations must be made by mid January for sessions the following summer that begin in late June and run until late August.
Talk about the benefits of higher education!
June 1, 2012
No place tells the whole quirky story of American vacationing better than the Poconos, a region of hills and vales on the west bank of the Delaware River about 100 miles from both Philadelphia and New York City. The history is well covered in Better in the Poconos, by Lawrence Squeri, describing the area’s birth as a rustic family resort in the 19th century and later catering to specific clienteles with hotels for Jews, Italians, Catholics, Quakers, African-Americans, singles, even trade unions. The advent of highways and the family car made the area all the more accessible to urbanites in search of modestly priced country pleasures, and then came World War II, which changed the game in the Poconos. In its aftermath, just-married veterans arrived with their brides, bringing new celebrity to the Poconos as “the honeymoon capital of the world.”
Rudolf Von Hoevenberg’s The Farm on the Hill was the first resort for honeymoon couples; opened in 1945, it offered constant group activities—get-acquainted parties, hayrides, volleyball—for newlyweds still unused to each other. By 1960 the Poconos rivaled Niagara Falls as a honeymoon destination, attracting over 100,000 couples a year who arrived with freshly minted marriage licenses and slightly wilted bouquets.
But times change, as do social norms. Before long people without licenses started knocking at the door and the rules were relaxed to accommodate them, gradually turning wholesome old mom-and-pop-style honeymoon resorts into hot spots for couples, with lots of libidinous trimmings.
Enter the heart-shaped bathtub, invented by one Morris Wilkins who’d served as an electrician on a submarine during World War II. He partnered up with a friend in 1958 to buy an 18-room hotel on Lake Wallenpaupack and proceeded to convert it into Cove Haven, a couples resort with new bells and whistles. According to Morris’ nephew, Doug Wilkins, who still works as a manager at the resort, the renovators focused immediately on the bathrooms, feeling that they could use some “livening-up.” Morris drew the plan for the first heart-shaped tub in his basement, then found a local company to make a mold and install them.
“He was a great entrepreneur,” Doug told me, “and all the stars were aligned. It was on the cusp of the sexual revolution; the whole thing was very avant-garde.”
Some bridal magazines rejected Cove Haven advertising because they thought it too racy. When Life magazine arrived in 1969 to shoot a two-page spread of a couple spooning in a heart-shaped tub surrounded by mirrors, the photographer could only keep himself out of the picture by using the camera’s timer function. The image testified to what Life called an era of “affluent vulgarity” in America, which of course only made heart-shaped bathtubs more popular.
Too bad Morris didn’t get a patent. Pretty soon all the couples resorts in the Poconos had to have them. Undaunted, Morris went on to create seven-foot champagne glass whirlpools, still a top-of-the-line amenity at Cove Haven and its sister resorts Paradise Stream and Pocono Palace, among the last remaining couples resorts in the Poconos, now owned by Starwood.
Yes, even love pales as a vacation theme in America. Outmaneuvered by more exotic honeymoon places, the Poconos has mostly moved on, though weddings and anniversaries are still big business. The regional visitors bureau has lately focused on marketing the area as a natural destination for skiers, hikers and other outdoors enthusiasts, and after much local resistance, gambling arrived there a few years ago, transforming the site of the old Mount Airy Lodge, opened in 1898, into the Mount Airy Casino Resort.
But as I discovered on a trip through the Poconos a few weeks ago, there’s still a sign that says “You Are Entering the Land of Love” on the driveway leading to Pocono Palace and room for two in a heart-shaped tub.
May 30, 2012
Whenever my brother John tells me he’s planning a trip, right away I start angling to go along because he likes places no one else would think of, usually backpacking destinations in the great outdoors. It doesn’t hurt that he has the necessary gear and skills. I doubt I’d know how to pitch a tent or light a camp stove if it weren’t for John. When we pack up in the morning, he stands over me like a Marine, making sure I shake out the ground cloth before I fold it up.
In the car on the way we don’t need the radio; we pass the time arguing, usually at high volume.
I drive the highways, then he takes over on dirt roads, bombing over sand traps and potholes while I shriek. He hates things to go smoothly; when they threaten to he puts an edge on the adventure by telling me we might be low on gas or lost, a stratagem that made me insist on turning back halfway to the isolated Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. Both of us vividly remember the episode, forever defining us as travelers: I’m the wuss, he’s the nut.
But that’s another story. This one’s about the best trip we ever took, to Fish and Owl Creeks in the badlands of southeastern Utah. How John found out about the 16-mile loop trail on BLM land descending about 1,500 feet into a pair of narrow canyons that scrawl across an otherwise empty space on the map I do not know. He’s got a secret file folder full of such expeditions, I guess.
We reached the trail head about 50 miles north of Mexican Hat with afternoon shadows lengthening over the plateau, known as Cedar Mesa. That’s mesa, not butte; if you don’t know the difference between the two, you’re too much of a greenhorn to tackle Fish and Owl, which should not be attempted by inexperienced hikers, according to a map we got from the BLM. The trail is rough and hard to follow, marked chiefly by cairns; water is intermittent; and if something bad happens, help is not at hand.
For all these reasons, I advocated camping on top that night and starting out the next morning. But John overruled me, herding me into Owl Creek like a goat boy. We had to scramble down big boulders—me mostly on my tush—before reaching the bottom of the canyon, which narrows as it descends. Occasionally, I took my eyes off the trail long enough to appreciate the view at our shoulders of precariously stacked hoodoos and Cedar Mesa sandstone cliffs. Meanwhile, John was ever on the lookout for Anasazi rock art and cliff dwellings said to be hidden on benches above the creek.
By the time we finally stopped and set up camp, I was feeling surprisingly comfortable in the wilderness. John made freeze-dried lasagna for dinner and invited me to drink as much bottled water as I liked, thereby lightening the load; no problem when we ran out, he said, because—yum, yum—he’d use his purifier to treat the brackish water we found in sloughs.
I slept tight that night, blinking my eyes open to see a dark sky full of stars when I rolled over in my bag.
The next day’s hike took us deeper into Fish and finally to its confluence with Owl, where we turned downstream. Owl had stretches of running water, small hanging gardens and sandy shoulders where the path was easy to follow. I was ambling along when I realized my brother had stopped, bending over the trail where he’d found a mountain lion track.
Or were things just going along too smoothly for John? I bet on that.
We doubled back at one point, in search of a natural arch described on the map, but never found it. A mile or so short of the exit back onto the mesa, by which we’d close the loop, we found a second campsite, ringed by cottonwood trees, close to a flowing section of the creek. I took a dip, dried off in the sun, and figured I’d found paradise in a crack below Cedar Mesa.
More freeze-dried comestibles for dinner, another night in the bag, followed by a very stiff climb out of the canyon, John showing me where to step. For the last bit he took my backpack so I could manage the climb out, then handed it up to me when I got on top.
We were resting before finishing the last lap back to where we’d parked when a car drove up. A man and woman got out, preparing to start the loop hike the other way round, from Owl to Fish. Only, they didn’t have a map. So we gave them ours, crumpled and splotched, but no less welcome, told them about our beautiful second night campsite and exchanged addresses, promising—as travelers often do when they cross paths in outlandish places—to later exchange notes on our adventures.
I forgot all about it, though I could have told them how I made John drive 100 miles out of the way that day to clean up in a public swimming pool and buy groceries in the town of Blanding before car-camping that night at Natural Bridges National Monument, where John made sure I knew the difference between a natural bridge and an arch.
We went on from there to the infamous Maze and to a family reunion in the Colorado Rockies, where I celebrated my 40th birthday by climbing 14,259-foot Long’s Peak. So by the time I got home several weeks later those were the stories I told about the trip.
A couple of months passed and then I got a letter with a Boston return address from the couple John and I met at the lip of Owl Creek, enclosing the map we lent them and telling a tale that made my skin creep.
They found our cottonwood campsite and settled in, then woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of screaming, hair-raisingly high-pitched and so close at hand they’d have sworn someone was being tortured just outside the tent.
Only one creature makes a noise like that: a mountain lion.
It went on for 30 minutes, at least, while they huddled inside, scared out of their wits. Then it stopped, though they didn’t go out until morning, when they found tracks right outside the tent. Each print was as big as a hand, with pad and four claws clearly marked.
I’d never want to come that close to a mountain lion, though I admit I’m a little envious it happened to them, not us. Never mind. I’ve appropriated the story; it’s mine now, too, because I’ve been to Fish and Owl. Travelers tales are like that. Free to pass around.
May 18, 2012
Some people claim that pizza was invented in Greece; others say it hails from southern France. A friend of mine who went to Yale swears it comes from New Haven. Sheesh! Have any of these people been to Naples?
OK, it has never been proven that pizza was first popped into the oven in Napoli, though everyone knows pizza Margherita—a simple classic topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and basil leaves, mimicking the red, white and green colors of the Italian flag—was created by Neapolitan chef Raffaele Esposito to celebrate a visit to the city by Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1889.
Anyway, who gets the credit for inventing pizza is a moot point when the answer to who makes the best pizza is obvious: Naples, Naples and more Naples. Fie on your Chicago deep-dish, your Roman pizza bianca and especially your mass-produced Domino’s and Pizza Hut. There is simply nothing like Neapolitan pizza made of hand-kneaded dough too fragile to toss, topped with fresh, authentic ingredients and baked fast on the surface of a bell-shaped, wood-burning oven. When the pizza maker (or pizzaiuolo) pulls it out on a paddle and slides it onto a plate, who can wait? The mozzarella is a milky puddle, with a mat of red sauce and a frame of incomparably chewy crust, flexible enough to fold in half and eat like a sandwich on the street. In famous Naples restaurants like Brandi, Da Umberto and Trianon da Ciro, pizza-making is high art, but you’d have to be cursed by the gods to find a bad pie anyplace in town.
Why, then, I have always wondered, is it so hard to find Neapolitan pizza in the U.S.? We’ve got every other celebrated Italian product from olive oil to shoes.
Caporuscio, born into a cheese-making family from Pontinia south of Rome, studied pizza-making in Naples before coming to the U.S., where he serves as ambassador-at-large for the APN. When discussing other types of pizza—for instance, the pies available at longtime pizza favorite John’s just across Bleecker Street—he’s always diplomatic: “It’s not better or worse, just different.”
Asked to comment on New Haven’s claim to the pizza birthplace title, he said, “They invented New Haven pizza there.”
A big bear of a man with palms permanently pink from handling pizza dough, Caporuscio explained that immigrants to America from the Campania region of Italy around Naples were farmers, shoemakers and builders, not pizzaiuoli. “And to make a Neapolitan pizza you need one thing,” he said. “A Neapolitan pizza-maker. Someone who understands all the details, how to stretch and raise the dough to keep it aerated, which is what makes it chewy.”
I had to press him on the delicate matter of the toppings, especially the cheese, because I’m a purist when it comes to mozzarella, which in Naples means mozzarella de bufala, unavailable in the U.S. because it isn’t pasteurized. Caporuscio solves that problem by making his own cow’s milk mozzarella, known as fior de latte, on the premises at Keste; only one pizza there, the Regina Margherita, features the imported buffalo milk version of the cheese.
I got a taste, of course, and it took me straight back to Napoli—which is probably the main reason why I love Neapolitan pizza.
April 20, 2012
When my editor at Smithsonian asked me to write a story about “The 10 Best Small Towns in America” for the magazine’s May issue, I didn’t expect an outpouring of responses: Facebook “Likes” and “Tweets” in the tens of thousands along with hundreds of very thoughtful e-mail comments, many of them from people happy to see their hometowns included. I also didn’t expect my research—hugely aided by Esri, a California-based geographic information systems company—to uncover towns of such widely differing character.
Small town meant just one thing to me: “Our Town,” the place described in Thornton Wilder’s classic American play as Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Remember how it begins with the Stage Manager pointing out its main street, drugstore, hitching posts and Congregational church? Later in Act I, the editor of the local newspaper makes his own assessment: Very ordinary town, if you ask me. Little better behaved than most. Probably a lot duller. But our young people seem to like it well enough: 90 percent of ’em graduating from high school settle down right here to live—even when they’ve been away to college.
There’s also an old James Taylor song I think of: “Letter in the Mail,” about what’s happened to small towns in the American hinterland as jobs dry up and people leave them.
I guess it never was much to look at
Just a one-horse town
The kind of place young people want to leave today
Store fronts pretty much boarded-up
Main Street pretty much closed-down
So, for me, it was an eye-opening pleasure to find that lots of small towns are thriving in ways unpredicted by the old model. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, for example, which claimed the top spot on our list, still evokes Grover’s Corners, with its white-steepled churches and doughnut bakeries. But you don’t have to live there to see that the town has changed, welcoming new immigrant groups and coming up with schemes like minting its own local currency to keep it vital.
My visit to Naples, Florida, another Smithsonian small town, underscored the way economy drives culture. As a second-home enclave for retired CEOs, it has the revenue to support a world-class symphony orchestra, art museum and theaters. With cultural institutions like those, no one has to sit home at night watching reality TV.
Gig Harbor, Washington, a working fishing village on the west edge of Puget Sound, was another story, perhaps the least reconstituted town on the list, which is actually its best feature. But with outlanders discovering its charms—a picture-perfect harbor and still relatively affordable waterfront property, not to mention very fresh fish—the town finds itself in a precarious place. Its effort to strike a balance between letting development in and staying the same requires thinking outside the box, protecting a traditional, low-tech industry that could die out as more lucrative enterprises come in.
In the end, writing the story showed me that every little town has its own distinctions, and challenges. No two are the same and there’s no single prescription for survival. I still dream about Grover’s Corners and can list any number of New England towns that recall it: bucolically beautiful Cornwall Bridge on the Housatonic River in the northwest corner of Connecticut; Cohasset, Massachusetts, just south of Boston; Hancock, New Hampshire, incorporated in 1779.
But in each case, if you look beyond the pretty picture, you find a tangle of small-town dynamics: conservation versus economic development, income inequality, environmental protection, public fund allotment—all driven by people with different agendas, intent on writing the continuing story of the place where they live.
I’m a city girl by nature, apt to romanticize dots on the maps with names like Menomonie and Siloam Springs—long may they live, all of them “Our Town.”