Art and Sweets in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Chocolates at Kakawa Chocolate House

Chocolates at Kakawa Chocolate House

In the cold and quiet of early January, local Santa Fe residents have reclaimed their town from the masses of tourists found during the spring through the fall. Bargains are available, popular restaurants won’t require reservations or long waits, Christmas lights are still up and light ice and snow add a layer of beauty to this early 1600s desert town.

I have been coming to Santa Fe for years and my favorite time is the off-season in the winter, when the beiges of the desert mix with a grey-white sky. This part of New Mexico can be described as “O’Keeffe Country” where the artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, first came to paint in 1929.

New Mexico is also known as the state where restaurants immediately ask the question “red or green” depending on your chile favorite (green in my case), but I found two surprising treats in Santa Fe—chocolate elixirs and creative donuts.

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Near Santa Fe’s Plaza, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum celebrates the Wisconsin-born artist who later adopted New Mexico as her home. This museum is smaller, but the films, art and docent talks will make visitors wanting to learn more about a prominent American artist.

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Admission is $12.00 and visitors should be sure to watch two introductory films: “Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life in Art” and “Houses of My Own” about Ms. O’Keeffe’s life. The first film is narrated by actor Gene Hackman and tells of the artist’s struggle to be taken seriously as a female artist, as Ms. O’Keeffe began painting in 1915. Her initial abstract art was displayed in the photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s (who she later married) New York City Gallery “291” but she struggled to be understood. Critics didn’t comprehend her initial abstract art which upset Ms. O’Keeffe.

The artist moved on to instead painting themes of flowers, and later bones and desert scenery when she discovered the vast colors of Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu, New Mexico. Georgia O’Keeffe loved the open spaces and colors of the West. When she lived in New York with Stieglitz, painting in areas like Lake George, New York, didn’t appeal to her as the landscape was too green. The desert, with its vast array of colors, fascinated Ms. O’Keeffe and she felt at home.

Outside the Museum

Outside the Museum

The museum contains several galleries with photos of Ms. O’Keeffe and it is interesting looking at how different photographers cast the artist in a different light. The walls include photos taken by Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams.

Ms. O’ Keeffe’s artwork can be found throughout the museum including her vibrant flowers and my personal favorites of her desert scenes. The museum includes a reconstruction of Ms. O’Keeffe’s art studio (which is surprisingly simple) as well as photos of the desert views from her home. The artist especially loved the Pedernal Mountain which has a prominent place in some of her paintings. The exhibits also include some paintings from Ms. O’Keeffe’s travels around the world and I found the artwork from Asia particularly unusual.

Georgia O'Keeffe

If a docent talk is available, be sure to make time to learn more about Ms. O’Keeffe who not only struggled to be understood, but faced challenges of making it as a female artist in a man’s world. In January, there are few tourists around and our docent talk had just seven people.

The museum includes guest exhibitions as well as a gift shop, which features books on Ms. O’Keeffe, posters, calendars, jewelry and various gifts.

I have been to this museum several times and could visit over and over. The vivid colors of artwork on display make visitors want to take a road or hiking trip into the desert to discover a scenic part of New Mexico so loved by the artist.

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
217 Johnson Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Phone: (505)946-1000

Kakawa Chocolate House

It’s chilly in Santa Fe in January but a short walk from the galleries on Canyon Road is a very special treat. Located in a small adobe house, Kakawa Chocolate House serves tasty, rich drinking chocolates (elixirs) in a blue and white china cup. Serving sizes come in three ounces or six ounces with recipes based on both historic and recent creations. For chocolate fans, this is serious chocolate served in a similar size to a cup of espresso. Be sure to ask for a glass of water on the side.

Kakawa Chocolate House

Kakawa Chocolate House

The staff is enthusiastic in helping to make selections. The most popular flavor is the American elixir which is made of 72 percent chocolate along with almond milk, which is delicious. I couldn’t have just one.

Other flavors include Zapoteca (100% chocolate, coconut and sugar), Chili (100% chocolate, chili, coconut and sugar), Chai (72% chocolate, almond milk and chai tea) and Rose Almond (100% chocolate with herbs, spices, nuts, flowers and chili). Ask the staff what is available on the blackboard and they will quickly determine what chocolate suits each visitor best.

Chocolate Elixir--oh so good

Chocolate Elixir–oh so good

This house is small but a great surprise. With blue curtains, roughly ten tables and a casual atmosphere, this is the place for visitors with a sweet tooth to indulge.

Other offerings include brownies, ice cream and chocolates. I had to take some chocolate with orange peel and cherry truffles with chili for my walk through Santa Fe. Elixirs are also for sale to take home.

In a city of “red and green”, sometimes a special taste is something completely different. For a hot chocolate that is truly memorable, be sure to stop by Kakawa Chocolate House for an amazing experience.

Kakawa Chocolate House
1050 E. Paseo de Peralta
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Phone: (505)982-0388

Whoo’s Donuts

Early morning at Whoo's Donuts

Early morning at Whoo’s Donuts

In a simple strip center on Cerrillos Road, visitors to Santa Fe will want to experience donuts with an unusual taste. Made from scratch daily, these donuts are irresistible and feature flavors like blueberry lavender blue corn (definitely worth trying), cranberry glazed, vanilla cake, orange glazed, and apple cider (my favorite).

Open every day from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., donuts are available until the daily batch sells out. I was in Santa Fe for a long weekend and am embarrassed to admit that I was parked outside Whoo’s Donuts every morning just as the shop opened for breakfast.

The inside of Whoo’s Donuts is comfortable and relaxed, with fluffy chairs and a decadent case of donuts on display. The cost of two donuts will run roughly $3.50.

Donuts for sale

Donuts for sale

With flavors that I have never come across before, these delicious, lightly sugared donuts, make for a special experience.

For visitors around the Plaza who don’t have a car, be on the lookout for coffee shops with an owl logo on the door, as these shops also sell Whoo’s products. I noticed several coffee shops not far from the Plaza selling Whoo’s.

For a snack that shouldn’t be missed, Whoo’s Donuts should be on any Santa Fe itinerary.

Whoo’s Donuts
851B Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Phone: (505)629-1678

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A Quiet Refuge in Vancouver’s Chinatown

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In the heart of Vancouver’s Chinatown lies a peaceful garden reflecting characteristics found during the Ming Dynasty. The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is a tranquil retreat in the core of a downtown commercial district.

Welcome to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

Welcome to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

For an admission price of C$12.00, this garden is a representation of a scholar’s garden, including an intimate courtyard filled with waterfalls, ponds and ducks. Leak windows, which function by “leaking in” air, light and scenery, are scattered throughout the garden and each design is different. The garden also includes a pavilion as well as a scholar’s study. Visitors enter through the China Maple Hall which is a formal reception hall designed without nails, screws or glue.

A sample of a leak window

A sample of a leak window

Walking through the garden, the courtyard includes a ting, which is the representation of a mountain. The quiet and stillness is an escape into another time and place. The garden also balances the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, as the dark roof tiles are a vibrant contrast against the white walls. The difference between the black and the white is stark.

The scholar’s study and courtyard is in the remote part of the garden and I was surprised to learn that this room was for both men and women. The four-way test of a good scholar was to ask the following questions:

1. Is it the truth?
2. Is it fair to all concerned?
3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
4. Will it be beneficial for all concerned?

Scholar's Study

Scholar’s Study

In the scholar’s room are rocks on display called gongshi, which are Chinese scholar rocks. These stones are unusual as they are rare rocks that show a unique aesthetic form.

Visitors to the garden can either view the grounds on a self-guided tour or guided tours are offered throughout the day. The guides are friendly and will find visitors throughout the garden.

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Included in the garden is the Hall of One Hundred Rivers, which is a great introduction to Chinese culture. Included in the hall is information about Mah Jongg (and how to play) as well as a delicious, hot pot of Chinese tea for all visitors. My favorite part of the hall was some sample brushes and templates on display of how to paint calligraphy, which is much harder than it looks! I tried one of the samples and I’m afraid my character didn’t look anything like it was supposed to. Some of the symbols visitors can try to replicate are the symbol for tea (cha) or the symbol for bamboo (zhu). The hall is also filled with Chinese music and provides a great overview of Chinese history, including a monthly art exhibit.

Hall of One Hundred Rivers

Hall of One Hundred Rivers

My attempt at calligraphy

My attempt at calligraphy

The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is located in central Vancouver and is easily walkable within downtown or the garden can be accessed a short walk by subway from the Stadium station.

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This garden is a step into centuries long past and a stunning reminder of the beauties of hidden gardens. Visitors will be moved by this peaceful retreat in the heart of a bustling commercial Vancouver neighborhood.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden
578 Carrall Street
Vancouver, British Columbia V6B 5K2
Phone: (604)662-3207

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A Taste of Autumn in Boston’s Public Garden and Gibson House Museum

 

Autumn Colors in the Public Garden

Autumn Colors in the Public Garden

It was my first New England fall, something I have wanted to experience for years, to see the vibrant, rich colors of a New England autumn. Living in Houston, we have a few cold days but the trees are either green or have dropped their leaves. It’s the time of year in the Northeast that I miss as a child growing up, when the air is crisp and the colors are like a painting canvas.

Public Garden

Since 1837, Bostonians have been visiting the Public Garden, a quiet escape in the heart of Boston. I have been different times of year but the fall is particularly special. Like a Van Gogh painting with rich brushstrokes, the colors of the trees in the park are spectacular. I was excited that empty picture frames were scattered around the Public Garden where locals and tourists alike were taking photos. I felt like I was part of a painting with the deep oranges, yellows and reds.

Statues are scattered throughout the park including a dedication to Robert McCloskey’s book “Make Way for Ducklings” which I loved as a little girl. I have seen the ducklings dressed as Pilgrims or in Red Sox gear during the World Series. Children (and adults) enjoy these statues and visitors often sit on the ducks taking photos.

"Make Way for Ducklings"

Boston’s proud history in the American Revolution and Civil War is depicted within the park as well as a special monument commemorating the discovery at Massachusetts General Hospital that inhaling ether makes a patient immune to pain.

An angel statue in a quiet corner of the garden is dedicated in memory to Boston philanthropist George Robert White, which is a beautiful spot in the park.

In Memory of George Robert White

Frequent benches are scattered throughout the park with various dedications to residents who loved the Public Garden. I could sit on these benches for hours watching the world go by.

During the spring and summer, the Boston swan boats, which have been operating for over 130 years, transport visitors around the lake. I remember getting a postcard of the swan boats from my aunt and uncle as a little girl so I was interested in the Public Garden from a young age.

Lake with Fall Colors

Evenings in the Public Garden are a great chance to relax and people watch. Wedding parties are often photographed on the bridge, I have seen couples dancing along the lake, and, I have heard either jazz saxophonists or classical violinists play by the lake. As the sun sets in Boston, be sure to head to the Public Garden to witness a taste of Boston with special memories.

Bridge in the Public Garden

The Public Garden is free. Dogs should be on leases and no skateboarding is allowed in the park. This Garden is a peaceful sanctuary in the heart of Boston’s Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods. Any visitors to Boston should include the Public Garden on their list.

Gibson House Museum

I am a big fan of historic houses and in Boston’s Back Bay (just a couple blocks from the Public Garden) is the Gibson House Museum, which sits discretely among a row of brownstones.

Gibson House Museum

The house was designed by Edward Clarke Cabot with construction completed in 1860. Hourly tours, which occur in the afternoons Wednesday to Sunday (be prompt for tour times), tell the history of the Gibson family, which is fascinating.

The house was purchased by Catherine Gibson, as she was trying to find a suitable wife for her son, Charles Hammond Gibson. Mr. Gibson eventually married and had three heirs: Mary Ethel, Charles Jr. and Rosamond. Charles Jr. was the last occupant of the home (passing away in 1954) and his eccentricity meant that the home was kept as it was in Victorian times. Charles Jr. did not feel the need to modernize and wanted things to remain as they were when he was a child.

Another view

Visitors to the home will first be stunned by the entry way, as the Victorian wallpaper is original. Before electricity, the gold prints in the wall coverings were meant to reflect the light from candles. The décor in the entry is kind of gaudy which is what Victorians liked. Be sure to also notice the beautiful antique grandfather clock in the entry which still chimes on the hour.

The tour begins on the first floor which includes a dining room, with the table set for dinner like what would have been acceptable in the late 1800s. I enjoyed hearing about the worn carpeting as visitors to the house can see where the servants stood as parts of the carpet are worn. Lace curtains also cover the windows as in the Victorian age, deliveries to the houses were from the back alleys. The residents did not want to watch the “comings and goings” of the horses and carts delivering goods.

Delivery Alley

On the second floor, visitors will see the men’s and women’s parlors as it was customary that the two groups would retire to separate parlors. The two parlors definitely reflect different tastes but include carpets and glassware from Asia. Scattered around the men’s parlor are letters from the White House and Buckingham Palace, as the intent was to show visitors to the home famous connections.

Before heading to the third floor, be sure to look up and see the ventilation shaft as very few of these shafts remain. The tour description about how ventilation was handled is interesting.

On the third floor are two bedrooms—one decorated in a Japanese style while the other bedroom was converted into a study. Charles Jr. was a heavy smoker and be sure to look at the ceiling in the study as the coloration has turned brown from cigar smoke. Visitors should also be on the lookout for a missing portrait. Charles Jr. had a falling out with his sister, Rosamond, and removed her picture from the wall. Visitors are able to see the original coloration of the wallpaper outlined by the previous portrait.

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On this floor is also the bathroom that was installed in 1902. This bathroom is very basic and before hot water, servants had to carry water up and down the stairs. This home has a lot of stairs so I can’t imagine would it would be like hauling buckets of hot water up several flights.

The tour ends with visitors experiencing the ground floor where the servants worked. The stove is from the 1880s and the laundry room is…well…antique. I can’t imagine how Mr. Gibson’s servants were still doing his laundry in the 1950s as the facilities are basic at best. For fans of “Downton Abbey”, the servant bells are lined across the wall in the kitchen and I felt a little like being in a movie set.

Admission to the Gibson House Museum is $9.00 and tours leave promptly on the hours of one, two and three. Photos are allowed inside, but only without a flash (which is difficult with the dark Victorian interior). I stumbled onto this house a few years ago and have visited several times since. It’s a step into the Victorian era in the middle of a very busy neighborhood. I love this house and learn something new every time I explore this museum.

Gibson House Museum
137 Beacon Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02116
Phone: (617)267-6338

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A Tasty Touch of Elegance in Copenhagen

Welcome to Torvehallerne

Welcome to Torvehallerne

Eating out in Denmark (and Scandinavia in general) is expensive and when I am traveling, I like to eat where the locals eat. As a rule, Copenhagen can be pricey but a local food market, Torvehallerne KBH, is a find. Torvehallerne translates to market hall and this market is located in central Copenhagen, near the Norreport metro station.

Torvehallerne is filled with roughly sixty stalls offering a variety of choices including produce, cheeses, breads, meats, fish, sandwiches, pastries and tapas. I loved this market and went every day that I was in Copenhagen. Torvehallerne is split between two glass buildings, with picnic tables outside and stools (as well as a few tables) at many stalls. I often travel solo and it can be awkward eating alone—particularly at dinner. At Torvenhallerne, pull up a stool and join the crowds of locals and tourists enjoying great food at reasonable prices. The conversation is good, the stalls are welcoming and the atmosphere is relaxed. There are many, many choices, but a few of my favorites are listed below.

Cheeses at the market

Cheeses at the market

Produce for sale

Produce for sale

Meats for sale

Meats for sale

The Coffee Collective

Coffee in Denmark is expensive, running around six dollars per cup, so a good cup of coffee is a special treat. The Coffee Collective offers seriously good coffee with friendly baristas. This coffee shop takes its coffee seriously and I was asked how many shots (one or two?) that I wanted in my caffe latte. My coffee came out with a heart. Everyone I talked to in Copenhagen recommended the Coffee Collective and it is clear their staff truly care about the final product. On one visit, I ordered hot chocolate and was told that I was missing out if I didn’t try the coffee too. This café signifies coffee with a heart. The lines at no matter what time of day tell the story.

The Coffee Collective--coffee at its best

The Coffee Collective–coffee at its best

Hallernes Smorrebrod

Smorrebrod is a traditional Danish open sandwich and Hallernes offers several options. Sandwiches vary from shrimp, salmon or shrimp and eggs to roast beef. Stools are at the stall and a fresh bouquet at the counter adds a touch of home for diners. I happened on Hallernes on a clear day and took my salmon sandwich outside to enjoy at one of the numerous picnic tables. These sandwiches are seriously good.

Smorrebrod

Smorrebrod

Bottega della Pasta

I am a huge fan of pasta and as a little girl, my mother would cook me a bowl of boiled macaroni to keep me happy. Bottega della Pasta offers a lunch special of a daily pasta plate along with a glass of house wine for 150 krone (or roughly twenty-five dollars). Serving sizes are huge and two people could almost eat this. The staff are friendly and sitting at my stool, I could see a large pot of tomato sauce being made. I felt almost transported to Italy. The pasta is homemade and the cheese is fresh. Adding to the atmosphere, I happened to stop by on a day when the staff were playing great reggae. Sitting at my stool enjoying the delicious pasta, I felt a part of Copenhagen as I joined the other diners in tapping my feet to the music.

Shoppers walking through the market

Shoppers walking through the market

Café Dora

I love sweets and for anyone who likes pastries, Café Dora is a must. My personal favorites were both the raspberry tarts and apple tarts, but options change daily. Pull a stool up to the stall and watch fresh chocolate being melted in a pan or fresh cream being whipped. I felt like a kid again wanting to lick the bowl when my mom was baking. Café Dora makes the experience of dining on their baked goods special. I pulled up a stool in the corner to enjoy my coffee and tart, and a candle was lit at my plate. Cows decorate the stall and I had to laugh when one of the bakers said “we love the cows”. The pastries at Café Dora are a delight. Both locals and tourists alike were giving each other a “thumbs up” while salivating over the baked goods.

Cafe Dora--Notice the tasty baked goods at the counter

Cafe Dora–Notice the tasty baked goods at the counter

Torvehallerne is a special experience for anyone visiting Copenhagen. With stall after stall of pretty much anything imaginable, this market is a tasty escape for tourists in Denmark. Torvehallerne is a touch of elegance with delicious foodie options in the heart of Copenhagen.

Bikes parked outside Torvehallerne

Bikes parked outside Torvehallerne

Torvehallerne KBH
Frederiksborggade 21
Copenhagen 1360

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The Buck Stops in Independence, Missouri

Truman Home

Truman Home

The town of Independence, Missouri immediately conjures images of former President Harry S. Truman. On a quiet, residential street, visitors can experience the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site including a visit to the Truman home.

Harry Truman was an accidental president, who never wanted the job and referred to the White House as “the great white jail”. Truman’s political career began as a judge, progressing to a U.S. senator and then vice president to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944. When Roosevelt died in 1945, Truman became president in the midst of World War II. Known for both his humility and decisiveness, Truman inherited a host of problems as president including the Manhattan Project (atomic bomb), involvement in a World War and later the start of the Cold War and the Korean War. Truman, himself, worried that he might not be up to the job of president. Even as vice president, Truman had little interaction with President Roosevelt and was initially unaware of the Manhattan Project on becoming president.

Visitor center in downtown Independence

Visitor center in downtown Independence

Truman’s home in Independence was built in 1867 and originally belonged to his mother-in-law, Madge Wallace. A visit to the house, which is managed by the National Park Service, is a must and tells a lot about Harry Truman the man. Truman was devoted to his wife Bess, and their love story began in 1910. Truman’s cousins, Nellie and Ethel Noland, lived across the street from the Wallace home. Truman happened to be returning a borrowed cake plate to the Wallace house when Bess opened the door. Their courtship lasted nine years and Truman tried everything to woo Bess, including taking her fishing. The Noland House is now part of the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site and includes a free museum with interesting photos and quotes about Truman’s courtship of Bess. Family meant everything to this president and some of the Noland House exhibits on the 1,200 letters he wrote to Bess between 1911 and 1959 are touching and I found myself getting emotional. I had to laugh that one display includes information that in 1955, Truman found his wife burning some of the letters. Truman immediately exclaimed “Think of the history” whereupon Bess countered “I have”.

History of the house

History of the house

Noland House Museum

Noland House Museum

Tickets to the Truman house are $5.00 and can be bought at the visitor center located at Main Street at Truman Road, a few blocks from the house. Tickets are first-come, first-serve, and tour groups are small, restricted to eight persons each. I found this group size perfect for seeing the house as everyone can ask questions. Starting at the visitor center, tourists can view a film, “At Home with Harry and Bess”, which gives insight into Truman’s great love of both Bess and Independence. The visitor center also includes some of Truman’s many ties. I didn’t realize that Truman was a fan of brightly colored or patterned neckties (and yes, some were pretty awful), often to just get a response from either his wife or daughter, Margaret.

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Our tour was guided by Ranger James who was clearly enthusiastic about his subject. The tour starts in the garden and heads through the screened back porch, which the Trumans loved for privacy. The garage is open with Harry Truman’s last car, a Chrysler Newport, on display–a vehicle he enjoyed driving around Independence.

The tour stays on the first floor and includes a kitchen which isn’t what I would have expected from a former president. The cabinets are green and Truman liked the wallpaper so much, he even wall-papered the ceiling. My personal favorite room was the library, with the bookshelves designed by Truman himself. Truman was an avid reader, and it is believed he had read all the books in the Independence Library. Our tour included information that Truman read five newspapers daily, as he never trusted the opinion of any one newspaper.

Stories about life in the house are fascinating and sadly, Truman spent much of his life never getting his mother-in-law’s acceptance. I was stunned to hear that his mother-in-law never voted for him. The dining room makes it clear of how little Madge Wallace felt about Truman’s accomplishments as some presidential china was allowed to be displayed, but only on the bottom shelf of the china cabinet.

A painting in the parlor of Bess Truman was from the White House. The Truman family liked this portrait and when the White House found the painting was missing, Mrs. Truman refused to give it back. The artist had to come to Independence to make two copies.

Music was a strong part of the Truman family. I enjoyed hearing the story that Margaret Truman was given a grand piano for her 9th birthday (which is on display in the parlor). Her reaction was disappointment, as she wanted an electric train set.

Readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of the National Park Service and the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site is well managed. The 30 minute house tour, as well as a visit to the Noland Museum and the visitor center should be on any tourist agenda.

Truman was a man who was humble and relied heavily on the love of his wife and daughter. His decisiveness was well-known and the phrase “The Buck Stops Here” was popularized by Truman. An accidental president who worried whether he was up to the task, he is now considered by historians to be on the various lists of the top ten United States presidents.

Humility, decisiveness and a great love story. For visitors to the Kansas City area, be sure to stop in Independence for a remarkable hands-on history lesson.

Harry S. Truman National Historic Site
223 North Main Street
Independence, Missouri 64050
Phone: (816)254-9929

Home located at:
219 N. Delaware Avenue in Independence

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Mingling with Musk Ox in Palmer, Alaska

Welcome to the Musk Ox Farm

Welcome to the Musk Ox Farm

I happen to be in Alaska fairly regularly for my job and was lucky enough to visit this year in the summer. For visitors to the Anchorage area, a special experience with wildlife up close is a trip to the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer. The musk ox can be hand fed (I enjoyed feeding some calves fireweed but carrots and dandelions are also popular) and petted. Visitors to the farm will also learn how these animals help locals. In 1964, the Musk Ox Project was founded to help Alaskan natives in remote villages earn a living. These villages often can only be accessed by bush plane or boat and earning a living is very hard. Prices in these villages are high as most things need to be brought in. Even a gallon of milk runs $10 to $11 per gallon! Jobs, unfortunately, are few.

Scenery just outside the farm

Scenery just outside the farm

The Musk Ox Farm is a non-profit organization who help “harvest” qiviut from musk ox, which is the extremely warm under-wool found on musk ox to protect these animals during the winter. This wool is shed naturally in the spring and the farm uses afro-picks to shed this wool. This richly textured product is sent to remote villages where locals knit the qiviut into hats and scarves. In downtown Anchorage, across the street from the Marriott, visitors will see a brown house called Oomingmak, which is the native knitting cooperative that knits products from the herd in Palmer. Oomingmak is a traditional word for musk ox which translates to “the bearded one”. The knitting cooperatives are a vital economic way to survive in some Alaskan villages. While qiviut products are expensive, the work is intricate, artistic and beautiful. We were told that roughly 3,000 to 4,000 scarves are knitted yearly.

Oomingmak in downtown Anchorage

Oomingmak in downtown Anchorage

Herd of musk ox

Herd of musk ox

Wild musk ox live in remote areas of the world including northern Canada, Siberia, Greenland and northern Scandinavia. In Alaska, most of the musk ox had disappeared in the 1800s (unfortunately, these majestic animals made an easy hunting target). In 1934, 34 musk ox were imported from Greenland to reintroduce this animal to Arctic areas of Alaska. Today’s Alaskan herds live across northern and western Alaska and I have even been fortunate to see a wild herd from the air north of the Arctic Circle. The farm in Palmer currently has 84 animals which live on 77 acres. Wolves and bears are the main predators of these animals (I have heard of orphaned calves being rescued from the Alaskan North Slope after bear attacks on the herd). Musk ox form a defensive line to protect weaker herd members.

Just outside the Musk Ox Farm

Just outside the Musk Ox Farm

Admission to the farm is $11.00 which is well worth the price and information includes a small museum. Donations can also be made to the hay fund as well as sponsoring an animal. I was surprised to hear that Alex Trebek of “Jeopardy!” is a big supporter of the musk ox. Be sure to wear boots, rain gear and watch where you step as this is a farm. Tours run roughly 45 minutes and guides are enthusiastic, providing detailed information on the animals. Breeding on the farm is done carefully and musk ox generally have one calf yearly. We were told that musk ox who have twins generally will have one calf that will not survive.

Inside the museum

Inside the museum

The staff at the farm obviously enjoy their herd and the nicknames of some of the animals are creative including “Lunchbox” (who definitely has a big appetite!), “Old Ferdinand” and “Little Man”. In the wild, musk ox generally live thirteen to fifteen years but on the farm, life expectancies are longer. “Old Ferdinand” is fifteen years old and “Little Man” is seventeen.

Hungry musk ox

Hungry musk ox

On the farm

On the farm

Unfortunately, the farm is only open during the summer but for visitors to Anchorage, the drive is less than an hour to Palmer. Wildlife abounds on the road to the farm and signs warn about moose on the road. I even saw one moose well off the road in a field grazing.

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Musk ox are unique animals and difficult to see up close. One of the draws of Alaska is the unusual wildlife found in few places in the world. For visitors to Alaska, the Musk Ox Farm is a memorable experience where guests can spend time seeing these incredible animals found only in the Arctic.

The Musk Ox Farm
12850 E Archie Road
Palmer, Alaska 99645
Phone: (907)745-4151

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Roadside Art in North Dakota

"Grasshoppers in the Field"

“Grasshoppers in the Field”

I wasn’t expecting this. Near Exit 72 on Interstate 94 near Dickinson, North Dakota, drivers will see metal signs asking visitors to “Hop, Hop, Hop to the Enchanted Highway”. Starting with a sculpture, “Geese in Flight” on the interstate, visitors on the Enchanted Highway will see several folk art sculptures on this thirty-two mile stretch of highway, which are some of the largest metal sculptures in the world.

"Geese in Flight" along Interstate 94

“Geese in Flight” along Interstate 94

The Enchanted Highway leads to the small farming community of Regent, a tiny town struggling to survive with the tough cycles of the farming industry. Local resident Gary Greff, a self-taught artist and former teacher and principal, wanted to be sure that Regent endures. His whimsical sculptures are a draw to tourists to the town, who delight in the themes including deer, Teddy Roosevelt, fishing, pheasants, grasshoppers and a family. All sculptures are placed a few miles apart and all have both a place to park and a picnic table to enjoy the folk art and surrounding landscape. I was interested to hear that the artist was self-taught as apparently many schools in North Dakota do not offer art. Art is often only offered at the college level.

"Teddy Rides Again"

“Teddy Rides Again”

All of the sculptures are made from recycled metals, farm equipment and even piping and tanks. The work is creative and made me excited to drive to each viewing point.

"Deer Crossing"

“Deer Crossing”

My personal favorites were the “Fisherman’s Dream” (I felt like I was in the ocean even though I was on the prairie) comprised of a boat and several fish, as well as “Pheasants on the Prairie”. The rooster of the group is enormous, measuring roughly 40 feet high and 70 feet long.

"Fisherman's Dream"

“Fisherman’s Dream”

"Pheasants on the Prairie"

“Pheasants on the Prairie”

The Enchanted Highway passes through the small towns of Gladstone and Lefor. Drivers will see prairie, buttes (be on the lookout for Black Butte at over 3,100 feet high) and depending on the season, fields of hay and sunflowers. Sunflowers are a big cash crop in North Dakota (40 percent of U.S. sunflower products come from North Dakota) and the fields at sunset during harvest season are spectacular. Be sure to have insecticide on hand, though, as bugs may be plentiful in the fields when stopping at each sculpture.

Fields of sunflowers at sunset

Fields of sunflowers at sunset

The artist’s idea to attract tourists is innovative as the farming industry is hard. My grandparents were farmers and it’s tough to be at the mercy of droughts, blizzards or flooding. Sadly, drivers along the Enchanted Highway will see remnants of farms and houses that didn’t make it. These remains offer a hint at how difficult farming can be—especially with North Dakota’s severe winters.

"Tin Family"

“Tin Family”


The Enchanted Highway ends in Regent which includes gift shops, public restrooms and a lodge, the Enchanted Castle Hotel, designed and owned by Mr. Greff.

On the vast prairie near Dickinson, special surprises await explorers willing to exit the interstate to experience the Enchanted Highway. With a vast range of themes, visitors will smile at the ingenuity and the talent displayed in this magical folk art positioned throughout an enticing landscape.

The town of Regent, ND

The town of Regent, ND

Enchanted Highway
Exit 72 off Interstate 94 in North Dakota
Highway ends in Regent, North Dakota 58650

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A Secret Garden in Chicago

A view from Lurie Garden of some of Chicago's skyline

A view from Lurie Garden of some of Chicago’s skyline

Chicago’s Millennium Park is a huge draw for tourists. With sights like the public sculpture Cloud Gate, (affectionately known as “The Bean”), free classical concerts in the summer at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and a view of Chicago’s magnificent skyline, Millennium Park can be packed with visitors.

Cloud Gate in Millennium Park

Cloud Gate in Millennium Park

I am a fan of hidden gardens and for tourists visiting Millennium Park, a quiet secret garden, the Lurie Garden, surprises visitors with its fields of hedges and flowers.

Discretely hidden behind tall hedges next to the Pavilion’s Great Lawn, visitors almost stumble upon the garden by accident. I actually had to stop at the park welcome center for help with directions.

Tall hedges hiding Lurie Garden

Tall hedges hiding Lurie Garden

The garden almost seems like a field of wildflowers, similar to what might be seen on the prairie. I almost forgot where I was as the plants and flowers are positioned to seem distant from the nearby skyscrapers and the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s a colorful wild field in an urban setting that actually seems far away. Interestingly, this area of Chicago used to be a swamp that had to be filled in, as anything east of Michigan Avenue used to be a swamp.

The garden’s plants were designed by Piet Oudolf who used a mix of native and non-native plants. The layout is set in plates including a light plate and a dark plate with a seam at an angle. I happened to visit in July when the garden was still catching up from Chicago’s especially severe winter this year.

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Colors are spectacular and some of the flowers are designed to attract butterflies. I was told the garden is most vibrant in July and August and that most of the blooming occurs between May and September. During the winter, the Lurie Garden is dormant.

Beautiful colors

Beautiful colors

I loved the fields of coneflowers, small petunias, lilies, wild indigo and ornamental onions. The colors are subtle and I felt like a child running through an open field, completely forgetting I was in the heart of a major city.

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The Lurie Garden offers free informative twenty-minute tours during lunch on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. Tours meet in Millennium Park at a white tent just off Monroe Street.

The tour provides guests with an idea of what is in bloom during their visit as well as an idea of how the garden is laid out. A special surprise is also revealed in the walk as I was shocked to learn that the garden is built over parking garages and a commuter railroad. I had no idea what I was standing over and was told that this garden is the second largest roof garden in the world! For extra added views of the Lurie Garden, climb the Nichols Bridgeway where visitors can view the layout from above.

Like the children’s book “The Secret Garden”, the Lurie Garden feels like a special gift that few people know about. In a park packed with people, the Lurie Garden is a peaceful escape where visitors can imagine vibrant open fields and even chase butterflies.

Another skyline view

Another skyline view

Lurie Garden
Millennium Park
Chicago, Illinois
Phone: (312)228-1004

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A Church in Suomenlinna, Finland

Suomenlinna Church

Suomenlinna Church

Fifteen minutes by ferry from Helsinki’s Market Square and a world away lies the sea fortress of Suomenlinna. The islands comprising this fortress are home to roughly 850 residents who mingle with the daily tourists arriving from Helsinki.

Suomenlinna is comprised of restaurants, a visitors center, a brewery, museums (don’t miss the Vesikko WWII Submarine Museum), a grocery store and walking trails throughout the islands. A visit to Suomenlinna gives tourists a taste of Finland in another age, when Finland was under Russian rule.

Vesikko World War II submarine.  The quarters inside must have been cramped for the crew.

Vesikko World War II submarine. The quarters inside must have been cramped for the crew.

Near the visitors center, tourists will see a group of old houses with some built in the 18th century which were part of the previous Russian trading block. These houses were built by traders to help support the Russian garrison. I instinctively knew these buildings were Russian versus Finnish as the construction reminded me a lot of the houses in the film “Doctor Zhivago”.

Part of the Russian trading block including Café Vanille.

Part of the Russian trading block including Café Vanille.

Across the road from the former Russian trading block is the Suomenlinna Church, which was one of my favorite places on the islands. This church was originally built under the Russian regime of Czar Nikolay I as an Orthodox military church and was completed in 1854. A photo immediately inside the church shows what Suomenlinna Church looked like under Russian rule.

Organ inside the church

Organ inside the church

In 1918, during the Finnish Civil War, the Russian fortress was annexed by Finland and renamed Suomenlinna. The church became a Lutheran church and was altered in 1928 to look more Lutheran. My favorite part of the church is the gaslight lighthouse on top which was installed in the 1960s and is still in use today for air and marine traffic.

Grounds around the church

Grounds around the church

Inside the church is a simple, but elegant, interior and the church congregation is still active. Services are conducted in Finnish and visitors may want to check times to experience a bright interior with minimalist décor. The lighting is well designed and functional, while lit candles throughout the church add to the beauty. Also be on the lookout for several monuments to soldiers including during the Winter War (1939-40) and the Continuation War (1941-44). Outside the church is a bell that was cast in Moscow in 1885, which is the largest church bell in Finland.

The largest church bell in Finland

The largest church bell in Finland


Inside Suomenlinna Church with bright lighting

Inside Suomenlinna Church with bright lighting

On leaving the church, I recommend at stop at Café Vanille in the Russian trading block. I loved the rustic atmosphere of this café as the inside reminds me of what a café would have looked like decades ago. Daily specials might include sausage or sweet potato soups, and for those hardier types who like sitting outside in cold weather, outdoor chairs include warm blankets. I opted for coffee and a blueberry tart for around eight euros. A word of caution to visitors is to look out for hungry seagulls. I was inside the café waiting for my coffee, with my tart sitting outside. Suddenly, I saw another diner run toward my table waving her arms, as a seagull had suddenly dived into my tart!

Inside Café Vanille

Inside Café Vanille


Tables on the porch of Café Vanille.  Notice the blankets for colder weather.

Tables on the porch of Café Vanille. Notice the blankets for colder weather.

For visitors to Suomenlinna, I would recommend waterproof shoes with good support, as the cobblestone trails can be tough. A jacket is also recommended even in the summer as temperatures can change quickly with the winds.

Suomenlinna is an active community set within islands filled with history. I would recommend allocating a lot of time to explore the entire sea fortress, making sure to spend time visiting Suomenlinna Church, one of the islands’ hidden surprises. Suomenlinna is Finland at its best.

A view from Suomenlinna facing Helsinki

A view from Suomenlinna facing Helsinki

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In Prison in Helsinki, Finland

Hotel Katajanokka

Hotel Katajanokka

No, it’s not what you are thinking.

I usually do not write about hotels in this blog but sometimes a hotel, itself, is a special tourist attraction worth a post.

In Helsinki, in the shadows of the Uspenski Cathedral, the Best Western Premier Hotel Katajanokka, is a renovated prison. The oldest part of the jail dates from 1837 with newer parts of the prison dating to 1888. The prison was in use until 2002 and over the years has housed prisoners including political inmates (many of the leaders of Finland following World War II served time here) as well as acting as a temporary jail for prisoners awaiting trial.

In the shadows of Uspenski Cathedral

In the shadows of Uspenski Cathedral

Welcome to Hotel Katajanokka

Welcome to Hotel Katajanokka

The current hotel, which opened in 2007 with 106 rooms, includes the original prison walls as well as narrow halls and black iron stairs. On the ground floor, the Jailbird Restaurant includes an isolation cell (what I would call solitary confinement) as well as a group cell that was in use in the 1800s. Stepping inside either of these cells is both creepy and claustrophobic.

Isolation cell

Isolation cell

Prison walls around the hotel

Prison walls around the hotel

From the moment visitors arrive, staff members are dressed in black and white prison stripes, greeting visitors with the question “First time in?” Jail-themed gifts are available including prison uniforms, hats, handcuffs and chess pieces.

The neighborhood is residential, located just off the number four tramline and close to the city center. Rooms are comfortable and with the thick prison walls, extremely quiet. I slept very well during my stay and enjoyed hearing the sea gulls and boats on the nearby water.

Bedroom

Bedroom

Bathroom

Bathroom

The hotel’s open hallways and corridors give guests an idea of what life was like when the prison was operational including photos scattered throughout the floors of previous prison life. Some of the black and white photos are sad.

Open hallways

Open hallways

Photos of prison life

Photos of prison life

Downstairs in the Jailbird Restaurant is both a pub and restaurant. The restaurant carries on the jail theme with lit candles, tin cups and tin plates. A breakfast buffet is included in the hotel rate, while dinners are tasty, including soups, pasta, fish, lamb, and chicken. Also located on the ground floor is a gym, a sauna for rent (don’t miss out on this!), as well as a colorful playroom for children.

The hotel even includes a separate chapel as weddings are held here.

Being a residential neighborhood, for guests looking for sandwiches or snacks during the day, five minutes away following the tramline toward the Uspenski Cathedral, is a local supermarket, the K Market, which is open daily with lots of food options. Helsinki’s Market Square is also no more than a ten minute walk from the hotel with lots of treats. Be sure to go early and look for the stalls of berries for sale. I have never tasted juicy strawberries or blueberries like the kind I tried in Finland. On one day, I didn’t even realize I was walking about Helsinki with a face covered in blueberry juice!

Amazing fruit in Market Square

Amazing fruit in Market Square

Hotel Katajanokka is a find in a quiet part of Helsinki. Finnish design is world-renowned and the work done changing the previous prison into a hotel is fascinating. Rooms are relaxing (I felt like a part of the neighborhood) and staff go out of their way to make guests’ stays enjoyable.

A prison-themed hotel is historical, creative and unusual. I wasn’t sure what to expect initially but am glad I visited. Hotel Katajanokka is a must for anyone staying in Helsinki.

Best Western Premier Hotel Katajanokka
Merikasarminkatu 1a
Helsinki 00160, Finland
Phone: 358 9 686450

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