Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Inside Florida: Spirited DeLand

De Land has risen from its "Deadland" reputation.

This town of 30,000 (34,000 when Stetson University's students are in residence) has largely been by-passed since I-95 and I-4 made reaching Orlando and points south easier and faster to reach.

What has been happening in our absence is a remarkable success story. During a recent visit I discovered a DeLand that has
• the oldest downtown association in the state
• a walkable downtown filled with interesting architecture
• three state parks
• 50 events a year downtown from a Mardi Gras dog parade to an ice cream walk with a unique flavor created for each merchant to serve to strollers
• a Halloween party that attracts 4,000 downtown
When artist Erica Group painted a blank wall visitors and locals loved photographing themselves with it, inspiring the Wings project.
• art projects galore: painted wraps on utility boxes, a sculpture walk sparked by Museum of Art DeLand  and a wings project to come.
Faces of current residents stand in for the first snowbirds to vacation in DeLand based on an 1890s photograph.
• An intriguing history merging Henry DeLand, John B. Stetson, Thomas Edison and Chinese immigrant Lue Gim Gong, preserved by the West Volusia Historical Society and depicted by eight regional artists in a 15-stop Historic Mural Walk
• a growing variety or restaurants downtown with cuisines from three continents (Thai, Latin Fusion, Italian, American). Breweries, bakeries, candy, doughnut, coffee and wine shops, too.

Even the alleys are interesting.

A sense of humor also pokes out.

DeLand has a number of firsts to claim. It had one of the first electrified house in the country, the first power plant in Florida, the first electric light power and ice company in the state, the oldest continuously operating printing company in the state.

it also lays claim to the Skydiving Capital of the World. Here is where the tandem skydive was conceived and developed as well as the Accelerated Freefall Program that teaches beginners to be skydivers at Skydive DeLand.

Across the street is the Naval Air Station Museum. Founded in 1995 on the site of the WWII DeLand Naval Air Station and dedicated to the sacrifices and valor of the men and women who worked there, it honors all veterans.

Restoration in progress of a Vietnam era medical helicopter.
Developed and run  by volunteers, it includes everything from a pilot's license signed by Orville Wright to restored and being restored planes, a Vietnam era PT boat and a Korean era jeep. Even a wedding photograph of Al Capone's nephew, the white sheep of the family. Everything comes with a fascinating story that dedicated volunteers are eager to tell.


In a very short time visitors realize there is a spirit of community here. Newcomers have become part of the town. Young entrepreneurs are welcomed by customers open to new ideas. It's not a can-do attitude, rather a we-are-doing-it pride.

Swimming area at De Leon State Park
About those state parks. I visited two. De Leon Springs State Park, six miles away, features a large, spring-fed "swimming hole," rental canoes, kayaks and pedalboats, a boat ramp and dock.
However, even those immune to the pleasures of nature will like the  Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House. You and your group make and customize your own pancakes Early American style with unbleached flour or the house's five stone-ground flours. Order any toppings you want and in no time pitchers of batter, bowls of fruit and syrups arrive. Wait staff ready the griddle that runs the length of the table and you are cookin'. It's fun so arrive early; everyone else thinks so, too.

The Blue Spring  of Blue Spring State Park.
Six miles in the other direction from DeLand is Orange City and Blue Spring State Park.  This is a favorite of manatees and their fans. According to Park Services Specialist Darrell Thomas, the lovable mammals broke records for attendance last year when 488 gathered here for the winter. During peak time you can check for yourself on the manatv.org. A boardwalk makes it easy to get to the spring.
We spotted one stay-at-home manatee.
Both parks are extremely popular and often hit their maximum capacity, so plan to arrive early in the day.

Adult barred owl.
Want to let someone else handle the water craft?  The best river tour I've ever taken was with St. Johns River Eco Tour. Based at Highbanks Marina in DeBary, 12 miles from DeLand, the tours take in the St. Johns, its flora and fauna. Owner Doug Little and captain W.E. Dooley helmed the Naiad. Among a host of other things, we learned three rivers and 300 springs feed the river and that at one time 150 steamboats a month were taking passengers and cargo up and down the river. That all alligators can jump the length of their tails.
Juvenile barred owl isn't sure what to do with his fish.
In addition to gators we saw egrets, anhingas, limpkins, purple gallinules, a red shouldered hawk, a swallowtail kite, a female osprey on her nest, red bellied cooters, a pair of barred owls and their offspring.

I barely touched the surface of what there is to see and do in West Volusia County and look forward to returning soon, After all, what's not to like about DeLand?


Scoop up Scallops and a Deal

Scalloping season runs from July to Sept. 24 this year and the Plantation on Crystal River is offering guided and unguided tours along with accommodations. 

The guided package starts at $695 for mid-week stays for two. Included:

• Two-nights stay in garden or water view deluxe room

• Guided scalloping tour with masks, snorkels and fins

• Souvenir bag filled with mesh scalloping bag, scallop recipes and water

• Chef-prepared cook-your-catch  from the day's harvest of scallops or fish from lunch or dinner, served with two sides

• Breakfast daily 

The unguided package begins at $350.

If you choose not to take advantage of a package, you can still have your scallops cooked. For $14.95 the chef at West 82° Bar & Grill will prepare shucked scallops during lunch or dinner in scampi, au gratin, sauteed or Chef's choice and provide two sides.

For details, plantationcrystalriver.com or 800-632-6262.

Golftoberfest?

 That is what they are calling Golf Advisor Getaway, a buddy trip at Reynolds Lake Oconee in Greensboro, GA, midway between Atlanta and Athens. Oct. 21-24 are the dates when golf buddy foursomes can join travel guru Matt Ginella of Golf Channel for an immersion into luxury golf and sporting lifestyle.

 Each participant receives three rounds of golf, private group dinner parties, daily breakfast and lunch, with optional experiences at the Reynolds Kingdom of Golf (club fitting, presentation by TaylorMade head of Research Design and Engineering) and the resort's new Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds with sporting clays, shooting stands and archery. That's in addition to access to lake activities, swimming, tennis and fitness facilities. 

Accommodations range from private rooms at the Ritz-Carlton Reynolds, to shared  four-bedroom National Club Cottage or three- or four-bedroom Lake Club condominium. 

 Registration is limited to 72. Prices are $2,649 with condo accommodations, $3,449, rooms at the Ritz-Carlton.

Contact www.golfadvisor.com/getaways/reynolds-lake-oconee.html











Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Riding through Shaanxi Province, the maternity ward of Chinese culture

Statue of Zheng Qian, credited with opening the Silk Road which began at Xi'an. Photo Photo © by Judy Wells.
The first dynasty, paper, the Silk Road, the Great Wall, its "alphabet," the width of its roads, its measurements, even the country's name all were born in what is now Shaanxi Province.
My name in standardized Chinese letters on paper.

The area bisects the country south to Sechuan Province, north to Outer Mongolia, like going chin to hips on a human torso.
Drum Tower, a familiar Xi'an landmark, Photo © by Judy Wells.
At its midsection is Xi'an, formerly Chang'an and home of the Terracotta Army ordered by that first emperor, Qin Shi Huang *(201-210 B.C.), for his tomb. It was the capital of China until the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 A.D.) moved the capital to Beijing.

The Terracotta Army alone is worth the trip and sadly, is all most tourists see.

Found in 1974 by villagers digging a well, eventually three separate pits of the warriors, horses, chariots and charioteers and archers have been uncovered.

The formally named Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum, the complex, about an hour beyond Xi'an, is understandably enormous.

With not a single figure intact, the task of reassembling what might be a force of up to 7,000 is daunting. Considering that the emperor's tomb has been located but not yet formally excavated, this will be a must-see for generations to come.

Not far from the warriors is the Lishan hot springs area, the Tang Dynasty's winter palace.
The production of "A Song of Endless Sorrow," based on a poem by Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi, the Barbara Cartland of his day, is a must-see. Set amid Huaqing Palace, it romanticizes the true story of an emperor who was so obsessed  with a courtesan that he ignored his duties, was attacked and forced to have his consort killed.

The result is a multi-media spectacular that uses lyrical music, dance, brilliant costumes, water, fire, Mt. Li and even the stars to create an unforgettable experience.

I would recommend at least an overnight stay to take in all this area offers.

There are many more reasons to prolong your stay in Xi'an and Shaanxi Province.

Going through the gate of Xi'an's city walls. Photo © by Judy Wells.
 Back in Xi'an, take a walk or bike ride on the city walls.





Begun during the Tang Dynasty and rebuilt of brick during the Ming, they now stand 40 feet high, 40-46 feet wide at the top, 50-60 feet wide at the bottom and stretch for 8.5 miles, surrounded by a moat and park.
















It is a great way to get an overview of the city Also to see brides and grooms posing for photographs attended by an entourage of hair and make-up stylists.


















Inside the walls on the site of a former Confucian temple is the Beilin Museum.

It holds the Xi'an Forest of Stone Tablets established during the Northern Sung Dynasty (1087), displaying nearly 4,000 pieces of calligraphy stelle and epitaphs from the Han dynasty on.

Daxia carved horse, circa 424. Photos © by Judy Wells.
Tang and Han  Dynasty stone sculptures unearthed from mausoleums throughout Shaanxi Province and religious sculpture are in the art room.

The exhibits may not be your cup of tea but they are evidence of the Chinese respect for language, philosophy, history and culture. The small complex is beautifully landscaped, a serene spot a wall away from the city of almost 9 million.

Go to the Muslim Quarter for food of all kinds....
Give yourself time to take in the bustling Muslim Quarter.

... and great people-watching. Photos © by Judy Wells.
Belyuanmen Street is a treasure trove of street food, calligraphy tools and eye-catching displays. In short, a feast for people watching and photographers.

Wild Goose Pagoda area by night...
At night the area around the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is a fairyland of lights, lanterns and a musical fountain show, definitely worth a stroll.

...and by day. Photos © by Judy Wells.
By day, you can climb the Buddhist tower from the Tang Dynasty or merely join the natives in admiring the setting and statuary.

I was unable to see it, but at the top of my list for next time is the Xi'an History Museum with its enviable collection of art.

The high-energy Northern Shaanxi Drum Dancers. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Whatever you do, if there is a performance of the Northern Shaanxi Drum Dancers or any other drum or parade group, go see it!

Prep you appetite for artistically presented dishes fit for an emperor.


















 






 Since 1936, Defachang has been known as the No. 1 dumpling banquet house.











More than 200 different kinds of dumplings - boiled, steamed, fried, sauteed, broiled and/or baked in a variety of shapes with a seemingly endless variety of fillings - are available.

We were treated beyond stuffed to perhaps 20. Do not miss!

Dishes special to Xi'an and Shaanxi include Pita break soaked in lamb soup,
marinated meat in a baked bun (China's hamburger), spicy fish, sweet and sour Yellow River carp,


















hand-grabbed lamb
and noodles - rice, wheat, buckwheat, cold, hot and in between, spicy, sweet or savory.

And always, wonderful fresh vegetables, corn on the cob (!) and every possible kind of marinated thinly-sliced vegetable.

When the fruit platter arrives, the meal is over.

Back to sightseeing.
There are many day tours to Mount Hua (Huashan), a target for hikers and climbers (cable cars do some of the work). 

Xi'an's huge train station is a hub for the country's excellent high speed rail system.
You will love fast bullet trains so smooth that a coin will stay balanced between stations. Try one for a day, overnight or longer side trip. My suggestions:

Yiangxian to visit the village of Longting Town, where you will find the simple  tomb
and small, colorful temple
to Cai Lun, inventor of paper as we know it today.

Adjacent is the Cailun Paper Culture Museum

where you can see the process he developed.


Hancheng is a delightful, tourist-welcoming city with an excellent hotel (Wenyuan Pavilion Hotel) and much to see in the area, including a fun early morning market and near the hotel, what we dubbed "Gourmet Street," a collection of restaurants and street food.

"Gourmet Street a\in Hangcheng. Photo © by Judy Wells.




The newly opened Langdai Village  Relics of the Rui Museum is a must-see.


In 2004 1,300 tombs were discovered there including seven large ones.
Jade pig dragon.

Jewelry for the Empress Zhong Jiang who collected the museum's prize, a 5,000-year-old jade pig dragon.


After five years of excavation and restoration, 26,000 relics - gold, jade, bronze, chariots, horses (not unlike those of the Terracotta Army) -

dating from 5,000-3,000 B.C. were collected for display in the striking, interactive museum.

Adjacent to it in the valley below is Langdai Village, a time capsule of old China inhabited by two clans since the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

Wandering its narrow streets and buildings is to slip into an ancient way of life. Try the clear noodles in chili sauce, a town specialty.

Xi'an has many excellent hotels but I found the staffs at the Wyndham Grand Xi'an Hotel, where I stayed, and the Gran Melia outstanding.

Disclosure: We paid our way to and from China but once there, we were hosted and our itinerary was set by the Shaanxi Provincial Tourism Department.