Alcatraz and Traveler Opinions

I like and use TripAdvisor (tripadvisor.com), the web site that collects advice from travelers about places to go, things to do, where to eat. I have found it useful and a generally reliable resource for developing travel plans, and dreaming of new adventures. A recent TripAdvisor post caught my eye because, of course, I wondered how I was doing in accomplishing what “Travelers Say These Are The 10 Best World Landmarks To See Before You Die (And Here’s How).” The “Travelers’ Choice award winners this year includes historical sites, scenic attractions, and breathtaking examples of architectural innovation in destinations far and wide.”

I haven’t seen them all, but those I have would make my “best” list too … except for one: Alcatraz. Alcatraz, along with the Golden Gate Bridge, are the two landmarks which represent the United States on this list. I get that they may be unique, and the bridge is certainly an iconic symbol of San Francisco. But Alcatraz? I can’t say it’s an example of anything I’m particularly proud of about our country. It’s a 22 acre rock, with ruins of a former federal penitentiary. It also has a lighthouse and lots of birds, but I don’t think tours would be filled with enthusiasts if stories of criminals weren’t part of the experience. I really don’t understand the appeal. I agree it’s an historical site, and taking the ferry around San Francisco Bay is very scenic, but compared to other options on the “best list”… the Taj Mahal in India … St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome … the Parliament building in Budapest? I have no trouble choosing. And wouldn’t you think travelers would find the Grand Canyon or the giant Sequoias or the Lincoln Memorial more noteworthy sights in America than Alcatraz? 

(I did find the locks looking through the fence toward Alcatraz of some appeal as a tourist photo op).

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By the Bay

We had been to the San Francisco Bay area before and always loved it, but perhaps never for so many good reasons as this trip offered: we attended a wonderful wedding in Sonoma at a gorgeous location, dined with long time friends, visited family, and celebrated our anniversary. The weather also favored us far beyond expectation.

We chose to stay in Tiburon, in the delightful Water’s Edge Hotel, just steps from the ferry-boat landing, and once settled in we didn’t use our car again. Taking the ferry from Tiburon to Fisherman’s Wharf offered a completely new perspective on the city, its famous bridges, and Alcatraz. But the best location for immersion and pleasure was sitting on the hotel deck at dusk for cocktails, and for morning coffee. San Francisco was visible across the bay, and the sinking sun brought a shimmer to the view. Darn close to heaven.

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Iceplant

Considered to be a coastal invader which can choke out other native plants and alter the soil, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife suggests not planting the species, and removing it whenever possible. A drive along the Sonoma County coast last weekend, in hazy morning light, made that reasonable explanation and request very difficult to support.  

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Meow Wolf

Did I really want to see another, new (2016) art installation in Santa Fe, NM, a town of more wonderful galleries and public art works than one is able to count? After a week there, with several hours to spare before my plane departed, I debated the issue and gave in to reviews and temptation. 

As its name implies, Meow Wolf isn’t a traditional experience. Developed by a collective of artists and described as “Unique & immersive art installations with multimedia elements & a mysterious narrative throughout”, it is housed in a strip mall looking setting a few miles from Santa Fe Plaza. And that’s about as far as it is really possible to describe. 

I asked a docent where the name came from, and he said the story goes there were two hats filled with suggestions, and a word was drawn from each. It doesn’t take long to believe that makes sense. Once you enter into a very traditional looking house to begin the adventure, you can choose to enter the experience through doorways, stairwells, catwalks, or perhaps by crawling through the fireplace, or walking into a perfectly normal looking refrigerator. There are friendly creatures to meet along the way, and whether gazing up, down, through, or sitting still to watch a light show, I bet you’ll be smiling.

These few photos really give very little of the experience away; I hope you’ll give into temptation too.

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Perfect

That’s a pretty high standard to set, but our 15 days in Switzerland met all my criteria for perfect. For a country without access to the sea (my usual preference), its rivers and lakes create gorgeous settings for cities and villages, and if you love mountains, it takes your breath away, figuratively and literally. It’s pristine, charming and dramatic, the trains are wonderful, and what’s not to love about cheese, chocolate, and their own chilled white wine with crepes. We visited wonderful old towns and sophisticated cities, ski resorts, the lake district and alpine meadows, rode in an open air gondola, a cog-wheel train and the Glacier Express, took boat rides and walked deep inside a glacier. It was difficult to choose one photo per visit day, but I settled for these, plus one picture from our side trip to the lovely French village of Annecy, near Geneva. 

I read recently that the Dali Lama believes we should live our lives on earth as tourists, with compassion for one another and deep respect for the environment we share. Switzerland seems to have a good understanding of that concept, and I loved being a tourist in their country. 

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Mexico on my Mind

Mexico has received some exceptionally bad reviews recently, with areas of the country now named by the U.S. State Department as places to avoid. I find that news disheartening, not that I don’t believe the reports, but because danger hasn’t been part of any sense I’ve engaged in country. I have loved what I’ve seen of Mexico, and my impressions have been heightened and sharpened by every visit. If you appreciate color, culture, pageantry, the aromas of food and flowers, and mornings begun with church bells and roosters, I encourage you to find a Mexican destination, and immerse yourself in it. You might find you love it too.

Lent, a Hare, and Good Stories

We are in the season some call Lent, which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “the 40 weekdays from Ash Wednesday to Easter observed by the Roman Catholic, Eastern, and some Protestant churches as a period of penitence and fasting”. As a child, I gave up chocolate as a way to pretend I was being pentinent (which wasn’t very difficult since chocolate wasn’t a staple around the house). I hadn’t a clue what pentinent meant, or what Lent was supposed to represent; I just knew that the weeks before Easter were dreary, and the Easter Bunny would soon bring relief.

So how and when did a rabbit become a symbol of Easter, carrying a basket of eggs, when a rabbit doesn’t even lay eggs? According to German Lutheran tradition from the 1600s, the Easter hare was a kind of Santa Claus who dispensed eggs to children who had been good. Rabbits were certainly active in the spring and their talents did not go unnoticed among signs of seasonal awakening. Wikipedia also explains that Orthodox churches had a custom of abstaining from eating eggs during Lent, boiling them to preserve for the end of the fast. Perhaps this is the source of their appearance in Easter baskets, but it still requires a lot of imagination to connect eggs to a hare. We adopted these symbols after Europeans left their homelands in the 1800s, bringing their traditions to America with them.

Enjoying the arrival of spring is a universal pleasure, and there’s nothing wrong with a good story to support festivities. My preference, however, is for the much older story that celebrates renewed life following a period of darkness and distance, after a Lent observed as a remembrance of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. I hope that story of rebirth and resurrection is still being shared with children, and isn’t entirely lost in commercialism and chocolate and cuteness. It has a great deal more staying power, and its source continues to send endless means through which to see the world with refreshed vision. I found renewal at the Arboretum this week, where the message was loud and clear. Hope Springs Eternal. And it is stunningly beautiful.