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Archive for June, 2013

            St. Augustine, FL is another city I like with lots to do.  It is the oldest occupied European settlement in the US.  In April of 1513 Ponce de Leon landed in the area looking for the Fountain of Youth.  Although it was claimed by the French, the city was eventually given to England.  In the 16th & 17th centuries, pirates sacked the city and due to its strategic coastal location forts were built around the area.
            This town was very quiet until the 1880’s when Henry Flagler began to develop the area as a winter playground for rich Easterners.  He built the Ponce de Leon hotel, which has now been turned into Flagler College.  There are 79 Tiffany stain glass windows and today you can tour the college to see what it looked like in the early days as a resort.
            Flagler was an interesting man.  First he built the railroad stretching from the North to St. Augustine.  His hotel was beautiful and many of the rich and famous stayed there in the winter but it never really caught on because the city is in northern Florida and the temperature wasn’t overly warm in the winter.  Eventually, Flagler built hotels and extended the railroad all the way down to Key West.
            If you like visiting churches the Cathedral-Basilica is right downtown facing the plaza.  It was originally built in the 1790’s but reconstructed after a fire in 1887.  Then there is the Old City to visit.  This is a pretty fun area with narrow streets filled with old homes, museums, stores and restaurants.   We had a winter tour to St. Augustine and I did several tours there so I was able to explore the Old City region.  There are the typical tourist places like several places to tour, the oldest school house, the oldest house, a wax museum, a pirate museum, the Old Jail complex, the original Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, a Lighthouse, and the list goes on and on.  And, of course, one must not forget the Fountain of Youth.
            Naturally I stopped there and it was kind of a neat place but trust me—the water doesn’t work.  Not only am I not younger but the water tasted like rotten eggs with a soda taste.  But if you visit, I’ll bet you will try a taste from the spring hoping that it might work!
            The best thing to do, which my company did, is to take the Old Town Trolley Tour.  It starts where the Old Jail is located (you can leave your car here) and they take you on an open trolley ride for 70 minutes pointing out all the sites and giving you background information.  The cost is over $20 but it includes admission into the Heritage Museum and it’s good for 3 days.  There are 22 stops and you can hop on and off.  Since the streets are narrow and parking at a premium this is really a great way to get around the city.  Trolleys run every 15-20 minutes and they are easy to flag down.  If you stay at a hotel downtown, you can keep your car at the hotel and use the trolley instead.
            We also took a scenic one hour cruise on the harbor and saw dolphins while we learned more history.  We took the motorcoach a little farther afield and went to the golfing and outlet areas.  And then one day we went up to Amelia Island.
You have to pass through Jacksonville, FL (where we went to a dinner theater one night) to get to Amelia Island and that was a beautiful area.  Fernandina Beach was named one of the top twelve vacation destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Once a vibrant Victorian seaport village, there is a fifty block historic district with many original structures dating back to the 19th century with many Victorian style mansions and cottages well preserved.
            The Visitor Center, located in a downtown train station, can give you all kinds of information and don’t forget to take a picture of the pirate Pegleg Pete outside the Palace Saloon.
            And, if you are going back to St. Augustine when you drive through Jacksonville, there is Anheuser-Busch that gives tours and sampling.  Some of my travelers really enjoyed that stop, especially the free sampling part.
             If you can help it, I would avoid this area in the summer when it can be very warm and humid.  But perhaps you like that kind of weather.  I guess anytime you can visit St. Augustine is a good time.    Florida beckons………   

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            The latest Value tour for my company, Mayflower Tours, is The Sea Islands, including Beaufort, Savannah and Charleston.  I have already talked about those areas in a previous article but on the way home we spend two nights in Pigeon Forge.
            The whole area is very commercial and touristy but the scenery is outstanding and it is definitely a fun area to visit.  My brother recently retired from the Army after 40 years, and he is seriously thinking of relocating to this area.
            Coming into Pigeon Forge by way of the backroads, I was amazed to discover the Bush Baked Beans factory.  There was a very nice general store and museum so on my last tour, we stopped.  It turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.
            The museum is only a couple of years and was very nice with a movie (which we didn’t have time to see).  And, everyone got their picture taken free with the dog, Duke (only celluloid).  I had no idea the many different varieties of Bush products and my travelers all bought something.
            Then it was on to Pigeon Forge.  The town’s population is just under 6,000 and I thought the name came from the river that runs through the town.  But I was wrong!  Passenger pigeons ate the nuts that fell from the beech trees along the banks of the river and that is where the town got its name.
            Of course, this is where Dollywood is located and Dolly Parton saved the town which she invested in this 150 acre theme park.  But now there are also theaters and museums there.  On another tour, I saw a show at the Smith Family Theater and saw a great Elvis.  On this Value tour, depending on which hotel we stay at, we offered our travelers an optional show of either “Country Tonight” or “Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede.”  For our last night we went to the included Hatfield/McCoy dinner show.  There are several other shows, an outlet mall, and my brother went to the Titanic museum and said it was awesome.  The museum recreates as historically possible the ship’s atmosphere with 20 interactive exhibit galleries. He said it was well worth the admission charged.
There is a shuttle that runs up and down the streets about every 10-15 minutes & you can jump on and off for 50 cents.  Sometimes the town is such absolute gridlock, so this can be a great option.
If you continue driving towards the park, the next town about 4 miles away is Gatlinburg, population 4,000.  It is nestled in the mountains and is also commercial but it doesn’t have a lot of room to spread out so feels more rustic.  The hotels are smaller but many with balconies overlooking the river so you can hear the water rushing by.
There is Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Ripley’s Aquarium (which my brother gives a huge thumbs up), a Moonshine store, lots of little shops and an aerial tram that takes you to the top of the mountain to ski or just look around for about $10.00.
Your best bet is to stop at a Visitor Center and get brochures and coupons for the places you are interested in because there are too many to mention here.
Finally, the best part of the trip.  Smoky Mountain National Park, the most visited national park in the country (mainly due to its location) and free!  If you are into hiking, biking or just driving through in your car, this park is wonderful.  Stop first at the Sugarland Visitor Center for a brochure, as well as to support the gift shop, browse the little museum and most important see the twenty minute movie that runs on the hour and a half.  There are rangers there to answer any questions.
I could write at least another page about the park but all the information you need is right there in the movie and the VC.
The Appalachian Mountain chain is the oldest in the U.S. and because of that has eroded down.  That is why when you look out at the mountains they are mostly well rounded and don’t have the peaks you see out west.  But even though there are only 16 peaks that rise over 6,000 feet, they are very beautiful.  When the clouds hang over the mountains, there is sometimes a bluish haze and that is where their name came from by the Cherokee Indians.
Cades Cove road does an eleven mile loop.  Or you can go from the Visitor Center over the other side to Cherokee, N.C.  We never have enough time to do that.  But my favorite drive is to the top to Newfound Gap (gap means a mountain pass) which has an elevation of 5,046, the highest point on a road in the park.  When you get there, you can see the plaque and area where FDR dedicated the park in 1940, walk a little bit of the Appalachian Trail, or just have your picture taken at the sign that says you have one foot in Tennessee and one in North Carolina.
After the serene beauty of these mountains, it’s back to the commercial towns below.  But what a great way to spend your summer vacation or even the fall when the leaves change colors.  Just watch out for the bears…..

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