Richmond’s Renaissance – From Historic to Hip

Jordan Wright
October 14, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Richmond is getting a lot of ink from around the country as it blossoms into a desirable destination for seasoned travelers.  On a return flight from Ireland last month I was seated next to young German headed to Richmond for the 9-day UCI Road World Cycling Championships.  He wasn’t a journalist, or even an athlete (for emphasis he patted his expansive belly), this was his first trip to America and he was off to our state capitol for a world-class sporting event.

Change comes quickly to a place when creative minds are firing on all cylinders and Richmond’s renaissance began in fits and starts in the 1980’s with the careful restoration of historic portside factories into airy lofts, galleries and restaurants.  Today young entrepreneurs have seized on the affordable rents for their fledgling businesses and the city has exploded with new life.  Even the film industry is onto the stunning architecture of this historic city.  Spielberg’s epic drama Lincoln was shot here, as was the soon-to-be-released PBS Civil War drama, Mercy Street.  This is not your buttoned up Southern city any more.

Once seedy Broad Street is humming with new activity, in part due to the more than 31,000 students attending VCU located in the heart of the city.  Now formerly overlooked neighborhoods like Church Hill are grabbing the spotlight.  Across the city the trend shows no sign of slowing down with historic buildings being preserved and rehabbed into stunning contemporary living spaces.

New restaurants open every week – – some doing tasty riffs on Southern classics, others drawing from exotic cuisines.  Many pair their food with Virginia wines or any of the thirteen Richmond-area microbreweries.  Next year California-based Stone Brewing Company will open its eastern U. S. brewery operations and World Bistro & Gardens along Gillies Creek in the historic Fulton Hill neighborhood.

As for the Arts, apart from major international touring art shows at the prestigious Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, there is also a flourishing local art scene with galleries and colorful murals dotting every area of the city.  Look for the new VCU Institute for Contemporary Art to open a 43,000-square-foot museum showcasing innovative exhibitions, performances and films by 2017.

GO EXPLORING

(L-R) Swan Bed  -  Italian Garden at Maymont

(L-R) Swan Bed – Italian Garden at Maymont

Maymont offers 100 lush acres of breathtaking gardens, a nature center, and a Romanesque Revival-style manor house chock-a-block with Victoriana reminiscent of the Gilded Age.  Take time to stroll through Japanese, Italian and Victorian gardens or ride a horse-drawn carriage through magnolia-lined allées.  www.Maymont.org

Lewis Ginter Garden

Lewis Ginter Garden

Ranked No. 2 among America’s Best Public Gardens, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden features themed gardens including the Children’s Garden, Healing Garden, Rose Garden and Victorian Garden and the South’s most magnificent domed conservatory filled with hundreds of exotic specimens.  www.LewisGinter.org  Both are part of the Richmond Garden Trail as are six other sites.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Along with more than 33,000 works of art from around the world, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts houses a collection of beautiful Fabergé jeweled eggs.  “Rodin” arrives in late November with over 200 works from the Musée Rodin in Paris.  www.VMFA.museum

The Virginia Historical Society featuring a fascinating and comprehensive collection of Virginia history from 16,000 BCE to the present.  Opened this month “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times” features 36 costumes from PBS Masterpiece’s Downton Abbey series.  www.VAHistorical.org

The Valentine Museum tells the story of Richmond’s early history including the women’s suffrage rights, the slave trade and civil rights.  A current show, Classical Allure: Richmond Style, features select gowns and artifacts from their Costume and Textile collection of over 40,000 pieces, the largest of its kind in the South.  www.TheValentine.org

The Science Museum of Virginia

The Science Museum of Virginia

Science is cool at the Science Museum of Virginia.  Housed in the grandiose former Broad Street Union Station, designed by architect John Russell Pope in the neo-classical style, explore tons of interactive exhibits on space, health, electricity and the earth.  A new exhibit, Alien Worlds and Androids features early TV and film robots up to present day outer space heroes.  Be sure to check out the 76-foot Dome theatre – – the largest screen in Virginia.  www.SMV.org

Stroll Cary Street for cute shops – vintage clothing at Bygones; gifts and more at Mongrel; and great consignment shops such as Ashby and Clementine.

TASTE THE TOWN

(L-R) Sub Rosa Bakery - Plum tarts from Wood-Fired Bakery

(L-R) Sub Rosa Bakery – Plum tarts from Wood-Fired Bakery

Breakfast – Sub Rosa Wood Fired Bakery in Church Hill where a brother-and-sister team, Evrim and Evin Dogu, use a German-made mill to grind organic flour to bake into their crusty breads, yummy cookies and rustic tarts served on eclectic plates from Tree Hill Pottery in Richmond.  www.SubRosaBakery.com

Brunch – Sunday Champagne Brunch at The Jefferson hotel is prepared by Chef Patrick Ehemann and served in the Rotunda lobby.  It is the pinnacle of Southern haute cuisine.  Be sure to try the soufflé-like spoonbread.  Reservations recommended.  www.LemaireRestaurant.com

Lunch – Tucked into a residential neighborhood, Stella’s serves modern Mediterranean and Greek dishes; The Savory Grain for New American comfort food with a large selection of microbrews and craft beers; and a perennial favorite, the French-inspired Can Can Brasserie in Carytown.

Ardent Craft Ales brewery

Ardent Craft Ales brewery

Sips – The bar at Lemaire; Saison Restaurant cum gastro pub, or The Roosevelt for craft cocktails in a two-story red clapboard house; on-site brewed quaffs at Blue Bee Cider, Virginia’s only urban cidery in the Old Manchester district; the cool scene at Ardent Craft Ales, a brewery in the burgeoning Scott’s Addition neighborhood.  Best Autumn saison, Sweet Potato & Sage.  Check their calendar for open brew days.

(L-R) Roasted Beets with beet mousse and navel oranges - Sable Fish with Maitake mushrooms, charred scallions and dashi broth - Espresso Chocolate Mousse, with orange, hazelnut, and anise hyssop at Maple & Pine

(L-R) Roasted Beets with beet mousse and navel oranges – Sable Fish with Maitake mushrooms, charred scallions and dashi broth – Espresso Chocolate Mousse, with orange, hazelnut, and anise hyssop at Maple & Pine

Dinner – A tough call with so many to choose from.  The intricate fusion dishes by Executive Chef Lee Gregory at the sophisticated and hip Maple & Pine in the glamorous new Quirk hotel; Comfort for locally-sourced, meat-and-three contemporary Southern from Rising Star-awarded chef, Jason Alley; The Roosevelt for three-time James Beard Foundation nominee David Dunlap’s snappy Southern cuisine; Mamma Zu for old school Italian; and Perly’s for serious Jewish deli.

Meat Loaf, squash casserole and cheddar cheese grits at Comfort

Meat Loaf, squash casserole and cheddar cheese grits at Comfort

STAY

Hotel Rotunda

Hotel Rotunda
With 70-foot-high ceilings and a staircase long rumored to have appeared in Gone with the Wind, The Jefferson Hotel’s Rotunda lobby is one of Richmond’s most sought after spaces for important events. In his 1987 nationally broadcast Sunday morning segment for CBS News, Charles Kuralt described it as (arguably) the most beautiful (public room) of any hotel in the country

Luxuriate at The Jefferson – The Queen of American Beaux Arts hotels, this opulent jewel of an historic hotel has cut the number of their rooms down from turning the remaining guestrooms into expansive suites.  For the ultimate stay, book a Grand Premier Suite that features a lavishly appointed marble-tiled bathroom with a television invisibly incorporated into the mirror, soaking tub and separate dressing room.  www.JeffersonHotel.com

Quirk Hotel and Gallery – The new kid on the block.  Recently opened and lovingly restored, this hip boutique hotel had a former life as a swank department store.  Sip handcrafted cocktails on the rooftop terrace.  www.DestinationHotels.com

UPCOMING EVENTS

Fire, Flour & Fork – October 28th – November 1st – A four-day culinary gathering with tours, special dinners, classes featuring local chefs, cookbook authors, culinary historians and beverage experts.  A foodie’s wet dream.  Fire, Flour & Fork

On November 13th from 7pm till midnight revel in InLight Richmond.  Organized by 1708 Gallery, enjoy a free, public exhibition of light-based art and performances to be held at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.  Watch the Community Lantern Parade along with performances, sculpture, video, and interactive projects that illuminate pathways, walls, sidewalks, green spaces, trees, benches, building facades, and more, in and around the VMFA campus.

November 27th – January 11th 2016.  The nightly holiday extravaganza Dominion GardenFest of Lights: H2Whoa at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden features over half-a-million twinkling lights, hand-crafted botanical decorations, model trains, holiday dinners, firepit with s’mores, hot chocolate (for purchase) and more.  This year’s “H2Whoa” theme showcases water in all its forms.  Experience a dazzling 30-acre light and botanical display of magical, whimsical water events.  Stroll through twinkling “rain storms” as crystal raindrops and fluffy storm clouds float overhead while you marvel at a thunderstorm of lights.  In the Conservatory you’ll see a wintry wonderland, rainstorms and rainbows, and even a tropical rainforest.

For more information on upcoming events go to www.VisitRichmondVA.com

A Weekend Getaway To Staunton, Virginia

Jordan Wright
April 20, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

At The Shack

At The Shack

My plan to spend a weekend in Staunton (pronounced “Staan’-tun”, please and thank you) was hatched last year when I heard of a young chef who was gathering a national reputation for imaginative food served up in a tiny brick building he calls, The Shack.  Since then chef and restaurateur, Ian Boden, has lit up the food world garnering awards and tons of ink in his zeal to use Virginia farm products in both imaginative and delicious ways.

But as with all trips, the more you research the region where you’re headed, the more it evolves into a journey that will lose all sense of being scripted – – which is exactly what happened and which I highly recommend.  The plan was to head out mid-morning Friday and drive straight to Staunton.  That plan went straight out the window when I realized all the fun places we would pass along the way.  Here’s what I recommend.

From Route 66 take Route 17 to Delaplane and Three Fox Vineyards where owners, Holli and John Todhunter, echo their love of all things Italian.  In the barn-style tasting room you’ll find mostly Italian varietals from estate-grown grapes.  Relax in a hammock or claim a game of bocce ball.

The Long Branch Foundation - The stairwell

The Long Branch Foundation – The spiral stairwell

A few miles away just off Route 50, is the 200-year old mansion and gardens of Long Branch Plantation.  Hard by the blink-and-you’ve-missed-it sweet little hamlet of Paris, lies the recently restored “noble mansion crowning a rising ground…” as American author Washington Irving described it in 1853.  It is worth a tour of its period architecture and antique furnishings and a chance to learn about its horse retirement facility.

Lots to choose from at the Locke Store - Katie Shapiro at the Locke Store in Millwood

Lots to choose from at the Locke Store – Katie Shapiro at the Locke Store in Millwood

Just across 50 and a short drive along Millwood Road is the Locke Store in Millwood, VA.  The original general store, founded in 1836, is now a food emporium chock-a-block with craft beer, wine, locally raised meats and cheeses, and tempting baked goods by pastry chef, Katie Kopsick Shapiro.  Choose from homemade quiches, pot pies, salads, cakes, fruit pies and sandwiches on bread made from flour ground at the Burwell-Morgan Mill – – a restored flour mill across the street where you can have your picnic alongside a babbling stream.  On the next street over is The Red Schoolhouse where 4,000 square feet of antiques and collectibles await the discerning buyer.

The Red Schoolhouse Antiques

The Red Schoolhouse Antiques

Getting on 81 from there was a cinch and we soon arrived in Staunton and checked into the Stonewall Jackson Hotel & Conference Center, a centrally located Colonial Revival hotel built in 1924 and recently remodeled.  From our room we could see the Mill Street Grill below – – a handy spot for a quick dinner before curtain up at the Blackfriars Playhouse around the corner.  If you’re looking for fancier fare try Zynodoa, a local favorite in a modern setting with upscale dining.

Oysters Rockefeller at the Mill Street Grill

Oysters Rockefeller at the Mill Street Grill

The playhouse is part of the American Shakespeare Theatre, a year-round performance venue fashioned after 17th century English theatres.  Here Shakespeare’s plays are offered with on-stage seats for chosen audience members.  I’ve been here several times and always enjoyed a rousingly entertaining production by seasoned actors.  Be sure to get there early for the mini-concerts before the play.

Blackfriars Playhouse at the American Shakespeare Theatre - Photo credit Lauren D. Rogers

Blackfriars Playhouse at the American Shakespeare Theatre – Photo credit Lauren D. Rogers

Another purpose of my visit was to tour Joel Salatin’s 550-acre Polyface farm in nearby Swoope and on Saturday morning that is where we began our day.   The author, speaker and farming guru is a legend for his sustainable farming practices and was featured in the film Food, Inc.  Chefs and eco-aware farmers hang on his every word and the farm itself is a testament to Salatin and his humane animal husbandry practices.  You can see the pigs, cows, chicken and sheep in their grassy habitats or shop for meats and cider in the farm store.

Hoop House and The piglets at Polyface farm

Hoop House and The piglets at Polyface farm

The night before we noticed a huge building with plate glass windows.  Old cars were posed like fashion models and I was determined to see what it was all about.  So before lunch we meandered over to find what is being billed as ‘the largest garage in the South’ – – a cavernous 27,000-square foot, former Ford dealership housing an amazing collection of cars in a 1911 building.  Located on South New Street, the museum is owned by Bruce Elder an avid collector who sells and restores antique and classic cars.  Roaming (and gasping in awe) through the three-story building, we came across dozens of beautifully restored cars including a 1924 Model T, a 1925 baby blue Rolls Royce Twenty (this one sported a price tag of $80k), and some notable Nascar winners like a 1953 single seat vehicle called ‘The Lincoln Special’ – – a Dreyer Champ car that ran on a dirt track.  The museum is a car fancier’s fantasyland.

1924 Model TT

1924 Model TT

Lunch at the Pampered Palate Café was a lovely respite.  The quaint spot on East Beverley Street specializes in homemade soups and sandwiches and is surrounded by tons of interesting stores, art galleries, breweries, a wine tasting room, a glass-blowing studio, and shops featuring local handicrafts.

Glass blowing - Artisan works at Sunspot Studios

Glass blowing – Artisan works at Sunspot Studios

From there we walked to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum.  A fascinating and illuminating museum with exhibits detailing the history of our 28th President though his life and times.  On display are hundreds of Wilson’s personal objects including his roll-top desk and 1919 Pierce-Arrow presidential limousine.  A recent addition is a walk-through trench that trembles with the sounds of a real battlefield from World War I.  Beside the museum sits the Presbyterian Manse, Wilson’s birthplace.  The three-story brick home is filled with Wilson family heirlooms and antiques, and a guide is there to describe daily home life in the mid-19th century.

1919 Pierce-Arrow presidential limousine

1919 Pierce-Arrow presidential limousine

Afterwards take a relaxing 45-minute guided tour around the city by trolley.  Departing from the Visitors Center, it’s a terrific opportunity to see the historic homes and churches (a jaw-dropping 78 by last count) that abound as well as Mary Baldwin College, whose campus is smack dab in the middle of town.  During the tour your guide will describe the many exquisite buildings ranging from Gothic, Greek and Renaissance Revival to Dutch Colonial, Chateauesque and even Italianate, many of which were designed during the Victorian-era by renowned architect Thomas Jasper Collins.  In fact the town’s splendid architecture was one of its most surprising aspects.

Palladian stained glass windows grace this former Masonic headquarters

Palladian stained glass windows grace this former Masonic headquarters

At last it was time for our long-anticipated dinner and the stated reason for this pilgrimage and we stroll a few blocks from the hotel to find what appears to be a 1950’s one-story structure along a quiet road.  Once inside, we shed any preconceived notions of what a restaurant should look like and trusted in the chef, even though the place looks more like a pop-up or a way station for twenty-six mismatched chairs and seven tables that have lost their home.  Still, it’s cozy and unpretentious and quite serious about its mission – – a 180-degree turn from the greasy, calorically-weighty cooking of Southern style restaurants.  Here sauces are lightened and cooking methods respect the fresh ingredients.  Expect to taste dishes you thought you knew, but here are elevated to an appreciative art form.

Inside The Shack

Inside The Shack

In a relatively short time, Boden has joined the ranks and emerging cooking style of the New Southern Cuisine trumpeted by famed chefs like Edward Lee of Atlanta, Georgia and Sean Brock of Charleston, South Carolina – – accomplished chefs who have taken familiar Southern dishes and reinvented them, made them better, more interesting and more alluring.  We are talking deepened flavors and soul-stirring deliciousness.

Escolar Lettuce Wrap - Berkshire pork at The Shack

Escolar Lettuce Wrap – Berkshire pork at The Shack

A paper menu with the date on top lets you know that the menu is at the whim of the chef, the season and the farmers he trusts.  Though I can assure you these preparations will not be on the menu when you arrive, you can luxuriate in the thought of them as I have in this writing.  You get to have your own experience with whatever ingredients Boden is playing around with on that day.

We tried nearly everything on the menu, and found some favorites – – Winter Vegetable Salad with farro, bitter greens and chickweed, dressed in a barrel aged maple vinaigrette; Escolar Lettuce Wrap, a raw fish paired with cracklin’s, house made kimchi, miso and key limes.  Entrees that sang to us were the Berkshire Pork Loin with country ham fried rice, spinach purée and delicata squash topped with fava bean shoots; and King Salmon with roasted crosnes (a tiny spiral-shaped tuber), Brussels sprouts and lady apples in a red wine butter sauce.  Desserts that made us swoon were Sorghum Cake with brown butter apples, buttermilk whey and bay leaf; and a madcap fling with a sweet treat called ‘Junk Food’ which turned out to be a slice of oatmeal cream pie plus a cruller and a blondie.

Creamy Heirloom Grits and Wagyu Beef at The Shack

Creamy Heirloom Grits – Wagyu Beef at The Shack

After a good night’s sleep we returned for brunch.  And, why not?  When you have reveled in the best there is, why not revel again?  I state my case for the Biscuits and Rabbit Gravy, the Wagyu Oyster Steak with rosemary pistou, and the Creamy Heirloom Grits served in a cast iron pan.  There is no shame… just glory and a sharp sense of wanting to return.

Demonstrations at the Frontier Culture Museum

Demonstrations at the Frontier Culture Museum

Before heading home one last stop beckoned – – the Frontier Culture Museum, a place passed countless times while driving down 81 towards the Blue Ridge Mountains.  This open air, living history museum reflects the early German, West African, Irish and British pioneers who bravely brought their trades, farming methods, and building styles to rural America.  Authentic costumed docents roam the farm sites and pretty wooded acres, instructing guests on how settlers lived and thrived in the Shenandoah Valley in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.  It is a highly educational experience with hands-on opportunities.  You will learn that a number of these historic homes were brought over piece-by-piece from the Old World and reassembled here.  You can easily spend two hours here but plan on at least three.  You wouldn’t want to miss seeing the heritage breed horses or holding a baby lamb.  In good weather a picnic purchased in town would make for the perfect day.

To plan your trip around upcoming cultural events in Staunton go to www.VisitStaunton.com.

[Window Title] Microsoft Windows Search Indexer  [Main Instruction] Microsoft Windows Search Indexer has stopped working  [Content] Windows is checking for a solution to the problem...  [Cancel]

Spinning wool – Blacksmith at the Forge

Photo credit – Jordan Wright

A fall favorite at the Skyland Resort in the Shenandoah Mountains

Jordan Wright
October 10, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
Photo credit Jordan Wright 

The view from Skyland Resort

The view from Skyland Resort

When G. Freeman Pollock founded Skyland in 1894, he had been in and out of bankruptcy so many times he couldn’t possibly have envisioned the immense popularity it would have subsequently gained. Luckily for us his son George, an ardent naturalist, saw the raw beauty of the land as a draw for tourists. But in 19th century Virginia the remote destination had no trails and no roads, and it was such an arduous journey that guests would stay for several weeks or more. Today, however, to enjoy and explore the resort within the Shenandoah National Forest, we can just hop in our car and arrive in little more than two hours, ready to bask in (and document with our personal devices) the glorious foliage of autumn at a whopping 3,560 feet above sea level.

Driving along Route 211 past Warrenton and Sperryville we stop at roadside stands decorated with pumpkins, cornstalks and pots of colorful mums, and stock up on apple butter, cider, sorghum and honey. As the road turns up the mountain and onto Skyline Drive, ever more lavish displays of fall color come into view – red from maples, dogwoods, black gums and sumac, yellow from yellow birch, tulip poplar and hickory, orange from beech and sassafras. Stop at one of the many overlooks for gloriously scenic photo ops.

800 million year old rock formations on the Stony Man Trail

800 million year old rock formations on the Stony Man Trail

Arriving at Skyland Resort we picked up a few refreshments from the Grab n’ Go located beside the restaurant. Be sure to try the homemade brownies and blackberry lemonade. Since we were earlier than our check in time, we decided to make the most of our visit. Four short marked trails are easily accessible from the resort’s parking area – Miller’s Head, a 1.6 mile round trip, Limberlost Trail, a 1.3 mile circuit (ADA accessible), Stony Man, 1.6 mile loop trail and Little Stony Man, a 0.9 mile hike. We chose Stony Man Trail, a gentle that hike winds through dappled glades carpeted with ferns, drifts past 800 million-year old rock outcroppings draped in mossy lichen, and climbs to a height of 4,010’ where a spectacular view of the Piedmont and Old Rag Mountain are revealed. (More dramatic photo ops here.)

Ferns along Stony Man Trail

Ferns along Stony Man Trail

At this altitude you’ll see and smell red spruce and balsam fir, rare for southern climes. Breathe deeply and tune into the sounds of the forest, a practice the Japanese call “forest bathing” or “Shinrinyoku”, a sort of natural aromatherapy said to increase relaxation and boost the immune system.

Back at the lodge we had relaxing dinner in the Pollock Dining Room, which boasts a breathtaking view of the Shenandoah valley. The resort is proud of their new chef and has been hosting wine dinners with nearby vineyards. In November three unique pairing dinners are planned – one to feature dishes paired wines from Ducard Winery, another with Old Hill Cider and the final dinner of the season is slated to be a whiskey pairing.

Linguini with shrimp and scallops - Blackberry Ice Cream Pie at the Pollock Dining Room

Linguini with shrimp and scallops – Blackberry Ice Cream Pie at the Pollock Dining Room

 

Night programs here are just as popular as daytime tours offered by the Park Rangers. We chose the stargazing evening given by astronomers from the Charlottesville Astronomical Society. “Night Skies in the Big Meadows” begins with a talk on the constellations we would see before convening at an open field that afforded expansive views of the galaxy. Astronomer Richard Drumm, known as “The Astronomy Bumm”, awaited our arrival with telescopes at the ready. Unfortunately it was too overcast to see, no less identify, even the Big Dipper, so we asked a lot of what we thought were “smart” questions and learned about controlling light pollution.

Skyland horse-stable

The following morning bright blue skies accompanied hearty breakfasts, and after finding some locally made crafts in the gift shop we headed to the stables for a guided horseback trail ride (ponies are available for kids). I was very impressed by the overall care with which the stables, tack and horses are kept and that our young guide, Jeremy, was knowledgeable about horses, local plants and the history of the area and kept up a lively conversation throughout the two ½ hour ride.

Stirring the apple butter

Stirring the apple butter

Before heading for home we spent a few hours at the Annual Apple Butter Celebration (the resort provided a shuttle to take us to and from) where we watched the old fashioned method of making apple butter in a large copper vessel, tasted four varieties of the local hard cider from Old Hill Cider at Showalters Orchard, and gobbled up apple-smoked pork sandwiches and candied apples – all to the lively sounds of bluegrass bands.

Carmel and candied apples a the apple butter celebration

Caramel and candied apples at the Apple Butter Celebration

For more info visit www.goshenandoah.com.

Memphis and The Blues Trail in a 2015 Hyundai Sonata

Jordan Wright
October 1, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times

Photo credit to Jordan Wright

Driving Old Highway 61 in the new turbo-charged Hyundai Sonata

Driving Old Highway 61 in the new turbo-charged Hyundai Sonata

The Plan:   A road rally in the Hyundai 2015 Sonata.  When Hyundai contacted me and asked if I’d like to be part of a road rally in Memphis, I couldn’t wait to rev up its 7-speed dual clutch (automatic plus stick) transmission.  At least that’s how they described it in an email.  That it had more bells and whistles than I had time to grasp in 36 hours under a tight schedule, was unfortunate.

The Place:  Memphis, Tennessee to Clarksdale, Mississippi on Old Highway 61 returning to Memphis.

Neon BBQ sign on Beale Street

Neon BBQ sign on Beale Street

There are few cities that deliver the intensity of the American music experience and the culture of the old Deep South as Memphis does.  For starters visit the Stax Museum of American Soul Music where Otis Redding and the Staple Singers cut records, the National Civil Rights Museum and the iconic Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

The Lorraine Motel - scene of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination

The Lorraine Motel – scene of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination

To see luthiers make some of the world’s most famous guitars, there’s the Gibson Guitar Factory and Museum.  Another must see is The Memphis Rock n’ Soul Museum.  Developed by Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, it describes itself as a place where “musical pioneers and legends of all racial and socio-economic backgrounds who, for the love of music, overcame obstacles to create the musical sound that changed the world.”

The Gibson Guitar Factory and Museum

The Gibson Guitar Factory and Museum

From there you’ll hop the shuttle to Sun Studios where Rock and Roll legend Elvis Presley recorded his first song, “That’s All Right, Mama”; where Howlin’ Wolf first recorded before his Chicago Blues influence; Johnny Cash recorded “I Walk the Line”; Jerry Lee Lewis kicked off his career with “A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”; and Carl Perkins laid down tracks for “Blue Suede Shoes” before Elvis got ahold of it.  Only one member of what was known as the “Million Dollar Quartet” became “The King”, so for many fans a visit to the 1950’s cosmic bubble, Graceland, is somewhat of a sacred pilgrimage.

All that said, I couldn’t figure out why on God’s green earth friends thought I wouldn’t like Memphis.  Maybe they thought I wouldn’t cotton to the honky-tonk culture, or the snail’s pace of life along verdant banks where riverboats still ferry passengers along the mighty Mississippi.  Maybe they thought I wouldn’t take to leathered up bikers and their cigarette smokin’ mamas who stand beside hundreds of tricked out choppers.  Or that on a warm night you can hear the blues filtering out through the open windows of the clubs along Beale Street.  Or maybe they knew that some of the best barbeque and juke joints are outside city limits at rundown roadhouses in towns with no traffic lights – – just a single run-in store selling jars of pickled pig’s feet and tortillas for the seasonal migrant workers.

A tricked out Lamborghini bike wows the crowd on Beale Street

A tricked out Lamborghini bike wows the crowd on Beale Street

They should have known I’d pass up the cheesy Elvis impersonators to listen to raw-boned blues cranked out nightly by first-rate studio musicians, and that I’d satisfy my curiosity for the Peabody Hotel ducks with a bourbon and branch water while listening to a tuxedoed piano player recall cabaret songs from the 1930’s, and where just outside the lobby a Cinderella carriage will take you on a horse-drawn tour past historic sights.

The Italianate lobby of the Peabody Hotel

The Italianate lobby of the Peabody Hotel

I loved Memphis – the sights and the sounds.  From sidewalk street jammers playing rockabilly, rock n’ roll, Delta blues, gospel and soul to an unnamed group kickin’ it at an impromptu concert in a vest pocket park. They were all mining the roots of American music – preserving the sound that had bubbled up from both white and black musicians so long ago.

Day Two:  After a morning briefing and vehicle assignment we received our triplogs.  Twenty-four test drivers and twelve 2015 Sonatas left from the Westin Hotel on Beale Street and headed south out of the city along Old Highway 61.  Known as the “Blues Trail”, the road took us to Clarksdale, Mississippi with Driver Switch Points at Mhoon Landing Park in Tunica, MS and Arkabutla Lake in Coldwater, MS.

At the Rum Boogie

At the Rum Boogie Cafe

The veteran car writers on the team were eager to check out the subtle, and not so subtle differences.  They were keen on features like LED tail lights, lane departure warning, blind spot detection, lane change assist and rear and side window sunshades.  A hands-free trunk was noted as was the ventilated front seat, Blue Link touch screen infotainment system, Pandora Internet Radio, Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto that sends and receives text messages and can give fuel prices and movie times.  The fact that the turbo-charged ECO model with quad-exhaust comes in nine colors (I loved the Quartz White Pearl), was mostly overlooked by the men.

Ground Zero Blues Club, Clarksdale, Mississippi

Ground Zero Blues Club, Clarksdale, Mississippi

Driving along back roads we passed rusted silos and cornfields to Clarksdale, Mississippi where the Delta Blues Museum tells the story of early blues legends, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, and where we stopped to chow down at actor Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club, a funky, fried green tomatoes, BBQ-fueled roadhouse that roars with the sound of electric guitars – – even at high noon.

After a dinner of BBQ (You can eat it twice a day!), cornbread and sides at the vintage 1948 Rendezvous restaurant back in Memphis, I wondered.  With all that history and all those blues, would I find my inner Eric Clapton?  Easily!  At the Westin I was able to order up a gold vintage Gibson guitar equipped with amplifier and headphones that was delivered to my room for the night.  Sweet dreams, Mr. Clapton.  Sweet dreams, Layla.

Charles Vergo's Rendezvous

Charles Vergo’s Rendezvous

Westin Memphis Beale Street – www.westinmemphisbealestreet.com
Ground Zero Blues Club – www.groundzerobluesclub.com
Charles Vergo’s Rendezvous – www.hogsfly.com

Cambridge, Maryland

Jordan Wright
August 31, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Cambridge city mural

Cambridge city mural

In an area where watermen and their history have customarily been the prime subject of writerly interest, it was “Chesapeake” author James Michener who noted the architecture of Cambridge’s High Street, referring to its splendors as “one of the most beautiful streets in America”, which is precisely where we begin our exploration.

Richardson Maritime Museum - Photo credit to Cambridge Artist Michael Rosato

Richardson Maritime Museum

Start in the center of town at the Richardson Maritime Museum where a wealth of artifacts and expertly crafted replicas of historic ships are on display.  Around the corner is the Ruark Boatworks, which affords a fascinating look at modern-day boat restoration and the building of traditional wooden bay craft.

Along the Choptank River

Along the Choptank River

Follow the cobblestone High Street toward the Choptank River and along the way admire stately 18th and 19th century homes, some meticulously restored, others awaiting a fresh coat of paint and some new shutters to be brought back to their original splendor.

Cambridge House Bed and Breakfast

Cambridge House Bed and Breakfast

A stone’s throw from the river is the Cambridge House Bed and Breakfast.  Built in 1847 in the Queen Anne style of architecture, the manor boasts six large guest rooms with private baths.  Mine was on the second floor with a private porch overlooking a lily pond.  The elegant home is furnished in the style of the period.  Wicker chairs provide the perfect respite for reading or watching passersby from an expansive front porch.  Jim and Marianne Benson and their adorable pooch Max (rescued by the couple while Jim was stationed in Cuba with the Foreign Service), are the gracious innkeepers.  They will gladly share their stories (Max is available to play fetch) and describe the history of the former sea captain’s home.  www.CambridgeHousebandb.com.

Homes along Cambridge's High Street

Homes along Cambridge’s High Street

A five-minute stroll towards the river will take you to the picturesque boat docks and self-guided tour of the replica Choptank Lighthouse, a six-sided screwpile lighthouse that contains a small museum focused on the nautical history of the area.

A mess of crabs ready for steaming at JM Clayton Seafood Company & The steam pots

A mess of crabs ready for steaming at JM Clayton Seafood Company and the steam pots

Turning back towards town I dropped in on Joe Clayton, great-great grandson of Captain Johnnie, founder of the JM Clayton Seafood Company where watermen have been bringing their crabs for picking and cleaning for five generations.  To arrange a tour of the plant, visit www.JMClayton.com.  Behind the old single-story brick building is local artist Michael Rosato’s hyper-realistic mural.  Painted on the side of an old caboose it depicts life along the river.

Mural Photo by Cambridge Artist Michael Rosato on JM Clayton Seafood

Mural Photo by Cambridge Artist Michael Rosato

Continuing along High Street stop in at Christ Episcopal Church and Cemetery, the burial place of four Maryland governors. Though the church was built in 1883, the lovely parish dates back to 1692.

The High Spot Gastropub

The High Spot Gastropub

Cambridge has recently undergone an exciting restaurant renaissance offering both chef-helmed dining as well as casual fare.  Try The High Spot Gastropub on Muir Street where Executive Chef Patrick Fanning lures guests with his elegant twist on classic American dishes using locally caught fish and farm-sourced ingredients.   Head-over-heels creations are Zinfandel Braised Beef Cheeks & Blue Crab Hash, Conch Chowder with a splash of Gosling’s Rum, and Oyster Pot Pie.

Oyster Pot Pie at High Spot & Zinfandel Beef Cheeks & Blue Crab Hash

Oyster Pot Pie at High Spot and Zinfandel Beef Cheeks & Blue Crab Hash

Back on High Street we pass scores of recently restored historic buildings, one of which houses the Dorchester Center for the Arts.  The 17,000 sq. ft. space is home to state-of-the-art classrooms, galleries, artisans’ gift shop and a large performing arts stage.

 Pastry Chef Adam Powley of Elliot’s Baking Company shows off his brioche

Pastry Chef Adam Powley of Elliot’s Baking Company with his braided challah bread

A few days before my arrival Elliott’s Baking Company opened in one of these beautifully restored turn of the century buildings.  Owner and longtime resident, Bernie Elliott, hired French Culinary School grad, Aaron Powley, whose repertoire includes traditionally made brioche, croissants, sumptuous French pastries and hearty artisanal breads.  Many of the local restaurants feature Powley’s breads and rolls.

Wine tasting at A Few of My Favorite Things

Wine tasting at A Few of My Favorite Things

Look around to find trendy boutiques and specialty stores like Squoze, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it grab-and-go spot for freshly made green juices, smoothies, sandwiches and wraps and a well curated selection of health foods.  Another can’t-miss is A Few of My Favorite Things, a gourmet gift and wine bar.  Here samples of their wines are poured by a sommelier while you nosh on delicious cheeses, spreads and charcuterie.  They are one of many spots in town to hear live music at night.

J. T. Merryweather of Reale Revival Brewery

J. T. Merryweather of Reale Revival Brewery

Stop in Reale Revival, known by locals as RAR, where industrial chic dominates the quirky cool décor.  The brewery, bar and lounge was started by Dorchester County natives, Chris Brohawn and J. T. Merryweather, who decided to quit their day jobs to make beer – – every armchair beer drinker’s fantasy.  Luckily for them their palates matched their enthusiasm and they have been producing exceptional artisanal beers.  On a hot day the Mine Layer Saison, an unfiltered summer beer in the Belgian Farm style pairs well with sushi and fish tacos from their extensive small bites menu.

On the road to Hooper's Island

On the road to Hooper’s Island

What’s the must-have meal on the Eastern Shore?  Why a mess of steamed blue crabs dredged in Old Bay seasoning and served with local corn on the cob, of course!  Try the Ocean Odyssey, a family-friendly spot with an outdoor deck on the Ocean Highway.  You’ll also find bison burgers, fish tacos and a large selection of beers on tap.  For a touch of French bistro cuisine, you’ll need reservations for the new Bistro Poplar.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

The next day a brilliant summer sun broke through the morning’s haze and after a hearty breakfast at the inn, I headed off for Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a breathtaking 25,000 acre waterfowl sanctuary with a new visitor’s center, wildlife exhibits featuring Osprey and Bald Eagle cam monitors, and native wildflower gardens.  This spectacular gem lies 12 miles south of Cambridge along Bucktown Road.  Drivable roads and boardwalks wind through much of the forests and tidal wetlands affording miles of flat trails for hikers, cyclists and birders.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Tim Devine checks his oysters

A few miles southwest lies the windswept chain of islands known collectively as Hoopers Island, where I visited Barren Island Oysters, an oyster aquaculture farm owned and operated by internationally famed nature photographer Tim Devine.  Grown in a pristine cove and transferred to cages in the bay off Barren Island, the conditions offer a desirable salinity, producing  the sustainably raised plump, buttery-tasting triploid oysters that are preferred by many area chefs.  A well-known client in DC is BlackSalt restaurant.

Sold to top DC restaurants as the "Ugly Oyster"

Sold to top DC restaurants as the “Ugly Oyster”

Farther down the road is Fishing Creek, a small community dotted with crab houses alongside a warren of wooden docks harboring boats for watermen and sport fishing.  Founded in the 1700’s, it’s where Phillip’s Seafood began operations 100 years ago.

Old Salty's on Fishing Creek & Old Salty's killer all-crab crab cakes

Old Salty’s on Fishing Creek & Old Salty’s killer all-crab crab cakes

Have lunch at Old Salty’s, a seafood restaurant in operation for 31 years in a historic schoolhouse with sweeping views of the Chesapeake Bay.  The crab cakes here are luscious and destination-worthy – barely held together, lightly broiled mounds of creamy white, jumbo lump crabmeat.  Rockfish, scallops and other locally caught seafood are another big draw.  But before toddling back to civilization complete the journey with a slice of their towering coconut, lemon meringue or chocolate pies.

Towering Key Lime and Coconut Cream pies

Towering Key Lime and Coconut Cream pies

Mark your Fall calendar for these upcoming Cambridge events:

September 20th and 21st – The IRONMAN Maryland Triathlon is expected to draw 100’s of racers and their families and will dovetail with the town’s 38th Annual Outdoor “Summer Sendoff” street fair of “Blues, Brews and Barbecue”.

Photo credit to Jordan Wright

October 10th to 12th – The Cambridge City Art Fair – UK and Outdoor Street Festival at Guild Hall hosts where local and national dealers and gallerists feature current, as well as antique 18th and 19th century, paintings to view and buy.  For more information visit www.TourDorchester.org.