Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Road Trip to Downton Abbey

Thought we had finished our road trips for the year until an invitation came to preview "Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times" at the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, Florida.

You don't have to invite the Good Girls twice so we hopped in our bucket seats, Debi heading north, Judy aiming south until we met in the nation's Oldest City.

It's the last stop in the U. S. this blockbuster exhibit of authentic period costumes and accessories from the addictive PBS series Downton Abbey.

Jessica Fellowes
At the press conference we met Jessica Fellowes, niece of scriptwriter and Downton creator Julian Fellowes and an expert on all things Downton, and Nancy Lawson, curator of the exhibit of 36 authentic Victorian era outfits.

Nancy was particularly interesting. For the first three seasons, the actors were clad in historic attire from British collections of antique garments .

"These were real clothes," she said. "Very fragile; over 100 years old. By the fourth season, everything was made by the costume team. The craftsmanship will appeal to you even if you don't give a fig about the clothes." 

Interesting, but we wanted to see those clothes!

None too soon we were ushered up to the ballroom where they were displayed and wow, the nobility not only lived well, they dressed superbly. By themselves they were worth the trip but as Lightner curator Barry Myers and his staff have displayed them, the result is spectacular.

The late Otto Lightner was a collector of just about everything, from cigar bands to music boxes and the art and furnishings that surrounded them from what we've come to know as the "Gilded Age." The museum's attic was scoured, appropriate period pieces were pulled out and polished then arranged into "rooms" to suit the attire.

The result is a rich array, visually dense dense and satisfying as it sets off what the characters living there would have been wearing. After all, the museum is the former Alcazar Hotel, built by magnate Henry Flagler in the Gilded Age to accommodate the younger set who found his elegant Ponce de Leon Hotel across the street too stuffy.

As Debi remarked, "The dining room table setting is so inviting I wanted to jump across the ropes and sit down."

Alas, neither of us were wearing anything as elegant as the chic gown on display, one of our favorites.

As we circled the tableaux, we came across curator Nancy again who summed up the experience perfectly.

"The camera focuses on the face. Now you can see the whole ensemble."

Curator Nancy Lawson.
"Dressing Downton" is on display now through January 7, 2018. We strongly suggest you see it.

Tickets are $19.99 per person for the exhibit and the museum; reservations are advised as this will likely be a sellout. Group tours an be arranged for a service fee; 844-426-4088,

Many special events accompany the show.

High Tea at Cafe Alcazar.  Set in what was the hotel's enormous indoor swimming pool, it includes  sweets and savories , 3-5 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, 2-3 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For reservations contact Cafe Alcazar (lunch can be had there throughout the week), 904-825-9948 or the museum.

Upstairs/Downstairs at the Alcazar. Learn what life was like for guests and staff during the Gilded Age in a one-hour tour for groups of 10 adults; $45;

One-time Events.
Unless otherwise noted, contact the Museum for reservations,

Nov. 4: Nicholas Dawes, "The Treasures of Downton: An Appraiser's View," 10 a.m., Casa Monica Hotel. The Antiques Roadshow appraiser and member of the Heritage Auctions team speaks on decorative items found in the great English homes of the 19th century.
Nov. 4: Nicholas Dawes Appraisal Clinic,:11 a.m., Flagler Room, Flagler College.  Dawes will appraise one small item for each special ticket holder.

December 12-14: Dining at Highclere with Francine Segan, James Beard-nominated author and Italian cuisine expert, talks of elaborate etiquette, entertainment and the dishes Mrs. Patmore would have sent to table.
Munch, Mingle and Matriculate, ay history of chocolates.
American Food Fads - Gilded Age to Today.

Dec. 31: New Year's Eve Soiree and Anniversary Party, Lightner Museum Historic Pool Area.

Bed and Breakfast "Dressing Downton" promotion.
Reserve a two-night, three-day stay Sunday through Thursday for two at the St. Francis Inn or Casa de Suenos, ask for the Dressing Downton special and receive
• Two Golden Admission tickets to the exhibition and museum at any time during the admission date.
• A keepsake tin of Downton Abbey tea
• Fine chocolate from Cadbury
In all, a $60 value.
Now through Jan. 7, 2018 excluding Dec. 26-29, 2017.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Devils Tower in Wyoming

Driving in the middle of nowhere for over an hour, we were starting to give up hope on our planned Close Encounters of the Steven Spielberg kind. Then it emerged in the distance - -  Devils Tower - - a stately tower bestride a hill. Its mesmerizing aura pulls like a powerful magnet. It’s had that effect for millennia, with the Northern Plains Indians and other indigenous people considering the Tower a sacred site. Even Congress recognized its singularity, designating the area a U.S. forest reserve in 1892 and later, in 1906, Devils Tower became the nation's first National Monument.

Our first look at Devils Tower in Wyoming. 

We couldn’t wait to get a closer look at the protruding spire. We passed onto the National Park site and took a winding road up to a parking lot. The area offers a few hiking paths, but Judy and I chose the popular Tower Trail, a paved, 1.3-mile loop around the base of the formation. The route is a smooth, flat trail, but your neck begins to get sore because you can’t resist staring up at the fascinating structure.

Looking up at Devils Tower.

Kids climb on the rocks near the base, many take selfies, and informational signs appear as you walk the circuit. Documented claims place the naming of Devil's Tower to 1875 when an interpreter for expedition leader Colonel Richard Irving Dodge misinterpreted a native name to mean "Bad God's Tower." The apostrophe never made it through the translation. All information signs use the name "Devils Tower," following a geographic naming standard eliminating apostrophes, perhaps easing the burdens on cartographers.  Native American names for the monolith include: "Bear's House" or "Bear's Lodge" "Bear's Lair. "

Kids climbing on the rock pile at the base of Devils Tower.

The bear reference harkens back to native legends, which tell that  “a group of girls went out to play and were spotted by several giant bears, who began to chase them. To escape the bears, the girls climbed atop a rock, fell to their knees, and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. Hearing their prayers, the Great Spirit made the rock rise from the ground towards the heavens so that the bears could not reach the girls. The bears, in an effort to climb the rock, left deep claw marks on the sides, which had become too steep to climb. (Those are the marks which appear today on the sides of Devils Tower.) When the girls reached the sky, they were turned into the stars.”

The Legend of the Bear

Enchanting, but that story hasn’t persuaded the geologists. They offer a few differing theories but agree that a volcanic intrusion created the structure, but don’t agree on exactly how that process took place. One theory states that the tower is all that remains of an ancient explosive volcano. A common explanation holds that the tower was entirely underground when formed, becoming visible only as the surrounding mantle eroded over countless ages.

Ridges cover the surface of Devils Tower.

Other theories suggest that Devils Tower is a volcanic plug or that it is the neck of an extinct volcano. Presumably, if that were the case, the volcanic ash, lava flows, and volcanic debris would have eroded long ago.

Broken columns

Hexangonal columns

The tower today offers a well-defined rib-like structure. Look close, and you'll see the ribs as hexagonal segments uniformly shaped, like a pencil. Condensation as the tower cooled and hardened are thought to have created pressure points that produced the fracturing that generated the hexagons. It appears that entire columns of rock broke off and fell, given the piles of broken columns, boulders and smaller rocks piled at the base. These indicate that the monolith was once wider than it is today.

Climbers are dwarfed by the staggering Tower.

Halfway around we noticed a few climbers attempting to reach the peak. They looked like they were studying where next to place their feet and hands. No adventurous thoughts from us, climbing was not an activity on our "to do" list! However, the National Park permits those that register. We delighted in the view of the valley from this vantage point.

View of the Valley below Devils Tower. 

The climactic scenes of the 1977 classic “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” dramatized the natural wonder and made it a commanding visual image. Even for those who have never been can recognize a photo. Today the park sees about 500,000 visitors per year.

Wildlife also frequent the area; we spotted a deer and many squirrels in the forested hills. Prairie dogs are plentiful along the base road. When we finished our loop, we naturally hit the gift shop. We found an endearing poster of the bear climbing the tower, and laughed at the little alien figure in a corner.

Deer as seen in the surrounding forest at Devils Tower.

Oh those cute prairie dogs!

Unless you feel like hiking more of the trails, you’ll only need about two hours maximum in the destination. No matter how it came to be, Devils Tower is an astounding geologic feature the likes of which I’d never seen before. The movie was a great escape, but visiting in person was otherworldly.
We had to stop for one more photo on our way out.