Saturday, April 30, 2011

Treasures From The Low Country

Dodging Tornadoes, Dedicating Buildings, and Lunch at The Wilkes House

I'm not sure what it is about the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia, but it is a drug. Once you visit this place you can't ever really get it out of your system.

Many come annually to wear funny shoes, stay in gated luxury resorts, and play golf. 

Me I come to explore a place infused with history and enjoy a complete sensory overload. 

The first thing I always notice when I get off the plane is the air. This is not wimpy air. It is deliciously humid dense air. It is scented with the earthy fragrance of mud after the tides recede. It is air filled with birds and the sound of insects.

After the air comes the visuals. As you drive you are rewarded with views of tall grass marshlands that undulate with every breeze.

There are trees of every description dripping with spanish moss. Once you reach the ocean, you are rewarded with spectacular beaches with warm waters and turtles that return to nest.

Miss M and Low Country Marshlands

Then there is the food. With its diverse population and embarrassment of riches in fresh seafood, meat and produce, it is too wonderful for words. Whether it is a shrimp boil, a sweet peach, onions or pralines, this is a fine place to eat. 

But perhaps most wonderful are the people. They set a pace that is measured. They talk to each other, not just trade abrupt pleasantries. This is where courtesy is respected.

The main reason for my trip this week was to witness the dedication of a fine new police station for the Town of Bluffton SC. We had the honor of collaborating in the planning of this facility and it turned out to be marvelous. The building is technologically advanced, yet features a deceptively simple open plan that encourages staff to work together. It incorporates the work of local artists and utilizes new ideas in sustainable design.

Bluffton's New Police Station

Lobby Mural

Staff Space

Open Bright Workspaces

Surface Water is Cleaned Naturally Using Bio-Swales 

Bluffton's Seal

After the ceremony there was enough time for me to take a leisurely drive on two lane roads to Savannah. 

The Road to Savannah

My target was lunch at my favorite restaurant in Savannah. The venerable Mrs. Wilkes Boarding House (now simply referred to as The Wilke's House.)

This was not my first time here, nor Lord willing, will it be my last. After an hour or so wait in line chatting with some spirited visitors from Toronto, I was seated with 10-12 new friends at a big table that was already set with dozens of bowls filled with steaming southern cooking. Aside from the famous fried chicken (which is always served,) offerings vary from visit to visit. This time there was red beans and rice, collards, stew, pulled pork, black-eyed peas, flat green beans, okra, rice, mashed potatoes / gravy, marinated cucumbers, potato salad, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, and about a dozen other dishes. Dessert was banana pudding or a blueberry crumble.

Tears. Yes, I'm shedding some tears.

This is one of very few American restaurants to be included in the "1000 Things To Do Before You Die" book.

Just remember a few rules: It is only open weekdays from 11-2 PM. There is no parking lot, so bring lots of quarters for the meters (or take the trolley.) Reservations? Get the heck out of here. There is always a line. So rather than bitch about it enjoy it. Bask in the smell of rolls baking and make some new friends. The price is an incredible bargain at just $16 / person (half price for kids). But bring cash, as they do not accept plastic. There is no menu, but you don't need one. If you feel the need to discuss gluten, butter, lactose issues, your aversion to sweet tea, or any other unique dietary problems you may have - please, do us all a favor, and go someplace else!

It is not uncommon for someone at the table to suggest beginning the meal with a prayer. When the meal is complete tradition requires you bus your own plate, glass and utensils to the kitchen.

Come to the Low Country when you are in no hurry. Pack shorts and loose fitting clothes, a few comfortable cotton tees, toss in a pair of flip-flops.

Then slow down, enjoy the views, the food, the culture, and, most of all, the amazing people who call this magic place home.

PS: If you plan it right, you might be able to catch The Lady Chablis at Club One!

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Marche in Toronto

The Marche - Fresh as Ever Almost Two Decades Later

So you are visiting Toronto and have a big group of business colleagues or a picky family in tow.

Everyone wants something different; be it Asian, red meat, vegan, Italian or Greek. With Toronto's incredibly diverse population, it is one of the best places to eat in North America. So your choices are varied and all of them are good. 

I have a solution worthy of Solomon. Let everyone have what they want. Head straight to the Santiago Calatrava designed Albert Lambert Galleria (formerly the BCE Place) and The Marche!

You will be deemed a hero by all.

First off, the architect part of me must speak. I am a big fan of Santiago Calatrava. He is a true original. He reads no one else's mail.

Much like America's Fay Jones, Calatrava's work has a definite signature, yet it remains distinctive. One look and you see his mastery of how structure works. You also can't help but notice how effortlessly he seems to create exuberant, light-filled places. The finished product takes a formerly leftover space and makes it feel almost ecclesiastic.

In this case the facility creates a year round space seamlessly knitting together buildings of many era's.

The Albert Lambert Galleria
By Valencia Born Architect Santiago Calatrava
(IMHO Old Alley's Don't Get Much Better Than This!)

In perfect "urban chic meets the knit cap crowd," the Galleria is also home to Toronto's Hockey Hall of Fame. Go figure!

Now on the The Marche.

This concept was developed by the Movenpick multi-national food conglomerate. The idea behind the Marche was to create a series of show kitchens around an almost indoor winter garden theme. You enter and are given a credit card. You then stroll past the stations to check out the paella stand, the rosti bar, the grille, the sushi chef, the wood fired pizza baker, the vegetarian bar, the pasta bar, the Seafood bar, the gelato bar, the fruit bar, or the baker. The choices are wide and varied. It feels like the food courts in various department stores in Europe. Everything is presented in dazzling colors and served up in more than ample portions.

Anywhere you select food you hand them your card. They scan the card to put in the price of whatever you select. You then find a comfortable place to sit and eat. Seems almost like a picnic. 

After you've eaten your fill, you go to the check-out station where your card is scanned and you settle up.

Everyone gets hot fresh food while maybe getting to sample what everyone else opted for. The concept is truly all things for all people.

I love it.

I first ate here almost 18 years ago when it was new and loved the concept. I was a little scared of going back to see if it was still there. We all know that the half-life of restaurants is pretty short in hyper-competitive markets like Toronto. The Marche was still there and it still felt fresh.

Oh, and the food was wonderful. I snapped a few pictures before the photo police came up and threatened bodily harm (I had missed the oh-so aesthetically embedded "no photos" sign.)

The Vegetarian Bar

Paella Getting Served

The Beautiful Paella Up Close


The Creperie

The Bakery

So put The Marche on your "fun places for a casual lunch or dinner" list whenever you are lucky enough to visit Toronto!

Pull out a camera at your own risk......

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The New Hoover Dam Bridge

OK I Love Bridges

Perhaps it was growing up with an unobstructed view of both the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges from our living room window. It might have come from knowing that many of the places I wanted to see would require crossing a bridge. Maybe it was just seeing the elegance of the structures in bridges. I am not totally sure why. But for whatever reason I love bridges.

Lion's Gate Vancouver BC

When I see a bridge like Calatrava's Alamillo bridge near Sevilla, or the perfectly counterbalanced elegance of the Newcastle Gateshead Bridge in England I swoon. 

To see the Newcastle bridge in action click here. Then of course hit your "Back" button to return here!

I love the grace of the Sunshine Skyway cable supports. Then there are the Lion's Gate and Capilano suspension bridges in Vancouver. Oh, and what about the Tower Bridge in London, the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, or the Rialto Bridge or Bridge of Sighs in Venice?

Ponte Vecchio 

The Rialto Bridge

The Bridge of "Sighs"
On the Left The Doges Palace On the Right Dungeons

Well this weekend I made a point of seeing, driving over, and walking over the new Mike O'Callaghan - Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, rather unceremoniously known as the new Hoover Dam Bypass. 

Being a Phoenician to me it will forever be simply The Tillman Bridge.

The Tillman Bridge

The bridge is a classic concrete arch design. It is 1900 Feet Long and soars 900 feet above the Colorado River. An average of 14,000 vehicles cross it each day. The bridge cost $240 million and took five and a half years to build. For those keeping track, this means it took slightly longer to build and cost about $200 million more than the Hoover Dam. Now, before I get pinged, I know that the budget comparison is not remotely fair since the dollars aren't adjusted for time.

To walk over the bridge you must go to the Nevada side and take the Hoover Dam off ramp. You'll go though the vehicle security checkpoint and then make your way to the free parking lot providing bridge access. There are porta-johns if you are in need. To get to the bridge requires climbing a few sets of stairs or zig zagging up the (seemingly endless) ADA ramps. 

Once you reach bridge level there are some interpretive displays and access to the bridge itself. Being able to walk across the bridge was very cool, but certainly not for anyone with vertigo. And the views of the Hoover Dam from the bridge are breathtaking.

Hoover Dam Viewed From Mid-Span

Perhaps I am just a wimp, but I also found walking across a bit terrifying. The walk surface is 64 stories above the Colorado. Between the wind and the vibrations of every semi-truck rolling across I found myself pretty creeped out. 

I was very surprised by the lack of a suicide barrier. The last thing we need is for Pat Tillman's sacred legacy to become linked to suicides.

Update April 12: On April 9, 2012 Patricia Ann Oakley of San Jose California became the first person to commit suicide by jumping from the new bridge.

Update July 27: April through July Witnessed 3 additional suicides. Despite a rate of one suicide a month, the Nevada Department of Transportation (the group responsible for the operation of the bridge) has no plans to add suicide barriers, saying they will continue to "monitor the situation".  

The Bridge's Reflection in The Colorado River

The Apex Medallion

Walkway and Guardrails

From a practical point of view, the bridge is wonderful. It cuts about 45 minutes off the drive time to Las Vegas. All traffic on US 93 no longer bogs down and crawls across the dam.  The security of the dam is enhanced now that traffic is safely diverted away from it. Also with the heavy traffic from US 93 elsewhere, the actual touring of the dam itself is much safer.

While the bridge is toll free, visiting Hoover Dam itself has suddenly gotten very expensive. They now charge $7 to park in the garage, $30 / person for the tour of the Dam, and $8 / person just to get into the Visitor Center. So it will cost a family of four $159 to park, take the tour, and visit the Visitor Center. Wow! 

Is it worth it? You bet. But Wow! Nonetheless.

The Scaler Sculpture With The Bridge Beyond 
(This Sculpture Was Added in 1995)

Oskar J.W. Hansen's 30' Tall Bronze Winged Figures of the Republic 
(Polishing the Toes Brings Good Luck)

OK, so when one walks the length of the new bridge and then drives back to visit Hoover Dam, one observation becomes very apparent - a jarring lack of art. The bridge aesthetic is limited solely to its structure. There was no attempt to integrate art into its materials of construction, physical shape, and the displays and interpretive materials are pretty weak.  

Conversely, the design of the dam was halted by Harold Ickes (head of the Bureau of Reclamation) when he felt that the initial designs were not successful in integrating art into the planning effort. 

This led to Los Angeles architect Gordon B. Kaufmann being brought in to recompose the dam's overall aesthetic. 

As a result a new deco modern shape was created for the dam. It is the shape recognized and admired around the world today. It carefully integrated bass relief and dynamic sculptures into dam planning. Artwork included themes of water conservation, power, along with Native American influences.

Extreme Drought Has Resulted in Exposing the Dam's Stunning Intake Towers
Keep in mind this passion for design in the Hoover Dam project was all carried out during the Great Depression. In direct contradiction to today when artwork is frequently vilified in public projects as being wasteful, during the depression the incorporation of art in public projects for the WPA was viewed as an essential way to inspire the American public. 

Despite all odds, the design of the dam demonstrated then and now the collective national will to succeed and prevail, not merely endure. It proves that society never has to apologize for incorporating beauty into its great public works projects. 

Allen Tupper True's Swirling Terrazzo Designs 
Featured Navajo and Pueblo Motif's 

So, despite being an engineering marvel and a tribute to the resourcefulness of its builders, the bridge clearly suffers from a tragic lack of imagination in its overall form and design. 

The bridge left me with the overwhelming sense that it lacks soul. In my opinion, it represents an opportunity not fully realized. 

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Valley of Fire

Something Wonderful To Do Near Sin City

OK so let me get this over with. Pardon me whilst I clear my throat. Here goes.

I am the only guy on planet earth that doesn't "get" Las Vegas.

The Vegas Philosophy - "Come here, get stupid."
Roadboy's Philosophy - "Blow a paycheck at a casino that uses supercomputers to assure a minimum 3% take! Are you crazy?"

Think of it. How much must people really be losing when just 3%, skimmed off the top, pays for all of those mega casino's?

With my strict $5 limit, I am officially a casino's worst nightmare.

I don't buy any of that "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" stuff. Not when every other billboard is for an attorney to aid you with your DUI.

What I do "get" are the amazing Cirque shows, airplane contrails trailing across an azure blue desert sky, buffets, big swimming pools, tours of Hoover Dam, mesmerizing lights at night, and neon clad drive-through wedding chapels.

There are even guided tours of the boneyard where all of the old neon signs from dead casino's go! I know. I tried to reserve a tour, only to find out that tours are always sold out two weeks in advance.

Truly, and my loved ones will vouch for this, if you give me a folding chair I'd sit happily for an entire evening in front of the Bellagio watching its fountain whilst singing "Luck Be A Lady Tonight" (or whatever tune the water happens to be dancing to.)

And no place on earth matches Las Vegas for Olympic Class people watching. Where else do you see guys wearing a sport coat over straight leg Lee's secured by a big moon hubcap arm in arm with a bimbette with platinum hair made seemingly of fiberglass?

Then every morning a fresh dawn brings the saddest time of the day in Vegas; broad daylight. 

What to do?

I'll tell you what to do. If you are visiting in spring or fall, point that rented red mustang convertible east! Drive an easy 35 miles to Nevada's first state park; the Valley of Fire. Go there on the freeway, exit out the other end returning via the freshly paved Northshore Road (NV 167) in the Lake Mead Recreation Area.

Oh how I wished I had another day to spend and my road bike. Another time for sure.

My Kind of Road
Smooth, Lonely, 2-Lane Bliss

The Valley of Fire was founded in 1935 and was almost lost in during hard times in the 1950's.

Kids Exploring the Rocks

The park is simply a treasure. It has starred in many films. It is filled with petroglyphs, intense soft coral colored sand, and amazing piles of red rocks. It is home to lots of antelope ground squirrels, zippy lizards, roadrunners, and an occasional sidewinder.

The Red Rocks Dwarf Our Chariot

What A Pallette

Geology Sculpted By The Wind

Anasazi "Texting"

More Petroglyphs

My Beloved Contrails Slicing The Sky

A day in The Valley of Fire left me completely renewed.

Ready to go back and stare down Sin City.

Oh, and it is true, Liberace's Museum is indeed now closed.

Roadboy's Travels © 2011